New York, NY – January 21, 2019: Former NYC Council Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo speaks during 33rd Brooklyn Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King at BAM Howard Gilman Opera House. (Shutterstock)
By Katie Honan, THE CITY
Former Brooklyn City Councilmember Laurie Cumbo, who has stirred controversy for remarks decried as anti-immigrant, is set to take over the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, multiple people familiar with the move told THE CITY.
Cumbo was an outspoken supporter of Mayor Eric Adams during the election, appearing on-stage with him during his primary-night party and frequently campaigning on his behalf.
But she has had to explain and apologize in the past for comments made and positions taken during her eight-year tenure in the Council, capped with her opposition in December to a bill allowing some non-citizens to vote in local elections.
A spokesperson for Mayor Eric Adams said they do not comment on pending appointments, but two sources within City Hall and another with inside knowledge this week said that Cumbo is going to be the new Cultural Affairs commissioner, who directs hundreds of millions of city dollars to arts organizations and nonprofits.
Cumbo confirmed to THE CITY on Wednesday that she is gearing up to work in the administration but did not herself know in what role.
“All I have done is filled out paperwork to be onboarded in a position in the Adams administration. It has not been confirmed to me which position at this time,” she said in a phone interview Wednesday. Since leaving the City Council, she has been spending time at home with her son, she said.
She’s ready now to “assist in achieving the goals and positions for Mayor Eric Adams,” she said.
Gaffes and Growth
Cumbo, who worked in the arts before joining the Council in 2013, faced criticism in her final weeks as majority leader for remarks she made as the body considered legalizing non-citizen voting.
Despite being among dozens of sponsors of the bill, she declared she feared allowing more non-citizens the right to vote could dilute the power of Black citizens — noting that many Latinos voted for President Donald Trump in 2020.
“The only thing that many African-American communities have left are their Black representatives and representation,” she said during the vote. She first backed a motion to delay a full vote on the bill and return it to committee, which was defeated. She then voted against the bill outright.
She later clarified her remarks in a Medium post, saying the bill — which the Council passed but is now the subject of a lawsuit — was rushed through without much study on the impact of adding a million new voters to the city rolls.
“I believe it takes more time to learn the political system and the issues to have a true vested interest in a community; or more importantly, to learn about the deep history of how African Americans fought for and died for the right to vote,” she wrote.
“This isn’t just some minor detail. I believe that anytime we are talking about anything regarding voting, African Americans should be at the forefront of the conversation because of our sacrifice.”
In 2015, Cumbo apologized after taking flack for expressing concern over what she called “blocs” of Asian residents moving into public housing in her district.
“I don’t know how to explain to the residents why their number hasn’t been called but they’ll see a large migration average of the same ethnic group,” she said at the time.
“It’s not as if it’s one person from this country, another person from that country. How does the authority handle certain situations such as that?”
Asian-American elected officials, including then-Councilmember Margaret Chin of Manhattan, said her comments “divided” the city. Chin could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Assemblymember Ron Kim (D-Queens) at the time called the comments “deeply disturbing.”
“She and I personally spoke and she apologized, and we’ve since had a better understanding,” Kim told THE CITY Wednesday. “It was a growing moment for her where she understood where Asian Americans actually have the highest poverty rate, and we actually need public housing.”
A History of Appreciation
Cumbo told THE CITY that her background makes her well-positioned to lead the city’s cultural affairs agency, which touts itself as the largest municipal funder of the arts in the United States.
She earned a fine arts degree from Spelman College in Atlanta and later a master’s degree in visual arts administration from New York University, according to her website’s biography.
In 1999, Brooklyn-born Cumbo founded the Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Arts in Bed-Stuy, before moving to Fort Greene in 2006. She also worked as a professor at Pratt Institute’s arts and cultural management program.
“As a Council member and as a member of the Cultural Affairs Committee, I’m one of the forefront individuals in the entire city who has fought to support and uplift all organizations, but particularly those that have been the most underserved systemically through New York City’s history,” she said Wednesday.
Natalia Aristizabal, the deputy director of Make the Road New York, one of the city’s largest immigration advocacy groups, said she was disappointed by the pick and called it part of a pattern to elevate “intolerant political loyalists instead of listening to our communities.”
As THE CITY reported in February, at least three Adams appointees have made anti-gay-marriage statements in the past.
“New York City needs leaders who embrace the full diversity of our communities, including immigrants,” Aristizabal said in a statement. “Laurie Cumbo has a troubling recent record of anti-immigrant statements and policy positions.”
In January, POLITICO New York reported Cumbo was “in contention” for the job and that multiple people were upset by the potential appointment. They included longtime political strategist Luis Miranda Jr., who was on Adams’ transition team and sent a letter to fellow members that stated: “I am sorry but Ms. Cumbo’s recent anti-immigrant statements make it very difficult for me to support her appointment.” (Miranda is also a board member for THE CITY.)
Miranda did not respond to an email on Wednesday seeking comment.
As a Council member last September, Cumbo supported plans to convert a Crown Heights armory into a recreation center – but later told a reporter for THE CITY in a sarcasm-laced rant that the developers betrayed the community on discounted access.
She sought to clarify her remarks in a follow-up Medium post in which she voiced strong support for the Major Owens Health and Wellness Community Center adding, in all caps: “I SHOULDN’T HAVE TAKEN THE CALL” from THE CITY.
This story was originally published on [March 16, 2022] by THE CITY.”