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August 2006
Myth: Animal Activists and Politicians Don’t Mix

All You Need Is…LOHV
The Satya Interview with John Phillips

 

From top left to bottom right: Elinor Molbegott, Esq., Legal Counsel, Humane Society of New York; Zelda Penzel; Council Member Rosie Mendez (D-Manhattan); John Phillips.

Understanding that animal protection is a political matter as well as a moral issue, the League of Humane Voters of New York City makes use of the democratic process to campaign for the election of humane candidates to public office. Established in 2001, LOHV-NYC is determined to make animal rights a widely held political issue by building support among citizens, activists, political parties, candidates and elected representatives throughout the boroughs. And they are succeeding. Totaling more than 6,000 citywide, LOHV-NYC’s membership continues to increase.

John Phillips, named Executive Director of the League of Humane Voters of New York City in 2004, has been the forerunner in developing associations with numerous officeholders and the first-ever NYC scorecard which tracks Council Members’ voting records on humane legislation. He also organized the city’s first humane lobby day, bringing dozens of animal advocates to City Hall. With John at the helm, LOHV-NYC has worked with city officials to get animals on the legislative agenda. Lawmakers have introduced LOHV-NYC supported bills on a wide variety of animal issues, including protections for companion animals in housing; a ban of the force-feeding of ducks for foie gras; and a city resolution denouncing the use of fur by clothiers.

John uses his diplomacy skills to work with animal activists as well. Just this past June, LOHV-NYC supported a ban of the use of exotic animals in city circuses in coalition with seven animal protection groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, the Humane Society of New York, Friends of Animals, In Defense of Animals, NYC Animal Rights, and People for the End of Animal Cruelty and Exploitation.

Before his work with LOHV-NYC, John worked with peace, anti-hunger, environmental and LGBTQ youth advocacy groups. A devoted connoisseur of vegan food, he lives in midtown Manhattan with two rescued pooches, J.R. and Magic. To discover more about this politically savvy activist, Kymberlie Adams Matthews chatted with John Phillips about his passion for increasing humane legislation and getting out the vote.

Okay John, what is your first memory of taking action for a cause?

I came out and went vegan when I was 14. I think that counts.

Not to be too nosy, but you look so young. How old are you?
I’ll be 21 in October.

John, I must say you are a bit of an enigma. You’ve been active with various groups—peace, anti-hunger, environmental and LGBTQ—since 14, and at only 19, you were named Executive Director of the League of Humane Voters of New York City. When most teens are interested in the ‘politics’ of avoiding curfews, juicy gossip, and the next party, you were donning suits and meeting with senators. How did you become interested in working with politicians?
I still like juicy gossip and parties! Really, my interest is in being as effective as I can be as an animal advocate. For me, that means doing everything I can to help get our own people in positions of power and influence.

Tell us about the League of Humane Voters of New York City, how did it all begin?

LOHV-NYC began in 2000 as “Political Action for Animals”—a small lobbying project of the activism center at the famous Wetlands nightclub. In 2001, Political Action for Animals changed its name to the League of Humane Voters of New York City and was formally incorporated as a separate organization. Our mission is to elect humane candidates to city and state office. Since 2001, we’ve grown tremendously to more than 6,000 members and supporters citywide.

How do you approach potential candidates?
To qualify for our endorsement, candidates must first complete a written questionnaire detailing their position on a variety of animal-related issues. Completed questionnaires are made available to the public on our website, www.humanenyc.org, and to the media. Candidates are also required to sit down for an interview with myself and members of our executive committee. After the interview, our board of directors evaluates the race and makes an endorsement based on the candidate’s chance of winning, history of support, our potential impact on the race, etc.

In each election cycle, we send every incumbent and the challengers a copy of our candidate questionnaire. We follow the procedure outlined above for each candidate who responds. In close races, where we think we may be able to make a significant impact, we pursue a response from each of the candidates. Each non-response is recorded.

