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Race Against the Queens Machine

Race Against the Queens Machine


With its influx of young professionals and solid base of ethnic and senior voters, the Astoria section of Queens, N.Y., represents attractive but challenging terrain for a progressive political newcomer. Just ask Jeremiah Frei-Pearson, a candidate for the assembly seat representing Astoria and Long Island City, who is running a race without the backing of the local Democratic establishment.

An attorney for the Children's Rights organization, Frei-Pearson cofounded the group Western Queens for Marriage Equality and has advocated against hate crimes in the neighborhood. Many New Yorkers recognize him from rallies that urged Sen. George Onorato to vote for marriage equality last year. Onorato voted against the bill, which failed the senate by a margin of 38-24. The longtime incumbent announced shortly afterward that he would not seek reelection.

Assembly member Michael Gianaris is expected to win the senate seat being vacated by Onorato, which leaves a rare open seat available in the assembly. In the Democratic primary Frei-Pearson faces corporate attorney Aravella Simotas, who supports marriage equality and enjoys endorsements from Onorato, Gianaris, and the Queens and LGBT political establishments. Last week school board member John Ciafone announced he would enter the race on a "family values" platform that opposes marriage equality.

Frei-Pearson spoke with The Advocate about his campaign, marriage equality, and the gay scene in Archie Bunker's old neighborhood.

The Advocate: Why do you, with your progressive credentials, want to be elected to a state legislature ranked as one of the country's most dysfunctional?
Jeremiah Frei-Pearson: For exactly the reasons you say. Our state government is fundamentally broken, and the result is it's hurting millions of New Yorkers. It's hurting people who want equality. We almost couldn't get a vote on marriage equality. Our state legislature is proudly standing on the wrong side of history. My future colleagues are giving themselves raises at the same time that they are closing schools. I've spent my entire life fighting corruption. I can't imagine a better challenge that going there to clean that up.

How did you come to be a strong marriage equality advocate?

I interned for Sen. Ted Kennedy when I was a 19-year-old kid. When he stood up for LGBT equality, I said, "Of course, that makes sense." And I read all the hate mail and it was very, very abstract. That was also the year I started dating Karla [his wife]. As I met more and more LGBT people, it became very visceral. It's not an issue I came to in February of this year. It's not an issue I came to based on a poll. It's an issue I came to from the heart.

Did you believe you could persuade Sen. George Onorato to support marriage equality through lobbying?
We genuinely did believe there was hope, and we kept receiving mixed messages from his office. Maybe a month before the vote, I was pretty confident that he wouldn't vote the right way. And that was because we kept hearing from his office that he kept getting more feedback from the conservative side on this issue, and I just know that wasn't true. There was no other presence. They had one rally with less than 20 people. I knew if he was giving that argument, his mind was made up.

At one meeting with the senator, one of the senator's staffers said to a lesbian woman, "If you want to get married, you can just take a train to Connecticut." This friend got tears in her eyes and said, "Listen, my girlfriend is very sick, and we can't travel. How would you feel if someone said that to marry the person you love you had to take them out of the state on a wheelchair to get married?"

The senator's staffer said, "This meeting is getting too emotional. I think we should end it." I'm not running against Senator Onorato, but I'm running against the out-of-touchness and the callousness of the machine.

Do you take credit in prompting Onorato to retire?

If I accomplish nothing else in politics, playing a big role in forcing Senator Onorato to not run for reelection is something I will be very proud of. We rallied. We organized. We marched. We actually had the largest rally in the history of Athens Square Park. 2,500 people showed up. I made it very clear when Senator Onorato voted against equality that had he run again, I would have run against him. It's not just about me. It is because we were able to mobilize thousands of people. That's the great lesson here.

Why not run for the Onorato senate seat?

There were a lot of behind-the-scenes conversations. The right thing was for us to have a senator who voted for equality. When George Onorato retired, I knew that would happen, not by me taking the race against someone who is right on a lot of the issues.

What lessons did you draw from the marriage equality vote?

It showed me a couple things. The struggle to get marriage equality showed me how ready my neighbors were for change. That people fought over and over again and refused to be treated like second-class citizens. We have a government that doesn't work for the people it represents, but we can change it. Once Senator Onorato voted against marriage equality, he was done, and that will be his legacy.

Half of the eight senate Democrats who opposed the marriage equality bill represented Queens. What's up with that?
That's what this entire election is about. It's not so much about what's up with Queens. It's what's up with New York's political class. We're not used to having elections in Queens. That's one of the structural problems. There was a higher turnover rate in the Soviet politburo than there is in the New York state legislature. You have a system that's set up to be nonrepresentative. If the people had voted, senators would have been for marriage equality.

You and your opponent Aravella Simotas both are young attorneys and LGBT allies who support marriage equality, and she would be the first Greek-American woman elected to the state assembly. What sets you apart?
She will be a fine assembly person. But New York government will go on as it is if she wins. To the best of my knowledge, she didn't have a position on marriage equality until she knew I was entering the race. I think that's typical politics. I'm looking forward to working with all of those people when I get into office. Some of the people who endorsed my opponent are friends of mine, and they actually called me before hand to apologize. That's the way politics works right now in Queens. People line up behind the choice. If it's a choice between the powers that be and the people, the people win every time. I believe I have the people behind me.

What can you tell me about the gay community in Astoria?

One of the greatest things about Astoria is that it's one of the most diverse places on earth. We have more languages spoken than any other place except Jackson Heights, I think. We have two shelters for gay kids. When there was a hate crime in 2008, what was inspiring about that was we as a community marched against it. As we marched, people would say, "What are you marching for? Oh, that happened?" And they would join. It's a very diverse, welcoming community. There's tons of gay bars

What other issues are your priorities?

For me, government reform is right up there. You can't fix any of these problems if you don't reform he government. We need campaign finance reform. Today you can write me a check twice as large as [a check for] Barack Obama. It shows our government is for sale. We also need term limits. I'm pledging to serve only eight years. If the president only gets eight years, I don't need 40 years in Albany. We need jobs. We need schools. It's education, it's jobs, and it's always the econom,y and the economy right now is failing people. The environment is huge in Astoria. We have eight power plants producing 65% of the city's energy, and as a result Astoria is known as asthma alley. We've got to invest in alternative energy and wind farms and stuff that makes sense so we don't have our power plants destroying the air that kids breathe. And we talked about marriage equality and the inability to vote correctly on that issue.
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