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The Bitter Fight for Brooklyn's City Council Seat is Complicated by Coronavirus — News on Bushwick Daily

The Bitter Fight for Brooklyn's City Council Seat is Complicated by Coronavirus

The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the election for Rafael Espinal’s seat until June but the candidates are still running and "politics is still alive and well in Brooklyn"


Candidates from left to right: Kimberly Council, Rick Echevarria, Sandy Nurse, Darma Diaz, and Misba Abdin


Darma Diaz has been keeping busy on Facebook. When a Brooklyn resident told her in the comments section of a status update, that they knew someone who was sick with COVID-19 earlier last week, Diaz immediately told them to give her a call. When someone else asked if there would be any delivery service for fruits and vegetables in East New York, Diaz instructed her to DM her directly. Her personal page has become a small map of how the pandemic has touched the motley collection of north and central Brooklyn neighborhoods that make up the New York City Council’s 37th District.

In the midst of the current shutdown and behind the walls of doors that now only open for emergencies, there is an election happening in Brooklyn. And Diaz wants to win. She is a central figure among the collection of political personalities who have crowded the race to fill an unoccupied seat on the New York City Council.

The candidates are racing to replace Rafael Espinal on the New York City Council, after he stepped down earlier this year. (courtesy of the City Council's office.)

Until earlier this year, it was the seat of Rafael Espinal, a tall and charismatic figure who worked to ally himself with the new Bushwick set. His six years in office were marked by popular stances against gentrification, the use of plastic straws and various gestures aimed at the new bars and restaurants that had opened in the neighborhood, like the repeal of a Prohibition-era anti-dancing law and the establishment of a Night Mayor, a hot trend in 2017.

This was not enough to make an impression on the city, it appears. A bid for Public Advocate landed him in seventh place and the councilman was quick to abandon a follow-up run for Brooklyn Borough President early this year.  His plan to rezone East New York was applauded by city hall wonks and became a model for rezoning much of the nearby neighborhoods of Brooklyn, but residents protested. This was enough for Espinal, and he accepted a position as the head of the national Freelancer’s Union, a trade group that sells health insurance to independent contractors and which had offered Espinal its top slot.

The sudden move took some of Espinal’s staffers by surprise, but it didn’t surprise Diaz, who announced her candidacy the very next day. Endorsements by Espinal and Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte, the new Democratic Party Chair for Kings County, quickly followed.

Diaz had put her years in with the borough’s Democratic Party. As one of the top two Democratic leaders in Bichotte’s state assembly district, she used the spot to avidly support Bichotte’s bid last year to run the party. In City & State, Jeff Coltin mused that Diaz’s race had become “an early test for the new Brooklyn boss.”

Photo of Darma Diaz from the candidates instagram   

But the current COVID-19 pandemic means that Diaz is knocking on fewer doors. Her days are filled, she says, by her caseload at a Brooklyn homeless shelter, among the narrow number of jobs deemed “essential” by city and state leaders. In addition to managing cases, Diaz also runs Overcoming Love Ministries, a faith-based nonprofit that was established in 1999 in partnership with the city’s Department of Homeless Services.

“This is Dora Diaz, the resourceful person who delves into crisis mode, and I’ve been doing that for years,” Diaz tells Bushwick Daily by phone in between cases.

Alone among the candidates, Diaz was alarmed by Governor's Curmo’s order last week to move the first election date to June 23rd. Bklyner reported last month that she was hesitant to call for the delay and had deferred the choice to Mayor DeBlasio and Cuomo.

One of the candidates, Darma Diaz, uses Facebook to connect with resident about COVID-19 related shortages.  

“It’s scary to me,” she says. “I don’t know what’s to come and every day that the seat is vacant there’s that much more of a need for me.”

Diaz says that other districts have been getting a greater share of city resources to deal with the current crisis. Like any crisis, this one hits vulnerable populations, like the homeless, viciously. The City reports last week that “confirmed infections of people with ties to the city shelter system are rising.”

Says Diaz: “You go into other communities...and what’s coming in there from the Food Bank and from City Harvest is much more than what I’m seeing within the 37th.”

Currently, the district’s services are managed by the City Council's office, which is run by Speaker Corey Johnson, a councilman who represents the west side of Manhattan. Diaz says that she has not yet spoken to Johnson. On TV last week, we could hear Johnson tell MSNBC: "We still have not got the necessary supplies that we need. We've gotten a drip, we've gotten a trickle but we've not gotten the ventilators we need. This is life and death.”

