ExxonMobil Proposed SPDES Changes Sparks Land-Use Debate


By Jean Brannum | jbrannum@queensledger.com

ExxonMobil Corporation and environmental consulting company Roux held its second public hearing on the consolidation of its groundwater treatment plant plans on July 18, and most of the public comments were directed at the future use of the land. 

Community advocates, some who have commented multiple times on the plans, grilled ExxonMobil employees on the use of the potential old plant sites. 

ExxonMobil has two groundwater treatment plants, but the oil company wants to consolidate the plants into one, according to a fact sheet from Roux. Public liaisons for the company said in a presentation that the treatment plants would be able to run more efficiently and that the project would include adding updated equipment that would last throughout the entire remediation process. The two plants are at 400 Kingsland Avenue and 5 Bridgewater St. The new plant will be at 38 Varick St. 

The company has to apply for a State Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (SPDES) permit modification. The process includes public meetings and meetings with Brooklyn Community Board One. 

However, attendees at the last public meeting with ExxonMobil discussed the use of the proposed empty land more than the SPDES permit. Advocates for Greenpoint’s environment expressed concerns about the future use of the land. Project Liaison, Kevin Thompson said that ExxonMobil does not disclose business dealings and that he could only hear suggestions about future land use. Thompson mentioned that the land is currently zoned for industrial use and that some new uses would require rezoning. 

Willis Elkins from the Newtown Creek Alliance spoke to the ExxonMobil and Roux representatives about the importance of using the land to better the community. Elkins is not concerned about the consolidation plan but suggests the industrial land be a site for green energy production. 

“I get ads all the time whenever I listen to WNYC and other podcasts and constantly bombarded by Exxon greenwashing ads about all the great stuff they’re doing to benefit the planet. This would be an ideal place to put that into practice.”

Elkins said that because the oil spill site has caused detrimental effects to the Greenpoint community, then ExxonMobil should use the site to positively impact the environment and community. His biggest concern, he said, was that the site would become a “last mile” distribution center, which the city council is working to limit. These centers act as quick distribution warehouses for e-commerce companies. Newtown Creek Alliance is a partner of the Last Mile Coalition, which advocates against such facilities. 

“There’s a significant opportunity to integrate things like environmental restoration, habitat restoration that will not just benefit ecologically, but will also benefit the community as well.”

Elkins added that the company now has a chance to move the state towards green energy use, which is part of New York state’s new law to reach 70% clean energy use by 2030. 

Kim Fraczek, director of the Sane Energy Project and a meeting attendant, agreed with Elkins and other Newtown Creek Alliance members that the land should become a green energy hub.

About the Greenpoint Oil Spill 


After the Greenpoint oil spill was discovered in 1978, multiple oil companies, the city, and the state have made efforts to clean up the site, according to the Newtown Creek Alliance.. . The oil spill was discovered in 1978 by the U.S. Coast Guard after 140 years of spillage. Oil giants BP, ExxonMobil, and Chevron/Texaco would acquire the spill site through years of acquisitions since the breakup of Standard Oil. ExxonMobil says that over 13.5 million gallons of oil have been removed from the spill site

A settlement between ExxonMobil and then-Mayor Andrew Cuomo, advocacy group Riverkeeper and the Greenpoint community ruled that the oil company must clean up the oil. Previous efforts to clean up the site did not take care of the problem. The state of New York Department of Energy Conservation oversees the current cleanup efforts.

For information on the project, ExxonMobil has a document repository on Rouxinc.com.

Domestic Employers Honored at Care Heroes Awards

By Jean Brannum | jbrannum@queensledger.com

Care Forward, among other organizations, honored outstanding employers of caregivers in Carroll Gardens on June 11.

Nannies, in-home caregivers, and housekeepers could nominate their employers for a Care Hero award. The awards highlight employers who have gone above and beyond to honor the legal rights of domestic workers and create a good work environment.

Care Forward is an organization that is part of the Carroll Gardens Association and includes other organizations such as Hand In Hand and We Rise. The organization unifies domestic workers and advocates for their fair treatment. The initiative was launched after the implementation of Intro 339, a law that gives domestic workers human rights protections.

Intro 339 was implemented in March 2022 and protects domestic workers against harassment, inquiries into salary and credit history, and discrimination. Previously, worker protection laws excluded domestic workers. Zhara Baksh, the city’s organizer for Hand in Hand said that this was due to a history of domestic workers being predominantly black, and because many slaves fulfilled these duties before the civil war.

Baksh’s points are echoed in a PBS interview with Kaitlyn Henderson from Oxfam, a global organization that fights poverty and injustice. Henderson pointed out that black people were excluded from labor protection laws under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s.

New York was the first state to have a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which mandates sick leave and overtime pay among other rights.

Donna Schneiderman hired a nanny and a house cleaner to help with her household needs. She quickly recognized that her home was a workplace and wanted to hold herself to the same standards as employers at other companies. However, she had no idea how to do that and realized that at the time domestic workers were not entitled to many employee rights.

A timeline of the domestic worker’s rights movement.

“We benefit when there are standards in place,” Schneiderman said.

Schneiderman got involved in the Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, which later joined Hand in Hand. She continues to advocate for better protections.

