Co-founder of Bushwick’s Mayday Space sets eyes on assembly seat

September 18, 2019 Emma Whitford
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A Bushwick-based community organizer is planning to challenge Assemblyman Erik Martin Dilan in 2020, as the primary field in Brooklyn’s 54th Assembly District continues to grow.

Sandy Nurse, 35, is a cofounder of Mayday Space, a grassroots organizing and events center on St. Nicholas Avenue. She is also executive director of BK ROT, a nonprofit composting service founded in Bushwick in 2013 and staffed by young people of color.

“The work that I’ve been doing … I have never seen that work supported by the local assemblymember. I’ve never met this person,” Nurse told the Brooklyn Eagle. “There’s an opportunity to be very, very proactive in channeling resources to the district.”

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The 54th District covers parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick, Cypress Hills and East New York and is majority black and Hispanic.

Nurse joins 28-year-old Boris Santos, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America who announced his Dilan challenge in August. Santos 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.

Nurse (second from right) with BK ROT participants. Photo courtesy of Nurse

Nurse was born in Panama and is of African and Irish descent. She grew up on military bases — her parents were both in the navy — and moved to Bushwick in 2009, which she calls “the first place I’ve been able to build a home.” She’s a carpentry instructor and has built out community gardens in Brooklyn and Manhattan. A veteran of Occupy Wall Street, she’s helped train activists with the People’s Climate March and the Black Youth Project. She also served briefly on Community Board 4.

Nurse’s priorities for office include increased funding for environmental resiliency and public housing. She is opposed to the city’s proposal to rezone Bushwick, which she says “will not contain the impacts of gentrification.”

Josh Carrera, 29, is project director at Mayday space and describes Nurse as a mentor  who encouraged him to take on a leadership role there. She is known locally for “centering the voices of those of us at the margins,” he said.

Both Nurse and Santos are seeking the endorsement of the DSA, which has had recent electoral successes: helping to elect Salazar, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and, nearly, former Queens District Attorney candidate Tiffany Caban.

Nurse told the Eagle that she does not identify as a socialist, though “I have been anti-capitalist for a long time.”

New York City DSA Co-Chairperson Bianca Cunngingham said that the organization is still interviewing candidates. Open identification as a socialist is encouraged, but not required.

“We know that there are many left-leaning candidates who are running, some of them even DSA members,” she said. “The reality is that we’re only going to endorse the ones who are voted upon by members.”

The 54th is not the only district in Brooklyn where large primary fields are taking shape. Two challengers have already announced in Sunset Park’s 51st, a seat currently held by Assemblyman Félix Ortiz: Genesis Aquino and Marcela Mitaynes.

New Kings Democrats communications director Jessica Thurston says the organization has yet to decide if they will endorse in the 54th. While it’s “exciting to have so many challengers thinking about how the party could work better,” she said, “having multiple challengers can keep a problematic incumbent in office.”

Democratic strategist Evan Stavisky of The Parkside Group agreed: “If there’s multiple progressive candidates articulating similar messages and competing for the same votes they can undermine each other.”

Dilan, 45, won his assembly seat in 2014. Prior to that, he served 12 years on the City Council, where he chaired the Housing and Buildings Committee. He was an ally to the late Brooklyn Democratic Party boss Vito Lopez, who died in 2015 after credible sexual abuse allegations prompted him to resign from the State Assembly.

Both Nurse and Santos said that they welcome competition, and see defeating Dilan as the ultimate goal. They both plan to refuse real estate donations, which Dilan has a history of accepting.

“The fact that this is a moment where people like myself are being asked to step up is incredible,” Nurse said. “I’m here, I’m putting myself out, and if in a couple months the movements and groups are interested in endorsing someone else then I am going to listen to that.”

“We need to increase participation in our democracy. That flows from having multiple candidates,” Santos agreed. “If I am not the one with the most support then I will bow out ahead of the primary. The greatest evil for me is someone who is compromised by real estate money.”

Dilan spokesperson Tom Musich told the Eagle that, “Assemblyman Dilan looks forward to talking to his constituents about the future of the district.”

“He’s glad that so many people are deciding to actively participate in our democracy,” Musich added. “Whether you have an established record or no record whatsoever. Whether you’re a new resident of the community or a long time active one.”

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

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