Mayor-ESPA Face-Off: What’s Next?

Optimism Mixes With Critique of Van Capelle Snub at Marriage Confab

Fulfilling a commitment he first made in an interview with Gay City News this past December, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg convened a breakfast for gay and lesbian leaders March 24 at Gracie Mansion to discuss how he can contribute to the community’s efforts to win same-sex marriage rights in New York State.

Public statements from those in attendance, who numbered roughly a dozen, reflected several common themes—an acknowledgment that the mayor appeared committed to lending his political capital to moving the marriage debate forward, optimism based the on cooperation shown in the meeting between Republican Bloomberg and Democratic City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a lesbian, and recognition that the gathering was just the first step in a process that could span years.

The apparent success of this initial meeting on gay marriage between the mayor and gay advocates—which ran to two hours—stands in stark contrast to the buzz in gay circles in the 24 hours leading up to the breakfast. On Thursday of last week, many in the community engaged in heated discussion about what proved to be a stark absence from the meeting—representation from the Empire State Pride Agenda, the state’s LGBT political lobbying organization. The Pride Agenda has played the lead role in enacting gay rights legislation in Albany for more than a decade—its most significant triumphs coming with the enactment of the 2002 Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act and the 2000 hate crimes statute.

The Bloomberg administration first confirmed that the meeting was taking place early Thursday evening, indicating that the subject was marriage equality and that the Pride Agenda had been invited.

In a telephone interview late Thursday evening, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn told Gay City News that she had first been invited to the breakfast early last week. She could not recall whether the mayor’s office had asked for suggestions of people who should attend, but said that she had her staff pull together a list of names, which included the Pride Agenda.

“We were told that the Pride Agenda was invited,” Quinn said.

But the devil in this matter was clearly in the details. In fact, the Pride Agenda was faced with an ultimatum from the Bloomberg team—the group was welcome to send board members, but its executive director, Alan Van Capelle, would not be invited. The Pride Agenda rejected the offer to send board representatives and withheld comment when first contacted Thursday evening. Van Capelle struck back hard at Bloomberg Friday morning.

“Throughout this city, tens of thousands of gay and lesbian couples live with daily uncertainty because they are not afforded the rights and responsibilities that come with a marriage license,” Van Capelle said in a written statement. “The Bloomberg administration may have tried to punish the Pride Agenda this morning by excluding us from Gracie Mansion, but in the end all they did was let down the tens of thousands of gay families that expect leadership—not politics—on this issue.”

The meeting followed a year in which advocates had pressed the mayor to explain the seeming contradiction between his appeal of a favorable gay marriage ruling in Manhattan last February and his simultaneous announcement that he personally supports the right of same-sex couples to marry. At the December Gay City News interview, Anthony Crowell, the mayor’s counsel, said the gathering would be “a legislative meeting,” but several community leaders contacted Thursday evening questioned how serious progress could be achieved in the absence of the community’s surrogate in Albany.

Some speculated that the snub of Van Capelle was intended as payback for the Pride Agenda’s endorsement of Democrat Fernando Ferrer in last year’s mayoral election. But others told Gay City News that there was a deeper issue of trust dividing the mayor and Van Capelle, one that may have been created by Bloomberg’s sense that the Pride Agenda had dangled the prospect of an endorsement last year when in fact that was never in the cards.

Quinn indicated that her office learned only late on Thursday that there was controversy over the Pride Agenda’s role in the meeting. A former executive director of the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, the speaker was asked how she would have responded had a mayor informed her that she could not attend a meeting but that her board members were welcome. She said, “It would depend on the circumstances of who was being invited from other organizations.” She added, however, “I can certainly understand the concerns this would raise for the Pride Agenda.”

Quinn emphasized that Bloomberg’s interest in convening the meeting is a positive.

“I can’t imagine he would pull this meeting together if he were not willing to step forward more,” she said of the mayor’s role as a same-sex marriage advocate. “Hopefully, this is his first salvo in his becoming more public and active in this.”

Several of the attendees who spoke to Gay City News in the wake of the gathering echoed the optimism in Quinn’s statement.

“What we were told by the mayor and the speaker was this was an opportunity to share ideas, hear from us, and formulate a plan,” said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and the former head of both the Pride Agenda and the Anti-Violence Project. “This was not a meeting where the strategy was handed down to us from on high. The mayor said it repeatedly that he wanted to work on this and I think it is significant that he asked the speaker to work with him.”

Foreman’s comments were striking given speculation by a number of people Thursday evening that he would boycott the meeting to protest the exclusion of his Pride Agenda successor. Foreman told Gay City News that he had considered doing just that, but explained that the mayor’s office made clear to him that he had been invited not in his role as head of the Task Force, but rather due to his position on the city’s Human Rights Commission, to which Bloomberg appointed him.

Foreman’s history as a Bloomberg appointee is complicated—in 2004, he resigned from the Commission to protest the mayor’s veto of the Equal Benefits Bill, a measure that would have required contractors doing business with the city to offer identical benefits to gay partners and heterosexual spouses of their employees. Faced with an override of his veto, Bloomberg successfully challenged the law in state court. Foreman, however, rejoined the Commission last summer when Bloomberg persuaded a number of insurance providers to offer domestic partnership policies to companies with fewer than 50 employees, policies not previously commercially available.

In explaining how his role on the Human Rights Commission played into his decision, Foreman said, “I can see ways that the Commission can weigh in on this discussion.”

