Anti-Marriage Equality Religious Group Now Battles LGBT Council Candidates
BY PAUL SCHINDLER | Three gay and lesbian City Council candidates –– one incumbent and two newcomers –– are facing organized opposition in the September 10 Democratic primary from a religious right coalition that held rallies against marriage equality over a period of at least seven years.
The City Action Coalition PAC –– an independent expenditure group allowed under the controversial Supreme Court Citizens United ruling –– has spent roughly $10,000 each to oppose the reelection bid of Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, who has represented District 2 on the Lower East Side since 2006, Carlos Menchaca’s challenge to incumbent Sarah González in District 38 in Sunset Park and Red Hook, Brooklyn, and Ritchie Torres’ race for an open seat in the central Bronx’s District 15.
According to data from the city’s Campaign Finance Board website, updated through September 5, these three races are among only five that City Action is playing in, and the group is devoting roughly 60 percent of its spending to beating Mendez, Menchaca, and Torres.
Mendez is opposed by Richard Del Rio, a senior pastor at Abounding Grace Church. Del Rio is a leader in the fight against the Department of Education policy barring religious congregations from renting Sunday space in public schools. The policy –– which allows religious groups to continue accessing school space for non-worship activities –– is currently under court challenge and not being enforced. The ability to access school space has been used by some anti-gay congregations as part of a “church planting” effort across the city.
City Action held a mayoral candidate forum in the Bronx in April, at which, according to Politicker.com, the moderators pressed contenders about their views on worship services in the schools, sex education, and the ability of pregnancy “crisis centers” run by religious groups to operate without posting signs making clear abortion services are not offered.
In 2004, City Action began holding annual rallies outside City Hall to oppose marriage equality. The group drew 300 ministers to that first event. Ten days before Albany approved the state’s gay marriage law, it held a City Hall press conference claiming there were between 30 and 32 firm votes against the measure. It passed by a 33-29 vote on June 24, 2011.
In Brooklyn, Menchaca, a former top aide to Council Speaker Christine Quinn and before that to Borough President Marty Markowitz, has the support of Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, powerful unions, including SEIU 1199, which represents healthcare workers, 32BJ, representing building services employees, and the Hotel Trades Council, as well as the city’s Central Labor Council. He also won endorsements from the Working Families Party and the New York Times.
Torres, who has handled housing issues for Bronx Councilman James Vacca for the past eight years, is running for the seat being vacated by Joel Rivera. He earned a blizzard of union endorsements –– from the Central Labor Council, SEIU 1999, 32BJ, transit and sanitation workers, teamsters, and the United Federation of Teachers, as well as the Working Families Party. He is also supported by State Senator Gustavo Rivera — a reformer who ousted Bronx legend Pedro Espada, recently sentenced to federal prison for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from a non-profit he controlled –– and Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., the scion of another Bronx dynasty who parts ways with his infamous father on gay rights issues.
City Action has made expenditures in the Bronx race on behalf of a candidate who does not even live in the district –– something that is allowed in redistricting years –– but enjoys one key strength in the race: his name is Joel Rivera, the same as the 12-year incumbent he is hoping to replace.