MTA Nominee Defends Membership In Social Club

 

Governor Spitzer's nominee to head the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Dale Hemmerdinger, is defying a request from a state lawmaker that he resign from the Harmonie Club, a private social group in Manhattan. Critics of the East Side club, including Mayor Bloomberg, a former member, have said it is racially exclusive.

Questioned about his role in the club by state Senator Bill Perkins yesterday during a hearing before the Senate Transportation Committee, Mr. Hemmerdinger told the committee that while he was no longer "active," he is currently a member of the club and was once its president. Mr. Hemmerdinger told reporters after the hearing that he did not see any reason to step down.

In a letter to Mr. Spitzer earlier this week, Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn asked that Mr. Hemmerdinger leave the club, saying his membership "would send the wrong message" to MTA passengers. Reached by phone, Mr. Perkins said he was not satisfied with Mr. Hemmerdinger's testimony and will meet with Mr. Jeffries today before deciding whether to support the nominee.

"When one transitions from private sector to public service, you have to be particularly sensitive to send a message of inclusion," Mr. Jeffries said. "To continue membership with what the public today establishes as a racially exclusive club is insensitive at best and offensive at worst." He said he would withdraw his objection to the nomination if Mr. Hemmerdinger left the club.

"I was president of the Harmonie Club 20 years ago," Mr. Hemmerdinger said in a written statement yesterday. "I was actively involved then in an effort to recruit minority groups and women members. I know for a fact that the club does not discriminate on the basis of race, sex, color, creed, national origin, or sexual orientation."

The club was founded in 1905 in response to discrimination by Christian clubs against Jews.

While running for mayor in 2001, Mr. Bloomberg quit the Harmonie Club and several others, saying he had unsuccessfully urged them to seek a more diverse membership. "Those clubs have a right to do what they want," he said at the time, " but if I can't change them, and I choose to resign, then I have chosen to go elsewhere." Earlier this year, Senator Obama cancelled a fundraiser at the club. A campaign spokesman reportedly said the decision was in part because Mr. Obama "like Mayor Bloomberg, feels strongly that the diversity of membership in an organization is essential criteria for selecting an event site."