Brian Ellner Withdraws From Bid for ESPA Post

BY PAUL SCHINDLER | Moments after this story was posted, Frank Selvaggi, co-chair of the Empire State Pride Agenda board, told Gay City News that “Brian Ellner has withdrawn his candidacy” and that the search for a new executive director continues. The group will make another announcement when a candidate is chosen.

As the board of the Empire State Pride Agenda prepares to vote May 22 on the expected appointment of Brian Ellner, a top aide to New York City Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein, to be its new executive director, some critics have stepped up in furious opposition, questioning both the level of experience he would bring to the job and what they characterize as the Democrat’s political opportunism for aligning himself with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

News of Ellner’s likely selection broke on the City Room blog of the New York Times late in the day on May 14 and in an extraordinary lapse in controlling the narrative about that choice, ESPA’s board has declined for a week to confirm the news or to present an affirmative case for his hiring.

As a result, a number of well-known activists have mounted an Internet assault on Ellner’s candidacy, which has gone unanswered officially. In the past several days, other community leaders have responded in his defense, but not surprisingly, without a contract in hand, Ellner himself has declined to comment to Gay City News.

The most important vote of confidence came from Tom Duane, who is the only out LGBT member of the State Senate.

“I have worked very well with Brian Ellner,” he told Gay City News on May 21. “I believe I have a very good working relationship with him. He is very articulate and he is a proven fundraiser. I think this is a very good match.”

Duane is the lead sponsor on the key pieces of legislation the community is currently pushing in the Senate.

ESPA’s board is meeting in Rochester on Saturday, May 22 in advance of the group’s annual dinner there, and will take up the Ellner candidacy. Though some in the community told the newspaper that his confirmation is a foregone conclusion, others voiced uncertainty, and his critics hold out hope that the choice can yet be derailed.

“People’s ire at Ellner isn’t so much that he supported and worked hard for Republican Bloomberg in 2005 and 2009, it is the fact that he did so after blasting Bloomberg throughout his losing primary race for borough president,” longtime gay activist Allen Roskoff wrote on the AKA William blog the day news of his likely appointment ran in the Times. “Ellner wore ‘Dump Bloomberg’ buttons and said any of the Democratic candidates for mayor were better than Bloomberg.”

Ellner ran in a nine-person 2005 Democratic primary race for borough president against a number of far-better known candidates and finished essentially tied for third place with then-City Councilwoman Margarita Lopez, who was the other LGBT contender. Scott Stringer, then a longtime assemblyman, won that race.

Less than a month after losing the primary, Ellner issued a statement saying, “Mayor Bloomberg has earned a second term. He has an outstanding record on fighting for all New Yorkers.” Ellner appeared on numerous occasions with Bloomberg during his seven-week final stretch against former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, and was named to the DOE job early in 2006.

During the primary campaign, however, Ellner had been harshly critical of Bloomberg for his decision earlier that year to appeal a Manhattan district court ruling in favor of marriage equality. That appeal prevailed at the state’s highest court in 2006.

Democratic activist Jon Winkleman, a critic today of Ellner, charged at the time that he had appeared before the Stonewall Democratic Club to seek its borough president endorsement wearing the “Dump Bloomberg” button Roskoff cited and had privately tried to win supporters away from Lopez by arguing, “Margarita’s not really a progressive. She’s a Bloomberg lover. She’s friends with Bloomberg.”

Like Ellner, Lopez followed up on her Democratic primary defeat by endorsing the mayor — then a Republican and now an Independent — and later going to work in his administration.

Other gay Democrats at that time were more philosophical about Ellner’s party defection.

“The mayor’s camp has been very skillful at cherry-picking from bread-and-butter Democratic constituencies,” Brad Hoylman, a past president of the Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats, said at the time. “It’s dismaying that there’s no party loyalty left in a Democratic town like New York,” was the response of Alan Fleishman, a past president of the Lambda Independent Democrats and a Park Slope Democratic district leader.

For some LGBT Democrats, a Bloomberg endorsement is irretrievably unforgivable, especially when linked to a subsequent job with the administration — though it should be noted that by 2009 the mayor had attracted a broad and influential coterie of supporters in the community.

