NY Gay Marriage Article

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April 11, 2012
When Is a Flip Not a Flop?
At the end of January, New York’s Conservative Party, the most influential of the minor
parties that complicate the state’s politics, celebrated its 50th anniversary at a Holiday Inn
near the Albany airport, a vast and dingy venue that reminded me of athlete housing left
over from the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Politicians like former Gov. George Pataki, who owed
his election to the Conservatives, came to pay homage to the party for its record of steering
the state’s politics to the right.
But one calamity darkened the mood of nostalgia and self-congratulation: the passage last
summer of a law legalizing same-sex marriage. For many New Yorkers, the June 24
marriage vote was a rare moment of goosebump drama from a capital better known for
tedious dysfunction. For the Conservatives, and in particular for Mike Long, the ex-marine
who has been the party’s chairman for nearly half of its history, the vote was a triple
It was, first, a defining triumph for the state’s ambitious new Democratic governor, Andrew
Cuomo. Second, it was an abandonment by Republican leaders, who had invoked party
discipline to kill similar legislation in 2009. This time the Republican leaders publicly
opposed gay marriage, but knowing that both public opinion and lobbying muscle were
coalescing on the other side, they freed their members to vote as they wished. And that led
to what was, for Mike Long, an unforgivable betrayal. All four of the Republican senators
who voted for the bill and provided the necessary margin for it to pass had been elected with
the Conservative endorsement, a prize for which opposition to gay marriage was an essential
litmus test. Two of those wayward senators would not have won their seats without the
Conservative boost.
Try as they might to explain away the defections — perhaps it was the lure of money from
gay hedge-fund billionaires, or some devilish deal with Cuomo — the Conservatives feared
that this defeat, if not punished, could mean an ominous loss of influence.
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The four Republican apostates now had targets on their backs.
It is difficult to construct an argument against marriage rights for gay people that doesn’t
sound like an argument against gay people. Mike Long and his fellow partisans, like many
conservatives nationwide, build their case on what they call “the defense of traditional
marriage.” No society in history, they told me repeatedly, has extended marriage rights to
homosexuals, and so we shouldn’t risk the unraveling of civilization by starting now.
(Apparently they don’t count the 10 countries, from Canada to South Africa, where gays may
legally marry and civilization endures.) I’ve had a few conversations with Long, trying to
understand what harm they think they are defending marriage from. In one conversation I
recounted my own classic wedding at the Holy Name of Jesus church, and wondered how
somebody else’s less conventional marriage could diminish the joy of it.
“Well, I don’t think it hurts anybody,” Long replied, “but I think a society has to have certain
standards, and since the beginning of time, marriage has been between a man and a
woman.” Marriage, he elaborated, is about children. “You’re not going to procreate children
with same-sex couples.”
I told him that would be news to my daughters’ school classmates, the ones with two moms
or two dads. And by the way, we don’t prohibit elderly, infertile or just plain procreation-
averse couples from marrying.
“I know plenty of gay couples, O.K.?” he snapped back. “Some of them, if not all of them, are
very good people, O.K.? I just don’t believe that society needs to change what the definition
of marriage is to accommodate their lifestyle. That’s all. You know, that may be old-school.
But I think Western civilization has done pretty good old-school.”
The quartet of dissident Republicans are themselves fairly old-school, at least when it comes
to the rest of their conservative credentials. They come not from liberal Manhattan or the
upscale suburbs of Westchester County. They are upstate guys, from struggling former mill
towns and diminished Rust Belt cities. So while the senators’ political calculus differs from
district to district, their experiences give us a glimpse into how this issue is likely to play out
in “real America,” as conservatives are fond of calling it, and not just in the coastal
metropolises. Which is why the fates of these four are being watched intently by national
lobbies and wavering politicians across the country.
The least vulnerable of the four is probably Stephen M. Saland, a patrician-looking lawyer
whose Poughkeepsie district sits about a two-hour drive north of New York City. A Capitol
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fixture since 1980 and a conscientious legislative technician, Saland negotiated with Cuomo
the details of a shrewd compromise that assured religious organizations that they would not
be compelled to participate in gay marriages, giving a bit of shelter to lawmakers worried
about religious blowback. Saland agonized over this issue with his gay-marriage-supporting
wife, but one acquaintance said his decision seemed to grow out of his immersion in the
legislative language. He refused to talk for this article because of an old grudge against The
Times over what an aide described as “an out-of-context quote.”
