Why Did Empire State Pride Agenda Allegedly Fire Executive Director Ross Levi?

In a conference call yesterday, the Empire State Pride Agenda announced executive director Ross Levi was stepping down.  ESPA, New York State’s largest LGBT lobby, is refusing to comment publicly on the matter.

Gay City News got two board members to talk anonymously, though, and they seem to think Levi’s departure wasn’t exactly voluntary:

There was widespread dissatisfaction with Levi and the organization’s leadership on the marriage fight last year—where ESPA shared responsibilities with other leading advocacy groups, including the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), Freedom to Marry, the Gill Action Fund, the Log Cabin Republicans, and Marriage Equality New York.

Board members, the two agreed, were also unhappy that Levi had not defined a clear vision for the group’s post-marriage equality agenda and was not achieving fundraising goals.

Was Levi resting on his laurels after the major marriage-equality win in New York, and failing to set new goals for the future—and meet fundraising benchmarks in the here and now?

Or perhaps the problem goes back further to the fight for marriage equality in New York State, where Levi might’ve taken a backseat to other powerful gay groups based in New York City, like the Human Rights Campaign.

Recalling last year’s fight for marriage equality in Albany, the two board members willing to speak in detail about the firing said the consensus among their colleagues was that Levi let other groups move to the fore, both in public visibility and behind closed doors, but that at times, as well, ESPA was asked to step back—including, in one instance, by Governor Andrew Cuomo, who urged other advocates to take the lead in negotiating with the Republican senators needed to provide the margin of victory last June 24.

As the marriage fight heated up between February and June of last year, HRC, which led a high-profile effort to recruit well-known figures –– including Barbara Bush, one of the former president’s twin daughters, hip-hip mogul Russell Simmons, celebrity chef Mario Batali, and former New York Ranger Sean Avery –– to record pro-marriage equality videos, also won more attention in the press, with Brian Ellner, who headed up the group’s New York drive, often quoted in the New York Times.

ESPA wanted this to be a smooth, not-talked-about change, but Levi decided he wasn’t going quietly:

The group clearly hoped that Levi’s departure could be framed in that sort of positive light rather than becoming a source of public controversy, and sought to negotiate what one board member described as a “generous severance package.” That effort was undone, two board members told Gay City News, by Levi’s unwillingness, on advice of counsel, to sign a confidentiality agreement that would have barred his talking publicly about his ouster.


Today, Ross released a written statemen highlighting his accomplishments rather than biting back at ESPA:

“From the Hate Crimes Law and SONDA [Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act], to the Dignity for All Students Act and marriage equality, and with over 60 other governmental achievements in between, I am extremely proud of my 12-year tenure with the Pride Agenda, and the work I did as Executive Director. I am pleased that because of the successes I helped the organization achieve in 2011, including record-setting special events and fundraising income that well exceeded our budget, the Pride Agenda has the capacity to continue serving as the strong statewide LGBT organization that New York needs. I am hopeful about its future successes, and look forward to pursuing the next chapter of my professional life.

For now the search is underway for ESPA’s new top dog. We’re sure there are some unemployed political execs out there freshening up their resumes.

Photo via Empire State Pride Agenda