A Gay Marriage Play in Special House Race

BY ANDY HUMM | The special election on September 13 to fill the US House seat vacated when Anthony Weiner resigned in a sexting scandal in June pits Queens Assemblyman David Weprin, a longtime supporter of LGBT rights who has the Democratic, Working Families, and Independent lines, against Republican-Conservative Bob Turner, an opponent of the right of gay couples to marry.

Turner, 70, who lives in Breezy Point in the Rockaways, pulled 40 percent of the vote against Weiner in 2010 in the heavily Democratic 9th congressional district, which runs from Midwood and Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn to Forest Hills and Ozone Park in Queens.

Turner is a retired TV executive whose work with Multimedia Entertainment included producing talks shows hosted by Jerry Springer and Phil Donahue as well as Rush Limbaugh’s short-lived TV program.

Weprin, 55, of Holliswood, has served on the City Council and later in the Assembly since 2001.

To replace Weiner, Israel, Social Security, Ground Zero mosque, Ed Koch all in mix

A Siena poll on August 10 put Weprin up 48-42 percent over Turner, a surprisingly narrow margin in a district with a 3-1 Democratic registration edge.

This is the first big electoral test since the June passage of New York’s marriage equality law of someone who voted for the bill. While most of the attention in gay political circles has focused on protecting the four Republican senators who joined 29 Democrats in passing the bill, electing Weprin –– who strongly supported the bill –– is also seen as crucial by some, even though he not running for a state legislative seat.

The Human Rights Campaign’s political action committee has kicked in $5,000, said Brian Ellner, who coordinated HRC’s marriage efforts in New York.

“We will be working to activate HRC members to volunteer and vote for Weprin,” Ellner said, calling the Democrat “a strong supporter of LGBT rights and marriage equality.”

Several of the city’s LGBT Democratic clubs held a fundraiser for Weprin’s campaign on August 23 at the Stonewall Bar, netting $3,500. Erin Drinkwater, a vice president of Lambda Independent Democrats of Brooklyn, which organized the event, said that even though many believe New York-9 will disappear in redistricting next year, “Going into 2012, it would be a huge problem to give the GOP or Tea Party any momentum.”

The Log Cabin Republicans of New York State have not yet endorsed in the race, though the group’s chair, Gregory T. Angelo, said, “I’ll be meeting with Mr. Turner next week, and look forward to discussing issues such as the Defense of Marriage Act [DOMA], unemployment, and Mr. Turner’s plan to return dignity to a district failed by hypocritical Democratic leadership.”

Weprin’s June vote for marriage equality has become a big issue, at least in media coverage of the campaign, in a district with a substantial Orthodox Jewish population — one third of the electorate, by the estimation of a GOP pollster. Weiner used to boast that he supported marriage equality despite the fact that it was not popular in his district.

Weprin himself is Orthodox, but his Democratic Assembly colleague, the virulently anti-gay Dov Hikind, also Orthodox, refuses to endorse him, telling the New York Post, “Weprin basically used his Jewish Orthodoxy to say gay marriage is OK. He used his Orthodoxy to say gay marriage is kosher. That crossed the line.”

Hikind, who represents a small portion of New York-9, has not yet endorsed Turner but plans to meet with him.

In voting for marriage equality on June 15, Weprin said, “My religion is very important to me personally, but this is not a religious issue. I think everyone here would agree that we should not be outlawing marriages between Jews and non-Jews or interracial marriages.”

Weprin got in trouble with some gay leaders on July 28 for comments to the Jewish Voz Iz Neias (VIN) News Service in which he agreed with the interviewer that “there should be investigations” into whether there were procedural irregularities in the State Senate vote on same-sex marriage. Some die-hard opponents of the new law have charged that the procedures used in bringing the measure to the Senate floor and the limitations on the debate violated the state’s open meetings law, a concern progressive groups also sometimes invoke when conservative legislation is passed.

“People have to feel that there was a fair process,” Weprin told VIN, “that the vote took place without coercion.”

He did not agree, however, when asked if a referendum should be held on the new law, saying his position might be different if voters had already weighed in on marriage equality as they had on term limits for city officials. He opposed repeal of those limits while a City Council member in 2008 because voters had twice approved them during the 1990s.

State Senator Tom Duane, the leading advocate of the marriage bill in his chamber, initially took his name off the Weprin LGBT fundraiser because of the VIN interview, as did the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club. Duane subsequently restored his name to the event, telling Politicker, “We all make mistakes and we all say things we wish we hadn’t. I am cutting him some slack.”

Allen Roskoff, president of Jim Owles, said he misses Weiner’s leadership, but added it is “obvious that people should be voting for Weprin when the choice is between him and a conservative Republican.”

At a recent debate, Weprin reiterated his support for same-sex marriage, but both candidates played down the issue as an important concern for Congress.

Weprin said, “I did vote for same-sex marriage in the Assembly. I looked at it not as a religious issue but as a civil rights issue. We’ve got plenty of issues in the country to worry about –– jobs and unemployment. It should be a state-by-state determination as to same-sex marriage.”

Turner said, “I agree with Mr. Weprin,” Turner responded. “It should not be an issue in this campaign. To some it is. You asked my position on DOMA, the Defense of Marriage. It probably will not come up, but I will continue to support it.”

