Democratic Bay Ridge Council candidate Justin Brannan met with the editors of Community News Group on Aug. 18 to discuss his run to replace term-limited (and his former boss) Councilman Vincent Gentile. Brannan, who owns a children’s art school in Bay Ridge with his wife, has also worked for Mayor DeBlasio, but insists he does not see his long-term future in politics, claiming he’s an activist at heart. He zeroed in on how he would tackle issues affecting the 43rd district, promising to build a school within his first term, crack down on illegal home conversions by punishing landlords, and institute drug prevention and education programs aimed at teens to tackle the opioid crisis in the community. But he also insisted that other local issues, such as affordability and transportation access, must be dealt with at the citywide level in order to create real change in the community. Brannan is running against four other candidates to secure the Democratic nomination for the 43rd district, but he promised to back whoever wins the Democratic primary in September.
On his qualifications:
Brannan pointed out that he is a Bay Ridge native who has been active in the community for years on issues such as AIDS, the environment, and animal rights, and even though he founded the Bay Ridge Democrats and has worked for two politicians, he’s more an activist than a party hack.
“I’m the only guy running on the Democratic side who grew up in the neighborhood. And the reason why that matters is that I know the neighborhood like the back of my hand … It’s sort o f crazy for me to think that I’m running for office. I was really disaffected and disillusioned by the whole process. I got my start, really, as an activist. I loved the instant gratification of activism, and I found the pace of electoral politics too slow for me. I found municipal government to be the closest form of activism where someone could come into your office, and they have a problem, and no matter how big or small it is, you can try to undo that knot, and that felt great, and that felt instant.”
On Councilman Gentile as a mentor and a council member:
Brannan, who worked with Gentile for on and off for about a decade — first as his director of communications and legislative affairs and then as chief of staff — said he was grateful to Gentile for giving him a start in politics. He also said that criticism of Gentile — who leaves a scant legislative legacy after the longest tenure of any sitting council member — as ineffectual is unfair, because his former boss was more focused on constituent services.
“I think Councilman Gentile taught me a lot, he brought me to the dance, he gave me my first job in city government, he took a chance on me. I had no experience before I met the guy. I think this particular seat, for the foreseeable future is always going to be a constituent service-heavy seat. Councilman Gentile is still very, very popular in the district, as far as making a name for himself citywide, it’s not a legislative-heavy seat. If you get involved in citywide issues, it’s a larger platform, but as far as people and constituents who can say that Councilman Gentile really helped them, through whatever it may be, there’s lots and lots of people like that.”
On cracking down on illegal home conversions:
Brannan touted his role in drafting the aggravated illegal conversion law with Gentile. The law imposes heavy fines on landlords that exceed the legal occupant limit by three or more units. He linked the illegal home conversion crisis to a lack of affordable housing in the city, and advocated creating a fund to help evicted tenants and crackdown on landlords who take advantage of them.
“When we’re evicting them there needs to be some sort of contingency plan for the people that live in these apartments. I don’t think you can talk about illegal conversions without talking about the crisis of affordability in the city, and I don’t think anybody who lives in an illegal conversion does it because they think it’s the best scenario for their lives. They’re doing it because this is all they can afford, and you have landlords who are exploiting them. I’d love to see a way to make them safe and codify them in some way if that’s possible, but the way it is now is unsustainable. So the aggravated illegal conversions bill helps to go a step further, but we still need to create that fund, which I think if we’re fining unscrupulous landlords, you can use that money to help relocate people.”
Brannan said that the bike-rental program alone wasn’t an effective alternative to public transportation or cars for residents of his district, but saw a place for recreational use, and encouraging people to use the ferry at 69th Street. Any attempts to install the bikes on main thoroughfares, where they would disrupt parking, “would be a fight,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s really needed for transportation, for getting from one place to another, because it just doesn’t make sense. Recreationally, I think it would be great, down by the pier, by the waterfront, I would love to put it there.”
On the sanitation issues in Bay Ridge:
Brannan said he helped draft the lawsuit against the city filed by the residents of four private streets on 94th Street and 97th Street in Bay Ridge seeking restoration of service after the Department of Sanitation changed its collection policy. He said he supports the residents and drew a contrast — without naming names — to Republican candidate Liam McCabe, who brought garbage from one of the private streets to the mayor’s residence at Gracie Mansion in an effort to get the mayor’s attention.
