In a move that took many LGBT activists by surprise, Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA) since 2003, announced he is leaving the organization at the end of February to join the new city comptroller, John Liu, as his deputy for external affairs.
The January 27 announcement came as ESPA works to bounce back from the December 2 defeat of the marriage equality bill by the State Senate, in a 38-24 vote.
“I love the Pride Agenda, and I don’t think I will ever do anything more important for this community,” Van Capelle told Gay City News several days after the announcement. “I also believe that change is a good thing. I also believe that executive directors and leaders have a shelf life. I feel that after seven years, I was nearing the end of my shelf life.”
Noting that he is turning 35 and that he and his partner hope to raise children, he added, “I believe the executive director of the Pride Agenda has to wake up every day ready to lead the fight,” and that the travel demands of the post would make it difficult to devote the time he would like to his family. “While the job at the comptroller’s office will be incredibly demanding, it won’t involve the weekly trips to Albany I’ve been doing,” he explained.
Liu, in comments to Gay City News, said, “Anybody who knows Alan would see the same strengths that I see immediately. He’s a passionate advocate, an analytical planner, a great communicator, and a big team player, and those are the values that I share.”
Two questions raised by Van Capelle’s job change are to what degree the defeat on the marriage equality vote influenced his move and the extent to which his work in the comptroller’s office — where he will be responsible for “all matters involving public policy, intergovernmental relations, media and community, as well as managing communications to various stakeholders” — will be geared toward advancing the political opportunities Liu has before him, specifically a potential mayoral run in 2013.
Van Capelle said he faced no pressure from within ESPA or from the community at large to make way for new leadership after a gamble that some political insiders say should never be taken — demanding an Albany vote without clear assurances that passage will result.
At a January 28 meeting of the Lambda Independent Democrats, a Brooklyn LGBT club, State Senator Diane Savino, one of the most eloquent advocates of the bill on the Senate floor in December, said, “I did not favor the December vote. I knew it would set us back three or four years. There was not a single vote among the Republicans, maybe one. They would never have handed the Democrats a human rights victory.”
Asked about repeated statements from ESPA and Chelsea Senator Thomas K. Duane, the bill’s out gay sponsor, that the votes were there to pass marriage equality, she said, “When you’re emotionally involved as Tom was, you believe what you want to believe.”
But according to Van Capelle, “I received over a hundred emails, from many of whom I didn’t know, thanking me for taking this issue as far as we did. Four years ago, this issue was nowhere, and now it is clearly on the agenda up in Albany.”
In a statement issued the week before announcing his resignation, Van Capelle wrote, “I have always believed that our community and New York deserved and needed to know where their senators stood on this important human rights issue. We pushed hard for a vote and were able to do what practically no one else was able to do with a post-coup Senate: get a vote on a bill. Without this, we would be going into the 2010 election year making guesses about who supports marriage equality in the Senate and who doesn’t.”
Stuart Appelbaum, an ESPA board member well-versed in political lobbying in his post as president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said he knew of no pressure from the board on Van Capelle to step aside.
“Alan brought LGBT politics to a new level in New York,” Appelbaum said. “We are now the first at the table. People want to hear our views on political matters, and Alan brought us to that point.”
Van Capelle also deflected the notion that serving as a deputy in city government is a step down from leading a major civil rights advocacy organization.
“It depends on what your objectives are,” he said of his decision. “If step down means I am not the leader of an organization, that’s not how I define a career objective. The amount of money that flows through the comptroller’s office impacts a lot of public policy in the city. I believe John Liu can do for the comptroller’s office just what Eliot Spitzer did for the attorney general’s office.”
According to seethroughny.net, the 2008 salary for Van Capelle’s new post was roughly $179,000. Guidestar.org reported total 2007 compensation for Van Capelle at ESPA and the affiliated Empire State Pride Agenda Foundation of nearly $195,000, up about seven percent from the previous year. Neither Van Capelle nor the comptroller’s office would disclose salary figures.
In the months leading up to December’s Senate vote on marriage, Van Capelle played hardball with the Democratic leadership, warning Brooklyn’s John Sampson, the Majority Conference leader, and Duane, that if they failed to deliver, “We can find other friends who will do that job for us and do it faster.”
That tone ruffled feathers, particularly with Sampson, who laced into Van Capelle at a tense meeting at the Capitol on November 10, but also agreed to let the bill have the vote ESPA sought.
Asked whether he had concerns about Van Capelle leading his external affairs operation in light of that history, Liu said, “That was not a factor in my consideration. The way he approached that issue is based not on his fundamental traits that I laid out for you before, but that strategy was how best to handle that challenge. It was a strategy, not an intrinsic trait.”
Brooklyn Senator Eric Adams, a top Sampson lieutenant who was at the November 10 meeting, noted that the Democratic leadership and ESPA had turned a corner on the tension that existed last fall. “We had a meeting prior to the vote and we got past that,” he told Gay City News. “Senator Sampson voiced his concerns and Alan gave his perspective. We got past that.”
Liu and Van Capelle dismissed speculation that the external affairs post was the place where the new comptroller’s political aims would be advanced.
“It is understandable why some people characterize it that way,” Liu said. “I don’t see it as so much political as making sure that my office does not work in a vacuum, that government officials, agencies, and the public at large understand what we do and have the access they need and that this office understands what government officials and agencies do and have access to them.”
“Not once in any conversation with anyone, with the comptroller or anyone else, did we ever discuss future political intentions,” Van Capelle said. “People like to read tea leaves. The tea has not brewed.”
Liu also said that Van Capelle’s previous experience working for the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, which represents commercial and residential building service workers, was not a major factor in the hire.
The announcement of Van Capelle’s appointment came in the wake of criticism by some gay leaders of Liu’s naming Brooklyn City Councilman Simcha Felder — a consistent vote against LGBT rights measures on the Council who cited “religious reasons” for withholding his support from out lesbian Christine Quinn when she was elected speaker in 2006 — as deputy comptroller for accounting and budget.
Van Capelle rallied to Felder’s defense, saying, “I am pleased” the Brooklyn Council member will be on Liu’s team.
“He is an extraordinarily talented and decent public servant, even if he doesn’t share my views on civil rights,” he continued. “I don’t think the community has to be comfortable with Simcha Felder, and a lot of people in our community will probably not want to hear that.”
Liu said, “I was caught off guard. My commitment to the LGBT community and issues of civil rights are not affected by anybody who works with me. My beliefs and my priorities are my own.”
Noting that Felder had worked as a CPA, has a degree in business administration, and headed up the Council’s Governmental Operations Committee, Liu added, “He was a perfect match for deputy comptroller for accounting and budgeting. Councilman Felder is a tremendous addition to my team.”
Joe Tarver, ESPA’s managing director for operations, will become interim executive director in March, but told Gay City he has no intention of seeking the post permanently.