Council candidate and incumbent Diana Reyna. — Photo by Aaron Short
To help you make the right decision in the upcoming Democratic primary — which is the de facto election in Brooklyn — BushwickBK will be running profiles on each of the three main City Council candidates for the 34th District this week. As the 37th’s Erik Dilan is running unchallenged in the election, he will not be profiled.
A two-term incumbent with another five years of experience as Chief of Staff in a powerful Brooklyn Assembly office, Diana Reyna has actually never run a campaign by herself before.
During the past two cycles (2001 and 2005*), Reyna was backed by her former boss, and Kings County Democratic Party Chair, Assemblymember Vito Lopez, who encouraged her to run eight years ago. As she began to assert her independence early in her second term, Lopez pulled back his support, encouraging a political rival and former colleague, Maritza Dávila, to run for Democratic District Leader in Bushwick. In June, Lopez formally introduced Dávila on the steps of City Hall in her run for City Council.
It is unclear what led to the rift between Lopez and Reyna. Lopez frequently references a six-unit affordable housing project on Jefferson Street, which Reyna had previously held up in Council this past March. Community leaders point to Reyna’s exclusion from the first charette meeting in spring 2007, where early negotiations over control of the Broadway Triangle were held. Reyna would not point out any specific incident on the record, instead claiming Lopez felt betrayed by her decisions in Council. "If you cross him once he will make your life miserable."
Such is the nature of Reyna’s reelection bid to City Council in the 34th District. Behind the promises of funding day care programs, protecting affordable housing stock, and creating jobs is a bitter personal rivalry that has increasingly become public. Documented in the Village Voice, El Diario, and several local papers, Reyna has found that she is going up against the Democratic Party on its home turf and a popular Community Board District Manager, Gerry Esposito, from the western part of the district. Her opponents say she is no martyr figure, pointing out that she approved an extension of term limits. Over the past seven years, Reyna has built a strong network of Dominican and Puerto Rican supporters in South Side Williamsburg and Bushwick, as well as volunteers from several nonprofits she has delivered discretionary funds to. She defends her term limits vote and asserts she is the only candidate with the experience to do the job.
"What are they going to be running on? There is no real candidate in this race," said Reyna.
Reyna grew up on South 1st Street and Hewes Street in Williamsburg, and later Hewes and Harrison Streets, not far from her District office. She attended Catholic school through her primary years, Transfiguration School and then later Our Savior School, to 8th grade, before going on to St. Joseph Girls High School on Willoughby Street. She went to Pace University, where she thought she was going to be a nurse, but a summer internship in Assemblymember Lopez’s office when she was 20 changed her mind and her future.
Lopez’s office was on Myrtle Avenue in the mid-1990s, and Reyna met a young organizer named Maritza Dávila while she worked there.
"We worked together. We were friendly, celebrating New Years together one year. She knew my husband while we were dating," said Reyna.
As Lopez’s Chief of Staff, Reyna worked on the Shaffer Landing, Rheingold Houses, and Buena Vida Nursing Home projects, large affordable housing and senior facilities which, along with dozens of senior centers throughout North Brooklyn — not to mention the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council (RBSCC) which has developed them all — will stand as Lopez’s legacy. She also learned how to run campaigns and focus on a message of affordable housing, senior advocacy, and maintaining constituent services for her campaign. To those planks, Reyna has added fierce advocacy for immigrants in the district and opposition to developers who attempt to carve up Bushwick’s industrial zoning like a roasted turkey.
"We’ve lost so much space in the East Williamsburg industrial park that we will never see again," said Reyna. "There are few ways to replace existing space and tap into a workforce that no longer works here. We’ve lost the artist community too. Many are moving upstate. If everything is illegally converted, what are you left with? How do you replace it?"
Reyna understands the fears of artists and young professionals living in buildings that have been illegally converted, such as 70 Wyckoff Avenue, and the consequences of building enforcement, such as 17-17 Troutman, which is nearing the two-year anniversary of its eviction.
"It’s a double-edged sword. People are breaking the law and are not evicted, while we have people in legal residence who are being evicted because they don’t pay rent. Where do you protect businesses in the discussion of industrial space?" Reyna wonders. "There are many illegal conversions where tenants end up in live-work space, and they’re not for artists but for young professionals. These buildings are not registered with DHCR, do not have a certificate of occupancy, and the landlord is not willing to accept Section 8 vouchers. The DOB is not enforcing the law and by turning away from the area, it has legitimized illegal conversions."
The fight for affordable housing is a theme that runs throughout Reyna’s Council term and her re-election campaign. It has led her to wade into territory outside her district, the Broadway Triangle, which affects many residents in her district that live nearby. Reyna has strongly castigated the city, particularly the Department of Housing, for negotiating only with the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council and the United Jewish Organizations over plans to develop the 31-acre site. She believes the current plan would shut out many of her constituents from applying for affordable housing on the site and it adds yet another property to RBSCC’s extensive housing portfolio.
"It’s all about the quantity of resources and the land that you are able to acquire. The area has been dominated by one agency in Bushwick, which is expanding into Williamsburg because they have no more land," said Reyna.
Reyna keeps a sensitive eye towards development in Bushwick, insisting that it is important to rehabilitate existing structures that are dilapidated, organize locally-owned businesses, such as the ones on Knickerbocker, into a Business Improvement District, and encourage development along commercial corridors such as Flushing Avenue, limiting residential displacement.
"Bushwick is at the start of being a chic community. Williamsburg is at the end of a chic community. How do you balance the needs of hard-working residents and people so that they’re not sacrificed for chicness?" said Reyna. "What we’ve been left with in Williamsburg is a lot of empty structures and the market needs to correct itself with inclusive development. Will we be able to afford Bushwick tomorrow? That is the question."
Assemblymember Vito Lopez did not endorse Diana Reyna in 2005. Lopez stayed neutral, and according to a source within the Reyna campaign camp, this is when the rift between the two began. Lopez wanted her to endorse Richard Velazquez for Civil Court Judge, who was running against Brooklyn Legal Services’ Marty Needelman in 2005. Given her relationship with Needleman, Reyna didn’t endorse anyone, miffing Lopez. Velazquez ended up winning the race.