Arianna Schindle, director of training and curriculum design at the Worker Institute of Cornell, started as a nanny for six children. She said she was sexually harassed while working for them and did not know her rights as a worker. Now she helps domestic workers by teaching them their rights as an employee, and advocates for employers to use contracts. A new goal of Care Forward is for the majority of domestic workers to have contracts.

Another nanny trainer, Doris Tapia, who also works for the Worker Institute, teaches caregivers about negotiating their salaries and the wages they are entitled to. She said that some of her clients realized through her classes that they were not being paid enough.

Doris Tapia receives an award for her work in training domestic workers to understand their rights and to negotiate with their employers.

Domestic workers nominated employers who not only upheld the legal protections but provided more.

Marguerita Aristide, a nanny, nominated her employer, Julia Finegan, for using a “strong contract” during her five-year employment and for being more than a boss. Aristide said that Finegan will provide ample time off if she is sick.  Aristide joked that Finegan can even tell when she is sick before she knows.

“I don’t have to be afraid of asking for a day off,” Aristide said. She also said that it was important for her to know her rights as a caregiver.

Finegan said that Aristide had instant chemistry with her family. Her child was three years old at the time and she was expecting her second.

Another nanny named Claudette honored her employer, Caroline Prestone, for continuing to pay her and allow time off while her husband was in the hospital and after his death.

Other non-employers also won awards, such as children’s entertainer Hopalong Andrew.

New Jersey passed a similar domestic worker’s rights law on July 1. Other states have passed similar laws. An introduced Senate bill, if signed into law, will make the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights a federal law.


Sonny Singh: Sikh Sage Warrior

Musician Sonny Singh. Credit: Shruti Parekh

By Olivia Graffeo | olivia@queensledger.com

Pioneering his own unique blend of South Asian fusion, Brooklyn-based musician and activist Sonny Singh is continuing a decades-long mission of bringing people together. 

Singh was raised in Sikhism, a religion originating in the Punjab region of India that preaches meditation and equality of all people. Born of two Indian immigrants in North Carolina, Singh embraced his Sikh background as a way to cope with rising racial and ethnic tension in America. 

“When times were tough, I found myself gravitating towards some of the [Sikh] devotional songs I learned as a kid,” Singh said. 

Noting that the demographics of Charlotte in the 1980s was mostly white and Black people, Singh and his brother were the only children in their school who wore turbans. He described this as causing a deep feeling of isolation and otherness. 

“Kids on the playground would ask me, ‘are you white or black?’ and I wouldn’t know how to answer,” he said. 

Despite being part of a small minority in the American South, Singh found a way to feel he was a part of something. Exploring his heritage, and specifically the music of his ancestors, provided Singh an outlet to feel connection and peace within his community. Though there were not any gurdwaras (Sikh temples) in their area growing up, Singh was able to find meaning through playing music at small events, usually at community members’ houses. 

After making his career in music, which he calls becoming “a musician with a capital ‘M,’” Singh found success in trying out many different genres. Participating in bands that played mixes of ska, reggae, punk rock, and other fused genres, he has only recently returned to his roots in Sikh-inspired compositions. After the release of his first solo album, Chardi Kala, in 2022, Singh fully embraced the style of music that comforted him in childhood while putting his own flair in every song. 

Sonny Singh performing music from his debut solo album “Chardi Kala”

Singh’s second solo album, Sage Warrior, will be released on September 6th. While his recent work harkens back to the religious music of Sikhism, which he calls “sacred poetry,” Singh is not simply performing renditions of the spiritual hymns of his faith. His music combines different genres, languages and instruments to reflect the unique identity Singh has formed over decades of playing music. 

While classical renditions of Sikh music usually contain the Punjabi language and instruments such as the harmonium and tabla (a type of South Asian drum), Singh expands on this. He can be heard singing in Punjabi, Spanish, English and Hindi; in addition, Singh’s skill as a trumpet player is utilized often, creating a distinctive new sound. While Singh notes that some more traditional Sikhs may disagree with his interpretation of their religion’s music and teachings, he is sure that his work is having positive effects for their community.

“It’s a constant evolution… I’m making music that makes sense to me and my own heart,” he said.

A facet of Singh’s work that is especially important to him is its foundation in social justice and activism. Since becoming involved in social causes as a teenager, Singh has continually worked to help others not only through his music, but through activism work as well. A major tenant of Sikhism is the notion that all people are equal: providing justice to everyone is paramount. 

“This sacred poetry of our tradition, there is so much wisdom in it that’s applicable today… Sikh wisdom has always inspired me, has inspired my activism,” he said.

Through music and activism, Singh notes he was able to avoid falling into “despair and assimilation,” and keep his culture alive. During his live concerts, he gives context and history to the audience, most of whom are not Sikh themselves. 

Singh describes his current musical journey as “Coming back to my past, coming back to ancestral wisdom.” 

Sonny Singh’s new album Sage Warrior can be pre-ordered before release on September 6th at https://sonnysingh.com/

Neighborhood Church Hosts Fundraising Event, Starts Wall Repairs


By Jean Brannum | jbrannum@queensledger.com

Participants wrote on the soon-to-be-restored walls of the church. Courtesy of Pastor Katrina Foster

The writing is on the walls, St John’s Lutheran Church is getting much-needed wall repairs through funding from its members and community. 

