Jesus Gonzalez vs the Machine: Can a Special Election Vault Young Dem Past Political Dynasties?

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Jesus Gonzalez wants to buck the power structure in Brooklyn.

The 26-year-old co-founder of Make the Road is running for the 54th Assembly seat in Bushwick—a seat left vacant when Andrew Cuomo appointed Darryl Towns to serve as commissioner of the Department of Homes and Community Renewal. The 54th Assembly District includes a southern section of Bushwick, a northeastern part of Bed-Stuy, and a large part of East New York.

Full disclosure - though I have never met Jesus Gonzalez, he has worked as a WNYC Radio Rookie. 

Gonzales' story provides an interesting look at the insider-baseball that is Brooklyn political power and how impossible it might be to change a story-in-progress. Whether he wins or loses the battle for this position, he is stepping into a battle of dynasties that is Shakespearean in magnitude.

The Boy from Bushwick

Gonzalez has a compelling story.

He grew up in Bushwick selling icies and Avon products door-to-door with his parents, according to friend Bill Lipton, Deputy Director of the WFP. His website says that at age twelve, Gonzalez became one of the founding youth members of Make the Road New York, where he organized around issues of community police relations, student safety and opportunity as well as immigrant rights. The Make the Road website lists him as one of the members of the youth power project. Here he is, speaking at a rally against police brutality.

Oona Chatterjee, who has known Gonzalez for the past 13 years and volunteers on his campaign, says Gonzalez is engaging and authentic.

"Even when he was sixteen or seventeen, when he spoke about the issues that mattered to him and his constituents, people stopped and took notice," she says.

But Gonzales is up against veteran candidates Rafael Espinal and Deidra Towns for the seat. Both Towns and Gonzalez were likely hoping to have the election for the 54th held during September’s Democratic primary. This would have given them both the opportunity to jockey their way onto the ballot. But on July 1, the governor called a special election, leaving them to find a party to name them as a candidate.

Gonzalez found the support of the Working Families Party, who historically have demonstrated the ability to make a real difference in a primary by getting high turnout in otherwise low-turnout elections.

In special elections, the Democratic party nominees are chosen by the county committee. Other candidates can petition to get onto the ballot and run as independents or with another party, such as the Working Families Party. The Kings County executive committee has been viewed as favoring Espinal.

Special elections are often occasions for much insider political maneuvering, and this one seems to be no exception.

Gonzalez’s story follows a familiar narrative: Young idealistic organizer, fighting the powers with nothing more than a dream. Except Gonzalez has more than a dream.  He has support of Nydia Velazquez, U.S. Representative for New York's 12th congressional district. And he is challenging an entrenched political power structure where powerful political dynasties struggle for control.

Velazquez has a longtime rivalry with Brooklyn Democratic leader Vito Lopez. Last year she backed a trio of candidates opposing Lopez’s picks: Lincoln Restler, Katie Zidar, and Esteban Duran. Restler pulled off a surprise win by a slim margin, while the other two were defeated.

By entering the fray, Gonzalez is stepping into a clash between two powerful Brooklyn families - the Dilans (and by extension Vito Lopez) and the Towns.

Political Families Become Dynasties 

Candidate Rafael Espinal is the chief-of-staff to Councilmember Erik Martin Dilan, and also grew up in the area. His boss, Dilan is a longtime Lopez ally, and was previously seen as a likely front-runner for the seat.

The Dilan family has what has been described as a “growing mini-empire in central Brooklyn.”  Councilmember Dilan is the male district leader there, and the female district leader in the area is Dilan’s wife, Jannitza Luna Dilan, who herself was considered a contender for the seat (and who also received some criticism, as did CM Dilan, when Dilan routed discretionary spending to her nonprofit). Councilmember Dilan’s father is State Sen. Martin Malave Dilan. Of the 71-member Assembly county committee seats in the district, many have the last name Dilan, and the majority of the rest are rumored to be neighbors and friends of the family.

In May, Councilmember Dilan defeated Congressman Ed Towns — father of candidate for the seat Deidra Towns, and also of Darryl Towns, who is vacated that post as well when he joined the Cuomo administration — for a seat as district leader, which was also vacated by Darryl Towns when he moved to the Cuomo camp.

