Will Gays Unite Against Shirley Huntley?

At a December 3 rally in Union Square Park attended by roughly 1,000 LGBT New Yorkers angry about the State Senate’s defeat two days earlier of the marriage equality bill, one of the posters was headlined: “Primary Their Asses… Take Them Out: Sept. 2010.” Under the line “Remember These Names” was a list of the eight Democrats in the Senate who provided the margin of loss.

Shirley Huntley, who represents the 10th Senate District that hugs Kennedy Airport in southeast Queens, was among the eight.

Yet, with just eight weeks to go before Primary Day 2010, the gay community has moved only slowly to embrace Huntley’s Democratic Party challenger, Lynn Nunes — a real estate broker who, while only 25, came within a whisker last September of ousting a 14-year City Council veteran and has outpaced the Senate incumbent by nearly 50 percent in fundraising since the start of this year.

But if the community has been halting in rallying around Nunes, that may be about to change. On July 20, insiders with direct knowledge of City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s political thinking told Gay City News that she will endorse Huntley’s challenger in the near future.

To be sure, Nunes already has friends in the LGBT community. Three gay political clubs — the Lesbian & Gay Democratic Club of Queens, the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City, and the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club — have endorsed him, as has the new political action committee of Marriage Equality New York (MENY), a statewide grassroots advocacy group.

Daniel Dromm, a freshman member of the City Council from Queens, who himself won election last year by opposing an incumbent, is strongly in Nunes’ corner, accompanying him to an interview last week in the Gay City News offices. At least one of Dromm’s peers among LGBT elected officials, City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, has also endorsed the 10th District challenger.

Jimmy Van Bramer, another Queens freshman on the Council, put his name on a Nunes fundraiser but did not respond by press time to Gay City News’ question whether that amounted to an endorsement, though a Nunes endorsement by the speaker would likely carry him along in any event.

Meanwhile, three of the biggest organizational players in the gay political arena — the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), the statewide lobby, the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign (HRC), and Fight Back New York (FBNY), a group formed earlier this year with the specific intention of defeating anti-marriage equality senators and candidates — have so far stayed out of the race. None offered comment for this story.

Elected gay and lesbian members of the Legislature are also hard to read at this point. Queries made to State Senator Tom Duane of Chelsea, the lead sponsor of marriage equality who spoke of “betrayal” by his colleagues at the Union Square rally, and Assemblymembers Daniel O’Donnell of the Upper West Side and Deborah Glick of the West Village were not answered as of press time.

The patronage of John Sampson, the Brooklyn Democrat who is the Majority Conference leader in the Senate, may have something to do with the reticence of some officeholders to stand with the challenger.

“I don’t know that you are going to get too many elected officials coming out to visibly support him, given the nature of the beast,” said Dromm. “However, I know a lot of elected officials in the area who are not enthusiastic about Shirley Huntley because she’s been absent from the district.”

On background, sources immersed in the marriage equality political mix said that advocates continue to press Huntley to publicly change her position on the issue, certainly a daunting challenge given that the senator last year told the poet Maya Angelou, “If they gave me a million dollars, tax free, I just wouldn’t vote for it,” according to a report in the New York Times.

Sampson, for his part, is reportedly hoping to broker a solution in which Huntley provides marriage equality advocates the assurance they need to either endorse her or at least stay out of the race — even as he makes clear to the LGBT community that he does not look kindly on the prospects of turning her out of office.

But the standard gay political activists are applying in evaluating candidates is more stringent than it was in 2008, when Democrats like Queens freshman Senator Joseph Addabbo offered a wink and a nod in return for endorsements, only to vote no on marriage last December.

“We need to be supportive of legislators who are supportive publicly of our issues,” Ross Levi, ESPA’s new executive director, said of his group’s posture toward endorsements this year.

Given Huntley’s antipathy to date on the marriage equality issue, Nunes is clearly becoming frustrated at the community’s reticence about coming to his side. He argued that he has successfully addressed three “viability questions” already.

Last fall, he challenged incumbent 28th District City Councilman Thomas White, Jr. — who served from 1992 until he faced term limits in 2001, and then returned to the Council in 2006 — and fell just four votes short of ousting him in the Democratic primary.

