Pride and Division in Queens
Two gay candidates look strong but a flap dogs one
By Paul Schindler
Gay City News, 6.28.02
Even as two longtime gay leaders in Queens look to become the borough’s first out elected officials, a divisive flap over one of the candidates threatens to undermine the unity that might otherwise be expected to emerge among the LGBT community.
Danny Dromm, the founder, a decade ago, of the Queens Lesbian and Gay Pride Committee, which sponsors the annual June pride events, and more recently a founder of the Queens LGBT Pride Community Center, is running for a Democratic district leader slot.
Jimmy Van Bramer, who ran a strong second-place run last year for a City Council seat and is a former board member of the Empire State Pride Agenda, is running for Democratic State Committee
Both men are running in the newly drawn 39th Assembly district that encompasses most of Corona and portions of Jackson Heights, Woodside, and Elmhurst. Dromm and Van Bramer have also both been endorsed by the County Democratic organization, a group which has only slowly opened itself up to gay and lesbian interests and whose stamp of approval carries significant weight.
Despite the obvious gay political gains these endorsements signify in Queens, Dromm’s campaign has run into a controversy in his own backyard. A number of LGBT leaders in Queens and citywide are questioning the propriety of a mailing Dromm did for a campaign fundraiser he held on June 2 hosted by Manhattan Democrats Tom Duane, the out gay State Senator, and Christine Quinn, the lesbian City Councilmember. Invitations for the $75 event held at Cavalier Restaurant in Jackson Heights were bundled in mailings sent out by the Queens Lesbian and Gay Pride Committee, a nonprofit 501c3 organization for which Dromm remains the co-chair.
Dromm’s critics are questioning whether the mailing is an improper or even illegal contribution by a nonprofit group to a political campaign.
“I was really surprised and frankly perplexed to a receive an invitation to a political fundraiser mailed by a 501c3 organization,” said Matt Foreman, former executive director of both the Empire State Pride Agenda and the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project. “Having worked in the nonprofit world for as long as I have, I think that’s crossing a very dangerous line. I’ve actually never seen it before.”
Foreman said that in recent years a number of directors of major nonprofits in the gay and lesbian community have commented on the increased scrutiny that they face from the IRS.
“People have to be extremely careful about this,” Foreman said. “People looking for a reason to attack and denigrate gay and lesbian organizations.”
“As a founding board member of the Queens Pride Committee, I am very concerned about the apparent inappropriate use of the Pride Committee’s 501c3 status to solicit funds for a political candidate, which is clearly contrary to federal and state tax law,” said Charles Ober, president of the Queens Pride House, a group that is in some ways a rival of the LGBT Pride Community Center that Dromm founded. “[The Pride Committee] has done a lot of good work over the last ten years. Unfortunately, this apparent ethical lapse could cast a shadow over the entire LGBT community in Queens and have negative consequences far beyond the Pride Committee.”
In response to his critics, Dromm said that his campaign paid for the insert as though he were purchasing an ad in the newsletter that the Pride Committee mails from time to time. He said a full page ad in the newsletter would cost him $200 and he paid $250. An ad in the Pride Committee’s June Pride booklet and its Winter Pride dinner booklet runs $350. Dromm said the newsletter and event booklets typically sell ads to politicians as do those of many other nonprofit groups.
“The ad was paid for and the check was cashed long before the mailing went out,” Dromm told Gay City News. “I am intending to file with the city campaign finance board. This is not a violation of campaign finance board.”
Dromm specifically mentioned that other out gay candidates, including Van Bramer, in his City Council race last year, and Ed Sedarbaum, in his unsuccessful State Senate run in 1998, similarly purchased ads in Pride Committee publications.
Both Van Bramer and Sedarbaum disputed the analogy between the situations.
Sedarbaum, saying he was “very surprised when I opened the envelope and saw it,” said that unlike a printed booklet distributed at an event, a mailing takes advantage of the lower mailing costs offered to charity bulk mailers. He added, “It did not say it was a paid advertisement,” suggesting that it could leave the impression that Dromm’s campaign had the support of the Pride Committee.
Similarly, Van Bramer, while confirming that he took out an ad in the June Pride guide for $350, said, “We never mailed in not for profit envelopes.”
“I don’t think that they are equivalent and I personally feel that my campaigns would never choose to do a mailing in that manner,” Van Bramer said.
Pauline Park, who is a board member at Queens Pride House, said that whether or not the ad was paid for was not the point. The issue, she said, was the appearance of impropriety and the implication that the Pride Committee, the oldest and largest LGBT group in the borough, was endorsing a political candidate.
“If it was a political ad, it should have been labeled as such,” Park said.
In talking about the controversy, Dromm indicated that he felt that most of the controversy had developed as the result of questions originally raised by Park. Dromm and Park have a history of conflict dating back at least as far as the split between the Queens Pride House, housed in Woodside, and the LGBT Pride Community Center, headquartered in Corona. Dromm was a board member of Queens Pride House at the time he began initiating the Corona center, and as the two began to grow they naturally competed for scarce community and governmental financial resources.
Park, Ober, and Foreman all questioned the propriety of a board leader of a major community group holding on to the post when launching a career.
“When Mr. Dromm was on the board of directors of Queens Pride House, he demanded that Ed Sedarbaum resign when Ed declared that he would be candidate for political office,” Ober said. “Danny Dromm then called that a conflict of interest. I believe that Mr. Dromm and the board of the Pride Committee should ask themselves why they have not applied a similar standard to Mr. Dromm’s political candidacy.”
Dromm responded that many elected officials also maintain position on nonprofit boards.
“Every elected official that I know runs on their record and most sit on boards of 501c3 organizations,” Dromm said. Then, alluding to criticisms from Foreman, he added, “If Matt is concerned, he should have called me, rather than go to the media.”
Foreman’s comments came after he was contacted by Gay City News.
Questions of propriety aside, the legal questions involved are anything but clear. At least one complaint has been lodged against the Dromm campaign at both the New York State Charities Bureau within the Attorney General’s office and with the U.S. Postal inspection service.
Brad Maione at the Charities Bureau confirmed that his office was in receipt of a complaint. He offered the following general reaction, without specific reference to this case: “If the organization were compensated by the candidate and there was equal access given to other campaign organizations, then it sounds as though it would be above board.”
However, Maione went on to say that it would depend on how closely the mailing resembled a newsletter or other publication with fixed rates and general access. He also said that if the political candidate were on the board of the nonprofit group, “that’s a different story altogether.”
Maione said his office is “going to take a look at it” and declined further comment.
Yolanda Ramos, an official in the metro law office of the U.S. Postal Service inspection division, was unable as of press time to offer a definitive answer about the regulations on political mailings being included in nonprofit bulk mailings.
This article originally appeared in the 28 June 2002 issue of Gay City News.