Interviews & Profiles

How Antonio Reynoso will approach being BP

The likely next leader of Brooklyn addresses rezonings, bike lanes and more.

Brooklyn borough president nominee Antonio Reynoso

Brooklyn borough president nominee Antonio Reynoso Reynoso for Brooklyn

It’s early in the afternoon. Too early to catch the group of mostly retired older men begin their dominoes tournament in the back of a Williamsburg bodega, according to Democratic Brooklyn borough president nominee Antonio Reynoso, who is translating for the Spanish-speaking owners.

Before coming to the convenience store, Reynoso told me that these private and illegal games – even though players are typically only betting for bottles of beer – are among his favorite things about the neighborhood where he grew up. Why? Because they’re a part of the rich tapestry of the south side of Williamsburg that few people get to see, other than those enmeshed in the community. “We have things in this community that people would see as a negative thing, but I don’t see it that way,” Reynoso said, adding that these games have an important cultural significance for the people who play them, many of whom come from the Dominican Republic.

However, you don’t need Reynoso to show you an underground dominoes game to understand how connected he is to his neighborhood. Walking down just one block, Reynoso is recognized several times by his constituents who stop him to say, “Hi,” and touch base with the man they call “Anthony.” Many of the people in Reynoso’s neighborhood feel like family to him, in part because they’ve known him since he was a kid.

Reynoso still lives in the south side of Williamsburg, not to be confused with south Williamsburg (a hyperspecific distinction often made by “south side” locals, such as Reynoso), which he has been representing for the past eight years, along with Bushwick and Ridgewood, as a council member from District 34. Come November, when it’s presumed he’ll be elected as the next Brooklyn borough president, he’ll be responsible for the entire borough as its new progressive leader, and it will be up to him to show all of his new constituents he’ll look out for them just as much as his current ones.

Reynoso was just about to take off for a combination of vacation and paternity leave for about four weeks, when he met me for an interview. In 2020, he and his wife, Iliana Reynoso, had their second child, Andres. They have an older son, Alejandro, who is 3 years old. Reynoso considers himself a dad before anything else. He said becoming a parent has affected the way he writes policy and views inequities in the city’s neighborhoods. While taking tours of pre-K programs for his older son, Reynoso took note of the ways in which schools need to be updated and the costs required to do so. He has also worked to refurbish nearly all of the playgrounds in his district.

Reynoso’s own experience in the New York City school public school system was lackluster. When he arrived at LeMoyne College, Reynoso only then realized he was unprepared. I made so many sacrifices (to get to college). I was a poor kid. It was a total culture shock,” he recalled. “There was always one white kid in the classroom. And now I’m the only Black kid. It was just a completely different world.”

Reynoso for Brooklyn
Antonio Reynoso

He ended up getting a GPA below 2.0 in his first semester in college, which he attributed to a combination of too much socializing, being thrown into a foreign environment and not putting enough energy into his school work. Reynoso’s college mentor Carl Thomas, who directed the college’s program to prepare and support kids from disadvantaged communities, told City & State that he consistently stressed the importance of working harder to a young Reynoso to no avail. “One of the problems I had with Antonio was that he didn’t study enough,” Thomas said. “So I was continually on this case. I’d call him and say, ‘You’re at least a B student but you’re not putting forth the effort. You’re not working hard enough. You’re getting C’s and that’s not good enough, that shouldn’t be good enough for you.’ So I was continually on his case, from his freshman year all the way up to the senior year.”

While Reynoso may not have listened to Thomas’ advice at the time, the lessons eventually grew to be important after graduation. “Mr. Thomas always said, ‘You’ve got to make goals for yourself,’” Reynoso said. “He always said, ‘Poor people don’t have the luxury of not having set goals.’ So I sought out a plan to become the first Dominican congressman in the history of the United States. Adriano Espaillat beat me to it. But it was still my goal.”

After graduating from college with a degree in political science, Reynoso set out on his plan to get involved in politics and eventually run for office. He began his career as a community organizer for ACORN, and in 2009, he started working for New York City Council Member Diana Reyna as her chief of staff.

