I’m not on the streets of Brooklyn’s Cypress Hill neighborhood with Debbie Medina for long before it’s clear this will not be your average baby-kissing campaign jaunt for the state Senate candidate.
“Every time I drive a fancy car in this neighborhood I get pulled over,” a young Black man washing an Oldsmobile in the July sun tells Medina when she approaches with a flier. “What are you going to do to stop these cops from killing us?”
The 53-year-old community organizer, who is trying to unseat incumbent Martin Malavé Dilan in the Sept. 13 Democratic primary, has a ready answer: Disarm the police.
The young man is incredulous. “Trust me,” she says. “I have a son doing life in Pennsylvania. I know what it’s all about out here, buddy. I’m real. I’m just like you.”
It’s conversations like this that underscore Medina’s strengths as an outsider candidate, but also what is putting her run in jeopardy. Medina’s grassroots run against incumbent Martin Dilan is the only competitive race in the Democratic primaries for state legislative seats from New York City this year. A victory for Medina, who identifies as a democratic socialist, would signal the growing strength of the “Berniecrat” wing of the Democratic Party and have reverberations well beyond the city.
At the beginning of July, it looked as if Medina had a decent shot at ousting Dilan, a machine Democrat who has held office in the district since 2003. Then news broke that she repeatedly beat her eldest son, Eugenio Torres, with a belt during his teenage years. Torres is now serving a sentence of life without parole in Pennsylvania for killing his girlfriend’s 3-year-old son.
While talking with Cypress Hills residents, Medina sought to use her son’s imprisonment to connect with voters, but her use of corporal punishment, which she disclosed to the news website DNAInfo on July 12, has cast a shadow over her campaign.
Dilan claims he knew of Medina’s past child abuse and her son’s incarceration back in 2014, when she first challenged him in the Democratic primary. “I did not want to run a negative campaign against her,” he said. “My opponent made her choice and her son made a choice.”
A Traditional Incumbent
Where Medina’s personal struggles are catching up with her, Dilan’s politics might be his undoing. He has taken thousands of dollars in donations from police unions at a time when law enforcement’s use of violence against unarmed civilians has sparked outrage in communities of color; from advocates for charter schools, which have stoked parental anxiety as they continue to receive state funds while traditional public schools deteriorate; and from the Rent Stabilization Association, a landlords’ lobbying group, while representing a district where gentrification is pricing out thousands of residents.
According to an analysis of campaign filings from the end of July by The Indypendent, Dilan has received nearly half a million dollars in campaign contributions since 2012. This year, he has raised just over $70,000 from 92 individual donations. Since January, Medina has raised $43,700 from 556 individual contributions –— 266 of which were for $27 or less. By contrast, Dilan has received only seven donations of less than $100 this year.
Prior to revelations of Medina’s troubled relationship with her son, she appeared to be the perfect candidate for voters looking for a progressive alternative to the entrenched incumbent: Someone with real roots in the district but who isn’t bought and paid for. She has worked for 30 years as a community organizer with Los Sures/Southside United, an anti-poverty group with deep roots in the working-class Puerto Rican community of Southside Williamsburg. She has built tenant associations and organized dozens of buildings to launch rent strikes against landlords to obtain repairs and rent reductions.
The 18th District stretches from Greenpoint southeast through Williamsburg and Bushwick and around to East New York and Cypress Hill. Both candidates were born and raised there, the children of Puerto Rican parents. Medina hails from south Williamsburg; Dilan is from Bushwick, which his son Erik represents in the Assembly. Despite rapid gentrification in the past 15 years, 54 percent of the district is Hispanic, according to census data, 21 percent Black, and 18 percent white. On Fulton Street on a Saturday afternoon, Medina’s roots shine as she switches seamlessly between English and Spanish, making jovial conversation with shopkeepers and with elders catching tans in lawn chairs propped on the sidewalk.
Medina has attracted significant progressive support. She was the subject of a glowing profile in the Nation magazine in March and won a stamp of approval from the Working Families Party, as well as from the Bushwick Berners—an endorsement that came with 50 or so volunteer canvassers who had mobilized behind democratic-socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders this spring.
“I’ve been a socialist all my life, but I didn’t think you could say so in public,” Medina tells me when I ask why she neglected to apply the moniker to herself when she ran against Dilan in 2014. “Bernie gave me the confidence to say, ‘That’s exactly what I am.’ The meaning of socialism is people being able to have a say in what happens in their community. If that’s radical, then I’m a radical.”
Albany exerts enormous control over life in New York City. Medina says she will work to strengthen the rent-stabilization laws, which are set by the state, including trying to repeal the 1997 vacancy-deregulation law that lets landlords jack up rent, often illegally, when tenants move out. She also wants to raise the state’s mansion tax, currently just 1 percent on properties worth a million dollars or more, and use the funds to finance permanent affordable housing through community land trusts.
