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Grassroots Organizers Challenge Democratic Incumbents in Brooklyn Primary

By Gwynne Hogan | September 9, 2016 1:01pm | Updated on September 12, 2016 8:33am
 The primary is on Tuesday Sept. 13.
The primary is on Tuesday Sept. 13.
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DNAinfo/Carolina Pichardo

NORTH BROOKLYN — A trio of grassroots organizers who have spent years working outside the political system are now seeking to infiltrate the Democratic Party this election season, hoping their work in the community may prove more powerful from within.

Emily Gallagher, Carmen Bonilla and Debbie Medina are all running against incumbents on Tuesday, Sept. 13, vying for the posts of Female District Leader in two North Brooklyn districts and state senator, respectively. 

Gallagher, a community activist with Neighbors Allied for Good Growth, has taken aim at Linda Minucci's seat as Female District Leader in Assembly District 50, which covers parts of Greenpoint, Williamsburg and Clinton Hill.

District Leader is an elected, though unpaid, position that serves as a liaison between community groups, local elected officials and constituents. They also help shape party policy positions and recommend judicial candidates. There is male and a female position in each legislative district. None of the incumbent male candidates face challengers this election year.

Minucci has held the position since the 1980s, though Gallagher charges her opponent with being M.I.A.

"While I've been campaigning, I've been doing the work of district leader," Gallagher said.

She was invigorated by the grassroots organizing of Bernie Sanders' campaign and believes that by infiltrating the established party, she might help to make it more progressive.

"Change happens most at the local level, that's really where we can have the most impact," Gallagher said. "To stay in advocacy is important, but if we really want change to happen... we really have to try to wiggle into the system."

If elected, Gallagher said she'd make housing and development issues her central focus.

"We need to fight for our neighborhood right now, and if you're not going to put up a fight, why are you doing it?"

Minucci didn't respond to a request for comment.

In the 53rd Assembly District, Carmen Bonilla is challenging Maritza Davila for her position as Female District Leader. Davila, who didn't immediately respond to a request for comment, is also the district's state assemblywoman, though no one is challenging her for that seat this election cycle.

Bonilla, who grew up in the Bushwick Houses and has received support from incumbent state Sen. Martin Malavé Dilan and Assemblyman Erik Dilan, has been a tenant organizer at the Ridgewood-Bushwick Senior Citizens Council for the last three decades. She's also protégé of disgraced former Assemblyman Vito Lopez.

"People get power and they forget where they come from, and that's the main problem I’m having with politics right now," Bonilla said. "This is my home. It's not about power. It's...about making sure we keep low-income and affordable housing in New York City."

Bonilla's main emphasis as Female District Leader would be improving conditions in public housing and other housing concerns for low-income Bushwick residents, she said.

"That's all I’ve ever been about."

Debbie Medina, a longtime tenant organizer at the Williamsburg nonprofit Los Sures, is challenging state Sen. Dilan on Tues. 13, for the 18th District seat he's held since 2002. The district covers parts of parts of Bushwick, Greenpoint, Williamsburg and Cypress Hills.

Medina, however, lost some key endorsements after she revealed that she had beaten her son with a belt when he was a teen. He is currently serving a life sentence in Pennsylvania for the fatal beating of his girlfriend's son.

The candidates face off in the primaries on Tuesday Sept. 13. You have to be a registered democrat to vote. Find your polling site here.