The ongoing struggle for control of the state Senate has put some traditional Democratic allies in a tough spot. That is particularly true when it comes to New York’s LGBT community.
The Democrats are trying to convince New Yorkers that putting the majority in their hands will result in passage of many long stalled so-called progressive bills. That includes a transgender rights measure, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, better known as GENDA.
Advocates has been pushing for GENDA since 2003, after the Senate balked at passing a version of the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (known as SONDA) that would include antidiscrimination protections for transgender New Yorkers in housing, healthcare and employment.
SONDA was stalled in the Legislature for more than three decades, finding support in the Democrat-controlled Assembly, but routinely blocked in the GOP-dominated state Senate. That all changed with the 2002 gubernatorial election. That year, Republican Gov. George Pataki, seeking a third term in an increasingly blue New York, surprised everyone when he called for passage of SONDA in his State of the State address.
At the height of the race, which pitted Pataki against then-Democratic state Comptroller H. Carl McCall, then-Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno made the surprise announcement that he would let SONDA come to the floor of his house for a vote in December. The state's largest LGBT advocacy organization, the Empire State Pride Agenda, promptly endorsed Pataki. It was the first time the organization had backed a Republican for statewide office. Both sides insisted there was no quid pro quo involved, because, of course, that would have been illegal.
Pataki handily defeated McCall in the general election, and Bruno, true to his word, called the Senate back to Albany. SONDA passed with 31 Democrats and 16 Republicans voting "yes,” but an amendment to include transgender individuals in the act failed. Pataki signed SONDA into law that very night.
That victory was followed by a bitter defeat for LGBT activists when their gold ring legislation - the same-sex marriage bill - failed on the Senate floor. Gay marriage advocates had helped flipped the Senate into Democratic hands in 2008, believing that to do so would lead to passage of their signature bill.
After this loss, they changed their political approach. Instead of putting all their resources into a single conference, the advocates ignored the battle for control of the majority. Instead, they focused on ousting individual senators who voted "no" on gay marriage and replacing them with "yes" voters.
Thanks to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the gay marriage bill passed last summer, with four Republican senators crossing the aisle to vote "yes" along with all but one of the remaining Democrats. The Republican "yes" voters were handsomely rewarded with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of campaign contributions. But also faced primary challenges from angry conservatives.
Now only one of those Republican "yes" voters, Buffalo Sen. Mark Grisanti, is certain to return to Albany next year.
The LGBT movement in New York has been a little rudderless since its marriage victory. ESPA has gone through a leadership change and its new executive director, Nathan Schaefer, is declining to get involved in the Senate leadership battle even though GENDA has zero hope of passing the Senate unless the Democrats control the chamber.
"We are not involved in the deliberations regarding Senate leadership," Schaefer told Gay City News last week, "Our strategy has not changed one iota,” he insisted. “We continue to work with legislators on both sides of the aisle, all across the state, to build support for priorities such as a transgender nondiscrimination law and funding for LGBT health and human services.”
That's an interesting - and rather telling - approach for ESPA, especially if it indeed is serious about seeing the passage of GENDA. Like many special interests, the organization is trying to play both ends against the middle as the fight over the Senate majority rages on.
Trouble is, by doing so they might find themselves without allies when this matter is finally settled.