Democratic Bay Ridge Council candidate Rev. Khader El-Yateem met with Community News Group editors on Aug. 25 to discuss his campaign to replace term-limited Councilman Vincent Gentile. The founder and pastor of the Salam Arabic Lutheran Church in Bay Ridge, El-Yateem nonetheless strongly believes in the separation of Church and State and vows to always put his constituents above his faith. He vowed that if elected he would do more to fight illegal home conversions — as well as help those evicted — and promised to create the neighborhood’s first-ever community center. El-Yateem immigrated to the United States from the Palestinian city of Bethlehem in 1992, and would be the first Arab-American elected official in both the city and the state. He said he believes the district’s many Arab-Americans, who have not come out to the polls in large numbers in past elections, will support him on Election Day — and he may even flip the politically active Syrian and Lebanese Christian community, which he says traditionally votes Republican. Inspired by Bernie Sanders and proudly backed by the Democratic Socialists of America, El-Yateem promised to support whomever wins the Democratic Party’s line, but then would vigorously hold them accountable to the voters.
On his qualifications and making the transition from the pulpit to City Hall:
El-Yateem has been a member of Community Board 10 for the last 12 years and first moved to the district in 1995 to start a Lutheran church for Arab-Americans. He said his work with the Unity Task Force, leading interfaith services following 9/11, and acting as the clergy liaison to the NYPD, helped establish and strengthen his relationship with the community. But following the election of President Trump, he said he wanted to be able to do more.
“That’s my legacy in the community, always about bringing people together, talking to everyone, knowing all my neighbors. I love the neighborhood because people are civically engaged. Also with the Trump election, I felt all our civil liberties have been under attack, we as people of color in this country, as immigrants, we became under attack. And as we are seeing in Charlottesville, Va., and other cities, the white supremacists, KKK, and neo-nazis, have the green light and full permission to practice their acts of racism and hate against minorities. And our job, our duty as faith leaders, as civically engaged people, is to rise up and resist Trump and his policies. And when the seat became vacant, many leaders from the community, came to me and said, ‘we believe you can do this for us, we want you to run for city Council.’ I am not a career politician. I never in my life thought I’d be running for office, but I always say certain times call for certain measures, and this was one of them, to make sure we have leadership — empower everyone in the community, give everyone a voice, and make sure everyone is at the table.”
On the district’s political leanings:
El-Yateem pointed out that despite the 43rd Council District’s reputation as a conservative area, it actually threw its support behind Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary, and he recalled one 85-year-old on whose door he knocked was only excited about his candidacy when he told him he was backed by the Democratic Socialists of America.
“All my life I was told, ‘Oh it’s a conservative district, you cannot do this, cannot do that,’ and here’s an 85-year-old and the only reason he signed my petition is because I was endorsed by the D.S.A. What I’m seeing at the doors also, people are very excited about my leadership and being endorsed by the D.S.A. became a huge endorsement. I think we have a clear path to victory.”
On his political aspirations:
El-Yateem, who has been granted a four-year leave from his church if he wins, said he has no immediate plans beyond the first four-year term, but is open to serving a second term.
“I never thought about going further, I’m not sure, I spoke to my bishop and my bishop said, ‘Listen, you feel the call to do this now, we will work with you, you have my complete blessing — and if you feel you want to run again, we will talk about it then.’ ”
On Councilman Gentile’s record in the Council:
El-Yateem said he has always had a good relationship with the Council’s senior legislator, but was disappointed by two of votes — voting against the Community Safety Act in 2013, which protects those racially profiled by the police, and supporting the bill to condemn the controversial Boycott Divest Sanction Movement — and felt by doing so, Gentile turned his back on many of his constituents.
“We always have had a respectful relationship. He did a few things that I appreciated, such as street naming, but there are major issues with him when it comes down to when he voted against the Community Safety Act. Here I am an immigrant, a person of color, in your district and you’re voting against my right in this country. That is one of the most disheartening issues that really bothered me about Councilman Gentile.”
On his support from Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour:
El-Yateem, who had worked with the controversial activist at the Arab-American Association, said Sarsour is a strong woman who fights for social justice and has made a significant difference in the lives of young women who immigrated to Brooklyn from Arab countries with little or no education. And as an Arab-American running for elected office, El-Yateem said he too has received his fair share of negative comments and even threats, but that none of that will stop him for fighting for his neighbors.
“She is a woman, who is an American from Palestinian background, who is committed to issues of justice. She is fighting for her platform, and I think for me as a city council member, I would be fighting for issues of justice in our city to make sure everyone’s treated with dignity and respect. I knew her as a woman who was fighting for the community, who created beautiful programs for women’s empowerment. During this campaign it has been fascinating the things that I am seeing and hearing [said] about myself, and about my campaign — it would make you shiver and cry.… but I will never back off, I will stay committed to the issues of justice, I will fight any acts of hate or racism in my community or my city, and I will do whatever it takes in my power to protect immigrants and undocumented immigrants in this sanctuary city. But there’s unfortunately a lot of people who are spreading a lot of rumors, fighting me and my identity — and I am proud of who I am, as I’m fighting for everyone in my district to be proud of who they are.”