Marriage is far from the only issue making headlines in the contest and likely will not prove to be the main one. In the Siena poll of district voters, 45 percent said jobs was the number one issue, 21 percent the deficit, and 13 percent health care. Voters narrowly support the new federal health care plan by a 47-44 percent margin. And they overwhelmingly oppose cuts to Medicare and Social Security (72-24 percent) and want to raise taxes on those making more than $250,000 by 65-33 percent.

Former Mayor Ed Koch, a Democrat who supported George W. Bush for re-election in 2004, has endorsed Turner.

“My support of Bob Turner is to send a message to President Obama that he should not take the vote of the Jewish community for granted,” he said. “Many, myself included, think he has thrown Israel under the bus. Bob Turner’s message is to the Republican national leadership. He is against privatizing Social Security and Medicare or turning Medicaid into a block grant.”

Weprin has been hammering at Turner over the threat House Republicans pose to Social Security and Medicare. He has also attacked Obama’s Israel policy and called the president’s treatment of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “outrageous.”

Some gay leaders are upset with Koch.

City Councilman Daniel Dromm, a Jackson Heights Democrat, has endorsed Weprin and worked with him for almost 20 years on LGBT issues in Queens.

“He was there when no one else was there for us,” he said.

Dromm also warned that Turner “should be careful” about his opposition to same-sex marriage, citing a significant LGBT population in the Forest Hills portion of the district. He said he prevailed on the Lesbian and Gay Democratic Club of Queens and the New Visions Democratic Club of Jackson Heights to donate $1,000 to Weprin.

“Koch’s whole thing is bizarre,” Dromm said, taking special exception to the former mayor’s support for an opponent of gay marriage since he is “a closet case.”

Allen Roskoff, president of Jim Owles, said, “It’s a disgrace that Ed Koch is supporting someone who would deny his right to marry.”

Koch told Gay City News, “Oh, fuck those two guys.”

In an e-mail, he wrote, “I don’t discuss whether I am heterosexual or homosexual. I simply refuse to legitimatize any questions concerning my sexual orientation. For anyone to respond to the question legitimatizes its being asked. So that in the future, political organizations could not only ask candidates to state their positions on public issues –– which is legitimate –– but also request an answer to the question ‘are you straight or gay.’ To allow that to occur would drive many public-spirited citizens from running for office.”

In 1977, in his first run for mayor, Koch did answer the question, saying, “No, I am not a homosexual. If I were a homosexual, I would hope I would have the courage to say so. What’s cruel is that you are forcing me to say I am not a homosexual. This means you are putting homosexuals down. I don’t want to do that.”

His more customary response, however, is to refuse to respond to questions about his sexuality, though he acknowledged it was fair play to expose “someone who is hypocritical and demonizes gays.” His support for Turner does not meet that standard, the former mayor argued, saying the Republican candidate is “not anti-gay” and had “the same position as the president.” (Although Obama does not support same-sex marriage, unlike Turner, he campaigned on repealing DOMA and is opposing its constitutionality in court.)

“I’m for repealing DOMA,” said Koch. “Turner supports domestic partnership with full rights equal to that of marriage… just not the word.”

The former mayor also said that Turner “was asked by some Orthodox to participate in a meeting to denounce Weprin” on the marriage issue “and he said, ‘Absolutely not.’”

Last week, the Daily News reported that in 1994 Turner and his wife, Peggy, adopted an eight-year old boy named C.J., after his mother, Rosemary Holmstrom of Brooklyn, conducted a public campaign to find him a new home as she was dying of AIDS at age 34. Having already lost her husband to the virus, Holmstrom did not want her son to wind up in the foster care system. When the story broke, C.J. became taunted as “AIDS boy” at school, even though he is HIV-negative.

The Turners’ adoption of C.J. had not been public prior to the Daily News story.

Bill O’Reilly, Turner’s spokesman, said he would have the candidate call Gay City News to discuss his gay rights and AIDS positions, but the call was not received as of press time.

Asked how the marriage issue is playing in the race, Jake Dilemani, Weprin’s campaign manager, said, “More folks are happy and supportive of David for his vote than against.” He added, however, that voters across the board are more concerned about “the state of the economy, jobs, Medicare, and Social Security no matter where they are in the district.”

On another recent hot button issue, Weprin supports the “absolute right” to build the controversial Park 51 Islamic community center a few blocks from Ground Zero, but said an “alternative site… would be preferable.” Turner said, “What happened there isn’t to be commemorated with a victory mosque.”

Ken Sherrill, the out gay chair of the political science department at Hunter College, doesn’t think issues of gay marriage or US-Israel policy will decide the race, but said the electorate’s feelings about “the economy and Obama’s leadership are making it hard for Democrats… That doesn’t mean Weprin is going to lose. But special elections are quirky.”

Anger often drives turnout, Sherrill said, “and angry people are more likely to blame Obama than [the Republican] Congress.”

On the impact of marriage equality in the special election, Sherrill said, “I don’t see evidence that anti-gay groups have been terribly successful in turning out large numbers of voters in New York.”

Prognostications?

Koch believes “there will be an upset” and Turner will win.

Joe Hagelmann, president of Stonewall Democrats, is “confident” Weprin will win.

“The focus is on Brooklyn,” he said, referring to the dust-up over US Israeli policy, “but he’ll do very well in Queens.”

Sherrill said, “It depends on get-out-the-vote efforts and what else is on the ballot” in the district.

Matt McMorrow, co-president of Brooklyn’s Lambda club, said, “It is going to be a tough race, but I think David Weprin will pull it out.” He said “a couple of dozen” LID members have committed to working for the Democrat.

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