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Night in the Museum

The main gallery at El Museo on Allen Street is a close space in any season; in late July, denied what remains of the lake breeze so far from the water, the heat and stillness of the room can be dizzying. Nonetheless, the parade of Democrats seeking the endorsement of the Stonewall Democrats of Western New York began with a dark-suited, buttoned-down Tim Kennedy, the incumbent state senator who made an about-face on LGBT issues when he first ran for the seat two years ago and has been consistent ever since, voting in favor of marriage equality last summer and sponsoring GENDA (the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act) this year, and presumably next year as well. His jacket buttoned despite the heat, Kennedy affirmed his positions for the audience of 15 or 20 Stonewalls, who seemed largely satisfied that they’d won an ally in Kennedy.

Kennedy’s only opponent in the race, Erie County Legislature Chairwoman Betty Jean Grant, did not attend the meeting.

There were just two hiccups in Kennedy’s performance: First, asked his position on permitting fracking for natural gas in New York State, Kennedy defaulted to an explanation that Governor Andrew Cuomo and any clear understanding of the issue awaited completion of a DEC study, followed by an assurance that he would vote for no measure that did not provide adequate safeguards to the environment—well recognized code for “I’ll follow the governor’s lead.” Second, asked if he would continue to advertise on the website of the e-pamphleteer Joe Illuzzi, whose homophobic rants and evangelical opposition to marriage equality have made him an enemy of Stonewall, Kennedy allowed that he probably would. He did not say why.

Kennedy was followed by the equally dark-suited Mike Amodeo, an attorney who lives in Hamburg and is one of three Democrats who would like to challenge Republican State Senator Mark Grisanti. (The other two are Al Coppola, who was the last to address the Stonewalls on Tuesday evening, and Chuck Swanick, the former Erie County legislator, who is taking money from anti-gay groups like the conservative National Organization for Marriage, and who is endorsed by the local Conservative Party, and who therefore did not waste his or Stonewall’s time seeking the group’s endorsement.) Amodeo, who has the Democratic Party’s endorsement, sounded stilted at first, uncomfortable; like Major Pollock in Terrence Rattigan’s Separate Tables, he left the subject pronoun “I” out of most of his sentences: “Went to Springville High School. Played football.” But his positions were consistent with the Stonewall agenda.

Someone asked what Amodeo’s uncle, a priest, thought of his support for LGBT issues; Amodeo replied that in fact his uncle the priest had died some years earlier, so he didn’t know, then added that another uncle, the priest’s brother, was gay, and so Amodeo had seen and understood the struggle to which that fact had committed both men. The audience was pleased; he was asked for information on fundraisers and volunteering.

For those keeping score on the issue, Amodeo said he supported a statewide ban on fracking.

Next came Assemblyman Sean Ryan, followed by Kevin Gaughan, who are embroiled in the most perplexing of local races. (Ryan wore a short-sleeved knit shirt with a union logo; Gaughan wore a suit but immediately doffed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves in deference to the heat.) The progressive Ryan did not need to burnish his LGBT-friendly credentials for the Stonewalls; he inherited and continues to advocate the positions of his predecessor, Sam Hoyt. Instead, Ryan talked mainly about reform of industrial development agencies and the NFTA—issues that matter to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identification. On the matter of GENDA, he affirmed his support and expressed his wish that Democrats better control the debate, which this year spiraled downward into absurd and offensive characterizations of the LGBT community and the bill’s provisions. When the floor was opened to questions, there were few. “Keep doing what you’re doing,” someone said. Ryan departed to canvass another neighborhood before heading home for the evening.

And thus came Gaughan before a roomful of activists who were by and large admirers of his government reform work and his advocacy for this region, but who he knew had no intention of endorsing anyone but Ryan. After he’d delivered a version of one of many speeches he has at his disposal—this one begins like an episode of The American Experience, a lyrically scripted celebration of Buffalo’s history and location, then slides into a catalogue of the region’s injuries and failures, and ends with a demand for better government and leadership—the questions he faced were largely practical: How can he effect government reform from the Assembly? (Answer: through voter referenda.) How can someone with his message expect to build necessary alliances with entrenched interests? (Answer: His record of building community alliances trumps the resistance his message meets among elected officials.) How does he differentiate himself from Ryan, with whom he shares so many positions? (Answer: Ryan, for whom Gaughan averred much respect, is a Democratic Party insider; Gaughan is not.) Finally, from Bruce Kogan, the question that has perplexed so many progressives who wish they could vote for both Ryan and Gaughan this fall rather than be asked to choose between the two. Shouldn’t Gaughan have run as a Democrat against Grisanti in the 60th State Senate District? “Aren’t you in the wrong race?” Kogan said.

Gaughan explained that he’d explored challenging Grisanti but had been frustrated by Democratic Party leadership, which he said shilly-shallied, noncommittal on his candidacy, while Grisanti continued to raise money. “I admit that I am ambitious,” he said. “I want to win.” He told the Stonewalls that he had concluded he had a better chance of winning a race against Ryan than against Grisanti, and so that was the race he’d entered.

It was clear that the answer did not fully satisfy the audience. Gaughan recovered his jacket from the back of a folding chair As he departed, Al Coppola, the long-time Delaware District councilman and short-term state senator, breezed coolly into the room in short sleeves, smiling, ready for his closeup.

Out on the sidewalk, Gaughan, who had stood before the Stonewalls for more than a half hour, said that it was important to him to appear before the Stonewalls and explain his candidacy. He said that he believed his core group of volunteers were a match for the Democratic Party apparatus to which Ryan has access. And many political observers agree: Gaughan’s name recognition throughout the district may more than balance the benefits of Ryan’s brief incumbency. It may be a close race.

Less than 10 minutes after Coppola had walked in the door, applause drifted out of the gallery door, followed by Coppola—still cool, still smiling, although, like Gaughan, he knew he didn’t stand a chance of winning the Stonewall endorsement. Amodeo had it in the bag. “I didn’t talk as long as you,” he said to Gaughan cheerfully, then crossed the street, climbed into his car, and drove away in the direction of the setting sun.

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