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Look Out, Conservatives, Kitty's Coming to Your Party

Kitty Lambert at a marriage equality rally in Lafayette Square on June 21, two days before same-sex marriage was leagalized in New York.

Last Wednesday evening at the Hamlin House, VFW Post #1, on Franklin Street, marriage equality activist and newlywed Kitty Lambert asked for a most remarkable wedding present.

She asked that the 100 or so people who had accepted the invitation to this second celebration of her August wedding to Cheryle Rudd consider changing their political party registration from Democrat to Conservative.

A quick survey of the crowd—Stonewall Democrats, hardcore liberals and progressives, activists who had marched on Albany and Washington for LGBT rights—underlined the unlikelihood of her request. True, there were some anomalies in the room: Sitting at a table near the front of the hall were three staffers from Carl Paladino’s campaign for governor. Michael Caputo, the campaign’s director, now estranged from his former boss, sat beside Jeffrey Hannon, the nephew whom Paladino offered as evidence of his tolerance of homosexuality, trying to stanch the wounds he inflicted on himself by reading anti-gay remarks to an audience of Orthodox rabbis in Brooklyn during the campaign. (Caputo, who arrives at his pro-marriage equality position via the conservative path, offered Paladino his resignation after that fiasco, on the grounds that he ought not to have let his candidate put himself in that position. Paladino did not accept the offer.) With them sat Michael Sawicz, the campaign’s lead advance man. And near the bar stood Doug Curella, chief of staff to New York State Senator Mark Grisanti, on whose behalf Lambert made her unusual plea.

Grisanti, a Democrat who became a Republican to wrest the seat away from incumbent Antoine Thompson in 2010, became a hero to the LGBT community this summer by joining three other Republicans in voting to legalize same-sex marriage in New York. All four face punishments and rewards for that vote: They are being targeted by deep-pocketed conservative groups like the Mormon Church-backed National Organization for Marriage. (NOM, whom Lambert describes as “seething lunatics,” is responsible for the billboard facing the northbound I-190 near Smith Street that reads, “Mark Grisanti, You’re Next.” This may be intended to refer to a conservative candidate’s victory in last month’s special election to replace Democratic Congressman Anthony Wiener, but seems tasteless at best in community confronting the suicide of a 14-year-old bullied over his sexuality.) They are also being feted by deep-pocketed supporters of LGBT rights. (For example, there is a fundraiser for the four Republican senators in New York City on Thursday, October 13, hosted by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and, among others, hedge-fund manager Paul Singer, who is a major donor to the New York State Conservative Party.)

Which brings us back to Lambert and the Hamlin House strategy. Lambert hopes to mount a takeover of the Erie County Conservative Party by registering 300 or more new party members between now and next Friday, which is the deadline for a previously registered voter to change party affiliation and still qualify to vote in next year’s primary. The theory behind Lambert’s putsch this: If she can register enough LGBT people or LGBT sympathizers, then Grisanti can either seize that ballot line or bargain for it with the county chairman, Ralph Lorigo.

There is a redistricting plan supported by Albany Republicans that would place Grisanti’s 60th District entirely within Erie County, covering the lakefront from Tonawanda to Brant, drawing in many more white, Republican voters, as well as a potential Republican rival to Grisanti, former Assemblyman Jack Quinn III. If the 60th District is all in Erie County, Lorigo calls his party’s endorsement, and Lorigo is always ready to make a deal. (Lorigo criticized Grisanti for his vote on same-sex marriage but forgave Democratic State Senator Tim Kennedy for casting the same vote.) The same cannot be said for the state chairman, Mike Long, despite his reliance on LGBT rights supporters like Singer for cash: Long is a conservative ideologue who happily will support any opponent to Grisanti. Grand Island pastor Reverend Kevin Backus, who pilloried Grisanti for his vote, has been mentioned as a possible Conservative challenger.

So, the logic goes, flood the Erie County Conservative Party with enough Grisanti supporters to swing a primary. (As a benchmark for what that takes, consider the 2010 Conservative primary in the 58th State Senate District between Kennedy and Quinn: 1,096 people voted, and Kennedy won by 389 votes.) Then bring Lorigo on board to clear the ballot line for Grisanti.

Lambert admits that this is a long-shot, a crazy scheme. But she says she promised Grisanti personally and on behalf of an organization she heads, OUTSpoken for Equality, that she would go to any lengths to help him win re-election if he’d vote yes on marriage equality. “This is an effort to keep Grisanti in the race,” Lambert says. “I appreciate that he took the time to listen to people and think about the issue and come to the conclusion that he did. This is not someone we should lose as a senator. I made him a promise…and in my family your word is what you are.”

As of Tuesday, we’re told, Lambert’s efforts had yielded about 100 new Conservatives. Not nearly enough. But there’s money backing this campaign, flowing through a new group created by Lambert called Blossom OUT!, paying for mailers advertising a website called Grisanti Grassroots ( and phone banks soliciting Democrats to jump parties.

So how does this maneuver impact Grisanti’s chances of retaining his seat? Well, the Conservative Party line can be a game-changer in Erie County if an election is close, which is why so many politicians, including Democrats, bend backwards to win Lorigo’s favor. If Grisanti remains a Republican, the election probably will be close, because there’s no way to redraw the district so that it is entirely safe for a Republican. There are simply too many Democrats. If he switches back to Democrat, then the enrollment advantage he would enjoy might make the Conservative line superfluous.

For Grisanti, it’s not a question of gratitude or allegiance: The local Republican party came late and contributed little to his election effort last year. And if it were a simple question of mathematics, he’d be a fool not to switch back to Democrat. But of course there are complicating factors: Democrats and Republicans who would like a shot at Grisanti’s seat; control of the Senate, and the prices and pressures that fetches; with whom he’d caucus, whichever party he represents.

Friday, October 14, is the deadline for Lambert’s campaign. It’s also the deadline for Grisanti to decide whether to remain Republican or revert to Democrat. How worried are the Republicans? Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos is coming to Buffalo one week before deadline day. We’re told he’ll have dinner with Grisanti.

There are plenty of critics of Lambert’s plan, some who think it defies reason to register with a party that consistently persecutes the LGBT community and some who think it’s crazy to insert Grisanti into the middle of a political game with such long odds of success. Even if the effort fails, Lambert says, there’s a message she hopes it will deliver. “If LGBT people did this across the country, the Conservative Party would spend so much time panicking,” she says.

“This is more about making a statement. LGBT people won’t go to your church unless they know you’re gay-friendly. Politically, we can go anywhere.”

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