Dick Dadey’s Latest Challenge

Former Pride Agenda chief advocates for

government accountability at Citizens Union

For more than a decade, he worked for recognition of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) civil rights, both in Washington and New York. Later, he advocated for better-funded, safer parks for New York City. Now, as the new executive director of Citizen’s Union, the 107-year-old good government organization in New York, and Citizens Union Foundation (CUF), its research and education affiliate, Dadey moves to the forefront of the movement to ensure that government’s actions are transparent and responsible.

Dadey said his career has been marked by a consistent commitment to tackle “the problem of reforming government [so that it is] responsive to the needs of the people.”

Dadey is best known in New York’s LGBT community for his seven years of leading the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), the state’s chief gay rights lobbying group. After graduating from Syracuse University in 1980, Dadey moved to Philadelphia to work for his college fraternity and then to Boston in 1983, where he took a job with a direct mail fundraising firm. It is there that he says he “first learned to construct successful direct mail fundraising campaigns for non-profit organizations and political causes.” At the same time, he became increasingly active within Boston’s gay community, and during the early critical days of the HIV epidemic, donated considerable time to organizations including the AIDS Action Committee and the Human Rights Campaign Fund, now known simply as HRC.

“As a result of this involvement, I became more and more political,” Dadey explained.

Making the connection between his professional experience as a direct mail fundraiser and his activist work, Dadey eventually launched the first ever direct mail campaign for the AIDS Action Committee, and in 1986 moved to Washington D.C. to take a position as direct mail fundraising manager for HRC. The following year, he became the group’s development director, originating some of HRC’s most lucrative events to date, such as expanding nationwide its annual black tie fundraising dinners and launching the Federal Club, its major donor program.

Dadey left HRC in 1990, and moved to New York in 1991 to assume his position with ESPA.

The Pride Agenda was formed as the result of a merger between Friends for Individual Rights Political Action Committee (FAIRPAC), a New York City-based organization, and the New York State Lesbian and Gay Lobby, based in Albany, two fledging organizations operating on shoestring budgets that arose in part to respond to the AIDS crisis. When Dadey took the helm at ESPA, he recalled, “there was $3,000 in the bank and $5,000 in unpaid bills, but I knew that there was also tremendous potential [for the organization] to become something important.”

Dadey recalled several galvanizing events that sparked interest in the group, including the 1990 election of Deborah Glick to the state Assembly as New York State’s first openly gay or lesbian elected official, and the election a year later of Tom Duane to the City Council. He added that interest in gay rights issues came as a natural counterpoint to the activism on AIDS that had “so consumed the community” during the previous decade.

“The gay community was beginning to see that there was a real need to look at other issues,” he said.

During his seven years with ESPA, Dadey transformed the organization from an under-funded, overwhelmed non-profit to a one of the nation’s best known gay rights organizations. The Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA), the state’ gay rights law which finally became law in late 2002, first passed the state Assembly in 1993, but was blocked by the Republican controlled Senate for another nine years. ESPA played a pivotal role in winning an executive order from Governor Mario Cuomo in 1994 granting state employees domestic partnership benefits and in the first Albany appropriations for non-HIV health and social services targeting the LGBT community in 1997.

But Dadey conceded that he also became frustrated by the obstacles facing LGBT advocates in a state government often stalemated by division between a Democratic Assembly and a Republican Senate. During the 1997 mayoral campaign, as ESPA worked with incumbent Rudy Giuliani to hammer out the final details of the city’s domestic partnership legislation, the group chose not to make an endorsement. Giuliani’s opponent was Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger, who had been an outspoken gay rights supporter 25 years but never posed a serious shot at unseating the mayor. The group’s annual dinner that October became a target for protest by community members angry that the Democrat’s challenge did not have ESPA’s support.

By this time, Dadey’s partner, Richard Zayas, who died of AIDS in 2000, had become seriously ill, and Dadey chose to leave ESPA at the end of 1997 to become head of the New York City office of M&R Strategic Services, a government affairs and public relations firm.

“At M&R, I had the opportunity to work on the political agendas of other non-profit organizations, such as [the pro-choice group] NARAL and the Coalition for the Homeless,” said Dadey.

