Saturday, June 28, 2008

New York Senate Shakeup Might Help Move Marriage Equality  | News |

New York Senate Shakeup Might Help Move Marriage Equality  | News |

New York’s senate majority leader, Joseph Bruno, a 32-year institution in the state senate, announced his retirement Tuesday just as the GOP and Democrats gird for an election season that will determine the fate of the chamber and, potentially, New York’s gay marriage bill.

Democrats need to pick up two seats this November in order to gain control of the senate -- something most LGBT activists wager would hasten the process of getting a same-sex marriage bill to the desk of Gov. David Paterson, who has supported marriage equality since the mid '90s. Asked if he would sign the bill if it landed on his desk, Gov. Paterson told The Advocate, "Absolutely!" The New York assembly is Democrat-controlled and passed a marriage bill last year.

Democratic strategists said Bruno’s exit raises questions about how effectively the GOP can raise money in his absence and whether they can hold certain constituencies together.

“One of the key pillars of Bruno’s support and support for the Republican senate majority has been the labor unions, including progressive unions that you wouldn’t think would be helping to keep a Republican majority in Albany,” said Ethan Geto, an LGBT activist and Democratic political consultant. “His stepping down doesn’t mean that on a wholesale basis all the unions who have been supporting the Republican majority will abandon them, but I think a number of them will.”

Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, a statewide LGBT equality organization, also questioned whether other senators of his era might also decide to call it quits -- Bruno is 79, and more than half of the GOP’s 32 senators are 65 or older.

“Some of them might decide they don’t want to run for reelection this November. So I think today that there are a lot more questions than there are answers,” said Van Capelle, adding that the next few weeks would provide a clearer picture. “That said, I think that we were in very good shape before any of this happened. Our prospects for winning a pro-LGBT leadership in the senate were extraordinarily good, and I’m even more hopeful now.”

The senate Democrats have been eyeing a handful of seats, some of which represent the suburbs surrounding New York City, where, Van Capelle noted, constituents have tended to poll very well on LGBT issues in general and same-sex marriage in particular. “Our polling shows that Long Island, for instance, is more supportive than New York City is to a large extent, and the suburbs north and east of the city are enormously supportive on issues such as marriage equality and transgender civil rights,” he said. The Pride Agenda’s 2006 poll found that 53% of the state’s voters supported marriage equality, while samplings in Long Island’s Nassau and Suffolk counties yielded 57% and 58% support, respectively.

Long Island also happens to be the home of the newly elected majority leader, Sen. Dean Skelos, who until Tuesday was number 2 in command of the senate behind Bruno. Van Capelle also credits Skelos with using same-sex marriage as a scare tactic to get Republican voters to the polls during a special election in 2007. Craig Johnson, the Democratic candidate, had gone on record supporting gay marriage, and on election day the Conservative Party released a flier that read: “Craig Johnson and gay marriage. A match made in heaven. Your vote is the only thing that can stop Craig Johnson and the gay community from legalizing gay marriage in New York State. Staying home on election day is a vote for gay marriage." It backfired; Johnson won the seat.

“Dean Skelos ran that campaign, essentially,” said Van Capelle, “and he certainly did not hesitate to use marriage equality as a wedge issue in that campaign, and it failed miserably.”

A Republican strategist acknowledges that Skelos does not have a sunny record on LGBT issues but adds that Bruno was no knight in pink armor either before he became majority leader. Although Bruno has consistently stood against legalizing same-sex marriage, he did allow votes on bills such as the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act for employment and Hate Crimes, both of which were passed and signed into law. Skelos voted in favor of Hate Crimes but against SONDA.

The GOP strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that although Skelos does not always vote pro-gay, “he has been number 2 in command as the senate has moved those bills. That means he is very familiar with why the Republicans made those determinations as a majority.” Most strategists believe that the Republican caucus has allowed its members to vote more liberal on some social issues in order to keep from being voted out of office.

Nonetheless, the GOP strategist agrees with Van Capelle that Skelos’s real test will be whether he can hold the Republican majority this fall.

“In these coming weeks, those early important things like keeping everyone together and keeping everyone running for office -- that’s going to give you a sense of how unified the Republicans are going to be,” he said. “I don’t think you can write the obituary, but it’s another factor of adding difficulty.” (Kerry Eleveld, The Advocate)

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