The City Council’s One Lesbian Speaks Up

Lower East Side City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, who has represented District 2 since January 2006. | ROSIEMENDEZ.COM

Lower East Side City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, who has represented District 2 since January 2006. | ROSIEMENDEZ.COM

Rosie Mendez, the Lower East Side City Council veteran first elected in 2005, has been passionate about tenants’ rights her entire career. An attorney by training, she worked at Brooklyn Legal Services and then for the People’s Economic Opportunities Project on the Lower East Side before becoming chief of staff to former Councilwoman Margarita Lopez, herself a tenants’ advocate.

One issue Mendez has raised alarms about since she first entered the Council is the decline of the city’s Mitchell-Lama housing program. Created by the State Legislature in the 1950s, Mitchell-Lama provides landlords incentives to maintain affordable housing, yet also gives them the right to opt-out of the program. Mendez argues the Council needs to better identify why those opt-outs are occurring.

Yet as the 51-year-old out lesbian begins her third four-year term, making her among the most senior members of the Council, the prevailing politics at City Hall make it difficult for her to push that issue in the way she would like. When Melissa Mark-Viverito, the new Council speaker, named committee chairs, Mendez was one of four members left out in the cold.

Sidelined in the scramble for committee control, Rosie Mendez identifies priorities in her final term

In the prior Council, Mendez was chair of Public Housing, which former Speaker Christine Quinn elevated to a full committee, Mendez noted. This year, Mendez had hoped to be named chair of the more powerful Housing and Buildings Committee. That post went to Brooklyn’s Jumaane Williams, a second-term councilman who competed with Mark-Viverito for the speakership before dropping out of the race.

Mendez, who said she had “two friends in the race” when it narrowed to just East Harlem’s Mark-Viverito and the East Side’s Dan Garodnick, sided with Garodnick, and she acknowledged she is now paying the price for that choice.

“This is politics,” she said. “I didn’t get a committee.”

Then noting that Housing and Buildings was the only post she was interested in, Mendez added, “In all fairness to her, I told her I didn’t want to chair a committee for the sake of it.”

The Lower East Sider did not give up, however, instead asking Mark-Viverito to appoint her as chair of a new subcommittee specifically focused on the Mitchell-Lama issue.

“She didn’t,” Mendez said, “though she did create a subcommittee for a freshman member.”

She added, “Can it be justified that I didn’t get a committee? No, but I didn’t get elected to chair committees. I got elected to serve my district.”

Mendez intends to continue pressing for preservation of Mitchell-Lama units and explore similar new initiatives, but acknowledged there are limitations to what she can do.

“When you work in a collective body, you have to be aware of boundaries,” she said. “I do not want to do anything to make the chair think I am trying to take that work away from him.”

Despite what many would view as a snub from Mark-Viverito, Mendez emphasized areas of agreement with the new speaker.

“She’s very good on the issues,” the Lower East Sider said.

Mendez, in particular, vouched for Mark-Viverito’s willingness to afford her members independence. When LGBT activists and their allies –– including this newspaper –– recently called on Mayor Bill de Blasio to ban uniformed city personnel, including police officers and firefighters, from marching in the discriminatory St. Patrick’s Day Parade, only Mendez, the West Side’s Corey Johnson, and the Bronx’s Richie Torres, among the six gay and lesbian members of the Council, signed on to the open letter. Mendez said she got no pressure from Mark-Viverito, who did not address the issue though she did, for the first time, bar the use of a Council banner and seal in the parade.

“For the short time she’s been speaker, that’s not my experience,” Mendez said when asked whether Mark-Viverito enforces orthodoxy on her members. “I think it’s unlikely she would do that to my colleagues, but I don’t know.”

In fact, she said, the speaker encouraged a free vote of the Black, Hispanic, and Asian Caucus on an issue that Governor Andrew Cuomo had pressed Council members to remain quiet on. Caucus members want the governor to schedule quick special elections to fill vacant seats in the Legislature, five of six of which represent communities of color. Despite Cuomo’s efforts to forestall a caucus resolution calling on him to do that, Mark-Viverito told its members, “If you want to, vote it out,” according to Mendez. The caucus, which Mendez co-chairs, did so.

