Bay Ridge

Can Gounardes topple a Brooklyn GOP icon?

November 2, 2018 By Michael Stahl From The Bridge
Photo courtesy of Gounardes' office

As he sat in a windowless office at his headquarters on 86th St. in Bay Ridge, with a sprawling map of southern Brooklyn on the wall behind him, Andrew Gounardes, the 33-year-old Democrat running for the District 22 seat in the State Senate, reflected on what has been an explosive campaign in a long-quiet district. The last few weeks of debates have sparked talk of truth and lies, cupcakes and cancer treatments, even Nazis and Martians.

With the balance of power in the State Senate on the line, Gounardes’s opponent, Marty Golden, a former police officer and Brooklyn’s only Republican state senator, is seeking his ninth term. But Democrats think they have a real chance this time of upsetting his reign. The district in play covers a wide swath of the borough, including nine neighborhoods from Bay Ridge to Gerritsen Beach. 

“Marty Golden is someone who has given a lot to this community. He served in uniform, you can never take that away from someone,” Gounardes told The Bridge. “He’s been elected multiple times by this constituency, so you have to give him that.”

That was about where the pleasantries ended, as Gounardes quickly pivoted. 

“This is also someone who wanted to host a women’s etiquette seminar, to teach women proper etiquette and deportment,” he said, “someone who led the opposition to letting people love who they want to love; someone who, in the face of children being torn from their parents’ arms and put in cages, stayed silent.”  

If Gounardes, a community activist and general counsel to the Brooklyn borough president, pulls off an upset and flips the seat next week, it could bring the end of what the Wall Street Journal called the GOP’s “last bastion of power in New York.” Partly because of how Senate districts are apportioned, the chamber has long been Republican-dominated. But at the moment, the GOP has only a one-seat advantage. With the governorship and Assembly already in Democratic hands, the turning of the Senate would be a momentous realignment of power.

The larger stakes of the District 22 race have raised the temperature, to be sure, but there’s more to it. This is a rematch, with Gounardes seeking to avenge his loss to Golden in 2012, and a battle of opposites in many ways, with the two candidates differing strongly on almost every issue.

In a series of contentious debates closely covered by local journalists, the vitriol has come to the surface. At an Oct. 23 debate at Xaverian High School in Bay Ridge, Gounardes declared that Golden has “a superficial relationship with the truth,” and later castigated Golden’s vote for a bill that would have allowed insurance companies to cease coverage of pre-existing conditions. “No one should be selling cupcakes to pay for cancer treatments,” Gounardes said.

For his part, Golden—who’s 68 and refined, with neatly parted white hair—reverted to calling Gounardes a “Martian” after Gounardes expressed support for the city’s new policy of allowing transgender New Yorkers to change their gender to “X” on official documents.

Another flash point resonating beyond the borough is the role of Golden staffer Ian Reilly as executive committee chairman of the Metropolitan Republican Club, which hosted the Proud Boys white nationalist group on Oct. 12, shortly before their infamous street fight with protesters. When asked by an audience member as he walked out of the Xaverian auditorium if he would “fire the Nazi,” sources told The Bridge that Golden responded with “I’m not firing him” and “He’s not a Nazi.” Another source said that Golden added: “I’ll give him a raise.”

“I don’t think that Marty Golden’s values represent the values that I was raised with, or the values of southern Brooklyn,” Gounardes told The Bridge at his headquarters, located a little more than a mile from his childhood home.

Growing up in Brooklyn

Along with his brother and sister, Gounardes was raised in a two-bedroom, second-floor apartment in a duplex on 70th Street between Colonial Road and Ridge Boulevard. His grandmother occupied the first-floor flat; he played with other neighborhood kids in the narrow driveway and postage-stamp backyard. Gounardes’s mother was a public-school music teacher during his childhood, and his father a dentist.

From Greek-American descent, Gounardes attended elementary school at a nearby Greek Orthodox school associated with the Holy Cross Church on 84th Street, before moving on to Fort Hamilton High School. “I grew up with a strong sense of community,” which he cites as his motivation for getting into politics. “Service was always a thing we just did, and it was just second nature.”

