Mel Wymore, a Democratic candidate for New York City Council, told NBC Out his political aspirations have been reinvigorated by the election of President Donald Trump, and he believes it's time for his party to rethink its resistance to conservatives.
After leading several local initiatives — from funding recreation centers to providing food for seniors— on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Wymore described having "this revelation" that public service "was my passion not my hobby."
"How can I turn this into my life's work?," Wymore said he asked himself.
He decided to run for New York City Council in 2013 for a Sixth District seat vacated by Gale Brewer. "I wanted to keep doing this, to serve the community in an official capacity."
Wymore's bid was not successful, but Trump's election in November renewed his desire to hold public office.
"It's a huge opportunity. Everyone was so shocked and dismayed about Trump, but my first personal reaction to Trump was that I felt unleashed, you know? Game on."
Wymore is up against incumbent Democrat Helen Rosenthal, but he's undeterred by the power of incumbency and perceives still unmet needs in his community.
"Since 2013, it hasn't gotten better — soaring real estate prices, worse quality of life. The neighborhood is divided like never seen before," he explained. "Current council members simply have not delivered what the Upper West Side deserves … People just feel left out and suffering."
Not all Wymore's political advocacy happens on the Upper West Side. "I have been working at federal and state level as director of TransPAC," he said. TransPAC was founded in 2014 to advocate for the transgender community in New York State.
Because of his campaign bid, Wymore is stepping back from his work at TransPAC. However, he did share that for the 2018 and 2020 election cycles the PAC will continue to focus on races for the New York State Senate. Though, Wymore noted, "TransPAC is looking beyond New York's borders to some critical races and looking at some transgender candidates themselves."
Establishing a pipeline from local offices for trans candidates may be key to significantly increasing the number of trans representatives. There are currently no transgender elected officials at the state or federal levels in the United States. Research suggests that the presence of LGBTQ representatives can prevent the passage of exclusionary legislation, such as the spate of anti-transgender bathroom bills in state legislatures across the country.
Wymore would be the first openly transgender city council member in New York City, though this is not his primary motivation.
"There is no question that breaking this barrier will have huge ramifications but … my voice is not only a trans voice, my voice is a human voice. I am talking about seniors and young people and people with disabilities."
Advice for Democrats
Wymore's focus on community organizing may avoid the identity politics versus economics debate that some commentators argue plagues the Democratic party.
"We have to change the DNA of the party," Wymore said. "We have to change the way we are representing our communities."
"We have these attacks coming, and our first line of defense is city council," he said. If we are going to protect our most vulnerable citizens, it's going to happen at the most local level. Life happens there."
Wymore said progressives focus solely on national politics to their own detriment. "The failure of Democrats [is that] we have floated above that level of connection and grass roots organizations."
Citing the Tea Party, Wymore said, "The conservative base has done the hard work of local organizing, block-to-block organizing — that has paid off big time in local elections. They beat us at local engagement, and we have to take that back. We need that kind of activity as progressives to build that pipeline of representation. It starts with city council and goes up into state level and up into Congress."
He added, "Let's get brave, get courageous and start engaging people. We need to have people step up."
Julie Moreau is a Post Doctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She tweets at @JEMoreau.