Candidate beat incumbent Sara Gonzalez for council seat
By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Mother Nature pushed Carlos Menchaca into politics. “I ran for public office because of Hurricane Sandy,” he said.
In the wake of his stunning victory over longtime Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez in the Democratic Primary in the 38th Council District, Menchaca, 33, spoke to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle about his plans for the Sunset Park-Red Hook district and how he came to run for public office.
Menchaca, who is openly gay, is a former community liaison on LGBT issues for Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and has also previously worked for Borough President Marty Markowitz. The council campaign marked his first time running for public office. If he wins the general election in November over Conservative Henry LaValle, he will become the first Mexican-American ever to serve in the council.
Menchaca, who describes himself as a progressive, is considered a shoe-in in November because of the heavily Democratic voter registration in the district.
But if a certain storm had not hit New York City last year, Menchaca might not have run.
“My thought-process came through the lens of Sandy. It changed my paradigm as a local resident. It was an eye-opening experience on how government works,” Menchaca told the Eagle in a phone interview on Sept. 27.
In the days and weeks following the Oct. 29, 2012 super-storm, Menchaca spent a great deal of time in Red Hook. The community was hit hard by the massive storm.
“I saw that these residents wanted a council office to work for them. That’s what pushed me from being a public servant to running for a political office,” Menchaca said.
Menchaca reached out to city officials to help residents get help and supplies. He was in Red Hook for weeks on end helping to organize a relief effort, working with such groups as the Red Hook Initiative and Occupy Sandy. He also worked with Councilman Brad Lander (D-Park Slope). “We just got to work. We got the word out that more volunteers were needed. I never really left Red Hook for two months,” he said.
“I remember thinking this isn’t in my job description. But I was a LGBT liaison to the speaker and I used the same skills I had working on HIV and anti-discrimination. I built on relationships that I already had in city government to get help for people who really needed it,” he said.
“The tone on the ground was we’ve got to do this for ourselves. OEM had the whole city to worry about,” Menchaca said, referring to the city’s Office of Emergency management.
Months into the recovery effort, residents started asking him to run for office, he said. “People used to say to me, ‘Carlos, you can’t leave us. You need to stay here as our councilman.’ I started to re-think everything,” he said.
Menchaca decided to throw his hat into the ring and run for the City Council seat covering Sunset Park and Red Hook.
He knew he was waging an uphill battle. Gonzalez had been in office since 2003. “Incumbents always win,” he said. But he spent the spring and summer crisscrossing the district, knocking on doors, going to block parties, stopping in stores to talk to merchants, and reaching out to voters any way he could.
In the end, it wasn’t even close. Menchaca, a first time candidate, beat Gonzalez 58-42 percent. “What we did was unbelievable!” he said.
His goal as a freshman councilman is to “set the tone and the stage for maximum impact,” he said. “I will work on bringing jobs to the community. I will focus on affordable housing. I want to do something for our overcrowded schools. And of course, I will continue to work for Sandy victims in Red Hook,” he said.
“There are many reforms we are talking about as progressives in the council,” Menchaca said.
He has not decided on which council member he would support for speaker. “It’s still early,” he said. But he said his vote is going to go to someone who demonstrates an understanding of the needs of the 38th Council District. “I am open to talking to anyone about the needs of this district,” he said.
Looking ahead to committee assignments, Menchaca said he would like a seat on the Economic Development Committee. “There is waterfront development to be done in Red Hook and in Sunset Park,” he said. He is also eyeing a seat on the Education Committee.
“Immigration issues are also important to me. Immigration plays a huge role in our community. I want to give immigrants increased access to government service,” he said.
On the local level, Menchaca said he would give careful consideration to community board appointments. He will appoint members to Community Board Seven in Sunset Park and Community Board Six, which covers Park Slope but also includes Red Hook.
“The first thing I want to do is engage current community board members in the next few months. I want to hear from them and learn their vision of what they want the community board to be. I want high caliber representation from every corner of the community,” he said.
Menchaca said he was pleased that his status as an openly gay man was not a campaign issue. “It wasn’t an issue. It was an asset,” he said.