Pro-Equality GOP Senator Saland Ekes Out Primary Win; McDonald an Apparent Loser


Despite a $900,000 war chest, Republican State Senator Roy McDonald appears to have lost his primary contest in upstate New York. | HVCC.EDU

Despite enormous fundraising advantages, pro-marriage equality Republican state senators in New York had a tough primary day on September 13. With all three who are up for reelection facing primary challengers, it was the freshman legislator –– Mark Grisanti of Buffalo’s 60th District –– who turned out to have the easiest time of it. He handily defeated his opponent –– Kevin Stocker, an attorney who formerly served as a local prosecutor –– by 20 percentage points.

Two other contests proved very tight, with one incumbent slightly behind and the other slightly ahead at the end of election night. Absentee ballots were still still being counted in one of those races as Gay City News went to press on September 24..

In the 41st District in Columbia, Dutchess, and Putnam Counties in the Hudson Valley, Stephen Saland, first elected in 1990, faced the first primary challenger of his career, and after absentee ballots were counted, he declared victory over Neil Di Carlo, a financial professional, but by a margin of only 107 votes out of nearly 10,000 cast.

And in the 43rd District in Rensselaer and Saratoga Counties further upstate, incumbent Roy McDonald ended the night down by 122 votes out of almost 13,500 against challenger Kathleen Marchione, the Saratoga County Clerk. [Editor's note: After Gay City News went to press, the Albany Times Union reported that the number of disputed absentee ballots is now less than Marchione's lead, making McDonald's victory apparently out of reach. On September 27, he announced he would not pursue a third-party challenge on the Independence Party line.]

The fourth pro-marriage equality supporter among Senate Republicans, Jim Alesi from the Rochester area, announced in May he would not seek reelection this year amidst reports that Assemblyman Sean Hanna, a same-sex marriage opponent, was prepared to primary him. After the marriage vote last year, Alesi frequently emphasized the importance of showing that a Republican could keep his party’s support even as an advocate of equal marriage rights. In announcing his retirement, he spoke vaguely of his goal of maintaining Republican “unity.”

The four Republicans benefited from hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from supporters of marriage equality. Their campaign finance filings included donations ranging from $1,000 to as much as $16,800, the legal limit, from donors long active in the gay marriage cause –– including philanthropists Henry van Ameringen, Jon Stryker, and Jonathan Lewis; hedge fund manager Paul Singer, a longtime contributor to Republican and conservative candidates, and his son and son-in-law Andrew and Corey Morris-Singer; and Theodore Olson, one of the attorneys litigating the Proposition 8 challenge.

The National Organization for Marriage (NOM), which battles marriage equality and other same-sex partnership advances across the US, wasted little time crowing about the problems pro-equality senators found themselves in on primary day.

“Marriage was redefined in New York because of six turncoat senators, and we vowed we would not rest until they were removed from office,” said Brian Brown, NOM's president, in a written statement the day after the primary. “We've now taken out four of the six who betrayed marriage, and we're going to finish the job with the remaining two.”

NOM claimed credit not only for McDonald’s possible defeat and Alesi’s withdrawal, but also the primary defeat of Democrats Shirley Huntley of Queens, who voted against marriage equality in 2009 but switched in 2011, and Brooklyn’s Carl Kruger, who also changed his vote but soon afterward was forced from office when convicted on federal corruption charges. Kruger was replaced by David Storobin, an anti-equality Republican. Huntley, defeated in her primary race by City Councilman James Sanders, who opposes marriage equality, was indicted several weeks ago on state corruption charges.

It’s unclear who the other two senators NOM is targeting are. The group failed to dislodge Grisanti and, apparently, Saland, and its release was silent on Joe Addabbo of Queens, who like fellow Democrats Huntley and Kruger, changed his vote between 2009 and 2011.

Grisanti and Saland’s primary opponents raised a meager amount of money, so any success NOM had in pulling anti-equality money into New York must have been concentrated in McDonald’s district.

If NOM made a lot of noise about the primary results, the pro-equality side was muted in its response. Though advocates had emphasized the importance of reelecting everyone who voted for the marriage measure last year, the Legislature’s lead sponsors of the new law, State Senator Tom Duane and Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell, both out gay Manhattan Democrats, did not respond to requests for comment –– though it is not unusual for politicians to stay out of the opposite party’s primary fights.

On behalf of the Empire State Pride Agenda, interim executive director Lynn Faria, in a written statement titled “On to November!,” said, “Yesterday's primary results demonstrated quite clearly that New York continues to move progressively toward full equality for the LGBT community.”

