Aggressive Central Brooklyn Council Race Splits Metropolis’s Left

(l-r) Michael Hollingsworth & Crystal Hudson

With City Council Member Laurie Cumbo among the three dozen members of the 51-seat Council facing term limits this year, there is a competitive Democratic primary unfolding to replace her in Brooklyn’s 35th District, which includes parts or all of Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Crown Heights, Prospect Heights and Bedford Stuyvesant. Cumbo, a Democrat, is also the Council majority leader and has held the seat for two terms. Given the district’s overwhelming Democratic voter enrollment, the winner of the fast-approaching June primary is all but certain to take office come January.

City Council members write, sponsor, debate, and vote on legislation that affects city life in any number of ways; negotiate and vote on the city budget in conjunction with the mayoral administration; perform oversight of city agencies and the mayoral administration; allocate discretionary funding to local groups and causes; weigh in on land use decisions — with particular sway, by Council tradition, over proposed projects within the member’s district — and more. Constituent services and local problem-solving are also essential parts of the job.

As the Council member for the 35th District, Cumbo has focused on issues including arts and culture (she was in arts administration before being elected to the Council), domestic violence, gun violence, gender equity, and more. 

While Cumbo has had significant accomplishments related to enhancing arts and culture and preventing gun and domestic violence, her tenure has also included controversy, including on topics that her successor will also have to navigate. Those include relationships between the Black and Orthodox Jewish communities, the redevelopment of the Bedford-Union Armory, and more.

Housing and development, affordability and gentrification remain major issues in central Brooklyn and the race to replace Cumbo. As does policing, criminal justice reform, and public safety. There are also many challenges that have been created or exacerbated by the pandemic, including public health, small business survival, jobs, homelessness, and more.

Cumbo was front-and-center amid the 2020 city budget debate over ‘defunding the NYPD,’ in which she opposed activists pushing for at least a $1 billion cut to the police department budget. While she had called for more racially-just policing and moving some funds from the NYPD budget to community-based organizations, she said she wanted to ensure community safety, especially in communities like hers, and not defund the police before there was a more serious and full discussion for alternatives and resulting plans. She influenced and stood with Council Speaker Corey Johnson in negotiating the final city budget deal with Mayor Bill de Blasio that moved some funding from the NYPD but did not drastically overhaul the department and its resources.

Cumbo will be part of the Council negotiating one more city budget this June, just as the primaries are unfolding, and NYPD funding again promises to be a major point of contention.

As Cumbo’s second and last term in office comes to an end, nine Democratic candidates are running to replace her in a crowded and competitive primary set to be decided through early voting June 12-20 and primary day, June 22, as well as absentee voting.

According to 2010 Census data, the 35th City Council District had a population of 151,793 people. Of these residents, 45.5% are Black, 33.1% are white, 13.6% are Hispanic, and 4.6% are Asian American or Pacific Islander. Out of the 61,022 occupied housing units in the district as of 2010, 47,890 of them, or 78.5%, are occupied by renters. While the district is mostly home to renters, it is also home to many homeowners who have been the focus of real estate speculation as the district has gentrified over the years.

Running to succeed Cumbo are two tenant rights activists, a former aide to Cumbo, a retired accountant, a female district leader, two members of Community Board 8, a special education teacher, and a Black Lives Matter organizer. To many, the race appears to be a narrowing contest between Michael Hollingsworth, who is supported by the Democratic Socialists of America, and Crystal Hudson, who has a long list of liberal Democratic supporters including many groups and labor unions. But, there are other candidates in the mix as well. Below is a brief overview of each candidate, including excerpts of interviews with the four leading candidates as judged by fundraising, endorsements, and campaign activity.

Michael Hollingsworth
Michael Hollingsworth is a tenants rights organizer and a graphic designer. A Fort Greene-born Crown Heights resident, Hollingsworth has been a member of the Crown Heights Tenant Union since 2016, when, he says, his landlord began trying to convert his rent-stabilized building into luxury condominiums. He has since also joined the Housing Justice for All coalition and the Central Brooklyn Democratic Socialists of America, or CBK-DSA.

