In an off-cycle election where turnout is expected to be low and incumbents hard to beat, two challengers in the Democratic primary — Isis McIntosh Green and Reginald Bowman — are trying to oust City Councilmember Darlene Mealy, who was first elected to her seat two decades ago and has been charged with absenteeism for nearly as long.   

Mealy, whose District 41 spans parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Ocean Hill, Weeksville and Brownsville, has not been the prime sponsor of a single bill so far this session, Council records show.

In neighboring areas, Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights Councilmember Chi Ossé in District 36 has introduced 11 bills and seen two of them pass. Councilmember Crystal Hudson, who represents Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Crown Heights, Prospect Heights and Bed-Stuy in District 35 has introduced 26 bills and seen seven of them pass. 

Mealy, 58, also skipped about a third of the Council’s meetings this year, City and State reported last month. That includes missing last year’s budget vote, giving her the second-worst attendance record of any Council member behind Kristin Richardson Jordan of Harlem, who is not seeking reelection

“One of the biggest issues that residents in our community face is feeling like they’re not being heard by government,” said candidate McIntosh Green, 28, who has out-raised Mealy in their contest.

McIntosh Green, a former chief of staff for Assemblymember Latrice Walker, argued that Mealy hasn’t delivered for constituents in terms of local funding or getting service from city agencies.  

“A lot of the complaints were, ‘The office is never opened, staff is always transitioning,’” McIntosh Green said. “We don’t have someone to call when we’re having these issues.”

McIntosh Green, mother to a 1-year-old boy, has interned for U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), worked for Walker in Albany on issues like her 2019 bail reform bill, and staffed the reelection campaign of U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-Brooklyn) in 2020. 

Through Friday, McIntosh Green had raised $32,743 to Mealy’s $20,241. She’s been endorsed by Walker and the Working Families Party, plus several labor unions including the municipal workers union, DC 37. 

Despite that fundraising advantage, augmented by tens of thousands of dollars in family loans to her campaign, insiders in the district say that McIntosh Green’s appeal may be too little, too late, with early voting beginning June 17. They point to her unforced errors — including a failure to qualify for publicly matched campaign funds — and the challenge of getting new voters to show up and vote against an incumbent with a solid base of supporters who reliably vote. 

City Councilmember Darlene Mealy advertised her reelection campaign at her Brownsville district office, June 7, 2023. Credit: Gwynne Hogan/THE CITY

“Darlene got them senior centers on lock. She has Brownsville Houses on lock. She got Ocean Hill, with all the brownstones, she has those homeowners on lock,” said Shemene Monique Minter, 52, an active member of the Community First Democratic Club, who twice ran against Mealy for district leader, a seat Mealy also holds in addition to her Council seat.

“The 41st is so scared of change,” Minter added. “I know people who say, ‘I can’t stand Darlene, but I’m gonna vote for her anyway.’”

As for McIntosh Green, “she called me for money,” said Minter. 

“I’m the type, I donate to everybody. But I’m not donating ’cause I know she’s not going to win.” 

Constraints and Challenges

Mealy’s opponents are faced with the difficult task of pulling in new voters in an unusual election year, where candidates are running for two-year terms in new districts after maps were redrawn to reflect the 2020 census. There’s no Republican running in the overwhelmingly Democratic district, so whoever wins the primary is essentially guaranteed to claim the seat.

In the absence of matching funds, McIntosh Green and a family member have lent her campaign $31,550 to stem the gap, and she has has spent $55,200 so far, mostly on campaign literature, consultants and canvassers, compared to $32,618 spent by Mealy. 

Meanwhile, Mealy has raised $20,241 and, with $43,462 in public matching funds, now has $31,085 in hand compared to just $9,073 in hand for McIntosh Green. (Mealy received matching funds despite owing $37,000 overall from the previous 2021 race, including $17,000 to her former campaign manager, Joseph Jeffries, who is now working for opponent Bowman.)

With early voting starting on June 17, district watchers like Minter say that McIntosh Green is running out of time to pull off what would be a big upset. Though she has the endorsement of the Working Families Party, it came too late for her to be on their ballot line, and her platform positions didn’t make it into the Campaign Finance Board’s voter guide because she entered the race after the cutoff. 

“As a first-time candidate,” McIntosh Green told THE CITY in a statement Friday, “our team faced a multitude of demands and time constraints while navigating legal challenges and assembling a strong campaign infrastructure.”

Brownsville residents speak with Council candidate Isis McIntosh Green. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Mealy’s other challenger also has sharply criticized her absenteeism. 

Reginald Bowman, 70, the tenant association president of Seth Low Houses and a member of NYCHA’s citywide tenant association, charged Mealy with “a serious absentee attendance record problem,” he told THE CITY. 

