Last spring, a low-profile Colorado millionaire, Tim Gill, and other gay donors financed a quiet wave of polling in a state Senate district in Buffalo and another in a Hispanic section of Queens.
The question: Would the news that a candidate “was being targeted by wealthy homosexual activists for his vote against gay marriage” make voters more or less likely to support him? Sizable majorities responded that they didn’t care much one way or the other.
The results gave courage to Gill and other top gay donors, producing a campaign that helped unseat three incumbent state legislators and opened a new phase in the politics of the gay rights movement that could have an even larger impact on the 2012 cycle. Under the New York model, well-funded gay rights groups will seek to make support for same-sex marriage as mandatory in blue America as allegiance to the Second Amendment is in red America — and to make opposition just as politically suicidal.
“We’re at a point of time where the national conversation around marriage in a lot of states has moved to a point where it’s no longer acceptable to not be there,” said Bill Smith, the deputy executive director of the Gill Action Fund, the donor’s political arm.
“This is the first time we’re going to name names and say, ‘We’re coming to get you because you’re against marriage equality,’” said Smith. “The point is, when you vote against marriage equality, there are consequences.”
The New York campaign marks a sea change in the politics of same-sex marriage, one driven by a political context that — in Democratic-leaning states, at least — has changed dramatically in the past decade. In New York, for instance, the past half-decade has seen nearly every statewide Democrat shift his or her position into supporting full marriage equality, as public support in the most recent state polls hovers near 50 percent. Gill, a publicity-shy Coloradan who made his money in software, drew national attention in 2007, when The Atlantic revealed http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2007/03/they-won-8217-t-know-what-hit-them/5619/1/ that he’d led a successful, stealth effort to unseat dozens of anti-gay state legislators across the country.
“His surreptitious methods suggests how far they still have to go,” The Atlantic’s Josh Green noted at the time.
That has now changed.
Gay donors “came out of the closet with this,” said David Mixner, a veteran gay activist who called the New York campaign “transformational.”
With same-sex marriage battles ramping up this year in Maryland, Rhode Island and New York (again), the new strategy, said Smith, is a shift to offense.
“In the past, the [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community has been more carrot, less stick,” he said. “Now I would say, ‘Have stick, will travel.’”
This newly aggressive attitude comes from 2010 results that were truly striking: The group, despite playing in just three carefully targeted districts, spent more money in New York — $790,000 — than any other outside group. The money went to negative mailings, television ads and get-out-the-vote calls. By November, Fight Back New York had helped unseat all three incumbent legislators, something almost unheard of in Albany, and to defeat another Republican candidate who opposed same-sex marriage.
The effort does have its limits. The closely divided New York state Senate does not appear on the verge of passing marriage legislation, though even the Republican leader has said he’s willing to bring such a bill to the floor. “Look at the Senate,” said Brian Brown, executive director of the National Organization for Marriage. “It was a failure.”
But the lesson Gill and his allies sought to send in the 2010 cycle is a revolutionary one for gay politics: that there can be a higher cost to opposing same-sex marriage than to supporting it and that it’s one of those marginal issues — as the Club for Growth has made tax votes or the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has made Israel votes — that can end a legislator’s career.
The group’s breakthrough also had much to do with the tone of its campaign. Though Gill and company made no effort to hide their identity, the attacks they funded also had nothing to do with marriage. This was hard-edged politics, not an educational effort.
“Why would Sen. Bill Stachowski vote against mammograms for women?” asked a typical mailing, targeting a 28-year veteran Democratic legislator from the suburbs of Buffalo who had voted against the marriage bill. Another attacked Stachowski for collecting an unusual number of per diem reimbursements.
Stachowski’s Democratic allies tried to shut the group down. New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a Democrat who is a lesbian, recalled receiving calls pleading with her to stop the campaign.
“That doesn’t happen because you’ve gone unnoticed,” she said, adding that she told callers they had “misdialed.”
Stachowski hit back in the primary’s closing week with a robocall http://www.archive.org/stream/StachowskiRobocall responding to “the innuendo spread by an out-of-state single-issue organization.”
“They choose to disguise their real agenda behind misleading vague mailings,” he said in the call. “Make no mistake: They care about a single issue. Gay marriage.” (Stachowski didn’t respond to POLITICO’s calls about the race.)
But it didn’t turn the tide, and Fight Back’s polling had led it to believe that the issue couldn’t hurt its candidate, Democrat Tim Kennedy, who ultimately won the primary contest.
“Our view was, ‘Come and get us, it’s not going to help you,’” said Valerie Berlin, whose firm, BerlinRosen, ran the group’s media campaigns.
A Queens Republican, Frank Padavan, also was hit by a pile of Fight Back mailings, attacking him for votes on health care regulations and for spending $3 million on his Senate office over four years. “Frank Padavan’s paper clips must be made of gold,” one mailing sneered.
Padavan, a 38-year incumbent, lost by about 3,000 votes. He told POLITICO he thought the group — which he called “insidious” — had played a role in his defeat.
“Their primary issue was same-sex marriage, [and] they never even mentioned it,” he said.
In another Queens district, the group says it sent 95,322 individual pieces of mail to 15,887 voters in the district of state Sen. Hiram Monserrate, who had voted against the marriage bill after saying he’d support it and who was also facing charges that he’d assaulted his girlfriend with a bottle.
One mailing showed him gazing menacingly through a broken window. “Criminals belong in prison, not in public office,” it said. (Monserrate lost badly, but, in fairness, the Fight Back New York attacks were only one factor. He was acquitted of the major charges in his domestic assault case but convicted on a minor one.)
Such opportunistic attacks are a standard feature of contemporary politics, but defeated legislators said they weren’t fair play.
“For a group whose main concern is marriage equality, they didn’t run a single campaign about marriage quality,” said Jack Quinn, a former assemblyman whom Fight Back New York helped Kennedy defeat in a general election in the Buffalo district that Stachowski had represented. Quinn said he had no hard feelings. “I understand where they’re coming from. This is no different than a Second Amendment group.”
The National Organization for Marriage’s Brown and other critics say Fight Back New York showed its weakness by campaigning on issues other than gay marriage and that the legislators it helped elect may run away from the issue.
But Kennedy, the candidate for whom it played the biggest role, said that while the issue wasn’t at the center of his campaign, he won’t run away from it.
“My support for marriage equality legislation ... was up in the forefront from the very beginning of my primary campaign and in the general campaign. I’m looking forward to voting on legislation so that people can be open and safe in their home and their community,” he said. “I believe that my election was one seat that is now a ‘yes’ vote for marriage equality.”