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Union Organizer Who Grew Up in Pink Houses Runs to Represent East New York

 Dell Smitherman, who is running for John Sampson's Senate seat, wants to use his union background to bring change to Albany.
Dell Smitherman, who is running for John Sampson's Senate seat, wants to use his union background to bring change to Albany.
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DNAinfo/Paul DeBenedetto

EAST NEW YORK — When Dell Smitherman began union organizing in 1995, he faced an uphill battle.

The Bishop Mugavero nursing home where he worked was a hotbed of support and workers voted to unionize. Management, however, put up a strong fight and took organizers to court.

"There were times when it was scary,"  said Smitherman, who is now running for the state Senate from Brooklyn's 19th district. "There was some opposition from the employer. There were some threats of loss of employment."

After two years in court, the organizing was a success and soon Smitherman and the 1199 SEIU health care workers' union were fighting for higher wages.

It was also the culmination of a life spent both in service and indebted to unions.

 Sen. John Sampson leaves the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse on Monday May 6, 2013. Sampson was indicted twice by feds, and faces a primary from multiple challengers.
Sen. John Sampson leaves the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse on Monday May 6, 2013. Sampson was indicted twice by feds, and faces a primary from multiple challengers.
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DNAinfo/Theodore Parisienne

"Both my parents were union members," Smitherman said. "And through that membership my health care was provided. My braces on my teeth were because of the union."

Now Smitherman, who hopes to replace state Sen. John Sampson, wants to use his experience as a grassroots organizer to help improve neighborhoods like East New York, where he grew up, and his current home of Canarsie.

Raised in East New York's Louis H. Pink Houses, Smitherman attended Brooklyn Technical High School before getting a job at the nursing home where he started his path as a union organizer. He later took a full-time job with Local 1199.

Over time, Smitherman rose through the ranks, eventually becoming a political organizer for 1199, a position he only recently retired from to challenge Sampson.

"Those 13 years on staff, one constant complaint I had to my bosses was that I spend so much time organizing for the union and not enough time organizing for the community," Smitherman said.

"Then I opened a newspaper and saw our current state senator under indictment."

Sampson was indicted in 2013 for allegedly stealing more than $400,000 in home foreclosure sales to finance an unsuccessful bid for Brooklyn district attorney. Prosecutors said he also tried to cover up the crime. He was kicked out of the state Senate's Democratic conference.

Then, earlier this year, Sampson was indicted a second time. This time prosecutors said the politician lied to the FBI about owning a Bed-Stuy liquor store while lobbying the state to have its tax bill lowered.

Smitherman and another opponent, Sean Henry, have charged that Sampson's legal troubles make him unfit to remain in office.

"A senator without a conference is a senator without resources," Smitherman said. "He can't focus on the district, and we have needs we need to focus on now rather than later."


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Chief among those needs are stagnant wages in the district, which lead to poverty and homelessness, Smitherman said. The candidate supports raising the minimum wage in New York State, as well as giving the city the power to raise its own minimum wage.

The situation is especially dire for neighborhoods in the 19th district, where communities like East New York face higher rates of unemployment and poverty, Smitherman said.

"Wages in this community are far behind other communities," he said. "I was able to make the transition from public housing to homeowner mostly because I had a union job that demanded higher wages."

Part of that fight means changing the perception that raising the minimum wage is bad for business, Smitherman said.

"We have to change the narrative," he said. "Putting money in working peoples' pockets, they put that money right back in the economy."

He also cites upcoming votes in Albany dealing with rent regulation, vacancy decontrol and affordable housing as issues that would directly impact the district.

While the candidate said he would fight for more and better affordable housing, he said the first step would be to change the formula, known as Area Median Income, which calculates the price of affordable housing based on the median income of the entire city.

"You can have a community with much different financial status than a low-income community in the same area," Smitherman said. "AMI doesn't create affordable housing that benefits all."

But while creating more affordable housing in areas like East New York is important, the candidate said he's against converting industrial zones into residential, citing a need for employment.

If more factory jobs open in eastern Brooklyn rather than upstate New York, Smitherman argued, it would help boost a stagnant local economy.

"We need to find ways to help those industrial parks flourish," he said.

Crime is also an issue Smitherman said he'd work to combat, as areas like East New York's 75th Precinct have become some of the most dangerous in the city.

Remembering his time in the Pink Houses, Smitherman fondly recalled two officers — Myers and Campbell — who were friendly and worked with residents.

That style of community policing is something that should return to New York, he said.

"There was a true partnership," Smitherman said. "They were there every day."

Part of that equation means help from Albany, in the form of funds for programs like the Police Athletic League to help bring community and police officers together, he said.

"The number one issue is to keep the community safe," Smitherman said. "That becomes a lot easier when the police department is perceived as being part of the community and not perceived as being separate from the community."

Other major issues Smitherman said he would tackle include improvements to education and transportation, as well as repairs to infrastructure after Hurricane Sandy.

He hopes he can get started on these issues after the Sept. 9 primary, where he'll square off against Sampson, Henry and Leon Miles.

Smitherman has roughly $47,000 on hand, according to state campaign finance records, to Henry's $56,000 and Sampson's $29,000 deficit. Miles has not yet filed with the State Campaign Finance Board.

Sampson's lack of funds has raised eyebrows in the Smitherman camp, with the candidate alleging misconduct and calling for a probe into the scandal-plagued senator's campaign.

"He still has a negative filing," Smitherman said. "Yet we still see posters, palm cards, they're using lawyers to question my petitions. There's something questionable there."

Still, Smitherman has picked up most of the significant endorsements, including nods from all of the major unions as well as community groups like New York Communities for Change, Make the Road New York and the Metropolitan Council on Housing.

He's also on the Working Families ballot line and was endorsed last week by the Amsterdam News.

Despite the strong support, Smitherman said he's not resting on his laurels.

"I've seen people become comfortable with endorsements," he said. "Endorsements don't win elections. Hard work does, and connections with the voter wins elections."

DNAinfo has offered all candidates in the 19th state Senate district the chance to be interviewed before the election.