Marriage Equality Supporter’s State Senate Primary Divides Advocates

Senator Martin Malavé Dilan and his primary challenger, attorney Jason Otaño. | NYSENATE.GOV/ JASONOTANO.COM

A north Brooklyn State Senate primary that pits a ten-year Democratic incumbent, who twice voted for New York’s marriage equality law, against a pro-gay challenger has divided LGBT advocacy groups in the city, with two political clubs backing the insurgent, one staying with the veteran lawmaker, and the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA) remaining on the sidelines.

The September 13 election, in which State Senator Martin Malavé Dilan faces off against Jason Otaño, an attorney who formerly served as general counsel to Borough President Marty Markowitz, is also just the latest bout in a bigger struggle between Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who has run the Brooklyn Democratic organization for the past six years, and Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, a 20-year House veteran.

Lopez was the major force behind the unsuccessful bid by Dilan’s son, City Councilman Erik Martin Dilan, to unseat Velázquez in the June congressional primary. Velázquez is now championing a number of anti-Lopez candidates in Brooklyn, with the backing of Democratic reformers in the borough and beyond.

The Senate district runs from Greenpoint and Williamsburg to Cypress Hills and East New York and includes Bushwick, Lopez’s political base.

Lopez’s August 24 censure by his Assembly colleagues (in which Speaker Sheldon Silver stripped him of his committee chairmanship) after being accused of sexually harassing two women who worked in his district office has weakened his position in Brooklyn and placed allies of his machine into a bind. Out lesbian City Council Speaker Christine Quinn promptly called on Lopez to resign from the Assembly, and on Sunday a spokesman for Governor Andrew Cuomo said that if the allegations prove true, he should go.

Like Quinn, Otaño immediately called for Lopez’s departure from the Assembly and from his party post, while Dilan has so far remained silent.

Alan Fleishman, an out gay former Democratic leader and state committeeman from Park Slope who has long been active with the Lambda Independent Democrats (LID), the borough’s LGBT club, after saying Otaño is “energetic, smart, [and] cares deeply about his neighbors and constituents in the district,” added that the challenger “is not part of the tired Vito Lopez machine. Martin Dilan and his son Erik and their other family members on the public payroll are old-time political hacks.”

LID and the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, another LGBT group, have endorsed Otaño.

In contrast, the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City voted in July to stick with Dilan, after hearing presentations from both candidates.

“Martin Dilan has consistently been a voice of support for the LGBT community,” said Melissa Sklarz, Stonewall’s president, citing the incumbent’s 2009 and 2011 votes in favor of marriage equality. “It is important that people like that get our support. It would seem hypocritical for an LGBT club not to endorse him.”

Gay City News spoke to Sklarz three days after the Lopez censure came down, but she did not shy away from either Dilan’s or the club’s relationship with the Brooklyn machine.

“We have had a relationship with Vito Lopez,” she said, noting that the Brooklyn boss attended Stonewall’s Christmas party last year and earlier made a presentation to the club. “We have seen ourselves as a progressive club, but also working with the Democratic organization there.”

She said the county Democratic organization has been helpful in the efforts to establish a permanent LGBT community center in Brooklyn.

Stating that “sexual harassment by elected officials is horrendous” and that “the Assembly verdict was very, very clear,” Sklarz added, “I think it is going to take a lot more than an ethics violation to get a party leader to step down. I think they will simply move on in Brooklyn.”

Asked whether she hoped to see Dilan speak out on the Lopez matter as other elected officials have done, Sklarz laughed, before responding. “I don’t think we’re going to hear much from the Brooklyn electeds on this one.”

Matthew McMorrow, the co-president of LID, said, “We are still waiting for Dilan to speak out on Lopez and he has been silent, when everyone from the governor on down has called on him to resign.”

McMorrow pointed out that Dilan was among just a handful of senators who voted against the expulsion of Queens Democrat Hiram Monserrate in 2010 following his conviction on domestic violence charges.

“He’s shown no leadership on women’s issues,” the LID president said of Dilan.

Reformers have been gunning for Lopez since long before any sexual harassment charges arose, and supporters of Otaño have a bill of particulars against Dilan that goes beyond his ties to the now-disgraced county leader.

