I’ve lived in Sunset Park since the fall of 2009. As a parent and a political junkie, I’m attentive to the goings-on in my neighborhood, and I live in the center of the city council district (near the park). During the time I’ve lived here, I’ve seen the local councilperson, Sara González, exactly once. When I mentioned this fact to one of González’s colleagues on the council the other day, here was the reply: “Well, you’ll probably be seeing a lot more of her in the next few months.”
It’s precisely that lack of presence that explains why many locals see Carlos Menchaca, González’s current challenger, as “nueva sangre,” or new blood. While Sunset Park has a strong pulse, driven by its mix of new immigrants (Mexican and Chinese) and more established “Spanish” (i.e. Dominican and Puerto Rican) folks, González is far from an active figure in the district. Although she’s held the seat for over a decade, she has no specific legislative accomplishments to speak of, nor is she considered a forceful advocate on anyone’s behalf.
González adheres to the increasingly moribund machine-style approach to politics. She shows up for ribbon-cuttings and other photo ops, which she then circulates via her newsletter, the only way she communicates with most district residents. With the primary coming up in September, seniors in the district are sure to get lots of TLC this summer. The “serve the ones who vote” approach has served at least one life-long district resident well. If González, who was first elected in a 2002 special election, wins again this fall, she will become the longest-serving council member.
Menchaca, by contrast, combines activist energy with experience working in city government. During the aftermath of Sandy, he helped organize relief efforts in Red Hook (which is also in the district), where he lives. Working as a community outreach coordinator from city council speaker Christine Quinn’s office, Menchaca was widely praised by the folks living in the Red Hook Houses as well as by the many volunteers working with both the Red Hook Initiative and Occupy Sandy. If elected, he would be the first Mexican-American city councilperson, and the first openly gay member of the Brooklyn delegation.
Located one block apart on 5th Avenue, at 45th Street, the two candidates’ campaign offices illustrate their contrasting styles. Menchaca’s storefront location is bustling with activity, and open for anyone to drop by. The campaign officially launched there on a Saturday morning in June with plenty of fanfare, including a dance performance by the Ballet Folklorico de Quetzalcoatl. By contrast, González’s nearby office appears to be on either the second or third floor (it’s hard to tell), and you need to be buzzed in.* And reaching out to the councilwoman on-line is no easier—as of July 20, she has no campaign website.
Beyond just a more dynamic campaign, Menchaca promises to create a more engaged council office. The district is “high-needs community,” he says, and “it requires active leadership to deliver resources to the district and bring new immigrants into the political process.”
Menchaca is a strong proponent of participatory budgeting, which enables local residents to decide how to spend $1 million in capital funds, addressing things like repair and equipment needs in a district’s schools. The process has worked successfully in Councilman Brad Lander’s neighboring Park Slope district, which can’t be attributed simply to the longstanding tradition of civic activism in the Slope. In Boro Park, which also neighbors González’s district, Councilman David Greenfield implemented participatory budgeting this past year.
In response to Menchaca’s call for participatory budgeting in the Red Hook-Sunset Park district, González announced via her most recent newsletter (in early July) that she would join the effort. “The fact that she responds only in an election year shows the power of a progressive challenger,” says Menchaca. “But she’s not at the forefront of any effort to get new immigrants and others involved in the political process.”
Menchaca is intimately familiar with the capital needs of Red Hook and Sunset Park. Prior to moving to Quinn’s office, he was the capital budget director for Borough President Marty Markowitz. In that capacity, one innovative project he helped initiate is the massive rooftop greenhouse that BrightFarms is building at Industry City, on 3rd Avenue and 37th Street. The farm will produce one million pounds of fresh produce each year, which will be distributed at local bodegas and markets. It is exactly the type of initiative the low-income district needs.
While Menchaca and González both pledge to reduce school overcrowding and address the need for job creation, Menchaca adds a third essential plank in his platform: the issue of affordable housing. Given the cheaper rents found in Sunset Park compared to other Brooklyn neighborhoods, many folks may not sense the importance of the issue. Yet it’s precisely those cheaper rents that are causing a steady in-migration of 20-somethings, which is in turn causing landlords to see opportunity. For his part, Menchaca says that “tenant protection and advocacy are a big part of the fight” for affordable housing.
Of course, it’s never enough simply to be the most dynamic and idea-driven candidate in any race, especially against a long-time incumbent. González has the backing of the party machine, longstanding relationships in the district, and the endorsement of some leading unions, including the U.F.T., the T.W.U., and the sanitation workers. Menchaca, meanwhile, has the backing of the Working Families Party and unions, including 1199, 32BJ (which represents janitors and other building service employees), and the Hotel Trades Council—the latter two groups likely have a fair number of members in the district. Earlier this month, Menchaca submitted nearly 2,500 signatures for his ballot petitions. While signatures don’t automatically become ballots cast, the total roughly corresponds with the number of votes likely needed to win the September primary.
In the end, the best argument against Sara González is that she is exactly why the vast majority of New Yorkers support term limits. When she followed Christine Quinn’s lead in the fall of 2008 and voted to give herself the possibility of two more terms, González no doubt assumed she could coast along as a do-nothing incumbent in a low-turnout district. Menchaca has now forced her to wake up, at least for the next few months. It’s up to the voters to decide whether they want to give González the opportunity to be a lame duck for the next four years.
*Update (July 20): As a Xeroxed sign recently placed on the door of 4505 5th Ave. states, Gonzalez’s office is on the third floor.