Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/192 Mon, 19 Feb 2018 20:03:05 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Anti-LGBT City Council Members Given Prominent Positions http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7469:anti-lgbt-city-council-members-given-prominent-positions http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7469:anti-lgbt-city-council-members-given-prominent-positions Corey Johnson Fernando Cabrera City Council

Above: Corey Johnson and Fernando Cabrera (photo: William Alatriste) (photo below: John McCarten)


When new City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, the first openly gay and openly HIV-positive person to hold the powerful position, unveiled his leadership team and Council committee assignments, he appointed two anti-LGBT Council members to chair committees, and named one to senior leadership in the 51-member legislative body. The moves seemed to have raised few eyebrows despite the stark contrast with Johnson’s life story and politics, as well as the politics of the overwhelming number of Council members.

Johnson created a new committee for Council Member Ruben Diaz Sr., a conservative reverend who will chair the Committee on For-Hire Vehicles, and named Council Member Fernando Cabrera, also a socially conservative pastor known to hold anti-gay views, to lead the Committee on Governmental Operations and serve as the majority whip on Johnson’s senior leadership team.

Both members, who represent districts in the Bronx, are outliers in the largely progressive body, holding far-right stances on LGBT rights and social issues in general. Their politics seem out of place not only in the City Council but in an overwhelmingly liberal city where Republicans often nominate socially progressive candidates and vote along the same lines. Notably, the Bronx Democratic County organization was key to supporting Johnson’s winning speakership bid, and a number of Bronx members were rewarded in kind when it came to committee and leadership assignments.

Diaz Sr., a former state Senator and minister who founded the Christian Community Neighborhood Church, was the sole dissenting Democratic Senator on the state Legislature’s successful marriage equality bill passed in 2011. The bill was supported by four Republicans who were in the Senate majority. Diaz Sr. also voted against the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) last year in a Senate committee vote, is a vocal opponent of abortion and, in 2003, sued the Department of Education over plans to expand the Harvey Milk High School in Manhattan for gay students.  

Cabrera, the senior pastor at the New Life Outreach International church, has his own history of controversial statements and positions. In 2014, when he was serving his second term on the City Council, he praised the Ugandan government in a video posted online after it passed a law that criminalized homosexuality.

"Godly people are in government," Cabrera said of the country’s government, noting that gay marriage was not acceptable there and stating that the government had withstood pressure from the U.S. to allow it. “And they have stood in their place. Why? Because the Christians have assumed the place of decision-making for the nation.”

Following a furor over his remarks in 2014, he later insisted, “I do not support the persecution of gays and lesbians anywhere, whether it's in Uganda or right here in New York State.”

[Read: City Council Names New Leadership, Committee Chairs and Members]

For people familiar with Speaker Johnson’s personal history, which he wears on his sleeve, the move to empower the two conservative Council members could easily trigger a degree of cognitive dissonance. Johnson became famous as a teenager when he came out as gay while the captain of his high school football team in Massachusetts, and has often approached politics and legislation from the lens of his own lived experience. He represents a Manhattan district including Chelsea and the West Village, home to the gay rights movement and many of its leaders, including former State Senator Tom Duane, who Johnson has called a role model and mentor.

“For decades, the gay activist community has fought to keep people like Ruben Diaz Sr. and Fernando Cabrera out of positions of power,” said Allen Roskoff, a gay activist and president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, in a phone interview. “I find this shocking and cringeworthy.”

Several activists and elected officials were hesitant to criticize Johnson, whose election was celebrated by the LGBT community. But, Roskoff was not alone in his displeasure.

"Of course it's a big deal," said an LGBT Democratic insider, who requested anonymity to speak freely. "You have hate emanating from Washington on a daily basis; on the ground in New York City, bias attacks are happening more often; and to put two vocally anti-LGBT people in places where they have a bigger platform is really worrying and not something we want to see in a progressive body."

The insider also pointed out that Diaz Sr.'s and Cabrera's neighborhoods are where LGBT youth have long felt especially unsafe and unaccepted, and that those same young people need elected officials to be leaders for them, not spreading anti-LGBT sentiment that makes them less safe.

Assemblymember Deborah Glick, New York State’s first openly gay legislator, was similarly disappointed, though she said she did not want to “second guess” Johnson’s decisions as speaker.

“I was pleased to have Reverend Diaz removed from the Senate Democrats because his anti-choice and his anti-LGBT attitude and aggressive rhetoric was destructive and unpleasant,” she said. “I’m sorry they’re in elected office. Just as I would not want to spend time and energy seeing that people who are actively homophobic are not elected to seats in other parts of the country, I’m not happy to see them in elected office here. You would have to ask the speaker what went into his thinking in giving them prominent positions.”

