Democratic chief wants lawmaker to resign over 'insensitive' remarks

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. (Credit: Sam Guzik)

Nassau Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs Thursday called on freshman county Legis. Ellen Birnbaum to resign after learning that she had made derogatory comments about African-Americans and the neighborhood surrounding the Yes We Can Community Center in New Cassel.

Although Birnbaum (D-Great Neck) has apologized for what she called "insensitive" remarks, Jacobs said, "As an elected official, there can be no tolerance, no latitude for racially charged statements whether or not they truly reflect the opinion of the maker. Elected officials must be held to a higher standard. Those who run and are elected under the Democratic banner must be held to the highest standard."

He added, "While I take her at her word that her words were a mistake and not reflective of her beliefs and values, our greater responsibility is to ensure that intolerance of any kind is not tolerated anywhere."

Neither Jacobs nor other Democrats would confirm Birnbaum's exact remarks, although they acknowledged they were racially derogatory.

Birnbaum, 58, former director of the Office of Intermunicipal Coordination for the Town of North Hempstead, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Jacob's demand for her resignation.

Earlier, Birnbaum responded to a request for comment with an emailed statement: "I deeply regret having made insensitive remarks that were hurtful to someone who overheard them. Those who know me understand that they were not representative of who I am and the values that I hold dear. Last week I made immediate apologies which were graciously accepted. I look forward to visiting the Yes We Can Center again to see how I can help support the great programs they offer."

Jacobs said Birnbaum wanted to make her case at a meeting with Democratic legislators last night. "Her view is different than what is being characterized and reported," he said. "From my perspective, while the wording and the manner in which it was said may be in question, the sum and substance appears to be accurate."

Democrats say Birnbaum was talking to two staff lawyers about the North Hempstead community center, which has missed revenue projections, when she made the remarks. She was overheard by an aide to Legis. Siela Bynoe (D-Westbury), who represents the area.

Although the incident occurred more than a week ago, Jacobs said he was not informed of it until Wednesday night, after Newsday began making calls.

"I was incensed and deeply concerned about what I heard," Bynoe said. She said she "immediately" went to Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) "and advised him of what I heard occurred and requested an immediate investigation."

Bynoe added, "I was really offended by the comments. I felt there was no place for those type of comments in government or in our community."

Abrahams, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to run for Congress in the 4th District, said, "I don't want to confirm or not confirm," Birnbaum's comments.

"Did she say some things that were insensitive? Absolutely," Abrahams said. "Did she say some things she would like to take back? Absolutely. She said enough that it offended a member of our staff. We took action to let Legislator Birnbaum know that would not be acceptable."

Abrahams said Democratic lawmakers Thursday evening would discuss "how this will unfold." He also said he has arranged for V. Elaine Gross, president of ERASE Racism, a Syosset nonprofit, to hold racial sensitivity training sessions for Democratic legislators and staff.Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow), who heads the legislature's Republican majority, said her members "will not become involved with the Democratic Caucus' internal difficulties"

Abrahams said he talked to Bynoe's aide about how to make an official complaint but she instead settled for an apology from Birnbaum.

"It's unfortunate. It's a regrettable, awful situation," Abrahams said. "It really gave me concern that I had to deal with something like this in my own caucus. But at the end of the day, we followed steps and protocol."

Newsday reported last month that North Hempstead's $27.1 million Yes We Can Community Center has not met revenue projections during its first year in operations while membership sales plummeted.

North Hempstead Supervisor Judi Bosworth said town officials will re-evaluate the center to make it more a part of the community.

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