But still an election rumbles on. Diaz’s rivals have accused her campaign of using the impressive resources of the Brooklyn Democratic Party to ruthlessly challenge their competing slots on the now-June ballot. This is a kind of standard play in New York City politics: who wouldn’t mind nudging the odds a little bit more in their favor? The longstanding logic, writes Coltin in City & State, is that “competitors looking for an easier chance at victory police each other hard.”

Other candidates do not, however, think these are ordinary times.

“They’re moving forward with these [elections], despite the fact that they know that they’re putting civil servants at risk,” Sandy Nurse tells Bushwick Daily, calling the efforts “beyond ordinary and deeply opportunistic and deeply undemocratic.”

Sandy Nurse on Feb 27 stumping with NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer

Nurse, one of Diaz’s rivals, argues on behalf of the bureaucrats who now have to leave their homes to handle the back-and-forth paperwork of the special election. She cites the recent deaths of officials in Manhattan from coronavirus complications, like Kevin Thomas Duffy, a federal judge in Manhattan who died last week. A reporter for NY1, the local cable news channel, reports last week that two employees at the New York City Board of Elections also died of COVID-19. At least 10 employees have tested positive for the illness, he reports.

Rival Sandy Nurse calls the Diaz's campaign's petition challenges "absolutely disgusting" on Twitter.

If Diaz was able to quickly establish herself as the establishment candidate, Nurse had been just as quick to declare herself the Progressive challenger, abandoning her primary race with the DSA’s Boris Santos for Erik Dilan’s seat in the New York Assembly. The move “played” well: Santos’s former boss, the recognizable State Senator Julia Salazar, immediately gave Nurse her endorsement, and was joined by Antonio Reynoso, a city councilman from an adjoining district, and Nydia Velázquez, a Congresswoman whose district straddles lower Manhattan and nearby corners of Brooklyn.

The rivalry with Diaz gives the election the partisan flavor of today’s New York City politics and searches for the signifiers of previous contests between newcomers and shoe-ins: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Joe Crowley, Julia Salazar and Martin Malave Dilan. While Diaz put in her time working with the city and the Democratic Party and advises others to do the same, Nurse clocked her time standing next to Occupy Wall Street protesters and later went on to be involved in founding the Mayday Space, a local den of anti-gentrification meetings and, more recently, efforts to foil ICE raids. Where Diaz tells concerned residents to message her on Facebook, Nurse’s following on Twitter handsomely dwarfs Diaz’s and she uses it to both clown on popular villains like the Trump Administration's Jared Kushner and communicate her election concerns. (“Some people want power literally at any cost. It’s absolutely disgusting,” Nurse tweets, in reference to the ballot challenges.)

But aesthetic differences between the campaigns do not belie hard and fast differences in policy, and those can appear in stark relief in the current coronavirus pandemic and corresponding economic shutdown. Take the notion of a rent suspension, an idea that gained traction at the end of last month and that Nurse had quickly endorsed. Diaz thinks that’s the wrong conversation entirely.

“A lot of my friends and neighbors are in the same situation: if the tenants are not able to pay their rent and the landlord doesn’t have enough in savings, where are we?” Diaz asked.

“Just because you’re a homeowner, it doesn’t mean you’re a millionaire.”

Nurse now hosts campaign events digitally through the video platform Zoom. They focus on juxtaposing trendy issues next the current coronavirus pandemic. Interested voters can register to participate through a link on her Instagram page.   

Campaigning has not stopped for Nurse either. Run by New Deal Strategies, a political consulting firm (“At New Deal, we only work for campaigns, causes, and leaders we truly believe in, even if – especially if – they're not favored by the establishment,” the website reads), they command a small army of volunteers who diligently phone bank from home, a strategy also being used by the Sanders presidential campaign. The tenor of these phone calls have changed, Nurse says.

“We’re not really campaigning. We’re calling people and we let them know who is calling but have casual conversations and [ask them] how are you doing? Are you able to work from home? How is it going to be working from home and do you to need childcare?” Nurse says.

“We’re committed to providing connection.”

