Meet the Socialist Who Hopes to Become New York’s First Arab-American Elected Official

Meet the Socialist Who Hopes to Become New York’s First Arab-American Elected Official

Meet the Socialist Who Hopes to Become New York’s First Arab-American Elected Official

Khader El-Yateem has ignited a diverse progressive base. Can he win over everyone else?

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On a clear Saturday in mid-July, the corner of Fifth and Bay Ridge Avenues in southwest Brooklyn is alive with the hum of small-town urban life. Clusters of children shamble and scoot down the sidewalk, weaving around older men as they debate the latest news out of Syria. Restaurants serving Moroccan, Egyptian, and Yemeni cuisine beckon to passersby, competing for attention with hookah lounges and Syrian pastry shops. Down the street a pair of housewives—sisters from Iraq—inspect the mounds of feta cheese and olives on offer at Balady Halal Market. Their daughters, teenage girls in skinny jeans and hijabs, loiter near a shelf lined with loose sumac and thyme, flipping through Instagram.

Just off Fifth Avenue, the doors of a glass-plated storefront swing in both directions as a mix of local students, earnest-eyed hipsters, and purse-bearing mothers breeze in and out, carrying clipboards, voter registration cards, and campaign literature. Signs on the door read “welcome” in Arabic and English, and color-coded maps of the neighborhood cover most of the walls. In the back, a large poster crowded with dozens of volunteers’ signatures hangs alongside a handwritten message: “Team El-Yateem, Putting People Over Politics.”

“El-Yateem” refers to Rev. Khader El-Yateem, a Palestinian-American immigrant running to become the City Council representative for District 43, and the storefront is his campaign headquarters. At 48, El-Yateem is a well-known figure in the district—a swath of waterfront that encompasses Bay Ridge and its neighboring communities—but a newcomer to electoral politics, having served the last two decades as a local Lutheran pastor. Jockeying among four other Democratic primary candidates, El-Yateem faces competitors bolstered by years in the New York political mix. But the thrum of activity in his campaign headquarters testifies to the grassroots energy that has coalesced around his campaign. If he is successful—if he can prevail in the September 12 primary and then again in the November general election—El-Yateem will become the first Arab American in New York’s City Council. He will also be the first person of color to hold the seat.

“All these years of organizing and forming alliances—it taught us how to assert ourselves as a community,” El Yateem says of his decision to run for political office. “It taught me how to be a leader, and now it’s time for us to take it to the next level.”

Just a few years ago, El-Yateem’s campaign would have been unfathomable in District 43. For decades, the area was defined by its close-knit Irish and Italian populations, with one Bay Ridge resident hailing it in a 1982 New York Times article as “the last white enclave of Brooklyn.” Today, however, the area is deeply multicultural, home to thousands of Asian, Arab, and Latino residents who have settled alongside longer-standing European-American enclaves. The rapid shift has turned it into a flashpoint for racial tensions—on message boards and Twitter, some residents fret openly about the “Asian invasion” and rail against non-English speakers—but the neighborhood has also become an emblem of a more welcoming, diverse New York.

El-Yateem’s foray into city politics is one clear after-effect of this new neighborhood mix, but it is also part of a larger shift within New York’s greater Middle Eastern community, says Moustafa Bayoumi, professor at Brooklyn College and author of How Does It Feel To Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America. El-Yateem’s candidacy, Bayoumi explains, is an outgrowth of the community identity that was forged in the wake of 9/11. A longtime Brooklyn resident, Bayoumi recalls the early days after the attacks, when Arabs across the city, and particularly in Bay Ridge, faced a swell of harassment, hate crimes, government surveillance, and arrests. “It became necessary for Arabs to unite, just to protect themselves,” explains Bayoumi, adding that this posture of perpetual self-defense drains time and energy away from establishing a more coherent presence in the city.

“For all these reasons, there still hasn’t been much real acceptance and inclusion of the Arab community, culturally or politically,” Bayoumi says. And, he warns, El-Yateem faces an uphill battle. “He’s confronting a lot of systemic racism and Islamophobia it won’t be an easy fight.”

Still, despite these hurdles, El-Yateem has surged close to the front of the five-person primary race, helping turn what might have been a sleepy, district-only affair into a vigorous contest with city-wide reverberations. An avowed progressive, El-Yateem is running on a platform dedicated to economic justice, affordable housing and police reform. He has garnered an avid and diverse following, aided by the support of the Democratic Socialists of America, which endorsed him in April. As of early September, the El-Yateem campaign had drawn more than 400 volunteers from across the city, providing a live classroom for many first-time organizers.

