New York City

The party of gentrifiers is moving into Brooklyn

Four legislative races in Brooklyn will test Democratic Socialists’ appeal to working class voters of color.

Democratic Socialists at the New York City Women's March on Jan. 21, 2017.

Democratic Socialists at the New York City Women's March on Jan. 21, 2017. Kate Way

Upcoming state legislative races in Brooklyn demonstrate that the Democratic Socialists of America are doubling down on their strategy of nominating candidates of color in gentrifying areas. If they combine strong support among young professionals and hold their losing margins among blue-collar voters of color to low-enough margins, some of these candidates could follow in Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and state Sen. Julia Salazar’s footsteps and pull off an upset. 

The DSA recently announced endorsements for Jabari Brisport, Marcela Mitaynes, Boris Santos and Phara Souffrant Forrest, who are running for the seats currently held by Democrats state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery – who is rumored to be considering retirement – Assemblyman Félix Ortiz, Assemblyman Erik Dilan and Assemblyman Walter Mosley, respectively. These longtime lawmakers are loyal, though relatively low-profile, members of the Democratic legislative conferences. Now they are facing primary challenges from left-wing insurgents who say that merely voting the right way is not enough. If Montgomery opts to retire, she could throw her support to Jason Salmon, a former staffer of hers who is running for her seat, and unsuccessfully sought the DSA’s endorsement.

The candidates New York’s DSA backs have yet to prove that they can win political races without relying on the disproportionate support of mostly white, relatively affluent, college-educated voters in gentrifying neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. If you look at the districts this next spate of challengers are running in, each has pockets of those voters, but some will be harder for the DSA-endorsed candidates to win in - unless they can broaden the appeal of socialist candidates outside of the movement’s existing base. 

Ocasio-Cortez won by large margins in gentrifying Astoria, Queens in her 2018 Democratic primary victory over longtime Rep. Joe Crowley, while losing areas with more working-class voters of color, such as East Elmhurst. State Sen. Julia Salazar won big in trendy Williamsburg and western Bushwick in last year’s Democratic primary – while losing to incumbent state Sen. Martin Dilan in some of the minority-heavy areas to the east, including Cypress Hills. A similar dynamic played out in the 2019 Democratic primary for Queens County district attorney. Tiffany Cabán dominated in gentrifying areas in western Queens, but received much less support in the borough’s eastern half. The DSA backed the insurgent candidacies of women of color in these races and it claims to represent the interests of the working class, but their candidates’ support – like their membership itself – is centered on the yuppies and hipsters who have typically grown up in the suburbs and more recently moved into these neighborhoods after college. (This is also true of Salazar and Ocasio-Cortez personally.)

All the targeted candidates are reliable liberals who voted in favor of tenant-friendly rent reforms, landmark climate change legislation and a state budget that set up an appointed commission to set up a statewide system of publicly-financed political campaigns. The DSA-backed candidates, however, are offering themselves as more outspoken alternatives. If the DSA can mobilize its supporters in the upcoming Brooklyn races to canvass voters like Ocasio-Cortez – who has said that she outhustled her opponent – and Salazar were able to do in 2018, then Brisport, Mitaynes, Santos and Forrest have a fighting chance of scoring four more political upsets for the DSA. 

Forrest, a Haitian-American nurse who lives in Crown Heights, is highlighting her past tenant activism in her campaign to unseat Mosley. The district stretches across Central Brooklyn’s Fort Greene, Prospect Heights and Clinton Hill and a small slice of Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Crown Heights. Historically mostly African-American and Caribbean-American, it has been subject to dramatic gentrification in recent years. Forrest has cited Mosley’s past donations from the real estate industry. The charge that Mosley is too cozy with real estate interests would seem to be undercut by the fact that Mosley cosponsored a bill in this past legislative session to prevent landlords from raising the rent more than 1.5 times inflation. Forrest said that she would “push harder” than Mosley did for that bill. 

Defying the conventional wisdom that an underdog candidate needs to draw clear policy distinctions with an incumbent, Forrester has not yet identified any votes Mosley has taken that she opposes. ”I'd have to get back to you on that one,” said Forrest. “He has been lacking in really just … pushing a socialist platform.”

