Council Member Farah Louis (Photo: City Council)
By Amanda Salazar, Gotham Gazzette
New York City Council Member Farah Louis is among the 18 members of the 51-seat Council eligible for and seeking reelection this year, but she is not able to cruise to a full term representing Brooklyn’s 45th District, which includes Flatbush, East Flatbush, Midwood, Marine Park, Flatlands, Canarsie, and Kensington. Louis, a Democrat, has held the seat for part of one term so far after being elected in a 2019 special election to fill a vacancy created by Jumaane Williams winning his own special election to become Public Advocate. Given the district’s overwhelming Democratic voter enrollment, the winner of the fast-approaching June primary is all but certain to take office come January as part of the new Council and new city government being elected this year.
City Council members write, sponsor, debate, and vote on legislation that affects city life in any number of ways; negotiate and vote on the city budget in conjunction with the mayoral administration; perform oversight of city agencies and the mayoral administration; allocate discretionary funding to local groups and causes; weigh in on land use decisions — with particular sway, by Council tradition, over proposed projects within the member’s district — and more. Constituent services and local problem-solving are also essential parts of the job.
Louis was first elected in May of 2019, when she ran in a special general election to finish out Williams’ term. She won with 40.6% of the vote against seven competitors, including a candidate who had Williams’ backing as his successor. That win secured her the seat for the rest of 2019. But she then had to run again in the June 2019 Democratic primary and fall general election to retain the seat for the rest of the term, 2020 and 2021. This time, she won with 49.9% of the vote against seven competitors, including again the candidate with support from Williams and many other progressive elected officials and groups. Louis then won the general election in November 2019 with 92.7% of the vote over two competitors including Anthony Beckford, who had run against Williams in the past and is now challenging Louis in this year’s Democratic primary.
Beckford is among three Democrats trying to unseat Louis in the primary, which is set to be decided through early voting June 12-20 and primary day, June 22, as well as via absentee voting.
According to 2010 Census data, the 45th City Council District had a population of 140,433 people. Of these residents, 76.1% were Black, 10.5% white, 7.9% Hispanic, and 3.0% Asian-American or Pacific-Islander. The district has a large Carribean population and a significant constituency of Orthodox Jewish voters. Louis was powered to victory by strong support from Haitian and Hasidic voters.
Running against Louis this year are Beckford, who is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, and local activist, artichect Louis Cespedes, and the founder of a community garden, Cyril Joseph. Below is a brief overview of each candidate, including excerpts of interviews with Louis and Beckford, the challenger who appears to be mounting the most robust campaign against her, as judged by fundraising, endorsements, and campaign activity.
Farah Louis is the current City Council member for district 45, and has held the role since 2019, when she is said to have become the first woman to represent the district. In the Council, she is the chair of the Committee on Mental Health, Disabilities, and Addictions; co-chair of the Women’s Caucus; and the vice co-chair of the Black, Latino/a, and Asian Caucus.
As of May 24, Louis had raised $375,726 in public and private funds, according to the campaign finance board website. She has been endorsed by the United Federation of Teachers, 1199 SEIU, the New York State Iron Workers Council, the New York State Nurses Association, Stonewall Democrats of NYC, Labor Strong 2021, and many other organizations, as well as a number of elected officials.
Louis’ tenure in office began not long before the coronavirus pandemic started, which she told Gotham Gazette threw off some of her plans for her truncated first term, but did not prevent her from getting things done. When asked what some of her accomplishments from the past two years have been, she pointed to her team’s quick response to the pandemic.
She said that she was able to secure more than a million meals and a million personal protective equipment packets for her district, in addition to helping open more than 30 new food pantries. Louis also said she helped secure more than 100,000 iPads for students in need of electronics to participate in remote learning. Additionally, her office worked to create the first COVID-19 testing site in the district, which was located in the Sears parking lot in East Flatbush, she said.
Separately, Louis said her office worked to open the first 100% affordable senior residence building in East Flatbush for elders to age in place. She said that she and her team are working to open another fully affordable housing building in the district. In terms of legislation, Louis said that she helped to pass a Council bill to provide free legal counseling at schools for families with housing issues.
“We have been hit so hard by developers and over-development in this district,” she said. “It is high time that we get what we need for this district when it comes to housing.”
Louis said she also fought for increased social workers in city public schools, for increased funding for the Safe Summer community safety program, and for a full restoration of the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP). She has also secured $70 million in funding for what she said is the district’s first recreational community center, which is going to be called the Shirley Chisholm Community Center and will give youth and seniors a place to go during their free time. She also passed a bill that provided families of students with disabilities with remote learning training and equipment.