Roy J. McDonald, who represents former mill towns like Troy and Mechanicville, didn’t see
much percentage in reminiscing about his vote, either. He literally backpedaled as I
interviewed him in the Senate lobby. “I did what I thought was right,” he told me. The voters
“understand that,” but now they want to talk about jobs and foreclosures, not marriage. “I
can’t dwell on this stuff.” McDonald is a Vietnam veteran and former steelworker. Though
he is now a banker, he retains a bluff manner, but with a compassionate streak when it
comes to those born different. Friends say he has two autistic grandsons, and watching the
insensitivity the boys endured gave him a kind of collateral distaste for those who would
marginalize gays. McDonald, entirely in character, responded to criticism by announcing
that if doing the right thing costs him his seat, “They can take the job and shove it.” That did
not sit well with some local Republican leaders, but it’s the kind of directness his
constituents seem to like.
Jim Alesi, who formerly had a business operating laundry rooms in apartment buildings and
dormitories, has been in politics for 23 years. He represents a swath of the Rochester area
that’s more white-collar than blue-. When the Senate rejected gay marriage in 2009, Alesi
toed his party’s line, but he held his head in visible distress, in part because it felt like a
betrayal of his friend Thomas Duane, the Senate’s only openly gay member. “I promised
myself then that I would never vote no on this issue again,” he told me. And because his
relatively affluent electorate leans moderate on social issues, the vote was not likely to fire
up a huge reaction. Unfortunately for Alesi, he has other liabilities — more on those later —
and he knows that some in his own party, not just the Conservatives, would like to throw
him overboard.
Mark Grisanti should be the most endangered Republican in the Senate. He is a freshman,
an Italian Catholic Republican in a slice of the Buffalo region that is five-to-one Democratic
and nearly 40 percent black. He won his seat by a mere 519 votes over an incumbent
African-American Democrat, Antoine Thompson. Thompson supported gay marriage, not a
popular view in the black churches of Buffalo.
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Grisanti didn’t make a big deal of marriage in his campaign, but he told people he was in the
man-and-a-woman camp, which probably bought him a smattering of black support.
Moreover, Grisanti was listed on the ballot as the candidate of the Conservative Party in
addition to being the Republican nominee, and he reaped 4,368 votes on the Conservative
So it is not a stretch to suggest that, between Conservative and black votes, Mark Grisanti
owes his seat to the fact that he identified himself as a “no” vote on gay marriage. It is also
not a stretch, as you will see, to say that if he wins re-election, it will be because he changed
his mind.
The choice of a gay rights tour guide in Buffalo was obvious. Kitty Lambert and her
partner were the state’s first gay newlyweds. When the law went into effect, she and Cheryle
Rudd — both longtime gay rights activists and, as Lambert likes to say, “two fat
grandmothers” — drove from their home in Buffalo up to Niagara Falls for a midnight
ceremony. Lambert grew up Mormon, endured a series of husbands in the effort to live up
to her religion’s expectations and came out as a lesbian in her 30s. Between them, she and
Rudd have five grown children and 15 grandchildren.
Kitty Lambert, who now goes by Lambert-Rudd, got to know Grisanti pretty well during
months of lobbying him on the marriage bill, as he struggled with the tension between his
Catholic faith and his lawyer’s reverence for equality. The lawyer won. (“I swore with my
hand on the Bible to uphold the Constitution,” he told me. “I didn’t swear with my hand on
the Constitution to uphold the Bible.”) Lambert-Rudd became so protective of the senator
that she began a campaign to register like-minded Buffalo residents as members of the
Conservative Party, hoping they could fend off Mike Long’s reprisals. She signed up about
300. This, someone joked, was like getting rabbis to enroll in Hamas to make it less hostile
to Israel.
I wondered how she felt about laboring to save the political skin of a conservative
Republican who disagreed with her on abortion rights and a slew of other issues.
“Mark’s politics,” she said. “Wow. But I made a commitment to support anyone who
recognized my rights as a gay person. Because that is my calling right now, it tends to be my
full focus.”
Not surprisingly, gay marriage is more likely to be a decisive issue for gays than for
opponents. But if you parse public opinion, you find the acceptance of gay marriage is not
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just growing; it is accelerating. This is driven, of course, by the overwhelming support of
young voters, but also by white Catholics, who have grown more open-minded on gay rights
as they have become more affluent and educated, and as their children return from college
with more liberal attitudes.
Adding to the inexorability is a factor pollsters refer to as “salience,” a measure of how much
an issue means to you. It figures heavily in what politicians decide is safe to do. Most
Americans favor restrictions on guns, for example, but gun control is stymied by salience:
the people who want full gun rights care far more about the issue than those who oppose
them. Opponents of gay marriage used to hold their opinion more passionately than
supporters. But as more Americans have openly gay children, siblings, friends and
neighbors, the supporters feel just as strongly. Another sign of seismic change: civil unions,
once regarded by gay-marriage supporters as a best-we-can-hope-for compromise, have
become a fallback position of the anti-marriage camp.
