Friday, July 10, 2009

Gay City News > What the State Senate Democratic Win Means

Gay City News > What the State Senate Democratic Win Means

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With Democratic control of the New York State Senate once again secured, the Legislature’s upper chamber can, after a one-month deadlock, finally turn its attention to some of the year’s most highly contested questions –– issues ranging from mayoral control of schools to marriage equality.

What remains unclear, however –– even after a July 9 press conference by Democratic leaders and an extraordinary midnight release from top Democratic and Republican senators –– is how the promised commitment to reform will take shape in specific rules changes and what impact that will have on prospects for a marriage equality vote in the near term.

Senator Thomas K. Duane, the out gay Chelsea Democrat who is the lead same-sex marriage sponsor –– as well as the helmsman on other key LGBT initiatives such as a transgender civil rights bill and a school anti-bullying measure –– put out a statement immediately after the restoration of Democratic control was announced, saying, “As disappointing as it is to admit, it is clear that this week is not the right moment for same-sex marriage legislation. Senators need some time and distance to regroup after this month’s partisan-charged and explosive atmosphere.”

That statement hastened to add, however, that the Senate would “be called back to Albany” in “the weeks and months ahead,” at which time he would “fight for and demand, with bipartisan support, that bills important to the LGBT community come to the floor for a vote –– and pass.”

In a telephone interview with Gay City News the same evening, Duane said he expected action not only on marriage equality, already approved by the Assembly and supported by Governor David Paterson, but also on the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act and the Dignity for All Students Act. The marriage bill, he said confidently, “will get to the floor this year and it will pass.”

In the immediate term, Duane explained, only time-sensitive issues that must be acted on quickly –– such as the one-half cent increase in New York City’s sales tax approved in a late-night July 9 session –– would be taken up by the Senate.

On the morning of July 10, the Empire State Pride Agenda, the state’s LGBT rights lobby, issued a written statement backing Duane’s insistence that critical matters of concern to the community get action in the next few weeks.

“We expect that our equality will remain at the top of the chamber’s agenda,” ESPA’s executive director, Alan Van Capelle, said. “Senators from both sides of the aisle have repeatedly said this past month that reform and doing the people’s business were central to the events that transpired. Our equality is the people’s business; reform means scheduling votes on our issues so senators can vote their conscience. “

As the July 9 Senate session spilled out past midnight, a bipartisan statement –– signed by Democrats Malcolm Smith, identified as the Senate president, Pedro Espada, as majority leader, and John Sampson, as Democratic conference leader, and Republican Minority Leader Dean Skelos –– articulated goals long sought by reformers, particularly those interested in moving progressive legislation blocked in recent years by the former GOP leadership.

Those reforms, the statement read, “give each individual senator the means to effectively represent their constituents and assure each senator will be treated fairly and with respect so they can do their jobs to the best of their ability. The rules will empower the membership and enable all 62 members a greater opportunity to get their bills moved out of committees and onto the floor for a vote.”

One Senate source, however, said reform advocates remain wary and are prepared to carefully scrutinize the rules changes that could be voted on as early as next week to ensure that they truly open up the process of bringing legislation to the floor without first winning leadership’s blessing.

Duane has for several months said he had commitments from a sufficient number of senators to win approval of marriage equality legislation, so reform, done the right way, would presumably give him at least one sure avenue of getting a vote.

The other way, of course, would be for the Senate leadership, now that the deadlock is over, to move the measure itself. The leadership’s commitment to do that has been a matter of considerable speculation dating back to last fall when the first threats of defection came from some in the Democratic caucus. Among the Democrats who warned they might block Smith’s original selection as Senate leader was the Reverend Ruben Diaz, a stridently anti-gay Bronx Pentecostal minister who said he could not support any leader who would allow a marriage equality vote.

Smith put down that initial challenge by New Year’s Day, but Diaz was a highly visible player during the chaotic last few days leading up his Bronx colleague Espada’s return to the Democratic fold –– and he was right out front as the new leadership team was announced at the July 9 press conference. In fact, only 12 of the 32 Democrats were present at their party’s moment of triumph –– and several prominent Manhattan progressives who are among the strongest marriage equality advocates, including Duane, Liz Krueger, Eric Schneiderman, and Daniel Squadron, were absent.

Duane cautioned against reading anything into who did and did not attend the victory lap at the Capitol. Asked whether the possibility that Diaz may have played a role in forging the new Democratic conference agreement caused him concern, Duane emphasized that he was looking to Governor Paterson’s leadership in making certain that marriage equality, transgender rights, and anti-bullying get votes this year. His most recent meeting with the governor on those matters, he said, may have been going on as Smith, Espada, Diaz, and nine other of his colleagues stood before the press.

“I have spoken to the governor several times in the past week, and he has re-emphasized his interest in moving marriage this year,” Duane told Gay City News. “We are going to strategize on how to move marriage this year, and we will get that done.”

Paterson’s ability to influence the Senate agenda, Duane said, would come in part from his continuing to call the chamber into extraordinary session, as he has been doing since shortly after the deadlock began June 8.

Senate Democrats, however, were among those who challenged the governor’s authority in calling them back in the manner he did, and Paterson’s office on July 10 said it was uncertain how he would proceed on that issue now that the Senate has reestablished an operating authority. The session on July 9 was an ordinary meeting of the Senate, and if the chamber takes up rules reform next week, that too is expected to take place in a regular session.

Harlem Democratic Senator Bill Perkins, a staunch marriage equality ally, was among those who did attend the July 9 press conference, and he is convinced that the Senate is “moving in the direction” of genuine reform on issues such as senators being able to get votes on their legislation. That’s important to him not only on marriage equality, but on other issues such as vacancy decontrol under the city’s rent stabilization law.

Asked specifically about the fact that Diaz is a marriage equality foe and Espada has been viewed as an ally of landlord interests, Perkins, discussing how the Democratic majority was cobbled back together, said, “There was no discussion that I’ve heard about that this is what we are doing and this is not what we’re doing,”

Perkins also emphasized, “The leadership has for some time made a commitment on gay marriage and the majority of members are supportive, notwithstanding the opposition of some.”

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