The Brooklyn council member defeated an incumbent. He has some enemies but puts his faith in citizen coalitions and “presence.” Is that enough?
Carlos Menchaca’s election to The City Council in 2013 was something of a political breakthrough. He is the first Mexican-American on the council and the first from Brooklyn to be openly gay. More people voted for him in the 2013 primary than the total number of voters who cast a ballot in the primary four years earlier. He also defeated an 11-year incumbent by a fairly solid margin.
Now, he’s halfway through his term, representing a diverse and rapidly changing area, District 38. With his eyes set on 2017, can he win again?
To address that question, we need to consider how he won in the first place. One factor seemed to be how Menchaca was much more present than his opponent, Sara Gonzalez—particularly during Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts in the district. Theodore Hamm, an associate professor at St. Joseph’s College and a resident of Sunset Park, remembers Menchaca showing up at parks, community events, and subway stations, and knocking on doors during the 2013 election. A classic form of practical, local politics? Perhaps. But Menchaca was running against someone known as the “absent incumbent.” He wasn’t even from the district, but he won.
“Presence” was not everything, though. Menchaca entered the race with experience and connections. He worked in Speaker Christine Quinn’s office and for Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz before running for the council. He’s currently Chair of the Council’s Immigration Committee, is a member of the progressive and LGBT caucuses, and sits on other committees—including those for small businesses and transportation. He was involved in sponsoring legislation related to the ID NYC program, which provides New Yorkers, including noncitizens, with a form of identification and memberships to different cultural institutions. In his district’s largest neighborhoods, Red Hook and Sunset Park, Menchaca also champions participatory budgeting—which encourages community input in the spending of public funds (parts of Windsor Terrace, Bensonhurst, and Borough Park also lie in his district).
But not everyone is in his corner. During the 2013 campaign, a series of ads circulated to oppose Menchaca’s candidacy. One example shows a brown suitcase with a cowboy hat draped over its edge, to the right of which reads, “Carlos Menchaca is from Texas. He’s barely had time to unpack.” Menchaca was indeed born in El Paso, Texas, and was raised by a single, immigrant mother in public housing. Real estate PAC Jobs for New York, Inc., paid for the ads, and, according to the NYC Campaign Finance Board, Jamestown, L.P.— which acquired a 50% stake in Sunset Park’s waterfront industrial complex, Industry City, in 2013—contributed $250,000 to the PAC. The firm said that it had no one available to comment on the 2013 donation.
Menchaca talks only obliquely about this. “What I will say is that real estate as a force is not playing a role in my campaign,” he said, adding that he wants to empower “local community leaders, our local community residents, our homeowners, our apartment renters, our small businesses” to get on board with his next campaign. All this, it appears, as a counter to the voice and interests of big real estate. “The Real Estate Board of New York, I hope understands that that is what we’re going to continue to push. We’re going to continue to keep doing what we do best in Sunset Park, which is fight for our families,” he said.
Menchaca has had challenges since he came to office. Reportedly an ally of progressive mayor Bill de Blasio, he clashed with the city in January when he initially opposed the acquisition of the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal by the New York City Economic Development Corporation. Citing his desire for a greater voice for the community in deciding the future of the terminal, Menchaca did not sign off on the $115M city plan—though it would have allegedly created around 300 jobs in Sunset Park—and the city temporarily abandoned its plan. (It was reported, in April 2015, that a “preliminary agreement” on development of the marine terminal had been reached, a plan that includes a 39- rather than 49-year lease for the corporation and the formation of a task force for community involvement).
About one month after the January clash, he was ousted as co-chair of the council’s Brooklyn delegation, after a vote by its members was called. Co-chair and District 41 Council Member Darlene Mealy was reinstated to her position after the vote, while Menchaca was replaced by District 47 Council Member, Mark Treyger. Reasons for the ouster were floated in news reports, including a shortage of delegation meetings under Menchaca, members “miss[ing] opportunities to nominate candidates to a number of city agencies,” and worry about the impact of a rift between Menchaca and de Blasio over the negotiations regarding the marine terminal on the upcoming co-chair-led budget negotiation process.
Responding to a question about his ouster, Menchaca said that the leadership of the delegation changes frequently and that he would continue to “promote reform and a more progressive delegation process.”
“We’re very, very committed as a progressive caucus to bring progressive ideas to all parts of the city council, and the delegation’s a place where we need to continue to do that,” Menchaca said.
Doug Muzzio, a public affairs professor at Baruch College, said Menchaca’s ouster from the Brooklyn delegation “hurts the district.” “If your Council Member is the co-chair of the delegation, that should give you a little bit extra influence to get things through your district,” Muzzio said. “And to have that stripped from you takes away an advantage to your district.”
But Jonathan Yedin, VP of Campaigns & Elections at The Advance Group, a NYC-based political consulting firm that has not worked for or against Menchaca, doesn’t see it this way. Before Melissa Mark-Viverito became Council Speaker in 2014, Yedin said that being in a position of power or close to the Speaker could give council members an edge. “If the Speaker liked you, you got more money,” he said. Yedin said this is no longer the case, however. Now, all council members get a base amount of funding, and depending on the needs of their district—measured by poverty levels, overcrowding in schools, graduation rates and income levels, for example—this amount can increase. “Basically, I think it’s just a lot more needs based and a lot less political,” Yedin said. He added that this system could actually benefit Menchaca, given the demographics of the district he governs.
