Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Danny O'Donnel Picks HIs Fights in the Legislature

July 13, 2007
Public Lives
This O’Donnell Picks His Fights in the Legislature


THE closet door in Assemblyman (he prefers Assembly member) Daniel J. O’Donnell’s storefront office at 104th Street and Broadway opens with the geriatric creak of complaint common to old wood on a humid summer day. A meaty, overheated hand — Mr. O’Donnell’s — reluctantly reaches inside, grapples around and emerges with a shadow-striped tie in a memorable shade of bubblegum pink. “My boyfriend told me to wear a tie today because I was being interviewed,” he explains. Was he told which tie? That would be micromanagement; Mr. O’Donnell chose it. With a minor amount of premeditation.

“There’s no political agenda; this is just the tie that gets the most compliments whenever I wear it,” he says when asked about its symbolic hue. Technically speaking, the tie belongs to the guy who bought it, his boyfriend and best friend of 26 years, John Banta, a special-events director for the American Ballet Theater. “But we don’t segregate the ties in our closet at home.”

Home is an apartment a few blocks uptown where they reside with their green-eyed mongrel, Phoebe. Unlike her predecessor, Mona, Phoebe does not sing along to “The Lion King,” but does play nicely with the 15 nieces and nephews, plus two godchildren, that Mr. O’Donnell and Mr. Banta, despite their lack of a marriage license, share.

The quest to obtain such a license — that one simple document confers 1,326 legal rights and responsibilities (he says he counted!) — in the state where he was raised, educated, works, votes and pays taxes started when he joined a lawsuit against the state that reached the Court of Appeals, which deferred the question to the Legislature.

He then took the issue to center stage there, where the same-sex marriage bill he sponsored was debated and passed by the Assembly last month by a vote of 85 to 61. (The Senate was disinclined to take up the debate.)

He considers the Assembly debate and passage a historic first step. “I want to be treated equally by the state I represent,” he says of his wish to marry, “and as it turned out, many of my straight colleagues in the Assembly support my right to be as miserable as possible. My ability to get a marriage license hurts nobody: Gay marriage is less harmful to straight people than Dick Cheney on a hunting trip.” But seriously. ...

“Growing up gay used to mean living in fear — of being outed, of being beaten up — but times have changed, and I no longer have those fears,” he says. “My mom died of cancer at 39, my grandfather died of a heart attack at 51, and the only thing I fear now is that I die and don’t have the document that legally protects the man who taught me how to love. Civil unions aren’t really working in New Jersey. Marriage is an understood concept, and the reality is, until I’m able to say, ‘This is my spouse,’ it just doesn’t carry the same weight.”

THE office borders on stifling except in the small reception zone, but Mr. O’Donnell, 46 and, at 250 pounds, upward of 30 pounds overweight (he says it’s in the genes), works from an airless semiprivate alcove.

Anybody looking for a treasure trove of gay-rights manifestos in the personal space of the first and only openly gay man to win election to the State Assembly (he lost in a State Senate primary in 1998 but was elected to the Assembly in 2002), will be disappointed.

The focal point is an untitled, darkly abstract painting by a City University of New York Law School classmate; the only hint of pink in here is his tie.

He loops the pretty haberdashery around his thick neck, knotting it just right. The accessorizing grimace is for theatrical effect. Mr. O’Donnell, who wanted to be a politician since he was 7 and saw his normally stoic mother moved to tears by Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, says he is an “off-the-scale E for extrovert” on the Myers-Briggs personality grid. Must run in the family.

He is a tennis-crazed former Legal Aid Society lawyer (seven years in the Brooklyn branch) and Mets fan, confesses to a very unrequited crush on the tennis star Andy Roddick, pals around with a soprano opera star, Ruth Ann Swenson, who as he did, grew up on Long Island in unassuming Commack, and is the chronically embarrassed older brother of one of the planet’s most opinionated celebrities, the entertainer/blogger/provocateur Rosie O’Donnell.

“Celebrities don’t represent a constituency; I do,” he says of the ripple effect sent his way by her occasionally offensive off-the-cuff remarks. He cringed throughout her stint on “The View” and apologized to many Asians in his district after she, in pursuit of laughs, insulted them on the air.

“I didn’t run for office because I had a famous sister. It’s the opposite of what people think; it’s been more like something to be overcome.” He’s working on that. And no, he does not forward the autograph requests (for hers, not his) that pour into the office. Nor does he sail along on the gay cruise she hosts. The infrastructure of relationships among the five O’Donnell siblings is, he says, volatile.

Hers is the “rich and famous” face, his the legislative face of the gay marriage bill.

“This is not a symbolic victory, this is the wave of the future. It’s not a matter of if it will happen, but when, ” he says. So when is when? He mugs in a manner reminiscent of his in-your-face sibling. “By the time I turn 50, I’m a married man,” he predicts. “And I’m only going to need one license in my lifetime.”

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