Gotham Gazette

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Incumbent Brooklyn City Council Rep Attempts to Fend Off Prominent Challengers

Carlos Menchaca

City Council Member Menchaca (photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)

As he runs for reelection this fall, Carlos Menchaca, the City Council member for District 38, which includes Red Hook, Sunset Park and Windsor Terrace, faces several challengers in the Democratic primary. In a rare occurrence, one of his opponents is another sitting elected official from the same party, Assemblymember Felix Ortiz.

Though he was not an elected official at the time, Menchaca himself challenged and unseated an incumbent from the same party in a contentious 2013 primary that focused on then-Council Member Sara Gonzalez’s insufficient response to the devastation Superstorm Sandy wrought in the waterfront district. In another twist to the exceptional storyline of the 2017 race in this district, Gonzalez is back and also challenging Menchaca in the primary.

Also among Menchaca’s primary opponents this year are Gonzalez, Delvis Valdes, an attorney and former community board member, and Chris Miao, a real estate attorney. (Carmen Hulbert is the Green Party candidate in the race, awaiting the Democratic nominee in the general election.)

Ortiz appears to be the most dangerous threat to Menchaca, and the race between the two has become especially pointed as it nears the September 12 vote.

In an interview with Gotham Gazette, Menchaca mostly spoke in positive terms about his candidacy and campaign, touting accomplishments related to adult literacy funding, immigrant legal services, the city’s IDNYC municipal identification card program, and new schools opening in the district, along with new city investment to spur jobs along the waterfront. He did have a few sharp words for Ortiz, though.

“I’m the only one that has a true sense of vision that is connected to the community of the district,” Menchaca said earlier this week. “What I’ve done is not only to be incredibly visible and vocal on issues that matter to the community, but to bring resources, like five new schools, and more jobs being created in this district than anywhere in the city. This is testament to my leadership and holding the line for the community.”

Of Ortiz he said, “This is someone who is going to challenge a sitting incumbent of his party, someone distracted from the job he was just elected to do. Voters are soon going to say, ‘Go back and do your job that we just elected you to do.’”

When Gotham Gazette asked Ortiz why he would take on a member of his own party in a primary, he said, “The biggest motivating factor was a group of constituents across the Councilmatic district” who came to him multiple times over the past year to encourage him to run. He said constituents were frustrated with Menchaca, who they felt had been unavailable. “I listen to the constituents,” Ortiz said, “when the people ask me to do something, I listen.”

The constituents pushing him to run were “regular, normal people, senior citizens, people who’ve lived in the community a long time...most of these people are not involved in politics,” Ortiz said on Thursday.

Ortiz, who, like several other state legislators running this year, is seeking to leave behind the regular trips to Albany for the much better pay of the City Council (without having to risk his seat), accuses Menchaca of inflating his record. “The New York City ID was not his bill,” Ortiz said. “You’re talking about someone who lies like crazy.”

“I’ve been in this business long enough to know not to lie,” he added.

While Menchaca touts his role in passage of the IDNYC bill, it’s not clear that he has claimed it as his own legislation, which it was not. He did sign on to the bill as a co-sponsor and usher it through committee, though, and he was an outspoken promoter of the highly popular program in its early phases.

Asked about other elements of the record Menchaca is running on, including the new schools, Ortiz continued to be dismissive. “The only thing I give credit to him, is to approve the budget to use the money we gave from Albany,” he said, with reference to the school funding in particular. “He can take credit, but the money came from the state.”

Dominant issues in the district that must be tackled include immigrants’ rights and protections, jobs, affordable housing, transportation, and education. Development of city-owned land and potential private development along the waterfront are also key issues.

Menchaca has promised to protect the waterfront, which is a key landing strip for industrial jobs and has been expanding as renovations continue to be made to the Brooklyn Army Terminal, Brooklyn Navy Yard, and South Brooklyn Marine Terminal, which is becoming a key hub in the 38th district. He knows, though, that many of his constituents are wary of development, gentrification, and displacement, which have hit some parts of the district, especially Red Hook.

“I’ve shown time and again that I’m holding the line in preserving Sunset Park and Red Hook for what it is,” Menchaca said, adding that he says “‘no’ a lot.”

“I’ve not just said ‘no’ to developers, I’ve said ‘yes’ to city investment,” Menchaca added. “Hundreds of millions of dollars is coming to the waterfront for our community. Countless times developers have come to me with beautiful renderings of luxury towers on the waterfront, I’ve told them basically that this is not something that resonates with our community. They’re waiting for me to leave.”

And trying to push Menchaca out is Ortiz, the assistant speaker of the state Assembly, who has been in the Assembly since 1995, and has touted efforts such as the passage of Briana's Law, which he introduced and was signed into law last week by Governor Andrew Cuomo. The law requires state police and NYPD officers to receive CPR training at the police academy and every two years after that. It is named for 11-year-old Briana Ojeda who died in 2010 after suffering a severe asthma attack. Briana's mother was pulled over by an NYPD officer on the way to the hospital, but the officer was not trained in CPR and could not administer aid.     

Ortiz is also proud of having introduced legislation to create a $2 billion bond act to repair infrastructure throughout the state, which did not pass, and of his successful efforts to recover back wages for unpaid workers that had been denied by factory owners when he was a part of the Subcommittee on Sweatshops. He does not, however, have an official campaign website with a policy platform for what he hopes to accomplish should he be elected to the City Council.

