Democrat Darma Diaz may have won the battle for Brooklyn’s 37th City Council District seat, but she hasn’t won the war.
Diaz was elected in November to fill the seat representing East New York, Bushwick, Brownsville, and Cypress Hills vacated by Rafael Espinal in January. Though she ran unopposed after four challengers were kicked off the ballot on technicalities, Diaz will face three of them again in next year’s June Democratic primary, seven months after being sworn into the job.
“My driving commitment allowed others to see that I’m about the people,” Diaz said about her win.
Her opponents saw something else in a race plagued with candidates’ calls of chicanery and pandemic-induced rule changes. Two races were being run by the same candidates: an April special election to fill the seat through 2020 and a June primary to appear in November’s general election to finish Espinal’s term, which ends in 2021.
In early March, Gov. Andrew Cuomo altered the number of signatures required to appear on ballots to “30% of the stated threshold,” which is 450 for city elections. According to the governor’s executive order, candidates for District 37 needed 135 signatures, or 30% of 450, as was argued by lawyers for two candidates. Petitions were filed with the Board of Elections by two people working on Diaz’s campaign challenging her opponents’ signatures, according to an April report in The Intercept.
But, as City & State reported on April 27, the city’s BOE ultimately decided Cuomo’s order did not apply to the District 37 race, meaning candidates needed 450 signatures to appear on the ballot. Diaz was the sole candidate to meet that threshold. Sandy Nurse, Rick Echevarria, Misba Abdin and Kimberly Council were removed for falling short of that number, leaving Diaz the last woman standing. Gov. Cuomo then canceled the supplemental special election, providing a clear path for Diaz’s unopposed November victory. All but Council, who is running for Brooklyn borough president, are returning for a June rematch, according to filings with the city’s Campaign Finance Board.
Espinal, who supported Diaz in February, blamed both the city and the state for its handling of the 2020 contest that left District 37 without council representation for nearly 10 months.
“As a constituent, I was extremely disappointed that the mayor and governor did not work to pass resolutions or measures that would have allowed the seat to be filled as soon as it could have,” Espinal said in a recent phone interview.
“I felt extremely remorseful that there wasn’t clarity about what the seat was going to look like,” he said about the seat being unrepresented.
Though Espinal left the council in January to become executive director of the Freelancers Union, an organization representing independent workers, he said his staff remained in place to assist the district until July, when the council took over day-to-day operations in his absence. He has yet to endorse any of the 2021 candidates.
“The council’s Community Engagement Division had been helping with constituent services for District 37 in Rafael Espinal’s absence,” said a City Council spokesperson.
A former state assembly district leader, Diaz earned the backing of Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte (D., District 42) in January, shortly after Bichotte became the newly-elected leader of the Kings County Democratic Committee, often referred to as the Brooklyn Democratic Party.
Candidate Sandy Nurse charges the Brooklyn Democrats with sabotaging the 2020 election.
“The Democratic machine here in Brooklyn would stop at nothing, under no circumstances, to ensure that the candidate they backed was handed this seat,” she said. “Given that we came off a breakdown in the democratic process, I believe voters in our community did not get to have a legitimate election.”
The city’s Board of Elections rebuffed Nurse’s claim: “No petition was filed for the Working Families Party Line, so [Nurse] was unable to appear on that party line. She did not have a sufficient number of valid signatures to appear on the Democratic Party Line,” according to a spokesperson.
A spokesperson for Bichotte said, “We congratulate Councilmember Diaz on her swearing in this week. The 37th Council District deserves representation and we believe Darma’s experience as a community organizer advocating for affordable housing, equity in education and more, speaks for itself. The best candidate won the race.”
Nurse has received high-profile endorsements from Rep. Nydia Velasquez (D., District 7), State Senator Julia Salazar (D., District 18), and Councilmember Antonio Reynoso (D., District 34), a candidate for Brooklyn’s borough presidency.
Nurse, one of the founders of Mayday, a community organizing space in Bushwick, prides herself on her activist background, and when it comes to this election, she calls her platform “co-governance,” a collaborative approach to leadership that prizes partnerships and coalitions.
Like Nurse, Rick Echevarria is returning for a second shot at the seat. The Bushwick native started his activism career working with East Brooklyn Congregations, an organization focused on affordable housing. A staffer-turned-whistleblower for the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, Echevarria said his experience confronting municipal corruption inspired him to run for office.
“I am running specifically on a message of bringing housing justice to the district. And not just to the district, but to the council and to the city,” he said.
After Diaz and Nurse secured key early endorsements, Echevarria said, “It gave me pause for a second to say, ‘Ok, so I’m not running against one machine, I’m running against two.’”
Diaz refutes any alleged dirty tricks or “machine” politics.
“Darma Diaz learned the civic engagement process. Darma Diaz did not cut any corners. Therefore that is why Darma Diaz remained the only candidate on the ballot,” she said. “It’s disingenuous for candidates to spin that.”
Candidate Misba Abdin is the founder of Bangladeshi American Community Development & Youth Services, or BACDYS, a nonprofit advocate for low-income and immigrant New Yorkers. Abdin and Diaz have known one another for more than a decade and worked together at BACDYS for eight years, though the two disagree whether she received payment for her consulting work. The former colleagues’ relationship today is far from cozy.
“She does not have the personality to deal with people. She has her own mind. Whatever she likes, she does it,” Abdin said.
Abdin, who touts his community service experience in the district, made broad claims that the Brooklyn Democratic Party backing Diaz is disconnected from District 37.
“They’re not concerned about the community. They’ve never been to the community. How do you guys endorse and support Darma Diaz? What are her credentials? What has she achieved? What’s her communication with the neighborhood?” he said. “What are you guys basing your endorsement on? Just because she’s a puppet, she’ll listen to whatever you guys say?”
“That is the most hideous comment I’ve ever heard,” Diaz said after a hearty chuckle during a phone interview.
With the 2021 primary scheduled for June 22, the stage is set, and candidates’ fists are raised.
May the political pugilism begin—again.