Outside the Gates
A conversation with Danny O’Donnell
By Channing Prend
Since 2002, Danny O’Donnell has represented the 69th State Assembly District, which extends from the mid-80s up to 125th Street on the west side of Manhattan. As the first openly gay Assemblymember, O’Donnell has promoted progressive legislation including the Marriage Equality Act and the state’s first anti-bullying law. A Morningside Heights resident for more than 25 years, O’Donnell has seen the neighborhood change considerably. Blue and White editor-in-chief Channing Prend, CC’ 17, sat down with O’Donnell at his District Office on 104th Street to talk about local politics, the Manhattanville expansion, drunk Columbia students, and Rosie O’Donnell.
The Blue and White: Were you surprised to be contacted for an interview by a Columbia publication?
Danny O’Donnell: No it happens to me all the time. I generally say yes.
B&W: Really? Mostly from the Spectator?
DO: The Spectator but there are other ones too.
B&W: What sorts of things do they ask you about?
DO: Well some of them are interested in discussing the political system more broadly, and then the Spectator is more interested in local issues.
B&W: Did you always want to be a politician?
DO: I went to law school and became a public defender, so I worked as a criminal defense attorney for several years. Then I opened up a law practice on the west side of Manhattan after I had moved to the neighborhood in the 90s. Soon after that I started getting involved in the local democratic club. Then I was appointed to Community Board 9, where I served for several years. And then I ran for the state assembly in 2002.
B&W: So you said that you have lived in the neighborhood since the 90s. What brought you to Morningside Heights specifically?
DO: I knew that I wanted to live north of 96th street on the west side of Manhattan because in contrast to other places it was ethnically, religiously, and economically diverse. Broadway from 96th to 125th is like the great equalizer. Everyone interacts. Everyone rides the 1 train. At the time the realtor asked me if I was crazy because this was not considered a desirable neighborhood back then. But it’s the kind of neighborhood that I wanted to live in so I found an apartment on 111th street and I still live there.
B&W: What are some of the challenges of serving a district that is so racially and socioeconomically diverse?
DO: Well I represent two of the largest housing projects in the entire city, Grant Houses and Douglass Houses. Then I also represent Central Park West, which is among the highest rent district in America. So I need to be aware of those competing needs and be responsive to them. When it comes to public housing, they need an influx of capital, they need an improvement of quality of life. People on Central Park West don’t need their quality of life improved, but they do need to feel that they have someone they can reach out to. It comes down to communication. I have a staff of people who attend meetings all over the district. We try really hard to let people know that we’re here and available to listen.
B&W: I know that you were very involved in the Marriage Equality Act. Can you talk about the process of getting that bill passed?
DO: In 2004, my second year in office, I was asked by my friend who is a lawyer to be a plaintiff in the marriage lawsuit in New York. So John and I became 1 of I think 32 couples who sued the city of New York for a marriage license. That case went to the court of appeals. We lost in a 5 to 43 decision. Then in 2007, Eliot Spitzer was elected governor and he sent a bill to the assembly in April. I expressed interest, so the Speaker gave me the bill and then I went about the process of getting the votes with Deborah Glick.
When I got the bill in April 2007 I believe 24 of the 150 members were in favor. We had a lot of work to do, so I engaged fully in the campaign, sending letters to my colleagues with polling data, going to Albany with charts showing where the vote count was. We put the bill on the floor in June and we got 85 votes. In just a two months from April to June we went from 24 to 85 votes. That’s unheard of in Albany. It usually doesn’t work that way.
B&W: So how did you accomplish it?
DO: I threatened some people, I flirted with some people. I told a Republican that he was the best looking man in Albany and he owed it to the gays to vote yes. But I think the most important thing was increasing visibility.
B&W: What do you mean by that?
DO: I had colleagues that said to me in 2007 that they didn’t know any gay people. What do you not leave your house? They did know gay people, they just didn’t know that they were gay. So one of the things that I realized was that if my colleagues were to see my relationship as equal they would have to see my relationship. So I brought my now husband John everywhere. He was there when the votes were taken. He was in the room. And that was very important because people had to see him and see us in the context of a relationship to understand why we’re fundamentally the same.
B&W: So it was very important that you had a personal stake in the outcome?
DO: Exactly, by publicly displaying my relationship with John, I transformed the issue into a personal one. It wasn’t just about the right of marriage but it was about me, which I think made it harder for my colleagues to say no. And we passed the bill three times before the Senate finally passed it and it became law in 2011.
It’s much easier to think badly of and vote badly for people when you don’t have to look them in the eye while you’re doing it. If gay people make up 10% of the population then there should be 15 openly gay assembly members, but there’s not. There’s 4 of us. We’ve made progress, but more progress has to be made.
B&W: What did it mean to you to finally get married after having such a large role in getting the bill passed?
DO: I invited all the members of the Senate and Assembly who voted yes to my wedding and they all came. So I had a wedding with 450 people. You should look up the vows column from the Times because it was quite an event. The Governor was there.
B&W: I’m sorry but I can’t resist asking this. I was reading a profile of you that came out when the marriage bill was passed and it said that Rosie O’Donnell is your sister. Is that true?
DO: Everyone seems to be very fascinated by this. When I got elected it was covered in People magazine, which obviously is not your average thing for a local assembly member. One time Bloomberg, who was mayor of the city then, walked up to me at an event and said “I didn’t know Rosie was your sister. Why didn’t you tell me?” and I was like “I don’t know Mr. Mayor, it never came up.” So yes, she’s my younger sister.
