Allegations of ugly homophobic job discrimination in the state Legislature are pitting a longtime gay activist against a veteran, though controversial, Democratic state senator, both of them from Queens.
For now, the matter sits before the state Division of Human Rights, a fact that apparently is a relief to the senator’s colleagues, who are reluctant to comment on the record about the case.
However, the leader of the Democrats in the state Senate, David Paterson of Harlem, was quoted in the New York Daily News on May 16 saying, “She said she didn’t say those things, and I believe her.”
The “she” in this case is Ada L. Smith, an eight-term senator who is chair of the Minority Conference, making her the Senate’s third-ranking Democrat, after Paterson and Eric Schneiderman, who represents the Upper West Side. Smith is an African American.
“Those things” involve a stream of invective and abuse that P. Wayne Mahlke, an Elmhurst gay activist long a leader in both the Lesbian and Gay Democratic Club of Queens and the Queens Lesbian and Gay Pride Committee, alleges Smith hurled at him during the eight months he served as her chief of staff, a $50,000-a-year position, in 2003.
“She told me to stop ‘swishing my faggoty ass,’” Mahlke told Gay City News, “that the only way I would be happy would be with a cock in my mouth.”
According to the Queens activist, those comments were the most extreme examples of an abusive attitude that Smith displays with many of her employees. At other times, he claimed, she threw a chair at him and called him “white trash.”
After the incident with the chair throwing, Mahlke said, he contacted Paterson’s office, and was only told that Smith was difficult but that nothing could be done about it. In December, when he insisted he would no longer tolerate his boss’ abuse, he said he was fired.
Last month, Mahlke filed a complaint alleging abuse and discrimination based on his sexual orientation with the Division of Human Rights, which is investigating his allegations.
Smith categorically denies Mahlke’s claims. Pointing to her support for gay rights and AIDS issues throughout her Albany career, the senator insisted she did not use the language that Mahlke claims and never made derogatory reference to his sexual orientation. In fact, she said, Mahlke had done the name-calling, shouting at her that she was a “cold-hearted bitch.”
Fanes Saintil, a legislative aide who has worked for Smith for more than a year, said his memory squares with the senator’s, down to the slur that they both said Mahlke made against her.
“If I was anti-gay, why would I have hired Wayne in the first place since even the most basic look at the affiliations on his resume indicated that he was gay?” Smith asked.
Instead, Smith said, her differences with Mahlke related to his job performance, to the fact that he didn’t meet the “much higher expectations” she originally had for him. She said that one ongoing problem was her chief of staff’s refusal to move to Albany. According to Mahlke, however, Smith did not originally make moving to Albany a requirement of the job, and he said that he traveled there roughly four times between April and July, after which time the Legislature was out of session for the rest of the year.
Smith offered a different account of Mahlke’s visit to Paterson’s office in October. She said she sent him there as part of a disciplinary effort in the wake of his mishandling of events surrounding the dismissal of another staff member. Mahlke fired the employee during the summer at Smith’s direction, but by September the young woman had filed a complaint with the Human Rights Division alleging that she was let go because of a disability that required her to leave work promptly at 5 p.m. for physical therapy. According to Smith, Mahlke replied to the complaint with a notarized statement which he did not run past her and which was contradicted by a tape recording the former employee made of her dismissal meeting with him.
Mahlke insisted that all of his actions on the matter were taken with Smith’s approval.
Meanwhile, the woman who was fired, Thomasa Jarrell, is taking Mahlke’s side in his dispute with Smith. Though she named Mahlke in her complaint, she has always been convinced that she was fired at the behest of the senator, who she said “had Wayne do the dirty work.” Though she never heard Smith make any anti-gay comments directly to Mahlke’s face, she said the senator would refer to him as a “faggot” behind his back.
“Normally when she was mad at an employee she would play them against each other,” said Jarrell, who spent five months working for Smith, against whom her complaint is still pending. “She would do it to our face and sometimes to other people to make us feel like less of a person.”
