To be clear, no one has accused Ellen Birnbaum of being racist. Yet to hear the onslaught of abuse hurled at the Nassau County Legislator for the 10th district, first at a rally called by Nassau County Democrats, and then in an hour-long "public comment" period at the opening of the Nassau County Legislature on Monday, you would think she was single-handedly responsible for Jim Crow, Long Island's segregating housing and schools , and even an incident between cops and a kid in Westbury.
You would think she was Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling or Cliven Bundy ("“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro”).
But that's exactly what those who are calling for her resignation are doing.
"This is not just inartful use of a couple of words, not only insensitivity. Words represent attitude... This is not political correctness gone haywire," Jay Jacobs, Nassau County Democratic Party chairman, told me just before the start of a rally on the steps of the Legislature calling for her resignation . He is basically fed up with the practice of politicians erasing offensive comments with a simple apology.
"This makes the statement that we are not going to tolerate that anymore."
But is this the instance that should be the last straw? Is what Birnbaum said so egregious?
I will get into more about what was said, but these are the key points: the Democrats are wrong to toss her aside, and basically undue the results of an election.
Never before in the history of Nassau County (and I am wondering about any other place), has an elected official been forced to resign over a single incident of saying something stupidly, in a private conversation, no less, based on no more than hearsay about what was said (with emphasis added).
What she said (if the reports can be taken as true) was stupid - she is new to political office and has yet to get the art of artifice down - but was it meant to be cruel or demeaning? Is it part of a pattern of words and actions that show her contempt for other people?
There were certainly other remedies that could have taken place to censure her, to sensitize her, to educate her and correct any erroneous impression she might have concerning the Yes We Can Center and the New Cassel/Westbury community.
But to accuse her and attack her as being a bigot and call for her resignation?
If we are so cavalier and easy about removing people from office, think about the "values" of other communities. Let's say this was a Fundamentalist Christian community in Kansas and a politician remarked that women should have the right to abortion. That would clearly violate the "values" of the community, but should that politician be forced to resign over committing heresy? (On the other hand, no politician was forced to resign over equating a pregnant woman to an "incubator" with as much right to self-determination, or Congressman Paul Ryan, the budget czar, for blaming poverty on lazy inner city men).
This is more than "political correctness" this is about whether we value free speech, free exchange and privacy, or whether we will force people, no matter if they are in their home, in their office or in some deep forest, to constantly censor every word and thought.
There should be boundaries.
Even for Don Sterling. Yes what he said was truly despicable - and suggest he is in a stage of dementia - but what he said in the privacy of his home to his mistress should not be the basis for the NBA to force him out of owning his own team (though patrons are free to show their disgust by not attending games and players are free not to sign his contract). What should have been the basis for him losing control of the Clippers was his eviction of minority tenants from his apartment buildings years earlier. Instead, the NAACP chapter made him "Man of the Year."
Judi Bosworth stood with the rest of a who's who of Nassau County Democrats to call for Birnbaum to resign, saying that people in public life should be held to a higher standard of word and action. That may be true, but do we really want politicians who only speak from text prepared by political consultants and speech writers?
As I listened to the "rally" through the chants of "No Justice. No Peace. No Justice. No Peace," that punctuated the most poignant declarations, it struck me how people were elevating this so far beyond what the conversation was all about. What was it about? A Newsday article had reported that the Yes We Can Community Center in New Cassel is underutilized, and they are not meeting their revenue targets for sale of gym memberships.
Jacobs justifies the call for her to resign - and for the harsh penalties already heaped upon her by Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (have I mentioned he is running for Congress?) - because, he said, Birnbaum is not just elected to represent the district, but the entire county, and the Democratic Party, as well.
"Having thought long and hard what kind of country do we want to live in, what kind of state, county?" Jacobs said. "The choice is ours. It will not happen on its own. Not after a series of apologies, after mistakes, only when people of good conscience come together and do something about it."
"While I forgive Birnbaum for her misstatements, the fact she had to ask, had to apologize indicates statements should not have been made. Forgiveness should be given, but doesn't mean no consequence."
"Out of context?," Jacobs retorted to a question "She was discussing the Yes We Can center but what she actually said is No They Can't because they're black." [Is that really what she said?]
