Rafael Espinal, the Dupe of District 37

Rafael Espinal was chosen in 2011 to run for Assembly by the Vito Lopez machine and its Dilan family appendage. The seat was vacated by Darryl Towns, following his appointment as state housing commissioner, and the campaign became a proxy war between the Kings County organization, the Towns family and the WFP. Espinal’s victory was held up as a victory for Lopez and a sign of his ascendency.

Now, after serving almost two years in the Assembly, Espinal is running for City Council in District 37, less because of his commitment to service than because his former boss, CM Erik Dilan, is term limited and needs a new job. So Dilan will take over the Assembly seat kept warm by his lieutenant Espinal, and Espinal will move to the Council.

This is a familiar two-step in New York. Mark and David Weprin swapped places in 2009, and Inez and Charles Barron are preparing to do the same thing as the Council’s self-described “elected activist” reaches the end of his third term. Larry Seabrook of the Bronx used to brag (dubiously) about being the first African-American to be elected to three different legislative bodies, though when you consider that the three districts he represented were all similarly-sized subsets of the same group of impoverished neighborhoods, his accomplishment becomes slightly less impressive than, say, Obama’s. City politicians make careers of filling one another’s shoes, and talk openly about the relative material benefits of being a council member vs. a state senator, such as the commute, per diems, office space, etc.

Even amidst such honest cynicism, however, Rafael Espinal’s case seems particularly absurd. In fact, Rafael Espinal embodies all the obsessions of City Council Watch in one person. His fealty to the city’s real estate interests is unparalleled. Other Democrats in Brooklyn, for example, have received support from the Real Estate Board’s PAC, Jobs for New York. The open secret about this kind of independent expenditure is that, since you can’t legally ask for the money, you can credibly claim that you have nothing to do with it, and that your independence is immune to campaign money.

Not so Espinal, who has decided to let his benefactors know how pleased he is to be their choice. “I'm very grateful for their endorsement,” says Espinal. “They do believe that I'm the best candidate to create jobs and to do the job in the City Council.” One might think that a politician in tenant-heavy East Brooklyn would keep landlord support under his hat, but Rafael Espinal is apparently unembarrassed to be the real estate candidate, and to trumpet that information.

Espinal has a lot of friends in the landlord community. Jay and Jerry Wartski, for instance, have given his campaigns ample contributions, totaling in the thousands of dollars. Jerry Wartski was arrested in 1974 for running a “hot sheet” hotel, and then came to notice in the early 1980s when he was identified by the FDNY as the center of an “interlocking group of investors” whose SROs burned down at a rate three times normal. Legal problems continued to dog the Wartskis, who have a long history of neglecting buildings and forcing out their tenants illegally.

Joseph Jerome, the principal of JEMB and the moving force behind the Small Business Coalition; Taxpayers for an Affordable New York, an earlier manifestation of the powers behind Jobs for New York; Katrina Peebles, wife of Roy Peebles of the Peebles Corporation, the largest black-owned real estate company in the country and recent buyer of 346 Broadway; Stephen L. Green, real estate magnate and brother of boy wonder Mark Green; Aaron Sirulnick, chairman of the Rent Stabilization Association: these are the hefty contributors to the campaigns of Rafael Espinal, one-term Assembly Member and cutout for the Dilans and Vito Lopez. Do you think they are paying for the excellence of Espinal's judgement, or for the attention of his bosses?

Former chief of staff to a Council Member who took over his father’s seat, willing stooge to real estate interests, Assembly Member Rafael Espinal is the sort of man whose fondest dreams are of being a cog in a sputtering machine. Fortunately for him, if not for the people of CD 37, those kinds of dreams are easy to attain, if your personal standards are low enough. It's like Pinocchio in reverse--he's the boy who always wanted to be a puppet.