Like his father before him, Bushwick assemblyman to face socialist challenger

August 14, 2019 Emma Whitford
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Brooklyn Assemblymember Erik Martin Dilan is poised to face his first primary challenge since winning the office in 2014 in a possible rematch between the borough’s Democratic old guard and a growing Democratic Socialist base, the Brooklyn Eagle has learned.

Dilan’s challenger in Assembly District 54 is 28-year-old Boris Santos, a Williamsburg native and Bushwick resident. Santos, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, currently serves as chief of staff to freshman State Sen. Julia Salazar, a DSA member who beat Dilan’s father, Martin Malave Dilan, in the 2018 primary.

District 54 covers parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick, Cypress Hills and East New York and is majority black and Hispanic. The median household income is $41,000.

Santos is currently seeking the endorsement of New York City DSA, a chapter of the national socialist organization with more than 5,000 members who have fought for immigrant, tenant and worker rights citywide. Their increasingly formidable electoral strategy helped elect Salazar, as well as U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Related: Newly elected State Sen. Julia Salazar discusses rent regulation, healthcare and more

“We are doing candidate interviews this week and next week,” said DSA steering committee member Cea Weaver. “It’s super early in the process, and we are not anticipating endorsing anyone for at least six to eight weeks.”

Santos told the Eagle that his brief time in Albany this year inspired his run. Despite progressive reforms championed by newly elected Democratic legislators, “There’s still backdoor negotiations, a lack of transparency, and lobbyists ruling the scene at the end of the day,” Santos said, adding that he wants to be the “left option” in the district.

Like Salazar and other progressive Democrats, Santos says he will not accept corporate or for-profit real estate donations. He told the Eagle that he would champion tenant rights and push for good cause eviction, a Salazar priority that faltered this year but would expand tenant protections to those who do not live in rent-stabilized housing. Santos would also support the New York Health Act and HALT Solitary Confinement Act (Dilan is a cosponsor of both); the repeal of 50-a, which protects police officers’ disciplinary records; and raising the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 21.

“I think that Boris is a super dedicated public servant,” Salazar told the Eagle. “I also in general am supportive of another Democratic Socialist running for office.”

Dilan, 45, is Bushwick native and Cypress Hills resident of Puerto Rican and African American descent. He served 12 years on the City Council, where he chaired the Housing and Buildings Committee, before winning the assembly seat in 2014.

Related: Energized tenant movement vows to keep fighting as historic rent reforms pass

Dilan was also allied with the late, disgraced Democratic Party boss Vito Lopez, who died in 2015 after resigning from the assembly over credible allegations of sexual abuse. Lopez backed Dilan’s failed primary challenge to incumbent congresswoman Nydia Velázquez in 2012.

Any Dilan challenger should pressure him to answer to Lopez’s legacy, said Democratic strategist Alexis Grenell. “There’s a throughline between him, his supporters, and the survivors of abuse,” she said.

“Erik Dilan delivers for his constituents,” said George Arzt, a spokesperson for the Brooklyn Democratic Party Organization. “He has a distinguished record in the assembly, including fighting to pass the Dream Act, historic rent laws to keep New Yorkers in their homes, and crucial reforms to the criminal justice system.”

Michael McKee, treasurer of Tenants PAC (which backed Salazar in 2018), said that Dilan’s record of accepting real estate money shouldn’t be overlooked. “Since he went to Albany, he has basically voted the right way, but he has not been a real advocate for tenants,” McKee said.

Related: The law that shields police records, explained

Santos is the son of working-class immigrants. His mother, a home attendant, is from El Salvador. His father, from the Dominican Republic, is a security guard at Woodhull Hospital. Santos is on the Brooklyn Democratic County Committee and is a member of New Kings Democrats, which launched in 2008 to bring reform to the local party organization from within. From 2016 to 2018 he worked for Councilmember Antonio Reynoso as a community organizer in Ridgewood and Bushwick.

Santos is a familiar face in the district, according to Julie Dent, former chairperson of Community Board 4 in Bushwick. A Dilan ally, Dent is also executive director of the Audrey Johnson Daycare Center, operated by LIFE, Inc., a nonprofit that received funding from Dilan when he was on the City Council.

“I personally think that Erik Dilan is doing a fine job as our assembly person, and that he has brought a lot of funding to Bushwick,” Dent said. “And then again, I do have high respect for Boris as well. I do.”

Martin, Dilan’s father, beat Salazar where his district overlapped with the 54th, albeit by a small margin: 53 percent of 10,621 votes cast. “I presume Erik will not take anything for granted,” said political consultant Jerry Skurnik. “It’s a real race, just based on those results in the 54th Assembly District.”

CUNY Graduate Center Political Science professor John Mollenkopf noted that in a low-turnout district, the hurdle for Santos will be registering new voters. Salazar dominated in the gentrified western portion of her district, including parts of Williamsburg and Greenpoint that fall outside the 54th District.

Emily Hoffman, vice president of political affairs for New Kings Democrats, said any endorsement in the 54th District is months away. “It’s definitely a district we watch closely,” she said, adding, “there are at least a couple of other people seriously considering the race. They would be running against Dilan’s record.”

Dilan campaign spokesperson Tom Musich provided the Eagle with a written statement, emphasizing Dilan’s votes for the new rent law package; criminal justice bills like bail reform; and the Dream Act. He also noted that Dilan voted for stronger sexual harassment protections this year.

“He continues to focus on serving his constituents and delivering for them in Albany in the coming year and beyond,” Musich said.

Emma Whitford is a freelance reporter based in Brooklyn. You can follow her work on Twitter

Correction (4:30 p.m.): An earlier version of this story stated incorrectly that Assembly District 54 contains a larger section of Cypress Hills than Salazar’s Senate District.

Correction (5:50 p.m.): Santos worked for Councilmenber Reynoso from 2016 to 2018, not from 2013-2016. 

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