African-American support for gay marriage has remained stubborn, hovering around 30
percent for years, for reasons of class and education and because of the centrality of church
in their lives. According to internal memos of the National Organization for Marriage, the
anti-gay-marriage lobby sees an opportunity to play on the fact that some blacks resent
hearing gay marriage likened to their own civil rights struggle.
Fortunately for Grisanti, black congregations will not have much of a chance to register their
disapproval in November. The legislators who have designed a statewide redistricting plan
took extraordinary pains to protect Grisanti by sculpturing him a friendlier district. The
redrawn district cuts Grisanti’s black constituency to 5 percent from 37 percent and reduces
the Democrat-to-Republican ratio to less than two to one. To accomplish this, the designers
took two distant swatches of friendly territory and attached them by a long thin strand of
Lake Erie shoreline where the only constituents are fish.
Indeed, Grisanti and the other three are in the improbable position of having grateful
support both from the state G.O.P. leaders and from the Democratic governor. Cuomo,
whose popularity is high, has lavished praise on the Republican Four for their courage. And
Republican leaders are delighted that gay donors — who might, in the wake of a defeat, have
mounted jihad against the state’s Republicans — are instead contributing generously to save
these four Republican seats. Each raised between $400,000 and $540,000 in the 10 months
after the vote, mighty war chests for State Senate races. Discreetly, because local party
officials resent being leaned on, state Republican leaders have tried to wave off strong
challengers from filing in the Republican primaries of the four defectors.
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Daisies Cafe sits on a block of Lackawanna between the baroque immensity of Our Lady
of Victory basilica and the storefront office of the Erie County Conservative Party. It is home
to something called the “Lard-ass Omelet” (which contains “every single meat we serve,” a
waitress explained) and to a Saturday political breakfast that has been going on for 13 years.
It draws Buffalo pols from all parties but is long on Conservatives.
The Saturday I arrived, the county Conservative Party had just voted to deny Grisanti the
party’s ballot line this year in favor of a conservative (and anti-gay-marriage) Democrat. A
month earlier the Erie County Conservative chairman, Ralph Lorigo, laid out for me a pretty
convincing case for forgiving Grisanti. The senator is pro-gun, anti-abortion, pro-business
on taxes and regulation, a champion of charter schools — a budding star by most
Conservative measures. And importantly, Grisanti’s victory gave the Republicans their
single-member margin of control in the Senate, making it a far more congenial environment
for issues that matter to Conservatives. Why put that at risk for a little payback on gay
Around the long table at Daisies, that sort of pragmatism could no longer be found. The
gay-marriage issue had now been rebranded as an “integrity issue.” It wasn’t so much that
Grisanti had voted for marriage, the breakfasting pols said. It’s that when he changed his
mind he should have announced that to voters and then submitted himself to another
election before casting such an important vote.
The rebranding suggested to me that the anti-marriage camp is aware of its salience
problem. Lashing Grisanti for a vote of conscience could be counterproductive, so the hunt
is under way for nonmarriage reasons to dump him. One that may get some mileage is the
senator’s recent involvement in a bar brawl at an Indian-owned casino in his district.
According to Grisanti’s account, he went to watch his daughter fill in for the lead singer of a
Rat Pack-era cover band called the Scintas. While waiting in the bar, he tried to verbally
defuse an argument between two drinkers; before he knew it fists were flying, someone had
knocked his wife to the floor and he was wading in to save her. The district attorney has
chosen to close the case, but Grisanti’s opponents won’t.
What it comes down to is that the Conservatives need to prove they can still flex their
political muscles. I got a candid lesson in realpolitik from Jason J. McGuire, the acting
Livingston County chairman: “You think we’re going to talk marriage, marriage, marriage
all of the time? No. In any campaign you find the weakness, and you exploit that. These
people betrayed their base.”
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Like New York’s Conservatives, the national lobbies for and against marriage equality see
the fate of these four New York Republicans as bearing heavily on their future influence in
states where marriage is still undecided. If marriage supporters can’t protect their friends, if
opponents can’t mete out punishment to the defectors, who will pay attention to them next
“The price is going to be paid by turncoats like Grisanti and the rest,” declared Brian Brown,
president of the National Organization for Marriage, who claims to have $2 million
earmarked for the defeat of the New York Four.
