Khader El-Yateem, Man Vs. Machine
It’s a summer Sunday morning in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge, and services are in full swing at Salam Arabic Lutheran Church at the corner of 80th Street and Fourth Avenue. There are candles burning, statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mother, Byzantine-esque placards displaying the Stations of the Cross. Light pours in through the stained-glass windows, shining on thick billows of incense.
This might seem like a funny place to find a socialist, but there’s at least one here. He’s handing out communion to the 30 or so parishioners taking turns kneeling at the altar. A few minutes previously, he read from Matthew 13, where Jesus tells his followers “pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat.” The subsequent sermon, along with most of the service, was in Arabic, but Khader El-Yateem later explained to me that he used the passage as a metaphor for the Syrian refugee crisis.
El-Yateem, who founded the church 20 years ago, insists that welcoming the refugees is the Christian thing to do. That’s a radical proposition to some in Bay Ridge, a neighborhood that was once a bastion for white-ethnic Catholics and is now home to a growing Arab population.
The Lutheran minister is one candidate in a crowded field running in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary to succeed City Councilmember Vincent Gentile, whose term expires this year. El-Yateem’s main opponent is Justin Brannan, Gentile’s former chief of staff. Also in the race: Kevin Pete Carroll, an aide to Councilmember Stephen Levin of Brooklyn Heights-Williamsburg, and Democratic State Committeewoman Nancy Tong. Three Republicans are also in the contest in the 43rd District, which includes Bay Ridge, Fort Hamilton and parts of Dyker Heights and Bath Beach — all historically among the city’s more GOP-friendly areas.
Six weeks before the primary, El-Yateem has a very different scene waiting for him once he leaves the church. His storefront campaign headquarters a few blocks away buzzes with volunteers making phone calls to potential voters on behalf of “Father K,” as they fondly refer to him. The walls surrounding them feature maps of Bay Ridge and a big piece of butcher paper reading, “These volunteers have put people before money in politics,” cluttered with signatures. Dunkin’ Donuts detritus mingles with printouts of voter-registration data on desks and tables. The campaign ought to be sponsored by the coffee chain, a young volunteer jokes.
New York’s Democratic machine appears to be operating under its usual quid-pro-quo guiding principle but a rising minority group in Bay Ridge is trying to win a place of its own in city government.
A combination of energized youth, white working-class voters and minority communities — Arab Americans chief among them — helped Bernie Sanders carry Bay Ridge during last year’s Democratic presidential primary when much of the city went strongly for Hillary Clinton. El-Yateem is hoping a similar coalition will give him the Democratic nomination on Sept. 12, and with it, the inside track on winning the seat in the November general election.
Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian leader from Bay Ridge who has risen to national prominence, has endorsed El-Yateem. “We were never outnumbered, we were just out-organized,” she told attendees at the People’s Summit in Chicago this summer, where activists working to continue Sanders’ mission of pushing the Democratic Party leftward gathered. Sarsour called for building “a political revolution that centers the most marginalized communities among us.”
El-Yateem’s council drive is an early test of such a strategy. All citywide offices and all 51 seats on the council are up for election this year. Yet the 43rd District is one of the few where an insurgent candidate is running strong against a Democratic Party favorite, in part because El-Yateem has raised over $100,000 while refusing to take money from developers and similar special-interest groups. Along with the citywide housing crisis spurred by hyper-gentrification, illegal home conversions are a hot topic in Bay Ridge. The practice of turning the neighborhood’s two- and three-story houses into multi-unit residences is on the rise, forcing tenants, many of whom are undocumented, to live in cramped, unsafe conditions.
“I’m going to fight the greedy landlords, fight the developers who are taking over our neighborhood, fight for affordable housing,” El-Yateem says, speaking in an alley outside his campaign headquarters, away from the commotion — a spot his campaign manager, Kayla Santosuosso, jokingly calls “our second office.”
Khader El-Yateem, canvassing Bay Ridge, connects with a young voter. Credit: Peter Rugh.
Much of the money that has come into El-Yateem’s campaign is from the neighborhood’s Arab community, where the pastor has deep roots. He has served on the local community board for 12 years, and is also on the board of the Arab American Association. Many in Bay Ridge trust him to fight for immigrant rights, and are excited that he might be the first Arab American elected to the council. Voting rights for pre-citizens and an end to broken-windows policing, which can bring the undocumented to the attention of immigration agents, are among the causes El-Yateem has championed in his campaign.
Exactly how many Arabs live in Bay Ridge is tricky to determine, because “Middle East” falls under the category of white on U.S. Census forms, but it is common to see Arabic lettering above the butcher shops, cafes and groceries in the neighborhood.
“Bay Ridge has a heavily Italian, Irish, Greek and German voting-age citizen population but it has a rapidly growing Arabic-speaking population too,” says John Mollenkopf, who directs the Center for Urban Research at the CUNY Graduate Center. Citing the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, conducted between 2011 and 2015, he noted that just 5.7 percent of voting-age citizens in Bay Ridge speak Arabic at home: “Bottom line, Rev. El-Yateem is going to have a hard time winning the nomination.”
