New York City

Alejandra Caraballo, transgender trailblazer, eyes City Council run

A Q&A with the Brooklyn lawyer and community board member on her campaign for Laurie Cumbo’s seat.

Alejandra Caraballo, a trans Latina and Democratic socialist, could just make history as the first trans person ever elected to the City Council.

Alejandra Caraballo, a trans Latina and Democratic socialist, could just make history as the first trans person ever elected to the City Council. Submitted

With the vast majority of New York City Council members reaching their term limits next year, 2021 is shaping up to be an incredibly busy election year as more and more candidates announce their campaigns. In particular, more than a dozen LGBTQ candidates have already declared, and they will be seeking to refill the council’s LGBTQ ranks as each of the five members of the council’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Caucus will be out of office by 2022. Alejandra Caraballo, a trans Latina and democratic socialist, could make history as the first trans person elected to the City Council, as she seeks to replace the term-limited Council Member Laurie Cumbo in Central Brooklyn.

Caraballo joins the likes of Marti Gould Cummings, a nonbinary drag performer vying for Mark Levine’s seat, and Elisa Crespo, a trans woman and aide to Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. who is running to replace Ritchie Torres, with her announcement. Caraballo already made history when she became the first trans person appointed to a Brooklyn community board last year. But she’s not running just to be the first. She spoke with City & State about what motivated her to run, how she would differ from Cumbo and how her background as a civil rights attorney would prepare her for the office. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What inspired you to run for New York City Council?

I’ve been contemplating running for a little while, but I think really what instilled a sense of urgency in me to announce and to run for this cycle in particular has been the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests. In particular, I lost a friend and mentor in Lorena Borjas. And she served as a major inspiration to me. She provided most of the clients that I represented in my legal work, and she was a real mother to the trans Latinx community. Beyond that, what really kind of just gave me the final push was the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted in late May, early June. I was out there protesting almost every single day and at a particular protest here in Brooklyn, my partner was pushed back back by a police officer in full riot gear and she hit her head on the pavement. And later that day, I was nearly run over by a police cruiser. And so what that really instilled in me was, you know, even as an attorney, as a civil rights attorney, somebody who really knows their rights and the way that the law is supposed to work, none of that protected me. And nothing was done to hold the officers accountable. And so what really motivated me is particularly the budget vote. That vote where (the New York City Council) said they were going to cut and meaningfully reform the police, but they just shifted around some funds and called it a day.

What more can you tell me about how your interactions with trans activist Lorena Borjas shaped you?

I first met Lorena about four years ago, when I first started at New York Legal Assistance Group. She sent me over a giant list of potential clients that she was helping that she said needed legal help. That kind of started the relationship with her. But beyond that, I became involved with her Colectivo (Intercultural) Transgrediendo, which is a collective that she started and would have weekly meetings on Saturdays. I helped her organize the first Trans Fest last year. But in particular, the way that she really influenced me is that, she showed up. She showed up day in, day out. It didn’t matter if she wasn’t feeling well. It didn’t matter if she was having a bad day. She would go to the ends of the earth for her community. And it’s just that level of persistence, that selflessness, that really is just unmatched. She made sure that she was heard regardless, and she made sure that the people that she was helping were heard. So that just pure selflessness and just advocacy on her part, it was just such an inspiration. I just count myself lucky to be able to have known such a tremendous trans icon.

You’re running for Laurie Cumbo’s seat, who was integral to getting this year’s budget passed. She has been a vocal critic of the defund the police movement and the Democratic Socialists of America as not representing the desires of her constituents. How does that play into your race?

In my years here being in the community and my time on the community board, I’ve really seen that she doesn’t really have the support of the community. Whenever her representative would come to community board meetings, they would be booed. She’s always been deeply unpopular, and a lot of groups have had a lot of animus towards her. She was elected with a ton of real estate money in 2013 and so it’s kind of hypocritical for her to say, well, these are gentrifiers when these are lifelong residents of New York City who have deeply held beliefs about how the police should be run and how they should be held accountable. My approach will be to welcome community groups. I really want to keep my office door open for any groups that want to say their piece, rather than have an antagonistic relationship. I think that the ramifications of the budget vote where she got $16 million for her constituents and other City Council members who, like Carlos Menchaca, voted their conscience and really wanted to see meaningful reform, they got no money for their constituents. They were cut. I think that kind of hardball tactics, that’s the kind of dark side of politics that really needs to end.

I know you currently serve on the community board, but how long have you lived in the neighborhood?

I’ve been living here for seven years. I moved here for law school, from Tampa, Florida. New York City represented an opportunity for me to be myself in a way that I couldn’t necessarily be in Tampa, Florida. Being a trans woman, particularly trans women of color, we have a life expectancy of 35. So it’s particularly dangerous and not, you know, safe in so many different communities. Where I grew up in Tampa is definitely not as safe and accepting as New York has been, and this community has welcomed me with open arms. And I feel like I share that kinship in a way with a lot of members of my community.

You could become the first trans person, let alone trans person of color, to be elected to the City Council. What does that potentially historic aspect of your campaign mean to you?

One of the things that I’ve experienced throughout my career and my life as being a trans Latina lawyer means being the first in a lot of things. I was the first openly trans community board member here in Brooklyn. But also just in my day-to-day work, it was not uncommon when I was working with my clients for them to tell me, “You’re the first trans lawyer I’ve ever even met.” It’s always been important to me to keep that in mind. But at the end of the day, being the first in something isn’t the kind of end goal in and of itself. It’s to have meaningful representation and to also uplift the overall community. I don’t want to be known just as the trans candidate. But at the same time, this is the home of Stonewall. We’ve been here now 50-plus years, and we have never elected a trans person, let alone in New York City, but also New York state. And so I think that says something that it’s really time to elect a trans person.

How do you feel your background, whether personal or professional, has made you best suited to represent your community?

From my days in law school when I represented tenants in a legal clinic at Kings County Housing Court, I’ve seen firsthand what evictions mean to people and the scary process. Overall, I’ve worked with clients who are at the margins in society and the people that aren’t always represented in City Council, and they’re not always thought about by the political leaders. I worked with sex workers, undocumented immigrants, undocumented trans immigrants, asylum-seekers (and) survivors of trafficking. And so it’s really grounded my perspective in who we need to be serving. Beyond that, my experiences as an attorney, as an impact litigator, bringing major national litigation, has enabled me to be able to build up quite a bit of knowledge and policy. It’s not just, I want to get such and such and such done. I will actually write out the policies and know what the policies are. I think too often people run for office and don’t know the limitations and the capabilities of their own office.