“Residents are feeling squeezed out and feel like they haven’t had help from elected officials
In Brooklyn’s 37th district, candidates and their supporters watched as a hotly contested race disintegrated into a no-contest electoral curiosity last June in an event that shed early light on how COVID-19 immediately impacted the rusty ligaments of local political infrastructure.
“We feel really confident that our campaign was going to win,” Sandy Nurse told Bushwick Daily. The still-candidate for the still-vacant 37th district seat in New York City Council sounded tired. Her campaign had been forced off the ballot months ago, after one of Governor Cuomo’s COVID-19 related emergency orders canned the special election she was running in and a sudden, fierce petition challenge led by rival Darma Diaz had forced her out of last June’s primary.
Undeterred, she is running again.
Nurse isn’t alone either. In fact, the entire slate of candidates who ran for Rafael Espinal’s empty seat on city council, which represents swaths of Bushwick, Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy, East New York and Brownsville, are running for that seat in next June’s Democratic primary, a do-over that follows an election which failed, where one in five voters in the state had their ballot invalidated.
Sandy Nurse: ‘Establishment Democrats are struggling to meet the moment’
Before getting kicked off the ballot, Nurse had reason to be optimistic. In early March, she was at the helm of an army of over a hundred volunteers. She had secured endorsements from ambitious elected officials like State Senator Julia Salazar and New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, the latter in the midst of positioning himself for a high-profile mayoral bid next year. To her fans, the international affairs grad student turned prominent Occupy Wall Street organizer turned Bushwick leftist offered an empowering alternative to the shuffle of Brooklyn Democratic Party scenesters, moving between patronage spots while waiting for their path to be cleared for elected office. In Nurse’s eyes, these were the people her campaign threatened.
“The Democratic Party used everything they could to get us off the ballot,” Nurse says now. Volunteers for Diaz, the Espinal-endorsed eventual winner, had successfully challenged the quality of Sandy’s petitions, as well as those of the three other candidates. A convoluted legal fight followed and her candidacy was thrown out when a judge ruled that their legal response to Darma’s challenge was filed incorrectly.
On the phone, Nurse describes these events with some detachment; the campaign must go on. With greater energy, she condemns the budget that City Council head Corey Johnson passed last month. Recently, she had drawn attention to a report that Johnson slashed the discretionary budget allocated to districts that had voted against it. The budget itself, Nurse and others said, did little to respond to calls to defund the police.
But it goes without saying that her own district went unrepresented in what was one of the most contentious budget fights in recent New York City history. Right before it passed, the Daily News had reported that the final two staffers who had worked for Espinal’s office had been, themselves, canned by the city because of budget cuts. “Establishment Democrats are struggling, in my view, to meet the moment that we are in,” Nurse says.
Kimberly Council: ‘It was all so self-serving and disingenuous’
Kimberly Council had made it further than Nurse in the fight to stay on the ballot back in June. Along with East New York businessman Misba Abdin, Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Edgar Walker reinstated her on the June ballot in a tersely-written ruling that labeled the New York State Board of Elections’ initial findings an “absurd interpretation” of Governor Cuomo’s emergency orders. But the Diaz campaign volunteers contested that ruling too and a state appeals court quietly reversed that finding just a few weeks later, allowing Diaz to ultimately run unopposed.
These “shenanigans,” as Council calls them, undermine fundamental ideas of democratic choice.
“It’s unfortunate that you have a group of individuals that don’t really seem to be concerned with choice and democracy,” Council tells Bushwick Daily.
The efforts to legally force Diaz’s rivals off the ballot occurred during the height of the COVID-19 surge in New York, when well over 100,000 New Yorkers had contracted illness and almost 10,000 had died. Politics had moved away from rallies and door knocking and their campaigns had become actively involved in the efforts to fill in a suddenly-strained social safety net. For Council, the pandemic had become even more personal, after her father had contracted the illness and passed away.
“My lawyer called me and told me that I needed to make a decision about whether or not I was going to pursue this because they had challenged my petition and I had a deadline to appeal, and I’m literally having to decide, at that same moment, how I get my dad to the hospital.”
Over the phone, she comes across as firm, matter-of-fact. Her race for Espinal’s seat had been her second: she initially ran against him back in 2013, a race where she came in second. A librarian at the Manhattan law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, she had become a minister at the Berean Baptist Church in Crown Heights and she operates its nonprofit work.
When she talks about her rivals in this year’s race, she tells Bushwick Daily that she had found sympathy in most of them and had coordinated with others to distribute goods and services amid the pandemic’s floodgate of need.
