Daniel O’Donnell shows all the signs of being among the front runners in the race for the Democratic nomination for the 69th Assembly District on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He denies he is a front runner and, when answering questions in an interview, he is very careful to avoid a gaffe that might cost him his position.
“There is no way to make that assessment,” O’Donnell said when asked if he were the front runner. “You have to be able to have a vision and a message and you have to have the ability to get that vision out there… We’re moving forward with the fundraising effort to do that.”
With roughly $73,400 in cash on hand, he is second only to Ari Goodman who has $116,460 in his war chest. Sixty thousand dollars out of Goodman’s total take of roughly $129,250 consists of a loan he made to his campaign.
O’Donnell has raised just over $120,000 to date in a contest that he predicted could cost $200,000.
The campaign filings of some of the other candidates show cash on hand ranging from a low of $15,940 for Cynthia Doty to $42,830 for Joyce Johnson to $48,260 for Steve Strauss, the other openly gay candidate.
Strauss is spending $25,000 of his own cash on the contest and $19,900 of Johnson’s roughly $54,800 in total contributions consists of loans. There are, reportedly, another four candidates making the race, but they have not filed with the state elections board as of July 17.
The 41-year-old O’Donnell has broad political support. Ed Sullivan, the current assemblymember who is retiring after 25 years, endorsed O’Donnell as have a crush of Democratic Party operatives, including Assemblymember Scott Stringer (pictured on left with O''Donnell above). Nearly all of the city’s openly gay or lesbian elected officials are backing O’Donnell, as are the two Manhattan Democratic gay political clubs.
“You need other people in the political community to say they share your values,” O’Donnell said. “People in the gay community know that the values I have are ones they share.”
When he is asked about reforming the Assembly operations and perhaps loosening the vise-like grip that Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno and Governor George Pataki, both Republicans, keep on the state budget and legislation, O’Donnell is cautious.
“I certainly think that there is greater need for citizen participation in the process,” he said. “I think it’s misplaced to say that the only fault belongs to Shelly Silver. It operated that way long before he became speaker.”
To get to Albany, it is probably unwise for a Democrat to anger other Democrats who are in charge there. O’Donnell, who is making his second race for an Albany seat, would not be drawn into an attack on the Assembly or its leadership.
Reform was not a “panacea” and it is “simplistic” to believe that “one member is going to make a difference,” he said.
He did suggest one change.
“There should be a mechanism where people can thoughtfully go through legislative proposals before deciding how to vote on them,” he said.
Given the power of the governor, the assembly speaker, and the senate majority leader, individual legislators may have limited influence on the final decisions made in Albany, but they do have a loud microphone to raise issues.
“The bully pulpit is a large part of what [an assembly seat] gives you,” O’Donnell said. “Beyond that, in the body itself, there is a presence. There is now an openly gay man in the room who will talk about issues…
The merely raising of the issues is how change starts.”
O’Donnell pointed to Assemblymember Deborah Glick, who was first elected in 1990, as someone who has been effective in that regard.
“There has never been an openly gay man in the state Assembly,” O’Donnell said. “The election of openly gay people changes the dynamic, the tenor changes. If we don’t have a place at the table, the change will never happen.”
O’Donnell has lived in the district for the past 12 years and has spent the past 22 years with his partner John Banta, who works for the American Ballet Theatre.
O’Donnell was born in Flushing and raised on Long Island. His first political experience came at 11 when he volunteered for George McGovern’s presidential campaign. He earned a law degree at City University of New York, or CUNY, and he served in the public defender’s office from 1987 through 1994 when he went into private practice.
O’Donnell has served on Community Board 9, covering the Upper West Side, since 1995, and he is a founding member of Citizen Action and a board member of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. He has also consistently been active in Democratic Party politics.
“I view running for office as a natural extension of my life in public service,” O’Donnell said.
Environmental issues would certainly be among the first he would tackle in the Assembly. He noted that the 69th District has two bus depots, a marine transfer station for garbage, and a sewage treatment plant all within five blocks of each other. Those facilities are serviced by diesel trucks.
“Chances are you’re going to have a negative impact on the people in that community,” O’Donnell said. “That is something that I feel very passionate about and would want to raise.”
He would require such facilities to conduct environmental impact studies before they could open. O’Donnell also wants to expand the state’s Tuition Assistance Program to include part time students. He is proposing a tax increase targeted to higher income residents.
“One of the problems that we really need to address is some of the taxation and funding issues,” O’Donnell said. “In certain times, we need people who have more resources to pay more money for the services that government provides… You have to take it on a circumstance by circumstance basis.”
On issues of concern to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender community O’Donnell aims to push the agenda as aggressively as possible. He supports same-sex marriage and would co-sponsor a bill allowing such unions that was recently introduced by Assemblymember Richard Gottfried.
“That bill may not become law without the support of the speaker, but certainly it becomes part of the discussion by the act of sponsoring it,” O’Donnell said. He also backs a Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, that protects transgendered individuals. And he supports the Dignity for All Students Act, aimed at curbing harassment and violence against public school pupils, including gay, lesbian, and transgendered youth.
O’Donnell wants to continue the work of Ed Sullivan who he described as a “very progressive man.”
He also aims to underscore that as a leader he is driven.