Alphonso David is often described as one of the state’s most important power brokers, and he’s trumpeted as the first black or gay man to be counsel to the governor. City & State’s Frank G. Runyeon interviewed David about how important those identities are to his work, what his next move is on LGBT rights and whether he’s angling to be New York’s next attorney general. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
C&S: You’ve been characterized as one of the most powerful people in New York, but what is it you worry about? What keeps you up at night?
AD: (Laughs.) Too many things keep me up at night. You know, the governor is responsible for running a very, very large state. And he allocates a fair amount of responsibility to his senior team, including me as his counsel. So I’m responsible for making sure that all of the agencies are addressing every single substantive issue properly and consistent with the law – and so that keeps me up.
Ranging from transportation to health care to economic development to the environment, there are significant challenges that we face in a variety of sectors throughout the state. I’m concerned about health care. I’m concerned about violence. I’m concerned about economic development. I’m concerned about civil rights. Every day is different. That’s one of the greatest things about this job. Every single day is interesting, is challenging, is rewarding. And as I go to bed each night – or try to go to bed each night – I worry.
C&S: Given all that, can I ask … do you get sleep at night?
AD: (Laughs.) No, I don’t really sleep that much. I’ll give you an example. Last night I went to bed at 2 a.m. and I woke up at 6 a.m. So on average, I try to get to bed before 1 a.m., but I wake up at 6 a.m. every morning. I work out. I practice yoga. Go biking. For me, that’s the release I need. It gives me the opportunity to focus on the challenges of the day. It’s my time. That 25 minutes or so where I can focus on what I have to accomplish on that day and the challenges that the state might be facing.
C&S: A Village Voice headline defined you as “black, gay, and the third most powerful man in New York.” I want to put it to you: To what extent do those identities impact your work as counsel to the governor?
AD: It certainly affects my work because – let’s just put this in context. I am the first gay man to hold this job. I am also the first black man to hold this job. Obviously, that has an impact as it relates to organizations, companies and significant stakeholders that interface with government. Right? Historically, lobbyists, and companies and organizations have been interfacing with people other than a black man or gay person sitting in this chair. And so assuming that does have an impact in terms of orienting them to the reality that someone different is sitting in the chair. So from their perspective I would say that’s probably different.
But from my perspective, what’s important is removing the stigma that success for openly gay people is elusive. Because we have to remind people that they can reconcile all parts of their lives. And in fact, reconciling all aspects of their lives is essential to really achieving success.
“What’s important is removing the stigma that success for openly gay people is elusive.”
C&S: What is the battle being waged right now for the LGBT community in New York?
AD: We’re situated somewhat differently than other states because we have a law that protects against discrimination based on sexual orientation as well as gender identity.
I think here in New York, the goal for the LGBT community is to ensure, that although we have all of the laws in place, we need to make sure that they’re being properly enforced.
I think we’re shifting from impact litigation and groundbreaking legislation to enforcement. That’s a broad-brush response and I don’t want to suggest there isn’t anything more that we have to do because there’s certainly a lot more that we could do and there’s a lot more we will do moving forward.
C&S: How would you respond to criticism that some LGBT legislation or imperatives have stalled in Albany – the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, in particular.
AD: Well, I know that may be the sentiment of some advocates or elected officials. We have tried to advance legislation on a variety of fronts, and in some cases we are successful, and in other cases we are not. What I would say is this. In every single instance, where we have faced obstacles in Albany, the governor, using his executive authority, has addressed these problems effectively by passing regulation or advancing circular letters or guidance from the agencies.
So I would say, in the ideal world, sure, we would like to have every piece of legislation that we would like. But I think we need to focus on what we do have and what protections we have achieved and what advances this governor has accomplished in New York.
“Here in New York, the goal for the LGBT community is to ensure that, although we have all of the laws in place, we need to make sure that they’re being properly enforced.”
C&S: If New York suddenly had a governor with more policies like President Donald Trump’s in the next administration, how well-equipped would the state be, in terms of the advancement of the LGBT community and its imperatives?
AD: I would say we have a really important tool in our constitution, called the equal protection laws. And if a future governor has more Trump-like policies, or more tendencies and seeks to overturn or reverse protection that we currently have, it wouldn’t be too difficult for the courts to stop that new governor from reversing course. Remember, if you provided protections for individuals, it’s very hard to take it away.
Some are concerned about the regulatory and executive action that this governor has taken, and are fearful that when he leaves office someone could come and change course, they should remember that we have the equal protection clause in our constitution, in the federal Constitution and it means something. And the federal courts and the New York courts will protect the rights that New Yorkers have.
C&S: I’ll put this one quickly. Are you going to run for attorney general?
AD: (Laughs.) I’m really flattered that people are thinking of me as a potential candidate in the future and I’m focused on my job and I’m focused on this governor and everything he’s done for the state. And you know, we’ll focus on that in the future.
C&S: So you’re not ruling it out?
AD: No I can’t rule it out. I learned something a very long time ago when I was in college and going into law school is that when you’re looking at your career or your life in terms of a trajectory and you are looking at where you want to go, if you focus too much on where you want to go, you’re going to miss the doors that are open along the way.
C&S: And that might be instructive here? Is there some other opportunity?
AD: No, don’t read anything into that. It’s just a motto I use ...
(At this point in the interview, a press officer interjected:“Also, we have an election coming up in 2018, and if you think that Alphonso David is going anywhere, you are dead wrong.”)
C&S: Is that so?
AD: Yeah, I’m not going anywhere. I’m here with this governor. If there’s a vacancy in the future, we’ll talk about that then.
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