Meet The Progressive Brooklyn Lawyer Challenging GOP-Friendly Democrat Jesse Hamilton For State Senate
Almost a year ahead of a potential primary, a third candidate has announced they're running for a state Senate position against a member of the Independent Democratic Conference, a controversial group of Democrats who collaborate with Republicans and essentially form a bulwark against most progressive legislation. In this case the challenger will be attorney and Kings County Democratic Party Committee member Zellnor Myrie, who plans to run against state Senator Jesse Hamilton for the district ranging from Brownsville to Prospect Park.
Myrie, a 30-year-old neighborhood lifer from Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, told Gothamist that he's challenging Hamilton in next year's Democratic primary race, driven by what he said is a desire to "get the best representation for this community." Myrie's largest focus during our interview, what he called his "number one, two and three issues is affordable housing, because you can't focus on work, you can't focus on education if you're not feeling secure in your own home."
Pointing to his own story, as the son of a single mother who was able to raise him in a rent-stabilized apartment which he attributes to setting him on the path to a Brooklyn Tech and then Fordham education, Myrie told us "all of the things that made my story possible are things that are being blocked by the IDC." Specifically, Myrie said he'd like to go to Albany to overturn 1971's Urstadt Law, which prevents the city from enacting its own rent-stabilization laws that are stronger than state laws.
"There's no reason why a state senator for Cayuga County should be deciding housing policy for someone who lives in Brownsville, Brooklyn. So I'd love to talk about repealing the Urstadt Law and returning home rule to New York City," Myrie told us. He also said he'd like to see an end to vacancy decontrol, and a revamp of the 421-a program that takes the neighborhood Area Median Income into consideration, as opposed to the current system that includes New York City and the wealthier areas of Westchester, Putnam and Rockland Counties.
"You always hear from proponents of the program that no one will build unless they get these tax breaks," Myrie argues. "But when you look at the proportion of affordable housing we're exchanging for these years of tax breaks, we keep coming out losers as taxpayers and tenants looking for affordable housing."
While Myrie gave points to Hamilton for opposing the Bedford Armory project, he said that he hadn't heard enough from the incumbent about protecting tenants and protecting affordable housing. Citing Hamilton's membership in the IDC, he said, "It's very hard for any member of the IDC to say they support tenants while taking in tens of thousands of dollars in real estate money."
IDC members co-sponsoring legislation seen as tenant friendly, according to Myrie, "sounds like someone saying 'I'm against drunk driving,' while handing the keys to a drunk driver."
In addition to housing, Myrie said he wants to see speedy trial reform, an end to cash bail, and equity in education funding. The education money owed to New York City following a judicial decision calling the state's public school funding process inequitable has been an issue that activists demonstrating against Marisol Alcantara and Jose Peralta, both new members of the IDC, have brought up as failures of a divided state legislature.
While recent stories involving the IDC and mainline Democrats have mentioned reconciliation attempts or other efforts to get on the same page, a Democratic source in Albany told Gothamist that primaries aren't off the table, and that at least some people in the party have spoken with Myrie.
Outside of the larger issue with the IDC, Myrie said he saw Hamilton himself as a tough election opponent. Hamilton has attempted to cast opponents of his switch the IDC as gentrifiers, and the Brooklyn Paper reported that Eric Adams saw Hamilton's victory as his hand-picked successor in 2014 as proof of "who the real kingmaker in Brooklyn is."
"It's hard to challenge an incumbent," Myrie told us," and "with Hamilton in the IDC, he gets more discretionary funds," he said. A recent story in Politico revealed millions in State and Municipal Funds—discretionary spending which replaced legislative earmarks—flowing to IDC members.
Myrie compared discretionary funding from Hamilton's place in the majority to "getting crumbs when we should be getting the whole pie."
"Why are we getting a $20,000 check for a school when we should get millions? I would hope we could make a strong argument that it's not worth the betrayal from this alignment. It's the same thing with other policies like single payer health care which will never pass with the current structure of the IDC. Hamilton will say 'I'm doing the best for my community,' but here you've got people who can't afford to have decent health care. We should fight for those universal rights instead of just a check from the IDC."
"Senator Hamilton raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18, fought to get our kids off Rikers within the year and secured $10 million in legal aid to protect our immigrants from Donald Trump," Candice Giove, a spokesperson for the IDC told Gothamist. "As a longtime champion for his communities, he looks forward to a healthy debate."
And while Hamilton's membership in the IDC has been a motivating factor in Myrie's decision to run, he tells us he's not going to get lost in the weeds of trying to explain to voters how the power sharing/conferencing with Republicans works (although it was explained pretty concisely in this handy video voiced by Hollywood's own Edie Falco).
Instead of treating the existence of the IDC as an abstract notion to be wrestled with, Myrie said most of his focus would be on policy.
"I talk to my mom every day and she still couldn't tell you what the IDC is," Myrie said. "I want to talk about issues like why your landlord is harassing you, why houses are being foreclosed on and why you're getting forced out of the community. People don't really care about inside baseball and politics. The people where I grew up, they care about the issues and that's what we'll be talking about."