B&W: Thank you for indulging me. Now if we could transition to talking about Columbia. The campus makes up a pretty big part of the district that you serve. Has that affected your role as assemblyman in any way?
DO: Well before Manhattanville plans were finalized, I spent a lot of time fighting with Columbia about their expansion. We have a big problem in this community with over-expansion of institutions. I think the Cathedral should be renamed St. John the Developer not St. John the Divine. They are a real estate developer posing as a church. One of the reasons I moved here was the beautiful balance between rich and poor and black and white. When you tip that balance, it creates a lot of problems.
Teacher’s College built that property up on 122nd Street for example. When you construct a monstrous building and fill it with transient people, you change the balance in the community. Nothing personal to you, but when you graduate from Columbia are you going to stay and live in the neighborhood and become a resident? Maybe you are, but the reality is that every year there’s a new group of students moving in and you need to balance that with longtime residents. So it’s hard. I’m in constant communication with the University though. In fact I met with Columbia administrators just yesterday.
B&W: In terms of the personal dealings with the administration, what sorts of things do you discuss? What for example, did you discuss yesterday?
DO: I discussed the problem with the lack of filling their retail spaces. If you walk up Broadway in the Columbia area there’s a whole bunch of vacant storefronts. That’s also true with non-Columbia buildings of course, but the non-Columbia buildings are out for profit. Columbia has an obligation to its staff and faculty, to its students as well as to its neighbors to make sure that services are available that the community needs. It has a negative effect on the overall quality of life when storefronts like Ricky’s are left vacant for two years. There’s no justifiable reason for that. A for-profit landlord might do that because they want more money. But that’s not Columbia’s raison d’etre. And I think they have an obligation to keep those spaces occupied.
B&W: Who in the administration are you normally dealing with?
DO: Maxine Griffith [Executive Vice President for Government and Community Affairs]. It used to be Robert Kasdin too, but he left the school.
B&W: Have you met President Bollinger?
DO: Yes I’ve had private meetings with him in the course of time as Assemblyman. He’s a very smart man. Lovely wife.
B&W: Is Columbia involved in any policy decisions at the state level?
DO: No. Most of the things that Columbia would weigh in on like rezoning happens at the city level.
B&W: Can you talk a bit more about the Manhattanville expansion? Have you seen the narrative change over time?
DO: I’m not a city councilman, but I try to fight expansion and over-density to the degree that I can. I certainly think it’s overdue for Morningside Heights to be designated a historic district and the largest impediment has always been the opposition of the University. When they acquired Manhattanville it relieved some of the pressure to try to squeeze everything into their current campus. They used to complain that they have the smallest square foot per student ratio of any Ivy League institution or something like that, but four years earlier they raised they raised their undergraduate student population by 25 percent. We all have to live here and interact and get along. But there needs to be a balance.
B&W: Do you think there are going to be a lot of challenges with the opening of the first Manhattanville campus buildings this fall?
DO: No I don’t, because there’s not a lot of residential impact around them other than directly to Manhattanville Houses across the street. I hope that they do a better job than they have done in engaging with those neighbors and improving their quality of life. I think the bigger challenges are going to come in the years after the buildings open and we see that impact grow.
B&W: What are some of the ways that you think the university could better engage with the community?
DO: Universities have a high density of really intelligent people, so they are equipped to help solve some problems in the community. One of the problems is the 1 train makes a lot of noise when it comes out of the ground at 120th street and then goes back underground at 135th street. Using 21st century engineering and science there must be some mechanisms to reduce that noise. That’s just an example of something I’ve suggested to the university. It would be a way to use the minds they have to benefit the community. Maybe when they open up the new campus it’ll be in their own interest to reduce that noise.
B&W: How do you think the neighborhood is going to change once the campus opens?
DO: I think there’s going to be a greater integration of above and below 125th street. When I first moved here, people didn’t go north of 125th street. That’s changed now. With the expansion north will come new businesses to serve that new community.
B&W: What are some of the other ways that you’ve seen the neighborhood change in general since you moved here in the 90s?
DO: Better restaurants, and more expensive restaurants. People are willing to come here from downtown which used to not be the case. The other people living on my floor are in rent-stabilized units and they have all lived there since the 60s. They call me the new kid. I’ve lived there for 25 years. Even amidst change there is still a core group of long-term residents who have made this neighborhood home and they need to be able to stay here and survive here.
B&W: Do you think that, aside from Manhattanville, the way the university interacts with the community has changed?
DO: There used to be a more hostile relationship. Columbia used to acquire apartment buildings and try to evict long-term residents and tenants. I’m happy to report in my tenure, they have not done that. I hope it stays that way. Long-term tenants should be allowed to stay here even if they live in Columbia buildings.
B&W: What is something that you wish current Columbia students did differently?
DO: I wish they engaged with the neighborhood to a greater extent. They can be rather loud and unapproachable though. 20 somethings always seem to travel in packs. I do see them out at restaurants, at the Heights, V&T, but I wish they saw more of the neighborhood. I understand that most of you don’t even travel south of 110th street.
B&W: Do you have constituents from the community that complain about Columbia students?
DO: Yes sometimes about drinking and loud noises at 1 in the morning on the weekends. But that’s to be expected when you live in a community with a lot of university students. They also bring life and safety. I’d rather walk around at 2 in the morning near Columbia because I’m likely to encounter college students on the street. It provides a degree of safety. Even if sometimes they’re a little, or very, inebriated.