Q&A with Robert Disney, Candidate for Bellevue Borough Council

Robert Disney

Legally changing one’s name should be an exciting, uplifting, hopeful, and ceremonious occasion, not one clouded by uncertainty caused by the legal process or the worry of the perception of others in the courtroom, and my goal is to be a resource and ally for anyone in this position.

This is the 11th post of our election season series ‘Political Q&A’ with progressive candidates throughout Pennsylvania. Candidates can be anywhere in Pennsylvania running for any level of office. Please note that these are not necessarily endorsements, more of an opportunity for candidates to connect with the LGBTQ community, progressives neighbors, and others with an interest in Western Pennsylvania. If your candidate would like to participate, please contact us pghlesbian at gmail dot com.

Robert Disney reached out to me to participate in the Q&A (I always like that) after I wrote to a NoBo Progressive’s Alliance asking them to notify candidates of the opportunity. They’ve endorsed 25 candidates. Six agreed to the Q&A and three, including Robert, returned it in a timely manner. It is important to know who from the Northern Boros are interested in engaging the LGBTQ community. Hopefully, more of them take an interest in this opportunity.

But Robert has and you’ll read how he has been showing up for LGBTQ folks, especially the trans community, as well as showing up for students facing disciplinary action in the schools. My wife and I spend a bit of time in Bellevue, mostly at shops and restaurants. It is important to us that Bellevue and other communities like Ross and McCandless actively welcome and affirm LGBTQ residents, visitors, and especially young people. Robert’s response has inspired me to include a question specific to youth in future Q&A’s. See, effecting change already!

Your Name: Robert Disney
Your Pronouns: He/Him/His
The Office You Seek: Councilperson, Ward 3 for Bellevue Boroughy

How do you describe your identity? I am a cisgender, white, straight male.

Please tell us about an underappreciated or little known asset in your community.

Bellevue is an extremely walkable and accessible community.  We are on the bus line, and in downtown Bellevue, you can walk to your bank, the grocery store, the hardware store, the hair salon, the yoga studio, the dry cleaner, and several restaurants and treat shops.  Bellevue boasts many parks and playgrounds, a nearby dog park and skating rink, and a local skateboard park.  One of our best assets is our sense of community.  People know each other, and our neighbors say hello.  Many of our business owners and employees are Bellevue residents, which further amplifies our sense of community.  We also have beautiful, historic homes and city stairways that showcase breathtaking views of Pittsburgh.

Tell us about the first LGBTQ person you met and what impact they had on your life?

I grew up in Louisiana and Tennessee, in small, rural, religious communities.  As you can imagine, growing up I did not have much exposure to open members of the LGBTQ community.  However, this changed when I enrolled in the theater department at Austin Peay State University, as part of my college curriculum.  I developed many friendships with members of the LGBTQ community while participating in a theater production and dance courses.  I had never experienced such openness and acceptance before, and I learned wonderful lessons in self-acceptance and expression.  These relationships taught me to appreciate everyone for their individuality.

Please tell me about your familiarity with the LGBTQ community in your district and the region.

Much of my familiarity with the LGBTQ community in my district and region is through personal friendships and my pro bono work.

Based on this, what do you understand to be our top LGBTQ concerns and priorities for Bellevue?

Representation in government and community organizations; policies that protect the LGBTQ community, especially LGBTQ youth, and active support to end discrimination.  I want to create safe, inclusive, and welcoming spaces for my LGBTQ neighbors, particularly my young neighbors, who may be facing discrimination, harassment, or worse at school or at home.

Please describe the municipal government of Bellevue. What offices are on the ballot in the 2021 Primary?

Bellevue is a home rule community, governed by its own Mayor and Council.  We have three wards in Bellevue, and each ward elects three council members.  Offices on the 2021 Primary ballot include: School Director of Northgate; Mayor; Tax Collector; Auditor (2 open seats); Councilperson for Ward 1; Councilperson for Ward 2 (2 open seats); Councilperson for Ward 3; Constable; Judge of Election; and Inspector of Election

How have your experiences as a public defender and now in private practice prepared you for a borough council seat? Please give concrete examples.