When Diaz comes up, Council brings up a charged interview that Diaz did during that time with City & State’s Jeff Coltin, in which the likely councilwoman-to-be labeled her rivals as opportunists who suffered from a “lack of effort and respect for the process.”
“It was all so self-serving and disingenuous,” Council says. The Diaz campaign did not respond to multiple efforts for comment in this story.
Misba Abdin: ‘The people are hungry, dying’
Misba Abdin had been the race’s most arresting outlier, an East New York multimillionaire who would be the first New York City council-member of South Asian descent. He helms his own nonprofit network through a group he co-founded a decade ago called Bangladeshi American Community Development & Youth Services and he told Bushwick Daily that he had, himself, caught the novel coronavirus while handing out supplies in the early days of the pandemic.
“I got COVID-19 because I was giving out masks to the community,” he tells Bushwick Daily.
The message of Abdin’s campaign is fighting crime and, alone among Diaz’s challengers, he sounds disinterested in defunding the police. “It’s worse than a war zone,” had said in February, describing East New York to Gothamist. The pandemic and the widespread police brutality protests has done little to change the message.
“In our homes we are not safe, and cutting funding isn’t a safe way [to reform police]. If you open a newspaper or a news app, you’ll see we’re in a war zone,” Abdin says.
Abdin’s speaks in forthright, dramatic terms. “The people are hungry, dying,” he says at one point, in reference to the people that his nonprofit network services.
Like Nurse, Abdin says that he would have handily won June’s primary. According to the fundraising filings for the race, Abdin had raised $23,040, less than a thousand dollars shy of what Diaz had raised herself. Abdin calls the Brooklyn Democratic Party’s maneuvering “dictatorial.”
“Father to son, chief-of-staff to another chief-of-staff, it’s like a monarchy,” he adds. His wary words outline the recent history of living in the 37th District. Espinal had served as chief-of-staff to his predecessor, now-Assembyman Erik Dilan, who is the son of his own predecessor, former State Senator Martin Dilan.
He remains unpersuaded by Diaz as well, whose work he said he came to know in the nonprofit world.
“She doesn’t have the capacity to run the district or the organizing skills,” Abdin says.
Rick Echevarria: Fighting ‘the well-oiled machine’
“I guess if you ask each of us, we all think we would have won,” Rick Echevarria jokes to Bushwick Daily.
The Board of Elections threw the former city-official-turned-whistleblower out of the primary because—he recounts over the phone, sounding both bemused and outraged—he had forgotten to write the case ID number correctly on the cover sheet of his ballot filing. Echevarria wasn’t the only to suffer as a result of this hard line on paperwork: incumbent Assemblywoman Rebecca Seawright was booted off an otherwise uncontested primary ballot because she failed to file cover sheets with her ballot, though a sudden executive order issued last month had permitted her to run in the race as an independent. The idea is that candidates running to represent the 37th District, despite their local support, are mysteriously less lucky than the Party-sanctioned slate.
“I think the party has been trying to hold onto seats that have been a part of the political establishment for three decades now,” Echevarria says.
Residents, Echevarria says, are frustrated by “the well-oiled machine” that continues to dictate Brooklyn politics. Even Espinal, who had drawn himself in a progressive light while in office, has become a magnet of criticism the longer he has been out of public office and the longer that his seat remains unfilled since he left it. While noting the progressive bonafides that Espinal had signed onto, Echevarria says the councilman had still been part of the machine that preceded him and his part in pushing Diaz along to replace him was part of those very machinations.
Echevarria’s message is all about raging against machines: the grave mismanagement of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, where he had worked, comes up often in campaign. It reflects deeper things, whose shadow he can outline. “These forces have taken our hard-earned salaries and repaid us with nothing but property abandonment, disinvestment, predatory lending, gentrification, financial schemes and shameful graft,” he says.
Voters know or at least can feel it, a distrust that the candidates all suspect led to the party’s effort to can last June’s election.
Says Echevarria: “Residents are feeling squeezed out and feel like they haven’t had help from elected officials who have been in office for a long time.”
The deeply embedded status quo can be seen behind the city’s slow initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic and in its failures to wade into the local-level price-gouging that had quickly proliferated, an issue that Echevarria endeavored to take on back in March.
“The lack of government intervention, enforcement or prosecution of those suppliers, on a rapid basis during COVID, is one of the biggest failures of the COVID crisis, to date,” he says now.
It can be seen, also, in the more self-evident failures of this election cycle. A district that represents over a hundred thousand people will remain a conspicuous black hole in city hall until next January. And even then, voters will have to wait until next year’s election to have the chance to select a candidate of their choosing for that seat.
Fortunately, candidates say they’ll still be running.
Top photos courtesy of campaign websites.
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