SOUTH BROOKLYN — Councilmember Justin Brannan lays it all out there on Twitter. “Never took a poli sci class. Not a lawyer. Toured the world in a van. Love helping people,” he wrote in a thumbnail description of himself on his home page.
Brannan, born and raised in Bay Ridge, took a circular route to public service but said he wouldn’t have it any other way. He is now in his second year on the City Council.
“I still consider myself a kid from the neighborhood,” he said.
Prior to winning his Council seat in 2017, he was an aide to Councilmember Vincent Gentile and before that worked in finance at Bear Stearns, was a radio announcer and toured the world as a guitarist in punk rock bands like Indecision and Most Precious Blood. He also owned a business, the Art Room, with his wife, Leigh Holliday Brannan, and his mother, Mary Brannan.
“I was a touring musician. I was a clerk. I think it makes you a better politician. Empathy is such an important part of being an elected official,” Brannan, a Democrat representing the 43rd Council District (Bay Ridge-Dyker Heights-parts of Bensonhurst) told the Home Reporter in a phone interview.
When his constituents talk about their struggles to make ends meet, he can identify with them, he said. “I’ve been there,” he added.
Brannan noted that elected officials these days have all sorts of backgrounds and that legislative chambers are not filled with only lawyers. U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, was a bartender.
“It was never on my radar to go into politics,” said Brannan, a Xaverian High School graduate. “But I was always searching for something bigger than myself. I wanted more than a paycheck.”
It was while he was a touring musician in the 1990s that he felt his life changing. “I fell in love with New York City while touring. I realized how much I missed it,” he said.
Going into politics, “wasn’t a conscious decision,” he said. “But I felt it was time to give something back.”
He felt “a magnetic pull” toward working at the local level. “Local government just clicked,” he said. “I thought I could make my neighborhood a better place.”
Part of his job as a lawmaker entails navigating city government to get things done for constituents. “I try to cut through the noise. There is no Democratic or Republican way to pick up garbage. I don’t care what party you belong to. I’m a proud Democrat. But my job is to serve,” he said.
“My job is to make their day-to-day life better,” he said, referring to his constituents. “For most people, their immediate concern is their commute to work on the subway. When I’m in the drugstore buying toothpaste and someone comes up to me, they don’t usually talk about national politics. They ask about potholes and fixing streetlights.”
Brannan has a district office at 8203 Third Ave. but doesn’t wait for constituents to seek him out. He makes use of social media by regularly posting updates on Facebook and Twitter about street closures, civic meetings, alternate-side-of-the-street parking regulations and legislation.
He feels it’s a good way to communicate with constituents. “You’ve got to meet people where they’re at,” he said.
And constituents reciprocate. More and more of them are choosing to contact him via tweets or by posting comments on Facebook.
While constituent services are a large part of his job, there is also legislating.
“I love legislation. I love when someone comes into the office and has a suggestion on how something could be made better. That’s legislation from the ground up,” he said.
The first piece of legislation he passed was a bill to mandate opioid addiction prevention education in the city’s middle schools.
“The other day, we passed a bill to create the Mayor’s Office of Animal Welfare. It will be the first of its kind. No other city in the country has an office like this,” he said.
Brannan successfully shepherded a bill through the Council to ban food vendors from the area where the Dyker Heights Christmas lights display is concentrated.
Another bill Brannan introduced would provide free eye exams and eyeglasses to low-income New Yorkers.
Issues he is working on include improving the waterfront in preparation for the next Superstorm Sandy. He is chairperson of the Committee on Resiliency and Waterfronts. “We can’t wait around for the federal government to act. It’s a race against the clock,” he said.
“One of the challenges of this job is balancing the unique needs of this district with the larger goals of the city,” Brannan said. “Your job is to represent the 175,000 people in your district and look out for their needs. But you are also part of a legislative body with 51 members.”
He has found commonality with councilmembers, particularly those who, like him, represent outer borough districts.
“I think it’s often Manhattan vs. the outer boroughs. People in the outer boroughs have a very different experience than people who live in Manhattan, especially when it comes to public transportation,” he said, adding that he fights for Brooklyn to get respect.
“Lower Manhattan is the economic engine of the city, but the fuel for that engine comes from the outer boroughs,” he said.