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On the Tuesday after Charlottesville, a Palestinian-American pastor named Khader El-Yateem gathered with other Bay Ridge community members in front of Fort Hamilton Army Base. They were there to do what people across the country have been doing, from the furthest reaches of the Deep South to the streets of New York City — demanding that public monuments to the Confederacy be taken down.
One day later, the group’s efforts came to fruition: The Episcopal Diocese of Long Island removed a plaque honoring General Robert E. Lee from a tree trunk in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church on Fort Hamilton Parkway. “Removing this plaque makes it very clear that while we will never forget the history of slavery in America, we are ready to move forward and address racism at its root,” said El-Yateem as he and other religious leaders watched the plaque’s removal.
On September 12, El-Yateem hopes to win another victory: He’s seeking the Democratic nomination for the City Council seat in District 43, which covers Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, and parts of Bensonhurst. For El-Yateem’s supporters, his race against Justin Brannan — a former chief of staff for departing District 43 council representative Vincent Gentile who also formerly worked in intergovernmental affairs for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Department of Education — is a referendum on the future course of the city: Not only would El-Yateem be the first Arab American to serve on the City Council, but he is also an avowed socialist who supports single-payer healthcare, a free CUNY and SUNY, and pushing back against the grip real estate developers hold over the city. Kayla Santosuosso, El-Yateem’s campaign manager, does not mince words: “This is a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party.”
El-Yateem’s personal biography parallels the broader demographic shifts in this district. For a long time, this neighborhood was known as the white Italian-American enclave depicted in Saturday Night Fever, but today it hosts one of the largest Arab-American communities in the nation. (It has also become home to large numbers of Asian and Russian immigrants in recent years.) El-Yateem immigrated to the United States from the Palestinian territories in 1992 and has served as clergy for the local Arab Christian community for more than twenty years.
Although he has long been active in civic life in the neighborhood — spearheading local interfaith efforts, among other work — it wasn’t until the last election that El-Yateem felt compelled to run for office. He explains that he was spurred on as much by hopes raised by the Bernie Sanders campaign as by the depressing outcome of the presidential vote: “I felt this is a time for me as an individual to rise up, to stand up and take a different kind of role in serving the community and the district.”
The El-Yateem election team has built a Bernie-style grassroots campaign, claiming to have registered more than 600 voters, including many at the entrance to mosques. They gathered 2,850 signatures to get on the ballot, more than any other candidate, and say they have a volunteer base of about 400 people — numbers that demonstrate the immense support for El-Yateem’s candidacy, according to his campaign.
For El-Yateem, his spiritual life goes hand in hand with his socialist views. When he was at seminary in Bethlehem on the West Bank, he says, the pastor studied under Naim Ateek, an Anglican priest credited as the founder of Palestinian liberation theology.
“I don’t look at Jesus only as this divine human being,” says El-Yateem. “I look at him as the person who lived on this earth for 33 years, and look at his life on earth, where he fought for economic justice, racial justice, where he fought against the powers at that time, where he wanted to free his people, but in a nonviolent way.”
The father of four staunchly supports the end of “broken windows” policing and the passage of the Right to Know Act requiring police to inform people of their right to refuse searches without probable cause. El-Yateem has promised to crack down on illegal home conversions that are plaguing Dyker Heights and Bay Ridge, and to push for the provision of affordable housing for those evicted as a result. (Gentile and Brannan were instrumental in passing a law last May to fine landlords for infractions; El-Yateem says that law didn’t go far enough.) He said he has refused to take campaign funding from real estate developers, an unusual step for a Democrat running for election in New York, and opposes 421a, the state tax-break program for developers of new buildings that include some less expensive units.
(According to city campaign finance records, El-Yateem did receive some donations from people working in real estate. Only Brannan, however, appears to have accepted funds from developers. He reported receiving $900 from employees of Capalino+Company, a real estate–linked lobbying firm founded by developer James Capalino, who donated heavily to de Blasio’s campaign and is said to have a close relationship with City Hall.)
El-Yateem’s most prominent endorsement has come from the New York City Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the local branch of the largest socialist organization in the United States. In New York City, says Tascha Van Auken, a coordinator for Brooklyn’s DSA Electoral Working Group, the two biggest political issues are criminal justice and housing, and the DSA was impressed with El-Yateem’s positions on both fronts.
