In crowded speaker's race, one councilman's conservative views may be a deal breaker

Councilman Jumaane Williams is pictured. | AP Photo

Williams is known for his frequent criticism of the police department and is one of the most outspoken members on issues of income and racial inequality. | AP Photo

September 25, 2017

Jumaane Williams has a progressive problem.

In his second bid to become the Council speaker, the legislator from Brooklyn is positioning himself as a champion of the left, but Williams’ socially conservative views on marriage equality and abortion — long a source of concern for his liberal colleagues — could now be a millstone in his quest to lead one of the most left-leaning legislatures in the country.

Williams’ personal opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion helped sink his first run for speaker in 2013, and his prospects this year could hinge on whether he's able to pre-emptively calm the fears of his fellow members.

“On both of those things I want them to understand that, should I be blessed enough to be speaker, it’s going to be no different than any other speaker,” Williams said in an interview. “When it comes to those issues and the more I explain my positions, people are generally actually surprised.”

His competitors — three gay candidates among them — and some of his detractors say they are unconvinced.

“You can be a progressive on other issues like racial injustice, economic equality, but if you are opposed to fundamental civil rights to LGBT people and you are opposed to a woman's right to choose then I don’t think as a whole you can claim to be a progressive,” said Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, who is married to a man and is one of Williams’ rivals for the seat.

Williams is known for his frequent criticism of the police department and is one of the most outspoken members on issues of income and racial inequality. He is not shy about publicly criticizing Mayor Bill de Blasio or Gov. Andrew Cuomo when he feels they are not doing enough to combat police brutality.

But the councilman — pointing to his church-going, Caribbean roots — also believes marriage should be between a man and a woman and that expectant fathers are too often left out of the conversation when it comes to the issue of abortion.

Williams seldom discusses the positions in public and often attends events that support gay rights or women’s reproductive rights. Most recently, he joined a rally to protest President Donald Trump’s transgender ban on members of the military. His presence at the Times Square event was welcome, Council members said, but they continue to express trepidation.

In 2013, Williams, then a second-term councilman, jumped into the speaker’s race late. By the time he declared his ambitions, current Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito had emerged, boosted by progressive allies, with sufficient support to win the title.

As Williams eyes the speakership now, he is making the rounds to explain his stances to members personally.

“Right now we need the tent to be full. I want everybody who goes to church, everybody who goes to the mosque to be fighting for the LGBT community because we have to — and it’s harder to do that when people are going to misconstrue people like me who really want to fight to make sure everyone is treated equally,” he said.

As he has in the past, Williams tells colleagues that his positions are private, rooted in both religious conviction and his own personal experience involving a pregnancy that was terminated without him being consulted. Williams said if he were elected speaker of the City Council, he would leave his personal views at the water’s edge and push for LGBT rights and protections for a woman’s right to choose.

“They should look at my track record and have conversations with me because I actually think, on some of these issues, I would be the best person to fight,” Williams said. “I have been successful on progressive issues, on fighting back and standing tall, so I’d be better than some of the people who are running in that respect.”

His track record, one LGBT advocate said, is part of the problem. Williams abstained from a controversial 2014 bill to allow transgender people to change their sex on their birth certificate, saying he had not sufficiently researched the bill and apologized for his lack of “due diligence.”

“I wanted to apologize to Corey Johnson and members of the LGBT community and others who benefit from this for not doing due diligence on questions that I had before this bill was passed,” he said at the time. “That was my fault and no one else’s, so I did want to apologize for that”

Allen Roskoff, head of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club — named after one of the pioneers of the gay rights movement in the 1960s — said the abstention was a deal breaker.

“The LGBT community will not stand for our friends to vote for Jumaane if he doesn’t understand us,” he said.

Still, the speakers’ election is an internal one and it is wary fellow council members Williams will have to convince.

Councilman Ritchie Torres, another contender for the seat, said if Williams is supportive of LGBT and pro-choice causes, he should say it clearly and publicly.

“I am a proud gay man, so the view that my colleagues have of my basic equality and dignity matters to me," Torres said in an interview. "What he conveyed to me was less troubling than what I had heard and what I had perceived, but it’s still muddled and requires further conversation."

He added, though, he is willing to give Williams the benefit of the doubt.

“I had heard that he held conservative views, but he led me to believe that the difference of his views and those of the Council is largely a matter of semantics,” Torres said. “Jumaane gave me the impression that he has his own private views but he would vote progressively,” Torres said. “What matters, above all else, is how you vote and the impact it has in the world, but I think that he should identify himself as being supportive.”

Councilman Corey Johnson, who, if victorious in his own bid, would be the first HIV-positive speaker, said he had not recently discussed the matter with Williams, but expressed skepticism as well.

“I personally like Jumaane and respect him and nearly all that he stands for, but the issues of reproductive rights and marriage equality are really litmus-test issues for a leadership role in one of the most progressive bodies in America,” Johnson said. “What you hear from many council members, especially with what we are seeing in Washington, is that these two issues are fundamental and sacrosanct.”

Williams’ position on abortion has also drawn scrutiny from pro-choice groups.

“I don’t think there is much space for fathers to talk about their experience in this whole thing, and I understand why — it’s not our body, but it’s a thing that we have to deal with,” he said, explaining his concerns.

Elizabeth Adams, director of government relations at Planned Parenthood in New York City, said Williams’ promise not to legislate against abortion was not good enough.

“Sexual and reproductive care, which includes abortion, is central to New Yorkers, and it’s critical that the speaker of the City Council prioritizes sexual and reproductive health care,” Adams said. “Just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s affordable or accessible. If we have a speaker that doesn’t value sex education and sex inclusivity, then we are taking a step backwards.”

Williams, again, promised his detractors he would not let his views color his potential leadership.

“I think, generally speaking, people want to hear a specific string of words, and I understand it,” he said. “But when it comes to policy, I think the biggest thing is to make sure that the policies line up and that you’re going to protect them and defend them fervently, passionately, which is what I want to do.”



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