Upper West Side Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell swooped in and delivered an impassioned speech in front of the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City at the LGBT Community Center on Wednesday night, branding himself a “loud-mouthed, opinionated, independent” candidate with a record of success in the LGBTQ community — and members took notice.
Within an hour, Stonewall voted to endorse O’Donnell in the February 26 special election for public advocate, culminating a whirlwind week that saw reports of misleading answers from other candidates on that group’s questionnaire when they were asked whether they had ever endorsed or donated to candidates with anti-LGBTQ records.
O’Donnell, the only LGBTQ candidate in the race, faced competition primarily from Brooklyn Councilmember Jumaane Williams, who just earned the backing of another LGBTQ group, the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, and former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito of East Harlem. Williams, Mark-Viverito, and Bronx Assemblymember Michael Blake were the only other candidates to speak at Wednesday’s endorsement event, with Blake appearing via video. Brooklyn Councilmember Rafael Espinal sent a staffer to speak in his place.
Of all the candidates, O’Donnell spent the most time declaring his independence from powerful interests such as the Democratic Party establishment, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and corporations like Amazon. The 58-year-old Democrat pointed to his refusal to compromise on same-sex marriage during the years when the bill he steered to passage in the Assembly in 2007 failed to clear the Senate. The Marriage Equality Act was ultimately signed into law in June of 2011.
Among other LGBTQ-related accomplishments, O’Donnell noted that he was the prime sponsor of the Dignity for All Students Act, an anti-bullying measure that became law in 2010 and was implemented in 2012.
Referring to overtures he received to compromise on both marriage and anti-bullying, he said, “I was told, ‘If you settle for civil unions, if you take out the trans community, we’ll pass it tomorrow.’ I said, ‘Hell no, I don’t compromise on people’s rights.’”
O’Donnell also underscored his overall track record in nearly two decades in the Legislature, where he has spent most of his time working against a GOP-held Senate.
“I’m not asking for your vote because I’m gay,” O’Donnell declared. “I am asking for your vote because I’m the most qualified and most experienced.”
After Mark-Viverito refused to answer which other candidate she could live with if she were not the victor on February 26, the 58-year-old assemblymember took the opportunity to answer that question by railing against those who support Amazon’s move into New York City.
“I will not vote for anybody who signed the letter inviting Amazon to our city,” O’Donnell said. “The purpose of the public advocate is to be a voice to the powerful interests, including the mayor. If you don’t have enough backbone to say, ‘I’m not singing a blind check to the largest corporation in America,’ then you don’t have the backbone to do this job.”
Mark-Viverito used her speech to address an article published hours before in Gay City News, which noted that she donated to and later endorsed anti-gay Councilmember Chaim Deutsch during his campaigns for City Council in 2013 and 2017.
“In 2013, I donated to Chaim Deutsch when he was still a candidate against a Republican — before I had any knowledge of his anti-LGBTQIA remarks,” she said before adding that she did not see reporting of Deutsch’s remarks at the time, even though video of his homophobic remarks was posted on YouTube and a local news outlet covered it shortly after the video went up.
Mark-Viverito said she believed she answered truthfully when she said in a recent questionnaire from Stonewall that she had never donated to or endorsed anti-LGBTQ candidates, despite giving $500 to Deutsch after the video was released and endorsing him in 2017 after she watched him vote against several LGBTQ-focused measures during her time as speaker.
“I immediately reached out to Stonewall to clarify,” she said. “I had no intent to be dismissive.”
When asked about her specific policy proposals for the LGBTQ community, Mark-Viverito directed Stonewall members to review her platform regarding the community — which Gay City News covered exclusively — and she broadly touched on some of the points on that list, such as her plan to advocate for legislation that would add LGBTQ-owned businesses to the minority and women-owned business requirements used in screening potential city contractors.
Williams also addressed his answer on the Stonewall questionnaire after it was revealed that he gave $1,375 apiece to Deutsch and Bronx Councilmember Fernando Cabrera, who also has a history of anti-gay remarks and stances.
“I did answer that in a way that I felt was honest, it was brought to my attention. I regret that and apologize,” Williams said. “I look forward to working with Stonewall.”
Williams vowed to make a donation to LGBTQ groups to make up for his donations to the candidates.
He again acknowledged his rocky past on LGBTQ issues — he had once opposed marriage equality and did not support legislation making it easier for transgender New Yorkers to change the gender designation on their birth certificates— and said that “my guess is I might not get” Stonewall’s endorsement, but he told the packed crowd that he wanted to have a discussion with them about what they would like to see from him moving forward.
“I’m very proud of being an ally,” he said. “I want to make sure I better understand what the needs are so I can be a better ally and be a better champion. I know I’ve done some things that have made some people uneasy. I want to work that out because I’ve been proud to stand with the community for a long time, including with transgender women of color who are dying with impunity.”
During a brief Q&A session, Williams was asked by a Stonewall member about his decision in 2014 to abstain on a birth certificate measure that allowed for a gender designation change with an affidavit affirming that change from a health care provider (the need for such an affidavit has since been eliminated under city law). The list of acceptable providers included physicians and mental health professionals as well as midwives. The inclusion of midwives, Williams said, was at the root of his abstention.
“I apologize for that vote,” he said. “I was trying to figure out how midwives were on the list of people that could provide diagnoses for anything.”
Following the candidate presentations, Stonewall members were given the opportunity to speak briefly about their preference in the race. Of the handful of people who spoke, most of them vouched for Mark-Viverito while some offered support for O’Donnell.
Members were asked to rank their favorite candidates. Neil Dick, a longtime Stonewall member, told Gay City News that he voted for O’Donnell, followed by Melissa Mark-Viverito and Jumaane Williams.
“I think they all made good points, but Danny O’Donnell was the best,” Dick said. “He’s very aggressive and totally independent. He has 20 years of experience helping the LGBTQ community.”
Stonewall president Rod Townsend, who had expressed concern in recent days about the misleading answers provided by Mark-Viverito and Williams, said O’Donnell’s endorsement reflects his body of work in the Assembly over the years.
“Our membership voted last night to bring Danny’s fierce brand of advocacy forward not just as a voice of LGBTQ New Yorkers, but for all New Yorkers as our next public advocate.”
Lambda Independent Democrats of Brooklyn, another LGBTQ political club, will vote to endorse a candidate in the race on Thursday evening.