Brooklyn Councilmember Jumaane Williams’ complicated track record on marriage equality and abortion rights continued to haunt him on Wednesday night when his opponents attacked him in a series of questions during a debate for the highly sought-after position of public advocate.
The NY1 debate featured 10 candidates, but former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Assemblymember Michael Blake — who, along with Williams, are viewed as among the top contenders in the race — each questioned him on the two issues.
In each case, Williams responded to the abortion-related questions but avoided answering about his views on same-sex marriage.
When asked by Blake why he has, “in the past,” opposed the two issues, Williams first noted that he is “not as polished as you and I don’t have the flowery titles that you do, but I do tell the truth.”
He added, “But the fact of the matter is that I was not opposed to a woman’s right to safely access abortions, and nowhere can someone point to where it says I have.”
“Most folks can’t attack me on things, so they start creating things,” Williams said.
Williams was quoted in a Politico article in 2013 saying that “the definition of marriage is between a male and a female, but that has nothing to do with my belief that government has to recognize everybody’s relationships as equal.”
Shortly after Blake’s question, Mark-Viverito jumped in and skillfully framed a similar question about marriage equality in the present tense, making it appear as if Williams continues to oppose it despite the fact that he has, for years now, repeatedly voiced his support for those rights — including in a 2017 interview with Gay City News.
“I believe you when you said that you personally oppose abortion,” Mark-Viverito said to Williams. “I believe you when you say that you believe that marriage is between a man and a woman… How can I believe that you will stand on these issues that I feel so passionate about?”
Williams said in his response that Mark-Viverito asked “a very important question, particularly in the time that we are in right now,” and reiterated his support for abortion rights but again did not address marriage equality.
Following the exchanges, Williams’ team scrambled to tweet out clarification on his stances regarding the two issues.
“Just for the record, since people try to distort mine: I 100% support the right to access safe & legal abortions & I 100% support marriage equality,” said the tweet, which was posted from Williams’ account during the debate. “It’s unfortunate that people try to falsify my record [because] they have no other response to my years of fighting for equity & justice.”
The only openly gay candidate in the race, Manhattan Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell, used the debate to tout his often-repeated points: That he would push hard against Amazon’s invasion of New York City and that he is a “loudmouth” who would be independent of powerful interests. He touted his leadership on passing marriage equality in the state and made a reference to his husband, John Banta, when asked if he purchases products from Amazon.
“My husband does, not me,” he said.
O’Donnell swooped in and landed the endorsement of Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City last month after Williams and Mark-Viverito became mired in controversy over Gay City News’ reports that they misrepresented their records when they falsely stated in a Stonewall questionnaire that they had never donated to or endorsed homophobic candidates or elected officials.
Mark-Viverito donated $500 to homophobic Brooklyn Councilmember Chaim Deutsch after he blasted his opponent in a 2013 debate for “having an agenda with gays and lesbians,” and she later endorsed him in 2017 despite watching him vote against LGBTQ rights under her leadership as speaker.
Williams, who was endorsed by the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, also claimed innocence on the questionnaire despite donating $1,375 apiece to Deutsch and another anti-gay councilmember, Fernando Cabrera of the Bronx, who traveled to Uganda and praised their leaders for standing up for themselves amid pressure from the United States after that nation passed a law imposing severe sentences for those who engage in same-sex relations.
Following the reports, Williams apologized for his donations and answer on the questionnaire, chalking it up to an “oversight.” He offered to give a commensurate donation to LGBTQ organizations, but Mark-Viverito did not make the same pledge.
Mark-Viverito went on to land the support of Lambda Independent Democrats of Brooklyn, another LGBTQ club, and she touted that endorsement during Wednesday’s debate.
The candidates will return for another debate six days before the February 26 special election to replace Letitia James, who left her post as public advocate when she won the November race for state attorney general.