By Andy Humm
May 25, 2017
BY ANDY HUMM | State Senator Ruben Diaz, Sr., 74, has a bad back and wants to take over the closer-to-home City Council seat opening up this fall in the South Bronx, including parts of Parkchester, Soundview, Unionport, and Castle Hill.
His record of virulent anti-LGBTQ bigotry and opposition to women’s reproductive freedom has some political leaders condemning his bid, others — including out gay Councilmember Corey Johnson, who hopes to become speaker next year — avoiding comment, and at least one giving him a maximum donation for the Council to get him out of the Senate so that he can be replaced by someone more moderate.
What’s more, one of Diaz’s leading opponents in the Council primary is the out gay Elvin Garcia, who previously served as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Bronx borough director with responsibilities with the LGBTQ community as well.
While New York politicians generally love to condemn anti-LGBTQ bigots out of the state and champion boycotts of states like North Carolina with anti-LGBTQ laws, some are clearly reluctant to oppose Diaz because of his base in his Pentecostal congregation and his backing by the Bronx County Democratic machine that also made his son, the more moderate Ruben Diaz, Jr., borough president.
Diaz, Sr., is famed as an anti-LGBTQ extremist. In 1994 when he was serving on the Civilian Complaint Review Board, gay activist Daniel Dromm, then co-chair of the Queens Lesbian & Gay Pride Committee, demanded his removal, writing, “Mr. Diaz said that gay men and lesbians are ‘cursed’ and that we fall under the same category with ‘thieves, slanderers, murderers, idolaters, drug addicts, misers, swindlers, and criminals.’ Furthermore, he has condemned the Gay Games and mocked Council Member Tom Duane saying, ‘Does he (Duane) think I would tremble with fear, and run and kneel before this insignificant uncircumcised Philistine?’” Diaz wrote at the time “that the Gay Games, to be held in New York that June, would lead to an increase in AIDS cases and to wider acceptance of homosexuality by young people.”
After serving on the City Council, Diaz was elected to the State Senate in 2002, voting against every major LGBTQ rights initiative right up to opposing GENDA, the transgender rights bill, this year in a key committee vote. In 2003, he filed a lawsuit against the Harvey Milk High School, settling it only when the school made clear it does not restrict itself to LGBTQ students. In 2009, he compared abortion to the Jewish Holocaust, drawing the condemnation of the Anti-Defamation League.
Also in 2009, he led a rally of 20,000 against same-sex marriage at City Hall. In 2011, he led a similar rally in the Bronx and his lesbian granddaughter Erica Diaz showed up to counter-protest. When Diaz, Sr., said he loved her, Erica said, “You cannot tell someone that you love them and stay silent when people call for their death. ‘Love’ is empty when you say someone’s life isn’t natural.”
Dromm, now a councilmember from Jackson Heights, said, “I am very much opposed to having Diaz in the City Council. He would be a voice against all the progress we’ve made over the last few years. He remains an anti-gay bigot who has never taken back the horrible things he said about the community. Diaz took Ted Cruz around the Bronx. Then he took Trump around the Bronx. He is Donald Trump in Democrats’ clothing. It goes beyond anything acceptable. It is not just LGBT rights, it is a woman’s rights to choose, and many other issues. We need to stop anyone progressive — a union or an individual — to think it is acceptable to give Ruben Diaz a donation.”
Dromm is especially upset that Diane Savino of Staten Island — a member of the State Senate’s breakaway Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) that caucuses with the minority Republican senators to keep mainstream Democrats out of power — gave Diaz a maximum $2,750 donation. But Savino says she is doing it for strategic reasons.
“I’m a practical politician,” she said. “Diaz is one of the solid ‘no’ votes in the Senate on reproductive rights, marriage, GENDA — issues important to LGBT community and women’s reproductive health rights. We need a pro-LGBT person in that seat.”
The people of the Bronx, Savino said, should demand that the County Committee select a progressive candidate for the special Senate election should Diaz win the Council seat.
“In the Council,” she said, “Diaz can do no harm to anyone on those issues. If he loses the Council seat, he’ll still be in the Senate. If he was smart, he’d go to the Stonewall Club and ask for their endorsement.”
Savino may also be hoping for a new member of her caucus from the Senate district, though she said that no commitments had yet been secured from possible candidates in the district, which is close to that of Jeff Klein, the IDC leader.
Rose Christ, president of the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City, said, “I’d prefer Diaz held no elective office,” but would not say whether he would be less damaging in the Council than he is in the Senate.
Allen Roskoff, president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, said, “If Democrats isolate him and the IDC isolated him, he wouldn’t be able to do damage,” but he also demurred on whether it would be better to have Diaz on the Council and out of the Senate.
“Any candidate who normalizes or treats Ruben Diaz with respect is disrespecting the LGBT and women’s community,” Roskoff said.
Out gay City Council Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer said, “I believe I first heard the name Ruben Diaz, Sr., in 1994. I was a young gay man excited about the Gay Games competition, which took place in our city that year. Senator Diaz, at the time a member of the CCRB, spoke out against the games with vile and overtly homophobic remarks. He spread fear and hatred of those with HIV and AIDS. It was shameful then, and it’s shameful now. I can never forgive him for those comments, made at a time when so many were dying, when so many in our community were struggling for equality and dignity. Sadly, the senator’s career has been filled with statements and actions against our community. It’s disgraceful. All of it. And I urge all to oppose his run for City Council.”
