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Debbie Medina Campaign, Peter R., 1780
Fri Jul 29, 2016 10:04

I’m not on the streets of Cypress Hill, Brooklyn with Debbie Medina long before it’s clear this will not be your average baby-kissing jaunt around the neighborhood.

“Every time I drive a fancy car in this neighborhood I get pulled over,” a young Black man washing an Oldsmobile in the July sun says when Medina approaches with a flier. “What are you going to do to stop these cops from killing us?”

The 53-year-old housing organizer running for state senate here in New York’s 18th district has a ready answer: disarm the police.

He gives her an incredulous look.

“Trust me,” she says. “I have a son doing life in Pennsylvania. I know what it’s all about out here, buddy. I’m real. I’m just like you.”

It’s conversations like this that illustrate Medina’s strong chances of winning the 18th, but also what is putting her run in jeopardy.

Up until July, it looked as if Medina had a decent shot at outing her opponent, Martin Dilan, who has held office in the district since 2002. That was until news broke that she repeatedly beat her eldest son with a belt during his teen years. Her son, Eugenio Torres, is currently serving a sentence of life without parole at the Frackville Correctional facility, in in Schuylkill County, PA for killing his girlfriend’s three-year-old son.

While in conversation with voters on Saturday Medina sought to use her son’s imprisonment to garner street cred, but her use of corporal punishment, which she disclosed to the news website DNAInfo on July 12, has cast a shadow over her campaign.

Dilan claims he knew of Medina’s past child abuse and her son’s incarceration back in 2014, the last time he squared off against her for the senate seat. “I did not want to run a negative campaign against her," Dilan told DNAInfo. “My opponent made her choice and her son made a choice."

Where Medina’s private indiscretions are catching up with her, Dilan’s politics might be his undoing. He has taken thousands of dollars in donations from police unions at a time when violence by law enforcement has sparked outrage in communities of color; from advocates for charter school, which have stoked parental anxiety by continuing to receive state funds while traditional public schools deteriorate; and from the Rent Stabilization Association, a landlord’s lobbying group, even as new construction threatens to price out whole communities.

The issues and policies section of Dilan’s website looks as if it has not been updated for half a decade. For instance, it highlights his support for a 2011 bill that called for a continued moratorium on hydrofracking. The oil and gas extraction technique has been banned in New York since 2013, and as recently as March Dilan took $2000 from the Empire State Petroleum Association.

According to a July 27 analysis of campaign filings by the Indypendent , Dilan has received nearly half a million dollars since 2012, $70,675 so far this year, from 530 individual donations. Medina has raised $96,801 since 2014, including $43,722 since January. She’s received 778 individual contributions — 181 of which were for $27 or less, the bulk of those arriving this year. By contrast, Dilan has received only five donations under $50.

Prior revelations of Medina’s child abuse, she appeared to be the perfect candidate for voters looking for a progressive alternative to the entrenched incumbent; someone with real roots in the 18th District but who isn’t bought and paid for. Like, Dilan, Medina is the child of Puerto Rican parents and like him she was born and raised in the district, which stretches from Green Point southeast through Williamsburg, Bushwick and over to Cypress Hill.

Dilan hails from Bushwick, Medina from the South Williamsburg area known as the “1,2,3’s” for its numbered streets that was nearly as renowned Alphabet City on the Lower East Side in the 1980s for its crime and boarded up windows. Despite an influx of gentrifiers, fifty-four percent of the district is Hispanic, according to census data, 21 percent Black, and 18 percent white.

On Fulton St. on Saturday afternoon, Medina’s roots shine as she switches seamlessly between English and Spanish, making jovial conversation with shopkeepers and with elders catching tans in lawn chairs propped on the sidewalk.

As far as her progressive chops go, Medina was the subject of a glowing profile in the Nation Magazine in March and won a stamp of approval from the Working Families Party, as well as the Bushwick Berners—an endorsement that came with fifty or so volunteer canvassers who originally mobilized behind the democratic socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders this Spring.

“I’ve been a socialist all my life, but I didn’t think you could say so in public,” Medina tells me when I ask why, in 2014, she neglected to apply the moniker to herself while campaigning. “Bernie gave me the confidence to say, ‘That’s exactly what I am.’ The meaning of socialism is people being able to have a say in what happens in their community. If that’s radical, then I’m a radical.”

