Nassau Legislator Banned from Caucus After Alleged Racial Remark

Legis. Ellen Birnbaum expelled
Legis. Ellen Birnbaum was expelled from the Democratic caucus after allegedly making racially-insensitive remarks. (Photo credit: Facebook)

Freshman Nassau County Legis. Ellen Birnbaum (D-Great Neck) has been expelled from the Democratic caucus after allegations surfaced that she made racially insensitive remarks about a minority community within earshot of a black fellow lawmaker’s aide last month.

Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) said that learned from three aides that Birnbaum purportedly made “derogatory statements in reference to black people,” though no racial slurs were used. The comments, which he called “insensitive, [and] do not reflect the position not just of the Democratic caucus and party but the people of Nassau County,” were directed at the New Cassel community.

“Let’s make this very clear and very concise,” Abrahams told reporters during a press conference Friday in Mineola. “Legislator Birnbaum is banned from the minority caucus and the Democratic caucus.”

Birnbaum allegedly implied that the hamlet is “bad neighborhood” because African Americans live there, Abrahams said. After “hours and hours” of investigating the remarks, Abrahams said he felt comfortable with his decision. No recording of the remarks exist, Abrahams noted.

Abrahams, who is also running for Congress, said that he decided to isolate her from the rest of the party after she refused to resign following a caucus meeting Thursday night.

When asked if Birnbaum denies making inappropriate comments toward African Americans, Abrahams responded, “I couldn’t tell you.”

“I’ve had many conversations with Legislator Birnbaum,” he added. “Obviously her recollection is different than what the three people have represented to me. However, last night we had a legislative caucus meeting and gave her the opportunity to again make her case…but I truly believe after speaking to these staff members that again it is very clear on what was implied.”

The comments were purportedly made on April 30, after Newsday reported three days earlier that revenue at the Yes We Can Community Center in Westbury came in below expectations.

Abrahams, who has the authority to appoint legislators to specific committees, also stripped Birnbaum of all committee assignments. Birnbaum, who was elected in November and officially took office in January, served on several committees, including: Gov’t Services & Operations, Finance, Veterans & Senior Affairs, Towns, Villages and Cities, and Planning Development & the Environment.

Birnbaum’s expulsion essentially makes her an outsider in her own party.

She will neither be able to attend any committee or caucus meetings, nor will she have access to senior staff members or the party’s communications office. She can, however, participate in the monthly meetings of the legislature, though it’s unclear if she will attend the next one scheduled for Monday.

Kevan Abrahams
Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) during a press conference on Friday, May 16, in which announced his decision to expel Legis. Elln Birnbaum (D-Great Neck) following allegations of racially-insensitive remarks. (Rashed Mian/Long Island Press)

Abrahams also noted that one of Birnbaum’s aides has requested to be relocated to another office, which he obliged. One aide will still work in her office to handle constituency services, which is obligated by the county charter.

Her district includes Great Neck, Herricks, North Hills, North New Hyde Park and Searingtown/Albertson.

Birnbaum was not available for comment. She has since apologized, Abrahams said.

Abrahams also announced that he has invited Syosset-based ERASE Racism, a nonprofit racial equality advocacy group, to visit the legislature to conduct sensitivity training.

Although he attended the press conference alone, Abrahams appears to have the backing of all six of his fellow Democrats in the Legislature, except for one, according to Nassau Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs, who did not identify who that may be. Republicans hold an 11-8 edge in the Legislature.

Jacobs first learned about the remarks Wednesday and on Thursday he called for Birnbaum to resign. Some Democrats expressed hesitation with the prospect of publicly calling for her ouster, he added.

Jacobs called Birnbaum Thursday morning and said he “came away with the sense that there was enough there.”

Still, he said, “I don’t believe they are reflective of her views.”

If the mounting pressure does, indeed, prove too much for Birnbaum, and she does resign, then either Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano would have to set a date for a special election or the seat could remain vacant until November’s general election.