When Republican State Senator Jim Alesi was introduced at the Human Rights Campaign party Tuesday night, celebrating last week’s passage of same-sex marriage, the audience exploded with cheers and applause.
“That’s exactly what it sounded like when I went to church on Sunday,” he said. The audience burst into laughter.
Alesi didn’t need to explain the joke.
Religious organizations had opposed the passage of the bill, as did most of his Republican colleagues. But nowadays, the adulations he receives are overwhelming, with many crediting him with breaking the seal — and signaling it’s okay for other moderate Republicans to come out (yes, pun intended) for same-sex marriage.
“The best story is the reverend on the right that was praying for marriage equality, and the reverend on the right who was praying against gay marriage. They’re praying to the same God,” said Alesi. “That created a dilemma for God and it created a dilemma for me,” he said, joking slightly.
Marriage advocates had gathered inside the basement of a swanky bar in Chelsea, hundreds of miles away from the rural Monroe County district Alesi has represented for years. A giant disco ball turned slowly. The word “Hiro” was etched into a chunky piece of wood over the stage.
The party was a who’s who of celebrities and advocates.
Russell Simmons, wearing a blue baseball hat and white sneakers, said he saw marriage advocates rolling out videos and pressing the case publicly, and decided to reach out to them.
“Why haven’t you called me?” Simmons recalled asking one of HRC’s campaign operatives, Brian Ellner. “I had been a long-time supporter and I felt excluded for a minute.” Simmons called the victory in New York “a great start” and “we’re on to Maryland next.”
Simmons poses for a few pictures with legislators before leaving.
Sean Avery of the Rangers, wearing a gray blazer, white t-shirt, silky blue pants and sunglasses, said that since his advocacy for same-sex marriage, “I’ve become extremely popular in Chelsea.”
Congressmembers Joe Crowley and Jerry Nadler loitered near the stage. Organizers kept a look out for the younger Barbara Bush — not only a supporter, but the star of the most-watched HRC video in a series they released on the issue. Nassau D.A. Kathleen Rice and her aide, Eric Phillips, were eager to shake as many hands as possible. Jennifer Cunningham, the political operative who orchestrated the effort among the various advocacy groups, slung a black book pack over her shoulders and left early.
But one of the evening’s biggest stars, Governor Andrew Cuomo, was still in Albany, working.
“I think he definitely has his eye on a bid for the White House,” said actor Mark Ruffalo, who has spoken out in favor of same-sex marriage. When I asked about Cuomo’s record on hydrofracking–another issue on which Ruffalo has spoken out–his wife, Sunrise, said, “Oh, you know about our other [issue].”
“I feel like these two are oddly connected to each other,” said Ruffalo.
“They’re so progressive, both of them,” said Sunrise. “It’s forward thinking.”
Ruffalo praised Cuomo’s ability to marshall the various marriage advocacy groups and said he hoped the governor would do the same thing with environment groups opposed to hydrofracking.
“I’m using this as a model,” said Ruffalo. “He reached out to me early on to ask me about energy policy in New York State. And if he was really smart, he would use this hydrofracking to pivot into a real energy policy for New York State, one that is leading the nation, just like he did with gay marriage.”