Another group within the Council where Mendez sees opportunity to make a mark is in the six-member Gay and Lesbian Caucus, which she chairs and includes Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer and Daniel Dromm of Queens and Brooklyn’s Carlos Menchaca, in addition to Johnson and Torres. One key issue is ensuring that LGBT issues continue to get the attention they enjoyed when out lesbian Quinn led the Council.

“We were very fortunate to have Chris as speaker,” Mendez said of the mayoral primary contender she supported last year. “When we wanted something researched, it got done.”

Mendez is hopeful she can secure funds to support the caucus’ efforts. The issues important to gay and lesbian members, she said, are diverse –– from ensuring appropriate city landmark recognition of gay historic sites to creating special needs housing serving LGBT seniors and focusing attention on the “real horrors” that undocumented transgender immigrants face when snared in federal enforcement action that lands them in detention centers.

Police issues, Mendez said, are also important to the LGBT community –– whether the controversy over the past mayoral administration’s stop and frisk record, the targeting of gay men several years ago in false arrests in adult video stores, or the use of condoms as evidence in the prosecution of young people and transgender New Yorkers for prostitution.

Regarding questions of law enforcement, Mendez voiced cautious optimism about the new tone coming from the de Blasio administration.

“He seems to be talking the right talk, so we will see,” she said.

One issue on which she voiced disagreement with the new mayor was on church congregations renting space on weekends in public schools. The Department of Education has a longstanding policy barring such rental, but that prohibition has been stayed for years while a Bronx congregation challenges it in court. De Blasio has consistently taken the position that church rental of school space is perfectly appropriate, a position Mendez said she had been unaware of but found “disturbing.”

“I see it as contrary to the Constitution,” she said, voicing a view held by many civil libertarians who argue that such arrangements violate the separation of church and state.

The issue got personal for Mendez last year when her Democratic primary opponent, Richard Del Rio, a senior pastor at Abounding Grace Church, used her opposition to the rental practice against her. The City Action Coalition PAC, an independent expenditure group formed to promote socially conservative issues, targeted Mendez, among only five Council candidates, with at least $10,000 in negative advertising. Despite that spending, the incumbent handily won, with more than 82 percent of the vote.

Mendez disagreed with the mayor over churches in the schools, but made a point of lauding him for his commitment to end a longstanding Memorandum of Understanding that has required the New York City Housing Authority to reimburse the NYPD for police services in public housing facilities. That arrangement, struck in the mid-1990s, drains more than $70 million each year from monies available to the city’s troubled public housing efforts.

Mendez heartily endorsed de Blasio’s efforts to achieve universal pre-K across the city and to pay for it by increasing taxes on the wealthiest city residents. The city, she said, should have control not only over its ability to tax, but also its rent stabilization laws, long dictated by the Legislature in Albany.

“Why we have upstate Republicans determining what rights we have as New York City citizens has never made any sense to me,” she said.

Asked about the widespread view that the City Council, in the wake of last year’s elections and Mark-Viverito’s victory as speaker, is a more progressive body than it had been, Mendez was equivocal.

“It’s still too early to say,” she responded. “Early conversations would say yes, but I thought we had a pretty progressive Council.”

One critical concern she has about the current Council is the relatively low percentage of women. Only 15 members out of 51 are female, she noted, in contrast to the 23 who sat on the Council when her District 2 predecessor Margarita Lopez took office in January 1998.

Not surprisingly, as a progressive and a tenant advocate, Mendez has found some of the gentrification in the neighborhoods she represents disquieting.

“It’s personally very sad to see some of the people who worked to keep affordable housing in the district now finding they can’t live here or their kids grow up and can’t say here,” she said. “It’s great to see revitalization, but not when it displaces large numbers of businesses and we lose the diversity of services –– things like shoe repair.”

As neighborhoods become more affluent, she noted, delivery of safety net social services tend to decline, meaning “there are fewer services for those at risk, who need to travel farther to get services they need.”

Still, Mendez noted proudly, the neighborhoods from Gramercy Park south to the Lower East Side remain “a microcosm for the entire city” and among the most culturally rich in New York. As her interview with Gay City News wound down, she spoke fondly about the success of Repertorio Español, on East 27th Street, while she prepared to leave for a tour of renovations at the Public Theater, the iconic cultural innovator that Joe Papp built on Lafayette Street.