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.”
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