Thursday, June 11, 2009

GayCityNews - Amidst Chaos, Where Is Tom?

this is a good summary of where we are at at this hour

GayCityNews - Amidst Chaos, Where Is Tom?

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Senator Tom Duane rallied last week with Democrats; what's the next step?

Senator Tom Duane rallied last week with Democrats; what's the next step?
After three days of State Senate Democrats and Republicans warring over the validity of a June 8 parliamentary maneuver in which the GOP appears to have grabbed control of the chamber, the situation in Albany remains chaotic -- with the Senate in lockdown, a renegade Democrat claiming to have spirited a key to let his new Republican friends in the door, and talk of a second coup that would remove Queens Senator Malcolm Smith not only from the role of majority leader, but also as head of the Democratic caucus.

As Smith threatens to go to court June 11 to block the GOP putsch, one stunning question moved to the fore -- Is Tom Duane, the out gay Chelsea Democrat, thinking about joining Pedro Espada, Jr., of the Bronx and Hiram Monserrate of Queens in supporting Republican Dean Skelos of Long Island as the majority leader?

On the morning of June 10, the New York Times speculated that Duane might be doing precisely that, in an effort to advance key legislative goals -- marriage equality legislation already approved by the Assembly, as well as GENDA, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, and the anti-bullying Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), which also only require Senate approval to be enacted. elaborated considerably on the same theme that morning, reporting that Duane had skipped key Democratic gatherings since the GOP coup, dropped out of sight (his car reportedly absent from the Capitol parking lot), and was not returning phone calls from intimates.

Reached by telephone late afternoon on June 10, Duane worked to scuttle the speculation.

"Yes, I did miss a Democratic press conference on Monday," he responded, when asked about the reports. "And except for when I really needed to be in the Capitol, I chose not to be there because it's a very toxic place, full of only rumors. My not being there has nothing to do with anything other than it not being a place where I wanted to spend a lot of time. I don't think anyone should read anything more into it."

Duane, however, conceded that he had not attended any meeting of the beleaguered Democratic caucus since the Senate was thrown into turmoil Monday, and made no attempt to deny rumors that he was talking to the Republicans. When asked if he could dispel stories that the GOP had reached out to him, he responded, "I have spoken to people on both sides of the aisle about seeing every issue accomplished that I have spent my whole life working to accomplish." He then added quickly, "And with that I will leave you," and ended the call.

The notion that the LGBT community could achieve gay marriage and transgender civil rights laws by working to bolster a new Republican majority in the Senate turns recent history on its head. For years, the GOP leadership has resisted gay rights measures, delivering hate crimes in 2000 and a gay nondiscrimination law in 2002 only after years of opposition, and as part of carefully crafted political compromises. Since marriage equality became a live issue in 2006-7, with the state high court turning down legal action and the Democratic Assembly passing former Governor Eliot Spitzer's legislation, two consecutive Republican Senate leaders, Joe Bruno and later Skelos, made clear their implacable opposition to allowing a floor vote on the measure.

Perhaps until now.

When news of the Republican coup broke, many in the LGBT community feared the Democrats, who held a razor-thin 32-30 majority, were going down because Smith was committed to allowing floor consideration when the votes were there, and Duane was saying he had a majority in hand. Since last November's election, Senator Ruben Diaz, a harshly anti-gay Bronx Pentecostal minister, has said he would not support a majority leader who would allow a gay marriage vote. But, Diaz was not the renegade this week; in fact, in the wake of the coup he has reaffirmed his support for Smith.

Instead, Espada, a marriage co-sponsor, and Monserrate, who has been silent this year but at other times has endorsed equal rights for same-sex couples, were the ones who ended the Democratic control that just about everyone thought was needed to advance marriage equality and GENDA. But even though they are marriage supporters, pundits Monday evening were confidently predicting that gay marriage, under Skelos' leadership, was dead.

That conventional wisdom, however, was soon overtaken. The following morning, Skelos and Espada -- who under an unprecedented plan would split leadership duties with Skelos, with Skelos becoming majority leader, as he was last year, and Espada serving as president pro tem -- appeared on New York Post columnist Fred Dicker's radio show. Espada said he favored bringing the marriage equality bill to a floor vote.

However, he and Skelos both said they had not specifically discussed the issue or agreed on what to do. Skelos said the two would discuss the matter later in the day. Appearing on Brian Lehrer's WNYC Radio show the same morning, Monserrate agreed that the coup would not doom the chances for a marriage floor vote.

Neither Espada nor Skelos' offices responded to requests for comment the following day about whether the two had come to a conclusion about the future of the marriage bill, or GENDA and DASA, in the Senate's current session.

Duane and advocates led by the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA) have long acknowledged that the opposition of Diaz and likely at least a few other Democrats meant that some Republican votes were needed to pass the marriage bill. Several weeks ago, Duane announced that a Republican was ready to go public with his support, though that has not yet happened.

Like Duane, however, ESPA has voiced optimism all year that progress was being made in courting Republicans, an effort made easier when Skelos, as minority leader, said his members would be allowed to take a conscience vote and not be held to a standard Republican position.

It is undeniable that the national climate on marriage equality has changed drastically just in the five months since Republicans last controlled the Senate. In 2007-8, when Bruno and Skelos adamantly refused to act on marriage equality even in the face of the Democratic Assembly easily passing it, it was accepted by most observers as more or less a political given.

Skelos aims to return to power, however, after three nearby states have legislated gay marriage, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the issue, and New York political reporters have been skulking Capitol hallways trying to buttonhole undecided senators. To kill the measure now out of hand, without allowing it even to get a vote, might come across to voters as reactionary, even out-of-touch with a rapidly shifting national mood.

In this context, an appearance by Bruno, now retired, on WRGB CBS 6 in Albany in the past few days, illustrates just how fast events are moving. Bruno explained that Governor David Paterson, who introduced the marriage bill into the Legislature in April, had called him to ask his help in lobbying GOP senators on the issue. The man who once stood as a bulwark against gay rights agreed to do just that. "It's time," Bruno told WRGB.

During all the chaos of the past few days, one quiet player has been ESPA, limiting its public statements to an oblique reference to the possibility it may now need to bargain with a leadership team it worked hard last year to defeat.

"Our issues are not partisan issues," Alan Van Capelle, ESPA's executive director, said in a press statement. "It is time to bring marriage equality and these other LGBT issues to the Senate floor for votes and have members vote their conscience. We urge the Senate to schedule these votes as soon as possible before the end of the legislative session."

As Gay City News goes to press on June 10, it is impossible to anticipate the coming events with any high degree of certainty. Democrats worked furiously that day to pull Monserrate -- in legal hot water over charges he assaulted his girlfriend by smashing a glass into her face -- back into their fold, apparently unsuccessfully, though his statements late in the afternoon in an appearance with Skelos and Espada were frustratingly elusive.

Whether Duane, were he to make his bet, and bed, with Skelos, would be able to pick up enough GOP support to offset some Democrats not yet sold on gay marriage who would now be less likely to do him a favor is also unclear -- as is what degree of blowback he could expect from longtime allies on issues such as tenants' rights, choice, drug reform, medical marijuana, and healthcare.

And finally, whether the LGBT community can depend on Espada -- who planned his revolt after being denied several million dollars in earmarks for a non-profit healthcare organization, his ties to which are under investigation by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo -- to enter into his new political marriage with our marriage rights, and other important goals, as a genuine part of his portfolio of asks is likely the most salient question of all.

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