Things in Brooklyn’s most-watched City Council race have taken an awkward turn.
Just a week before the Nov. 7 election, Democratic party leadership in the borough took aim at Democratic nominee, Council Member Justin Brannan for his alleged involvement in harassing a former City Council staffer with autism. Brannan says the claims are bogus, and a number of Democratic district leaders in Brooklyn are defending him amid criticism from the party boss.
Brannan is in the fight of his political life as he faces a stiff challenge from Republican Ari Kagan for the 47th City Council seat. The two pols are facing each other for the first time after redistricting; Kagan, a former Democrat, switched parties last year and announced his intention to run against Brannan, ultimately winning the GOP nomination in the June primary.
But despite the risk of Democrats losing the 47th Council seat to the Republican competition, Assembly Member Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, chair of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, spoke out against Brannan on Tuesday in response to a public statement and video released by the former staffer, Michael Bistreich.
In the video — posted online by a representative for Brannan’s Republican opponent Ari Kagan — Bistreich alleges that Brannan harassed him due to his having Asperger’s Syndrome, a developmental disorder on the autism spectrum, while the two worked in the office for ex-Council Member Vincent Gentile.
Brannan was neither named in the original lawsuit nor called to testify in court — however, the incumbent is mentioned in the court documents as allegedly being present during some of the attacks on Bistreich.
“As Democrats, we have to hold our own Party members to the highest standards, and unlike many Republicans, we cannot turn a blind eye to our own Party’s accountability for the sake of political gain,” Bichotte Hermelyn said in a statement. “We have received a barrage of concerns and disturbing allegations against Councilman Justin Brannan for harassing and tormenting an ex-staff member with autism, who was under Brannan’s supervision at the time.”
Bistreich sued the City of New York and Gentile for $10 million in 2016. He later settled for $850,000 out of court. In court documents from the Manhattan Supreme Court, Bistreich said he was bullied by coworkers, who left decapitated stuffed animals left on his desk, locked him in an office basement and told him to “test the doors” at a press conference for Avonte’s Law, a city regulation named after an autistic boy who died after leaving school through an unlocked door.
The legislator says the claims in Bistrech’s case detail events that occurred during a period when he did not work at Gentile’s office.
Old accusations, new turmoil
According to Ian Brown, a spokesperson for Brannan’s campaign, despite being the chair for the Democratic Party, Bichotte Hermelyn has now positioned herself as a political foe against the Democratic nominee in one of the tightest council races in New York City.
“Justin has never been afraid to stand up to his own party and this is the price he pays. The leader of the Brooklyn Democratic Party is now amplifying GOP attacks. Justin’s desperate political opponents – that now include Rodneyse – have been lodging these same false accusations in every campaign for the past 6 years,” Brown said in a statement. “Justin had nothing to do with this; he was not named in this lawsuit and was never subpoenaed. Rodneyse should be careful she doesn’t end up getting sued for libel and slander.”
Bichotte Hermelyn’s statement fanned the flames for the hotly-contested seat and — and other Brooklyn Democrats questioned her position on the Democratic ideas she was elected to uphold.
“My loyalty will always be to my constituents, never to a party boss. If that gets me in hot water with the party boss then so be it. Rodneyse’s allegations are completely false and she knows it,” Brannan told Brooklyn Paper. “My job is to deliver for my community and I’m doing my job. Her job is to help get Democrats elected. Is she doing her job?”
On Wednesday, a group of 16 Brooklyn Democratic district leaders shared their public support of Brannan and denounced Bichotte Hermelyn’s comments — which they said were released without their knowledge.
“Over the past several weeks, it has become increasingly clear that the County Chair has been acting against the best interests of our party. Rodneyse Bichotte–Hermelyn, the Chair of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, has repeatedly used Party resources to attack Councilmember Justin Brannan in order to undermine his campaign for re-election,” the statement said. “These statements were released without notice to, or consultation with, the Executive Committee. They do not represent or reflect our values or our views.”
The committee asked why the county leader would choose to undermine the campaign of the Democratic nominee so close to the election.
“We will spend every day between now and Election Day fighting for [Brannan] with the same energy he fights for his constituents and for all of Brooklyn,” the district leaders added. “We hope and expect that our County Leader will join our efforts or stay out of our way.”
On Nov. 7, southern Brooklynites are due to vote for either Kagan or Brannan as the new representative for the redrawn District 47. The candidates have engaged in public spats on X, formerly known as Twitter, regularly calling each other out as the election draws nearer.
(Update 11/1/2023 at 3:34 p.m.): This story has been updated to allow comment from Council Member Justin Brannan.