City Councilman Justin Brannan, the Bay Ridge Democrat who wants to be the next Council speaker, has built a citywide profile as a lively progressive voice with nearly 25,000 followers on Twitter.
Yet for the second straight election, he barely won the local seat in Council District 43, which covers Bay Ridge, Dyke Heights, Bath Beach and parts of Bensonhurst —all within the congressional district that turned Republican again in 2021 by electing Nicole Malliotakis.
Brannan’s Twitter following stands at about twice the number of his constituents who voted for him in either 2017 or 2021. He squeaked by both times with just over 50 percent of the vote.
Interviews with Bay Ridge voters who contributed up to $250 each as small donors to Brannan’s relatively unknown Republican opponent Brian Fox—a Bay Ridge businessman who runs an IT recruitment and software services firm—indicate that the 43-year-old incumbent’s stance on police funding and functions drove much of their opposition.
The Fox campaign charged that Brannan’s views on policing and criminal justice were damaging “New York’s quality of life.” The accusation resonated with these small donors.
Several cited Brannan’s vote last year in favor of a city budget in which $900 million was reallocated from the Police Department. Brannan also voted to eliminate qualified immunity, a legal protection that has prevented police officers from being sued for using excessive force.
These small donors characterized his budget vote in the same way the Fox campaign did, painting Brannan with the broad brush of supporting calls to “defund the police.”
— Lieutenants Benevolent Association (@lbanypd) November 2, 2021
“Brannan voted to defund the police and abolish qualified immunity,” Irina Avstin, who donated to Fox’s campaign, said in a Twitter conversation. “Like other Democrats, he is supporting active destruction of the city and country.”
Fox donors cited their fear of rising crime, despite NYPD data showing that reported incidents in 68th Precinct, which includes Bay Ridge, have continued to decline in 2021 and over the past several years, with the numbers down more than 83% over the past 28 years.
“What I see in this neighborhood is nothing like when Marty Golden and Vincent Gentile [two former councilmen who had represented District 43] were running it,” said a 64-year-old retiree who was a marketing and advertising manager at Schneps Communications. She asked to not to be named because of what she called safety concerns about airing her political views. “It’s disgusting. I don’t know if it’s an element that’s coming in or—I don’t know. I don’t want to blame a culture.”
She said she would like to see the Police Department “bring back stop-and-frisk” and “put more plainclothes men on the street”—practices that were curtailed when they were proven to have been deployed in racially discriminatory ways.
A district with history
Controversy is nothing new to this district. Golden, a Republican who held the seat from 1998 to 2003 before serving 15 years in the State Senate, has drawn criticism for comments he made about same-sex marriage, Muslims in Bay Ridge and women in the worplace. He was once accused of passing himself off as a police officer while he driving in a bike lane. In another incident, he struck a 74-year-old woman —who died after never emerging from a coma—with his SUV.
Still, Fox donors said Brannan does not meet their standards.
“It’s under Justin Brannan’s tenure that I have now become afraid to walk around my community, and I am not alone in that,” said Mary Jo Tobin, a 66-year-old Bay Ridge resident who cited Brannan’s “defunding the police” as the main reason she voted for Fox.
Brannan, she asserted, has divided the neighborhood—which has become increasingly diverse and includes a growing Arab American community—by labeling “anybody who brings anything up [as] racist. This is crap. Now, all of a sudden, since Justin took office, we’ve become this really racist community.”
Fox’s opposition to mandated COVID-19 vaccines for municipal workers brought him a surge of endorsements from police unions. In addition to the Detectives Endowment Association and the Lieutenants Benevolent Association, the Brooklyn Conservative Party also endorsed Fox.
During the campaign, Brannan—who did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the NYCity News Service—called Fox a demagogue. “He’s just unfit to serve and he has no idea of the needs of the community,” Brannan told Gotham Gazette, saying Fox had shared conspiracy theories online.
Fox, who could not be reached for comment, likened Antifa and the Black Lives Matter movement to “domestic terrorist groups” during an interview with the Urban Conservative Podcast. Earlier in the summer, he liked—and then apparently unliked—a tweet from @Maliotakis4Prez that said Fox was going to bring back the neighborhood’s “former glory” by “backing the blue” and making “bayridge white again!”
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Brian Fox, second from right, was flanked by Rudy Giuliani and QAnon proponent Mark Szuszkiewicz in a photo posted to Szuszkiewicz’s Instagram account on June 23.
“I am not alt-right. My views and ideology are not at all alt-right or extreme right despite what they’ve tried to label me as,” Fox told Gotham Gazette in October. “I’m what I’d like to call the sensibility candidate when it comes to very, very basic and fundamental things—crime, sensibility, quality of life.”
Fox’s campaign manager, Liam McCabe, said his candidate drew support from figures such as Golden and Republican mayoral candidate Curtis Sliwa despite not being “a guy who had real ambition to be involved in politics.”
McCabe—who owns Steeplechase Strategies, a political consulting firm that has worked for Republican and conservative candidates—ran for City Council in the 43rd District in 2017, finishing second in the Republican primary behind John Quaglione, who narrowly lost to Brannan.
McCabe has also run losing City Council and State Assembly campaigns in Brooklyn for Mark Szuszkiewicz, a QAnon proponent who participated in the rally preceding the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6. A picture posted on Szuszkiewicz’s Instagram account on June 10 shows him holding a “Trump Won” flag while a companion makes an “OK” hand sign, a gesture linked to white-power proponents.