“Right now, under Trump, it’s incredibly important to elect local candidates like El-Yateem,” says Van Auken. “He’s essentially Trump’s worst nightmare. He’s an Arab-American immigrant who is really pushing back against the establishment.”
There’s a palpable sense among El-Yateem’s supporters that his candidacy offers a much-needed respite from the insider politics of City Hall, in which patronage takes precedence over substance or the needs of a particular voting district. El-Yateem’s main opponent is Brannan, whose former boss, Gentile, is a moderate Democrat who has opposed creating independent oversight of the NYPD, including on its use of informants and undercover officers. (Gentile is running for Brooklyn district attorney.) Brannan has secured the majority of endorsements from unions and civic society groups, including the Working Families Party (WFP), a political party founded to run opponents to Democrats who were insufficiently progressive.
“We were very impressed by El-Yateem’s candidacy,” Juan Antigua, WFP’s NYC political director, explains. “But we decided to endorse Justin Brannan because of his track record in the district,” including his commitment to improving mass transit and fully funding schools. The Transportation Workers Union Local 100, 32BJ SEIU, and the Bay Ridge Democrats are among the other groups that have endorsed Brannan.
The race is expected to be close, with the two candidates virtually neck and neck in fundraising: Brannan has raised $142,246, El-Yateem $129,116. It’s also been contentious, with each candidate charging the other with financial misdealings. In July, the Observer reported allegations that Brannan had failed to disclose all his spending to the New York City Campaign Finance Board (CFB). (At least some of these expenditures have since been reported to the CFB, according to Brannan.) Last spring El-Yateem was accused of impropriety after the nonprofit he serves as treasurer for held campaign events at its headquarters. Some local residents have alleged that El-Yateem wrongly took credit for the opening of a substance abuse treatment center in Bay Ridge; his campaign maintains that both allegations are baseless.
Although District 43 was one of the few in the borough that went to Sanders in the Democratic Presidential primary, there are Trump supporters in the area as well. Dan Donovan, a Republican in Congress who represents Staten Island and some parts of District 43, including Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights, has among other things openly supported Trump’s travel ban.
Bob Capano, who is running in District 43’s Republican primary, has called on contenders in the Democratic race to condemn El-Yateem, whom Capano referred to as a “radical leftist” and a “Palestinian cleric.” The pastor has come under attack for his vocal support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which aims to use economic pressure to force Israel to comply with international law, and for his ties to the prominent Muslim activist Linda Sarsour.
El-Yateem, though, has lived through worse. While he was still living in the Palestinian territories, the pastor once spent 57 days in solitary confinement in an Israeli prison, where he says he was tortured and treated like an animal. His captors never told him what crimes he had allegedly committed, he says, but while he was in their custody he was beaten with lead pipes, made to sleep with his hands tied above him on the wall, and woken up by soldiers jumping on his genitals, among other instances of violence. Instead of making him bitter or cynical, the experience pushed El-Yateem to try and understand his captors and others who perpetrate hate and violence.
“I came out of prison committed to issues of justice and reconciliation and dialogue,” he told me. Asked how he might address the racial tensions in his district, El-Yateem suggested opening a community center to engage people on social issues through art and performance.
During our interview, El-Yateem specifically expressed his disappointment in Justin Brannan, who began his campaign under the slogan, “Our neighborhood, our guy” — a choice of words that El-Yateem worries “was feeding into a language and a mind-set of discrimination and segregation in the community.” On a local Facebook group for progressives, several posters commented that they needed to vote for Brannan, because only he could beat a Republican down the line.
Comments like these, say supporters of the pastor, reflect how this race speaks to the larger questions facing the Democratic Party in the age of Trump. How do Democrats slow or reverse the rise of the far right? Is it possible to build a multiracial party that’s committed to the working class — and win?
As the national questions loom large, residents of District 43 say that even if El-Yateem doesn’t win on September 12, his candidacy will have made a difference. Zein Rimawi, a founding member of the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge as well as a current board member and an avid supporter of El-Yateem, says the pastor has “really opened the eyes of our youth.”
“You can be a councilman, you can be a state senator, a congressman,” he says of what young people are learning from El-Yateem’s campaign. “And it doesn’t make any difference if you are an Arab or a Muslim. You have a chance to be there.”