Things Could Be Different In Bushwick

One candidate wants to end alternate side parking for good. Another promises to establish a North Brooklyn Arts District, just like the kinds they have, he says, in Houston. Another says he will get city restaurant permit times down to 30 days or less. Like most of New York, large sections of Bushwick and East Williamsburg will discover they are represented by someone new in city council next year — a quirk of city-wide term limits, instituted following a referendum in 1993. Like 34 of his fellow council members, two-term councilman and Sanitation Committee chairman Antonio Reynoso has been forced to campaign for something else this year.

The race to replace him has plodded along, largely and curiously unobserved by the people who make small careers out of watching minor New York political races. Perhaps it lacks the curious, generational drama happening over in the neighboring 37th District — a long-broiling saga filled with the competing and anguished dreams of aspiring rival bureaucrats. The race over in the 34th feels comparatively unbound and contemplative; predictable but not hopeless.

The candidate to beat at the moment is the affable Jennifer Gutierrez, a local politico from Queens who Reynoso appointed chief of staff in 2014, after she managed his city council campaign the year before. It’s an honor with portent: Reynoso himself had worked as chief of staff to predecessor Diana Reyna who, before being elected, worked as chief of staff to the late Brooklyn Democratic party boss Vito Lopez.

Since Gutierrez announced her entry into the race last year, she had quietly snapped up endorsements from local branches of the Working Families Party and the Service Employees International Union, among other such organizations that politely monitor happenings in the Democratic Party politics around the city.

It’s easy to see why things work in such a way — as the eyes and ears of Reynoso’s office, Gutierrez has been visible amidst the distribution of millions of dollars in discretionary funding that each office is empowered to pass around, depending on how good they’ve been to the powers that be.

It’s a project that Reynoso himself made even more visible with his enthusiastic embrace of participatory budgeting. A form of funding that hands money to projects that are voted on by residents, the last round of PB funding — which occurred in 2019, before the pandemic — delivered half a million dollars to a group called the Concerned Citizens of Grove Street Garden and another half million to an effort to plant 200 new trees in Bushwick, Williamsburg and Ridgewood. Gutierrez stood at the helm of these efforts.

“A big reason I was a fan of PB was because it really opens the budget process up to the community — it’s really valuable when people feel they can approach their council member,” she told Bushwick Daily. As a way of handing out public money, participatory budgeting in New York City has also been written with an ear for demographic symbolism: unlike voting in elections, voting to spend the funds is open to citizen and noncitizen alike. Her campaign is comparatively light on its own ideas — her website has yet to publish a platform beyond a bilingual biographical sketch that depicts her youth in “a one bedroom apartment” where she “attended local public schools all her life” — but perhaps this reflects a larger philosophy of politics centered less around grand ideas of change and more on identifying a voter and funding things that voter wants.

“It’s because I care about too many things,” she says, adding that her campaign is still “building it out.” The highlights of her argument to voters will be small but effective promises aimed at renters who are in the midst of the COVID-fueled housing crisis. She wants to do what a city council member can do to ensure that tenants facing eviction are provided with better legal counsel. She has also sketched out a plan to have more public schools double as community centers on the weekends and aims to expand the city’s composting program, which has suffered quietly amid pandemic-related budget cuts. When asked if she had any larger plans outside of the domain of expanding already existing programs, she demurs. The ideas will come to her. “My background is a coalition builder, so I work with a lot of advocates and organizers to put something together that’s brand new, but I think it would tough for me to come up with a random piece of legislation — I [just] know what I want to improve on.”

She identifies as “definitely progressive, definitely leftist, not a Democratic Socialists of America member by any means, but very much aligned.” It’s notable that the local branch of the neighborhood’s Democratic Socialist Party had declined to endorse any city council candidates in North Brooklyn, not Gutierrez or even Sandy Nurse — comparatively, the DSA has endorsed a slate of candidates in other Brooklyn districts, such as Brandon West, who is running in district 39, and Alexa Avilés, who is running in District 38. At least one candidate, running in another race, confided that they consider themselves a hardline communist, but would never say such a thing running in North Brooklyn, where the truncheon of the party line carries a mysterious influence.

For some, this is just politics. Since Gutierrez announced her entry into the race last year she has quietly snapped up endorsements from local branches of the Working Families Party and the Service Employees International Union, among other such organizations that politely monitor happenings in Democratic Party politics around the city. She is one of those figures who make the world of local politicos feel close knit, full of familiar faces who agree with each other; the hardy image of someone getting things done.

“Jennifer is the only one I have seen in the community out there organizing and helping people,”  Samy Nemir-Olivares told Bushwick Daily.

