What a short, strange trip.
This summer, the Bushwick assembly race — the special election is tomorrow — has gone from the seat that no one wanted to a trenchant three-way scramble that will likely be decided by a few hundred votes.
When Assemblyman Darryl Towns first announced plans that he would be stepping down from his seat to take a job in Gov. Cuomo’s administration, the speculation was that the Democratic Party would nominate Councilman Erik Dilan for the seat. Even Darryl and his father, Congressman Ed Towns, endorsed that idea, saying that no member of the Towns family would run though Ed’s daughter Deidra expressed interest.
But then Erik said he didn’t want to leave his council seat (expiring in 2013), and his wife, Jannitza Dilan, said she didn’t want to run either — leaving the Vito Lopez-led Democratic Party to turn to Dilan’s 26-year-old chief of staff, Rafael Espinal.
So Towns promptly turned heel and backed his daughter, who was forced to run her own “Community First” party line.
And 26-year-old Jesus Gonzalez, an organizer at Bushwick-based community organization Make the Road New York, who had been coyly holding fundraisers for public office throughout the spring, promptly threw his hat in the ring and earned the Working Families Party’s nod.
A real fight among two warring political dynasties and surging nonprofit groups would be waged — lately it has been nasty.
All three candidates are registered Democrats with deep roots in the community — but this being Bushwick, those roots have become entangled over the years.
Espinal’s campaign manager, Michael Olmeda, helped Darryl Towns win re-election for more than a decade against rivals such as Martin Dilan. Olmeda says he left the Towns camp and joined the Dilans out of frustration that Congressman Towns would not relinquish his seat for his son.
Erik Dilan managed his father’s 150-vote losing campaign back then (he still remembers and it still stung). Now both are in Espinal’s Knickerbocker Avenue office, working to get the next generation elected.
Gonzalez has never worked with the Dilans or met with Vito Lopez — he apparently feuded with Martin Dilan as a 13-year-old. But Gonzalez enjoys the support of Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, who endorsed him and chipped in $2,000 to his campaign.
Velázquez got her start in politics working for Congressman Towns and is one of his closest colleagues. She grew close with his daughter, Deidra, and traveled with her. But Velázquez helped Make the Road’s founders get their organization off the ground and has become its fiercest advocate over the past decade.
The Dilan camp has argued that Velázquez is backing Gonzalez to split the Latino vote and hand the election to Deidra — but politics is complicated.
And with the entry of the Working Families Party into the race and a slew of Brooklyn and Manhattan progressive groups like the New Kings Democrats, Gonzalez is playing to win.
For much of the campaign, Gonzalez has criticized Espinal’s political positions, after Brooklyn Politics and several outlets reported that Espinal submitted two different answers in questionnaires over his views about same-sex marriage and abortion.
The Daily News poured over his campaign contributions, noting that Espinal took donations from developers and an “accused slumlord,” while City Hall News questioned why so many Espinal campaign workers were on state Senator Martin Dilan’s payroll.
Actually, it wasn’t really a question. Espinal also enjoyed the support of $4,300 from Erik Dilan and Martin Dilan’s campaign funds.
Towns’ campaign has also received scrutiny from the press, which probed her role at the helm of a foundation named for her late grandmother.
City Hall News detailed the mysterious foundation’s close ties with the Towns family despite not having any tax returns. And the Post confirmed that the IRS revoked its nonprofit status just after it received $3,500 from Congressman Towns.
Gonzalez has received relatively glowing press from a number of outlets including WNYC, Brooklyn Politics, El Diario, The Village Voice, The New York Times, and has been endorsed by El Diario and The Daily News.
But this week, opponents have spread anti-Gonzalez literature accusing him of welcoming sex offenders into Bushwick and a press release points to some anti-union campaign donations. Plus, a mysterious newsletter called Prime Time News arrived in Bushwick this week just in time to endorse Espinal, while anti-Espinal lit claiming “he can’t be trusted” was shoved under Bushwick doorsteps. And that doesn’t even include all the direct mail sent to registered voters over the past few days.
The groundwork has been laid over the past five months but the race will likely come down to a few factors: which campaign has the best get-out-the-vote strategy and the likeability of the candidate.
The Democratic Party has a renowned “pull” operation — that is the ability to bring voters to the polls and have them vote for their candidate, which would give Espinal a slight advantage.
But the Working Families Party is no slouch either and is motivated to pick up its first major win since Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and Comptroller John Liu.
And the Towns name will still hold weight among middle-class families in Cypress Hills — a key voting bloc — and public housing residents in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
If Espinal can cut enough of those blocs away from Towns, particularly the public housing voters, he should pull out a victory.
But if Gonzalez’s and Make the Road’s organizing muscle can turn out dedicated voters on a day when only as little as 3,500 voters will cast ballots — we could have ourselves a slim margin that won’t be resolved for days.
Voting begins at 6am tomorrow and ends at 9pm. Click here to see if you’re in the 54th District.