There is no question that, at least online, the presence and visibility that seemingly swept Menchaca into office remains. His Facebook and Twitter pages, in particular, are frequently updated, showing Menchaca present at various events and meetings throughout the community and the city. He has nearly 1,500 Instagram followers. Scroll through his feeds, and it’s easy to get tired just thinking about his various engagements.
Whether online activity translates to the street is hard to tell. About half of the thirty locals I spoke to in Red Hook and Sunset Park recognized Menchaca’s name in some capacity—regardless of whether they were able to identify the position he holds in their community.
He’s also just 35 years old, so he presumably has plenty of energy. According to his LinkedIn profile, Menchaca studied politics and performing arts and social justice at the University of San Francisco, and earned a Master’s degree in Urban Planning at NYU. His demeanor at various public meetings throughout the district paints him as an approachable and vocal community advocate. Hamm agrees.
“He’s an approachable, likeable figure, so he’s not intimidating for anyone to walk up to and talk to. He’s very sincere, so no one feels like they’re getting hustled by a politician,” Hamm said. “So I think that all those qualities help his appeal.”
In the 2013 District 38 democratic primary, Menchaca defeated Sara Gonzalez by about 18 percent of the vote. Gonzalez had first come to the Council eleven years earlier, in a 2002 special election to replace Angel Rodriguez, who resigned amidst federal bribery charges. Her record in office seems only to magnify Menchaca’s visibility during the campaign. For one thing: a 2012 New York Daily News article showed that of Brooklyn lawmakers, Gonzalez was tied with two other council members for introducing the least amount of legislation since 2011. She also tied with two council members in fifth place for the worst attendance to hearings and meetings. During the campaign, Gonzalez did not attend a candidates’ forum hosted by Transportation Alternatives.
Muzzio agrees that TV and radio have little impact in local elections and “being there” is very important “So, if there’s a rule it’s be involved and be visible.”
District 38 includes nearly 168,000 residents. Most live in Sunset Park, a neighborhood divided into East and West for the city’s decennial census. There are about 72,000 residents in Sunset Park East and 54,000 in the west, as per the 2010 Census. Red Hook forms only a small portion—and thus, a small number of voters—for District 38.
Walking through Sunset Park, it is clear that both a strong Latino community and a strong Chinese community exist, complemented by an ever-changing industrial waterfront area. A new waterfront park recently opened in Sunset Park, and plans for a five-borough ferry service are underway. Between the 2000 and 2010 census figures, both Sunset Park West and East saw an increase in the Mexican population, a decrease in the Puerto Rican population, and an increase in the Asian non-Hispanic population—of which the Chinese community experienced the largest growth (in number of people).
Community Board 7 District Manager Jeremy Laufer said the waterfront drives many local issues. It made headlines in 2013, when Jamestown—which also owns Chelsea Market—bought a 50% stake (along with partners) in Industry City. More recently, plans to host the Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg at Industry City through winter 2016 were revealed, and began this month.
“The waterfront creates economic opportunities, the waterfront creates public recreation opportunities, the waterfront creates transportation opportunities—so there’s a lot that’s driven by what happens on our waterfront,” Laufer said.
The neighborhood is changing in other ways, too, Laufer added. Until the early 1990s, Sunset Park was “the back end of a political district,” where elected officials were not from the neighborhood but instead from surrounding areas like Park Slope and Bay Ridge.
In a neighborhood with many “negative-impact facilities” like power plants, sanitation facilities, and a federal prison, he said, local representation led to successes including the defeat of a proposed sludge plant and to “positive investments” like Sunset Park’s first high school in 2009. Enter Menchaca—amidst all such change.
A casual observer might attribute his successful election to the growing number of Mexicans in the neighborhood. But experts suggest otherwise. John Mollenkopf, distinguished professor of political science and sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center, said that in a surname analysis of the 8,166 voters in the 2013 District 38 democratic primary, only 2,361 had a Hispanic last name. With this group less than 30% of primary voters, Menchaca’s success can hardly be attributed to Mexicans in Sunset Park—or at least, not solely so. Instead, “there’s a smattering of other kinds of groups there,” Mollenkopf said.
“In lots of districts, you’ve got not one ethnic or racial group dominating and none of them being able to carry an election by themselves, so one of the features of more modern New York City politics is the sense that you have coalitions,” Muzzio said.
That’s precisely how Menchaca characterized his 2013 win.
“We built an incredibly strong coalition of communities that were pulled in from every part of the district,” Menchaca said, “so from Red Hook and public housing, to the small businesses in Red Hook, to the Orthodox Jewish community, to our Mexican, Latino, Puerto Rican community. Our Chinese community came out very strong, and that’s because I was directly connecting to each of these communities.”
Menchaca will be up for re-election in two years, and has already collected nearly $15,000 in contributions for 2017, according to the NYC Campaign Finance Board. Having lived in Sunset Park since 2009, Hamm sees three issues as important for the councilman to address: affordable housing, economic development —“or how that benefits low-income people”—and policing, including for immigrant vendors.
It’s still not clear if anyone will challenge Menchaca in the 2017 democratic primary, though, at the moment, this appears unlikely. In two years, he will have the incumbent’s advantage. Still, as Menchaca himself has shown, that does not guarantee re-election.
“It’s not only what you do, it’s what your opponent does or doesn’t do,” Muzzio said.