A Divide in Public Advocate's Race

BY ANDY HUMM | Civil rights attorney Norman Siegel, who lost to Gotbaum in a runoff for the Democratic nomination in 2001, is making another run at her, this time with the support of the citywide Stonewall Democratic Club, the Lambda Independent Democrats of Brooklyn, the Out People of Color Political Action Club, and the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club.

The most prominent gay elected official supporting Siegel is John Shields, the mayor of Nyack in Rockland County.

There are seven other candidates for the nomination, none of whom has attracted any significant LGBT support.

Incumbent Betsy Gotbaum faces stiff challenge from civil rights attorney Norman Siegel

It’s not quite “LGBT Establishment vs. LGBT Insurgents,” but the rhetoric surrounding the dueling endorsements carries some of that flavor.

Senator Tom Duane, a Chelsea Democrat, said of Gotbaum, “I think she’s done a good job, especially on senior citizen issues.” Gotbaum also has the endorsements of Assemblymembers Deborah Glick, a Village Democrat, and Daniel O’Donnell, an Upper West Side Democratic, as well as Democratic City Councilwomen Christine Quinn of Chelsea and Margarita Lopez of the Lower East Side.

Gotbaum has been outspoken in favor of same-sex marriage, pledging to drop Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s appeal of a court order to issue licenses to gay couples should circumstances lead to her stepping up to mayor. Siegel is already in court representing the “Nyack 10,” including Mayor Shields, trying to win their right to marry same-sex partners statewide.

Shields called the officials endorsing Gotbaum “sellouts.” Siegel, not known for his diplomacy in this campaign, instead called them “an incumbent’s club” and countered that he has “people power.”

LGBT activists gathered at Siegel’s midtown headquarters for a press conference to show their support on Monday. Many compared Gotbaum unfavorably with Mark Green, the first public advocate when the city’s Charter reform took effect in 1994 and the loser to Bloomberg for mayor in 2001. Siegel was executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union for many years and has devoted his career to working on behalf of civil rights.

As anti-establishment as Siegel is, he noted that this year he has the support of 25 Democratic clubs versus the five he had last time out. Gotbaum has the support of former Mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins, State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, City Comptroller William Thompson, and all four Democratic borough presidents.

Doug Robinson, co-president of OutPOCPAC, said Siegel “will not be a rubber stamp for the mayor.” Gotbaum has said she voted for Bloomberg in 2001 but is now pledged to support the Democratic nominee. Pauline Park of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy, said, “Betsy is a nice woman, but not an effective advocate for the LGBT community, especially with they way Bloomberg has refused to enforce the Equal Benefits Law and the Dignity in All Schools Act.”

Gotbaum has spoken out against the mayor’s obstruction on these issues, and co-sponsored both bills in the City Council, over which she nominally presides. Her spokesperson, Anat Jacobson, said that as a member of the New York City Retirement System, which manages the pensions of former municipal workers, Gotbaum “has gotten dozens of companies to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.”

On AIDS, Jacobson said the public advocate “forced the city to release a report on AIDS housing” a few months ago, exposing the “crisis in housing for people with AIDS.” She has also conducted investigations on women and AIDS, seeing to it that the city applied for and received $14 million to address that population.

In response to a recent Gay City News investigation highlighting the failure of the city’s 10 STD clinics to serve everyone who turns out for testing on a given day, Gotbaum pressed the mayor and Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden for answers and this week announced that she had received a letter from Dr. Frieden pledging to put a plan addressing the shortcomings into place by mid-September.

Gotbaum also assisted SAGE, the group for gay elders, in getting funding it was missing out on because it is not a traditional senior center, Jacobson said.

Melissa Sklarz, president of GLID, said Gotbaum “has done an admirable job” and that the vote for her was “not even close.” Allen Roskoff, president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, said their vote for Siegel was unanimous. Dirk McCall of Stonewall said Siegel beat Gotbaum by two votes for that group’s endorsement.

“He’s an extremely strong candidate,” McCall said of Siegel, “but the vote was not a smack against Betsy.”

Kenneth Sherrill, political science professor at Hunter and the first out gay elected Democratic district leader in city history in 1977, said, “Gotbaum should have been unbeatable this year, but she doesn’t have a strong lead in the polls. She hasn’t gotten the endorsements you’d expect and Siegel is running a surprisingly strong race.”

An August Quinnipiac poll had Gotbaum at 38 percent, just two short of the 40 percent she needs to avoid a runoff for the nomination. Siegel was at 25 percent and Andrew Rasiej, who is campaigning on a pledge to push for wi fi capability throughout the whole city, had six percent.

The LGBT Community Center at 208 West 13th Street is holding a public forum for the public advocate candidates on Thursday, September 8, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. A forum for candidates for district attorney in both Manhattan and Brooklyn will be held on Tuesday, September 6, also from 6:30-8:30 p.m.