Empire State Pride Agenda Fires Executive Director

By Julie Bolcer

Originally published on Advocate.com March 06 2012 11:05 AM ET

Empire State Pride Agenda, the statewide LGBT lobbying group in New York, has fired its executive director, Ross Levi, who led the organization’s work on the marriage equality victory last year.

Gay City News
reported that board members for the group’s two arms, the Empire State Pride Agenda Inc. and the Empire State Pride Agenda Foundation Inc., “broadly embraced” the decision to fire Levi during a conference call on Monday. Board members had expressed “widespread dissatisfaction” with Levi’s leadership during the marriage equality campaign, and they were “also unhappy that Levi had not defined a clear vision for the group’s post-marriage equality agenda and was not achieving fundraising goals.”

“Recalling last year’s fight for marriage equality in Albany, the two board members willing to speak in detail about the firing said the consensus among their colleagues was that Levi let other groups move to the fore, both in public visibility and behind closed doors, but that at times, as well, ESPA was asked to step back –– including, in one instance, by Governor Andrew Cuomo, who urged other advocates to take the lead in negotiating with the Republican senators needed to provide the margin of victory last June 24,” reported Gay City News.

The Pride Agenda worked in collaboration with four other groups during the marriage equality campaign, which culminated in the state Senate passing the bill in a 33-29 vote, with support from four Republicans. The five groups took direction from the governor’s office in an arrangement that has been widely credited for getting the bill passed, compared to a more disorganized lobbying campaign when the bill failed in 2009. Members of the New Yorkers United for Marriage coalition included the Pride Agenda, the Human Rights Campaign, Freedom to Marry, the Gill Action Fund, the Log Cabin Republicans, and Marriage Equality New York.

Governor Cuomo addressed the annual fall dinner of the Pride Agenda in October, when he received the organization’s Douglas W. Jones Leadership Award. More than 1,000 guests attended the event in Manhattan, which raised over $1 million.

The Pride Agenda distributed a news release early Tuesday morning that said Levi “is no longer serving as executive director.” The release said that Lynn Faria, the current deputy executive director, would serve as interim executive director effective immediately.

“We greatly appreciate Ross's twelve years with the organization. He has been part of the Pride Agenda's major legislative victories, culminating in the momentous marriage win last year,” said Louis Bradbury, cochair of the Empire State Pride Agenda Foundation and chair of the Empire State Pride Agenda, in the statement. “We wish Ross the very best in his future endeavors.”

Marla Hassner, cochair of the Empire State Pride Agenda Foundation, said that moving forward, “We are focused on our top priorities of passing a statewide transgender non-discrimination law, standing by those elected officials who stood by us in the marriage victory, and making sure that the health and human service needs of our community are met. The Boards immediately will begin a search for a new executive director to lead the Pride Agenda into the future.”

Levi, who was based in Albany, came to his role with a reputation for being competent and low-key. He served as the Pride Agenda’s director of public policy and education at the time he was tapped to lead the organization in May 2010. His selection followed a tumultuous episode in which the board appeared poised to appoint Brian Ellner, a former aide to New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and now a senior strategist with HRC. Ellner withdrew his candidacy after some LGBT activists loudly criticized his association with Bloomberg, a major financial backer of the Senate Republicans who helped defeat the marriage equality bill in 2009. Former executive director Alan Van Capelle had resigned following the defeat in the Senate by a 38-24 vote.

During his 12-year tenure with the Pride Agenda, Levi served in a variety of lobbying, policy and education positions. In addition to the marriage equality law, he was involved in other landmark achievements including the passage of the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, the Hate Crimes Act of 2000, making the state’s 9/11 relief inclusive of same-sex couples, and securing more than $50 million of funding for LGBT health and human services, among other advances.

Levi released the following statement to The Advocate Tuesday morning.

"From the Hate Crimes Law and SONDA, to the Dignity for All Students Act and marriage equality, and with over 60 other governmental achievements in between, I am extremely proud of my 12-year tenure with the Pride Agenda, and the work I did as executive director," he said. "I am pleased that because of the successes I helped the organization achieve in 2011, including record-setting special events and fundraising income that well exceeded our budget, the Pride Agenda has the capacity to continue serving as the strong statewide LGBT organization that New York needs. I am hopeful about its future successes, and look forward to pursuing the next chapter of my professional life."