Supported tenant’s rights, LGBT issues for more than 20 years
New York State Sen. Tom Duane surprised both political insiders and constituents alike last month when he announced he would not be running for re-election after representing a district that stretched from the Upper West Side to Greenwich Village to the East Village for the past 14 years.
Duane, first elected to the Senate in 1998 after serving in the City Council for seven years, said in a statement that he needed to embark on a “new chapter” in his life. He did not disclose exactly what that new chapter would entail, but instead said he would address the issue when his term in office ends Dec. 31 of this year.
As the Senate’s first openly gay and HIV-positive legislator, Duane championed causes that resonated with the LGBT community, including the Marriage Equality Act, the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, the Dignity for All Students Act, comprehensive hate crime legislation and prison reform. He has also been a staunch supporter of tenant’s rights, affordable housing and campaign finance reform.
Our Town Downtown caught up with Duane recently as he discussed some of the highlights of his seven terms in Albany as well as the road that lies ahead.
What did you do before getting into politics?
I’ve done a bunch of different jobs over the years, even before I got into politics—everything from being a high school teacher to advertising and working as a public relations person for the Department of Health, then working as a stock broker for a small Wall Street company.
What effect, as a member of the LGBT community, do you think you had on the Senate?
I think that because of the entire 14 years I served in the Senate, I was the only openly gay person—and of course I had been open about my HIV status, even prior to my election to the City Council in 1991—I think that the New York State Senate needed me desperately so that the state could make progress on LGBT issues, HIV/AIDS policy and help stop the criminalization of HIV through the law. I believe my presence also helped reduce, but certainly not eliminate, the stigma of the disease in New York City and throughout the state.
Did you ever experience any discrimination or were you made to feel uncomfortable as an openly gay senator?
I had been told that there was some trepidation about my arrival in the Senate; my colleagues knew that I had been a member of Act-Up [a gay rights advocacy group]. If there was any covert discrimination directed towards me, I either wasn’t aware of it or I simply ignored that it was happening. I threw myself into the work and that’s how my colleagues on both sides of the aisle got to know me. Further, I believe that my presence helped educate my colleagues on the ways that HIV was and wasn’t spread. I think that I was likely the first to talk about oral and anal intercourse on the Senate floor. I helped to prevent laws that might have been otherwise rooted in misconceptions from being passed, further isolating and discriminating against people with HIV.
Can you talk about some accomplishments you’re most proud of?
Virtually every piece of legislation I passed in both the City Council and the Senate helped a segment of people who may have not been helped as quickly if I hadn’t been as active and perseverant as I was. Tenant issues, HIV issues and LGBT issues—even before I was elected to office, these were important issues to me.
We forced then-Mayor Giuliani to put in place domestic partnerships in New York City—at the time that was historic. Also of great importance to me has been getting the city’s Department of Health to institute the best protocols in prisons regarding the treatment of Hepatitis C and HIV. I’m also proud of my work to allow victims of human trafficking to get their records expunged. In addition, I got Sen. Joe Bruno to come around on the issue of same-sex civil marriage.
You endorsed Brad Hoylman as your successor. What kind of senator do you think he would make?
I’ve known Brad since 2001; he’s my friend and he’s also been asked to chair Community Board 2 several times—for the Village, that’s almost unheard of. I think Brad will make a terrific elected official. I know his conscience and his core beliefs and I would be very proud to have him represent me. He’s always been a partner in things I’ve fought for in the Senate and in New York City and he’s also partnered in many other causes and beliefs I feel strongly on.
What will you miss about office when you leave in December?
I’ll be saddened to leave many of the great people I’ve worked with over the years. In various ways, I will miss staff on both sides of the aisle. I’ve loved all my constituents in the various neighborhoods I’ve represented and I will miss them greatly. Also, the people from the Upper West Side down to Chinatown and the Village all came together, especially around the Sept. 11 attacks. It was inspiring the way everyone pulled together. I will really miss my colleagues in government, such as Rep. Nydia Velazquez, Council Member Rosie Mendez and many others.
In general, I love New York City neighborhoods and I love New York City and that’s one of the main reasons I’m coming home: because I miss my neighborhood. I missed being home in a city I love, neighborhoods that I love. I represent the most wonderful people in the world.
Are there things about being in Albany that you will not miss?
Packing on Sunday nights. It was difficult for every emotional reason you could imagine a person has when they leave home to go on a business trip—and I did this for every weekend, six months out of every year. The majority of the years it was January through June. I will not miss the packing on Sunday nights! The groceries are cheaper in Albany, but I’m willing to pay more for food to stay in New York City.
The bottom line is that I spent too much time on the New York State Thruway!
Do you feel you left anything undone in the Capitol?
More needs to be done with our criminal justice system so that it’s more about rehabilitation than punishment, and there are also still some loose ends surrounding the marriage equality bill. We also need to put a stop to hydrofracking around New York State—not just around the watershed.
Any ideas on what’s next?
I have ideas, but can’t share them until Jan. 1. That’s just my nature. It will be something that will help people, because that’s my calling.
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