NY GOP Business Leaders Put Their Money on Marriage Equality

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday May 16, 2011

Top GOP donors have joined the cause for marriage equality in New York State, the New York Times reported in a May 13 online article. (The print article appeared on May 14.) Their support is not as odd as it might seem: At least one big bankroller of Republican causes contributing to the cause says that letting people marry whom they choose is all part of keeping government small and non-intrusive.

The article said that the group of well-known GOP financiers and business leaders, who have a reputation for lending financial clout to conservative causes, have contributed a total of about $1 million to New Yorkers United for Marriage. The group is part of a newly organized push by marriage equality advocates to streamline and solidify support for marriage in the state.

Along with deep pocket GOP supporters, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg--himself a Republican and a billionaire--is another high-profile marriage supporter. Bloomberg has kicked in a sizable amount--$100,000, the article said--and has lent his support in other ways, lobbying state lawmakers and organizing a fundraiser at his home.

"The new donations represent roughly two-thirds of the same-sex marriage coalition's fund-raising, making New York the rare state where a lobbying campaign in favor of legalizing gay unions is not being financed primarily by liberal donors and Democrats," the article noted.

The article predicted that more liberal groups and individuals might suffer a sense of culture shock, given that it's usually up to progressives to stand behind social justice and civil rights causes. One individual associated with the progressive end of the political spectrum, the Gill Action Fund's Bill Smith, said that the wave of support from conservatives represented a "sea change," the Times reported.

The Gill Action Fund is named for Tim Gill, a Colorado-based billionaire active in the civil rights movement. The group has lent financial support for GLBT politicians in New York and elsewhere.

But for the conservative supporters of family equality, there's no contradiction in terms when it comes to being conservative and also a supporter of legal equality for all Americans. Support for GLBT individuals and their families boils down to keeping the government out of people's lives as much as possible--be they gay or straight.

"I'm a pretty straight-down-the-line small-government guy," Clifford Asness, who has voiced support for the Tea Party in the past, told the Times. "This is an issue of basic freedom," Asness added.

Another major GOP donor, Daniel S. Loeb, whose financial backing has helped a number of Republican candidates win federal posts, indicated that the issue went beyond usual red-versus-blue politics.

"I think it is important in particular for Republicans to know this is a bipartisan issue," Loeb told the publication. "If they're Republican, they will not be abandoned by the party for supporting this. On the contrary, I think they will find that there is a whole new world of people who will support them on an ongoing basis if they support this cause."

"At the core this very rational mayor is somebody who believes that government has no business in getting involved in, taking sides in or making value judgments about who you love," Mayor Bloomberg's policy advisor, John Feinblatt, told the Times.

"We believe in social justice for all Americans," summarized GOP donor Steven A. Cohen.

Hedge fund manager Paul E. Singer--who is also the chair of conservative think tank the Manhattan Institute--has an openly gay son who is married to his same-sex life partner and lives in Massachusetts, where, seven years ago, the first legal marriages in America were granted.

"Mr. Singer is coordinating much of the Republican fund-raising for same-sex marriage in New York, according to people familiar with the matter, donating $425,000 of his own money and personally soliciting an additional $500,000 in donations," the New York Times reported. "At the same time, he has hosted private meetings to make the case for legalizing gay weddings in New York to other conservatives."

The article noted that Ken Mehlman, a leading conservative who came out as gay last year and who formerly was the chair of the Republican National Committee, has brought some of the business leaders into the movement. Mehlman also served as George W. Bush's campaign manager in 2004--a role that many in the GLBT community remember with some bitterness.

Mehlman came out of the closet as gay on Aug. 25, 2010, in an interview with The Atlantic, saying that he would support efforts to restore marriage rights for gay and lesbian families in California.

"The reason I wish that I had been in a different place then, as I am now, is I know the personal benefit of being comfortable with, and at peace with, an important part of your life," Mehlman told the Huffington Post the same day he made his announcement. "Until you get there, it's much harder. I'm very glad to be there."

In his remarks to the Huffington Post, Mehlman echoed the observations made elsewhere about the way the Republican Party handles gays in the wake of the economic meltdown, saying that the GOP is less focused on social issues and "much more about the size and scope of the government--spending, deficits, and taxes." At the same time, Mehlman drew on the GOP's "big tent" rhetoric, telling the Huffington Post, "I think the Republican Party is a diverse party with lots of different views, and I think it's a mistake to presume that people who disagree with what I think is the right answer--which is freedom to marry--are inherently motivated by divisive instincts."

The push from the right comes in the wake of a concerted effort to "re-boot" marriage equality efforts in New York, with the new organization, New Yorkers United for Marriage, representing a fresh start in terms of bringing supporters onto the same page.

The new coalition has made a point of learning from the mistakes of two years ago, when a protracted struggle marked by several victories in the state assembly came to an abrupt and disappointing end in the state senate, the New York Times reported on April 19.

The Times article reported that "advocates envision a short, disciplined and intense run-up to a vote in the State Legislature, raising the prospect that gay couples may be allowed to wed in New York by early summer." To that end, the article said, the new coalition--which comprises four equality advocacy groups, New York based Marriage Equality New York and Empire State Pride Agenda, plus national organizations the Human Rights Campaign and Freedom to Marry--has put a plan in place that includes $1 million for media and the hiring of a media strategist.

Moreover, the office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has been a longtime advocate for gay and lesbian families, has thrown its support behind the push.

"If this gets done, it's through coordination," Cuomo aide Steve M. Cohen told marriage parity advocates.

And through the usual legislative channels: The Times reported that Mayor Bloomberg was planning a May 17 trip to Albany to lobby state lawmakers once again.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.