BAY RIDGE – On November 7, Justin Brannan won the race for City Council in New York’s 43rd District. It was one of the few truly contested seats in this year’s local elections; Brannan, a Democrat, beat his Republican opponent, John Quaglione, by just under 1000 votes. Bklyner spoke to him by phone last Friday afternoon, just as he was about to go check out some new office space. This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
BKLYNER: What have you been up to since the election?
JUSTIN BRANNAN: I’m just digging out of the post-election fog. Having a lot of meetings with folks. Yesterday [Thursday] we just announced our transition committee. It’s 36 people, it’s bipartisan: elected officials, labor leaders, business leaders, education advocates, parents, small business owners, community activists. It’s a diverse group of folks who are all going to volunteer their time and talent.
BKLYNER: You won by a pretty slim margin. What does that mean to you?
JB: Now that the campaign is over, it’s about representing everyone, even the people that didn’t vote for me. That’s what public service is all about. You campaign in poetry and govern in prose, that’s the famous saying.
I’m certainly a proud Democrat, I started the Bay Ridge Democrats, I always help Democrats when they’re running against Republicans, but as an elected official, your job is to serve everybody. Someone comes into your office, you’re not asking if they’re a Democrat or a Republican. You’re there to help them.
BKLYNER: Do you see any common ground between the campaign that you ran and the campaigns that your opponents ran?
JB: I’m optimistic and I think we’ve got a very strong community. It’s one I hope to make even stronger with the help of everyone in the district working together. I certainly have my finger on the pulse of what’s going on in the neighborhood and I plan to fight hard for those issues, but it’s important that I hear directly from folks, whether they voted for me or not.
We put together a survey [of issues] that people can access online. This is the kind of office I want to run, focused on building consensus, demystifying the role of local government, the role of your local city councilperson. I want this to be a partnership. My job is to be their ambassador, and to fight City Hall when necessary. It’s important to know what they think I should be fighting for.
BKLYNER: Anything that jumped out as a top priority from that survey?
JB: Certainly fixing our broken public transportation system is a top priority. That’s going to be a fight. There’s a struggle there with the state or city having control; I’ve called for the city to take back control of subways and buses.
Whether it’s…investing in public schools, ending illegal [home] conversions, overall issues like improving public safety, protecting quality-of-life, fighting income inequality, protecting new immigrant communities — there are broad issues and then some retail stuff in there as well.
Property taxes are a big issue for me. I’m going to be pushing the mayor to form this committee to lower property taxes by recalibrating the property tax system, which is completely unfair and desperately needs attention.
Certainly tackling the opioid and heroin epidemic. There’s a lot of work to do.
BKLYNER: Can you speak more specifically about how you plan on addressing the opioid epidemic?
JB: Certainly fighting for more funding. We want to do more outreach to families who have dealt with this. They certainly have some perspective to lend. One thing I have called for is to try to aggressively look to build a community center, a constructive outlet for kids who might be at that restless age where they start exploring this stuff.
With all the uncertainty in Washington, it’s important to ensure the funding from the city or the state that focuses on giving us the tools we need to fight this epidemic [is] safeguarded. We need the money from Washington, but there’s so much uncertainty there that it’s hard to rely on that.
District Attorney [Michael] McMahon in Staten Island has done a lot of great work on this. I hope to meet with him, to discuss what more can be done on our side of the bridge with the opioid crisis. It’s an all-hands-on-deck approach.
BKLYNER: Looking to a year from now, what will be the data points or benchmarks that will constitute a successful first year for you?
JB: The only real promise I made in the campaign was to build a school in the first four years. We want to see progress made in identifying a site for a new school. In a perfect world, we’d have a shovel in the ground within the first year.
I want to see improvement in the R train, during PM rush hour, off-hour times, where it’s really been terrible. I’m going to push as much as I can there.
Really getting serious about illegal home conversions. The bill that I worked on with Councilman [Vincent] Gentile, the Aggravated Illegal Conversion Bill was just passed. … I plan on sitting down with the mayor to make sure the administration understands the importance of the illegal conversion issue we have here in our district. It’s not quite a citywide issue, so it’s not getting the attention it deserves because of that.
BKLYNER: You mention the mayor, who is not the most popular elected official in your district. Have you had conversations with him since getting elected?
JB: I haven’t spoken with him since being elected. I’ve known the mayor for a long time. If I wasn’t the guy giving him a hard time and making sure he’s paying attention to our corner of the city, he would think that was odd. That’s the relationship we have.
