Bloomberg to Gay Couples: Drop Dead

Matt Foreman resigns Human Rights Commission to protest mayor’s obstructionism

Mayor Michael Bloomberg refuses to enforce the city’s new Equal Benefits Law, due to go into effect October 26, despite his failure to obtain a preliminary injunction to block the law’s implementation.

His action has outraged leaders in the City Council and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights effort and led to the resignation of one of the mayor’s out gay commissioners.

At a press conference to condemn the mayor’s legal action against the new law, City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, who may oppose Bloomberg for mayor next year, said, “This is about hundreds of thousands of real New Yorkers who are going to get health benefits for their partners and children. This is about life and death—not a political race.”

The Equal Benefits Law requires those with contracts with the city worth more than $100,00 to give the same benefits to the domestic partners of their employees that they give to spouses. It is modeled on a 1997 law in San Francisco that has withstood several court challenges. It is now the law in the state of California, as well as in Seattle and Portland, Maine.

The New York law was named “Dominique’s Law” by Contracts Committee Chair Robert Jackson for the late Dominique Ghossein who died after her partner, Leslie Thrope, was denied domestic partner benefits by her employer, a city contractor. Thrope was on hand for the press conference Friday.

The City Council overrode Bloomberg’s veto of the Equal Benefits Bill by a 41-4 vote in June.

Bloomberg attended the annual dinner of the Empire State Pride Agenda last Thursday and was confronted about his legal maneuver by executive director Alan Van Capelle. “I told the mayor that I was disappointed that he decided to use our tax dollars to sue the City Council on a bill that protects our families,” Van Capelle said. “The mayor said it was consistent with his policies and past statements.”

Bloomberg says he is opposed to using the procurement process to advance “social policy.” But Bloomberg supported the legislation during his mayoral campaign in 2001 and signed the Living Wage Bill, requiring some contractors to pay a higher minimum wage. When his press secretary, Ed Skyler, was asked to reconcile signing that wage bill while opposing the gay one, he said, “I don’t have an answer.”

The mayor has also condemned the Equal Benefits Law as fiscally unsound, but Skyler was not able to cite any evidence from jurisdictions that already have the law that they ended up paying more for goods and services. A San Francisco official who testified before the City Council last year said that their law has actually saved the city money, partly because more people are getting health insurance and are less reliant on the city for health care.

Councilwoman Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan), a lesbian who is the chief sponsor of the bill, said, “We will not be treated like second-class citizens. I fail to see why he—a successful businessman—won’t look at the experience of other cities and countries. More people get health care and we get a higher quality of goods.” She also said that companies that provide domestic partner benefits have “a higher retention rate.”

Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Faviola Soto refused to grant Bloomberg a preliminary injunction Monday to block implementation of the law on October 26. He scheduled a hearing for November 8. The mayor may appeal the denial of an injunction to an appeals court, but the city’s lawyers say he has no intention of enforcing the law. That outraged Quinn.

“If a court has not given them relief by the 27th, the Council will take the mayor to court,” she said. “I can’t believe that the Bloomberg administration is consistently and repeatedly slapping the LGBT community and domestic partners in the face.”

Van Capelle cited a string of recent rebukes from Bloomberg on gay issues, including a veto of the anti-bullying bill, also overridden by the Council, that included protections for LGBT students and his refusal to support marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples.

“He’s going to suffer not just in the LGBT community,” he said, “but among all people who believe in equal benefits.”

Betsy Gotbaum, the city’s public advocate, called upon Bloomberg “to stop this ridiculous suit.”

The city’s lawyers have cited numerous federal, state, and city laws in their effort to prove that the Equal Benefits Law is “wholly unjustifiable,” as the mayor said in his veto message. Council lawyers are “very confident” that they can defend the law in court, a source said, but would not speak on the record about their strategy.

Jordan Barowitz, a spokesperson for Bloomberg, issued a statement saying, “The administration’s decision to litigate Local Law 27 had nothing to do with the mayor’s commitment to equal rights and benefits for domestic partners,” but “was entered into because the law is illegal.” When asked, as the mayor’s office has been for months, whether the administration believed that it was legal to use the city’s procurement process to bar using contractors who did business with South Africa under apartheid, there was no response. He also said that the Living Wage Bill, which the mayor signed, “was a completely different piece of legislation,” but did not say how.

The immediate fallout from Bloomberg’s attack on the Equal Benefits Law is that Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, has resigned from the city Commission on Human Rights to which mayor appointed him.

“The City of New York has used its procurement power for decades to support social equality,” Foreman said. “I’m not sure the mayor has ever read a standard city contract. They contain pages of provisions requiring vendors to comply with the Human Rights Law, advance minorities and women and create a safe working environment.”

In his resignation letter to Bloomberg and Commission Chair Patricia Gatling, Foreman wrote, “Through its lawsuit, the administration is saying loudly and inexplicably that gay and lesbian families do no merit being part of this tradition [of promoting equity goals through contracting].” He added that “principle requires that I resign.”

Gatling would not comment on Foreman’s resignation, but Bryan Pu-Folkes, an immigrant activist who also serves on the commission, said, “I applaud him.” Pu-Folkes called the Equal Benefits Bill “a no-brainer” and “exceptionally important legislation” that should be “upheld and cherished.” He also said he would bring the issue up in the next quarterly meeting of commissioners two months from now and hopes Bloomberg will change his mind in the meantime.

Foreman received a letter from Deputy Mayor Carol Robles-Roman expressing “disappointment” over his resignation, claiming that the mayor’s company, Bloomberg, L.P., “has long extended equal benefits to spouses and domestic partners of its employees,” when in fact Bloomberg only started providing domestic partner benefits about a year before he ran for mayor.

She also told Foreman, “The local law has numerous legal defects relating to its impact on the procurement process and would have a deleterious effect on the city’s ability to deliver services to all New Yorkers.”

At a press conference Tuesday announcing his resignation, Foreman said that he had not been able to talk with the mayor personally about his concerns. “One of the problems our community has with the mayor is that we don’t have any points of access into him,” he said.

Bloomberg is often referred to in the mainstream press as “pro-gay” and this week his spokesperson issued a statement that “gay and lesbian families deserve the same rights as all New York families.” But despite signing a transgender rights bill and one granting recognition to domestic partnerships contracted elsewhere early on in his administration, his record of late has antagonized most gay leaders. In addition to the issues cited by Van Capelle, Bloomberg marches in the anti-gay St. Patrick’s Day Parade, continues to support the Boy Scouts despite their exclusion of gay scouts, opposes using the city’s shareholder power to promote pro-gay corporate policy, and is the largest individual contributor to the Republican Party, which this year came out for an amendment to the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Last week, it was reported that Bloomberg contributed $7 million of his personal fortune to the Republicans just for their convention.

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