Alan Van Capelle to Helm ESPA
By Paul Schindler
Gay City News
Vol. 2, Issue 14
April 4-10, 2003
In a week of LGBT leadership changes that signified both new directions and continuity, the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA) announced on April 2 that it had reached into the labor movement to recruit its new executive director, Alan Van Capelle, a 28-year-old union organizer.
And as Gay City News prepared to go to press on April 3, the newspaper learned exclusively that Matt Foreman, who since 1997 has served ESPA as its executive director during two stints totaling more than four years, will become the new executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, one of the nation’s preeminent LGBT rights groups that was founded in 1973. (See full story.).
Van Capelle has served for the past two years as deputy political director of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) that represents 70,000 commercial and residential building cleaners, doormen, maintenance workers, window cleaners, security guards, and superintendents, as well as theater and stadium workers in the New York City metropolitan area.
He is widely credited with playing a key role in invigorating the political clout of a union which up until three years ago had a notoriously troubled past.
Except for a one-year position as district office director and campaign manager for Queens Democratic Congressmember Gary Ackerman, Van Capelle has spent his entire professional life––ten years, including three years while a full-time undergraduate at Queens college, from which he graduated cum laude––in various posts at SEIU.
Van Capelle’s appointment as head of ESPA was widely hailed among lesbian and gay elected officials and activists.
“I think that’s a terrific, positive step for ESPA,” said City Councilmember Philip Reed, an out gay and HIV-positive African American whose district runs from the Upper West Side to East Harlem and up into the South Bronx. “He obviously comes from a successful organizing background and will be a bridge into other communities where we typically have not had the strongest relationships. I am delighted and think he is going to be terrific. I am looking forward to moving forward, and I am asking, What’s next?”
“I’m ecstatic because I think Alan has a real understanding of grassroots organizing and will bring that expertise to ESPA,” said Brad Hoylman, the president of the Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats (GLID), where Van Capelle has served on the executive committee. “He also is incredibly knowledgeable about New York State and New York City politics. He is articulate and smart and works really well with elected officials all across the state in his union organizing.”
“I think this is probably a terrific appointment,” said Ethan Geto, a gay activist in New York since the 1970s and now a principal in the lobbying firm of Geto and deMilly. “32BJ has gone through lots of cycles and permutations in the last two or three years as they’ve come to embrace a very progressive agenda… It has now, along with the teachers and Dennis Rivera’s union [SEIU Local 1199 for hospital workers], emerged as one of the city’s highly effective political operations. A lot of that has been attributed to Alan, and my own strong sense is that that reputation is accurate and well deserved.”
Building a resumé that wins these kinds of accolades by the age of 28 is not easy, and it’s clear that Van Capelle got serious about his life’s work earlier than many.
During his first year at Queens College, while enrolled in the Aaron Copland School of Music, Van Capelle was dumbfounded as his fellow students remained unmoved in the face of three bias attacks on campus in one semester—one anti-black, one anti-Semitic, one anti-gay. Aware that 1994 was the 30th anniversary of the murder of three college civil rights workers––Andrew Goodman, James Cheney, and Mickey Schwerner—who volunteered to do summer voter registration in Mississippi and mindful of the fact that Goodman was a Queens College student at the time of his death, Van Capelle decided to organize a campus commemoration that included veterans of those long-past Freedom Rides.
Expecting a turnout of several hundred, Van Capelle and his fellow organizers were swamped by a crowd of two thousand, one of the largest gatherings in the campus’ history. An SEIU official at the event introduced himself to Van Capelle, and a few weeks later the college student was interning with the union.
