ALBANY—The message was clear to anyone who was at the Capitol on April 28: the pro-same-sex marriage lobby is an organized force you don’t want to reckon with.
More than 2,000 people packed the Empire State Convention center. Organizers communicated via radio head set. Advocates sat at tables marked by legislative district—the Senate district tables tended to be longer, and lined with more people.
“This is not just about this year,” said Alan Van Capelle, the executive director of Empire State Pride Agenda, and the organizer of Equality & Justice Day. “For a lot of people this is about what happened in the last several months, and a lot of people are engaged now in something that we are engaged in every day of the year.”
But undeniably, at show time, the muscle is there like it’s never been before. Since 2002, ESPA has tripled their staff and quadrupled their budget. Around five years ago, about 500 people were coming to the annual lobby day.
Now, one of Albany’s elite lobbying houses—Patricia Lynch Associates—is involved with the effort, retained by the ESPA’s outside lobbyist. And for the last two weeks, the ESPA has been on the air in three upstate areas pitching same-sex marriage.
“In four days, the ad raised $150,000,” Van Capelle said. This is the first time ESPA has ever hit the airwaves.
He was in Albany Tuesday to meet with legislators, throwing a pitch that at this point is well honed. There is the political angle: legislators know that there are people who care deeply about the issue and aren’t shy about supporting challengers to those who oppose it. Danny O’Donnell, the gay assemblyman who sponsored of the bill in the state’s lower chamber, never misses a chance to remind me that no legislator in recent memory has lost his or her seat because they voted for the bill.
“I think there’s a lot more on the upside for being in favor than there is to be against it,” he said. “I would not want to be a politician in 2020 running for office having voted no. I wouldn’t want to be that person. And I’ve told all my 20-something-year-old colleagues.”
Van Capelle said that he is proud to have broadened the advocacy coalition to include religious people, business groups, and unions. Indeed, many unions went on the record supporting same-sex marriage after the 2007 vote, including the labor councils in Buffalo, Central New York and the Capital District.
And then there’s the emotional card: When in a meeting, Van Capelle said he talks about his twin sister, who is straight. Organizers have found more and more people willing to tell their stories. Assemblywoman Janet Duprey, who changed her position on same-sex marriage between 2007 and 2009, told me that it was after visits from parents in her district who had gay children that she decided to vote to support it.
Assemblyman Bob Reilly, who also flipped, said it was the product mostly of seeing O’Donnell and other colleagues.
“The people who I talked to who influenced me the most was Danny O’Donnell, who I had spoken to the first time, and then Deborah Glick, when I heard her speak. And somewhat Matt Titone,” he said. “I thought that gay marriage was ahead of society and ahead of my constituents. And I can’t say I’m particularly comfortable with it, even today, because I’m older and I didn’t grow up with knowledge of gays and acceptance.”
He says he was mistaken about his constituents, and there has been little pushback: As many people approached him to say they appreciated his vote as did those who were angry about it. Reilly told me he attended a memorial service earlier this week where he bumped into Howard Hubbard, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany. He didn’t say anything.
“What has happened is a sea change in American society, that gay people are here and around,” O’Donnell said. “People are not willing to hide and not say who they are, which makes it very difficult for elected officials to ignore them. It is harder in 2009 then it was in 2003 when I first got here. Fully four Republican Assembly members have told me that they will not vote no again.”