As would be expected, housing issues are at the top of his agenda, but they are joined there by a number of other focus areas.

Hollingsworth is supported in the race by the New York City branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, and he’s won endorsements of the NYC-DSA state legislative slate of State Senators Julia Salazar and Jabari Brisport, both of Brooklyn and Brisport of an overlapping district; State Assemblymembers Zohran Mamdani, Marcela Mitaynes and Phara Souffrant Forrest, the latter two both of Brooklyn with Souffrant Forrest of an overlapping district.

Hollingsworth is also endorsed by activist Cynthia Nixon; CUNY’s union, the Professional Staff Congress; Voters for Animal Rights, and others. As of April 23, Hollingsworth had received $228,494 in private and public funds according to the campaign finance board’s website, making him the second-highest fundraiser in the race.

In a phone interview with Gotham Gazette, Hollingsworth said that his lack of political experience and lifelong residency in district 35 are what make him a good fit for the position. He has always lived in redlined portions of the borough, he said, and this has given him an intimate understanding of the struggles faced by constituents in terms of housing and economic opportunity. At the same time, he noted he has managerial experience from his work at an architectural firm where he managed the budget.

“I know that for some folks there’s a popular narrative that in order to run for these offices and be qualified, you need to have experience working in government and I reject that,” Hollingsworth said. “The proof is in the pudding, right? Our communities are worse off now than they have ever been, in my opinion.”

Hollingsworth said that his top three issues for the district are housing, then resources and funding, and economic opportunity. There needs to be stricter tenant protections against large landlords and developers, he said, in addition to more affordable and low-income housing. The City Council must reject all calls to privatize public housing at the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) through any means, according to Hollingsworth, including the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program. He wants to give increased funding to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and a new comprehensive citywide zoning plan that will limit developers’ power. 

“The latest attacks, you know over the past 15 to 20 years, has been systematic displacement of long-term Black people through laxed tenant protections and no oversight in the enforcement arena and, also, we’ve been under siege by luxury rezonings,” he said. “All those three things together are the reason why the Black population in district 35 has continued to decrease every year.”

His plans for education, economic opportunity, and curbing gun violence are all intertwined with his stance on the NYPD and its budget. He wants to “defund the NYPD and reinvest” that money into communities via their schools and new community centers meant to help young people avoid gang activity and gun violence. The money from defunding the NYPD would also go toward violence interrupters, anti-violence organizations, and health care, Hollingsworth said. He did not mention a specific amount of money he would look to move from the NYPD budget.

“We’re throwing tons and tons of money at the crime-fighting piece but we never throw any money at the poverty piece,” Hollingsworth said. “The way we better position our neighborhoods is by investing in the stuff we’ve invested in in other neighborhoods, neighborhoods that are today considered good, so, you know, Prospect Heights, Park Slope — these are neighborhoods that we consider ‘good’ and the reason why they’re considered good is because they have been invested in over generations.”

On education, Hollingsworth wants to remove NYPD officers from schools, pass the New Deal for CUNY, and pause new charter school openings. On small business, he said he wants commercial rent stabilization and for the Council to support constituents who want to become small business owners but don’t know how, such as through financial grants and lessening the red tape necessary to start a business in the city.

Asked how he would differ from Cumbo as a Council member, Hollingsworth noted that he has lived in redlined communities within the district his whole life, contrasting himself to Cumbo’s roots in the community.

“I think when you’re from a place and you actually have roots there, you look at some of the issues, in terms of gentrification and displacing people, you look at it from a different lens,” he said. “The people who are being displaced are actually your neighbors, you actually know their names, you know their faces, so I think being from here is definitely important.”

