Bay Ridge City Council Candidate Khader El-Yateem Thinks Southwest Brooklyn Is Ready For Socialism

Reverend Kahder El-Yateem, who's running for City Council in southwest Brooklyn with a DSA endorsement.
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Reverend Kahder El-Yateem, who's running for City Council in southwest Brooklyn with a DSA endorsement. via the El-Yateem campaign

In a continuing push to become a force in New York City politics, the Democratic Socialists of America have endorsed a second candidate in a City Council race, and this time it's a competitor in the hotly-contested Democratic primary in the 43rd District, which includes the neighborhoods of Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, and Bath Beach.

Lutheran pastor Reverend Khader El-Yateem is the latest DSA member to jump into city politics, and like the 35th District's Jabari Brisport, he's secured an endorsement from the rising group of socialists. But unlike Brisport, who told Gothamist he's running as a member of the Green Party because a multi-party system "allows for more nuanced politics," El-Yateem said he's running as a Democrat to reform the party from within.

"When I became a citizen of the United States it felt like I was born again, and the moment I became a U.S. citizen I registered as a Democrat. As an Arab-American, the Democratic Party is the closest to me, and I think it's up to us to rise up and to fight and to reform the Democratic Party, so people like me and others can participate."

El-Yateem is a 22-year resident of Dyker Heights, having immigrated to America from Palestine with his family in 1992. The founder of the Salam Arabic Lutheran Church, El-Yateem is a relative political novice, with this being his first run for office, though he has served on Community Board 10 for 12 years. Like Brisport, El-Yateem told Gothamist that the catalyst for his entrance into electoral politics was the result of the 2016 presidential election.

"I felt Trump ran his whole campaign targeting Arabs and Muslims," El-Yateem told us. "After the election, the Arab and Muslim community became surveillance targets again." He also pitched his candidacy as part of the larger resistance effort against the Trump administration and part of the city's newly energized grassroots political efforts. "I've lived here for 22 years, and I've not seen this phenomenon before, of young people saying that we need to organize and we need to resist," El-Yateem told Gothamist.

And so El-Yateem joined a fatal five-way Democratic primary to replace the term-limited outgoing City Councilmember Vincent Gentile, pitting him against Gentile's Chief of Staff Justin Brannan, Democratic State Committee Woman Nancy Tong, Stephen Levin staffer Kevin Peter Carroll and attorney Vincent Chirico. To differentiate himself in the crowded field, El-Yateem is pitching himself as coming from outside the political mainstream, and as a rejection of establishment politics, not unlike Brisport or Jose Peralta's teenage primary challenger Tahseen Chowdhury.

"We have a lot of Democrats running, but the problem is they're from the establishment and they'll keep the status quo, which hasn't helped our community or our district," El-Yateem told Gothamist.

And while the Trump administration and its potential impact on New York City can get people the kind of national profile that leads to invites on Tucker Carlson's Screamtime Jamboree, El-Yateem isn't pinning his candidacy exclusively on being the City Council's Non-Politician Trump Resister.

Regarding the issues in his district, El-Yateem said he would focus on cracking down on illegal home conversions, which he said dovetail with his plans to protect the city's undocumented immigrants and keep homes in the district affordable. In addition to supporting the law that levies fines on landlords for illegal subdivisons, El-Yateem wants to see the Department of Buildings to take a more aggressive look at plans that are filed with the agency before changes are even made.

El-Yateem also told us that combating opiate abuse would be a cornerstone of his campaign, after numerous voters told him they were concerned with drug use in the district. According to city data, the rate of heroin overdoses went up from between 1.4 and 3.2 deaths per 100,000 people in 2012-13 to between 4.5 to 6 in 2014-15. As someone who supports criminal justice reform (including the end of Broken Windows policing and the passage of the Right to Know Act), El-Yateem says he wants more holistic ways to fight drug abuse, including things like increased investment in substance abuse counseling and working to drop the stigmas related to addiction.

