BY PAUL SCHINDLER | In its largest Albany effort to date, the grassroots group Marriage Equality New York (MENY) organized roughly 300 activists for its annual legislative lobby day on February 8.
The effort resulted in meetings with state senators or their staffs from 58 of the 62 Senate districts, including a 15-minute sit-down with Dean Skelos, the Long Island Republican who is the majority leader.
“Senator Skelos listened attentively, and I felt he was genuinely interested in our story,” said Habi Reilly, a Cedarhurst mother with a 34-year-old gay son who attended the lobby day with her husband, Joe. “He said he was planning to present the bill to his conference.”
Anne Tischer, a longtime lesbian activist from Rochester, also called on Republicans, holding meetings in three of the four GOP State Senate offices that represent that area. Reflecting on meetings with Senator Joseph Robach and staff members of Senators James Alesi and George Maziarz, she said, “It’s new that they are talking in concert.” Elaborating on what it meant that Republicans are discussing the issue within their own ranks, Tischer explained, “They don’t want to be viewed as obstructionist… That’s why we got such a good hearing.”
Tischer concluded, “This is the most optimistic I have been in the eight years I have been doing marriage equality activism.”
Winning over Republicans, of course, is critical. When the Senate took up marriage equality in December 2009, the bill failed on a 38-24 vote, with eight Democrats joining every single Republican in voting no. The GOP now controls the Senate 32-30. No Republican has yet announced his support for equal marriage rights, and the tally of Democratic supporters has grown by two, to 26 of their 30 members.
Somewhere among the remaining four Democrats and the 30 Republicans, six votes have to be found, and, as importantly, the GOP majority, which is the gatekeeper on which bills receive floor consideration, has to agree to allow the measure, passed three times by the heavily Democratic Assembly, to be considered again.
On that second score, the news continues to be promising. In October, when Skelos was in the midst of his party’s drive to recapture the Senate after two years in the minority, he told the Log Cabin Republicans he would take the bill up with his party colleagues and expected them to agree to a floor vote.
The majority leader has met with marriage equality advocates in his district office on several occasions, but in the past he has generally not made himself available during a work-week lobbying effort. On a day when many senators pleaded other business in tasking their staff to meet with marriage activists, Skelos’ willingness to sit down for a meeting, as gaping budget problems consumed Albany, was noteworthy.
The following day, after a Manhattan breakfast hosted by Crain’s New York, Skelos, in comments first reported by the Advocate, said he expected a governor’s “program” bill on marriage equality to come from Democrat Andrew Cuomo, and that he would make Chelsea Democratic Senator Tom Duane, the only out gay member of the chamber, the sponsor.
That comment was significant in two respects. First, it was another in a series of confirmations by Skelos that he expects marriage equality to be on the Senate agenda this year. The majority leader also took the extraordinary step of giving a member of the minority party control of legislation that could win passage.
“That’s an amazing sign,” out lesbian City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said of Skelos’ anointing of Duane as the bill’s sponsor. “That is really unusual. No one would be shocked if he had given it to someone in his conference.”
Asked for comment, Duane’s office told Gay City News in an email message that the senator “was pleased to hear about Senator Skelos’ comments. Joined by strong support and partnership with Governor Cuomo, Senator Duane continues to work with all members of the State Senate to make marriage a reality in New York State.”
Quinn herself met with Skelos the day before the MENY activists were in Albany. She acknowledged that much of the conversation concerned the state budget and emphasized that it was a private meeting she would not discuss in detail, but the speaker added, regarding the issue of marriage, “He was very consistent with his public statements that he was willing to allow the bill to move forward.”
Both Tischer and the Reillys commented that the turnout and execution of this year’s lobby day demonstrated the growing sophistication of grassroots efforts aimed at winning equality. Their views were echoed by others on hand in Albany that day.
“It was really well organized,” said RoseAnn Hermann, a Westchester mother of a lesbian and two sons, one gay and one straight. Among several meetings she attended, she joined a group of about 20 in speaking with an aide to Staten Island Republican Andrew Lanza.
“We had straight clergy, Staten Island parents, gay and lesbian couples, local business owners,” Hermann said of that meeting. “It was really a microcosm of our society.”
Joann Prinzivalli, another Westchester activist who is a leader of the New York Transgender Organization (NYTRO), also praised MENY’s success in putting the event together, saying it was like a smaller-scale Equality and Justice Day, the annual Albany lobbying push by the Empire State Pride Agenda scheduled this year for May 10.
Noting the difficulty she encountered getting a marriage license in White Plains where she lives — “If I can’t marry a man, I ought to be able to marry a woman,” she recalled telling the New York City clerk’s office, which finally granted the form — Prinzivalli said, “Marriage equality is a trans issue, as well as an LGB issue.”
She acknowledged, however, that should the Senate take up equal marriage rights prior to the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act also pending, she “would like to see those I’ve worked with on marriage help out on GENDA.”
After her meeting with Rochester-area Senate offices, Tischer feels confident that Republicans know the time has come for satisfying the demand by New York same-sex couples for relationship recognition, even if some in the GOP hold out hope that civil unions will do the trick.
“They were testing the waters,” she said of the reaction she got in her meetings last week. Republicans were told in no uncertain terms, Tischer added, that nothing less than full marriage rights was acceptable.
“They know that marriage means money for New York State from weddings here,” she said. “And they see the polls. Now it’s a matter of getting the politics done. And addressing their fear of facing a primary challenge or losing the Conservative Party line in the general election.”
Hermann’s meeting with Lanza’s staff left her more cautious.
“It was a tough meeting,” she said, adding that the Staten Islander’s aide “had a smile on his face, but he didn’t get it. He would say, ‘Oh, but that’s just an isolated incident,’ when we would mention a problem that comes up from not having the right to marry… He was like a nice bully.”
And Dean Dafis, MENY’s New York City chapter leader, provided a reminder that more work remains to be done among Democrats as well. All four of the holdouts in that party represent city districts — and one, the Bronx’s Ruben Diaz, is implacably opposed to any gay rights advances.
The other three are Brooklyn’s Carl Kruger and Shirley Huntley and Joseph Addabbo of Queens. Dafis said that at a meeting with Brooklyn’s John Sampson, the Democratic minority leader told activists that Huntley, who was opposed by a number of gay groups in last year’s primary, could still be brought along.
Significantly, however, Dafis acknowledged that Addabbo, first elected to the Senate in 2008 with significant LGBT support, remained a tough sell. Noting that the senator himself did not sit down with advocates in Albany, Dafis said, “His office met with our folks. He’s a challenge. Maybe he could be persuaded. We are working on showing support in his district by getting community board resolutions so that he can’t say again he’s only voting the way his district feels.”