It was the summer of 2016 and Ruben Diaz Sr. was getting back surgery.
The septuagenarian state senator was fed up with Albany. The pay was too low and the commute too long. A City Council seat was opening up. He was thinking seriously about running for it.
As he lay in the hospital, an unexpected visitor came not once, but twice. He kept up afterward via email. The two men liked to schmooze about politics.
Corey Johnson, the eager hospital visitor, wanted to be speaker of the City Council.
Two and a half years later, Johnson, who indeed got that speakership shortly after Diaz Sr. won the open Council seat, is now calling for his old friend to resign. A chorus of City Council members, some of them gay like Johnson, want Diaz Sr. to go for telling a Spanish language station the City Council is “controlled by the homosexual community.”
(Johnson disputes the newspaper account of his visit to Diaz Sr. He told Gothamist he visited the reverend with former State Senator Thomas Duane, the first openly gay member of the State Senate. Denying Diaz Sr.'s claim in 2016, Johnson said he never emailed with the Bronx Democrat or talked politics with him.)
Diaz Sr., who is also a cowboy hat-wearing Pentecostal reverend, is unrepentant. He is a fierce opponent of same-sex marriage and the LGBTQ community writ large. In a brief interview with Gothamist, he refused to apologize. He said he would be holding a press conference and rally on Thursday outside his district office in the Bronx. “Thank you very much, I have to go now,” he said, hanging up.
These controversies are not new for the Democrat. If anything, his latest bout of homophobia is tame by past standards. He once equated being gay to “having sex with animals” and attacked the 1994 Gay Games in New York because he said the participants were “likely infected with AIDS” and could lead children “to conclude that if there are so many gay and lesbian athletes then there is nothing wrong, nor any risks involved.”
For the uninitiated, Diaz Sr.’s position of prominence in New York’s political constellation can seem mystifying. How has an openly bigoted member of the Democratic Party in the Bronx, the home of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—Diaz Sr. represents her Parkchester neighborhood—survived this long in office? Counting a prior stint in the City Council, he has held office continually since 2002—enabled by a Bronx Democratic apparatus, and powerful politicians like Johnson, who have continually looked the other way.
Diaz Sr.’s relentless homophobia didn’t deter Johnson, who is HIV positive, from offering Diaz a newly-created committee overseeing for-hire vehicles. The Bronx Democratic Party had coalesced around Johnson’s speaker candidacy and Diaz, who is close to the Bronx party boss, Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, was a loyal soldier.
“I made a mistake making him chair of a committee,” Johnson told reporters Tuesday. “I tried to give everyone a fresh start. Clearly that was a mistake … I tried to give him a second chance and he shouldn’t have been afforded an opportunity.”
This is a bewildering moment in time for the reverend, who has accustomed himself to a more typical pattern: he says something inflammatory, politicians grumble and move on. “He enjoys being the provocateur,” said former Bronx Assemblyman Michael Benjamin, who is now a member of the New York Post editorial board. “Some people have seen it as such and are willing to look away.”
Known for campaigning around his district in colorful sound trucks, Diaz Sr. has been tough to dislodge. He won his 2017 race with 42 percent of the vote in the primary, defeating four other contenders. Beyond the candidates themselves, there was no organized opposition against him.
Social conservatism has never been a disqualifier for politicians who want to rise to power in the Bronx. Diaz Sr. isn’t even the only right-wing religious leader holding elected office in the borough: Fernando Cabrera, a city councilman and pastor, once praised the Ugandan government for passing a law criminalizing homosexuality. Like Diaz Sr., he ran with the support of the Bronx Democratic Party.
Crespo, the current party boss, voted against same-sex marriage in 2011, the year it became law. This year, he voted against the Reproductive Health Act, which strengthened New York’s abortion law and codified Roe v. Wade in the State Constitution. Before he was elected to the Assembly, he was a staffer for Diaz Sr.
Even Crespo’s rival for county leader, Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, argued in 2015 his votes against same-sex marriage should not keep him from leading the Bronx Democrats.
Carl Heastie, who is now the speaker of the Assembly, voted against same-sex marriage in 2007 before flipping his vote in 2011. Joining Heastie and Crespo in opposing same-sex marriage in 2007 was a young assemblyman named Ruben Diaz Jr., the son of Diaz Sr. and the current Bronx borough president.
