The Brooklyn Democratic machine is quietly trying to knock insurgent candidates off the ballot in upcoming elections — even as New York City grapples with an unprecedented crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, including the deaths of three Board of Elections employees to Covid-19.
In Kings County, which comprises the borough of Brooklyn, a member of the local Democratic committee and another person connected to the campaign of a party-backed candidate have filed complaints with the Board of Elections against the candidates running against her in a special, nonpartisan election for an open city council seat. In that race, local Democrats have coalesced around Darma Diaz, a state Democratic Party committee member and district leader who opposes new tenants rights laws and has criticized the $15 minimum wage. The petition challenges must be reviewed in person by employees at the Board of Elections, and, even with effective orders in the city to stay at home, the candidates will be required to attend hearings later this month to defend their candidacies. If not, they risk being kicked off the ballot.
The scheduled hearings come as states across the country have postponed in-person elections in light of health officials’ recommendations that people stay at home as much as possible to curb the spread of coronavirus. New York has postponed its presidential primary, along with five special elections for federal and state legislature, from April 28 to June 23. Members of New York’s congressional delegation, including House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, and Reps. Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney, have signed onto a letter from the Brooklyn Young Democrats calling on the Kings County Democratic Committee chair and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to suspend petition challenges. New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams also signed the letter.
Diaz is running against four other people, including carpenter and community organizer Sandy Nurse, whose platform focuses on expanding affordable housing, funding for public schools, and environmental sustainability and adaptability, and additional rights for green card holders. Kings County Democratic Committee member Ariana Zapata, and Alexandra Alvarado, a local resident, filed petitions against all of Diaz’s four opponents, listing the address for Diaz’s campaign and committee office on their objections. Diaz’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Nurse, who entered the race in February, is caught in a wave of confusion surrounding the number of signatures required to get on the election ballot. While New York typically requires 450 signatures, the threshold was lowered to 270 in light of the pandemic. She collected 339 signatures ahead of the March 17 deadline, the same day Mayor Bill de Blasio began telling residents to prepare for potential shelter-in-place orders — but due to city procedures that govern special elections, it was unclear whether that lowered threshold applies to Nurse’s election. Her campaign has asked the city and Cuomo to clarify the number of petition signatures required for her election. While she has not yet seen the specific claims in Zapata and Alvarado’s petitions, she worries that changes in campaign procedures because of the coronavirus may get in the way of her candidacy.
“We were trying to do the right thing, by ending early,” Nurse told The Intercept, noting that the period for petitioning was cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic. “And it feels like we’re getting penalized for that,” she said. “It would be a shame to not even be able to participate in the process because of a technicality.”
Diaz has a track record as an advocate for tenants rights but has recently moved into consulting for real estate and criticized new tenant protection laws as “anti-landlord” on social media. She has said that new laws prohibiting landlords from selling eviction data to private firms, commonly known as a tenant blacklist, made being a landlord lose “its glory.” Diaz has also criticized the $15 minimum wage.
The seat, in Brooklyn’s 37th District, was left open when former Council Member Rafael Espinal stepped down in January to take over as executive director of the Freelancers Union. Soon after, he backed Diaz, who has the official endorsement of the Kings County Democratic Committee, as well as personal support from the committee’s newly elected chair, District 42 Assembly Member Rodneyse Bichotte.
While petition objections are a normal — and often frivolous — part of New York City elections, critics have called on the Kings County Democratic Party to withdraw its challenges, citing the danger to municipal employees and the candidates from having to attend an in-person hearing in the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. The hearings are currently scheduled for April 21, 22, and 23. (In Kings County, there are currently 19 pending objections with specifications filed against 13 candidates running on conservative, liberal, and third-party platforms for seats in Congress, the state Senate and Assembly, New York City Council, and state party committee, according to county records.)
“It is utterly disgraceful that we are playing politics during this time,” said Camille Rivera, who is consulting for Nurse’s campaign as a partner with New Deal Strategies, a progressive firm. “Challenging petitions is the exact opposite of democracy,” she said. “Democracy is about voting and access to voting. Having people go and look at challenges of petitions is not.”
Rivera called on local officials to drop the objections for the sake of public safety. “The Brooklyn Democratic Party has the opportunity to reverse its course and think about the public, the voters, and all of the candidates, by asking them to stand down and reverse their petition challenges,” Rivera said.
