COPYRIGHT MILLENNIAL POLITICS LLC 2017
Mel Wymore has lived in the Upper West Side of Manhattan for 29 years. Though he is an engineer by
training, he has spent most of his time in New York City as an organizer and activist. He has been on the Community Board for 22 years and served as chair of West Side Y and Ethical Culture Fieldston School PTA, where he worked to strengthen and diversify his community. He currently serves as co-chair of the 2018 Committee for United Thru Action and Executive Director of TransPAC.
Mel is also running for City Council. His candidacy is already historic, as he is one of the first openly transgender people to run for office and the first in New York, but if he wins the race, he will be the first transgender person ever to be elected to public office in a major American city.
I spoke with him recently about his historic candidacy. Below is a transcription of our interview, edited for length and clarity.
What motivated you to enter this race, and what were your biggest challenges?
The decision to run against an incumbent is always significant because there are many advantages an incumbent has, but in this particular case, I was moved to action by a few things.
The first, of course, was the election of Donald Trump. That calls for a new kind of leader, someone who’s willing to stand up to big money developers, someone who’s willing to fight for marginalized citizens, and someone who’s gonna be really responsive and connected to their community in a way that weaves the fabric of the community together to provide a safety net for all people. I saw that our current council member, Helen Rosenthal, was not that kind of leader, so I decided it was very important to stand up and jump into this race.
I also feel that it’s important for all voices to be heard, and as someone who is from a marginalized community myself, I know what it feels like to be excluded and attacked, and I want to make sure no one ever experiences that in our community.
What are your top issues?
There are three really important issues.
One is meeting the needs of our community. Actual constituent services. That should be the number one priority of an elected official – understanding the needs of every member of our community. We just don’t have that right now. It’s a selective process of responsiveness, and I think that everyone needs to be served and live in good conditions.
The second big issue is to stand up to big real estate. New York is completely bending to big real estate money. We have a State Senate controlled by real estate, Democrats who have sold out and are now caucusing with Republicans at the state level, a mayor who has been pro-development and under the guise of his housing plan given a huge break to big money developers. Those forces really affect all the big things we deal in our community – the soaring housing prices, the vacant storefronts that are stringing up and down our avenues in increasing numbers, and our overcrowded schools. Average residents have to be on a waiting list just to go to their local public school, and that’s just not acceptable. We need real checks and balances, we need to be dealing with big development money more directly and more aggressively, and we need to put in place new rules to prevent politicians from selling out our communities.
Finally, there’s defending the people against Trump and the crazy State Senate we have in New York. Everyone thinks New York is this progressive blue state, and it’s not. It’s completely controlled by the real estate industry. Helen Rosenthal is not leading the community. She is not doing anything to help up banquish the sellout Democrats and Republicans in the State Senate. I have a long history of doing that – organizing and actually winning seats to help keep people safe.
Regarding the Democrats caucusing with Republicans – or the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) – what will you do to make New York state politics more progressive?
The Upper West Side has always been a leader in these kinds of movements. We did that in the women’s movement, the LGBTQ movement, the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement… We know the people who actually organized around electoral politics. And this is something Helen Rosenthal isn’t doing. She doesn’t recognize how powerless the City Council is because it’s at the hands of the New York State Legislature. So many of the big progressive issues we could be passing are being blocked at the state level – that’s housing, single-payer healthcare, sustainable transportation, campaign finance reform, electoral finance reform – all of these things are controlled on a state level.
We need to do exactly what I’m doing right now – organizing New Yorkers to identify specific candidates and move forward in the field operation that will really win seats. We teach them how to phone bank, how to knock on doors, how to get people to vote to oust these nasty conservatives and sellout Democrats exchanging their values for a few dollars. The City Council has the power to organize the city and really make a difference to make the state blue, and that’s not happening.
I’ve been doing that as Executive Director of TransPAC before I decided to run, and now I’m doing it as a volunteer on my own time and I fully intend to do it as a member of City Council. No district in this city is gonna get away with not vanquishing their IDC member if I’m in City Council.