Hollingworth, Brisport, other DSA members and police reform activists more broadly clashed with Cumbo during last year’s budget debate. Brisport also ran against Cumbo in her successful 2017 reelection bid, so there is significant bad blood between Cumbo and DSA- and defund the NYPD-aligned activists.

Hollingsworth did say that Cumbo was a friend to arts and culture, but argued that overall she has not performed well as a Council member.

“I think her legacy has been one of division, displacement and disappointment,” he said. “I guess I’d give her a ‘D’ — three Ds.”

Crystal Hudson
Crystal Hudson is the founder of Greater Prospect Heights Mutual Aid, a former deputy public advocate to Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and a former aide to Cumbo as chief of operations. Previously, Hudson worked in advertising and marketing. She is the highest fundraiser in the race, with $262,256 in public and private funds as of April 22, according to the Campaign Finance Board.

If elected, Hudson would be the first openly gay Black woman elected to the City Council (a few other candidates in different districts are also vying for that distinction).

As of April 12, Hudson had been endorsed by a long list of Democratic elected officials, activist and labor groups, and others. That list includes State Senator Jessica Ramos, Assemblymember Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas, Council Members Carlina Rivera, Adrienne Adams, Justin Brannan, Brad Lander, and Alicka Ampry-Samuel (the latter three from Brooklyn), 21 in ‘21, the Brooklyn Young Democrats, the New Kings Democrats, the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, Make the Road Action, Run for Something, and almost all the city’s major labor unions, including the New York City Central Labor Council, 1199 SEIU health care workers, 32BJ SEIU building workers, DC37, the UFT, and more.

In a phone interview with Gotham Gazette, Hudson said that she believes what separates her from the competition is that she is the only one with experience working in government already, in addition to having private sector experience, and the experience of being a caretaker for her mother, who just passed away after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Hudson said she sees the top three issues for district 35 as affordable housing, education, and criminal justice reform, with seniors as a close fourth. She wants to amend the city’s Charter to include a homes guarantee, as well as reform the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) so that developers can be held legally accountable for the promises they make to communities. Other initiatives she mentioned include abolishing the housing lottery system and changing the area median income (AMI) formula so it reflects the local community by district instead of for the greater New York City region. Her platform includes having tenants take over ownership of buildings and bring them “up to code” through community land trusts. She also wants to “codify the worst landlords list” that the Public Advocate’s office puts together.

“Currently, the public advocate has put out a ‘worst landlords list’ every year and I think we need to go further than just public shaming and ensure that HPD engages in real tenant enforcement that’s not only triggered by violations but by a far more aggressive outreach and engagement strategy,” Hudson told Gotham Gazette.

According to her website, some of Hudson’s education ideas are to codify the elimination of Gifted and Talented programs into law, get rid of the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test, and expand the 3-K program citywide. 

Hudson’s criminal justice reform and public safety platform revolves around moving away from punitive justice to restorative justice. She said that providing quality public education, culturally competent and quality healthcare, and access to jobs, after-school programs, and broader social services. On police reform, she said that she sees demilitarizing and defunding the police as the first step toward abolition of the NYPD. She’d like to reinvest the money removed from the NYPD into communities and believes that Cure Violence needs to be the city’s model for curbing gun violence.

“Police historically have always existed to capture Black people and so I don’t think that the system we currently have is ever going to be a just system as long as the central sort of intent is always going to be to round up and capture and incarcerate Black and brown folks,” Hudson said.

For small businesses, Hudson said she supports commercial rent relief, suspending fines that don’t directly relate to public health or safety, and a city-sponsored emergency relief fund that would cover expenses for a range of small businesses to account for lost revenue or wages, not just for during this pandemic but also in preparation for future crises.

When asked how she would approach the position similarly and differently than her former boss, Cumbo, Hudson said that there’s a lot she would do differently, pointing out that you can work for someone without necessarily agreeing with them on everything.

