Gotham Gazette

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Candidates with Varied Resumés Compete for Central Brooklyn City Council Seat

candidates wide variety

Council Member Mathieu Eugene (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

As City Council Member Mathieu Eugene faces term limits and is vacating his seat representing Brooklyn’s 40th District—comprising parts of Crown Heights, East Flatbush, Flatbush, Kensington, Midwood, Prospect Park, and Prospect Lefferts Gardens—some 11 candidates are vying for the Democratic nomination in this month’s primary, with voting culminating on Tuesday, June 22.

The winner of the primary, which is just a few days away, is all but certain to be the next Council member given the district’s overwhelming Democratic enrollment.

The 51 City Council members negotiate and approve the budget alongside the Mayor, introduce and vote on legislation, monitor city agencies, review land use changes, and provide constituent services of many kinds, among other responsibilities.

Eugene, the city’s first Haitian-born Council member and currently a candidate for borough president, represents a district that was home to 43% foreign-born residents, a significant portion of whom are Jamaican, Guyanese, and Hatian immigrants, according to prior Census data. According to those 2010 Census figures, 65% of the district’s 146,552 residents were Black, 16.6% Hispanic, 10.3% white, and 5.3% Asian.

The incumbent, prior to his time in the City Council, was a fairly well-known health professional, community leader, educator, and founder of the nonprofit Youth and Education in Sports. In the Council, Eugene was the primary sponsor of 2017 legislation that created the Disconnected Youth Task Force, aimed at addressing the significant portion of the city’s youth that are both out of a job and out of school. The task force, which fell significantly behind schedule, managed to produce its long-awaited report in late January of this year, finding that 25% of New Yorkers between the ages of 16 and 24 were considered “disconnected.”

"The most important thing we can do for our youth is to not only engage them when they are young, but also to stay with them and provide a long-term support structure, so that we can prevent the patterns of behavior when they become disconnected from school and the work force," Eugene said in a statement to the Gotham Gazette in January.

In October of last year, Eugene and Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to create 130 new affordable homes and community space at a project on Church Avenue in Flatbush. Eugene, in conjunction with CUNY Citizenship Now, also provides free immigration legal services to residents, as well as a number of other constituent services, such as voter registration and job assistance. But, overall Eugene has been criticized for being among the least active and productive Council members in the body over the last decade, something several candidates running to replace him have been saying on the campaign trail.

The next Council member faces myriad challenges in the district where some 40% of the population was living in poverty according to the Census. The candidates have noted recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, affordable housing for the district’s residents, public safety and police reform as their top priorities, among others including the quality of the district’s schools and more.

Rita Joseph
Rita Joseph, the ESL coordinator and on-site technology coordinator at PS6 in District 40, is a public school teacher of more than 20 years and community activist in central Brooklyn.

Joseph has been endorsed by Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, 1199 SEIU, Black Lives Matter New York, NYC KidsPAC, Vote Pro Choice, StreetsPAC, Tenants PAC, Women of Color for Progress, Road to Justice NYC, New York Immigration Coalition Action, The Haitian Times, The Jewish Vote, 21 in ‘21, Elect Black Women PAC, Voters for Animal Rights, Community Voices Heard, Roadmap for Progress, Haitian Women’s Alliance, and a number of former and current state and city elected officials. She also got the seal of approval from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Courage to Change PAC.

She had raised a total of $236,759 from private and public matching funds at the time of publication.

Joseph, who grew up in Flatbush, wrote by email to Gotham Gazette about her history of community activism, specifically recalling organizing her first rally at 19 years old alongside a group she founded, called Haitian Enforcement Against Racism, to protest the FDA’s “bad blood” rules that prevented people of Haitian descent from donating blood. The rally, she said, resulted in the FDA rescinding the rule.

“Since organizing the rally, which had more than 150,000 people participate, I haven’t looked back with my community advocacy,” Joseph wrote. “I spent my twenties raising two kids while organizing protests against cuts to student MetroCards and police brutality, on top of my full-time job. I organized not because it was easy, but because it was necessary for my community.”

