photo by Julie Bolcer: John Chromczak, r., Dean Skelos gesturing
As a new poll showed John McCain moving within striking distance of Barack Obama in New York, supporters of a national gay Republican group gathered on Tuesday evening at a private residence in the East Village to raise funds for gay-friendly members of the state legislature.
The Log Cabin Republicans group expects to generate $75K this election cycle for its PAC in New York, of which $60K will go to Senate races and $15K to Assembly efforts for “inclusive” candidates who support issues like gay marriage and anti-gay bullying measures in schools.
The strategy, according to Log Cabin legislative director Jeff Cook, is to change opinions among Republicans in the long term, and in the short term, to show that members from conservative districts can support gay issues without facing serious electoral consequences.
“In the Assembly,” said Cook, “It’s about the political lessons we want to teach. In the Senate, it’s about continuing to educate and make progress on these issues.”
Four pro-gay Republican Assembly members from upstate were on hand to describe their experiences in the lower chamber, where a gay marriage bill passed in June 2007. The legislation is currently stalled in the State Senate, although same-sex marriages legally performed in other states are now recognized in New York because of a directive issued by Governor David A. Paterson in May.
Assemblymember Teresa Sayward of Willsboro, in the very conservative Adirondack North Country, attested that after voting for the gay marriage bill last year, 63 percent of the people who contacted her about it told her they were in favor of her vote.
“I think that people are ready to embrace and accept the fact that your issue is a civil rights issue,” she told the crowd of around 120 people assembled in the impeccably decorated, large apartment on East 1st Street. “I think we’re just doing the right thing.”
Like Assemblymembers Janet Duprey and Dede Scozzafada, also in attendance, Sayward is running unopposed for reelection. Only Assemblymember Joel Miller, a gay ally from Poughkeepsie, faces significant competition.
On the Senate side, Log Cabin made history at the fundraiser, which marked the first time a Republican majority leader had officially attended one of their events. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos of Rockville Centre, elected to replace the long-serving Senator Joseph Bruno after he abruptly stepped down in June, addressed the gathering, with an emphasis on economic themes.
“We all have different opinions,” Skelos said, to a crowd that included Edward Cox, chairman of the McCain campaign in New York. “But the bottom line is, I think we all understand, as Republicans, that it is critically important, especially with what we’ve been seeing in the last couple days on Wall Street, that we do what’s appropriate in terms of controlling taxes, controlling spending.” He added, “Spending more is necessary in terms of the safety net that people do need, making sure our kids get a quality education, but raising taxes is not the answer to solving the problems that exist right now.”
Last week, at a Crain’s Business Breakfast Forum in Midtown, Governor Paterson also highlighted the importance of controlling spending, but he acknowledged that tax increases might be necessary.
The appearance by Skelos signals the urgency among Republicans as they seek to maintain their one-seat majority in the State Senate. Adopting positions on social issues that reflect the progressively more liberal views of their constituents is part of that task. Skelos, who does not support gay marriage, reiterated his support for the Safe Schools for All Students Act [Updated] that he used his authority to introduce in August. The legislation would protect public school students from bullying because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. It differs in some key respects from a version in the Assembly, which many anti-bullying advocates regard as stronger.
“When we go back into session in January,” Skelos said, “We’re going to come to an agreement with the Assembly on the anti-bullying legislation. We’re going to work with the assembly to get a result.”
Skelos also pointedly expressed his support for John Chromczak, the first openly gay Republican candidate for State Senate, in the 25th District. In the general election on November 4, the downtown Manhattan resident will face Daniel Squadron, who defeated long-serving Senator Martin Connor in the Democratic primary last week.
Like young upstart Squadron, Chromczak styles himself as a proponent of a new politics that breaks with the past. Asked how he as a Republican squares his own pro-gay marriage views with someone like vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who has stated her opposition, he said:
“I can always deal with someone who says, ‘I don’t you like because you’re gay and I don’t support gay marriage.’ I can’t understand when other people come up and say, ‘We support you,’ and then sign the Defense of Marriage Act.”
The legislation, signed by President Clinton in 1996, denies federal recognition of gay marriages, and gives each state the right to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.