Another city council candidate, Scott Murphy, is running one of the more colorful local political campaigns. (Andrew Karpan)

Elected last year as district leader in an assembly district that corresponds, somewhat roughly, to Reynoso’s city council district, Nemir-Olivares was among those to quickly endorse Gutierrez; she had, similarly, endorsed Nemir-Olivares’ campaign for district leader. Nemir-Olivares presents a stirring image of Gutierrez in a thrum of action — what is needed now, the moment of greatest adversity, is someone who is going door to door or at least phone to phone.

“It’s super important, in a pandemic, that we have people who are present. It’s not enough, this time, to [just] have a good platform,” Nemir-Olivares adds.

But even for a seasoned campaigner occupying the race’s choice spot, Gutierrez is on edge. Ranked choice voting has forced her campaign, she admits, to “think a little bit outside of the traditional political strategies, instead of just reaching out to the people that vote.”

Politics is always a matter of triage: there are some people who cannot be reached, who will always vote for outsider candidates as a matter of principle. But now “you never know who could have put you as their number two had you just connected with them.”

“I’m not the incumbent, I’ve never ran before,” Gutierrez says. She distances herself, cautiously, from her current boss. She observes, for instance, that she would not have voted, as he had, to support a controversial plan from outgoing Mayor DeBlasio to close Rikers and replace it with a system of “justice hubs” around the city, a project that failed to attract the support of the anti-prison crowd. But her differences with her predecessor go somewhat deeper than that, she says.

“For one, I’m a woman, so I think I would approach everything from a feminist perspective,” she says. “The way that [I] look at safety is very different from the way a man looks at safety, so I would definitely differ from him in that sense — I would prioritize women’s safety. That’s something that comes from my lived experience.” Cautiously, she uses the same line to expound on her favorite candidates in the mayoral race: “Let’s elect a freaking woman in there, let’s do the damn thing. That’s why I’m personally excited about Dianne [Morales] and Kathryn [Garcia].”

The safety talking point, echoed by Nemir-Olivares, touched on the recent wave of violent attacks pinpricking Bushwick and elsewhere — just earlier this month a group of local vigilantes have started patrolling train stations and fundraising to start an app. But it’s also a canny distinction to make; her rivals for the spot are all men.

The most colorful of these is Scott Murphy, who is colorful by trade: he’s a former Chicago ad man who worked accounts for McCann before moving to New York in 2011, where he eventually landed a job at the vaguely ubiquitous scooter start-up Revel, prominently headquartered in Gowanus. Saying that he wants to run a campaign of ideas, Murphy has a wellspring of plans that can be read on the race’s most well-designed website. Befitting his latest businesses, his biggest plans are transport related. Contained there is a sweeping plan to make CitiBikes free and a program he wants to pilot called the “alternative transportation allowance,” which  would pay residents who show they have switched from driving cars to take “Citi Bikes, Revel mopeds or car shares.”

He saves the hardest language for what he wants to get rid of.

“Alternate side parking is basically a tax on the poor,” Murphy told Bushwick Daily about one of his campaign’s signature promises, which he  wants to pilot in Bushwick. “The ticket and the tow could be enough that you could not be able to pay your rent or feed your family.”

Murphy is not the first to frame city parking regulations in such dramatic terms. DeBlasio himself, who notoriously floats about the city in a fleet of black SUVs, reported last year that “alternate-side parking is right up there with satan in most people’s views.”

Another candidate, Terrell Finner, dropped out of the Democratic primary because, he says, “I could not turn in an acceptance of the nomination because that would be lying.” 

As a candidate, Murphy says that he’s felt “basically ignored” by the political establishment of his new home, but has made some observations about how things work. “I see a kind of system: you’re the chief of staff of the current councilmember and then when that person leaves, you are the heir apparent to take over that seat,” he says, before adding: “not that I think there’s anything wrong with that.”

His decision to run, he says, was informed by his volunteer work with the Ridgewood Volunteer Ambulance Corps., a group he joined because he was feeling isolated after moving to the new city, an easily relatable Bushwick experience for sure. Like Gutierrez, he says he “would love to call myself a Democratic Socialist,” as those are the “policies and feelings that I have.”

His approach to campaigning is somehow even more stereotypically Bushwick, and it involves the active direction of his wife Marcy Richardson — a burlesque singer who performs regularly at Theater XIV on Troutman street as Opera Gaga and who also had a cameo in the 2019 movie Hustlers. Members of the troop are a regular presence on the campaign trail in Bushwick. At a campaign stop at Maria Hernandez Park over the weekend, Murphy made his case against alternate side parking and public-private partnerships following a knife juggler and Opera Gaga, performing on an acrobatic hoop.

The great issues that have dominated Reynoso’s time in city council has been zoning, gentrification and, eventually, rising rents. Below: a light sign reading “NO ME DESPLACES” at a @MiCasaResiste town hall.

The level of low-key despair in elected officials is perhaps what separates the race most from when Reynoso handsomely triumphed eight years ago in a tight two-person generational fight against Lopez in 2013. Reynoso’s two terms were dominated by a low-level war over rezoning the neighborhood, which ended in a proposal called the Bushwick Community Plan. This was meant to rebuff DeBlasio’s own rezoning ambitions but failed to find very much support among the network of anti-gentrification groups that grew in the neighborhood over the past decade.