Mollenkopf, however, also says it’s possible that Kevin Pete Carroll, an Irish-American, could divide the white ethnic vote with Justin Brannan, who is of Italian descent.
El-Yateem has another ace up his sleeve, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a once small socialist grouping that since its involvement with Sanders counts 25,000 members nationally, at least 2000 of whom reside in New York City. He’s one of two council candidates the group has endorsed this year; the other is Jabari Brisport, an upstart tenants-rights advocate running on the Green Party ticket in the 35th District, which includes Prospect Heights and Bed-Stuy.
In Bay Ridge, DSA has sent dozens of volunteers out weekly to canvass on El-Yateem’s behalf. The group looked for candidates and campaigns that would help it advance its socialist message and grow roots in communities where it has been absent, says Tascha Van Auken, a member of its New York electoral working group. El-Yateem, who supported Sanders and joined DSA after Trump’s election, fit the bill.
“He’s the only candidate in this race who is not taking money from developers,” she says. “I don’t understand why anyone would be supporting Democrats who call themselves progressive and are taking money from developers. That seems like an obvious line we can draw.”
Justin Brannan has been endorsed by Public Advocate Letitia James, the Working Families Party, and unions including Transport Workers Union Local 100, Service Employees International Local 1199, and Communications Workers of America District 1, as well as Councilmember Gentile. He too has raised more than $100,000.
Brannan also portrays himself as an outsider, highlighting the AIDS and animal-welfare activism of his youth and his salad days as a punk-rock musician. He played guitar with the straight-edge hardcore band Indecision throughout the ’90s and early 2000s, and describes sleeping in squat houses and performing in veterans’ halls. He performed as recently as last year with the Indecision off-shoot, Most Precious Blood, and is still listed on the band’s Facebook page as a member.
“I think it’s adorable if anyone thinks I’m ‘the establishment candidate,’” he said. “That’s really precious.”
Brannan’s life has taken a more middle-of-the road turn of late, however. He worked for Bear Stearns until the investment firm went under in the 2008 financial crash it helped spawn. He then took a job working for Gentile.
“I’m an outsider that decided I could effect change from the inside out,” Brannan explained.
Is de Blasio Playing Favorites?
Kayla Santosuosso is frustrated that more unions haven’t gotten behind El-Yateem. “I feel like we’re running a campaign against the mayor of the City of New York,” she said, explaining later in an email that Bill de Blasio’s director of intergovernmental affairs, Emma Wolfe, was apparently whipping labor behind the scenes to back Brannan. Wolfe failed to respond to requests for comment. Neither City Hall’s press team or de Blasio’s campaign responded to inquiries either.
Brannan denies anyone from the mayor’s office is advocating on his behalf and says the endorsements he has received are the result of the relationships he has built up over the years. The money he has raised for his campaign, he says, speaks to the roots he has in the community.
“I’m not taking money from anyone I don’t have an existing relationship with,” he says. “That money is not coming from developers.”
A look under the hood at Brannan’s campaign filings shows that some real-estate money has crept in. Sal Raziano, a senior realtor at Casandra Properties, gave Brannan $2,000. James Vavas, operator of Vavas Insurance and Financial Services, which provides commercial property insurance, chipped in $1,000. Anthony Constantinople of Constantinople & Vallone, and Samara Daly of DalyGonzalez offered smaller amounts. Constantinople & Vallone is a consultancy whose clients include the Trump Soho Hotel, TD Bank, TMobile, and the private prison company Geo Group. Daly’s clients include Hudson Companies Incorporated, The Durst Organization and BFC Partners, the company behind the recent attempt to redevelop the Bedford-Union Armory into luxury high-rises.
When asked about these donations in an interview on Aug. 9, a member of Brannan’s staff asked me to move the conversation in a different direction.
‘When you are committed to justice you have to be committed all the way.’
New York’s Democratic machine, composed of elected officials and the unions and advocacy groups who depend on having the politicians’ ear, appears to be operating under its usual quid-pro-quo guiding principle, backing Gentile’s anointed successor. But a rising minority group in Bay Ridge is challenging that, trying to win a place of its own in city government.
“People are angry; people are alienated in this neighborhood,” El-Yateem says. “They see the Democrats here are not doing anything to change that. We have a lot of Democratic clubs. It’s the same people that look the same way. They’re not doing anything to represent the people of color who are outside of their cliques. The neighborhood is changing and it is changing rapidly. The status quo has to wake up and realize you cannot be in office forever. The people that are here are getting engaged and organized.”
El-Yateem was born and raised in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. That experience led him to cross another red line in American politics. In addition to his vocal support for socialism, he backs the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to apply economic pressure on Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian lands. DSA endorsed the boycott at its national convention in Chicago in early August.