“El-Yateem’s campaign has an energy behind it that I’ve never seen before,” says, Carlos Menchaca, New York City’s first-ever Mexican-American council member and an enthusiastic support of El-Yateem’s campaign. “He’s got this army of people behind him from all over the City, and they’re here because they want to be a part of electing the first Arab-American in the City’s history. It’s time that community got representation.”

As El-Yateem describes it, he has been on a mission since the day he arrived in the United States, in 1992. He arrived as a young seminary student fresh from the West Bank, sent by the Lutheran authorities in Jerusalem to launch an Arabic-speaking church for Brooklyn’s growing Arab population. He settled in Bay Ridge, where, he says, he oversaw the “death and resurrection” of the declining Salem Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church. “Their congregation was shrinking as the neighborhood changed, and they realized that Arabs were the fastest-growing population around them. So they wanted to pass the torch,” he explains. The newly minted pastor took the helm, and the church reopened as Salam Arabic Lutheran.

El-Yateem became a US citizen in 1996, and registered to vote the same day. After a life under Israeli occupation, he says, he was eager to exercise his right to participate in the democratic process—a value he also preaches to his community, which, situated far from the financial and political centers of New York City, often gets overlooked. “People in this neighborhood feel ignored. Especially if you’re a person of color, or an immigrant, you think politicians won’t listen to you,” El-Yateem says. “But if you don’t vote, I tell people, how can you expect them to respect you?”

An estimated 5,000 Democratic voters in the district are “likely Middle Eastern,” according to research by El-Yateem’s campaign; out of these, the campaign concluded, only 250 cast votes in the 2016 presidential primary. Over the years, El-Yateem has frequently set up shop outside mosques and community centers, registering his neighbors to vote and urging them to go to the polls in local and national elections. “I tell them, you’ve got to cast your vote and let them know you’re using your voice. You’ve got to make these politicians work for you.”

For the past 22 years, El-Yateem has embedded himself in the Bay Ridge community as a clergyman, a member of Community Board 10, and a co-founder of the Bay Ridge Unity Task Force, a coalition of local Christian, Muslim, and Jewish leaders. He also served on the board of the Arab American Association of New York, one of the main organizing bodies for New York City’s Arabs, alongside Linda Sarsour, who gained national recognition for her role as one of the main organizers for the Women’s March in January 2017. (Full disclosure: I volunteered at the organization in 2016 as a part-time teacher of adult ESL, but did not have any contact with El-Yateem while there.) As a clergy liaison to the New York City Police Department, El-Yateem has also worked, piecemeal, for police reform in his neighborhood, and after 9/11 helped organize services for grieving families as well as school escorts for Muslim and Arab school children.

It was the election of Donald Trump that finally pushed El-Yateem to decide it was “time to take a bigger role, for us all to make ourselves seen.” He recalls November 8, 2016, as a “nightmare,” remarking that Trump’s anti-Arab, anti-Muslim rhetoric was “something different than even all the bigotry we faced after 9/11.” And Arabs are not alone, he says repeatedly as we chat in his campaign office. “People of color everywhere, and LGBTQ people, and immigrants, we’re all targeted. But this made me realize, it was time for me to step up. Here I am, an immigrant, a man of color, an independent, running for office. I want to be Trump’s worst nightmare.”

For all his convictions, El-Yateem admits the decision to run for public office was not an easy one. “Before I ran, I spoke with my family, and told them I would need them to be 100 percent behind this decision,” he recalls. “I have four children, they all have social media, and I knew there would be no protecting them from some of the bigotry that would come my way.”

From the beginning of his campaign, El-Yateem says he has faced a steady stream of slurs and online threats. Shortly after announcing his candidacy, one Republican candidate in the district began posting ominous warnings about El-Yateem as a “radical Palestinian cleric.” One Internet user wrote of the desire to crush El-Yateem’s skull. After El-Yateem led a successful campaign in August to remove a Confederate monument from a nearby church, an infuriated local called his house and screamed at his 13-year-old daughter. Recalling this, the reverend’s smile disappeared. “To be honest, I have been surprised at the level of hate some people have expressed.”

