City Council members at a Pride march (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)
The City Council’s LGBT Caucus could shrink after the 2021 elections, with all five current caucus members -- including Council Speaker Corey Johnson -- prevented by term limits from running for reelection next year, when all of city government will be on the ballot. However, there are more than a dozen openly LGBTQ candidates running throughout the city to replenish and perhaps grow the ranks of LGBTQ representation in city government, encouraged by advocates and current Council members who launched “LGBTQ in 2021,” an effort to elect more LGBTQ candidates to the 51-seat Council, and inspired by “21 in ‘21,” a similar campaign to elect more women to the Council.
These efforts come as LGBTQ candidates in New York have recently achieved state and national firsts. Mondaire Jones in New York’s 17th Congressional District (Rockland and northern Westchester) and City Council Member Ritchie Torres in the Bronx’s 15th Congressional District appear likely to become, respectively, the nation’s first gay black and gay Afro-Latino members of Congress. In Brooklyn, Jabari Brisport could become New York’s first gay Black state legislator, if his large lead holds in the 25th State Senate District Democratic primary. Kristen Browde was vying to become the state’s first trans legislator in the 93rd Assembly District, but appears to have come up slightly short in a close race.
“What people thought was not possible has become possible,” said Samy Nemir-Olivares, a queer Puerto Rican-Dominican who won his race for District Leader Assembly District 53 (Williamsburg and Bushwick) last month. “Five years ago, we couldn’t get married because of the law. Now, we’re seeing the evolution of the LGBTQ movement from activism and organizing to electoral work.”
“It is very impressive because LGBTQ people are a small number of the population, so it takes a lot more for an LGBTQ candidate to face these challenges of stigma and discrimination,” Nemir-Olivares told Gotham Gazette in an interview. “A majority of our community isn’t enough to win an election, so you have to build coalitions. It’s an act of faith and an act of perseverance.”
As attention turns from the 2020 primaries to the 2021 city government elections, Gotham Gazette revisited the LGBTQ in 2021 effort, which appears to have lost momentum but, after inquiries and as the city rebounds from the coronavirus crisis and the calendar moves ahead, may see new life.
In part through conversations with candidates and advocates, Gotham Gazette has identified at least 15 LGBTQ candidates currently running for City Council in 2021, including in every borough except Staten Island. Erik Bottcher (Council District 3), Phelan-Dante Fizpatrick (CD 3) Chris Sosa (CD 5), Billy Freeland (CD 5), Seth Rosen (CD 6), Marti Gould Allen-Cummings (CD 7), and Kristin Richardson Jordan (CD 9) are running in Manhattan; Elisa Crespo (CD 15) is running in the Bronx; Rod Townsend (CD 22); Alfonso Quiroz (CD 25); and Lynn Schulman (CD 29) are running in Queens; and Crystal Hudson (CD 35), Chi Ossé (CD 36), Josue Pierre (CD 40), and Wilfredo Florentino (CD 42) are running in Brooklyn.
The City Council has never included a trans person, a non-binary person, or queer Black woman, and has not included any openly gay women at all since 2017. That could all change for the start of the next Council session, in January 2022, with several potentially historic candidacies.
How much of a concerted, organized effort there will be to elect LGBTQ candidates to the Council and other city government positions remains to be seen.
“LGBTQ in 2021 was a great idea and it brought together a group of experienced LGBT political operatives. However, once we tried to codify the idea, it appeared ten different people had ten different ideas as to the best way to go forth,” said Melissa Sklarz, a government relations strategist at SAGE, a former co-chair of both the Empire State Pride Agenda and Stonewall Democrats, and a newly-elected District Leader in Queens — one of two trans candidates, along with Emilia Decaudin, who won such positions this year.
Several candidates and activists who Gotham Gazette spoke with for this story similarly expressed uncertainty or confusion over the current state of the formal LGBTQ in 2021 initiative. According to one LGBTQ Council candidate, as of this week, discussions are currently underway among the candidates to revitalize the effort using the infrastructure already established by the project last year.
