Post-Spitzer Gay Politics

Governor Eliot Spitzer’s resignation rocked Albany this week. And, as we’ve mentioned, gay rights organizations have been busy congratulating incoming Governor David Paterson, a longtime ally.

Certainly Paterson will work closely with gay rights organizations, but how does a gay non-profit really cope with such a massive political shift, especially after endorsing Eliot Spitzer’s gubernatorial campaign? That’s but one of the questions our editor posed to Alan Van Capelle, executive director of Empire State Pride Agenda.

As one of New York’s largest, most influential gay rights groups, the Pride Agenda had a very intimate relationship with Spitzer, but those days are over.

So, where does the non-profit go from here? What makes Paterson so great? How can we define a gay ally? And what does Van Capelle think of Spitzer now?

Find out, after the jump…

Andrew Belonsky: What was your first reaction when you heard about the Spitzer scandal?

Alan Van Capelle: My first reaction? One was complete disbelief and then I felt as dejected as Ralphie probably felt when he didn’t get his bb gun – totally lost and completely disappointed. A lot of us, after twelve years of George Pataki, had enormous expectations for this administration and suddenly the world as we knew it had changed.

AB: Did you think it would end with his resignation? Did you guys start planning ahead?

AC: Oh, yes. As we were hearing what was going on and he came out that afternoon to apologize for his failing, I said, “Well, what do we know about David Paterson? Let’s collect all the information we have so we can figure out how we want to talk about our long-time friend.” We were disappointed, but there was no other way for this to end other than resignation.

AB: Did you personally want Spitzer to resign? Do you think he should have stepped down?

AC: I actually think he should have resigned a day earlier, but, yeah, absolutely. You can’t hold yourself up as the pinnacle of morality and then do what he did. It’s complete hypocrisy. And what I think is really sad is that there’s an entire generation of young New Yorkers who were inspired by him and what he was doing – he was going to be a Governor who was going to clean up Albany. The downside of the scandal is that a lot of people will say, “See, this is exactly what happens with politicians and we shouldn’t be in government”. I think, frankly, that’s the wrong attitude to take, but I don’t blame them.

AB: It’s interesting what you said about how when Spitzer went in, everybody anticipated it was going to be a huge change. I wrote this week about how Spitzer went into office with a lot of enemies. Did you really think when he went into office that he would be an effective leader?

AC: Absolutely. In terms of courage, this man, less than a hundred days after taking the oath of office, introduced a gay marriage equality bill and became the first governor in the country to do it. Twenty-some odd days after taking the oath, this Governor delivered record funding for our community. So, here was this guy who – as angry and disappointed as I am, I don’t think any gay person anywhere in New York can feel let down by any of the deliverables he produced for our community. I think he did an enormous amount in a very short period of time. As a New Yorker, I’m totally disappointed in him, but as an LGBT person who spends a lot of time in Albany, I think we got our money’s worth and our time and efforts worth in endorsing him. He really delivered for our community.

AB: Well, I mean, when you say he “delivered” – people always say “This person has been so effective, they’ve been a good ally”. To say someone “delivered” can be a bit misleading.

AC: Do I think people say there are elected officials that are friends of our community that haven’t earned that title? Absolutely. Let’s face it, in 1988, David Mixner raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Mike Dukakis. He didn’t want to accept the money, because he didn’t want to take it from a gay organization. In 1992, the community raised over a million dollars for Bill Clinton and they took the money and since that time, our community has been nothing more than an ATM machine for politicians who do nothing for our community. But, because they attend a rally or attend a function, suddenly we’re giving our votes and our cash away and getting nothing in return.

Somehow people say, “They’re friends of our community because they came to our dinner or spoke to our crowd”. There’s also, “Well, they’re a friend of our community because they voted on a bill, but they didn’t sponsor it and these are our friends”. I think we’ve lowered the bar for what friends are, but even if we raised the bar ten times where it should have been, the fact that Spitzer became the first governor in the country to introduce marriage equality legislation absolutely means something.

AB: I’m not trying to say that his administration was worthless or that his introduction doesn’t count for anything, but there’s a big distinction between introducing legislation and getting legislation passed. What I said in my piece, which is why I think Paterson may be more effective, is that Spitzer went into Albany with all those enemies and people did not want to cooperate with him and Paterson would be more effective at changing people’s minds. That’s more important than introducing legislation that you know will ultimately fail.

