Nassau Dems, civic activists call on Birnbaum to resign

Nassau Democrats were joined by civic activists at a rally on May 19, 2014, to call for the resignation of Legis. Ellen Birnbaum over accusations that she made racially derogatory comments.

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Civic activists joined Nassau Democrats Monday as they kept pressuring a Democratic county legislator to resign over accusations that she made racially derogatory comments.

Freshman lawmaker Ellen Birnbaum, of Great Neck, attended her first legislative meeting since her comments about African-Americans came to light last week.

Beforehand, about 100 officials and protesters held a rally in front of the legislative building in Mineola. During the legislative session, a dozen more people spoke in opposition to the remarks -- some directly addressing Birnbaum, who remained silent.

Michael Moore, 48, who is an African-American from Baldwin, told Birnbaum: "Live in these shoes, and try to have to explain to your children and your grandchildren that these are 'just words' and that [the speaker] 'didn't mean it.' "

Birnbaum, a former Town of North Hempstead intergovernmental director, has apologized and called her comments "insensitive." But she has refused to resign from her elected post, which pays $39,500 a year.

In an interview Monday, she said she'd "work every day to build bridges with the African-American community."

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At the rally, legislative Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) said Birnbaum's comments on April 30 regarding the town's Yes We Can Community Center in New Cassel -- a predominantly African-American hamlet -- will be a constant "distraction" to her ability to serve constituents. The center has had revenue and membership issues.

His calls for her to resign were echoed by North Hempstead Supervisor Judi Bosworth, who once held Birnbaum's legislative seat, and by Nassau Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs.

"You cannot say these things about a particular community and expect that an apology will simply wash it away," said Abrahams, who last week stripped Birnbaum of committee assignments and removed her from the Democrats' caucus.

Former Nassau Legis. Robert Troiano, a North Hempstead official, read an account of Birnbaum's remarks, which he said came from a "collective recollection" of people who heard them directly. She was speaking to staff attorneys and was overheard by an aide to Legis. Siela Bynoe (D-Westbury).

"She said, 'Why would anyone want to go there?' Then . . . she added, 'It's a bad neighborhood,' and 'It's a ghetto' and . . . 'It's full of those black people,' " Troiano said Monday.

"She then . . . whispered, 'Come on, who from the rest of the town is going to go there? After all, mostly black people live there,' " Troiano continued. "She later added, 'All they want to do is play basketball.' "

Asked about Troiano's account, Birnbaum said, "Those are not my words." She added, "I did not use 'ghetto.' "

Birnbaum said she had referred to the community center not meeting revenue projections and "observed that kids play basketball there." She said she had referred to the racial makeup of New Cassel, but when asked in the interview to repeat her exact words, she said she could not remember.

But Jacobs said Nassau Democrats would send mailings to residents of her legislative district to ensure they know her comments.

"I just feel everybody will be best served if she resigns," Jacobs said.

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During the meeting, Annette Dennis of the Nassau National Action Network branch told Birnbaum: "You demonstrate a lack of respect for the black community. Therefore we feel you should not be allowed to represent anyone in the Nassau County Legislature."

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