Thursday, January 8, 2009

New N.Y. Senate Is Most Gay-Friendly Ever

New York Blade Online

New N.Y. Senate Is Most Gay-Friendly Ever…
…And yet there’s not enough support to pass pro-LGBT bills—at least not from the Democrats alone.

By Rick Lopez
Thursday, January 08, 2009

With Democrats taking control of the state Senate for the first time in 43 years, the odds are better than ever for a gay marriage bill to finally reach the governor’s desk, some activists say.

Senators elected Queens lawmaker Malcolm Smith as majority leader, making him the first black majority leader in state history and the first Senate boss from New York City in 44 years.

“Today, for the first time ever, New York has a pro-LGBT majority leadership in the State Senate,” said Alan Van Capelle, executive director of advocacy group Empire State Pride Agenda, in a statement. “We now not only have a Senate majority leader who supports our issues, but one that has stated a number of times that he will help us find the support needed to pass crucial bills like marriage equality, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act and the [anti-bullying] Dignity for All Students Act.”

All three of those pro-LGBT bills have passed the Democratic-controlled Assembly but have languished across the aisle in what was the GOP Senate.

Of course, Democratic leadership doesn’t translate to an automatic vote on the legislation—it doesn’t even guarantee there’s enough support to bring the bills to the floor. But it does mean the LGBT community is now at the starting line and in the race.
“Our community now has more work to do,” Van Capelle said. “Today we know that we have supportive leadership, but we also know that we do not yet have the votes that we need to pass some of our most important bills.

“In the months to come,” he continued, “LGBT New Yorkers and our allies will be working in districts across the state to build the support that will allow us to bring these bills to the Senate floor for a vote as soon as possible.”

Smith’s election as majority leader was seen as a major first step—one that might not have happened despite the Democrats winning a slim majority in that chamber on Nov. 4.

In a move that rekindled hopes for gay equality, Sen. Smith ended this week a two-month battle with three Democrats who had threatened to side with Republicans if Democratic leaders didn’t meet their demands for lucrative leadership posts and promise not bring same-sex marriage to a vote.

However, in a closed-door meeting on Tuesday, the so-called Gang of Three—Ruben Diaz Sr. and Pedro Espada Jr., both of the Bronx, and Carl Kruger of Brooklyn—promised to relinquish their dissent. The Senators will chair important committees, though Smith told the New York Times that the topic of gay marriage didn’t come up in the discussions.

The renegade Democrats began staging their ploy immediately after Election Day, but Smith later stated that “those issues should be part of the legislative process. Real reform cannot and should not ever include limiting the civil rights of any New Yorkers.”

“Malcolm Smith’s election means that LGBT people have a chance to achieve marriage equality, where under the Republicans we had none,” said Jeff Campagna, founder of The Power, a Facebook group formed in the aftermath of Proposition 8 and The Gang of Three scheme.

From many aspects, it seems like gay equality is facing a favorable set of circumstances. David Paterson is the second Democrat governor in office since 1935—the former lieutenant governor stepped up to the post unexpectedly in early 2008 when Eliot Spitzer resigned—and last year Paterson cleared the way for New York to honor same-sex marriages and unions from other states.

“We need not only to respect each other but to serve each other,” Paterson said, alluding to gay and civil rights, as he closed his State of the State address this week.

Democrats also have an unprecedented grip on both the state Assembly and Senate, which includes five openly LGBT lawmakers. Sen. Thomas Duane of Manhattan, the only openly gay member of that chamber, told The Blade last month that he would carry the marriage bill. (The Assembly passed a similar bill in 2007.)

Even with a Democrat majority, the Senate would still need GOP support to pass a marriage bill. “There are still five or six votes against the bill in the Democratic conference,” Sen. Jeffrey D. Klein, who represents parts of Bronx and Westchester County, told the New York Times this week. “And I certainly don’t know five or six Republicans who are going to vote for it.”

The notion of cautious optimism is familiar to gay-rights advocates. “Within the Democratic Party, there are enemies of equality and others who have yet to join our cause. So this is just the beginning of our fight,” Campagna said. “We must continue to organize and speak out. But have no doubt, we will prevail.”

One advocacy group, Marriage Equality of New York, plans to keep gay marriage on the minds of legislators by taking busloads of constituents to Albany to visit Smith and the rest of the Senate on Feb. 3.

“We are delighted Sen. Malcolm Smith will be the new Senate majority leader,” said the group’s executive director, Ron Zacchi. “He has always been very supportive of marriage equality, and we look forward to working with him this coming year.”

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