“I think everybody has worked for somebody that they don’t agree with 100% of the time and I have valued my experience in the City Council because I think it’s prepared me to now run for Council myself and I’ve seen both what to do and what not to do,” she said. “And in every role that I’ve held, in both the public sector and the private sector, I have challenged the status quo, I’ve challenged leadership.”

She said she is more community-oriented than Cumbo has been, and will have regular meetings with all stakeholders in the district to discuss things such as legislation she will be writing or voting on, budget decisions, and land use projects. Hudson said that she agreed with some of Cumbo’s pay equity legislation, especially efforts for women of color.

Curtis Harris
Curtis Harris is the executive director and owner of the nonprofits Green Earth Poets Cafe and Green Earth Poetry Theater, and is a retired accountant. The Crown Heights resident has been endorsed by former City Council candidate Ede Fox, who lost a fairly close race to Cumbo in 2013, and has amassed $82,810 in public and private funds as of April 22, according to the campaign finance board.

Harris is a member of the New Kings and Shirley Chisholm Democratic Clubs and considers himself a progressive candidate. He is a member of Community Board 8 and of the Clinton Hill Fort Greene Mutual Aid group. When asked what separates him from the other candidates running for the position, he said his 40 years as a financial professional and being the father of six children ages 15 through 35. 

“I understand a lot of the challenges many parents in the district are going through, especially during this pandemic, with distance learning and all the issues involved in educating and providing for our children,” he told Gotham Gazette in a phone interview.

Harris, like several of the other candidates in the race, has also done his share of volunteering in the community, including at the Crown Heights Jewish Community Center Food pantry and park cleanups at Fort Greene, Prospect Heights, and Underhill playgrounds, he said. 

In his City Council campaign, Harris’ top three focus areas for the district are COVID-19 relief, housing, and health care. For housing, Harris wants to protect tenants against evictions by passing universal rent control and providing more free legal services to tenants facing eviction. He also wants to ensure more “real” affordable housing is created, based on an adjusted formula.

“We have to, going forward, work with developers who will be willing to work with us,” he said. “When I mean ‘us,’ I mean low-income and moderate-income people. We want to be able to build smart and not simply build for the sake of building. I truly believe in people over profits.”

His COVID-19 recovery plan includes health and wellness services accessible to the whole borough, creating more jobs by forming career-readiness programs and technology classes, and continuing to provide food and shelter for those who are struggling. He also wants commercial rent relief and cash infusion for small businesses. On health care (which is not included on the issues page of his campaign website as of April 22) Harris said he wants to make sure that care is provided more equitably and in a nondiscriminatory way.

On the hot-button issue of police reform, Harris said that he is not against the police but rather the system that the police currently use to operate. The NYPD doesn’t need to be punished, he said, but that it’s necessary to revisit its budget and eliminate the militarization of the police.

“The police can be viewed as an occupying army in many neighborhoods and when you look at how they behaved during the protests last summer — and these are people we pay to protect and serve — it was heartbreaking to see the abuse that…the public received because of it,” he said.

Harris’ solutions for police reform and reducing gun violence at the same include community policing in partnership with the NYPD and treating gun violence as a public health issue and not as crime. Harris also wants expanded bail reform and a permanent removal of broken windows policing.

Arts and culture is also part of Harris’ campaign platform. The 35th council district, he pointed out, is home to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, the Barclays Center, and BRIC.

“We are the arts and culture capital of Brooklyn and, therefore, the city of New York,” he said. “I mean, Lincoln Center has nothing on us. So we are proud of arts and culture and there will be no candidate better than me who will advocate and lead the resurrection: building back better the arts and culture capital of Brooklyn.”

Harris said that the eviction moratorium needs to be continued until the pandemic is completely over and that there needs to be added tenant protections in order to prevent additional displacement of low and moderate income New Yorkers. Nowadays, he said, people who can no longer afford to live in Manhattan move into Fort Greene, driving up costs of living in the neighborhood and pushing out longtime residents. These displaced Fort Greene residents move into Brownsville, he said, causing the people being pushed out of Brownsville to move to North Carolina if they can afford it or into homeless shelters if they can’t.

