ALBANY — Just months before he was chosen as the next state Senate GOP leader, Sen. Rob Ortt, R-Niagara County, used his campaign fund to buy $350 worth of tickets supporting an evangelical group that tried to thwart expanded rights and protections for gay New Yorkers, according to state records reviewed by CNHI.
Ortt's support for the New Yorkers Family Research Foundation prompted openly gay Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, the author of various measures expanding protections for homosexuals, to call on the Senate's newly-minted GOP leader to slice his ties with the right-wing organization.
"It's outrageous that the new Republican leader has given money to a well known homophobic organization that peddles hate against LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer) people," Hoylman said.
The group is the educational arm of an advocacy organization, New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, said the Rev. Jason McGuire, the director of both organizations.
McGuire and Ortt spokesman Andrew Dugan said the Ortt campaign expenditure represented the cost of the tickets for a fundraising event for the New Yorkers for Family Research Foundation the senator and his wife, Meghan, attended last October.
The organization, according to a statement of its views on sexuality on its web site, emphasizes that "the Bible forbids homosexual behavior."
The foundation also teaches that "when a man claims to be a woman or a woman claims to be a man, such claims are dishonest."
The evangelical group's influence at the statehouse has waned considerably since a Democratic surge in the 2018 elections caused Republicans to lose their control of the Senate in 2019. Last year, civil rights for gays were expanded with the enactment of the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act. The state also enacted a ban on so-called gay conversion therapy, a practice that involved attempts to change a person's sexual orientation.
McGuire, who is also the Livingston County Conservative Party chairman, was on the losing end of both battles, while Hoylman had a significant role in driving both measures to enactment.
Dugan, asked if the senator supports civil rights protections for transgendered persons, initially said Tuesday he would provide a written response after conferring with Ortt. Dugan later indicated Ortt had no comment on the matter.
Asked about Ortt's support for New Yorkers Family Research Foundation, Dugan said, "Whenever you give to a group, no one ever aligns perfectly with everything the group believes in."
Dugan also noted the foundation is "a pro-life group, which the senator supports." He also pointed out both the foundation and Ortt have conservative views.
In 2011 and 2012, McGuire's advocacy group played a role in a rift within the Senate GOP conference over same sex marriage legislation.
New York legalized same sex marriages in 2011, two years after it was proposed in 2009 by then Gov. David Paterson. His successor, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, signed it into law after four GOP state senators broke ranks with their colleagues and crossed the political aisle to join Democrats in backing the controversial measure,
In 2012, while Ortt was the 33-year-old mayor of North Tonawanda, McGuire's group launched attacks against the Republican senators who favored the same sex marriage measure as they were facing primaries from conservative challengers. Only one was re-elected, and one dropped out to avoid the looming challenge.
Gerald Benjamin, a veteran observer of New York politics and the vice president of regional engagement at the State University at New Paltz, said if Ortt and other Republicans want to reverse the party's fortunes, it would be prudent for them to steer away from having an ideological test when recruiting candidates and instead bring in people capable of building coalitions among different constituencies.
Benjamin also suggested recent history shows attempts to frustrate advances in civil rights for gay people can be counterproductive in New York. "There are gay Republicans who are important players downstate," Benjamin noted.
Gerry Kassar, the chairman of the state Conservative Party, contended progressive Democrats such as Hoylman who criticize the evangelical right for being intolerant are often themselves intolerant of those with views that differ from their own.
"These are not one-issue organizations," Kassar said of Christian conservative groups. He noted he believes the Family Research Foundation has positions that "reflect the views of a great many New Yorkers, though maybe not so much in Manhattan (a bastion for liberal Democrats)."
"We're very comfortable with Senator Ortt on a slew of issues, from social issues, to economic issues to criminal justice issues," Kassar said.
Hoylman, however, said Ortt "needs to send a message to New Yorkers that he is open to working with all of our citizens no matter what their background is."
Ortt served as mayor of North Towanda for five years before becoming a senator in 2015.
North Tonawanda Alderman Austin Tylec, an Independence Party member who is the city's only openly gay elected official, said he is unaware as to whether Ortt shares the Family Research Foundation's opposition to civil rights protections for gay and transgendered people.
But if he does, Tylec added, "I would like to think he would be willing to change his views. Times change, and when people's opinions change there is nothing wrong with that."