Joseph also noted her time as the chair of the Neighborhood Advisory Board, where she worked with nonprofits to provide social services to city residents, as well as her time on the Citywide Participatory Budgeting Committee and as a teacher at PS6, where she secured money for a computer lab and created an ESL class for immigrant parents.

Joseph said that her top three priorities for District 40 are improving public education, securing affordable housing, and enacting criminal justice reform. Her experience as a teacher at PS6 has shaped her understanding of how to best serve public schools and their students, Joseph said. She hopes to foster community involvement in public education through local partnerships, neighborhood events and after-school programs, she wrote, and will advocate to increase the number of social workers, psychologists, and counselors at public schools. Joseph also noted the necessity of reducing class sizes, which she believes are currently too large and negatively impacting students’ learning.

Joseph also noted how one in eight students in the district have experienced homelessness in the last five years. If elected, Joseph wrote, she will fight to strengthen protections against unwarranted evictions, prevent rents from being unfairly increased, and expand tenants’ right to counsel.

Lastly, Joseph said she supports reallocating funds from the NYPD budget into education, healthcare, and social services, and will not vote for a budget that does not defund the NYPD by at least $1 billion, though she would love to see up to a $3 billion reduction instead. She wants the NYPD to spend its effort combating violent crimes such as murder, rape, and assault rather than petty ones, enforcement that disproportionately affects Black and Latino people. Joseph also wrote about how she has lost friends and former students to gun violence, and how this past summer, her own car was hit by stray bullets while parked on her block.

“I don’t blame the people who were engaged in this violence for this happening,” she wrote in the email. “Instead, I blame an education system that has neglected Black and Brown people for generations. We must focus on improving our schools to the fullest extent possible to prevent our young people (particularly men) from living in circumstances that ultimately result in violence.”

In order to address the high poverty rate in the district, Joseph once again emphasized the importance of education, and said that she has witnessed firsthand how CUNY can improve the lives of low-income students.

“We know that increased education results in lower poverty rates,” Joseph wrote. “In NYC, our students have access to the greatest urban university in the world. CUNY propels six times as many low-income students into the middle class and beyond as all eight Ivy League schools, but I believe we can make it even better by making it more accessible and affordable. I support making CUNY free for all NYC high school graduates and GED holders, as well as reducing class sizes.”

Joseph, who immigrated from Haiti during her youth, said she supports abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and that the federal agency’s treatment of immigrants is inhumane and unacceptable. She also wrote that she is a strong advocate for allowing non-U.S. citizens in the city to vote in municipal elections, securing strong legal representation for all detained immigrants, and ensuring accessibility to food, housing, and healthcare while the city recovers from the pandemic.

“During the pandemic, I have simply continued and increased the work I had already been doing for decades,” Joseph wrote. “Immigrant communities like mine have been hit especially hard by this pandemic, which is why I’ve been working locally to help source PPE and run food banks at local community-based organizations, churches, and nonprofits. Specifically, I have worked with PAYO (Pakistani American Youth Organization), Evangelical Crusade Church, Flatbush Mutual Aid, Brooklyn Immigrant Community Support, East Flatbush Community Partnership, Multicultural Bridge, among many other organizations.”

As for Eugene, Joseph said that she thinks he let down his constituents and contends that she will not do the same.

“Councilmember Eugene has been absent from the District and his constituents in a way that represents a major failure of leadership,” Joseph said. “For more than a decade, he has let down the people of District 40 in many ways, none more glaringly obvious than with his efforts, or lack thereof, towards providing quality constituent services. My team and I will be eager to help with the issues that District 40 residents have, no matter how big or small they might be.”

Kenya Handy-Hilliard
Handy-Hilliard, who served as the director of Intergovernmental Affairs in the city’s Department of Investigation until last year, has spent 14 years working in New York City politics. She has been endorsed by the New Kings Democrats, the Jewish Vote, District Council 37, and Run for Something. She had raised a total of $223,494 from private and public matching funds.

After joining the office of Rep. Yvette Clarke, whose Brooklyn district overlaps with the 40th Council District, Handy-Hilliard became director of Community Affairs for Brooklyn in the Office of the New York City Comptroller, as well as director of Intergovernmental Affairs for Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island in the Office of the New York State Attorney General.

