Brooklyn’s Unofficial Mayor
City Councilman Brad Lander’s coalition includes Hasids and J Streeters—but can he move beyond Brooklyn?
Four years ago, when the veteran Brooklyn community organizer Brad Lander started thinking about running for the New York City Council, his mentors and advisers warned him about the ugly realities he would face trying to get things done. “There were people who felt I should stay out,” Lander told me the other day. “That politics was such a messy business.”
Last week’s arrests of members of the City Council and of New York’s state legislature on bribery and corruption charges were only the latest reminder of how especially dirty New York politics can be. But Lander has turned out to be adept at navigating the muck. In the last month, the freshman councilman has been at the heart of successful efforts that forced Christine Quinn, the council’s speaker and the leading Democratic mayoral candidate, to change her position on two major issues: mandatory paid sick leave and increased oversight of the New York Police Department, which has been embroiled in controversy over its stop-and-frisk policy and its surveillance of Muslim communities. “The pace of change is glacial, but if you’re smart and know how to make allies and have a sense of how to move the chess pieces around, you can do it,” said Daniel Cantor, executive director of the progressive Working Families Party. “Brad is Exhibit A.”
Originally from St. Louis, Lander, now 43, got his start in urban politics as a student at the University of Chicago, where he joined the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, a Hyde Park institution whose directors include the legendary former Congressman and Judge Abner Mikva—one of President Barack Obama’s earliest Jewish mentors. Lander, who was active in the Reform movement’s youth movement, NFTY, as a teenager, also taught Sunday school at the synagogue where Mikva’s daughter, Rachel, was a rabbi. “I played guitar, because I had to make money somehow, and that’s what I could do,” Lander explained.
After spending a year in London for graduate work, he followed his girlfriend (now wife), Meg Barnette, to New York, and went to work for the Fifth Avenue Committee, a group that was key to spurring the revitalization of Park Slope, in the heart of gentrified brownstone Brooklyn, which is a hub for young families who might in previous generations have fled to the suburbs. “Park Slope looks very different now than it did 25 years ago,” said Julie Sandorf, a longtime housing activist who now heads the Charles H. Revson Foundation, which provides grants for civic and Jewish programs in New York. (Sandorf is also a co-founder of Nextbook, Tablet’s parent organization.) Lander’s experience in the re-development arena gave him a citywide network to draw on when he decided to run for office in 2009. “Everybody in the housing world knows everybody in New York,” Sandorf told me. “And I think he was respected, because he got things done.”
Lander, who was endorsed by the New York Times, won easily in a crowded field that included Josh Skaller, an anti-development activist who won Howard Dean’s support. He also faced a conservative Catholic candidate, John Heyer, whose backers tried to appeal to religiously observant Jews in Borough Park by advertising Heyer’s stands against same-sex marriage—provoking a bizarre counter-offensive in the Yiddish press on Lander’s behalf.
Shortly after taking office in 2010, Lander and Melissa Mark-Viverito, a council member from East Harlem, rallied a dozen of their colleagues to form a new Progressive Caucus—an unusual gathering for a legislative body that has traditionally organized itself along geographic and ethnic lines rather than ideological ones. Born out of both the afterglow of Obama’s 2008 presidential election and frustration with Michael Bloomberg’s third-term mayoralty, the group now has a slate of endorsed candidates in next fall’s council elections and a snazzy Web site outlining a policy platform that runs from access to health care through city-backed preschool childcare. But Lander cheerfully acknowledges that both the victory on paid sick leave and Quinn’s newfound support for the creation of an NYPD inspector general, while backed by labor unions and nonprofit advocacy groups, were finally won because of political jockeying in the mayor’s race, with Quinn moving to answer criticisms lodged by her Democratic primary opponents. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing,” Lander said. “It’s how democracy works.”
As a city councilman, Lander has managed to build a surprising coalition of supporters across his district, which runs from ultra-Orthodox Borough Park northwest through the gentrified “brownstone Brooklyn” corridor of Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, and Cobble Hill. “I probably represent more Belzer hasidim and members of J Street and the Jewish Voice for Peace than anyone,” said Lander. After Hurricane Sandy, he was instrumental in mobilizing Masbia, a kosher soup kitchen in Borough Park, to provide food assistance to people taking refuge at the Park Slope Armory, along with Reform Jewish groups like Congregation Beth Elohim. In December, Lander arranged for a community event in honor of his son Marek’s bar mitzvah at Masbia’s Borough Park location. “He didn’t get a lot of votes in Borough Park, but the way he’s always around, it’s as though everyone voted for him,” said Alexander Rapoport, the head of Masbia.
Lander is himself a longtime member of Kolot Chayeinu, an independent and famously liberal synagogue in Park Slope. The synagogue has been deeply involved in promoting Jewish-Muslim outreach, and, Lander said, provided the impetus for his opposition to the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policies and surveillance programs in the Muslim community, including in his district. “My motivation to be involved on those issues came more from the civil rights and social justice sensibilities of brownstone Brooklyn than from my black or Latino or Muslim constituents,” Lander told me. “The majority of my constituents are not that likely to have their kids stopped and frisked or be surveilled in their places of worship, but they think it’s a violation of civil liberties.”
A decade ago, Lander and Barnette (who is not Jewish) contributed an essay to Wrestling With Zion, an anthology compiled by the playwright Tony Kushner and the drama critic Alisa Solomon, in which they celebrated the fact that their son would be excluded under Israel’s right of return laws because he could not claim matrilineal descent. “We believe that law confuses the wonderful and painful inheritance of identity with unearned advantages—legal, political, and financial—granted by a militarized state over other people, including so many whom it oppresses daily,” they wrote. The essay became fodder for Lander’s critics in his 2009 election, when Orthodox bloggers posted items under titles like “Brad Lander is an anti-Semite.” But he nonetheless won the endorsement of Dov Hikind, the district’s state assemblyman and a kingmaker in Borough Park’s Orthodox community.
Lander is used to attacks from his right, but last February, he wound up drawing fire from his left, after he signed on to a letter demanding that Brooklyn College’s political science department withdraw its support from an event on the anti-Israel divestment movement. “People were upset about the Brooklyn College letter,” said Ellen Lippmann, the rabbi of Kolot Chayeinu. “But Brad made himself available for conversations with people who disagree with him, and not everybody does that: say, great, I’m going to go talk to people who are furious with me.”
Lippmann is among Lander’s fans who say they can easily imagine him making a run for higher office. “When I met him all those years ago, I thought, ‘This guy’s going to be mayor one day,’ ” Lippmann told me. Others suggested that Lander might one day be a candidate to succeed Sen. Chuck Schumer, another Jewish politician who started far to the left of his Brooklyn base but has come to occupy a firm position in the power-brokering political center. And as Brooklyn continues to assert its historic independent identity, there’s always another slot for a visionary local pol: president of the most Jewish borough in the world. “Can he be the next Marty Markowitz?” asked David Luchins, a former adviser to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and now a political-science professor at Touro College, referring to Brooklyn’s longtime borough president. “That’s where I see him.”
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