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Debbie Medina Campaign, 1970
Sun Aug 7, 2016 19:18

HED: Debbie Medina Wants to Shake up Albany

DEK: A community organizer challenges a Democratic Party hack. But will her campaign be derailed by revelations of child abuse and her son’s gruesome crime?

By Peter Rugh

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 tells Medina when she approaches with a flier. “What are you going to do to stop these cops from killing us?”

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

The young man is incredulous. “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 underscore Medina’s strengths as an insurgent outsider candidate, but also what is putting her run in jeopardy. Medina’s grassroots run against Martin Dilan represents the only competitive Democratic primary in New York City this election cycle. A victory for Medina, who identifies as a democratic socialist, would signal the growing strength of the “Berniecrat” wing of the Democratic Party and have reverberations well beyond New York City. Entering July, it looked as if Medina had a decent shot at ousting Dilan, a machine Democrat who has held office in the district since 2002. Then news broke that she repeatedly beat her eldest son with a belt during his teen-age 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 talking with Cypress Hills residents, Medina sought to use her son’s imprisonment to connect with voters, 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."

A Traditional Incumbent

Where Medina’s personal struggles 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 law enforcement’s use of violence against unarmed civilians has sparked outrage in communities of color; from advocates for charter schools, 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.

According to an analysis of campaign filings from the end of July by the Indypendent, Dilan has received nearly half a million dollars in campaign contributions since 2012. This year, he has raised just over $70,000 from 92 individual donations. Since January, Medina has raised $43,700 from 556 individual contributions – 266 of which were for $27 or less. By contrast, Dilan has received only seven donations of less than $100 this year.

Prior to 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. Medina has worked for 30 years as a community organizer with Los Sures/Southside United, an anti-poverty group with deep roots in the working class Puerto Rican community of South Williamsburg. Medina has built tenant associations and organized dozens of buildings to launch rent strikes against landlords to obtain repairs and rent reductions.

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. While Medina hails from South Williamsburg, Dilan is from Bushwick. 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 50 or so volunteer canvassers who originally mobilized behind the democratic socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders this Spring. Medina has not received Sanders’ endorsement.

“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 when she previously ran against Dilan. “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.”

Albany exerts enormous control over life in New York City. Legislation enacted in the State House can have a lasting impact on communities 150 miles away in Brooklyn. Medina wants to raise the state’s mansion tax, currently just 1 percent on properties worth a million dollars or more, and use the funds to finance permanent affordable housing through community land trusts. She says she will work to strengthen rent stabilization and control policies, including making a push to repeal vacancy deregulation laws that allow landlords to jack-up rent when longtime tenants move out.

She opposes public funds for charter schools, which currently match almost dollar-for-dollar what the state spends per-student on its public schools. That’s money that could go towards smaller classes for public schools and free higher education, Medina argues.

Increasing state spending on public transit and rolling back fare hikes is another of Medina’s top priorities. On the MTA’s decision to shut down L train service under the East River as early as 2019 to repair tunnels damaged by Hurricane Sandy, Medina insists future service changes won’t occur without the involvement of subway riders in her district.

“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?”

Following in Sanders’ Footsteps

Medina lost to Dilan by 8 percentage points in 2014 but this year things are different. The left-wing of the Democratic Party has been energized and Sanders, its presidential candidate, took Greenpoint and large sections of Williamsburg and Bushwick in the April primary. Medina is building on that base and trying to expand her presence in Cypress Hill, a Dilan stronghold that also went heavily for Clinton. 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, undeterred by the DNAInfo piece earlier in the 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.

“She’s stood up for the poor and those that have the least for her whole career as a community organizer,” said Brian Johnston, a founding member of the Berners. “She did what she did because she was trying to protect her family. I don’t think she’s trying to spin anything.

Medina 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 12, the oldest of her 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 such an 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 South Williamsburg and pled with them to cut her son off. She posted fliers around the neighborhood that pleaded, “Do not sell to this boy.”

When Torres was 16, Medina 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 rein in his delinquent behavior.

Spared from Death

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, Pennsylvania 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 state 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 in the jury’s decision to spare him from a sentence of lethal injection and instead opt for life without parole. The final vote was 10-2 in favor of death but under Pennsylvania law the death penalty cannot be imposed unless the jury is in unanimous agreement.

Torres, who was 23 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 asked her what message she has for voters who might feel conflicted about checking off her name on the ballot.

“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 car 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.”

  • Debbie Medina Campaign, Peter R., 1780 - jt.indypendent, Fri Jul 29 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 ... more
    • Debbie Medina Campaign, 1970 - jt.indypendent, Sun Aug 7 19:18
      • Debbie Medina Campaign, 1947 - jt.indypendent, Sun Aug 7 23:10
        HED: Debbie Medina Wants to Shake Up Albany DEK: A community organizer challenges a Democratic Party hack. But will her campaign be derailed by revelations of child abuse and her son’s gruesome... more
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