'No Excuses,' But No Timetable Either

BY PAUL SCHINDLER | Alphonso David, the deputy secretary for civil rights to Governor Andrew Cuomo, reminded the crowd at the February 5 Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Manhattan gala of his boss’ commitment to sign a marriage equality law in 2011, as well as to pursue other LGBT community goals including the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA).

Joe Solmonese, the president of the Washington-based LGBT lobby group –– introduced to the crowd of roughly 900 at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel dinner by champion figure skater Johnny Weir –– said, “I feel very good about the possibility of winning marriage equality in New York.”

At Human Rights Campaign NYC dinner, marriage equality the mantra, details on wooing Republicans few

Brian Ellner, the chief strategist in HRC’s New York marriage effort, said, “I pledge to you, we are going to win. We have a great campaign to change hearts and minds.”

And US Senator Charles Schumer, who in 1996 joined the preponderant majority of his colleagues in the House of Representatives in voting for the Defense of Marriage Act, declared, “It is time for New York to enact marriage equality.”

But it was left to Christine Quinn, the out lesbian City Council speaker, to invoke the dinner’s title, “No Excuses,” in warning the New York State Senate that a favorable vote on the bill passed three times by the heavily Democratic Assembly was expected “not next year, not the year after that, but this year.”

With that, Quinn told the crowd she was headed to Albany two days later to meet with Long Island Republican Dean Skelos, the new Senate majority leader.

In December 2009, the Senate rejected the equal civil marriage bill by a 38-24 vote, with all 30 Republicans voting no. Among the 30 Democrats in the new Senate, 26 support gay marriage, while none of the 32 Republicans has yet signaled a change of heart.

More than half a dozen state senators were in attendance at the dinner, but all were Democrats, at least two of them first-time victors this past November based in part on their incumbent opponent’s vote against marriage equality in 2009.

Ellner’s reference to “changing hearts and minds” was echoed in two videos played for the audience, in which Barbara Bush, one of the former president’s twin daughters, and Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, the widow of tennis great Arthur Ashe, who died of AIDS in 1993, announced they were “New Yorkers for marriage equality.”

For all the mentions of equal civil marriage rights during the evening, the event betrayed no suggestion that an immediate push for bringing the marriage bill to a vote in the Senate was in the offing. Quinn’s announcement she was heading to Albany to meet with Skelos was the only specific reference to the threshold requirements that at least three or four Republicans emerge willing to support the bill and that the GOP Senate leadership cooperate in allowing a floor vote on the question.

This past October, Skelos told a Manhattan gathering of the Log Cabin Republicans he would bring the issue before his party colleagues during the 2011-2012 Legislature, predicting, “I think our conference would say, 'put it up, let it up'” for a floor vote.

Leading advocacy groups are resolute in not talking specifics about timing, though some insiders, including out lesbian West Village Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, have suggested that a marriage bill could move this year in the period between approval of a state budget –– due, but not always delivered, on April 1 –– and the end of the session in late June.

Indeed, Cuomo –– who did not appear at the dinner even though he spoke at an October event hosted by the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA) in Manhattan –– was in Albany the weekend of the HRC event, and has focused his public statements and activities almost exclusively on his proposals to close a $10 billion budget gap.

The appearance by David –– a former Lambda Legal staff attorney who worked for Cuomo in the state attorney general’s office and now occupies a civil rights slot within the governor’s inner circle that had never before existed –– was significant, but his remarks came during the cocktail hour, not the dinner itself, and were relatively brief and low-key.

The presence of ESPA’s executive director, Ross Levi, at the HRC event –– the first since he took the helm at the New York-based group last June –– provided hope that the rivalries that have periodically sprung up between the two large advocacy organizations will not get in the way of a unified push this year.

In his address, Solmonese emphasized the importance of “a thoughtful, deliberative, and strategic” plan aimed at mobilizing grassroots advocates statewide. He said the same approach focused on persuadable US senators during the push for repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell led Nebraska Democratic Senator Ben Nelson, who voted for repeal, to remark that HRC’s efforts in his state were “the best grassroots ground game” he had ever seen.

During his remarks, Schumer announced he was recommending to President Barack Obama the nomination of Alison D. Nathan, an out lesbian currently working for the New York State solicitor general, to the prestigious Southern District of New York federal bench. Obama recently nominated out gay attorney Paul Oetken to the same court, based on Schumer’s recommendation.

Actress Julianne Moore, who played a lesbian mom in last year’s “The Kids Are All Right,” was given an ally’s awarded, which was presented by one of her co-stars, Mark Ruffalo.

The cast of the new Broadway adaptation of “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” performed.