by Max Kutner
When the superstorm Sandy floodwaters receded from Red Hook, Brooklyn last October, community members came together to pump out basements, exchange supplies, and offer hope. In that setting, Carlos Menchaca began his path to a run for City Council in District 38. Less than a year later, his primary victory made history.
Monica Byrne, co-founder of the group Restore Red Hook, recalls seeing Menchaca in Red Hook two days after the storm. At the time, he was working for City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, but he wasn’t in the neighborhood only in an official capacity, Byrne said. “While a lot of government representatives came to Red Hook, Carlos was different,” she said. “He became one of us. He would say, ‘What do we need? How can I help?’”
“What he did in Red Hook was extraordinary,” said District 39 City Councilman Brad Lander, who endorsed Menchaca in his primary challenge to incumbent Democratic Council Member Sara González and plans to include Menchaca in the council’s Progressive Caucus, which Lander co-chairs. “He really saved people’s lives.”
It was in Red Hook that the notion of becoming a city councilman took hold. “Residents expressed their idea about me running, which was wonderful,” he said in his victory speech following the primary. In January 2013 he began assembling a campaign team.
But the odds were against him. His opponent, González, was an incumbent with ten years on the council. Additionally, González is Puerto Rican and Menchaca is Mexican-American, the former group traditionally holding more political power in New York City. Menchaca sought to become both the first Mexican-American member of the city council and its first openly gay member from Brooklyn.
Menchaca was born and raised in El Paso, Texas. He received his bachelor’s degree in politics, performing arts, and social justice from the University of San Francisco in 2004, where he was student body president and co-founded the Peace and Justice Coalition. In 2010 he received his master’s in urban planning from the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at NYU. Outside of class, he worked for Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz as a capital budget and policy coordinator. In 2011, he became Quinn’s LGBT and HIV/AIDS Liaison.
When Menchaca decided to run for the council, supporters helped him build a grassroots campaign. Neil Dick, 68, said that of the dozens of candidates for whom he’s volunteered, Menchaca was “the most exceptionally appealing candidate.” Dick traveled from the Bronx every weekend for several months to make phone calls for Menchaca.
“People will see a corollary relation between his getting elected and things getting better in their lives,” predicted Byrne.
Important to the campaign was Menchaca’s visibility. “He was talking to everyone, whether at the train, churches, door knocking, phone banking,” said Ivan Luevanos, his campaign manager. “We were making sure we followed with our campaign slogan, which is ‘Visible and Vocal Leadership.’”
That visibility contrasted with that of his competitor, who skipped the Transportation Alternatives Forum on August 20th, where she and Menchaca were scheduled to debate. Some Red Hook residents also questioned the incumbent’s visibility following Sandy. “Sara was here and on the ground the first two weeks,” said Byrne. “Then she was gone.”
Luevanos said one challenge for Menchaca’s campaign was when the Real Estate Board of New York distributed mailers through its Jobs for New York political action committee labeling Menchaca an outsider because of his Texas birth. “Texas is a long way from Brooklyn,” the mailers stated. Luevanos called the mailers “pretty xenophobic and a little racist.”
“For Carlos, it motivated him even more,” Luevanos said.
Another PAC, City Action Coalition, has indirectly targeted gay candidates, said Luevanos. According to the Campaign Finance Board’s list of independent expenditures, the group has ties to religious institutions and contributed money to five candidates, at least three of whom had gay opponents. Three of the PAC’s board members did not respond to interview requests.
“The group is focusing on races with an LGBTQ candidate, trying to prevent gay candidates from winning their elections,” Councilman Lander wrote on his blog, according to Politicker.
Despite those challenges, Menchaca arrived at Saint Jacobi Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sunset Park on primary election night with arms raised triumphantly. “I’m so happy that we did this journey together,” he said in his speech. The final results arrived hours before the candidate’s 33rd birthday: 58 percent for him, 42 percent for González.
Menchaca’s mother, Magdalena Ortiz, 65, wiped tears from her eyes that night. “I never thought he could be a politician until he was in school,” she said through a translator. Ortiz was born in Texas and raised her seven children as a single mother.
“We’re really close,” said Abraham Menchaca, 26, who traveled from Texas to support his brother on election night. Like his brother, whom he calls “Charlie,” Abraham Menchaca had a government job – he served in the military for six years.
In his election night speech, Carlos Menchaca spoke of the issues he will focus on as a council member, including waterfront access and Hurricane Sandy relief. “I’m coming back to your doors,” he said in the speech. “We have a lot of work to do.”
Voters still must elect Menchaca in November’s general election, but without a strong challenger on the ballot, he is all but certain to cruise to an historic victory. Not only was Menchaca the only City Council candidate to unseat an incumbent in the 2013 primaries, he will also be the city’s first Mexican-American council member and Brooklyn’s first openly gay council member.
“The community is ready for unity. In unity is power,” Menchaca said before the primary. “It’s time for change.”
Photo by Max Kutner: District 38 Democratic primary winner Carlos Menchaca (center) with supporters U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez and District 39 City Councilman Brad Lander on primary night, September 10, 2013.