On a recent sunny morning in late May, Rafael Espinal took his cold brew coffee with a splash of milk, as he always does, in the neighborhood he represents in Brooklyn. But noticeably, he is sure to take it without a lid or straw – as the day prior he introduced legislation proposing to ban plastic straws in New York City.
“It’s an easy way to help New Yorkers realize the impact that consumption and dependence on plastic has on the environment,” the young councilman said of his most recent proposal, “It’s a simple transition that we can all make.”
This initiative, which will go to a public hearing in late June, is just one of many progressive pieces of legislation Espinal has pushed in recent years.
The 34-year-old from Cypress Hills, who now represents District 37, was behind the bill that reversed New York City’s long-standing Cabaret Law, which banned dancing in New York City bars.
Before that he was the force behind legislation called “The Right to Disconnect” which prevents employers from contacting workers at certain times of the day. “It’s about how technology is bleeding into our daily lives and making a lot of us work our entire day,” he explained, wearing a pressed white button-up shirt and tie, having just come from early meetings at City Hall himself. “I think the energy that’s going on now politically is helping me craft my message and get things done that I think will impact millennials in the future,” he continued.
But before Espinal started thinking big about ways New York could be a leader in progressive politics, he was just the middle child of six, growing up in Cypress Hills, “off the J-train” he notes.
In fact, he had no real ambitions towards politics. At the age of 23, he was working a temporary job for a then city councilman, Erik Dilan who is now in the State Assembly.
“I was only working for the councilman because I was doing odd jobs while I was applying to grad school” said Espinal – a path similar to many of his millennial cohorts who graduated college around the 2008 recession.
Espinal planned to pursue an MFA in screenwriting at NYU , not seek out politics. But he flubbed the paperwork and got a rejection letter just in time for inspiration to strike.
Working for Dilan, Espinal got a call from a concerned father in Williamsburg. His daughter had been experiencing extreme bullying in a local high school, and as a result stopped attending. The family needed help cutting through red tape to transfer her to another school. Espinal became the point-person who made this happen in Dilan’s office.
After succeeding at moving the student, about six months later the grateful father reached out to Espinal. “He called me to say ‘hey Rafael, I never really got to thank you for what you did with my daughter, she’s now back in school’” Espinal recalled the conversation, “If you ever decide to run for office one day, you’ll have my support.”
This was the first person ever to express political support for Espinal. “I took that with a grain of salt,” he shrugged, now nearly a decade into his political career.
But that planted a seed and soon Dilan, his then boss, saw Espinal’s potential and encouraged him to run for office as well.
“[That support] was kind of like a carrot he put in front of me,” Espinal said. “Kind of a validator…to have that person tell you that was a path into politics, it was something I couldn’t ignore.”
In 2011, Dilan moved up to the State Assembly and encouraged Espinal to run for his Councilman seat.
As a then 26-year-old, Espinal says he was already painted as the establishment candidate because of his work with Dilan. Still he won by 500 votes.
“When I first ran for office I had two goals. One was to improve my community and two, get younger people like myself to get involved in politics,” Espinal said.
To that end, he says his first major win in city politics was a housing plan for East New York, his former neighborhood, which at the time had the highest rate of unemployment in the city. The plan included over a quarter-million-dollars worth of investments into the community.
“The reason I ran for office…I wanted the opportunity to work on the inside and deliver as much funds and necessary rubrics to the community that I never saw when I was growing up,” he said.
And so, when Espinal initially ran for office he thought his entire political career would be devoted to issues of crumbling infrastructure in his neighborhood. But within his first term, the Mayor decided to sign-on to Espinal’s plan for East New York.
Now, nearly ten years later, he is working in Bushwick to make a similar plan for development to present to the Mayor.
He thinks that the biggest issue for Bushwick’s growth as an equitable neighborhood, are zoning laws – or lack thereof.
“[Zoning in Bushwick] is unregulated in that there’s no structure on where developers can and cannot go” Espinal explained, sitting in a coffee shop next door to a glass and black concrete building under construction, advertising retail and new residences in 2018.
“For example” he continued, “in other neighborhoods, you have brownstone lined blocks where you’re not able to build… in Bushwick, you can, zoning has no caps here.”
He and a local group have been working on a plan to fix this for the past four years and they hope to present a plan to the Mayor sometime this summer.
“That means capping development on side streets,” he said. “We need development to create more affordable housing, but look at the bigger avenues to like Wyckoff and Knickerbocker, Myrtle, where you can create development without disturbing the entire community.”
In the future, Espinal’s dream legislation for the New York is to pass a bill that would “green every rooftop in the city”.
In his vision he hopes New York goes from “concrete jungle to the green-urban jungle.” He thinks it would created opportunities for farming, “access to fruits and vegetables, access to greener space,” he said, “but also it would help with improving the air quality and contribute to bettering our place when it comes to the fight against climate change.”
Meanwhile, Espinal says he’ll keep working in politics as long as he is inspired. But, every year when applications open up for NYU’s MFA screenwriting program, he meditates on whether he may have missed his true calling. “I think I have a few stories to tell” he smiled.
Cover Image Courtesy of The Office of Rafael L. Espinal Jr.