By David Brand
Whatever the result of the recount currently underway in the Democratic primary for Queens district attorney, the race is a win-win for Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer.
Van Bramer was the first Queens elected official to endorse Tiffany Cabán, a little known public defender until she received the backing of the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America in February. He campaigned extensively for Cabán, stood beside her throughout her premature election night victory party and monitored the affidavit and absentee ballot count at a Board of Elections office a few days later.
Van Bramer was also the first person to announce his candidacy for Queens Borough President — a seat that would open up in a special election if current Borough President Melinda Katz holds off Cabán during the countywide recount. Van Bramer’s early candidacy gives him a leg up on likely competitors, like former Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley and current Councilmembers Donovan Richards and Paul Vallone.
Van Bramer, who is term-limited in 2021, says he doesn’t “get this political analysis” that suggests he would benefit from his preferred candidate losing. But whatever the case, he has positioned himself well for a BP run if Katz wins while at the same time buttressing his progressive bonafides in Western Queens. He was first elected to represent the 26th Council District, which has evolved into the epicenter of modern East Coast progressivism, in 2009.
There’s another scenario that Van Bramer hasn’t ruled out. If Cabán wins the DA primary and Katz remains borough president for the next two and half years, he could challenge Assemblymember Cathy Nolan, a 17-term incumbent who faces scrutiny from progressive constituents because of her support for the Amazon deal. The Assembly primary is in June 2020.
“I am focused on running for borough president and that is where all of my energies are right now,” he told the Eagle inside the Lowery, a bar in Sunnyside where he and his staff gathered to watch the U.S. Women’s National Team defeat England in the World Cup semifinals earlier this month.
“I will say this: I believe in term limits,” he added.
Van Bramer is courting the endorsement of the Democratic Socialists of America, which would mark the culmination of his adaptation to Western Queens’ left-wing voting bloc, especially in “the new Sunnyside.”
“Younger families, younger kids are moving into the neighborhood and they are the base of the progressive left,” Van Bramer said. “There’s just no question that Astoria and Sunnyside are the two most progressive areas in Queens and the two areas in Queens that boast the highest turnout.”
A progressive corrective
Van Bramer’s outspoken support for Cabán and other progressives can be considered a corrective for failing to endorse U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her 2018 primary against Queens County Democratic Party leader Joe Crowley.
June 26, 2018 proved transformational in Queens politics, and in Van Bramer’s career.
“AOC’s victory set me free,” he said. He spent the rest of the summer canvassing for Cynthia Nixon, who lost to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and State Sen. Jessica Ramos, who defeated late-incumbent Jose Peralta, a defector to the Independent Democratic Conference.
Van Bramer makes a cameo appearance in the Netflix documentary “Knock Down the House,” which revolves around the 2018 campaign of Ocasio-Cortez and three other women running for Congress. In the film, he briefly greets Crowley at the Queens Pride Parade while someone nearby reassures Crowley he will win the June 2018 primary.
That moment could be perceived a few different ways, depending on the viewer’s perspective and experience in Queens.
To some, Van Bramer seems to seek Crowley out at the parade, acting as just another establishment Democrat kissing the ring of the party boss a month before shifting with the political winds in Western Queens. Influential party members told the Eagle they consider him a political opportunist.
Viewed another way — and this is how Van Bramer frames it — the moment is symbolic: He was actually trying to pass Crowley to get to Ocasio-Cortez, he said.
“Everyone who contacted me, including the AOC people, said, ‘We feel like you gave him the cold shoulder,’” Van Bramer said. “And most people say it’s actually a good cameo for me.”
Van Bramer discussed various “insurgent” challengers he has supported against party-backed incumbents since he began organizing for LGBTQ candidates in the late 1980s. He himself ran against County-backed candidates in 2001 (he lost to incumbent Helen Sears) and in 2009 (he won, defeating candidate Deirdre Feerick in the primary before becoming one of the first two openly gay men from Queens elected to the City Council).
“But in [the 2018 primary] race, it was hard to see a path for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and because I’m a sitting councilmember, the machine had the power to hurt me, and more importantly, my district,” he said. “Part of the reason that I detest the machine so much is because they do have a lot of power behind the scenes. And people see some of their power but they don’t actually see most of it.”
He said, for example, the county party has too much influence in hiring lawmaker staffs, pushing through legislation and setting funding priorities.
Reshaping the BP ‘narrative’
Van Bramer said he would be “an activist borough president,” using the office to mold community boards so that they better represent their constituents and changing “the narrative around the borough presidency” as a figurehead with limited influence.
“There’s community board power,” he said, citing the 2018 citywide referendum to institute community board term limits in order to diversify the boards; Katz opposed it. “We need to remake our community boards — make them more diverse, make them more progressive, make sure they’re representing our values.”
He would organize to encourage people from underrepresented communities to apply for positions on the boards, which tend to skew older, whiter and wealthier than Queens’ overall population.
“We’ve had a very conservative, very moderate approach to this,” he said.
Since Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, less left-leaning Democrats have criticized Queens’ powerful progressive bloc as a machine in the making. Building a political infrastructure doesn’t equate to developing a new political machine, Van Bramer said.
“What people who have been in power say when they’re losing power is, ‘If those guys get in, they’ll be just as bad as us,’” he said.
“I am far more concerned about a political machine that is about money and patronage continuing to dominate the borough than I am about the progressive left and idealistic members of the DSA having more power in this borough,” he continued.
He is, however, wary of progressive parties drafting a slate of judicial candidates or using the power of the borough presidency to help select those nominees, however.
“I don’t think the borough president should have a role in picking judges because then you’re just recreating the machine,” he said, adding that he encourages competitive primaries for the bench.
“If people want to run for office, they should expect a primary. If they want to stay in office they should expect a primary,” he added.
City’s jail plan, the next big vote
In the short term — before any election for borough president or state assembly — there is one major vote that will come before Van Bramer and the rest of the Council this fall: the city’s Universal Land Use Review Procedure application for closing the jails on Rikers Island and constructing four new detention facilities in community settings. The proposal calls for building a 270-foot-tall jail next to Queens Borough Hall in Kew Gardens, Van Bramer’s potential next office.
He declined to take a position on the plan, though he said he remains “very dubious.”
He said he favors the proposal for smaller community jails, which were originally recommended by an independent commission chaired by former Justice Jonathan Lippman. He also said he supports the No New Jails concept championed by Cabán, despite criticism that she has not articulated her position on where the city should house defendants who are remanded by judges.
“With the jails plan, I think Tiffany Cabán has some great ideas and I know she has said she doesn’t support building any new jails,” he said. “I like her position on those issues. I think we’ve got to move away from where we’ve been if we’re really serious about criminal justice reform and decarceral thinking.”
“I haven’t said it publicly, so whether or not I’ll vote for or against that, I would say, stay tuned,” he said.