Before door-knocking on the last Saturday of his campaign for City Council, Jabari Brisport, a Democratic Socialist running on the Green and Socialist ballot lines in Central Brooklyn’s District 35, issued a reminder to a handful of volunteers in McNair Park, next to the Brooklyn Museum. After the rally, “Take down the signs immediately” he warned. “We get a $75 fine for each.” A few minutes later, the wind whipped one of two bright-green campaign signs off a lamppost, and Brisport went running after it.
The self-proclaimed “crazy Green Party dude” has been running around for weeks, since winning the primary with just 32 votes to the opponent’s four. Last Monday, Brisport, a 29-year-old actor, tutor and Prospect Heights native, was arrested and escorted from a City Planning Commission meeting in Lower Manhattan for shouting down the commission’s approval of a controversial development plan for the long-empty Bedford-Union Armory in Crown Heights. On Thursday, he got arrested again, marching against the armory plan near City Hall. That night he tweeted somewhat glibly: “Stop arresting me for protesting gentrification.”
Developer BFC Partners envisions a mix of market-rate and affordable apartments for the armory site, as well as luxury condos and a recreation center. But just 18 out of a total 330 apartments are currently set aside for families that make $31,000 a year or less. “I would not vote for a project, at all, unequivocally, with market rate, luxury condominiums,” Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo, the incumbent, said in June. Brisport says that’s not enough: City Hall must kill the deal entirely and make way for a 100 percent affordable housing project, he says.
“The mayor is the one trying to hammer this armory deal through and he’s, like, convinced it’s a referendum on his housing policy,” said Brisport. “It’s absolutely crap. It’s going to push a lot of people out of the district just as his housing policies have been accelerating gentrification.”
Brisport’s longshot campaign to represent Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Crown Heights, Prospect Heights, and Bed-Stuy hasn’t gone unnoticed. On Friday night, New York 1’s Errol Louis remarked with a wink, “In my district, in the 35th Council district, there’s a Green Party candidate who doesn’t know that he can’t win. He’s out there going crazy. Jabari Brisport.”
Late last month, Our Revolution, which calls itself the “next step for Bernie Sanders’ movement,” endorsed Brisport and handed over 4,000 phone numbers. New York Communities For Change endorsed him last Wednesday—its first ever non-Democrat endorsement—and on Saturday Brisport went door to door with Ede Fox, co-founder of the Prospect Heights Democrats for Reform and a Cumbo challenger who lost the primary by 2,800 votes. Fox declined to comment but Brisport hopes her club’s fresh endorsement will boost his chances.
Since August, the Democratic Socialists of America have brought in hundreds of volunteers. With DSA’s endorsement, Brisport collected more than 1,000 signatures to get on the Socialist ballot line—an increasingly popular place to be in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. He’s also raised over $147,500 in private and public matching funds without any donations from developers, a point of pride. His average donation amount is “not $27,” he admitted, referring to Sanders’s average donation during last year’s presidential campaign. “I think it’s closer to $46, unfortunately.”
“I’m the only one running an active campaign,” he added. “So I’m feeling pretty strong about my chances.” Campaign Finance Board filings back this up: There’s regular spending on flyers, Facebook ads, snacks and coffee for volunteers, and canvasser wages.The Brisport campaign is paying roughly 10 Crown Heights residents, including teenagers, $15 per hour, to canvass the neighborhood. It’s out-fundraised Christine Parker, a Republican and the third candidate on the ballot, more than 10-fold.
On Saturday, volunteers sat outside Brisport’s Lincoln Place headquarters, threading rubber bands through doorknob fliers and cracking cans of La Croix seltzer. Among them were Peter Simpson and Sebastian De Lasa, two 17-year-old seniors at Mamaroneck High in Westchester County. Every weekend, they take the train to Brooklyn to canvas for Brisport, fulfilling a requirement for their AP Government class.
“Everyone else is doing the Westchester County Executive Race… and it’s like, fine,” Simpson said. “But because of DSA I was interested in doing something more in line with my electoral interests. I saw the Vice News interview with Jabari and I was like, oh, definitely him.”
“People are really receptive once you tell them what the actual policy is,” Simpson added, ticking off Brisport’s interest in participatory budgeting for the NYPD, additional funding for public schools, affordable housing, and community land trusts. “I usually honestly don’t mention that he’s part of the Green Party.”
“New blood is always good,” said Shirlene Cooper, 54, Brisport’s campaign coordinator. She grew up in Fort Greene, and met Brisport at a neighborhood barbecue. “Democrat my entire life. But I feel like Democrats and Republicans have failed us in the past.”
There have been some blips. Last week, Brisport dashed off a tweet comparing gentrification to “ethnic cleansing.” It’s since been deleted, but not before drawing the ire of Mordechai Lightstone, a member of the Crown Heights Jewish community with a large social media following.
“I think it’s irresponsible to use wording like that,” Lightstone told City Limits. “It cheapens the real meaning of the words… especially here, given the real history that the Jewish community has faced with ethnic cleansing.”
“That said, Jabari was quick to apologize when called out on it,” he added. “Something very much to his credit, Jabari is one of the few politicians that has acknowledged that gentrification is an issue that impacts the Jewish community in Crown Heights as well.”
This summer, a debate between Brisport, Cumbo and Fox concluded with deafening shouts of “Laurie! Laurie! Laurie!” Cumbo, who has the support of Mayor de Blasio and fellow City Council Democrats, then won her primary with 10,421 votes in a district with nearly 87,000 registered Democrats. (Her campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Brisport acknowledges the widespread apathy, as well as the incumbent advantage. “It’s about waking people up and getting them engaged in the politics,” he said. “Tons of people I’ve spoken to don’t know there’s an election coming up, don’t know that there’s a City Council or how it even works.”
Earl Jones, 37, stood outside a deli on Franklin Avenue on Saturday, underneath a Brisport poster. He said he’d never heard of the candidate, and that he had no opinion one way or the other about socialism.
“Most times people in the neighborhood, they’re not even mindful of the elections,” Jones said. “Sometimes they don’t even care, sometimes they think their vote don’t count. I don’t know. Everybody come around here and they say they want to help. They get into the offices and they forget about the neighborhood.”
Judith Level, who writes for the neighborhood blog Our BK Social, predicts many District 35 voters won’t look past the Democratic incumbent. “I wish people would do more research,” she said Saturday, standing on Eastern Parkway a few blocks north of the armory.
As for her own vote, “I’m still meditating on that. I will definitely vote, though. I just, you know—it’s the Green Party. People vote Republican or Democrat. That’s the thing. That’s my concern.”