John DeVito, 25, said he decided to take a leave of absence as a third-year student at D.C.’s George Washington University Law School to run for a seat in the New York State Senate in a district on Long Island, where he was born and raised.
DeVito, a Democrat who’s gay, said he’s running because he believes he can make a difference for his district and his state on the issues he cares most about – education reform, tax relief for middle class families, environmental protection, the curtailment of corruption and special interest influence in the state capital in Albany and improved state support for veterans, among other issues.
It goes without saying, he said, that he would be a strong advocate for LGBT rights in a state legislature that has approved legislation legalizing same-sex marriage and banning discrimination based on sexual orientation but has yet to approve a transgender non-discrimination measure.
He notes that the New York Legislature also has yet to pass legislation banning so-called gay conversion therapy for minors similar to such legislation approved by other states and by D.C.
“This is really my opportunity to take a risk for something I believe in,” he told the Washington Blade. “And that risk necessarily means putting law school on hold.”
If elected, DeVito would be the youngest member of the state legislature. He would also become the legislature’s sixth openly gay member. Manhattan Democrat Brad Hoylman is currently the sole out gay member of the N.Y. Senate.
Four out gay or lesbian members hold seats in the State Assembly – Deborah Glick (D-Manhattan), Daniel O’Donnell (D-Manhattan), Harry Bronson (D-Rochester), and Matthew Titone (D-Staten Island).
DeVito’s first hurdle in running for the State Senate seat is a Sept. 13 Democratic primary in which he is being challenged by two candidates. Political observers familiar with the district point out that one of the challengers, Joseph Fritz, raised just $608 during the most recent campaign finance reporting periods and the other candidate, Rick Montano, did not report raising any money for his campaign. This suggests the two may not be considered serious contenders.
If DeVito wins the primary he will face one-term Republican incumbent Tom Croce in the November general election in a district that most observers view as Republican-leaning in generally GOP-leaning Suffolk County.
As of the June 29 reporting deadline for campaign contributions, DeVito had raised a total of $81,917 compared to Croce, who raised $382,367, according to the state board of elections campaign finance office.
DeVito points out that the latest campaign finance reports show Croci currently has $131,000 in “cash on hand,” compared to his cash on hand figure of $45,000.
“Although I am currently at a financial disadvantage, winning the primary will allow me to harness momentum for media, fundraising and voter outreach, which will allow me to start closing the gap,” he said. “A gap of $85,000 is one that I aim to close.”
In June, the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a national group that helps raise money for LGBT candidates for public office, endorsed DeVito, opening the way for him to receive contributions from a wide range of donors across the country.
“Victory Fund is proud to have John DeVito as an endorsed candidate,” said Victory Fund spokesperson Elliot Imse. “New York is a state with a high level of equality for LGBT people – but there is still work to do,” he said. “Having DeVito as another openly LGBT leader in the state legislature will help push forward equality in the state.”
Also endorsing DeVito were two prominent communication workers union locals and Suffolk County Legislature members Rob Calarco and Kate Browning, who said DeVito worked on her first election campaign while he was a high school student.
“He’s extremely smart and has a lot of energy and is a hard worker,” Browning said. “He knows the issues of the community and he knows the issues overall on Long Island.”
Among the areas within the Third Senate District, where DeVito is running, are the mostly gay Fire Island communities of Cherry Grove and the Pines. However, most of those who spend the summers there are New York City residents who can’t vote in DeVito’s race. DeVito said he’s hopeful that some will contribute to his campaign.
While some consider the Third District to be GOP-leaning, DeVito notes that President Obama won the district by a comfortable majority in 2008 and 2012 and that a Democrat held the seat in the district up until 2014, which DeVito calls a “fluke” election year in which Republicans made electoral gains due to dissatisfaction with Democrats nationwide.
He said he expects Democrats to do far better this year due, among other things, to strong dissatisfaction with GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Asked if he might have a disadvantage because of his young age and his sexual orientation as a candidate on Long Island, DeVito said he has established himself as a multi-issue candidate in tune with the needs and concerns of the people of his district.
He said his role as a candidate who is taking leave from law school to run for public office isn’t unprecedented in New York.
“In fact, I draw inspiration from Theodore Roosevelt, who in the late 1800s looked to Albany and saw outrageous corruption and decided to put a hold on his studies at Columbia Law School to go and take on that corruption,” said DeVito. “At the time he became the youngest State Assembly member ever. And two years later, he was minority speaker of the Assembly.”
Added DeVito: “I don’t know if I can pull all that off. But Teddy has certainly been a source of inspiration.”