When asked if he would have done anything similar to Cumbo, he said the only thing that she has done that he’d do is run for office. He criticized how she handled real estate and development in the district, specifically the Bedford-Union Armory and the proposed high-rise development at 960 Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights that is facing opposition because it will block needed sunlight from reaching the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens.

“The one thing I wouldn’t have done was have the relationship with real estate that displaced, from what I understand, close to 30,000 people out of the district,” Harris said.

Renee Collymore
Renee Collymore is a former district leader for the 57th Assembly District, a small business owner, small-scale landlord, and a civic education teacher. She, like many others in the race, has a track record of involvement in the community, advocating for tenant rights and public housing renovations, creating and teaching a civics course at schools to educate students on how to get involved in the government and their communities, and organizing a food drive in Fort Greene, among other projects. Collymore has raised $22,228 as of April 22, according to the Campaign Finance Board website.

She told Gotham Gazette in a phone interview that affordable housing, education, and health care are her top three priorities for the district. On housing, Collymore said people of color are being pushed out of their homes due to landlords raising rents or adding fees so they can develop their buildings into more expensive apartments. 

On the related issue of homelessness, she said she is fighting for the city’s first “tiny house village” for the homeless — an effort to turn a vacant lot into housing for homeless people that will also include mental health and drug use counselors, 24-hour security, and landscaping to provide the residents with a green space.

“That is very crucial to our community, to keep housing available and accessible and affordable for the electorate of this district,” she said.

On education, Collymore referenced Brooklyn Council Member Mark Treyger, chair of the Council’s education committee, and his success in getting new air conditioners for schools in his district. She said she wants to do the same for district 35 schools, as well as fight for schools to be “fully funded” so that teachers don’t have to pay out of pocket for classroom supplies. Collymore supports universal free health care through Medicare, which she said is especially important for the seniors in the district.

“Health care is critical,” she said. “Because without health care, good health care, people will die.”

If elected, she wants to pass and support legislation to protect tenants against gentrification and to protect small landlords from New York City Water Board liens. She also supports the Green New Deal, wants to plant more trees in Fort Greene Park, and opposes the building of the high-rise 960 Franklin Avenue development that is projected to harm the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

In discussing the NYPD, Collymore said that she wants to see more accountability for officers’ actions, which can be enforced by taking away pensions of abusive officers and redistributing that money into other programs. She said that billions can be saved from the NYPD budget and should be going toward things like the Save our Streets initiative, neighborhood watches, and more civics and diversity education for police officers. 

Asked her thoughts on Cumbo’s tenure, Collymore praised the Council member’s support for domestic violence survivors and legislation on Black- and women-owned businesses, but said that Cumbo works more on behalf of real estate developers than the people of the district and has been too unresponsive to constituents. 

The prime example of this, Collymore said, was the Bedford-Union Armory, which Cumbo approved for a redevelopment project that will include housing and a community center. Collymore said that in meetings about the use of the defunct site, she and others in the community called for community uses and not housing.

“I would have made sure that every aspect of my district was taken care of, no matter what,” she said.

Collymore also said she has much stronger ties to the district than Cumbo did before running for office.

Regina Kinsey
Regina Kinsey is a member of Community Board 8 and a resident of Clinton Hill. As of April 21, she received $50,552 in private and public funds, according to the Campaign Finance Board’s website. Her top six campaign issues are public safety, housing, education and youth services, small businesses and economics, health and hospitals, and sex trafficking and crime victim justice.

Kinsey doesn’t support defunding the NYPD but does believe that investing more in youth and restorative justice programs can help prevent violence. For housing, she supports the federal H.R.4984, the Affordable Housing and Area Median Income Fairness Act, which would change the way that AMI is calculated in the city and in turn affect the way that the prices of affordable housing are determined. She also wants to preserve green spaces and historical landmarks as part of her housing platform.