Bellevue’s council is responsible for enacting rules of law, and as an attorney, I am trained to interpret and apply the law and to recognize when a law or policy is deficient.  Furthermore, through my work as a public defender, I am very aware of the impact government decisions have on individuals, particularly those who are underrepresented or marginalized in a community.  I also have first-hand knowledge of the criminal and civil legal process in Bellevue.  I have represented Bellevue citizens in both criminal and civil matters; I have argued before our magistrate, and I have interacted with our police department.  These experiences give me a unique perspective as a policymaker because I can understand the implications in applying a policy, and I can quickly recognize the varying shades of grey that exist in a policy, even where others might find it straightforward.

Differently, my experience opening my own practice has taught me about being a business owner and specifically, owning a business in the North Boroughs communities (my office is in neighboring Avalon).  I’ve presented before the Zoning Board, applied for permits, and worked with local government in the process of getting my practice started.  This has given me insight into the complexities of starting a business, including headwinds that are created by some of our local policies and procedures.

You offer pro bono services to support LGBTQ folx seeking name changes. Why did you start doing that? What has this work taught you about LGBTQ neighbors?

Pro bono work is not a requirement to maintain your legal license, and that is a shame.  I think providing free legal services to benefit your community is essential.  After learning about a trans friend’s efforts to legally change his first name, I was surprised at how little information and support was publicly available for the LGBTQ community.  In addition to filing the petition, the process also requires scheduling and attending a public hearing, posting public notice, and undergoing a judgment check (much more than what a straight, cis woman might do to change her last name after marriage).  While someone can do this process without legal representation, anyone who wants legal representation throughout this process should not be hindered by cost.

I’ve known a handful of straight cis people who have changed their first or last names for nonmarital reasons, and for someone with those privileges the process might be tedious, but it’s not usually as stressful because it’s not so fundamental to an identity and is not scrutinized by society.  My pro bono clients often have valid apprehension and fears about this process.  Legally changing one’s name should be an exciting, uplifting, hopeful, and ceremonious occasion, not one clouded by uncertainty caused by the legal process or the worry of the perception of others in the courtroom, and my goal is to be a resource and ally for anyone in this position.

I’m not sure I’ve noticed an attorney so prominently advertise “Student Conduct” representation. Please describe that support and why it is necessary.

This body of work arose after I learned about a specific police practice in the middle of Pennsylvania where local law enforcement was (in my opinion) entrapping students alleged of committing petty crimes and coercing these students in to becoming undercover operatives, with false threats of expulsion from the local university.  Though the local law enforcement was not affiliated with the university, and the university had a separate code of conduct, students were taking these “offers” without engaging professionals, or even their parents, out of fear.  Some of the undercover operations these students performed were downright dangerous.

Colleges and universities have codes of conduct that are separate and distinct from the local and state laws, though the types of conduct that can violate these established rules are often the same.  A student charged with a crime, for example a drug offense, may also face a tribunal at his university that follows its own path.  Many times, law enforcement unaffiliated with the university will use false or exaggerated threats of school action to manipulate students in to taking unfavorable deals that can permanently damage that young person’s future.

Prior to the global pandemic, I was traveling to area colleges to inform student groups about the distinctions in codes of conduct and local law and how to navigate collegiate tribunals and police interactions with the goal of empowering young people and equipping them with the knowledge to protect themselves.  When a student has either a code of conduct violation, or has been accused of a crime, I am available to assist with the defense.  I work with students on a reduced fee basis or on a payment plan to make my services as accessible as possible.

You are part of the “NoBo Progressive” slate. Tell us about that coalition and why it matters.

NoBo Progressives is a group of energetic, dedicated, and progressively minded individuals who have a deep sense of community and want to see Bellevue thrive.  NoBos has a strong record of endorsing women and first-time candidates.  Their mission is to advocate and support underrepresented communities, increase funding for public education, promote and fund youth initiatives, and create sustainable growth that resists gentrification.  This mission is shown in their actions in the community and the candidates they endorse.  If you’ve visited Bellevue or Avalon lately, there is a good chance you’ve seen NoBos candidates out collecting litter for proper disposal – this is just one recent example of how NoBos takes nonpolitical action to improve our community.

That slate is very white, with the exception of one candidate that I know of. And his family has been targeted by racist abuse in the past. How do you build a progressive future without BIPOC at the table?

