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Daniel O’Donnell Exploring Run for Public Advocate

Marriage equality pioneer, UWS assemblymember looks at succeeding Tish James

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With as email blast, Upper West Side State Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell has announced he will “explore” running for New York City public advocate should Letitia James be elected attorney general in November. Gay City News was the first to report about O’Donnell’s interest in the office, in advance of that Septebmer 17 email.

Winning that office will be grueling, requiring three elections. O’Donnell, who is gay, may well run against two other LGBTQ candidates — Ritchie Torres, a Bronx city councilmember, and former Council Speaker Christine Quinn — as well as another former speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito. Since leaving office, Quinn has remained close to Governor Andrew Cuomo and is the president of WIN, a non-profit that helps homeless woman and their families. Mark-Viverito has worked hard over the past year in helping Puerto Rico recover from the disastrous Hurricane Maria.

So far, O’Donnell’s announcement is the most definitive of any of the possible candidacies.

The New York Times mentioned nine councilmembers, including two Republicans, who might become candidates. There is no word yet from Brooklyn Councilmember Jumaane Williams, who received nearly 436,000 votes in the city in his bid for the Democratic lieutenant governor nomination in the September 13 primary election, about his potential interest. Kirsten John Foy, described by the Times as “an activist and a Pentecostal minister who is close to the Reverend Al Sharpton” has said he is close to making a decision.

The City Charter imposes a heavy burden on any candidate running for the position should James resign on January 1 to assume the attorney general’s post. The mayor calls a special election that must take place within 45 days. The winner of that special election is the “interim” public advocate, said Jerry Goldfeder, an election lawyer. The interim public advocate must then run again in the regularly scheduled September 2019 Democratic primary and go on to win the November election. Even then, the winner would only hold office for the remaining two years of the James term.

“I have grown concerned by the increased use of unchecked executive power — from the White House, to Albany, to right here at home in New York City,” O’Donnell stated in his email, saying the job shouldn’t be “a springboard to the Mayor’s mansion.”

“I think the Public Advocate’s Office needs to be independent and capable of offering criticism,” he said in a phone interview last week, amplifying his emailed statement that “I’ve never been afraid to call out those in power for acting out of self-interest instead of for the public good, even when it meant that I was the lone voice in the room.”

O’Donnell, who as a state officeholder has never run a race using the city’s public campaign finance system that matches money raised by candidates, promises to run without real estate or corporate donations.

James’ successor could be public advocate until 2029, under the city’s term limits law, and O’Donnell’s goals are long term: ending the AIDS epidemic by 2020, closing Rikers Island by 2027, “eliminating all trash [sent] to landfills,” and reducing 80 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. He also promises to “bring a bullhorn” to the “corruption and disorganiz­ation” at the New York City Housing Authority, which is facing a federal investigation over false reports filed that the paint in public housing is lead-free.

In the phone interview, O’Donnell talked about his legislation allowing opioid users to access medical marijuana as part of their treatment. Communities where that option is available to heroin users, he said, experience 25 percent lower overdose death rates. He also voiced support for Safer Consumption Spaces, where drug users are supervised by healthcare professionals on hand to prevent fatal overdoses and link them to treatment, though he said “execution” is key given likely community concern about such facilities.

A key credential on O’Donnell’s résumé is the critical role he played in making marriage equality a live issue on the state’s political stage. It was O’Donnell who steered then-Governor Eliot Spitzer’s program bill to passage just weeks after it was first introduced in 2007.

Six months after the bill became law in 2011, O’Donnell and his partner, John Banta, married in a gala wedding officiated by Judith Kaye, the retired chief judge of the state’s highest bench, the Court of Appeals, who had written a stirring dissent when that court rejected a gay marriage lawsuit in 2006.

Alan van Capelle, who led the Empire State Pride Agenda when O’Donnell notched the first legislative victory on marriage, told Gay City News in a recent telephone interview, “Danny has never received the credit he deserves for his work on marriage equality.” The hard slog to get Senate approval — a full four years later — he said, “overshadowed” the groundwork O’Donnell created in the Assembly at a time when gay marriage remained “unpopular and politically risky.” One key to achieving Senate approval, van Capelle explained, was securing GOP Assembly support for the bill so that those members would not be in a position to primary a senator who supported it. Van Capelle said O’Donnell’s personal lobbying “picked up votes we didn’t expect.”

O’Donnell was also the lead sponsor of the Dignity for All Students Act, the State’s anti-bullying law that Governor David Paterson signed into law in 2010. That measure specifically protects LGBTQ students, among a number of categories.

O’Donnell has been restless in the Assembly for years and was among those Governor David Paterson considered for the US Senate seat Hillary Clinton vacated when she became secretary of state. After Carl Heastie was elected speaker several years ago, O’Donnell became chair of the Committee on Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development, a lateral transfer carrying less prestige than his previous post as chair of the Corrections Committee, overseeing the state’s prisons — a sign he is not a member of Heastie’s inner circle.

Updated 11:54 am, September 27, 2018
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