Bias Ban in the Balance

Will Lazio Burn State Hate Crimes Bill's 'Chance in Hell'?

Three months after his skull was fractured by a group of white classmates, Binghamton University student John Lee still experiences short-term memory loss and needs antiseizure medication. Friends and eyewitnesses recall that the cry "You damn Chinks" heralded the brawl.

The attackers—Chad Scott, Nicholas Richetti, and Christopher Taylor—have been indicted on, or pled guilty to, charges of misdemeanor assault, attempted assault, and disorderly conduct, respectively. But Lee's legal adviser, Sin Yen Ling of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, says the outcome falls unacceptably short of the Broome County prosecutor's initial intent to bring felony indictments.

In any of 41 other states, she argues, the consequences for the assailants—especially Scott, who faces disorderly conduct charges in another incident involving harassment of Asian students—would likely be graver. With a law expressly condemning hate crimes, she says, it "absolutely" would be easier to demonstrate the hostile motivations of the attackers. Assistant D.A. John Romani says such a statute would have been useful in this case, where "the precipitating factor was a racial slur."

But New York is one of a handful of states still without such a law. A "hate crime is designed not just to hurt an individual but to send a message to a group, saying, 'It could have been you,' " says the New York regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, Howie Katz. Right now, he says, New York prosecutors have no direct means of "coming back and saying that's wrong."

This year's state legislative session was when Ling and other minority rights advocates were supposed to get their hate crimes law. Even with less than two weeks to go before the session closes, advocates are still optimistic, and, they say, not blindly so. Particular circumstances, they claim, make the time right for a vote on any of three virtually interchangeable bills—including one introduced by Republican senator Roy Goodman and another by Governor Pataki—that have languished for years without action.

Public support for hate crimes legislation is, advocates say, at an all-time high. It has always been high—a November 1998 Zogby poll showed that 70 percent of New Yorkers favored some form of hate crimes legislation. But recent instances of violence against minorities—such as a white supremacist's one-day shooting rampage last August that killed one Filipino postal worker and wounded five occupants of a Jewish community center in California—have put hate crimes in the national spotlight. And in this presidential election year, which features an unusually interesting U.S. Senate race, state Republicans up for reelection are feeling increased heat from newly galvanized voters, the measure's advocates maintain.

Those advocates call this confluence of factors unprecedented and hope that it will engender an equally unusual about-face on the part of senate majority leader Joe Bruno, who single-handedly has kept the measure trapped in committee. Legislation proponents say that getting the necessary number of votes has never been the problem. Instead, they say, Republicans—including prime sponsors Goodman and Pataki—have been "all talk" in their efforts to get Bruno to budge. A Pataki spokesperson says the governor has "done everything he can." But, she emphasizes, "Senator Bruno has his own beliefs."

Those beliefs, officially speaking, are legalistic—Bruno objects to creating special categories of crimes and potentially limiting judge and jury discretion. (Far-left critics of the legislation to some extent share his concerns, fearing that, in a system they say disproportionately punishes people of color, any additional penalties will only hurt minority communities.)

But Bruno's critics agree that his true reason for balking—in keeping with his view that gay and lesbian lifestyles are "abnormal"—is homophobia, plain and simple. "The whole idea of codifying two words—sexual orientation—in an affirmative way is repellent to him," says Tim Sweeney of Empire State Pride Agenda, a nonpartisan statewide organization.

But for a while there, standard-bearer Bruno seemed poised to recant. Provoked by a possible threat to his party's majority come November, some say, he recently declared, "We feel [that this] is an important issue; it's one that should be . . . discussed and voted on. And we intend to do that in this session." Bill sponsors immediately latched on to the statement as an ironclad pledge, and Goodman says, "I believe Senator Bruno will honor that commitment." Bruno's office will say only that the bill "is one of the issues we were going to take a look at in the next couple of weeks," presumably before the session ends on June 14.

But then again, by the grace of Rick Lazio, maybe not.

For Hillary Clinton, his arrival gave rise to the opportunity (or need) to attack an opponent on issues rather than personality. She could hardly have bashed Rudy for being soft on hate crimes, since he had made his own statements, similar to hers, supporting a state statute. But since Lazio grabbed the party baton, the Clinton campaign has condemned him for, among various conservative sins, his refusal to cosponsor the federal hate crimes bill, which would seem to place him at odds with most New Yorkers. Even some conservative Catholics, prompted by a recent spate of icon vandalism, support such a law, says Katz. He and Goodman both claim that, before falling gravely ill, Cardinal O'Connor indicated an interest in endorsing the legislation.

Lazio's record on the federal bill, along with his refusal to sponsor a bill to prohibit antigay discrimination in the workplace, earned him a rating of 18 out of 100 from the national gay and lesbian lobby Human Rights Campaign. Critics doubt that the Lazio who blithely uttered the slur "pansy" on network television loses sleep over the risk some New Yorkers face merely because of their minority status.

With the coming of Lazio, one Democratic Assembly aide says, there is "not a chance in hell" that the bill will pass this session. The burst of conservative energy Lazio has brought may spare Republicans, previously fearful of losing votes this November in moderate suburbs, from capitulating to gay rights activists. Moreover, passing the state bill would only provide fodder for those eager to highlight Lazio's refusal to do so on a federal level.

When polls show the two-week-old candidate already pulling off a statistical tie, why rock the boat?

But Katz says he believes that Lazio will support a state hate crimes law—a popular way to convey his moderateness, if Conservative Party leader Mike Long will look the other way—and that, in doing so, he will enable party members to do the same without losing face. In fact, Lazio's support of Medicaid coverage for the disabled has already swayed state Republicans to reconsider a plan previously nixed by the governor as too expensive.

Democratic state senator Tom Duane, a prime sponsor of one of the bills, naturally is "optimistic" that some version of the law will be passed in the next two weeks or that a special session will be called later this year for that purpose. But, he says, "I never thought about Lazio as the person you went to in Congress to get other Republicans to support hate crimes legislation." If Lazio does change his tune, Duane says, "it would strike me as being something that only had to do with the Senate race." But hate crimes legislation advocates have long said that however they get the law, they'll take it.

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