On illegal home conversions:
El-Yateem said the problem of illegal home conversions is negatively impacting the quality of life in the neighborhood, putting a burden on schools and infrastructure. He applauded Gentile’s legislation that imposes harsher fines on landlords that exceed the legal occupant limit by three or more units, but said it’s only the first step to getting people out of those unsafe environments and into permanent affordable housing.
“The law that’s been enacted is a great first step but we need comprehensive review of this and where we can give it more teeth, to hold greedy landlords accountable. And we need to understand the people who live in these illegally converted homes are humans, and we don’t need to victimize the victim over again, and that’s why I am committed to say these people who cannot afford to live in these houses, we need to find place to build affordable housing for them.”
On Citi Bike coming to Bay Ridge:
El-Yateem said Citi Bike could be beneficial both for the environment and for commuters as an alternative to trains, cars, and buses, but it cannot replace much-needed parking spots in the district, which he said is poorly served by the public transit system.
“We have a transportation system in southwest Brooklyn that is not serving the hardworking families that live there. As a Council member, I will go to Albany, I will work with elected officials there, I will advocate. We have the Bay Ridge Avenue station closed down, we’re spending $24 million for the station to do cosmetic changes … not going to help the trains come on time. And we have in our community people who are one delayed train away from being fired from their jobs. For Citi Bike in my neighborhood, it’s a congested neighborhood, parking is a nightmare. If we are going to bring Citi Bike to the district, I need to make sure it’s done in a smart, creative way where it isn’t taking away parking spots, that is the only way I can support it.”
On the sanitation issues plaguing Bay Ridge:
El-Yateem expressed his frustration with the new trucks that cannot pick up bulk items the way they used to, and said that his neighbors on private streets where trash collection ended earlier this year shouldn’t have to pay taxes for a service they do not receive.
“There are two issues here, because of the organic recycling, now they subdivide the trucks so they are unable to pick up the large articles. You have to call 311 and schedule an appointment, and unfortunately people don’t know that. We need to figure out how we can bring back the trucks so these articles are being picked up, and if we are not going to do that, we have to do a very heavy outreach to people who live in the district to make sure they understand the process. The private streets, I think that is a shame, because the person who lives on that street, I pay taxes, they pay taxes, and the whole idea of us paying taxes is, we need safety and our garbage picked up, and if we are not going to have our garbage picked up, what are we paying taxes for? Lately, I have been using this phrase, ‘No taxation without representation.’ ”
On the opioid epidemic:
El-Yateem said the epidemic has killed too many children and that something needs to be done to combat the problem, but that he doesn’t support opening supervised injection facilities for heroin users. Instead, he’d like to see more drug counseling centers.
“We are seeing our children literally dying on our streets. This all started with prescription drugs. I am a strong supporter to combat this epidemic in our district and our city, and not talking about only increasing police presence. I am talking about recreation, counseling centers, bringing agencies and resources, engaging the parents. We need to create safer places where families can come with their children, where they can receive the correct counseling to combat that addiction. I cannot sit on the sidelines watch our kids dying and not do anything. We need to make sure we are involving everybody, getting the word out and in other languages, Chinese, Russian, and everybody who lives in the district has to be able to hear it in a language they understand — but I believe our public funding has to be used to combat the problem, and that means stopping the drugs flowing into our neighborhood and creating the sources for counseling and treatment. I don’t support opening these places where people can go and shoot, that is not something I will support, I will support drug counseling centers to combat the problem.”
At the end of the meeting, El-Yateem answered a quick series of questions.
• Favorite restaurant: Gino’s on Fifth Avenue
• Favorite movie: “Braveheart”
• Last book you read: “Beside the bible?” “Blood Brothers” by Elias Chacour
• Main source for news: Internet, CNN, Haaretz, Arabic newspapers.
• Is the media fair to politicians?: Yes
• Does global warming exist, and if so, is it caused by humans burning fossil fuels?: “One-hundred percent 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?: “I believe very strongly that these monuments and these plaques belong in our museums and our history books, they don’t belong on our streets. I believe they need to be remembered, but not celebrated. These people they fought against the United States, they are traitors to the United States — and the bigger picture is that they have fought to preserve slavery in America. We have so many black soldiers in Fort Hamilton, people from different walks of life, imagine you see the names of people who fought to preserve the slavery of your ancestors, and here you are putting your life on the line. I think we need to be mindful that we need to remember that history is important and we need to preserve that history and learn from it — I’m not saying abolish it, take it away, we need to remember it, but not celebrate it.”