New York State

Sklarz hopes to become first transgender Assembly member

Sklarz is challenging Queens Assemblyman Brian Barnwell in the Democratic primary

In 2016, Brian Barnwell won an upset victory against incumbent Assemblywoman Margaret Markey in the Democratic primary. Now a freshman legislator in the 30th Assembly District, Barnwell faces a primary challenger of his own – Melissa Sklarz, the director of development of the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, and a longtime fixture in New York politics.

Sklarz filed with the New York Board of Elections earlier this month, and said in an interview that her official campaign launch will occur before the end of February. A resident of the Boulevard Gardens apartment complex in Woodside for over a decade, Sklarz said that she is running for Assembly because she is passionate about local and progressive causes.

“I represent a far more progressive vision than the current incumbent, and I think with my many years of political work in New York and Albany that I could bring better relationships and bring more resources into the neighborhood,” she said. Sklarz was the first transgender person to hold elected office in New York, after being elected in 1999 as a judicial delegate in the 66th Assembly District. She also previously served as a board co-chair for the Empire State Pride Agenda.

Sklarz said that her campaign would be focused on local issues, including improving transportation for constituents who use the subway regularly, but she also wanted to work on the state response to federal policies, like the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration and the tax overhaul recently passed in Congress. Sklarz said she can also work in Albany for progress on ensuring parity in property taxes and standing up for women’s rights.

“It's very, very important that local municipalities and the states step up so that women's reproductive health is protected,” she said.

Sklarz criticized Barnwell for being insufficiently progressive on women’s issues, and for voting against a measure that passed in the Assembly last year that would have made New York and sanctuary state for unauthorized immigrants. “New York City is very Democratic and looks to the future, and my politics are more in line for the vision of 21st-century New York,” she said.

In an interview with City & State, Barnwell defended his decision not to vote for this bill, saying that while Sklarz “probably never read the bill," he had and he disagreed with a provision that it allowed immigrants in the country illegally to commit a felony and not be detained for possible deportation. Barnwell added that he was a co-sponsor of the Dream Act currently under consideration in the Assembly. He also criticized Sklarz for saying he was insufficiently progressive, as Sklarz had supported Barnwell’s predecessor, Markey, who had voted against same-sex marriage.

Barnwell also responded to Sklarz's candidacy in an interview with the Queens Chronicle by claming that Sklarz had insulted the community in a meeting where he was present in 2016 by attacking residents for opposing a plan to put a homeless shelter in the area. “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. Sklarz disputed Barnwell's account, telling the Chronicle Barnwell "really misremembered" her comments and that always opposed the shelter. 

If elected, Sklarz would be the first transgender person to serve in the New York Assembly, but she indicated that her campaign would be more focused on connecting with voters in the district than making history.

“I think the more important thing is the ability to protect families and their future and the way they live their lives,” she said, although she added that she would follow the Assembly and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s lead, if elected, in supporting LGBT rights and legislation such as the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, which would outlaw discrimination against transgender people by adding gender identity and expression to the state's human rights and hate crimes laws.

“In my opinion, having a transgender person in the room when discussions, conversations and votes are being taken can make all the difference in the world,” Sklarz said. She believes that her experiences, in life and in public service, have prepared her for this race. “To have all this experience and background and not put it to use protecting and working for the neighborhood seems selfish to me.”

Correction: This article previously referred to Melissa Sklarz as Michelle Sklarz.