Sunset Park assemblyman accuses opponents of putting their “knees on his neck” in heated debate

Assemblyman Felix Ortiz faced off against three progressive insurgents during a June 17 debate.
File photo by Trey Pentecost

A Sunset Park lawmaker running for re-election accused other candidates of “trying to put their knees on [his] neck” during a heated online debate on June 17. 

I know we’re going into a campaign and I know most of the candidates we have here are trying to put their knees on my neck,” said Assemblyman Felix Ortiz during the debate, hosted by the activist organization UpRose. 

Ortiz — who has served the 51st Assembly District for 25 years — squared off against progressive opponents Marcela Mitaynes, Katherine Walsh, and Genesis Aquino during Wednesday’s debate, where candidates answered questions about development, green jobs, and policing and emphasized the need for affordable housing.

“We need to make housing a basic human right,” said Mitaynes, a local activist and tenant organizer who wants to see the state cancel rent for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We need to cancel rent and mortgages not just for residential units but commercial as well.”

The June 23 primary is the first time Ortiz has faced Democratic opposition since 2014, when Cesar Zuniga, the present-day board chair of Community Board 7, unsuccessfully ran against him. 

All four candidates voiced their support for rent cancelation throughout the COVID-19 crisis, as well as other housing reforms, including the “Good Cause Eviction” bill, which would prohibit landlords from evicting tenants without a reason.

But, Walsh contended that Ortiz’s campaign donations from large real estate interests contradict his support for tenant rights.

“We have been in a housing crisis, and it has been worsened by COVID, yet you continue to take money for the real estate and hotel industry,” said Walsh, an urban planner and climate activist. “We see in the campaign contributions of your most recent filings that you didn’t receive a single dollar from anyone who’s lived in our district.”

Ortiz argued that most of his campaign contributions come from his friends — some of whom happen to work in the hotel industry — and that donations don’t sway his politics. 

“The majority of my money comes from friends … They have no business with the city, they don’t have business with the state,” he said. “Look to my record, look to my votes, and you’re going to see that my interest is my community and the people I represent.”

Ortiz — who recently sponsored a bill mandating active bystander training for police officers and has supported a package of police reforms — also fended off criticism for failing to pass more left-leaning legislation, with Walsh calling him “asleep at the wheel.” 

“The problem is that we had a Republican Senate until 2018,” he said. “When we took over in 2019, we began working in a lot of pieces of legislation including in campaign finance reform, and we can continue to do that.” 

Following the repeated critiques, lobbed primarily by Walsh, Ortiz claimed that the opponents had their “knees on” his neck — seemingly referencing the tactic Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin used to kill George Floyd in May.

Walsh responded by saying that the candidates are simply frustrated with Ortiz’s leadership.

“We are not on your throat, Felix, we are fighting because we believe in this community,” she said. 

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Cesar Zuniga is the present-day district manager of Community Board 7. Zuniga is the chair of the community board. We regret the error.