Nassau civic activists and a Hempstead civil rights attorney on Thursday called on Republican Christopher McGrath to drop out of the race in the 9th State Senate District, citing his law firm’s representation of a New York City firefighter who donned blackface in a parade and mocked an African-American man who was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.
McGrath’s firm, Sullivan Papain Block McGrath & Cannavo, of Garden City, represented the Uniformed Firefighters Association and defendant Jonathan Walters in the case. McGrath was not personally involved in the case.
McGrath, a Hewlett personal injury attorney, faces Assemb. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) in an April 19 special election.
At a protest Thursday outside the law firm’s offices, civil rights attorney Frederick Brewington said McGrath’s firm showed poor judgment in representing Walters.
Although McGrath had no personal role in the case, Brewington criticized his “decision making. “He is not a private individual anymore. He is running for a public office.”
McGrath showed up at the protest and engaged in a fierce debate with protesters. McGrath said that although he disagreed with Walters’ actions, the firm, under its contract with the union, was obligated to represent him when the city tried to take away his lifetime pension.
“We did not condone the conduct of our member,” McGrath said. “But we tried to see if, under the [union] contract, that would result in him losing his pension for life. . . . We have to fight for that worker under our union contract.”
Asked about the activists’ criticism of McGrath and his firm, Nassau County Bar Association president Martha Krisel pointed to group’s mission statement, which says attorneys should “promote the delivery of competent legal services to all who need them, without regard for the ability to pay and without regard for the popularity of the cause.”
In 1998, two firefighters, Robert Steiner and Walters, and an NYPD officer appeared in a Labor Day parade in Queens on a float named “Black to the Future: Broad Channel 2098.”
The men wore wigs and blackface, and ate fried chicken and watermelon. Walters also re-enacted the murder of James Byrd, an African-American man who was dragged to his death in Texas by the KKK.
Then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani fired the three men. They sued the city, citing protections under the First Amendment.
A federal judge ordered the city to pay the men a combined $275,000 in back pay, but the decision was reversed on appeal.
The 9th District seat was vacated after former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) was convicted on federal corruption charges. Skelos and his son, Adam, who also was convicted in the case, are appealing.