“None of this is hyperbole,” said a Democratic strategist close to the Brooklyn race. “It isn’t about the threat of people’s lives thrown into jeopardy. It’s happened. This has had real human costs, and it could have more if they keep it up.”
Still, the party machine has refused to budge. In a statement on April 4, Bichotte, the committee chair, extended condolences for the families of the Board of Elections employees who died and outlined plans to move forward with preparation for upcoming elections. The board, Bichotte said, would rotate staff and follow social-distancing guidelines to continue reviewing petitions and planning for early voting. “In this time of unprecedented national crisis, we must retain the democratic processes of government and elections less we lose our democratic rights as Americans,” she said. Bichotte did not respond to a request for comment.
“This is a straightforward answer with a simple solution. And hopeful they do the right thing here,” the strategist said. “Doing the right thing here is easy. Punting and dealing with unknown consequences is what is going to be hard.”
Diaz, a Democratic leader and committee person for the 54th Assembly District, currently directs housing services for the Queens social service nonprofit, Overcoming Love Ministries, which partners with the city’s Department of Homeless Services. Diaz, once an aide to former Assembly member Darryl Towns, is also a landlord and founded a real estate management consulting company. She previously worked in organizing for tenants rights and was a founding member of the Coalition for Community Advancement, a tenants’ rights group that advocated for affordable housing and preservation.
Diaz has described herself as a “good landlord” and has spoken in the past about the impacts of New York’s investment in rezoning geared toward wealthy investors, gentrification, and increasing pressure on low- and middle-income homeowners to sell their properties. In a 2016 interview with the Gotham Gazette while Diaz was working with the coalition in Cypress Hills, she said real estate speculators were “capitalizing on people who may be financially strapped” and driving displacement.
Despite her record as an advocate for tenants, Diaz has recently argued on social media against raising the minimum wage and called tenant protection laws “anti-landlord.” In October, Diaz shared a post on Facebook about new rent laws aimed at protecting tenants in New York from a blacklist through which landlords can sell eviction data to private firms, writing, “Stay woke…being a homeowner is lossing it’s [sic] glory.”
In another post from December, Diaz shared an article titled, “Landlords can’t ask for ‘last month’s rent’ plus security deposit, thanks to new rent laws,” and wrote: “Lawmakers are looking out for who? All these new anti-landlord laws make the American Dream scary and undesirable.”
Most recently, Diaz founded a consulting firm providing services to property managers. Diaz is the registered agent for the firm People United Logistically for Social Equality Consulting Corporation, or PULSE, which was actively registered as of February 24. The group’s website says it provides services in New York City, New Jersey, and Puerto Rico, including “housing and retail advocacy, outreach services, and social service training for individuals, groups, property managers, merchant groups and more.” Several pages on the site only have placeholder text.
Nurse, one of her opponents, is vocal in support of protections for renters and expanded relief in response to the ongoing pandemic. She’s the co-founder of BK ROT, a bike-powered compost collection service, and Mayday Space, a Bushwick hub for community events and organizing. Her organizing work has focused on issues of food security, unemployment, and developing community spaces. She’s been endorsed by New York Rep. Nydia Velázquez and state Sen. Julia Salazar, as well as Council Member Antonio Reynoso, along with groups like Make the Road Action, the Working Families Party, and the New Kings Democrats.
Now, Nurse’s campaign has pivoted to responding to the needs of those in the community, she said, delivering groceries and prescriptions, connecting people to services for housing, child care, and legal support. “We’re essentially kind of turning into responders in this moment,” Nurse said. “That’s taking up so much of our time. And the only other thing that’s kind of absorbing all of our energy is these petition challenges.”
The other three candidates in the race are Misba Abdin, co-founder and CEO of a city-based organization serving low-income youth and adults; Kimberly Council, who ran against Espinal in 2013; and Rick Echevarría, a former staffer for de Blasio. Council and Echevarría terminated campaign activity in the special election earlier this month, according to the New York City Campaign Finance Board, but remain on the ballot in the primary election for the same seat. The winner of the city council special election will serve through the end of the year, while the winner of the primary will go on to a general election for a term that runs through 2021.