By Nicole Disser. Originally published by Bedford and Bowery. Primary day is September 13, 2016.
To meet with Debbie Medina, New York’s first Democratic Socialist candidate for State Senate, I was invited not to a campaign office, nor a public appearance, not even to join her on a campaigning stroll through the 18th district, but to Medina’s Williamsburg apartment– specifically, her dining room table. Here, she advised me not to take off my shoes. “You’ll ruin your socks if you do that,” she laughed.
It became clear to me immediately that Debbie Medina, who’s running her second grassroots campaign to snatch the 18th-district seat in the fall, isn’t at all like other politicians. For one, hers isn’t the sort of practiced, regal charisma that most politicos have– a perfect grin and an unerring face, both provided with extra protection from the elements by a layer of effervescent self-assurance so infectious that if you’re not careful it can briefly paralyze your capacity for doubt, and turn you into a nodding, agreeable dimwit.
Medina is not only an unusual candidate because she’s a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (an organization that recently endorsed her campaign), but because she doesn’t really look like most other politicians (white, old, male) or carry herself like them either– in fact, at a recent public meeting filled with City and State leaders (in such high concentration that the place felt like a police academy graduation ceremony), Medina tiptoed into a seat amidst all the bigwigs and began talking in a low voice, which drew the apparent ire of a woman seated in front of her. True, Medina didn’t really fit in with all the suited-up men around her, but something about the way she didn’t seem to notice or care, and the way her unwitting audience seated ahead might as well have been clutching actual pearls, that made it seem like Medina’s just keeping it real.
“Politics has never been anything that I had on my mind, ever,” she admitted, to my surprise, during our recent interview. That is, until recently.
Now, Medina is determined to strengthen and expand tenant rights and rent-regulation protections, in hopes of both preserving existing and creating new affordable housing. “To me, absolutely every issue revolves around housing,” she said. “If you don’t have a stable home, everything else in your life can be damaged. You need to have housing in order to have everything else.”
It’s little wonder that Medina turns heads– after all, in some ways she represents the opposite of entrenched political mores and especially the old-school Brooklyn Democratic machine. As a longtime community organizer for South Side United Housing, Medina has spent the last 30 years telling Brooklyn slumlords where they can stick it (hint: not somewhere pleasant). Naturally, Medina vacillates between disarming humor and fiery directives, especially when it comes to the subject of Los Sures– Williamsburg’s south side, a neighborhood where she has lived pretty much her entire life– and the challenges faced by regular people here and throughout the city due to rent hikes, harassment, and ultimately for many, displacement.
Medina estimated that last year Southside United HDFC (aka Los Sures) assisted 1,800 people with housing issues. “And that is so bad,” she said, starting to well up with tears. “It’s overwhelming to see so many people being pushed out. People crying in your office and you can’t help them to get an apartment. It’s like, where the heck are they gonna move? I think it’s dirty, and it’s bad, and it has to change. I don’t see any other way. I don’t think we’re going to be able to live here for much longer. If we don’t do something now, that’s it. We’re finished.”
At one point, Medina explained how crazy it was to see tourists roaming around Williamsburg taking photos. “I lived in this community when no one wanted to live here– abandoned buildings, the drugs,” she recalled. “Cabs wouldn’t cross the Williamsburg Bridge to bring you here, you’d either have to walk or take the train, you weren’t gonna get here in a cab. Now everybody wants to be here.” But as I’ve heard many old timers point out (and as Los Sures, a doc shot in Williamsburg in 1984 demonstrates), good flourished in spite of the bad, and sometimes even grew out of the bad.
“It was crazy, but it was good, it was fun,” Medina continued. “And we would get things done. I mean, we made this neighborhood what it is now. We built it. And what’s sad is that now we’re being pushed out– that’s one of my main reasons for running, I really believe that we need representatives that are going to represent us and our interests, which right now is that we’re able to stay in our community.”
