Primary 2017: The Case for Justin Brannan

Justin Brannan
Jason Jamal Nakleh photography /

Before the Democratic primary on September 12 for the city council seat that represents Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights and Bath Beach (presently held by Vincent Gentile, who’s term-limited out), Hey Ridge will run op-eds by supporters of the two candidates we believe are best suited for the job: Khader El-Yateem and Justin Brannan.

A friend approached me a few years ago with a crazy idea—what if we put together a music festival in Bay Ridge that showcased local young bands? Where would we even start? And I said to him those two words that so many people in Bay Ridge have uttered in the last decade: Ask Justin.

At the time I didn’t know Justin Brannan well, apart from his professional reputation, and my friend didn’t know him at all, but Justin met with us anyway at the Lock Yard one evening and explained how we would need to navigate local bureaucracy to make something like that happen—what our options were, which were the most realistic, who we would need to talk and what we would need to do to make any of them work, contact info included. I don’t think we even paid for his tofu dogs. All this for a project that never even got off the ground; bands pulled out, organizers pulled out—not that that was Justin’s fault. He gave us all the information, so we could make it work.

No one knows and navigates New York City bureaucracy like Justin—not now, probably not ever. (Even “Boss” Tweed would be impressed—especially because Justin does it without any of the corruption!) The time he has spent in various responsibilities in Councilmember Gentile’s office and other citywide positions, fostering relationships and know-how, has given him an uncanny ability to cut through the red tape. It’s not exactly the most inspiring aspect of governance, I know, but it’s the most valuable in a councilmember, who has limited influence on marquee Trump-era issues like healthcare and immigration. Our next representative will foremost be responsible for making sure that city resources make it to this district, whether it’s to get the garbage picked up, fill potholes, fund schools, maintain a functioning transit system or improve our public spaces. This isn’t just something Justin is good at; it’s his passion. He actually likes doing it.

A former colleague, Sarah Zorn, once expressed to me frustration with the reconstruction of her local dog park, the one by the golf course. I told her: Ask Justin. Now, years later, she’s an outspoken advocate. “He invited me to look at the blueprints,” she recently wrote on Facebook, “and to attend the next planning meeting.”

I wrote a long missive to Justin [this August] concerning the park on 14th Avenue, which has fallen into…disrepair during the years I’ve lived here (people literally arrive by the van-full to play soccer on the fields, and leave mountains of trash in their wake)….I brought it up in hopes that, if he was able to do anything about it, he could use it as a way to win over voters in Bath Beach. As of this week, the park is cleaner than I’ve ever seen it. And, to my great consternation, the neighborhood is none the wiser that Justin had anything to do with it.

Which is why I’m telling you. Not only does Justin have a career-long record of getting things done for the community—addressing both individual and quality-of-life issues, and [co]founding the endlessly inspiring nonprofit Bay Ridge Cares—it has never, ever been for personal glory or gain.

Most of us who have watched Justin doing these sorts of things for years assumed he would run for Gentile’s seat once it were available, but it hasn’t felt like he’s been engaged in a decade-long campaign for office. Justin, like some old-school, New Deal leftie, believes with impossible sincerity in the power of government to work for the people, to improve our communities by tackling any and all problems that it’s fit to address. A defining feature of Trumpism, and conservative politics for generations, has been disdain for the very existence of government; it’s no accident that the president’s cabinet is staffed with inexperienced and unqualified people, whose mission seems to be not to make their agencies work best but to dismantle them from the inside, tautologically proving their inefficiency. Justin embodies the antithetical philosophy.

He’s also a bonafide progressive—that is, he has not only the right experience but also the right values. He’s a vegetarian (would he be the first meatless councilmember?) with a punk-rock background—he was once active in the local hardcore scene, and he has a cool sleeve tattoo. He now runs an art studio for kids on Third Avenue with his wife. He was a union shop steward, and he has stood with strikers on countless picket lines. He was behind the podium at the rally to remove the names of Confederate generals from the names of avenues on the armybase, and he’s participated in every Martin Luther King, Jr., Day march since they started. He’ll stand up for those that need him, when they need him, whether it’s constituents targeted by the reactionary policies of the Trump administration or abused animals.

Think of how effective Justin has been on the sidelines of city government.

Now imagine what he could do, for all of us, by being right in the middle of it.

Look up where and when to vote, as well as who and what will be on the ballot, here.

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