Q&A With Brandon West On His Run For City Council District 39

Q&A With Brandon West On His Run For City Council District 39
Brandon West. (Photo via West’s office)

Twelve of Brooklyn’s 16 councilmembers are term-limited, and the number of individuals running for office is massive. One of those term-limited is Council Member Brad Lander who represents District 39— which encompasses Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Columbia Waterfront, Gowanus, Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Borough Park, and Kensington. Lander is currently running for NYC Comptroller.

Last year, the son of two union teachers and a man endorsed by the NYC Democratic Socialists of America (NYC-DSA), Brandon West, announced his run for City Council. West has spent his life serving people. He has worked in the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget and then at the City Council Finance Division, working on the Education, Transportation, and Contracts Committees. He was also the president of the New Kings Democrats until 2019, where he led a campaign—Rep Your Block—that got over 500 people involved and serving on Brooklyn’s County Committee.

West currently works as the Campaign Manager for the Center for Popular Democracy on its national Voting Rights and Democracy program’s campaign. He also sits on the steering committee of the Let NY Vote coalition. And he wants to continue his work on a bigger scale, serving the people of District 39.

Why did you decide to run now?

I’ve been doing a lot of organizing and being around government administration for years. In the last two years, something radicalized in me, because we’ve not seen anything that changes the power that people have. People increasingly don’t have access to our local democracy. We’ve seen a lot of rhetoric about change, but we haven’t seen policies that do that. I’ve felt let down by leaders and people in the office and so I wanted to run a race that I would be proud of.

The DSA just endorsed you! How do you feel? What does this mean for your campaign?

It feels great! I have been a member for a while, and I remember after 2016, the influx of interest in really challenging what capitalism is in this city and what it does to communities was inspiring.

It means a lot for the campaign because DSA is really committed to its mission and has really brought a lot of people into political work, and I want to build a real grassroots campaign that is transformative and policy-driven, and I think DSA will help out in us getting that message out there.

How have you spent the pandemic? What has it been like for you?

I’ve been focused a lot on my work, which is organizing Black and Brown grassroots groups on democracy issues. There has been a mad dash to protect democracy locally, and around the country, so I’ve put a lot of my energy into that.

I’m blessed that my family has not been directly impacted by the pandemic as much as others, and so I spent a lot of time trying to defund the police this past summer, which has been a lot even during this pandemic.

What have you seen in your district, and what do you think your district will need to recover?

Everyone is struggling; there isn’t one district or person in the city not impacted by this pandemic. I’ve seen the eviction crisis impact this community because it is difficult to live in a district with really high rents. We’ve also seen an impact in our schools and education system. There is a cascading impact in making sure that families are safe and also that their children have a good education.

The working class was abandoned when things got tough for everyone, and many students of color are struggling in a school system where they already had less to begin with. It was horrible to watch as it happened, and I think it is a wake-up call we need a clean break from the politics of the past.

Transportation is a huge issue in the city. How are you thinking about our streets and making them safer for all?

This will require essentially erasing the legacy of Robert Moses. It won’t be easy. We need to consider a multi-year plan on reframing all urban planning decisions around pedestrian safety but also deemphasizing car usage and ownership.

Barcelona is embarking on this great effort to create superblocks that are pedestrian-focused, as well as a plan to center feminism in these decisions. We need to be as bold as this.

But in the meantime, more bike lanes, less street parking, hopefully rebuilding and putting the BQE underground, and investing a lot more into public transit, so no one needs to ride a car. All the data proves that bike lanes keep people safe. Supporting City Bike will be more of a challenge, but I think it needs to be done as well.

What’s the biggest issue facing your district? And how will you address it?

There are so many issues facing this district, and a lot are interconnected.

If I had to bring it all into one issue, I would say it’s responding to the austerity crisis as a result of bad planning, COVID-19, and an economic system that exploits people and gives all the power to real estate developers.

This means the current housing and eviction crisis. This means making sure we commit to dealing with climate change and implementing a Green New Deal in NYC because we have some of the lowest elevation parts of Brooklyn in our district. This means finding the resources in our budget to support the things we want as a community.

A lot of this will be held at the state level, but it greatly impacts our ability to get what we want and need.

This also means making sure our schools are fully funded, safe and that we support the many low income and students of color who are struggling the most now. Our school system is still one of the most segregated, and many students will now be years behind once this pandemic is over. This will have cascading effects, even in the 39th.

So what this all boils down to is we simply must tax the rich and bring in more revenue, or nothing will be possible.

I think the issues our city faces, in general, are the issues this district faces, and I think we can work on both together if we reframe the answers not around what we can incrementally do with the limited political will we currently have, but frame it around what kind of city we want to live in.

What top three issues will you prioritize once elected, and why?

The first is defunding the police and funding the communities instead. We need to turn that into a year-long process of budget justice and trying to create a real people’s budget where we decide what is valued.

