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Senate Hopeful's Justification for Beating Son Will Hurt Campaign: Pundit

By Gwynne Hogan | July 14, 2016 9:50am
 Debbie Medina, who's running against state Sen. Martin Dilan in the primary this September, admitted to hitting her son with a belt as punishment when he was a teenager.
Debbie Medina, who's running against state Sen. Martin Dilan in the primary this September, admitted to hitting her son with a belt as punishment when he was a teenager.
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Courtesy of Debbie Medina

BUSHWICK — A senate hopeful's recent admission of how she repeatedly hit her son with a belt during his teenage years and her further justification of her actions with a statement on her website, will hurt her progressive agenda in the long run, according to local political pundit.

Tenant advocate Debbie Medina, who is challenging state Sen. Martin Dilan in the September Democratic primary, came forward this week about abusing her son, Eugenio Torres, 29, when he was a teenager.

The child abuse was first disclosed in 2008 when Torres was on trial for the beating death of his former girlfriend's 3-year-old son. He's currently serving life in prison without parole.

"The basic problem for her is that she had a reform, progressive message, which is a message of changing the dirty politics, [the] old way of doing thing," said Evan Thies, director of Brooklyn Strategies, a public relations company that specializes in political clients, who lives in the 18th Senate District, where Medina is running.

"If what people learn about you is that you attempted to keep quiet a very important detail of your life in order to gain power then that essentially cancels out that argument," he said. "It just reminds people of the exact things people are trying to eliminate in government."

Medina came forward herself about the violence, first in an interview with DNAinfo New York, then in a statement and video published on her campaign website.

"I hit my son. I hit him with a belt, because I was desperate, because I did not know what else to do to turn him from the path he was on. And, of course, it didn't work," Medina wrote. "Hitting children does not work. Violence just creates more violence. I know that now. I teach that to my children, as they raise beautiful children of their own."

She decided to tell her story after she learned the Working Families Party, which endorsed her in 2014 when she first ran against Dilan, had dug up the information on its own.

Nick Rizzo, an organizer at Medina's campaign, said she had lacked political savvy back in 2014 and that many of her neighbors in South Williamsburg already knew about her son's case, so she didn't feel like she needed to come forward with more details. 

First, Medina claimed that she'd only hit her son once with a belt after she caught him stealing. Then she admitted it had happened on multiple occasions when pressed about conflicting information from Lehigh Valley Live's coverage of her son's trial and her own son's account of what happened.

Still, Thies said the candidate's statement fell short of a genuine apology and still attempted to rationalize abusive behavior.

"Making excuses for domestic violence is the last thing that a candidate for office should be doing," Thies said. "There's something pathological for a lot of candidates for office that they can't admit when they're wrong. It's a huge mistake."

"People aren't going to start listening until she apologizes," though he added if Medina could apologize to voters then focus on concrete reforms in protecting victims of child abuse, she might be able to win voters back. 

Medina didn't respond to a request for additional comment.

On a passionate thread on Neighborhood Square, DNAinfo's platform for comments, our readers were strongly divided about Medina's admission, many sympathizing with the difficult neighborhood and circumstances Medina faced while raising a trouble child.

  • As you have to take into consideration what our background is. We do what we can for our children. Sometimes it means to punish them so that they learn the right way to do things as we learned. Her past behavior has nothing to do with the job that she can do," NSQ user pirigon wrote.

Others said she lost their vote.

  • It not only disqualifies her; if the Working Families do not revoke their endorsement, I will never again vote in their block/ballot candidate again. She's not that old that her using the belt was considered "part of the progam". We knew better by the early '80s," wrote Neighborhood Square user I_Knudnick.

A day after the news became public, local politicians and organizers who'd endorsed Medina including Rep. Nydia Velazquez, City Councilman Antonio Reynoso, Assemblywoman Maritza Davila and New York Communities for Change hadn't responded to requests for comment.

Advocacy group, Make the Road Action, which also endorsed Medina, declined to comment for this story.

Dilan, who's held the position since 2002, said he has known about the abuse since 2014.

“I did not want to run a negative campaign against her," Dilan said. “My opponent made her choice and her son made a choice."

But now that it's out in the open, he said, it is the "voters who will have to make their own decision.”

Josh Youngerman, an organizer with the Bushwick Berners, which has backed Medina, said the news of her use of a belt on her son wouldn't sway his opinion of the candidate.

"What I know about Debbie is that she dedicated most of her life to fighting [for] social justice issues, social inequality," he said. "She's always been the right side of history. She's also been very dedicated to the political revolution that Bernie Sanders has set forth.

"These are family matters. Everybody has their own family issues that they have to deal with," Youngerman said. "I'm still voting for her."

Medina faces off against Dilan in the Sept. 13 primary.