"Really was it that bad?" he continued, asking the same questions that had been posed to him. "Substitute a different term, a different religious background or ethnicity. If we are going to make this the country we ought to be, the future of our nation.... Each of us have to act and act swiftly."
Okay, let's go with that theory. Had a black legislator made the same observation about why the center was underutilized (North Hempstead residents from outside the community don't come) and not selling enough gym memberships (people inside the community don't want to buy gym memberships; the kids like to come to play basketball), I don't think anyone would have raised an eyebrow.
Yes, New Cassel is - as Troiano characterized it - 100% minority (African American, Hispanic, Caribbean). Yes it is in need of revitalization -that's why the center was put there, as a catalyst to spur improvement, and it's why it qualified for federal funding.
Birnbaum acknowledged she was insensitive and clearly uninformed about the Yes We Can Community Center, which was a North Hempstead project, and the New Cassel community, and was inartful in her speech.
She is new to elected office and if she continues to demonstrate a lack of understanding about the county and insensitivity to its communities, not only would the party make sure she is not able to run for reelection, but her constituents would not return her to office.
But this incident, which might warrant censure and sensitivity training, does not rise to the level of being pushed from office.
This isn't the 'macaca moment', the crossed 'We won't take it anymore' line that changes America. Nor should it be.
And I find it hard to believe that Abrahams would throw her out of the caucus had the Democrats held a 10-9 majority, rather than an 11-8 minority.
The most damning statement that Birnbaum is supposed to have made, as quoted by Troiano and others, comes from the concocted transcript circulated by Jacobs, that reads like a screenplay.
"She then leaned in, looked around furtively and whispered, 'Come on, who from the rest of the Town is going to go there, after all, mostly black people live there.' She later added, 'All they want to do is play basketball'.”
All of this - including the emphasis and the modifiers - is according to a legislative aide who overheard the conversation between Birnbaum and two attorneys in an office in the Legislature (was not part of the conversation, wasn't even in the room, apparently).
The aide was so offended, she went to Birnbaum, who immediately apologized, and then, apparently, went to Jacobs, who hauled in the two attorneys and reconstructed the conversation.
In the reconstruction, Birnbaum is accused of using the word "ghetto" which she denies, so you have to wonder about what else is "reconstructed."
The incident transpired two weeks ago, but lo and behold, two weeks later, Newsday publishes a story about Birnbaum's "insensitive" remarks. How would Newsday even have gotten the story?
And here's the thing: Newsday never reported what she actually said, yet the people who blasted her seemed to have specifics - including "furtively."
What transpired next is that Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (and Democratic candidate for Congress) threw Birnbaum out of the Democratic caucus, stripped her of all committee assignments and took away one of her staff members hoping to force her to resign. But if that is not enough, like stepping up sanctions against Russia, he says is prepared to heap more discomfort on her.
A Who's Who of Nassau County Democrats rallied around Abrahams at the rally: North Hempstead Supervisor Judi Bosworth (whose seat on the County Legislature Birnbaum won), Wayne Wink, Anna Kaplan, Charles Berman.
Abrahams, declared that standing up for everyone "regardless of race, ethnicity, religion.... that's why we are Democrats."
The sharpest attack came from Robert Troiano, former County Legislator representing Westbury/New Cassel and currently the North Hempstead Operations Director: He pointed to "a veritable rainbow coalition to stand together to renounce one who has displayed intolerance and bigotry. I call for her resignation because she has expressed contempt, antipathy for the African American community. That means she is incapable of earning their trust, so is unfit for office.
"A few weeks ago, Don Sterling. This week, we were jolted again that our County Legislator made similar defamatory remarks. NBA took swift action in barring Sterling. I am sickened a member is at the center but proud of my party to do the right thing by sanctioning and calling for her resignation."
He quoted back what she was supposed to have said: 'It's a bad neighborhood.... a ghetto [which she denies]...it's full of those black people [she denies]... All they want to do is play basketball.'
"It's unfortunate this kind of sentiment continues to be expressed by the likes of Paula Dean and Don Sterling. Reprehensible prejudice against any segment. How anyone could trust her to vote without prejudice and malice? .... a pattern of racism and bigotry."
Jacobs added, "From a Democratic party standpoint, when we seek out and support and work for individuals on our party line, we are looking for people who share our principles. The statement she made go against our values and principles.... You can have your opinions and policy. We can differ on laws to be enacted. But in America, the time has long since passed when we think one group is inferior to the rest."