The second is access to housing and transforming land use. There is a contentious rezoning happening in the district, and we need a radically different way to provide housing and decommodify housing to do it. I would like to see a charter revision process to change ULURP and would like to see an office of community planning that would eventually lead us to create more public housing for people. We can’t keep developing in ways that line the pocket of developers; we need to build housing as a right.

The third issue is the desegregation of our schools and protecting education. The pandemic has laid bare the inequalities in how young people have access to strong and robust schooling and education. This is a big problem a lot of people don’t realize. We’ve seen the high profile podcast Nice White Parents highlight a school in the district and the challenges in trying to integrate our schools. We need to take steps in these districts to do this work and make education accessible to all students and families, and lean heavily into that work.

How will you compare to the previous leadership?

I’d like to try to build a larger coalition around ending systemic problems in the city and tackle this in a different way.

Especially around housing, this is very important, and I want to build from what has been done, but the current climate and state of the city have changed really drastically, and that points to really needing to speak truth to power in regard to policy.

We need to look to other cities in the world to fix what we need, rather than stick to what is incrementally better but doesn’t change what we really need for people. So with the idea that “housing is a human right,” we can’t keep the same land-use policies to achieve that. We have to go all the way and decommodify housing and build a wider share of it, which will require changes to the city charter.

How do you differ from your opponents?

Everyone who is running has different things that they bring to the work. I have a lot of organizing experience and also a lot of policy experience, having been in and out of government as well as worked in advocacy; I’ve seen it from both sides.

Budgeting is the most important thing Council Members have an influence on. I’ve been at OMB and also City Council finance, so I understand these things very well, and I know the budget system better than anyone else. Even beyond that, I’ve done a lot of coalition building, and creating the change we need will need deep coalitions. That is the approach I want to bring to the City Council.

How will you address housing and education challenges in the district?

Like I said above, I think we need to develop more subsidies and ways for people to stop falling in and out of homelessness, but we really need affordable housing and homes, not homeless shelters. And that doesn’t mean a few affordable units and many not and call that progress; that is not progress.

In this district, a third are POC, and about one out of every four households are living on $35,000 or less. In the schools in the district, 60% are students of color, and 40% qualify for free lunch. While there is a lot of middle class and wealthy homeowners in this district, many aren’t, and we all are struggling in this current climate as well in different ways. We simply must center the people in need with the answers and policies to uplift them.

Can the NYPD be reformed?

This summer has highlighted to even more people that the NYPD is not reformable; reform has been the status quo. And the police are not going to consent to anything that weakens their power. We need to defund, minimize, and find an alternative to policing so we can have a real community safely.

We can start with school safety officers and the bloated capital budget, but there is no reason the police budget increased 1 billion dollars during de Blasio’s administration when the crime has gone down. We need to go even further. We need social workers and conflict negotiators, not police in schools. We need mental health professionals dealing with the mentally ill, not police.

We need to fund the summer youth employment program and give good jobs to people and help them have fulfilling lives, instead of them being policed when they don’t fall in line because society has abandoned them. This is an important frame for how I want to address the city budgeting process.

I was a part of the organizers who started Occupy City Hall. I could write a book about that experience. I think the biggest takeaway is that “Black liberation is all of our liberation,” and we can see the city we want if we give all communities the opportunity to thrive and feel supported.

How do your past experiences make you fit for this position?

When you are on the ground, and you are working with the people most impacted by the difficulty of living in an unequal city, you learn to have a deep understanding of the importance of what legislators need to do. I see myself as a movement candidate, so I look to the movement for ideas and inspiration for what policies we need to implement for people to feel whole.

What are you most proud of?

There are two things that really pushed me personally.

One was when I was president of the New Kings Democrats, and when we ran a coalition to help get a reform slate of leadership against the Brooklyn Democratic Party. I ran as chair, and it was a massive operation, and the Party boss at the time, Frank Seddio, had to engage in mail fraud and deception to try and stop us from getting the votes to do it. It was a wake-up call to the state of Brooklyn politics, and it also made me realize I needed to get off the sidelines and consider running for office. I am incredibly proud of the work we did those years to try and move the local Party towards accountability and transparency.

The other was being a part of the Free Black Radicals and the Occupy City Hall encampment. I had not envisioned it being that big of action, but seeing the number of people learning from each other and caring about the city council budget process felt like an amazing radical change to civic engagement.

What do you do in your free time?

When I have time to relax, I usually try to get through my record collection and listen to WFMU. I wish I had more time to do these things, but music is a passion of mine, and sharing that with my friends.

What is your favorite part of your district?

I obviously love Prospect Park; who doesn’t? But I love the organic nature of how the community is here. During the heat of the pandemic, my block did a weekly sing-along. The way people band together these days has been great. I also love the Park Slope Food Coop and miss being a Squad Leader!