Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
New Yorkers United for Marriage, the gay rights advocacy supergroup that formed last month to fight for marriage equality legislation in the state, has identified at least 12 Republican state senators that they're trying to turn into "yes" votes. (The State Assembly has never had trouble passing a gay marriage bill; still safely held by Democrats, consensus is that garnering votes in that chamber is a non-issue.) In the Senate, they'll need every single Democrat and as many members of the GOP as they can muster if a bill has any chance of surviving; similar efforts died on the Senate floor in 2007 and again in 2009, with every Republican voting against it.
Here's a quick look at four senators on the list, and why they're there.
Grisanti is on record as being "unalterably opposed to gay marriage"...which made him the perfect target for one Lady Gaga. At a March concert in Buffalo, Grisanti's senatorial stomping ground, the singer called him out for his opposition to a same sex marriage bill. Gaga gave out his email address to fans at the show; later, her Twitter account echoed the call to arms.
Having the ultra-high profile Lady Gaga on your case is kind of hard to ignore, and there's some evidence Grisanti may have gotten the message. After the incident, a spokesperson for Grisanti said the senator was meeting with the local chapter of Marriage Equality New York, and would learn "more about their issues and concerns with regards to same-sex marriage." Grisanti told the advocates that he supports extending all the same rights to same sex couples that married couples enjoy, but points to his Catholic upbringing when explaining that he can't sanction use of the term "marriage."
"Can’t you use a different word?" Grisanti asks in the Niagara Gazette. "I don’t care if you make up a word. Can’t you use a different word other than marriage?"
To date, there's no evidence that his mind has been changed.
Man, this video.
It really does look like Alesi "agonized" over his 'no' vote on same sex marriage in 2009, which is one of the reasons the state senator has come up on the list of Republican state senators that gay rights groups are lobbying.
Really, we shouldn't read too much into this; cameras were rolling, political theater, yadda yadda yadda—maybe he just wanted it to look like it pained him to vote the way he did, priming the pump for a hands-tied-by-constituency excuse come election season, should he need it.
On the other hand, Alesi had been considered a swing vote for months, and among the most likely Republicans to support a bill. It is, in fact, possible that Alesi was agonizing right down to the wire: his was only the second vote in the Senate, coming on the alphabetical heels of Democrat Joseph Addabbo, who led the session with a 'no.' Had the first Democrat voted yes, presenting a unified bloc right out of the gate, the first Republican may have joined him. "Addabbo’s vote was a clear signal that this thing was going to go down in flames," Alesi said. Given that Alesi was up for election the following year, he made the safe vote for a Republican senator.
Greg Ball is listed as "undecided," and on activists' radar not least for his prior statements decrying the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino's disparaging remarks about gay lifestyles. A former Assemblyman, Ball voted against the gay marriage bill in 2009, although it passed in his chamber.
Ball will be interesting to watch because his vote will actually matter this time. In the Assembly, gay marriage bills succeed with overwhelming support; while there, Ball could make the safe party-line "no" vote, avoid risking his clout with conservative voters, and still know that the legislation would move on with or without him. The assumption is that if there's even the slightest itch to vote "yes," he'll entertain it more than before.
The Senator suddenly finds himself with a lot more efficacy, and he's said publicly that he might not stick to the script. "Right now I don't have a position," Ball said recently. "We're keeping the conversation going."
Andrew Lanza of Staten Island comes up on the watch list because he hung on to his "undecided" label so long in 2009.
Lanza also appears swayable because of the local (and Republican) backlash following his eventual "no" vote. Another thing that makes him interesting to gay marriage supporters is the vote he cast last year in favor of allowing any two unmarried partners to adopt children. The bill passed both houses of the legislature and was sponsored by Senator Thomas Duane, the only openly gay member of the Senate and one of the Democrats who's leading the charge for marriage equality legislation.
His geographical proximity to Democratic Senator Diane Savino, also of Staten Island and one of the most vocal proponents for gay marriage, probably helps his case too.
In general, New Yorkers United for Marriage are likely approaching as many Republican senators as possible, but especially those who were at any time "undecided" in 2009, a list that also includes Roy McDondald, Kemp Hannon and John Bonacic, among others. Those three Senators, however, have less to suggest they'll change their minds than Andrew Lanza: all voted against Senator Duane's unmarried adoption bill in 2010.