But did Birnbaum even suggest that?
I asked Jacobs whether Birnbaum had ever shown any act of bigotry or prejudice in her long career working for the Town or for the Democratic party.
"We don't need to look back and judge the entire career," Jacobs said flatly. "I don't find a hint or she would never have been a candidate."
He also dismissed the interests of Birnbaum's constituents.
This was only the warm-up to the tirade leveled at Birnbaum at the opening of the legislative session, and it is interesting because no one seemed to mind the wildly prejudicial attacks or how blown up the sense of victimization.
Take for example the remark about "values" which was made by Jacobs: "The statement she made go against our values and principles...."
Herbert Williams of Hempstead, who praised Minority Leader Kevin Abrahams using "a Jewish term, 'mensch' - someone who stands for justice and right." seized on the word "values".
"A Congressman used that term, that he wanted 'to preserve Long Island values.' African American have antenna out for code words. Long Island is one of the most segregated areas of the country, even more so than the South. This young lady used the term 'values.' Code terms - when a certain segment says, 'Keep Long Island like it is' we African Americans certainly know [what is meant]"
Except Birnbaum didn't use that term or phrase. So Jacobs is the racist for using the term "our values and principles"?
A woman said she came from the South to New Cassel which " has changed from better to worse to better."
She continued, "I know all about the South - prejudice, racism. Rednecks. Statements made by Ellen are no surprise..... You belong to that group who make sure Nassau County has segregated housing, schools. You are only sorry about getting caught in only what you and your group say all the time.
A former president of the NAACP-Nassau County charged that Birnbaum "sees a different America than the rest of us.... a county that is separate but unequal" He went on to connect Birnbaum's remarks to a recent incident of "police violence of a young man in Westbury.
"It's easy to ask for Birnbaum to step down. Harder question is who will step up against housing discrimination. Some communities are dark while others are bathed in light...
"It's been more than 50 years since snarling dogs and water hoses. Mega Evers and 'Jim Crow must go'. I speak for those who have fought for years.
"Birnbaum, it's time to step down and say sorry."
The audience chanted, 'No Justice No Peace."
This hour-long bashing was climaxed by another appearance by Robert Troiano, who didn't mince words. Picking up on the "furtively" descriptor, he accused, "You knew what was coming from your mouth. Come on, who's going to go there - mostly black people. These are beyond political insensitivity These are offensive, revolting, despicable..repugnant comments."
Then he attacked the "12 friends" who emailed in support of Birnbaum, for having "had the audacity to write that you were [merely] insensitive. .. On behalf of 12,000 African Americans who are my neighbors, do the right thing, stand up and sit down."
Abrahams is the clear victor in all of this. He comes across as a strong leader, a hero in the community.
"Hats off to Abrahams," a woman said. "for some time, our community has wondered about him, whether he is working for us.."
Later, Birnbaum, vowing to serve out her term, said, "My remarks were taken out of context - I wasn't making disparaging remarks about the people, I was commenting on the underutilization of the center."
Birnbaum offered this statement:
"I clearly recognize that remarks I made regarding the Yes We Can Community Center in New Cassel were insensitive and have been perceived to be intolerant. I apologized immediately to the staffer who overheard my comments. This incident has been taking on a life of its own and seems to many to be advancing the agenda of certain political leaders. My remarks had been made in a private discussion with two staff attorneys about the underutilization and financial stability of the Center which a Newsday article had just reported. I spoke about the apparent problem that Town residents were not using the facility, which is a model community recreation center. There are now many different versions of the words that were said that day. No matter what may be reported, I embrace and work hard for all of my constituents and residents of the County no matter what their ethnicity may be.
"I was elected to serve a 2 year term as a County Legislator. Since taking office in January, I have worked every day on behalf of the 10th District dealing with issues from potholes, road drainage, lighting, obtaining funds for school districts and fire departments, amongst other community concerns. I have held many neighborhood meetings on topics ranging from obtaining tax assessment reductions, senior citizen services to veterans benefits. A large number of my constituents have reached out to me and have urged me to stay in office. I will remain in office to continue to work diligently to serve my constituents and all Nassau county residents."
Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
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