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Bushwick Candidates Focused on Housing: Who is Who

Bushwick is divided between the 34th and the 37th Council districts

Bushwick is divided between the 34th and the 37th Council districts.

Bushwick is divided between the 34th and the 37th Council districts. (Screenshot courtesy of the city Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications) [All photos by Tobias Salinger]

When the moderator warned local City Council candidate Antonio Reynoso that he had exhausted the three minutes allotted for his opening statement at a candidate forum on Tuesday night, he wrapped up his spiel. But one critic in the audience interjected that he had spoken far too long.

“He had six minutes, I timed it,” said State Senator Martin Malavé Dilan, clearing the way for a couple of his allies to address the crowd of three dozen people.

About three dozen people sat on folding chairs in the stifling auditorium of St. Brigid Academy as five local candidates discussed everything from reproductive health to rats.

The North Brooklyn lawmaker is one of several powerful people wielding influence on local elections in Bushwick, a dynamic around factions and campaign cash that swirled around a substantive housing discussion at St. Brigid Catholic Academy auditorium featuring five of Bushwick’s 11 Council and State Assembly hopefuls. Influential and nonpartisan local priest Father James Kelly decided to organize a forum covering a variety of issues because he’s worried area residents are not paying enough attention to local elections.

St. Brigid priest Father James Kelly lays out the rules and rationale.

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“The reason for it is to encourage some sense of participation, because it’s all null and void,” said Father Kelly, who has served at St. Brigid for 53 years. “Normally they don’t even know whose running.”

Though political observers are sizing up the hopefuls based on their connections to competing neighborhood pols like former Assemblyman Vito Lopez, U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez, Councilwoman Diana Reyna and the Dilans, the forum demonstrated that real policy differences also divide the candidates.

 

District 37

City Council candidate Kim Council addresses the forum audience as her opponent, Assemblyman Rafael Espinal, and Assembly hopeful Charvey Gonzalez listen.

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District 37 runs from the eastern half of Bushwick through parts of Bed-Stuy and East New York and into Cypress Hills. Current Councilman Erik Martin Dilan, the son of State Sen. Dilan, is term-limited from office, and church leader Kim Council, Assemblyman Rafael Espinal, former math teacher Helal Sheikh, and City Commission on Human Rights staffer Heriberto Mateo are vying to replace him. Though neither Sheikh nor Mateo were in attendance, the two candidates with the most support—Espinal and Council—were there.

City Council candidate and current Assemblyman Rafael Espinal delivers his closing statement.

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Espinal, 29, a Cypress Hills native who recently helped students paint the IS 291 building, worked as Dilan’s chief of staff at the City Council until he was elected to the Assembly in 2011. He has received over $109,000 worth of mail ads and leaflets from the Real Estate Board of New York-funded political action committee with the catchy name: Jobs for New York. But he used his time at the forum to talk about his work funding neighborhood improvements and his position that property owners could offer more affordable housing to people if they had fewer taxes to pay.

“Home owners are being killed by water bills; home owners are being killed by property taxes; and tenants are getting the brunt of it,” said Espinal.

His competitor is running for office for the first time and Council, 41, has raised about half as much as Jobs for New York has already spent for Espinal, according to the city Campaign Finance Board. But the ordained Baptist minister who picked up a maximum contribution from Velázquez is hoping that her background working as a vice president of the East New York Housing Development Corporation during her off time as a law librarian in Manhattan will win voters over. Council, who said she supports setting aside more apartments to be affordable, noted she would also like to require developers to make them more so.

“What they currently define as affordable and what we define as affordable are two different things,” said Council.

Council candidate Helal Sheikh’s sound trailer boosts his name recognition on Myrtle Avenue despite his absence at the forum later that night.

Bangladesh native and East New York resident Sheikh, 39, did not come to the event, but his campaign was in evidence a couple blocks away. A trailer plastered with Sheikh flyers and parked beneath the JMZ tracks on Myrtle Avenue blared a recording of him imploring people to vote for him. In a prior interview, he said he would work on whatever his constituents wanted him to if he is elected.

“Whatever their priority, I will work on it and I’ll find out what they need,” said Sheikh. “I’ll go from there.”

Mateo, like Sheikh, also did not attend a previous forum for candidates in Cypress Hills.

 

District 34

City Council candidate Gladys Santiago motions toward her opponent Antonio Reynoso during remarks at the candidate forum at the St. Brigid Academy auditorium.

