In a cobalt blue suit and tie, with a matching pocket square and an American flag pin on the lapel, Brian Cunningham walks out of the office space he rents at Brooklyn Commons, and onto Flatbush Ave, basking in the sunlight. His sharp tailored suit is accented by a set of wooden beads around his wrist, and his close-cropped hair is offset by a thick, sculpted beard—a trademark instantly recognizable from his campaign posters up in bodegas and laundromats throughout the neighborhood. It’s an unseasonably warm October 10th, and Cunningham and his friend Laura, an entrepreneur who has been helping out on the campaign, decide to take advantage of the weather and have lunch outside. Sitting at a table in front of El Patron, a taqueria on Lincoln Road, Cunningham digs into a burrito bowl almost as passionately as he digs into the policy details in his platform.
Exactly four weeks before election day, Cunningham is a definite underdog in the race for City Council Member from the 40th district, but more importantly, he’s a survivor: although he lost the Democratic primary, with 30 percent of the vote to incumbent Councilmember Mathieu Eugene’s 41 percent, Cunningham will be on the ballot November 7th—as the Reform Party’s candidate.
Council Member Eugene considers Cunningham a spoiler; he says the people have spoken and Cunningham’s decision to run on a third party ticket disrespects the democratic process. Cunningham disagrees, arguing that the councilmember is not entitled to a new term simply because he won the primary. “To believe we have a one party system is false.”
Despite Eugene’s confidence that the residents of the 40th district are happy with his work and will hand him an easy reelection, Cunningham thinks the primary results tell a different story. “The Councilman only had 4 out of 10 Democratic voters saying he was the right choice and that we’re moving in the right direction,” Cunningham says. And those are just the voters who turned out on primary day, Cunningham points out, lamenting the low turnout and what he calls the “lack of engagement” that he sees among some of his neighbors.
Cunningham wants people to realize that “local elections are where it’s at. It’s the most important election you can vote in.” He says that due to the requirements of working in Albany or Washington, elected officials in higher offices, while they have important work to do, aren’t around to pay attention to the nitty gritty of people’s lives and concerns, the way that local officials are. “We hold down the fort,” Cunningham says.
As he and Laura eat, several neighbors—potential constituents—stop and say hi to Cunningham. He gets up to speak with an older, Caribbean woman, and they greet each other with big smiles. Leaning on her cane, she asks him about getting a speed bump put in on a one-way stretch of Lincoln Road, where drivers tend to speed. She points across Flatbush Ave, to the spot she’s talking about. Cunningham promises to look into it, and she wishes him a blessed day.
Cunningham has ambitious goals in terms of housing, health care, criminal justice reform, and more, that he hopes to pursue on the city council. But for now, he’s really enjoying the campaign. Even though he was born and raised right here in the district, running for office has given Cunningham a new perspective on his home. “I get to meet my community in a different way,” he says.
Like this past Saturday, when he was shooting a campaign ad, and was approached by a man who said he works in public transit. Cunningham talked about his affordable housing plans, and the man told him he was going to housing court because he can’t afford to pay his rent. “And he’s an MTA worker,” Cunningham says, incredulously.
He recalls kids approaching him and saying “You’re Mr. Cunningham – you’re running for mayor, right?” and he laughs. As a candidate for office (albeit one more local than mayor), Cunningham appreciates being able to show the kids in his community that they don’t have to fit anyone’s narrow expectations for them. It’s important “for young black and brown boys to see someone who has a [NBA player] James Harden beard but isn’t James Harden,” Cunningham says.
Cunningham first started growing the beard last year. He says people told him it wouldn’t be good for his career—politicians don’t have beards like that. But now it’s part of how people recognize him. If he were to cut it, he says, “I would lose my branding.” But Cunningham says he cares more about substance than style, and he thinks voters agree. “Whether I have a beard or not, people are attracted to my policies.”
He pauses for a moment and grins. “I am cute though.”
For Cunningham, the general election is an uphill climb, and he knows it. The incumbent, Council Member Eugene, has been in office since 2007, and benefits from a decade’s worth of name recognition, not to mention his presence on the Democratic ticket. Some news outlets described the District 40 primary results this September as split among a crowded field; but Cunningham disagrees with that take. Out of the thousands of people in the district who are eligible to run, he argues, five is not a ‘crowded’ field. “It’s important that we each ran, because we represent different schools of thought.”
Finishing his lunch, his back to the stream of pedestrian traffic on Lincoln Road, Cunningham says that despite his party affiliation in this race, he is a “lifelong Democrat”. And in a contest with Eugene, “if people compare our records, our policies”, Cunningham believes his progressive bona fides should be apparent. In fact, he says: “I’m way left of center.” Cunningham is strongly pro-choice. He wants a “medicare for all” system that serves people regardless of immigration status. And he wants to undo the “broken windows” policing enacted by former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, among other policy areas he’s eager to take on.
Cunningham describes his political aspirations as a natural extension of the work he’s done over the years, from youth development with the nonprofit CAMBA, to serving as Councilmember Laurie Cumbo’s chief of staff, to a stint at My Brother’s Keeper, the nonprofit focused on initiatives for young men of color that was launched by President Obama while in office, to his tenure over the last couple years on Community Board 14.
The job of City Council Member “is being an echo for your community in city hall,” Cunningham says. And he adds that, win or lose on November 7th, he’ll continue advocating for his district. “Election Day’s gonna come and go,” he says. “I’ve got to live with myself after.”