Governor Pataki has nominated Reverend John Bonnici, director of the New York Archdiocese’s Family Life/Respect Life Office, to CUNY’s board of trustees. The nomination is likely to be approved by the Republican-controlled state senate sometime this week, despite the opposition of pro-choice groups.
As a CUNY trustee, Bonnici “could seek to limit access to birth control and sexual health services,” warns Andrew Stern, political director of the National Abortion Rights Action League. In addition, Bonnici’s presence on the university’s board could wreak havoc with curriculum decisions, since trustees must approve every course title. CUNY is home to the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, one of America’s premiere institutes of its kind.
Despite their dependence on the governor at contract time, the Professional Staff Congress of CUNY is actively opposing Bonnici. Bernard Sohmer, chair of the University Faculty Senate, said trustees “should have academic careers, be capable of being fundraisers, and not be ideological. This guy satisfies none of those things.”
State Senator Toby Stavisky, ranking Democrat on the Higher Education Committee, met with Bonnici and found his experience “lacking” and his answers “evasive.” She opposes him, as does Comptroller Carl McCall and Senate Democratic leader Martin Connor. “This is not just someone who is personally anti-choice, but whose life work is to oppose these rights,” says Tom Duane, the senate’s only openly gay member.
While Pataki has been portrayed as tacking left in his reelection campaign, this nomination is widely perceived as a nod to the GOP’s right wing. A Pataki aide said Bonnici’s appointment had been suggested by Cardinal Edward Egan, who pledged in 2001 to mount a “searing attack” on abortion as an “affront to fundamental civilized law.” Bonnici was praised at the 1999 Conservative Party dinner.
In addition to his anti-abortion work, Bonnici has been active in opposing gay-rights laws. In 1999, he wrote a letter to pastors urging them to oppose a Westchester County anti-bias ordinance that included sexual orientation, and he was quoted in The Priest calling gay relationships “intrinsically disordered.” Yet Empire State Pride Agenda, the gay lobby, has failed to mobilize against the nomination.
ESPA did issue a statement expressing “disappointment” over Pataki’s choice, but as spokesman Joe Tarver noted in an e-mail to the Voice, “The Pride Agenda is focusing almost all of its time and effort . . . on several critical pieces of legislation,” including a state gay-rights bill that ESPA hopes the legislature will pass this spring. As veteran gay politico and Hunter College professor Ken Sherrill notes, “Either ESPA thinks this issue is unimportant or they don’t want to distress the governor.” Sherrill warns that the lack of opposition from the gay lobby may embolden Pataki to “palliate those of his core constituents” who oppose gay rights in other ways.
Bonnici did not return several phone calls from the Voice.