Gotham Gazette did ask Johnson about the decision on January 11, shortly after the new committee chairs were approved by the full Council. Though he insisted that he disagrees with Diaz Sr.’s and Cabrera’s positions on LGBT issues, he said that just as he does with certain Republican Council members and those within his own Democratic caucus, his new position as speaker requires him to treat each member equally.

“I’m gonna treat every member of this body with respect...Everyone knows where I stand on LGBT equality. No one can question my credentials on LGBT equality and I’m the Speaker of the Council and we’re going to push the envelope to expand protections for all New Yorkers, transgender New Yorkers, LGBT new Yorkers, undocumented immigrants, Muslims, people of different religious faiths and beliefs,” he said. “That’s where I stand. I don’t agree with every member on everything but I’m still going to work collegially with every member of this body because that is part of my job now as Speaker of this Council.”

He also said that Cabrera’s view didn’t necessary align with his votes. Indeed, Cabrera voted in favor of a bill last year that banned gay conversion therapy in the city and supported a bill requiring the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to create a plan to provide behavioral health services to LGBT individuals. Durign the race to become Speaker, Johnson caught some flack for visiting Diaz Sr. in the hospital, a visit that Diaz Sr. referenced on the day Johnson was officially elected Speaker.

Fellow Council members -- including LGBT members such as Ritchie Torres, Jimmy Van Bramer and Carlos Menchaca -- also came to Johnson’s defense, insisting that conservative members would hardly have an effect on the larger policy agenda or leanings of the Council as a whole.  

“The foundation of this body requires us to listen to all sides of every issue and that’s what we’re going to be committed to this next session,” said Council Member Menchaca in a brief interview outside City Hall last week.

Council Member Van Bramer similarly said, “There’s good things that can come out of appointing a leadership team that is diverse and has opinions that contradict your own.”

Council Member Brad Lander, not a member of the LGBT caucus, echoed the view. “As long as the policies that we pursue represent the progressive values that [Speaker Johnson] articulated, that he continues to articulate, then I think it’s great to have a diverse leadership team in many ways,” he said.

Council Member Torres, from the Bronx, called Gotham Gazette upon hearing of the reporting of this article to show support for the speaker. The two members in question, he said, represent some of poorest districts in the city where it is a “particular imperative” to show equal representation. “I think it’s unreasonable to expect the Speaker of the Council to deny resources to lower-income districts simply because he rejects the social views of those who represent them. It’s unfair to begrudge the speaker for his obligation to represent everyone equally,” he said.

Ruben Diaz Sr. City CouncilTorres also refuted the possibility that the two members were rewarded for their support for Johnson’s ascension to the speakership, which owed to the backing from the Bronx and Queens County Democrats, as well as other members whose support Johnson had secured. Council members from both counties were handed the most powerful Council committees, with the land use committee going to Council Member Rafael Salamanca of the Bronx and finance to Queens Council Member Daniel Dromm, who is a member of the LGBT caucus.

“I think [Speaker Johnson’s] magnanimity transcends the normal transactions of the speaker race,” Torres said, noting that even though he also ran for speaker, he was given a plum position as chair of the newly empowered oversight and investigations committee. “I would do exactly what he’s doing as speaker,” he added.

“Winning coalitions reward their members,” observed one Council Member, who asked to remain unnamed.

Assemblymember Glick conceded that the speakership is a complicated position that requires keeping numerous stakeholders satisfied. “I’ve been in politics a long time and I understand that people in positions of authority have a very tough balancing act,” she said. “By the same token, I’m not happy about seeing people who have engaged in hateful rhetoric being given what in political terms would be seen as a reward.”

Regardless, she said, “I’m very proud of Corey. I consider him a friend and I will do whatever I can to make his tenure a successful and positive one.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

(picture inset: Ruben Diaz Sr.; photo by John McCarten)

Note - this article has been updated to clarify that Diaz Sr. was the sole Democratic Senator, not the only Democratic legislator, to oppose the state's marriage equality bill.

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Anti-LGBT City Council Members Given Prominent Positions Thu, 08 Feb 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Powerful Assembly Post May Be Vacant Sooner Than Expected http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7046:powerful-assembly-chair-position-may-be-vacant-sooner-than-expected http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7046:powerful-assembly-chair-position-may-be-vacant-sooner-than-expected farrell assembly floor

Assemblymember Herman Farrell (photo: The Assembly)


When Assemblymember Herman “Denny” Farrell, who heads the chamber’s Ways and Means Committee, announced he would not seek reelection next year, it set off a murmur about who might succeed him in the powerful -- and lucrative -- committee post.

