October 16, 2002
RE: SONDA (The Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act – S.720/A.1971)
Dear Editorial Page Editor:
As the election for Governor heats up and your newspaper reports on its developments. New York Democrats would like to bring to your attention an unfulfilled pledge made by incumbent Governor George Pataki to New York State’s lesbian and gay community.
Specifically, Governor Pataki pledged to “do everything in my power” on October 4, 2001 to pass a statewide gay civil rights bill that has been pending in Albany for 31 years and bottled up by the Republican controlled State Senate for the past decade. This pledge was made at the Empire State Pride Agenda’s fall dinner in New York City before 1100 lesbians, gay men and their friends. Pataki then repeated his call to pass this bill in an even more high profile fashion during his State-of-the-State address on January 9 of this year. Unfortunately by the end of the regular legislative session last month, Pataki still has not followed through on this pledge.
This effort by Governor Pataki to reach out to the gay community on the one issue that is most important to us — obtaining our basic civil
rights that every one else takes for granted — was not done by accident, but rather by design and as a result makes this unfulfilled promise even more unforgivable.
In early 2001, after ten years of unsuccessfully trying to push the Republican controlled Senate into passing a gay civil rights bill, the Pride Agenda, the statewide lesbian and gay civil rights advocacy organization, decided to adopt a new strategy, one of constructive engagement with the Republicans. This was due in large part to an apparent shift within the Republican Party itself and made most visible by passage of a hate crimes law and repeal of the 150 year old consensual sodomy law in 2000 and the extension of domestic partner benefits in 2001 to state senate employees by Majority Leader Joe Bruno.
When the Pride Agenda initiated conversations with state Republican Party leaders in January of 2001, The Republican Party itself was searching for a strategy to revitalize itself. It held only one statewide office, the governorship, had recently lost the Office of the Attorney General and two back-to-back expensive U.S. Senate campaigns and was looking for ways to start winning elections again. The Pride Agenda let party leaders know that the gay community would never take the party seriously in its quest for significant gay support unless it lifted its decade long hold on passage of a gay civil rights bill, known more commonly as SONDA, the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act.
This message appeared to be heard by Republican leaders as the Pride Agenda was told privately that passing SONDA is the “right thing to do and now is the time to do it.” In March of 2001, these private discussions received public validation when Governor Pataki’s new handpicked State Republican Party Chair, Sandy Treadwell, spoke about the need for the Republican Party in New York to broaden its base and he specifically mentioned the need to reach out to minority communities, including the lesbian and gay community.
Today, even though Pataki has been unwilling to fulfill the pledge he made and his party has taken few real steps in the direction of the gay community, he continues to reap the benefits of having made the pledge and of his party’s proclaimed openness toward our community, now estimated to be about 557,000 registered voters. His well publicized words of support for a gay civil rights bill continue to earn him a reputation among some in the press for being supportive of gay issues and the gay community in general. And the public in New York State, which polls show that anywhere from two thirds to three quarters support basic civil rights protections for lesbians and gay men, continue to view Pataki as a moderate on gay issues.
The reality of Pataki on gay rights, though, does not agree with these perceptions and we believe it is important that he be held accountable for his promises as he seeks the office of Governor for the third time.
New York Democrats believe this is not just about an unfulfilled promise to a constituency he and his party proactively targeted for increased support. We believe it is also about leadership and should be used as a gauge of Pataki’s ability to lead as Governor of New York State. From that perspective, Pataki’s as yet unfulfilled promise falls short and should concern every voter.
I hope you will keep this in mind as your newspaper analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate for Governor.
Richard O. Steve