Louis noted she is co-sponsoring a bill to create “no harassment” zones to stop aggressive real estate speculation, particularly in East Flatbush and other parts of Brooklyn, and thus protect both homeowners and renters who can be driven out by aggressive investors and developers. Louis also said she has fought for enhancement of mobile health units to address mental health crises in the community. Also on public safety, she said she helped secure more funding for Cure Violence, a program that works to reduce gun violence in communities using credible messengers as violence interrupters and without police. She said she believes her office’s partnerships with gun violence-reduction organizations are preventing a lot of crime that could be happening, but isn’t. She also cited work with anti-gang violence organizations, such as Gangstas Making Astronomical Community Changes (G.M.A.C.C.).
“We don’t want over-policing in our district, we don’t want the NYPD to abuse people in our district, but we also want folks to stop the senseless gun violence and I’m going to continue to work with my Cure Violence organizations,” Louis told Gotham Gazette, saying that she secured an extra $1 million in funding for efforts in the NYPD’s 70th precinct, particularly for work with a Cure Violence organization called Brownsville Think Tank.
When asked what she felt she could have done differently during her current term, she said that she didn’t protect herself and wound up catching COVID-19 since she did not quarantine toward the beginning of the pandemic.
“I hit the streets and I met people where they were,” Louis said. “I went and I did house calls myself. I overexerted myself and compromised my health and got COVID. I am no good to this district and the wonderful people in this community if I’m not healthy.”
Louis said her goals for a full next term in office are prioritizing vaccine equity in the city and helping small businesses come back from the pandemic. She said that many businesses closed during the pandemic, so she wants to help revitalize them by opening the district’s first Business Improvement District (BID). She also wants to work on mental health care by ensuring quality access to care for all in the city, specifically for people of color and low-income communities. Another big issue for her is maternal health, especially for Black mothers who face high rates of pregnancy complications and death during childbirth, so she wants to open the district’s first women’s health clinic.
Asked who she would support to become the next City Council speaker, she said that she doesn’t have an answer just yet.
“There are so many candidates being considered for speaker that I personally admire and look up to and I think all of the folks that are running right now would do a great job as speaker and managing all of the many parts of the Council,” Louis said.
Anthony Beckford is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, an elected Kings County Democratic Party Committee member, the president and co-founder of Black Lives Matter Brooklyn, and the president of the Brooklyn Sector of Copwatch Patrol Unit. He had raised $83,651 in private and public funds as of May 24, according to the campaign finance board website.
Beckford — who proudly notes he is a life-long resident of the district — has dozens of endorsements as he attempts to unseat Louis by running as the more progressive candidate. He has been endorsed by New York Communities for Change, Voters For Animal Rights, Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, League of Humane Voters – NY, Concerned Citizens For Change, Caribbean Unity Alliance, Brooklyn Progressive Alliance, Brooklyn Residents Against Gentrification, NYC Against ICE, and others.
In an interview with Gotham Gazette, Beckford said that he stands out from the rest of the candidates because he has lived in the 45th District his whole life and has been an active member of the community since he was a child.
“I’ve always had a deep-rooted connection with the community, you know, living out here,” he said, citing membership in the county committee, work on food distribution, voter registration, police reform, and general advocacy for the nearby communities.
This is not the first time that Beckford has run for this particular position, after campaigns in 2017 and 2019, but it is the first time that he will be included in a primary election.
“Even though I’m a Democrat, I’ve always run as an independent to show people that they have options outside of the two-party system,” Beckford said. “And by doing that, I was still able to gain voters and gain voter blocs out of that.”
That he is in the primary plus that he’s running a larger, more organized campaign than in the past is what he said may make this run different from his previous tries. This time around, he told Gotham Gazette, he has a larger team, more volunteers, more endorsements, and more funding.
Thanks to his expanded campaign this year, Beckford said he feels he will be able to collect many Democratic votes in both the primary and general elections. He believes that his voter base is largely progressive Democrats, with a portion of conservative Democrats, and anyone who has been disenfranchised or who wants to see change from what has been happening the past two years under Louis.
“Because nothing’s been one,” Beckford said when asked why he is running to unseat the incumbent. “We’ve had an uptick in gun violence in the community — there’s been no tangible solutions brought forth by the council member to end gun violence.”
According to Beckford, Louis’ new community center is supposed to be a long-term strategy to curb gun violence in the district, but, he pointed out, this would take some time to build and start being used, and even longer to start making an impact on gun violence rates. Beckford added that the center is intended to be built in one of the newly-created parks in the district, which Beckford sees as taking away vital green space for the community. If the center is to be built, he suggests a different location that is accessible to the district at large and doesn’t take away an already-existing resource.
He also pointed to a lack of affordable housing proposals and community involvement from Louis, who he said many district residents have never heard of. He said that there are people that he has spoken to within the district who either think that Public Advocate Jumaane Williams is still the Council member for district 45 or who know there’s a new Council member but don’t know who it is. Beckord blames this on Louis not visiting the communities often once being elected.
