Mayoral Hopefuls Divided on Sex Work Decrim at Jim Owles Forum

Out gay Brooklyn Councilmember Carlos Menchaca, the lone out LGBTQ candidate in the mayoral forum, expressed strong support for full sex work decriminalization and for the elimination of the NYPD's vice squad.
Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club

Seven candidates vying to become the next mayor of New York City presented starkly different positions on an important LGBTQ issue — the decriminalization of sex work — during a wide-ranging virtual forum hosted by the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club on October 13.

The mayoral hopefuls also showed signs of disagreement on other topics relevant to the queer community, including whether the city should abolish the NYPD’s vice squad, which purports to fight human trafficking and quality of life issues but has been ripped by advocates and lawmakers alike who have charged that the unit is a hotbed of corruption and harasses sex workers, as well as having a history of entrapping or framing gay men in adult establishments and elsewhere.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer prioritized LGBTQ issues in his opening statement and said he backs full sex work decriminalization.Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club

The forum, which represented the first-ever gathering of 2021 candidates, featured one out gay candidate — Brooklyn Councilmember Carlos Menchaca, who has yet to officially launch his campaign — along with Maya Wiley, a former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio; City Comptroller Scott Stringer; Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams; former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia; Dianne Morales, a non-profit leader who formerly served as CEO of Phipps Neighborhoods, an organization that provides educational and career resources to young people and families in low-income neigbhorhoods; and former Obama administration official Shaun Donovan, who led the Department of Housing and Urban Development and was director of the Office of Management and Budget after a five-year stint in the Bloomberg administration.

Some sharp differences emerge among candidates in first gathering of 2021 hopefuls

The forum offered each candidate roughly a half an hour to speak in front of an audience of more than 1,000 Zoom-watchers who were intent on learning more about the candidates aiming to lead the largest city in the nation. The common thread among most candidates was a willingness to distance themselves from Mayor Bill de Blasio, and every candidate said they would replace the police commissioner, though that is expected with any new administration.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, speaking against a backdrop of Rainbow stripes, rejected sex work decriminalization entirely and was the only candidate who expressed openness to an endorsement from Mayor Bill de Blasio.Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club

Adams, however, avoided taking a pledge not to seek the current mayor’s endorsement during the campaign.

Adams also stood out by taking the most conservative position on sex work decriminalization — a prominent LGBTQ issue due in large part to the way in which queer folks, especially trans women of color, are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement.

“No, I’m not in favor of decriminalizing it,” Adams said when he was asked by club president Allen Roskoff where he stands on the issue. The Brooklyn beep then reiterated his opposition to the issue for a second time, saying, “I want to be clear. I don’t believe in the decriminalization of it, I don’t.” He further emphasized that he is taking a hard-line stance on the issue by rejecting the Nordic Model — a half-measure that would only remove criminal penalties for sex workers and not others involved in the sex trade.

“I don’t believe Nordic Model is a good model,” Adams said.

Former de Blasio administration counsel Maya Wiley said she supports sex work decriminalization but did not specify whether she supports the Nordic Model approach.Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club

The Nordic Model has long been slammed by sex work activists and numerous local advocacy groups that have maintained that the approach does not lead to safer conditions for workers.

A handful of other candidates, meanwhile, voiced support for that very model — a sign that they are aiming to compromise in order to cater to a citywide constituency.

Garcia explicitly voiced support for the Nordic Model, and Donovan, who curiously described himself as “the true progressive in this race,” refused to reject the Nordic Model and said he believes “there are limited forms” of sex work decriminalization “that can work.”

Menchaca, unsurprisingly, gave a full-throated endorsement of the comprehensive decriminalization effort, saying he “absolutely” supports it, while also noting that he has been fighting for that issue “for a long time.”

Former non-profit CEO Dianne Morales offered unwavering support for comprehensive sex work decriminalization.Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club

Morales similarly said she backs full decriminalization and had choice words for those who support the Nordic Model as she echoed the rhetoric of activists who have maintained that the model would continue to harm sex workers.

Another candidate offering explicit support of decriminalization was Stringer, who was a top backer of out queer public defender Tiffany Cabán last year when she prioritized decriminalization as a top issue during her bid for the Democratic nomination for Queens district attorney.

Stringer also presented one of the more LGBTQ-focused opening statements of the event. After disclosing that he has known Roskoff since the comptroller was “a very young kid,” Stringer touted his own activism in the fight for marriage equality and reminded viewers of his 2015 legislative proposal that sought to require all single-occupancy public bathrooms to be gender-neutral.

“I know my record of 35 years fighting for the LGBTQ community is real,” Stringer said.

Among others who discussed LGBTQ issues in their opening statements was Wiley, who recalled working as an attorney on cases that intersected the dual crises of HIV/ AIDS and discrimination facing the LGBTQ community. She said one of her earliest cases as a civil rights lawyer featured an HIV-positive client who was getting booted from his home and ousted from his job.

After former Obama administration cabinet member Shaun Donovan claimed he would be the “true progressive in this race,” he offered a compromised position on sex work decriminalization.Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club

While Wiley expressed general support for sex work decriminalization, her final position on that issue remains unclear because she said she was not familiar enough with the Nordic Model to offer a stance on it. She also was evasive on a series of other questions — including whether the city should do away with the vice squad.

That question yielded more direct answers from other candidates, such as Menchaca, who said, “Amen, yes, now,” when asked whether the vice squad should be disbanded. Stringer, Morales, Adams, and Donovan also vowed to do away with the unit.

Garcia was the only candidate to explicitly oppose the elimination of the controversial vice squad, which was already under scrutiny long before calls to reform the police department escalated over the summer. One of the most disturbing stories tied to that squad emerged in November of 2017 when a woman named Yang Song fell to her death from a window when vice offers were chasing her. Song had informed her family that she was sexually assaulted by an undercover cop and her family said they were afraid Song died as part of “a retaliation from the police and they forced her to die,” according to The Appeal.

A decade ago, Gay City News broke a series of stories about gay men who met undercover vice cops in adult video stores and made plans to leave for consensual sexual encounters only to have police charge they were soliciting sex for pay. In time other media outlets picked the story up, convictions based on those arrests were voided, and the Bloomberg administration repudiated the tactic. No officers were held responsible for the false arrests, however.

Former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia was the sole candidate to voice opposition to eliminating the NYPD vice squad.Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club

The forum also touched on other issues facing New Yorkers, including zoning, affordable housing, homelessness, and whether the mayor should meddle in the speaker’s race. Morales, Menchaca, Wiley, and Adams all said they believe the NYPD commissioner should require confirmation by the City Council, while Donovan, Stringer, and Garcia said no to that idea.

Out gay City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who recently dropped out of the mayoral race, delivered opening remarks and reminded candidates that the race for mayor is quickly approaching — and will especially heat up following next month’s election.

Allen Roskoff, the Jim Owles president, oversaw an hours-long virtual questioning of seven mayoral candidates.

“Many New Yorkers are going to immediately turn toward the Democratic primary in June of 2021 and even though I am no longer a candidate for mayor, I am paying deep interest to this race,” said Johnson, who expressed his hope that “we defeat our racist criminal president and send him packing and hopefully we get a Democratic Senate and expand our majority in House.”

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