East Harlem donnybrook arises after remarks at community board meeting
A recent incident at an East Harlem community board meeting has resulted in an allegation that one of the evening’s speakers made a homophobic reference to Councilmember Phil Reed, a two-term gay legislator, who represents Manhattan’s District 8.
On May 18, at a routine convening of Community Board 11, one of the 59 such bodies across the city, Robert Gary Stopper, was alleged to have purposely referred to Reed as “Councilwoman Phyllis Reed.”
Geoffrey Eaton, Reed’s chief of staff, made the allegation in a May 26, 2004, letter written to Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields. That letter was circulated among other city officials and a copy was forwarded to Gay City News by Reed’s office.
A tape recording of the May 18 board meeting clearly proves that Stopper did not say what Eaton has alleged. However, in interviews with various members of the district’s competing political factions, tensions and vendettas that in all likelihood do not involve Reed’s sexual orientation continue to slowly simmer.
Community boards are responsible for providing local input on such issues as land use and transportation matters as well as conducting hearings on the city budget and other measures. Each community board hires a district manager and has a chairperson. While the mayor’s Community Assistance Unit provides governance of the boards, borough presidents and local councilmembers each appoint half of a board’s membership, which can be comprised of up to 50 members.
Required monthly meetings are open to the public and such occasions can offer a routine discussion of agenda items or become the opportunity for grievances to be aired and ongoing political battles to be waged.
On the evening of May 18, Reed addressed the community board and concluded his remarks by informing the gathering about the recent decision between Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City Council to prohibit the use of racial profiling by city police officers. Mr. Stopper, the next speaker, was introduced by David Givens, the board chairperson, and after a brief exchange with Givens, which is mostly unintelligible, Stopper said, in a clear voice: “Thank you very much. It’s our honor to follow our esteemed city councilwoman—councilman—Phil Reed. My apologies.” Stopper than immediately went on, “Point of information,” and provided phone numbers at which he could be reached. Stopper was representing the East Harlem Chamber of Commerce at the meeting, at the behest of Henry Calderon, who heads that group.
In his May 26 letter, Eaton, Reed’s chief of staff, wrote that Stopper’s alleged remark, the term “Councilwoman Phyllis Reed,” “was obviously a poor attempt at some sort of homophobic humor, as Council Member lives his life as a strong, proud, effective openly gay man. Some individuals present even chuckled in acknowledgement. This matter needs to be addressed at once!”
Despite several attempts to have Stopper comment on the allegations, he did not return messages left at the two different phone numbers he announced at the May 18 meeting.
Whether or not Stopper’s remark was a slip of the tongue or a gay slur will likely never be known.
In an interview, Eaton acknowledged that he had not heard the tape recording of the May 18 meeting and that he had learned of Stopper’s remark from board members and attendees at the meeting.
In his letter, Eaton also stated that Stopper is a “high level person in the John Ruiz for State Senate Campaign. Mr. Ruiz was present at the time of this incident and did nothing, which to me verifies statements that I have heard saying that Mr. Ruiz is the one who actually made the remark first at an earlier time.”
John Ruiz is a Democratic district leader and former New York City firefighter who retired on a disability pension. He is also known as the “Rappin’ Fireman,” a role in which he entertains youth and educates about fire safety. Ruiz said he also heads a non-profit organization called “Our Firefighters’ Children’s Coalition.”
For his part, the man allegedly victimized by Stopper’s remarks, Councilmember Reed, said in a telephone interview on June 10 that he did not hear Stopper’s May 18 remarks because he had left the room and was speaking to a constituent. Reed said, “In seven years of serving this district, either overtly or covertly, this is the first homophobic remark. This man is an idiot anyway and you can quote me on that.” Reed said that he regretted the matter had generated any controversy, particularly in light of his current work schedule. “In the course of my average business day—working on the budget, attending hearings, running for the borough presidency, attending to my constituents—I don’t have time for this nonsense.”
Calderon said that Stopper had only worked for the chamber of commerce “on commission, for the businesses he brings in” and was “on retainer” the night he represented the chamber at the community board meeting. Calderon said that Stopper was no longer going to be hired by the chamber, in part because he was hired by Ruiz’ political campaign. “I had already gotten his resignation, so he was not going to work for us any longer,” said Calderon, who also said that he called Reed to apologize for the matter but had not heard back from the councilmember. “So, I took it as it was no big thing for him,” said Calderon.
In a telephone interview, Ruiz said that Stopper was only a volunteer, and that his Senate campaign had no paid staff. “Mr. Stopper, if you listen to the tape, has a speech impediment, and he is a volunteer,” said Ruiz, who said he left the meeting on May 18 before Reed entered and addressed the board. Ruiz is seeking the Democratic nomination against State Sen. Olga Mendez, whose district was recently redrawn to include a substantial portion of Bronx turf. In 2002, Mendez, a long-term Democratic legislator, became a Republican, a move that has gained her the enmity of Democratic bosses, including Assemblymember Denny Farrell, the state’s Democratic Party chairperson.
Facing off against Ruiz in the Senate primary is Councilmember José Serrano, Jr., of the Bronx, whose fundraising potential and name recognition are considered formidable assets against Ruiz. Serrano’s father is the Bronx congressman of the same name.
In a 2002 run for the Assembly, Reed endorsed Ruiz. The councilmember also supported Ruiz’ bid for district leader. However, since then, a rift has grown between the two men. Ruiz alleged that Reed once promised to cover the rent on a campaign office on 116th Street, but never did so. Ruiz also stated that he had contacted the Manhattan district attorney and filed a formal complain that Eaton, Reed’s chief of staff, had broken the law by using official City Council stationery to implicate him with false charges of homophobia. “People out there reading this will know that tax dollars could be better spent,” said Ruiz, referring to Eaton’s letter.
Whether or not the district attorney had initiated an investigation could not be confirmed by press time.
Ruiz said that he has called Reed and assured him that he is not a homophobe. Ruiz said that he once had a gay stepson, Maurice Moore, who died of AIDS at the age of 14. “I don’t have a homophobic bone in my body,” said Ruiz.
Ruiz also alleged that Reed was supporting Serrano in the Senate primary in order to get the backing of “the Bronx machine” and former Bronx Borough President Freddy Ferrer, a potential mayoral candidate, for his bid for Manhattan’s borough presidency.