Public Advocate Letitia James, who has assiduously cultivated a progressive profile in her years in government, is digging in her heels against calls that she break her ties to Bronx City Councilman Fernando Cabrera, who –– in a YouTube video that surfaced this week –– is seen in Uganda lavishly praising that nation’s aggressively anti-gay government as “the righteous.”
James has endorsed Cabrera in his September 9 Democratic primary challenge against Bronx State Senator Gustavo Rivera, a progressive with close ties to the LGBT community.
Uganda recently enacted a harshly anti-gay law, imposing penalties even on those who fail to report homosexual conduct they are aware of, but the courts in that nation rejected it on procedural grounds. It supporters have vowed to reintroduce the bill and the nation’s attorney general has appealed the court’s decision. In its early drafts, the legislation included the death penalty for Ugandans with multiple convictions for same-sex conduct.
Cabrera, who is a longtime foe of marriage equality and a leader in the effort that recently overturned the public schools’ policy against church congregations using their space for worship services, has for years worked with the Family Research Council, an organization condemned as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. FRC’s leaders have at one time or another endorsed criminal penalties for homosexual conduct and praised Uganda’s move toward harsh anti-LGBT punitive measures.
In the YouTube video –– which has now been removed from the web (Editor's note: Activist and blogger Andrés Duque saved a copy of the video and it appears at the bottom of this page) –– Cabrera described the “cultural shifters” throughout history as a despotic rogues’ gallery — Communists, Nazis, the North Korean government. And those pushing for marriage equality.
“We are in the middle of a war,” he declared from Uganda. “A war for our children.”
In a September 4 release, the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City called on James and other supporters of Cabrera’s primary bid –– including Harlem Congressman Charlie Rangel, former Mayor David Dinkins, and a handful of Cabrera’s Council colleagues –- to withdraw their endorsements.
Refusing to do so, James issued a statement saying, "Over the years, Fernando Cabrera has worked with the public advocate on economic justice issues throughout the Bronx. The public advocate does not share his views on LGBT equality issues, and continues to urge him to support LGBT rights and equality if he's voted into the New York State Senate."
On September 5, a James spokesperson was unable to say whether the public advocate or anyone in her office had viewed the YouTube video or to comment on James’ state of knowledge of the political and social attacks on Uganda’s LGBT community currently going on. The spokesperson said she would have to speak with James, but had not provided further information on those questions to Gay City News by the time this story was posted.
At several church appearances this summer, James reminded congregants that, as the second highest office holder in the city, she is just “a heartbeat away” from being mayor.
Rangel’s endorsement of Cabrera likely reflects political payback against Rivera, who supported the 84-year-old congressional lion’s unsuccessful primary challenger, State Senator Adriano Espaillat, in both June 2012 and June 2014. James supported Rangel in this year’s contest, though has since endorsed Espaillat in his State Senate primary next week.
At a September 5 press conference in front of City Hall, four of the six out lesbian and gay members of the Council, stepped up demands that other elected officials withdraw their support for Cabrera.
West Side Councilmember Corey Johnson charged there is “a double standard in New York and across the country,” by which politicians take pro-gay positions but feel comfortable turning around and endorsing anti-gay candidates. “That does not jibe,” he said.
Daniel Dromm, Johnson’s Jackson Heights colleague, said, “We hear that excuse all the time.”
Lower East Side Councilmember Rosie Mendez said she was “offended” by Cabrera’s comments and had “a very lively conversation” with him, telling him she planned to publicly denounce him for his remarks.
In an apparent attempt to upstage that, Cabrera appeared before City Hall reporters half an hour ahead of the LGBT event and insisted his YouTube comments had been distorted. According to the New York Observer, he said, “I find it appalling, I find it disturbing that anybody would insinuate that somehow I support these laws that have been put forth in the country of Uganda, in particular that members of the LGBT community should somehow be incarcerated for life — that’s not our values, that’s not what I stand for, that’s not what I have stood for.”
According to published reports, Cabrera also said he has gay supporters and that he has funded LGBT initiatives in his Bronx district. Sunnyside Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer, the majority leader, said even if that is true, it was “a disgrace” for Cabrera to try to use that to excuse his remarks in Uganda or his long anti-gay record.
Gay City News received no advance word of Cabrera’s press appearance and did not get a return call from his campaign seeking any written statement he might have released. The campaign similarly did not respond to a request for comment earlier in the week for a story about the primary race against Rivera.
Councilmembers Ritchie Torres of the Bronx and Carlos Menchaca of Brooklyn, who did not join their LGBT colleagues at the press event, issued a joint statement shortly afterward.
“As young LGBT elected officials of color, the only two in New York State, we are horrified by Councilmember Cabrera's tribute to the Ugandan government, which has made homosexuality a capital crime punishable by lifetime imprisonment, and until recently, death,” their statement read. "Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 10 and 24, and LGBT youth are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. The fanatical homophobia behind the Councilmember's comments is particularly damaging to LGBT youth of color, who face the highest rates of depression and suicide among any LGBT demographic. In a world where LGBT youth are struggling for survival, those condoning violence against them have not only hate in their hearts but also blood on their hands.”
In a written statement, former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn issued a stinging rebuke of her one-time colleague, writing, “Fernando Cabrera’s record of opposing LGBT and reproductive rights in the City Council is as long as it is appalling — but this endorsement of a Ugandan government that sees our community as sub-human is a new low I could have never imagined him stooping to.”
She added, “I am offended and outraged that he would use my name and my long history of work against hate crimes as part of an attempt to create a smoke screen clouding his clear support for fanatical persecution of the LGBT community. The bottom line is this: Fernando Cabrera is a bigot, and he does not deserve to hold elected office.”
According to the LGBT councilmembers at the City Hall press event, none of them had yet had a face-to-face conversation with Public Advocate James about her continued support for Cabrera. Eunic Ortiz, president of the Stonewall Democrats, said her club had made little headway in speaking with James’ staff.
In response to a letter that LGBT leaders sent to Rangel last week, Hannah Kim, his communications director, said, “The congressman has always been and will continue to be a champion of civil rights and the LGBT community. He will work with current and future local elected leaders to join him in this effort.”