AC: Well, I would say that Spitzer didn’t go into Albany with “all these enemies”. He had enemies on Wall Street, but he won a record election with 65% of the vote and was really popular in his first few months in office. He made enemies while he was in Albany because of mistakes that he made, but he certainly didn’t start that way. We would never have gotten a vote in the Assembly for marriage equality had the Governor not made this a program bill and a priority for his administration. Had Governor Spitzer not introduced marriage equality bill, we wouldn’t have had a bill in the Assembly, a bill that had the weight of the executive behind it, we wouldn’t have had a vote and wouldn’t be 2/3 of the way to winning 1,324 rights in New York. I know people who personally voted for the bill because Governor Spitzer sent it out as a program bill. I know that for a fact, because before the bill was introduced, we had 35 on the record supporters for marriage equality and when we introduced the bill, we suddenly picked up more sponsors.

AB: How will Paterson be a better governor than Spitzer – or will he?

AC: Well, look, I think that Paterson is going to be – our chances of victories don’t diminish with Spitzer resigning. In fact, I would say that we probably have a chance of winning more in Albany, including marriage equality and the transgender civil rights bill, because of Paterson. He understands how Albany works, having been in Albany for quite some time, which is a skill that Governor Spitzer didn’t have.

The second thing is – he’s been a friend of our community since 1985. This is a guy who stood with us during the HIV/AIDS crisis when we didn’t have a lot of friends. This is a guy who during SONDA in 2002 tried to make it trans-inclusive days after becoming the Senate minority leader. And this is a guy with whom I sat with last year on countless evenings going over with him a list of Assembly members who were either on the fence or had a soft “no,” and he would help me and the Pride Agenda press strategies where we went to individuals. Paterson would say, “Okay, this person said ‘yes’? Let me call them tomorrow and make sure that’s a real yes or a soft yes”.

On the day of the vote, which I have never seen in my history at Albany, the Lt. Governor showed up on the floor 45-minutes before the Assembly debate and personally talked to the people who supported the bill and then came up to the gallery to talk to the gay community and tell them he had our backs. That had never happened before in a decade that I’ve been going up to Albany. It was really incredible.

AB: Have you spoken to him since this started going down?

AC: I did.

AB: And what did he say?

AC: My rule is that I don’t talk about the conversations I have with elected officials.

AB: Okay, well, did he give you any indication that he plans on addressing gay issues after he officially takes over?

AC: I think the first thing that’s going to be on the Governor’s plate is that we’re less than three weeks away from a budget deadline and have to have that done, but knowing how David is supportive of marriage equality and the transgendered community, has been there for us, I just don’t think that there’s any doubt – there’s not even a shred of doubt in my mind that he won’t be effective for our community and won’t work for us. The nice thing about David is that he never asks for anything in return. He’s a low maintenance legislator with a sharp intellect, a savvy wit and is just fun to be around, and let’s face it, Albany is not Paris in spring time. It’s not always the best place to go to in the middle of winter, but, man, if he doesn’t make it a fun place to be.

AB: And what about your relationship with Spitzer now? Would you invited Eliot Spitzer to speak at an event?

AC: No.

AB: No?

AC: No. I think the discipline of our organization, one of the things we’re really good at is looking forward. I think that Spitzer has a lot of other places and other things to do than come to a Pride Agenda event and, you know, I don’t envision us having a lot of conversations with Governor Spitzer. I’d rather spend my time with Governor Paterson.

AB: Well, let me ask you a question – and you probably won’t like this – but is somebody’s title more important than their actions? If Governor Spitzer had worked out his term and was not tainted by this scandal, would former Governor, untarnished Spitzer be preferable? He’s still the same man. The fact that he’s now been tarnished by this scandal – does that make him less desirable? The fact that he’s no longer Governor? If a person comes out to fight for gay rights, is that more important than the title they hold?

AC: I don’t think the issue is about a title. I think there are two different parts to it. Did he do things for the community and deliver to the community? Absolutely! But LGBT New Yorkers are not only part of an LGBT community, but we’re also New Yorkers, so when I’m wearing my LGBT hat, then, yes, he’s absolutely delivered to our community. But I’m also a New Yorker, so if these allegations are true, I’m really angry that our Governor did this. I don’t think – if he’s proved to have done money laundering and other stuff he could be charged with, I don’t think that’s necessarily somebody we want to be with. No one’s saying he’s not a friend of our community.

As an example, a friend of mine wrote me an email suggesting the Pride Agenda take down Spitzer’s name and any pictures from their site. I said, “Look, he was our Governor for sixteen months. There was a Spitzer period in Albany. That happened. And during that period, the community got thing – we’re not embarrassed at all by the things we got for our community. I’m embarrassed that my Governor fucked up. That’s what I’m embarrassed about. I’m embarrassed that my Governor betrayed the trust of people who voted for him and worked hard to get him elected. That’s what I’m pissed about, but that does not negate the fact this Governor did things for our community.

This is a situation where LGBT New Yorkers can both feel disgusted and angry and also appreciative at the same time. And since I don’t think I’ll be inviting the Governor to dinner any time soon or he’ll be inviting me anytime soon, I’m going to focus on how we win what we’re doing in Albany.