Firstly, I support Val Pennington for Mayor, and I believe Val’s experiences as a community member and councilperson are critical to the success and growth of Bellevue’s government and its ability to provide for the community.  Bellevue cannot build a progressive future without BIPOC at the table, but the table does not have to be stationary in the Borough Building, surrounded only by elected officials.  Each elected official must undertake the responsibly to engage our community members to be sure we are giving a voice to the concerns of BIPOC and taking meaningful action to address those concerns.  Bellevue must embrace its diversity and include all members of our community if we want to create a welcoming, respectful, and progressive neighborhood.

How does intersectionality inform your work?

Recognizing and understanding my clients’ intersectionality is critical to my role as an advocate.  Much of my work is in criminal defense, and I regularly witness the systemic, unconscious, and conscious biases my clients face due to various minority statuses.  As a cis, straight, white male I make every effort to use my privileges to advocate for those facing discrimination, fighting to ensure the judicial system treats people fairly.  As a councilperson, I will look for the ways our systems create or inflate inequalities and work to reduce these harms.

Bellevue is known for an emerging progressive base and for a slew of local business owners who are proud Trump supporters. What does this dialectal opposition tell us about the community?

Bellevue has room for growth and constructive conversation, and it’s the role of the community government to advance these conversations where possible.  Growing up in rural, conservative communities, I am very aware of a fear of change that permeates this demographic.  As an advocate for progressive policies, it’s my job to understand why certain members of my community may be apprehensive about progressive change and work to demonstrate the benefits of inclusion, diversity, and open-mindedness.

In 2015, Bellevue went from a dry community to permitting the sale of alcohol. How has that change impacted the community?

My wife and I moved to Bellevue in 2016, so I do not have personal experiences with the town being dry; but since we have lived in Bellevue, our downtown business district has welcomed several new restaurants with liquor licenses, and our existing restaurants were able to expand their offerings to attract new patronage.  I recognize that increasing the availability of alcohol can have negative side effects, especially given Bellevue hosts addiction rehabilitation services.  But I think our community benefits from increasing patronage of our businesses, and I want the Bellevue business district to be a destination for our community and neighbors.

Why did you ask me to complete this Q&A?

I first learned about Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents after becoming a fan of the Northside Cat Ladies’ work, and I have found your political Q&As to be a great resource when learning about likeminded candidates.  I knew you would ask me important questions that would require me to be honest and thoughtful in what I know and where I need to continue to grow and learn.  Thank you for this opportunity.

Tell me about your endorsements and supporters.

I am endorsed by NoBo Progressives.  My brood of rescue pets also think I’m great.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

I believe in restorative justice, third chances, sustainability, restoration over consumerism, and increasing my impact by reducing my footprint.  I think every creature on this earth has value and deserves respect.  I welcome any questions or conversation about my campaign, my platform and personal beliefs, and my passion for native mushroom identification.

Where can readers find your campaign on social media? How can they donate to your campaign?

I am not personally soliciting campaign donations, but donations to NoBo Progressives PAC can be made at https://www.noboprogressives.com/donate

Facebook: www.facebook.com/Robert-Disney-for-Councilperson-101229082061616/

Thank you, Robert.


 

Other Q&A’s in this election cycle series. You can read previous cycle Q&A’s here.

  1. Q&A With Bill Peduto, Mayor of the City of Pittsburgh
  2. Q&A With Ed Gainey, Candidate for Mayor City of Pittsburgh
  3. Q&A With Raymond Robinson, Candidate for Magisterial District Judge 05-02-42
  4. Q&A with Bethani Cameron, Candidate for City Council District 4
  5. Q&A with Hilary Wheatley Taylor, Candidate for Magisterial District Judge for District 05-2-19
  6. Q&A with Connor Mulvaney, Candidate for City Council District 4
  7. Q&A with Judge Derwin Rushing, Candidate for Magisterial District Judge 5-2-40
  8. Q&A with Alyssa Cowan, Candidate for Court of Common Pleas Judge
  9. Q&A with Anita Prizio, Allegheny County Councilor District 3
  10. Q&A With Tiffany Sizemore, Candidate for Judge, Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge
  11. Q&A with Robert Disney, Candidate for Bellevue Borough Council

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