“Another reason is the fact of that there needs to be adequate representation and leadership in this district to galvanize the people, to help bring true democracy to the people instead of us disenfranchising tens of thousands of voters because you only want to cater to one voter bloc over others,” Beckford said when asked about Louis’ performance. “We need to engage with all [voters] to bring a truly unified 45 within our district.”
For Beckford, the top three issues for the district are housing, education, and small businesses. On housing, Beckford wants to pursue a rent rollback of 35-40% for tenants, though has not explained how this would be possible, and a property tax rollback for small homeowners so that their property taxes reflect the original market value of their homes and don’t match the property taxes of luxury developments. According to his campaign website, he also wants to turn shelters into permanent housing; put a moratorium on rezonings; reform the Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP) to ensure land use decisions are based on community input; and for Area Median Income (AMI) to be calculated based on zip code; among other priorities.
On education, Beckford pledges to fight for more funding for public schools so that they can provide students and families with the resources and services necessary. According to his website, he wants to push for the release of the over $1.4 billion that he says is owed to New York City public schools and was recently allocated by the state, to put more social workers in schools, to increase pay for teachers, to provide free after-school programs and financial literacy courses, to expand the City University of New York’s (CUNY) Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), and to support the New Deal for CUNY, largely a package of state bills.
He has an extensive animal rights plan to end classroom incubation projects, end the slaughter of animals in live animal markets; ban wildlife-killing contests; ban commercial sale of cats, dogs, and rabbits by pet shops; ban the sale and manufacturing of new fur apparel; ban horse carriages; and promote adoption over buying pets.
For small business, Beckford wants to pass the Small Business Jobs Survival Act to give commercial tenants 10-year lease options and lease-renewal options, shifting some bargaining power from landlords to small businesses. Beckford is also supportive of a list of tax increases on the wealthy and top earners, as well as some financial transactions, all of which would need to be passed at the state level.
Cyril Joseph, who came to New York from St. Lucia in 1967, is the founder of The Secret Garden, a community garden in Bushwick, a grassroots organizer, and a poll worker. According to his campaign website also has worked for Action for Better Community as an education and training caseworker and founded the Togetherness with Love Community Center nonprofit, which provided food, housing assistance, job fairs, and immigration assistance to New Yorkers in need.
As of May 24, Joseph had raised $14,166 in private funds, according to the campaign finance board website.
Joseph, who is identified on his campaign website as a “Democratic Socialist”, is promising “groundbreaking social change” and focusing on three main areas: creating high-paying jobs, making rent sustainable, and rights for all New Yorkers. His jobs plan is to create vocational training centers in the district and to create tax credits for local businesses in the district that hire graduates of these vocational training centers.
For rent, Joseph wants to create tax credits for landlords in the district who reduce rent for families and small businesses; to create an independent board that oversees the city’s land use process to stop large real estate developers from getting “under the table” contracts; and to convert unused land in the district into affordable housing with sustainable rents.
“We have a housing crisis in New York, and rents are skyrocketing in District 45,” his platform reads in part. “Even those apartments that the City calls ‘affordable housing’ are no longer affordable, or sustainable for the majority of us.”
His rights for all plan consists of funding education, jobs, and mental health programs to end the school-to-prison pipeline; reducing the number of armed police officers in the district; reforming the criminal justice system; hiring professionals to handle mental health, homelessness, and nonviolent situations; and supporting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Joseph also wants to create “educational programs where lawyers and immigration experts help immigrants learn about their rights and create change.”
Louis Cespedes is an architect who has worked on “planning and building initiatives for state and municipal governments,” according to his campaign website, and a life-long New Yorker. The East Flatbush resident had raised $5,803 in private funds as of May 24, according to the campaign finance board website. According to his website, he is focused on upzoning efforts, housing, and financial literacy.
“My vision is one of economic self determination, accessibility and mobility,” his website reads. “As someone who understands hard work and merit, I believe that if given the tools and guidance, we can create economic security, provide jobs, and restore our youth. To do this we will focus on four pillars, Land Use, Education, Housing and Health. This campaign is defining a vision of equity and security in our dynamic & changing community. I believe that we can build an economically sustainable future providing better education alternatives, housing solutions, healthcare, & entrepreneurship. I know it can be achieved when our own talents are guided by experience, determination, and trust.”
The three issue areas of Cespedes’ campaign are land use, healthcare, and education alternatives, according to his website. For healthcare, he wants to lobby the state and nation for better coverage for all. His land use plan is to create single-room occupancy housing (SROs) through allowing basement and other such apartments in the city, which will create many more housing opportunities.
Cespedes’ education alternatives plan, which is slightly more comprehensive, includes providing support to high-risk and low-income schools, providing greater access for adult vocational and business training, and changing public school curriculums that gives students more of a choice.
“We need a diversified teaching model that has a shared foundation, but allows for greater mentoring, one that allows students to focus on their desired curriculum, and gives them the tools to learn even with persistent limitations,” his website reads.