By Duncan Osborne
A candidate for a Queens City Council seat is charging that supporters of one of his opponents are trying to smear him among Muslim voters by telling them about his support for LGBT rights and same sex marriage.
“Some key supporters of other candidates have tried to use my support for LGBT rights and marriage against me in this race,” said Ali Najmi, a Muslim who is seeking the seat held by Democrat Mark Weprin until he resigned to join the Cuomo administration. “I’m very disappointed that some people will use prejudice as a political tool.”
Najmi is squaring off against Rebecca Lynch, who took leave from working for Mayor Bill de Blasio to make the run, and Barry Grodenchik, a former state Assembly member. Also running are Robert Friedrich and Satnam Parhar. All are Democrats and the Sept. 10 Democratic primary will decide who wins the seat.
Two Lynch donors, Debbie and Naji Almontaser, have been using social media and approaching fellow Muslims at mosques in the Queens district and at recent Eid festivals, which mark the end of Ramadan, a holy month of fasting in Islam, and attacking Najmi’s pro-LGBT positions. Friends who have witnessed this have reported the conversations to Najmi. The Almontasers, who live in Brooklyn, have each given $175 to Lynch’s campaign.
One man, who was referred to Gay City News by Najmi, confirmed that he had a conversation about Najmi’s pro-LGBT record with the couple and that he saw the Almontasers have such conversations with others.
“They’re actively sabotaging his campaign because he supports gay rights,” said the friend, who asked to remain anonymous. Another two people who Najmi referred to Gay City News did not respond to calls seeking comment.
With the turnout expected to be very low in the primary, a few hundred voters or less could mean the difference between winning and losing. The district is 40 percent Asian, a population that is disproportionately south Asian; 30 percent white; 15 percent African-American; and 15 percent Latino. There are roughly 43,500 registered Democrats in the northeast Queens 23rd Council district, which covers Oakland Gardens, Bellerose and Queens Village.
“Probably not more than 6,000 will turn out, less than that,” Najmi said.
It is not clear that these discussions are having an impact. In America, Muslims are generally not counted among the groups that oppose LGBT community interests and Muslims have plenty of issues, such as the discrimination they contend with, that are likely more important to them than same sex marriage or LGBT rights.
Najmi, 31, is running as a progressive Democrat in a district that went for de Blasio in the 2013 Democratic mayoral primary. A criminal lawyer for the past six years, Najmi spent two years as Weprin’s legislative director prior to that. He talks of being a voice for a district that gets too little attention from City Hall.
“It’s a big system, it’s a big bureaucracy, and people need an advocate,” Najmi said during an interview at his campaign headquarters in the basement of a Korean church. “We need to make sure that city policy and the city budget take our concerns seriously.”
Najmi, who was born and raised in the district, is endorsed by the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, an LGBT political group; Make the Road Action Fund; several Muslim or South Asian groups; and Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham University professor who challenged Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the 2014 Democratic primary.
“Rebecca must disagree publicly with what they’re saying and take a strong positon on the issues on which they are denouncing Ali,” said Allen Roskoff, president of the Jim Owles club. “She needs to say if you’re going to vote against Ali because of his stance on marriage, then you need to vote against me because our stances are the same.”
Lynch is backed by eight unions, the Working Families Party, and the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City, also an LGBT political group. Grodenchik has the support of leading Queens Democrats and is seen as the party’s candidate. He, Najmi, and Lynch lead the money race with roughly $60,000 each, while Parhar and Friedrich have each raised less than half that amount.
In an email, Sally Frank, a Lynch campaign spokeswoman, said the campaign had no knowledge of and did not participate in the Almontasers’ actions.
In an email to Gay City News, Lynch wrote “As a lifelong supporter of LGBT rights, I was proud to earn the support of the Stonewall Democratic Club this month. Our city and state should continue to lead the way for the nation in inclusive and affirming policies that guarantee equality for all New Yorkers. At the state level, Albany must pass GENDA. At the city level, equality must be part of the mission of every agency — from providing shelter to protecting public safety. There is no place in New York City or anywhere for homophobic or any offensive rhetoric, and I strongly call on anyone who supports me to stand against bigotry and for equality.”
After being contacted by Lynch, Ritchie Torres, the openly gay City Council member from the Bronx, called Gay City News to comment.
“The right thing to do is to judge Rebecca by her record rather than guilt by association,” Torres said. “I know firsthand that Rebecca is committed to LGBT equality. When I ran for public office to become the first LGBT elected in the Bronx, Rebecca was among my earliest supporters.”
Debbie Almontaser promised to return a call to Gay City News, but did not.
While they are undoubtedly LGBT voters in the district, it is not known as a haven for LGBT people. Najmi, who called himself “a staunch supporter of LGBT rights and proud of it,” said that he had no demographic data showing such voters there so his championing of LGBT issues seems quixotic.
“It’s because it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “I’m running on principles of equality and civil rights.”