“They didn’t want to engage because the general theme was that, at the end [of the process] it’s going to require rezoning, and so it didn’t matter what message was sold to them,” Gutierrez said. Shortly before the pandemic, in lieu of taking a look at Reynoso’s plan, the mayor’s office had instead agreed not to rezone Bushwick yet after all and left it as it was, an arrangement that has let development run wild in the obscure corners it can find. Whether the effort to rezone Bushwick gets taken up again will largely depend on who takes DeBlasio’s place next year. Gutierrez, for her part, commits to not stand behind any rezoning plans “on her own.”

“I do have a problem with the [larger] conversation about rezoning. It just has not benefited our community at all,” Gutierrez adds.

Even activists who thought the plan was flawed say they were struck by the city’s decision to ultimately ignore the product of years of workshops, townhalls and political theater.

“I think it’s a systemic problem, it’s not about community input,” Pati Rodriguez, a member of the Mi Casa No Es Su Casa, a Bushwick-based anti-capitalist collective, told Bushwick Daily. The group is one of many that have maintained a conspicuous stance of staying out to the frey of Brooklyn politics.

“The ones who are deciding are not from our community,” Rodriguez said. “Politicians will always come in with their own interests because they want to be reelected and the people who can give them those funds are people who never have the interest of poor people in mind.”

But some candidates in the race also feel bothered by the rules of Democratic Party politics: a week earlier Terrell Finner announced that he was dropping out of the Democratic Party primary entirely and would, instead, pursue the seat as an independent. The manager at the Abrons Arts Center in the Lower East Side, a Bushwick-transplant by way of Houston, Finner comes across as the race’s most easily charismatic candidate and says he was motivated to drop out of the Democratic primary after encountering a particularly disenfranchised voter one day.

“I remember this weird sinking feeling in my stomach and my heart just sunk. I internalized a lot of that energy,” Finner said. “I could not lie to any other person in my neighborhood by playing into the Democratic establishment’s playbook and promising people, again and again, that their lives are going to be better.” He adds: “I could not turn in an acceptance of the nomination because that would be lying, in my view.”

Among the curious proposals in Finner’s plans include the creation of a North Brooklyn Arts District. “I do not want it to be an economic driven thing,” he says. “It’s about connecting people [through] a catalog online or in person and they could find every type of [local] arts organization that exists.” The system would also include stickers, he added. He also supports free internet for all New Yorkers (“There is actually a city that has done that already in California that I was reading about”) and a universal basic income plan, which seems to have struck a curious chord with New Yorkers of an outsider political disposition.

Finner isn’t the only candidate with a certain professed distaste for the machinations of the Democractic Party: Lutchi Gayot, who runs a contracting business called LG Ventures, had previously run as a Republican challenger against Congresswoman Yvettte Clarke, whose district stretches across South Brooklyn. Now he’s running as a Democrat seeking to change things in Bushwick.

“I see a lot of things that a lot of other people who are running for office don’t see,” Gayot told Bushwick Daily. “When you take a look at what a lot of people who are running for office are offering, I feel we need a lot more.”

Every Democratic primary, it seems, tends to have someone like Gayot, a representative for the small business types who inevitably feel ignored by both the money-funded machinery of city politics and the activist class whose sympathy for property owners is always going to be limited. The candidacy of Andrew Yang — whose mayoral run has revealed the current dearth of charismatic options on both sides of the party’s standard divide — suggests that these people have a kind of curious demographic weight. Like Yang, in fact, Gayot speaks in a comforting language of vague personal accomplishments.

“You go everywhere, you’ll see all the people I’ve worked with, I’ve employed dozens and dozens and dozens of people, from cooks to bartenders and I’ve bartended for thousands of people myself,” he says.

As for his own platform, Gayot wants public high schools to expand vocational education and wants to design public policy around smoothing out regulations to operate small businesses, perhaps like the many he’s contracted for.

“If you want to open a restaurant in New York, get ready to wait six months to a year to get your permit,” he bemoans. He commits to pushing city approval of permits to 30 days, a noble goal that Gayot insists is done in cities elsewhere. He would insist, also, that the city grandfather in permits for restaurants that have been operating in outdoors spaces amid the pandemic — a common stance among most candidates running in Bushwick, though frontrunner Gutierrez evidenced some hesitation about moving the process forward too quickly.

Gayot quickly pinpoints an issue that really agitates him — a recent budget increase at the Department of City Planning years ago resulted in hiring more staff to write out summons instead of examiners to hand out permits. It was the reflection of a politics that did not include him at the table.

“I wrote an email and it fell on deaf ears,” he says. “The hoops they make you go through, I know they can be fixed.”

Top photo credit: Andrew Karpan

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