Marc Lapidus, Reynoso’s political consultant at Red Horse Strategies, told City & State that Reynoso stood out while working on Reyna’s reelection campaign. “He was managing that campaign and it just struck me how hard of a worker he was,” Lapidus said. “He was just all in, did whatever it took. Which, for a campaign, is a quality that is sort of like gold, if you will. Someone who just gets it, is very smart, understands why we’re doing something and does the job until it’s done. I would never have to worry about whether Antonio would get something done.”

Over the years, Lapidus and Reynoso worked together while Reyna was in office and when Reynoso eventually made his goal of running for office clear. “Over the course of those few years, our relationship got stronger and at some point, he was just like, ‘I want to do this. I want to run for office,’” said Lapidus, who helped guide him early on and build a network of local support.

Reynoso won Reyna’s seat in 2013, after she hit the term limits of the office, and he has remained in that role for the past eight years.

Throughout his time on the City Council, Reynoso has made a name for himself as a young, progressive lawmaker who has called for more community-driven rezonings and more bike lane infrastructure, among many other things.

Reynoso has frequently criticized the city’s approach to planning. In early 2020, he was a part of an effort led by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Member Brad Lander to create a new guide that would address planning for land use, zoning, and investments in infrastructure.

Reynoso also helped create the Bushwick Community Plan, which exemplified his ethos when it comes to community involvement in planning, and was crafted through a series of meetings with local residents, organizations and community boards over four years. The plan aimed to create about 2,000 new affordable housing units, protect manufacturing zones and create historic districts to preserve the neighborhood’s character – all things that community advocates believed would keep locals from being priced out of the area.

The city developed its own plan to rezone Bushwick, known as the Bushwick Neighborhood Plan, which was criticized by Reynoso, who thought it would ramp up gentrification and displace longtime Bushwick residents. The city’s plan called for 5,613 new units, 1,873 of which would have been offered at below-market rates, and would have allowed more development along the neighborhood’s main thoroughfares. Deputy Mayor Vicki Been criticized the community plan as “fundamentally a downzoning,” saying that it would “run counter to the city’s goals for the rezoning, which would be to encourage new mixed-income housing to prevent displacement spurred by current market forces while promoting a diverse, healthy and inclusive neighborhood and city.”

Both plans were shelved by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration in January 2020, following Been’s decision to reject a request from local officials for the city to review the Bushwick Community Plan. However, the mayor’s office said “the door is still open” if local officials decide to negotiate with the city.

“The Mayor’s decision to walk away from Bushwick, continuing the cycle of government neglect the neighborhood has suffered under for the past 50 years, is shameful as it ignores the voice and will of a community,” said Reynoso and Council Member Rafael Espinal Jr. in a statement at the time. “Bushwick will continue to fight for the resources it deserves, it’s what we’ve always had to do.”

As Brooklyn borough president, Reynoso wouldn’t have the final say when it comes to land use decisions, but he would be able to hold public hearings on rezoning proposals. Those meetings could potentially sway council members, who actually vote on rezonings, in his direction.

Reynoso has also been a strong advocate when it comes to expanding the city’s bike infrastructure. Frustrated by community boards’ ability to thwart the installation of bike lanes in his district, even though they do not technically have the final say in these decisions, Reynoso introduced a bill in 2014 to reconfigure the selection process for the boards. The legislation was aimed at eradicating nepotistic appointments, which Reynoso’s team felt was causing dysfunction within these boards. “What happens here is that bike lanes literally get delayed for years over community board opposition, and the (Department of Transportation) puts aside safety for anecdotes and personal experiences that people have on community boards. So that’s my concern,” Reynoso told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 2019.

As borough president, Reynoso will have some control over the community board selection process and can appoint up to half of the members in the borough, which may allow him to enable the changes he has been hoping to see in the boards.

Reynoso defeated his two main competitors in the Democratic primary race for Brooklyn borough president: Council Member Robert Cornegy Jr. and Assembly Member Jo Anne Simon. In the final round of ranked-choice voting, Reynoso won with 55.3% to Simon’s 44.7%, securing the neighborhoods of Sunset Park, Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Clinton Hill, Windsor Terrace, Kensington, Bushwick, Williamsburg and Greenpoint, according to Data Mapper.

