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Can New York Republican Senators Count on Gay Support?

Can New York Republican Senators Count on Gay Support?


As one anti-gay marriage group sees it, they make up the bulk of "New York Senators That Betrayed Marriage." Their bio photos appearing, black-and-white, in a newly minted flier, the four Republican senators who voted in favor of marriage equality Friday are a prime target of a campaign launched by the National Organization for Marriage -- one that claims to be pouring at least $2 million into the battle.

Whether that dollar figure is accurate -- or how it will be spent in the marriage equality battle at large -- is an open question. NOM officials had said the organization would spend $500,000 on advertising and lobbying to fight the marriage equality campaign in New York, but insiders estimated the size of the TV buy at less than $200,000, and NOM's ground game appeared paltry compared to the coalition of advocates that raised an estimated $2 million, more than half of it from Republicans and affiliated sources.

Still, no one takes lightly the threats from NOM and other marriage equality opponents, including the Conservative Party of New York State, which has vowed to withhold its influential endorsement of and possibly mount primary challenges against any Republican who voted for the bill. The fate of the four senators, whom Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, called "people of courage," will send a signal to other states where advocates hope to carry momentum next, and it will provide the ultimate testimony to how the gay community treats its friends, regardless of party affiliation.

"I probably will need some significant support from anyone who wants to help me spread this message," said James Alesi, the first Republican senator to announce he would vote yes. Since then, he has chosen to remain more visible and vocal than his three colleagues, Roy McDonald, Stephen Saland, and Mark Grisanti. Alesi attended a victory party organized by the Human Rights Campaign in New York City Tuesday, and the next morning he met with New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, a significant marriage equality donor and contributor to state Senate Republicans.

"I may be the only Republican right now that's willing to do this, but support will have to come from wherever it is," said Alesi, who plans to travel the country as an emissary for marriage equality. "I know there's going to be a lot of money and a lot of energy that will be fighting me, they'll be fighting this message, and I think that we're just going to have to counter it."

During the coming months, political observers will be watching to what extent the four Republicans, who joined 29 Democrats in favor of the bill, will be supported by gay rights advocates who so fervently courted their pivotal votes on the issue. If recent history provides any guide, the senators can expect generous and solid backing from gay citizens across the political spectrum.

In the past decade, advocates have worked to create a context that shows that money, field support, and other campaign resources will be available to Republican candidates who take difficult votes, as Cuomo acknowledged when he said the four senators took a "politically more dangerous step" than Democrats. As a result, they say that among the more than 70 state Republican lawmakers who have voted for marriage equality, not one has lost his or her seat over the issue.

"The fact that these four Republicans took a risk far greater than any other Democrat took is being recognized," said Christian Berle, deputy executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, which joined with HRC and three other organizations in the New Yorkers United for Marriage coalition that lobbied for the new law. "I think that there will be the financial resources necessary to ensure that these senators have more resources than they did in 2010, and I believe they'll win with a higher voter percentage."

Berle is skeptical of a groundswell of opposition against the four state senators in similar fashion to a 2010 campaign in Iowa that led to the ousting of three state Supreme Court justices who struck down anti-gay marriage laws in a unanimous decision. The New York vote follows a high court ruling in 2005 that put the responsibility for marriage equality squarely on the state legislature, where Senate majority leader Dean Skelos called the matter a "vote of conscience" in allowing the bill to come to the floor last week.

"When you look at the 2003 Goodridge decision," Berle said of the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling finding that the state may not deny the protections and benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, "you had national GOP leaders up to the president making a number of statements [in opposition]. It has been noticeable that there has not been a significant negative response among Republican leaders" to the New York victory, he said.

The New York state senate is the first Republican-controlled legislative body to pass a marriage equality bill. While that may forever alter the politics surrounding the issue nationwide, it continues a moderate tradition in the state, where a Republican-led senate passed the hate crimes bill and the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, both of which were signed by the Republican governor, George Pataki. Advocates for marriage equality including Mayor Bloomberg and former RNC chair Ken Mehlman lobbied Republican senators by saying a yes vote would be consistent with conservative principles such as limited government and strong families.

However, with unprecedented levels of international attention on the marriage equality vote, advocates are girding for battle, especially to protect the four Republicans whose support proved decisive. The Log Cabin Republicans of New York State, which has raised hundreds of thousands for candidates through its PAC over the years, sent out a fund-raising appeal immediately after the vote, and they plan to ask non-affiliated gay people and straight sympathizers to help the senators build a war chest over the next year.

"The most important thing that people right now can do is to provide financial support to those Republicans so that they can put a megaphone to their message and they can send a signal to any would-be challengers," said Gregory T. Angelo, the chairman of the Log Cabin Republicans of New York State. "It's also important that all four of these Republicans get out and get out early to say they are not single-issue. Now is the time to remind constituents that these are multi-dimensional candidates."

Alesi, whose Rochester district contains more Democrats than Republicans, agrees. He reports a positive initial response from most of his constituents, and says that only a small number of voters list marriage equality as their priority.

"In today's day and age, people don't look at themselves as Democrats or Republicans," he said. "Most people are concerned about the economy, they're concerned about jobs. This [marriage equality] really is on a percentage basis a very small issue, but on an emotional basis, it's atomic."

His expectations match the experience of Janet Duprey, an assemblymember from upstate New York who voted against marriage equality in 2007 but has joined a handful of Republicans in voting yes three times since 2009. The vote cost her the support of the Conservative Party, and she faced a three-way general election in 2010, which she won with 60% of the vote.

Campaign finance records show that Duprey raised $100,000 during the race, about $30,000 more than the average raised by a Republican assembly candidate in 2010, and double what she raised in 2008, at which point her stance on marriage equality was still opposed. She estimates that "well over $30,000, perhaps as much as $40,000" came from the LGBT community to help her surmount attacks from her Conservative Party opponent over her yes votes on marriage equality and the Gender Expression Non-discrimination Act, which remains stalled in the senate.

"I received checks from all over the country," said Duprey. "Many, many states, throughout New England, as far away as Texas and California, many from New York State. They were substantial checks. I was very, very pleased."

As a representative from an upstate district with a slight Democratic registration advantage, her situation could prove instructive to the four Republican senators who voted for marriage equality. In 2009, she changed her no vote after talking with the parents of gay children in the area, which she describes as "very Catholic and very conservative."

"I think with most people who have said to me, 'I am still going to vote for you,' they talk about my honesty, my integrity, my courage, my straightforwardness. I think that the voters are intelligent today and I think that they will respect somebody who is honest with them. I attribute my success in 2010 to that."

However, in important ways, the senate Republicans' vote breaks from her experience in the Assembly, which Democrats control by a wider margin, meaning that no one could ever blame Republicans for the passage of the bill. In addition, a new Quinnipiac poll finds that while 54% of New York voters support the new marriage equality law, approval from upstate voters stands at 49% to 43%, with 7% undecided. Majorities of Republican voters oppose the law, as do white Protestants and voters over age 65, with Catholic voters split.

While the political future remains unwritten, the lessons of the past and the commitment of gay advocates suggest that resources will be made available to the senate Republicans, regardless of their stance on other issues.

"As I have said all along, we are going to be there to support our allies," said Brian Ellner, senior strategist for HRC in New York. As evidence, the HRC PAC hosted a fund-raiser at $500 and up per person in New York this spring for Senator Susan Collins of Maine to recognize the Republican's efforts to pass repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

The message became more explicit on Tuesday at the HRC victory party when Ellner, speaking from the stage, looked directly at Alesi and said, "We will not forget those of us who stood for equality."
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