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How Brooklyn Assembly Insurgents Rode Absentee Ballots to Upset Victories

Longtime power players lose to grassroots groundswell, despite heavy campaign spending. The shakeup angered establishment pols — one blamed a “gentrification movement.”

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Greenpoint resident Emily Gallagher, pictured in December, beat longtime Brooklyn Assemblymember Joe Lentol in an upset.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Phara Souffrant Forrest was in the middle of a home visit to one of her nursing patients on Tuesday when her phone started “blowing up” with congratulatory messages. 

The patient, apparently thinking there was an emergency, encouraged Souffrant Forrest to answer her phone, she said.

“I just told her, ‘It’s OK, there was an election and I won,” Souffrant Forrest told THE CITY Wednesday night. 

With the backing of Democratic Socialists of America and other progressives, including U.S. Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she had run an insurgent primary campaign against incumbent Assemblymember Walter Mosley III — and became one of four upstarts who defeated Brooklyn Democratic stalwarts in the state Legislature.

While the primary officially took place on June 23, the city Board of Elections vote count stretched until this Wednesday, tallying a record 379,614 absentee ballots in New York City after Gov. Andrew Cuomo encouraged voting by mail as a pandemic-protection measure.

Forrest’s unusual victory moment came weeks after an election night that left her 500 votes behind Mosley. The absentee vote count this week put her ahead by more than 2,000 votes, a campaign staffer told her over the phone, as she tried her best to hide her excitement while at work.

“He’s like, ‘Congratulations!,’ and I’m like, ‘Yay, but I’m with a patient!,’” she recalled with a laugh. “It still feels surreal.”

A ‘New Wave’

In Sunset Park, Marcela Mitaynes, also backed by DSA and Ocasio-Cortez (D-The Bronx/Queens), similarly rode absentee ballots to victory, elbowing out incumbent Felix Ortiz. 

And in north Brooklyn, upstart candidate Emily Gallagher pulled a hard-fought upset against 47-year incumbent Assemblymember Joe Lentol, winning by about 265 votes.

With Republican voter registration minimal in the districts, a Democratic primary victory virtually assures candidates will take the seats.

Local political observers chalk up the upsets to relatively high voter turnout fueled by the availability of mail-in ballots and the consolidation of primaries on June 23 — both measures taken as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

They also rode the coattails of the 2018 wave of progressives who mounted challenges to sitting state elected officials. That includes actress and activist Cynthia Nixon’s run against Gov. Andrew Cuomo in which she outperformed him in gentrifying areas of Brooklyn.

“In Gallagher’s case, she harnessed this new wave of political engagement among liberals in Brooklyn,” said Mikael Haxby, data director at New Kings Democrats, a reform club. 

Outspent Tenfold

Gallagher’s upset against the veteran Lentol shocked some observers — and even Gallagher herself.

“I’m having trouble accepting that this is really happening,” she said in an interview on Thursday. “I think activists are used to losing, and you really have to stick around for the win.”

Gallagher, a longtime resident of Greenpoint and a left-leaning community activist known for her environmental advocacy and work on the local community board, won without the support of organizations associated with the left new wave. 

The local DSA chapter declined to publicly back a candidate in that primary, while the Working Families Party endorsed Lentol, citing him as a “critical leader in criminal justice reform.”

Brooklyn Assemblymember Joseph Lentol.

Joseph Lentol/Facebok

In his concession statement Wednesday morning, Lentol said, “It’s been a great honor to represent the people of North Brooklyn in the Assembly. I’m proud of my years of service, delivering important legislation and always attending to constituents’ needs. My successor will be busy as the new Assembly member. I wish her well as she faces the enormous challenges ahead.”

The odds were stacked high against Gallagher. 

Lentol, a well-liked third-generation lawmaker who chairs the powerful Committee on Codes in the state legislature, spent handsomely to defend his seat — more than $417,000 between January and July, according to disclosure reports. Gallagher spent just over $43,000 between January and June, the latest disclosure available.

‘A Victory for the Left’

And he has forged alliances with some left-wing darlings, including State Sen. Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn), who in 2018 became the first DSA-backed candidate to secure a seat in the state legislature. 

Salazar and Lentol have co-sponsored a host of legislation together, including the Safe Way Home Act,  which passed unanimously in the State Senate last summer. They’ve also co-hosted a variety of district events, participated in voiceover competitions together and share a devotion to the Mets.

In an interview with THE CITY on Thursday, Salazar — who did not make an endorsement in the 50th Assembly District primary — said she was “really inspired” by Gallagher’s campaign and dismissed concerns that Lentol’s retirement will hurt the criminal justice reforms his committee handles.

Brooklyn-based State Sen. Julia Salazar speaks about rent regulation at the Rosa Luxemburg Siftung in Midtown Manhattan, April 11, 2019.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“I think this is a victory for the left, even as Assemblymember Lentol definitely championed criminal justice reform as chair of the Codes Committee and worked well with grassroots organizers,” Salazar said. “I believe that Emily is going to work just as hard in a different capacity.”

While their full impact remains to be determined, Salazar contended that the left-wing cohort’s representation in the state legislature will shake the table. “Ultimately, what I know is what we’ll see is a bunch of new people in office who are not accountable to the establishment or to people who are maybe too comfortable with the status quo,” she said. 

“And we’re gonna see people who are going to operate more democratically and more effectively bringing ordinary people’s voices into the political process.”

Rage Against the Machine

That shakeup has angered some establishment politicians.

In a statement posted on Facebook on Wednesday night, Councilmember Laurie Cumbo (D-Brooklyn) railed against insurgent candidates and the DSA, claiming they are part of a “gentrification movement.” 

Cumbo endorsed Mosley as well as Assemblymember Tremaine Wright — who lost to DSA-endorsed Jabari Brisport in the open primary for the State Senate seat vacated by the retiring Velmanette Montgomery. 

Brisport had previously run against Cumbo in the 2017 City Council elections as a Green Party candidate, garnering just under 29% of the vote in the general election.

“While we all have seen unprecedented support of people of all backgrounds in support of Black Lives Matter, the recent election results demonstrate that while we were chanting Black Lives Matter together, a movement of gentrification was strategizing on how to best unseat Black leadership,” Cumbo wrote.

“I am deeply concerned about the future of Brooklyn and this new movement to utilize Black candidates as a trojan horse to push a majority outside and inside white agenda that do not have to be held accountable to the communities that sacrificed blood, sweat and tears to make Brooklyn what it is today,” she added.

Both Souffrant Forrest and Brisport are Black Brooklynites. Souffrant Forrest did not respond to a request for comment about Cumbo’s remarks on Thursday. Cumbo and Brisport were not immediately available for comment.

But in a Wednesday night phone call with THE CITY, Souffrant Forrest — a daughter of Haitian American immigrants and Crown Heights native — summarized why she ran and why she’s a socialist.

“I couldn’t see myself being able to maintain an apartment, maybe have a little car if I wanted one, and still be able to save up for maybe a house one day,” she said. “And so when I saw that I was quote-unquote living the American dream, going to college and doing what I’m supposed to do, keeping my nose clean — I’m still not winning. And I’m in fact one of the losers. 

“So I see socialism as the only tool, the only tool we have to really level out the playing field.”

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