But El-Yateem has taken some criticism on this issue. Donna Mae DePola, the head of a Bay Ridge substance abuse treatment center has suggested that El-Yateem falsely took credit for helping to fund and open the center. While DePola said that El-Yateem associates helped find a location for the center and made some donations, she also claims El-Yateem himself hasn't funded the space and has taken too much credit for its opening.

Beyond the fact that he hasn't run for office before, El-Yateem's anti-establishment reputation has been enhanced by an endorsement from the city's DSA chapter. That endorsement, as well as El-Yateem's membership in the DSA, has drawn fire from Republican hopeful Bob Capano, who demanded El-Yateem's Democratic opponents "denounce his socialist beliefs and call on him to drop out of the race immediately."

El-Yateem told Gothamist that he's been up front about his DSA endorsement, and actually sees it as an advantage. In a sea of Clinton wins across Brooklyn, Bernie Sanders won every neighborhood that makes up the 43rd district in the 2016 primary. Campaign spokesperson Kayla Santosuosso also says that El-Yateem's DSA membership marks him as "a new voice with new priorities" who can deliver for the district. And in the case of DSA volunteers for El-Yateem's campaign, they appear to be delivering results.

According to Brooklyn DSA Electoral Working Group coordinator Tascha Van Auken, who's coordinated the group's efforts withing the El-Yateem campaign, the DSA has sent 25 to 30 volunteers to Bay Ridge per week to help canvas and door knock since El-Yateem gained the group's endorsement. And like El-Yateem, she said that residents of the 43rd District don't tune out when they heard the dreaded "s" word.

"As far as the DSA goes, this district went for Bernie, so when people hear 'Democratic Socialists of America' I think people associate that with 'Bernie Sanders' and have a positive reaction to it."

Van Auken told Gothamist that the DSA chose to endorse El-Yateem in part "because he's Trump's worst nightmare: an Arab-American immigrant working to build the political revolution who refuses to take money from developers."

She also said that the endorsement and campaign work is a way for the DSA to assert some power in the city.

"Our main goal is to build working class power in the city that's representative of people in the city, and not just let a small minority have power. We want to create an organization that builds massive collective power based on the work that we're doing. It's hard to get people to do this kind of work. So when organizations are able to do that, people pay attention, politicians pay attention, it's different work than just raising some money because it can be the difference between winning and losing elections."

To that end, the DSA exists as a kind of autonomous branch of the campaign, Van Auken said. While their goal, like El-Yateem's, is to win the election they're volunteering for, they're "also trying to build a base in the neighborhood, so when the campaign is over the number of people working with DSA has grown."

It's an attempt to continue to the growth the organization has undergone since the end of the 2016 election, which Van Auken said took the NYC DSA from a few hundred to 2,000 card-carrying members.

"You look at New York City, people say it's a very progressive city and yet we have these enormous problems with things like housing, affordable rent, and policing," Van Auken. "We haven't made headway with those, despite Democratic control. New York is a wonderful city, I grew up here, but it's hard to survive in and there's a lot of work that needs to be done. And so I think people are joining the DSA because they see it as a new kind of alternative to creating power and making change."

The state of the race at the moment has El-Yateem and Brannan neck-and-neck in fundraising, and both are currently ahead of the other three primary candidates, according to the city Campaign Finance Board. But where El-Yateem has endorsements from the DSA and the reform-minded New Kings Democrats, Brannan got a boost when Public Advocate Letitia James endorsed him as "the kind of fighter South Brooklyn needs in the City Council."

Nevertheless, on September 12th, El-Yateem—as well as Tong—will give Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst and Bath Beach voters a chance to send the first non-white representative to the City Council in the district's history. In a neighborhood that's seen enormous demographic change, El-Yateem believes that this is the time to do that.

"It's very sad, we have an exclusive club of white men in the 43rd who want to control the election only for people they think are worthy to run, and that nobody else is allowed to participate in the process," El-Yateem said. "Which to me goes against everything that I've loved about this country and democracy."

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