One issue that reformers fault Dilan on is his failure to advocate for adequate tenant protections, especially given that he represents a district in which so many residents struggle to make their monthly rent. In his most recent campaign finance filing, of roughly $42,000 in contributions, $10,000 –– or nearly one out of every four dollars raised –– came from Neighborhood Preservation, a political action committee representing the real estate industry.

According to Michael McKee, the treasurer of Tenants Political Action Committee, Dilan has been unreliable on protecting the city’s rent stabilization law since 1994, when as a member of the City Council he joined a narrow majority forged by then-Speaker Peter Vallone in making vacancy decontrol –– established temporarily the year before at the behest of the Republican State Senate –– permanent. In the ensuing 18 years, McKee estimated, 300,000 rental units have been removed from rent regulation.

In 2010, when the Democrats last controlled the State Senate, their majority failed to enact a package of rent protections, including the repeal of vacancy decontrol, when eight of their members joined nearly every Republican in voting to kill the effort. Dilan was prepared to side with those who opposed the Democratic majority’s bills, McKee said, but was persuaded by colleagues to instead leave the chamber and simply not vote.

Allen Roskoff, president of the Jim Owles club, termed Dilan’s posture on tenants’ issues “unbelievable,” adding, “That alone makes him unqualified for office.” He said the club plans to spend “several thousand dollars” in a direct mail piece going to voters in the Senate district.

For LID’s McMorrow, a bigger issue was Dilan’s efforts in 2011 to use the controversial US Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United to challenge provisions of the New York City campaign finance law capping donations to political candidates by those who have business before the city and barring corporate contributions. The suit, which Dilan brought with former Queens Republican City Councilman Tom Ognibene, was thrown out last December by a federal appeals court panel, which ruled that Citizens United addressed only spending independent of political candidates, not limits on direct contributions.

McMorrow pointed to the impact the Citizens United ruling is having on Super-PAC spending in the presidential race, nearly all of it on behalf of the Republican side, and said Dilan’s motives in mounting the litigation were “self-serving,” noting that his political fortunes as well as those of others in his family and in the Lopez machine’s orbit stood to benefit from relaxed restrictions on giving by their corporate and political action committee supporters.

LID’s endorsement of Otaño, he said, came when “we were fresh off the “Nydia Velázquez campaign where we had lots of boots on the ground.” Velázquez has one of the strongest pro-LGBT records in Congress, having joined just six of her Democratic colleagues in 2007 in voting against the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act to protest the lack of protections based on gender identity and expression included in the version House leaders put up for a vote that year.

Some Otaño supporters noted that Stonewall failed to endorse Velázquez against the challenge from Dilan’s son, a sign they said of the club’s overly cozy relationship with Lopez’s Brooklyn organization. Sklarz, however, attributed its lack of involvement in that primary to the difficulty, for a citywide Democratic club, of “reach[ing] out to all the contests in all the boroughs.”

Using votes on marriage equality as a litmus test for endorsements has proved tricky for Stonewall this year. If its loyalty to Dilan has separated the club from its customary reform allies, Stonewall’s endorsement of a Bronx Assembly candidate who does not support marriage equality also caused it problems. An August 1 story in the New York Post about the club’s support for Luis Sepulveda, an ally of State Senator Ruben Diaz, Sr., an ardent foe of gay rights, quoted Cathy Marino-Thomas, the board co-president of Marriage Equality USA, saying, “I think it’s outrageous that an organization that holds itself out as a gay advocacy group would ask voters to support an anti-marriage equality candidate.”

In the wake of that dust-up, the club posted on its homepage an extraordinary letter from Sepulveda in which the candidate wrote that he sees marriage equality as “a settled matter, one that I do not look to chip at in any capacity as a state legislator.”

Responding to a query from Gay City News, ESPA –– which has made protecting legislators who voted with the community on marriage equality a top priority in the 2012 elections –– responded, “Senator Dilan has not submitted a current candidate questionnaire in this cycle yet. However, as in years past, the Pride Agenda's endorsement process is rolling, keeping in mind there are hundreds of races across the state. Our PAC plans to release further endorsements as election season proceeds.”

The group’s spokesman, George Simpson, did not reply to follow-up questions about whether Otaño had answered its questionnaire or if additional endorsements were expected in the 16 days left before the primary.