The “Sinners Repaint” event, which included performances by local musicians and an activity where attendees could write on the walls, happened on June 29. The event raised money to get rid of lead paint in the 157-year-old church and repaint the walls. Pastor Katrina Foster said that the council is finalizing the color choice, which will be a shade of blue to go with the permanent fixtures, such as the stained glass window depicting the “lynching of Jesus.”

Foster said that the church was able to make the first $77,000 payment for the repairs, and is raising the rest of the money through pledges and donations. The church has a fundraising goal of $235.000.  

Local band Marvele Oaks performed. The band comprises husband and wife duo Tess and Alex Demir, who are long-time members of the church. Tess Demir is treasurer of the church council. Another guitar performance filled the church with the song “Oh Lord.”

The most popular activity was writing on the soon-to-be-transformed walls. Attendants could get a marker and write or draw what they pleased. Foster said the kids “had a blast.” 

Foster noted that the average age of the congregation is thirty-five. She said that the church has attracted many young people since she arrived in 2015. However, there are still many longtime members, even one who has known St. John’s her whole life.

Longtime church member Ruth writes on the walls. Foster and others jokingly called Ruth a “graffiti gangster for Christ.” Courtesy of Pastor Foster. 

Ruth, a 98-year-old woman who was baptized at St. John’s wrote “Pillars of Faith” on one of the poles in the building. The Pastor visits her regularly in Sunnyside. Ruth used to travel to the church by rowboat across the Newtown Creek, Foster said. 

Maintenance has started on the church and the St. John’s congregation is temporarily sharing space with Ascension Episcopal church at 127 Kent St. The Worship service is noon for the next three months while the repairs are underway. The Ascension Episcopal church previously had a large-scale renovation where its congregation used St John’s space for about nine months.

In a previous Greenpoint Star interview, Foster discussed how the chipped walls hurt evangelization efforts. Many people discover the church while on a neighborhood stroll. “Evangelism is a Greek word, and it means to tell good news and invite,” Foster said. “So when you walk in here and you look at this, you think, ‘Ah, this congregation,  are they still open?’”

Foster fashioned a makeshift office in the worship space to greet visitors, an alternative to her previous office in the basement where she said she was hidden from passers-by.

While the repairs are much needed to make the church safe and restored to its previous beauty, Foster is eager to get back and resume the Saturday meals and ministries, such as the Boy Scout meetings. 

“We want nothing more than to get back in there and to get everything up and running again so that we can love Jesus by serving our neighbors,” Foster said.

Donations can be made on the church website at stjohnsgreenpoint.com through Donately or GoFundMe. Foster mentioned that donations are tax-deductible. 

Financing Secured for Second Phase of Kingsland Commons


By Jean Brannum | jbrannum@queensledger.com

St. Nicks Alliance, Hudson Companies, and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development have secured $235 million in financing for the second phase of Kingsland Commons development, a renovation of the defunct Greenpoint Hospital campus. 

This phase is the construction of an 18-story building with 311 affordable homes from studio to three-bedroom units. Ninety-three homes will be set aside for formerly homeless people. In addition to the homes, the building will also have a children’s playroom, fitness center, and outdoor courtyard. The complex has apartments for individuals and families earning between 30 and 80 percent of the area median income. 

The project is expected to begin in the next month and be completed by April 2027, according to Ernesto Padron, Development Director of Hudson Companies. 

Frank Lang, Deputy Executive Director of Housing for St. Nicks Alliance, said that the design to revamp the land was created in conjunction with local residents and community groups including the Greenpoint Renaissance Enterprise Corp. Lang also said that Hudson Companies and St. Nicks Alliance hope the project exceeds the needs of the community. 

The project comprises four sites for renovation and construction. The first phase was a complete overhaul of the old nurse’s residence into a brand-new 200-bed men’s shelter. This phase is expected to be completed in 2025, and Project Renewal will operate the shelter. In partnership with the state Historic Preservation Office, builders preserved the original facade of the building. 

The next two phases involve constructing two new buildings with approximately 557 affordable homes. The new campus will include space for a health clinic and a senior center, among other service facilities. 

Padron said that HPD approved the project in 2018 after receiving multiple proposals for the old campus. He said the project was “very special” since the company gets to revamp an entire campus that was abandoned in 1982.

 NYC Commissioner Adolfo Carrión Jr. of Housing Preservation and Development congratulated the St. Nicks and Hudson Companies on the milestone. 

“We are investing in the housing our city needs by repurposing precious space to provide affordable homes for hundreds of New Yorkers,” Carrión said. “Three hundred eleven families will call Kingsland Commons home and generations will benefit from growing up with housing security,”

Service Company of Williamsburg Apartment Building Sued for Bad Wage Practices

By Jean Brannum | jbrannum@queensledger.com

The New York City Comptroller Brad Lander is suing the Planned Companies divisions for over $72,000 in unpaid wages to custodial staff, doorpeople, and security guards. The company provides services to The Williams apartment building. 

The petition alleges that Planned Lifestyle Services and Planned Building Services failed to pay wages and benefits to staff members who worked at 282 S. 5th Street in Williamsburg. The company provides services to another building in Manhattan. Sam Spilkes LLC owns both buildings and the comptroller alleges that the company owes over $140,000 total in unpaid wages. 

