Gotham Gazette

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Race, Representation, and Community Roots in Focus in Central Brooklyn Assembly Primary

Assembly candidates 

The two Democratic candidates in Brooklyn's 56th Assembly District

With incumbent Assemblymember Tremaine Wright of Brooklyn seeking a promotion to the State Senate, the 56th Assembly District is an “open” seat for the 2020 election. The two candidates vying for the Democratic nomination in this month’s primary, Justin Cohen and Stefani Zinerman, represent differing policy approaches, campaign styles, and backgrounds. As no other candidates have filed to run in the deep blue district, the winner of the Democratic primary will be unopposed in the general election and secure the seat.

The 56th Assembly District is predominantly anchored in Bedford-Stuyvesant, but also stretches into some of Crown Heights. The district’s residents are predominantly black, accounting for 63% of residents, according to Census data. Hispanic residents comprise 18% of the district and white residents are 13%. The district is relatively young, with nearly three-in-five voters under the age of 40 and an average age for district residents of 33.5, compared to 39 statewide.

In stark contrast to the nearby affluent neighborhoods of Park Slope and Boerum Hill, 26.1% of the district’s residents live in poverty, nearly double the statewide rate of 14.6%. The median household income is $45,269, compared to $65,323 statewide.

Zinerman, a black woman, is a former pastor who has worked as an aide for retiring State Senator Montgomery (whom Wright is running to replace in the somewhat overlapping district) and a chief of staff to City Council Member Robert Cornegy. All three of those local officials -- Montgomery, Wright, and Cornegy -- are backing Zinerman for Assembly. Zinerman has been involved for many years in a number of community organizations, including the Brooklyn NAACP and Age-Friendly, a senior-focused initiative which she chaired.

Cohen, a white man, is a community organizer and activist. He worked as an education advocate in Washington D.C., cofounded the anti-gun violence group Politicize My Death, and has worked with other organizations such as Campaign Zero and Black Lives Matter. He also touts himself as a “social entrepreneur,” as a cofounder of the Wayfinder Foundation.

Zinerman has questioned Cohen’s roots in the community he seeks to represent and frequently highlights her own, “as a third-generation Bed-Stuy resident.” When asked about her opponent, she warned that “the next assault on our community seeks to destabilize our political power with seemingly well-meaning outsiders.”

When asked why he decided to run for Assembly, Cohen told Gotham Gazette that he had come to the conclusion that “the best use of my energy was to run.” He frames his entire campaign around one overarching theme, justice, which for him would mean that “communities most marginalized by our system get the resources they need to thrive.”

Cohen extends the theme of “justice” to a variety of issues, from public safety to immigration to transportation. He says the 56th district is a “transit desert,” where public transportation is not readily accessible for many and often inconsistent. He says a commute into Manhattan can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, which he calls unacceptable.

On issues of healthcare, public safety, and many others, he makes a similar case: that the district does not get enough resources and attention. Cohen calls his proposals “radical” and says “this is a nominally progressive state but we never talk about the wealthy people in our state,” meaning that he wants to increase taxes on the highest-income New Yorkers.

In response to the pandemic, Cohen has argued that rent should be cancelled for the time being. He also supports the New York Health Act for single-payer health care in the state, a homes guarantee, universal rent control, making the MTA’s subways and buses free and accessible for all, and the Green New Deal, among other policies.

When asked at a recent candidate town hall hosted by the Brooklyn Movement Center, a nonprofit community group with deep roots in the district, about the recent protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, Cohen called for defunding the NYPD by $1 billion, although as a state legislator he would not have a direct say in that decision. Cohen said on Twitter he was arrested during a May 30 protest, along with other demonstrators.

While Cohen focuses on broad systemic issues and puts forward ambitious policies for seismic change, Zinerman takes a different approach, focusing on more localized concerns and constituent engagement. She lists her top two priorities as community health and education equity for the schools in the district.

On health, Zinerman said she is advocating for several community-based initiatives, including a “healthy aging programming, community farms and access to healthy food, doula care to reduce maternal morbidity, expanding the number of school-based health clinics,” and “safe staffing standards for licensed nurses.”

