Early last year — months before the coronavirus pandemic gripped the city — out gay Queens Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer was, by any measure, a leading candidate in the race for Queens borough president.
The third-term city lawmaker, scratching and clawing to stand out in a crowded race, had secured his place in the progressive lane, drawing support from influential political figures ranging from Public Advocate Jumaane Williams to former gubernatorial candidates Zephyr Teachout and Cynthia Nixon, who is lesbian. Other LGBTQ leaders also flocked to Van Bramer’s camp, including activist Cecilia Gentili, City Council candidate Marti Allen-Cummings, and out gay former State Senator Thomas Duane.
At the same time, however, family issues suddenly required him to re-evaluate his priorities. His mother, who is living with dementia, took a fall late in the year in 2019, forcing Van Bramer to abruptly pull the plug on his campaign in January so he could care for her.
“I wanted to maximize the good times we would have with her, fearing the worst and not knowing when she would forget my name,” Van Bramer, who joined Daniel Dromm as the first two out gay city lawmakers in Queens. said in a recent interview with Gay City News.
Van Bramer became rather open about his mother’s journey while his former competitors continued to spar for an open seat that became available when former Queens beep Melinda Katz narrowly eked out a victory in the race for Queens district attorney in 2019. In the aftermath of his departure from the race, Van Bramer posted photos of his mother on social media as she embarked on walks around the local community, making it clear he wanted to cherish the moments with her.
Queens Councilmember Donovan Richards went on to win the race, becoming the first Black man to serve as Queens borough president and putting him in a strong position to gain re-election as an incumbent.
Van Bramer, who represents Sunnyside, Woodside, Long Island City, Astoria, and Dutch Kills, said his mother’s health has since stabilized and she is in good care, which ultimately prompted the term-limited lawmaker to begin pondering his political future yet again.
Of course, that would not be a simple decision — not when Richards already secured the advantage of being an incumbent, albeit for a short period of time.
But Van Bramer still opted to dive head-first back into this year’s race for borough president — and while COVID seemingly transformed just about everything since he backed out of the last competition, this year’s race is bearing resemblance to last year’s election. Van Bramer is up against familiar foes: Richards is obviously running for re-election and former City Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley is also back in the mix after losing to Richards by seven points in last year’s showdown.
Van Bramer, whose tenure in the City Council concludes in less than year, is again trying to sway voters across the borough.
“There needs to be a real progressive, anti-establishment, voice in this race,” Van Bramer said.
It’s no secret that borough presidents play more of an influential role than anything else — beeps do not even get to vote on legislation — but it is not a totally powerless, symbolic gig. Borough presidents, for example, play an advisory role in land use decisions and appoint both community board members and City Planning Commission members, among other duties.
Van Bramer is trying to make the case that, if elected, he would maintain his independence when it comes to land use, pointing to his opposition to the Amazon deal and rezonings in Industry City and Flushing.
Van Bramer is also expressing a commitment to building a diverse staff at borough hall that includes immigrants, people of color, queer folks, and individuals who reside in public housing. He has the same idea in mind for community boards.
“The borough president can also use the community board appointment process to change the makeup of community boards to make them more diverse,” he said.
The 51-year-old lawmaker is stressing a need to stand up to the status quo and challenge establishment forces and “political machinery” in the borough. That hasn’t necessarily always been the case for Van Bramer, who endorsed then-Queens County Democratic Party boss Joe Crowley over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018. But Van Bramer also went on to become one of the most visible supporters of insurgent Queens district attorney candidate Tiffany Cabán, who is now running for City Council in District 22 encompassing Astoria, East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, and Woodside.
And last summer, Van Bramer stood with progressives again when he took an unwavering stance in opposition to a city budget that did not reduce police funding in accordance with activists’ demands in the midst of a racial justice movement that galvanized the city and the nation. Joining Brooklyn’s Carlos Menchaca as the only two out LGBTQ councilmembers to oppose the budget, Van Bramer invoked ACT UP as he cast his vote, stressing that activists sometimes need to have an impolite and in-your-face approach to send a clear message.
“It was the right vote and I stand by it,” Van Bramer said more than a half-year after he rejected the budget. “I do think we must hold folks accountable and I believed and still believe in the movement that says very clearly that we should reallocate resources from the NYPD to programs and services and organizations, particularly in communities of color, that will make everyone safer and healthier.”
He added, “We did not reduce the budget by a billion dollars, and so I had to vote against it. The work is still unfinished, so as we go into a new budget season, everything has changed.”
It will be the final budget vote for Van Bramer, whose immediate political future will be determined by the outcome of this race. More than a decade after he and Daniel Dromm became the borough’s first out LGBTQ city lawmakers, Van Bramer believes it would be an important leap forward for voters to elect an out LGBTQ borough president.
“I’m interested in making that history,” he said. “It’s never been done before.”
The significance of that historic possibility is not lost on Van Bramer in light of his experience witnessing homophobia in action dating back his childhood in 1970s Astoria. He still remembers watching his babysitter, Donnie, walk down the street with his friend and get called anti-gay slurs.
“He was the first gay person I ever met or knew,” Van Bramer. “Even though I didn’t really know that much, I knew it was bad.”
Van Bramer later came out in 1989 at the age 19 at a time when he said “AIDS was ravaging our community and we were still being ostracized just about every place.”
“I literally said to myself, if you’re gay and you’re going to come out, then you have to fight,” he said, recalling his time attending ACT UP meetings and demonstrations. Van Bramer also went on to write for Lesbian and Gay New York (LGNY), the predecessor title to Gay City News.
Fast-forward to 2021, Van Bramer is a firm supporter of arguably the most prominent queer issue in the city — the decriminalization of sex work. And, if elected, he hopes to move the needle on issues impacting populations such as LGBTQ seniors. Van Bramer pointed to LGBTQ-friendly affordable housing developments such as Stonewall House in Brooklyn as he made the case that Queens should also aspire to bring dedicated spaces to queer older adults in the borough.
“I would like to be a part of making that happen in Queens and supporting that funding and working with providers,” Van Bramer said. “SAGE does some great work but there are others as well.”
In his second bid for borough president, Van Bramer still has Nixon, Duane, and other LGBTQ supporters behind his candidacy — including District Leader Emilia Decaudin of Queens and City Council candidate Elisa Crespo of the Bronx — but whether he can unseat an incumbent is a separate question that will be answered in three months. According to the most recent data provided to the New York City Campaign Finance Board, Van Bramer has an estimated balance of $394,015, while Richards has $459,318 on hand.
The candidates, along with other hopefuls including Danniel Maio and Diana Sanchez, will square off in the Democratic Primary on June 22.
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