Farrell, a Democrat elected to the Assembly in 1974 and the third longest serving member of the body, is known for his diplomacy and good natured bantering with Republicans and Democrats alike during budget hearings and on the Assembly floor.

Well-liked among his peers and beloved in his community, Farrell -- who represents Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood -- was recognized by the Legislature last week, when it voted to rename Upper Manhattan’s Riverbank State Park after him as part of a special legislative session dealing with mayoral control over schools.

Governor Andrew Cuomo also honored the Assembly member at a breakfast at the Executive Mansion on June 20, speaking in eulogistic terms of Farrell’s time in the Assembly and as former chair to both the Manhattan and State Democratic Parties.

“Denny also taught me politics was the means to the end, and that was getting into government to achieve power…not power you would use personally, not power to take care of some donors, to take care of some unions, to take care of the political complex — power to do good things for your people and for your community,” Cuomo said, according to a recording of his remarks obtained by Politico New York. “Government is about accomplishing things for people and making their life better. Everything else is bull----.”

While Farrell’s current two-year term is set to officially end at the end of 2018, the grand farewell he received in Albany and other indicators have signalled to many in Harlem that he plans to resign before January, when the Legislature is next due back in the capital. The move would virtually ensure the party nomination of his chief of staff, Rev. Al Taylor, in a special election, according one Harlem insider who spoke to Gotham Gazette on the condition of anonymity. For special elections to the state Legislature, the borough party committees name the party representative on the ballot.

“His departure is something that a lot of people Uptown are talking about. Farrell is putting a lot of his energy and political assets into his chief of staff, Al Taylor. Wherever Denny is, Al is nearby,” the insider said, noting that the Assembly office’s most recent quarterly newsletter featured Taylor more than Farrell. “All the signs point to Farrell's resignation being imminent.”

In addition to Taylor, Juan Rosa, a former City Council staffer and community activist, is considering a run for the seat, according to multiple people familiar with the district.

Farrell, who did not return a request for comment, has not confirmed any plan to vacate his Assembly seat before January 2019, when his term would officially end.

If Farrell does indeed leave before the end of the year, not only would Taylor have the inside track to the Assembly, but Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie would name a new Ways and Means chair, the top Assembly budget post below the Speaker, before the next budget season in Albany -- a move that would likely prompt a series of new committee chair appointments throughout the Assembly for the 2018 session.

“When you make one change, you make 30 changes. That is always the part that outsiders don’t understand,” said former Assemblymember Richard Brodsky. “Part of the calculus that any Speaker makes is not just how to fill that position, but how it will affect the entire food chain.”

As capital watchers have noted Farrell’s imminent departure, it has also become apparent that several female legislators are in line for the committee leadership job -- a post no woman has ever held before.

While new leadership appointments are made every year by the Speaker, the Ways and Means chairship is arguably the most powerful and well-paid committee position in the Assembly. It is also arguably the most challenging, as the committee is tasked with budget hearing leadership and examining any legislation considered by the body that has a fiscal component.

The position comes with a significant stipend. On top of the standard $79,500 legislative salary, the Ways and Means chair earns $34,000, on par only with the $34,500 stipend received by the Assembly Majority Leader, currently Joseph Morelle, of Monroe County. Other committees, such as Codes and Education, may deliberate over a comparably high volume of bills, but come with a stipend of $18,000 each. The Ways and Means chair also has access to a significantly larger staff than any other chair in the Assembly.

Geography and seniority have long played a role in who is selected for both leading Ways and Means and other top committees. For Ways and Means, other factors typically considered include knowledge of the budget process, diplomacy, ability to get along with Republicans in both legislative houses, and the stamina to sit through many hours of annual budget hearings.

The longest serving member of the Assembly is Richard Gottfried, of Manhattan, who is followed by Assemblymember Joseph Lentol, of Brooklyn. Gottfried, who has headed the Assembly Health Committee for more than 30 years, told Gotham Gazette he has expressed to Heastie and previous speakers that he is not interested in leading Ways and Means.

“I almost can't imagine how lucky I am to have had this job; it is just about a dream position for me,” Gottfried said of leading the Health Committee. “I love being able to focus on health policy and consider myself enormously happy to have this job.”

He noted that the Speaker must ultimately assess the person’s ability to speak on behalf of the Assembly majority's view of the budget and be someone who can represent the diverse views of the Democratic Conference.