This lawsuit comes after a 2020 case of the same nature. Spilkes and the Comptroller’s office agreed to a settlement in which Spilkes agreed to pay $450,000 in lost wages, the Comptroller reports. The case was based on the same Williamsburg building. 

“We cannot stand by while workers continue to be cheated out of their hard-earned wages,” said Claudia Henriquez, Director of Workers’ Rights at the Comptroller’s Bureau of Labor Law. “This is about ensuring fairness and accountability for all employees employed by Planned.” 

Planned Companies did not respond to a request for comment. 

Under the Real Property Tax 421a law, development companies can receive a tax credit for building multiple dwellings. In exchange, some apartments are subject to rent stabilization. One of the terms of receiving the benefits is that the company pays prevailing wage to workers. The prevailing wage is what workers for public works projects receive. The comptroller alleges that Planned companies violated the 421a eligibility requirements. 

421a expired in 2022, but a “placeholder” law, 485-x, was enacted in April 2024. It provides similar benefits including prevailing wage requirements. 

32BJ SEIU is a union that represents several workers at Planned Companies and helped with getting workers in touch with the comptroller about lost wages. President Manny Pastreich said that the company has repeatedly hurt hard-working staff members and thanked the Comptroller for his help. 

“The union’s going to do its part to defend that, but the comptroller is doing his part,” Pastreich said. “We really appreciate it. We’ve fought very hard to win and defend these standards, and together with the Comptroller, will ensure that these workers get what they deserve.”

Pastreich clarified that this case is an exception and that most companies his union represents pay employees fairly. Pastreich emphasized that real estate companies should only support contractors that pay workers fairly. 

The RealDeal reports that the comptroller’s office has resolved nine wage suits related to 421a buildings since 2022. The cases have involved construction workers rather than building service workers. 


Brooklyn Organization Helps Parents Keep Their Children With Housing and Emotional Support


By Jean Brannum | jbrannum@queensledger.com

Jenn Miles grew up in the foster care system. She aged out at the age of 21 after years of cycling in and out of the hospital and various foster homes since the age of two. Now, at 30, Miles holds her six-month-old son on her chest in her own apartment in Crown Heights. Her goal is to be a better mother than her own and raise her son to achieve anything. 

“I’m in a better stage, a better mindset,” Miles said. “I’m a different and better person from where I was before.”

It hasn’t been easy for Miles. She’s had to learn how to work through anger management problems and depressive episodes. She is working to maintain her wellness, and her son, Lucas, motivates her to do so. 

“Aging Out”

In the system, Miles explained that she felt like an item rather than a person. She said she was abused in one foster home, and the case manager did nothing to resolve the situation. Miles said case workers rarely believe children in abusive foster homes. 

“When I see kids in the system, I see nothing but sadness and anger,” Miles said. 

Miles carried some of the same sadness and learned to be independent at a young age, like many foster kids. She wanted to be a social worker but decided not to pursue the career knowing the realities of the system. 

Miles met Sharon Sorrentino, vice president of Child, Family, and Young Adult Services at the Institute of Community Living, while staying at a hospital. She was put into another ICL house for young adults who aged out of the foster care system. The first crucial item Miles received was support. 

The ICL is a network of housing that provides supportive care to New Yorkers with behavioral health challenges. The organization provides supportive housing, healthcare, and recovery services to those in need. 

An Administration for Children’s Services report from 2022 says 17 percent of 3,020 children in foster care “age out,” meaning children reach the age of 21 without being adopted or reunited with their parents or guardians. Foster children can technically exit the system at 18, but Miles did not recommend doing that because she saw many people who aged out at 18 become homeless. For young adults who choose to remain in care until their 21st birthday, the ACS will help them find housing in NYCHA or Section Eight. 

Miles is able to take care of herself and her son through support of Emerson. Credit: Jean Brannum

Finding Support 


Miles was excited to find out she was pregnant, but her behavioral challenges put her at risk of losing custody of her child. She also lost her supportive housing due to her pregnancy. She entered the Emerson house, another ICL establishment, to receive housing, behavioral, and case management support. 

Emerson caters to single parents who are at risk of losing custody of their children or working to reunite with children in foster care due to behavioral health problems. Sorrentino explained that ICL works with courts and parents to avoid involvement from Child Protective Services by giving parents the necessary resources to care for their children. For parents working to reunify with their children, Emerson staff will help them by ensuring parents attend court sessions and maintain regular visits. Parents will then receive assistance with reestablishing a bond with their children after reunification.

For parents to reunite with their children, family courts require the parents to provide a stable place for them. Most single parents who are homeless will only be eligible for single adult homes, which include living with roommates and do not allow children. A child can also be barred from visitation since the parent lives with other strangers due to safety concerns. This creates a barrier to reunification for many families and can cause familial bonds to diminish. 

“Sometimes families who are in the homeless shelter find themselves kind of between a rock and a hard place if they’ve been separated from their children, because they may not qualify for family housing, which then prevents them from being able to reunify with their children,” Sorrentino said. 

The ACS report says 54% of foster children in 2022 were reunited with their families. The first goal of foster care is reunification, but as Sorrentino explained, the process can be long and tedious. Miles said she worked hard through her problems to make sure she never lost Lucas to foster care because it would be very difficult to regain full custody. 

