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Marriage vote echoes in Senate primary

McDonald faces challenge for GOP line amid shifting political landscape



Contributing writer



If there’s a political cost to state Sen. Roy McDonald’s pivotal vote for same-sex marriage, it will be measured this month when the senator faces a rare intraparty challenge from Saratoga County Clerk Kathleen Marchione.

Republican voters across the newly redrawn 43rd Senate District will go to the polls Thursday, Sept. 13, to decide whether to support McDonald’s bid for a third term or to make Marchione their party’s nominee.

Incumbent state senators in New York usually enjoy easy passage to re-election and almost never face challengers from within their own political parties. But McDonald, R-Saratoga, has been a target of religious and social conservatives since June 2011, when he and three other Republicans joined most Democratic senators in supporting the Marriage Equality Act, which legalized same-sex weddings in the state.

McDonald, who had voted against same-sex marriage two years earlier, said last year he was changing his vote to support the measure because, “I’m trying to do the right thing.”

The vote made McDonald a hero among gay-rights supporters across the state, but it infuriated some former allies in his home district.

Although Marchione says her campaign is driven by dissatisfaction with McDonald’s record on a variety of issues, such as his support for continuing an income-tax surcharge on New Yorkers earning more than $1 million a year, she has acknowledged from the outset that the incumbent’s switch on same-sex marriage was a major factor in her decision to run.

“You can’t tell people you don’t support gay marriage and that you won’t vote for gay marriage and then vote for gay marriage,” Marchione said in April when she announced her intention to challenge McDonald. “In short, you can’t tell people you share their values when you don’t.”

Marchione has been the Saratoga County clerk since 1997 and previously served as supervisor and clerk in the town of Halfmoon. She gained statewide attention in 2007 when, as county clerk, she said she would refuse to carry out a proposal by then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. Spitzer later abandoned the idea.

McDonald was first elected to the state Senate in 2008. He previously served in the state Assembly and as the town supervisor in Wilton, where he championed a wave of retail and commercial development near the Northway.

Reconfigured district
One hurdle for McDonald this year is that he’s campaigning for re-election in a reconfigured district where many voters aren’t familiar with him from past elections.

The old 43rd Senate District included all of Rensselaer County plus most of Saratoga Springs and nine other communities in Saratoga County. The new district extends south and east to encompass all of Columbia County as well as the Washington County towns of Easton and Cambridge. It no longer includes the cities of Rensselaer and Troy or the Saratoga County towns of Clifton Park, Malta or Milton, though it adds the towns of Wilton and Greenfield.

The new district is slightly more Republican than the old one. Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by about 63,300 to 50,800 in the new district, compared with a 73,000-to-62,000 advantage previously. Independent voters – those who haven’t enrolled in a political party – number 48,500 in the new district compared with 59,000 in the old one. (The new Senate districts represent smaller populations than the old ones because the Legislature expanded the Senate by one seat, to 63 members, under the redistricting plan approved earlier this year.)

McDonald has received endorsements from the Republican Party organizations in Rensselaer and Washington counties. But party committees in Columbia and Saratoga counties are divided and haven’t made endorsements in the race, although John “Jasper” Nolan, who is retiring as the Saratoga County GOP chairman this month after 27 years, says he personally supports McDonald.

Both candidates have picked up endorsements from town-level GOP committees. In a rebuke to McDonald, the Republican organizations in his longtime hometown of Wilton and in the town of Saratoga, where he now lives, both have endorsed Marchione. Marchione also received the endorsement of the Virginia-based Gun Owners of America.

Some party members fear a tough race between McDonald and Marchione could leave both candidates wounded.

“I’m not a big fan of primaries,” said Rich Crist, the town Republican chairman in Schodack and a member of the Rensselaer County GOP’s executive committee. “There rarely is a good outcome. It tends to split supporters.”

A closely divided Republican vote could be important in November because, depending on the outcome of a separate Conservative Party primary on Sept. 13, both Marchione and McDonald could appear on the Nov. 6 ballot.

“The primary, in some ways, will not settle anything,” said Bob Turner, an associate professor of government at Skidmore College.

If both McDonald and Marchione draw a substantial share of votes in the general election, the advantage could shift to Democratic candidate Robin Andrews, the Claverack town supervisor, who is unopposed for her party’s nomination. And a victory by Andrews in November could potentially threaten Republicans’ slim 32-30 Senate majority.

Even if he loses the Republican primary, McDonald will remain on the November ballot on the Independence Party line.