And yet, if some people have opted for hate, many others have offered support. They have knocked on doors, handed out campaign literature, and given money—more than $107,000 worth as of the latest filing, second only to one other candidate in the race. “Our team is phenomenal” says El-Yateem, gesturing to a slim young man in wire-rimmed glasses who has just returned from a shift of door-knocking. “They’re working even after I’ve left here—even after I’ve gone to bed!”

The young man, Alexander Pellitteri, is a 17-year-old Bensonhurst resident who attends school in Bay Ridge. He says he’s been at El-Yateem’s office “seven days a week” this summer, walking neighborhood blocks for door-knocking and conversation. As the son of and Italian-American father and Honduran-born mother, Pellitteri said El-Yateem’s identity as an immigrant and Arab are important to him, especially after the election of Donald Trump. “If you’re not a person of color, you might not realize how oppressive our society still is,” he says. “Donald Trump branded his campaign against Arabs and Muslims, and El-Yateem is showing that they actually, Arab Americans do have a place in this country and this government.”

El-Yateem makes sure that everyone who meets him knows he is “Palestinian, Arab, an immigrant,” but he also stresses that he’s running to represent all of the district, not just the Arab or immigrant population. He places himself squarely in the line of Bernie Sanders and the “anti-establishment” narrative, arguing that “issues of social justice, economic justice, and racial justice affect all of us, even if they affect some of us more than others.” The neighborhood voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary, and El-Yateem is reaching for his anti-establishment energy in his own campaign.

When he speaks about his platform, El-Yateem sits forward in his chair, waving large hands as he describes the growing strain of gentrification and rising costs of living on local families. “Affordable housing is a huge issue for me. And by that I mean affordable for locals, not the people coming here from the East Village,” he explains. He’s also vowed to combat the illegal home conversions which exploit lower-income and undocumented residents in his district. He’s an outspoken proponent of police reform, advocating for the Right To Know Act, a package of bills designed to bring more transparency to policing in New York City, and calling for the end of the “broken windows” policy. He’s staunchly pro-union and says he has refused (and returned) any campaign donations tied to real-estate developers, an interest group he sees as having outsized power in City politics.

It was these progressive credentials that inspired the New York chapter of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) to endorse El-Yateem and marshal its fervent base to volunteer on his behalf week after week, day after day. As of early September, the DSA reported that “nearly 300” of its volunteers have participated in the El-Yateem campaign, including knocking on over 15,000 doors. And, while El-Yateem admits that some Democrats are unsure about the term “socialism,” he is proud of the endorsement and unabashed about his socialism. “Jesus was a socialist!” he laughs, referencing his vocation as a pastor.

The District 43 election is among a handful of hotly contested races this cycle, and it has drawn significant interest from the city’s Democrats, both establishment and progressive, who cast the race as a referendum in miniature on many of the existential questions currently roiling the Democratic party nationwide. In this narrative, El-Yateem is the disrupter, a foreign-born political newcomer with leftist ideals, while his main opponent, Justin Brannan, is a political “known quantity,” coming to the race with years of experience in local government and the backing of the Democratic establishment.

Yet Brannan, a 38-year-old Bay Ridge native and sometime punk rocker, insists that he, too, is an “outsider.” He portrays his younger self as a justice-driven rebel without a cause who came to realize the key to change lay in reenergizing the local Democratic Party. “I decided instead of throwing stones at the house, I should get inside and change it from within,” he said in an interview with The Nation. In 2010, Brannan founded the Bay Ridge Democrats as a way to “get inside the system,” and went on to work for incumbent Council Member Gentile’s office—first as legislative director and communication director, and then as his chief of staff. From there, he worked in the de Blasio administration’s Education Department before leaving this post to run for office.

“I’m an outsider with an insider’s experience,” he said, “I respect the energy behind El-Yateem’s candidacy, but I’m a better candidate since I’ve been doing the job for almost the last decade.” In touting his experience, Brannan returns frequently to the specter of a Republican takeover of the district. “To lose the seat to a Republican at a time like this would be a tragedy,” he said in the same interview. “This might be one of the last times the general is going to be competitive. It’s a very scary time.”