In a phone interview, Handy-Hilliard said her recent position at the Department of Investigation influenced her decision to run for City Council.

“That is the agency that supposedly roots out waste, fraud and abuse of city resources,” she said. “And that is kind of the impetus for my run, because I was seeing all of the waste and fraud vulnerabilities within city government and the reasons why we are not being served in the ways that we need to be.”

She emphasized the importance of government accountability, and said she plans to create a space where elected officials can no longer “take one’s vote and run with it.” She hopes to help the community become familiar with the responsibilities of the government and its leaders, as well increase their familiarity with the relationship between different levels of government. Collectively, this work would empower the residents of District 40, she said.

“We can, you know, not only raise the level of professionalism and response from local elected officials, but also make sure that we are engaged in the process,” Handy-Hilliard said. “That we're always in the kitchen, never on the menu. Because once you’re disengaged, frequently you are the ones who are on the menu.”

Handy-Hilliard said that securing affordable housing, improving education, and recovering economically from the COVID-19 pandemic are the top three issues facing the district. It’s hard to have a conversation about many concrete reforms, she said, if the district does not have the financing or the economy to implement them. Handy-Hilliard said she wants to make sure that she is facilitating front-end investments that will create job, apprenticeship and internship opportunities for young people and others who are struggling economically. 

“Because at the end of the day, that's what's going to have the trickle down effect on crime, public safety in general, transportation,” she said. “All of the other things that I say are ancillary. It's because we don't have the front end investments to make sure that people are whole, and then that's how you start to see other things kind of, you know, fall apart.”

The most important aspect of this recovery is housing, which needs to be addressed in a community-driven way, Handy-Hilliard said. If elected, she plans to advocate for developers to invest in the community rather than take advantage of it for profit, expand affordable housing opportunities and create rent relief for tenants and small homeowners, among other reforms.

“We need to make sure that if we're sacrificing sunlight and skyline, you're investing in our schools, you're creating more open spaces or green spaces, you’re investing in our infrastructure, our piping,” she said. “...So I want to make sure that if we're talking about development that you are protecting us for the future.”

Handy-Hilliard said that the city needs to adequately invest in its young people, especially though public school funding. Some of her proposals include expanding enrichment and after-school programs, funding for mental health and professional development programs and establishing quality universal daycare. She also hopes to support more English as a Second Language (ESL) and civics classes for immigrant populations that live in the district, as well as investing in continuing education and re-entry programs.

Handy-Hilliard has signed on to an NYC Democratic Socialists of America pledge that includes reallocating $1.5 billion from the NYPD budget per year, or $3 billion by 2023.

“So there are ways for us to take this funding and put it where it needs to be,” she said. “You just have to have the will to do so. So, the number I think will be, it'll vary. I'm committed to 1.5 billion, but trust and believe, I have to be able to justify that.”

As for the 40% of the district that lives below the poverty line, Handy-Hilliard said that she plans to triage the work that is already being done on the ground by providing funding and other resources to nonprofits that are actively helping the community. She wants to make sure that these organizations, which provide access to rental assistance and other programs that support the residents of District 40, are actually receiving the money that has been appropriated for their use.

“We have to make sure the [Office of Management and Budget] is budgeting it, and whatever is budgeted, we have to make sure that it's through the agency and not given to contractors or consultants,” Handy-Hilliard said. “...We have to restructure our contracting with nonprofits.”

Josue Pierre
Pierre is a Haitian immigrant who lives in Flatbush and has spent the last seven years working for the Office of the New York City Comptroller. A very close ally and cousin of Brooklyn Democratic Party leader and Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte Heremlyn, Pierre has been endorsed by Bichotte and a long list of groups and unions, including the United Federation of Teachers, 32 BJ SEIU, Communication Workers of America, New York Communities for Change, RWDSU, Tenants PAC, LGBTQ+ Victory Fund, Teamsters Local 237, Professional Staff Congress at CUNY, Shirley Chisholm Democratic Club, Churches United for Fair Housing (Action), Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, Lambda Independent Democrats of Brooklyn, Stonewall Democrats of NYC, and the Black Lives Caucus. He had raised a total of $215,229 from private and public matching funds.

