Brooklyn City Councilmember Rafael Espinal has stepped down halfway through his second term to take on a role as executive director of the Freelancers Union, which represents half-a-million independent workers across the country.
Though his resignation is effective immediately, Espinal, who has represented Bushwick and Brownsville since 2014, won't start his new job until the beginning of March, according to a press release. During his tenure, he co-sponsored legislation passed in 2016 to expand freelancers' rights and led efforts to both repeal the "cabaret law" that once made dancing technically illegal at most bars and restaurants, and establish a "Nightlife" office. His resignation comes days after he abruptly dropped out of the Brooklyn borough president race.
"It wasn't an easy decision," Espinal told Gothamist in a phone interview. "I thought it was the right thing to do. The decision is bittersweet for me."
"Taking my work into account and looking at an opportunity to continue being a voice on issues that historically or typically are not talked about in government," he said, "I saw that opportunity within the Freelancers Union."
Espinal, who mounted an unsuccessful campaign for NYC Public Advocate last year, felt he couldn't put off this job opportunity for two more years until his term ends.
"Those positions don't come too often. When I gave it further thought, the union was one of the few organizations that I could envision myself working for if I was to leave government," he said. "It really checked off all the boxes of why I enjoyed being a council member, and it's advocating for New Yorkers that don't traditionally have a voice in local government."
"My heart really is [about] advocating for people and fighting for people's rights," he added.
As the head of the Freelancers Union, Espinal will take on a nationwide strategy to expand protections secured in New York City—like the Freelance Isn't Free Act that he co-sponsored—and New York State, as the organization's third leader in its 25-year history. Espinal says his new salary is "comparable" to the $148,500 annual salary City Councilmembers' earn and that salary was not a "motivator."
The newly formed City Council staffers union said Espinal's sudden resignation exemplifies how the council "needs a clearer process and avenues for employee protection and transition."
"When a CM decides to resign before the end of term, staff are unexpectedly left without jobs," the Association of Legislative Employees wrote in a tweet.
Espinal told Gothamist his seven staffers would be paid to run his office and constituent services until a new councilmember is elected in a special election, upon which that person would decide whether or not to retain the staff members.
A special election will be held within 80 days of his resignation, though a date has not yet been announced, Espinal's office said.
An early contender for the special election includes the 54th Assembly District's state committee member Darma Diaz, who confirmed she is considering running for Espinal's seat.
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson suggested at an unrelated press conference that more council members would also resign before their terms are up.
"We are lame ducks," Johnson said at an unrelated press conference. "You're going to start seeing that more with other council members. It's one of the problems with term limits, honestly."
Nearly three dozen councilmembers will be term-limited in 2021, a year that's expected to be a massive election cycle; the mayor, city comptroller and all five borough presidents will also be ineligible to run for reelection.
This article was updated with additional comments from Espinal.