Personable Jesus: Reformers Hope for a Savior in Brooklyn Special

 Personable Jesus: Reformers Hope for a Savior in Brooklyn Special
Courtesy Jesus Gonzalez for Assembly

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Jesus Gonzalez finished a Newport outside his Bushwick office, then ducked to the back with a comb and some gel. He emerged with his close-cropped hair slicked down, and picked up a stack of campaign literature before setting out to knock on some doors.

“It is one of the oldest community organizing tactics,” said Mr. Gonzalez, in an untucked beige polo shirt, an oversized blazer, baggy jeans and shiny patent leather kicks. “Even Jesus’ disciples did it to spread the word.”

Mr. Gonzalez, who goes by the English pronunciation of his first name, Jesus – though some supporters have quietly tried to push the Spanish pronunciation for the campaign – will need some new converts to win the upcoming special election in New York’s 54th Assembly District.

The district, which comprises parts of Bed-Stuy, Bushwick, Cypress Hills and East New York, cuts across three of Brooklyn’s warring political clans. Mr. Gonzalez is backed by a coalition of Latino community groups and young reformers in North Brooklyn, led by Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez. Running against Mr. Gonzalez in the three-way race are candidates backed, respectively, by two Brooklyn institutions: the borough’s powerful Democratic chairman, Vito Lopez, and its longest-serving congressman, Ed Towns.

“I represent a new wave in politics. I represent a generation called the Hip Hop Generation,” said Mr. Gonzalez, who, at 26, is campaigning for the first time, after nearly a decade working at Make the Road, an influential community group making its first foray into electoral politics. “It’s the bridge that brings together young and old. It’s a breath of fresh air in the political sphere.”

(His personal Facebook page shows photos of Mr. Gonzalez registering voters at a “Hip Hop for Jesus G” fundraiser earlier this month, along with some photos of him competing in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and a few of him drinking tequila shots at his birthday party.)

His campaign literature proclaims Mr. Gonzalez “The Real Democrat for State Assembly,” a reaction to the fact he won’t actually appear on the Democratic ballot line –which is controlled by the local party chairman, Mr. Lopez – when voters go to the polls on September 13.  Instead, he’ll appear on the ballot line of the labor-backed Working Families Party, which endorsed him last week.

His supporters hope that the W.F.P.’s vaunted field operation and some high-profile endorsements, combined with Mr. Gonzalez’s youthful energy and Make the Road’s new political arm, can deliver him to the Assembly and, in the process, cement a new coalition with enduring power in Brooklyn politics.

“He has charisma, wisdom, dedication, real work in the community,” said T.J. Helmsetter, the Working Families Party communications director. “He is the type of person you actually want in politics. Sometimes in politics you have to ruffle a few feathers when it’s worth it, and this is worth it.”

 

Mr. Gonzalez is still figuring out exactly how to transition from community organizer to candidate. He practically sprints around the neighborhood as he rings buzzers and approaches prospective voters, mentioning his neighborhood roots at even the slightest opportunity.

On Putnam Avenue, a middle aged woman in Homer Simpson slippers came to the door of a steep-stooped brownstone and, after remarking on Mr. Gonzalez’s youth, asked for reassurance that he won’t be seduced by the office and end up caught in a sex scandal.

“I have a proven track record in the neighborhood,” said Mr. Gonzalez. “I am from here. My father was the Icee man. He now works maintenance at Tompkins Day Care Center in Bed-Stuy. I live just like you and everyone else here.”

Mr. Gonzalez started working at Make the Road when he was 13 – following the example of an older sister who still works for the organization. As one of the founding members of the Youth Power Project, Mr. Gonzalez worked to get other young people from the community involved in campaigning for more neighborhood resources.

In the process, he became a success story for the program. After attending Bushwick Community High School, Mr. Gonzalez received a scholarship to Hofstra University, where he majored in sociology and political science. Mr. Gonzalez returned to Bushwick after college and continued to work at Make the Road.

Last year, Make the Road created a 501(c)4 “action fund,” independent from its core non-profit, that allows the new arm of the organization to raise money for candidates and participate in elections. Turnout for the special election is expected to be particularly low, and the race will be an early measure of whether Make the Road can translate its organizing success into votes.

Mr. Gonzalez’s campaign is largely staffed by people from the organization, many of whom have watched him grow up. Oona Chatterjee, who is currently on leave from her position as co-executive director of Make the Road to run the campaign, met the candidate when he first started with the non-profit as a teenager.

