SUNSET PARK — As the country grapples with increasing restrictions and raids on immigrant communities, one Latina Brooklynite is looking to use her personal experience to seek political office come state elections in 2020.
Genesis Aquino, a Sunset Park resident who was born in the Dominican Republic, is mounting a challenge in Assembly District 51 to oust the incumbent, Assemblymember Felix Ortiz.
The district, which covers Sunset Park and Red Hook, has a large immigrant community that includes Latinx populations from Mexico, Central America and parts of South America. More than 47 percent of residents are foreign-born in Community District 7, according to data from the New York City Planning Department, with 48 percent identifying as having limited English proficiency and 73 percent identifying as Asian or Hispanic.
This is a second run for Aquino, who first ran for district leader in the area in 2018 against Arelis Martinez, a long-term incumbent and close ally of Ortiz. Aquino lost by a slim margin then, but her fight to represent her neighborhood continued.
“A lot of people in the district are immigrants — African American, Caribbean — I am able to see through different lenses because of my identity,” she told the Brooklyn Eagle. “It is important when we are advocating for people that we understand their issues.”
Aquino herself had a complicated road to becoming a U.S. citizen, a status she achieved in 2014 after many years of efforts. The experience left her all too aware of the lack of access to public resources and aid that were not afforded to her family when they needed it the most.
“I became a citizen in 2014 under a reunification visa,” Aquino said. “I know what it’s like to be undocumented and not be able to apply for benefits because my parents and my family didn’t qualify for public assistance. I was evicted from my apartment as a teenager and that was hard. I wish I knew then what I know now, because I could have fought for that apartment.”
Aquino credits the experience for sparking her move into local advocacy, and specifically into organizing for tenant rights. For the last couple of years, she has been working for Housing Court Answers, a nonprofit housing organization that helps families facing eviction stay in their homes. If elected, her top priorities include the passage of the Good Cause Eviction bill and more funding for public housing.
A wave of tenant rights activists have been announcing their bids for state office following the passage of a major rent reform package this past legislative session. Marcela Mitaynes, a tenant organizer, on Saturday also launched a campaign for the District 51 assembly seat.
“The new laws directly impact the people I work with every day in NYC Housing Courts,” Aquino told the Eagle. “Tenants will now be granted more time and protections to defend their homes within the court system. The new laws bring us closer to a more just system. Now we need to fight to pass the Good Cause Eviction Bill to expand rights for more tenants.”
Along with standing up for the immigrant community and NYCHA tenants, Aquino, who identifies as queer, wants bring the issues of LGBTQ+ Brooklynites to the forefront. “I’m running a grassroots campaign to continue building community power and take people’s voices to Albany,” she said.
Other issues on Aquino’s radar include desegregating city public schools, guaranteeing more educational funding for the neighborhood and strengthening labor rights for gig economy workers — specifically immigrants who work various jobs.
She will also look to play an active role in the area’s economic future. Sunset Park’s industrial waterfront, Industry City, is facing a potential rezoning, which has been a source of conflict between neighborhood residents and officials. Aquino told the Eagle that she opposes the rezoning proposal in its current form.
“The only development we need is a community-led development process that includes climate change resiliency and protects our industrial waterfront,” she said.
Aquino’s campaign run comes as local residents in Sunset Park have begun to call on their neighbors to join them in a new movement tentatively dubbed “Sunset Park Rising” — an effort to mobilize local residents as important city and state elections approach.
“So many of my neighbors have been talking about a project that we just call ‘Sunset Rising’ for now, which is an effort to do things differently,” said Jorge Muñiz, one of the movement’s founders. “Its an effort for us to gather when it matters not when the ballots are already decided but when its decided which Democrats are put on the ballot in the first place — good ones, ones that are rooted here, ones that live here and can represent us.”
Though the group is not affiliated with Aquino’s run or campaign, they have similar goals for the area, including increasing the 51st Assembly District’s representation in the Kings County Democratic Committee. The district previously had the fewest committee members of any district in Brooklyn.
“So representation matters, leadership matters — but what I’ve learned most of all working in this neighborhood is that it’s got to be local,” Muñiz said at a recent Democratic debate watch party in which the movement was announced.
“It’s got to be grassroots, it’s got to start with people who have roots in this neighborhood. That’s what I’ve seen as successful.”
Assemblymember Ortiz welcomes the challenge, but told the Eagle he remains focused on his work in the district for the time being.
“This is a democracy. I think that everyone has an opportunity to represent themselves. But first let’s wait until the petitioning period ends, and then I will found out who the candidates are,” he said. “Until then, I will continue to do my job and pass important progressive legislation, saying ‘no’ to the Industry City rezoning and fighting for tenant rights.”