Commentary

All Politics Is Local: a Guide to Brooklyn’s City Council Races

Our opinionated tip sheet on all of the borough's local contests, plus the race to fill a Senate seat

City Council member Carlos Menchaca at at a Sunset Park rally in support of the Dreamers and other immigrants (Photo by Steve Koepp)

This is the second of The Bridge’s two-part election series, in which we do what few other news organizations dare: provide readers with a comprehensive guide to the choices–sometimes abysmal–faced by every Brooklyn resident with a strong enough stomach to go out and vote on Tuesday. Caveat Democrator!

If there is an overlying worldview here, it is “New York Politics: Funhouse or Theme Park?” To really understand New York politics, one must it explore it at the lowest level, through local races, and we act as your Sherpa through all of them. (Read our guide to citywide and borough-wide races here.)

There are 15 City Council seats entirely in Brooklyn, and one more shared between Brooklyn and Queens. Three of these seats are not being contested at all–the 34th, 36th and 39th, where Democrats are unopposed–and the GOP is fielding candidates in only five of the others for a grand total of 31.25% GOP contenders. My apologies for saying in Part One that the City has one-and-a-half major parties; it’s more like one and a third.

The member of the City Council is the elected official in city government with the smallest constituency, allowing parochialism to be at its most manifest. All told, there are 51 council districts in the Naked City; herewith a few of their stories:

 33rd  Council District

If you believe her story, as late as February 2017, Greenpoint native Victoria Cambranes was living in England, where she’d attended graduate school and was working in marketing for a travel search engine. Shocked and repulsed by the defeat of Hillary Clinton, she made the counterintuitive decision to come back to America. Returning home, she became an activist on neighborhood road- and construction-safety issues.

Dissatisfied with what she felt was the lukewarm response of her council member, Stephen Levin (Democrat/Working Families), she decided to challenge him, walked into the Board of Elections for advice, and was told it was too late to run on anything but an independent nominating petition. She is now running as the “Progress for All” candidate.

Incumbent City Council member Stephen Levin (Photo via City Council)

Councilman Levin, once thought of as a Democratic regular, has long since allied himself with the pragmatic school of progressivism whose standard bearer is the mayor. It also helps his cause that he’s affable, thoughtful and hardworking. But his support for using zoning, public assets, tax abatements and the like to accomplish his goals has attracted the anger of those who think there is some magic alternative method for the city to get things done.

It is perfectly OK to says that sometimes such goals must yield to other concerns. What is not OK is to pretend that you can have both. Cabranes has attracted the support of the magical-realist school of progressivism who believe you can, as well as NIMBY-ites of all political stripes.

There is something inspiring about Cabranes. Her story would make a great movie. Whether it will make for great governing is a different matter.

35th Council District

Incumbent Laurie Cumbo (Democrat/Working Families) is a paradox. In a city of rough edges, she exudes poise and class (she used to run an art museum). She has an intuitive sense of people and how to charm them and make them feel at ease. She remembers your kids’ names and their interests and she really seems to care.

A good politician makes you want to have a beer with them. Cumbo could sell you the tavern. She has, over time, committed some cringe-worthy public malaprops, large and small. But even those most likely to find offense in such statements, like the Crown Heights Hasidic leadership, find Cumbo to be someone they are very comfortable working with.

Cumbo is generally in line with her very liberal, very racially mixed district, but her affinity for the poorest members of her community has led her to support development which has often attracted fervent opposition. Most recently and dramatically  this raised its head in the fight over residential development of the Bedford-Union Armory in Crown Heights. The development would include 330 units of new rental housing, about half of them classified as “affordable.”

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Under pressure from opponents, Cumbo now says she opposes the development in its present form, but few believe she will oppose it in the end. In the recent primary, Cumbo faced a primary from Ede Fox, a smart former council aide and fervent opponent of the armory project, who got 42% of the vote and the support of hardcore progressives.

Development opponents and left-wing critics of Cumbo’s support for de Blasio-style progressivism have now rallied around the unlikely candidacy of Green Party candidate Jabari Brisport, who is also running as a Socialist. An actor who teaches at an SAT prep course, Brisport is a well-versed proponent of what a hard-left version of city government might look like (not much respect for the bourgeoisie concept of private property). He has attracted a lot of support from former Fox supporters and will probably attract a stronger vote than any Green candidate in the City.

Incumbent city-council candidate Laurie Cumbo, with Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams

There’s also a Republican, Christine Parker, whose background in the arts world is remarkably similar to Cumbo’s. Her main focus is on school vouchers, and she has actually been campaigning. Kudos to her for actually making the effort, but she will likely come in third.

