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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Birnbaum's view of New Cassel is all wrong

Ellen Birnbaum should have been there -- right there, on the state-of-the-art basketball courts at the Yes We Can Center in New Cassel yesterday.

Here's what she would have seen: An African-American man hunched over a cellphone, reading former Nassau lawmaker Robert Troiano's account of what Birnbaum said about New Cassel.

"Why would anyone want to go there?" Troiano quoted Birnbaum as saying.

"It's a bad neighborhood."

"It's a ghetto."

"It's full of those black people."

"All they want to do is play basketball."

Kahiem Seawright wasn't on Long Island two weeks ago when Democrats in the county legislative building overheard Birnbaum, a freshman Democrat in the Nassau County Legislature, making those and other disparaging remarks.

Seawright, 27, a Uniondale High School graduate turned professional basketball player, had been in Istanbul finishing out the season with his team in Turkey.

"You think you know what people say about you and your community, but to see it?" he said Monday, once roused from what appeared to be a stunned silence. "She has absolutely no idea what she is talking about."

Birnbaum -- asked her view two weeks ago about a Newsday story on revenue and membership issues at the center -- managed during a three-minute conversation to define the sum, soul and substance of New Cassel almost solely by race.

As Birnbaum now says, she understands.

"I said some things without knowing what I was talking about," Birnbaum acknowledged in an interview Monday evening. "I can't take them back and, yes, I know words have consequences but I want a chance to learn."

Near the community center, there's multifamily town and senior housing and down the street, near the railroad tracks, is a working junkyard. Trucks rumble through a residential neighborhood that's cheek to jowl with an industrial park.

In that, New Cassel looks like other similarly situated communities of color scattered across Long Island.

Birnbaum, as of Monday, said she is determined not to step down. She said she will act as an independent legislator, reviewing bills and voting on her own.

She said she had wanted to reach out to New Cassel -- but didn't do so on the advice of others. That was a mistake, a big one.

Two weeks ago, Birnbaum might have had a chance to do some repair work. In fact, even some Democrats thought that her remarks would never make it out of the county building.

Now, with fellow Democrats pressing her to resign -- and isolating her, and by extension, her constituency, it's too late.

She should step down.

Early Monday, a crowd gathered on the steps of the county center in Mineola demanding Birnbaum's resignation. In Nassau, where politicians have a long history of using racial animus -- such as blocking multifamily housing as attempts to keep the county from becoming the "sixth borough" -- it was a first.

It represents a welcome line in the sand in the county, where a quickly diversifying population is driving long-needed change.

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