“The speaker has to be concerned with, among other things, maintaining the solidarity and cohesion of the Democratic Majority because there are always a lot of forces eager to pick us apart,” said Gottfried, who is currently focussed on trying to see single-payer health care passed in New York.

An obvious choice for Heastie might be Lentol, the second most senior member of the Assembly, who has held his seat since 1972 and has served as chair of the critical Committee on Codes since 1992. Lentol competed against Heastie in the race to replace former Speaker Sheldon Silver in 2015, as did Assemblymember Catherine Nolan, of Queens, the sixth longest serving Assembly member. Lentol did not return a request for comment on whether he was interested in the Ways and Means position.

Assemblymember Robin Schimminger, who represents a swing district encompassing Niagara and Erie Counties, follows Lentol and Farrell in seniority, but his district geography and more moderate place on the political spectrum could rule him out for such an influential position in the New York City-focussed conference.

While women have historically been underrepresented in the Legislature, including in leadership positions, for the first time in history, several are in the mix for the Ways and Means post, including Nolan, who was first elected in 1984, Assemblymember Helene Weinstein, of Brooklyn, who is the fifth longest serving member of the Assembly, having been elected in 1980, and others.

Weinstein chairs the highly technical Judiciary Committee and Nolan heads the Education Committee.

Between Weinstein and Nolan on the seniority list are Brooklyn Assemblymember Dov Hikind and Assemblymember David Gantt, of Rochester.

Female Assemblymembers Vivian Cook, of Queens; Earlene Hooper, of Nassau County; and Deborah Glick, of Manhattan, also rank among the 15 longest serving lawmakers in the 150-seat chamber. Glick has the distinction of being New York's first openly gay person elected to the state Legislature. She has been outspoken on a range of progressive issues and chairs the important Higher Education Committee.

Seniority withstanding, Heastie has made an effort to provide leadership opportunities to newer members in a way his predecessors did not, according to members of the Assembly who spoke to Gotham Gazette.

“I think we have noticed that under this leadership [Speaker Heastie] has managed to bring a few new members, who have only been here a few months, to be chairmen of committees and subcommittees. It has never happened before. You know, it took me 20 years to get a chairmanship myself,” said Brooklyn Assemblymember Félix W. Ortiz, who chairs the Cities Committee and serves as Assistant Speaker.

He may also consider factors like gender, race, political beliefs, and other elements of diversity in making his decision.

“Geography used to matter, but once you open up that door of identity, lots of people walk in. The Assembly is blessed with about 15 people whose seniority and talent and experience is considerable, it’s going to be hard for [Speaker Heastie] to make a bad choice,” said former Assemblymember Brodsky, who chaired both the Committee on Environmental Conservation and the Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions during his nearly three decades in Albany.

A spokesperson for Heastie did not return a request for comment, nor did the offices of Assembly Members Nolan, Weinstein, Lentol, and Schimminger.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the location of Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle's district.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Powerful Assembly Post May Be Vacant Sooner Than Expected Tue, 04 Jul 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Assembly Members Propose Changes to Cuomo's Free-Tuition Plan http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6784:assembly-members-propose-changes-to-cuomo-s-free-tuition-plan http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6784:assembly-members-propose-changes-to-cuomo-s-free-tuition-plan skoufis assembly

Assemblymember James Skouis, right (photo: @JamesSkoufis)


More than 30 members of the state Assembly have signed a budget letter to their Speaker, Carl Heastie, outlining an alternative version of the free college tuition proposal being championed by Governor Andrew Cuomo that they want Heastie to adopt for the chamber.

The Assembly members, all Democrats, aim to make Cuomo’s plan more inclusive of the middle class and to ease proposed aid restrictions for the students at New York public universities who stand to benefit from the program.

The letter, drafted by Assemblymember James Skoufis of Orange and Rockland Counties, recommends three changes to the governor’s Excelsior Scholarship, which Cuomo unveiled in January with the help of former presidential candidate and liberal icon Senator Bernie Sanders. It was the first and anchor proposal of Cuomo’s 2017 State of the State agenda.

Cuomo’s plan guarantees free tuition at city and state colleges for students from households earning up to $125,000 per year, and is designed to make college more accessible and improve graduation rates in New York State. While many low-income students are already eligible for significant state aid to afford college, Cuomo said his plan was to ensure many middle class students could also attend college tuition-free.

However, the governor’s plan has been criticized by college accessibility advocates for its restrictive four-year graduation requirements and “last-dollar” provision that supplements tuition costs only after Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) and Pell grants have been expended. Currently, students who are eligible for full tuition aid are not compelled to use Pell funds for tuition, rather they can be designated for books, transportation, and other college-related expenses. Many are mindful that tuition is not the only college cost and want to see the governor take that into account.

