“We have to keep dreaming big,” says the DSA-backed public school teacher who would be the first out LGBTQ person of color elected to NY State Senate.
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of interviews with progressive anti-establishment candidates running in New York’s June 23 Democratic primaries.
Every weekday from 8 a.m. until mid-afternoon Jabari Brisport is a middle school math teacher, helping his students navigate the strange new world of distance learning brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. For the rest of his day and evening, he is a democratic socialist running for a Brooklyn State Senate seat being vacated by retiring incumbent Velmanette Montgomery.
With less than a month to go before the June 23 primary, Brisport is locked in a tough three-way race, featuring Montgomery’s anointed successor Assemblywoman Tremaine Wright and former Montgomery staffer Jason Salmon.
“It’s definitely going to be a wild and crazy mad dash until the very end of the campaign,” Brisport told The Indypendent. “But I have an amazing team behind me.”
‘I didn’t follow traditional routes of running a Democratic club or being a staffer for a politician before getting into this. I was upset by what’s going on in my community.’
Brisport leads the pack with $171,554 raised from 2,879 donors to $15,425 from 38 donors for Wright. He has an army of more than 600 volunteers that, by late May, had placed 100,000 phone calls to voters in the district, which encompasses Bedford-Stuyvesant, Fort Greene, Prospect Heights and Clinton Hill, as well as parts of Park Slope, Gowanus, Sunset Park and Red Hook.
Brisport ran for City Council in 2017. Capitalizing on community anger in Central Brooklyn at a one-sided city deal to hand the Bedford Union Armory to developers, he garnered nearly 30 percent of the vote in the general election running as a third-party candidate against an entrenched incumbent.
His surprise showing was aided by the work of hundreds of youthful volunteers from the Democratic Socialists of America, including a bartender named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Brisport would go on to be a close ally of Ocasio-Cortez in her successful run for Congress in 2018. Now he’s back this year running in the Democratic primary as the most high-profile member of a slate of diverse, young, working-class candidates backed by DSA. If elected, he would be the first out LGBTQ state senator of color in the history of New York.
This interview has been edited for length and concision.
Tell us more about yourself and your background as an educator, organizer and now candidate. How did you come to be politicized and hold the values and positions that you do?
I grew up in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. I am the son of an immigrant and the son of two union workers. My father was in a sheet-metal union and my mother was in the Communications Workers of America (CWA). I got politicized in the fight for gay marriage in college, for my right, as a gay man, to marry the person I love. Facebook recently brought back a post of mine from 2009 saying, “We have a rally for same-sex marriage in Midtown! You gotta come show your support!”
After marriage equality, I got really drawn into the Black Lives Matter movement. As a black man, I was just always thinking, ‘At any time I could be the next hashtag. I could just get gunned down by the police.’ So I was involved in organizing rallies for that, making political demands, policy demands with a group of activists, organizing marches and organizing people at rallies to take further action.
Then I started shifting to electoral politics in 2016 with Bernie. I saw a candidate for the first time that I liked. I ended up canvassing on my own time in six different states for Bernie, doing hundreds of calls, phone banking. It was because of Bernie’s campaign that I became a socialist. One day, in the summer of 2016, I was in the shower and it just dawned on me that slavery was an example of capitalism. It was black people commodified and slapped with price tags, treated as objects in an open market. It just made me think of what capitalism is, which is putting price tags on things, or people in that case, which shouldn’t have price tags.
What are the main issues and concerns you’re hearing from the residents of your district?
Because of COVID-19, the number one concern I’m hearing from people is they’re having problems filing their unemployment claims. We need to hire more people to staff the phones and meet the demand. That speaks to a larger thing: We could tax the rich and drastically expand social services and the things we need in our state. Unfortunately, the governor is a centrist Democrat who acts not by taxing the rich, but squeezing the poor and the working class tighter and tighter. He literally cut Medicaid in the midst of the pandemic.
Aside from the immediate stuff, housing has always been a big issue in the district. This is a district that saw around 2,000 evictions in 2017, and those numbers aren’t slowing down. So the fear of evictions or the lack of affordable housing has always been a concern in the district. For homeowners, the notion that this property you worked for all your life can be taken by a trickster playing nefarious games is very scary.
Also, we need to fully fund education. As a teacher, I know parents wish there was more stuff for the kids like afterschool programs. If you’re a parent working your typical nine to five, your kid gets out of school at three o’clock and you don’t get home until five or six o’clock. You’re worried about what your kid is doing in those two hours after school. A lot of parents are scared that their kids are going to be taken by the streets. That’s a funding issue.
Could you elaborate a little more on why electing someone like yourself who’s been a teacher is a good idea?
I’m not a careerist. I didn’t follow traditional routes of running a Democratic club or being a staffer for a politician before getting into this. I was upset by what’s going on in my community. Nobody gets as mad the way teachers do. We give over so much of ourselves just to ensure that the future is better. And you really want a politician to plan for the future the way teachers do. You want them to be concerned for the next generation. I’m the only candidate in the race that says anything about the climate. None of these other candidates have a single sentence about the climate. I’m worried that my little sixth and seventh graders won’t have a liveable planet when they are older.
If you win, you would be one of two socialist state senators along with Julia Salazar out of a total of 63. How would two socialists in the state Senate be effective?
Julia Salazar has been incredibly effective just as one state senator. She was instrumental in passing the housing and rent reforms last year. She has completely changed the conversation about sex work decriminalization and is really pushing for great strides in labor advocacy and labor rights.
