An Assemblyman Accused His Opponents Of Putting “their knees on my neck” During A Debate

Screenshot of AD51 Democratic primary debate on June 17, 2020

Assemblymember Felix Ortiz, fighting to retain his seat against three major challengers in the Democratic Primary, said at a debate on Wednesday that his opponents were “trying to put their knees on my neck,” a possible allusion to the killing of George Floyd.

Ortiz, the assistant speaker, who has represented Assembly District 51 which includes parts of Red Hook, Gowanus, and Sunset Park since 1995, took frequent jabs from his challengers at a Wednesday night Zoom debate sponsored by the Sunset Park advocacy group UPROSE. His opponents — tenant organizer Marcela Mitaynes, urban planner Katherine Walsh, and tenant advocate Genesis Aquino — chided Ortiz for taking corporate, real estate, and police union contributions, as well as for an ethics scandal involving embezzlement of campaign funds by a former staffer.

“Leadership is the company that you keep, and Felix Ortiz has not been showing up for this district, and he’s not been fighting for the interests of this district” Walsh said, in response to Ortiz’s assertion that most of his campaign funding came from his “friends,” including those working for special interests. “We are not on your throat, Felix. We are fighting because we believe in this community.”

Ortiz, for his part, voiced support for various progressive positions embraced by his challengers, including canceling rent during quarantine, requiring landlords to demonstrate “good cause” before evicting a tenant, single payer healthcare at the state level, and even tearing down the much-maligned Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the latter only finding support among his challengers in Walsh. He also noted that he had been a co-sponsor of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), the landmark law passed last year that codified the state’s goal of reaching zero carbon emissions and set targets for reductions in emissions within defined timeframes. And he touted having introduced in the current session legislation to design a Green New Deal in the state and to divest the state’s pension fund from fossil fuels.

“No corporation will handcuff me,” Ortiz said. “I’m a straight shooter, and I don’t care about what they do, or how they’re trying to help me. The bottom line is that my interest is my community and I will always stand up with my record, which is on behalf of the people that I represent.”

Nonetheless, Ortiz’s opponents described the present political moment as one requiring transformative change, which they say Ortiz is not equipped to lead in.

Mitaynes, backed by the Democratic Socialists of America and the Working Families Party, emphasized her background as a tenant organizer, spurred by having experienced displacement herself, and argued that the state’s politics needs to become more oriented around coalition-building and movement organizing. 

“We need strong leadership, we need to build a movement, and with this pandemic, we’re seeing that our government has failed us,” Mitaynes said. “And we need to do something different.”

In the highly demographically diverse district whose population, as moderator Brian Vines noted, is 49% immigrant, ensuring that immigrant neighbors are not left behind in ambitious programs championed by the candidates was a constant thread in answers on all topics.

“The state needs to be held accountable for all the renters,” Aquino said, responding to a question about the rent cancellation proposal. “We also need to make sure that we are passing a relief program for all the tenants who do not qualify for any public assistance, like a lot of the immigrants who live in this community.”

Sunset Park’s precarious location in a flood zone, and the degree to which the neighborhood will likely be impacted by climate change as a result, also permeated throughout the debate. While Ortiz touted his climate record in Albany, his opponents criticized him as too willing to compromise at the expense of the community, noting specifically a provision in the CLCPA stipulating that at least 35% of funding must go to frontline communities was not enough.

“Legislation has no teeth unless there’s budget and dollars behind it,” Walsh said. “And there was a very strong coalition that was saying that 100% should go towards frontline communities. The 30% was something that the governor forced upon communities, it is not what the frontline communities wanted and demanded and expected from this act. And so frankly, this act did not go far enough.” She went on to say that Ortiz, as assistant speaker, “failed” the community and “did not fight.”

Ortiz, in response, insinuated that his opponents didn’t understand the art of legislating and political compromise.

“I think that we need to be fair and be honest about this,” Ortiz said. “We put in legislation, we came up with a commitment.”

Ortiz could not be reached for comment regarding the “knees on my neck” statement.

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Ben Brachfeld

Ben Brachfeld

Ben Brachfeld is a freelance reporter based in Brooklyn. His work has also appeared in Gotham Gazette, City & State, and Gothamist. Reach out to him via email at benbrachfeld@bklyner.com, or on Twitter @benbrachfeld.

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