How Medina plans to do that is by reinforcing something that’s long been a source of recourse for the poor, the disenfranchised, oppressed, and ignored in cities, and especially in New York City– by putting more power in the hands of tenants and renters.
Born in 1964, Medina was just a kid when the Young Lords became active in New York City and started engaging in tenant activism. The group started out as a street gang, like the ones that once thrived on the Lower East Side, and became instead a Puerto-Rican radical activist network not unlike the Black Panthers. In the 2014 book When Tenants Claimed the City, Roberta Gold recounts how in the late 1960s, the Young Lords were concerned about the widespread problem of lead poisoning in children and the city’s lack of resources (and also perhaps unwillingness) to go after landlords who failed to abide by the ban and remove peeling lead-based paint from their units. The group initiated what they called the “Lead Offensive,” and put pressure on city officials while providing tenants with abatement resources. Eventually, the city started to take the problem of lead more seriously, and the Young Lords’ activism inspired many more people in the community to take matters into their own hands.
“There have always been demonstrations,” Medina recalled. “I remember looking out the window from my house, my mother going downstairs and there was a rally, and lights for a candlelight vigil and everybody’s walking down the block and screaming, ‘El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!’”
While the whole city was feeling the suck, residents of Williamsburg in particular were met with serious housing-related problems. In Nicole P. Marwell’s Bargaining For Brooklyn, the author describes how in the early 1960s many Southside apartments, due to neglect by landlords, population decrease, and a number of other factors, “were drawing close to– or crossing over– the thin line between (barely) viable residences and unhealthy, dangerous dwelling spaces.”
By 1972, when Southside United HDFC was founded, things were out of control as the city slipped into financial crisis and decay, fires devastated entire blocks and many owners simply abandoned their buildings. Over the next decade, the population in the Williamsburg-Greenpoint lost close to 25% of its population. But Latino activists and community leaders working with Los Sures started to organize tenants, encouraging them to stage rent strikes in order to fund repairs of their crumbling buildings. Eventually, city officials recognized the efficacy of these community organizations in improving their neighborhoods and addressing the housing crisis and created an official partnership known as the Community Management Program.
Another important community organization, El Puente, the Williamsburg-based advocacy-and-everything-else group, started in 1982 in response to the violence that plagued the neighborhood. The organization was actually founded by a member of the Young Lords, the Brooklyn native and longtime community organizer Luis Garden Acosta.
Medina’s parents, Puerto Rican immigrants, came to the United States with few resources and ended up squatting in an empty building in Williamsburg. “I didn’t know it at the time–” she explained (she was too young at the time). “But they [the landlord] had turned the lights out. I remember my parents talking to the neighbors about tenant issues.”
Later on, her family moved into Kent Village located along Division Street– where Medina’s mother still lives today. “When it was hot, we would go downstairs, they’d open up the pump, and we’d be outside in the pump sometimes until one o’clock in the morning, just having fun,” she recalled. “It was nice, it was a family, everyone was together, and this was supposed to be a dangerous neighborhood. It’s so different from now.”
Debbie ended up raising her own family on the Southside, and continues to live nearby her South 1st Street childhood home, on Roebling Street with her husband. “I have four children, six grandkids, brought them all up here in this community. My daughter is the only one who still lives here, in this development because it’s a project-based Section 8, otherwise I don’t think she’d be able to live in this community, she has three of my grandkids. We’re very close, they’re right across the street.”
But things have changed enormously in the last several years. “You don’t really let your kids, not because it’s a dangerous neighborhood, but you don’t really let them stay outside and play like that anymore,” Medina said. “You usually have to go away from the neighborhood for them to have some fun.”
Medina herself became an activist in 1986. “So I know everyone,” she smiled. I found out, during our second meeting, when the candidate took me on a short walk around the neighborhood, that she wasn’t just boasting. For almost every person who passed by us, Medina either stopped and spoke to them– from older gentlemen to women her age and even people much younger.
