In a primary that saw four of the incumbent gay city councilmembers unopposed and two of the seven-member LGBTQ Caucus out of action due to terms limits, the one councilmember who faced a challenge, Brooklyn’s Carlos Menchaca, handily withstood an aggressive campaign by Assemblymember Félix Ortiz and the county Democratic organization to unseat him after one term.
With nearly 99 percent of the ballots counted according to an unofficial tally by the city Board of Elections, Menchaca had more than 48 percent in a five-person contest. Oritz garnered just under 33 percent of the vote.
In three contests in the Bronx that pitted progressives against more conservative candidates, LGBTQ favorites fell short. Incumbent Fernando Cabrera, a stridently anti-gay minister who once traveled to Uganda to offer his support to homophobic forces there pushing a death penalty bill for gay people, bested challenger Randy Abreu, a former Obama administration energy official, by nearly 20 percentage points.
In three Bronx races, LGBTQ-favored candidates go down to defeat
State Senator Ruben Diaz, Sr., another fiery opponent of the LGBTQ community, captured nearly 42 percent in a five-person race to succeed term-limited Annabel Palma, outpacing out gay Elvin García, a former de Blasio administration official by 27 percentage points, and Amanda Farias, who also had LGBTQ support, by 21 points.
In the race to succeed out gay Councilmember Jimmy Vacca, Assembymember Mark Gjonaj, who had supported Diaz’s run, edged out Marjorie Velázquez, who enjoyed strong support among LGBTQ and women’s groups, by about four percentage points.
In Queens, in a contest to succeed Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, who unexpectedly decided earlier this year not to seek reelection, Assemblymember Francisco Moya prevailed over Hiram Monserrate, who was expelled from the State Senate after a conviction for assaulting his girlfriend. Monserrate has been a nemesis to LGBTQ voters since he went back on a pledge to support marriage equality in 2009 after having long courted gay voters.
Sunset Park-Red Hook: District 38
Menchaca, the first out gay legislator in Brooklyn as well as the Council’s first Mexican-American member, had been on the outs with the Kings County Democratic Party since he ousted incumbent Sara González in 2013. Allied with the area’s congressmember, Nydia Velázquez, Menchaca said he collaborated well with other elected officials, too, but never saw eye to eye with Félix Ortiz, who is one of the area’s assemblymembers.
He also clashed with David Greenfield, a socially conservative councilmember who represents an adjacent district with a large Orthodox Jewish community. Greenfield is widely seen as an instigator in Menchaca being deposed as co-chair of the Brooklyn Council delegation in early 2015. That move followed Menchaca’s high profile battle with the city’s Economic Development Corporation over redevelopment of the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal in Sunset Park, an issue Menchaca said was eventually settled to the community’s benefit.
Menchaca, in an interview with Gay City News last month, emphasized that his work as a councilmember is focused on empowering a poor community with a large immigrant population, both Latino and Asian, that has long been neglected by the powers that be.
“This has been, for a long time, a forgotten part of Brooklyn without a lot of attention paid to building political infrastructure,” he said. “The Democratic Party, the county party has not focused on this area and instead had a particular kind of candidate-based infrastructure to keep electing a very particular person, like Félix Ortiz.”
The types of reforms he hopes to bring to the Council, such as the borough’s members coordinating their economic development efforts to serve common goals, are not welcomed by county leaders, he said.
“The reform movement is not only alive and well but I represent it as an independent and a progressive,” he said, and then explaining the forces arrayed against him in the primary, he added, “Hence, the multiple challenges from the old guard.”
One key to Menchaca’s victory this week may be in the level of voter turnout. Four years ago, more than 7,300 voters turned out in a district that often draws less than 4,000 voters. Without hotly contested citywide races this year, Menchaca was concerned that low turnout could help the candidate backed by the county organization. If voter turnout were to fall back to traditional levels, he said, “I will lose. I could lose.” Victory, he explained, would rely on “movement-based response at the ballot box in September.”
Menchaca apparently got that response, with roughly 8,500 votes cast on Tuesday.
Kingsbridge-Morris Heights-University Heights-Fordham: District 14
In the Bronx’s District 14, incumbent Fernando Cabrera, who is pastor at a local Christian congregation, easily held off a challenge from Randy Abreu, who was appointed to the Energy Department by Obama, to win a third term on the Council.
