Andrew Karpan


Like a band whose debut run earned a modest 6.3 on Pitchfork, Andrew Yang appeared at Bushwick’s Elsewhere on Monday to make his case before the nightlife crowd of East Williamsburg. More notable than Yang’s appearance, however, was that of the neighborhood’s former city councilman: Rafael Espinal. 

“I have not formally endorsed yet, but to tell you the truth, a lot of our members are excited about Andrew Yang’s campaign, so there might be more news around that in the next few weeks,” Espinal said, according to Politico

In his time since resigning his spot on city council last year, Espinal picked up a top job working for the Freelancer’s Union, a nonprofit trade group that markets health insurance to freelancers. But on Monday, Espinal was speaking on behalf of a group of local bar owners who had showed up for the social-distanced campaign speech at the currently-closed rooftop bar at Elsewhere in East Williamsburg. 

The Yang campaign had been teasing the event all weekend, sending out feelers to his fans in the financial press but Espinal’s appearance was something of a surprise — in 2016, Espinal made slight waves as the only member of the City Council to endorse Bernie Sanders, who Yang had later challenged in the Democratic primaries four years later. (Reusing a photo he took with Sanders that time around, Espinal had endorsed Sanders again in that race.) 

Former New York councilman Rafael Espinal with Senator Bernie Sanders, who Espinal endorsed in the 2016 and 2020 Presidential races. Now, he’s eying to endorse Sanders’ 2020 rival Andrew Yang. Photo Courtesy of Rafael Espinal

But the former councilman and the mayoral candidate have a lot to offer each other.

While the name recognition has made Yang a frontrunner from the get-go, the endorsements he has accrued in the race so far have been eclectic: a lone councilwoman and a State Rep. — both to little fanfare, back in January — along with random celebrities like Amy Schumer and Super Mario Bros.-star John Leguizamo. Meanwhile, Yang’s fellow frontrunners, like Eric Adams and Scott Stinger, have already scooped up the support of unions and elected officials by the dozens. While no candidate seems to have yet secured the mantle of the city’s post-Sanders ‘progressive’ wing, Stinger seems to be closest at tying those up: State Sens. Alessandra Biaggi, Jessica Ramos and Julia Salazar have all put their weight behind him.

But those progressives are in office and Espinal is not. An ambitious and charismatic figure in local politics, Espinal knows the right people at the right publications — Time Out once named him one of its ‘New Yorkers of the Year’ in 2017, alongside rising stars like the Desus & Mero crew and ex-Refinery29 blogger Ashley C. Ford, and he has successfully pitched stories on his dining habits to both New York and the New York Times.

Espinal touted the meeting with the prospective future mayor on social media as a meeting of two different worlds. 

Nevertheless, the councilman’s decision to dip from city council came after a quickly-aborted run for Brooklyn Borough President in the upcoming election and following a run for the public advocate’s office that landed him in seventh place. While in city council, his signature accomplishment was the repeal of a Prohibition-era anti-dancing law and the establishment of a city employee called the Night Mayor (a job given to Ariel Palitz, who used to own the shuttered East Village club Karma Sutra). But the local bar owners supported him nonetheless, and his race for the Public Advocate’s office had begun just around the corner in the currently-shuttered House of Yes. If elected mayor, Yang would be in charge of doling out leadership roles at more than 40 city agencies, city board slots and commissions, as well several lucrative Deputy Mayor positions. Getting behind Yang now could offer Espinal a savvy route back to citywide public office if he wins.

Yang, whose campaign began with his arms awkwardly outreached toward bodega owners, clearly sees struggling small businesses as his route to finding a demographic that will stick by him come June. This could be his way around the standard organs of Democratic Party politics, who see him as an upstart who never held elected office, and the progressive activists on the other side, who generally want things like universal health care, which Yang does not really go in for. 

And so they showed up on Monday afternoon, underneath the former converted warehouse’s industrial chic soundsystem, surrounded by other former warehouses that the ongoing pandemic had converted into empty bars and restaurants. According to the plans, these included the owner of Baby’s All Right in Williamsburg, the owner of the Bushwick venue Secret Project Robot, and the owner of the tiny Crown Heights cocktail bar Friends & Lovers. The small business owners had responded with their own cautious enthusiasm. “[Andrew Yang] is the first person to reach out to get input from the people deep in the industry, for that I was impressed!,” the owner of Secret Project Robot testified on Instagram

It was them, prospective mayor Andrew Yang told them, who had made his sometime home of New York City so cool. 

 “It’s all the people that kind of want to make a career out of producing culture, and they — you — are the people that make New York City cool,” Yang said.  

Top photo from Instagram.

For more news, sign up for Bushwick Daily’s newsletter.

Join the fight to save local journalism by becoming a paid subscriber.