A political artist and refugee defies stereotypes, while trying to shake things up
Thirty-year-old political newcomer Victoria Cambranes can easily pinpoint the day she decided to run for City Council. It was August 7, at a forum on street safety in her native Greenpoint, lead by local politicians, including City Council Member Stephen Levin. A man had been killed in a hit and run with a garbage truck a couple weeks earlier; he wasn’t the neighborhood’s first victim. The city was looking into the truck traffic plaguing the area, and so the attendees had been given maps of Brooklyn and asked to pinpoint problematic locations using Post-it notes.
But Cambranes had experience managing projects on a global scale, and she was thinking beyond that. “The first thing I asked was, ‘Okay, what’s the budget, what are the parameters, what’s the timeline?’” she says. The politicians started laughing, according to Cambranes, and explained that the goal of the forum was confined to receiving community input. Cambranes was frustrated by what she perceived as a mediocre approach towards such a serious problem: “So I was like, okay, why are we doing this then, this is a band-aid on a broken leg, this isn’t a real solution. You’re not even gonna tell us when our ideas are going to be possibly put in place and established in the future, I mean what is that?”
But that wasn’t all. What Cambranes found most galling was Levin’s approach. According to Cambranes, he simply gave a speech, stood for the moment of silence, and left, without waiting to hear his constituents’ feedback. “They didn’t even come to shake our hands, introduce themselves to our tables, nothing. Absolutely nothing,” she added. “When people die on our streets, that’s a heavy price to pay. That’s a step too far.”
The very next day, Cambranes went to the board of elections and began the process to run against Council Member Stephen Levin in District 33, which includes Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Downtown Brooklyn, and Brooklyn Heights. She needed 450 signatures to get on the ballot, which she managed by drawing on her old neighbors and local business owners. Her political career had begun.
In the eight months since she had moved back home from England, Cambranes has been troubled by a sense of disconnect between her neighborhood’s problems and the politicians tasked with addressing them. As she sees it, bridging that gap has been the core mission of her quixotic campaign.
Cambranes grew up in Greenpoint, the daughter of Polish and Guatemalan immigrants. She left the neighborhood in 2005 to attend Skidmore College and later moved to England, where she pursued a Master’s Degree in History. She ended up staying and beginning a career in digital marketing.
It was last November’s presidential election that brought her home. Cambranes was devastated by the results but decided not to give in to despair. “I thought it was the wrong perspective to have in a time like this,” she explains. Her job in England was unfulfilling, her lease was up, and she missed home, so she decided the time was right to move back and become part of what she saw as the resistance. The first thing she did was sign up for the Women’s March. “It was overwhelming how much energy, how much solidarity there was there,” she says. “And that kept propelling me forward.”
On a muggy Saturday afternoon in September, Cambranes campaigned at the Indian Larry Grease Monkey Block Party, a motorcycle rally and street fair. Tall and slim, with blonde hair secured into a discreet twist, Cambranes wore a conservative, knee-length dress. If she felt out of place among the burly, tattooed bikers, she didn’t show it. Amid the barbecue smoke and the sounds of an all-female rock band, she confidently engaged the men in conversation. She discussed the influx of new residents, and how she noticed a change when she came back home to work on the issues affecting her community. Though many were not Greenpoint dwellers, they nodded along as she spoke and responded with their own observations, seeming to agree with her message of bringing back the “Real Brooklyn”.
Cambranes says the neighborhood’s traditional immigrant population doesn’t feel the same connection with Levin that he seems to have forged with the younger, newer residents. Indeed, she claims that members of the local Polish, Latino, and Italian communities weren’t even aware of the safety forum that motivated her campaign. Forums like the one held in August used to be different, Cambranes says her parents agree that local politicians used to be less dismissive and more engaged.
According to Cambranes, the Polish and Latino communities once had a much stronger voice in the area, but have been displaced or marginalized. “It’s not to say that the activism in this area isn’t so strong, it is. The newer residents have got it right,” she says. “They’re very involved, they’re very vocal, but at the same time they’ve kind of forgotten that there’s a lot of other communities here, a lot of underrepresented communities. I think those people have kind of felt that they don’t have a place here anymore.” She hopes to use her common background to win them over and restore the neighborhood’s balance.
But in spite of her enthusiasm, not everyone is persuaded by Cambranes’ mission. She’s been out of the country for 6 years, so local organizers are unfamiliar with her. Emily Gallagher, one such activist, says that this year will be the first that Cambranes has lived in Greenpoint as an adult, which Cambranes disputes. Still, to Gallagher, Cambranes is naive. “Do your due diligence, and be humble, and actually do some research, and spend not like a couple weeks, but years getting to know the neighborhood,” she says.
For his part, the incumbent Stephen Levin welcomes Cambranes’ entrance into the race. He is a young, energetic politician who moved to the neighborhood in 2009. As to the gesture that pushed Cambranes into politics — leaving the safety forum early — Levin points out that the event was organized by his office, and that he only left early to tend to his newborn child. Levin argues that he has been very active on street safety in the neighborhood. He is the lead sponsor of legislation that he says will result in reduced truck activity. The bill has the mayor’s support and will most likely pass, Levin says. Local activists generally approve of Levin and enjoy a close relationship with him.
In Brooklyn, the Democratic primary is the only race that truly matters, and Cambranes missed the deadline to enter. Instead, she is running under her own Progress for All Party and she is attempting to frame her campaign as part of a Bernie Sanders-inspired uprising against career politicians. And though Levin is still relatively young, she considers him to be a career politician too. He is seeking a third term, after all, something which wasn’t even permitted a decade ago.
“It’s gonna take people who aren’t here for their political career to get things done. It’s gonna take natives,” Cambranes says, though she has few illusions about her electoral prospects this time out. But when asked what she’ll do after the election, she doesn’t skip a beat. She’ll immediately start developing her policy platform and preparing for the next election. Cambranes is here to stay. “There’s always another shot in four years.”
(Photo Courtesy of Victoria Cambranes)