At the beginning of this election season, something about the 34th council district race had me a bit puzzled. As a person who keeps an ear to the ground in local politics, obviously there was a hot primary contest shaping up between Diana Reyna and Maritza Davila, and all indications were that it would be a close one. Forces in the community were lining up on either side, staff and volunteers being mobilized, funds being raised.
And yet, the cultural community I am most directly connected to, which I often refer to as the "arts-identified community" in lieu of the infinitely more loaded and far less precise "gentrifiers" (gentrification is a complex process, largely not attributable to the individuals at the end of the chain) or "hipsters" (a label of cultural identity which is generally pejorative, suggesting apathy, disengagement, and narcissism), was not even really on the radar for either campaign. There was no real outreach to this community by either candidate. What gives?
On the face of it, I understand why we were not seen as a relevant voting bloc. This community — relative newcomers, significantly younger, significantly whiter, virtually all citizens and English-speakers, less likely to have kids, on average somewhat better off economically than the existing population of the district, and (mostly) either creatives or those in some way connected to or involved with the arts and culture in a less direct way — are not generally seen as engaged in local politics. We are seen as transient, uninformed about local issues, and generally not engaged with or committed to the neighborhood — a hard group to mobilize, and likely to leave as suddenly as we arrived. Moreover, the two candidates in the 34th each have strong organizing bases in the cultural, racial, and ethnic communities and political networks that have dominated neighborhood politics for decades, and which still make up the vast majority of the population of the district. So, why would they even think to pay attention to us?
Simply: because we may have been the deciding factor in this election.
Let’s do a quick back-of-the-envelope for a second. How many voters are we really talking about here? In the absence of any real research on the subject, here’s my stab at some guesstimates, using anecdotal observations and voter registration numbers.
There are about 70,000 registered Democratic voters in the 34th district in 2009, a sharp increase from even two years ago (2007), when there were about 50,000. The increase in total voter registration during this time period was about 30,000, so we’re talking about new people being registered in the district, not party-switchers.
Some significant portion of the 50,000 registered Democrats in 2007 were certainly part of the arts-identified community. Given the huge increase in the arts-identified population of the neighborhood over the past few years, I would argue that, even given the significant increases in voter registration during the Presidential election cycle, that new arts-identified community residents may make up a significant portion of the 20,000 registrant increase (even though, yes, a disproportionate number of these folks may not be registered to vote in the district). Let’s be conservative, and say there are maybe 5,000-10,000 arts-identified community folks who are registered Democrats in the 34th.
There were 9,200 Democratic votes in the 34th district primary this week, a (woefully low) 13.2% turnout rate. Even if we assume that the turnout among the arts-identified community is significantly lower than the average, we’re talking about a significant number of votes. Going with the low-end estimate of 5,000 registrants, if our turnout were 10%, that would be 500 votes. Or, if turnout was an almost impossibly low 5%, that would be 250 votes.
The margin of victory in the 34th, after this weekend’s recount, is Diana Reyna up by 251 votes.
Pretty much everyone in the arts-identified community that I talked to during this election was planning to vote for Diana, apart from a few folks in South Williamsburg who supported also-ran Gerry Esposito. Literally no one I know in this cultural community was planning to vote for Maritza. This result certainly can’t be attributed to a lack of visibility — Maritza posters dominated in East Williamsburg and North Bushwick, where many arts-identified folks are concentrated, and her volunteers were out in force. For purposes of this discussion, it’s not particularly important to get into detail about the reasons Maritza was so unpopular in our community, but I’ll say this for the record: what I’ve heard leads me to believe that this was largely a referendum on the machine politics of Vito Lopez. Yes, Diana was generally seen as the more progressive candidate, but I think that in this case "progressive" generally meant "not the Democratic machine," rather than "in line with many of our values, priorities and interests," especially since there are few if any concrete policies she has advanced that anyone I spoke with could point to.
During the campaign, neither candidate offered much that spoke to our community’s issues. In fact, I think that if elected, either of them might advance agendas which could be detrimental to our direct interests, for example in the case of cracking down on live/work loft conversion, which both candidates to some extent have advocated.
Personally, I know and have worked with both Diana and Maritza, as have a number of other organizers I know in the arts-identified community. Both of them have been seen at neighborhood art events over the past few years, and have expressed support for the idea of working with us toward an integrated community as we plan for the future of the neighborhood — although the details of how this would happen are still quite vague, to say the least.
But in this election, among people I know in the arts-identified community, Diana was seen as more open to working with us on building a shared agenda going forward, more independent, and more accessible and responsive than Maritza — and, more importantly, her Democratic machine backers — would be. And the political leadership of our community, diffuse and relatively new to the area as we may be, were instrumental in spreading this message to those who may have been less informed and engaged about the issues at hand, and the nuances of local politics.
I hope and expect that Diana will take her narrow margin of victory to heart, and recognize the importance of our community as a relevant and growing voting bloc, and a partner — if not an entirely equal one yet, at least in terms of numbers — alongside other cultural communities in the district. If Diana commits to building a true working relationship with us, and working with us to develop a policy agenda which will benefit both our cultural community and all of the other interests in the district, it will go a long way in advancing in our shared efforts toward making our neighborhood a place where we all can live, work, and participate in civic life for a long time to come. And, it may win Diana and her allies more elections.