Could The Next Borough President Be From Bushwick?

Andrew Karpan 


With Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams out of office and potentially mayor next year, voters will also be selecting his replacement while making their choice between the nails-are-not-manicured-they-are-cracked former traffic cop, tech capitalist Andrew Yang or recovering neoliberal Scott Stringer or somebody else. Among the dozen or so candidates that have already stepped up to the crowded plate to replace Adams at Borough Hall is City Council Member Antonio Reynoso, whose district contains vast slices of Bushwick, Ridgewood, Greenpoint, and Williamsburg. 

This week, Bklyner reported that the New York Working Families Party has put its weight behind Reynoso, with its state director and Insecure-enthusiast Sochie Nnaemeka announcing that “Antonio is a proven champion for Brooklyn’s working families.” It’s only the latest endorsement Reynoso has racked up in the world of progressive politics, Billy Richling observes at the local blog. Make the Road Action, the political arm of an immigration advocacy group that regularly challenges deportations in federal court, endorsed Reynoso last month. 

In a write-up of that move, Samar Khurshid at Gotham Gazette mused that Reynoso, like the very man whose seat he’s running to replace, “is also facing term limits.” Khurshid identifies the race’s frontrunners as Reynoso, one of his colleagues in city council, Robert Cornegy, as well as Assembly-member Jo Anne Simon. Another of Reynoso’s fellow councilmen, the chamber’s longest-serving member, Mathieu Eugene is in the race as well but Khurshid does not deduce ‘the Haitian Sensation‘ to be in the lead in the Brooklyn race so far. (The political blog, Kings County Politics, however warns: “Underestimate City Council Member Mathieu Eugene in the 2021 Brooklyn Borough President’s race at you[r] own peril.”)

Like Reynoso, Eugene and Cornegy are being pushed into the Brooklyn Borough presidency race by the coming end of their two consecutive four-year terms in city council, a graduating class that includes a startling 34 council members out the 51 total, per Jeff Cotin and Amina Frassl’s count at City & State. If elected, Reynoso would be at the helm of an office traditionally held by Southern Brooklyn politicos like Howard Golden and Marty Markowitz. Even the departing Eric Adams had been a firebrand who stood for a Brooklyn that looked like the Brooklyn that had been and who had declared “[you] go back to Iowa, you go back to Ohio” to the borough’s newcomers.

One of Reynoso’s biggest political accomplishments, on the other hand, was getting the Tenant Stand for Safety Act passed in 2017, which provided greater legal protections to tenants against landlords who actively use construction projects as tools of harassment, according to Reynoso, who said that “these tactics run rampant” in Williamsburg, Bushwick and Ridgewood, neighborhoods that look least like the Brooklyn that once had been. 

But how much power borough presidents have in the archipelago of city politics is nebulous. For Adams, it was a stepping stone to something else from the very first day. (“He’s only been Brooklyn’s borough president for six months, but Eric Adams is already looking eight years ahead—to City Hall,” the New York Observer observed observed seven years ago, in 2014.) Rebecca Lewis had described the political position in cutting terms last year in a City & State blog, labeling it a “largely ceremonial post that, like public advocate, is so appealing to New York City Council members looking for a new job because it offers a platform from which to do little but promote oneself.” Lewis writes that the city’s borough presidents are now given a total of 5% of the city’s capital budget to split among themselves and, basically, any power they directly have involves whatever that slice of a slice will buy.

Like the monarchs of Western Europe, borough presidents are refugees of a system that no longer exists. Once New York City was ruled, in part, by a Dickensian-sounding council called the Board of Estimate, on which each president sat, alongside the mayor, the comptroller and the president of the Board of Aldermen. In 1989, the Supreme court ruled that this division of power was unconstitutional because, in part, it gave Staten Island too much power and the board was done away with. But the presidents remain and, according to another Gotham Gazette post, they get paid at least $150,000 a year and get a car and driver, courtesy of the city. A sweet gig, for sure. 

In Brooklyn, the seat has been occupied by a real cast of characters. Abe Stark, who sat on the seat from 1962 to 1970, achieved some fame for also running a clothing store in Brownsville that put up a sign reading “Hit Sign, Win Suit” at the now-gone Ebbets Field in Crown Heights to entice batters at the Brooklyn Dodgers’ home stadium but was later forced to place the sign somewhere harder to hit after too many players came to collect free suits. The move, however, failed to stop National Baseball Hall of Fame-r Mel Ott from collecting at least two suits from Stark’s business during the 1931 season. (do read Bob McGee’s academic tome on the matter: The Greatest Ballpark Ever: Ebbets Field and the Story of the Brooklyn Dodgers.) Another former president, John Cashmore, is notable as the inspiration for the Harry Chapin hit song “Cat’s in the Cradle,” in which Chapin sings about how Cashmore didn’t spend enough time with his son growing up, so busy he was, presumably, with the work of a being Brooklyn borough president. 

What a legacy for Reynoso to live up to, should he win the endorsement next of the borough’s Democratic voters, who will vote on June 22, 2021. (the Democratic party has held its grip over the now-ceremonial office since 1917.) The earlier endorsement from Make the Road Action, the immigration group, had cited Reynoso’s longstanding interest in decriminalizing sex work, though the notice in Bklyner of the Working Families Party’s endorsement does not. Before he was elected to City Council, and was, instead, the chief of staff for someone else on City Council, the New York Times reported on Reynoso, in the midst of authoring “an action plan” for “streetwalkers” on Bushwick Avenue, circa 2012. In one of his earliest conversations with the press, Reynoso told the Times: “We still know there’s work to be done.”

Cover photo credit: Antonio Reynoso’s website/Andrew Karpan

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