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Gay attorney cites his fresh ideas in crowded borough president race

When Brian Ellner, a 35-year-old gay attorney whose experience in elective office is limited to his 1999 victory in a District 2 Community School Board election, was asked how he will compete in a 10-person race for Manhattan borough president that includes competitors with experience on the City Council and in the State Legislature, he advanced what might be called the fresh-faced platform.

“A number of my opponents have been around for a while, while all the problems have gotten worse,” said Ellner, over breakfast recently at the Coffee Shop Bar in Union Square.

Chief among those problems, according to candidate Ellner, are the crying need for affordable housing, a public education system in which there is massive teacher attrition and harassment of students “sometimes at hands of administrators and teachers,” continued new HIV infections, “a record number” of homeless queer youth, traffic congestion that is choking the borough and inordinate attention to “a moronic, ill-advised West Side stadium.”

The field of candidates in which Ellner is running does include a lot of government experience. There are three members of the State Assembly—Scott Stringer, Adriano Espaillat and Keith Wright; three members of the City Council—Margarita Lopez, Bill Perkins and Eva Moskowitz; and one former councilman, Stanley Michels. All seven were first won election before the new millennium, and Michels served on the Council for 20 years.

But more surprising than Ellner’s willingness to criticize his opponents for missed opportunities is his frankness in speaking out about inaction in the eight-year borough presidency of C. Virginia Fields, who is currently running for mayor with strong support among African-American voters. Candidates for one office are typically reticent about offering opinions on other Democratic primary contests, but after Ellner offered extended comments on the development pressures transforming Manhattan and making it more difficult for low and moderate-income New Yorkers to live here, he was asked whether Fields had been inattentive to that problem.

“There’s no question,” he responded. “There’s never been a bigger affordable-housing crisis here.”

Housing affordability is an important issue in Ellner’s personal history. A native New Yorker, he was raised by his single mother in Stuyvesant Town, in a rent-stabilized apartment. His grandparents lived nearby, on the Lower East Side’s Rivington Street, in what was then called a tenement. Ellner attended grade school at 21st Street and First Avenue, before going to the Bronx High School of Science. He is a graduate of Dartmouth College, with a law degree from Harvard University.

In Ellner’s view, Manhattan is fast becoming “an outdoor mall for multi-millionaires,” a trend that threatens the housing stability of “artists, people in the fashion industry, teachers, young people and seniors.” That in turn, in his view, undermines the city’s long-term economic prospects.

“I am deeply concerned about the direction of the city and tired of standing by,” Ellner said, explaining his decision to enter the borough presidency contest.

But even though he hasn’t been elected to major office, he has hardly been standing by in his legal and political career. He ran for the Community School Board, where he served as president for nearly five years, after spending two years on Community Board 5, an appointment he received from Fields. Ellner also worked in the city’s public advocate’s office under Mark Green.

Perhaps his greatest impact on policy, however, has come in his legal career.

As an attorney with the law firm of O’Melveny & Myers, from which he just started a leave of absence, Ellner prepared an amicus brief on behalf of the Human Rights Campaign, the Anti-Defamation League and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund in the landmark 2003 Lawrence v. Texas case in which the Supreme Court struck down the nation’s sodomy laws. At the Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison firm, he co-authored a similar motion on behalf of city officials who were supporting the challenge to Yeshiva University’s policy of denying married student housing to gay and lesbian couples. As a White & Case attorney, Ellner was the co-author of an amicus brief cited by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in the 1996 ruling that opened the Virginia Military Institute to female students.

While at Paul, Weiss, Ellner also worked with the New York Civil Liberties Union on a case that led the Court of Appeals to order the state to give greater funding to the city’s public schools.

Ellner provides pro bono legal counsel to the LGBT Community Center and Freedom to Marry and serves on the board of the Hetrick Martin Institute, an agency that serves queer youth and runs the Harvey Milk High School.

From his vantage point on the Hetrick-Martin board and from his former work on a community school board, Ellner has developed a concern for student safety in the public schools. With harassment, including that aimed at queer youth, “sometimes at hands of administrators and teachers,” he argued that “leadership must come from the top.” But the issues facing young gay and lesbian youth are deeper than a school problem in his view.

Citing a “record number of homeless LGBT youth,” Ellner said, “Our city and our community has failed young people.” In referring to “our community,” he is talking about gay and lesbian adults, who are not responding to the reality of queer youth coming out at earlier ages, and often running into trouble about their sexuality at home, an issue that leads some of them to lives on the streets.

From Ellner’s perspective, we also see the impact of insufficient adult and government leadership in the current wave of crystal abuse spreading through the queer community.

“There has been a woefully inadequate and slow response,” he argued, “even though we’ve known about this problem for years. The response has been slow, insufficient and cumbersome. I am tired of talking to young people who have recently sero-converted.”

If becoming the first gay person elected to borough-wide office in New York is noteworthy, Ellner said, it is because of the impact it could have on queer youth.

“I want to show them that an openly gay man can win, rather than coming out in scandal like McGreevey,” he said, referring to the former New Jersey governor who announced his resignation last summer on the same day he acknowledged that he is gay.

The answer to the crystal scourge, in Ellner’s view, is treatment, not the “draconian Rockefeller drug laws.” While stating that drug sellers should be prosecuted, he expressed sympathy with gay men and lesbians nervous about the announcement last year by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration that it was targeting the crystal problem in the queer community.

“I understand their concerns,” Ellner said. “I would not put a lot of trust in federal law enforcement.”

Asked about the recent state appeals court ruling that upheld the zoning laws aimed at ridding Manhattan of adult businesses, Ellner said, “We can’t see adult business completely zoned out of Manhattan,” even as he acknowledged “legitimate community concerns with problematic clustering” of such establishments. Unsafe sexual conduct at such businesses should not be tolerated, he said.

Ellner said some of the borough president’s greatest powers come in terms of influencing land use decisions, and he pledged to press for guaranteed low and moderate-income set-asides in any zoning changes enacted to facilitate development. He pointed to the success of Brooklyn Borough Pres. Marty Markowitz on such issues as a model for how he would approach the development process. Just this week, the city announced significant zoning changes for Greenpoint and Williamsburg that will ensure the construction of affordable housing.

Like many Democrats, Ellner is an ardent foe of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plans for a West Side stadium, saying that instead Shea Stadium in Queens should be rebuilt as a home for both the Mets and the Jets. Dismissing the notion that a West Side stadium may be popular among union construction workers and in communities of color for the jobs it will generate, he argued that alternative development plans, including a new Shea stadium, could yield more than twice the number of jobs.

At the same time, the candidate is quick to credit the mayor for his recent commitment to dedicate revenues from Battery Park City to the construction of new moderate and low-income housing.

In line with his effort to project himself as a new voice on the political scene, Ellner promotes a variety of innovative concepts such as developing green zones throughout Manhattan and exploring new means of limiting traffic, from tolling the East River bridges to adapting an Eazy Pass-type system to charge cars from outside the city for using Midtown streets during the workday.

Ellner pointed with pride to the support he has from one out-of-city Democrat, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who briefly brought gay marriage to that city last year. Like Newsom, Ellner sees himself “as the future of the Democratic Party.”

Ellner lives in Chelsea with his partner, Simon Holloway, a fashion designer.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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