There’s nothing like a nicely dressed young man standing just in front of the turnstiles handing out fliers with JESUS in big print at the top to get people to whip out their Metrocards, drop their heads and race for the train.
Jesus Gonzalez, though, appeared indefatigable Thursday morning at the bustling Myrtle Ave-Broadway JMZ stop, keeping up a big smile and a barker’s rap.
“Good morning brother–I’m running for State Assembly.”
“Show some support, show some love.”
“It’s okay to smile. It’s okay to smile.”
“You know about this, brother? The youngest candidate running for State Assembly.”
“Youngest, most qualified candidate.”
Gonzalez, a 26-year-old community organizer, is an unlikely entrant into the special election in the 54th Assembly District in Bushwick, Cypress Hills and parts of Brownsville, East New York and BedStuy that opened up when Assemblyman Darryl Towns left the post after 18 years to take a job with the Cuomo administration. It’s his first political campaign, one that’s pitting him against two of the borough’s dynasties. As a special election, the deck is rigged twice: there are no primaries, and voters have no other reason to show up at the polls on Tuesday.
But with momentum and endorsements – El Diario came out for him Thursday, and The Daily News today – on his side, Gonzalez is looking surprisingly strong, while the Brooklyn powers-that-be that bank on low turnout to dominate local politics may be about to take a serious hit. Depending on a small base of old dependables means that if new voters do show up in the historically apathetic district, power can shift quickly.
The way special elections work, the county committees choose their own candidates with no public input. In practice, the Democratic pick is usually a sure thing in New York City. The Dems went with Rafael Espinal, the chief of staff to Councilmember Erik Martin Dilan and the choice of Brooklyn party boss and Assemblyman Vito Lopez. Espinal has the fix-is-in distinction of also being the pick of the Republican and the Conservative parties. Deidra, Darryl’s sister and daughter of Congressman Ed Towns, whose district partly overlaps the Assembly district, is also in the race having petitioned onto the ballot on the vanity “Community First” line, but she seems poised to end up as at best a spoiler.
Gonzalez, meanwhile, has the Working Families Party line, which is working to reestablish its political potency ahead of the 2013 citywide cycle after a rough few years with nearly losing its ballot line amidst an investigation of its apparent collaboration with Data and Field Services, a nominally independent private company that seemed to only work for WFP picks and at remarkable discounts. But the young community organizer is also backed by reformers who’ve taken aim at the Lopez’s Brooklyn machine in recent years, including the New Kings Democrats, whose members are mostly located outside of the district but who have emerged as leaders in the fight against Lopez, and Rep. Nydia Velázquez, a Lopez foe whose district largely overlaps with the assembly district.
Asked about the Working Families Party, Gonzalez, who in his literature touts himself as “The Real Democrat for State Assembly,” redirected his response to his diverse coalition of supporters. Pressed on the group, which despite a tiny base of less than 15,000 registered members has managed to leverage New York’s ballot rules into a position of significant power for public workers, he said, “they do have experience winning elections,” before again shifting back to talk about his local support.
“The machine banks on low turnout but a special election can also benefit a true grass roots movement and between Make The Road, the Working Families Party and the New Kings Democrats, Jesus will have an unprecedented grassroots election day operation,”
said Morgan Pehme, an executive member of the New Kings Democrats, who pointed out that Letitia James, a Gonzalez supporter and the only WFP Council member who’s not also a Democrat, won office in a special election.
After talking briefly in the station with a young man in a t-shirt with the Statue of Liberty holding up a handgun instead of a torch, who offered the candidate a limp two-finger shake to go with his stony-faced disinterest, Gonzalez turned to me and, aiming his words at both me and the unhappy (and unlikely) potential voter, said:
“You see how I brushed that off. The reason I do that is I don’t brush off good opportunities, man.”
He’s got a very appealing brand of optimism and hustle. At the station he’s in constant motion, bouncing a stack of his own literature up and down during brief pauses between waves of commuters, which helps explain the 18 pounds he’s said he’s lost since entering the race. A Bushwick lifer, Gonzalez grew up helping his father sell Icys and his mother go door-to-door for Avon. He’s worked as a community organizer for Make the Road New York since he was a teen.
“My mother will be out on the street. My father has been knocking on doors,” Gonzalez said. “It’s probably like secretly a race between Ed Towns Sr., my father, and Vito Lopez.”
“It’s a nauseating state of democracy here in New York. And in Northern Brooklyn,” said the 26-year-old Gonzalez, there are “obstacles where there’s community leaders in this neighborhood that have never been asked to and never could run for office as the system stands.”
“We need to make sure that we make this an available process to people, to community members and the difference between my campaign is that as a community organizer you include people in the Democratic process, not excluding them and counting on a few votes,” Gonzalez said. As always, the question is how to turn citizens who already feel disenfranchised into voters. He’s been trying to do it by knocking on doors where, he says, people tell him no politician has ever knocked before.
“There is a low voter turnout. I’m making my case to the folks who are voting all the time. But I’m also registering hundreds of voters who will come out to vote for the first time. I’ve also been engaging people who are not going to vote and letting them know why it’s important… Having an elected that’s present, that’s responding to the community and that understands our struggles is very important.”
“If Bob Tuner wins” in the special election to replace Anthony Weiner in Congress, “and Jesus wins that would be a humongous blow to Vito,” said Pehme. “If you can’t demonstrate you can win, that is the death of the party boss.”