Bowman, who has raised just $3,687, added that the councilmember “has really produced little or no legislation,” adding that she’s also failed “to maintain an office that can provide consistent services for the area.”

Calls, emails and texts to Mealy’s Council office and her personal phone number over a week’s time were not returned. THE CITY also visited her office and left a message in person with a constituent services staffer. Calling that staffer days later to follow up, they said that she had been “running around, maybe” and hasn’t been in the office since, adding that they had “no clue” when she might be back.

Speaking with NY1 last week, Mealy disputed claims that she’s been asleep at the wheel. 

“I’m doing these meetings, but if the community don’t see you, they don’t reelect you,” Mealy said. “I’m looking forward to maybe asking the Speaker for more money so that I can make sure that I can duplicate myself, have five more staff so I can go to the meeting and come back.”

Angry About Potholes and Arrests

McIntosh Green is hoping endorsements from the Working Families Party, DC 37 and other unions will make the difference, along with a team of 50 volunteers who she said have knocked on 15,000 doors since March — roughly matching the 15,447 voters who turned out in the 2021 primary, when they were also deciding on the city’s next mayor. 

On a recent afternoon chatting up voters, on the shady, residential streets off of Kings Highway, McIntosh Green was quick to rattle off her neighborhood cred — she grew up in the Van Dyke Houses and attended P.S. 156 — before pivoting to issues she cares about, including senior housing, pushing for elevators at the subway stops in the district, and creating pathways to affordable home ownership.

She’s met by a combination of deep-set skepticism, apathy, muted curiosity, and at times, even enthusiasm. Most haven’t heard of her, incumbent Councilmember Mealy, or that there’s a primary coming up on June 27. 

Peering through the passenger window of his minivan, Howard McLeod, 65, complained about the lack of housing for seniors, and the more mundane, roadway conditions. 

“These potholes, it’s too much,” McLeod told her. “Nobody’s doing potholes.” 

McIntosh Green takes his contact information and promises to follow up. Remember, she tells him over her shoulder as she walks away, “Stop the crisis — vote for Isis.”

City Council candidate Isis McIntosh Green speaks with voters in Brownsville, June 6, 2023. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Down the street, Garth Charles, 56, arms smeared in grease, is presiding over a sidewalk smoker; a thick jerk chicken aroma hovers around him.

He tells McIntosh Green he’s at war with the city’s Housing Preservation and Development agency over thousands in fines; he’s mad at the police for rolling up on the block and making arrests out of nowhere. 

“You say you want to bring a bridge to the community, but when you all come, you don’t know how to act,” Charles said. “If you come arresting people, you can’t get none of that.”

He’s marshaled his relatives to the polls on behalf of one candidate or another over the years, and said he gets nothing in return. 

“The politicians is just a joke,” he tells her. “They didn’t do nothing.”

‘Better Than Ever’?

Mealy is a longtime player in the Brooklyn Democratic Party who currently serves as a local district leader in addition to her Council seat. The head of Brooklyn’s Democratic Party, Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, donated $175 to her campaign, and former party boss Frank Seddio gave $250, campaign finance records show. 

She started her political career back in 2005, after spending 17 years as an executive assistant at New York City Transit. 

She managed to topple William F. Boyland Sr., the patriarch of a Brooklyn political dynasty, in a longshot campaign in which she argued her opponent had lost touch with the working class people of the district and took too much money from developers, the The New York Times reported then.

Although Mealy received the backing of the Working Families Party and several unions, and beat Boyland by 2,600 votes and about 30 percentage points, the victory seemed to surprise even herself. 

“I just need to get away just for a little while to take it all in. I’m still in a kind of state of shock,” she said at the time. 

During Mealy’s first term, she opposed, and then at the last moment supported, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s push to change the city’s term limits so that he could stay in office for an “emergency” third term following the bank crash of 2008. 

Changing the law also meant that she was also able to serve an additional term, and Mealy indeed stayed in the Council seat through 2017, while racking up tabloid headlines for having the worst attendance record in the Council, and being the prime sponsor for just three bills over a year and a half. 

In 2016, with term limits finally catching up with her and facing a future outside of elected office, Mealy ran in a primary for the Walker’s Assembly seat, but fell short by 2,800 votes.

The following year, Alicka Ampry-Samuel, who also served as Walker’s chief of staff and had her support, won the Council seat Mealy had to give up. Four years later, Mealy ran against Ampry-Samuel and won by 2,347 votes.

Since then, she’s run a regular food pantry out of her district office, and hosted a holiday party and foliage cruise for seniors citizens in her district, according to her Facebook posts.

“Council Member Mealy is truly BACK and BETTER THAN EVER,” her Council page now reads. The same slogan is emblazoned on the windows of her district office off Pitkin Avenue.