“I am one generation away from farmers,” Diana Reyna tells me during a quiet moment in the Bushwick poltico’s occasionally longshot campaign for the spot of being just one scandal away from running New York state.
She had already departed politics sometime ago, following a solitary term as deputy borough president – a position that had notably allied her with the city’s current political boss, Eric Adams. She still refers to him fondly by first name and, if she wins, it’s likely that characters of Adams’ political machine will have a new friend in Albany. She tells me it was the death of her father that had convinced her to leave the largely ceremonial role for a career as a minor lobbyist: first as a partner at a now-shuttered Brooklyn startup called Athena Consulting Group and then under her own one-person shingle, “Diana Reyna Strategic Consulting,” which she says worked with local contractors to “bring to the forefront their funding opportunities.” In her life as a politician, Reyna preferred to work quietly and largely inside the machine; she tells me curtly that her most recent work “has nothing to do with the race now.” (For what it is worth, according to ProPublica, Reyna’s company was able to score nearly $21,000 from the federal government’s PPP-payout program during the first year of the pandemic.)
But suddenly, Reyna had felt the call of serving another mildly ceremonial political post. In the primary on June 28th, Reyna will be running opposite Kathy Hochul’s pick for the separately-elected deputy spot on her gubernatorial ticket. When her campaign had started in January, it had seemed like a fool’s errand – the once lieutenant governor was both mildly popular and, perhaps more urgently, already occupied the lane of moderate career politician, as long as most voters could forget that she hailed from the opposite side of the state. Hochul had even hand-picked a state senator from Harlem named Brian Benjamin to run against Reyna, a bit of geographic political strategy that would have curbed Reyna’s chances even more if Benjamin hadn’t later been arrested on charges of taking campaign contributions from a real estate developer in exchange for grants of state funds. (He has plead not guilty.)
Around the time, a story in Politico speculated that Hochul could have picked Reyna herself to take Benjamin’s place and WNYC host Brian Lehrer had teased the idea when interviewing Reyna. Instead, Hochul picked an upstate congressman named Antonio Delgado, which had the curious effect of emphasizing the race’s upstate/downstate split; Reyna had allied herself with Tom Suozzi, a different congressman who was running against the current governor and who came from the relatively closer Long Island.
This had animated two talking points in Reyna campaign. The Benjamin scandal gave her cause to bemoan the state’s ongoing “corruption crisis” and in conversation with me, Reyna also bemoaned Hochul’s successful legislative effort to put $1.4 billion behind funding a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills. (“Over 10,000 jobs,” the governor has said of the project’s impact.)
Reyna told me that she had been campaigning in Buffalo too. She had been in the city when a teenager killed 10 people in a supermarket in the city’s eastern side. The violence has shock her and Suozzi had used the chance to criticize Hochul’s refusal “to make fighting crime a priority.”
In a slow and grand voice, Reyna tells me that “we have a crisis all over us” – she’s blames this for her concerns over people leaving the state amid the ongoing pandemic. According to estimates put out by the Census Bureau in March, about 385,455 people left the larger New York metropolitan area last year. The situation, she told me, brought to mind her youth.
“Throughout those years nobody wanted to live in Bushwick,” Reyna told me about growing up in the neighborhood, where her family moved in the early 1990s.
Reyna had been in politics since around then too, which began when she was a nursing student at Pace University. In her home of Bushwick, she had found herself interning for the late Vito Lopez, a one-man political machine whose legacy still haunts the neighborhood’s politics. Forced to leave politics in 2013 following accusations he sexually harassed interns, Lopez’s longest lasting legacy has been the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, which he founded in 1973. The organization, which procures money from the state government to fund housing constructing projects, among other things, was later renamed the RiseBoro Community Partnership.
“I worked my way to chief of staff for our local assemblyman representing my hometown,” Reyna told me. She was able, however, to distance herself from Lopez before he was officially censured by the state assembly. By then, she had been elected to city council, which allowed her to call herself the first first Dominican-American woman to be elected to any office in the state of New York. Sometime in her second there, she had also fallen out with Lopez; when she ran for a third term in 2009 – shortly before the city again instituted term limits – she was challenged by Maritza Davila, the chief of staff who had replaced Reyna at Lopez’s office. A New York Times headline from this era reads “With a Solid Council Win, Reyna Breaks With a Formidable Patron.” (While handedly loosing, Davila would later take Lopez’s seat after he resigned, where she remains.)
Marty Needelman, a former director of a nonprofit called Brooklyn Legal Services who has known Reyna for decades describes her as a “behind the scenes” politician with a lasting constituency in Brooklyn among other Dominican-American politicians, who saw her as breaking new demographic ground. He cited, for instance, her mentorship of Antonio Reynoso, elected last year as Brooklyn borough president.