Pierre, who served as a senior financial analyst and Brooklyn borough director for the comptroller’s office, is a board member of the Haitian American Chamber of Commerce and Democratic District Leader for the 42nd Assembly District. In an interview with Gotham Gazette, Pierre said that the firsthand experience afforded by both his upbringing in Flatbush and his years as a housing activist influenced his decision to run for City Council.

“I’m fortunate enough to be one of the kids from Flatbush that made it,” Pierre said. “I lived the struggles. I know what it means to see high crime rates. I know what it means to be in classrooms that have over 40 kids. I also know firsthand, because I'm also a housing activist, what it looks like when folks are sitting outside, being evicted from their apartment buildings and not knowing where they're going to go.”

As a senior financial analyst, Pierre said he was able to help steer pension funds to finance the creation of real affordable housing. The term affordable housing, he said, often begs the question of “affordable for whom?” Pierre said that during his time at the comptroller’s office, he helped secure two-bedroom apartments for $1,200 a month in the Bronx, which he is confident he can do in Flatbush as well. He also plans to advocate for a review of the real estate tax system and an expansion of current exemptions to cover those longtime residents who opt for affordable housing.

In addition to affordable housing, Pierre said that a financial recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the top challenges facing District 40. He hopes to increase the availability of grants and loans to small businesses to aid in recovery, such as expanding the zero interest loan amount from $75,000 to $150,000. Aside from housing and economic recovery, Pierre said that he also plans to address sanitation, education, and crime and safety.

As one of four Black boys in his family, Pierre described he and his brothers faced harassment by members of the NYPD. The challenge of eradicating these practices, however, must also be addressed in conjunction with maintaining safety on the streets of District 40, he said.

“I've also had the experience of my mom being the victim of a stray bullet because two guys were outside, they got into an altercation, and one of them pulled out a gun in the middle of the day and she got hit by a bullet in her head,” he said. “Luckily she survived that, but I remember the pain of that and I just can’t imagine how someone else would feel.” 

To ensure that everyone is safe leaving their house, Pierre said that the city must not abolish the police but rather establish stronger police accountability. Black and Latino taxpayers deserve the same level of protection and service that other city residents get, he said. He suggests the enactment of reforms such as an elected civilian review board—which would be comprised of community members instead of mayoral appointees and law enforcement personnel—and the use of an independent prosecutor, rather than a district attorney, when needed.

As for the police budget, Pierre said he wants a precise line-by-line budget reduction and full audit of the NYPD. He also cited the need for the development of closer relationships between officers and residents, who could work together to keep the community safe, would be a more effective alternative than adversarial dynamics.

“Finally, there are certain aspects of policing that fall in the hands of the police that I don't feel that are actually real police work,” he said. “Approaching people with mental health and other social issues dealing with the homelessness, right, that should be coupled with someone who works in social services, or some type of professional from that sector. I think the outcomes would be better.” (Such a program is being implemented in the city.)

Another challenge to the economic recovery of the district is sanitation, he said. Pierre, who has sat on the board of two Business Improvement Districts, proposed the distribution of extra garbage cans and hiring people to do extra cleaning to “beautify” the district for commerce. He hopes that Flatbush will become a place that tourists want to visit, citing attractions like culture, art, and Caribbean food.

Finally, Pierre said that the district needs to begin financing and preparing kids for education and job opportunities of the future. Some of his proposals include an increase in mental health professionals in schools and a budget expansion for public education.

Pierre emphasized the necessity of serving the district’s immigrant population, saying that this duty starts with his own office. He said he would have a diverse staff who can speak many of the district’s languages, such as Creole and Spanish, and would work to ensure that city resources are made available in those languages. Lastly, Pierre said that these changes need to trickle down to local nonprofits working in the community too, since certain residents may be reluctant to share information with the government due to concerns about ICE.

Overall, Pierre wants to make sure that the residents of District 40 don’t feel as if they have an absentee Council member. He said he looks forward to having town hall meetings and roundtable discussions with community members to figure out how to best serve the district. In his experience, he said, the best policy solutions come directly from people in the struggle.