The Conservative Party line is up for grabs. Until this year, McDonald had run on both the Republican and Conservative lines throughout his legislative career. But before last year’s vote on same-sex marriage, leaders of the party made it clear they would not back the re-election bids of any Republicans who supported redefining marriage in New York.

The state Conservative Party has endorsed Marchione. But in July, another candidate, Ed Gilbert of East Greenbush, filed petitions to compete with Marchione for the Conservative line in this month’s primary. McDonald has since acknowledged that several of his campaign workers helped to circulate petitions for Gilbert, though he denies his campaign and Gilbert’s are coordinated.

Shifting loyalties
McDonald first won his Senate seat in 2008 with 59 percent of the vote, and he was re-elected in 2010 with 58 percent of the vote against Democratic candidate Joanne Yepsen, a county supervisor from Saratoga Springs who mounted a spirited campaign.

But predicting how the general election might shape up this year is difficult because of redistricting, the fallout from McDonald’s marriage vote, and uncertainty about exactly who will have which ballot lines.

“I think the key thing is, what kind of a turnout is there going to be?” said Turner, the Skidmore professor.

Voters not affiliated with either the Democratic or Republican parties potentially account for nearly 30 percent of district voters and could play a decisive role.

Campaign fund raising in the race so far reflects the shifting allegiances triggered by McDonald’s marriage vote.

Saratoga Springs entrepreneur Elliott Masie, who calls himself “fiercely independent,” organized Saratoga’s Obama for America campaign in 2008. This year, he has hosted two fund-raising events for McDonald.

“When Roy agreed to be one of the four Republicans to take what is, in my opinion, a patriotic stance, we made the decision to support him,” Masie explained after hosting a McDonald fund-raiser last month that was attended by the singer David Cassidy as well as lawmakers on both sides of the same-sex marriage issue, including Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who voted against the Marriage Equality Act.

McDonald’s campaign has attracted financial support from gay-rights supporters around the state and beyond. Cards distributed at a gay pride rally in New York City last summer after the marriage vote, for example, urged those attending to donate to McDonald’s campaign and reward him for “standing up for your equal rights.”

Campaign finance reports filed in early August showed McDonald with a war chest of more than $340,000, compared with slightly less than $60,000 for Marchione.

‘Shove it’ comment at issue
Although McDonald may be drawing support from Democrats and independents, neither group gets to vote in this month’s primary, which is open only to registered Republicans.

For its part, the Marchione campaign has been using McDonald’s shift on same-sex marriage – and his comments on the issue – as part of an effort to paint the incumbent as arrogant and out of touch with his constituents.

“It’s an issue more for the way Roy acted than of the vote itself,” Marchione spokesman Ken Girardin said.

A Marchione campaign video features a clip of McDonald in 2011 talking about his reasons for supporting same-sex marriage.

“He told constituents, ‘Take the job and shove it’ if you don’t like it,” Girardin said.

But McDonald spokesman Michael Veitch says the senator wasn’t talking to constituents when he made that remark.

“He was talking to the Albany press corps who, at the time, were at a fever pitch on the issue, and he was being very blunt,” Veitch said.

McDonald made the comment on the day he announced his support for same-sex marriage, at a time when he and other wavering Republicans were under intense pressure from conservatives and religious groups to maintain their opposition to the proposal. He became the second of four Republican senators to break ranks.

The New York Daily News reported at the time that the senator said:

“You get to the point where you evolve in your life, where everything isn't black and white, good and bad, and you try to do the right thing. You might not like that. You might be very cynical about that. Well, f--- it, I don't care what you think. I'm trying to do the right thing. I’m tired of Republican-Democrat politics. They can take the job and shove it. I come from a blue-collar background. I'm trying to do the right thing, and that’s where I'm going with this.”

The comment appears to have aggravated the sense of betrayal felt by some of McDonald’s former supporters.

Elaine Gerber, the vice chairwoman of the Wilton Republican Committee, told a New York Times reporter earlier this year that McDonald’s “shove it” comment was a factor in her decision – and that of her committee – to endorse his opponent.

“If I said that to the person who hired me, I would be fired,” Gerber said. “Obviously, he didn’t care if I fired him.”

The politics of same-sex marriage could get more complicated, though, if both McDonald and Marchione draw significant support this month – and if both candidates remain on the November ballot with Andrews.

Andrews was elected supervisor in the Columbia County town of Claverack in 2009, defeating a longtime Republican incumbent and becoming the first Democrat elected to the post in 35 years. She married her partner of 15 years in 2011, shortly after the passage of the Marriage Equality Act.




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