“She was always around,” Needelman says, though he admitted to not being able to recall any of Reyna’s policy accomplishments during her twelve years in city hall. The latter chunk of those were dominated by debates over the rezoning of the Broadway Triangle, a piece of Williamsburg and Bed-Stuy that’s notably outside the borders of Reyna’s district in Bushwick. Nonetheless, Reyna had opposed the project vigorously; at the time, a reporter at Brooklyn Paper called the fight a proxy “battle against her former mentor.” Lopez had been backing the rezoning proposal, mostly because it came with two no-bid construction contracts to two of the nonprofits that Lopez ran, including the group that later became RiseBoro.
“He was a very weird guy,” Needelman says about Lopez. Before their split, he says that Reyna “was a key player for him.”
Even from beyond the grave, Lopez’s influence lurks in local Democratic Party politics. Another former staffer in his office, Andy Marte, was booted out of the party last year over refusing to condemn Lopez in an interview with a different local blog. This is actually something of a habit of Matre’s, a perennial candidate in local primary races who didn’t have a bad word to say about Lopez when I talked to him about his vigorous, but failed attempt to displace Senator Julia Salazar.
Aside from calling him “our local assemblyman,” Reyna is also similarly mum about Lopez when I talk to her. This is not breaking news; as far back as 2012, the Daily News ran a long story on the subject of the long silence between the two. Greg Smith, then at the News, wrote that he had talked to “sources close to Reyna” who informed him “that the assemblyman had harassed her years ago but she has refused to talk publicly about her experience.” Smith’s story had weaved around some captivating local political nuances, which included finding out that “Lopez’s fingerprints are all over” a real estate sale Reyna’s sister had “lucked into” by winning a lottery “to buy a taxpayer-subsidized multi-family home in Bushwick for only $179,000.”
Though as it happened, Reyna did have a lot to say me about the benefits of home ownership.
“The second you own your own home, you control your destiny,” she told me. She said that securing a home in the neighborhood for her parents had been an important personal accomplishment. They had fled the Dominican Republic after the country’s president Rafael Trujillo was assassinated with M1 carbines that were sort of supplied by the CIA. Now, Reyna told me “they are not at the mercy of being displaced again.”
A mildly relatable sense of precarity animates the details of the Brooklyn politician’s life. In addition to scoring a handsome PPP payment for her one-person consulting shop, a story in the Post early this year remarked that she had owed $138,658 to the city’s Campaign Finance Board, which dated from her 2009 primary battle with Davila.
Reyna had also lost the zoning battle with the “local assemblyman.” Years after his death, the city finally awarded those contracts to the re-named RiseBoro. “People don’t remember a thing,” says Needelman about the zoning fight, which had involved the creation of a now-defunct group called the Broadway Triangle Community Coalition.
“It really has not made a big impression on people,” he adds.
What is making an impression on people, Reyna hopes, is the crime wave that is allegedly continuing in the city. According to a poll in April taken by Siena College of some 806 registered voters in the state, Hochul was floating on an approval rating of just 36% and the researchers from the Loudonville, New York institute wrote that “crime and economic issues… were by far the top issues.”
“Gangs are taking over our neighborhoods,” Reyna told me. In her warm, Brooklyn accent, the line has a kind of offhand ease, part of the long trail of influence of ‘American Carnage.’ Later, she will tell me that “teachers cannot manage their classrooms,” because of the specter of violence haunting the edges of civil society. She animates these ideas with stories of her hardly constituents cowering in their homes afraid of the latest wave of crime.
When Reyna speaks about her accomplishments in city hall, she tells me about a somewhat unpopular move she backed to raise the rates the city charged for towing cars.
“I supported [doing] what would let the towing industry have a pay increase for their employees,” she told me. Someone must litigate for the towing employees.
In addition to the recently-elected upstate Congressman Delgado, Reyna is also running against a career activist named Ana María Archila, who is considered the race’s “progressive choice” and is allied with Jumaane D. Williams’ run for governor. While some observers have noted that Reyna hasn’t campaigned very much, she and Archila are both visibly campaigning more than Delgado, who skipped one of the few public debates in the race – broadcast on PIX11 last week. City and State editor Ralph Ortega writes that the “primary race for lieutenant governor has turned out to be one of the hottest” campaigns to watch at the end of the month.
“The opportunity to be able to serve as deputy Brooklyn borough president is a perfect example of how people considered that role to be ceremonial. It wasn’t for me,” Reyna told the debate’s hosts.
Which is to say that she could still win. Crazier things have happened.
Top image taken at Brooklyn Borough Hall by the Borough President’s office.
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