Connected by the Verrazzano Bridge and an urge to defend the basic functions of democracy, dozens of community organizers and activists in southwest Brooklyn and Staten Island have come together to oppose Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, New York City’s lone Republican Congressmember. Malliotakis, an ardent Donald Trump supporter and the Republican candidate for mayor in 2017, is running in the state’s 11th congressional district against Max Rose, the centrist Democrat she unseated in 2020.
Over the past two years, the “Defeat Malliotakis” group (which this writer has organized with) has staged protests outside her Bay Ridge district office, placed op-ed pieces in local newspapers, and unleashed a torrent of social media. The goal has been to highlight Malliotakis’ toxic brew of positions, from her democracy-withering vote against certifying President Biden’s victory in the 2020 election to her willingness to play footsie with violent right-wing elements.
The district as a whole leans from centrist to right wing. Staten Island was the only borough Trump carried in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, and the state Conservative Party’s headquarters is in Bay Ridge. But key parts of it — Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge and Staten Island’s North Shore — have been moving left for more than a decade. On the South Brooklyn side, state Senator Andrew Gounardes, Assemblymember Mathylde Frontus, and City Councilmember Justin Brannan have made reputations as politicians who focus on constituent services and aren’t afraid to stand on liberal positions that might have been career-enders for politicians there a generation ago — when Black men occasionally got murdered by white youths for walking on a block where they weren’t welcome, and a huge anti-abortion billboard greeted people coming upstairs from the R train.
Brannan won re-election in 2021 by 600 votes, defeating right-winger Brian Fox, who campaigned largely on the fear of crime.
“It’s one of the oldest moves in the GOP’s dusty, tired campaign playbook,” Brannan says. “When in doubt, blow the racial dog whistle. Blame immigrants. Blame poor people. It’s disgusting and voters are smarter than that.”
Part of the reason the right wing is losing its political grip on the region, he adds, is “because the ‘world is going to hell and only we can save you’ thing is all they’ve got — and voters aren’t dumb.”
On the North Shore of Staten Island, Sarah Blas, an activist public-housing resident and head of Staten Island Therapeutic Gardens, says groups like Staten Island Women Who March, the Working Families Party and others have had success “through infusing compassion, care and direct service work with civic engagement.”
“Trust cannot be built by a single individual or one organization alone, but rather by coalitions,” she adds.
Defeating Malliotakis will still be very difficult. Trump carried the 11th District in 2020 by a margin of about 10%. Redistricting brought that down to about 7.5%, the Radio Free Bay Ridge podcast noted in June — representing about 6,000 votes, about one-third of Malliotakis’s margin over Max Rose in 2020. The incumbent is also running a well-financed campaign, with donations from corporate titans such as JetBlue Airways and local corporate oligarchs like the Dolan family, owners of Madison Square Garden and the Knicks, who also helped bankroll Trump with $125,000 in the 2020 election.
Many Defeat Malliotakis organizers say it doesn’t seem like Rose has been receiving the level of funding from larger Democratic Party apparatuses that he would need for a heavy enough canvassing and messaging campaign. They suspect the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee thinks his chances of winning are too much of a stretch to be worth the investment.
“There is no cavalry on its way,” Rachel Brody, one of the group’s early organizers, told a conference call in September. “We’re going to have to do this ourselves.”
From rage to organization
The core of the group first came together in revulsion against the mob of Trump supporters who invaded the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Malliotakis voted against certifying the electoral votes for Biden from Arizona and Pennsylvania, claiming there was evidence of “fraud.”
She cast that vote “just hours after the Capitol was ransacked,” said Brody.
A longtime Bay Ridge resident, Brody is a co-host of the Radio Free Bay Ridge local-news podcast. She got in touch with other local organizers — who themselves were also reaching out to other organizers. Within hours, she says, “people in the district started swinging into gear to organize a protest that weekend.”
“Someone who doesn’t believe in free and fair elections has no business representing any part of New York City,” said Michael Zayas, a NY-11 resident who was mobilized by Malliotakis’ vote against certifying the election.
“The line for many was the attempted coup on the Capitol,” said Crystal Migliorisi . “As someone from an immigrant family who was taught to love and respect this country, it was heartbreaking to watch that madness unfold. I believe many people felt a moral obligation to stand against it.”
On Jan. 9, 2021, a chilly Saturday morning, hundreds of people showed up for a protest outside Malliotakis’s Bay Ridge office.
Some speakers demanded her immediate resignation. Others demanded she either vote to impeach Trump or resign. Some demanded that she be thrown out of Congress, for echoing the disinformation and conspiracy theories that motivated the hours-long siege by right-wing forces seeking to keep Trump in power by violence.
