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The bells are a-chiming: (l-r) Newlyweds John North and Andrew Burgreen of New York City with New Paltz Mayor Jason West. Photo by: Lauren Thomas

Just Get Me to City Hall on Time?
Municipalities test the waters of same-sex marriage and advocates file suit, while couples wait for answers

When San Francisco did it, New York scratched its head; could same-sex couples marry here? No one was sure. In the absence of a conclusive answer, some of the state’s municipalities hopped on the bandwagon, to greater or lesser extents, though the Capital Region’s localities have largely remained silent. Civil-rights activists are hoping that the next step, litigation, will lead to same-sex couples being allowed to marry in New York State.

Jason West, the Green Party mayor of New Paltz, turned more than a few heads by solemnizing 25 same-sex marriages on Feb. 27 and getting charged with 19 misdemeanors by the Ulster County district attorney for violating the state’s domestic-relations laws. West and Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s office are having ongoing conversations about the issue, though in a statement, Spitzer said, “I strongly urge other officials who might be considering solemnizing marriages to refrain from doing so.”

Still, same-sex couples were given hope when Spitzer issued an informal opinion stating that the state recognizes the validity of marriages performed out of state. In keeping with Spitzer’s opinion, officials of four localities—Nyack, Ithaca, Buffalo, and Brighton—affirmed their commitment to the recognition of same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.

“We’re hoping people throughout the state who care about this issue—gay and straight alike—will demand that their elected officials take the next step in doing all they can to give lesbian and gay families the support and equality that we need,” said Ross Levi, the director of public policy and governmental affairs for the Empire State Pride Agenda, a statewide advocacy group that concentrates on issues of equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender New Yorkers.

Spitzer weighed in last week with an opinion that New York law does not allow for same-sex marriages because it uses gender-specific language and legislators did not intend for it to include same-sex marriages at the time it was written. The Association of the Bar of the City of New York, however, found the language of the law gender-neutral, and concluded that in combination with the state’s public policy, that should make the marriages ultimately legal. That said, Spitzer also noted that presuming the law doesn’t allow for the marriages, it may be construed as unconstitutional due to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

This larger question of constitutionality will have to be tested in court, which is exactly what many couples, supported by civil-rights advocacy groups, have chosen to do.

Lambda Legal, a nonprofit devoted to achieving full civil rights for all LGBT people, filed suit in New York City on March 5 on behalf of a New York City same-sex couple who were denied a license. Lambda Legal was instrumental in the Supreme Court case last year that overturned sodomy laws. The American Civil Liberties Union and New York Civil Liberties Union have asked to join the suit filed against West, on his side, representing couples who are on the waiting list to be married by the mayor. (As of Wednesday, that list had more than 1,400 couples.)

Amy Tripi, one of the people the ACLU and NYCLU hope to represent, said she and her partner Jeanne Vitale are “going to see this through until hopefully we get a positive response from the courts on this issue.” While she admits it’s been a rollercoaster, Tripi said they are honored to be able to help fight for equality for same-sex couples. “Jeanne keeps saying it’s very humbling,” she said.

In Albany, Crista Livecchi proposed to her partner Rebecca Kreiger last May. Though they hadn’t yet set a date, when couples started to actually get married in the state in February, they felt the time had come. Their first thought was to just go somewhat quietly to Albany City Hall to ask for a license, but they have changed their minds, and now want to go with a larger group of same-sex couples. Oddly enough, they’re having a hard time finding anyone who will go with them.

The Capital District Gay and Lesbian Community Center’s executive director, Keith Hornbrook, said the center has been inundated with calls from curious couples and activists wondering what they should do, and the center has chosen to work on educational efforts rather than organizing “civil disobedience.” It will co-host a town meeting in Albany on March 23 at the First Presbyterian Church as part of a series the Pride Agenda is holding around the state. Hornbrook said the meeting is “not a call to action in the sense of encouraging people to storm the mayor’s office and the city clerk,” but is intended to direct energies toward contacting state and local officials and asking them to publicly support same-sex marriage and affirm the validity of marriages performed outside New York. Of course, Hornbrook said, “People do still have the ability to go down to Mayor Jennings’ office and apply for a marriage license and have it denied.” That could open the door to legal recourse.

While Livecchi welcomed Spitzer’s affirmation of the validity of out-of-state marriages in New York, she said that crossing borders to get married misses the point. “It seems to me ridiculous that we shouldn’t be able to do it here,” she said.