Allegations that Smith has made homophobic comments were also seconded by Mike Schweinsburg, an out gay New Yorker who has worked in politics. He said that when Smith attended a gay pride ceremony hosted last June by Paterson, she became upset because the seat saver posted on her chair neglected to include her middle initial. “What faggot put that label on my chair,” Schweinsburg recalled her demanding of him.
Asked about that charge, Smith said she never met Schweinsburg, but noted that she knew that he and Mahlke were longtime friends.
Doug Greene worked for Smith for just over a month in late 2002, and came forward in the wake of news about Mahlke’s complaint to detail the problems he said he faced with the senator.
“There were times when she could be quite pleasant. Most of the time she was abusive,” Greene told Gay City News. He specifically cited having file folders thrown at him and being called “a smart-assed white boy,” “a naïve white boy,” and “an asshole.”
“The ostensible reason she gave for firing me was that I was not functioning as a team player,” Greene said.
Since hearing of Mahlke’s complaint, Greene said he has pursued complaints based on things he witnessed in Smith’s office separate from his own treatment, including the possibility that the senator might not reside in her home district, which is required under state law.
Smith said she has already been notified of allegations Greene made to the Senate Ethics Committee regarding her residency status and about what she described as his claims that she had two “no-show” employees. She defended the work of the two employees named, who she said are both compensated at less than full-time salaries, and maintained she has resided in her current home in Queens, within the district, for more than four years, since before the time her district was redrawn to exclude her former home in Brooklyn. She explained that she still has some belongings in the Mitchell-Lama apartment in Brooklyn where she lived for 35 years, currently occupied by her godson.
Smith offered to let Gay City News review records for her home in Queens.
The senator said that Greene is also alleging that she required senate employees to do political work for her, which she denies, and that he has contacted the attorney general’s office as well as the Senate Ethics Committee.
Asked about Greene’s contention about her name-calling, Smith responded, “I recall that he called me a ‘black such and such’ the day I let him go, and I called him an asshole. Yes, I can be caustic, and in this business I better be.”
The senator speculated, “I guess [Greene] saw Wayne getting publicity, and wanted to get some himself.”
Mahlke’s complaint and the recollections of others who have come forward in its wake are not the first brushes Smith has had with controversy.
Earlier this year, she was convicted of disobeying a state police officer after she sped through a security checkpoint set up in an Albany parking garage in the wake of 9/11. In 1998, she was subdued with Mace after she allegedly bit a police officer in Brooklyn during a traffic dispute.
LaSone Garland-Bryan, who worked for Smith in 1996, told Gay City News that she quit after the senator waved a knife she was using to cut a bagel at her throat in a menacing manner during an office argument. Smith noted that Garland-Bryan never filed any complaint, criminal or otherwise, against her as a result of the alleged incident and recalled that the knife she was using at that moment was plastic.
Mahlke expressed disappointment that Paterson, who has been a strong supporter of gay rights in Albany, has failed to take his complaints seriously. In a letter to Schneiderman, Paterson’s deputy, he said that the minority leader’s statement supporting Smith “in effect states that I am a liar.”
Mahlke is particularly critical of the treatment he has received from Paterson’s chief of staff, Woody Pascal, and Francisco Moya, another of his staffers. A supporter of Mahlke’s, who insisted on anonymity, brought it to the attention of Gay City News that campaign contributions made by Pascal, as recorded by the New York State Board of Elections, have gone to only three politicians—Paterson, Smith, and state Sen. Ruben Diaz, a Pentecostal minister in the Bronx, who has often clashed with the gay community, most recently over his opposition to public funding of Harvey Milk High School and his support of a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
Pascal did not return the newspaper’s phone call seeking comment on the Mahlke matter.
Schneiderman responded, but declined comment on the specifics of the case, saying Mahlke had chosen the Division of Human Rights as his “vehicle” for redress, “which is probably just as well.” Queens state Sen. John Sabini, who Mahlke said represents him in Albany, said he has known the gay activist for years, but also said he would withhold comment as the case is investigated.
Sen. Tom Duane, the only out gay member of the state Senate, did not return a call seeking comment.