37th Council District

This Bushwick/Cypress Hills-based district meanders a bit into Queens. Incumbent Rafael Espinal Jr. (Democrat) was once portrayed as a socially conservative political flunky by people like me, but now projects as a smart, earnest young man with a great future. His endorsement last year of Bernie Sanders baffled friends and foes alike, while some of his pet causes, like the well-being of Holocaust survivors, would seem to convey him no political development (even if he were to run for higher office, many of those he’s championed are so old they may well be gone by then).

His opponent, the Green Party’s Persephone Sarah Jane Sanderson-Smith is frank in her preference for Jill Stein over Bernie. Her Green Party candidate statement says she’s “a versatile musician, who plays the trumpet, trombone, piano, violin, bass, and guitar. She has played in ska, reggae, and punk bands. She loves surfing, video games, and comics.” Her political priorities, according to city’s Campaign Finance Board Voter’s Guide, are affordable housing, education, anti-gentrification and community sustainability. A formerly homeless Navy veteran, if elected she would be the first transgender member of the City Council.

38th Council District

Incumbent Carlos Menchaca (Democrat/Working Families), one of the council’s most left-wing members, has just survived a primary against four more-moderate candidates, including Felix Ortiz, normally considered an extremely liberal assemblyman. Last-place primary finisher Delvis Valdes, despite a long record as a community activist, attracted most of his attention in the race for his seemingly less-than-sterling record as a landlord. He is now on the ballot as the Reform candidate. The Conservative Party is running Allan Romaguera, who is making his 8th run for public office (usually as a Republican) without seemingly ever spending a cent or articulating a position in public.

The only Menchaca opponent actually making a race of it is the Green Party’s Carmen Hulbert, a former Bernie Sanders delegate occupying the tiny space of the political spectrum to Menchaca’s left. Perhaps if Menchaca had lost the primary, Hulbert could serve a similar function to Jibari Brisport in District 35, but it is hard to see what point she is making in this race.

40th Council District 

Incumbent Mathieu Eugene (Democrat) first won election to this seat in 2007 in a special election with the support of his predecessor, Yvette Clarke, who’d been elected to Congress. He won his second election to the seat a few weeks later, after he refused to sign sworn documents saying he lived in the district at the time of the election and the seat was again declared vacant, forcing the seat to pay twice for the costs of the special election.

Whether Eugene actually lives in the district is still an open question, but he can truthfully swear that he rents an apartment there. Haitian-born Eugene is graduate of a Mexican medical school, but has never been licensed to practice medicine in the U.S.  Progressives have never been fond of Eugene, who, before his election, sometimes contributed money to Republicans and has never shown great enthusiasm for pet causes of progressives.

Or anyone else’s pet causes. Progressives are not alone in their disdain. On primary day this year, despite his decade of service (or, more likely, because of it) almost 60% of the voters of his district voted for someone else. But they were divided three ways, among candidates with relatively similar messages.

Eugene’s runner up, Brian Cunningham, a former legislative aide, is still running, on the Reform line, and he’s running a real race. He recently acquired the support, but not the ballot line, of the Working Families Party. Though it’s not very likely, Cunningham has a chance of winning. Also theoretically in the race is Conservative Brian Kelly, making his 8th run for office since he first started in 1970. As usual, Kelly’s campaign ended when his petitions were filed, and his most likely impact will be to bleed a few votes away from people who confuse him with Cunningham.

41st Council District

Alicka Ampry-Samuel (Democrat/Working Families), a former Democratic district leader and legislative aide who won the primary for this East Brooklyn district faces off against against Berneda Jackson (Republican/Conservative) and Christopher Carew (Solutions). In an interview with now-defunct DNAinfo, Samuel said her top priority will be affordable housing to her district, including programs to help residents buy their homes. “I would like to see housing in the district that speaks to mixed income for everyone, as well as options to purchase a home,” she said. “Housing is everyone’s focus right now, so it has to be my focus.”

Jackson is on her third try for office after two runs for the assembly seat that largely tracks this district. Each time, she got barely above 2% of the vote. She is at least pretending to run a campaign. However, she told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle,“I’m going to advocate for a stronger Social Security and Medicare safety net for our seniors,” suggesting she is out of touch with the limits of what the City Council actually does.

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Carew, who claims to have founded a flea market and an apparel company, attempted to run in the Democratic primary, but did not make the ballot, nor did he manage to submit a statement for the Campaign Finance Board Voter’s Guide, so it’s hard to conceive that he can really manage a solution to anything, though it appears he is obsessed with urban farming.

42nd Council District

Charles Barron, who once held this seat, is perhaps most famous for saying he wanted to slap a white person for his mental health. Anyway, that’s just the tip of the iceberg, which includes spreading lies about poor old Jimmy Carter.