“My movements were always controlled,” El-Yateem says of his childhood. “I was not able to play outside my house after dark. My mother would send me to school and not know if I would come home or not.” When he visits his birthplace, Israel does not recognize his U.S. citizenship and insists that he travel with Palestinian documents. “You cannot choose issues of justice that are convenient to you, that only serve your political career,” he says. “When you are committed to justice you have to be committed all the way.”
Last year, the City Council passed a resolution condemning the BDS movement as anti-Semitic. It echoed an executive order signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo a few months earlier to have the state boycott companies and institutions that boycott Israel. The law created a public blacklist of BDS-related organizations available on the state’s Office of General Services website.
“I strongly oppose the BDS movement that at its core seeks to delegitimize the state of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state,” Brannan says. “Israel is a vital U.S. ally and the only democracy in the Middle East. And, frankly, BDS is counter to the inclusiveness and tolerance that we value in this district.”
El-Yateem’s Palestinian heritage and his socialist affiliation have become a rallying cry for Republican hopeful Bob Capano, a virulent Trump supporter and owner of a Gristedes supermarket on the Upper East Side. He has referred to the pastor as a “cleric” and “radical leftist.” Internet death threats directed at El-Yateem have followed. One person expressed a desire to crush El-Yateem’s skull.
“There are some things I can tolerate because I’m a big boy,” says El-Yateem, who is a father of four. “But when it comes down to people saying they want to put my head in a vice, that becomes a threat. I have my children at home. They have access to social media. They read things and they are living in fear. They are terrified, hearing that people want to kill me.”
Despite the threats against him and the challenges El-Yateem is facing taking on the city’s political machine, he is affable and self-effacing, criticizing his opponents’ politics without a grimace. Walking door-to-door along Bay Ridge Avenue and its surrounding streets, he bows to greet every dog that barks in his direction, especially the small yelpy ones. (El-Yateem, who is over six feet tall, is the proud owner of a Yorkie.) When the dogs’ humans meet him, their cynicism melts into optimism, and suspicion gives way to encouragement.
“What are you doing? Don’t you know this is Trump territory?” a white woman at one door greets him half-jokingly. The Trump-Pence ticket won 35 percent of the vote in Bay Ridge last November, and carried Dyker Heights. By the time she finished speaking with El-Yateem, however, the woman was asking where his campaign office was located so she and her family could come and volunteer.
At an Arab-run grocery store, the proprietor chastised El-Yateem for missing his daughter’s wedding. “My mother-in-law was in the hospital,” he pleaded. He was forgiven.
One middle-aged white guy sporting a gray mustache looked at El-Yateem’s flier cross-eyed from his doorstep. The candidate was drawing on a list of registered Democrats, but the man was clearly disgruntled with the state of city politics. “Nothing is getting done with one party running this town,” he said with a sigh.
After learning that El-Yateem was campaigning to take on the Democratic establishment, the man lightened up. “I’ll look this over,” he said, tapping the flier against his palm. It was by no means a vote clearly won, yet it showed El-Yateem’s potential support. After all, dissatisfaction with politics — particularly along economic lines — was a key reason voters turned to both Trump and Sanders in the last election.
Progressive insurgents successfully shook up the City Council in 2009, when a slate of Working Families Party-backed candidates rode a wave of voter resentment over the council’s decision to enable Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s bid for a third term. Four entrenched incumbents were given the boot. Among the newcomers voted in were Jumaane Williams in Flatbush and Canarsie and Margaret Chin in Manhattan’s Chinatown. While Williams has remained a staunch progressive voice since taking office, Chin, a one-time Maoist who surfed in on the same Working Families slate, has come under fire from anti-gentrification activists for encouraging high-rise construction in her district.
“I didn’t go to seminary school to be a politician,” El-Yateem says, insisting power won’t change him. “I’m not accountable to a political machine. I’m accountable only to the people who live here, to my family and to my neighbors. I’ve been telling members of the progressive movement, people that have been opposing Trump, ‘You don’t have to hold me accountable. I will hold you accountable if you aren’t getting the job done.’”
But first, the movement will have to put El-Yateem in office and show that the enthusiasm that made Sanders a contender nationally is applicable on a local level.
The mini-purge of 2009 didn’t change the City Council much, but it did light a flame under complacent incumbents, who began to worry they might be vulnerable. If the coalition of Arab Americans, young socialists and disaffected members of the working class — many of whom, in Bay Ridge, are white — that El-Yateem is building propels him to office, it could push the council further leftward and set the stage for more socialist gains in 2021.
DSA is seeking to build power through “hard grassroots work,” Tascha Van Auken says: knocking on doors, making phone calls, building democratic organizing structures. It’s operating separately from El-Yateem’s official campaign, she adds, which will enable it to maintain its contacts after the primary, no matter what the outcome.
Clarification: An earlier version of this article noted El-Yateem’s campaign has not taken money from “the real-estate industry.” The campaign has not taken money from developers. Some local small business operators, including realtors, have donated.