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Why He Did It: An Interview With Mark Grisanti

(photo by Jill Greenberg)

Mark Grisanti talks about marriage equality, emerald shiners, and what's next on fracking

New York State Senator Mark Grisanti insists that he was not the swing vote on marriage equality last week. He was #33, not #32. But at a press conference on Monday, the Republican allowed that, if his had been the crucial vote, he’d still have voted yes, because the research he’d done and the people with whom he’d spoken had convinced him that basic human rights outweighed the personal reservations that had led him to oppose same-sex marriage in the past. “Surely,” he said on the phone on Wednesday, “a person can be wiser today than they were yesterday if they do the work.”

Grisanti intended Monday’s press conference to be his opportunity the communicate to all news outlets at once his rationale for voting yes, so that he could move on to other subjects, like the 23 bills he sponsored that passed both the Assembly and the Senate. (That’s the eighth best record out of 212 legislators.) Fat chance: Everyone from The Daily Show to the New York Times is talking about the freshman senator’s vote.

So we decided to let him talk about some other issues. After, of course, asking him what everybody else is asking him…

AV: Describe how you arrived at your yes vote on same-sex marriage.

Grisanti: Toward the very end, I basically concluded two things: One, that the bill was going to pass with or without me; and two, who am I to say that someone shouldn’t have the same rights that me and my wife share? And there are over 1,300 of them. I’m not just here as a Catholic senator; I’m someone who has to make and to justify laws not only for my district but for the entire state.

The other side of it that was very important is that we looked at the bill that the Assembly passed, and the religious exemptions were pretty weak. There were three other attorneys who looked at the statutes for same-sex marriage in other states, and at two Supreme Court decisions and looked at what exemptions they had. From that, they came up with religious exemptions that include not only religious organizations but also not-for-profits and benevolent organizations such as the Knights of Columbus and others.

Those were basically parts A, B, C that were going to be added to the Assembly’s bill. Then there was another part of it, an inseparability clause, which would mean that if any portion of the bill was not followed or was thrown out by a court of competent jurisdiction, then the whole bill would fail. It’s a balance, so that people will have their rights, the right to same-sex marriage, and there are also protections in there for the church.

I believe that if the bill had not passed this time, and the issue came up again two years from now, those religious exemptions would have been taken out.

AV: You’ve said that you did not trade your vote for passage of SUNY 2020 or any other consideration.

Grisanti: Absolutely not.

AV: But you spoke to Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, right? What did they tell you?

Grisanti: Bloomberg actually came into the conference and talked to everybody, said, “It’s important for New York State” and yada yada yada. That was really about it. It was about a 10-minute speech.

The first time I talked to the governor was maybe three weeks ago. The governor was calling all senators down to see where they were. The governor asked me and I said, “Governor, listen. I’ve always stated that I have a problem with the word ‘marriage,’ but I’m doing my due diligence, I’m doing my research. I’m looking at the independent studies that have been done on civil unions in New Jersey”—and that was complete chaos, a complete mess. I said, “I struggle with the word ‘marriage’ but I also struggle with the fact that everyone should have the same rights that I share with my wife.”

There are certain people who keep bringing up this letter from 2008 that I wrote. When it said “unalterably opposed,” it was saying there was a problem I had with the word “marriage.” During this last campaign I never sent out one piece of literature concerning same-sex marriage. It never even came up, except the Conservative Party gave me a litany of questions on how I would vote. And I said I had a problem with the term ‘marriage’ but that people have rights, too, and I stuck with that all the way through.

I told the governor this, and he said, “I understand, I had the same situation myself years ago, but I came to the conclusion that I’ve got to separate things.” He said, “You’re doing the research, you do what you’ve got do, and we’ll talk later.” Then, about three days before the vote, I was called down to the governor’s office, but it had to do with specific language that was needed for SUNY 2020. I basically said hello to the governor then talked to someone on his staff.

The day of the vote, I was looking at whether or not the governor and the Assembly were going to accept the exemptions. They accepted three of the four parts, and the fourth part was the inseparability clause. The governor was kind of on board with that, the Assembly wasn’t. Then, about an hour and a half before the vote, they agreed to the inseparability clause. Once that happened, I said, “I’m on board with this,” because how could I be fighting for these religious exemptions and then say no?

AV: How will you negotiate your relationships with the Conservative and Republican parties?

