Colby Hamilton, Writer, WNYC News
Colby Hamilton is a general assignment reporter. He originally joined WNYC as a political blogger. He's a proud graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
Jesus Gonzalez pointed up at a colorful wall mural. Figures wield phones and video recorders on an unfinished scene depicting some sort of suspect police behavior. “What other elected official would have a social justice mural commissioned?” he asked.
He was using the future perfect tense; Gonzalez hasn’t been elected to anything yet. But he is running to be the next representative to the New York State Assembly from the 54th district in Brooklyn.
His achievements as a community organizer thread throughout the 26-year-old’s conversations. The mural was one notable landmark. Before that it was the high school he helped save from closing. That led him to last year’s fight to save student Metrocards from cuts, which he helped lead. Then there were the baggers at the Associated supermarket he helped organize for a better wage.
He is slim, handsome and intense. His vocal inflections and pace are borrowed from another community organizer, now President of the United State. But mingled in there is an almost religious passion that jives with his first name.
“I know, for me, this is really a spiritual commitment to this district,” he says not only about his campaign, but about the 13 years he says he’s put in as a social justice advocate. In a tight three-way race between Gonzalez and his two opponents, he is a true believer in a battle between the gospel of democratic justice against the evil of corrupt Democratic Party politics.
But the groups backing Gonzalez’s campaign have interests that run far deeper and further than the race for the 54th Assembly District. And in this way he is no different than his opponents: Rafael Espinal, the Democratic establishment pick, and Deidra Towns, daughter to Congressman Ed Towns and sister to the previous Assemblyman.
Make the Road By Walking, the Brooklyn Democratic reform movement, and the Working Families Party are gambling big to get Jesus Gonzalez in the Assembly, and may help remake Brooklyn Democratic politics in the process.
The road taken is the one made
When President Bill Clinton signed welfare reform into law in 1996, most of the fallout was thought to be felt in the African American community. But the Democratic president’s decision to restrict benefits also took a big swipe at poor Latino communities. In Brooklyn, that made Bushwick ground zero.
A group of socially conscious New York University law students saw the almost immediate effect of the welfare reform law on the Latino community and wanted to do something. Out of this was born Make the Road By Walking which started as a community education and empowerment group and has grown into arguably the city’s largest Latino-based activist organization.
Although Make the Road has grown and been embraced by numerous politicians, the one area that they’ve never been embraced by local elected officials was back where it all began — Bushwick.
Initially, their independence from the local political patronage system setup by the kingmaker Vito Lopez meant they were shunned by the powerful assemblyman and his supporters. Over the past decade they have grown as a local counterweight to Lopez’s social service power base.
Earlier this year Make the Road established a non-profit political action fund, allows them to do direct political work. People inside the organization repeatedly stressed the separation between the nonprofit and the action fund, but the support the organization has provided Jesus Gonzalez throughout the years and now as a candidate cannot be understated. In many ways, his campaign represents the first direct electoral battle for the organization.
It’s their party and they’ll reform if they want to
A struggle within the Democratic Party in Brooklyn between young reformist progressives and the Democratic party establishment has been escalating in recent years.
Assembly man Vito Lopez took over the party leadership position in 2006 after the previous boss, Clarence Norman, went to jail for accepting illegal campaign contributions. He has been accused of being corrupt and antidemocratic, but the fact of the matter is that he who controls the Democratic Party line in a Democratic borough controls the Democratic Party.
Brooklyn has seen small insurgencies inside the Democratic Party for a number of years now. Councilwoman Letitia James’s win on the Working Families Party line in
2001 2003, and the rise of a number of independently-minded Democratic groups and elected officials in Central Brooklyn have tested the Democratic establishment’s power.
In the wake of Barack Obama’s win in the 2008 Democratic Primary, a new breed of party activists have injected themselves into the process. They’re typically young, media-savvy, good at networking, and taking aim at the party leadership in Brooklyn.
The group is exemplified in the New Kings Democrats, who have been challenging Lopez’s control of the party apparatus for three years now. A series of local electoral losses for Lopez have led them to heavily support Gonzalez’s campaign, in the hopes of scoring another blow to Lopez.
New Kings has also been helped institutionally by elected officials like Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, who supporters say has long sought a coalition of progressive reformers in Brooklyn. She herself has thrown her weight behind Gonzalez—and against her former employer and long-time ally Congressman Ed Towns.
For Velazquez and the rest of New Kings, a Gonzalez win sets the stage for a series of potential local challenges next year and during the citywide elections in 2013. A loss breaks their winning streak and strengthens Lopez, at least in the minds of other Democratic Party players who might have been otherwise open to the reformers’ message.
Working to recover the family
Things didn’t look good for the Working Families Party in 2009. A series of articles shed light on the organization's multiple -- potentially illegal -- overlapping parts.There was the party itself. Then there was the separate political campaign operation, Data and Field Service, which the party used exclusively. Then there was the nonprofit group ACORN, which was housed in the same office as the party and field operation business. But the leadership of these separate groups was shared across all three.
The party was sued and settled out of court in 2010, agreeing to put stronger firewalls between its political operations. On top of its legal woes, the group’s deep affiliation with ACORN did damage when the community organization was forced to dissolve after a series of scandals led to Federal defunding. Add to this the initial rebuke from then-candidate Andrew Cuomo last year, and it’s evident how significantly one of the state’s most powerful political players had been weakened.
Then came the September 2011 special election in the 54th Assembly District, which placed Gonzalez on the party line.
The Gonzalez campaign is re-establishing WFP as a force to be reckoned with by the Democratic establishment. A win would put a new member into the Assembly who is highly sympathetic to the party and its labor base. A loss would reinforce the narrative that WFP isn’t the powerhouse it once was.
There can be only one
It has been suggested that Jesus Gonzalez himself is really just a pawn in the grand plan of these different interests. He bristles at the idea. “I would never let that happen in my community,” he said. “Everybody at the table I’ve brought to the table.”
Speaking with him, watching him debate his opponents, seeing him interact with people in his neighborhood it’s hard to see him as a naïve, easily influenced young man. He uses the first person possessive “I” more than either of his opponents. He talks the campaign as a coalition that he himself brought together, built on the back of his decade-plus doing community activism. If there someone else is pulling Gonzalez’s marionette strings, it’s been impossible to tell.
It was pointed out in conversations that people like Gonzale z— poor people, people without the means to buy their way in or the connections to have it handed to them — are not supposed to be competing for elected office like this. Gonzalez, though, talks about running for office as an extension of the community organizer life he’s chosen.
“The injustices in this community are amplified to me, as a community organizer,” he said. “You notice when folks aren’t paid adequately. You notice when folks are unemployed. You notice when schools aren’t adequately funded. You notice when our elected officials are not responsive to the needs of the people.
“And so it’s my responsibility, as someone who has chosen this lifestyle, as an extension of my work, to serve the community in any given capacity,” he said.
The Gonzalez campaign has a lot at stake for many of those working to get their candidate elected. But for all of them — Gonzalez included — the election is described as just a step forward, win or lose. In a sense, the simple fact that someone like Jesus Gonzalez has been able run a competitive campaign against two deeply entrenched political interests is a victory for its supporters in and of itself.
On Election Day next week, the real test will be whether or not enough people in the district share Gonzalez’s belief that someone that lives like they do should represent them in Albany. Make the Road, Democratic reformers and the Working Families Party all have an interest in that happening. The ultimate ability or failure to do so, though, will be because of Jesus Gonzalez and no one else.