In lieu of speeches and rallies, Nurse uses the platform Zoom to host what her campaign calls “webinars”: Q&As once a week with surrogates that relate smart issues among the left set with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and that interested voters can attend, digitally. Last week was "Food Security & Corona" with Onika Abraham, the director of a group called Farm School NYC--a nonprofit that advocates for urban agriculture--and Keith Carr, who works as a “Healthy Neighborhoods Manager” for City Harvest, a nonprofit all about food waste. This week: “Corona & The Impacts on the Incarcerated & Detained.” Interested participants can register through a link on her Instagram page.

Other candidates, less endorsed, continue pursuing votes in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s Misba Abdin, for instance, a Bangladeshi-American businessman from East New York who told Gothamist in February that “there’s more people getting shot here than in a Middle East war.” In the most recent filings, Abdin had raised $22,985, almost double Nurse's haul of $13,828 during the same time period.

On Facebook, Abdin has been vigorously denying rumors, started allegedly by a cousin, that he had contracted COVID-19. The Abdin campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Or take Rick Echevarrí: a former city official who tells Bushwick Daily that he’s competing with Nurse for the nod as the race’s Progressive candidate. Echevarría’s time in City Hall was tough: one of DeBlasio’s Deputy Commissioners, Anne-Marie Hendrickson, had released him in 2016 after, Echevarría said at the time, he refused to sign one of the city-subsidized apartments over to someone who lived in West Virginia but was related to someone else in one of the city’s legal departments.

City Council Candidate Rick Echevarria

This is not an uncommon experience in DeBlasio’s New York, where the city’s own investigator of corruption would, himself, also get fired. Echevarría sued, hoping that this issue would catch steam among the many misdeeds that hang over today’s city hall as a kind of ambient fugue, but later settled. “I have a family to feed, so I settled. It wasn’t a lot of money, but I settled,” he tells Bushwick Daily.

Hendrickson would later be fined $6,000 for taking tickets to a Yankees game from a fellow who ran one of the insurance companies that the city’s housing department used. But she still works for DeBlasio. And Echevarría says that DeBlasio’s hands can be felt hanging over the election for the City Council’s 37th District, like those of a shadowy puppeteer.

“I would say he’s covering both,” Echevarría says of the Diaz and Nurse campaigns.

“What he prefers is a black-and-white scenero, where it’s just 'the progressive' running against ‘the machine,’ ‘cause he can’t lose,” remarks Echevarría. He points at the consulting firm running Nurse’s campaign: it’s the post-DeBlasio project of Rebecca Katz, a close confidante of Mr. DeBlasio. (“The fifth member of our immediate family,” the mayor called Katz in the New York Times.)

But campaigning is not about winning, it is about campaigning. It is about, as Nurse says, connection, on scale. Echevarría moved to use the money from his campaign to fund something he calls the “CD 37 Taskforce For COVID-19 Prevention,” which, he says, has taken up the issue of price gouging among retailers. It was an early peg of the current crisis: a lurid tale of a pair of Tennessee price-gouging brothers had appeared on the front page of the New York Times and was the talk of a weekend.

Echevarría had authored his own story. A manifesto--“Our Government Can And Must End Wholesale Price Gouging”--appeared on the website Bklyner last week.

“To think that [the city] could speak to 10 or 15 large scale resellers across the city that sell Lysol and tell them to stop gouging and it would stop and the city hasn’t done that yet? What the fuck is going on?” Echevarría asks Bushwick Daily.

A valuable question, ever applicable. Kimberly Council, another candidate, is a former librarian at a BigLaw firm called Sullivan & Cromwell who then turned minister at the Berean Baptist Church in Crown Heights and had been Espinal’s most successful opponent in the 2013 election. What exactly does she think is going on? In an online missive aimed at her supporters last week, Council said of Diaz’s efforts: “I won't sugarcoat this message. My opponent is trying to bully me off the ballot.”

Council has a small army herself: about twenty volunteers who are busy making phone calls on her behalf, but these are hard conversations. “It’s very difficult, right now, to make a phone call and ask someone to make a contribution to you when they don’t know where their next paycheck is coming from,” Council says. 

She is happy that the election was moved to June: turnout would have been lower in the midst of a pandemic, she says.

During a break between putting together little bags full of daily nutrition for senior citizens in the nearby neighborhood, part of the church’s move to create a mobile pantry in the wake of the pandemic and the shut down, she reminds Bushwick Daily: “politics is still alive and well in Brooklyn.”


Top photos courtesy of campaign websites.

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