“For 80 years the city collected garbage from these streets without an issue and suddenly now it’s a problem, which just doesn’t make any sense. I have a lot of respect for the men and women at Sanitation, and I actually have the support of the Sanitation Workers’ Union, and I want to work together with them to make this right. I think these homeowners pay taxes just like anyone else and they deserve to have their garbage picked up just the same. Because I’m a candidate I didn’t want to politicize it. I’m not that shameless, I have a bunch of people I know from church who live on that block and I’d heard about this issue for a long time. Instead of pulling a stunt like dropping off garbage outside Gracie Mansion, I decided to be part of this lawsuit to actually get results for the folks who live on these blocks because I think it’s crazy.”
On education and school overcrowding:
Brannan, who also worked in the Department of Education as the deputy director for intergovernmental affairs, said that the district’s strong schools have led to overcrowding. He promised he would build a new school within four years to combat the problem but said that he would oppose any attempts to build or fund charter schools in the district.
“The only promise that I’ve made on the campaign is that I would get a new school built in the next four years, and it’s because people are coming to these neighborhoods in droves because they’re great, safe neighborhoods with tree-lined streets, and the schools are fantastic. But they’re dangerously overcrowded. I’m diametrically opposed to charter schools. In a district that has such fantastic public schools there’s just no need for charter schools.”
On the opioid epidemic:
Brannan argued that the city is not doing enough to combat the opioid crisis. He advocated a drug education and prevention-heavy approach in the district, zeroing in on children from a young age and providing kids and teens with places to gather on nights and weekends — such as school gyms and rec centers — with the hope that doing so would deter drug use. On the subject of providing city-funded injection centers where addicts could safely shoot up, Brannan said he supported the policy in theory, but would oppose citing one in his district.
“I think it needs to be an all-hands-on-deck approach when it comes to opioid use … there’s a lot of shame in families in which someone overdosed, and the more that we hide it, that doesn’t make anything better. I don’t think the city’s doing enough, and I think we need to get creative … as much as we’re putting money into prevention, I think [drug education for kids] needs to be a piece of it … I think some of that stuff is sort of low-hanging fruit — it’s very easy to do.”
On the Council raise and earning outside income:
Brannan said he opposes the raise that the Council recently gave itself when voting to make the job full-time and ban most outside income. He said that while he and his wife have been earning an income during the campaign through their small business, The Art Room, an art school for children in Bay Ridge, they have gone without health insurance to save money.
“It’s a full-time job. I think that the salary is a little high, and that’s why you’re seeing so many state legislators who are suddenly deciding after 35 years that the commute is too long … I think while you’re an elected official that should be your number-one focus … if you want to make a lot of money, that’s fantastic, but public service is not the place to do it.”
On his political aspirations:
Brannan said that his political days are numbered, regardless of the outcome of the race.
“I don’t think I see [my future] in politics. That could change, but I never in a million years dreamt of running for office … I could see myself going into advocacy or going back into doing press.”
On getting booed at a debate when he condemned President Trump’s response to the violence in Charlottesville:
Brannan called it a “shining moment” when he got booed at the Aug. 15 debate where he chastised President Trump for being “afraid to call racism by its name.” He said that our country is deeply divided and the President is responsible for perpetuating that division.
“I think the people that come to a political debate on a rainy Tuesday night are pretty intense … it’s just a sad sort of commentary on where we’re at. This is one of the last districts where there’s going to be a competitive general election.… Ultimately, I think the good and fair people will win the day, but there’s certainly a lot of divisiveness out there and the president has certainly done his best to foment that, and it’s taking its toll … when you see people booing when I dare say that the President should call racism what it is, it’s scary, but those people are the vast minority.”
At the end of the meeting, Brannan answered a quick series of questions.
• Favorite restaurant: Il Colosseo
• Favorite movie: “Amores Perros”
• Last book read: “Presence of the Past” by Rupert Sheldrake
• Main source for news: Online news sites, social media, and newspapers. “I try to actually pick up the papers every day.”
• Is the media fair to politicians?: No.
• Does global warming exist, and if so, is it caused by humans burning fossil fuels?: Yes and yes.
• Fracking in upstate New York?: No.
• Should Fort Hamilton Army Base rename the streets within it named after Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson?: Yes.
• Favorite tattoo: “I have my dad with a little music note from when he passed away [in 2003].”