In what many — though certainly not all — in the LGBT community will judge a bittersweet political moment, the first viable out gay candidate for mayor fell well short on September 10, even as three gay newcomers were elected to the City Council. Two came from boroughs never before represented by LGBT elected officials.
In Brooklyn’s District 38, which includes Sunset Park, Red Hook, and Windsor Terrace, Carlos Menchaca — in a proxy for the ongoing battle between reformers and the Kings County Democratic organization — defeated Sara González, a 10-year incumbent. Menchaca, a former top aide to Borough President Marty Markowitz and later to Quinn at the Council, won almost 58 percent of the vote, a surprisingly easy win for a candidate little known just a year ago.
Ritchie Torres, a 25-year-old aide to City Councilman James Vacca, prevailed in a six-person race to succeed retiring incumbent Joel Rivera in the central Bronx’s District 15, one of the city’s poorest Council districts.
A reformer who won the lion’s share of labor endorsements in the race, including that of the Working Families Party, Torres was supported by State Senator Gustavo Rivera, who ousted disgraced and jailed incumbent Pedro Espada, Jr. in 2010, as well as by the Bronx’s most popular elected official, Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. (who has broken with his father on social issues like LGBT rights and marriage equality). Torres, who won 36 percent of the vote, outpaced his nearest rival — also named Joel Rivera — by 15 points.
And in Manhattan’s District 3, in a race to succeed Quinn on the Council, Corey Johnson, a 31-year-old gay activist who served for eight years on Community Board 4 in Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen, grabbed nearly 63 percent of the vote in a bitterly contested race against lesbian civil rights attorney Yetta Kurland. She had run a strong primary challenge to Quinn in 2009, winning almost a third of the vote in a three-woman race, but improved her percentage only modestly after four years in which she remained an anti-establishment critic, focusing particular attention on the closing of St. Vincent’s Hospital, for which she repeatedly faulted the speaker. Johnson, in contrast, put himself at the center of neighborhood decision-making on CB4, where he served two terms as chair.
There were paradoxes in the primary night results. As the city rejected the hopes of a candidate who would be come the first woman mayor, the number of lesbian and gay members who will be sitting on the Council grew from four currently to a record six in the new year. Freshmen Menchaca, Torres, and Johnson will join incumbents Rosie Mendez, representing the Lower East Side since 2006, and Daniel Dromm and Jimmy Van Bramer, who have represented adjacent districts from Sunnyside to Jackson Heights and Astoria in Queens since 2010.
To those who suggested that Quinn, long the frontrunner in the Democratic mayoral field, stumbled on the homophobia voters reflect once at the ballot box, Menchaca’s and Torres’ victories demonstrate that LGBT candidates can win in outer borough districts dominated by working class and poor people of color and without large visible gay and lesbian voting blocs.
Indeed, if primary voters as a whole gave Quinn less than half the votes early polls this year suggested she would win, she fared no better with women voters than with men and failed to match Public Advocate Bill de Blasio’s showing in the LGBT community, even though she outperformed her overall showing there by a factor of more than two.
The speaker finished the night with just 15.5 percent of the vote, more than 10 points behind runner-up Bill Thompson, the former comptroller, and almost 25 behind de Blasio. With women voters, her share was just 16 percent. Among self-identified gay, lesbian, and bisexual voters, she scored 34 percent, but Quinn was gobsmacked by the frontrunner, who won nearly half of all such votes.
That outcome was stunning given the speaker’s long identification with the LGBT community — as the 1991 campaign manager and later chief of staff to Tom Duane, the Council’s first out gay member; as head of the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project; as a demonstrator arrested year after year in protests against the exclusion of openly gay participants in Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade; and as a Council member who pursued a range of initiatives in support of the community, including a school anti-bullying law, a requirement that the city only do businesses with contractors with anti-discrimination policies in place, and funding for LGBT homeless youth services, senior services, and the capital needs of the LGBT Community Center.
In an election that observers agree reflected the aspirations of Democratic voters to turn the page on the Bloomberg era, Quinn’s close identification with the mayor, including the leading role she played in allowing him to run for a third term in 2009, outweighed whatever credit most LGBT voters gave her for leadership on issues related to their sexual orientation and gender identity.
