Nassau lawmaker who made racial remarks seeks new funding

Nassau Legis. Ellen Birnbaum sits at her seat Nassau Legis. Ellen Birnbaum sits at her seat in the legislature chambers in Mineola ahead of a meeting on Monday, May 19, 2014. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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A Nassau Democratic legislator who was expelled from her party's caucus for making derogatory comments about African-Americans and the New Cassel community is asking for 1/19th of the $5 million legislative budget.

Legis. Ellen Birnbaum (D-Great Neck) submitted her funding request to the Republican clerk of the 19-member County Legislature last week after Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) banned her from party caucus meetings, removed one of her two aides and forbade Democratic staff and lawyers from talking to her.

If her demand is met, Birnbaum would receive more than $266,000 a year to run her office, more than she would get normally. That could force pay cuts for central Democratic staff, such as counsel and press secretary.

But Abrahams and Nassau Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs promised to fight Birnbaum's move, saying they still want her to resign.

Abrahams, Jacobs, North Hempstead Supervisor Judi Bosworth and community leaders have called for Birnbaum to step down after she was overheard making racially derogatory comments about the struggling Yes We Can Community Center in New Cassel.

Robert Troiano, a former Democratic county legislator who represented New Cassel, accused Birnbaum at a public rally outside the legislative chamber of saying the community center is in a "bad neighborhood," which is "full of those black people," and that "all they want to do is play basketball."

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Birnbaum has denied saying those exact words, but apologized for making "insensitive and thoughtless" comments. She has refused to resign and continues to attend legislative meetings.

Asked about her funding request, Birnbaum said in an email, "The County Attorney's office has advised me that the matter is under review and that this is not the proper time for a response."

Legislative Clerk William Muller, who administers the legislature's personnel office and mailing budget, said he had asked the county attorney for a legal opinion "requesting direction. I have not yet received a response."

County Attorney Carnell Foskey said Tuesday that "an opinion is expected in the coming days."

The county charter calls for each legislator to be guaranteed their $39,500 part-time salary and one legislative aide. A separate county law allocates the legislative budget according to the number of legislators in the majority and minority. There are 11 Republicans and eight Democrats.

A 1/19th share of the legislative budget would be $266,341 for a full year -- though Birnbaum would receive only half for the remaining six months.

Birnbaum supporters say cutting her off from central staff makes it difficult for her to represent her district in proposing legislation, scheduling county services and composing newsletters.

But Abrahams said, "I feel very confident in the steps I've taken. I don't think she's entitled to anything more than one staffer."

He added, "I can't believe Ellen is seeking to get money out of us after she admitted to making offensive and derogatory comments toward African-Americans and the New Cassel community. From the Democratic caucus perspective, we're still calling for her to resign."

Jacobs said the party would challenge in court any opinion that allocated her more money. "The county attorney's opinion is not the end all. It's the Republican county attorney's opinion on what should happen in the Democratic caucus."

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Jacobs said, "She needs to go. I think rather than focusing on her budget, she ought to focus on leaving as soon as she can."

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