In an endorsement aimed at enhancing his appeal both among Democratic Party officials and LGBT voters, Sean Patrick Maloney, an out gay Manhattanite seeking his party’s nomination for state attorney general, announced Wednesday the support of Karen Burstein, an out lesbian who was the Democratic standard bearer for the same office in 1994.
Burstein, a former state senator who represented Long Island in the 1970s and was later a family court judge, came within a point of winning the 1994 race against Republican Dennis Vacco. In a hard-fought Democratic primary that year, she prevailed against incumbent Attorney General G. Oliver Koppell, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, and Eliot Spitzer, then a Manhattan attorney in private practice.
During the 1994 fall campaign, Vacco, with a wink and a nod, repeatedly said he would not raise Burstein’s lesbianism as an issue, though then-Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari felt no such constraints. This week, Burstein insisted she lost because 1994 was the year of the Contract With America, noting that liberal Governor Mario Cuomo lost by a wider margin than she did.
“Let me start by saying everyone who is running for attorney general on the Democratic ticket is competent to be attorney general but not everyone is a person we should have as attorney general,” Burstein said a press conference with Maloney in front of the Tweed Courthouse downtown. “Only one person is the individual we need as attorney general and that person happens to be Sean Maloney. I’m supporting him because he’s one of the people who sees the job as a means to bend history toward justice. He’s one of the people who when you watch him with human beings—he’s there, he’s present, he doesn’t look past that person to the next hand he’s going to shake.”
For Maloney, an investigative attorney who served President Bill Clinton as his White House staff secretary during his embattled second term, the endorsement by an icon of the LGBT community who won respect from her party against long odds came at a critical juncture. On Tuesday, at the state party convention in Buffalo, Maloney was among four of the five AG candidates shut out of a guaranteed September ballot spot, when the Democrats gave Andrew Cuomo, who also served Clinton as his housing secretary, two thirds of its votes and no one else the required 25 percent. The other four will have to petition this summer to earn a spot on the September 12 ballot.
For two of the four left off the ballot, their showings in Buffalo were decidedly below expectations. For Mark Green, the former city public advocate who narrowly lost his 2001 bid for mayor, a 19 percent showing forces him to petition for a ballot spot 20 years after he was first nominated by Democrats statewide to oppose then-Senator Alfonse D’Amato. His failure to get on the ballot sparked rumors, hotly denied, that he would withdraw from the race. Denise O’Donnell, a former U.S. attorney from Buffalo, received 10 percent, after speculation she might hit 25 percent, and had 15 percent locked down.
The other two candidates, Maloney, and non-profit housing executive Charlie King, had even less reason to be happy in Buffalo, each of them polling in single digits among convention delegates.
Asked his reaction to the state convention, Maloney said, “No surprises. We went to Buffalo to show the proper respect to the party leaders and to the state committee and it is that same respect that that we will show in following the rules and petitioning to get on the September ballot.”
Burstein’s endorsement also comes one week after the Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats (GLID) voted to give their endorsement to Cuomo. Up until that time, Maloney had scored all the nods from gay clubs—including Brooklyn’s Lambda Independent Democrats, the Out People of Color Political Action Club, the Empire State Pride Agenda, the state lobbying group, and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a Washington-based group that works to elect out LGBT candidates.
Yet, as with the state convention delegates, Maloney has faced a tougher sell with gay and lesbian party leaders. Cuomo has won the endorsement of City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, State Senator Tom Duane, Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, and state party vice chair Emily Giske. Quinn, Giske, Duane, and to a lesser extent Glick have all been influential leaders at GLID.
Ben Smith, the Daily News pundit who always offers a colorful look at Gotham politics, reported that the battle among the top vote getters in Buffalo boiled over when Deni Frand, Green’s wife, grabbed Giske by the shoulders and insisted she stop spreading rumors that her husband would drop out. “I said, ‘You won. Now stop the goddamn lies and rumors,” Frand told Smith. Smith also included a tale of a Green delegate who fled Buffalo after assigning her proxy to avoid relentless pounding by Cuomo’s acolytes.