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District 34 contains the western half of Bushwick, East Williamsburg and parts of Ridgewood. Reyna currently occupies the seat, and her former chief of staff, Reynoso, is going up against Lopez, who resigned from the Assembly last May amid well-documented accusations he harassed his female staffers. A former home health aide named Gladys Santiago and Humberto Soto, the president of Williamsburg’s Puerto Rican State Parade and Festival, have also entered the race. Only Reynoso and Santiago attended the forum.

 City Council hopeful Antonio Reynoso takes his turn to talk policy during the forum.

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Reynoso, 30, who started his political career as an ACORN organizer, has the support of his former boss and Velázquez, along with a host of city dignitaries. He made the case on Tuesday that his time as Reyna’s chief of staff makes him best equipped to deliver to the community, and he also said he would like to adjust the proportions governing what percentage of units are affordable in new buildings.

“I would love to push the City Council to make it mandatory for any developer creating housing to set aside at least 10 percent for affordable housing,” said Reynoso. “If there’s a rezoning, I think it should be 30 percent.”

Reynoso’s adversary Lopez has been working on housing in Bushwick for three decades, following his first election to the Assembly in 1984. Over the years, Lopez, 72, has pushed for tax subsidies to encourage the building of affordable units, steered funding for innovative housing programs and installed quality senior facilities around Bushwick. During his tenure as chairman of the Housing Committee, Lopez rose to become leader of the Brooklyn Democratic party. While the disturbing reports on his advances toward women might make him infamous in other districts, Lopez is depending on his long-term accomplishments to carry greater weight with his constituents.

“They see the apartments, the nursing homes, the youth center and they go there,” said Lopez in an interview earlier this month. “That’s something that they know.”

Although Santiago, 57, is at a severe fundraising disadvantage, she has no intention of dropping out. She says she once won an election for a district leader position using just the change she had stored in a large water cooler. On Tuesday night, Santiago said she supports transitioning homeless people into their own apartments.

“We need to build more housing, but first of all, the ones we have, we need to put people in the community in the affordable housing,” said Santiago. “We have a lot of people living in the shelters.”

Soto did not attend the forum.

Assembly District 53

Assembly candidate Charvey Gonzalez poses with his boss, State Sen. Martin Malavé Dilan, following the candidate forum at the St. Brigid Academy auditorium.

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Bushwick and East Williamsburg are part of the 53rd Assembly district, the area formerly represented by Lopez. Of the three candidates bidding to replace him—Charvey Gonzalez, legislative director in Sen. Dilan’s office; Jason Otaño, former counsel to Borough President Marty Markowitz; and Maritza Davila, director of entitlements at the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council—only Gonzalez appeared at the forum.

Gonzalez, a former Marine who remembered the auditorium from his days drilling there as a child cadet, has received a maximum donation from his boss and $500 contributions from the Rent Stabilization Association and Neighborhood Preservation PAC, political action committees for landlords, according to the State Campaign Finance Board. But the 32-year-old Bushwick native focused on keeping affordable units intact in his remarks Tuesday.

“There seems to be an epidemic where affordable housing, as soon as it becomes vacant, shoots up to market rate,” said Gonzalez.

Gonzalez’s opponent Otaño has outpaced both the other candidates in fundraising to create a $60,000 cushion. The 34-year-old decided to get into politics following the 1994 death of an unarmed Bronx man who was killed in a fight with police officers, and he’s received endorsements from Reyna, Velázquez and the Working Families Party. He said in a previous interview that, if elected, he would work to repeal the 1971 law that prohibits the city from passing rent control laws that are stronger than those of the state, as well as push for greater enforcement of tenant protections in this quickly gentrifying district.

“What we’re dealing with is unscrupulous landlords who seek to take advantage of what’s going on around them,” said Otaño.

 Retired teacher Maureen Murphy directs forum participants in her role as moderator.

The third candidate in the Assembly race, Davila, 49, is known for her narrow defeat against Reyna in the 2009 Council election, but she may not be as well-known for helping to create the lovely green space off Jefferson Street and Irving Avenue known informally as “Super’s Garden.” She’s worked for Ridgewood Bushwick since 1990, and she remains a strong Lopez supporter, due in part to the 2,000 units of low-income housing created by her organization in the neighborhood. She said in an earlier interview that interactions between new and old residents enrich Bushwick.

“We have a good mix of people in our community,” said Davila. “And that’s something we need to embrace.”

Area voters will be flipping levers for two respective candidates from this all-Democratic field in the primaries on Sept. 10 and the general election on Nov. 5. If you haven’t registered, it’s too late to vote in the primary election (or the probable mayoral runoff), but you can register for the general election up until midnight on Oct. 11. You can also verify your registration status at the State Board of Elections website and check your polling place through the city Board of Elections.

 

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