Retaining a Gay Council Voice for Brooklyn

Facing two major reelection challengers in the September 12 Democratic primary, City Councilmember Carlos Menchaca explains that the spirited contest is a telling sign about “the nature of politics,” both in Brooklyn and in the Sunset Park neighborhood at the center of his district.

“The reform movement is not only alive and well but I represent it as an independent and a progressive,” he told Gay City News in an interview this month. “Hence, the multiple challenges from the old guard.”

Menchaca, 36, became the first out gay legislator in Brooklyn as well as the Council’s first Mexican-American member after defeating District 38 incumbent Sara González in 2013. Now, González, 68, and State Assemblymember Félix Ortiz, 57, who arrived in Albany in 1995 and is an assistant speaker for the majority Democrats, are challenging Menchaca’s reelection. Among the other contenders on September 12 is Chris Miao, a Chinese-American attorney, the only Asian candidate in a district whose Asian population, 33 percent of the total in the 2010 census, is growing.

Carlos Menchaca faces off against two county regulars in September 12 Dem primary

With critical support from labor unions and the area’s congressmember, Nydia Velázquez, Menchaca defeated González four years ago by charging she was largely missing in action on the Council. González and Ortiz are making much the same case against him this year.

The district — which includes Sunset Park, Red Hook, industrial areas on the Brooklyn waterfront, and small portions of Borough Park, Bensonhurst, the South Slope, and Windsor Terrace — is one of the city’s leading immigrant communities, with another 44 percent of 2010 census respondents identifying as Latino. Many immigrants, according to Menchaca, are non-citizens, with a good number undocumented altogether.

The area is also economically struggling. According to the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, more than half of the residents work in low-wage occupations, half of all single mothers with children under five live in poverty, and a third of all households are “severely rent-burdened.” At 44 percent, the district has the city’s highest rate of adults with less than a high school education.

From Menchaca’s vantage point, those statistics help explain why the district has largely been overlooked by the Kings County Democratic Party, which in 2013 supported González and this year has put its weight behind Ortiz.

While careful to acknowledge that the district has always had dedicated activists, Menchaca said, “This has been, for a long time, a forgotten part of Brooklyn without a lot of attention paid to building political infrastructure… The Democratic Party, the county party has not focused on this area and instead had a particular kind of candidate-based infrastructure to keep electing a very particular person, like Félix Ortiz.”

Menchaca points with pride to the record turnout in 2013, which gave him an 18-percentage point win over González. That year, more than 7,300 voters turned out in a district where Council primaries often yield fewer than 4,000 voters. (Even so, by contrast the 2013 race between Corey Johnson and Yetta Kurland drew nearly 20,000 voters.) It’s clear that Menchaca sees a link between increasing voter turnout in the district and empowering its communities in the city political landscape.

As New York City faces severe challenges from a hostile administration in Washington — with immigrant communities like Sunset Park at particular risk — the roughly 8,000 who turned out to vote in Menchaca’s participatory budgeting allocation of discretionary funds at his disposal speaks, in the councilmember’s view, to a community “hungry” for self-empowerment. That engagement, in turn he believes, will create a “movement-based response at the ballot box in September,” allowing him to survive his challengers.

Having vanquished the county organization four years ago, Menchaca, once in office, did little to ingratiate himself with the machine he had opposed, and a battle with the city’s Economic Development Corporation soon demonstrated his continued outsider status. His complaints that a proposed redevelopment of the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal in Sunset Park did too little to either incorporate community concerns or ensure the area’s survival as a working waterfront led the EDC to withdraw the $115 million plan in early 2015. The following month, the 16-member Brooklyn Council delegation, in an unexpected vote, moved to strip Menchaca of his co-chair post. His critics on the Council charged he had dropped the ball on matters like filling borough vacancies on citywide boards, but he saw it as clear payback for his having stood up to the EDC and other efforts at reforming how the borough’s councilmembers carried out their business.

“I instituted a lot of reforms as to how we were spending money as a county, as Brooklyn councilmembers,” he said. “What I wanted was more transparency, I wanted a sense of collaboration. Instead of splitting it up and everyone going their own way, I wanted an umbrella, so I created an umbrella for economic development to bring in economic development organizations and other groups to create synergies. They were like, ‘No, no, no, no, no, that’s not how we do things.’”

A particular nemesis in that battle was David Greenfield, a social conservative whose district, which includes a large Orthodox Jewish community, abuts Menchaca’s.