Another Human Rights Commission member, Jonathan Capehart, a former journalist who worked for Bloomberg’s media company and advised the mayor in both his election campaigns, was more emphatic in declaring the meeting a success.

“Anytime the mayor proactively calls on the community for help in devising a strategy to achieve its goals is a good thing,” Capehart wrote in an e-mail message. “Because [Bloomberg and Quinn] sat side-by-side at this extraordinary meeting, I am very encouraged by what can be accomplished.”

Similarly, Allen A. Drexel, an attorney who is co-chair of the LGBT Rights Committee at the New York City Bar Association, said, “I was impressed by the sense that Speaker Quinn and Mayor Bloomberg, while they acknowledged that there are some differences between them on our issues, are on the same page” in the drive for marriage equality.

Christopher Taylor, president of the New York City chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, was similarly buoyant about the breakfast.

“It was a good meeting,” he said. “[Bloomberg] was way more aggressive than I thought he would be in terms of stuff that he’s willing to do to promote gay marriage in Albany.”

Then, in a clear reference to Van Capelle’s absence, Taylor added, “No organization was excluded.”

That line matched the message from Stu Loeser, the mayor’s press secretary. Asked about Van Capelle’s exclusion from the meeting, he said, “We were careful and attempted to invite a couple of people from the Pride Agenda. We put out calls and some were not returned.” Pressed further on why Van Capelle himself was not invited, he said, “We are not commenting on that.”

Ron Zacchi, co-executive director of Marriage Equality New York, the leading grassroots organization on the issue in the state, was also upbeat about the breakfast and offered a split verdict on the Pride Agenda question.

“Overall, it was a very positive meeting,” he told Gay City News. “The mayor spoke about a lot of different ways that he is going to help with the movement,” including, Zacchi added, the possibility that Bloomberg would join the group’s annual Wedding March across the Brooklyn Bridge in June.

Saying, “We would like to know the real reason behind” the mayor’s refusal to invite Van Capelle, Zacchi argued that the Pride Agenda should nonetheless have sent board members.

“Having the mayor of New York City behind this issue was more important than who was invited,” he said.

Neither Foreman nor Richard Burns, the executive director of the LGBT Community Center, however, was buying the mayor’s explanation that a board member invitation was the equivalent of one extended to the head of an organization. Both said they raised their concerns with “mayoral staff,” but there are conflicting indications of how visible the issue of Van Capelle’s absence became in the meeting.

In opening the breakfast, Bloomberg, almost in an aside, said that the Pride Agenda had been invited. Foreman and Burns described a meeting in which the controversy was at the margins, but on his blog site, Andres Duque—a staff member of the Latino Commission on AIDS and the head of Mano a Mano, an umbrella group made of up of Latino LGBT organizations—took specific issue with the characterization in a Gay City News Web report Friday evening “that the topic of the Pride Agenda did not rise to the level of a major issue in the meeting.”

“The point was indeed brought to the table and several of those present, including myself, took time to talk about the Pride Agenda’s indispensable work on the marriage issue and on how their absence left a huge hole at the table,” Duque wrote.

Burns, as the executive director of the Community Center since the 1980s, is both one of the community’s longest-serving leaders and the head of an institution that has received significant city budget support—for operating and capital costs—in recent years. He voiced the view that the Bloomberg breakfast was a sign of progress.

“I thought the meeting was a good first step,” he told Gay City News. “I was impressed that the mayor called for this meeting and engaged Speaker Quinn in convening it together to work with our community to ensure that we would have a focused, vigorous campaign.”

Several local gay Democratic club leaders not at the meeting noted the lack of representatives from their ranks, and one of them, Gary Parker, co-president of the Lambda Independent Democrats in Brooklyn, argued that Bloomberg invited “community leaders primarily within the health and human services sector and those that receive funding from the city, which puts them in a position to be sensitive about being too aggressive with the mayor about this issue.” Parker, however, acknowledged that he was “optimistic” based on the mayor’s willingness to convene a meeting at all, a view generally echoed by Alan Fleishman, another Lambda leader and a Park Slope Democratic district leader. Fleishman did say that the mayor was “extremely shortsighted” in snubbing Van Capelle, whom he called “our lead strategist on our legislative agenda.”

Allen Roskoff, president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club took dead aim at both the mayor and those LGBT leaders who attended his breakfast.

“The people who went to this meeting allowed Mayor Bloomberg to divide our community,” he told Gay City News.

Leaders from the Gay and Independent Democrats and the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City either declined comment or did not respond to a request as of press time. Daniel Dromm, a Democratic district leader and longtime member of the Lesbian and Gay Democratic Club of Queens, and Emily Giske, the vice chair of the State Democratic Party, were both invited to the meeting, but were unable to attend. Gary English, executive director of People of Color in Crisis, a Brooklyn HIV prevention group, attended, but did not respond to a request for comment.

Loeser acknowledged that Friday’s gathering was the first of what will be many—that will include a widening circle of people, he said, a point which Foreman and Drexel stated squared with what they heard at the meeting. But nobody interviewed was talking about anything close to a clear road map. Burns voiced the hope that if the ruling from the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest, on several pending marriage lawsuits, expected as early as this summer, proves favorable “the city will say, ‘We don’t need six months, we’re ready now.’”

Loeser predicted that the next steps will be take shape in what he termed Bloomberg’s customary style—“He pursues legislation with dual strategies and the public lobbying is not the only part… People can critique this mayor for not grandstanding, but there is a lot of work he does in private as well.”