Grisanti: It’s really up to them. I didn’t have the luxury of coming back to the district and explaining where I was coming from and the research that I had done. This vote was coming up and we were basically stuck in Albany for two weeks. I was talking to Ralph [Lorigo, chair of the local Conservative Party] and to Nick [Langworthy, chair of the local Republican Party], telling them “This is why I’m on the fence with this issue” and “These exemptions are important.” And like I said, it was about an hour and half before the vote that the exemptions came through, and I texted them that I was going to vote yes.

The politically correct thing to do would have been to say, “I don’t want to lose these lines, so I’m going to vote no.” But I wasn’t going to vote politically like that on this issue.

For those who voted for me on this single issue, and if that was their only reason, then I apologize to them. But I ran this campaign on more than one issue. I ran this campaign on bringing things back to Western New York that we’ve been lacking for years.

AV: Tell me about some of the other initiatives you’ve worked on in your first six months.

Grisanti: I sponsored 103 bills. Twenty-three of them passed both houses, and that has me ranked eighth out of 212 legislators. That’s kind of unheard of for a freshman senator. Forty bills passed the Senate, and that put me in the top 10. I was the only freshman in the top 10; the others had been there for five terms or longer.

The main drive that I focused on was SUNY 2020, which passed, and keeping the funding for the Environmental Protection Fund. And also the water withdrawal bill.

AV: I noticed that there’s new language in the SUNY 2020 bill tightening conflict-of-interest policies for the directors and officers of SUNY foundations and affiliate entities—the UB Foundation, for example. Any insight on how that language was introduced?

Grisanti: Basically, there was some talk in Buffalo, some articles that said we weren’t sure where things were really going in certain situations, so we said, if that’s the case, let’s look at it and see what some of the problems. We put that language in there so there wouldn’t be a problem with people saying, “You need more transparency.”

What was holding up SUNY 2020 really was the tuition. UB was saying that to move the medical school to the downtown campus, they needed an eight percent tuition hike, so basically $400 year. It ended up coming to $300 per year, and UB and the three other research campuses can add an extra $75 fee, so at $375 it was close enough.

AV: And they get to keep the tuition hike.

Grisanti: Exactly, they get to keep it and they can’t have their funding diminished next year in response. And the reporting requirements are all still in there, the tuition credits are still in there to protect need-based students. It’s five-year plan.

AV: Tell me about emerald shiners.

Grisanti: When I came into office, one of the first things to cross my desk was a letter from a group of fishermen, the Walleye Association. For the last four years, bait shops up and down the Niagara River and across the lakes were prohibited from capturing these emerald shiners—the minnows that everyone sees going along the breakwall—and transporting them from, say, the foot of Ferry to the foot of Ontario. You couldn’t bring them to your bait shop and sell them to anglers in other parts of the Niagara River or what have you. I thought that was odd. Before he was made DEC commissioner, I spoke to Joe Martens and he said, “Let me look into it.” When he was sworn in, we sat down and had a meeting, and there were a lot of things on the plate, but I said, “This is something, Commissioner that affects my area. It’s these emerald shiners.” He said, “They say they carry some sort of disease, and we don’t want them transferred.” And I said, “Number one, for the past couple years there’s been no indication that the disease exists. Number two, how do you stop the fish coming into Lake Erie? Do the fish stop at the border of Pennsylvania or Ohio and say, ‘We can’t go into New York?’ If people in bait shops can’t pick up these fish at the foot of Ferry and move them to the foot of Ontario or to Mickey Rats or wherever, how does a fish know where to stop?”

Someone who had a bait shop had gone from 19 employees down to two because of this ban. It’s not gaining jobs, it’s not business friendly. He looked at me like, “You know, you’re right.” A couple months later, just before the fishing season, he said, “We’re relinquishing the ban.”

AV: The DEC says it hopes to release it report on hydraulic fracturing, which was due July 1, some time in the next two weeks. What’s your position on the practice?

Grisanti: I’m not a scientist, so I want to see that report. If it’s going to go forward, what sort of parameters are they putting in place? If this does go forward, there has to be a limit, it has to be regulated to the hilt, and you have to have extra fees added on so that the money can be earmarked to DEC to hire people who understand the entire process: how wells need to be capped, for example. And what exactly are the chemicals in water used? Are there treatment plants that can handle the wastewater?

These are all questions that need to be answered. When this study comes out, we’re probably going to have hearings to nail down these issues more tightly.

AV: And this will all come through your committee.

Grisanti: Exactly.

To read more of this interview with State Senator Mark Grisanti on a number of other initiatives, visit AV Daily.

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