Interviews & Profiles

Selvena Brooks-Powers on the being the first candidate elected in an instant runoff

An interview with the new member of the New York City Council from Queens.

New York City Council candidate Selvena Brooks-Powers.

New York City Council candidate Selvena Brooks-Powers. Selvena for Queens

Recently elected New York City Council Member Selvena Brooks-Powers emerged victorious in her Feb. 23 special election for District 31 in Southeast Queens, only the second time ranked-choice voting has been used in New York City. But this wasn’t Brooks-Powers first foray into the voting system that is brand-new to New York City. “Several years ago, I had an opportunity of working on a ranked-choice race in San Francisco, and never realizing that years later, we would have rank choice voting here in New York City,” Brooks-Powers said. That was in 2012. Fast forward to 2021, her special election represented the first time the city ever used ranked-choice voting tabulation to determine a winner.

Brooks-Power held a narrow lead on election night, but it would take several weeks before she officially came out on top. When all was said and done, with votes redistributed during the count, she emerged with over 50%. City & State Brooks-Powers caught up with City & State to discuss the significance of her victory, her priorities and electing more women to the City Council. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Your election was the first ranked-choice vote counting process. What was it like, being part of this historic moment of New York City electoral history?

Just having to wait several weeks to even get to that point and was, you know, kind of intense on certain days, especially considering that you have to pivot to run for reelection right after, not knowing what the outcome was for the special. But (in) hindsight, I think it's pretty special. 

Looking at ranked-choice voting, did you rank on your ballot? 

I did rank it. I don't remember the necessary order that I ranked – no, no, I take that back. I did rank it. I did rank it. And for me, I looked at what the different candidates were saying, you know, but I ranked it. I did not rank all the ways there were the five though.

Who was your second choice?

(laughing) I’d rather not.

You picked up around 1,000 votes by the end of the process, far more than second-place finisher Pesach Osina. What does that tell you about your coalition, the race you ran and the support you received?

I think that what it tells me is that the goal that I had to be able to appeal to people, even if I was not their first choice, helped to propel me in that way. And what I think it does is it gives me an even more special duty, more intentional duty, in terms of continuing to bridge these divides in our community and to work with everyone, right? So just because someone had a different number one, that's okay. Because it's about the community and coming together. And I think that when you appeal to someone else who has a different number one, it gives that person – they feel comfortable and confident knowing that if their person doesn't win, that you're not going to forget about them, too. 

What are some of your top priorities right now? 

I've been focused on getting the office off the ground, getting staffed up as quickly as possible because we are in the midst of budget season... to make sure that we're able to expand the capacity of the services we provide to the constituents. I also focus obviously on the COVID-19 recovery. So I've been working to schedule meetings with a number of commissioners and folks in the different spaces around getting better access, or more access, to the vaccines… (and) working to try and expand our Cure Violence program in the community because we've seen a significant increase in gun violence across the district. Also wanting to explore and secure resources for our small businesses that have been suffering as a result of the pandemic. 

What are some of your priorities specifically looking ahead to the budget?

Definitely, education is important. Our seniors are important. Food insecurity, if you've been following me, you would know that that's something that's very important to me in this community, how we expand access to quality food. And again, the Cure Violence element, those are some of the top budget priorities that I want to look at. 

Your district has been hit hard (by COVID-19) and vaccination rates are still low. What kinds of changes will you be fighting to get better access, better equity and more resources?

Obviously wanting to make sure we continue to provide access to PPE to residents, but also continue to advocate for testing and vaccination resources into the district. I know that we are looking to see if we can do some vaccine pop ups in the community. I want to partner with our churches around that and other entities where people go so that we can be able to educate, continue to educate the community on this as well.

And before getting elected, you were involved with the JFK development program to overhaul and modernize the airport in your district. 

The redevelopment program sets out to be one of the largest transformative projects in recent history in the community that presents so much opportunity, the potential for so much opportunity when you talk about workforce, when you talk about contracts and opportunities for MWBEs. Those are areas that are very important to me in terms of diversity and inclusion and representation. And so now that I am a Council member, I will play a different role on the advisory council. So before I was an ex-officio member, as a staff person. But now, I will be representing my constituency on the advisory council and working with the Port Authority and Terminal Developers to ensure that they deliver on the promises that they made to the community.

You have another race to run in June, the Democratic primary. What are you expecting in that race?

I suspect there will be some people that are running. I won't know until people get placed on the ballot. 

The petitioning started before the special was finalized, right?

It was awkward, because when you go back to people to ask them to sign a petition, they're like, “Well, did you win?” They wanted to know the results of the last election, and we had to explain, we're still waiting, at the time, we were still waiting for the vote to even be counted.

Anything else you want to mention?

I’m looking to also use this election as something that helps propel more women into elected office. 21 and ‘21 was my very first public endorsement. It was so important for them to be my first because I felt like it was going to give me the momentum needed… I'm pretty excited about it and want to continue to keep the momentum going.

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