The fear is not entirely unfounded. While the New York City Council is overwhelmingly dominated by Democrats—only three of the 51 seats are currently occupied by Republicans—many in the Democratic party see District 43’s seat as uniquely vulnerable. “[District 43] is one of the few districts in the City that we could realistically see flip from blue to red,” Brad Lander, founding co-chair and current member of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus, told The Nation. In recent years, the same neighborhoods have elected a number of Republicans, including Congressman Dan Donovan and State Senator Martin Golden. And, in 2016, many district residents lined up to cast their votes for Donald Trump. (This is thanks, in part, to the gerrymandered borders that link the Bay Ridge area to Staten Island, New York’s most conservative borough, but the Brooklyn side of the district also turns up its share of red blocks.)

Khader El-Yateem office
Khader El-Yateem’s campaign office in Bay Ridge.

When El-Yateem and Brannan both sought endorsements from the City’s Progressive Caucus, the group was split. The internal discussion, which Lander describes as cordial, circled the same question dogging Democrats around the country: whether to respond to voter disaffection with a fresh, populist message à la groups like the DSA, or to season traditional messaging with updated language while focusing on beating Republicans.

Lander, for his part, supports Brannan, citing the candidate’s prior experience as the biggest draw. “I have known him longer, and he has a longer track record,” he says. Carlos Menchaca, however, his colleague in the Progressive Caucus, offers a different take: “At the end of the day, the only experience you really need is a track record of being able to show your courage. El-Yateem has that—just ask his community.”

Still, many card-carrying progressives have opted to back Brannan, arguing that he can help advance worthy priorities in City Hall. The Working Families Party has endorsed him, as has Public Advocate Letitia James. So have most of the city’s major labor unions (only the National Institute of Reproductive Health and the New York State Nurses Association have backed El-Yateem), which is a source of disappointment to El-Yateem volunteers like Brooklyn-based labor organizer Brittany Anderson. “I think they’re trying to play it safe, but unions are missing the chance to support a truly progressive candidate,” she says.

In the final push before the September 12 primary, El-Yateem is striving to reach a balance between issues both national and local. On the Sunday following the violence in Charlottesville, El Yateem stood at the lectern of Salam Arabic Lutheran Church, speaking to a congregation of roughly 50. In Arabic, he alluded to the eruption of white supremacy and violence, and preached on the need to turn away from fear and toward God, and one another. After the service, he made small talk with his congregants over Styrofoam cups of coffee, discussing cracked sidewalks and parents’ concerns over public transportation for their school-aged children.

The next day, El-Yateem turned his focus back to organizing a response to Charlottesville, issuing a call for the removal of a local monument venerating Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The plaque, first erected in 1912, stood on property attached to Fort Hamilton’s St. John’s Episcopal Church, and El-Yateem worked quickly through his network to raise the issue to the Archdiocese of Long Island. By Wednesday, the plaque came down in a brief ceremony witnessed by local activists, New York City politicians, and religious leaders. El-Yateem, wearing his clerical collar, looked at home behind the podium as he spoke of the need to “move forward and address racism at its root.”

Kayla Santosuosso, El-Yateem’s fiery 27-year-old campaign manager, says the response to the plaque’s removal has been a mixture of adulation and anger. “It’s such a polarizing issue. We’re not sure if it will help or hurt us in the long run, but we knew it was the right thing to do.”

With only days remaining until the district vote, Tascha Van Auken, a coordinator for the DSA’s New York chapter, says her organization is focusing on building lasting infrastructure. “This is not a one-off. We’re mobilizing voters, we’re educating people on the political process. We’re building a movement.”

Brittany Anderson remarks that participating in the El-Yateem campaign has allowed hundreds of people to learn about the political process. “Instead of just bringing people in and telling them what to do, the first step is to have people sit in a circle and share their hopes and concerns. We ask them why they are interested in participating in the campaign, and explain to them how local politics works. Whoever wins, that grassroots power will remain.”

So far, the El-Yateem campaign has helped register over 600 new voters, a fact that El-Yateem cites frequently, and with pride. “Win or lose, we’ve brought in new voters and so many first-time volunteers through this campaign. That’s something significant for the Democratic Party, and for this community, and it is something we will continue to do no matter what.”

Moreover, the reverend hopes that his candidacy will serve as an example that “anyone can run” for office. “In this campaign, we see ourselves as barrier breakers. I’m an immigrant, a person of color, and we are running a successful campaign, even in the age of Trump. We want people to know, if we can do this, anyone can.”

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