Unlike his father, Diaz Jr. has evolved. In 2013, he became a full-throated supporter of same-sex marriage. The two are close, but very different: the father was a perennial candidate and gadfly who was actually elected to office after the son, who first won his seat at 23.
The younger Diaz and Heastie have not called for Diaz Sr. to resign. The Bronx borough president, who is very likely to run for mayor in 2021, said his father’s remarks were “antagonist, quarrelsome and wholly unnecessary.” Spokespersons for Diaz, Heastie and Crespo did not answer questions from Gothamist about why they tolerated Diaz Sr.’s many other homophobic statements.
“I think Rev. Diaz’s comments were wrong and insensitive,” Heastie said in a statement. “We should be focused on what unites us and moves our communities forward. Comments that divide us or cause hurt to others are completely inappropriate.”
I have served in elected office for over 18 yrs. My office has served 1000’s of constituents from all walks of life, creeds, cultures and gender expressions. Today I was reminded of that great work. TY Anthony for your kind words & for never forsaking the work we have done. pic.twitter.com/0n8TWYZhoU
— Rev Ruben Diaz (@revrubendiaz) February 11, 2019
The Bronx’s only openly gay elected official, Councilman Ritchie Torres, did not formally support Diaz Sr. when he ran for City Council in 2017. He signaled at the time, however, he was open to working with the bomb-throwing lawmaker, telling City and State, “You can have profound differences of opinion with him, but no one can deny the high standard of visibility and constituent services in his district.”
On Tuesday, Torres—who has both been a staunch ally and, at times, an opponent of the Bronx machine—said, in response to a question about whether Bronx Democrats should be held accountable for enabling Diaz Sr., that his “impression” was that Diaz Jr. “did not want his father to run for the Council.”
“But in the end, the father does what he wants. He’s uncontrollable.” (Torres has not called for Diaz Sr. to resign.)
Did Bronx Democrats actually care about whether he could be controlled or not? Bronx Assemblyman Michael Blake, a leading contender for Public Advocate who is now calling for Diaz Sr. to resign, gave $1,000 to the elder Diaz’s campaign committee in 2017. (He later took it back.) Melissa Mark-Viverito, a top rival of Blake’s in the Public Advocate race, strongly denounced Bronx Democrats on Tuesday for emboldening the reverend. “He didn’t get here on his own,” the former City Council speaker said. “You’ve got a Bronx party that embraced him, that uplifted him, that pushed him forward … this to me is unacceptable.”
But even Mark-Viverito, who represented a sliver of the Bronx in the Council, accepted a proclamation from Diaz Sr. 2017, grinning with him for a photograph.
Though Diaz Sr. has been defiant, he was openly musing, earlier this year, about retiring. Two of the Democrats who ran against him in 2017, Amanda Farias and Michael Beltzer, have filed to run in 2021. The reverend will have to decide whether it’s worth it to remain as a pariah in a place that won’t ignore him anymore.
The City Council's committee on rules, privileges and elections will meet at noon on Wednesday to decide whether to strip Diaz of his chair overseeing for-hire vehicles, which would effectively eliminate the committee altogether. If the committee approves, the full Council will have to vote—perhaps as soon as today—on ending Diaz's committee.
Update: WNYC reporter Brigid Bergin reports:
"From the moment he entered the City Council, he has been treated with more grace and generosity than he deserves, often by LGBT colleagues and staffers whose dignity and humanity he’s spent his political life demeaning," Bronx City Council Member Ritchie Torres said ahead of the rules committee vote. "When it comes to his latest example of hate speech, the Reverend has willfully ignored countless pleas for even the barest apologies, the barest acknowledgement of the wrong he has done and the pain he has caused."
Torres continued, "I for one do not want his damn apology. I want the Council to make an example of him, and make an example of him we will. Today we will let it be known that when an elected official uses the power of his office to stoke the fires of bigotry, there will be consequences and those consequences will be severe and swift."
Unanimous vote 11 - 0, the @NYCCouncil Rules Committee has dissolved the For Hire Vehicle Committee.
— Brigid Bergin (@brigidbergin) February 13, 2019
Correction: This story initially said that Bronx Assemblymember Michael Blake took $1,000 from Ruben Diaz Sr., when in fact he gave him a $1,000 donation, and later took it back. Gothamist regrets the error.