On a recent Tuesday night, when State Senator James Alesi was introduced to a same-sex marriage celebration hosted by the Human Rights Campaign, a swanky Chelsea bar exploded with cheers and whistles.
“That’s exactly what it sounded like when I went to church on Sunday,” Mr. Alesi told a few hundred attendees. The audience, packed into the Hiro Ballroom of the Maritime Hotel, roared with laughter.
Mr. Alesi didn’t need to explain the joke. As the first Republican to announce his support for legalizing same-sex marriage—which passed on June 24, doubling the number of Americans who enjoy that right—Mr. Alesi has been happily transformed from an undistinguishable upstate Republican to a “gay icon” and aspiring spokesman for the cause.
Before being feted in Chelsea, and even before the bill had passed, Mr. Alesi had begun making the rounds as the Republican iconoclast who brought the crucial votes across (or down?) the aisle.
Four days before the vote, at a rally outside the Capitol, he began his speech by announcing himself as a Republican—“I was born that way,” he joked, in a reference to Lady Gaga’s gay anthem.
“I want to be a national emissary, I want to be an ambassador for freedom,” he told The Observer one night, standing outside the State Senate chambers in Albany. “I want to be an ambassador for equality.”
A few days after the bill passed, he chided no less than President Obama for “passing the ball” on same-sex marriage, in an interview with the Huffington Post. And, after an appearance with Chris Matthews on June 27, the Hardball host said, “This is obviously a very important guy.”
For marriage advocates, there’s a certain danger in making Mr. Alesi a national spokesman, given his litigious relationship with constituents back in his Rochester-area district.
“He’s got some credibility issues, locally, that don’t have anything to do with” same-sex marriage, said Monroe Democratic County chairman Joe Morelle.
While same-sex supporters would like to project the notion they can protect trailblazing legislators like Mr. Alesi—along with the three Republicans who followed him across the aisle and four Democrats who switched their votes—that could prove difficult in New York.
“The 2012 elections are going to be important on the statewide level,” said Ross Levi, head of the Empire State Pride Agenda, a gay-rights lobbying group. “We need to continue the narrative that no elected official has ever lost their seat by voting for marriage equality.”
The vote to legalize same-sex marriage in Albany was, also, the first ripple in what many speculate to be Governor Andrew Cuomo’s march to the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. While politely eschewing such talk as “silly” and premature, the freshman governor has said he would like the marriage vote in Albany to “resonate” across the country, which will be a lofty goal if Mr. Alesi and the other marriage cross-over votes are trounced at the polls next year.
The tricky part for Mr. Cuomo and Senate gay-marriage advocates is that their new “yes” votes came with some pre-existing problems.
A couple are in trouble with the law. State Senator Carl Kruger—who gave one of the more impassioned cases for the bill at a news conference in June—is currently under indictment in federal court on six counts of accepting bribes and is almost certain to face a Democratic primary next year. Democrat Shirley Huntley is being investigated by the state attorney general for funneling public money to a nonprofit she controls.
And some are on tenuous terms within their districts. Joseph Addabbo—who, like Mr. Cuomo, is a Catholic Democrat from Queens—is holding onto a seat that was long held by a
moderate conservative Republican and can never quite breathe easy during any re-election. Freshman Republican Mark Grisanti, who won by just 519 votes in one of the more surprising outcomes in recent memory, is trying to hold onto a district where his party is outnumbered nearly 5 to 1.
And then there’s Mr. Alesi.
Earlier this year, his 18-year political career was widely considered dead after one of the more stupefying scandals in recent memory.
In January, he filed a lawsuit against John and Janet Hecker, an elderly couple who owned an unfinished home where, three years earlier, Mr. Alesi had been involved in accident. Wanting to view the home and finding the front door locked, he entered the home’s basement through an unlocked back door, set up a ladder, promptly fell, broke his leg and had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance.
