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

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[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.