Emerson helps Miles by providing household and childcare support as well. Miles rattled off names of people who will help her with laundry and cleaning, and look after Lucas when she is due in court. Miles disclosed an incident at her previous job that she regrets. She said continues finding positive ways to express and manage her emotions.

Emerson also offers parenting support and community events. Miles is, by admission, an introvert, but she sometimes attends these events where single parents can bond and receive peer support. 

Looking Ahead


Lucas will soon start daycare, and Miles is working to maintain her wellness. She continues to go to therapy and is working on producing music. She wants to teach her son about managing emotions and encourage him to be successful in academics. 

“I want him to be successful in life and know that he can do anything he wants to.”

Being a single mom can be difficult, but Miles said that her solution to some of the chaos is kids’ TV show personality, Ms. Rachel. 

“I can actually take my shower, I can actually clean or cook,” Miles said. “Most of the time, he wants to be in my arms but once I (turn on Ms. Rachel), I’m invisible, so I work with that.”

Currently, Miles plans to stay at Emerson until she is ready to be independent and move into her own place outside of ICL. 

The Emerson program is, unfortunately, one-of-a-kind in the US. There are no similar programs in New York or any other state. The ICL continues to advocate for greater flexibility in the shelter system that will allow single parents to receive housing vouchers in appropriate apartments for their children, including children that parents hope to reunite with. 


Lutheran Church to Host Fundraiser for New Paint Job


By Jean Brannum | jbrannum@queensledger.com

St. John’s Lutheran Church on Milton St was built in 1867 and has escaped a closure scare. The “bones” of the building have been repaired, but the place is in desperate need of a paint job. 

The walls around the stained glass and acoustic organ are littered with paint chips and tears. The staircase leading to the choir area is dusted with parts of the wall. Pastor Foster, who has managed many repairs already, explained that there were offers from film companies to use the space as a set, but could not use the space due to lead in the current paint.

Foster said the paint chips can deter potential new members. Credit: Jean Brannum

When Foster arrived at St John’s, the church needed many repairs and updates. Due to low funds, she had to prioritize. 

“We had to deal with everything that was going to catch fire, flood, or collapse,” Foster said. 

Foster first repaired the plumbing, refurbished the bathrooms, and updated the electrical system. Many of the repairs are not seen by passers-by but are needed to keep the water running and the lights on. The structure has also been fixed so the building is stable. 

Besides Foster-lead repairs, some members of the Boy Scout troops that meet in the church have stepped up to make some refurbishments. Jack Bonner, 16, made repairing the garden beds his Eagle Scout project. 

Bonner fundraised to pay to repair and restore the beds with flowers. He fundraised the project with donations. His biggest challenge was getting enough compost for the beds. But ultimately, he was happy with the result, especially when the flowers bloomed. The process took about one month. 

“The whole process is very long, but it’s rewarding,” Bonner said. “Everyone from the community comes together, which is a really good thing”

However, the paint-chipping on the inside is visible everywhere, and while the church has grown in membership since Foster arrived, the look can deter people. She also said some parents would be concerned about the lead paint chipping. 

“Evangelism is a Greek word, and it means to tell good news and invite,” Foster said. “So when you walk in here and you look at this, you think, ‘Ah, this congregation,  are they still open?’”

To repair the walls and cover the paint, Foster needs to raise $233,000. One of the ways she plans to do this is through a fundraiser called “Sinners Repaint.” The event will take place on June 29 at 5 pm. 

The event includes performances by local musicians and non-alcoholic beverages and baked goods for sale. The suggested donation is $50, but Foster encourages people to donate what they can. 

Musicians include Marvelle Oaks, Chelsea Hines, Noelle Tannen, Simon Brown, Citris, and more. 

Tess Demir, part of Marvelle Oaks and assistant scoutmaster for her daughter’s Boy Scouts of America troop, will be performing on stage with her husband, Alex. She said the band was her husband’s “Brain Child.”

Demir said that she and her husband stumbled upon St. John’s in 2015 and admired the old look. After their first service, Foster introduced herself and they have attended and been active members ever since. Demir is also the treasurer of the church council. 

“For me, it’s a little bit more than just fundraising,” Demir said. “It’s also reaching out to people who might want to find a church and not know where to go.”

Gallagher vs. Simpkins: Inside the Battle for AD50

By Celia Bernhardt | cbernhardt@queensledger.com

Courtesy of @AnatheaforNY and https://nyassembly.gov/

Emily Gallagher, a member of the DSA’s eight-person Socialists in Office caucus in Albany, is among the most progressive lawmakers in the state; the LLC Transparency Act and the All-Electric Buildings Act are among her legislative victories. She won her seat in Greenpoint and Williamsburg’s Assembly District 50 in 2020; prior to that, she researched environmental issues relevant to the district, worked at an education nonprofit, and engaged heavily with local activism. Her campaign pulled off a stunning upset by unseating third-generation lawmaker and 48-year incumbent Joe Lentol who outspent her ten to one; Gallagher found success in the increasingly liberal district amidst a larger wave of younger progressive newcomers taking on long-serving establishment representatives.