“He was always the kid that was out there seeing what he could do” to help others, said his mother, Dianne. “He’s always been driven and really, really focused.” She said he played baseball and the piano, was an avid reader with great interest in history and Greek traditions, and achieved Eagle Scout status. (His earnest ambition is leavened with a dry wit, his inner circle is quick to note.)

As a teen, Gounardes considered entering the priesthood, but about the time he finished up high school, a fateful trip to Washington, D.C., altered his path. Organized by the Manatos & Manatos lobbying firm, the excursion brought him to the capital with a group of Greek-American youths. There they met Greek-American public figures including George Stephanopoulos, George Tenet, and Paul Sarbanes. Gounardes said Sarbanes, at the time a U.S. Senator from Maryland, sat with the teens for two hours and spoke passionately about his family, his work, and what called him to government. “That sealed the deal for me,” Gounardes said.

Gounardes completed a bachelor’s degree in political science at Hunter College in three years, and then worked on Bob Menendez’s successful 2006 campaign for a U.S. Senate seat from New Jersey. Gounardes later moved to Washington, D.C., after taking a job in Menendez’s office as a staff assistant.

“I started answering phones, and I basically worked my way up,” Gounardes said. “People were calling all the time and they were either very friendly or very not friendly on the phones. It was a great way to keep perspective as to what people thought on the ground.”

He left the post to earn his law degree at George Washington University, but returned to Menendez’s office, where he wrote legislation and helped conduct an investigation into Scotland’s release of the Libyan national convicted in the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing of 1988. (The culprit had been let out of prison on grounds of “compassion,” which the Menendez-fronted report said was not justified.)

Shortly after the report was published, Gounardes returned home. “I love D.C., but D.C. is a one-show town,” Gounardes said. “When you’re from New York City, you meet everyone from everywhere, and if you want Afghani food at three in the morning, or three in the afternoon, you can find it.” He added: “Plus, the pizza and bagels in D.C. suck.”

For a year and a half, Gounardes served as director of external affairs at the Citizens Committee for New York City, a nonprofit dedicated to upgrading the quality of life in low-income neighborhoods. Then came his first clash with Marty Golden.

A Rookie’s Strong Showing

In 2012, Gounardes, then just 27, was politically green. But he told The Bridge he felt Golden, who sometimes ran unopposed, “kept getting a free pass,” and that “no one was stepping up.” What’s more, Golden wasn’t satisfactorily addressing issues Gounardes was concerned about, like marriage equality, fair pay for women, elevator access at subway stations, and others, Gournardes said.  

“No one thought I had a snowball’s chance in hell to win,” Gounardes said of his candidacy that year. “No one thought I could do better than 30%, and we ended up with just under 43% of the vote. We won this neighborhood of Bay Ridge by over a thousand votes; we were outspent nearly four to one.”

Gounardes’s strong showing was perhaps partly a result of his efforts in the community after Hurricane Sandy, which especially hit southern Brooklyn hard just a week before the election. On the night of the storm, he hunkered into FDR High School doing intake for displaced individuals seeking shelter. Then he went to Gerritsen Beach and spent three days knocking on doors to provide information about Red Cross assistance and to deliver food to those in need, mostly senior citizens. “I think I wiped out the sandwich counter at the gas station minimart like three or four times,” Gounardes said. “I, and so many others, felt compelled to do anything that would help.”

Later, he co-founded Bay Ridge Cares, an outreach group that was launched in the kitchen of St. Mary’s Antiochian Orthodox Church on 81st Street a couple days after the storm. “We had all these chefs who got washed out of their restaurants in Downtown Brooklyn, who had nowhere to go,” Gounardes said. “So they came to us and they started cooking meals for us that we then distributed.”

Gounardes helped secure a $5,000 grant from Citizens Committee for NYC, and over six weeks the kitchen dished out 25,000 hot meals to people in Coney Island, the Rockaways, Gerritsen Beach, and Staten Island. A few months after the election, wanting to continue the community outreach, he and Karen Tadross, a theater producer who’d initially secured the St. Mary’s kitchen space, decided to incorporate the nonprofit. They envisioned Bay Ridge Cares as “the neighborhood’s Red Cross.” The group has organized community breakfasts and Thanksgiving dinner deliveries, as well as pajama drives for the homeless and victims of domestic abuse.

