Nassau Legis. Ellen Birnbaum says she won't quit for 'insensitive' comments

Ellen Birnbaum is a county legislator from Great Ellen Birnbaum is a county legislator from Great Neck. The Democrat is seen in this file image from a Newsday video from Oct. 23, 2013. Photo Credit: Sam Guzik

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A Nassau Democratic lawmaker accused of making racially derogatory comments said Friday she will continue to serve even as her county legislative leader expelled her from the party's caucus and additional Democratic officials called for her resignation.

Legis. Ellen Birnbaum (D-Great Neck), in an emailed statement, said she recognized that her remarks "were insensitive and thoughtless." But she said she was elected to a two-year term last year and "will work every day for the remainder of my term to regain the trust and confidence of the African-American community in New Cassel and throughout Nassau County."

Democrats described Birnbaum's comments as derogatory toward African-Americans and the neighborhood surrounding the Yes We Can community center in New Cassel, though they have not repeated her exact words.

At a news conference in Mineola Friday, Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) said, "It has been reported to me that her remarks clearly implied 'this is a bad neighborhood' because African-Americans live there. Very few people would want to go there."

Abrahams said about the remarks: "While some question the wording, the substance is accurate." He said Birnbaum did not use any racial epithets, and that there is no recording of the comments.

An aide to Legis. Siela Bynoe (D-Westbury), who represents the New Cassel area, overheard Birnbaum talking to two staff attorneys about the community center.

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In her statement, Birnbaum said she is "heartsick about the pain" her comments caused. "I was discussing 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. I strongly believe that the success of the New Cassel/Westbury area is critical to the success of Nassau County," she said.

Earlier, Abrahams, who heads the eight-member Democratic legislative caucus, announced he was barring Birnbaum from caucus meetings, taking away her committee posts and removing one of two aides after she refused his request to resign.

North Hempstead Town Supervisor Judi Bosworth, who previously held Birnbaum's legislative seat, and North Hempstead Town Democratic leader Gerard Terry, also called for her resignation Friday.

"The comments as I understand them were offensive, insensitive and hurtful," Bosworth said. "It is my view that she should do what is appropriate at this time and that would be to resign."

Legis. Judy Jacobs (D-Woodbury), a former presiding officer, said, "I have zero tolerance. I think it's important for her to resign. It's totally unacceptable."

Nassau County Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs earlier called for Birnbaum to step down. Terry said Democratic officials and party leaders from Birnbaum's North Hempstead home base are planning a news conference Monday if she does not resign.

Abrahams said he learned of Birnbaum's remarks on May 1 and immediately conducted extensive interviews with Birnbaum and staff. "We did not sit idle," he said.

In a hand-delivered letter to Birnbaum, Abrahams said she was no longer permitted access to the Democratic caucus room, could not consult with senior staff, will be stripped of her five committee assignments and will lose one of her two aides, who will be reassigned at the aide's request.

Abrahams said he does not believe the county charter allows him to remove all of her staff.

With Abrahams' decision, Birnbaum will be a legislator without a caucus. Frank Moroney, spokesman for Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow), who heads the 11-member GOP majority, said, "There's no need for us to seek her participation in our delegation."

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