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Same-sex marriage supporters aid Mesi State Senate shift to Democrats is goal

Ronald Ansin has never met Joe Mesi, has never been to the Buffalo area and readily admits he knows nothing of the ins and outs of Mesi's State Senate campaign.

But that didn't stop the Massachusetts shoe company heir from donating $4,000 to Mesi's bid to become a state senator representing the northeastern suburbs of Buffalo. And Ansin didn't pause when he recently wrote another $19,000 in checks to five other Democratic Senate campaigns around the state.

What was the driving reason to send his money to New York's State Senate battlegrounds?

"A realization that there's an opportunity to secure for the people of New York the same rights with respect to same-sex marriage that we have here in Massachusetts," said Ansin, who lives outside Boston. A Buffalo News analysis shows at least $510,000 has been pumped into Democratic efforts to take control of the State Senate from groups and individuals who support same-sex marriage laws. Much of the money has come in during the past six weeks, and a large part of it is flowing from out of state.

During a nine-day period last month, Mesi received about $37,000 from individuals or groups who in one way or another have ties to organizations that support same-sex marriage rights. In June, during an interview on WBEN radio, Mesi said he opposed same-sex marriage.

Earlier this week, on the same radio station, he said he supports the right.

Efforts have intensified in recent years to permit same-sex marriage in New York -- now legal in California, Massachusetts and, most recently, Connecticut. The Assembly last year passed a same-sex marriage bill, and Gov. David A. Paterson has indicated he supports the right.

But the Senate, dominated by Republicans for seven decades, has declined to bring the measure to the floor for a vote.

Now, supporters of same-sex marriage see opportunity, if Democrats can erase the slim GOP majority in the Senate -- now at 31-29 with two vacancies -- and win just a couple of the half-dozen seats in play during the upcoming election.

"I'd like to see the Senate flip. I would like to see marriage equality in New York and everywhere else," said Andrew Tobias, an author from Miami who is also treasurer of the Democratic National Committee. He recently gave $4,000 to New York Senate Democratic candidates.

"It's kind of crazy that New York would be dominated by Republicans for so long," Tobias added.

The donations are flowing mostly to six Democratic candidates -- from Long Island and Queens to Rochester and the 61st Senate District in the Buffalo area.

The money is also heading to the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, the chief fundraising arm for the party's efforts to retake the Senate.

Donors were identified either through public statements made on the issue or through those close to organizations that promote same-sex rights. The donations also were checked against similar donations to committees in California pushing to stop a ballot initiative that would make same-sex marriage illegal.

The biggest single donor in recent months has been Tim Gill, a software entrepreneur and philanthropist from Denver who is a major benefactor of gay marriage efforts. He donated $109,000 to Democratic Senate candidates and the state party in recent months, along with $50,000 to Empire State Pride Agenda, a leading organization pushing for marriage-equality laws in New York. Gill did not return calls or e-mails seeking comment.

The Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C., gay rights group, has donated $73,000 -- most of it late last month -- to Senate Democratic causes, including $9,400 to Mesi. Officials of that organization did not return calls seeking comment.

Opponents of gay marriage rights say the money flow is providing an unfair advantage to Democratic candidates.

"We can see the writing on the wall if the Democrats take that house," said Dennis Poust, a spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference, the official voice of the church's bishops in the state.

"We have a governor who supports same-sex marriage very strongly, and we have an Assembly that has already passed the bill. It's hard to see a scenario where that bill doesn't become law right off the bat," he added.

Conservatives are already upset with Paterson for directing state agencies to recognize gay marriages performed elsewhere. And Poust said he sees the out-of-state donations as especially worrisome.

"It may be perfectly legal, but it doesn't seem right. This argument ought to be debated on its merits without the influence of big money from out of the state," he said.

Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, a Manhattan Democrat who is gay and was a leading advocate of the 2007 same-sex marriage bill that passed the Assembly, said not all Senate Democrats support the measure so it is not certain the initiative would be approved swiftly if the GOP loses control.

In a statement, the Mesi campaign -- without addressing the candidate's change on the issue -- said it doesn't ask "whether our contributors are gay or straight . . . We accept contributions from people who believe we need change in Albany," the campaign said.

In his own statement, Mesi said donors agree with his positions "and trust in my independent leadership."

Other donors include David Bohnett, a Beverly Hills, Calif., entrepreneur and founder of the Internet company GeoCities, who pumped in $1 million opposing a gay marriage ban in California and donated $10,000 to New York Democrats; David Dechman, a Manhattan investment executive, who donated $20,000, including $4,000 to Mesi's campaign; Weston Milliken, who runs a California consulting business; Ted Snowden, a Manhattan theatrical producer; Henry Van Ameringen, a New York philanthropist and International Flavors & Fragrances heir; and Esmond Harmsworth, a Boston literary agent.

They did not return calls seeking comment.

Why would a Massachusetts resident care about New York politics?

"I'm also a resident of the United States," Ansin said. ". . . Where there's an opportunity to advance the constitutional rights of Americans, I'm for it."


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