May 24, 2011
Road Less Traveled
Nonprofit annual meetings are not usually raucous affairs.
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But nearly 1,000 working-class and immigrant Brooklyn and Queens residents streamed into the SoHo headquarters of the Service Employees International Union two months ago, banging drums and noisemakers at Make the Road's third annual members' assembly.
Inside, a murderers' row of Democratic mayoral candidates sat patiently for several hours, waiting to speak to a bevy of mobilized voters.
Make the Road's legislative agenda advocating for living wages, paid sick leave and reversing school closures has permeated the City Council's agenda this spring. And its membership received a boost when Democrats in the U.S. Senate reintroduced the DREAM Act, providing a path for citizenship to children of undocumented immigrants.
It has gained political heft even while avoiding not only Brooklyn's hierarchical Democratic Party apparatus—run by Assembly Member Vito Lopez, who shares similar political beliefs—but the neighborhood's dueling political families.
Now the 14-year-old organization is quietly building its political arm as it makes slow but steady progress on issues affecting its lower-income constituents—and one of its longtime organizers is running for an open Assembly seat.
Make the Road's distance from the established political structure was clear at its SoHo meeting. Brooklyn's political ruling families—the Townses, Dilans and anyone affiliated with Lopez's influential social service empire—were notably absent.
Make the Road cofounder Andrew Friedman said he has invited its local officials to attend events, but few save for Brooklyn Rep. Nydia Velazquez ever show up.
"We would love it if they were standing with us on issues, but historically they haven't," said Friedman. "It's a missed opportunity. They make their own decisions and balance priorities, and all we can do is try to look for allies when we can."
Two years ago the group formed a political-action committee, allowing it to lobby government officials and set up a future run by one of its own organizers.
Make the Road avoided helping any Bushwick candidates in 2009, when Council Member Diana Reyna clipped a Lopez-backed challenger in a primary, and last year, when Lopez crushed an insurgent district-leader candidate in Williamsburg.
But when former Assembly Member Darryl Towns left his seat for an appointment in the Cuomo administration, Make the Road organizer Jesus Gonzalez began soliciting support from progressive clubs, labor unions and church congregations with the hope of securing a line on the Working Families Party ballot, according to several sources.
He credits the organization with helping him find his community, which propelled his run.
"I have received tons of love and support from MRNY staff and members, and I have found a space where I could work, practice and learn," said Gonzalez.
Three other candidates—including Council Member Erik Dilan's chief of staff Rafael Espinal, who is assured of the Democratic Party's backing, Rep. Edolphus Towns' daughter Deidra Towns, and Cypress Hills activist John Rodriguez—are expected to run in a battle among Brooklyn's longtime power brokers.
Friedman said it wasn't surprising that Gonzalez, an activist with Make the Road for over a decade, would see electoral politics as a place to influence public policy.
"We're thrilled that people get involved and engaged," said Friedman. "It's an important part of building power for low-income immigrants to get involved politically."
Brooklyn progressive leaders say the race is an opportunity for Make the Road to grow and build leverage in its neighborhood.
"Politics is everything," said Democratic state committeeperson Chris Owens. "They're starting to realize they won't change things by just advocating for a policy, but by giving someone to vote for."
But there is a limit to how much Make the Road will help Gonzalez.
Several Make the Road leaders said they would not do anything to jeopardize its nonprofit status. Other than receiving individual donations from them, Gonzalez is probably on his own.
And one of his rivals thinks Gonzalez's work with Make the Road won't matter, since its members live primarily outside the district.
"The campaign is going to be a major uphill battle for him, because he doesn't know the dynamics of the district," claimed one opponent's campaign advisor.
Still, Gonzalez is courting unions such as the SEIU, United Federation of Teachers and Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which he thinks he can pry away from other candidates.
Manhattan Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito believes he can win—or at least show a presence at the polls and be well-positioned for a future Council run.
"[Gonzalez's campaign] shows that even if you are not part of the formal political process, you can make headway, win elections and demonstrate that strength," she said.
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