Like Gonzalez, Espinal is also young, from blue-collar roots, and grew up in the district. Unlike Gonzalez, Espinal has received and accepted the Democratic, Republican, and Conservative nomination (though he only lists the Democratic nomination on his website). The Conservative Party says they are backing Democratic-pick Espinal because they applaud his opposition to same-sex marriage and legal abortion. Kings County Conservative Party Chairman Jerry Kassar says Espinal is "very very socially conservative." Kassar points to Espinal's connection to the Catholic Church, and added that Espinal is very popular with seniors as well.

And in This Corner..

Deidra Towns is running as an Independent, under her own "Community First" party name. Her (presumably self-written) Google profile says she has "Raised flirtation to an art form. Spends way too much time teetering on the edge. Not easy to connect with but once you're in the inner circle, fiercely loyal. Patient to a fault. Always willing to listen with a non-judgmental ear."

She has the backing of her well-connected family. Towns is the sister of the vacated 54th A.D. Assemblyman Darryl Towns, and the daughter of Congressman Ed Towns, a long-term rival of Lopez’s, who also considered a run for the seat.

Back when it still seemed possible that Councilmember Dilan himself was considering running for the seat, the Towns family might have supported his candidacy. That’s because if CM Dilan had run for the seat, he would have had to leave his council seat, and the Town’s camp could have put their candidate there. But now that CM Dilan’s Chief of Staff Espinal is in the running, the Towns’ are definitely opposed. 

Towns has brought on Hank Sheinkopf to manage her campaign. Sheinkopf has been described as “one of the state’s most experienced political operatives.” The website astutely notes that Sheinkopf “is a fairly high profile hire for an Assembly race.” 

The Perez Notes reported back in April on a rumor that the Towns family might run a spoiler to cut into Espinal’s base, in the form of Community Leader John Rodriguez (who formerly worked for Dilan). The idea would be to run a spoiler candidate with a Latino surname, as well as Deidra, in the hopes of splitting the Latino vote enough that Deidra might win with the African-American vote. This is further complicated by the fact that Deidra, raised in the African-American Towns family, is herself adopted from the Dominican Republic.

Meanwhile the Money Talks

On July 15, all candidates posted their first quarter fundraising filings.

Gonzalez posted $79,115.95. Not too shabby for an upstart outsider. With $25,405.49 in expenditures, he's operating with a balance now of $53,710.46. That puts him in second place for fundraising, but his high expenditures means he's last in terms of his current balance. Notably, Gonzalez shows very strong individual backing and hardly any corporate backing. His biggest individual donation (and he has several biggies) is from the grand-niece of Walt Disney, a leading philanthropist on issues of poverty, women and war. She and her husband donated $4,100 a piece. He only posted seven corporate contributions, all of them from small businesses - barbershops, bars, and funeral parlors. His largest corporate contribution came from a Brooklyn bar, and topped out at $417.00.

Towns brought in the most over all, with $93,915 in contributions, and $26,414 in expenditures, leaving her total at $67,500.  Her two biggest individual donations were both from out of state — $3000 from health insurance provider CEO Andre Duggin in Pennsylvania, and $2,000 from Thelma Duggin, the president of health insurance provider AmeriChoice Corporation in McLean Virginia. Her biggest corporate donation came from McLean Virginia as well, $4,100 donated by Dogwood Farm, a camp run by the nonprofit AnBryce, whose president is Thelma Duggin.

Espinal posted filings showing $70,165.00 in donations, but a mere $6,073.30 in expenses, giving a balance of $64,091.70. The biggest individual donors to this group were all from inside New York, with the largest donation of $3,000 coming from city landlord Jay Wartski, who has been accused of converting residential buildings into illegal hotels. The largest corporate contribution, $4,100, came from Green Star Builders LLC.

Special Elections

And then there is the whole business of special elections. In special elections, unlike regular elections, there is no primary. Instead, the local party bosses get to choose who they want on the ballot. Critics, like Brooklyn's Lincoln Restler, contend that this often leads to candidates being selected for loyalty over suitability. Restler writes in a recent op-ed:

There are currently six vacancies in the New York State Legislature. According to a study by Citizens Union, by the end of 2011, one-third of our state representatives will be selected via special election. This farce of a process ensures that legislators are more loyal to the party bosses than their own constituents.

Susan Lerner, executive director of the good government group Common Cause New York, says the practice is undefendable.

"The law has got to be changed. It is straight-up undemocratic, and robs the people of their voice. There is no justification in this day and age for allowing party bosses to pick who the candidate is going to be instead of running a primary."