Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Achieving Marriage Equality, One Campaign at a Time

Summary: A New York State Senate race characterizes the national debate over gay marriage.

For years now, the debate over gay marriage has been a defining issue of the modern civil rights push. For years liberals and moderates pushed back against a GOP agenda that sought to ban the unorthodox arrangement in the U.S. Constitution, as well as in several state constitutions.

Today, liberals are fighting back, and over 40% of Americans believe in total marriage equality. A majority of Americans now believe that, at the very least, gays and lesbians should have the right to form a civil union.

Yet to date, only one referendum banning gay marriage has failed to pass. It happened in Arizona in 2006, where a similar ballot measure was passed in 2008.

After seeing what happened in these states - though especially California and Maine - in recent years, gay rights activists have realized the importance of political campaigns.

Yet referendum campaigns should not be the only area of focus. Recently, full marriage equality was achieved in Vermont and New Hampshire when their State Legislatures passed bills allowing gay marriages.

In New York, however, the dream fell short.

Although the New York State Assembly passed two gay marriage bills with bipartisan approval, the legislation fell 7 votes short in the State Senate. Democrats controlled the chamber, but many of them voted with the anti-marriage Republicans in the upper house.

Now some of those Democrats are feeling the heat.

From the New York Times:

“…gay rights groups, which have become major financial players in state politics, wanted to know which senators they should back in the future and which ones to target for defeat.

Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, New York’s largest gay rights group, hinted that senators who voted against the bill on Wednesday could face repercussions. And Christine C. Quinn, the New York City Council Speaker echoed that sentiment, saying, ‘Anybody who thinks that by casting a no vote they’re putting this issue to bed, they’re making a massive miscalculation.’”

Enter State Senate District 10, a sprawling district in south Queens. Here the residents of the Jamaica, Springfield Gardens, and Brookville neighborhoods are represented by State Senator Shirley Huntley - one of the eight Democrats who opposed the marriage equality bill.

To be sure, Queens is not the place a politician should oppose gay marriage. The borough elected two openly gay City Council members last year and it’s a hot bed of gay rights advocacy in New York. Needless to say, gay rights activists are calling for Huntley’s defeat.

And she may have a formidable opponent. Lynn Nunes, a local politician, has been exploring a challenge to Huntley following her vote on gay marriage. Although he is not gay himself, Nunes is a strong supporter of marriage equality.

Additionally, Nunes is a strong candidate. Last year he was just barely edged out of a City Council race - by literally 4 votes - against a popular two-term incumbent. The race gave him the opportunity to build political contacts and a base of support for future campaigns - such as State Senate.

What Nunes needs now is support from the gay rights community.

The late U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neil will be remembered for many things, but for campaign people like us he will be remembered most for some of the most important words in our profession…

“All politics is local.”

In order to achieve marriage equality across America, pro-marriage advocates need to build momentum on a state-by-state basis. In New York, gay marriage is only a few votes shy of reality in the State Senate. Gay rights activists need to focus on the handful of State Senate races that will change the state’s laws.

What better place to start the march towards full equality than on the streets of south Queens?

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