Marcela Mitaynes is taking the tenant tussle to Albany
Marcela Mitaynes is taking the tenant tussle to Albany
Tenant organizer Marcela Mitaynes became the first of five democratic socialist insurgents to topple longtime Assembly members with her upset victory against Assembly Member Félix Ortiz in the 51st District in south Brooklyn. Ortiz has been in the Assembly for 26 years and held a leadership role in the Assembly as assistant speaker, second in command to Speaker Carl Heastie, who poured money into Ortiz’s campaign coffers to support him. But none of that protected him from losing his primary contest against Mitaynes, who came from behind to beat him once all the absentee ballots were counted. With Mitaynes all but assured to win the November general election, she’s very likely headed to Albany in January.
Although five democratic socialists emerged victorious against incumbents, Mitaynes was one of three who had been endorsed by the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, who helped support her campaign. She is joined by two victorious state Senate candidates endorsed by NYC-DSA; the group’s entire state legislative slate won on primary day. Mitaynes spoke with City & State about her victory, her history in the tenant movement and the expanding influence of democratic socialist ideals. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was your victory like after initially trailing in election night results?
I was not expecting to get an answer on Election Day. I think that I was just preparing for what could be a long, drawn-out process. It was exciting to hear that we were slowly catching up, catching up, catching up, and then had surpassed. The election was on the 23rd and on the 29th, I went back to work full time. So I was actually on a conference call discussing how to deal with the courts opening and these impending huge evictions that are going to happen because folks don't have money. And then when I finished my call, my campaign manager called me and I was just shocked. I couldn't believe it. It was done. It was officially over, he had conceded, we had won, and then it was just amazing that we had managed to pull off such a huge upset.
And what was it like seeing your fellow democratic socialists succeed soon after you and your own legislative group expanding?
We were all on pins and needles. We have our own group chat, and were talking and trying to figure out when each one of our districts was going to start (counting ballots). I was updating them as I was getting updates from my campaign, so we’ve been kind of doing all of this together. It was difficult because we weren’t sure what was going to happen. But we’ve been holding each other’s hands all along the way. And I think we’ve really been supportive and pushing each other. It was just exciting as one by one (we) started declaring victory, and then to think about the possibilities of what we can do once we get to Albany.
I saw (state Senate nominee) Jabari Brisport tweet about how the democratic socialist lunch table keeps growing. What are your plans for Albany and making your five voices as impactful as they can be in a 150-person chamber?
Part of what we’re doing is not just running elections with the goal to win, but we’re building movements and helping those movements grow. And now we're going to have resources that we didn't have at our disposal before. Continuing to work with our colleagues and continue to push for working-class people. Who knows what’s gonna happen? We joke around about being roommates up there together too. It's also understanding these changes are not going to happen overnight, especially (as) someone that came up through the tenant movement, and has spent 10 years going up to Albany fighting for (the new rent laws) we finally won in 2019. We realized that in order for us to make those real changes that we want, we needed to start changing the representation that we had.
For you, as an immigrant, Indigenous Peruvian woman of color, what does it mean to have your voice represented in state government?
This is a huge victory for immigrants everywhere. As someone who has advocated for working-class folks, as someone who has advocated for monolingual Spanish speakers within my community, it’s been difficult at times to occupy those spaces, to be heard, to be accepted in the role of leadership that I had. So the fact that I was able to unseat a 26-year incumbent, and then heading up to Albany is really amazing. To be able to have the opportunity to be one of those changes where the government is really reflective and representative of its people is something that I don’t take lightly. And I hope that I inspire other folks to get involved as well.
What inspired you specifically to run now, and not two years ago or four years ago?
I’ve spent years educating folks on their rights, building leadership, taking that up to Albany and having those conversations. Over the years, I've seen the relationship between some organizers and community members and their state representatives, and I've always felt that it needed to be a partnership, working together. And it just never felt like housing was an interest or was a priority to the incumbent. I think that was a really big turning point for me, feeling frustrated. I knew that if someone would run on a housing platform, that it would resonate. And it was very apparent when Sen. (Zellnor) Myrie ran on that platform (in 2018) that you were able to win an election running on a platform and changes that are impacting people in your community. And for me also, for someone who started this journey as someone, like many New Yorkers, who ended up getting displaced and evicted from a home that they have lived in for many, many years, it's an opportunity to come full circle and to really be impactful.
When did that eviction happen? Were you involved with the tenant movement before then?
When I was 5, my dad moved us to a two-bedroom rent-stabilized apartment here in Sunset Park. I’d lived in that apartment for more than 30 years. But in 2006, I got a new landlord, and within six months, he displaced half of the families in the building. And to see so much change within six months, we were all scared. But we were also very unaware of the rights that we had and very unaware of the type of housing that we had, which is a rent-stabilized apartment, that actually has much more protection for tenants than other types of housing. I wasn't involved in tenant organizing. I didn't know there was a community organization in my neighborhood that actually helped tenants with this. By the time I got connected, I kind of figured out things on my own. But I was able to start working with them. And I’ve really been able to learn a lot and grow and really be able to bring folks into that space and help the leadership that was instrumental in getting us the historic rent laws that we got in 2019.
Living through this pandemic, many are struggling more than ever to pay rent. What sort of action should the state take to help them, that would also be financially feasible?
We need a rent suspension for the duration of the pandemic and probably some time after that. What's being proposed now is just to push the debt down the road, but that's not really going to help anyone. We need to finish what we started last year and pass the Good Cause Eviction bill so that we can give basic tenant protections to all tenants in the state of New York. We need to invest in social housing. And we really need to focus on the homeless. Everyone deserves a home, especially in the middle of this pandemic. The amount of money that the city spends on a (homeless) individual is something like $3,000 to either put them up in a hotel or keep them in the shelter system. That's more than enough money to pay someone's rent. And I know that we are in a time where there isn't any money, but there's also a huge push to tax the rich.
Do you think new taxes on the rich will generate enough money for all the social programs that you and other democratic socialists are pushing for?
I think that it would be enough to cover it. But let's be honest. The truth is (it’s) the federal government's responsibility to take care of its people, and they haven't been doing a good job. So the federal government definitely needs to step in. The state government needs to step in. The city government needs to step in. We're talking about systemic changes that are not going to happen overnight. They're going to take time.
When you decided to run, did you have any concern that knocking out an incumbent who was part of the Assembly leadership might have had some negative consequences for the district?
No, because it felt very frustrating for as much as he had this title, we didn't see anything – he touted the relationship he had with the governor, he touted his position inside of the system, but it didn't resonate to more resources or the community benefiting from it.
Did the embezzlement scandal in Ortiz’s office play any role in your decision to run?
I think that the embezzlement issue definitely was part of a deciding factor. I think the fact that a lot of people really didn't even know that that happened was also very telling of the way people have just been turned off to politics because they feel like they're being ignored. They feel like all the politicians are corrupt, they feel like they're not being represented and they're not being heard. So that's why it was very frustrating, because there were some of us that wanted to know what was happening and what was going on.