Public Advocate Letitia James was the only citywide official who would respond to an inquiry about Diaz. Neither Mayor Bill de Blasio nor Comptroller Scott Stringer responded, but James wrote in an email, “To truly stand as a city that welcomes every person regardless of sexual identity, gender identity, race, religion, or immigration status, our elected officials must represent values of equality, inclusion, and acceptance. Reverend Ruben Diaz Senior has a long record of supporting bigoted and discriminatory policies, and he has no place in the New York City Council or any other elected office.”
Those seeking to be elected speaker by their Council colleagues next year — when Melissa Mark-Viverito steps down due to term limits — have to deal with the fact that Diaz is the favorite in the race and they may need his vote and the support of the Bronx County machine. Councilmembers Johnson, Mark Levine, and Robert Cornegy, Jr. — contenders for the leadership post –– did not respond to repeated inquiries about Diaz.
The only speaker contender to take Diaz on was Julissa Copeland-Ferreras of Queens, writing in an email, “Our communities deserves progressive elected officials that reflect their values and respect basic human rights. The Reverend and I have fundamental differences in values, especially around LGBTQ and women’s rights. You can’t be a progressive person and not support a person’s right to love who they want or a woman’s right to choose.”
When Cornegy was reported to be supporting Diaz, the Jim Owles Club issued a release saying, “Robert Cornegy and any other elected official who supports Diaz’s Council bid should be rightfully vilified by the LGBTQ and pro-choice communities. Given this highly objectionable endorsement, loyal NYC Democrats resisting the disastrous polices enacted by the Trump Administration will also now view Cornegy as a totally unsuitable candidate for Speaker of the City Council.”
Cornegy did not return a call for comment.
Johnson did not comment on Diaz’s candidacy for this story, but last year twice visited Diaz in the hospital. Diaz told the New York Post, “If I become a councilmember, I would definitely consider him for speaker, among others. I consider him a good human being. In my moment of suffering, Corey came to see me. I would stand next to him anytime.”
Johnson told the Post, “[Diaz] and I don’t agree on a couple of issues but I also try to work with everyone.”
Jim Owles’ Roskoff told the newspaper, “I’m speechless. I’m very good friends with Corey but I can’t condone this visit. Diaz has done so much damage to the LGBT community and women’s rights… I wouldn’t dignify him with a visit. I wouldn’t want to win with a vote from him.”
Asked why the county organization is going with Diaz, Garcia said, “It’s the same old musical chairs” in the Bronx, where favored elected politicians move between Albany and City Hall, often being selected in a party process for a special election rather than through a primary. “Part of my pitch to the voters is that elections are about the future.”
Describing himself as “a home-grown candidate who went through the public schools and who just happens to be openly gay,” Garcia added, “We need new leadership for the Bronx — elected representatives able to make decisions for all constituents regardless of age, sexual orientation, or race.”
He said Diaz wants the Council seat to secure “a Cadillac retirement.”
Another Diaz opponent is Amanda Farias, 25, an aide to Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley of Queens.
“Every day we are working hard on safeguarding our neighborhoods from the Trump administration and we cannot afford any Trump-like legislators on our most important level of government — City Council,” she said.
Garcia has been endorsed by Dromm as well as State Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell, an out gay West Side Democrat, who said, “We need new lifeblood in the Democratic Party — energetic young talent that want to serve — and Elvin is a smart, thoughtful guy. His opponent is a bigot and hatemonger and a homophobe. After the Orlando massacre, I gave a speech on the floor of the Assembly imploring my colleagues to stop the hate and there is no bigger hatemonger than Reverend Diaz. If people are really serious about stopping the hate that led to the Orlando massacre, we need to stop it here in our own backyard and stand up to the hatemongers here.”
In the most recent filings with the city’s Campaign Finance Board, Diaz had raised $97,066 from 224 donors, Garcia $58,241 from 649 donors, and Farias $28,852 from 534 donors.
While Diaz does well in the district, it is also one of the lowest turnout districts in the city, and an energetic progressive who can expand the electorate has a chance.
Stonewall’s Christ said, “I hope we can have a more progressive member. The current councilmember [Annabel Palma who is term-limited] has been quite supportive.”
Michael Blake, a progressive assemblymember from the Bronx who recently got elected a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, got hit with a firestorm of criticism when campaign filings showed he had made a $1,000 donation to Diaz’s Council bid. After a story exposing the donation in the Post, Blake apologized and said he was asking for the return of the donation.
Blake, who is African-American, told Gay City News, “I never endorsed anyone” in the Council race and does not anticipate doing so, though he said it was possible for an out gay candidate to be elected there.
Blake acknowledged that if someone were saying the kinds of things Diaz has said about gay people “against black people, I can understand the defensiveness. If you feel someone is attacking you, you’re going to feel frustrated.”
Blake is due to be honored by Stonewall and while Christ said she discussed the Diaz donation with him before he tried to recover it, she would not comment on whether there were discussions of withdrawing the honor.
Diaz, who did not return a call seeking comment, will be a political hot potato for as long as he lives.