“A lot of his young progressive Orthodox constituents who are over there doing their own thing built a coalition with me,” Menchaca said in explaining tensions between the two councilmembers. The fact that his district includes a small portion of Borough Park, Greenfield’s Orthodox base, adds to the tension.

Despite his removal from the county delegation post, Menchaca was pleased with how the EDC battle played out. Everyone returned to the bargaining table and by the fall of 2015 the EDC, in a statement, pointed to the cooperation among the agency, Menchaca, and Sunset Park “community partners” on resolving outstanding issues. The councilmember characterizes it as a win.

“On the economic development side, we broke the bones of EDC,” he said. “Now the EDC has a new infrastructure with leadership that is managing all the properties in Sunset Park.”

That, Menchaca said, established a pattern for other waterfront challenges in Bush Terminal and the 6 million-square foot Industry City section.

“I am 100 percent confident I can work with the EDC,” he said. “We have elevated this community to a position of power. Before, Sunset Park was an afterthought.”

He added, “I’m the guy who is saying no to the consistent barrage of developers who continue to purchase land on the waterfront and then come to me with these massive skyscraper projects, and I say this is a nonstarter, dude, get the word out to all the developers, this is not going to fly.”

Menchaca points to similar signs of empowerment in connection with housing issues, school construction, and transportation. The refurbishment of a busy local public library that will double its size while creating 50 units of affordable housing through the use of tax credits and city capital, he said, is the envy of his Council colleagues.

Noting the development is 100 percent affordable, Menchaca said, “This concept of a 10 percent set-aside is not the model for this neighborhood.”

He also boasts of a stronger position in negotiations with the School Construction Authority, which has slated five new schools for Sunset Park, and with the Department of Transportation, which he said paused its massive redevelopment of Fourth Avenue to accommodate a protected bike lane and more pedestrian islands.

Menchaca acknowledged that he has caught flak from Ortiz on the issue of homelessness. Over the past several years, a hotel has been converted to a men’s shelter housing 150 on 49th Street near Third Avenue. Deflecting criticism, he said the Council has made strides in ensuring that such facilities also provide the social services needed to avoid them becoming blights and dangers in the community.

“I will always stand on the value that our neighbors are our neighbors,” he said when asked about the de Blasio administration policy on siting new homeless shelters. “We have to think about how our neighborhoods welcome our neighbors back, and I think with my leadership and support from the local community I can have constructive conversations.”

Responding to Ortiz, he said, “I’m going to take a courageous stand, and you’re going to ridicule me for it.”

Still, the fact that de Blasio’s shelter plan is still being rolled out offers Menchaca’s opponent grist for his charges, with the city continuing to place homeless people in other hotels, without services, in Sunset Park to make up for its current deficit in city facilities.

Clearly, no issue is closer to Menchaca’s heart than immigration, over which he has substantial influence as chair of the relevant Council committee. He claimed a victory in having adult education programs, a big portion of which involve teaching English to immigrants, baselined in the city budget at $12 million per year, and he said he has made the New York Immigration Family Unity Project, which provides free legal representation to families faced with being split up, a model for other cities nationwide.

“I’ve be holding the line with that with the mayor, making sure he understands it and supports that kind of legal representation,” Menchaca said.

This week, he and Manhattan Councilmember Mark Levine introduced a resolution calling on the US government to require all Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to wear body cameras.

Politically, Menchaca’s dedication to immigrant causes could potentially yield meager dividends because the community he’s helping is unable to vote on September 12. But he sees it differently.

The Lambda Independent Democrats, the LGBTQ club in Brooklyn that’s played a big role in both his campaigns, recently held a bilingual meeting with undocumented Latina transgender women. The activism encouraged by such political organizing, Menchaca said, is significant. Acknowledging that these women and other immigrants like them cannot vote, he said, “But they are going to talk to their citizen neighbors. They are doing proxy work.”

Menchaca hopes this organizing will enable him to turn out a big vote again this year. If voter turnout falls back to traditional levels, he said, “I will lose. I could lose.” His consultants, he said, warn he must be prepared to chart a path to victory even in a scenario of only 3,000 to 4,000 voters.

Four years ago, Menchaca was one of three LGBT candidates targeted by a right-wing group that advocates for religious groups having the right to rent public school property for weekend services. No similar hardball tactics have been seen to date this year.

Asked whether he encounters any homophobia as he campaigns for a second term, Menchaca responded, “I’m going to say no because I am going to wait for it to be real.” After pausing, he added, “But there are code words like, ‘He’s a nice boy.’”