The next day, says Brody, “I started reaching out to my fellow organizers, just about doing some social-media work about what Nicole was doing. Using the hashtag #ResignMalliotakis, since we’d been asking her to resign. I just reached out to everyone I knew — in fact, anyone I knew who was active in the district and opposed to what she was doing.”
As her circles and other organizers’ circles interacted with each other, an ad hoc group of volunteers emerged in resistance to New York City’s MAGA congresswoman.
The group’s organizational flexibility coupled with a focus on specifically getting Malliotakis out of office worked well, especially when it came to recruiting a wide group of people.
“We rounded up like 60 or 70 people,” Brody said in October. “We had everybody from left-of-the-DSA [Democratic Socialists of America] right up to former members of Max Rose’s staff. At one point we even had a couple of Republicans. These were people who felt seriously that we really had to do something.”
Malliotakis’s vote filled many members of the community with a “rage and disgust that will lead to NY-11 electing a new congressional representative,” says Staten Island organizer Jasmine “Jasi” Robinson, the Democratic female district leader of the 61st Assembly District on Staten Island, a longtime activist who has operated publicly accessible pantries and community fridges to alleviate food insecurity.
“[Malliotakis] does not vote to support the working-class folks, communities of color, LGBTQIA communities, and women,” she told The Indypendent in an email.
Defeat Malliotakis, however, has not endorsed Rose or any other candidate.
Some participants had experience in political work: Two were members of the Bay Ridge Democrats, and Brody had formerly been a field director for Rose’s campaign. Others came as outraged voters, generally new to any sort of organizing and civic activism.
The volunteer group has functioned through fairly simple mechanisms like texting each other, tweeting to get most of their messages out, Facebook posting and maybe a spreadsheet or two to get the word out about protests. There is a small Slack channel used by a subgroup of the organizers and various subgroups within the formation meet up throughout the district in an ad-hoc fashion. That’s as close to high technology the group gets.
In its first months, vaccines weren’t yet widely available, so caution had to be kept high for everyone’s safety. Much of the organizing had to be done by text, emails, phone calls, direct messages and teleconferencing calls.
As COVID dangers slowly lessened, the Defeat Malliotakis efforts became a hybrid, with organizers sometimes taking to the streets for protests and direct contact with their neighbors.
The group could probably be better described as a “formation” than a formal organization. There are no official leaders, only facilitators for meetings. Some people have taken on tasks like “call-arounds” when meetings and events were being organized, while others are more occasionally involved.
Different people, in groups of two or three, moderate the Twitter handle @VoteNicoleOut and the Facebook group Defeat Malliotakis communicates through. For higher-level planning, meetings are called.
When an agenda exists for a meeting, it usually comes from the facilitator. Most discussions are organized virtually, both because the group started during a peak in the COVID epidemic and to accommodate various contributors’ elder-care, child-care, work and organizing schedules. Almost all discussions focus on something specific that can be done.
From there, small work groups break out, and then a collective effort is made to increase, amplify or at least support their efforts.
The group has also protested Malliotakis’s unwillingness to vote in favor of the Equality Act, which was intended to guarantee protection for the human rights of the LGBTQ+ community and has held rallies outside her office demanding she vote in favor of the Build Back Better plan, which she didn’t. Most consistently, almost every day during the last 18 months, at least a few of the Defeat Malliotakis contingent have been waging a social-media struggle to counter both her disinformation and her politics. They’re most active on Twitter, but also appear on Facebook and Instagram.
Enraged by her record
Early in the movement, a Defeat Malliotakis participant established a website called #resignMalliotakis. The site is still occasionally updated and highlights her voting record in Congress and the state Assembly.
So far this year, Malliotakis has voted against the John Lewis Freedom to Vote Act, a bill to set up a federal network to warn people about active shooters, and against one to have a federal task force analyze and combat white-supremacist and neo-Nazi infiltration of the military and federal law-enforcement agencies.
In July, she voted twice against measures to protect a woman’s right to choose an abortion — one that would have barred states from banning or restricting abortion in most circumstances and another that would have prohibited states from punishing anyone who helps a woman get an out-of-state abortion. She has also voted, in general, against a woman’s right to contraception.
“She has continued to become even more extreme and dangerous,” says Jay Brown, vice president of the Bay Ridge Democrats, “to the point where now she will not oppose a law criminalizing abortion in all 50 states.”
On Sept. 6, Defeat Malliotakis released a video of Malliotakis using lies to justify her vote against the Right to Contraception Act. She falsely claimed that it would allow teenage girls to get sterilized without parental consent.
