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Sign of the Times

Bombers owner uses a billboard to lobby Sen. Roy McDonald on same-sex marriage

by Taylor Morris on June 8, 2011

The debate over same-sex marriage took a very public twist last week, when Bombers Burrito Bar owner Matt Baumgartner bought billboard space near Interstate 787, calling for Sen. Roy McDonald (R-Saratoga) to support an impending bill that will grant same-sex couples the right to marry in New York.

The billboard, which reads, “To: Senator McDonald/Please support marriage for ALL loving couples” popped up late last week, with the Bombers Burrito Bar logo beside the text. The political message cost Baumgartner—the openly gay owner of Bombers, Wolff’s Beirgarten, and the blog fridaypuppy.com—just under $4,000 and will be up until June 20, the same day the Senate session ends.

Sen. McDonald is one of the few remaining “undecided” senators in the debate over marriage equality. Though the senator voted no on the issue in both 2007—then as an assemblyman—and 2009, he has left himself room for a change of position by not taking a definitive public stance in this year’s debate. Attempts to reach the state senator and his press office failed, and phone calls were not returned by press time.

“I thought a billboard would . . . reach a lot of people, make a big statement . . . and bring some sort of attention to the issue,” Baumgartner said of his decision to use the billboard medium. Baumgartner chose to address Sen. McDonald because he owns property in McDonald’s 43rd district and is considering opening another Bombers location in Troy, also part of the 43rd.

Baumgartner’s billboard, his self-described “simple and polite message to the senator,” has garnered much attention, and, as seen in a redacted email on his blog last weekend, brought some criticism to his phone line and inbox. The reaction has been “better than expected,” according to Baumgartner, who recognizes Albany as a “liberal area in general.”

“I was not expecting a huge backlash in my personal life,” the business owner explained, noting, “I can sleep better at night knowing that I can try and make this change.”

The change Baumgartner refers to may be only days away. Gov. Cuomo has openly stated he desire to see the Senate to vote on a same-sex marriage bill before the legislative sessions ends June 20. Quinnipiac poll numbers from released June 2 show 58 percent of New Yorkers supporting same-sex marriage, with support among 72 percent of Democrats and only 34 percent of Republicans. “New Yorkers support same-sex marriage, but their top priorities are the property tax cap and ethics reform,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, in a written statement released with the poll results. With Cuomo introducing new ethics legislation this week, that list of priorities is shrinking.

“It’s terrific for citizens across the state to do whatever is in their power to encourage marriage equality,” said Ron Zacchi, executive director of Marriage Equality New York, a grassroots, single-issue organization and political action committee dedicated to advancing the marriage rights of same-sex couples in New York. Zacchi continued, “For the senators that are undecided, its time to take the step and decide.”

Sen. McDonald has been the target of intense lobbying and focus, with interest groups and political parties vying for his support. MENY has had conversations with the senator in the past, and Zacchi is hopeful that McDonald will change his vote in 2011. “The senator, in discussions, had expressed . . . through education and more awareness of the intricacies of the issue. . . . had definitely looked at his choice and wondered if there was maybe another way of looking at it,” Zacchi said of the senator’s views.

Same-sex marriage opponents include Conservative Party chairman Michael Long, who has pledged to withdrawal support from any candidate supporting the issue. The chairman told The New York Times last month, “You say ‘I’m not for traditional marriage,’ you’re not going to get our endorsement. It’s as simple as that.”

For now, the billboard—the closest digital billboard to the Capitol—remains up. “It’s important to note, this isn’t a renegade statement. The governor himself is for it; the majority of Americans are for it. It’s going to happen,” Baumgartner said of same-sex marriage in New York, continuing, “It’s my life; I’m a gay guy; I’m not just temporarily concerned about this. If it fails this year, I’ll put that billboard up every year.”