If Quinn’s defeat signaled that being LGBT, even being an identifiable leader on LGBT issues, is not enough to guarantee support among the community’s voters, it also reflected a generational turn in gay politics in the city. Of those lesbian and gay officials elected prior to the new century, only Deborah Glick, the West Village Assembly member who was the state’s first out official when elected in 1990, remains in office. Duane retired from the State Senate, where he served since 1999, last year. Margarita Lopez, elected to the Council from the Lower East Side in 1997, left office in 2005 after waging an unsuccessful run for borough president. Antonio Pagan, who preceded Lopez, and Philip Reed, elected to a Harlem Council seat in 1997, have both died since leaving office.
In addition to Mendez, Dromm, and Van Bramer on the Council, a number of gay men have been elected to the State Legislature over the past decade — Assemblymen Daniel O’Donnell, who was the lead sponsor on the marriage equality law, from the Upper West Side, in 2002; Matt Titone, from Staten Island in a special election in 2007; and Harry Bronson, from the Rochester area, in 2010; and Senator Brad Hoylman, who succeeded Duane, last year.
Among the city’s out gay and lesbian elected officials, only Reed and Titone showed that an LGBT candidate could win outside neighborhoods typically known to have large gay populations. Dromm’s and Van Bramer’s districts are ethnically and economically diverse — far more so than the West Village-Chelsea neighborhoods that gave birth to gay politics in New York — but they include Jackson Heights, Astoria, and Long Island City, areas long known as LGBT-friendly enclaves.
The election of Menchaca and Torres in particular, then, symbolize the increased ability of openly gay candidates to take their place at the table in communities citywide. They certainly didn’t win because they are gay, but it would not be accurate to say that they won in spite of being gay. Instead, as young gay men — at 32, Menchaca is the oldest of the three newcomers — they found natural coalition with a host of other reform advocates challenging a political establishment they believe has advantaged development and the wealthy at the expense of working and poor New Yorkers in recent years.
When Menchaca announced his run against González, who is 64, earlier this year, he was taking on the Brooklyn political machine tarnished by the sexual harassment scandal of its recently deposed head, former Assemblyman Vito Lopez. He also aimed to become the city’s first Mexican-American elected official.
Menchaca told Gay City News he decided to make the race in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, which hit Red Hook with devastating impact. He was active in the clean-up effort there, where blocks remained submerged under water for days and large housing projects, where residents depend on elevators, went without power.
“Government was nowhere to be seen,” he said. Being “a candidate who is visible and active” became central to his campaign. In demonstrating that he is “active,” Menchaca, who grew up in public housing in El Paso, Texas, did not shy away from the mantle of being an activist. “Government has to show up,” he told voters at a house party early in the campaign.
That attitude won Menchaca friends in labor — including SEIU 1199, which represents healthcare workers, 32BJ, representing building services employees, and the Hotel Trades Council, as well as the city’s Central Labor Council. He was the only candidate challenging an incumbent to win the endorsement of the Working Families Party.
Support from unions is nothing new in New York politics, but Menchaca argued that labor was at the forefront of change in 2013. They were eager to embrace “candidates who are associated with the progressive mood in this election,” he said. Indeed, he spent a lot of time in his campaign talking about participatory budgeting , an innovation introduced by Council newcomers from recent election cycles who invite constituents to help plan the allocation of member item dollars each district receives.
In addition to strong support from LGBT groups and individual donors, Menchaca also drew endorsements from other progressive quarters, including StreetsPAC, a group working to improve the safety and calm of the city’s thoroughfares through improvements like slow zones, pedestrian plazas, and bike lanes. He highlighted his endorsement from the group along with his challenge to the Brooklyn machine when he joined Antonio Reynoso, a Council candidate who prevailed last week over the disgraced Lopez in another Brooklyn district, on a July bike ride through the borough.
The battle against Lopez had another important component in Menchaca’s race. Last year, Lopez supported a primary challenger to Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, a leading Latina lawmaker whose district straddles Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. González supported that failed bid, and this year Velázquez paid her back by putting her prestige behind Menchaca.
“We’ve built one of the most diverse coalitions in city politics, with immigrant groups, LGBT leaders, labor unions, small businesses, and local leaders,” Menchaca said after victory was secured last week. “I’m so proud of what we’ve all achieved together. Throughout the campaign, I’ve said government needs to show up and do more. I plan to deliver visible and vocal leadership on education, job creation, affordable housing, and all the issues that matter to our community.”