“As an organizer, I’ve seen so many people have to leave our community and really, there’s no way for us to be able to protect them anymore,” she said in a rare flash of defeatism. “We’ve done the tenant associations– hundreds of them– and all kinds of demonstrations, but the reality is, there are rules and regulations, and if those are not there to help us, there’s not much you can do. I mean, you can scream and shout. And don’t get me wrong, we’ve had victories that have gone above and beyond the rules and regulations.”
One of her favorite stories of a knockout for the tenants involves a man who was facing eviction after he inherited a rent-controlled apartment from a friend, which violates the Rent Guidelines Board’s succession rules. “But he was able to get this apartment because of the tenants association, because of the unity, because people fought, and they said, ‘No, he’s not gonna go,’” Medina recalled. “And he got a lease.”
During our walk around her neighborhood, Debbie suggested that we stop by a building on South 5th Street, just down the way from former Southside United office. Years ago, Medina had helped tenants organize against the landlord here, and she thought it might be good to stop in and see how things were going. According to Medina, the owners had refused to repair leaky ceilings, among other things. But the tenants organized, held their rents, and eventually got the repairs they were legally entitled to.
“There has to be a good landlord-tenant relationship, and respect from both sides. You may be the owner, but you’re only the owner because this tenant is paying you rent,” she said. “You have this building because it’s their money that’s keeping you and your building alive. You respect that tenant, it should be equal from both sides.”
We peeked inside the windows of the Pre-War building. “They took out the beautiful lamp!” Medina groaned. “But it looks like they’re doing work on the hallway.” She excused herself. “I’m going to see if I can get a key from the bodega,” she explained. I’d barely turned around when Medina already ran into a tenant she knew. They caught up, and other than the hallway being a mess, things looked OK, at first. We made our way up the stairs and Debbie knocked on the door of apartment #13. Milagro Jimenez opened the door, and welcomed us in. But things weren’t going so well. The two discussed the situation in Spanish. “She says there’s a leak in her bathroom again,” Medina explained, a look of concern then outrage grew on her face. “The landlord replaced the stove and it’s worse than the last.”
Sure enough, I stepped into the bathroom to find buckets and other receptacles scattered around, as well as stains along the walls and a distended ceiling with the telltale bubbles of a serious leak. Once again, the Jimenez family said, their demands for repairs were being ignored. “There’s no justice here,” Medina said, looking grave.
Even after all these years, Medina doesn’t seem interested in conjuring bogeymen or easily digestible bite-sized demons– only once during our conversation did she mention “gentrification” by name, a term whose meaning has become distorted and at worst oversimplifies the housing crisis and obscures the real culprits in the unprecedented rent hikes of the last decade.
I told her about an incident several years back in which my former landlord had deprived me and my roommate of sufficient heating, cooking gas, and hot water for months on end. Medina just about lost her head. “You should have started a tenants’ association!” she said, her eyes widened in disbelief.
But if there’s one cliché Medina relies on, and likes to say again and again (and even likes to remind you that she likes to say) it’s, “In unity, there’s strength.” Admittedly, every politician falls back on proverbs and mottos like this one, but she convinced me that it comes out of actual experience rather than policy predictions or party dogma. As she reiterated later on: “This community has always had a struggle for anything we ever wanted, so we’ve always been together in everything.”
Other than the occasional campaign slogan, Medina breaks all the rules of politicking– her raspy, unimpeded laughter often follows self-deprecating jokes (Debbie told me that her father had joked that her new blonde hair “makes me look like Donald Trump”), and impassioned pleas for change break through otherwise calm speech. Occasionally, she even shows something like actual anger. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to live here for much longer,” Medina said at one point, her voice starting to rise. “If we don’t do something now, that’s it. We’re finished.”