“I was the Brooklyn borough director for the comptroller's office, so that's public affairs for the city,” Pierre said. “Being in communities like Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights, you see the vast difference in governmental resources as well. It's not just the private money. It’s the public money...And so part of my job as the next Council member is to bring home the bacon for low-income and moderate-income residents of Flatbush.”

Edwin Raymond
Raymond, co-founder of the nonprofit Preparing Leaders of Tomorrow, is an NYPD lieutenant famous for his 2015 class action lawsuit against the police department on behalf of minority members of the police force. He is endorsed by American Institute of Architects, Progressive Action TV, Voters for Animal Rights, and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.

He had received a total of $266,929 from both private and public matching funds.

The son of Haitian immigrants, Raymond said in an interview that he had a rough childhood in Brooklyn, where crime rates were through the roof and he was repeatedly harassed by police officers. His mother died when he was three years old, and his father was able to raise him and his brother despite not being able to speak much English and lacking an education.

Raymond said that the repeated harassment by police officers, despite his not being involved in the criminality around him, motivated him to become a police officer at 22 years old.

“I made the decision to join the police department…specifically with a mission to understand the police department and the system,” Raymond said. “What’s the best way to mitigate and rectify the issues? Immediately after the police academy I started having front row seats to what the issues were. I didn’t go along with it. I suffered serious retaliation because of it.”

The suit against the NYPD, filed by Raymond and 11 other officers, revolves around an alleged NYPD quota policy requiring officers to reach numerical goals for arrests and court summons each month. Though the NYPD has repeatedly denied the existence of such quotas, others, including Raymond, not only spoke out about the policy but insist that it cultivates discriminatory policing practices. After the lawsuit gained public attention and Raymond was featured by The New York Times Magazine in 2016, he said that hundreds of people reached out and asked him to run for office. He took these requests as a compliment, he said, but was not interested. After five years of running into roadblocks in trying to share his knowledge about the police department with elected officials, Raymond decided that rather than waiting for them to listen, he would take their place instead.

The top three issues facing District 40, according to Raymond, are recovery from the pandemic, affordable housing, and crime and public safety. To ease COVID-19 recovery, he said he wants to ensure that residents are able to get vaccinated and increase financial support for small businesses, the bedrock of the community. He also plans to advocate for prioritized hiring of city residents in order to expand access to job opportunities in residents’ own neighborhoods.

Raymond described how residents are not supportive of new housing development in the district because they’re not able to participate in them and often can’t even afford to tour the new units being built. He said he wants to create ownership opportunities in these new developments, which are often full of rentals, that would allow residents to begin creating lasting generational wealth.

Raymond also said that his experience in law enforcement means that he has to do very little guesswork to determine what reforms would be necessary to maintain public safety and simultaneously protect people’s rights.

“Very few people know how to answer that,” Raymond said. “Oftentimes, elected officials, they'll solve the civil rights violation portion, but it's a detriment to the legitimate crime-fighting strategies and tools. And then on the flip side, people want, you know, public safety, but they exploit the gray area and start to violate people's rights, so that's a balance that I bring...In terms of City Council, I'm the only candidate in the city that can bring that balance.”

Raymond described how he had responded to situations as a police officer that he felt were not actually law enforcement situations. To rectify this issue, he said that he supports reallocating some current police responsibilities to other existing city agencies or to create new agencies if none exist to address the particular need. If this rearrangement takes shaving off a portion of the budget and moving that money elsewhere, he’s all for it, he said. Some of the numbers that other candidates are suggesting, such as a $3 billion from the budget, he said, would require severe downsizing.

“You're not going to downsize fast enough with attrition, so are you going to be laying people off?,” Raymond said. ”How are you actually going to deliver?...I already understand the mismanagement of funds in the NYPD. I've watched it for 13 years. So already, at a glance, at least $400 million. I know exactly how to save, and I’ve continued to go through it line by line, knowing what’s essential and what’s not.”

Blake Morris
Morris is a practicing lawyer of more than 30 years and long-time Brooklyn resident.