Torres’ victory in the Bronx may have been even more improbable than Menchaca’s in Brooklyn. Both men grew up in public housing, but even though he has worked as a Council staffer since he was 17, Torres has not yet escaped its confines. Menchaca left El Paso to attend college in San Francisco, after which he was chosen as one of 64 Coro Fellows in Public Affairs, a distinction that brought him to New York University for graduate level professional training, leading to his jobs with Markowitz and Quinn. Torres was unable to afford completion of his undergraduate studies at NYU.
His work as a housing specialist in Vacca’s Council office has kept him in day to day touch with the district’s “many tenants [who] have no means of improving the maintenance of their own buildings,” Torres told Gay City News. As a Bronx-born Puerto Rican, he said, he is also mindful that “there is a crisis of young men in our society… young people whose only existence is life on the streets.”
The new Council member lives not far from that experience.
“I lived in poverty all my life,” Torres said. “I grew up in the projects, attended public schools that were under threat of closure. Growing up it was a struggle to put food on our table, to pay the rent… I am a working poor kid from the Bronx and I could have easily been one of those young men except that I had a single mom who taught me well and I had mentors.”
In his campaign, Torres talked about turning around a decades-long neglect of his community.
“You have elected officials who are nowhere to be found in the central Bronx,” he said, noting the spate of politicians prosecuted in the borough in recent years. “I’m running in a district that has had nothing but scandal or corruption or dynasties and has never had a progressive voice.”
Torres, also endorsed by StreetsPAC, is well versed in a broad range of progressive issues — from participatory budgeting to the battle against “predatory equity” and derelict landlords to sustainability, a key policy concern of his that encompasses issues including the health impacts of truck exhaust pollution, the need for congestion pricing to reduce traffic, the availability of nutritious fresh food, and the maintenance of affordable and livable housing.
Emerging from a district where socially conservative Evangelical Christianity has taken hold in recent decades — making it, in Torres’ words, the Bible Belt of New York City — his ability to win over leaders across the spectrum, including most major unions, the Working Families Party, and politicians from reformer Gustavo Rivera to political dynasty scion Ruben Diaz, Jr., was striking.
Yet, reaction against his victory came swiftly. In a New York Post editorial two days after the primary, titled “To the left of de Blasio,” the newspaper charged that Torres “used his residency in public housing as a credit to his candidacy,” and went on to ask, “Is such a councilmember likely to push policies decreasing public dependency?” The answer, not unexpectedly from the right-wing redoubt, was, “Not likely.”
In response, Torres gave at least as good as he got. “In my City Council campaign, I sought to highlight the struggles of low-income NYCHA residents, because those struggles have shaped the lives of people in my district and my life as well,” he said in a written release. “Instead of championing reforms that would actually help NYCHA residents, the New York Post is condemning and criminalizing poor people, and treating us as sick and pathological. Their position is offensive, elitist, and wrong. NYCHA residents won’t stand for it, and neither will I.”
The most conventional of the newcomer victories on election night was Johnson’s. His battle with Kurland was hard-fought, with the candidates and their surrogates trading charges that at times turned harshly personal. Kurland focused considerable energy on questioning Johnson’s work experience — particularly two staff jobs he held for relatively short periods with real estate developers — to question his commitment to the change voters were looking for this year. But at an August 26 debate moderated by Gay City News and its sister publication The Villager, Johnson emerged as the candidate best able to address the specifics on leading issues facing the district.
A key point Johnson drove home in that debate was the fact that he made a clean sweep of endorsements from local elected officials, including Congressman Jerrold Nadler. Though Kurland had a number of high profile supporters, including former Mayor David Dinkins, the lack of endorsements from those closest to the district was telling, Johnson maintained.
Longtime Chelsea Assemblyman Dick Gottfried was among Johnson’s supporters, and he spent much of primary day talking to voters on his behalf.
“I don’t endorse a candidate halfheartedly,” he explained. “And Corey really has done terrific work in this community.”
On primary night, the candidate himself was clearly relieved that the electioneering was over.
“I want to talk about the future and about solving the problems this district faces, and so I’m glad that the campaign is behind me,” Johnson told his supporters. “I will fight for the people in this district. That is my pledge.” — Additional reporting by Sam Spokony