She opposes public funds for charter schools, which currently match almost dollar-for-dollar what the state spends per-student on its public schools. That’s money that could go towards smaller classes for public schools and free higher education, she argues.
Increasing state spending on public transit and rolling back fare hikes is another of Medina’s top priorities. On the MTA’s decision to shut down L train service under the East River in 2019 to repair tunnels damaged by Hurricane Sandy, she insists that future service changes won’t occur without the involvement of subway riders in her district.
“Day one, when you find something wrong,” she said, addressing the MTA, “you come to the community and say, ‘We need your input.’”
When we stop in a Dominican diner, a middle-aged man examining a campaign flier puts down his egg sandwich and asks, “Why aren’t you running for president?”
Following in Sanders’ Footsteps
Medina garnered 42 percent of the vote running against Dilan in 2014, but this year things are different. The left wing of the Democratic Party has been energized, and Bernie Sanders carried Greenpoint and large sections of Williamsburg and Bushwick in the April primary. Medina is building on that base and trying to expand her presence in East New York and Cypress Hills, Dilan strongholds that went heavily for Hillary Clinton. The donations she’s received have enabled her to devote time and volunteers to neighborhoods she didn’t have the funds to concentrate on previously.
On one July day, Medina and eight other canvassers have spread out across Cypress Hills. From the looks of it, her campaign is in full swing, undeterred by the DNAInfo piece earlier in the month. The Working Families Party, which uncovered the information about her and her son while vetting Medina in June, isn’t returning her calls. The Bushwick Berners, however, are sticking by her.
“She’s stood up for the poor and those that have the least for her whole career as a community organizer,” said Brian Johnston, a founding member of the Berners. “She did what she did because she was trying to protect her family. I don’t think she’s trying to spin anything.”
Medina insists the story hasn’t hurt her campaign.
“I’ve gotten calls from people that have endorsed me and they’ll continue to endorse me,” Medina says, insisting that more people have come forward to support her since the article appeared than before. “People have said, ‘Wow, that’s really amazing you’ve just came out and gave your story.”
The story, as she tells it, is this. At the age of 12, Eugenio Torres, the oldest of her four children, started hanging out on the street. He began smoking angel dust. Medina, a mother of four, couldn’t afford rehabilitation programs that would have removed him from an environment where drugs were readily accessible.
“If I was rich I would have sent my son to Malibu, but that’s not something I could afford,” she says.
Still, she did everything she could to turn his life around. She approached dealers in Southside Williamsburg and pleaded with them to cut her son off. She posted fliers around the neighborhood that urged, “Do not sell to this boy.”
When Torres was 16, Medina and her husband found cash and the family’s VCR missing from their home. They confronted their son and when he hit her husband, Medina intervened and began striking Torres with a belt — the first of multiple instances she used force in an attempt to rein in his delinquent behavior.
SPARED FROM DEATH
A mitigation specialist, testifying during the sentencing segment of Torres’s murder trial, noted that in one instance child protective services arrived at Medina’s household and discovered bruises on Torres’s torso and arms. The testimony is a matter of public record and was reported on by Lehigh Valley Live, a local paper in Northampton County, Pennsylvania, where Torres’s trial took place in 2010. Yet it was not widely known in Medina’s district until she came forward. Like her socialism, it wasn’t a subject she discussed during her 2014 Senate bid.
“I thought everybody already knew,” Medina tells me, explaining that she has always been open with her neighbors about what her family went through.
The abuse Torres suffered served as a mitigating factor in the jury’s decision to spare him from a sentence of lethal injection and instead opt for life without parole. The final tally was 10-2 in favor of death, but under Pennsylvania law, the death penalty cannot be imposed unless the jury’s vote is unanimous.
Torres, who was 23 at the time of his conviction, maintains his innocence and told investigators he was playing with 3-year-old Elijah Strickland in a bathtub when the child swallowed water and stopped breathing. More than 90 injuries were discovered on the little boy’s body, including cuts, burn marks, bruising and a fractured skull. A bloody white belt was recovered at the scene.
“I can only wish and pray to the Lord that it was an accident,” Medina says.
I asked her what message she has for voters who might feel conflicted about checking off her name on the ballot.
“Elect me as a state senator and we can work to help families like mine. We should not allow one mistake that I made get in the way of me being able to go up there [to Albany] and help families avoid the [same] mistakes. How many parents are going through what I went through right now, but nobody knows about it because they’re not running for a position? People are accusing me of trying to save my son, when the reality is we should be trying to find a way where parents don’t have to go through what I went through.”
As we approached the car waiting at the end of the block to take her to the next campaign event, Medina sighed. “I knew you couldn’t just have a regular interview with me without having to ask me [about] that.”