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HRC to Enter N.Y. Marriage Fight

HRC to Enter N.Y. Marriage Fight

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The Human Rights Campaign announced Friday that it would enter the fight for marriage equality in a big way in New York with the launch of the Campaign for New York Marriage, to be headed by Brian Ellner, who recently lost a high-profile bid to lead the statewide LGBT rights group, Empire State Pride Agenda.

Focused on the state senate, where a marriage bill failed late last year by a vote of 38-24, the Campaign for New York Marriage will work to reelect senators who voted for marriage equality, defeat legislators who opposed the bill, and elect candidates who support equality to open seats, according to a news release from HRC.

"The HRC campaign will work closely with allies and key campaigns to deliver the help they need such as fundraising, campaign workers, door to door canvassing and phone banks," said the release. "In addition, the Campaign for New York Marriage will strengthen or build coalitions of community, business and faith leaders and mobilize HRC's 70,000 New York members, supporters and donors."

The announcement, reported early Friday afternoon by The New York Times, arrives at a critical time in New York, where Democrats hold a razor-thin 32-30 majority in the senate in advance of a fall election campaign animated by an anti-incumbent mood. Marriage equality needs to close an eight-vote gap in order to pass the senate, where eight Democrats joined all 30 Republicans in voting against the bill in December. On Thursday attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo expressed his confidence the bill could pass in 2011 if he is elected, but sealing the deal hinges on closing the gap in the senate.

"We're on the cusp of marriage equality in New York in a way that is important to LGBT marriage efforts across the nation," said HRC vice president of communications and marketing Fred Sainz in an interview Friday afternoon with The Advocate. "It's very, very doable."

Sainz said the Campaign for New York Marriage solidified in the past month when Ellner, a former senior education aide to New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, became available.

"HRC always planned on being involved," he said. "Our plans have jelled within the last month, and we were delighted to have Brian Ellner come be the senior strategist for the campaign. We've always had plans since we lost that bruising battle in the state senate."

Ellner, a New York native and Harvard-trained attorney, most recently worked in the Bloomberg administration for the New York City Department of Education, where his contributions included helping craft a new antibullying initiative called Respect for All. In 2005 he ran as a Democratic candidate for Manhattan borough president.

In May, while under consideration for the top job at the statewide LGBT rights lobbying group, Empire State Pride Agenda, Ellner came under fire from some local activists for his link to Mayor Bloomberg, whom he had sharply criticized during his borough presidency run. He withdrew from consideration by the Pride Agenda.

In an interview Friday afternoon, Ellner said he was excited to take up the position with HRC, an appointment that takes effect immediately.

"I'm thrilled and excited," he said. "The fight for marriage equality is a passion for me. I think it's a great opportunity for New Yorkers to build and strengthen coalitions and to expand on work that came before."

Ellner expressed his confidence that marriage equality could be won in New York, and soon.

"I think we can win this in early 2011," he said. "I think what's going to be critical are the upcoming senate elections. We lost by eight votes. We need to change that math."

Asked to name specific targets, Ellner declined.

"We absolutely are going to target specific individuals," he said. "I think it's a little too soon for me to give out that strategy."

While HRC has been involved in previous New York State election cycles and assisted with marriage equality efforts in other states including California and Massachusetts, the Campaign for New York Marriage is uniquely ambitious, if still under wraps for the most part.

"We don't want to give our opposition a road map," said Sainz. "What I can tell you is that we expect the dedication of resources to be unprecedented and we will do whatever it takes to beat back anti-marriage equality candidates."

The bold New York entry from HRC, the nation's leading LGBT advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., raises questions about how it will work with other groups already in the state, such as the Pride Agenda and the Tim Gill-backed PAC, Fight Back New York.

According to the HRC news release, "HRC will work collaboratively with Fight Back New York, Empire State Pride Agenda, Freedom to Marry and Marriage Equality New York. With an eye toward efficiency and focus, the organizations are committed to leveraging their individual impact through strategic collaboration."

Ellner seconded that unity on Friday.

"Everyone is on board about working in a strategic, thoughtful way," he said. "Everyone has the same goal here."

A spokesperson for Fight Back New York, which worked this winter to unseat former state Sen. Hiram Monserrate, a Queens Democrat who voted against the marriage equality bill, had no comment on the announcement Friday afternoon.

Ross Levi, the candidate selected to lead the Pride Agenda after Ellner withdrew, said in the HRC news release, "Our work for marriage equality is enhanced when we work together as a unified movement. The Pride Agenda looks forward to working with HRC and Brian in close collaboration to achieve this important victory for our community."
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