Linda Sarsour, left, (photo: William Alatriste) & Justin Brannan (photo: Teri Brennan)
They're both big personalities, proud Democrats, and very Brooklyn, but the similarities may end there for Justin Brannan and Linda Sarsour, two politicos who could be on a collision course to replace City Council Member Vincent Gentile.
While it may be early to speculate candidates to supplant Gentile when he is term-limited out of the Council at the end of 2017, with the council member named the Democratic candidate for the May 5 special congressional election to replace Michael Grimm, the politics of the moment allow a hastened timeline. Plus, a Brannan-Sarsour match-up is rife with intrigue.
To be sure, Gentile is a major underdog against Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan, the Republican nominee seeking to represent New York's 11th Congressional District. The district consists of Staten Island and part of Southern Brooklyn - just two months after winning re-election, Grimm resigned in January after pleading guility to felony tax evasion. But, if Gentile were to pull off an upset and his council seat opens up sooner rather than later, a contest featuring Brannan and Sarsour in a complex part of the city would be about as interesting as a city council race can get.
Before continuing, a disclaimer: neither Brannan nor Sarsour has explicitly said they plan to run for City Council and neither responded directly to Gotham Gazette requests to gauge their interest. But, Brannan is a long-serving aide to Gentile in the 43rd Council District, president of a local political club - the Bay Ridge Democrats - and as noted an ambassador of the community as there is. Politics comes easily to Brannan, who has both a large physical stature and outsize personality. For her part, Sarsour is a fierce political activist and organizer who sitting city council members have publicly encouraged to seek local elected office. She is also the president of a political club: the Muslim Democratic Club of New York. A long-time Bay Ridge resident, she has developed a national profile around issues related to race and religion, social and criminal justice.
Political insiders in Southern Brooklyn and elsewhere see a Brannan candidacy as a no-brainer and virtual given. While Sarsour's name is on people's minds, some wonder if she's more focused on national and international politics and less suited for or interested in the granular, day-to-day work of a city council member. She is raising a family in the community, though, and city council can provide both a platform and a springboard. They are not the only two names mentioned by people with knowledge of the area and its politics, but they are by far the most prominent and compelling.
While they share some similarities and even some semblance of a friendship, the differences between Brannan and Sarsour set the stage for great political theater were they to compete for the seat Gentile currently occupies - whether in a 2015 or 2016 special election or the regularly-scheduled 2017 election (or both).
Look no further than the presence each has on social media. Sarsour's Twitter profile reads, "Palestinian-American-Muslim, racial justice & civil rights activist, media commentator. Born & raised in Brooklyn." Her feed is full of personal thoughts and retweets dealing with conflict in the Middle East, racial bias in policing in cities around the country, and more. Meanwhile, Brannan takes to Facebook to make sure that Bay Ridge residents know when alternate side of the street parking regulations are suspended.
Referencing his wife and other community connections, Brannan's Twitter profile says, "Mr. @leighjewel, #BayRidge ambassador, @VGentile43 aide, prez @bayridgedems, small biz owner, Freemason, vegetarian, Brooklyn native, bottled water enthusiast." He's also a long-time animal welfare activist, which comes through in his public messaging and has ben a part of his political work.
Currently, Brannan is Director of Communications and Legislative Affairs for Gentile; a source close to Gentile's congressional campaign says that Brannan will be taking a leave of absence from Gentile's council office to run communications for the campaign. If Gentile were to defeat Donovan, Brannan may have to decide if running for City Council trumps working for a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and spending some of the year in D.C. Those who know him well believe he'd jump at the chance to run for local elected office.
Sarsour, meanwhile, has given minimal indication that she sees the City Council in her future. She is currently the Executive Director of the Arab American Association of New York and has been traveling the country speaking. Sarsour may get enough push to run, though, from her growing Muslim Democratic Club and from her allies already in the City Council. She has been a big supporter of the City's recently rolled out municipal identification card program and vocal behind members of the Council's progressive caucus on many issues. However, Sarsour is an outspoken critic of the NYPD and has not minced words regarding city elected officials when it comes to their support for Israel. In a race between Sarsour and Brannan, it reasons that Brannan would see widespread support from law enforcement unions and elected officials closest to them.
Depending on who you speak with, the district Brannan and Sarsour may compete to represent is on one hand a middle-class area with a lot of union families and many relatively conservative Democrats, or, on another hand, a changing area with a growing Arab American population. Likely, it is, of course, both and much more. It seems clear that neither Brannan nor Sarsour would have a hard time raising money to run an effective campaign. It also appears mostly clear that the seat will not be opening up before the end of Gentile's term, as any Brooklynite is seen as having an extremely uphill battle to win in the 11th Congressional District.
What is less clear is whether Brannan and Sarsour will each jump at the chance to replace Gentile, whenever he does indeed depart.
by Ben Max, editor, Gotham Gazette