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GOP Gains in City Council Powered by Heated Voter Turnout and Discontent

The minority party rises up to as many as seven seats and threatening rising-star Democratic Brooklyn Councilmember Justin Brannan.

Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, residents support Brian Fox’s Council Campaign on Election Day, Nov. 2, 2021.
Residents in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, support Brian Fox’s Council Campaign on Election Day, Nov. 2, 2021.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Republican gains in the City Council in Tuesday’s election emerged from discontent with Democratic rule combined with targeted political organizing, say GOP leaders who pointed to enthusiastic voter turnout for their party’s candidates.

Though Democrat Eric Adams won the race for mayor with 66% of the vote, Republican rival Curtis Sliwa got 28% — a share far higher than the GOP’s 10% of the city’s electorate.

Meanwhile, as many as seven Council seats on the 51-member Council could be held by Republicans once all the votes are counted, up from the current three. And two more candidates registered as Democrats actually won more votes on the GOP ballot line.

“We’ve had one party rule for so long. We are big proponents of having a significant amount of common sense restored,” Ted Ghorra, chair of the Brooklyn Republican Party, said on Wednesday. “Regardless of party affiliation, people are very frustrated and that’s not going to stop unless there’s a return to decency and stability.”

Their winning playbook, Ghorra and other GOP leaders say: campaign aggressively on preventing cuts to the NYPD, as pressed by the Defund the Police movement — and oppose COVID-19 restrictions, from last year’s shutdown of indoor dining to this year’s vaccine mandates.

In Brooklyn, Inna Vernikov, a Republican attorney who got a robocall boost from Donald Trump Jr., won an open race for a central and southern Brooklyn seat held by Democrats since 1992.

“The people of this district are tired of the progressive left and their policies that have been destroying our city,” Vernikov told THE CITY on Tuesday night.

‘A Tough Night’

In a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans roughly seven to one, nearly all blue candidates, led by mayor-elect Eric Adams, cruised to easy victory in citywide and boroughwide contests. But disgraced ex-Rep. Vito Fossella, buoyed by support from former President Donald Trump, won the borough president’s race in Staten Island, the city’s most conservative borough.

Meanwhile, overall voter turnout was 18%, according to the election board’s unofficial results. With 22% of the estimated votes yet to be counted, THE CITY calculates that the turnout would go as high as 23% when all outstanding ballots, including mail-in, are included in the final tally.

In the Council races, Republicans held on to three seats they already possessed, two in Staten Island and one in Queens. Three other races, including one each in Brooklyn and Queens, have yet to be decided, with Republicans leading the early count in each.

While most of the newcomer Republicans within grasp of victory ran for open seats, one, Brian Fox, is seeking to oust a sitting Democrat in Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights, Brooklyn.

Republican Council Candidate Brian Fox campaigns in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn on Election Day, Nov. 2, 2021.
Republican Council Candidate Brian Fox campaigns in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn on Election Day, Nov. 2, 2021.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Councilmember Justin Brannan (D-Brooklyn) is a contender for City Council speaker whose seat has been in Democratic hands since 2003.

As of Wednesday afternoon, city Board of Elections unofficial election results showed Fox ahead by 255 votes, with 98.25% of scanners reported. Fox took 50.44% of the votes, while Brannan claimed 49.39%.

The candidates are in a dead heat even though just 20% of voters in the district are registered as Republicans, while another 26% registered without declaring a party, suggesting that GOP and independent voters turned out for him in force.

But the race isn’t over yet.

The city Board of Elections reported that it sent 2,379 absentee ballots to Democrats in Brannan’s 43rd Council District and 891 to Republican and other voters. As of Wednesday afternoon, the board said it had received nearly half of the ballots back.

Brannan told THE CITY that he’s confident he’ll prevail when every ballot is counted. The absentee tally is set to launch Nov. 15.

“We’re going to win,” Brannan told THE CITY Wednesday. “We have a deficit today, but this is one that’s going to disappear once they count all the vote-by-mail ballots.”

Brannan pointed to the victory of a Republican candidate for governor in Virginia and the tough battle New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy had to fight for reelection Tuesday.

“It was a tough night for Democrats all across the country. My race certainly wasn’t unique” Brannan added. “And I think, while last night might have been a surprise to some, for me, where I have a front row seat to what goes on in the purple district, it wasn’t surprising.”

A Divided District

Fox, a political newcomer who didn’t have a primary race, campaigned heavily on Brannan’s 2020 vote in favor of a Council budget that cut nearly $900 million from the NYPD’s funding.

The Republican challenger also rallied voters against vaccination mandates for city workers and restaurant, movie and gym-goers, as well as mask rules.

On election night he posted a message to his supporters on Facebook:

“I want to thank God, my family, friends, neighbors and all of you for believing in my candidacy and our message of change. Sadly, we spent the last few days of this campaign watching Firehouses, Police Precincts, and Sanitation Garages shut down.

“We have seen our schools closed and businesses shutter as well. Today begins the era of opening up! We will win the count and get our City moving again and we will do it together.”

For some frustrated voters, his bombastic presence resonated.

“I have seen the down-cline in the standard of living in the neighborhood under the policy of former Councilman Brannan,” said Dillon Abruzzese, a 33-year-old Bay Ridge native. “I don’t agree with the vaccine mandates in any way. We need more police keeping the neighborhood safe, not less.”

Nearly a mile away, James and Maureen Melick, Democrats with local roots who returned to Bay Ridge four years ago after living elsewhere, were stunned and upset that the race was so close.

“I’m surprised. We like Justin Brannan and we assumed he would win,” James said.

“There’s a lot of people here that anytime something goes wrong they blame the Councilman,” said Maureen. “You could really reach out to Justin. He has that email ‘Ask Justin’ and I would ask him stuff.”

Maureen said she wasn’t familiar with all of Fox’s politics, but invoked another local Republican politician, U.S. Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-Staten Island, Brooklyn), who cast votes last year refusing to certify the presidential election in two states where Joe Biden won.

“All I know is if he’s anything like Nicole then we’re not very happy about that,” Maureen Melick said.

Bay Ridge resident Reem Jaafar, a college professor who volunteered for the Brannan campaign, ascribes the tight race to the polarized national political climate and a backlash against COVID lockdowns and mandates.

“Unfortunately, what’s been happening for the past two years is toxic culture wars and crazy conspiracy theories have overtaken discourse, not fact and truth,” said Jaafar, 40.

She expressed a desire to see voters pick candidates based on their character and public service.

“I wish we, the people, everyone from the left and from the right, take a step backwards and go back to evaluating politicians, not the extent to which they agree with them on national politics, but the extent to which they’re bringing things to the neighborhood and improving the quality of life in the neighborhood.”

This story has been corrected to remove an inaccurate tally of voter turnout.

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