In response to follow-up questions, the group’s spokeswoman, Erica Pelletreau, noted that votes are still being counted in McDonald’s race, but said, “We remain confident that a vast majority of citizens in [Saland and McDonald’s] districts support marriage equality for all New Yorkers.” Asked whether the defeat of pro-equality Republicans makes recruiting converts in other states more difficult, she said, “Since we won marriage here in New York State, the national movement has accelerated. What began as a ripple has become a tidal wave with Republicans, Democrats, and Independents all pledging to support marriage for loving committed same-sex couples.”

Evan Wolfson, the executive director of Freedom to Marry, a nationwide group, noted, “We may yet see three victories” among the Republican senators who faced primaries, and also argued that “strong anti-incumbent sentiment” can play a significant role in “very low turnout races.” He pointed to last year’s success in beating back a marriage equality repeal effort in the overwhelmingly GOP New Hampshire Legislature, saying, “We know that Republicans who vote for the freedom to marry have been reelected time and again.”

During the primary race in Buffalo, Grisanti was criticized by Stocker for voting for marriage equality after pledging to voters in 2010 he would not, but the challenger did not take an explicit stance on the underlying question, saying simply it is a matter that should have been left up to the state’s voters. Stocker tied the marriage vote to a range of issues on which he charged the incumbent had betrayed his campaign promises.

Grisanti had a significant financial advantage over Stocker. In filings 32 days before the primary election, he had roughly $193,000 on hand, while his challenger had only $17,000. Most of Stocker’s spending in his campaign was financed by a $50,000 loan the candidate made to his campaign.

A bizarrely homophobic ad aimed at Grisanti just days before the primary lifted a scene from a Corbin Fisher erotic video in which one young man kneels in front of another, shirtless young man. The text of the ad read, “How far will a politician go to get in your pant$? For his Gay Marriage vote, Mark Grisanti received over $750,000. Sometimes they’re political whore$… Make sure your Son says, ‘Thank you, Mark Grisanti.’

The ad, which stated it was paid for by the Committee to Save the Erie County Republican Party, was put together in the form of a mailer, but there is no evidence it circulated anywhere else than on the Internet. It received widespread media attention, however, including on Buffalo television. Stocker’s campaign denied any knowledge of the ad.

Grisanti now faces off against Democrat Mike Amodeo, an attorney and political newcomer from a politically prominent family in Buffalo. A same-sex marriage supporter, Amodeo is a progressive who won nearly 60 percent of the vote in his party’s primary against two candidates, one of whom, Chuck Swanick, a marriage equality opponent, managed to cobble together the support of NOM, the state Conservative Party, and the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.

In the 41st District, Saland’s financial advantage over Di Carlo was staggeringly lopsided. In filings 32 days before the primary, the incumbent had more than $600,000 on hand, while the challenger had less than $21,000. Di Carlo raised only slightly more than $30,000 in total for his campaign.

Di Carlo ran a hard-right campaign, denouncing “homosexual ‘marriage,’” while claiming to be “100% pro-family… and pro-life,” and calling for the “restoration” of the Second Amendment in New York State. He also attacked Albany corruption and urged an end to the “red tape” holding up natural gas hydrofracking.

Saland played perhaps the most critical role among Republican senators in guaranteeing passage of marriage equality. With the measure one vote short, he spent considerable time negotiating with Governor Andrew Cuomo on language clarifying the rights of religious congregations under the legislation. In an interview shortly after enactment, Cuomo told Gay City News that “he was exactly the right person” to sit across the table from.

“He focused on all on the facts,” the governor said of Saland. “He is cerebral, deliberate, and non-emotional.”

Saland’s success in his discussions with Cuomo led both him and Grisanti to vote for the bill, giving the measure one more vote that the bare minimum needed.

Further upstate, in the 43rd District, McDonald went into the final month of the campaign with more than $340,000 compared to $60,000 for his opponent, Marchione, who raised a total of about $175,000 for her campaign. McDonald raised roughly $900,000 in total.

Marchione was harsh in her attacks on McDonald, saying he “turned his back” on his “promise” to “defend traditional marriage.” At a debate, she insisted her challenge was motivated as well by the incumbent’s vote last year that extended a tax surcharge on New Yorkers making more than $1 million a year.

When McDonald announced his support for the marriage equality bill, becoming the 31st of the 32 votes needed for passage, he told reporters, “You get to the point where you evolve in your life where everything isn’t black and white, good and bad, and you try to do the right thing. You might not like that. You might be very cynical about that. Well, fuck it, I don’t care what you think. I’m trying to do the right thing.”

Of the possibility of a Republican primary challenge, he said, “I’m tired of Republican-Democrat politics. They can take the job and shove it.”

Even if McDonald should prevail in any recount or final vote certification, he would face Marchione in November because she easily defeated another contender for the Conservative Party nomination. On the other hand, he still has the opportunity to run on the Independence Party [Editor's note: As noted, above, on September 27, McDonald bowed out of the race altogether.]