Trade, financial literacy, and entrepreneurship programs would be introduced to students during middle school under Kinsey’s education plan. Her small businesses platform includes increased funding for small business services and her health care platform includes increased funding for public hospitals. 

In the section of her campaign website that discusses her sex trafficking platform, Kinsey says that state laws legalizing sex work “skirt the borderline of consent” and can lead to traffickers making a case for lowering the age of consent, which she vehemently opposes. As part of the platform, she wants to create more victims services.

“It’s time to bring common sense and reasoning back to City Hall and give the residents of the 35th Council District control of our community again,” her campaign website states. “For someone who truly cares about the community and is committed to the community , look no further.”

Deirdre Levy
Deirdre Levy is a Jewish-Filipina special education teacher with the New York City Department of Education who teaches third grade. Being elected would make her the first Filipina to be elected to represent Brooklyn in the City Council, her campaign says. Her key campaign issues are education, nutrition, food insecurity, and “shutting down the puppy mill pipeline.” Levy’s campaign website does not further detail her platform. According to the campaign finance board, she has raised $7,116 as of April 21.

Hector Robertson
Hector Robertson is the president of the Crown Heights Community Council and of the Washington Avenue Botanic Block Association. The long-term Crown Heights resident prioritizes tenant rights and wants to use the position of City Council member to address issues of luxury development, displacement, and COVID-19 recovery. As of April 21, Robertson had raised $4,528 in private funds, according to the Campaign Finance Board.

His campaign platform touches on five main areas that he would like to work on: housing, education, police brutality, health care, and LGBTQ+ rights. 

“My progressive Campaign Platform allows us to be stronger when we have an economy that works for everyone, grows incomes for working people and creates good-paying jobs,” Robertson’s website reads in part. “We need an economy that prioritizes long-term investment over short-term profit-seeking, rewards the common interest over self-interest, and promotes innovation and entrepreneurship. I believe that today’s extreme level of income and wealth inequality — where the majority of the economic gains go to the top one percent and the richest 20 people in our country, own more wealth than the bottom 150 million — makes our economy weaker, our communities poorer, and our politics poisonous.”

On housing, some of his main goals are to stop development rezoning, to get universal rent control, to fight for better NYCHA upkeep, and repeal the state program known as 421-a, which creates a property tax exemption for developers in exchange for creating a certain number of affordable housing units.

On education, Robertson wants the city to invest in after-school programs and summer learning programs, put a moratorium on charter schools, create fair wages and good working conditions for teachers, and invest in online learning. He believes the city needs to remove military-grade equipment from the NYPD, to reinvest at least $2 billion from the NYPD’s budget into housing, education, and safety, to recruit more people of color to the NYPD, and to keep the NYPD budget at an operational level but nothing extra.

Robertson’s health care platform includes free health care for all New Yorkers, ensuring that each New York City Health + Hospitals site has a minimum of 1,000 beds capacity, and expanding access for LGBTQ+ people to PREP and other HIV treatments, hormones, and other gender-affirming health-care for transgender, non-binary people, and mental health care.

Sharon Wedderburn
Sharon Wedderburn is a member of Community Board 8, where she is the chair of the Youth & Education Committee. Gotham Gazette was unable to find a campaign website for her. According to the Campaign Finance Board website, Wedderburn has raised $1,925 in private funds as of April 21.

Maayan Zik
Maayan Zik is a Black Orthodix Jewish community activist living in Crown Heights, and originally from Washington, D.C. She does not have a campaign website that Gotham Gazette was able to find, and according to the Campaign Finance Board she has raised $100 in private donations as of April 21.

Zik received media attention in the summer of 2020 over her organization of her Crown Heights neighbors for Black Lives Matter protests. She brought together members of the religious Jewish community and other Crown Heights residents for protests and rallies after the police killing of George Floyd.