Meet Rafael Espinal, the NYC Council Member Fighting for His East New York Community

Photo courtesy of Office of Council Member Rafael Espinal

If you’ve been paying attention to the ins and outs of New York City politics over the last few years, you’ve caught wind of Councilman Rafael Espinal. With a handful of high-profile legislative victories to his name – including, most recently, a law rescinding the city’s laughably antiquated and oft-abused “Cabaret Law” (which banned venues from allowing dancing unless it had a specific license) – Espinal has become a fixture in the local news media and graced the pages of fashion journals and venerable print magazines like New York.

Sporting a thick beard and windswept high-and-tight to top off his tailored suits, the 33-year-old Brooklyn native certainly looks the part of a savvy, young, progressive politician; but Espinal’s record speaks to more than just a media-friendly millennial image. For starters, his push to rescind the 91-year-old Cabaret Law – which was historically invoked to antagonize communities of color – accomplished something that had eluded well-meaning New York City mayors for years. Then, there was his vocal support of Bernie Sander’s 2016 presidential bid, which firmly cemented his progressive bonafides while leaving him isolated from literally every other elected official in the city. This year, Espinal sponsored a bill to create a new nightlife mayor position, and recently, he introduced a bill to crack down on employers who contact workers after hours.

“Because of technology, it’s become very easy for people to be pushed to do their jobs 24 hours a day and employees should have the right without fear of retribution to draw a clear line as to whether they want to work during their personal time,” Espinal said after introducing the bill.

But in the end, Espinal knows exactly who he’s working for. Born to Dominican parents in the scrappy Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York, Espinal grew up in the 37th Council district he now represents, and he’s intimately familiar with the challenges faced by the historically marginalized, working-class Black and brown communities it encompasses. So if his legislative priorities – ranging from electric bus fleets, to marijuana legalization, and cutting-edge labor protections – happen to fit snugly with a millennial zeitgeist, it’s only because he knows his communities are in need of bold, visionary action.

Yet, in the midst of a crushing housing crisis and rising social discontent, perhaps it was inevitable that an ambitious young politician like Espinal would bump into some controversy. And so it was when he pushed through a massive, quarter-billion dollar rezoning plan for East New York in 2016. Even though Espinal managed to squeeze some affordable housing concessions out of developers looking to sink their teeth into his neighborhood’s low-rise avenues and empty lots, some community groups felt the move was a betrayal – and they let him know it.

Now, at least in the short term, the rezoning plan seems to be bearing fruit and Espinal has secured a historic investment in East New York’s infrastructure, including new schools and community centers. Together, with the Cabaret Law victory and a handful of forward-thinking initiatives making waves in local and national media, it seems the rising star of the 37th District is still in the city’s good graces, with a bright future ahead of him.

So we took the chance to talk with Espinal about rooftop gardens, anti-establishment politicians, and the importance of being involved in the political process.

Could you talk a little bit about your background and your decision to enter politics?

“I grew up in East New York; it was and continues to be a very challenging neighborhood because of the lack of investment from our state and local government for decades.”

After I graduated college, I was looking for a job to help pay my bills while I applied to go to grad school. I knew that whatever I ended up doing with my life, it would be something that would help uplift people and inspire them. But I wasn’t sure what it was at the time. So I was able to get a job with a local Council member, with no interest in being involved with politics, but while I was in his office, I learned more and more what the rules and responsibilities of an elected official were and how much impact their work actually has on local communities.

It wasn’t until he invited me to sit down and where he was talking about the future of the local park of the area I grew up in that I started to gain interest in being able to have the influence and the ability to create local change in the community. I grew up in East New York; it was and continues to be a very challenging neighborhood because of the lack of investment from our state and local government for decades. So I decided to stay working in his office for a while longer and he saw potential in me and mentored me and guided me to the point where, when an opportunity came up to run for office, he lent his support and his endorsement, and at the age of 26 I ran for office.

So you’re a young Latino on the New York City Council. How do these identities inform the work you do? Do you feel they present any challenges?

I grew up in a neighborhood that was ignored by government to the point where the people in my district didn’t have a voice in the process and also weren’t represented in any decisions that were being made. So when I ran for office and when I started my work, I thought it was important to be a voice for my constituents and be a voice for all of those that who – whether they live in my neighborhood or not – can feel that they’re being represented by someone in City Hall. So when I work on issues I make sure they’re issues that deal with socio-economic implications, whether it’s creating jobs, providing affordable housing, making investments in schools. For example the nightlife community in this city has always felt that the city never worked to support them, even though they contributed so much to creating the city’s identity. So I think it’s important for someone in City Hall to look for those issues that have not been spoken about and make sure that someone is raising them to the top so they can finally be addressed.

The challenges I have, honestly, as a Latino, as someone who comes from a neighborhood like mine, is that way we have very low participation in the process and it makes it harder for me, politically, to be able to fight for the causes that are important to my community. Because, to be honest, in politics people care about the numbers, people care about the votes, when you have people looking to make investments in places where they feel are going to contribute to the overall political goal. So it’s important that people in my district get involved, and I think it’s important for myself to continue creating those opportunities and continue working on issues that are going to inspire people to come out and vote.

You’ve accomplished a lot as a legislator in just a few years. What do you see as your biggest legislative battles ahead of you?

When it comes to legislation, the huge battle that I’m working on now is creating an urban agriculture plan that the city would implement to support urban gardening, whether it be in empty lots in our communities, rooftops in the warehouses, or even indoors we’re seeing a lot of new technology to support growing greens within our city. And I think the importance of that is that urban gardening brings a lot of benefits. One, it creates new jobs opportunities; two it helps make our city more resilient in that it helps capture rain water, helps improve air quality and helps make sure NYC is a greener city; and three, it helps build community and it helps build skills, and it helps bring awareness to neighborhoods – especially neighborhoods like mine, that have been food insecure for a really long time, where communities are banding together to support local gardens so that they can create sustainable food and create more green options in the communities.

“I never set out to be a politician or elected official, but every day I’m more inspired to continue doing the work.”

You were one of few New York lawmakers to support Bernie Sanders in the primary. What led you to make this decision? Did you receive any pushback from the party?

So I was the first and only city elected official to endorse Bernie throughout the entire process when he announced he was running for president. And the reason I did that is because I strongly connected to his message, and his message was directed toward dealing with the issues that kept pushing my community down, and that’s income inequality, that’s making sure people at the top are paying their fair share so people at the bottom can live a life with dignity and opportunity.

And I think what’s also inspiring about him is that he isn’t afraid to speak his mind, and he shows that you don’t have to be a traditional politician in order to inspire people and get them involved in the process, in order to get a message across that millions of people can get behind. And I think his unconventional approach helped energize and inspire many people who normally wouldn’t be part of the process, and I believe he breathes life back into the electoral process.

So I think we need more elected officials like him. When I did step up and support him, there were a lot of people who thought I was crazy, but at the end of the day, when it proved that his message was the message Americans wanted, they saw the importance of getting behind someone like him.

Do you have plans to expand beyond local politics onto the national scene, or are you just playing it by ear?

I never set out to be a politician or elected official, but every day I’m more inspired to continue doing the work, and it would be an honor if I could run for higher office. But I would only be interested in doing it if I continue having a vision of how the city should move forward.

Correction, May 15 at 8:10 a.m. ET: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Rafael Espinal’s age.