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New York Fights Back

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One down, seven to go! -- that's the mantra today for Fight Back New York, a political action committee focused solely on unseating state senators who voted against a same-sex marriage bill last year, including the eight Democrats who failed to back marriage equality.

One of those Democratic senators, Hiram Monserrate, suffered a stinging defeat Tuesday in a special election, losing to pro-marriage Democratic assemblymember Jose Peralta 66% to 27%.

"First Target: Hiram Monserrate," declared the Fight Back New York website prior to the race. Mission accomplished, no apologies.

"We're at the point here in New York where patience is no longer a virtue. We're not asking anymore," said Valerie Berlin of Berlin Rosen Public Affairs, the political consulting firm that was hired to orchestrate the campaign against Democratic senator Hiram Monserrate.

The blowout was validation for a bolder, take-no-prisoners approach launched by wealthy LGBT equality activists who watched years of lobbying for a New York marriage bill go up in flames last summer when it was defeated 38-24 in the state senate. Progressive donors had also lavished hundreds of thousands of dollars on 2008 senate races in order to flip the chamber to Democratic control.

Tim Gill, a Colorado millionaire, is the PAC's largest individual donor at $30,000. But according to filings, contributions to the committee range anywhere from $10 and $50 to $2,500 and $5,000. Berlin said the PAC claims nearly 450 donors with a little more than 50% of them residing outside New York.

The strategy marks a break from the past for Gill and his 501 (c)(4), Gill Action Fund, which has typically tried to maintain a relatively low profile as they worked to elect what they call "fair-minded majorities" in states around the country.

Berlin promised that Fight Back New York would apply the bolder Monserrate model to upcoming senate races across the state -- pinpointing the unique Achilles heel of every anti-equality senator and exploiting it to their detriment.

"This was an opportunity for us to show the senators that there are going to be consequences for being on the wrong side of history and that we are going to put our money where our mouth is," she said.

And that they did. Though the final public filings are not yet available for the race, Berlin estimates the PAC dropped a little over $100,000 into the district, providing an onslaught of advertising targeted mainly at painting Monserrate as a crooked politician and perpetrator of domestic violence.

The facts were on their side in this case. Not only was he convicted of assaulting his girlfriend after he inflicted a wound that required her to get 20 stitches, but investigations show that as a city councilman he funneled about a quarter of a million dollars to a nonprofit group that cannot account for how it spent the money.

Overall, Berlin said the PAC, which is an independent expenditure group and was not associated with the Peralta campaign, flooded the district with six direct mail pieces that amounted to 100,000 mailers overall reaching nearly 16,000 households.

The messages were not subtle. "Hiram Monserrate Betrayed Our Trust ... Criminals belong in prison, not in public office..." read one mail piece. "Hiram Monserrate gave our money to his cronies' shady charity, and Queens taxpayers got stuck paying the price," charged another.
Berlin called it a "pretty devastating" show of force in what was only a month-long campaign. According to her, their mailers reached 15,887 households -- a significant number considering just over 15,000 people turned out to vote Tuesday. They also placed calls to about 10,000 households from which they identified the voting preferences of about 6,000 voters, then making get-out-the-vote calls to all Peralta and undecided voters.

"We're not even the main campaign," she said, "so this was an intense independent expenditure effort."

Beyond those traditional approaches, the group also launched two websites assailing Monserrate's character (TruthAboutMonserrate.com), one in Spanish and one in English, established a Facebook group that has a little over 4,400 friends. And it leveraged the star-power of out actress Cynthia Nixon by launching a video aimed at attracting potential donors across the country.

But perhaps more important than Fight Back New York's muscle flexing was their approach to dissecting the issues -- more scalpel than hammer.

Before launching their barrage of messaging, they conducted heavy polling to determine how voters felt about many things, including both the campaign they were mounting against Monserrate and the antigay campaign that they believed Monserrate was likely to pursue.

In one polling question, they asked, "If you knew that Hiram Monserrate was being targeted by wealthy homosexual activists for his vote against gay marriage, and that they are willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat him, would that make you feel more likely to vote for Monserrate, less likely to vote for Monserrate, or would it make no difference to your vote?"


A solid majority, 62%, said it would make "no difference" to them; 4% said it would make them "much more likely" to vote for Monserrate and 3% "slightly more likely;" while 24% said it would make them "much less likely" to vote for him with another 2% saying "slightly less likely."

Another question posed, "Reverend Ruben Diaz, another State Senator, is campaigning for Hiram Monserrate and says that Monserrate should be returned to the State Senate despite his assault conviction because he stood up to the gay community and voted against gay marriage. Does this make you feel more likely to vote for Monserrate, less likely to vote for Monserrate, or would it make no difference to your vote?

The responses: 53% said no difference; 5% much more likely; 3% slightly more likely; 31% much less likely; 5% slightly less likely.

Berlin said they drew a couple conclusions from the polling: whatever people may feel about gay marriage, they don't like politicians who try to use the issue as a way to curry favor with voters; and that the antigay rhetoric of the socially conservative state senator Rev. Ruben Diaz was going to backfire.

"Diaz has said he is going to travel, carrying his message from district to district helping to defeat people who voted for marriage equality," said Berlin. "What this showed is that Ruben Diaz is borderline toxic."

Although Berlin called Diaz's message harmful, from a political standpoint she joked, "He can travel to all the districts he wants, we'll pay his gas mileage."

Berlin acknowledged that future races may not provide the embarrassment of riches in terms of material that Hiram Monserrate did, but she noted that Fight Back New York does not intend to apply a "cookie cutter" approach to upcoming campaigns.

"While the information against other senators may not be as damaging, we're going to find whatever it is that is a vulnerability in their district," she said. "It may be as simple as them being on the wrong side of a popular issue."

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