Splits Among Gay Political Activists Rankle Efforts To Flip Seats

10/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In early July, the Washington, D.C.,-based Human Rights Campaign (HRC) waded into New York’s same sex marriage fight, announcing the launch of a new political action committee focused on booting anti-gay-marriage senators. A press release quoting a number of prominent LGBT leaders and officials in New York lavished praise on the group and its newly minted senior strategist, Brian Ellner.

But behind the scenes, many local activists were seething.

Over the past decade, the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA) has assumed the mantel in New York as the gold standard of the gay rights movement, while HRC has been seen by many in the local gay rights community as far too deferential to the Democratic power structure in Washington.

Now, HRC’s entry into the fray of state politics has created fears that another pro-marriage equality PAC could siphon resources away from ESPA and complicate strategic efforts to oust opponents in the State Senate. Some close to the Pride Agenda even viewed the move as an effort to take advantage of a moment of perceived weakness in ESPA, which is in a period of transition following the departure of executive director Alan Van Capelle, after suffering twin high-profile defeats on the gay marriage bill and Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act.

“There’s definitely a competition going on for donors and over who gets to call the shots,” said one LGBT leader heavily involved in local Democratic politics.

Ellner’s appointment as senior strategist also rankled many within the movement. The friction goes back to when Ellner ran for Manhattan Borough President in 2005 and frequently bashed Mayor Michael Bloomberg on the campaign trail, helping him finish a strong fourth in a nine-person field.

After losing the primary, though, Ellner reversed course and campaigned on behalf of Bloomberg, then took a job as a senior aide to city Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.

Once reports emerged that he had sewn up an appointment as Van Cappelle’s replacement as ESPA executive director, an internal revolt by some ESPA board members in late May forced Ellner to withdraw his application. And when Ellner took over the HRC campaign a month later, fears remained about his ties to Bloomberg, who is eyed suspiciously by some in the gay community for his political contributions to some Republicans.

“Human Rights Campaign selected someone in Brian Ellner who worked for a mayor that is the chief financial backer of the Senate Republicans,” said Andy Humm, a gay rights activist and senior consultant at Bill Lynch Associates.

Ellner was not made available for comment.

Some critics of HRC have downplayed the role that the group could play in this year’s elections, asserting that the job was merely a consolation prize provided to Ellner by powerful friends such as Charles O’Byrne, the former top advisor to David Paterson, and Richard Socarides, a former advisor to Bill Clinton. Detractors also note that the organization has no actual office in New York or city-based staff.

But Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the group, said that a handful of operatives would be dispatched into New York to organize the group’s 70,000 odd members, providing an expertise in ground organizing that he said would complement ESPA’s efforts. He also said that while ESPA has excelled at fundraising locally, HRC could tap more broadly into donors around the country.

Sainz disputed the idea that ESPA and HRC are in conflict.

“That is not the case, and to the extent that people are saying that, it is idle chatter from people who don’t have better things to do,” Sainz said.

HRC’s arrival on the scene is not the only shift since 2008. Two years ago, Colorado billionaire Tim Gill and his allies poured money into the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee in an effort to flip the State Senate to the Democrats.

But the failure of Democratic leadership to deliver votes to pass the gay marriage bill, along with the DSCC’s decision to protect incumbents that voted against the bill such as Shirley Huntley and Bill Stachowski, has caused a change in course. Now, the Gill Action Fund is bypassing the DSCC in favor of pumping money into the independent expenditure efforts of Fight Back New York. That group says it will spend most of their resources punishing anti-same-sex-marriage senators rather than propping up their challengers. Notably, it is not planning on putting money into targeting Huntley, whose challenger Lynn Nunes is being backed by HRC and ESPA.

Meanwhile, in response to the push by gay marriage proponents, New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, a socially conservative group that has long lobbied lawmakers and had an independent expenditure arm, is ramping up its own PAC.

The group is hoping to give money to candidates in about 10 races—it has already endorsed Stachowski, Sen. Ruben Diaz, Sr. and Republican Senate challengers Andrew Russo and Lee Zeldin—and to raise $200,000 from local and national donors, according to Jason McGuire, the group’s executive director.

McGuire said he sees Tim Kennedy, who has the backing of the gay rights groups in a Democratic primary against Stachowski, as vulnerable since socially liberal constituencies that typically align will not be united in his case. Kennedy is pro-life, running on the Conservative Party line, and highly unlikely to get the backing of groups like NARAL Pro-Choice New York.

McGuire also said the split between ESPA and HRC could help his cause.

“Those divisions are going to make it difficult to unite behind certain candidates,” McGuire said. “It really is a bit of a turf war.”

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