“The problem isn’t only her opposition to abortion,” says Crystal Migliorisi, a health-care worker from Staten Island. The congresswoman’s position on the issue “isn’t based on the reality of a spectrum of factors that influence the decision to terminate a pregnancy,” Migliorisi added, and another problem is “her opposition to access to birth control.”
That is compounded by “her opposition to realistically discussing sex and sexuality in health classes in schools” and her refusal “to provide teenagers with tools they need to make safe and responsible decisions,” Migliorisi says. And Malliotakis has also voted against “access to resources for parents to provide their growing children with a stable environment.”
At least six contributors to the Defeat Malliotakis group told The Indypendent that her voting record on community safety stood in painful contrast to her fearmongering about crime.
“Her policies on gun control are despicable,” said Migliorisi. “She will talk about street violence but votes down red-flag laws, allows domestic abusers to keep their weapons and even recently voted down an amber-alert type warning for gun violence in your area.”
The district was hit hard by the COVID-19 virus. By September 2021, 3,000 residents had died of it.
Defeat Malliotakis organized a protest outside Malliotakis’s Bay Ridge office. They dubbed her “COVID Nicole,” for her siding against basic COVID safety precautions and avoiding saying that vaccines were useful.
“While we were dealing with sick people,” Migliorisi wrote in an email to The Indy, “Malliotakis spent her time advocating for no vaccination requirements for workers, and for allowing children to go to school unmasked during the height of the pandemic when vaccines weren’t even available to that age group.”
“We have had so many people come into the hospital suffering from COVID and dying. I have had 30-somethings come in after having COVID because they weren’t vaccinated, had pre-existing conditions, and developed hypertension, which resulted in strokes,” Migliorisi added. “They’re still alive, but with a worse quality of life.”
Malliotakis also held “super-spreader” rallies during the 2020 campaign, where thousands of her constituents were packed shoulder-to-shoulder with barely a mask in sight at a time when vaccines were not yet available even to health workers.
Activists at the rally outside Malliotakis’s office laid out hundreds of small cardboard cutouts of the coronavirus on the sidewalk in front of the speakers, as well as handing them out to passersby. They encouraged passers-by to contact Rep. Malliotakis’s staffers during the week and ask them why she was refusing to get behind the vaccination push while 3,000 of her constituents had died from the virus.
Within three days, though, Malliotakis personally showed up to the opening of a vaccination site in Staten Island — when she had previously made sure to steer clear of any implication of supporting vaccinations. Many in the loose organizing community in South Brooklyn and Staten Island considered that a small win.
Playing Footsie with Fascism:
Many Defeat Malliotakis organizers describe her as dangerous, not just to the lives of women and the safety of the community but for the survival of the U.S. as a democracy. They are very aware of just how near the right-wing threat is to them.
“Don’t tread on me” flags abound, especially on the Staten Island side of the district. MAGA hats have been a regular sight on both sides of the Verrazzano Bridge, and the fascist Patriot Front group pulled off a banner drop across an overpass of the Belt Parkway in 2020. Members of Fight Back Bay Ridge have posted numerous photos online of Patriot Front stickers that have been found plastered in the streets and parks of South Brooklyn. There have been dozens of anti-vaccination stickers that used fascist-sounding language.
The hardware store a few doors down from Malliotakis’ Bay Ridge office flies a large Blue Lives Matter flag every day it is open. During the protest on Jan. 6, 2022 attended by more than 100 people to mark the anniversary of Malliotakis voting against certifying the presidential elections, a man waving that flag burst out of the store and started screaming “America is the Best!!!” and “USA! USA! USA!” in an attempt to disrupt the speeches.
Organizers like Jasi Robinson have noted how she leverages her connections to the extreme sections of the right-wing to intimidate and harass her way to power.
Malliotakis personally attacked her on Twitter last May, just after the Buffalo mass shooting. Her photo was then circulated by local right wingers, and she was even denounced by Fox News commentators.
“Her supporters threatened violence against me,” Robinson says. “I was a target for most of the summer.”
“As a Black and Cuban woman who is in this political arena, I was very cautious and concerned about my safety,” said Robinson. “She has a habit of targeting Black community leaders.”
In July 2020, during the heat of the George Floyd uprising, Malliotakis decided to lead a “Blue Lives Matter” pro-cop march through Dyker Heights, in the Brooklyn portion of her district.
Pro-cop protesters, who included the openly fascist Proud Boys, got aggressive and then violent. Some violently attacked counter-protesters, with one Blue Lives Matter supporter yelling “I hope you get raped” to a police-accountability activist.
