Gotham Gazette

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Fierce Competition as Upstarts and Assembly Member Vie for Brooklyn State Senate Nomination


Left to right: Tremaine Wright, Jason Salmon, Jabari Brisport

Brooklyn State Senator Velmanette Montgomery’s January retirement announcement created an opening for a coveted seat in the upper house of the State Legislature, leading to a fierce Democratic primary that is set to be decided this month.

Given the overwhelming Democratic enrollment advantage in the 25th State Senate District, where Montgomery has been the senator since 1985, the primary winner is all but certain to become one of 63 state senators in the state. The district is a diverse constituency where 46% are black, 27% white, 17% Latino, and 5% Asian, according to census data.

Two upstart candidates, Jabari Brisport and Jason Salmon, were already running to unseat Montgomery at the time of her announcement. Assemblymember Tremaine Wright, who represents a partially overlapping Assembly District 56, declared her candidacy for the Senate seat shortly after Montgomery’s announcement and received the retiring senator’s endorsement. Both Montgomery and Wright are black women; Brisport is a black man; and Salmon is a biracial (black and white) man. Additionally, if elected Brisport would be the first queer person of color in the State Legislature.

The Senate district includes parts or all of Fort Greene, Boerum Hill, Red Hook, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Sunset Park, Gowanus, and Park Slope. It is home to some of the wealthiest and poorest neighborhoods in Brooklyn, if not the city.

Along with Montgomery’s, the endorsements have continued to flow in for Wright, who occupies a quasi-incumbent status in the race, as the only elected official in the running and from an overlapping district, in Bedford-Stuyvesant. She has been in the Assembly since 2017 and, in addition to the backing of the retiring incumbent, has the support of the Brooklyn Democratic Party and most elected officials in the borough.

In an interview, Wright touted the CROWN Act, which prohibits discrimination based on natural hairstyles or traits associated with race, and workplace antidiscrimination rules, passed in last year’s state budget as among her proudest legislative accomplishments. 

But Wright appears to have a more challenging path to the Democratic nomination than others in a similar situation may find themselves given the rest of the field and the support that her opponents have been accruing.

When asked by Gotham Gazette about her status as the “establishment” candidate, Wright said, “I doubt that the voters in the 25th Senate District will characterize dedication, consistent service, and a commitment to community empowerment as a deficiency.” She said that she is “the only candidate in this race that has a record of leadership, commitment and experience.”

In an apparent reference to her opponents, Wright said, “it is useless to simply identify problems. I am focused on finding solutions.”

The two candidates running against her in the Democratic primary would of course disagree with her assessment of their campaigns.

Brisport is a political activist, math teacher, and former Green Party nominee for City Council in 2017 (he lost to incumbent Council Member Laurie Cumbo as she won reelection). He is part of a slate of candidates running for the State Legislature this year backed by the Democratic Socialists of America -- the New York Post wrote he “could be the next AOC.”

In his 2017 City Council race, Brisport earned 29% of the general election vote in a district that shares many of the same neighborhoods as Senate District 25, including Fort Greene and Bedford Stuyvesant, as well as Clinton Hill, Crown Heights, and Prospect Heights.

His campaign platform should be familiar to those who have followed the rises of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) of the Bronx and Queens and Brooklyn State Senator Julia Salazar. In an interview with Gotham Gazette, he said he supports “a safe home for everyone, free and quality health care, strengthening unions and workers’ rights, fully funded schools, a Green New Deal in New York, and so much more” and he argues all of this can be accomplished through increased taxes on the wealthy and “standing up to corporate interests.”

As such, Brisport supports the New York Health Act, which would institute a universal public health insurance system, and a 2030 target for net-zero carbon emissions in the state. He believes that rent should be cancelled during the Covid-19 pandemic and supports Sen. Salazar’s Good Cause Eviction bill. He has also voiced support for the No New Jails pledge, promising to oppose the construct of any new prison facilities.

Salmon is a political activist and former aide to Senator Montgomery, having served as a community liaison in her office. He has been endorsed by Brooklyn City Council Member Carlos Menchaca, whose Council district has some overlap with the western portion of the 25th Senate District. Salmon bills himself as a practical progressive, highlighting his “dual-lens” as both a community organizer for police accountability and legislative staffer. He said the latter position gave him “an up-close-and-personal look as to how our political system is fundamentally flawed.”

Salmon has made criminal justice reform the centerpiece of his campaign, decrying the fact that “not a single police reform bill made it out of committee” in the last session, even amidst a wave of progressive legislation. In an interview, he said “police hand out masks in affluent, white neighborhoods; they issue summons in low-income communities of color.”

Salmon’s platform, per his campaign website, is heavily focused on criminal justice reform. He advocates defunding the police by requiring that all funding for law enforcement is matched by funding for community-based alternatives and restorative justice programs. He would also ban the use of deadly force by police “except when necessary to protect human life and only after all other non-lethal options have been exhausted” and require the NYPD report racial impact data.

Both Brisport and Salmon are part of a wave of younger candidates talking about generational change, and trying to appeal to younger voters with platforms more aligned with Bernie Sanders than Joe Biden. Perhaps helpful to their chances, the presidential primary is back on the ballot in New York this month after a legal battle, which could drive more Sanders supporters to the polls. There are also a host of state legislative and congressional races across the city and state, among others.