Duane offered a different perspective on the charges of opportunism lodged at Ellner for his 2005 shift to Bloomberg.

“He has always made it clear he wanted to work in government,” he said. “He was an asset to the community in the Bloomberg administration. It is always hard to be on the inside when you are pushing for change from the outside, but he bridged that very well.”

Still, Ellner’s critics question whether his 2005 actions coupled with his more recent political posture will make it possible for him to work effectively with the Democratic Senate leadership whom the community is pressing and counting on to deliver victories on marriage equality, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, and a school anti-bullying bill — all of which have won Assembly approval and the support of Governor David Paterson and presumptive Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo.

Roskoff and others cite a Facebook entry Ellner made last year that they say demonstrates his support for the attempted Republican coup against the Senate Democratic leadership — a move that if successful would have restored a GOP team opposed to allowing a vote on marriage equality.

Roskoff’s quote from the Facebook post cites public anger at the Senate and concludes, “When voters were asked what they would do if Senate elections were held today, only 31% said they would support the incumbent (!) and 40% would even go for a challenger from the opposite party. If the Senate doesn’t get back to work NOW, we will remember in 2010.”

The specific political meaning of those words is unclear, but Roskoff argues that the Senate getting back to work immediately would have locked in Republican control and that Ellner’s advocacy of that will be hard for him to explain to Brooklyn Senator John Sampson, who heads the Democratic conference and already has a rocky relationship with ESPA. Last November, in a closed door meeting in Albany that included other elected officials and LGBT advocates, Sampson took then-executive director Alan Van Capelle to task for the threatening tone he had employed against the Senate Democrats as he pressed for a marriage vote.

Richard Socarides, an attorney who served as LGBT liaison to President Bill Clinton and was a Bloomberg supporter last year, dismissed the flap over the Ellner posting.

“I think the Facebook issue is ridiculous,” Socarides told Gay City News in a call in which he voiced support for Ellner’s appointment. “The notion that you would read anything into what someone put on Facebook is ridiculous. I am certain he would he would not support GOP leadership of the Senate.”

Socarides went on to argue that Ellner enjoys “a good relationship with Sampson,” though he could not say whether his work at the Department of Education involved interaction with the Senate leader or his staff.

Critics question how much experience Ellner has with players in Albany. They also dismiss the argument — which ESPA staff made to at least one critic — that his ties to Bloomberg will help him in winning Republican support for marriage equality and other key LGBT agenda items, a political necessity given the strong opposition by several Democrats to top gay rights initiatives.

On May 19, Natasha Dillon — who, as a member of the grassroots group Queer Rising, worked hard earlier this year to elect marriage equality supporter José Peralta in his run against disgraced ex-Senator Hiram Monseratte, a marriage opponent expelled after a domestic violence conviction — circulated a scathing critique of Ellner’s appointment. Ellner phoned her in response, as did Joe Tarver, ESPA’s acting executive director. According to Dillon, Tarver argued that Ellner was uniquely situated to help the group strengthen its ties to Senate Republicans.

A wide array of community leaders, both on and off the record, told Gay City News that they question the value of a Bloomberg imprimatur among Albany Republicans. The mayor’s closest ties are with Brooklyn Senator Martin Golden and Queens Senator Frank Padavan, two Republicans who have been steadfast in opposition to marriage equality. When Bloomberg told Gay City News last fall that he thought the two were gettable on marriage equality, a Padavan spokesman told the newspaper the mayor had never spoken to the senator about the issue. Golden’s office did not respond.

During last year’s campaign, Bloomberg also told a crowd of LGBT supporters that he had phoned Dean Skelos, the Republican leader, to emphasize the importance of passing the marriage equality bill. Gay advocates, however, told Gay City News that Skelos conveyed his anger to them about the mayor’s interference.

Dillon is among an emerging group of activists, many of them younger and relatively new to politics, impatient about defeats and stalled initiatives here in New York and nationwide. “Now more than ever, the Empire State Pride Agenda needs a FIERCE advocate and strong non-compromising voice in their executive director’s position,” she wrote.