So instead of relying on “gentrification” per se as the easy rallying device it can be, Medina is all about getting to the heart of the matter– which in her mind, requires overturning the status quo by ousting lip servants, and putting people in power who respond directly to the community’s needs as opposed to those of special interests. And that’s where her newfound political career comes in. “I’ve always tried to help those who have promised us that they would help us,” she explained. “And he was one of them.” Medina, of course, was talking about her opponent in the September Democratic primary race, Senator Martin Malavé Dilan. “I helped this man get into office,” she added. “I stood out on the streets and I knocked on doors.”
The incumbent, also of Puerto Rican descent, grew up in nearby Bushwick and has occupied the seat since 2003 when he was “ushered in” to office from his position repping the 37th district in City Council by the late, uber-sleazy former Assemblyman Vito Lopez. A huge chunk of Dilan’s campaign financing over the years came directly from the real estate industry– to the tune of at least $170,000 (or 15% overall, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics) – from donors including the Real Estate Board of New York PAC. Still more donations bear some indirect connection to the industry (see: a $7,500 from Improvement Fund LLC, which has donated to the Real Estate Board PAC). Furthermore, as Politico reported, the real estate industry has “opened their wallets in a significant way” for Dilan’s son, Erik Martin Dilan, who ran for and won his father’s City Council seat and subsequently graduated to the State Assembly.
Campaign finance is another issue Medina cares strongly about. “It’s all money! It’s all money,” she said.
Given all the backing that both Dilans have from real estate interests, it’s not surprising that Medina (among others) feels that her representative betrayed her community. “He promised us that he would vote for strengthening the rent laws and he has not done it– as a matter of fact, after promising that he would, he has gone back on his word, right there on the day of voting,” she explained, pointing out one occasion in which Dilan royally screwed up. “When the vacancy decontrol was up– these are the things that are important to the people that he represents. I’m very upset.”
Dilan, however, explained last year that he voted against the rent law renewal package known as the “Big Ugly” because “it was quickly apparent that it fell far short of any real recourse for millions of rent-regulated tenants.” And in the past, the Senator has introduced pro-tenant legislation, including what’s been called the rent sabotage bill, which, if passed, would make it a felony for landlords of rent-regulated properties to destroy their tenant’s apartments in an effort to force them out. (As of the start of this year, the bill was still stuck in committee.)
Still, as Medina argued, promises are not enough. “He’s the one who the most has not really responded to the people of his community,” she said. “We are the ones who vote you in, we can vote you out. You don’t need to sit down at a meeting and have your elected official telling you what’s going to happen. We have that ability and that power to stand there and have him or her sit down and say, ‘This is what we want you to do, because we put you there.’ That’s how I see it.”
More than anything, Dilan and Medina’s ideological differences stem from their opposing positions as, respectively, an entrenched member of the Democratic Party elite versus a salt-of-the-Earth newcomer who draws her currency not from traditional sources of power (money and nepotism) but from her longstanding place of respect within the Williamsburg community. And it’s important to note that the latter seems to inform more of the Working-Families-backed newcomers to City Council and what many believe is the future of the Democratic Party. (In a recent interview with B+B, North Brooklyn Democratic District leader Nick Rizzo pressed that “the future of the Progressive movement, period, relies on a multiracial coalition.”)
The 18th district is an awkward, claw-shaped cut-out of Brooklyn that’s as diverse as it is asymmetrical. It includes, of course, the South Side, but also East Williamsburg, a tiny bite off the Broadway Triangle, the sprawling NYCHA complex at Sumner Houses, parts of Greenpoint, all of Bushwick, boxy chunks of East New York, and a slice of Brownsville. All of these are distinct communities, something that means Medina– whose approach is “knocking on doors, it’s so important that people see me and they talk to me”– has an even bigger ocean of fish to fry. She admitted that, during her first campaign, “I didn’t get a chance to go to East New York, I didn’t get a chance to go to Brownsville. But I have that opportunity now, and that’s what I’m doing.”
But Medina was careful to point out that all of these communities are united in a few central concerns. “They’re all suffering these issues, and Brownsville is just, like, there’s so much need, and East New York now with this rezoning,” she said.