Medina wants to flip the city’s metric for granting building permits upside down from a mandatory 30 percent affordable housing to 70 percent and to alter what’s currently considered affordable to exclude those earning more than the area median income. She opposes public funds for charter schools.

On the impending 18-month shutdown of L train, a main artery that connects large sections of the 18th District to Manhattan, Medina doesn’t see much hope in reversing the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s (MTA’s) plans for extended repairs but promises that future large service changes won’t occur without riders’ involvement.

“Day one, when you find something wrong,” she said, addressing the MTA, “you come to the community and say, ‘We need your input.’”

When we stop in a Dominican diner, a middle-aged man examining a campaign flier puts down his egg sandwich and asks, “Why aren’t you running for president?”

Medina lost to Dilan by 8 percentage points in 2014 but this year things are different. The left-wing of the Democratic Party launched a populace insurgency and Sanders, their presidential candidate, took Green Point and large sections of Williamsburg and Bushwick in the April primaries. Many Sanders backers believe he could have won more support if he were able to reach a wider audience and to reach them sooner, a setback Debbie does not want to repeat herself, hence her presence in Cypress Hill, a Clinton stronghold. The influx of donations she’s received this time around has enabled her to devote time and volunteers to neighborhoods she didn’t have the funds to concentrate on previously.

On this particular day, Medina and eight other canvassers have spread out across the neighborhood. From the looks of it, her campaign is in full swing, despite the DNAInfo piece earlier this month. The Working Families Party, which uncovered the information about her and her son while vetting Medina last month, isn’t returning her calls. The Bushwick Berners, however, are sticking by her and she insists the story hasn’t hurt her campaign.

“I’ve gotten calls from people that have endorsed me and they’ll continue to endorse me,” Medina says, insisting that more people have come forward to support her since the article appeared than before. “People have said, ‘Wow, that’s really amazing you’ve just came out and gave your story.”

The story, as she tells it, is this. At the age of twelve, her first of four children, Eugenio Torres, started hanging out on the street. He began smoking angel dust. Medina couldn’t afford rehabilitation programs that would have removed Torres from their environment where drugs were readily accessible.

“If I was rich I would have sent my son to Malibu, but that’s not something I could afford,” she says.

Still, she did everything she could image to turn his life around. She approached dealers in the 1,2,3’s and harangued them to cut her son off. She posted fliers around the neighborhood that pleaded, “Do not sell to this boy.”

When Torres was sixteen she and her husband found cash and the family’s VCR missing from their home. They confronted their son and when he hit her husband, Medina intervened and began striking Torres with a belt — the first of multiple instances she used force in an attempt to reign in his delinquent behavior.

A mitigation specialist, testifying during the sentencing segment of Torres’s murder trial, noted that in one instance child protective services arrived at Medina’s household and discovered contusions on Torres’s torso and bruising on his arms. The testimony is a matter of public record and was reported on by Lehigh Valley Live, a local paper in Northampton County, PA where Torres’s trial took place in 2010. Yet it was not widely known in Brooklyn where Medina is campaigning until she came forward. Like her socialism, it wasn’t a subject she discussed during her 2014 senate bid.

“I thought everybody already knew,” Medina tells me explaining that she has always been open with her neighbors about what her family went through.

In Pennsylvania the death penalty is legal and the abuse Torres suffered served as a mitigating factor that likely spared him lethal injection for murder.

Torres, who was twenty-one at the time of his conviction, maintains his innocence and told investigators he was playing with 3-year-old Elijah Strickland in a bathtub when the child swallowed water and stopped breathing. Over 90 injuries were discovered on 3-year-old Elijah Strickland’s body, including cuts, burn marks, bruising and a fractured skull. A bloody white belt was recovered at the scene.

“I can only wish and pray to the lord that it was an accident,” Medina says.

I ask her what message she has for voters who might feel conflicted about checking off her name on the ballot box.

“Elect me as a state senator and we can work to help families like mine. We should not allow one mistake that I made get in the way of me being able to go up there [to Albany] and help families avoid the [same] mistakes. How many parents are going through what I went through right now but nobody knows about it because they’re not running for a position? People are accusing me of trying to save my son, when the reality is we should be trying to find a way where parents don’t have to go through what I went through.”

As we approached a Sadan at the end of the block, waiting to take her to the next campaign event, Medina sighed. “I knew you couldn’t just have a regular interview with me without having to ask me [about] that.”

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