In December 2021, Leticia Remauro, a long-time Malliotakis confidante and former paid staffer, was seen on video screaming “Heil Hitler” at a protest against COVID restrictions held outside a Staten Island bar that had been ordered closed for serving customers indoors. The bar’s owner, Daniel Presti, claimed it was an “autonomous zone.”
The protest was also attended by the Proud Boys, state Senator Andrew Lanza (R-S.I.) and an assortment of local right-wing wannabe-celebrities. It ended with Presti smashing into a city sheriff’s deputy with his car when officers tried to arrest him for defying the order to close the bar. Presti drove for about 100 yards with the deputy clinging to the hood.
The deputy was treated for fractures in both legs. In January 2022, a grand jury declined to indict Presti for assault, charging him only with selling alcohol without a license.
Malliotakis said nothing about the assault on an officer.
In an open letter to Malliotakis published in the Staten Island Advance on Dec. 11, 2021, Bay Ridge resident Daniel Loud called on her to “completely and immediately condemn Daniel Presti’s recent actions — which include a vehicular assault on a police officer.”
“Continued silence will indicate that you only care about blue lives when it’s an excuse to ignore Black lives,” Loud, an organizer with Defeat Malliotakis, added. He asked her to shift her attention “to passing urgently-needed COVID relief legislation, including ongoing stimulus payments for suffering families.”
“It is all interconnected. These are her values and principles,” says Jasi Robinson. “She consorts with folks who are Islamophobic, transphobic and hold very anti-Semitic views.”
The reactionary bouquet
Daniel Loud, president of the Bay Ridge Environmental Group, a volunteer organization that can be found cleaning one of the area’s parks every month, says their efforts to politely reach Malliotakis have yielded no results.
“I’ve genuinely tried to connect with Nicole Malliotakis on environmental issues,” he says. “I, and other activists, have written letters to her, organized actions outside of her office and even spoken with members of her staff about environmental priorities. We rarely get a response.”
He suggested that Malliotakis is more interested in catering to Republican talking points than in focusing on the community’s infrastructure and environmental needs. Recent estimates indicate that tens of thousands of acres of New York City could be lost if sea levels continue to rise unabated, including large swaths of the Brooklyn part of the district.
“While Malliotakis did vote in favor of the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act, which did have important climate measures in it, she was intimidated by Trump and then voted against the Build Back Better bill and the Inflation Reduction Act,” Loud wrote in an email interview. “It’s very clear that her loyalty to her party is more important than keeping her residents safe — even as they face more extreme weather.”
Some campaign for Rose
Despite the Defeat Malliotakis group’s decision not to endorse any candidates, numerous participants have volunteered to work for Max Rose and others — phone-banking, putting up stickers, and sending out texts and postcards. Some are doing it through the Working Families Party, and at least four are volunteering directly with the Rose campaign, such as Jasi Robinson, who helped organize an event for him. Rise and Resist’s Election Group has also joined in the struggle, organizing marches, flier campaigns, postcard campaigns and canvasses that Defeat Malliotakis members have also helped organize and sometimes joined.
A Siena poll released in October showed Malliotakis ahead of Rose by 6%, the same margin she won by in 2020. Rose had solid majorities among respondents from northern Staten Island and the Brooklyn part of the district, but Malliotakis led by more than 2-1 in the southern two-thirds of Staten Island.
The Defeat Malliotakis participants took this more optimistically than one might expect.
Rachel Brody explained that in 2018, when Rose beat Republican incumbent Dan Donovan, “this poll had Max down by 6% in a district that Trump won by 8%. Max ended up winning by 6.3%.”
Several organizers noted that the poll’s methodology seemed to indicate that three-fourths of the respondents were Staten Island residents — when only about two-thirds of the district’s voters are. Rose carried the Brooklyn part of the district by 10 percentage points in 2018.
Others said that with Rose focusing on criticizing Malliotakis for favoring draconian laws against abortion, they felt like momentum was slowly moving against her.
“It will be an uphill battle, but our democracy, freedom and lives are worth fighting for,” said Daniel Loud. “Even if we don’t oust Malliotakis in 2022, we can never stop sounding the alarm on how dangerous she is and how far she’ll go in hurting us.”
He admitted that pushing against right-wing tendencies in the community can be “exhausting… but the fight is worth it.”
“People have come up to me and asked me ‘what are our chances?’,” says Brody. “Our chances get better with every door that gets knocked, with every call that gets made and every text that gets sent.”
“No one thought Max Rose could win [in 2018],” says Jasi Robinson. “No one believed that we had the fight, fire and drive to win.
“We can win this election,” she adds. “We need to continue mobilizing and engaging folks.”
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