Brooklyn Dems Target Socialist Nurse in June 28 Assembly Primary

Phara Souffrant Forrest has been a dynamic force in Albany in her first term. The party establishment wants to make it her last.

Theodore Hamm May 23, 2022

In at least one race that is on the June 28 primary ballot, Brooklyn’s fractured Democratic Party leadership appears to have formed a united front. 

Olanike Alabi

The main two camps — aligned with either Rep. Hakeem Jeffries or Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, the party boss — are coming together to support Olanike Alabi’s bid to unseat Phara Souffrant Forrest, the first-term assemblywoman who  belongs to the Democratic Socialists of America.

In 2020, Souffrant Forrest surprisingly toppled four-term incumbent Walter Mosley in Brooklyn’s 57th Assembly District, which starts in Fort Greene and covers Clinton Hill through Crown Heights. Mosley was Jeffries’ hand-picked successor when the latter moved up to Congress in 2013. Jeffries and the DSA share a mutual disdain for one another. 

In the 2021 mayoral primary, Bichotte Hermelyn personally backed Eric Adams, but she was unable to provide the party’s full endorsement because Jeffries supported Maya Wiley. Despite their shared centrist positions, Jeffries and Adams are not allies. 

Hakeem Jeffries

Souffrant Forrest has been a dynamic force in her first term in Albany. She helped the legislature raise taxes on the rich during the pandemic, and pushed hard for the $2b Excluded Workers Fund that covered undocumented workers left out of the federal stimulus. Currently, the former tenant organizer is championing the Good Cause Eviction bill that protects renters from predatory corporate landlords. 

The DSA is accustomed to knocking out incumbents, typically by highlighting their inactive leadership. Alabi is unable to level that charge versus Souffrant Forrest, however. Alabi’s strategy is thus to campaign on the DSA’s platform, touting her support for Good Cause Eviction, single-payer, and the Green New Deal. Alabi will then try to turn the race into a popularity contest, drawing on her longstanding ties to the Clinton Hill portion of the district. 

“It’s annoying,” Souffrant Forrest says regarding her opponent’s matching platform. “When I went to the endorsement interview at DC 37, they were yelling at me about my support for the New York Health Act. Alabi’s website claims she also supports it — but DC 37 endorsed her.” 

Souffrant Forrest’s opponent has copied her platform but does she have the same commitment to Good Cause Eviction, universal healthcare and a Green New Deal?

Stalled in Albany for the last few years, the Health Act would create a single-payer health care system in New York. DC 37, the city’s large public-sector-employee union (with 150,000 active members and 50,000 retirees), is one of several unions the measure (see sidebar below), claiming it would negatively affect their members’ current health care benefits. 

A nurse in the city’s hospital system before taking office in 2021, Souffrant Forrest is a member of the New York State Nurses Association. Along with SEIU 1199 (which represents private sector health care workers), the Nurses Association has championed the Health Act. 

Does Alabi indeed support the single-payer legislation, as her platform states

The Indypendent posed this question via email to DC 37 president Henry Garrido (a close ally of Mayor Adams): “Can you comment on why DC 37 is backing Alabi, who has an identical platform with Souffrant Forrest?

A spokesperson for the union replied, “No comment.” That amounts to a somewhat less-than ringing endorsement of Alabi. 

We chat with working-class nurse, tenant organizer and NY State Assemblymember Phara Souffrant Forrest.

When The Indypendent reached Alabi by phone on Wednesday morning, May 11, the candidate said that she was on a Zoom call but would “circle back” via email.

An hour or so later, Alabi indeed circled back, only to say “Today won’t work, as it’s so last minute and [I’m] crazy busy.”

The following morning, the candidate advised that “Today is  crazy too.”

This reporter can only assume that Friday the 13th was completely bonkers for Alabi, because she didn’t respond to The Indypendent’s inquiry. A fourth and final request via phone on Monday, May 16th was also ignored. 

It’s quite likely that DC 37’s leadership is supporting Alabi because they know that she won’t push the single-payer bill that she claims to support. 

Alas, the Brooklyn Democratic machine operates via such cynical games. Party loyalists denounce gentrification but fill their campaign coffers with real estate loot. They claim to support popular positions, then do nothing to deliver on those promises. 

Party loyalists denounce gentrification but fill their campaign coffers with real estate loot. They claim to support popular positions, then do nothing to deliver on those promises. 

Alabi’s late May filing shows that she has raised roughly $60,000 (mainly from individual donors), and with over $40,000 left to spend, she has enough money to run a competitive campaign. She is counting on older Black voters in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, where she grew up. Alabi served as an elected district leader in the 57th Assembly District for over a decade. In 2020, Shaquana Boykin—a next-generation NYCHA tenant leader and foe of the Democratic machine—defeated Alabi for the district leader post. Souffrant Forrest and Boykin are supporting each other’s reelection campaigns. 

Souffrant Forrest is counting on the votes of activists from the DSA and Crown Height Tenants Union, and from younger residents across the district. The assemblywoman lives in the Ebbets Field Apartments with her husband Charles and their infant son David. Souffrant Forrest has over $30,000 to spend from her own campaign account, and the DSA for the Many PAC is likely to add to her coffers. The incumbent should have no problem reaching voters throughout the district.

“I think this race is the most competitive challenge to any DSA incumbent this year,” says the DSA’s Brandon West, adding that the district is “an area where the County organization really wants to regain control.” West nevertheless believes that Souffrant Forrest is in a “good position,” provided she wages an all-out campaign. 

Souffrant Forrest says she is indeed ready to knock on doors. “I have a movement supporting me—and we will put boots on the ground,” she says. The race is about to take off. 

•   •   •

Unions vs. New York Health Act

Leading the opposition to the NY Health Act (which creates a single-payer health care system in the state) is a group called Realities of Single Payer. While it is not surprising to find many insurance companies, private health care providers and business associations among the coalition’s 164 members, there are also a handful of labor unions — including DC 37 and the United Federation of Teachers. For progressive legislative candidates, it’s one more hurdle to clear. 

There are both concrete and ideological reasons why some unions oppose universal healthcare coverage. They depend on the dues paid by their members, but in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Janus decision in 2018, workers are no longer required to pay such fees. Providing a good health package is a crucial way for unions to maintain the loyalty of their members. As Helen Schaub, policy director of 1199 (which supports the Health Act), explained to The Body last summer, “There’s a long history of particularly municipal unions using health benefits to generate the resources to give people raises.” Like any other worker, union members respond favorably to a raise. 

Unions also employ large numbers of benefits administrators that handle prescription drug claims connected to insurance plans; such jobs would likely disappear with the state-run single-payer system. The leaders of many New York City unions are also temperamentally quite cautious and prefer the status quo. The result is that with the exception of the Nurses Association and 1199, organized labor is not acting in the best interest of working-class people throughout New York State. 

— Theodore Hamm

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