Democrats and Republicans faced off on the southwest corner of 80th Street at Bay Ridge’s annual Third Avenue street fair.
The crowd gathered around two teams comprised of a city councilor, state senator and two Assembly members. Frank Morano, a political commentator, provided play-by-play analysis as the crowd gasped at each exciting turn.
“Coming into this game, Democrats were heavily favored,” Morano said. “All that has changed.”
The crowd cheered loudly shortly after. The faceoff ended. “It’s over, it’s over! The Republicans have won the battle of Bay Ridge.”
The Republican team celebrated in full view of the losing Democrats. There was no room for congeniality in this fierce, best-of-three table tennis match.
While such political contentiousness is prevalent across the country, here in Bay Ridge the real battle may be between two Democratic organizations that are seeking to regain political losses in the neighborhood.
The 2010 election results not only brought a wave of Republicans into elected positions nationally, but also gave the impression that Bay Ridge leans Republican even though the rest of Brooklyn tends to vote Democrat. In that election, Bay Ridge elected two Republicans over long-term Democrat incumbents.
Following the 2010 elections, the two Democratic organizations in the neighborhood are on the offence, looking to achieve better results next November. But while they hope to establish a stronger Democratic presence in the area, the clubs have opposing strategies. The Brooklyn Democrats for Change is a seven-year-old organization that is largely focusing on redistricting efforts while the Bay Ridge Democrats, a newly established club, seems to concentrate on developing connections that go beyond local politics. This, in turn, has left Democrats fragmented in a neighborhood that is already politically polarized.
“I think the biggest issue is redistricting and it is an issue for a lot of people. If you divide a neighborhood up, you’re not focused on the needs of that neighborhood. We’re losing our voice,” Kevin Peter Carroll says.
At 25 years old, Carroll is already on his way to becoming a veteran in local politics. Carroll is the 60th Assembly district leader and a founding member of the Brooklyn Democrats for Change. He was the club president before he won the district leader election last year.
Five Assembly members, two state senators and one Congressman represent parts of Bay Ridge because of district mapping. And although Democrats won four of the five assembly districts that cover Bay Ridge, Carroll and the Brooklyn Democrats for Change focus on the 60th Assembly district. The district boundary represents a large section of Bay Ridge, but more than half of the district’s territorial boundary covers Staten Island’s East Shore.
When Republican newcomer Nicole Malliotakis upset the incumbent Democratic candidate Janele Hyer-Spencer in the last election, she only won the Staten Island section of the district. Hyer-Spencer won Bay Ridge.
“We have some State Assembly people who have never stepped foot in Bay Ridge and that’s a problem. It’s not fair to the constituents they represent,” Carroll says, explaining why he and the Brooklyn Democrats for Change prioritize redistricting on their agenda.
Carroll is not one to hold back an opinion, which is why other local Democrats do not necessarily support him.
“I was attacked for that last year for my willingness to work on redistricting reform with leaders of the conservative party,” Carroll explains.
After Carroll was elected, the local Democratic scene went through several organizational changes. Two of the three local Democratic organizations at the time joined together to form the Bay Ridge Democrats. Justin Brannan, Councilman Vincent Gentile’s media representative, serves as the president of the Bay Ridge Democrats. Brannan was a member of the Brooklyn Democrats the previous year.
Unlike the Brooklyn Democrats for Change, the Bay Ridge Democrats do not believe that redistricting is Bay Ridge’s biggest political problem.
“The local Republicans like Kevin’s idea. That’s a red flag for me,” Brannan says. “If the Republicans like something I’m doing, that probably means I’m doing something wrong.
In fact, Brannan thinks that the current district mapping can be beneficial.
“The more people you have fighting for your neighborhood, the better,” Brannan says. “More representation means more people who can bring home money to the district for our parks, schools and streets.”
The difference between the two clubs is subtle but noticeable. Bay Ridge Democrats members are younger and have stronger connections to local politicians. And while both clubs invited many of the same guest speakers in the past year, the Bay Ridge Democrats appears to command more legitimacy within Democratic circles outside of Bay Ridge. The Bay Ridge Democrats is less than a year old but has already had well-known guest speakers like Senator Charles Schumer and hosted a high-profiled panel on redistricting last March.
Carroll and Brannan, on the other hand, share similarities. They are young, ambitious Brooklynites — born and raised — who bring a nontraditional, fresh presence to Bay Ridge’s older political field. They also both downplay the idea that there is tension between their two organizations.
“There are divisions in Bay Ridge. There are divisions in the Democratic Party. In general, people have different ideas, different things for the community,” says Carroll.
Carroll insists that, political differences aside, he and the Brooklyn Democrats are only seeking what they believe is best for the neighborhood, which they think they can achieve by making Bay Ridge a single district.
“The status quo is a problem. We want to shake things up a little bit,” Carroll says. “I feel like we’re not going to get a single district if the same old people are drawing those lines because they’re not watching out for neighborhood concerns. They’re watching out for themselves.”
Brannan is more cautious in his explanation of why the clubs won’t be joining together any time soon. “It would be wonderful if we were just one big, happy family and that’s how we’d be most powerful — but what are you going to do? We can’t force other clubs to join ours — all we can do is make overtures,” he says.
“We took two old clubs that were around for a long time and formed [them] to make the Bay Ridge Democrats,” Brannan says. “Why didn’t [the Brooklyn Democrats] join us? I don’t know, it’s up to them.”
While Brannan doesn’t believe the clubs are rivals competing for the same Democratic audience in the neighborhood, he says his club is different because of its non-partisan, community approach.
“I think we have more of a different vision as a club. We also do stuff that’s apolitical, like we’re trying to save the local post office,” he said.
Katherine Khatari, a longtime social activist in Bay Ridge, says she doesn’t want to pick sides between the organizations. “I love Kevin and I love Justin.”
Instead, Khatari is more concerned about the future of the Democratic party in Bay Ridge, which is why she tries to attend many of the clubs’ activities such as their monthly meetings.
But Khatari hesitantly admits that, so far, the Bay Ridge Democrats have been more successful than the Brooklyn Democrats. “Justin is a powerhouse. He’s done so much for the community in a short span of time. That’s why [his club’s] taken off the way it has.”
“Kevin’s also a good guy. So it’s like having two sons and I’m the mother. I can’t show favoritism. I got to love them both.”
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