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Daniel's Boon

Daniel's Boon

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In New York, Rosie O'Donnell's older brother stakes his political career on marriage equality.

Well, there goes marriage. For Daniel O'Donnell, that's what came to mind when the New York assemblyman heard news in June that two Democratic state senators had aligned with Republicans in a leadership coup. A protracted battle of lawsuits and political theatrics ensued, threatening to shelve a same-sex marriage bill.

But despair quickly turned into action. Born in Queens and raised on Long Island, O'Donnell, 48, has become one of New York's most tenacious proponents of marriage equality. He was loath to take no for an answer, especially when state legislatures in nearby New Hampshire and Maine proved that progress on the issue no longer rests with the judiciary (both states signed marriage bills into law earlier this summer).

Prior to a recent interview in his district office on Manhattan's Upper West Side, O'Donnell spent 20 minutes on the phone with a high-level New York politician parsing religious and civil marriage. Though he was explaining his position for what must have been the thousandth time, his assertive voice was measured and patient.

"[Marriage] can be very personal, and people can get angry very quickly," he tells The Advocate . "The anger is understandable. But in this business it's the least effective tool. There's a time for the stick and a time for the carrot. Most of the time it's the carrot."

None of his persuasive techniques include his own celebrity-by-proxy. "I get tired of articles that always mention me as 'Daniel O'Donnell-comma-brother-of-Rosie-comma,'" he says. "I rarely mention her." Instead, O'Donnell enlisted assembly members in Albany to wear marriage equality white knots on their lapels and lobbied support from senators in capitol hallways and elevators. A driving force behind the assembly's passage of the bill in May, he continued to help forge alliances between pro-marriage assembly members and state senators whose legislative districts they overlapped. In the past, he's even employed flirtation: O'Donnell once courted the support of Assemblyman Greg Ball, a former Air Force captain, arguing that "the best-looking member of the assembly owed it to the gays to vote yes."

Ball still voted no, although other colleagues were more amenable. Assemblyman Bob Reilly, who voted against a 2007 marriage bill, switched his vote this year and apologized on the assembly floor. "When Danny asked me two years ago to support his bill, and I told him no, he never held that against me," Reilly says. "There's a certain quality with people that I greatly admire, when you disagree with them and they are not vengeful."

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