While he occupied the council seat, the local assembly seat became vacant and Barron helped elected his wife Inez to the job, so that she could hold the slot until he got hit by term limits, and then switch jobs with each other. I guess sending Charles to Albany was a good thing. Meanwhile, Inez (Democrat) is the council incumbent. She thinks a lot like Charles does, but is a lot quieter, which is a blessed improvement.

She is opposed by Mawuli Hormeku on the Reform line. Hormeku also ran against Barron in the primary and got 16% of the vote. According to his website, his priority is “L.O.V.E.”, which stands for Legacy, Ownership, Vocations and Education. What a novelty: a candidate for the 42nd district who preaches L.O.V.E. instead of hatred. Also in the race is Conservative Ernest Johnson, now on his 12th race for public office without ever hitting 5% of the vote.

43rd Council District

Justin Brannan (Democrat/Working Families), formerly an aide to Councilman Vincent Gentile, faces off against John Quaglione (Republican/Conservative/Independence), currently an aide to State Senator Marty Golden. This may be the only real Democratic vs. Republican race in Brooklyn this year (there is arguably one more, in the 48th district).

Also in the race is Republican Primary loser Bob Capano (a Reform candidate and former aide to former Congressman Vito Fossella), now causing agita for Quaglione by still showing up at debates and outflanking him on his right. To balance this off, someone managed to qualify Angel Medina, who lives far from the district, as the only Women’s Equality Party candidate in the borough, but there’s no sign that anyone is aware that he’s running.

Quaglione once ran unsuccessfully against Gentile for City Council and, if elected, would be the GOP’s anointed one to take over the Senate seat in the event Golden retires. He’s a fairly standard-issue Bay Ridge Republican of the old school whose basic platform is Bring Back the ’50s, and they mean Pat Boone, not Fats Domino.

John Quaglione, Republican candidate for City Council from Bay Ridge

But the rocker in this race plays a very different sort of rock ‘n’ roll. Yes, Justin Brannan played and sang in a hardcore band. He has also worked on Wall Street. He is what old-school Bay Ridge looks like in the 21st Century. He is a Democrat of liberal instincts, but with the sort of caution old Bay Ridgers think of as common sense. Justin is Bay Ridge through-and-through, so he may be the one guy who can understand both ends of this rapidly changing neighborhood, where the old guard still holds sway—for now.

44th Council District

Last year, Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents most of this area in Albany, pulled a neat trick. He filed petitions to run for re-election to his position as the area’s disloyal Democratic State Committee member, and then, once sure he was unopposed, he filed a declination and used his petition’s Committee to Fill Vacancies to handpick his successor without his having to face a contested election.

Now, someone else in the area pulled a similar stunt and Hikind is furious. Unable to sue for copyright infringement, he’s running his son Yoni (a social worker who let his license lapse after his father got him a job with an agency he’s obtained funds for) with the City Council.

David Greenfield, an incumbent council member who was unchallenged for re-election, filed his petitions and then accepted a high-paying job at the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. He then substituted his protégé, Kalman Yeger, an attorney who has worked for various elected officials, and who was running for a different seat until the substitution.

I would normally have suspected the substitute was completely premeditated, but by pure accident, I know the truth. The last night to file petitions, I attended a wake in Bay Ridge. Leaving after a decent interval, I picked up a charcoal-smoked pastrami sandwich at Jay and Lloyd’s in Sheepshead Bay and decided to eat it over at District Leader Lew Fidler’s nearby clubhouse, which I had not visited for over half a year.

Walking in to the surprise of those present, I discovered  a big meeting concerning Kalman Yeger’s campaign against Chaim Deutsch (the seat next to Greenfield’s) was about to commence. Kalman arrived, having just been knocking on doors. Then came Greenfield, who basically ran the meeting along with Fidler. It was intensive and comprehensive, focusing even on minor items like targeted mailings. Although it later became clear that Greenfield knew at the time that he was in the running for a new job, what I witnessed were not the actions of a fake campaign.

Unlike other instances where this has taken place, the consequences are not conclusive. This is a district (including parts of Midwood, Borough Park and Bensonhurst) where Democrats lose as often as they win in federal, state and citywide races. So when Yeger switched races and Hikind decided to run his son on a line they called “Our Neighborhood,” Yeger had a real race, even with both the Democrat and Conservative lines.

Hikind and Greenfield, despite both being devout Jews focused on the peculiar issues of ultra-Orthodox Jews, are very different flavors. Hikind’s original official biography began with a racially charged narrative about changing neighborhoods. And in recent years, he attracted notice for dressing up in blackface for Purim. In Albany, he doesn’t even bother serving on a committee and seems more interested in being a tribal chieftain than a legislator. He devotes more effort to funneling money to right-wing parties in Israel and to groups which create jobs for his offspring than in doing his mundane legislative homework By contrast, Greenfield is a bright, bread-and-butter legislator who runs the Land Use Committee and engages comfortably with the wider world.