The Pride Agenda’s Levi agreed. “It certainly is not good enough for New Yorkers to have to travel to another place to get married. We should be able to stand up in our own communities and be recognized as married and have those rights and responsibilities.”

—Ashley Hahn

Keeping the peace: an activist at the Schenectady peace vigil on Tuesday (March 9). Photo by: Shannon DeCelle

A Year in Protest
Local peace vigilists find their numbers gradually dwindling, but the dedication of those sticking it out is as strong as ever

A few weeks ago, a man ap- proached the Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace, a group that formed last January to voice dissent against the impending war in Iraq, at its weekly peace vigil at the Four Corners in Delmar. “They got them both. They got them both,” he said to about 20 community members gathered to promote their revised message of ending the U.S. presence in Iraq. BNP member Leslie Hudson said she felt uneasy not knowing if he was offended by the group’s message, as he explained that he had lost a sister in the Sept. 11 attacks, and then a brother in Iraq. She realized this was not the case when he thanked them and told them to “stand tall, stand tall,” as he walked away.

“That’s the thing that keeps you doing what you’re doing,” Hudson said. “When you know what you’re doing is important to someone else.”

With the anniversary of the March 19, 2003, U.S. invasion of Iraq approaching, members of local peace vigils may be reminded of a time when larger numbers of people attended. Colder weather and the May 1, 2003, announcement of the offical end to combat operations in Iraq are likely factors in the decline in the number of people donating their lunch breaks or rushing over after work to attend the vigils. But the members who still show up say it’s important they still get their message of peace across.

“I personally feel good about all this time. Even though we couldn’t prevent [the war], we stayed out here with a positive message,” says Greg Giorgio, a member of the Good Friday Coalition, a group that formed to promote pacifism during the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan, and now to oppose the U.S. presence in Iraq.

GFC member Bertha Kriegler agrees. “We’re keeping alive the attention on what’s going on in our community and I think that’s worthwhile,” she said. The GFC has held a vigil in front of the Armed Forces Recruiting Center in Schenectady every Friday since September 2001. Giorgio said that 30 people were present at the first vigil, but that the number has dwindled down to four or five regulars now. “You get burnt out; winter was tough,” he said.

Frustration with the outcome of the Iraq situation can also be a drain on the motivation of vigilers. BNP member Peg Clement said she stopped attending the Delmar vigil at the outbreak of war, but returned in the winter. “I stopped after we invaded and I lost hope for a while,” she said.

Another reason for the decline may be pressure from the community. The vigilers in Cobleskill moved their vigil location to Union and Main streets after a group of local veterans began organizing vigils beside them in support of the war and President Bush. “We didn’t want our message to be that we were facing off our neighbor,” said Susan Spivac, a regular at the peace vigil.

“When the attack was upcoming, there were lots of honks with lots of people joining us,” she said, but added that there were more negative remarks and foul gestures from those passing by once the war began. “When the bombing was happening, people got frozen because it got hard to stand there when the message from the authorities was that you’re a traitor for it.”

Many agree that the reaction in the community has gone up and down with the start and end of war. “When there was no war going on, people were pretty much in sympathy with the vigil. The negative reactions came more when the war began,” said BNP member Gus Cadieux.

Jack Daniels, a regular at the Cobleskill vigil says, “At the time the war was heating up, we had more negative reactions with people giving us the finger and grimaces, but now that the people have seen us so long we’ve become good friends.”

Most say that the reactions now are generally in support of the vigils. “Once the body count was rising the climate changed,” said Girgio, adding that he thinks this is because no weapons of mass destruction have surfaced.

Members from the three vigils plan to attend the March 20 The World Still Says No to War march in New York City. BNP has organized for a bus to leave from Delmar that morning to the march, and activists say they’ll continue vigiling until the U.S. forces are called out of Iraq. GFC members also say that is their goal. The peace vigilists in Cobleskill, who have been having weekly vigils on and off since the Gulf War, have a broader agenda, and expect to keep vigiling on until more fundamental changes in foreign policy are made.

—Liz Healy

Safety in Elections
New York may be one of few states to ensure a voter-verified paper trail for electronic voting machines

In an initial victory for New York voters’ rights groups, the state Legislature recently took steps to install a safety net under upcoming election systems, passing bills through both the Senate and Assembly requiring electronic voting machines to produce voter-verified paper trails.

