Contested City Council Democratic primary races in three Bronx districts pose strongly pro-LGBTQ candidates against opponents who either have long anti-gay and anti-choice records or have aligned themselves with such politicians.
The primary contests, in significant respects, reflect the ongoing battle between newer progressive forces and old school social conservative traditions in a borough that in 2013 elected its first out gay city councilmember and has since seen a second, already in office, come out, and where State Senator Gustavo Rivera energized a new generation of voices with his 2010 primary victory over Pedro Espada, Jr., an entrenched Democrat later convicted and jailed on corruption charges.
In one of the three races, however, a stridently conservative incumbent could get a third term on the Council with the support of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has deep ties to the LGBTQ community.
In District 14, which includes Morris Heights, University Heights, Fordham, and Kingsbridge, Fernando Cabrera, a Christian preacher with extreme anti-gay views, is seeking a third term, facing off against Randy Abreu, formerly an Obama administration appointee to the Energy Department, and schoolteacher Felix Perdomo.
In 2014 — when Cabrera waged the first of two unsuccessful primary challenges against Senator Rivera — a YouTube video surfaced showing him in Uganda lavishly praising that nation’s aggressively anti-gay government as “the righteous,” while its legislature was considering imposition of the death penalty for homosexual conduct. Though Cabrera removed that YouTube clip after it came to widespread public attention, a record of it still exists. (An excerpt follows, with the full video at this story’s conclusion.)
Cabrera worked for years 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-LGBTQ punitive measures.
Given Cabrera’s radical anti-gay views, it’s not surprising he has drawn fire from progressives. Abreu’s campaign has been endorsed by two LGBTQ political clubs, the Stonewall Democrats of New York City and the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, as well as by TenantsPAC, Planned Parenthood of New York City, Vote Pro Choice, the Working Families Party, and Rivera, who dispatched Cabrera’s two State Senate challenges handily in 2014 and 2016.
What is surprising is the number of progressive voices that appear as endorsers of Cabrera’s reelection — including Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which is headed by out gay labor leader Stuart Appelbaum.
Appelbaum did not respond to a request for comment. In an emailed statement from BerlinRosen, which works on behalf of de Blasio’s reelection, Dan Levitan wrote, “Mayor de Blasio is a strong support of marriage equality and LGBT rights, and the Mayor has been clear about his very strong disagreement with Councilmember Cabrera on these issues.”
(Editor’s note 2: More than five hours after this story was published online, Levitan, just before 11 p.m., told Gay City News that his earlier confirmation that the mayor had endorsed Cabrera was "wrong." See here.)
(Editor’s note 1: Cabrera’s website also listed Public Advocate Letitia James as an endorser, as originally stated in this article. Subsequent to the original posting, James’ office responded to our inquiry by stating that she does not support his reelection.)
Cabrera, who does not participate in New York City’s public campaign finance program, has raised $109,000 and has $51,000 on hand as of September 7, according to the city’s Campaign Finance Board (CFB). Abreu has raised almost $65,000, with just under $84,000 in matching funds and roughly $100,000 on hand. Perdomo raised about $40,000 in contributions, received $59,000 in matching funds, and has just under $74,000 on hand.
In a contest for the open seat being vacated by Annabel Palma, who faces term limits this year, in District 18, which includes Soundview, Parkchester, and Castle Hill in the South Bronx, State Senator Ruben Diaz, Sr., who represented the district on the Council for a year prior to his 2002 election to the Senate, is considered the favorite. His opposition to LGBTQ rights dates back to his denunciations — while serving on the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the city’s police oversight agency — of the 1994 Gay Games in New York, which he warned would lead to a spike in AIDS cases and to greater acceptance of homosexuality. Diaz, in the Senate, led efforts to derail the marriage equality law, enacted in 2011, and has been successful, in tandem with its Republican leadership, in blocking a vote on the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), a transgender civil rights measure. Diaz is also a vigorous opponent of a woman’s right to choose.
Progressive opposition to Diaz is, to some degree, splintered between two staunch LGBTQ advocates, Elvin García, an out gay man who served as de Blasio’s Bronx borough director as well as his LGBTQ liaison, and Amanda Farias, who has worked for Queens City Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley. While Stonewall supports García, Farias has snagged endorsements not only from the Jim Owles Club, but also from Planned Parenthood, Vote Pro Choice, the 504 Democrats, which advocates on disabilities issues, Black Lives Matter New York, and Manhattan Councilmember Helen Rosenthal. The good government group Citizens Union, which does not make “endorsements” per se, has designated Farias as the “preferred” candidate in the race.