He had raised a total of $167,691 from private and public matching funds.

Morris previously ran for State Senate in 2018 in an attempt to replace Senator Simcha Felder and represent New York’s 17th district in Albany. Though he ended up losing in the primary, he was endorsed by The New York Times, among other organizations, who cited how Morris was a “real Democrat” who would work in the interest of Brooklyn residents, as opposed to Felder who had conferenced with Republicans.

According to Morris’ website, the top challenges facing Council District District 40 include housing, education, public safety, quality of life, and supporting small businesses.

Morris’ proposals to address housing concerns include monitoring COVID-19 rent relief payments, creating an online platform for renters to find rent-stabilized housing, and instituting a transparent system to track the progress of landlords making repairs.

“We are in a constant housing crisis,” Morris said at a debate hosted by Gotham Gazette, the Prospect Lefferts Gardens Neighborhood Association (PLGNA), and other groups. “I have a plan to create affordable housing for purchase and/or to rent for those facing housing insecurity. Land use review is broken. We deserve a new process and a moratorium on ULURP until the community can have a meaningful involvement in the process.”

Morris proposes reforming the NYPD in part by transferring non-core responsibilities to other city agencies, freeing up officers to prioritize street and subway crime. He also hopes to break the pipeline that feeds guns to the streets and to rewrite the policies of the NYPD to emphasize social justice.

“The top priority that is non-budgetary would be to rewrite the patrol guide,” Morris said in the debate. “People don’t talk about it but the police actually have policies set forth in the patrol guide, and the city council should have a chance to open that up and actually rewrite it.”

Morris also said in the debate that he would create a digital dashboard to improve outreach to the community, allowing residents to not only come into the office to reach their representative but also access them through the internet.

To improve quality of life in District 40, Morris hopes to improve accessibility to rapid transit for people with disabilities, increase funding for local parks, fund more frequent trash collection, reform the recycling program, and expand composting, among other things.

Morris said that he would focus on finding nonprofit partners that would support youth and education in District 40. On his website, Morris said that he will demand and support quality, equitable K-12 public education and free CUNY tuition, as well as establish a municipal broadband network to substitute over-priced internet services. In the debate, Morris emphasized his experience as an attorney fighting for civil rights and for those abused by the rich and powerful. He specifically cited how he sued the New York State Senate, which, as a result of the lawsuit, now has to disclose how its members allocate funds for mailings.

Cecilia Cortez
Cecilia Cortez, a public school special needs teacher, came to Brooklyn from her native Ecuador as a teenager. Cortez has spoken out about the need for mental health training, rent relief during the COVID-19 pandemic, and building a foundation of trust and humanity between residents and the police. She had raised a total of $80,529 from public and private funds.

John Williams
John Williams is a minister, urban public health specialist, and community activist from Brooklyn. Williams did not have a campaign website that Gotham Gazette could find, and has raised a total of $25,567 from public and private funds at the time of publication.

Maxi Eugene 
Maxi Eugene, a licensed insurance broker, is the brother of Council Member Mathieu Eugene. Maxi Eugene has raised a total of $7,724 from private funds at the time of publication, and has not qualified for any public funds.

Vivia Morgan
Vivia Morgan, a Jamaican-American community activist and local community board member, is the director of Friends of Wingate Park, an organization that addresses gun and gang violence, domestic violence, housing, jobs and mentoring. Morgan is pushing for more investment opportunities for small businesses, improve job training, and reduce incarceration rates. Morgan has raised a total of $6,568 from private funds at the time of publication, and has not qualified for any public funds.

Harriet Hines
Harriet Hines, a community activist from Brooklyn, uses her platform to advocate for the disabled community, of which she is a member, and make District 40 more accessible for everyone. Hines also hopes to strengthen mental health and rehabilitation programs, as well as ridding the streets of drug and alcohol abuse. She has raised a total of $3,718 from private funds at the time of publication, and has not qualified for any public funds.

Victor Jordan
Victor Jordan has raised a total of $2,000 from private funds at the time of publication, and has not qualified for any public funds. She does not have a working campaign website that Gotham Gazette could find.

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