BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — For the last two weeks, hundreds of people flocked to King Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church in Bed-Stuy to protest the closing of a nearby hospital, filling the pews and lining the walls.
Health care union workers from Interfaith Hospital stood alongside local residents afraid that the facility's closing will turn the area into a "health care desert." Those who couldn't fit inside gathered in front of the church on Malcolm X Boulevard.
But critics say the rallies are about politics, not Interfaith.
"You're essentially coming in and installing your candidate of choice," said Conrad Tillard, the senior pastor at Nazarene Congregational who is running for city council against Foy. "It's a cynical ploy that will not resonate with the residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant."
While Interfaith has been one of the key issues discussed at the weekly meetings, politics has so far not been far behind. In the first week, mayoral candidates John Liu and Bill de Blasio each spoke, alongside comptroller candidate Scott Stringer and candidate for public advocate Letitia James.
In week two, much of the meeting was dedicated to the expansion of the National Action Network in Brooklyn, including the induction of new officers and the passing out of sign-up forms.
That expansion comes two months before the Democratic primary, something Tillard called "a cynical ploy."
"Two months before a primary you expand in Brooklyn?" Tillard said. "So that's not designed at all to generate interest in Foy's campaign?"
Responding to that criticism, a spokeswoman from Foy's campaign called the candidate a "consistent leader" in the community, touting his work for increased police accountability and against stop-and-frisk as examples. Foy achieved citywide notoriety in 2011 after he and Jumaane Williams were arrested at the West Indian Day Parade.
“Kirsten has been a consistent leader in fighting on issues that affect residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, helping to achieve actual policy changes and legislative victories that impact people’s lives," said the spokeswoman, Tyquana Henderson-Parsons.
Henderson-Parsons also referenced Tillard's failed primary challenge against Charlie Rangel in 2002.
“Conrad Tillard seems more interested in attacking other candidates than putting forth facts or any vision of leadership for Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights," Henderson-Parsons said, "probably because he’s trying to distract from his shifting political values and to keep voters from asking tough questions about his past to find out which Conrad is running this time."
But while Tillard has been most outspoken against Sharpton's involvement in the race, other candidates have also questioned the rallies' motivations.
Robert Cornegy, the district leader who is running for the seat with the support of outgoing Councilman Al Vann, said he's been heavily involved with the issues surrounding Interfaith Hospital for years, joining the hospital's community advisory board as Medicaid reimbursements to the facility dwindled and Interfaith filed for bankruptcy.
Cornegy attended the first two rallies, revealing at the first meeting that the CEO of the beleaguered hospital resigned last month.
But last week, Interfaith's future suddenly became an "agenda item," Cornegy said. The district leader said he felt like the meeting was too political, and left early.
"I think you don't mix apples and oranges," Cornegy said. "My fight for the savior of Interfaith Hospital has nothing to do with my candidacy."
Robert Waterman, another member of the Interfaith community advisory board and head pastor at Antioch Baptist Church, attended and spoke at last week's meeting. Waterman, who is also running to replace Vann, said the National Action Network did little in terms of outreach to the board, and questioned how much of the meeting was dedicated to protecting the hospital.
"If you walk into the church where they're holding a National Action Network rally, [and] Kirsten is up front being the moderator,'" Waterman said, "one would say it might be a Kirsten show."
Asked last week about whether the rally indicated Sharpton and National Action Network endorsement for his campaign, Foy dismissed the idea, saying he wasn't trying to invite politics into the conversation about a hospital that he said is crucial to the well-being of the neighborhood.
Sharpton, who called the criticism "silly," said he has not endorsed any candidate for the race. But, he said, if he wanted to endorse someone, he would do so plainly.
"I don't need to do that in a clandestine way. What would prevent me from doing that?" Sharpton said. "They need to try and grow up a little."
But even the health care and nurses unions involved in the rallies recognize their inherent political nature, while acknowledging that the National Action Network provides greater visibility for their fight to save closing hospitals.
"Of course this is an election year, and the candidates are running a hard campaign, but it's the same goal," said one union source who was not authorized to speak on the record. "We need all the community allies and all the community support we can get, and the National Action Network provides that."