To see how all of this is playing out on the ground post-midterms, one morning last month I had breakfast in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, a spot as far away, spiritually and actually, from the apex of Manhattan progressivism as possible. I was there to meet Justin Brannan, a Democrat, who grew up in the neighborhood and represents the area in the New York City Council. Brannan, 44, is the kind of politician whom many New York Democrats picked as having a future on the national stage. With a John Fetterman-like physique, Brannan is a former guitarist for a couple of local hardcore bands and has scarcely an inch of his body below the neck not covered in tattoos. (A shame, he says, since tattoos have gotten so much better since he finished getting all inked up.) He is someone who both supported Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns and spent time working for Bear Stearns, and was the favorite to be the next speaker of the City Council, the second-most powerful office in the city.
But in 2021, Brannan, running in an area that was once famously filled with Italian immigrants — it is where John Travolta’s character comes from in Saturday Night Fever — but has become increasingly inhabited by Arab and Middle Eastern residents, eked out a victory against his Republican opponent by a mere 600 votes. According to council insiders I spoke with, Democrats in the Council thought they needed someone less vulnerable electorally to lead them. Up for reelection later this year, Brannan’s area of the city has become so GOP-leaning that a fellow councilmember, Ari Kagan, switched from a Democrat to a Republican to run against him.
When we met, Brannan was typing tweets into his phone about some discolored water that had been discovered coming out of area taps, and how the city was investigating.
“The reason I win,” he said. “Is because of bullshit like this. There is no amount of doors you can knock on to combat the national trends I am dealing with. But my hope is that if I send enough emails out at 8 o’clock in the morning about the water situation I may get some people to give me a second look.”
Brannan saw firsthand the distorted effect Trump had on politics. Until 2018, the area was represented at the state level by a Republican who was a former police officer, and whipping him out of the last GOP seat in the city became a cause for a cohort of progressive young Brooklynites. The GOP seemed like it was destined for permanent obsolescence.
But Trump gave people license, and Covid frayed the social bonds that held together neighborhoods where people literally live on top of one another. Regularly now, when he is out in the district, constituents will come up to Brannan — not to ask for something, or to complain, but to yell at him as if he were Joe Biden, Bill de Blasio and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez all in one, just another Democrat who stepped out of the little boxes on Newsmax or Fox News, but now is here on their corner. “Trump made people feel like it was OK to be an asshole,” he said.
And their complaints aren’t about city issues, or even about politics, but about whatever pops up on their Facebook feed: drag queen story hours, efforts to add bike lanes to city streets, transgender women playing men’s sports. “The Culture Wars are racking up numbers,” he said. When there is a terrible incident, the kind of which there is all the time in New York— fires, shootings, vagrancy, etc. — the first comment of many of his constituents is to fall back on their partisan lens. “This is what happens when you vote DemocRAT,” shows up in response to what is for someone a human tragedy.
In Brannan’s first term, the City Council made efforts to add bike lanes to city streets. It was well-meaning, and it made sense in many densely packed areas of New York, but out in Bay Ridge, where, as Brannan put it, “people drive to the fucking corner in their giant SUVs” it was a political problem. He sympathized with the need to add more bike lanes, but “there was this idea that if you own a car, you are a bad person. Look, all we have out here is the goddamn R train, and its fucking abysmal.”
As Brannan sees it, what has made it so hard to keep his seat out of Republican hands is primarily the crime issue. The lack of action on bail laws meant that voters had a specific thing to point to when they saw disorder on their streets. The rise of apps like NextDoor made the problem seem worse than it was — ”Can you imagine if we had this [app] in the 1980s? People would be losing their fucking minds” — but efforts to tell them that crime wasn’t as bad as they thought didn’t work either.