I see this as doubling the amount of work that she did, or even more, because when socialists work together, the whole is better than the parts. Me and the additional three democratic socialist candidates that are going to be in the state Assembly — Phara Souffrant, Marcela Mitanyes and Zohran Mamdani — will work as a team to make noise for the policies that New York needs and put more pressure on Cuomo to stand up for New Yorkers.
Last year the New York Post ran an article hailing you as a potential AOC of Albany. How do you feel about that?
That was really funny. I loved that title, but I’m not the AOC of anything. I’m just the Jabari Brisport of this campaign. AOC is a friend of mine. She’s inspired so many people. The number of candidates who are running for Congress trying to model what she did is just incredible.
You all have a shared history in recent years.
She volunteered for my 2017 campaign. I volunteered a lot for her campaign. I didn’t just knock on doors. I worked with fundraisers and helped push DSA to endorse her, which I’m glad they did. I am just a huge fan of her. I knew she was looking for a campaign manager, and I recommended my campaign manager to her, Vigie Ramos Rios and they hit it off. Vigie ended up being her campaign manager and that was successful.
This campaign has suddenly shifted to very different terrain with the COVID-19 pandemic. How has not being able to do door-to-door canvassing or hold public speeches or rallies changed your approach to this campaign?
I was terrified when I realized we had to shut down our canvassing operation. The strength of DSA has been knocking on doors and talking to people. But we’ve successfully transferred to a mass phone-banking operation. My campaign has made 100,000 calls. We’re trying to get to 300,000 by election day. We’re doing daily phone banks and just growing our numbers of volunteers. A few weeks ago, we were averaging four or five every shift, now we’re averaging 10 to 15, and we’re hoping to keep expanding those numbers as we go along. We’re also spending more money on social media now that people are staying at home and scrolling more than ever.
The DSA slate you are running on includes a nurse, a tenant organizer and a foreclosure counselor and yourself a public school teacher. Why does that make a difference?
We’re like the socialist power rangers. We each bring a little bit of our own slice of the working class into Albany. We want to bring more people into politics and more people into the movement. The current machines rely on low voter turnout, on not many people knowing what’s going on. They want to minimize participation and make sure that power is entrenched in as few hands as possible; therefore, it’s easier to control. We believe in bringing more people into the process. That’s why we love knocking on doors, talking to people. DSA campaigns always expand the electorate. It’s really all about making sure we have big, democratic mass participation.
What’s a normal day in the life of an insurgent candidate like? What does being a candidate consist of, day in and day out?
I’m still working as a teacher during this campaign. I wake up at 7 or 7:30. I work from about 8 until 2 or 3, depending on the day, and then begin campaigning full-time right as soon as that ends. I might even try to get some calls in during my lunch break, to check in with my team. Check some tech emails, maybe.
Once the school day is over, I immediately start going into reaching out. Sometimes I do some internal stuff in the campaign: reaching out to our volunteers, having one-on-one conversations with them, thanking them, encouraging them to keep up the good work. Sometimes I do outreach calls, like fundraising or reaching out to people in the community that I need to connect with. My evenings are typically phone banking with the rest of the volunteers or checking in with people in the community to see what they need.
So that’s the basic structure. In the midst of all that, I do odds and ends, like questionnaires, responding to emails, you know, the odd interview. On weekends, I find time to do mutual aid work. I’m often proofing content for our social media.
Bernie Sanders lost his run for the Democratic nomination. What are your thoughts on how his supporters should process that and move forward?
I really thought Bernie was going to win, going through the Nevada caucuses, before everything just changed on the dime with South Carolina and Super Tuesday. Still, we should realize now that we’re in a unique position. Bernie’s policies are more popular than ever. By saying “Medicare For All” and “eliminate student debt” and “Green New Deal” over and over he was teaching the movement what it was fighting for. And because of Bernie Sanders’ repetitiveness, he’s empowered thousands of organizers and a whole new crop of politicians to run on that message.
One area he struggled with in both of his runs for president was with African-American voters, especially older ones. Any thoughts from your vantage point on how the socialist left in this country, and especially those who are running in Democratic Party primaries, could breakthrough in the future, or is this a gap that can’t be crossed?
It’s a gap that can definitely be crossed. These are relationships that need to be built. Voters are extremely nuanced and complicated, and it’s never an issue about low information.
Bernie’s message has landed. They just thought he couldn’t beat Trump. So what we have to do is convince people that we can dream big again. Big ideas don’t lose. So many people were convinced. It’s about convincing them that we, as the left, the policies that we have, are strong. They are popular. We do not need to cave into moderates and conservatives. We need to keep dreaming big and advocate for things that we deserve. That is how we win, by being unabashed in our demands.
Let’s step back and dream big for a moment. What’s your vision of what New York could be like, say, five or 10 years from now, if more socialists like yourself can win office?
We will have much steeper and higher taxes on the wealthy in our state. We will have single-payer healthcare in the state, if not nationally. We will be well on the way to transitioning towards totally clean energy, and we will have public energy in five or 10 years. We will finally have a fully-funded public education system, and will finally go back to free college, free CUNY and free SUNY.
We will have reduced incarceration rates by a drastic amount, hopefully approaching 75 percent. We will have increased union density by making it easier for union workers to organize, union workers to strike, for workers to join. Also increasing jobs for unions. And we will see the end of homelessness in the state.
It’s all about making people understand that we actually have all we need to meet our basic needs and it’s about having the political will to make sure resources are distributed fairly to make that happen.
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