So far, the most significant N.O.M. reprisals in New York have been billboards briefly
erected in the four districts, with a menacing but oddly nonspecific message addressed to
each senator: “You’re Next.” When I asked Conservative politicians in New York what part
the national lobby would play, most tended to agree with Thomas D. Cook, chairman of the
Monroe County party organization: “I think they’re full of smoke.”
The Sunday morning after my breakfast at Daisies, I drove an hour past rolling dairy
pastures to Rochester to attend church with Senator Alesi, the only one of the four who state
Republican leaders believe is in real peril. A few days earlier, the Conservative Party
announced that Alesi ranked lowest of all Senate Republicans (52 percent) on its key-vote
scorecard; the Monroe County chairman declared that Alesi would not get the Conservative
line this year. The county Republican chairman was meeting with local party leaders to
discuss backing someone else.
Alesi is enjoying the financial largess that has accrued to other gay-marriage supporters, but
he has not been helped by redistricting. And where Grisanti is seen by party leaders as an
up-and-comer, Alesi is considered unpredictable — as one prominent Republican put it, “a
When I met with the senator, his mood verged on fatalism. The club his enemies would use
to pummel him, he surmised, would not be gay marriage but a loopy episode known in his
district as “the lawsuit.” Back in 2008, Alesi was exploring houses for sale in a new
development called Trolley Brook Estates. Finding one house locked, he went in the
basement door. The house was still under construction, so he climbed up a ladder being
used as a makeshift stairway, fell and injured his leg. It turned out this house had already
been sold, but the owners agreed not to press trespassing charges. Then last year, a day
before the statute of limitations was set to expire, Alesi sued the homeowners, a retired
couple, for his injuries. A few days later, realizing that this was a boneheaded bit of public
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relations, he dropped the suit and apologized. I don’t think I encountered a voter in
Rochester who hadn’t followed the story.
Anyone who was surprised by Alesi’s vote for gay marriage has never been to services at
Spiritus Christi Church, where Alesi has been a parishioner for a half-dozen years. The 9:30
Mass was offered at a former Presbyterian sanctuary, and the 850 seats were filled with a
cheerful mix of multigenerational families and gay couples. The Mass featured a choir that
could hold its own in a gospel sing-off (the associate pastor calls it “our mostly white black
choir”) and a homily that turned Noah’s tale into a parable of inclusiveness and second
chances. Alesi seemed to take real joy and comfort from the service, at one point leaning
over to tell me: “This is a safe place. It feels so different from the world I work in.”
Spiritus Christi bills itself as “a Catholic church, not a Roman Catholic church.” It was
expelled by the Vatican for, among other deviations, favoring the ordination of women and
an inclusive view of gay people. The clergy members began performing gay marriages long
before the Legislature gave them legal status. Alesi has become something of a hero to the
“When he voted against it the first time,” Jim Callan, the associate pastor, told me, “they
grouped against him at the church.” Last year when he voted in favor, the Rev. Mary
Ramerman announced it during Mass, and he got a standing ovation.
After Mass I drove around Alesi’s district and was struck by two things: first, most people I
spoke to knew the name of their state senator, which — trust me — is nowhere close to
normal. And second, the prevailing popular view was admiration and shared pride that a
politician had not followed the path of least resistance. I found people who disagreed with
his vote, and a few who said they might hold it against him in November. But there was
none of the vehemence I heard around the pols’ table at Daisies.
Many gays still experience America as intolerant, even menacing. But if the experience of
New York’s Republican dissenters teaches us anything, it is how quickly the political tide is
turning, how quickly the “untraditional” is becoming normal. Is it moving quickly enough
that the Supreme Court, where the issue may be headed via a California test case, will decide
the country is ready to accept gay marriage as a constitutional right? Quickly enough that
the issue could be an asset, or at least not a liability, if Cuomo runs for president in 2016?
Neither would surprise me. At the very least, voting for gay marriage, even if you are a
Republican politician from the heartland, is not the risk it would have been just a couple of
years ago. The four defectors aren’t guaranteed re-election. But if they lose, it is likely to be
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in spite of their marriage vote, not because of it.
“The earth didn’t stop spinning,” Alesi said. “The moon didn’t fall into the pond. The people
who live across the street are still the same people, except that they’re married.”
Alesi is not the type to echo McDonald’s chorus of “Take the job and shove it,” but he clings
to something that lawmakers rarely get from working in Albany, a sense of having done
something worthwhile and a little brave.
“At the end of the day, wherever I end up, we’ll have marriage equality in New York State,”
he told me. “There isn’t anything you can point to in a political career, if you’re just looking
over the years you served, that you can say was as big as this.”
Bill Keller is a former executive editor of The Times. He writes a column for the Op-Ed page.
EDITOR: Greg Veis
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