“When he was younger, he was much more of an ‘I don’t trust politicians’ kind of person, and it’s really nice to see his development, because I feel like we were all hoping for that,” said Ms. Chatterjee.

Mr. Gonzalez is still wary of some parts of the process. Before going out to greet voters, he cautioned The Politicker about how his local image might play in the broader press.

“I just want to be careful on how I’m quoted, because we have neighborhood people,” he said. “For example, ‘What’s good, baby?’ To quote that, political insiders aren’t going to understand.”

But the local politicians seem to grasp his appeal.

“I remember Jesus being so young, to see this young person grow up and become the person he has is transformative,” said Ms. Velazquez.  “It’s the hope to find a young person who wants to throw themself into politics.”

“I’m a great campaigner, especially when I know there is a great candidate,” she said. “I’m behind Jesus 100 percent.”

8 thoughts on “Personable Jesus: Reformers Hope for a Savior in Brooklyn Special

  1. Wow, I’m amazed at how Jesus pretty much has his entire family working at Make the Road. Talk about not doing politics as usual.  And I am oh so amazed at how the media never picks up at the fact that Lincoln Restler’s dad works on Wall Street and that Lincoln is buying off all these people to try and garner support–again Politics as usual! These REFORMERS are all FULL OF CRAP!  A wise American political figure once said, a reformer is only a reformer until (s)he is in the position; after that they return to business as usual.  

    1. jesus’ family are two staff out of a city wide organization. both of his family members have a more extensive and proven track than Rafael or Diedra

  2. Where to begin? First, if you look at who is working on this campaign, and where the money is coming from, you can see right away that it’s from outside the district. Even Gonzalez seems to be more from the 53rd AD part of Bushwick. Wealthy “reformers” like Andrew Friedman and Lincoln Restler are using their parents Wall Street/Washington corporate connections to influence the race. Even the elected officials who have chosen to support him are mostly from Williamsburg, with the one exception of soon to be indicted Charles Barron. As for the WFP, why no word on the infamous history of Data & Field services? Finally, this article would have been much more interesting if it would have focused on the unlikely fact that Nydia Velasquez is supporting a candidate against  her mentor and long time ally Ed Towns’ daughter. Gonzalez seems like a spoiler to me. 

    1. I think Jesus is smart. young dude from the hood got them all to the table. he’s been hustlin. I just met him on my block today. he’s the real deal. i don’t know these people you talk about but i did meet him and we needs change. clown politicians claiming their throne. if these politicians were really about the community they would support Jesus. he’s from here and paid his dues

  3. I love the comments about “FAT CAT” Democ”RAT” Lincoln Restler and his “Wall Street” Ties 

    But this race is about “POWER” who has it and can they elect their choice.

    The “Voters” are mere window dressing and the on;y real issue is which of the “POWERS” will win.

    Before there was the “Oracle at Delphi” there was Count Vampire J. Machiavelli

    VJ Machiavelli
    The Legislative Budget is Too Damn High

  4. Deidre Towns isn’t African-American. Her father, Rep. Towns, has been public with the fact that Deidre is adopted and is Puerto Rican (I believe he even mentioned this in this column before). You should do your research before writing stuff as fact.

  5. Gonzalez has a sister and a cousin who have been working at Make the Road as long as he has. They spent their youth learning about the community they lived in and decided to dedicate their lives working to improve it as organizers and advocates. Nothing wrong with that. This is very different than having someone in your family earning over a half million dollars while working part time there as a so called director, such as Vito, or funneling six figures to their wife’s so called non profit, such as Erik. Espinal wants to call himself a community activist and has no background as such. I don’t even think he knows the definition of the term. Jesus has lived in the district his entire life, went to school there, and still hangs out there. Nothing else needs to be said except Google each candidate’s name, and do your homework. The facts are there. Jesus has the most credentials, hands down. It’s time for a change – let’s get rid of these empty suits!

  6. I find it funny how Gonzalez and Towns’ supporters only attack Espinal and avoid any substantive criticism of each other. Espinal is a smart and agressive Democrat who is obviously the best choice for this community. He’s the only one that would be an effective Assemblyman, who would actually bring much needed resources to the district. Like Charles Barron, who endorsed him, Gonzalez seems like just another left wing demagogue, uninterested in forging coalitions or actually getting things done. The people living in the 54th AD don’t need another soapbox orator, they need results. 

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