The Heckers declined to press trespassing charges, and Mary Wilmot, his Democratic challenger in 2010, decided against making it an issue in the campaign, worried it might confuse voters and cast her as a negative politician. After all, Mr. Alesi was having trouble anyway. Republicans were so fearful of an upset, they pumped $150,000 into Mr. Alesi’s campaign account on Oct. 15, followed by another $110,000 a week later and another $150,000 four days after that. He was the first Republican to go up with an ad tying his opponent—in this case, a soft-spoken woman who now runs a transitional housing nonprofit—to the Aqueduct scandal and those corrupt “New York City Democrats.” (Last week, Mr. Alesi stood on stage, basking in the applause of many of the ad’s villains.)
Then, two months after he narrowly won re-election, Mr. Alesi filed suit against the Heckers and the home’s developer,
claiming they had not sufficiently protected the property. The suit was filed on the exact day the three-year statute of limitations on the trespassing charge was set to expire.
The reaction was swift, brutal and widespread.
Rochester residents were apoplectic about a lawmaker suing his constituents as a result of his own negligence.
“Jim Alesi has become the poster child for vapid politicians of both parties,” wrote Bob Lonsberry, a popular conservative radio host in Rochester, who demanded Mr. Alesi drop the suit or resign. “He is the face of the scum that suck off the body politic.”
“State Sen. James Alesi is suing constituents when he should be apologizing for acting like an idiot,” read the headline of an editorial in the Daily News.
When Mr. Alesi eventually dropped the suit and apologized, Mr. Lonsberry wrote that he was inclined to forgive him, since “his likelihood of being re-elected is almost nonexistent.”
“Alesi is a lawsuit happy conniving scoundrel!” wrote the local Conservative Party chairman, Thomas Cook, in a statement. “[I]t is clear that State Senator James Alesi does not have the judgment, stability, or integrity to continue to represent us as our State Legislator.”
Mr. Alesi, in all likelihood, was going to lose the Conservative endorsement even before the party threatened to disown any senators who supported same-sex marriage.
“Alesi has always been soft on economic and social issues,” grumbled Mike Long, the Conservative state chairman, in a phone call to The Observer on Friday afternoon. “He was always a problem.” Mr. Long said a Conservative Party endorsement was now “off the table.”
In an interview with The Observer in Albany, one night before the vote, Mr. Alesi characterized his relationship with Conservatives as “weak” and the loss of their endorsement as “predictable.”
“But I’m hoping that my new relationships will make up the difference,” he said.
The lingering question for Mr. Alesi, and the Republicans who followed him across the aisle, is whether the donors who showered money on the same-sex cause and the activists who descended on the Capitol last month will be as active in 2012, with the victory already having been won.
Two Republicans—State Senators Stephen Saland and Roy McDonald, representing the Hudson Valley and Troy, respectively—are considered relatively safe members, having won in 2010 by comfortable margins.
State Senator Mark Grisanti, a freshman Republican who campaigned as a “no” vote in November before announcing on the Senate floor that he would vote “yes,” doesn’t have the same luxury.
On his drive back from Albany to his Buffalo-area district after the vote, Mr. Grisanti told a reporter for the Buffalo News that he had probably just committed “political suicide.”
Mr. Grisanti narrowly ousted an unpopular Democratic incumbent with strong support from Tea Party volunteers who opposed same-sex marriage, fearing it would burden the state with even more dependents.
On the Sunday before the vote, the leader of the local Tea Party group, Rus Thompson—who served as Carl Paladino’s driver and aide during the 2010 campaign—warned the freshman lawmaker about reversing himself on the issue.
“I told him I’m going to make it my mission to defeat him next time around,” Mr. Thompson recalled texting before he left for church.
“That’s when he responded, ‘Don’t threaten me, Rus.’ And I responded instantly back, ‘I don’t threaten, Mark. I promise.’”
Mr. Thompson said rumors that he would personally primary Mr. Grisanti are untrue, and that he is actively recruiting “in the black community” to find a challenger who opposes same-sex marriage. “A white person wouldn’t stand a chance,” said Mr. Thompson.