Van Capelle was also active with the campus branch of Hillel, a nationwide foundation for Jewish students. As an official with the group, he was invited to attend a 1996 White House coffee hosted by President Bill Clinton. Ironically, the event included a number of key LGBT leaders from New York, including Richard Burns, the head of the LGBT Community Center, Emily Giske, now the vice chair of the New York Democratic Party, and Dick Dadey, then ESPA’s executive director. Van Capelle, not yet out at the time, said he didn’t know that portion of the crowd, and used his chance to speak at the coffee not to raise Jewish student concerns, but rather to criticize the President’s welfare reform package
In fact, Van Capelle seems to have become known in the LGBT community mostly during his past two years at 32BJ. But, he clearly has made a positive impression among political veterans. City Councilmember Christine Quinn, the out lesbian Chelsea Democrat, offers him considerable credit for passage of the Displaced Worker Law, which requires new building owners to give service workers 90 days of job protection after purchase, with the aim of maximizing the chance of permanently saving the position. Quinn was particularly impressed by Van Capelle’s ability to bring the Real Estate Board of New York, the professional group most expected to oppose such job protections, around on the idea.
“This was sort of like winning Catholic Church support for SONDA [New York’s recently enacted gay rights law],” Quinn said. “I expect equal level of miracles from him on LGBT issues.”
For his part, Van Capelle was circumspect about this achievement.
“Some things are best done quietly. I am not a showman,” he said, adding that credit should be shared by a number of people who worked on the city legislation.
One of Van Capelle’s immediate tasks at ESPA will be to demonstrate unambiguously that the group has moved beyond some of the internecine squabbles that befell the community last fall even as it won it largest prize to date, the state gay rights law. Transgender activists and some other progressives were upset that the measure did not include explicit protections for transgendered New Yorkers, and Democrats more generally were angry that ESPA endorsed Republican Governor George Pataki’s reelection in what many saw as a deal to get SONDA.
Widespread praise for outgoing chief Foreman suggested that many of the divisions are old news already, but comments about Van Capelle’s arrival made clear that progress toward renewed unity will continue.
“I am willing to start my relationship with ESPA all over again,” said Councilmember Reed, who had disavowed the group in a fiery speech on the steps of City Hall last October when news of an impending Pataki endorsement leaked out.
State Senator Tom Duane, the out gay Chelsea Democrat, who clashed sharply with ESPA over the transgender issue, also voiced praise for Van Capelle’s appointment.
“He’s a terrific choice,” Duane told Gay City News.“It’s going to be great to have someone coming out of the labor movement, especially a progressive. It will help in our coalition building efforts.”
Two transgender rights advocates, who also clashed with ESPA on the gay rights bill but were both careful to praise Foreman, were upbeat about Van Capelle.
“His impressive resumé on labor activism and LGBT activism will stand him in good stead with the LGBT community and beyond to build coalitions with the wider progressive community,” said Pauline Park, co-chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy. “He has a great reputation in the community.”
Melissa Sklarz, who is vice president of GLID and a member of the New York Transgender Coalition, said, “Alan is a friend and we’ve already spoken a couple of times about his new post. He doesn’t really know that much [about transgender issues], but he is willing to listen, and talk, and learn. I hope our relationship with the Pride Agenda improves.”
For City Councilmember Margarita Lopez, an out lesbian who represents the Lower East Side and has a long record of housing activism, Van Capelle’s non-traditional background for LGBT advocacy work is a plus.
“I believe that the Pride Agenda is sending a message with this appointment,” she said. “He is unusual, like me, who also did not come in necessarily with credentials first and foremost as a gay activist. I had social justice credentials and so does he. His approach is not from one angle but from the totality of our lives. He has my absolute support.”
For Daniel O’Donnell, the new out gay Assemblymember from the Upper West Side, Van Capelle’s appointment marks the arrival of a man who began as a political supporter and has become a “close personal friend.” Van Capelle volunteered on O’Donnell’s first run at public office, a 1998 State Senate bid, and the two men have grown close during the past two years.
“He is a hard charging guy, but mostly a passionate guy who helps bring about change when he sees the need for it,” O’Donnell said.
This story originally appeared in the April 4-10, 2003 issue of Gay City News (Vol. 2, Issue 14).