Reynoso, who said he wanted to be a “boombox for progressive values” upon announcing his candidacy for borough president in 2019, was unsurprisingly the favorite to win among progressives. He ran on a campaign aimed at creating more community-based health care, tenant protections and affordable housing, expanding transportation alternatives, as well as police reform and decarceration, which mirrored the work he had already done on the City Council. However, what really helped push him across the finish line, according to Camille Rivera, a partner at the political consulting firm New Deal Strategies, was the progressive coalition he built. “He was out there very early (in his campaign), meeting with his community, endorsing candidates that met the needs of the community,” Rivera told City & State. “And I think that was something that many folks weren’t able to do, the way he did.”

Reynoso for Brooklyn
John Liu and Antonio Reynoso

Reynoso received an overwhelming amount of support from fellow progressives, such as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, state Sens. Jessica Ramos and Julia Salazar, and Assembly Member Marcela Mitaynes. Reynoso also had 2,118 individual donors, more than any other candidate.

“He is respected by the progressive movement but he’s also respected by his colleagues across the spectrum,” Rep. Ritchie Torres, a friend and former council member, told City & State. “As a serious legislator with both personal and professional integrity, he committed himself to a cause for the long haul, from the moment he entered office, he spent years doggedly fighting for a fundamental restructuring of the commercial hauling industry, which has long been a leading source of environmental racism. And I saw firsthand, we never gave up or gave in.”

Reynoso was also backed and endorsed by groups such as Make the Road (who worked with him on the Bushwick Community Plan), New York Communities for Change, VOCAL- NY, the New York State Working Families Party and New Kings Democrats.

Tony Melone, communications director for New Kings Democrats, told City & State: “We’ve endorsed him for practically every election he’s run here in Brooklyn because he’s always been a supporter of our goals for reforming the (Democratic) Party here in Brooklyn, in getting out of machine politics and putting power back in the hands of the people of Brooklyn.”

Reynoso is set to make history, should he win the borough presidency in November as expected and become Brooklyn’s first Latino borough president. “This is a Latino elected as the borough president of Brooklyn (for the first time). That’s huge – and an Afro-Latino,” Rivera said.

 “Antonio has emerged as a central Latino leader in the city of New York,” Torres said. “He is set to represent more people than any other Latino elected in the city, he’s about to be the chief executive of Brooklyn.”

It’s Reynoso’s hope that he’ll be able to embody the cheerleader energy of former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, while still making impactful changes on the borough. “He’s got serious policy chops a la Scott Stringer, Gale Brewer and Eric (Adams). So I feel like he has the potential to be a really strong borough president that combines the best of the borough advocate role with figuring out ways to be impactful on a policy level,” Lapidus said.

Reynoso said he wants the borough residents to tell him what they want, once he steps into his new role. “I don’t want to go in there with all the ideas and execute them and have them not necessarily be what the people need or want,” he said.

However, Reynoso said he does have one big goal going into the office and that’s to lower the Black maternal mortality rate in Brooklyn, which was the highest in the city according to a study published by the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in 2016. “I want Brooklyn to be the safest place in the city to have a baby. Period,” Reynoso said.

He plans to use all of the funding accessible to him within his first year in office (5% of the city’s “annual discretionary capital budget each year”) to provide each of the borough’s public hospitals with “state-of-the-art” birthing centers for delivery and postpartum care. This is all a part of Reynoso’s goal of tackling the biggest inequities in the borough. “I’m going to address one topic, address one issue at a time. I’m not spreading the love and spending money on a bunch of different things.”

Despite his progressive goals, Reynoso has concerns that some people will be dubious of his willingness to work with the presumed next mayor of New York City, current Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, whose views tend to be much more moderate. After winning the primary, Reynoso accepted Adams’ invitation to celebrate all of the Democratic winners in the city, where Adams urged unity moving forward.

“I’m a coalition builder, by nature,” Reynoso said. “I just want to do right by the community and I want to help them. And my nervousness (about becoming borough president) comes from me wanting to do that and wanting to be a partner in this work and it not working out and then being held accountable for even trying to build that (coalition with other Democrats).”

Reynoso is excited for what the future holds. As is his mentor, Carl Thomas, who has no doubt Reynoso will continue making strides. He said, “I think he’ll go as high as he can go. I think he’s got the determination, he’s certainly got the personality to appeal to people. And I’m very, very proud of Antonio.”