“Grisanti is going to be a test case,” said Michael Caputo, another former aide to Mr. Paladino, whose hometown candidacy helped carry Mr. Grisanti. “Will the gay-rights community, the human-rights community, get out there and help him? Because what he’s lost in his district are grassroots activists. The people who will decide whether Grisanti is re-elected are the ones who thanked him this week.”
Mr. Caputo, for one, said he thinks Mr. Grisanti can hang on, despite his same-sex marriage vote and the district’s overwhelming Democratic advantage.
“The question is, do they care enough about this social issue to throw over a solid vote for fiscal sanity?” he said of the largely blue-collar voters in the district. “The polls show that they don’t.”
The hope, for Messrs. Grisanti and Alesi, is that run-of-the-mill Republican voters won’t care enough to disown them over the vote and that progressive activists will care enough to work on their behalf. Before the vote, Mr. Alesi took some solace in his previous breaks with Republican orthodoxy.
“I have not stood with my conference rigidly when it comes to social considerations and that’s what would have been called a Rockefeller Republican many years ago,” he said before rattling off instances of his having challenged Republican leadership in the “local and state party.
“You know, some people say I’ve been a bit of a maverick all my life,” he said. “Some people would say I have a problem kissing ass. I think it could be a little bit of both.”
Whether progressive voters who applauded his stance on same-sex marriage will be drawn to support Mr. Alesi based on that single vote remains to be seen. His next Democratic challenger is likely to support same-sex marriage too, and to be to the left of Mr. Alesi on the kinds of progressive issues that would seem to be important to gay-marriage advocates.
Though Mr. Alesi considers himself “pro-choice,” NARAL Pro-Choice New York listed him as “anti-choice” in its 2010 voting guide, “due to multiple votes to end Medicaid funding for abortion, voting twice … in favor of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act and voting twice to ban certain abortion procedures, including those that are used to save a woman’s health,” according to a spokeswoman.
On a scorecard of environmental issues put out by EPL/Environmental Advocates, Mr. Alesi received a 58 (out of a possible 100) in 2010, five points above the average Republican, but 23 points below the average Democrat. (He notched a score of 29 in 2009.) The New York League of Conservation Voters endorsed Ms. Wilmot, his opponent last year. (Ms. Wilmot told The Observer she is currently undecided about whether to run again in 2012, saying she couldn’t discuss the politics due to her new position as head of a nonprofit agency.)
Mr. Alesi said his vote on same-sex marriage won’t lead him to tack leftward to court his new supporters. “Why would I reconsider that?” he wondered aloud, when asked about his votes on abortion. “I’m not thinking about re-assessing anything else,” he said.
“In today’s day and age, people don’t look at themselves as Democrats or Republicans. Most people are concerned about the economy, they’re concerned about jobs. This really is, on a percentage basis, a very small issue,” he said. “But on an emotional basis, it’s atomic.”
On the heels of his other troubles, Mr. Alesi’s vote for same-sex marriage appears to have detonated his relationship with the local party. Shortly after deciding he would support the bill, Mr. Alesi called to alert Bob Reilich, the Monroe County Republican chairman. “I think shortly thereafter, in a matter of seconds, we had an understanding,” Mr. Alesi recalled, “that our relationship was over.”
Mr. Alesi was recounting the story on a recent Wednesday morning, standing outside Gracie Mansion, where he had just been hailed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg as someone who “will go down in the history books as the legislator who turned the tide on marriage equality.”
If Mr. Alesi is in the waning days of his political career, he seems determined to make the most of his moment, although his quest to become a national voice comes with one nagging question.
Around Rochester, he is often seen dining with different women, and he travels with a young, attractive aide, Jill Joannette, who is short, has dimples and wears high heels.
But is he married?
“You want to know if I’m gay,” Mr. Alesi retorted. “There are people who think I’m gay. And I’ve been hit on,” he said.
“I was married a long time ago,” he added, without elaborating. Asked whether he might marry again, Mr. Alesi paused briefly. “I was going to make a joke and say, ‘When the right guy comes along,’ but I didn’t want you to print that,” he said, before reconsidering. “You can print it, but put it in as a joke.”