The Assembly members’ letter asks Speaker Heastie to include in the Assembly’s one-house budget a tuition plan that rejects the "last-dollar" component of the Excelsior Scholarship as well as the 15-credit per semester requirement. With Democrats strongly in control of the chamber, they have a solid chance to see their proposal included in the one-house plan -- which, along with the Senate’s budget proposal, is expected to be released later this month. The Senate is narrowly controlled by Republicans, who have been warm to Cuomo’s tuition-free idea, but expressed concerns about how it will be paid for.

The Assembly letter also recommends the scholarship be applied to students from households earning up to $175,000 per year.

“SUNY and CUNY campuses host an undergraduate population that totals nearly 650,000 students,” the letter states. “Additionally, over 160,000 students are enrolled in Open SUNY and earning online credits towards a degree. Yet, the Excelsior Program is projected to benefit only 32,000 students once fully implemented in fiscal year 2019-20. This amounts to less than 5% of the entire undergraduate population.”

Skoufis has proposed a similar “tuition-free New York” bill, which has been introduced in the Assembly every year since 2014, but the legislation never made it past committee. He says many middle class families are excluded under the current Cuomo proposal.

The Assembly member cited the example of a household with two full-time teachers, each of them earning an average of $77,000 per year. However, he noted, if they live in particular zip codes, they may face high living expenses or exorbitant property taxes. “If you have two teachers in your household, by any standard, that’s a middle class household. Yet, they are going to fall above this threshold and get zero help,” Skoufis told Gotham Gazette.

He also criticized Cuomo’s “punitive” provision that would drop students from the program if their course load fell below 15 credits at any point. According to Skoufis’ bill, students would be required to graduate a two-year college within three years or a four-year college within five years to remain in the program -- it is the equivalent of 12 credits per semester. “There needs to be some flexibility here,” he said.

The proposed changes echo some of the criticisms of the Excelsior Scholarship raised during last month’s joint legislative budget hearing on higher education. Deborah Glick, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the Assembly higher education committee, said the committee intends to put forward its own proposal, one that addresses all aspects of the higher education budget and the way it impacts CUNY and SUNY schools.

“My feeling is we could perhaps utilize those resources in a way that would help SUNY and CUNY, if the goal is completion,” Glick said, in an interview, of state money that would go toward tuition-free college. “We want to look more broadly at how we can use the same amount of resources to assist a larger number of students to finish their degrees and to do so with little or no debt.”

Other criticisms, which have been raised by higher education committees in both chambers, concerned insufficient state funds going to the schools’ operating budgets, a proposed restriction on TAP funding for private colleges that increase their tuition more than $500, and a “punitive” tithing on money raised by CUNY foundations for tuition assistance.

The Skoufis-led proposal drew praise from advocates. "Fortunately, this plan recognizes the majority of students take more than four years to graduate and that most middle income families still need support beyond tuition relief,” said Kevin Stump, Northeast Director of Young Invincibles, in a statement. “However, while these proposed improvements are a big step forward, the state will still need to address the inadequacies of the Tuition Assistance Program."

In January, the Independent Democratic Conference, which is in a power-sharing coalition with Senate Republicans, released its agenda, which includes an expansion of the TAP. The IDC is at times able to sway the Senate GOP majority into adopting positions that may be more favorable to Democrats. The Assembly Minority also supports TAP expansion.

Prior to a February 15 deadline, Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, received hundreds of letters from legislators recommending measures to be included in the chamber’s one-house budget proposal, which will be discussed by the Assembly over the next two weeks.

Of the Assembly members’ tuition proposal, Michael Whyland, a spokesperson for the speaker, said, “We are discussing the issue with our members.”

When reached for comment, the governor's office stood by the Excelsior proposal, but did not indicate whether Cuomo would be amenable to the suggested changes. "Our goal is to provide as many New Yorkers as possible -- regardless of race or religion; gender or orientation; documentation or ability; Zip code or lineage -- the opportunity to go to college tuition free, and that goal is met with the Excelsior Scholarship program," said Cuomo's spokesperson Dani Lever via email.

A new state budget is due by April 1, which is the start of the next fiscal year. Cuomo is likely to insist that some version of his tuition-free program is in the final spending plan for the state’s 2017-2018 fiscal year.

The story has been updated to include a comment from Cuomo's office.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Assembly Members Propose Changes to Cuomo's Free-Tuition Plan Wed, 01 Mar 2017 05:00:00 +0000