The two are also framing their candidacies as anti-establishment, while Wright is part of that establishment as a sitting elected official not known for outlier views among the Assembly majority Democratic conference, though she has only held her seat for three-and-a-half years. Before she was a legislator, Wright served for fourteen years on her local community board, including three as chair. She is a lawyer and owned a local coffee house.

Brisport sees himself as the outsider candidate who can galvanize progressives, saying it boils down to “a movement versus the machine” and “I think that separates us from the other candidates.” He asserts that in this race he is the only candidate who “won’t have to rely on special interests or unsavory political compromises to get things done in Albany.”

Brisport points to his fundraising abilities in support of this argument. He had raised $128,660 during this campaign and had $89,138 cash-on-hand as of his 32-day pre-primary report filed in late May. His campaign boasts that “nearly 700 residents of District 25 have donated to our campaign,” in addition to having “over a thousand” volunteers participate.

His fundraising haul is more than double the $58,500 that Wright had raised in the campaign as of her most recent filing. She also has about half as much in her campaign account as of the filing, $44,539. Salmon has nearly equaled the Assembly member’s fundraising, having collected $57,500 in contributions during the campaign, and had $27,503 on hand as of they end of May.

However, Brisport’s claim to the status of progressive outsider is complicated by Salmon, and vice versa, as Salmon says he has “spent my career fighting for this entire district,” from “organizing tenants on the verge of eviction in Bed-Stuy…to delivering meals to our food-insecure neighbors in NYCHA during this crisis.”

Brisport touts his endorsements from the aforementioned Senator Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, State Senator Julia Salazar, the Democratic Socialists of America, the Working Families Party, New York Communities for Change, and Our Revolution.

Council Member Menchaca, who represents Red Hook and Sunset Park, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette explaining his endorsement of Salmon, “the political machines are battling out the politics of the race but Jason is just focused on what is right for Red Hook and the district.” Salmon’s other endorsements include the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, the Stonewall Democrats, UAW Region 9A, and local pastor Rev. Anthony Trufant.

Wright has the endorsements of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, in addition to eight State Senators, nine other Assembly members, two City Council members, and two members of Congress. She also has the endorsements of several labor unions and community groups.

The per capita income in the 25th State Senate District is about $40,000, slightly higher than the state average, but the poverty rate is 21.6%, compared to the statewide poverty rate of 14.6%. The district has a median household income of $61,165, nearly on par with the state as a whole, but that number hides a huge variation among neighborhoods.

In Boerum Hill, for example, the median household income is $128,274, while in Bedford-Stuyvesant it’s $53,971. The neighborhoods in the district also vary widely in terms of diversity. White residents make up 61% of Boerum Hill and 21% of Bedford-Stuyvesant; black residents comprise 10% of Boerum Hill and 52% of Bedford-Stuvesant.

A 2019 report from Urban Displacement Project at UC-Berkeley, which “analyzed regional data on housing, income, and other demographics to better understand and predict where gentrification and displacement is happening and will likely occur in the future,” found that much of the western section of the 25th Senate District, in neighborhoods such as Park Slope and Boerum Hill, has already experienced high levels of displacement of low-income households, which is their measure of gentrification. However, in the eastern section, namely parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the report says some census tracts are currently undergoing displacement of low-income households, while others have not yet seen widespread displacement.

Wright’s Assembly district covers most of that eastern section, grounded in Bedford-Stuyvesant. While there is sizable overlap between AD-56 and SD-25, there are important variations between the demographic makeups of each district. In the 56th Assembly District, 63% of residents are black, whereas 46% of residents are black in the 25th Senate District. The median household income in AD-56 is $45,300, compared to $61,165 in SD-25.

In his 2017 race, Brisport’s 29% was the second-best showing by a third-party candidate in that year’s City Council elections and the best result for a candidate running to the left of the Democratic Party. However, the 35th Council District has less than half as many residents as the 25th Senate District. There are five Assembly districts that overlap with Council District 35. Of those, Brisport fared best in the parts of the 52nd Assembly District, earning 37% of the vote there, where the median household income is $130,303 and 66% of residents are white. He performed the worst in Wright’s 56th Assembly District, where he got 16% against Cumbo.

As with every other facet of life in New York, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way campaigning happens. When in-person meetings were no longer an option, the campaigns shifted focus. Instead of door-knocking and in-person campaign events, phone-banking and tele-conferencing became the primary modes of campaigning.

Assemblymember Wright said in an interview that she put her campaign “on pause” during the worst of the crisis, but declining coronavirus case numbers have allowed her to resume some “regular campaign activities,” but not canvassing as of yet.

Wright also said that her team has “conducted wellness checks, provided food, [and] assisted with unemployment claims,” during the crisis. While not current officeholders like Wright, the two other candidates have also acted to help the district during the crisis, they said. Brisport has supported Bed-Stuy Strong, a mutual aid network serving district residents. Salmon said his campaign is “delivering meals to our food-insecure neighbors in NYCHA.”

Early voting starts June 13 and goes through June 21; primary day is June 23; and all eligible voters can vote absentee per executive order by the governor issued due to the pandemic. This and other Democratic Party primaries are only open to registered Democrats.

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

This article has been updated to add that AOC endorsed Brisport.

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