The new machines are scheduled to be the weapon of choice for more than 50 million American voters this November, and are part of a sweeping reform plan arranged in the aftermath of 2000’s controversial presidential election. The Help America Vote Act, passed by Congress in 2002, encourages states to drop the standard punch-card ballots in favor of electronic voting systems, and offers federal funds in order to ease the transition.

However, the new electronic voting technology is not without its share of criticism, as computer experts, voters’ rights groups and other critics claim that current electronic voting systems lack both the necessary programming to handle software errors and the security to combat tampering [see “But Who’s Counting,” July 31, 2003]. After the machines tally the votes and transmit the results via cable or phone lines, no physical record of the ballots is left behind—a condition that could prove disastrous in the event of machine failure or insider tampering or hacker attack. In their first major test, machines used in Maryland, Georgia and California during the recent Super Tuesday elections experienced significant problems, ranging from simple human error to programming issues and equipment failure.

“We’re certainly troubled by the recent elections in which electronic voting systems failed,” explained Sen. Thomas P. Morahan (R-New City), the legislation’s Senate sponsor. “It’s clear that the paper trail system is necessary.”

Despite the growing controversy and technical problems associated with the electronic voting system, vendors competing for the lucrative federal contracts have resisted a growing push toward paper-trail mechanisms. Machine vendors such as Diebold and Sequoia Voting Systems claim that the addition of a system in which voters can verify their ballots before committing them to a physical record would be costly and entirely unnecessary.

Legislators disagree. “Although we do believe that the computer system is reliable,” said Sherri Davis, special assistant to Assemblyman Keith L. Wright (D-Harlem), sponsor of the Assembly bill, “we want to have the paper records as a backup.” More than 30 states have already passed HAVA-compliant legislation, but only a dozen states have requested voter-verified paper trails.

Paper-trail legislation is far from a sure thing at this point, as the two bills passed by the state Legislature differ in several key aspects, including the way in which criteria are developed for the new machines and the types of identification to be accepted at polling locations. In order for New York to receive the $66 million of HAVA funding—as well as an additional $160 million at a later point—the state must comply with a strict set of deadlines over the next two years, including the passage of electronic voting legislation in the near future. While both houses have called for a conference committee in order to reach a compromise, a timeline for the negotiations has yet to emerge.

“If we’re able to put together a two-house package,” explained Morahan, “there should be enough latitude for the executive branch to push it through.”

Numerous calls to the governor’s press office were not returned.

—Rick Marshall

Between The Lines
Um, It’s a Doughnut Store

How much press coverage do several thousand doughnuts buy? Enough, it seems. In the months before Krispy Kreme doughnuts opened its first Capital Region store in Latham, all the press venues in the area (including Metroland) were deluged with boxes of unsolicited doughnuts. Not that we were complaining, mind you, but it seems the bounty—along with Krispy Kreme’s time-honored publicity stunt of getting customers to camp out in front of a new store by offering a free year’s worth of doughnuts to the first people in the door—made more than just the keyboards a little sticky.

The opening of the Latham store on Feb. 24 generated so much press you’d have thought it was the arrival of the Olympics. It garnered a front-page photograph and B1 story in the Troy Record, four stories in the Times Union, including a feature-length, front-page taste-test article in the Food section, and a long analysis in the Business Review.

Krispy Kreme’s success at getting newspapers that would never lavish so many inches on other ribbon cuttings to treat its store openings as news events has become so famous that it merited an American Journalism Review article last fall, and even a book, Making Dough: The 12 Secret Ingredients of Krispy Kreme’s Sweet Success, by Amy Joyner. “The media does feed the frenzy,” Joyner told AJR. “We help them with their marketing, there’s no question about it.”

A few of our local stories came perilously close to admitting this in the process of doing it. Krispy Kreme “spends very little money convincing people to try its products. Thanks to people like Mechanicville resident Kris Bruno, the company doesn’t have to,” begins the Business Review article. It then proceeds to give Bruno, and other doughnut fans, plenty of ink in which to be just the marketing machine Krispy Kreme hopes they will be.

“There are possibly a few folks in the Capital Region unaware that the area’s first Krispy Kreme store opened last week in Latham. These would be people who pay no attention to the news,” wrote Doug Blackman in the Times Union food piece. Yep.

Capital Region media can at least feel like we didn’t fall as deeply under the spell as Minneapolis. The Star Tribune sent four reporters to the opening of their first store in April 2002, and ran a gushing story on the front page that quoted Krispy Kreme’s own marketing consultant comparing the reaction to the store to a presidential campaign.

Indeed. The similarities even extend to news coverage, making us feel a little queasy.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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