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Grisanti on gay vote: hero or villain? State senator tells how he agonized over choice

As State Sen. Mark J. Grisanti drove home to North Buffalo early Saturday after casting the 33rd vote to legalize same-sex marriage, the stinging texts and threatening e-mails already were coming into his cell phone.

"I just probably committed political suicide," Grisanti told a reporter for The Buffalo News shortly after midnight as he made the westward trip on the Thruway.

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

The 46-year-old freshman senator, a Republican, also received a personal call from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat who had pushed for the measure and, just minutes earlier, had signed it into law.

Overnight, Grisanti's Facebook account also was deluged with more than 3,000 new "friends," and his Senate floor speech explaining his decision was getting thousands of hits on YouTube.

The Friday night speech and, later, his rush out of the chambers following the bill's passage clearly showed how Grisanti had agonized over his vote.

"It was a very, very hard decision for me to figure out," he told The News. "I know I disappointed a lot of people with that decision."

In the days before the vote, he had come under intense lobbying by both sides.

Cuomo pushed for his vote. So did Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, a longtime advocate of same-sex marriage. Hundreds of gay and lesbian activists, along with their families and supporters, sought his support. Lady Gaga got into the fray, calling on fans to tell Grisanti to vote for the bill.

But he also got an earful from Western New York leaders of the Republican and Conservative parties, who warned him to stick to his campaign pledge to oppose such marriages. African-American church leaders also clearly told him he would lose their support if he supported the legislation.

Even his wife, who attend Catholic services each Sunday, indicated she would be disappointed, Grisanti said.

> Campaign pledge

As the bill began making its way through the Legislature, Grisanti became an obvious swing vote.

A registered Democrat at the time, he ran as the Republican candidate in November's election, scoring a surprise victory over Antoine M. Thompson, the Democratic incumbent in the heavily Democratic district.

He persuaded Republicans and churchgoing African-Americans to vote for him, in part, by promising to oppose same-sex marriage.

After the election, Grisanti began researching the subject. He also met with constituents on both sides. He studied the legal issues -- adoption, wills, hospital visitation rights and civil unions.

"I have never in the past four months researched an issue or met with so many people and groups on a single issue such as this," he said in his speech Friday night. "I have struggled with this immensely, I can tell you that."

Back in March, Grisanti sat down at a luncheon in Buffalo with about a dozen gay and lesbian leaders and their supporters, including clergy. It was organized by Kitty Lambert, founder of Outspoken for Equality, which she had formed with her partner, Cheryle Rudd, and Hoyt.

The gathering included a lesbian couple with children; an elderly mother of a gay man; Allentown business owners; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists; and leaders of churches where same-sex wedding ceremonies already were being performed.

"Our goal was not to convert the senator," Lambert said Saturday. "This was about giving the senator all the honest and accurate information we could and [expressing] why this was important."

Many who know the senator say he appeared moved by the stories, even tearing up once.

Lambert's group continued to lobby Grisanti, organizing letter writing campaigns and even persuading Lady Gaga to urge her fans to tell Grisanti to vote for same-sex marriage when she performed in HSBC Arena last March.

Hoyt, meanwhile, tried to convince Grisanti that he wouldn't be throwing away his career by voting for such marriages.

"I would maintain that, if he loses the endorsement of the Conservative Party, that will be made up for 10-fold by the amount of Democrats who not only would proudly vote for him but will work their tails off to get him re-elected," Hoyt said he told Grisanti. "He lost some conservative base, but picked up a huge political base of progressive Democrats and Republicans who will proudly associate themselves with his candidacy."

Grisanti also discussed his dilemma with former County Executive Joel Giambra, a family friend who had mentored Grisanti's successful campaign.

"I told him that on a vote of this importance, he needs to vote his conscience and the politics will take care of itself," Giambra told The News.

> Meeting with Cuomo

Religious leaders also talked to Grisanti.

Earlier this month, Carol D. Speser, a chaplain and founder of the Stonewall Democrats of WNY, arranged for Grisanti to meet with her and four local rabbis. She knew that Grisanti had spoken in favor of "civil unions" and was alarmed by it.

"As a Jewish person born in 1948 [and] knowing people who survived the Holocaust, making me a separate legal class didn't rest easy with me," she said.

Several days later, Grisanti announced he was undecided on the issue.

"If I take the Catholic out of me, which is hard to do, then absolutely they should have these rights," Grisanti told The News. "It has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with my own personal belief."

About the same time, Grisanti talked about his potential vote with his wife.

"I said to her that I could vote for this, but I didn't want to be the deciding vote as a freshman senator," he said.

As late as Thursday, when he met with Cuomo in the governor's office, Grisanti continued to declare that he was on the fence.

