Meet the Only Member of the New York City Council Endorsing Bernie Sanders

There's only one member of the City Council who's feeling the Bern.

Councilman Rafael Espinal. (Photo: William Alatriste for NYC Council)
Councilman Rafael Espinal. (Photo: William Alatriste for NYC Council)

There are 51 members of the New York City Council. Only one has endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders for president.

The lone endorsement for Mr. Sanders, a Vermont independent who has electrified progressives across America, does not come from any members of the Council’s liberal wing, however. No one in the 19-member Progressive Caucus is backing Mr. Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, and several are supporting the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton.

The Democratic establishment is united behind Ms. Clinton, the former secretary of state and senator from New York, with the governor, both senators, mayor and council speaker all firmly in Ms. Clinton’s corner. That leaves Councilman Rafael Espinal, a Brooklyn Democrat, as the lone city lawmaker, outside of a couple of local state senators, feeling the Bern.

“I’m with him because he speaks to a lot of the issues that affect my constituents. The number one thing is inequality,” Mr. Espinal told the Observer yesterday after he attended a Wall Street reform speech Mr. Sanders delivered in Midtown.

“A lot of our constituents need jobs. A lot of our constituents are struggling to go to college so he speaks on how we can address those issues in Washington and make sure that people who are living in districts like mine have a fair opportunity to live the American dream,” he added, noting that some of his colleagues were “interested” in backing Mr. Sanders but hadn’t pulled the trigger.

He said he was surprised the Progressive Caucus was not rallying around the most liberal presidential candidate out there.

“It’s very surprising to me. I’m not part of the Progressive Caucus but when I see a candidate who is speaking from the heart and talking on issues that affect every day New Yorkers, I think it’s important we stand up and try to support him throughout the race,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the Progressive Caucus, Alana Cantillo, said she couldn’t say with “certainty” if the body would endorse any candidate. She defended the liberal bona fides of the group.

“Our work to minimize inequality by expanding economic opportunities, combating employment discrimination and expanding resources and access to public programs, advances the progressive agenda and our values,” she said.

At first glance, Mr. Espinal is an unlikely Sanders ally. Back in October, Mr. Espinal told Politico New York he was leaning towards endorsing Mr. Sanders, though he still described himself as undecided.

A former state assemblyman, Mr. Espinal first ran for office in 2011 as the handpicked candidate of the Democratic establishment. Running in a special election on the Democratic line, he faced off against a candidate backed by the Working Families Party, a liberal hybrid of party activists and labor unions.

In their endorsement of the WFP-backed candidate, Jesus Gonzalez, the Daily News referred to Mr. Espinal as a “Democratic machine cog.” Mr. Espinal was a protégé of Vito Lopez, the Brooklyn Democratic Party boss who would resign in disgrace a year later following a sexual harassment scandal. After a battle with cancer, Mr. Lopez died last year.

Since his election to the Council in 2013, when he was again unsuccessfully opposed by the WFP, Mr. Espinal has carved his own path. Like much of the Council, he is a liberal on most issues, and has occasionally garnered headlines as a critic of Mayor Bill de Blasio, a fellow Democrat. Mr. Espinal, who represents Bushwick and sections of East New York, spoke out against Mr. de Blasio’s attempt to ban horse-drawn carriages from city streets, siding with organized labor against the liberal mayor.

Now the WFP and Mr. Espinal are on the same page. Both are backing Mr. Sanders.

What this will mean for Mr. Sanders’ fortunes in New York City and New York State remains to be seen. The gentrifying precincts of north Brooklyn, where Mr. Espinal resides, could be fertile ground for Sanders support. Mr. Sanders also happens to be a Brooklyn native.

But Ms. Clinton, with her superior name recognition and establishment backing, is still the heavy favorite to win the five boroughs and the rest of the state. New York votes late in the primary season and the Sanders campaign is focusing on winning early states to buoy his long-shot bid.

Meet the Only Member of the New York City Council Endorsing Bernie Sanders