By Eli MacKinnon
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Fresh boundaries and shifting populations have shaken up a Brooklyn congressional district that’s been all but uncontested during the two-decade tenure of Democratic Rep. Nydia Velázquez.
Now three insurgents — a trilingual economist, a City Council member backed by old-school party clout, and a hip-hop artist who claims to be the first Occupy Wall Street candidate on a congressional ballot — are vying for her seat in a June 26 Democratic primary in the new 7th Congressional District.
“I want to see better representation for the district,” said Erik Martin Dilan, who has represented Bushwick and East New York in the Council for three terms and who political pundits see as the candidate with the best shot at ousting Velázquez. “In 20 years, we have seen very few measurables in terms of what [Velázquez] has done for the district, very few concrete things that she can say she’s delivered. If Velázquez’s seniority was overwhelmingly producing for the district, I probably wouldn’t run, but that’s not what I see.”
Dilan and his fellow challengers, libertarian-leaning political newcomer Dan O’Connor and Occupy activist George Martinez, say Velázquez has become complacent and ineffectual after two decades in Washington. But Velázquez, who is the former chair of the House Committee on Small Business and its current ranking minority member, fiercely disputes allegations of a late-career apathy streak.
“I am just as active today as I was when first elected,” she said in an email to the Brooklyn Eagle. “Over the course of my career I have had 23 different legislative proposals signed into law, which is an average of 2.6 per Congress. The most active Congress for me was the 2009-2010 Congress, in which 13 bills and provisions were signed into law. During that same period, I chaired the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, helping lead the House to pass the DREAM Act, legislation to help young immigrants achieve legal status by pursuing an education.”
Since her first election in 1992, Velázquez has represented New York’s overwhelmingly Democratic 12th CD, a sprawling district that includes parts of Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan, and that patches together various neighborhoods with heavily Hispanic populations.
The June 26 primary puts the 10-term incumbent in a redrawn 7th CD, an area that largely overlaps the old 12th CD but has been altered from its precursor in ways that could benefit an insurgent.
Along with eliminating much of the old district’s stake in Greenpoint and in the Queens neighborhoods of Maspeth, Sunnyside and Glendale, the re-mapping added ground in Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill, Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights and Manhattan’s Chinatown, as well as wide chunks of Woodhaven and heavily Hasidic South Williamsburg. The new 7th CD also includes parts of Bushwick, Sunset Park, Cypress Hills, and Manhattan's Lower East Side and East Village.
The district remains heavily Hispanic, dropping from 44.6% to 43.1% Hispanic according to 2010 Census data, and three of the candidates — Dilan, Velázquez and Martinez — are of Puerto Rican descent.
But some of the most public political tug-of-wars thus far in the race have centered on the district’s Jewish voters, a significant population in the district’s expanded Lower East Side section and in newly added Hasidic Williamsburg.
Velázquez and her longtime nemesis Kings County Democratic Party leader Vito Lopez, a key Dilan backer, squared off on opposite sides of a long-running and bitter family feud between two brothers who head opposing factions of the Williamsburg-based Satmar Hasidic sect.
In a dispute over the ownership of four Satmar campgrounds in the Hudson Valley's Ulster County, Lopez sided with the younger brother, Zalman Teitelbaum, who has long operated the camps and who leads the majority of the Satmars who live in Williamsburg. Velázquez sided with older brother Aaronie Teitelbaum, who had filed for permits to control some of the camps. Her public show of support seemed to be, at least in part, a bid to curry the favor and reliable votes of the 3,000 members of the Satmar sect that Aaronie might deliver.
Lopez won that skirmish, with Ulster County officials allowing Zalman to continue to run all the camps, possibly securing a primary-day boost for Dilan from the 5,000-vote-strong Zalman faction.
Pursuing the district's Jewish voters beyond the Satmar stronghold, Dilan charged that Velázquez has an anti-Israel voting record. For the incumbent "to largely take an apathetic view towards [Israel] is unacceptable," he said.
But Velázquez countered, "Suggesting I am anything but a friend, ally and supporter of Israel is politically driven nonsense.” On Sunday, just before the Israel Day Parade kicked off on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, she was endorsed by Sen. Charles Schumer, Rep. Jerrold Nadler and state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, three powerful Jewish Democrats.
And then there are the district's Asian-American voters, reckoned by the Census to make up 18.8 percent of the constituency.
O’Connor, whose campaign office is based in Manhattan’s Chinatown, has focused on connecting with the district’s growing Chinese population, which has a Brooklyn hub in Sunset Park.
The Sheepshead Bay-born economist is fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese and spent six years in China, where he “managed a business intelligence operation out of Shanghai and consulted two large financial institutions out of Hong Kong,” he said. After returning to the United States two years ago, he worked in renewable energy and is now campaigning full-time.
O’Connor, who calls Velázquez “the embodiment of crony capitalism," has described himself as a libertarian, telling the libertarian-geared magazine Reason in January, “I want to be the first libertarian on the Democratic side of the house,” but he has since backed off of the association.
He told the Eagle, “I agree with a lot of libertarians on a lot of issues and there’s certain issues that I don’t agree with them on, but I don’t like political labels in general,” adding that the claustophrobic two-party system is one of the things he would fight hardest to reform in Washington.
With congressional approval ratings at an all-time low, he sees his lack of political experience and his distance from party infighting between the Vito Lopez and Velázquez camps as assets. “I’ve never met Lopez, and I never even interacted with members of the Democratic machine before this campaign,” he said. “I’m very much not a politician, something that I’m proud of.”
Still, Brooklyn’s “Democratic machine” is a many-splendored thing and some pundits have speculated that O’Connor’s campaign could be propped up indirectly by Lopez in a gambit to divert votes from Velázquez in neighborhoods where Dilan might have trouble competing, such as Chinatown and the mostly white Carroll Gardens. Adding to their suspicions is the fact that Buddy Scotto, so-called “Mayor of Carroll Gardens” and a Vito ally, briefly served on O’Connor’s campaign advisory board.
“I did meet with him because I was not very familiar with issues related to the Gowanus Canal,” said O’Connor of Scotto. “He gave me a lot of really good background and understanding for that whole area in general and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. At the same time, he’s no longer on my board of advisors, and I no longer communicate with him.”
Martinez, the hippo-through-a-needle-chance prospect in the Occupy Wall Street corner, is a Brooklyn-born adjunct professor of political science at Pace University. If his campaign has a target demographic, it’s the young, broke and disenfranchised.
“Many young people in my neighborhood, including myself, have been absolutely unable to pay their student-loan debt, and it’s taken its toll on many people’s ability to concentrate on improving themselves,” he said. “It’s a failure of Congress, and we need to challenge the Democratic Party to live up to our values."
He has named his campaign “Bum Rush the Vote,” an homage to the Public Enemy album “Yo! Bum Rush the Show” and a rallying cry for direct-action, flash-mob political engagement. In the bum-rush spirit, Martinez has foregone a traditional campaign office in favor of a “campaign table,” a collapsible political HQ that roves from one district intersection to another on a weekly schedule and is manned by him and other Occupy Wall Street activists.
Martinez, who also gets out his message with hip-hop videos he posts to YouTube, says he hopes his campaign tactics will help open up viable alternatives to campaign models, such as the one used by Velázquez, that rely on corporate backing.
“The premise of the movement is to build a DIY, crowd-sourced model to actually influence other elections like New York City’s Council and mayoral race next year,” he said.
Velázquez, Dilan and O’Connor are scheduled to participate in a debate next Monday, June 11, on NY1.
Martinez has not yet received an invitation to the debate, but says he would still accept one.