Campaigns & Elections

Labor to spend big on Brannan in contested southern Brooklyn race against Kagan

With labor support and volunteers, Council Member Justin Brannan brushes off rift with Brooklyn Democratic Party leadership.

Democrat Justin Brannan is fighting to keep his seat in one of the most competitive races in the city against newly Republican opponent Ari Kagan.

Democrat Justin Brannan is fighting to keep his seat in one of the most competitive races in the city against newly Republican opponent Ari Kagan. Emil Cohen/NYC Council Media Unit

In the last few weeks before the contentious election between two City Council members in southern Brooklyn, labor is spending big on behalf of Democratic Council Member Justin Brannan. 

The Hotel and Gaming Trades Council, New York State Nurses Association, and 32BJ SEIU will together spend upwards of $200,000 on voter communications on Brannan’s behalf in the 47th City Council District, where Republican Council Member Ari Kagan is also running in the redrawn southern Brooklyn district.

The labor cash will be significant. According to the latest campaign finance filing on Oct. 6, Kagan, helped by a large amount of public matching funds, has spent almost $300,000 between his primary and general races, compared to Brannan’s roughly $208,000 spend.

Support from major unions and a deep well of volunteers to help run a strong ground game is key to a successful campaign in a competitive district like this one, Brannan said recently, especially when facing low turnout in an off-year election. “It’s just getting out there and knocking on doors and making phone calls and hitting the streets,” he said. “The alchemy that we normally do for campaigns is the same thing we're doing now.”

The Hotel and Gaming Trades Council, 32BJ and the District Council of Carpenters are among the unions that have been mobilizing members to get out the vote for Brannan, and will be doing so in the coming weeks, labor leaders told City & State. “We don’t mess around when it comes to volunteers and boots on the ground for candidates, and we are definitely taking that philosophy when it comes to Justin,” said Kevin Elkins, political director for the Carpenters, who estimated that they’ve had 80-some members out volunteering for Brannan and expect that number to grow as campaigning ramps up. Candis Tolliver, political director for 32BJ, said that the union will also be deploying its members to help with door-knocking, phone-banking, distributing leaflets and more. The union has 935 members living in the district, Tolliver said.

Bhav Tibrewal, political director of the Hotel and Gaming Trades Council, said they’re doing regular canvassing before ramping up in the days leading up to election day with last-minute phone-banking and door-knocking. “We know where we’ve got vulnerability for Democrats, and this is certainly one of those districts,” he said, noting that this and other competitive races will to some extent be bellwethers for 2024. “We care deeply what happens not just in this election, but then the one after that, the one after that, the one after that, and the one after that. So we're treating this with that level of urgency.”

While Brannan has often had enthusiastic allies in labor, what’s not typically part of his winning “alchemy” is support from the Brooklyn Democratic Party, he said. “Races in southern Brooklyn, we've never relied on county for anything because they can't deliver anything,” Brannan said. “If they want to help, that’s great. But we never rely on it, because it’s really not much of anything.”

Brooklyn Democratic Party Chair Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn said in a statement to City & State that the county party has been “ardently supporting” Brannan’s reelection. “We have a sharp focus on southern Brooklyn's competitive City Council races, including Brannan’s, and have been sending our District Leaders and our Young Democratic Party arm to help get out the vote, using strategic and organized phone banking and door-to-door efforts in these council districts,” Bichotte Hermelyn said in an emailed statement. 

The Brooklyn Young Democrats have been campaigning for Brannan, but not at the county leadership’s direction, they said. “The Brooklyn Young Democrats have been knocking doors and making phone calls every week for Justin, but the county party has been missing in action,” President Monae Priolenau said in a statement. This version of the Brooklyn Young Democrats is chartered by the state Young Democrats and has previously clashed with county leadership. A spokesperson for the Brooklyn Democratic Party said that Bichotte Hermelyn’s statement was referring to a newer, second version of the Brooklyn Young Democrats, which is aligned with the county.

Brannan said that he appreciates the sentiment that the county is ardently supporting his reelection, but said it’s the first time he’s heard it. “It's news to me that they've got boots on the ground for anybody in southern Brooklyn,” he said.

Bichotte Hermelyn’s statement of support for Brannan stands in contrast to a public rift that’s emerged in recent weeks. Bichotte Hermelyn has publicly called for whiter and generally wealthier neighborhoods like Brannan’s Bay Ridge to share in the responsibility for hosting migrant shelters – a move Brannan and his supporters have suggested helps Kagan and Republicans, who aim to make opposition to migrant shelters a winning issue for the GOP in November.

Earlier this month, Bichotte Hermelyn told Politico that she will let Brannan and Kagan “duke it out.” In her statement to City & State, Bichotte Hermelyn mixed statements of support for Brannan with criticism, noting that there are ideological differences in the diverse party. “Despite Council Member Brannan’s unnecessary recent attacks against me as the Party’s first Black woman leader and against the Democratic values of supporting migrants, I personally donated to Brannan’s campaign and supported his bid for council speaker,” she said, pointing to Brannan likening her tactics to Kagan, who he called a “MAGA Republican.” According to campaign finance records, Bichotte Hermelyn donated $250 to Brannan in February. “Brannan is still the progressive choice in this race,” she said.

The Brooklyn Democratic Party was criticized for not doing enough to support several state legislative incumbents who lost in southern Brooklyn last year. A spokesperson for the party did not say whether they plan to spend money on candidates this year.

Brannan has won two tight City Council elections in southern Brooklyn, and as Republicans make gains in the area, this race has become one of the year’s most competitive. Both Kagan and Brannan are incumbents, but large parts of their current districts were combined during the redistricting process. A former Democrat who switched to the Republican Party late last year, Kagan currently represents the Coney Island section of the new district, while Brannan represents Bay Ridge.

Kagan, meanwhile, said that the Kings County Republican Party has helped with fundraising, supplying volunteers and doing phone-banking. He’s also backed by some law enforcement unions, including the Correction Officers Benevolent Association and Lieutenants Benevolent’s Association. “Myself and my volunteers and my campaign staff are doing canvassing all over the district,” Kagan said, adding that his labor and other endorsers have shown up for him at campaign and fundraising events.

Before being elected to the council as a Democrat in 2021, Kagan was a Democratic district leader. It’s been almost a year, Kagan said, since he spoke to Bichotte Hermelyn. He does, however, still talk to some Democratic district leaders. He declined to name any who he still speaks to, but speculated that some who are not aligned with Brannan want him to succeed. “I believe privately, a lot of Democratic district leaders, a lot of Democratic elected officials, a lot of ordinary Democrats agree with me that we need change in South Brooklyn, that we need change in New York City,” Kagan said.