Matt Titone May Go to Assembly

The Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA) has moved aggressively to protect Democratic state Assembly seats in two of three special elections scheduled to fill vacancies on Tuesday, March 27.

BY PAUL SCHINDLER | The Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA) has moved aggressively to protect Democratic state Assembly seats in two of three special elections scheduled to fill vacancies on Tuesday, March 27.

Matthew Titone, one of the two Pride Agenda endorsees, is a gay attorney running for the 61st District Staten Island seat held by Democrat John Lavelle, who died suddenly in January. Lavelle was a supporter of marriage equality, an issue ESPA hopes to advance this year, with a growing number of co-sponsors in the Assembly and the outspoken support of Eliot Spitzer, the new Democratic governor.

Titone, who unsuccessfully contested an open state Senate race in Staten Island last fall, will face off against Republican Rose Margarella, a school teacher who also lost in November, failing in her bid to unseat Lavelle. Kelvin Alexander, a long time Democratic leader who lost his party's nod to Titone, will run on the Independence Party line.

Unlike the Senate district in which Titone lost last fall, which has long been a Republican stronghold, the 61st Assembly District, comprised largely of Staten Island's north shore, makes for a more inviting electoral arena. Lavelle easily turned back Margarella's challenge in November, outpolling her by roughly two-and-a-half to one. Those numbers have given Titone's supporters reason to hope that he could become the Assembly's third openly gay member, joining Manhattan Democrats Deborah Glick and Daniel O'Donnell.

Alexander's third-party bid, however, could complicate that calculus, particularly since his competition with Titone has opened up the potential for a black-gay rift among Staten Island voters. Alexander, a retired African-American police officer who has worked as an organizer for Reverend Al Sharpton's National Action Network, has emphasized the importance of people of color representation on Staten Island. The island has never elected a candidate from communities of color.

Alexander's pique over losing the nod from the county Democratic organization was exacerbated by Titone's success in foiling his efforts to gain a second line on the ballot-in addition to his designation as the Independence Party candidate – through the creation of the Family First Party.

The New York Observer's Politicker blog quoted Alexander's campaign manager Dora Bernsteiner, who is also African American, saying that Titone and the Democrats are acting as though “there is no qualified minority to run” in Staten Island.

Titone, in turn, complained that Alexander's choice of a name for his proposed new party, Family First, was intended as “anti-gay code,” the Staten Island Advance reported. Some bloggers have suggested Titone erred in arguing that gays are uncomfortable with the word family.

If elected, Titone would be Staten Island's first openly gay elected official. He is the son of the late Vito Titone, who served on New York's highest court, the Court Appeals, on which in 1989 he authored the landmark Braschi decision which recognized the right of gay and lesbian tenants in the city to succeed their late partners as leaseholders in rent-controlled apartments.

As he scrambles for votes in next week's election, Titone is steering clear of a controversy roiling supporters of marriage equality in the Assembly. Chelsea Democrat Dick Gottfried, who has sponsored the marriage bill since its inception in 2002, is moving forward with his Senate counterpart, Tom Duane, the openly gay Chelsea Democrat, to re-introduce the measure soon. Glick and O'Donnell, on the other hand, have argued strenuously that the bill should be held back in order to keep pressure on Spitzer to introduce his “program bill” to legalize marriage for gay and lesbian couples.

Asked about the issue, Titone demurred.

“I have not seen the bill yet. I cannot answer one way or the other,” he said, quickly adding that he is undiminished in his commitment to help make marriage equality a reality.

In Nassau County's 16th Assembly District, ESPA has endorsed Michelle Schimel in the race to succeed Democrat Thomas DiNapoli, who was recently selected as the state's new comptroller. Schimel, who has been the elected town clerk of North Hempstead for the past eight years, also enjoys favorable political terrain. In last November's election, DiNapoli glided to a three-to-one victory over Republican Louis Chisari.

Even if Schimel wins, however, marriage equality advocates will have to scramble to get back to the position they enjoyed prior to DiNapoli's resignation. He supported the Gottfried marriage bill, while Schimel, to date, has only come out in support of civil unions.

In campaign filings to date, Schimel has raised roughly $65,000, according to the Albany Times Union. Her Republican opponent, 26-year-old political newcomer Ryan DeCicco, had no fundraising receipts to show.

In a third special election, in Staten Island's 62nd District, Republican Lou Tobacco, a longtime civic activist, is expected to prevail over the Democratic candidate, John Mulia, who is actually registered as a member of the Conservative Party. The race is to succeed Vincent Ignizio, who was just elected to the City Council. Ignizio, a Republican, carried the district last fall unopposed.

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