Justin time: Ridge voters elect Democrat in tight Council race

Checkin’ in with … Councilman-elect Justin Brannan

This just in … Justin Brannan is the new Bay Ridge councilman.

Voters in the 43rd Council District elected Democratic candidate Brannan in a tight race on Tuesday to replace his former boss, term-limited Councilman Vincent Gentile (D–Bay Ridge), capping off one of the city’s most hotly anticipated and divisive Council races in the district that includes Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bath Beach, and Bensonhurst.

Brannan, who has never before held elected office, emerged the victor by securing 50.4 percent of the more than 24,700 total votes cast in the race and by beating back his closest challenger, Republican John Quaglione, by a margin less than 4 percent. Reform Party candidate Bob Capano won less than 330 votes, or 1.3 percent overall, according to unofficial results.

Brannan said his victory amounted to a rejection of the Trumpian wave that his post-primary opponents sought to ride in an election cycle that stoked feelings of racism and Islamophobia in the community.

“Make no mistake, tonight was a victory for love, for hope, for tolerance, for acceptance,” he told supporters on election night.

Brannan celebrated his victory with supporters at Cebu restaurant on Tuesday night, on Third Avenue and 88th Street. He called his win “surreal,” and told attendees that his victory heralded a more hopeful era, and that he would be a councilman for all of his constituents.

“I”m going to fight like hell for everybody who calls this district home,” he said.

Brannan made inclusivity a cornerstone of his campaign and often put his political views and vision for the district in the context of the national political landscape, frequently condemning President Trump and his policies, while opponents Quaglione and Capano consistently supported the president’s policies on aggressive policing and stricter sanctions on immigrants.

But like his opponents, Brannan spent much of the campaigning season trying to cast himself as a political outsider, despite his long career as Gentile’s right-hand man. He also fought his opponents’ frequent attacks linking him to Mayor DeBlasio, who Brannan worked for beginning in 2015, as the deputy director of intergovernmental affairs in the Department of Education. He insisted that he would be an “independent Democrat” who would stand up to the mayor when he had to.

He received late-race endorsements from Sen. Chuck Schumer and second-place Democratic primary rival Rev. Khader El-Yateem, which bolstered his status among the district’s significant Arab and Muslim populations, who mostly rejected his more hard-line opponents.

Brannan entered a crowded field of ten candidates evenly split between the Democratic and Republican parties earlier this year, and secured a less narrow 7 percent victory over El-Yateem in the Democratic primary, in which he received nearly double the votes that Quaglione got in the Republican primary.

El-Yateem was at Brannan’s victory party, and told the crowd that the Democrat’s win was a harbinger of greater diversity and inclusivity in the district.

“Leadership in his office is going to be inclusive, give voice to everyone, include everyone, and give everyone a seat at the table,” he said.

Brannan was born and raised in Bay Ridge, and owns a local children’s art school with his wife, Leigh. He founded the Bay Ridge Democrats in 2010 and co-founded Bay Ridge Cares after Hurricane Sandy, in 2013. After he studied journalism at the College of Staten Island and Fordham University, he spent a few years touring as a professional punk-rock guitarist in more than fifty countries across five continents with the bands Indecision and Most Precious Blood.

In an August interview with this paper, Brannan promised to get a school built in the district within his first term. He said he would crack down on illegal home conversions by punishing landlords, and that he would institute drug prevention and education programs aimed at teens to tackle the opioid crisis. Brannan also said that he opposed the raise the Council gave itself last year, and that he sees his future in politics as limited, characterizing himself as an activist at heart rather than career politician.

Brannan now faces the challenge of uniting and representing one of the city’s most demographically and ideologically diverse districts, which is home to a bastion of white working class voters as well as growing Arab, Asian, and immigrant populations. The most recent census data showed that the Asian population in the district increased by 54 percent between 2000 and 2010, and the Hispanic population increasing by nearly 48 percent.

Ridge voters at the polls on Tuesday morning said that they were concerned about transportation problems, overcrowded schools, illegal home conversions, rising property taxes, unaffordable housing, and the opioid crisis. But many said they were most concerned that the new councilman would prioritize managing the district’s increasing diversity.

“I think it’s important that whoever [the councilman] is makes people feel included,” said Norman Bock.

Another Ridgite agreed, and said the divisive local race proved that the next councilman would have to prioritize bringing locals together — regardless of their race, religion, or birthplace.

“I think he should bring people together and help people understand each other’s cultures,” said Mary Fraioli. “We all live here, we all have to get along.”

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.