"He said, 'Look, you've got to decide what you're going to do,' " Grisanti recalled of his conversation with the governor.

Passage of the bill was critical for the governor, who boasts of progressive roots but alienated the liberal wing of his party with his decisions to cut social programs and give tax breaks to wealthy residents.

Senators, meanwhile, worked up language to ensure that religious organizations would not find themselves in trouble -- in the courts or by losing some sort of state license or tax-exempt status -- if same-sex marriage were legalized.

By Friday, an amendment was prepared that made a key change: If the courts ever toss out the religious protection provisions in a discrimination challenge or some other case, same-sex marriage no longer would be legal in the state.

"It was the tipping point," Grisanti said.

> Challenges lie ahead

By 10 p.m. Friday night, Sen. Stephen M. Saland, a Poughkeepsie Republican, clearly indicated he would be the crucial 32nd vote needed to pass the bill. Minutes later, Grisanti rose from his seat and said he would make it 33.

"To those whose support I may lose, please know that in the past I was telling you what I believed at that time was the truth," he told his colleagues.

When the gavel struck, ending the historic gathering that made New York the sixth state to extend the right to marry to same-sex couples, Grisanti slipped out a side door and headed to his car in an underground parking lot.

"I didn't do this for publicity," he said.

Grisanti now faces the challenge of convincing people who supported him last year because of his pledge on same-sex marriage that he had changed his mind as a result of what he described as an inherent fairness for a class of people who had faced discrimination.

He says he hopes his constituents will focus more on his other efforts in Albany, which include pushing for the deal to help the University at Buffalo move its medical school downtown, as well as support for limits on property tax increases and restoration of some Cuomo-proposed cuts in money for schools.

He also cited measures handled by the Senate's Environmental Conservation Committee, of which he is chairman.

> Bishop 'disappointed'

Those unhappy over the vote included leaders of the Catholic Church.

Bishop Edward U. Kmiec was among those who signed a statement saying the passage of the bill "leaves us deeply disappointed and troubled."

"We strongly uphold the Catholic Church's clear teaching that we always treat our homosexual brothers and sisters with respect, dignity and love," it continued. "But we just as strongly affirm that marriage is the joining of one man and one woman in a lifelong, loving union that is open to children, ordered for the good of those children and the spouses themselves."

Speaking for Kmiec, the Rev. Gregory H. Faulhaber, a moral theologian on the faculty at Christ the King Seminary in the Town of Aurora, said Saturday he thought Grisanti "was doing what is most pragmatic" for a politician.

"He may have felt it was going by with or without him," Faulhaber said.

But Faulhaber also said he doesn't believe Grisanti should be banned from church.

"He certainly is a Catholic, and he is allowed to come to church. As a Catholic, he has an obligation to come to church. As far as whether he has sinned, I would not judge on that. The Eucharist should not be used as a tool to force people to do something one way or the other."

The Rev. William Gillison, pastor of Mount Olive Baptist Church in Buffalo, said he, too, was disappointed.

"I wish he hadn't done that," Gillison said. "That issue was very important for him even being elected in the first place.

"I'll try to say this the best I can," Gillison said Saturday. "I like him as a person. I like to feel when he came into office he had the potential for a great future, and I think this issue has perhaps derailed any future aspirations he may have politically. What this means as far as what he will have to deal with, I have no idea. I do know he was wrestling with it, and I prayed that he not do what he eventually wound up doing."

> A hero to others

But to others, Grisanti is a hero.

The call from Cuomo came shortly after the vote.

"He just said, 'I know that took a lot of courage,' " Grisanti said of his brief chat with the governor.

Though they come from different parties, Cuomo could try to help Grisanti politically next year, some have speculated.

Giambra said Grisanti's conversations with Cuomo have helped them form a friendship.

"I assume that will be a lasting friendship," Giambra said. "This was very important for the governor, as we all know."

He added: "Being friends with the governor is a good thing -- better than being an enemy of the governor. But I don't think that's what motivated Mark."

Giambra said he believes Grisanti has a bright future. "Mark showed tremendous courage," he said. "I think his popularity is going to increase when people see that he does not bow to political pressure. I think he's going to make a strong leader in the community."

Hoyt also voiced praise.

"I'm very proud of Mark Grisanti," he said. "It just showed incredible strength and integrity on his part to have cast that vote. I'm proud he's my senator."

But perhaps no one in Western New York is happier than members of the gay and lesbian community.

Lambert and Rudd are planning to get a marriage license the moment the law takes effect next month.

Speser said she never has been prouder to be from Western New York. Local efforts to sway Grisanti, she contends, were key in changing his mind.

"We pulled it off right here," she said. "I love Western New York. I love Buffalo. I'm proud of us."

News Staff Reporter Jay Rey contributed to this report.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com and mbecker@buffnews.com