Asked by Gotham Gazette what he hopes to accomplish as a Council member or what his campaign policy agenda is, Ortiz did not offer any specific policies, but remained focused on “constituent services” as the essence of his run. “What I have done and what I will continue to do, is what the CIty Council needs at this point: someone with the knowledge, the experience, the leadership, someone who knows how to listen and to get results,” Ortiz said. “The district needs me now,” he added.

According to information he provided to NYC Votes for its official voter guide ahead of the primary, Ortiz's top three issues are housing, a living wage, and education. In the section of the guide where candidates are able to be more specific, Ortiz provided only a few vague sentences about "a proven record of leadership" and "a record of taking action and getting results." He did specifically cite defending "the rights of all New Yorkers from consumer fraud to Immigrant rights," but did not provide specifics.

Among a number of endorsements, Ortiz is being backed by 1199 SEIU and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), two of the city’s biggest labor unions, and the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, which represents police officers. “I am very proud to be endorsed by the finest men and women of the PBA,” Ortiz said in a press release upon receiving the endorsement. “As someone that has family members in the law enforcement, I truly understand the sacrifices that they bring to the job.” He’s also received support from other uniformed unions. Menchaca is known to be among the furthest left in a City Council often not seen as supportive of police and corrections officers.

Menchaca is doing quite well in terms of institutional endorsements himself: he’s been backed by many labor groups and elected officials, including the local union chapters for transportation, auto, and communications workers; SEIU 32BJ, RWDSU, the Teamsters Joint Council 16, the Hotel Trades Council, and others. He’s backed by Congressional Reps. Jerry Nadler and Nydia Velázquez, Assemblymembers Jo Ann Simon and Yuh-Line Niou, State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, and many of his City Council colleagues.

“Almost every union has endorsed my reelection, because they know I’ve been fighting for the working families of my neighborhood,” Menchaca told Gotham Gazette, “whether it’s day laborers or the Teamsters...or the carwasheros in the northern part of the district.” Menchaca has been a regular at labor rallies and protests in favor of workers and raising the minimum wage.

The incumbent regularly points to a handful of key issues, including two of the main themes of this entire city election cycle: Democrats running against President Donald Trump and the issue of affordability. Of Rep. Velázquez, Menchaca said, “the congresswoman is even more committed that I stay in the Council to continue as a partner, with the local and the federal, as we see the chaos out of Washington.”

In an immigrant-heavy district with many Chinese and Spanish speakers who have limited English proficiency, demographics will be a key piece of how the race plays out. While Ortiz does hope to win a large portion of the Latino vote, Menchaca, who is of Mexican descent, has worked to build relationships in both of the large blocs of the district: the Latino bloc and the Chinese bloc, with the latter largely based in the Sunset Park section of the district.

Getting the district’s growing Asian community to turn out to vote will be key. Chris Miao is the only Chinese-American in the race, and while he has not been able to raise enough funds to pose a threat to Menchaca, Ortiz, or possibly even Gonzalez, he could deprive the other top candidates from earning as many Chinese votes as they may otherwise.

Miao listed "protecting the rights of immigrants," "educating the community on politics," and "involving Chinese-Americans in politics" as his three focus issues for NYC Votes. He promises voters "passion and commitment" if elected, but does not spell out any specific proposals for the voter guide or on his campaign website.

For the NYC Votes guide, Menchaca listed immigration reform, economic development and local jobs, and education as his three main focus issues. He touted his work on the legislation creating IDNYC and securing funding for immigrant legal defense and adult literacy services. He writes that "he has transformed the relationship between New Yorkers and city government," but does not explain how he did that. He told Gotham Gazette he is working on additional legislation around adult literacy to make sure that the increased funding is being spent as well as possible.

Another contender in the race is Valdes, an attorney who was involved in a local business improvement district. He has never held public office before but says he has been an activist in the community for decades. He had scathing remarks about his opponents on Facebook: “For 4 years the councilman and for 23 years the assemblyman who I am opposing have done nothing to fix the repair problems at Red Hook and the loss affordable housing that is threatening the very survival of Sunset Park.”

Valdes has raised a good amount of money, enough to compete and, as of the mid-August filing, put him just behind Menchaca in funds raised. He told NY1 that Menchaca -- who has been an outspoken Trump critic, especially on immigrant issues -- is "more concerned about national issues, and we need someone who's going to represent the people here locally." For Menchaca, federal threats to immigrants, both documented and undocumented, are serious issues for the immigrant-heavy district.

For NYC Votes, Valdes listed "gentrification displacement of Sunset Park," "lack of repairs - NYCHA buildings," and education as his top three issues.

For her part, Gonzalez, the former Council member, listed affordable housing, defending and supporting immigrant communities, and more public school seats as her top three issues for NYC Votes. She did not explain a more developed campaign platform in the guide space provided and does not appear to have a campaign website.

The only non-Democratic candidate running in District 38 is Hulbert, an activist on the Green Party ticket. Hulbert told Gotham Gazette, “We want an improvement of the current transportation system we already have in place, a modernized R train and more buses, but nobody is listening.”

Hulbert was a delegate for U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders during his presidential campaign in 2016 and is the co-founder of LatinosforBernieNYC. She has said she is championing a progressive platform and her main focus, similar to that of Sanders, is income inequality, which she thinks is the most pressing issue in the community.

“The Democratic Party no longer represents American workers. They have become a corporate party,” she added. “Sunset Park is still uniquely a walk to work community, but high paying, stable jobs are becoming difficult to find in the neighborhood. People cannot support themselves just in a service economy with minimum wage jobs, not with rent increasing as it is throughout Red Hook and Sunset Park.”

Hulbert will face the winner of the Democratic primary in November.

by Ben Max, with reporting by Amanda Tukaj

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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