Gay Candidates Vie for Philadelphia City Council Seats

by Matthew E. Pilecki

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday March 17, 2011

Malcolm Lazin has been at the helm of one of the nation's largest gay summits for nearly two decades, but he now has his sights set on City Hall.

Lazin, who is the executive director of Equality Forum, is a candidate for an at-large seat on the Philadelphia City Council. He is one of just three openly gay hopefuls running in the May 17 primary. Joining him are Sherrie Cohen and Daryl La Fountain. Lazin, however, is a registered republican-a move the Philadelphia Libertarian Examiner has called "sickening."

Amid scrutiny, Lazin insists that his motives are genuine. He told EDGE he believes representing LGBT Philadelphians as a Republican is crucial.

"In terms of Philadelphia, one party control, whether it's republican or democratic, really is not in the best interest of the citizens," he said. "Here in Philadelphia we have seen systemic corruption and a political class that puts its interests above that of Philadelphia and Philadelphians. And I f we treat one party as the favorite and the other party as the pariah we undermine our own civil rights efforts. As we gain support from the Republican Party, it is absolutely helpful and critical in terms of our civil rights aspirations."

The Republican City Committee has endorsed Lazin's campaign, making him the first and only openly gay council candidate to receive GOP support.

If elected, Lazin has promised to resign from his post at Equality Forum and work full-time as a councilmember. He also said that he would refuse to accept any benefit outside of the $117,000 annual salary; including a pension, health insurance and transportation. Symbolizing his "deep concern" for the city's precarious financial state, Lazin said he hopes others councilmembers will follow suit and "put the interest of Philadelphia and Philadelphians first."

"I love this city and I feel fortunate to live here," he said. "I think Philadelphia is doing well in spite of city government, but unfortunately if we remain on the same course we're going to hit the bankruptcy wall once again. There is no Uncle Sam or stimulus money that is going to bail us out this time. Harrisburg has its own set of economic issues that it's dealing with. Unless we take control of our own destiny we are on a collision course with disaster."

But it's clear that Lazin won't be able to rely on Mayor Michael Nutter for support.

"Mr. Lazin isn't ready for prime time," Nutter told reporters in response to a pamphlet Lazin supporters distributed on his proposed budget.

The two have been at odds since Nutter negotiated an agreement with the local chapter of the Boy Scouts of America that allowed them to purchase their Philadelphia headquarters at a third of its value-in spite of their anti-gay policies. Lazin told EDGE in January that Nutter is "talking the talk, but not walking the walk" when it comes to supporting LGBT Philadelphians.

"Mayor Nutter is like Mr. Magoo at the helm," he added. "I think he is leading Philadelphia on a disastrous course. I plan on, if elected, to be vocal on city council in terms of getting us back on course."

In addition to the economy, Lazin plans to confront the ongoing issue of bullying in Philadelphia's public schools. While Nutter promised to put an end to bullying, Lazin said the district has yet to discipline any students or teachers for homophobic taunts.

Lazin would also like to see city services catch up to the digital age.

"I'd like to make city government user friendly and efficient," he said. "In terms of using technology we're so far behind the curve so I want to make sure that we have systems that actually talk to one another so the information can be easily communicated across departments. But also make it very easy for any citizen to go online and be able to tap in to whatever service that person is interested in. It is shameful that we are in the horse and buggy stage of where we should be."

On the democratic ballot, Cohen's campaign has picked up speed since EDGE last spoke with her in December. She has opened up campaign headquarters in Center City and successfully raised more funds than any other democratic candidate.

Cohen stressed, however her work is far from over and she will need the support of the entire LGBT community in order to become Philadelphia's first openly gay councilperson.

"I need our community to claim my campaign as their own and see this as a campaign for us all," she told EDGE. "I will not win unless everyone finds a way to get involved. It is a movement we are building-through our organizations, our cultural and political work, and our political campaigns. My campaign for City Council At-Large is part of our LGBTQ movement for dignity, equality and social and economic justice."

Like Lazin, Cohen has put the economy at the top of her agenda. And she believes creating jobs and improving education would provide the boost that the city needs in order to avoid bankruptcy.

"The biggest challenge Philadelphia faces over the next four years is our high level of unemployment," she said. "The city must become an engine of economic development by directing more of its resources toward job creation, increasing adult literacy, and supporting small businesses."

With Gov. Tom Corbett's plans to cut $1.5 billion out of public education, however, it is unclear from where the funding to trump illiteracy in the city will come. Philadelphia's proposal that would cut $440 million from the city's public schools could result in a record number of layoffs and school closings.

"Corbett's proposed cuts to the public education system are unconscionable," said Cohen. "First, we have to fight back against these cuts by protesting and lobbying the state legislature. If the legislature passes Corbett's proposed budget, Philadelphia will have to allocate more funds to support public education."

Christopher Hayes had plans to join Cohen as an openly gay candidate on the democratic ballot, but was unable to obtain enough signatures to qualify as a candidate. He plans to run again in four years.

While Hayes believes Philadelphia is ready for its first openly gay councilperson, he questions whether Cohen is the right person for the job.

"I think (Lazin) has a very good chance-he has a lot of good ties and he's been a leader within the LGBT community," Hayes told EDGE. "(Cohen) on the other hand, I'm not sure about. She's using the legacy of her father to try and get in but it doesn't seem like she's coming up with anything new. We have one newspaper in the community that never supports all candidates and I believe she's being led by that paper. People need to realize that it's a new era and one person is not the voice of the community anymore."