Cabrera survives in politics despite a documented history of anti- gay agitation. In 2014, when he challenged pro-LGBTQ State Senator Gustavo Rivera in that year’s Democratic primary, a YouTube video he produced while in Uganda surfaced in which he praised that nation’s aggressively homophobic government as “the righteous” at the very moment its legislature was considering infamous “kill the gays” legislation. Though Cabrera deleted the YouTube post, a record of its still exists.
Given Cabrera’s radical anti-gay views, it’s not surprising he has drawn fire from progressives. Randy Abreu’s campaign was 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.
In reporting on this race online last week, Gay City News noted that Cabrera’s website included endorsements by Mayor Bill de Blasio as well as the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which is headed by out gay labor leader Stuart Appelbaum. The newspaper sought confirmation from both de Blasio’s campaign and Appelbaum. The labor leader did not respond, but the RWDSU website listed Cabrera as one its endorsed candidates.
Early in the afternoon on September 8, Dan Levitan of BerlinRosen, which works on behalf of the de Blasio campaign, emailed Gay City News to confirm the mayor’s endorsement, but he emphasized, “Mayor de Blasio is a strong support[er] of marriage equality and LGBT rights, and the Mayor has been clear about his very strong disagreement with Councilmember Cabrera on these issues.”
At about 5:30 that afternoon, Gay City News published a story online and noted the de Blasio endorsement. More than five hours later — just before 11 p.m. on a Friday night — Levitan wrote back to say, “Hey Paul, sorry I was wrong see below. ‘Mayor de Blasio has not endorsed Councilmember Cabrera. We regret the miscommunication.’” After several back and forths in which the newspaper sought clarification on what went wrong, Levitan explained that the miscommunication was “internal.” Asked whether than meant that somebody in the de Blasio campaign had told BerlinRosen that the mayor had endorsed Cabrera but the campaign was now saying he had not, Levitan responded, “I’d prefer it being said it was a matter of the left hand not knowing what the right hand did.”
Soundview-Parkchester-Castle Hill: District 18
In the South Bronx’s District 18, Ruben Diaz, Sr., who represented the district on the Council for a year prior to his 2002 election to the Senate, won a return to his old seat. Diaz’s 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. In the Senate, Diaz 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. He is also a vigorous opponent of a woman’s right to choose.
Progressive opposition to Diaz was splintered, with Elvin García, who served as de Blasio’s Bronx borough director as well as his LGBTQ liaison, winning support from the Stonewall Democrats, while Amanda Farias, who has worked for Queens City Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley, 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, and Black Lives Matter New York. The good government group Citizens Union, which does not make “endorsements” per se, had designated Farias as the “preferred” candidate in the race.
Diaz, whose son is the borough president, had the support of the county organization as well as incumbent Annabel Palma.
Throggs Neck-Morris Park-City Island: District 13
In the most competitive race in the Bronx, Marjorie Velázquez, an accountant, a Democratic district leader, a member of Community Board 10, and the co-founder of Bronx Women United, emerged as the progressive choice in the northeast Bronx’s District 13.
Assemblymember Mark Gjonaj, who prevailed, faced opposition from women’s rights advocates over his 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, first elected in 2012, is also viewed with suspicion in the LGBTQ community because of his support for Diaz, Sr.’s Council run. Even though he supported Diaz, however, on one key LGBTQ issue the assemblymember has separated himself from the Pentecostal minister, voting, since his first term in office, for GENDA.
Velázquez had the support of the term-limited out gay incumbent from the district, Jimmy Vacca, as well as his gay Bronx colleague, Councilmember Ritchie Torres, and out lesbian Manhattan Councilmember Rosie Mendez. The Stonewall Democrats and the Jim Owles club also endorsed Velázquez, who enjoyed the support of other leading progressive groups, including the Working Families Party, Planned Parenthood, Vote Pro Choice, Make the Road, TenantsPAC, the 504 Democrats, and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. Velázquez was also the preferred candidate of Citizens Union.
While Vacca, one of the two term-limited lesbian and gay councilmembers, will now likely be replaced by a candidate not favored by LGBTQ organizations, in Lower Manhattan’s District 2, Rosie Mendez, after three terms, will be succeeded by Carlina Rivera, who had the support of both Stonewall and Jim Owles. Four incumbent gay councilmembers — Torres in the Bronx, Corey Johnson on Manhattan’s West Side, Daniel Dromm in Jackson Heights, and Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer in Sunnyside faced no primary opposition.