“He’s smart,” Tadross said, praising the candidate’s problem-solving skills. “Whenever I hit up against a brick wall or was looking for a way to make Bay Ridge Cares happen, he was always there with quick answers, ways to do things, so I came to value his advice. He’s just got common sense, and that is so hard to find these days, especially in young people,” said Tadross, who’s 59.

The Party Rallies Around Him

Gounardes has benefited from New York’s constellation of Democratic stars, including the governor and both U.S. senators, who have showered endorsements on him. “Andrew Gounardes exemplifies what public service should be,” reads an endorsement from his boss, Borough President Eric Adams. “I know that because I’ve seen it firsthand at Brooklyn Borough Hall. He’s committed to empowering his neighbors, passionate about grassroots advocacy, and personally engaged with addressing critical issues …”

The New York Times editorial board endorsed him as well, allowing that Golden has been “a classic, affable politician,” but that Gounardes “would help end the obstruction to reform in Albany and would provide fresh energy in a stultified Senate.”

If he’s victorious, Gounardes plans to push for better pedestrian safety, particularly by placing speed cameras in school zones, which Golden, who has been issued 10 school-zone speeding tickets since 2015, opposes. Gounardes wants mass transit reform, with greater MTA accountability, and free, quality education, from Pre-K through college across the state. (Golden, who did not respond to an interview request for this story, has said that Gounardes’s prospective policies will be too costly for the state.)

In the realm of business, Gounardes’s website says he’ll do more to support small businesses by lowering the sales tax on items they sell and encouraging the development of more co-working spaces to ease costs for startups and freelancers. He’ll look to generate jobs with higher wages, and wishes to create “a local regional business council for Southern Brooklyn to support economic development, immigrant owned businesses, innovation, and bring 21st century jobs to Southern Brooklyn.”

Like many legislative districts, the 22nd has been gerrymandered so that its shape is like that of a circuit board crafted by a deranged engineer. The equal-rights group Common Cause called it “the Marty Golden gerrymander” for the way the legislature stretched it to include decidedly conservative neighborhoods to strengthen the GOP’s grip on it. In 2016, outside of Staten Island, District 22 saw more people vote for Donald Trump than just about anywhere else in the city. That same year, Golden ran for his senate seat unopposed.

So on the surface, it appears, Gounardes and his left-leaning platform face an uphill battle. But since Golden has been in office, the district’s demographics have shifted. According to a CityLab story that analyzed data from the city comptroller’s office, between 2000 and 2015 the area has seen an influx of Asian-, Hispanic-, and African-Americans, all groups that tend to vote Democratic more frequently. The white population, meanwhile, has decreased.

Concerns about racial tension have come up in Gounardes-Golden debates. At the Dyker Heights stop, Gounardes mentioned that Golden has a checkered history with Arab-American relations—to which Golden called him “a liar”—and when a white audience member asked Gounardes if immigrants walk the streets of South Brooklyn “in fear” because they “came here illegally,” Gounardes spoke of various hate crimesin the area, which he denounced. “We’re all immigrants, we all came from somewhere else,” he said. (Golden is the oldest of eight children born to Irish immigrants.)

Gounardes wants the district’s power structure to become more inclusive of the newcomers. “You’re seeing the old guard that is incredibly outdated in their views, and in their connections to the neighborhood, desperately holding on to whatever they can,” he said. “Marty Golden’s machine has really kept Republicans employed here for a very long time, so [they’re] nervous about what’s going to happen to them when they lose.”

Why does he think that’ll happen this time around? “I’m a better candidate, I’m running a better campaign, and times are different.”

Michael Stahl is a freelance writer and editor. A former high school English teacher, he has written for Rolling Stone, Vice, the Village Voice, Narratively, Splitsider, Outside Magazine and other publications.

The Bridge is dedicated to reporting on business in Brooklyn. Its focus is on the breakthrough companies, entrepreneurs and trends that have made Brooklyn a worldwide brand and a growing economic center.