Political experts say that the DSA’s lower level of support thus far among blue-collar New Yorkers of color may not show any antipathy towards their agenda, but merely suspicion of the white people with canvas New Yorker magazine tote bags who arrived in the neighborhood five years ago and now seek to change its political leadership. Enacting tenant-friendly rent laws, establishing a municipal power utility and promoting community land trusts as replacements to privately-owned apartment buildings could resonate with less-affluent voters, according to Lupé Todd-Medina, a political consultant and president of Effective Media Strategies. "I don't think that it's necessarily that residents are not supporting their issues,” she said of the DSA. “Rather, how they are approaching longtime residents and who is the person that is knocking on their door? That's where I think there is a bit of a disconnect.” 

Harry Giannoulis, a political consultant who is president of the Parkside Group, said there are three groups of voters who will likely determine who wins and who loses in these four races. Only one of them is really up for grabs. The first are long-term residents who tend to vote regularly and favor incumbents. The second group are new residents who tend to favor insurgent candidates. The third are longtime residents who skipped voting in the past but have become more politically involved since the election of Donald Trump. While the DSA has had success in wooing this third group in past elections, they cannot take them for granted. “These ‘lazy Dems’ have no allegiances to incumbents and lean progressive,” said Giannoulis. “They are hard to target because they are a subset of a much larger universe of voters (but) incumbents need to expand their pool of possible voters if they want to hold onto their seats.”

A 2018 article in the New Republic on racial disparities within the Democratic Socialist movement shows Brisport carrying a banner urging passage of Medicare for All at the forefront of a Manhattan march by the DSA in which the vast majority of marchers were white millennials. One of the party’s own candidates acknowledged that racial disparities between DSA members and the candidates they endorse. “I am a minority within the group,” said Mitaynes, who immigrated from Peru as a young child, acknowledging the group is mostly white. Mitaynes is running for a seat representing western Brooklyn’s Red Hook, Greenwood Heights and Sunset Park, areas that are historically blue-collar and recently mostly Latino, but are also experiencing gentrification. All four candidates argued that there are opportunities to expand the DSA’s reach into working-class communities of color while still retaining support from more white gentrifiers. “Why is there such a negative connotation with (gentrifiers)?” said Santos. “When you talk about the white progressives with Latinos, with black folks, if all of them are in sync and unified, fighting for the working-class cause, then that's all that matters.” 

The four Brooklyn challengers do have an advantage over past DSA candidates because they all grew up in the areas they want to represent in the state Legislature. This should inoculate them against some of the attacks that targeted Ocasio-Cortez and Salazar in their campaigns. Ocasio-Cortez, who grew up in Westchester County and lived in the Bronx portion of the district faced some criticism from establishment Democrats during her campaign against Crowley because she did not have the depth of community ties that Crowley did, especially in Queens. Salazar is a recent transplant from Florida, via Columbia University, whereas Dilan is native to the district.

This year’s DSA Brooklyn candidates won’t have to combat any carpetbagger narrative. Brisport – a public school teacher who ran as the Green Party candidate against Democratic City Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo in 2017 – notes in his stump speech that he was born in a hospital located within the district he wants to represent, which stretches from Red Hook on the west through Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Downtown Brooklyn, parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Gowanus and slivers of Sunset Park and Park Slope. “I was born in Interfaith Medical,” he said at his Oct. 5 campaign launch. “I’m Brooklyn born through and through.” (Ocasio-Cortez talked often about being born in the Bronx and living there until she was five years old, arguably trying to create the false impression that she grew up in the Bronx, but Brisport was actually raised in Brooklyn.) 

Santos enjoys an additional advantage in challenging Erik Dilan, whose father Martin lost to Salazar in a 2018 primary. The Assembly district that Santos wants to represent overlaps with some of Salazar’s district. Santos cultivated political ties to the local community during his tenure as Salazar’s chief of staff this past year, an experience that he says has given him insight into Erik Dilan’s vulnerability. This included outreach to local community boards while Salazar was pushing for passage of the statewide rent regulation bill, also known as a “good cause eviction” proposal, which ultimately did not pass the Legislature. Santos said that he did not see Dilan putting in the same level of effort in pushing for tenant-friendly legislation as Salazar did. “He's not been actively helpful, proactively helpful and energetically helpful in the progressive causes of our time,” Santos said. 