This seems to be mirrored in their choices for council. Yeger is no flaming liberal, but he is a traditional Democrat on economic issues and has worked for more than one minority elected official. By contrast, Yoni Hikind seems to have been cloistered even within his cloistered world. Some secular supporters have have been saying that his social-work training has made him something of a relative liberal, and that he has little interest in stirring up hatred on social issues. But if this is true, he’s keeping quiet about it, while his campaign spreads wild rumors that Yeger has been endorsed by Linda Sarsour.

Some have questioned whether Hikind is up to the job. The Daily News called him “out of his depth.” Even those who may be uncomfortable with an insider as consummate as Yeger may have met their limits in this race.

There’s also a third candidate, Harold Tischler (School Choice), most noteworthy for doing federal time for immigration fraud, and for being the father of Abe and Mo, two young Borough Park political upstarts.

45th Council District

Incumbent Jumaane Williams (Democrat/Working Families) has been a substantive legislator, with a strong personal narrative (he suffers from Tourette’s), who has courageously pursued sticky issues like police misconduct. But he has had a streak of socially conservative views on marriage equality and abortion which he has problems grappling with. This helped sink his efforts to become council speaker four years ago and was doing the same this time around.

Williams’ only opponent, Anthony Beckford, is enrolled as a Democrat, but also identifies as a Green. He’s running in the very tiny space to the left of Williams on economic issues, but was also running in the large space to Williams’ left on social issues. This wasn’t going to win Beckford the election, but it at least gave voters who cared an outlet for their protest and gave Beckford a rationale. But on Oct. 26, more in response to the speaker’s race than this election, Williams gave an interview to Gay City News and announced his evolution on both choice and LGBT rights.

46th Council District

Alan Maisel (Democrat) is everyone’s nice Jewish uncle, a hardworking legislator acutely attuned to the bread and butter concerns of his district. His only opponent, real-estate broker Jeffrey Feretti (Conservative), is on his fifth race for local office. Back when the GOP bothered to back him, Feretti did as well as 26% and made some show of actually campaigning. Those days are apparently over.

47th Council District

Incumbent Mark Treyger (Democrat/Working Families) faces Raimondo Denaro (Republican/Conservative), an actual party activist, who is president of a Republican club. Treyger is a cautiously moderate-liberal southern Brooklyn Democrat, about as close to a progressive as this eclectic and changing area will currently abide.

Denaro is a fire-breathing Trumpian true believer that we are living in a dystopian wasteland, who thinks that every day brings us “tragedy after tragedy.” Denaro says “drug crimes and death are becoming the norm.” This would be arguable if he were running in Brownsville, but he’s running in Bensonhurst. Denaro wants to return us to “how things were before.” The man doesn’t need a council seat. He needs some Prozac.

48th Council District

Incumbent Chaim Deutsch (Democrat) is being challenged by Steven Saperstein (Republican/Conservative/Reform). This area, which runs from Midwood south to Brighton Beach, has a history of supporting Republicans in federal, state and citywide races.  Deutsch is one of the council’s most conservative members, but he keeps being opposed by people to his right. In the primary, he faced an opponent, Marat Filler, who circulated literature accusing him of being pro-LGBT, when it would be more accurate to say Deutsch is more interested in filling potholes than trumpeting his socially conservative beliefs.

And in the general, he faces a real campaign from Saperstein, although one would have trouble fitting a caraway seed in the space between their differences on the issues. The GOP strength here lies in the Russian and Orthodox Jewish communities. Saperstein is neither, while Deutsch is practically a Satmar without a beaver hat. Plus, the Russian leaders who opposed Deutsch last time out are now mostly in his corner.

Could an anti-de Blasio landslide here bring in Saperstein on its coattails? Possible, but not likely. De Blasio lost this district last time and Deutsch still won, against a stronger Republican.

Special Election: State Senate District 26

Daniel Squadron, elected as the very model of a Brownstone reformer from this Manhattan/Brooklyn seat, resigned his seat in midterm, too late for the seat to be filled in a primary. After intrigues which would have shamed the Borgias, and an interpretation of the party rules utterly without precedent, Democratic leaders concocted a nominating process in which the guy who lost the nominating convention 72% to 28%, assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, got the nod.

Kavanagh (Democrat/Working Families) is opposed by Analicia Alexander (Republican) an associate bilingual pre-K teacher at the Berkeley Carroll School in Park Slope. Alexander isn’t even pretending to run a campaign, but I’m predicting she does even less well than Kavanagh did at the nominating convention.

Howard Graubard, an attorney, Brooklyn resident and former aide to the State Senate Minority Leader, blogged about local, state and national politics at Ben Smith’s “Room 8” (and elsewhere) in 2006-16 under the pseudonym “Gatemouth” (no one was fooled)