Now a crowd of local moderate Democrats, along with some powerful corporate donors, are aiming to take the seat back from the progressive wing. Gallagher is facing her first well-resourced challenger as an incumbent in Anathea Simpkins, a former teacher and single mother who currently serves as Associate Vice President of the gun violence prevention organization Sandy Hook Promise. Simpkins has identified herself as a Lentol protégé and benefits from the support of Brooklyn’s politically powerful Broadway Stages company, which has fought against the DOT’s proposed redesign of McGuinness Boulevard. She has her strongest local support among a more moderate crowd that opposes the DSA and is sentimental for Lentol’s reign.

The race is one of several throughout the boroughs that find themselves within a very expensive push to defeat DSA candidates in Democratic state primaries, drawing eyes and dollars from outside the district. Simpkins is one of ten assembly candidates receiving support from Solidarity PAC, a pro-Israel group with significant real estate interests spending against (mostly) DSA picks; nearly half of her funds through May 20 came from the group. Various independent expenditure groups have joined in on the campaign finance drama as well. The pro-charter school group Moving New York Families Forward, funded by Walmart heir Jim Walton and former mayor Mike Bloomberg, has dropped over $100,000 on Simpkins so far.  

Simpkins’ campaign centers on an argument that the district is rife with division and that Gallagher is to blame. She frames herself as a mediator and a listener; her campaign motto is “putting the unity back in community.” 

“I’m part of a group of moms that have been disheartened with the state of affairs in Greenpoint and Williamsburg for a while now,” Simpkins said in an April interview with the Queens Ledger. “I’ve been here for 17 years, and I’ve seen a lot of concerning trends over the past few years. We’ve never seen so much us-versus-them language, and pitting neighbors against neighbors, and ideologies instead of bringing people together to accomplish shared goals.” 

Gallagher has always presented herself as a fighter. She established herself in the district as a local activist and community board member, organizing around issues including environmental justice, bike safety, housing, and sexual assault prevention. In an April interview with the Ledger, Gallagher pushed back against Simpkins’ messaging about political divides and bridge-building.

“What I’ve learned through doing advocacy for so long is that it is impossible to make everyone happy all the time, and there has to be a moral center to what you’re doing. Otherwise, you become a pawn for people with a persuasive interest, and usually that persuasive interest is big business,” Gallagher said. “We can see from what’s happening with the election, and the support that both of us are getting, that being a mediator and a peacemaker between people who have historically had significant power in this community, and people who have never had any power in this community — it gets messy.”

She added, “I’ve shifted the center of power, and that’s what people don’t like. I think that that’s okay. I think people need to learn to compromise, and I think that right now, I’ve been asking people to compromise who traditionally have never had to compromise, and that’s where the conflict comes from.”

On the Issues 

When candidates speak in broad strokes about division and compromise in the 50th district, McGuinness Boulevard is often the issue under the surface. 

Street safety advocates and local residents catalyzed by traffic-related deaths on the busy road have organized with the group Make McGuinness Safe for street safety improvements, eventually winning a proposed redesign from the DOT in May 2023 which included lane reductions, parking-protected bike lanes and pedestrian islands. An opposing group named Keep McGuinness Moving — organized in large part by the Argento family, which owns Greenpoint’s film production company Broadway Stages and donates generously to Democratic candidates across Brooklyn — campaigned hard against the proposal. Mayor Adams walked back the DOT’s plan for lane reductions in July 2023. The path forward for the project is unclear. 

Gallagher has long been outspoken in support of the redesign and has torn into the campaign against it, while Simpkins advocates for coming up with an altered proposal. 

“I think there are things that can be done to increase safety that don’t necessarily mean cutting down our only main artery and diverting trucks,” Simpkins said at a town hall campaign event, suggesting more crosswalks, improved arrow signals on traffic lights, and raised medians. 

Simpkins has received at least $6,250 from the Argentos and has been enthusiastically endorsed by Keep McGuinness Moving. Gallagher received $5,150 from the family between 2021 and 2022, but said she decided to stop accepting funds from them after they succeeded in getting Adams to walk back the DOT’s plan. 

“I could see that there could be a miscommunication there that the money that was being given was meant to influence my decisions,” Gallagher said. 

Simpkins maintains that financial and political support from the Argentos has not influenced her own position on the issue.

“For the assumption to be made immediately that, because I’ve taken donations, I am being controlled by a man, is flat-out misogynistic,” Simpkins said in an April interview.

The candidates have clearly diverging platforms on Housing, a hot button issue in the ultra-gentrified district. Gallagher was one of two architects of the Social Housing Development Authority bill introduced this past February, which calls for a new state agency to build permanently affordable cooperatively-controlled housing with union-only labor; she was also a supporter of the original Good Cause legislation. Simpkins, meanwhile, has mostly stuck to supporting the housing policies that did make it through the state budget in the end: she refrained from supporting Good Cause until its modified final version passed the budget, and has stated her support for the new 485-x affordable housing tax incentive passed to replace the 421a. Simpkins has also emphasized her support of small “mom and pop” landlords in the district. 

“We have to stop villainizing landlords. That is something that has become a battle cry of the Democratic Socialists,” Simpkins said at a town hall event in late May.

When asked by the Queens Ledger if she had ideas as to how to keep the district affordable for long-time renters, Simpkins said the issue “goes into so many things that need to be unraveled.”

“This is something that I’m willing to work on and learn more about — again, anybody who comes up here and says they know 100% about anything is lying. So it’s something that I do need to learn about. What I do know is that it needs to be addressed immediately,” Simpkins said.