Three Decades of LGBTQ Representation at the City Council
New York City elected its first openly-gay City Council members in 1991 when Antonio Pagán and Tom Duane won in Manhattan’s Districts 2 and 3, respectively. Duane’s district, which covers the west side of Manhattan from Hell’s Kitchen through Chelsea to Greenwich Village and SoHo, was specifically drawn during the 1991 redistricting with the intention of electing a member of the LGBTQ community to the Council (similarly, districts were also designed with the intention of electing Asian and Dominican Council members). For three decades now, District 3 has been represented by an openly gay Council member, from Duane to Christine Quinn, and currently Johnson, with both the latter two elected Speaker.
“Having LGBT people in the Council, myself as the finance chair and Corey [Johnson] as the Speaker, we’re able to give record levels of funding to LGBT organizations that had never been done before,” said Council Member Danny Dromm, a longtime LGBTQ activist and leader, in an interview.
Dromm was one of the first two openly LGBTQ Council members from outside of Manhattan, elected alongside fellow Queens Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer in 2009, and before that he was the first openly gay elected official in Queens, as a Democratic District Leader. He also cofounded the first Queens LGBT Pride Parade in 1993.
Dromm pointed to the $3.7 million allocated in the city budget to LGBT community-based organizations and another $2.3 million distributed to trans-focused organizations in fiscal year 2020 as evidence of the LGBT Caucus’ impact. “To be honest with you, it’s the LGBT members that bring it up and push it, so we need to continue to have LGBT folks doing that within the City Council,” he said.
“Oftentimes we are left out of conversations, although people mean well. It’s not that we’re excluded, it’s just that they don’t think to mention LGBT issues,” Dromm said. “It’s not just about having elected officials, but building institutions within our community and electeds can help with that, particularly through funding.”
“I think that there’s a greater acceptance and understanding of LGBTQ people, though maybe not as much for transgender and gender-nonconcomforming folks yet, and their candidacies are taken very seriously,” Dromm said, when asked about how running for office has changed for LGBTQ candidates in recent years. He highlighted the candidacies of Crespo and Allen-Cummings as having the potential to be the first trans and non-binary Council members, respectively.
A Special Election on the Horizon
Torres’ likely departure from the Council at the start of next year would trigger a special election sometime in February or March for Council District 15, which includes Belmont, Fordham, Tremont, Norwood, Parkchester, and Crotona Park. Three candidates were already running to succeed Torres. Given quirks election law and the calendar, there will be the special election early in the year to see who holds the seat for most of 2021 as well as regularly-scheduled June primary and November general elections for the next term, which begins January 1, 2022.
The election will also likely be the city’s first attempt at ranked-choice voting, likely concurrently with a special election to replace Donovan Richards in Queens’ 31st Council District as he ascends to the borough president’s office.
One candidate running to replace Torres in District 15 is Elisa Crespo, who currently works as an education liaison for Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and is a board member for the Stonewall Democrats, the city’s largest LGBTQ political club.
“I think people who have struggled the most and have been marginalized the most should be the closest to the decision-making table and because this is how I believe I can do the most good for the most people,” Crespo told Gotham Gazette in a recent interview.
“It’d be a big deal for a woman of color, especially someone who’s had a story like mine, which is a story of overcoming and triumph, to be able to hold this seat,” said Crespo, who was educated in New York City’s public schools and CUNY’s John Jay College and has lived in the city’s public housing system. “I’m a working class-Latina and a product of public institutions. I worked my way up out of nothing.”
Along with possibly becoming the first trans person to become a New York City Council member, she’s also among those hoping to be the first woman in the Council’s LGBT Caucus since 2017 (all five current caucus members are men). “An entire community’s voice has never been heard,” Crespo said when asked about the significance of potentially becoming the city’s first trans Council member.
Crespo’s two opponents in the race as of now are Oswald Feliz, a state committee member for the 78th Assembly District, and Community Board 7 district manager Ischia Bravo. According to July financial disclosures, Crespo has raised $16,707, while Bravo raised $17,546 and Feliz raised $4,747.