Montgomery did not respond to requests for comment. Mosley, Ortiz and Dilan declined to be interviewed but defended their records through statements sent through spokesmen. “A New York state Assembly member is not a job based in ideology but action,” Dilan said in the statement. “The job requires passing meaningful legislation.” Mosley has also dismissed Forrest in recent weeks as an “idealist” unfamiliar with the give-and-take of elective government.

Dilan, Mosley, and Ortiz were all members of the Legislature when Democrats passed a laundry list of progressive bills last year, but they were also in office in 2015 when the Democratic-controlled Assembly and the GOP-controlled Senate let the rent laws expire before renewing them in a way that activists called inadequate at the time. 

All three of them also have deep ties to the Democratic establishment – Ortiz is a top deputy to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Mosley is the son Marilyn Mosley who is a local power player and president of the Progressive Association for Political Action Democratic Club in Central Brooklyn. Dilan is the son of a former state senator who was allied with the county party. 

A few political dynamics outside of any candidate’s control could also work in the DSA’s favor. Primary elections tend to be low-turnout affairs. Just 10% of registered Democrats voted in the 2014 gubernatorial primary and just 24% four years later. Salazar only needed about 15,000 votes in 2018 to beat Dilan.

If the four candidates backed by the DSA in Brooklyn can rally about 20,000 voters each, then they have a good chance of winning the 2020 primary and cruising to victory in the general election, as Democrats are overwhelmingly favored in these parts of Brooklyn. To do this, each of the four candidates could follow the playbook used by Salazar last year to varying degrees.

Brisport could gain an advantage by mobilizing affluent white voters in areas like Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, Downtown Brooklyn, Fort Greene and gentrifying areas of Bed-Stuy. Forrest could follow a similar approach in her district, which includes historically black neighborhoods like Prospect Heights, Fort Greene, and western Bed-Stuy that have become much whiter and more affluent in the last decade. 

Santos and Mitaynes, however, would face more difficulty winning with the same approach in their districts. Santos is aiming to represent a district that includes a slice of Bushwick where Salazar did well in 2018. But half of that Assembly district is in areas where her opponent, Martin Dilan, won. Mitaynes is aiming to win in Sunset Park, a neighborhood with one of the largest Latino populations in Brooklyn and lower levels of gentrification. While Mitaynes and Santos cannot lean on young, white progressives to the same extent as Salazar did, their prospective districts have both had some influx of young professional residents in recent years. 

While the DSA is pushing deeper into Brooklyn, many of the neighborhoods where their candidates are running resemble those areas where Salazar, Cabán and Ocasio-Cortez won some of their largest margins – though this is arguably less so for Mitaynes and Santos than Brisport and Forrest. 

If the DSA wanted to dispel the notion that it is an organization with only limited appeal beyond white-collar white people, a successful race against a relatively moderate lawmaker like state Sen. Roxanne Persaud – who represents overwhelmingly black neighborhoods in southeastern Brooklyn, including East New York and Carnarsie and was an opponent of marijuana legalization – would accomplish that, but no DSA challengers have yet emerged in working-class African-American and Caribbean-American neighborhoods like East Flatbush and Flatlands. Chi Anunwa, co-chair of DSA NYC, said that the group has limited resources to recruit candidates and is currently focusing on the four candidates it has already endorsed.

In the end, winning an election is what matters for the DSA more than proving it can appeal to new demographics. The organization is aiming to expand its influence in city and state politics, and electing four new lawmakers would go a long way towards meeting that goal. Just two years ago, nobody would have expected that an avowed Marxist like Salazar could win a seat in the state Senate against a well-funded and popular incumbent. “This is just an attempt to build on that momentum,” said Anunwa, co-chair of DSA NYC. “We’ve really been able to leverage (Salazar’s) candidacy to do some really amazing things (and) these four races this year really prime us to build on our victory and win even more victories.”