Gallagher has been fully supportive of Congestion Pricing and outspoken in her disapproval of Hochul’s decision to pause its implementation. Simpkins has been quieter on the issue since that most recent development, but outlined in her transportation policy platform that she would support exemptions for union members and low-income commuters.

Education is an issue Simpkins has put front and center in her campaign. While there are few immediately clear distinctions between Gallagher and Simpkins’ approach to the issue, Simpkins has emphasized her first-hand experience with the school system as a teacher. “I got into this because I wanted to fight for our schools,” Simpkins said in a May interview. “I want to be the education expert in Albany.” 

“I have a deep knowledge of education policy, a deep understanding of it, and I understand how education works. We haven’t had any policy come forward that has to do with education. We have our schools suffering,” Simpkins said in an April interview, emphasizing her opposition to funding cuts for 3K, Pre-K, and after school programs. In a May interview, Simpkins alleged that Gallagher had made “no visits” to the district’s schools.

Gallagher’s chief of staff, Andrew Epstein, had different things to report about Gallagher’s interaction with the issue locally and in Albany.

“[Gallagher] was part of the fight that finally fulfilled New York State’s Foundation Aid commitments and fully funded K-12 education for the first time in state history. She’s dedicated hundreds of thousands of dollars in capital funds to making sure schools have the facilities and resources that they need,” Epstein said. “She’s visited every single school in the district, some of them multiple times.”

Gallagher has highlighted Simpkins’ support from big spenders in support of charter schools. Commenting on one mailer from Moving New York Families Forward, Gallagher wrote that the advertisements “never mention the actual issue that’s motivating these billionaires to spend against me: charter schools and the privatization of public K-12 education.” 

Simpkins said that her campaign does not coordinate with PACs. “First of all, I don’t know anything about that. We don’t have any participation with the PACs that do marketing on our behalf,” she said in a May interview. 

“I think that charter schools which are in existence need to be held to the same requirements, the same oversight as public schools,” Simpkins said. “I think that there should be a cap on charter schools. I think that we should be investing in our public schools and not putting a bandaid on things, because that’s what’s happening.” 

Constituent services are another area where Simpkins has levied frequent critiques against Gallagher, alleging that they have “fallen off a cliff” since the incumbent took office. “You need to make sure that you have an active presence, that you provide language access, that your assembly office is visible, that it’s easily accessible by everyone in the district,” Simpkins said in a May interview, adding that she would provide longer hours and a streamlined process to make appointments online.

Epstein said Simpkins’ criticisms were “so wildly inaccurate, it feels like it’s coming from another planet.” 

“The first thing that Emily did when she took office in 2021 was to move the district office, which had previously been tucked away in a pretty difficult to access part of the district for most constituents, and put it smack-dab on Manhattan Avenue in the heart of Greenpoint,” Epstein said. “We are there five days a week with a storefront office. We have an incredibly energetic and caring constituent services team that processes dozens of cases every single week. We are on the regular paths of elders in our communities who stop by to check on their cases or just to say hello.”

Party Power

Simpkins is not officially endorsed by the Brooklyn Democratic Party, but her campaign is in alignment with the goals of some of its top leadership. Party boss and Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn has been an ally to the Argentos, supporting the Keep McGuinness Moving project. She also doled out an official party endorsement to Averianna Eisenbach and Everton Smith, two district leader candidates running in alliance with Simpkins (Eisenbach is a co-founder of Keep McGuinness Moving). It might be particularly crucial for Bichotte Hermelyn’s security as party chair to usher in as many votes as possible for that slate; her number of allied district leaders shrank from 26 to just 22 out of 40 after the 2022 primaries. 

Simpkins has aligned herself closely with Lentol, referring to him as her mentor and working with one of his former staffers on her campaign. The former assemblymember introduced Simpkins to a crowd of supporters at her campaign launch, and he was there at her town hall event in June.

“He was in office for a long time. And I know that a lot of people felt like maybe it was time to hand the torch off, and I understand that,” Simpkins said in an April interview with the Ledger. “[But] he was really well-respected and he was able to act as the adult in the room — and that’s kind of my inspiration here.” 

Since leaving office, Lentol has attended multiple Keep McGuinness Moving events; he took $16,900 from Anthony and Gina Argento himself while in his seat. 

Lentol’s long tenure in the Assembly made him well-equipped to secure funds for the district. Thanks to an unofficial spoils system in the state legislature which rewards seniority, he was able to take home a large portion of earmarked taxpayer dollars to distribute to projects and programs in the district. His tenure had also enabled longstanding relationships between the representative and local organizations used to receiving a steady supply of those funds. All that was inevitably shaken up when Gallgher won; one progressive organizer in the borough said that those who are peeved to have lost their priority for funding in the transition may be among Simpkins’ backers.

State of the Race 

Gallagher started out 2024 with about $68,000 to spare and raised a total of $77,850 since then, securing $148,544 in matching funds. Simpkins, after launching her campaign in late January, racked up funding quickly — she has raised a total of $120,145 since then, pulling in $114,615 in matching funds.

Overall, Simpkins has spent more than twice as much as Gallagher has, reporting $190,667 in expenditures. 