I think that the fact that he was re-elected as mayor, and I have a good relationship with him, means that I’ll be able to deliver more for our district and get more done. I’ll have the ear and attention of his administration. I’m going to work with the mayor, but I don’t work for the mayor. I’m certainly going to leverage my relationship there to get as much done as I can.
BKLYNER: In your victory speech, you specifically thanked members of your district’s Arab- and Asian-American communities. How do you plan to continue reaching out to and working with the diverse members of your district?
JB: I want to make sure my staff reflects the diversity of the district. That includes having [an Arabic speaker] on my staff, as well as an Asian-American in leadership roles, not just as liaisons.
One thing my campaign was always about was making sure to listen particularly closely for newer voices, voices that in the past may not have been listened to. I’m looking to bring more people to the table, always building consensus in decisions. That’s going to include maintaining these relationships, so when issues come up I’m going to bring people together to guide my decisions.
This is a collaborative governing process, the way I imagine it, that really engages folks to have an active role in shaping their local communities.
BKLYNER: Have you translated your survey into other languages? How are you doing the transitional outreach in a way that includes these communities?
JB: We’re certainly cognizant of the digital divide: not everyone goes online and can fill out a survey. We’re trying to get some old-school printed copies circulated, and we’re working on doing some translations. This was the survey that we put together during the campaign, and then we left it open to invite folks who didn’t vote for me to make sure their voices are heard.
A lot of what we do is making sure we’re not leaving anyone else out. My vision for the district is one that is deeply inclusive, and that means bridging the digital divide [and] language barriers, breaking down those walls so there can be an open and honest conversation.
BKLYNER: A mosque in Bay Ridge was recently attacked, and it’s being treated as a hate crime. How are you planning on dealing with xenophobic elements in the community?
JB: I don’t like to automatically politicize attacks like that, but the data is very clear that hate crimes, ever since Donald Trump came into office, are on the rise. Trump’s rhetoric and his actions have given people this false sense of license to hate. It’s up to us to make sure it’s clear that that’s a false license, and we’re going to revoke it.
When things like this happen it just brings us closer together. Whether it’s a mosque, a church, or synagogue, it’s irrelevant. It’s about that hate doesn’t have a home here. It’s unfortunate that that was my first press conference as councilmember-elect, but this is the time we’re living in.
It’s not enough to say, “I’m a councilman, that’s not my jurisdiction.” I have a responsibility to say, for the people who might feel vulnerable, if there are people who don’t feel they have a voice, who are living in the shadows, that they can feel safe here, that their voices are heard and their fears are understood. People need to hear that. That’s the role I will take.
BKLYNER: Has Councilmember Gentile given you any advice about this job since you won? (Ed. note: Brannan was a staffer for Gentile for several years.)
JB: He’s the chair of my transition committee, so he’s certainly going to be guiding me through the process. Above all, for the 14 years he was a council member, he was laser-focused on constituent services and how important that is, that everyone that comes into your office gets the services they deserve and expect and pay for as taxpayers.
Councilman Gentile gave me my first job in government, and I’m going to fight the same way I was taught: I’m always going to advocate for my constituents. You do your best to undo their knots, solve their problems. The role of a local official is to help folks with day-to-day issues, and that’s the foundation of my office — making sure the garbage gets picked up on time, that streets are safe and clean, and then you build from there.
BKLYNER: What are you most looking forward to about this job? What challenges do you anticipate?
It’s very surreal. It’s overwhelming at times, but the excitement eclipses any feeling of being overwhelmed. I care very deeply about this neighborhood, I care about its future, and it’s a very humbling feeling to be elected to do this job. … You have to make sure that people feel like they’re being heard, that no one’s concern is more important than anyone else’s.
I truly feel that local government can really be a tool to advance equity, so that everyone can have the same opportunity. But in order for the government to be a tool to advance equity, local government has to be working at its most basic level, and the way [to do that] is when you have a strong constituent services operation, where people’s day-to-day issues are being fixed and prioritized.
Some things that during the campaign which may have seemed black and white fade into a beautiful gray once you’re elected. But it’s about not losing sight of the issues that you campaigned on, It’s very exciting, and I’m looking forward to getting started.
BKLYNER: I forgot to ask my fun question! What did you do to celebrate after you won?
The morning after the election, they had me on NY1, so I had been Councilman-Elect for about 4 hours, and then I was on the R train. It was very glamorous.
I’m very much a workaholic, and my wife is the same. Our lives are very much about doing for others, and that’s what makes us happy. I think I celebrated by going back to work.