What did you do with TransPAC?
TransPAC is a political action committee that was established in 2014 after we saw how little effort was put into passing the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act at the state level. This, of course, you might know was essential to secure the rights of transgender people in the state of New York in employment, housing, and hate crimes. A lot of towns in the state do not have these protections.
The way we fought for GENDA was supporting progressive candidates in the New York State Senate, raising funds for good Democrats. That year, we won a majority. We have 32 Democrats in the State Senate, and unfortunately, the IDC managed to steal eight of those Democrats, so now we’re going after them. Anyone who doesn’t support transgender rights has to go.
In terms of supporting transgender and gender non-conforming people, do you support making non-binary a legal option on official documentation?
Absolutely. All official documentation needs to have other options. The binary model traps people in gender roles that aren’t comfortable to them, and that’s what we need to dismantle. All of our people, all of our children in particular, deserve the freedom to be who they are from the get-go. We can’t exclude people because they don’t conform to some box. And that’s including cisgender people. Gender roles are very concerning for all people.
How have your past experiences prepared you for this office?
Basically, the job of a City Council member has three functions. One is constituents services, which means not just talking to each individual, but also dealing with agencies to grapple with the larger issues that are happening in the community, whether it’s a systemic problem with rats to potholes. And I’ve been doing that every day for 22 years as a member of the community board, as chair of the youth committee, the green committee, the small business task force, I’m currently chair of the budget committee, I’m been chair of the entire board twice, I’ve negotiated a number of important legislative agreements.
The second function of a City Council member is to manage land use applications that come with the district. The built environment of our community has a lot to say about how equal and inclusive a community is. I’m very well-versed in standing up to developers who are making our communities inaccessible to low-income and marginalized people.
The third area is budget and budget negotiation. I’m currently chair of the budget, I sat on the city-wide steering committee for participatory budgeting, I’m very well-versed in all of the things that go into that.
As far as the requirements for being a City Council member, I’m probably one of the most qualified candidates in the district. We need someone to look out for the people in the neighborhood who are the most vulnerable to cuts in budget and attacks in all of government. That’s the job, to make sure the most marginalized are protected. And as someone who knows what it feels like to be discriminated against and marginalized, I’m very well-prepared to stand up for every member of our community. We’re all human beings who deserve dignity and quality of life.
Why did you choose to run for City Council in particular?
City Council is where my heart is. I love all the high-minded policies we could pursue at state and federal levels, but I also really get that people’s day-to-day lives are most impacted at the local level. And right now, City Council is the last line of defense for people who need support against discriminatory policies. This is how I can make the biggest impact on the community.
Let’s think eight years ago. The Tea Party organized on a very local level – school boards, lotto commissions, and that’s why they had infrastructure in place to put someone like Trump into the White House. We need to do that as progressives, we need to make sure everyone on every street corner, every block, every building is in the fight to reclaim progressive politics. And Helen Rosenthal is not doing that.
Mayor de Blasio has recently proposed free pre-K to 3rd grade and college. Do you support these initiatives?
Yes. 100%. I wish they went further, faster. No income limits. And it’s not just in education. I believe in free healthcare, guaranteed housing – policies that ensure the community is always taken care of.
How can folks get involved in your campaign?
Check out our website. You can volunteer and write down how you want to get involved. We will be responsive and make sure you get a call back. You can also contribute. People are welcome to do both. And you don’t need to be from New York City. You can post on social media, you can dial people from long distance – this is a huge campaign that’s a historic opportunity that can show New York is ready to vote in a transgender person. This will be the very first election of a transgender person in a major city.
This is the Harvey Milk moment for upper New York City. And that’s why I’m running now. We need to have our voice as members of the LGBTQ community heard.
Jordan is the Head Writer at Millennial Politics. She is also an activist, cinephile, and proud queer woman of color.