Gay Anger Meets N.Y. Senate Leader

By Julie Bolcer

Originally published on Advocate.com August 08 2010 12:20 PM ET

Simmering anger toward the New York state senate boiled over Saturday at a brunch meeting between the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City and senate majority leader John Sampson, who indicated that last year’s failed marriage equality bill would only see another vote when enough support exists to pass it. Contradictions between that goal and the senator’s unabashed support for two avowed opponents of the bill stood at the core of a 90-minute conversation that frustrated participants at nearly every turn.

Some 30 activists met with Sampson at Junior’s, the famous cheesecake emporium in downtown Brooklyn, where they engaged in heated exchanges with each other and the senator, who heads the Democratic conference and represents a district in the borough. At least once, he threatened to leave if the attendees did not stop interrupting him and one another as they fired off questions.

“If you want me to continue to deal with this dialogue, be respectful,” said Sampson. “Because if you’re going to continue to act that way, I can leave. OK?”

The meeting, in the works since May, followed a similar discussion with Sampson earlier this year and arrived amid revelations about his financial support for the reelection campaigns of state senators Shirley Huntley of Queens and Ruben Diaz, Sr. of the Bronx, two of the eight Democrats who voted against the marriage equality bill that failed by a 38-24 margin last December. The Stonewall Democrats have endorsed the senators’ challengers in the Democratic primaries scheduled for September 14, and on Saturday they demanded to know why Sampson, who claims to support marriage equality, appeared on track to undermine their efforts to elect the pro-equality insurgents.

“How can you say that you are committed to our rights when you are helping put in two of our most despicable enemies while we are working to get them out?” asked Allen Roskoff, president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, which also backs the Huntley and Diaz challengers. “It is beyond me that you could do that.”Sampson, who presides over a slim 32-30 majority, struggled to reconcile
a strategy that he said calls for flipping more Republican districts to
Democratic control this season while at the same time retaining members
who voted against the marriage equality bill and working to change
their minds. In tones that wavered between defiant and patronizing, he repeatedly cited the ability to bring the marriage equality bill for a vote as
an accomplishment that never would have occurred under the Republicans,
who ruled Albany for 40 years until the Democratic takeover in 2008,
thanks in no small part to $1 million from gay donors nationwide.

“I’m
sorry that you feel I’m an enemy because I support my members,” he
said. “That’s something we can agree to disagree. With all due respect, I
was the one who put this bill on the floor on December 2, 2009. When
the Republicans were in control, this bill did not see the light of
day.”

Some attendees objected to the comparison, noting that the
Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act passed in 2002 after gay
leaders negotiated with the Republican majority. They expressed openness
to making similar deals in the near future, though not a single Republican senator voted for marriage equality last year, if the Democrats cannot
deliver. Others questioned his mantra of unwavering
support for fellow Democrats, given that some members, like the
convicted felon Hiram Monserrate of Queens, have proven expendable. The
conversation ultimately turned to a direct challenge of the Sampson
leadership and his Democrats’ tenuous hold on power.

“Why should
we support your leadership?” asked Jon Winkelman of Queens. “Why should
we not make you a major focus of our of anger and our protest if you
are going to keep protecting and empowering and making sure that a
coalition of bigots stays in the senate?”

Sampson seemed unfazed,
confident in his posture of a leader intent on keeping together a
fractured majority and building on it into the next legislative session. 

“Just because we may be
different on a piece of legislation, does not mean I am going to not
support a person because of a piece of legislation,” he said. “I support
the issue, I put the issue forth, and as I said before, I will work
with those who are supportive of this so we can move forward.”On first glance, that pledge would seem at odds with his support for
Sen. Huntley. Last year, according to The New York Times, the
African-American lawmaker told the poet Maya Angelou that she would not
vote for the marriage equality bill, “If they gave me a million dollars,
tax free.” New filings from the state board of elections show that
Huntley has received almost $20,000 in contributions from Sampson’s
reelection committee and the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.

When confronted about the generous support, Sampson hinted that Huntley could change.

“There’s
evolution,” he said. “Just like myself. I was not in support of this
issue, but I evolved to the point where I’m in support of this issue.
And it does take time, and yet it’s a dialogue.”

Whispers of a
Huntley turnaround fueled recent rumors that Sampson had pressured the
Human Rights Campaign and the Empire State Pride Agenda not to endorse
her pro-equality challenger, Lynn Nunes, although he denied the charge when
asked Saturday. The groups endorsed Nunes last week, after already endorsing
Charlie Ramos, who is challenging Diaz.

Pressed directly on
whether he believed he could change the minds of Huntley and Diaz,
Sampson said, “I’m going to work as hard as I can. I can only try.”

Whether
Huntley can be persuaded or not, almost no one expects a conversion for
Diaz, a Pentecostal minister and outspoken gay rights opponent who
demonstrated his ability to wreak political havoc last summer when he
joined a renegade trio that paralyzed the senate for a month. Sampson
will cohost a fundraiser for him this Thursday, and gay activists have
promised to protest the event.

But not everyone felt outrage toward Sampson, who found at least one sympathizer in the audience.

“I
don’t like it, but I comprehend it,” said Marc Levine, a Stonewall
board member and Sampson ally who organized the meeting. “I don’t think
anybody’s going to be perfect. I very much believe John wants to work
with us and make it happen.”Pressed on whether another marriage equality vote would come in 2011,
Sampson would not commit to a timetable, although he indicated a clear
preference for bringing the bill to the floor only when he knows the
votes exist to pass it. Last year’s vote, which took place despite an
uncertain outcome, represented a rarity for Albany, and the prospect of
two consecutive failures obviously troubles advocates.

“As everyone says
here, it’s not only the point of just bringing the bill to the floor,
it’s about bringing the bill to the floor to pass,” said Sampson. “And
therefore, there needs to be that dialogue, there needs to be a strategy
as we’re doing now, to make sure that we have those members who support
marriage equality, that we have them in place, and that those who may
disagree, also have an opportunity to have a dialogue with them to see
if they can evolve, as such as I have evolved.

“And that is the
hesitancy that you heard with respect to, meaning that, of course, I
could put the bill on the floor next month,” he continued. “But it’s not
the question of it going to the floor and, you know, getting 25 votes. I
think the point is getting it to the floor and passing.”

Still,
impatient speakers insisted that a tougher line from Sampson could
accelerate the process, especially given momentum from the Proposition 8
decision in California and the likely election of Andrew Cuomo as the next governor of New York. The popular attorney general has made marriage equality a prominent part of his reform-minded campaign platform.

“I
understand your problems, but you have to understand our situation,”
said Stonewall board member Marty Algaze. “If we were any other
minority, it would not be acceptable. You have to go to your conference
and you have to tell them, ‘The gay community is really fucking pissed
off and we’re not going to accept this shit anymore.’ We’ve come a long
way.”