Diaz, meanwhile, has the support not only of the county organization but also of incumbent Palma. Though his son, the borough president, has made strides to reach out the LGBTQ community since assuming that office in 2009 — after voting against the marriage equality law while in the State Assembly — Senator Diaz’s continued high visibility in Bronx politics and support from the county organization work against that effort.
One other Democrat who has stumbled because of his support for the elder Diaz is Manhattan Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, who represents Washington Heights, Inwood, and Marble Hill. When Rodriguez’s endorsement of the Diaz’s Council race recently became known, both Stonewall and Jim Owles angrily withdrew their support for him. Two other Upper Manhattan elected officials from the Dominican community, US Representative Adriano Espaillat, a Democrat, and State Senator Marisol Alcantara, who is a member of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a rump faction that shares power with the Senate’s Republican leadership, also support Diaz.
Several councilmembers vying to succeed the term-limited Melissa Mark-Viverito as speaker next year — including Chelsea’s out gay Corey Johnson — declined efforts by Gay City News earlier this year to get them to comment on the Diaz candidacy. If elected, Diaz would be among those voting to choose a new speaker and support from the county organization backing him could also prove pivotal.
Diaz, who is not participating in the city’s campaign finance program, has raised more than $140,000 in contributions and has about $90,000 on hand as of September 7, according to CFB records. García raised almost $68,000 and received $95,000 in public matching funds, and has $38,000 on hand. Farias raised $49,000, with a $95,000 match, and has $65,000 on hand. Michael Beltzer, a fourth candidate in the race, has worked for the New York City comptroller’s office and the Bronx Chamber of Commerce.
In what may be the most highly competitive of the three contests, Marjorie Velázquez has emerged as the progressive choice in the northeast Bronx’s District 13, which encompasses Throggs Neck, Morris Park, and City Island. An accountant, a Democratic district leader, a member of Community Board 10, and the co-founder of Bronx Women United, Velázquez is facing off against State Assemblymember Mark Gjonaj and John Doyle, a public affairs professional at Jacobi Medical Center and the former community affairs director for Bronx State Senator Jeff Klein, the IDC leader.
The District 13 seat is being vacated by Councilmember Jimmy Vacca, who came out as gay in early 2016 and now faces term limits.
Vacca, his out gay Bronx colleague, Councilmember Ritchie Torres, and out lesbian Manhattan Councilmember Rosie Mendez have have all endorsed Velázquez, as have the Stonewall Democrats and the Jim Owles club.
Velázquez also has the support of other leading progressive groups and elected officials, including the Working Families Party, Planned Parenthood, Vote Pro Choice, Make the Road, TenantsPAC, the 504 Democrats, Speaker Mark-Viverito, and Councilmembers Julissa Ferreras-Copeland of Queens and Helen Rosenthal. Velázquez is also the preferred candidate of Citizens Union.
Women’s rights advocates are particularly unhappy with Gjonaj’s flip-flop in 2014 on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed 10-point Women’s Equality Act. The assemblymember often talked about his support for the measure, but he actually voted against it, telling the Daily News that year he was uncomfortable with the bill’s language regarding women’s right to choose. “I support the right to choice,” he said. “Anything that’s vague, that would allow for an interpretation into late-term abortion, I am strictly opposed.”
Gjonaj is also viewed with suspicion in the LGBTQ community because of his support for Senator Diaz. In a statement released by the Bronx County Democratic Committee when it endorsed Diaz, Gjonaj said, “As a state senator, Reverend Ruben Diaz has been a powerful fighter for not only his district, but the entire Bronx. He has been a fierce champion for our seniors, for affordable housing, and for public education. I have no doubt he will bring that same passion and energy to the City Council. I am proud to endorse him in his new endeavor.”
Though Gjonaj, first elected in 2012, supports Diaz, on one key LGBTQ issue the assemblymember has separated himself from the Pentecostal minister, voting, since his first term in office, for GENDA.
Among the top three candidates in the six-person primary contest, Gjonaj has, by far, raised the biggest war chest — like Diaz and Cabrera completely outside the city’s campaign finance program — with nearly $750,000 in donations, though he has less than $29,000 on hand as of September 7, according to CFB records. Velázquez has received $115,000 in contributions, with matching funds of roughly $95,000, and has about $46,000 on hand. Doyle raised $87,000, with a $95,000 public match, and has $50,000 on hand.
Like Diaz, Gjonaj has the support of the county organization, as well as from Senator Klein and the borough president. A number of powerful unions, including the Service Employees International Union’s Locals 1199 and 32BJ and the United Federation of Teachers, also support him.