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Thoughts on last night's 54th Assembly debate in Brooklyn (updated)

Friday, August 19, 2011 - 10:20 AM

[To hear the candidates in their own words, check out the videos of the debate on the Brooklyn Politics Blog. Apologies to Colin for my fat head getting in the frame.]

(L to R) Towns, Gonzalez and Espinal. (Colby Hamilton / WNYC)

At their best, candidate debates--especially intra-party ones, and this intensifies the further you move down the political ladder--can be sport. Because of the unpolished candidates, the unapologetic provincialism, and the passions brought out by local factions fighting over the tiniest pieces of the pie, they can become combative, chair-throwing, name-calling, finger-pointing affairs.

More often they are just the snooziest. There are two people essentially agreeing on all the issues. Their appeal to individual voters is based on the slimmest of nuanced differences.

Last night's debate in the Cypress Hills section of Brooklyn, between the three candidates running for the open seat in the 54th Assembly District, veered toward the latter. In fact, it wasn't until the debate had moved past the hour mark that the distinctions between Deidra Towns, Jesus Gonzalez and Rafael Espinal became fully understood.

This isn't to say the candidates don't bring major differences to the table. Beyond the well-publicized political splintering between the Towns political dynasty, the Brooklyn Democratic Party boss-backed Espinal, and the progressive community organizer archetype Gonzalez, there are significant differences. You have one woman and two men running. There was one parent up there and two people without children. The sole African American is running against two Latinos. And there were two people in their late 20s running against someone substantially removed from that time in life.

All of those singular distinctions were owned by Towns, the daughter of Congressman Ed Towns and sister to the previous Assemblyman. Unfortunately for Towns, the district she's hoping to represent is more similar to the two young men who sat to her left during the debate. That might explain her visible nervousness during her opening statement, as she looked out into the predominantly Latino crowd at the Cypress Hills Senior Center.

However, when it came down to the issues, there were few things the candidates disagreed on. Who's going to say the community doesn't need jobs, that rents should be allowed to skyrocket, or question the wisdom of improving schools? All three went to great lengths to point out the length of time they've lived in the district, the investment they feel in the community, their willingness to fight, fight, fight for everything--anything--they can in Albany.

There's a certain suspension of disbelief that goes into these things. These candidates are running for the smallest seat possible in New York City. They will be one of one hundred-and-fifty members. There party will continue to be in the majority for the foreseeable future. And everything that happens there--from what bills get voted on to where you get to sit in the chamber--are controlled by one man and one man only: Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver.

The candidates could talk all night about jobs, schools, and potholes, but at the end of the day they all seek to enter one of the most tightly controlled, top-down, monolithic political situations out there. Whoever gets elected will be the lowest person on a very rigid totem pole.

Still, there are more than just surface-level differences.

In Towns you have the older, wiser stateswoman. She had a detailed answer for nearly every question that at times veered towards the eruditic. She sounded the closest to an elected official out of the three, but had a hard time keeping the contempt for her younger, less-groomed competitors from flashing across her face. She is, after all, the scion of a powerful local political family. Her name has been all those living in the district have known for 18 years. If she gives off the sense she’s entitled to something her lesser aren’t, there are good reasons.

Espinal is the good party foot soldier. He’s the most conservative out of the three, at one point vowing to fight the city from “dumping” halfway house residents on the district, compared to thoughtful qualified responses from his opponents. He frames things in an us-versus-them context, where he will fight to get his community more of what their communities undeservedly grab. He is the heir to the local party bosses, sitting atop the ramparts they’ve built around their patronage systems.

Normally this would be the extent of one of these local political battles. Two well-funded political factions battling over a piece of the electoral map—a way to concentrate power, another seat in another political organization, with which you pull and push the levers that make the ever-growing political machine run.

But the presence of Gonzalez’s campaign makes this race both a rarity and interesting. He’s the outside-the-system community activist turned candidate. Perhaps (and arguably) not as dashing asRedford’s Bill McKabe, he’s nonetheless occupying a space neither of the other two candidates can touch. His comfort and fluency with government-speak is lacking, and comes off at times as uncertainty and political naiveté. But he makes up for it with a from-the-streets authenticity and a continually referred-to track record of hard-fought victories in the battles won between the haves and the have-nots.