While the Medina campaign’s social media is replete with references to staging a “political revolution in Brooklyn,” the candidate herself was reluctant to use the “R” word during our conversation (though she’s quoted by The Nation as doing so), which seems strange given that Bernie Sanders has come so far even without the usual tip-toeing around explicit critiques of capitalism and slogans and phrases that some people, weirdly, still associate with the Warsaw Pact.
However, when I spoke to Medina just prior to the New York State primaries, she didn’t hold back even slightly in her enthusiasm for Sanders. “I want to do everything in my power for him to win. We’re not sure if that’s going to happen, but I have a lot of hope, because I really believe he’s for us,” she said. “And that’s what we need. It has to start from somewhere. Can you imagine having a president who’s going to really be able to listen to our needs? It’s going to make us feel like we’re really people and we count. Because right now we don’t count.”
But maybe Medina’s caution comes from knowing that it’s likely she’s only a handful of votes away from winning, or might have even surpassed that line of support already. In her first bid for the Democratic nomination in 2014, Medina won an impressive 42% of the vote. However, in the general election, when Medina ran as a third-party candidate with Working Families, she got 13.6% of the vote. According to campaign financing data, Medina raised just over $73,000 for her first run and the vast majority of those contributions came from individual donors. “You know how hard it is for me to raise money? You cannot understand how hard it is,” she told me. “I mean, the people I know are people that I should probably be giving money to.” But Medina also said that she refuses to take money from real estate interests. “I don’t want to be compromised. I don’t want to have to do things that are going to hurt my own children.”
During that first campaign, she was backed by the Working Families Party and City Council member Antonio Reynoso, and she’s already wracking up a few endorsements this time around including from national groups like the Democratic Socialists of America and super, super local ones like the Bushwick Berners.
Medina’s platform resembles Bernie’s own in the importance she places on living wages and greater access to education for everyone, all of which in her mind would address income inequality. Aside from housing, I asked Medina what her second biggest concern is. “I think that education is very important. I’m not going to sit here and I’m not going to tell you that charter schools are bad,” she said. “I just believe that if we were to invest a little bit more in our public system, I think our public system would be just as good, if not better.” She called for smaller head counts and praised parents who are fighting for their right to opt out of standardized testing for their kids. “I think parents need to be able to make a choice for their children,” she explained. But of course, Medina reiterated, it all goes back to housing. “If you’re in the street, how can you go to work? How can you go to school? How could you do anything?”
In terms of hard policy when it comes to housing, Medina advocates for creating Community Land Trusts for the homeless and extremely low income families, expanding rent laws to protect not just high-occupancy buildings and rent-regulated tenants but “smaller homes, grocery stores, bodegas, and smaller merchants,” and upping the 80/20 affordable housing ratio for subsidy-receiving developers. In order to realize this, Medina argues that the city should put more pressure on developers on behalf of the community. “If you’re going to build, let’s work with the city, let’s think about which ways we can make it so these developers are not just going to give us 30%,” she said. “Heck 30%’s not even enough. This is the way it’s supposed to be done, and we all need to work together to make sure these things happen.”
During her first campaign, the media generally framed Medina as something of a protest candidate. Which, actually isn’t so surprising, however, given that Bernie has always been painted this way. And while it’s true Medina is a bona fide outsider, like Bernie, she’s been doing the work for a long, long time and feels that this “revolution” is a long time coming and is not just a reactionary “upstart” or a brief flareup by a rebellious element that will eventually ebb right back into Democratic Party conformity. But given Medina’s forward-looking determinism, and the fact that Sanders’s campaign has done enormously well with younger people, it’s hard to believe that candidates like them are going away anytime soon. “People need to fight, and realize that together we can make a difference,” Medina said. “People really need to wake up.”
Correction: an earlier version of this article misstated that Medina wants developers to work more closely with the city to build more affordable housing. However, she feels that the two parties are already too close, and that instead the city needs to work more closely with the community and put more pressure on developers to build affordable housing.