Council Candidates Attract National Attention
Last month, the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a national organization with the mission of growing LGBTQ representation in elected office, announced their first five endorsements for next year’s Council races, noting the importance of starting early in New York’s “tough” political landscape.
Those endorsees are Marti Gould Allen-Cummings, Erik Bottcher, Wilfredo Florentino, Seth Rosen, and Lynn Schulman.
Sean Meloy, the Victory Fund’s Senior Political Director, told Gotham Gazette, “we’re not done. These are the first five that have been in touch with us.” Victory Fund’s criteria for endorsements are that candidates must be openly LGBTQ and have a record of fighting for the community, support reproductive freedom, and show viability.
Meloy said a Victory Fund endorsement is a “stamp of approval” that signals to donors and other stakeholders that particular LGBTQ candidates have been vetted and have a shot at winning. He calls the fund “the gay Emily’s List,” referring to the organization that does similar work with women candidates. The two groups share some cofounders.
Meloy points to Torres’ recent success as an example of the Victory Fund’s work building a “pipeline” of LGBTQ candidates. The group backed Torres when he was first running for City Council in 2013 and then again early in his run for Congress. He says the group got the message out nationally that Torres was “the only viable progressive alternative to Ruben Diaz Sr.,” and worked to publicize more broadly Diaz Sr.’s record of homophobia and misogyny.
“We need to elect over 22,544 more LGBTQ people to offices around the country to even have a baseline level of parity in government,” Meloy told Gotham Gazette, noting that there are currently about 843 LGTBQ elected officeholders nationwide. That number has more than doubled since June 2016.
Candidates of Color Chart Own Path
“The LGBTQ movement was for a very long time led by a white face, but now it is a new moment,” said Nemir-Olivares, noting how recent Black Lives Matter protests coincided with Pride Month through demonstrations such as the Queer Liberation March against Police Brutality and Black Trans Lives Matter March. “We’re living at a critical moment at which identities and life experiences are coming into the forefront of political discussion.”
“The LGBTQ community is not in a silo,” Nemir-Olivares continued. “We’ve always been part of the racial justice movement, which includes a lot of queer activists. Before, people wanted to see them as separate issues, but candidates like Jabari Brisport and myself really represent that connection.”
Of the five current members of the Council’s LGBT Caucus, two are people of color, which is not reflective of the city’s LGBTQ population as a whole, which mirrors the demographic proportions of the general population (about three-fifths of New York City’s population is people of color).
“When we talk about the LGBTQ community in New York City, we’re not talking about cisgender white men,” said Wilfredo Florentio, a gay Black candidate running in Brooklyn’s Council District 42.
Florentino has raised $11,731 for his campaign, compared to $23,475 raised by his only opponent in the race, Nikki Lucas, according to the most recent financial disclosure reports.
Several LGBTQ candidates of color, including Florentino, are currently running across the city and, in June, six of them announced that they had formed “a coalition of Black and Brown progressive candidates this Pride Month that offers an historic choice to voters in next year’s elections,” according to a statement put out by the group. The list also includes Crespo, Crystal Hudson (CD 35), Chris Sosa (CD 5), Josue Pierre (CD 40), and Kristin Richardson Jordan (CD 9).
Florentino told Gotham Gazette that “POC LGBTQ candidates are not being considered viable. There is an air of viability as it relates to non-POC candidates, but BIPOC candidates have to work even harder to prove we are qualified.”
Nemir-Olivares agrees, noting that “the founders of the LGBTQ movement were a Black and a Latinx transgender women,” referring to activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.
“Representation matters. If we don’t see ourselves in officials that represent us, how can we ever aspire to serve our community in that way?” Florentino said. “When all of the focus is on non-BIPOC LGBTQ candidates, we are doing a disservice to POC-led movements like Stonewall.”
Richardson Jordan says she is “a Black queer democratic socialist and abolitionist on a mission to disrupt local Harlem district 9 with radical love.” While most of the 2021 LGBTQ candidates consider themselves progressives, Richardson Jordan appears to be the only one as of now who is a member of the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. She notes that she was calling for police and prison abolition even before the recent resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests.
