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A Socialist Takes on Big Real Estate in North Brooklyn

Emily Gallagher is running to be the first socialist in a century to represent her North Brooklyn district in the New York state assembly. Her focus on residential displacement and workers’ rights is drawing a steady flow of small donations — while big corporate money from companies like Lyft is being mobilized against her.

Emily Gallagher is running for New York State Assembly in North Brooklyn.

In November 1918, a real estate dealer named Joseph Lentol beat a socialist incumbent for a state assembly seat in what was then Brooklyn’s 14th district. Since then, Lentol men – two out of three of them named Joe — upholding the interests of the real estate industry have represented the area for three generations. But this year, the current Joe Lentol – grandson of the first – might lose his seat to a socialist.

His challenger for the assembly seat in what is now Brooklyn’s 50th district, Emily Gallagher, 36, is a community board member who has lived in the neighborhood since 2006.

She first became politically active in Greenpoint protesting pollution – the area has more than its share of Superfund sites – and advocating for more green space. These fights drew her into the political economy of the area, including its relentless gentrification and displacement. She says she began to notice the “speculation on this neighborhood with very little concern for the people who lived there and for how their lives would be impacted. And I really started to feel like the government often was looking at the people who lived there as temporary. There were always going to be people who live there, but they were going to change.” After all, for the city’s real estate capitalists, the churn in humans could be a source of profit, and policymakers saw the benefit to the city’s tax base. Meanwhile, a community was suffering profoundly.

Gallagher had been educated in left-wing ideas as an activist student at Ithaca College. But her work with fellow community activists in North Brooklyn gave her another perspective. “Actually, there were so many people who were never going to be put into the history books that were actually the core of the whole story, right? They were never going to write an essay and be recognized,” she says, “but they were at the core of the movement.”

A job at the Tenement Museum, leading tours and helping to organize lectures, immersed her in the city’s rich socialist history: “I could just really feel the connection with what I was doing in my neighborhood and these socialist movements in history,” she recalls, “and these people whose stories I was telling, Clara Lemlich and Rose Schneiderman and all those women.” In that context, when Occupy Wall Street happened in 2011, “I was like, ‘This is it. This is happening. We’re back.’”

Of the early aughts, Gallagher observes, “I felt like you couldn’t really be out as a true lefty in that time. You had to kind of pretend to be somebody else but then sneak things in. And [Occupy] was the moment where I could actually be like, ‘No, this is what I believe, and there’s more of us than I even imagined.’” Then she canvassed for Bernie Sanders in 2016, when socialism became an idea one could discuss “out loud” and people wouldn’t think you were a “wingnut.”

NYC Democratic Socialists of America’s Michael Kinnucan, a sharp observer of the local political scene and a friend of Gallagher’s, told Jacobin that she’s done precisely the kinds of things socialists are always told they should do before running for state office. She ran for district leader in 2016 and lost narrowly, and soon after was appointed to the community board. There, she has worked on transportation issues — dealing with the shutdown of a major subway line for repairs, helping to plan the new Kosciuszko Bridge and protecting its bike lane from truck traffic — as well as the environment (getting the community board to resist the proposed pipeline in the neighborhood, for example).

She has also, at times, uncovered abuse within the community board — for example, when its funds were used to buy an SUV instead of improving access and participation by upgrading the community board’s technology or providing childcare at meetings. “I’m kind of a Goody Two-shoes, and I really like rules,” she laughs. “I also like to figure out when people aren’t following the rules.” She says this with a glint in her eye: “That’s my favorite hobby.”

Gallagher sought DSA’s endorsement but didn’t get it. Among other reasons, the organization says that with limited capacity, it has chosen to focus on building power in working-class communities of color, an emphasis with which Gallagher says she agrees. (DSA’s endorsements come with significant organizing commitment, which is why they are not simply given out to all worthy socialists.) She’s been endorsed by New York Communities for Change and New Kings Democrats.

Lentol, who has held the seat since 1972, isn’t as terrible as some of the Democratic incumbents who’ve recently been toppled by socialists and progressives in local races, and he’s made some progressive friends over the years. The New York State Nurses Association has endorsed him in this race, along with NYC Kids PAC, a public education advocacy group. He’s decent at providing constituent services and is popular in his neighborhood. He’s an okay liberal, opposed to gun violence and supportive of animal welfare.

Know Your Enemy

Historically, however, in New York City, being a liberal has meant trying to serve the public while leaving the city’s most rapacious and politically powerful business interests unscathed. As we’ve seen, this can’t be done.

These business interests understand that. That’s why they have united swiftly to protect Lentol against his socialist challenger. Lentol has been a loyal friend to Airbnb, for example, writing a bill overturning city laws on short-term rentals, several paragraphs of which were plagiarized from an Airbnb memo, DNAinfo reported in 2017. Lyft gave $1.1 million to a group called “New Yorkers for Independent Work,” an Astroturf organization formed to oppose legislation raising wages for gig workers and expanding their organizing rights and to support “pro-business incumbents” for state office. This group has been taking out ads supporting Lentol. Gallagher, by contrast, has, like local socialist challengers, been attracting far more small donors each month than her opponent.

Gallagher was inspired to challenge Lentol partly by his weak response to a series of sexual harassment scandals in Albany. Having experienced workplace sexual assault and harassment herself, she is passionate about standing up for women workers. She was also encouraged by the “No IDC” effort, a citywide 2018 campaign that successfully ousted a group of pro-business, conservative Democratic state senators who usually caucused with Republicans. Lentol wasn’t part of the IDC, but he’s certainly part of that entrenched political class that caucuses with capital.

As a middle-class person who often juggles multiple day jobs and was recently laid off because of the COVID-19 crisis, Gallagher knows the consequences of this sort of politics. “You know, if I didn’t have this rent-stabilized apartment,” she says, “I would not be in this neighborhood anymore. That’s just a fact. I might not even be in New York City anymore. And that’s not because this isn’t my home. It’s because of displacement.”

The first Joe Lentol came to power by defeating a Romanian-born member of Eugene V. Debs’s Socialist Party of America. With socialist Julia Salazar representing the neighborhood in the State Senate and several other socialists running for state government throughout Brooklyn and Queens, perhaps it’s time for North Brooklyn to send a socialist to the New York State Assembly again.