Debbie Medina has lived her entire life south of Grand Street in the Southside of Williamsburg, a historically Puerto Rican neighborhood in Brooklyn. The office of Southside United HFDC, better known as Los Sures, where Medina has worked as a housing organizer for 30 years, is on South Fifth, eight blocks away. When she walks down Driggs Avenue, Debbie can point at the buildings and recite their histories. “This neighborhood has always had some nasty landlords,” she says.
She speaks with special pride of buildings like 340 South Third and 376 Keap Street, tenant-owned cooperatives that she helped organize, and where you can still find families who have lived in the neighborhood since her parents’ generation moved to North Brooklyn, as she puts it, “straight from the Island.”
But after decades of mobilizing tenants to resist the economic violence of gentrification—through rent strikes, pickets, organizing unions—Medina sees another architecture beyond the brick and sandstone facades, one in which she and her neighbors, primarily working-class Latinos, are systematically constrained, disempowered by design.
“Capitalism is killing our neighborhoods,” she says. “Before you know it, none of us—the non-rich, the nonwhite—are going to be able to afford to live here. This is a tragedy happening before our eyes.”
Debbie Medina, a 52-year-old mother of four and grandmother of six, is running for state senator for the 18th District of New York. Her priority, is “housing, housing, housing,” stronger rent stabilization, and rent control. Like Bernie Sanders, she’s running a grassroots campaign against an established Democrat funded by the same moneyed interests he promises to rein in. Her campaign will depend on convincing the predominantly working class, minority voters of Williamsburg, Bushwick, Cypress Hills, and Greenpoint—as she has thousands of tenants in Los Sures—that together they are strong. “This election is just another rent strike,” Medina says. “The difference is, it’s not just one landlord versus some of the tenants. It’s all of the landlords versus all of the tenants.”
And Debbie Medina shares something else, besides a thick Brooklyn accent, with the junior senator from Vermont: She’s running as a democratic socialist.
“Democratic socialism means that the community controls its own future, politically and economically,” Medina tells The Nation. “It means that the wealthy are not the only people with a voice.” Medina smiles. “We’re bringing the political revolution to Brooklyn.”
Medina’s opponent in the race is a convenient foil. Now serving his seventh term in the Senate, Martin Dilan was a close ally of former Kings County power broker Vito Lopez. Lopez, who died in November, resigned his assembly seat in 2013 after being fined $330,000 for sexually assaulting multiple female staffers. Dilan and his son, Assemblyman Erik Dilan, flourished under the Lopez regime by funneling millions in tax dollars to Lopez’s Bushwick nonprofit. Over the course of his career, Martin Dilan has taken upwards of $190,000 in donations from real estate groups, including $80,000 from anti-tenant lobbyists like the Rent Stabilization Association and the Real Estate Board of New York. And he’s vulnerable. In 2014, Medina ran against Dilan in a Democratic primary; she won 42 percent of the vote.