This week, Richardson Jordan announced that she had raised $42,046, while incumbent Council Member Bill Perkins, who is not term-limited but may not be running for reelection, has not raised any funds towards a potential reelection campaign as of yet.
In Queens' Council District 25, Alfonzo Quiroz, who is of Mexican descent, is running to replace the term-limited Dromm.
Speaker's Heir Apparent
Erik Bottcher, currently Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s district chief of staff, is running to succeed his boss and be the district’s fourth consecutive openly gay Council member. Johnson told The City that he was fully backing Bottcher’s bid when his chief of staff announced in February and Bottcher is supportive of his current boss’ mayoral aspirations as Johnson eyes becoming the city’s first openly gay Mayor.
Bottcher previously worked for Governor Andrew Cuomo, first as a liaison to the gay and transgender communities during Cuomo’s 2010 campaign and then in Cuomo’s gubernatorial administration during the passage of marriage equality in 2011.
When asked how LGBTQ politics has changed in the decade since marriage equality was passed in New York, Bottcher told Gotham Gazette, “Ten years ago when I began in government, we were fighting for things like gays in the military, marriage equality, and visitation rights. We’ve made progress on those issues, but we have so much farther to go, particularly for transgender Americans.”
“Addressing inequities and disparities faced by trans people of color must include funding of programs. Government needs to show the money,” Bottcher said when asked what issues are currently most important for the LGBTQ community. “A strong LGBTQ [City Council] Caucus is needed to advocate for this during the budget process.”
“The next LGBTQ Caucus should have at least seven members, which is what we had until [the end of 2017] when Council Members Rosie Mendez and Jimmy Vacca termed out,” Bottcher said when asked what the ideal number of LGBTQ Council members would be.
“Any time policy is being discussed, people involved in the conversation have to be representative of our city,” Bottcher said, adding “if the people at the table don’t represent New York, that creates an opening for policy that doesn’t serve the people well.”
Bottcher currently has two opponents in the race for District 3, Marni Halasa and Phelan-Dante Fitzpatrick. Halasa is a lawyer and figure skating coach, as well as an activist for tenants’ rights and small businesses. Fizpatrick, who currently works at DSK Retail, is running to be the first gay Black person to represent the district.
As of the July financial disclosures, Bottcher has raised $114,356, the most of any non-incumbent Council candidate running in 2021, compared to Halasa’s $1,740 and Fitzpatrick’s $500.
COVID-19 & Community Responses
“As we look to recover from this pandemic, it’s going to be really important that we’re creating job and housing opportunity for the people who need them,” Crystal Hudson, the former First Deputy Public Advocate for Community Engagement under Jumaane Williams and a candidate in Brooklyn’s Council District 35, told Gotham Gazette.
According to her July financial disclosure, Hudson has raised $66,328 in campaign funds thus far, which is over ten times as much as her nearest opponent in that race.
“All issues are queer issues,” she said in an interview. “The queer community as a whole is in need of all the same things everybody else is in need of and, because we don’t always have access to the same resources, sometimes the need is far greater.”
Hudson pointed to the high levels of homelessness that LGBTQ youth experience as an example of how larger issues can have a particular impact on the LGBTQ community. “They experience homelessness as much as people who don’t fall into that category.”
“Now is as great a time as any for us to show the importance of centering a voice like mine as a black queer woman,” said Hudson. “We lead from a different place. I’m centered on community and I want to follow the lead of my community.”
During the pandemic, Hudson founded Greater Prospect Heights Mutual Aid, a volunteer network of neighbors supplying food and running errands, among other help, for people in need in Prospect Heights and the surrounding areas.
“Running as a black queer woman is always challenging and difficult. I think that’s why there’s not many of us in these spaces,” said Hudson.
“The Council has come a long way,” Hudson said, “but the fact that I have the potential to be the first or among the first two black queer women shows that we have so much further to go.”
by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette
Note: this article has been updated with the addition of Alfonso Quiroz.