John Liu’s announcement last week that he was appointing Brooklyn city councilman Simcha Felder to the post of deputy comptroller has stirred no controversy. Yet Felder is so out of step with Liu on gay and other human rights issues that he’s absented himself twice on the council vote for speaker, ostensibly because Christine Quinn is gay. Felder even missed the Quinn vote the day after Liu selected him. The Borough Park councilman has also voted against a half dozen pro-gay bills that have come before the council during his two terms.
An Orthodox Jew, Felder previously explained through his spokesman that he didn’t vote for Quinn for “religious reasons,” which puts him at odds with Shelly Silver, the Orthodox assembly speaker who has actually pushed gay marriage bills through his legislative chamber. Felder, on the other hand, has aligned himself, in his votes against gay legislation, with the two or three Republicans in the council and Democrats like former councilman and current State Senator Reuben Diaz, who said Silver was “an embarrassment as a Jew” at an anti-gay rally last year.
Eric Kuo, who is Felder’s press aide, insisted that his absence during the Quinn vote on Wednesday was due to the fact that he was “in the district dealing with transition stuff since he resigned so there was no reason for him to be there.” When reminded by the Voice that in fact Felder had not resigned at the time of the vote, and was marked absent by the council, Kuo said that he’d submitted a resignation letter, apparently right before the vote, though he conceded that it wasn’t effective until January 31. “I never said he resigned,” Kuo then inaccurately claimed, “I said he submitted his letter of resignation. I apologize if there was any confusion.” Kuo argued that since Felder had already submitted his letter, “he was not obligated to be there,” adding that it would have been “inappropriate” for Felder, who won’t be serving on the council, to vote on “internal council business” like the selection of the speaker. Felder continues to collect his $122,500 salary.
Kuo pointed out that Felder has “a great relationship with Speaker Quinn,” which only makes it odder that he’s failed to vote for her both times that she’s run for speaker, the only member other than Charles Barron who can claim that distinction. Jewish Week reported in 2006 that Felder fled to the men’s room at the rear of the council chamber when the vote for Quinn was called, and that he’d consulted with rabbis about whether he could vote for her and couldn’t get a consensus. When the Voice asked Kuo after the September primary why Felder had fled in 2006, he told us: “he wasn’t allowed to vote four years ago for religious reasons.”
Asked now if there’d been any change in the religious rationale that prevented him from voting for Quinn in 2006, Kuo refused to discuss it, or to clarify whether the reason was because Quinn is gay, a woman, or both. “I’m not addressing one vote from four years ago,” he declared. “I mean at the time there was a private consultation with his rabbis and that’s the conclusion they came to. I don’t know anything further.” Asked if Felder had discussed these issues with Liu before his appointment, Kuo said: “they discussed his qualifications to be deputy comptroller, not votes cast four years ago.”
Liu’s press secretary, Sharon Lee, told the Voice that “there has not been any discussion” between the comptroller and Felder regarding his two votes. Lee said that Liu’s transition committee, which was chaired by former state comptroller Carl McCall, recommended Felder and Liu took the recommendation. Asked if that meant Liu has no concerns about Felder’s positions on these issues, Lee replied: “That’s not what I said.” In addition to hiring Felder, Liu has also hired his chief of staff, Ari Hoffnung, in another top position in the office. If Liu thinks these political hires could help him in Felder’s Borough Park base, there is no history of patronage appointments tilting the conservative voting bloc toward a more liberal candidate.
Felder was one of three votes against Quinn’s signature Domestic Partners For Full Equality bill in 2007, which expanded the original 1998 law and extended all benefits of married couples to domestic partners. In 2006, he voted against a resolution urging the state legislature to make health benefits granted to domestic partners exempt from taxes, just as they are for married couples. He opposed a resolution calling on Congress to pass the Uniting American Families Act, which would permit citizens and permanent residents in bi-national same-sex relationships to sponsor foreign-born partners, like opposite-sex couples can. He has opposed recognizing domestic partnerships obtained outside the city, banning transgender discrimination, and requiring city contractors to extend equal benefits to the domestic partners of employees.
In fact, the Human Rights Report Card, covering a wide variety of issues and compiled by the Urban Justice Institute, ranked Felder last in the council in 2009, and Liu the fourth best. Felder, of course, was the chair of the committee that practically overnight rushed through Mike Bloomberg’s term-limit extension bill, after receiving millions in discretionary funding from the mayor, more than any other councilmember. A vigorous opponent of the extension, Liu branded David Yassky, who ran against him in the comptroller’s race, “three-headed Yassky” because he switched positions on the bill. Liu made term limits a centerpiece of his campaign.
There is, in fact, no evidence that any but the most ultra-Orthodox regard it as sinful to vote for a lesbian, though the Talmud brands lesbianism as “an obscenity,” far less egregious, however, than homosexuality among men. Voting, either at the polls or in a legislative body, is ordinarily treated as a personal matter, unless one’s vote can be viewed as endorsing homosexuality. It’s hard to imagine any citywide Democratic official appointing a Catholic legislator who cited “religious reasons” for failing to vote for Quinn, or who had a human rights and anti-gay record like Felder.
Pressed by the Voice for comment on Felder’s record, a Quinn spokesman would only say that her relationship with him has been “productive and positive,” another odd bow to the power of this voting bloc. She took a pass on his refusal to vote for her, saying that she would “refer” me to Felder’s office for an explanation. If Liu and Quinn run for mayor in four years, neither can expect much help in Felder’s base, since Congressman Anthony Weiner, who is also expected to run, has represented the neighborhood for years and runs very well there.
Special reporting by T.J. Raphael
Research assistance from Alana Horowitz and Simon McCormack