Brannan brings lively resume to council race
Candidate’s work history includes music, finance, government
If you can judge a person by a resume, then a look at Justin Brannan’s job history reveals a guy who likes to think outside the box.
Brannan, the Democratic candidate for Bay Ridge’s City Council seat, has a resume that lists an interesting mixture of the arts, finance, governmental service and entrepreneurship. He has been a touring punk rock musician, has worked on Wall Street and has served in city government, both as the chief of staff to Councilmember Vincent Gentile and as a top aide to City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña.
He and his wife Leigh Holliday Brannan own The Art Room, a small art gallery and school on Third Avenue in Bay Ridge.
Brannan, 38, is also the founder of Bay Ridge Cares, a nonprofit group that assists families with cancer and people who are coping with natural disasters.
Looking back on his varied career, Brannan said he was always drawn “to do something more than just to make money.”
He wanted to “create something positive” with his life, he told the Brooklyn Eagle over scrambled eggs and bagels at Paneantico on Third Avenue one recent morning.
Brannan, who beat out a crowded field of five Democrats to win the Sept. 12 primary, will face Republican John Quaglione in the Nov. 7 election for the 43rd Council District, a seat that covers Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights and includes parts of Bensonhurst and Bath Beach.
Brannan did not always want to work in politics. Early on in his career, “I was living paycheck to paycheck,” he said.
Brannan was born and raised in Bay Ridge. His younger days were filled with music, artistry and self-expression. He was a member of two punk rock groups, Indecision and Most Precious Blood, and toured the world playing music to enthusiastic audiences.
He was looking for a job to bring in some money in between tours when he landed a job at the financial services firm Bear Sterns.
Brannan learned important life lessons working at Bear Sterns. “I knew guys who started out in the mailroom and worked their way up. I saw that hard work can pay off. It was a meritocracy and it inspired me,” he told the Eagle.
He met his wife Leigh Holliday, an artist, while working there. The two were married in the lobby of the building where Bear Sterns had its offices.
When Bear Sterns collapsed during the 2008 financial meltdown, Brannan saw the lives of many of his co-workers upended.
“Seeing how it affected people was rough. Wall Street isn’t made up of just millionaire traders. There are also the people who clean the offices and the delivery people. There was a lot of collateral damage. It made me want to fight for the little guy,” he said.
Brannan founded the Bay Ridge Democrats, a grass-roots political club, in 2010. He had tried to join other civic and political organizations but did not receive a warm welcome, he said. “So I decided to form my own club. I went outside the box. That’s why when people described me as the establishment candidate in the primary, I had to laugh. I’m anything but establishment,” Brannan said.
The club has an enviable track record of backing the right horses in big races. The Bay Ridge Democrats was the first political organization in Brooklyn to endorse Bill de Blasio for mayor and Ken Thompson for Brooklyn district attorney in 2013. Thompson was running against longtime DA Charles Hynes, a Bay Ridge resident. “I still have the letter I got from Hynes asking me why we endorsed Ken Thompson,” Brannan told the Eagle.
Brannan later went to work for Gentile. During his time there, Brannan enjoyed helping constituents deal with city government. “I had a knack for being able to cut through the bureaucracy,” he said.
Brannan was hired away from Gentile’s office to serve as a special assistant to Fariña. He was the go-to person for lawmakers and community leaders needing help from the chancellor’s office.
When the council seat opened up (Gentile can’t run again because of term limits), Brannan decided to run for it.
Brannan entered the Council campaign with a strategic vision. He sent out a campaign mailing every early on, in February. “I wanted to make my message as clear as possible,” he said. “I don’t come off like a typical politician.”
He was always considered the front-runner, a role that comes with risks. “You have a target on your back,” he said. Despite the front-runner label, “We never took anything for granted. We never sat back,” Brannan said.
Brannan has a strong presence on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. It’s a great way to meet the public, he said. “You have to meet the people where they are,” he said.
One idea he intends to implement if he is elected is extended hours at his district office. “At least a couple of days a week, I plan to have the office stay open until 9 p.m. A 9-to-5 day doesn’t work anymore for people. If they have a job, they can’t come to see you after work if your office is closed,” he told the Eagle.
He also intends to have the 43rd Council District take part in participatory budgeting, the process that lets citizens vote on funding for capital projects. “I want to demystify city government,” he said.
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