Two relative newcomers to local politics, Nick Rizzo and Michael Brienza, will face off in the upcoming District Leader elections on September 9. The position is a volunteer position, and in New York State, District Leaders are elected by each party for a two-year term to represent at least one Assembly District. The Gazette emailed a list of twelve questions to the candidates running to represent Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Here are the questions and their answers:
1. What in your background qualifies you to serve as District Leader?
For years I’ve worked to make Democratic politics in Brooklyn more small-d democratic. I managed Get Out The Vote for Lincoln Restler’s campaign for District Leader two years ago, and for Antonio Reynoso’s successful City Council race against former Democratic machine boss Vito Lopez last year. I’m the only candidate in this race with a record of standing up to Vito Lopez.
2. What work were/are you doing apart from the campaign? What are your career aspirations?
Besides my work in politics, I worked as a journalist for several years. After that, I helped with communications for progressive causes like striking fast food workers and Bill de Blasio’s campaign for mayor. I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to work for another politician or cause while I’m trying to represent this area, so now I’m looking for work as a bartender. Do you know anybody hiring?
3. Why did you decide to run this year? Can you share an anecdote or a story that first made you realize you wanted to represent or give back to this community?
As soon as it became clear that Lincoln Restler wasn’t running this year (he works for the mayor now), I knew I wanted to run. The other side has gone through four different candidates in the nine months I’ve been preparing for and running this campaign. I’ve attended a lot of community meetings over the last five-plus years, and I haven’t seen either of the current District Leaders there. That needs to change.
4. What is your campaign’s platform?
Bringing greater transparency and accountability to the Brooklyn Democratic Party, which right now could do a much better job of involving grassroots Democrats. Helping to organize the community around issues like transportation and housing. I made sure the India Street Ferry was back up running in time for Greenpoint Ave G shutdown this summer. To begin bringing our neighborhood’s voice into the party, I organized and qualified 160 people from the neighborhood for the Democratic County Committee, representing just a few square blocks each, and am helping them organize to push our government for small, achievable improvements.
5. What are the three most important issues facing this community and how do you plan to address them?
1) Affordable housing and displacement. Far too many people in this neighborhood are in danger of no longer being able to afford to live here. I’m working to connect people to government programs that can help them stay in their homes. I also hope to organize the community to push developers to provide more—and real—affordable housing in new construction.
2) Transportation. Relative to other neighborhoods, Greenpoint is not well-served transportation-wise. This has kept the community from changing even faster, but the people here deserve better service. I’ve already helped get nine extra weekday afternoon and evening G trains each day as a member of the Rider’s Alliance, my campaign has already persuaded DoT to fill numerous potholes across the district, and we got the India Street Ferry back up and running. Moving forwards, we need to make sure truck traffic laws are enforced, that Citibike comes to Greenpoint, and that a host of other transportation issues are addressed.
3) Homelessness. Greenpoint has a substantial homeless population with a very high rate of alcoholism. The large homeless shelter the city put in our neighborhood has done little to help. We need a targeted program that gets them off the streets and addresses their specific substance, language, and cultural barriers. This will also help clean up our parks.
6. District Leader is a party position. What, if any, changes would you like to see in the operation of the Kings County Democratic Party? How do you hope to get the younger demographic moving into the neighborhood more involved in local politics?
Right now the Kings County Democratic Party does not hear the voices of ordinary North Brooklyn Democrats. It’s the largest county party on the East Coast, and it still doesn’t have a website! My campaign has put 160 local residents on Democratic County Committee, to fight for more reforms. My opponent’s running mate has been a District Leader for decades, and has no record of pushing the party to become more accessible or less corrupt.
Relative to the rest of the city, Greenpoint has a lot of involved younger voters. Democratic primary voters here have the lowest median age in the city. But we need to get all demographic groups more involved! So many of the political problems in Brooklyn stem from its being a one-party regime where the only elections that matter are extremely low-turnout Democratic primaries.
7. What is your take on the housing boom in North Brooklyn and how do you reconcile a growing number of residents with a lack of infrastructure improvements?
I am very concerned with the extreme number of new developments that are slated to triple the population of North Greenpoint in just a few years. We need to demand more concessions from these developers, both in terms of more community benefits and more affordable housing for longtime residents, targeted to the incomes we have now in Greenpoint. Many of the currently-planned affordable units have income cutoffs that are either too low or too high. Hopefully we can also somewhat slow the pace of development so that the new residents are able to gradually assimilate to our way of life.
These new developments need to not only provide more parks and schools, but help pay for upgrades to our sewer grid, that is going to be severely overburdened. I’ve already helped get extra G trains, but I’m going to keep fighting to get even more MTA service. I’m not going to stop pushing until the G train loses its second-class status and becomes a full 8 car train again.
8. What recommendations would you advocate for to improve local schools?
Empower teachers and better fund our schools. I wish there could be more respect in the debates around education. Almost everyone involved genuinely wants to make our education system better, they just disagree about the best methods. Right now there’s far too much demonization on both sides.
9. How would you respond to those that say there are too many bars in North Brooklyn?
There definitely are. Northside Williamsburg has become the whole city’s adult playground. To prevent that from happening in Greenpoint, we need to be strategic. I will work with the Community Board to continue to support liquor licenses for places that look like they’ll be a good addition to the community, while working to deny the establishments that look like they’ll be a problem. We have to be selective in terms of which places we try to keep out, because otherwise the State Liquor Authority will ignore us and grant licenses to all of them.
10. What will you do to help bridge the divide between old and new residents?
I take bridging the divide very seriously. I’m a new resident, since I’ve only been here 6 years, but I have support from many, many lifelong Greenpointers. I’m not aware of any relative newcomers supporting my opponent. We need to recognize our common interests—on parks, affordable housing, traffic, trash, and our environmental problems, to name just a few—and work together.
11. If elected, what realistic goals do you hope to achieve in your time in office?
I want to involve a lot more people in the Brooklyn Democratic Party. I want to work with the City Council to make it possible to register to vote online. Two years from now, I want to be able to point to dozens and dozens of blocks that I’ve helped get some relief from traffic, parks, or sanitation problems.
12. What’s your favorite place to hang out in these neighborhoods? And why?
I really love Transmitter Park, which wasn’t even a glimmer when I first moved to the neighborhood. Despite not drinking for the campaign (this is how seriously I take this), I still spend a fair amount of time in my local bar, Mark Bar, which has a great mix of longtime and recent residents of various ages and ethnicities.