by James Subudhi
It is rare in politics, especially local politics, that an incumbent is seriously challenged, much less defeated, from within his or her party. In 2013, there are several city council races in which Democratic incumbents are being challenged in the primary, but in no such race are the chances greater of the challenger unseating the incumbent than in the 38th district, in Brooklyn, where Carlos Menchaca seeks to replace Council Member Sara Gonzalez.
The district 38 (CD38) race is about more than whether or not an entrenched democratic incumbent, Gonzalez, buttressed by her track record, however thick or thin you measure it, can withstand the energy of a progressive challenger, Menchaca, who has gained enough support from labor and political heavyweights like Congressman Hakeem Jeffries and Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez to put the seat in play.
The district includes the neighborhoods of Red Hook, Sunset Park, Bay Ridge Towers, Borough Park, Gowanus, Greenwood Heights, South Slope and Windsor Terrace, spanning much of Brooklyn’s southwestern waterfront. The district is racially diverse and the demographics are changing, with Sunset Park shifting from predominately Puerto Rican to increasingly Mexican, which this primary reflects, Gonzalez being Puerto Rican, Menchaca, Mexican-American.
Menchaca (pictured), a former staffer of Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and Speaker Christine Quinn, has grounded his candidacy in his Hurricane Sandy relief work in the community. It was then, he says, that he saw the need for a “visible and vocal leader,” a jab at Gonzalez, which her campaign parries. They, along with Menchaca’s campaign have submitted photos to The Brooklyn Paper as evidence that they were on the ground in Red Hook after Sandy. Whoever is right, this race has likely received more attention than any other local race in Brooklyn because the stakes are high.
This race is a signal towards who will win the Speakership in the Council; it’s also a test of the strength of the council’s Progressive Caucus and that of the old guard of the Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus (BLAC), whose most senior members will leave in January, including Al Vann, Robert Jackson, Leroy Comrie, and Charles Barron.
Gonzalez has the support of the BLAC’s chairmen: CM Robert Jackson and CM Fernando Cabrera, and BLAC member Inez Dickens, who is running for Speaker. A Gonzalez win on Tuesday and in November would likely mean she’d cast her vote for Dickens.
A Menchaca win would likely mean a vote for CM Mark-Viverito in her bid for Speakership because he has the endorsement of CM Brad Lander, co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, which CM Mark-Viverito also co-chairs. It would also likely deal a blow to the BLAC because they would lose Gonzalez when she would have become the most senior member in the City Council. All discussion of the speaker’s race should, of course, include that the decision of who is speaker is often made via County party negotiations.
In terms of leadership outside of the BLAC, Gonzalez is a representative for Brooklyn on the Council’s Budget Negotiation team, a position likely out of Menchaca’s reach as a freshman, and chairs the Juvenile Justice Committee. Yet that’s where her council leadership seems to end. She isn’t in any leadership positions on the Women’s Caucus nor is she chair of any of the most powerful committees in the council like Land Use, Housing and Buildings, Government Operations, or Contracts. Voters will have to wait to see if her seniority in years translates into increased legislative power if she wins.
While Menchaca has clearly accrued greater labor support, any campaign finance advantage is unclear. According to the NYC Campaign Finance Board (CFB) filings Menchaca recently had a larger cash on hand balance, $109,634 to $62,501, but, this is countered by the $294,095 the political action committee (PAC) Jobs for NY has spent for Gonzalez, independent of her campaign.
While PACs have supported Menchaca with $108,751, spending another $31,632 against Gonzalez, she has the PAC advantage. PACs have supported her with $341,596 and spent another $52,126 against Menchaca. Though more money doesn’t guarantee a win. Gonzalez did beat Rodriguez in 2002 despite raising far fewer dollars.
Whatever it is that Gonzalez may or may not have done to lose endorsements from previous supporters like Congresswoman Velazquez and the Working Families Party which she had in 2005 and 2009, it likely gives Menchaca a boost. Some say it’s her lack of constituent services and having a slim record while in the council, which her campaign dispute.
Menchaca has one clear advantage. With no Republicans or other Democrats running in the race, he is the only challenger, locking him in as the Gonzalez alternative. And even if he loses on Tuesday, since the Working Families Party endorsed him, he can run on their ticket against Gonzalez in November, an advantage only Gonzalez had in the last two district primaries.
Regardless of who wins, voters will likely have to wait until the new council session starts in January to understand what legislation their CM will pursue. This is because for a district facing many challenges – CD 38 is home to one of the most polluted waterways in the United States, devastation from Hurricane Sandy, a long public housing repair list, overcrowding in schools, and gentrification to name a few – the candidates haven’t offered much in terms of specific policies they would introduce to the city council if they were elected to help solve them.
In her CFB video, while Gonzalez says “we’ve done so much together and there is still more work to be done,” she focuses exclusively on her track record and general views, not mentioning proposals she’d introduce if she were to maintain her seat. Her website discusses her views and track record as well, including investment in the community through discretionary funding, but there’s no discussion of legislative proposals. Menchaca’s CFB video and website discuss his track record on the ground and offer up what issues he’d fight for but there are few specifics on his end as well.
In the end, this race is a referendum on Gonzalez’s tenure representing the district and a measure of the supporters Menchaca has accumulated. It will also be yet another test of the strength of incumbency and the degree to which voters are taking a close look at the options in front of them.