BY PAUL SCHINDLER | In a year when New York Democrats hoped that with Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket they might finally achieve a goal that has largely eluded them in the past half-century — control of the State Senate — that effort appears to have fallen short.
With clear results in 61 of the 63 Senate races, Republicans have 30 wins, Democrats 31, while two Long Island races are as yet too close to call. If those two contests produce one Democratic winner and one GOP victor — as the unofficial returns suggest — Democrats would have a 32-31 edge, but Brooklyn’s Simcha Felder, who represents a socially conservative Orthodox Jewish constituency, has caucused with the GOP for his entire four years in the Senate, so Republican control would in all likelihood continue.
For LGBT political advocates, the Democrats’ failure to gain control of the Senate is a bitter pill, with Republicans having bottled up a number of key agenda items, most prominently the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), a transgender civil rights measure.
Two new LGBT political action committees have emerged in the wake of the last year’s demise of the Empire State Pride Agenda, and both focused their initial efforts on flipping the Senate. TransPAC, a group dedicated to achieving “full and equal rights” for the transgender community, distributed more than $85,000 in 11 State Senate races, while Equality NY PAC, a newer group that aims to represent the broader LGBT community on a host of issues — with transgender civil rights at the top of the list — made donations totaling $10,000 in nine Senate races and two Assembly races. Those donations helped three victorious Democratic incumbents — Long Island’s Todd Kaminsky, who was aiming for a full term after winning a special election for a vacant seat earlier this year, George Latimer from Westchester, and Manhattan’s Brad Hoylman, the Senate’s only out LGBT member.
Jim Gaughran, who benefited from a TransPAC donation, currently trails Long Island Republican incumbent Carl Marcellino by just under 2,500 votes out of more than 135,000 cast.
Elsewhere on Long Island, challenger John E. Brooks is clinging to a 33-vote lead over incumbent Michael Venditto. Brooks was not supported in his bid by either TransPAC or Equality NY.
Even if both of those tight races end in Democratic victories when the results are certified, the Senate Democrats face the challenge of wooing the Independent Democratic Conference— a rump faction that now numbers seven and is led by the Bronx’s Jeff Klein — to return to the fold and give Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins of Westchester the power to preside over the Senate.
The IDC has leveraged its position with the Republicans to give its members more influence than they could have hoped for as minority senators, but the conference, though supportive of LGBT issues, has failed to deliver on issues like GENDA, a ban on sexual orientation and gender identity “conversion therapy” for minors, or eliminating the state’s ban on gestational surrogacy contracts, which the GOP refuses to take up.
When prospects for Democrats flipping a number of Senate seats appeared strong during the campaign, there was widespread hope that the IDC, prodded by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s role in the effort, would rejoin the party regulars. If the Republicans win 31 or 32 seats outright and have the support of Brooklyn’s Felder as well, what the IDC does becomes irrelevant.
Even if Democrats gain 32 seats not counting Felder by winning both Long Island races, it’s unclear whether Klein is prepared to move his faction back into cooperation with other Democrats. He might find he has a stronger hand with the current Republican majority leader, John Flanagan of Long Island, who would lose his post without the IDC’s help.
A spokesperson for the IDC did not respond to Gay City News’ request for comment.
Mike Murphy, a spokesperson for Stewart-Cousins’ office, remained upbeat the day after the election about the Democrats’ prospects for winning both of the two close Long Island contests and then finding common ground with the IDC.
“After the votes are counted we expect there to be a majority of Democrats in Chamber and as always we expect all Democrats to work together,” he said in a emailed statement.
Hoylman, who has consistently stressed the need for Democratic control of the Senate to advance LGBT legislative priorities, also sounded a note of cautious optimism in what he clearly saw as otherwise a very bad day for Democrats and the LGBT community.
Noting the Brooks and Gaughran races, he said, “The good news is that even though Trump carried Suffolk County by eight points, Democrats made inroads there.”
Hoylman said legal challenges are likely in both races, delaying certification of the winners. Should both Democrats prevail, he said he would be hopeful about the possibility of bringing the IDC back into the fold, especially given the challenges New York State will face with the presidency, both houses of Congress, and control of the Supreme Court all in Republican hands. Hoylman would not even dismiss the possibility that should Democrats end up with only 32 seats in total that they could prevail on Felder to return to their ranks as well.
Emphasizing that he has not been in any discussions about that possibility, Hoylman said, “Of course one assumes he’ll continue to caucus with the Republicans. But given what’s happened in Washington that might alter the way he looks at it. I’m not taking any possibility off the table.”
“Of course, we are disappointed,” TransPAC executive director Mel Wymore said in an email message. “New York State missed an opportunity to show leadership when the rights of so many are under attack. At the same time, TransPAC received tremendous support in this first year out, and that’s a powerful sign of hope. To paraphrase Secretary Clinton, our work was never about one person or even one election. Our work is about securing equal rights for the transgender community. We will carry on.”
Matt McMorrow, one of the leaders who helped launch Equality NY, noted the two tight Long Island races and said, in an email message, “If Brooks ultimately wins, we would strongly encourage the IDC and Simcha Felder to rejoin the mainline Democrats to give the Democrats the majority. Of course, if history is a guide, it is unlikely all eight would agree to do that. What’s unfortunate is that if ever there were an opportunity to change the composition of the State Senate, it was this year. Sadly, should the GOP prevail with or without the IDC, we can expect the more conservative Republican senators to continue blocking votes on many progressive pieces of legislation.”
McMorrow also looked more broadly at the national scene and wrote, “Last night’s election results were a disaster for the LGBTQI community. There’s no way to sugarcoat it. Donald Trump, with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, will have carte blanche to undo much of the gains our community has made over the past eight years, including by reshaping the Supreme Court in a way that may think differently about the marriage equality rulings, among other things.”
The US Senate Democrats’ ability to filibuster anti-gay legislation in Congress, he said, is the only available protection against such reversals. The results of November 8, McMorrow added, underscores “the need for our community to remain vigilant, engaged, and organized against those forces that are hellbent on blocking and rolling back the progress we have fought so hard to achieve.”