SUNSET PARK — A longtime Brooklyn assemblyman will face his first serious primary challenger in years during the Democratic race for Red Hook and Sunset Park next week.
State Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, who has held the 51st Assembly District seat since he was elected in 1994, will square off against Ceasar Zuniga, a member of Sunset Park’s Community Board 7 and research director of a nonprofit for early childhood education.
The district covers Red Hook, South Slope and Greenwood Heights and Sunset Park, a densely populated and diverse neighborhood where both men live and have based their campaign offices.
While Ortiz has held the seat for two decades, it’s not unprecedented for voters in the area to elect a newcomer over an incumbent.
Last year, Carlos Menchaca beat former Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez for the City Council seat in District 38, which overlaps several neighborhoods with Assembly District 51.
DNAinfo New York spoke to Ortiz and Zuniga about the upcoming race, goals for education and development of the waterfront and their ties to Sunset Park.
Zuniga has lived in Sunset Park since 2009 and has served on Community Board 7 for almost as long.
Shortly after joining CB7, Zuniga, 42, began to notice the need for more attention, growth and development in the neighborhood he hopes to represent.
“It just seemed like this community has been neglected,” he said.
Among the list of goals Zuniga has for the Brooklyn district, one stems directly from his work as a director of research and evaluation for Parent-Child Home Program, a national nonprofit that focuses on early childhood intervention.
While Zuniga praised Mayor Bill de Blasio’s universal pre-K push, “the research is pretty clear that it’s even more effective to start earlier.”
“The fourth year of life can already be too late,” he said.
That would include investing in existing programs that assist children from birth to 3 years old in language and motor development as well as funding prenatal and postnatal programs for mothers.
Representing District 51 also means keeping track of a large chunk of Brooklyn’s waterfront — areas that Zuniga said “desperately” needed meaningful redevelopment, he said.
The consensus in Sunset Park is that the waterfront remains for industrial and recreational use like Industry City, a massive complex with tenants ranging from purveyors of artisanal food to the Brooklyn Nets’ practice facility. Red Hook and the Columbia Street Waterfront District might be better served with mixed-use development, he added.
Born in New Jersey, Zuniga is Mexican American, a community that's growing steadily in Sunset Park. He has received endorsements from local City Councilman Menchaca, who is also Mexican American as well as the United Federation of Teachers, among others.
Through the race, Zuniga hopes to bring the community to the forefront and offer voters “a choice” from the longtime assemblyman, he said.
“I just felt like we deserved better in this community, in this district,” he said.
Born in Puerto Rico, Ortiz has held the 51st District Assembly seat for almost 20 years.
After moving to Sunset Park in 1980, he began working for various city agencies, including the Department of City Planning and the Bronx borough president’s office.
Like his challenger, Ortiz’s top priority is a focus on children and education.
“We need to continue to be persistent in addressing the physical and mental health of children,” he said.
The lawmaker has previously drafted bills that focus on capturing early diagnosis of diabetes in public school students and another that would require schools to measure and report students’ body mass index.
Decades as an assemblyman and his previous work for the city have left Ortiz with a solid list of powerful contacts that he says he can rely on for the improvement of his district. Ortiz, however, balked at the term “well-connected.”
“I think it’s about relationships,” he said.
“When I need something done, for example in my district, it is one phone call away.”
But stalled projects aren’t uncommon in the district, such as the long-awaited Bush Terminal Piers Park, which is scheduled to open this fall.
For those, Ortiz is turning to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new administration, which he believes will move forward to get them completed. Ortiz backed the former public advocate last year during his campaign and de Blasio recently returned the favor with an endorsement.
“Finally I have a real partner in City Hall,” Ortiz said.