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Queens Chronicle

Transgender activist to primary Barnwell

Melissa Sklarz says her run was inspired by Trump’s 2016 victory

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Posted: Thursday, February 15, 2018 10:30 am

Transgender activist and longtime city Democratic Party leader Melissa Sklarz says she will primary first-term Assemblyman Brian Barnwell (D-Maspeth).

Sklarz announced her candidacy on her Facebook page last Thursday, saying she is one of the hundreds of Democrats around the country who have been at least partly inspired to run for office by the election of Donald Trump.

“After the 2016 election, I realized that now, more than ever, my years of experience in Albany and New York City advocating for equality will be put to good use representing the voters in my district,” Sklarz said. “With our transportation network in crisis, the Trump budget assault on New Yorkers, and women still lacking proper representation in all sectors, I will make sure all voices are heard in Albany.”

The director of development at the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, Sklarz, a Woodside resident, has been active in political circles for decades.

In 1999, she became the first transgender person ever elected to office in New York when she was voted as a judicial delegate from the 66th Assembly District in the Lower West Side — 17 years before she became the first transgender person to serve as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention and cast a vote as an Electoral College elector.

No campaign finance data for Sklarz was available on the state Board of Elections website as of press time, but she said in a Tuesday interview that she was still in the early stages of “gathering the troops” for her run.

“This is a great opportunity, so I’m really excited. I think I could do a great job for the residents of this district,” Sklarz said. “I’m pretty savvy when it comes to how politics works. I think I have good ideas and I’ve had great responses so far.”

Reached for comment last Friday, Barnwell said he was puzzled by Sklarz’s entrance into the race, claiming she made a derogatory remark about residents of the district — which includes much of Middle Village and Maspeth, as well as parts of Woodside, Sunnyside and Astoria — at an unspecified Democratic club meeting two years ago.

“I find it odd Ms. Sklarz decided to run for this Assembly seat when I have heard her call Middle Village, Maspeth and Woodside all racists who are living in the past,” Barnwell told the Chronicle.

The incumbent said that the remark came in the immediate wake of mass community protests against a 2016 city plan to convert the Holiday Inn Express on 55th Road into a homeless shelter.

Sklarz, however, said that Barnwell “really misremembered” what she said, adding that she has always been opposed to how the city handled the situation.

“It’s very difficult for people to respond when a shelter is hoisted on their neighborhood without any input,” she said. “The law in New York is clear that everyone is entitled to shelter, but the neighborhood should have input without the mayor just coming in and putting a shelter there.”

Barnwell, a regular at the protests, crushed then-Assemblywoman Marge Markey, an eight-term incumbent, by 28 percentage points in the 2016 primary before cruising past Republican civic leader Tony Nunziato by 32 points in the general election.

Asked if she feels like an underdog against an incumbent who maintains the support of the Queens County Democratic Party, Sklarz said she believes the district is ready for a more progressive voice.

“I find that a lot of his policies are the policies of the past, while mine are of the future,” she said. “Brian is an OK guy, but I’m really excited about getting my campaign going.”

Primary day is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 11.

However, state officials are pushing to postpone it to Sept. 13, citing conflicts with Rosh Hashanah and the 17th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

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