On Friday, a new political group coughed up almost $13,000 on a flyer sent out to residents of the city council’s 37th district, which spans across parts of Bushwick, East New York, Cypress Hills, Ocean Hill and Brownsville.
Mailed right before early-voting began, the mailer urged residents to re-elect Darma Diaz, a Brooklyn Democratic Party official who won a special election last year to represent the district by getting her opponents kicked off the ballot. It announced that Diaz, who is now facing many of those opponents again, was the race’s “quality of life”-approved candidate, a phrase that does not seem to signify anything but corresponded to a checkmark that seemed to indicate somebody had vetted her policy positions and decided to endorse her, but no vetting organization was listed. Instead, the flyer presented her “quality of life plan,” a collection of vague commitments that were, in fact, identical to those on a flyer the group sent out the very same day on behalf of Shaun Abreu, a lawyer running in the Democratic Party primary for the city council’s 7th district, which includes parts of Washington Heights and West Harlem. Friday’s mailer was the second the group sent out into the district, after dropping almost $13,500 on another flyer on behalf of Diaz. This one read: “Re-Elect Darma Diaz: Leading Our Community with Real Results”
The only organization affiliated with these was Voters of NYC Inc., part of a new slew of political groups that the New York City Campaign Finance Board call independent spenders, a local take on the kinds of political action committees that have been allowed to spend unlimited millions in national political races since the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizen United. According to the board, these ‘voters of NYC’ primarily include some of the biggest real estate developers in the city. Real estate scion William Lie Zeckendorf’s WLZ Properties has dumped $100,000 into Voters of NYC, as has Larry Silverstein’s Silverstein Properties, the fifth-largest commercial landlord in New York City.
The companies that are behind Diaz are also behind some of the priciest buildings in the city, from 120 Wall Street to the Zeckendorf Towers that lord over Union Square, but they’re also making moves into Bushwick. In February, Silverstein Properties announced its plans to scoop up half of Denizen Bushwick at 123 Melrose Street for $170 million after its developer went belly-up earlier this year. Another big real estate name, the Rosewood Realty Group, donated $50,000 to Voters of NYC. Last year, Rosewood put together a $16.7 million deal that aims to see 1333 Broadway, once the space of a community garden, become a new luxury condo. “This development is part of the ongoing gentrification of Bushwick,” a representative for one of the developers said at the time. “Bushwick is changing and becoming more of a trendy luxurious neighborhood.”
“If other people want to support me, that is their business,” Diaz told Bushwick Daily regarding the mailing campaign on her behalf. Diaz did not respond to questions regarding if she had any connections to any of the donors behind Voters of NYC, but instead said she “can’t interfere with anyone’s First Amendment rights.” She also attacked one of her rivals in the race: Sandy Nurse, who Diaz says needs to “explain the outside groups and special interests that are backing her.” The political action committees that have put out ads on Nurse’s behalf include Labor Strong 2021 and Road to Justice, both of which do political work on behalf of SEIU 32BJ, a labor union that has endorsed Nurse.
The phrase “quality of life” appears to be a favorite of Jeffrey Leb, treasurer of Voters of NYC. Leb holds the same position in another, similar committee called Common Sense NYC Inc. and that one has put out advertisements showcasing identical “Quality of Life plans” from other city council candidates across the city, like Julie Menin and Ari Kagan as well as Republicans like David Carr, who is running for city council in Staten Island but, presumably, believes in these same things. More colorfully, the group is also behind a recent campaign of mailers and online ads that are dotted with red-banner warnings that inform voters that an interchangeable assortment of other candidates in those races are all “approved by the socialists that threaten public safety, destroy our communities and raise taxes.” Like Voters of NYC, Common Sense is also something of a talking pile of real estate cash; as the City reported last week, the group has collected $1 million from Stephen Ross, who runs Related Companies, the developer behind Hudson Yards and Astor Place.
Diaz isn’t the only local city council candidate Leb is putting dollars behind backing either: Common Sense also spent almost $13,000 behind a mailer on behalf of Robert Holden’s tense reelection fight in the neighboring 30th district, which includes parts of Ridgewood, Glendale and Woodside. Leb’s ad tweaks the pitch slightly for the somewhat more conservative district. (Holden won the seat after losing the Democratic primary and running with the Republican Party’s backing in 2017, but is running again as a Democrat, for now.) To these voters, Leb’s group applauds Holden for “standing up to city hall’s bullying tactics.” But much of the rest appears equally recycled from the “quality of life” mailer Leb is running in Diaz’s race: the commitment to cleaner streets, the promise of “real solutions” to homelessness. Henry Butler, a former subway conductor who now sits on Brooklyn’s Community Board 3, has also benefited from Common Sense’s largesse in his campaign for the city council’s 36th district, which includes parts of Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights. While Butler’s website still says he’s actually running for an entirely different local Democratic Party district leader spot, as Gotham Gazette observed last month, Common Sense still spent over $26,000 last week in mailers on behalf of his apparent city council campaign efforts, including another one that also testified to his identical support of a “quality of life” platform.
Unsurprisingly, the question of whether or not Diaz is a “real estate” politician has been asked before. In fact, a local real estate consultant and self-identified “friend and colleague” of Diaz asked it himself in an op-ed put out by Stephen Witt’s political blog Kings County Politics last year. (The consultant said no.) Since 2017, Diaz has run a company called the People United Logistically for Social Equality Consulting Corporation, which the Intercept labeled “a consulting firm providing services to property managers.” (On the other hand, Diaz’s friend at Kings County Politics called her PULSE business nothing more than a “side hustle.”)
But her involvement in local politics had begun, ostensibly, at the opposite side of the real estate battle; a homeowner in East New York, Diaz became one of the more vocal faces of a group called the Coalition for Community Advancement, which was formed in 2015 in response to the city’s controversial efforts to rezone the neighborhood. In that capacity, Diaz’s name would soon be on the lips of Brooklyn Democratic Party politicos like Martin Dilan, a former state senator, and Rafael Espinal, the former city councilman whose seat Diaz ended up taking, as the pair made numerous public appearances in Diaz’s neighborhood, criticizing the “speculators” who they said were behind the gentrification of the neighborhood, before signing off on a rezoning deal there in 2017. “While we did not win all our demands, having been a part of the process in itself is rewarding and worth celebrating,” Diaz would later say of her involvement in these efforts.
Upon accepting Espinal’s endorsement for his spot, Diaz said she would turn to her work getting East New York rezoned as a model for Bushwick. A similar effort by DeBlasio to rezone the neighborhood around the same time had tanked amid vocal objections from anti-gentrification activists and whether or not it’s taken up again would depend on who ends up taking DeBlasio’s place.
“Bushwick’s failed rezoning plan should be brought back to the table,” Diaz told the Brooklyn Paper last year, adding “with stakeholders present from day one.”
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Cover image courtesy of @miguelluciano_ny