On education, Zinerman wants the promise of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity to be fulfilled through $3.9 billion in state foundation aid for New York City. Education equity, for Zinerman, would mean that schools can offer career and technical education, “high-quality academic enrichment,” and “physical and mental health programs.”

Zinerman’s position on debates over policing is community-focused. She said at the Brooklyn Movement Center town hall that the “only thing we can do is lessen contact with police,” advocating for “new models” of public safety.

The Money Tree and District Roots
Cohen holds a significant financial advantage over Zinerman. He had raised $83,211, with $15,611 in cash-on-hand as of the 32-day pre-primary report filed on May 22. Zinerman had raised just $13,689 and had $10,090 in her campaign account as of the same date. Additionally, Cohen has spent $67,600 so far in the campaign, while Zinerman has only spent $3,599 as of that 32-day pre-primary report. The average contribution to Cohen was $189, while Zinerman’s average contribution was $227.

Notably, out of the Cohen campaign’s 167 individual contributions, 56% have come from outside New York State and 72% are from outside Brooklyn. By comparison, 40% of Zinerman’s 40 contributions were from outside Brooklyn. Yet, Cohen has far more contributions from within Brooklyn (57) than Zinerman (16). Meanwhile, Cohen’s campaign committee is registered to an address in Jersey City, New Jersey, according to his most recent financial disclosure.

Cohen said he doesn’t take funds from “the monied interests in real estate and the political establishment in this city”  and his campaign has instead “turned to national networks to support our insurgent campaign.” Explaining the reason a New Jersey mailing address was used for his campaign filing, Cohen told Gotham Gazette that his “campaign treasurer is my closest friend, a lifelong New Yorker, who just moved to Jersey City, hence the address on the filing.”

Zinerman is not the only person to raise concerns over Cohen’s connection to the district. At the recent Brooklyn Movement Center town hall, Cohen was asked how he, as a white man, would represent the interests of a majority-black district. He responded that he acknowledges that he “is not the ideal messenger, but I am who I am” and that “my track record shows that I do the work and put in the time.”

Later, in the same town hall, an audience member asked a similar question, wondering if Cohen had a “white savior” complex and how he would make inroads in the local community. He answered that “trust is earned. There’s a difference between being a gentrifier and a neighbor.”

It is Zinerman who holds the advantage in endorsements. She has been endorsed by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, State Senators Velmanette Montgomery, Brian Benjamin, and Kevin Parker; three State Assemblymembers (including current 56th District incumbent Tremaine Wright, as well as Brooklyn’s Walter Mosley and Rodneyse Bichotte), and local City Council Member Robert Cornegy, whom she used to work for. She has also received the endorsements of Vanguard Independent Democrats, Planned Parenthood Action, the Brooklyn Young Democrats, Social Services Employees Union (SSEU) Local 371 and Local 372.

Assemblymember Bichotte, the Brooklyn Democratic Party leader, said in a statement endorsing Zinerman that “I have worked with Stefani personally and she is astute, smart and dedicated to effectively serving the community she grew up in as a legislator.”

Cohen touts endorsements from Kei Williams, a founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, and government reform group Citizens Union. While not endorsing his campaign, several community leaders have voiced support for his COVID-19 recovery plan, including Pastor Rob Waterman of Antioch Baptist Church, which including the NY Health Act, paid sick leave for essential workers, and giving the state the ability to assume control of noncompliant nursing homes.

Zinerman’s endorsement advantage and support from Brooklyn Democratic Party leaders has led some, including her opponent, to assert that she is the “establishment” candidate. Cohen told Gotham Gazette that “if there’s one thing that is clear in our current moment, it’s that business as usual is not working, especially when it comes to the political establishment’s lax reaction to violent policing.”

However, Zinerman sees her endorsements edge as a result of what favorably differentiates her from Cohen in this race. She’s a “long-time resident with generational roots” in the district and she has “a proven track record of accomplishments that demonstrate my commitment to this community. That, she says, is why she is “endorsed and trusted by our elders, small business owners, faith-based and political leadership.”

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

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

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