Tough Keeping Bedfellows Straight in Buffalo Dem, GOP Senate Primaries

The race for Republican Senator Mark Grisanti’s seat in the Buffalo area this year is riven by unique factions. | SENATORMARKGRISANTI.COM

A fractious New York State Senate race in Buffalo has brought that city’s LGBT leadership and the Erie County Democratic Party into open conflict with outside gay money and the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA) –– who are supporting the pro-marriage equality Republican incumbent –– as well as with the leader of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, who is pushing a party-switching, locally-reviled nominal Democrat who is backed by the Conservative Party, the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage (NOM), and the political operative behind a treacherous former Bronx state senator, Pedro Espada, who is now a convicted felon.

The 60th District, which stretches from Buffalo to Niagara Falls, will have both Republican and Democratic primaries in September, and the November general election could determine which party controls the Senate come January.

The incumbent is Mark Grisanti, one of four GOP senators to vote for marriage equality in June 2011. He ran in 2010 opposed to same-sex marriage and upset incumbent Democrat Antoine Thompson in a year when Republicans retook the State Senate. Grisanti’s marriage vote has won him buckets of gay money in addition to the endorsement of ESPA, which would not tell Gay City News where Grisanti stands on its top priority, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), a transgender civil rights bill. His office also did not respond to a question on his position.

Grisanti is opposed in the Republican primary by Kevin T. Stocker, who gave Democratic Assemblyman Robin Schimminger a tough race in 2010. Stocker is attacking Grisanti’s “integrity” for switching on marriage and for his involvement in a notorious brawl at the Seneca Niagara Casino in February.

Democrats have a more than two-to-one advantage in enrollment in the district, making it a prime opportunity for the party re-taking the seat. But the best-financed candidate to emerge on the Democratic side is Chuck Swanick, a former Erie County legislator who already has the Conservative Party line and whose opposition to same-sex marriage has earned him $7,000 in direct donations from NOM and another $16,800 from Sean Fieler, a big Republican donor who has chaired the group’s project to paint President Barack Obama as a “social radical.”

What’s more, Swanick switched to the Republican Party in 2003 to continue as chair of the County Legislature and has switched back now.

One of Swanick’s key backers is the infamous Steve Pigeon –– dubbed “The Political Prince of Darkness” by the Niagara Falls Reporter –– who was behind the campaign of the virulently anti-gay Republican Carl Paladino, whom Andrew Cuomo crushed for governor in 2010. Prior to that, Pigeon, a longtime operative for Tom Golisano, an upstate billionaire who made three runs for governor since 1994, was even more notorious as the architect in 2009 of the “Four Amigos” — renegades from the 2008-2010 Democratic majority in the Senate, two of whom (Espada and Hiram Monserrate of Queens) defected to restore Republican rule for several chaotic months that year. Pigeon was rewarded with a position on the Senate staff and considerable patronage.

Espada was defeated by progressive Gustavo Rivera in a 2010 primary, and Monserrate was expelled from the Senate after being convicted on a misdemeanor count related to an assault on his woman friend. A third “Amigo,” Senator Carl Kruger, did not defect but was convicted of bribery and conspiracy to commit fraud and sentenced earlier this year to seven years in federal prison. The fourth is Bronx Senator Ruben Diaz, Sr., a stridently anti-gay Democrat who is the only one of the quartet still in office.

Niagara County Conservative Party Chair Dan Weiss is openly defying the state party’s endorsement of Swanick, saying in a release that his Erie County counterpart, Ralph Lorgio, “abandoned Conservative principles long ago in exchange for patronage jobs and legal clients. He is an embarrassment to the party.” Weiss is backing Grisanti despite his vote for same-sex marriage and calls Pigeon “a cheap political hack that lacks any true conservative principles.”

The plot thickens. Swanick’s reactionary, party-switching politics, NOM backing, and association with Pigeon do not seem to bother the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee’s leader, Senator Michael Gianaris of Queens. Gianaris, who voted for marriage equality last year, donated $6,500 from his own campaign war chest to Swanick’s campaign and sees his election as essential to the Democrats taking back the Senate. “I expect that should Swanick be elected,” Gianaris said, “he will be a loyal member of the Democratic conference that is going to advance a lot of the issues the progressive caucus would want.”

