Rafael Espinal: the Bear and the Unicorn

Brian Jones Kraft


Is Rafael Espinal a hipster or something?

It’s not just the beard, the 35-year-old city councilman, who sports tattoos of Strokes lyrics (what did you think of Comedown Machine, Raf?) and a Jean-Michel Basquiat quote, and counts among his supporters “Requiem for a Dream” director Darren Aronofsky and one of the Ramones, is in many ways a man of his time and place.

Fundraisers for his public advocate candidacy have taken place at trendy locales like Roberta’s and House of Yes, and fights for various party related rights have occupied his policy concerns as well- his successful efforts to establish an Office of Nightlife and repealed the New York Cabaret Law (the absurd, century old anti-dancing regulation with racist and homophobic roots) have earned him appearances in fashionable outlets like The Fader. The coverage extended to last fall, when the New York Times photographed Espinal for a profile documenting him at his favorite local haunts- a piece led with a neon splashed portrait of the councilman next to a life sized stuffed polar bear, an image of a hipster politician Derek Zoolander could get behind.

Espinal’s public advocate run finds him competing with a slew of local candidates a mid-winter special election to replace outgoing Public Advocate Letitia James, who is now the new state attorney general. The position is a kind of watchdog Vice Mayor position, the exact level of usefulness of which is the subject of some debate.

Via Espinal’s Instagram.

While a Public Advocate can introduce legislation and file lawsuits, the fact that it’s next in the line of succession after mayor—Bill de Blasio himself is a former public advocate—gives it a reputation as a temptingly cushy gig waiting for the right kind of ambitious careerist to use as a springboard into further power. As such, the race is so strewn with colorful, sometimes asterisk studded candidates, it starts to seem like one of those old ensemble comedies, where a bunch of character actors drive cross country looking to outmaneuver each other in search of a suitcase with a million dollars in it.

Though no one has been willing to cop to coveting the mayoralty—at one event Councilman and candidate Jumaane Williams got out of his chair and sat on the ground when a reporter asked the candidates to stand if they desired the position—a more awkward stumbling block emerged when it came to the subject of real estate money. Called out by candidate Nomiki Konst on his seemingly half-assed adherence to a Communities for Change pledge he took last fall against accepting money from real estate interests, Williams responded, “Every single person on this stage has received money from someone associated with real estate. That’s just the truth.”

In this respect Espinal is no different. Data from 2013 lists real estate industry donations to his earlier campaigns somewhere in the tens of thousands, and the New York City Campaign Finance Board documents list more recent real estate industry related donations, some from familiar industry names like Katrina Peebles and Boaz Gilad.

Other names of groups that have donated to Espinal, Friends of Vito Lopez and Citizens for Dilan, are reminders of his political origins. Martin Dilan was the former Bushwick State Senator who took hundreds of thousands in real estate money over the course of his career before his primary defeat last fall to Julia Salazar. Espinal began his career as an aide to Martin Dilan’s son Erik, while the latter served on City Council.

Martin Dilan, courtesy of Tom Hemmerick.

Espinal’s political ancestry as a descendent of the López/Dilan machine is a smattering of small time controversies: he and the younger Dilan took some side eye in 2014 for playing political “musical chairs,” when Espinal was elected to the council seat Dilan had previously occupied, and Dilan took the State Assembly seat Espinal had held.

When running for that State Assembly seat in 2011, Espinal was criticized for accepting numerous contributions from Jay Wartski, a notorious slumlord with a long history of tenant harassment and abuse. “My job is to campaign. I don’t screen every dollar that I receive,” he said at the time; donations from Wartski seem to have gone on until 2013.

Press from that time period paints a different picture of a younger, more beardless politician starting to feel his political oats. A Gotham Gazette article references a “nervous and almost agitated” Espinal at a debate, as well as a controversy surrounding a campaign staffer named Olmeda, who was improperly on the payroll of both Espinal’s campaign and Dilan’s staff. Olmeda promised Espinal they would “walk out” of an interview if asked about the then candidate’s endorsement by the Conservative Party and “things everyone has been asking about.” Espinal had some roots with the Conservative Party before, as one member put it, “full boat moving to the other side.”

There’s also the weird matter of an incident from that campaign regarding an Espinal mailer that was found to have a used a doctored photo with messages on signs held by a small crowd of protestors, including kids, photographed with the candidate, while protesting a men’s shelter being opened in their neighborhood. However, the doctored signs were not related to protesting the shelter, they read “Need more jobs” and “Bloomberg don’t cut my job.” When confronted, Espinal claimed no knowledge of the alteration and the angry protestors were told to contact “the public relations office.”