Last week, when petitions were due to earn a spot on the Senate primary ballot, Nunes filed 7,205 signatures, nearly six times the required number. More significantly, his campaign finance filing, also submitted last week, shows that in the past six months he raised more than $155,000, compared to just over $106,000 for Huntley. Nunes now has $115,000 on hand, versus $46,000 for the incumbent.

Still, Nunes thinks the July 15 filing deadline was a squandered moment for those hoping for change in the Senate.

“A lot of these organizations that have sat back have missed one great opportunity, and that opportunity was to help me organize and in filing — instead of $150,000 — $300,000,” he said. “And then every other organization, every other union would have said, ‘Shirley Huntley is toast. This community means it. This community is organized. They mean business and we’re not getting involved in that kind of race.’”

The next financial reporting deadline comes 32 days prior to the September 14 primary election, and Nunes hopes that ESPA, HRC, and FBNY — who he voiced confidence would “eventually support my candidacy” — are on board with the effort to oust Huntley well in advance of that.

“This half-stepping and waiting to see what happens is going to end up biting everyone in the butt,” he said. “Hopefully it doesn’t happen. A lot of people are waiting for the seal of approval from ESPA, from HRC.”

Still, Nunes is not naïve about the challenges he faces in raising troops for an insurgent campaign. A supporter of charter schools, he has earned the ire of the teachers union, and the Working Families Party has endorsed Huntley. However, noting that his father was a shop steward in 32BJ, the building service workers union, and that he supports living wage legislation, Nunes said WFP support for Huntley was based on “macro issues on the table” separate from his fidelity to labor’s cause.

“John Sampson has every intention of protecting his conference and is using whatever tools he has, including calling the unions and saying, ‘We need you to come to bat for one of my members in trouble,’” Nunes said. “I knew I was going to have a very hard time picking up union support because of these issues, and it sort of panned out that way.”

In fact, of the $106,000 raised this year by Huntley, $9,500 came from Sampson's own reelection committee, another $9,500 from the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, and $5,000 each from the reelection committee of Senator Eric Adams of Brooklyn and the election committee of Assemblyman Michael Gianaris, a Democrat seeking an open Senate seat in Queens.

Allen Roskoff, president of the Jim Owles club, put a finer point on Sampson’s role. “I’m hearing that Sampson said everyone has to not support him if they want access,” he said. “Why else would groups like ESPA continue to have to look at this race?”

Roskoff suggested, however, that Jim Owles’ enthusiasm for the 10th District challenger may be limited, explaining that his group’s “priority” on Primary Day will be reelecting Harlem Senator Bill Perkins and ousting stridently anti-gay Bronx Senator Ruben Diaz, Sr., who faces off against Charlie Ramos, Jr., a staff member of former Comptroller William Thompson.

Other LGBT supporters are more full-throated in their enthusiasm for Nunes, with Dromm describing him as “energetic, enthusiastic” and someone who will beat Huntley with a superior, smarter ground game — “the qualities that matter most, not the fact that you have elected officials that support you.” Joe Hagelmann, president of the Stonewall Democrats, said his group is “confident he will be successful.”

LGBT leaders have also stepped forward with financial support. Nunes’ July 15 financial filing listed a number of well-known contributors from the community, including Lynn Schulman, who also ran a strong but unsuccessful race for a Queens Council seat last year, Larry Menzie, a longtime official with the Queens gay Democratic club, Dirk McCall, who recently became executive director of the Bronx Community Pride Center, Daryl Cochrane, Melissa Sklarz, Yetta Kurland, and Sebastian Maguire.

For those in the LGBT community disposed to wait it out or even pin their hopes on a Huntley conversion, Nunes offered this warning: “She’s not going to go anywhere, contrary to what people are saying and what she may be trying to spin herself.”

In a district in which he estimated that 58 percent of the voters are, like Huntley, African-American, his opponent, Nunes said, will fall back “on the power base that got her elected, the same churches that she needs to pander to. This is the same base she is going back to defend her against our onslaught. So, she is not going to change her vote on marriage equality.”

From Dromm’s perspective, Huntley is merely doubling down in her opposition to gay marriage.

“She’s campaigning against us on this issue,” he said. “You’re going to see those vile flyers going into people’s houses, and once you commit to something like that, there’s no turning around.”

Huntley’s campaign did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story.