I should also mention that things change considerably when you’re a political donor—of money or time. Candidates are beginning to seek out our endorsement because they know they can count on us for support.

I’ve noticed that some of the best allies of NYC animals are Republicans. That seems so um…contradictory.
How can anyone, Republican or Democrat, see someone suffer and do absolutely nothing? I applaud and have great respect for Republicans like Frank Padavan and for Democrats like Rosie Mendez, who take a stand for animals.

Let’s not forget about City Council Speaker, Christine Quinn, either. She’s an out lesbian who has been called the “most liberal leader in Council history,” and yet she was one of only three members of the 51-member City Council to receive a zero on our scorecard two years in a row.

We must not be partisans. Let’s not limit our base of support to the usual suspects.

That’s a good point. But how do you personally reconcile LOHV-NYC endorsing a conservative candidate who is backward on other issues like gay rights or homelessness?
LGBTQ equality and poverty issues are very important to me. At the same time, let’s not forget that humane issues are often a matter of life and death. Let’s not downplay the significance or importance of our issue. It’s absolutely imperative that politicians recognize that their support for humane legislation (or lack thereof) will translate into votes earned or lost come election time.

What are some of the strides LOHV-NYC has made for NYC’s animals?
We’re very excited about the bill that just passed this June. Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, whom we endorsed in February, managed to get a bill passed in less than four months that will include pets in court orders of protection. Padavan was the Senate sponsor.

I also consider the election of each of our endorsed candidates a major victory. The relationships we are building will only strengthen over time and many will go on to higher office. I am very proud of the work we have done to raise awareness of these issues at the local level. I’m on a first name basis with many of the Council Members here and many had little to no knowledge of animal issues prior to meeting with us. More importantly, many never realized that there was a political advocacy group working for humane legislation. I’m also very proud of the League’s new City Council Humane Scorecard, which we plan to release at the beginning of each year. Our 2004-2005 scorecard was published in Satya’s March issue and I think it’s been received very well by the community.

You have been pushing for a bill to ban the use of wild animals in circuses in NYC. Do you think this has a chance of passing anytime soon? What’s the strategy here?
We think all of our legislation has a chance of passing. The issue of wild animals in circuses has been on our agenda practically since we were founded. In 2005, we decided to make the issue a top priority. Earlier this year, we asked Council Member Rosie Mendez, whom we endorsed in the previous election, to sponsor a bill to ban the use of wild animals in circuses. She was on board immediately and a bill was introduced in June.

I don’t think this is going to be an easy fight. The Council Members need to be educated. We have a lot of friends and a lot of support from the community, though. I’m very encouraged by the attendance at our June press conference for the bill—we had singer/songwriter Nellie McKay, Guiding Light’s Grant Aleksander, and representatives from seven animal protection groups. Scores of concerned humane voters also attended.

I am also very happy to be working with Rosie. She’s a great person and she’s quickly become a leader on humane issues. I have a lot of faith in her ability to get this bill signed into law.

How can people become involved with LOHV-NYC?
Find out who your elected officials are. Learn what their positions are on animal protection issues. You can download our New York City Council Humane Scorecard, and HSUS publishes a scorecard for state legislators. After you’ve done this, try to set up a meeting with them and let them know your views on the issues. You should also write and phone regularly. They need to hear from you.

When we make an endorsement, you can also participate in the League’s get-out-the-vote operation. Humane candidates need volunteers to help petition to get their names on the ballot, knock on doors, etc. If you are financially able, send them a check with a note that says something about why you are donating to their campaign.

What inspires you?
I’m inspired by how many people care about animals. I’m inspired by our potential as a movement to turn that compassion into an organized voting bloc that will elect humane candidates to office at every level of government. We must. The animals deserve nothing less than a vegan animal activist for president!

To learn more or become a member visit www.humanenyc.org or mail a check for $35 to LOHV-NYC, 151 First Ave., Ste. 237, NYC 10003.


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