Fleishman, who has been a political activist longer than the 25-year-old Dillon has been alive, has “concerns” about an Ellner appointment not unconnected to hers. Saying that Ellner’s 2005 Bloomberg endorsement seemed “very opportunistic,” he questioned the experience he would bring to the post, but observed, “Their white male base is important to them and he will play well there.” Absent a record of leading a non-profit advocacy group or organizing on the grassroots level, critics fear that Ellner’s chief asset is his ability to mix easily with Manhattan’s big money crowd.

The Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, which Roskoff heads, put out a statement this week that it will sever ties with ESPA if Ellner is named executive director.

The criticism of him has also included allegations that his appointment is explicitly tied to a financial commitment to ESPA from the mayor. Nobody, however, has come forward with convincing confirmation of this assertion or a persuasive political explanation for why Bloomberg would be interested in making such a pledge.

Socarides argues that the political grudge against Ellner for his embrace of Bloomberg obscures “a long record of being a leader in the LGBT community.” He cited “extensive” pro bono work Ellner did for Freedom to Marry, a nationwide advocacy group, his years on the board of the Hetrick-Martin Institute, which serves LGBTQ youth and runs the Harvey Milk High School, and his efforts in shaping the DOE’s Respect for All anti-bullying program.

“He proved himself a charismatic and dynamic leader when he ran for office,” Socarides said. “He will bring enthusiasm and political skills to the job.”

A Dartmouth graduate, Ellner has served on a Manhattan community board and was elected to a local district school board in 1999. He also worked at two large Manhattan law firms and as a special assistant to then-Public Advocate Mark Green. As senior counselor to Chancellor Klein, Ellner worked on the Respect for All program, which was rolled out in the fall of 2008, four years after the mayor refused to implement a school anti-bullying law passed by the City Council over his veto.

Anti-bullying advocates, including many in the LGBT community, were angry at the time it took DOE to develop its alternative to the Council law and the jury is still out on quantitative measures of how effective the program is, but key gay and lesbian leaders — including Council Speaker Christine Quinn and newly elected Queens Councilmen Jimmy Van Bramer and Daniel Dromm — have acknowledged that the program is, in Dromm’s words, “a good start.”

In conversations with Gay City News over the past several years, it is clear that Ellner was involved in developing the program but is not actively involved in its administration.

Perhaps in response to the position taken by activists like Dillon, Socarides argued, rather surprisingly, that “Ellner is not an insider. I think of him more as a rabble rouser than an insider.” Asked to cite examples of Ellner’s rabble-rousing, Socarides cited his support for last year’s National Equality March on Washington and for the direct action group GetEQUAL, which has staged sit-ins at congressional offices, civil disobedience outside the White House, and the disruption of a fundraiser for California Senator Barbara Boxer attended by President Barack Obama.

Peter Yacobellis, a gay activist involved in Democratic politics, circulated a more restrained endorsement of Ellner, saying, “I've known Brian, professionally, for six years and have always known him to be very progressive.” Yacobellis wrote out of concern about the “division that I see in our community at a time when I think we have a very good chance, for the first time in a long time, to all come together here in New York.”

There is no doubt that the LGBT community is at a critical moment. After a stinging defeat in the State Senate last December and with no guarantee that there will be action in the legislative session ending in June on either school bullying or transgender rights, the effective sidelining of ESPA since Van Capelle departed in February has left a void in gay political leadership. That vacuum persists at precisely the moment when the community is demanding action and fall elections determining Albany’s leadership make-up loom.

In that light, the behavior of ESPA’s board is puzzling. After an opaque search process, the candidates were winnowed down to Ellner and Andy Stern, a top political official at NARAL Pro-Choice New York who is also the board chair of the Long Island Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Services Network. On the eve of his final interview for the job, Stern suddenly withdrew his name, complaining about the fairness of the process. He declined comment on the experience, as did the ESPA board, which did not respond to several specific questions.

“The search process hasn't yet concluded,” board co-chair Frank Selvaggi wrote in an email response to Gay City News’ questions on May 21. “When we have an Executive Director, I will be more than glad to talk to you about that person.”

More from Around NYC