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For the first time in nearly a year, District 37 residents now have a representative in City Council to get down to business for them and begin to tackle the many challenges of 2021.
Newly-elected District 37 Councilwoman Darma Diaz was sworn in on Dec. 2. She filled a vacancy after former City Councilman Rafael Espinal Jr. stepped down in January 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic prevented a timely special election to fill the seat.
“This is my dream job: to get up in the morning and impact many lives in a positive way. That’s huge,” Diaz, a native Brooklynite who lives in Cypress Hills-East New York, told BK Reader.
Diaz is a former district leader and longtime community advocate. The 37th district includes parts of Bushwick, where she grew up, East New York, Cypress Hills, Ocean Hill, and Brownsville.
Her path to the City Council had several twists and turns.
Espinal announced his resignation two years before his term ended. Election officials planned a nonpartisan special election, slated for April, to fill the vacancy for the remainder of 2020. They also scheduled a primary election for June 23 to nominate party candidates for the November general election. The winner would take office in January 2021.
However, none of that worked out.
To prevent the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, through executive orders, rescheduled the special election from April to the June primary. Ultimately, he cancelled the special election altogether and held just the June primary and general election in November.
The competition to replace Espinal became acrimonious after Cuomo lowered the required number of signatures to get on state ballots by 30%. He wanted to reduce contact between people at the height of the pandemic. That change meant that candidates needed to gather only 135 valid signatures for City Council instead of 450 signatures.
However, the city’s Board of Elections ruled that the reduction didn’t apply to the District 37 race. After heated back-and-forth legal challenges over the required number of signatures, Diaz was the only candidate who qualified to appear on the ballot.
During the vacancy, there was concern that residents in one of the poorest districts were neglected—especially after city officials dismissed Espinal’s last two staffers in June. Diaz rejected that narrative. She said the Council provided community liaisons to oversee constituent services after the staffers left.
“I was able to refer issues to be resolved,” Diaz recalled. “And when I took office, it was turned over to me with cases either commenced, resolved or pending. Having a member in City Council is ideal, but I wouldn’t say we were totally without representation.”
Still, Diaz recognized that there’s much to be done in the district. In a community hard-hit by the pandemic, health care, especially around the deadly virus, is a top agenda item. Her other top priorities include affordable, quality housing and reducing high unemployment.
The new lawmaker doesn’t have much time before gearing up for another campaign. Diaz must defend her seat in the upcoming June Democratic primary against opponents that include three of the candidates she ran against in 2020.
The next round is shaping up as a battle between the party’s progressive and establishment wings.
Her main challenge is expected to come from Sandy Nurse, a progressive activist and community organizer. Nurse has endorsements from U.S. Rep. Nydia Velasquez (D-District 7) and State Senator Julia Salazar (D-District 18), as well as the Working Families Party and New Kings Democrats.
Diaz rejected the allegation: “The process was to collect signatures, a lot of signatures, and I did that. I did not commit fraud in collecting signatures. Do they not know that I’ve been a campaign manager on many campaigns? I’d be a really big fool if I didn’t make the ballot.”
Two candidates who also ran in 2020 – Rick Echevarria and Misba Abdin – are in the 2021 race. Heriberto Mateo, former director of the city’s Commission on Human Rights, has also tossed his hat into the ring.