Things have only gotten hotter in the final weeks before votes are counted. Simpkins spent about $84,940 in the month of June alone (Gallagher reported spending $23,700 over the same period). Moving Families Forward also made their $100,000 in expenditures for the challenger in late May and throughout June. 

A New York Focus analysis found that approximately 45% of Simpkins’ donations up until May 20 came through Solidarity PAC. Since May 20, Simpkins has raised another $33,883.55: $28,900 of that is from just 11 individuals who also donated to the PAC in the same time period. 

As spending has climbed, so has online discourse and drama. Simpkins has taken many opportunities to make harsh criticisms of Gallagher via X throughout her campaign — an article from the New York Post about the assemblymember’s tickets, a publicly proposed debate that she did not attend, and ongoing political turmoil regarding Community Education Council 14 have served as sticking points. Gallagher has been hitting back more as the election draws closer, generally focusing on Simpkins’ corporate donors

In a Thursday X exchange, Simpkins posted an apparently covertly-recorded video of a union carpenter stating his support for Trump in conversation with a passerby while canvassing for Gallagher. “My opponent has no local labor support, which is why she’s relying on Trump supporters to canvass for her,” Simpkins wrote about the video — prompting a scolding from the union’s political director and response from Politico journalist Jeff Coltin who pointed out that Gallagher has the support of over a dozen local unions. “Labor aligns with DSA when they’re incumbents,” Coltin reminded X users.

On Friday, a truck drove around the district sporting a huge digital screen reading “Anathea Simpkins has been bought and paid for by Real Estate/ Sincerely, The Carpenters Union.”

Gallagher has the advantage of a wealth of endorsements. Aside from blue collar unions and myriad progressive organizations, Gallagher has the backing of Planned Parenthood, Eleanor’s Legacy, the United Federation of Teachers, and the New York State Nurses Association. She added an endorsement from Congresswoman Alexandria Occasio-Cortez to that list on Tuesday — the same day the congresswoman endorsed Larinda Hooks, who is running an  increasingly competitive race in Queens. 

Simpkins, for her part, recently secured the backing of the National Association of Social Workers’ local chapter. She’s supported by three other unions, including the local Uniformed Fire Officers Association and Theatrical Teamsters Local 817 (largely representing employees of the film industry). Simpkins cross-endorsed Gabi Madden, a fellow Solidarity PAC endorsee challenging a DSA incumbent in the Hudson Valley, in late May. 

The contentious primary season in the district will come to a close on Tuesday, June 25. You can find your local polling site here; early voting hours run until 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

Editor’s Note: Emily Gallagher formerly worked as a columnist for BQE Media. 

Editor’s Note: A different version of this article was published in print on June 20, 2024.

Comptroller to Explore “Legal Avenues” That Will Force Congestion Pricing

By Jean Brannum | jbrannum@queensledger.com

New York City Comptroller Brad Lander announced he will work with a team of legal experts and advocates to look into legal avenues to make Governor Kathy Hochul reverse her decision to halt the implementation of congestion pricing. 

The comptroller alleges that Hochul violated the 2021 Green Agreement, the Central Business District Tolling Program, and the American Disabilities Act. Disability and transit advocates, who were also in attendance, said that the money from congestion pricing that would go towards transit improvements will be taken away due to the pause. 

“This sudden and potentially illegal reversal wrongs a host of New Yorkers, who have a right to what was long promised to all of New York,” Lander said

 The Green Agreement guarantees that all New Yorkers have the right to clean air and environment. Part of the proposed benefits on congestion pricing include better air quality in the Central Business District, which includes everything in Manhattan below 60th st. . 

The comptroller also claims that the delay violates the Central Business District Tolling Program, which was passed in 2019 and allows anyone to challenge the state’s failure to implement congestion pricing. Columbia Law School Professor Michael Gerrard said that the governor does not have the authority to go against state laws and the indefinite pause indicates that the governor could kill congestion pricing altogether. 

“The 2019 statute gives the MTA the mandatory duty to implement congestion pricing,” Gerrard said. “It is illegal for the governor to unilaterally cancel it.”

Sharon McLennon Wier, executive director of the Center of the Independence of the Disabled of New York, said that the delay on congestion pricing disrupts the MTA’s agreement to make almost all subway stations accessible. Credit: Jean Brannum

Disability advocates also expressed anger that the pause on expected MTA  funds from congestion pricing will create a significant roadblock to making stations accessible. Sharon McLennon Wier, executive director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled of New York, said that the pause goes against a previous agreement in 2022 in which the MTA agreed to make at least 95 percent of stations accessible by 2055. 

“We waited, and we continue to wait,” Weir said. “When is it going to be over? When is accessibility going to become universal access for everybody?”

A statement from MTA Chief Financial Officer Kevin Willens and MTA General Counsel Paige Graveson June 10 said that the pause will greatly harm potential improvements to transit due to the lack of funds. Projects such as accessible stations, electric buses, and signal improvements will likely be deprioritized. 

In addition to the harm that could be caused to riders, Lander also said that the pause will impact people who bought MTA bonds backed by the expected revenues on congestion pricing.  

The comptroller says he will wait until after the upcoming MTA board meeting June 24 and 26 to see how other agencies respond. In the meantime, Lander pushes Hochul to reverse her decision to delay. Lander also pushed Mayor Eric Adams to advocate for implementing congestion pricing.