Gianaris took a swing at the gay money going to pro-same-sex marriage Republicans, a chunk of which is ending up in the coffers of the State Senate Republican Campaign Committee. While he is focused on re-electing Democratic Senator Joe Addabbo of conservative southern Queens, “the RCC is using his marriage vote to attack him,” Gianaris said. “The focus should be on a Republican Party that is using gay community money to support an attack on people who support the very issues the community cares about.”

ESPA is backing Grisanti, explained Erica Pelletreau, the group’s communications director, because “we want to say thank you for standing up for equality,” but she would not say if Grisanti’s support for “equality” included transgender rights. ESPA has not yet endorsed Addabbo, and Pelletreau offered no insight into its thinking in that race, saying its political action committee’s deliberations are “confidential.” In 2009, Addabbo, first elected the year before with significant LGBT support, voted against marriage equality, though he changed his position last year.

Swanick has a progressive opponent in the Democratic primary, Mike Amodeo, an attorney and political newcomer from a locally prominent political family. Amodeo has been endorsed by the Erie County Democratic Party and is backed by several big labor unions and the LGBT Stonewall Democratic Club of Western New York.

In comments to Gay City News, Amodeo said Gianaris told him he was backing Swanick because he had “more name recognition.”

“Swanick was in office for 26 years, but he is recognized for raising property taxes, cutting services, becoming a Republican, and being run out of office in a fiscal crisis, and running from news cameras,” Amodeo said.

“I’m with the LGBT community 100 percent on their issues,” he said, noting that he filled out an ESPA questionnaire.

Swanick did not respond to a request for comment.

Al Coppola, a former state senator and perennial candidate, is also bidding for the Democratic nomination, and Patrick Mang, the mayor of Kenmore, is seeking the Working Families Party line.

The Stonewall Western New York former president Bruce Kogan said, “I don’t know what Pride Agenda is thinking. If Amodeo gets some decent money, he can do battle.” He added he is “disgusted” with Gianaris’ backing of Swanick. “He is cancelling his own vote on same-sex marriage,” Kogan said, arguing that Swanick’s patron Pigeon aims to “control a block of votes to extort money and jobs.”

Paul Morgan, a gay human rights activist in Buffalo, said, “The only people who dismiss the Steve Pigeon problem are those who are beholden to him. Pigeon’s left nothing but a wake of political bodies in Albany. Every time he gets involved, he splits the party.” He criticized ESPA’s decision not to get involved on the Democratic side of the race, saying, “When you’ve got someone as reprehensible as Swanick backed by NOM, how can you turn your backs on that clear and present danger?” Morgan added he is sick of “state leaders who step in here and make choices on who our candidates should be and ignore the boots on the ground.”

Bryan Ball, Stonewall Western New York’s current president, said he confronted Gianaris about the race months ago and the Queens Democrat “said that those complaining about Swanick will have to come up with an alternative. I told him that I have lived here all my life and lived through Chuck Swanick. He is not the most credible candidate. Amodeo has a very good chance.”

According to the Buffalo News, Swanick “entered the race at the invitation of Erie County Conservative Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo, a longtime ally, and said he believes he conformed to Conservative principles when he outlined his opposition to abortion (except in cases of rape or incest), same-sex marriage, and gun control when he appeared before the party's Executive Committee.”

State Senator Liz Krueger, a progressive East Side Democrat, formed the No Bad Apples PAC to elect more reform-minded colleagues and is working on four “promising” races, but not this one. “There are plenty running who are not bad apples,” she said, “but I have limited resources.” She has not met Swanick, but as for his backer, Pigeon, she said, “I would prefer he stay out of the capital.”

Michael McKee, the out gay leader of Tenants PAC, is also alarmed by the possible return of Pigeon in the event Swanick is elected. “When are these guys –– Senate Democrats –– ever going to learn?” he said. “They got burned by Pedro Espada in 2002 when he cut a deal with [former GOP Senate Majority Leader] Joe Bruno and caucused with the Republicans” and upended the Senate in 2009 by defecting again to the GOP. “There was a time when we would have supported a Democratic fire hydrant to get a majority,” McKee said. “Now, we are very selective.”

Allen Roskoff, president of the LGBT Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club in New York City, was critical of both ESPA and Gianaris, saying it is “morally wrong” to “support members of the Republican Party because that helps a Republican majority that hurts our community and other disenfranchised communities across the board.” Of Gianaris’ support for Swanick, he said, “Supporting a candidate who is working with NOM is a betrayal to our community and the coalition of progressive forces. It gives credibility to an outrageously homophobic organization. The party should not have that big a tent.”