In those efforts, Dadey discovered that the struggles he faced at ESPA were the same struggles faced by other non-profits.

“The government was broken,” he said. “The only way to get government to move was to bring a great deal of pressure through money, organizing, and lobbying. This was tedious, laborious, and exasperating at times.”

However, Dadey’s four years at M&R bolstered his knowledge of how government operates, and also gave him more time to focus on issues in his own neighborhood, Brooklyn Heights, where he now lives with his partner, Leif Meneke.

“I felt like a stranger in my own neighborhood,” Dadey recalled.

ESPA had demanded so much of his time, he explained, that he had not had an opportunity to concentrate on the struggles right outside his front door. After leaving ESPA, Dadey became actively involved in an effort to build a waterfront park in Brooklyn Heights and soon became a member of the Board of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Coalition and later the Brooklyn Heights Association.

“I now feel connected to the city in a different way than I had when working only on LGBT issues,” Dadey said.

His role in these community efforts led Dadey to an understanding of how important park and open space is to urban life, and his passion gradually turned to ensuring that people had access to such space.

In 2001, after four years with M&R, Dadey became executive director of the New York City Parks Council (renamed New Yorkers for Parks during his tenure), and was instrumental in the Parks 2001 campaign during the mayoral election, an effort that Dadey says really “put parks on the city’s radar screen.”

Dadey then assumed a role with a national city parks organization, City Parks Alliance, where he assisted with efforts to launch a nationwide campaign to bring attention to urban open spaces.

Despite his commitment to the parks issue, however, Dadey jumped at the chance to move in a new direction when the executive director’s position opened up at Citizens Union last year.

“I’ve always been very civic-minded, so it seemed like a great fit,” he explained.

Citizens Union was founded in 1897 to fight Tammany Hall, the Democratic political machine that quite nearly controlled government in New York City at that time. The goal of the organization, according to Dadey, has always been “to make government more honest, accountable, and its decisions more transparent.”

Among the issues of concern for the organization today are reforming the state’s public authorities (such as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority), bringing about greater campaign finance reform, and changing how candidates are elected to office and the ease with which voters are allowed to vote.

“The way in which we are allowed to vote can disenfranchise voters––walking into a polling place and looking at a complicated and daunting ballot can be overwhelming for some people,” Dadey said.

One of the major ways Citizens Union Foundation (CUF) aims to avoid such situations is by keeping citizens informed. GothamGazette.com is a website run by CUF and updated daily which “serves as a clearinghouse for local news in the city and state. Within ten minutes people can find out what’s going on in any community or with any issue in New York,” Dadey explained.

CUF also runs The Citizen, a link on GothamGazette.com that is devoted to translating and publishing articles from the more than 200 ethnic and immigrant publications in New York City.

“[The Citizen] has been a very effective bridge between city officials and the immigrant community,” commented Dadey.

In the months to come, Dadey said he will be “focusing on strengthening what [CUF] already has, and bringing it into the 21st century of issue advocacy and organizing. September 11 made New York City’s residents more civic-minded, and I want to tap into that. Too many people are sitting on the sidelines, but usually they just don’t know how to get involved. They feel like they don’t have the power. The Dean campaign showed the tremendous hunger that exists out there for citizen involvement and bringing about change to the political system.”

Looked at in retrospect, the past 13 years seem like a “natural evolution” to Dadey.

“It’s always been about breaking down barriers… My experience is emblematic of what we see happening in this city,” he said. “Many of us who first came to activism through the LGBT community have gone on to lead or become heavily involved in non-gay organizations. Our sense of civic involvement was shaped by our interests in the LGBT and HIV/AIDS community, and those experiences and skills are now being shared on a larger scale within the city.”

For Dadey, that is telling about both our community and the city as a whole.

“It is also a sign of the changing nature of this city that such well established civic, cultural, political, and other citywide institutions have embraced out leadership from the LGBT community in a way that would have been unthinkable 20 or 30 years ago,” he said.

More information about Citizens Union and Citizens Union Foundation can be found at www.citizensunion.org.

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