Rafael Espinal calls exit from City Council ‘bittersweet’
“It’s the work that really attracted me to politics, not the politics within the politics.”
Rafael Espinal, the staunch progressive who has represented parts of Bushwick, Brownsville, Cypress Hills and East New York in the City Council since 2014, has resigned. Espinal announced he’ll be taking over as executive director of the Freelancers Union, a national organization of independent workers with half a million members.
The move comes shortly after Espinal ended a brief campaign for Brooklyn Borough President and with nearly two years left in his second and final term as the City Councilmember for the 37th District, where the 35-year-old Dominican-American was raised. Espinal also finished seventh in the race for Public Advocate, which was won by fellow City Councilmember Jumaane Williams, in 2019.
Though he enjoyed his time in the City Council, and described his exit from the body as “bittersweet,” Espinal told the Brooklyn Eagle that he was “never really interested in the politics behind it all.”
“It’s the work that really attracted me to politics, not the politics within the politics,” he said.
But Espinal’s work did result in several headline-grabbing legislative achievements during his tenure at the City Council, including a repeal of the Prohibition-era Cabaret Law, which banned dancing in night clubs without a special permit, and had been used by law enforcement at times to shut down nightlife establishments subjectively deemed a community nuisance. His advocacy for the city’s nightlife community continued in 2017, when he successfully pushed for the creation of the Office of Nightlife, a point of contact in the mayor’s office for stakeholders in the industry, community and city agencies.
Last year, Espinal also led the charge in the City Council’s passing of a law requiring green roofs on newly constructed buildings, which, along with his introduction of a citywide ban on single-use plastics, including straws, cutlery and water bottles, highlighted his commitment to making New York more environmentally sustainable.
Espinal’s run in city government was not completely devoid of controversy or criticism, however.
Less than a year after his election, Espinal ascended to Chair of the Committee on Consumer Affairs in the Council, and clashed with Bill de Blasio over the mayor’s campaign promise to ban horse-drawn carriages. Backed by animal safety advocates, some of whom protested Espinal outside City Hall, the legislation fizzled after Espinal fought it, citing the loss of jobs such a ban would induce.
Anti-poverty activists also criticized the East New York rezoning that Espinal helped shape, claiming it would spur further gentrification in the borough, as the affordable housing included in the plan was not actually affordable to many of the neighborhood’s long standing residents. Espinal told the Eagle, referring to the rezoning, that he will “continue remaining active, locally, in my community, and making sure that the work that we put in place continues to be delivered the way it was intended to.”
Espinal’s work to pass New York City’s Freelance Isn’t Free Act in May 2017 brought him to the attention of the Freelancer’s Union. That law, which the Freelancers Union also helped enact, created and enhanced protections for freelance workers, including the right to a written contract, timely and full payment and protection for contractors from retaliation from employers who do not adhere to the legislation. Among other worker rights-related legislation that Espinal has backed, he also sponsored a bill, currently laid over in committee in the City Council, that would make it unlawful for employers to require workers, including freelancers, to check emails and other electronic communications during non-work hours.
“We were impressed with his energy,” Hanan Kolko, chair of the Freelancers Union board of directors, told the Eagle. “He’s someone who’s familiar with our issues and has a demonstrated record of working to advance freelancer interest. … We are confident that he can go, not only to people in New York state, but California and other states with large freelance populations and really do the necessary advocacy that we need.”
Espinal, who called the work of a City Councilmember “grueling,” feels he’s up to such challenges, and called New York City an “incubator” for many of the Freelancers Union’s best initiatives to date.
“I’m going to focus on a 50-state strategy of, how do we replicate what New York was so successful in?” Espinal said. “Once we get that ball rolling, I’m going to sit down with workers and sit down with stakeholders and figure out, what does freelancing in the next five years look like?”
Espinal told the Eagle that he won’t rule out a return to politics, but felt that his time to be Brooklyn Borough President, which he described as a dream of his, had just not arrived. At least not yet.
“It really was personal, it came from the heart,” he said of his decision to not seek the office. “I think that, being someone who puts a lot of energy into their work, I felt that I wasn’t going to be able to sustain that for the next two years [during a campaign].”
He added that as Executive Director of the Freelancers Union, it was another, “exciting” way that he can “continue being active and helpful to our city’s constituency.”
By law, the mayor has 80 days from yesterday, when Espinal’s resignation went into effect, to call a special election for his replacement in the City Council’s 37th District.