These distinctions, as mentioned, only became defined in full towards the end of the debate. If there was a debate winner, it would likely go to Towns, but having the best answers won’t likely make much of a differences to voters next month. In the end—more than individual issues or party connection—what voters in the 54th will be choosing from are political characters: stateswoman, foot soldier, community activist. Pick wisely, voters. It may be another 18 years before the next contested race comes along.

UPDATE: As Colin over at Brooklyn Politics pointed out, Ms. Towns is Dominican by birth, but adopted by the Towns family. I referred to her as African American. That, arguably, is not technically true, but I'll leave it to others to make the case for the distinction.

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Comments [3]

Interested voter

You say that Espinal is "the only candidate that has dealt with constituent services on city, state, and federal level", but I would reply that Gonzalez, through his work as a community organizer, has actually had a greater impact on "constitutent services" coming from a different direction.  He has fought to actually improve peoples' lives from the outside - he's not part of the do-nothing established Democratic machine.  Espinal lost my confidence when he advocated sharply opposite positions to try to get on both the WFP AND conservative party lines - this duplicity shows he is already a career politician - he will say anything to anybody to get elected.  As far as Towns goes, she wouldn't even be in this race if it weren't for her brother and her father.  Gonzalez is the best choice by far.  Oh, and why are you discounting Gonzalez's audience?  The fact that he has supporters show up means the community cares and is behind him.

Sep. 02 2011 11:38 PM
Colby Hamilton

Rafael himself pointed to his work with, and support from, his boss and the head of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, Vito Lopez. He made the clear argument that these "bosses"--leaders?--have done more to help the community than anyone. That's certainly an argument to be made, but it was Rafael who unequivocally positioned himself with the established party leadership. Additionally, I'm not sure how county committees are any more or less democratic than other internal party processes. While being smaller, there's little that distinguish them from primaries.

I will--and tried to--give Rafael his due regarding his work in the council. He certainly has the most direct contact with the inner workings of government of any of the three candidates. But I think support and detractor alike would be hard pressed, from the debate, to not see him as a true-blue company man. Depending on your point of view, that's either a strength or a weakness.

Aug. 22 2011 01:29 PM
Non-partisan Viewer

I am a voter in the 54th AD and I attended the debate.  I am still not quite sure of who I am voting for but I am leaning towards Towns or Espinal for the following reasons.  

The description of Rafael Espinal is totally unfair and very much skewed.  It seems that Mr. Hamilton or this website has it out against "party bosses" and/or have their own horse in this race.  I attended the debate and if anything Espinal avoided sounding mainstream.  He affirmed that he was the "grassroots kid" that has been making change happen throughout the neighborhood for four years while working for Councilman Erik Dilan.  In his closing, he emphasized that he was the only candidate that has actually had to work on a budget and the only candidate that has dealt with constituent services on city, state, and federal level.  He knows how to work within the system and therefore he is the most qualified candidate.  
However, he failed to mention a couple of things.  One he failed to mention that he was not "selected a candidate," he was elected by the county committee--an elected position, whose purpose is to fill vacancies.  In my opinion it is one of the most democratically elected positions in our politics because it covers an Election District (ED) which range from 3-4 block radius.  Moreover, he failed to point out that Gonzalez who continuously points out "Espinal's coronation" was the one who in fact was crowned  He attended the WFP party's interview and was selected as the candidate (not elected).  Thats the real definition of a coronation.  Lastly, Espinal failed to mention the investigations that the WFP is currently under and that their former affiliate (ACORN) was registering fake people to vote (what does that tell you about Make the Road, the WFP's new affiliate, and Gonzalez' employer).  
Deidra Towns doesn't even have a real job but she is very eloquent and well informed.  At times I thought she was running for Mayor of the NYC.  She is very creative with her plans and has plenty of ideas about how to create jobs and better our education system.  However, she is an extension of the "do-nothing-Towns" family.  Voting for her is taking the risk that shes all talk.  Gonzalez tries to sound like Obama the entire time.  Using buzzwords like change and new leadership throughout the debate to get the room--that he and Make the Road stacked with their staff and a bunch of teenagers--to clap. 

It was an interesting debate.  I would agree that Deidra Towns seemed the most prepared and informed about the issues.  However, I believe that Espinal will have a better understanding of how to get things done. 

Aug. 21 2011 10:27 PM

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