Were these results of what Espinal once described as the “Master’s Degree in politics” he had gotten from Erik Dilan?

Via Espinal’s Instagram: “One of the most affordable / environmentally friendly buildings in the city is coming to #ENY.”

If this Machine era chicanery juxtaposes awkwardly with his current image as The Man Who Saved Dancing, a more complicated legacy may lie in his involvement with the East New York Neighborhood Plan. In 2016, Espinal was heavily involved in drawing up the deal for the rezoning of the poverty stricken neighborhood, widely considered to be next on the gentrification chopping block, and the first of fifteen different areas across the city to be rezoned under Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing plan.

Though Espinal helped negotiate what ended up being hundreds of millions for parks, schools and a community center for the area he grew up in, it was still criticized by groups like Communities for Change for falling short on affordable housing. At one point protesters rallied outside the politician’s office with fake $100 bills bearing Espinal’s face, demanding he return donations from real estate interests.

While the final deal was considered pretty impressive stuff by some, one council member crowed about the “unicorn deal” and Espinal was lauded by the New York Times Editorial Board for his “courage.” The gulf between the praise heaped on by establishment voices, and the dissent from community boards, advocacy groups and the lone City Council vote against it, is striking.

“Before, they at least lived in the second of two cities,” said the Coalition for Community Advancement about the third of East New York residents left out of the East New York Plan for affordable housing, “the one far away from all the milk and honey hoarded in skyscraping silos; now they simply have no New York City as there no will longer be an affordable place for them here.”

One year later, tenants are still being harassed, rents are rising, and we still have a rezoning plan that will not create affordable units for the people of East New York.

Even Espinal himself seemed to qualify the exact amount of unicorn-ness, at one point portraying the deal as a perhaps inadequate, but necessary safeguard against the inevitable forces of the free market.

“I agree that we should find ways to create more affordability in these plans, but the position I was in at the time, it wasn’t feasible,” he told Gotham Gazette in 2017, pointing to Bushwick as an area that suffered from too much gentrification as a result of the lack of zoning regulations. “One year later, tenants are still being harassed, rents are rising, and we still have a rezoning plan that will not create affordable units for the people of East New York,” said a representative of Communities for Change in the same article.

The past few years have found Espinal carving a seemingly more unblemished progressive path in local politics. In addition to his much publicized nightlife advocacy, (which admittedly might not impress longtime residents to whom the neighborhood’s reputation as a hot spot comes as a bane, and has earned its own donation related criticism) recent legislation he passed has helped protect small business owners whose signage had been targeted by a mysterious wave of 311 calls, and he recently introduced a “right to disconnect” bill intended to help workers from being required to answer emails from employers outside of work hours.

His push to ban plastic straws is a work in progress, and while such bans occasionally take criticism as the stuff clueless corporate Democrats push instead of tackling more systemic issues, Espinal’s green concerns are admirably wider ranging. He has advocated for designs to green the city’s rooftops, get rid of more single use plastics, and for electric buses. As Espinal will remind you, North Brooklyn has some of the worst air quality in the city.

Via Espinal’s Instagram: “Gotta have my aluminum alternative straw on hand.”

He is also one of the public advocate candidates who didn’t sign the letter to Amazon head Jeff Bezos last year personally welcoming the company’s Long Island City grab, putting him on the right side of what looks like a legitimate people’s victory against the unwelcome corporate behemoth. January found him at a rally against that proposed deal, and last summer he blasted a proposed luxury building that was to go up on DeKalb Avenue at an event organized by several community groups. (No word on if anyone’s signs got changed for any campaign literature this time.)

In December, Espinal attempted to align himself with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), saying in a statement: “from being a leading advocate for the environment to being the first NYC official to endorse Bernie Sanders in 2016, I think it’s clear that my views have been more aligned with the DSA,” joining Jumaane Williams in the rank of candidates who have sought the party’s endorsement.

However, certain aspects of his history would seem to contrast with, for example, the recently inaugurated Julia Salazar, whose own Let’s Clean Shop style messaging from Albany seems to mirror fellow DSA success Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s impressive social media offensive, and who recently stated on her Facebook in no uncertain terms: “Elected officials have no business taking money from real estate developers.” (Perhaps she felt the need to clarify the point after endorsing Williams for Public Advocate over fellow Democratic Socialist Konst earlier in the year.)

While the extent of the American Socialist Revolution remains to be seen, statistics indicate a hunger from a Trump fatigued American public for leftist policies, and moves at alignment from figures like Williams and Espinal could be construed as encouraging or opportunist. In the meantime the hard left will have to engage in another time honored hipster ritual: figuring out who the posers are.

Cover image courtesy of Tom Hemmerick.

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