Q&A: Nick Rizzo, Newly Elected Democratic District Leader

Photo by Mike Hicks

Q&A: Nick Rizzo, Newly Elected Democratic District Leader

At 5 a.m. on Tuesday morning, Nick Rizzo’s bike broke down. On an ordinary weekday, a flat would have been a minor inconvenience. But this was the morning of the Democratic Party primary, in which Rizzo was a candidate for district leader — a key, if unpaid and extremely low-profile, party position — in the 50th Assembly District. The bike was his main mode of campaign transportation in the district, which includes Greenpoint, North Williamsburg, the Navy Yard, and parts of Clinton Hill. But Rizzo got a new tire and, Tuesday evening, claimed victory in his race, against Michael Brienza, a union organizer and member of Community Board 1. This week, BKLYNR caught up with Rizzo at his Greenpoint apartment to talk corruption, development, and why Brooklynites should care about their district leader.

First off, congratulations on your victory! How did the celebration go yesterday?

Thank you! I stopped drinking for the campaign last year when preparing for this, before anybody believed I could do this thing. I stopped drinking to remind myself that I was serious about this thing. It helps — you can’t be waking up at 6 a.m. to do subway stops if you’re hungover. So yeah, I had a couple of drinks for the first time in months. So that was cool. It was nice to see all the people who helped me out. The celebration was good; the day was crazy. It’s a long day — it always is. But there’s a lot of adrenaline to carry you through. There was a period in the morning when I genuinely thought I was going to lose, and then when I started to hear the turnout numbers, I felt better about that. By noon, I was pretty sure I was going to win, but there were five hours when I didn’t.

A lot of Brooklynites, even those interested in local politics, may be unfamiliar with the position of district leader. Can you explain the role?

District leader is an unpaid position in the Brooklyn Democratic Party. Each state assembly district, which includes 130,000 people — there’s about 21 of them in Brooklyn — the Democrats there elect a male and a female. Kinda like the Hunger Games, except they don’t fight to the death; they just govern the Brooklyn Democratic Party. It’s 42 people that almost no Brooklynites have heard of, unless they’re elected to another position, which many of them do. They decide all this stuff, and they don’t have a website. It’s the largest county Democratic Party on the East Coast, and there’s no website. There are little upstate counties with 8,000 people in the whole county, and the Democratic Party there has a website. Hopefully that’ll change soon, but it’s been promised for two years, and it still hasn’t happened.

And the party has a lot of influence in helping other politicians, to some degree. So for example, despite Senator John Sampson’s indictment — it sure looks like he looted the estates of people he was assigned to administer; I haven’t heard a compelling defense from him about this yet — he still won re-election because the party supported him. Their attitude is innocent until proven guilty, despite the preponderance of evidence. I think that shouldn’t be their attitude, that we really need to have zero tolerance for corruption.

Technically, that’s all the power the district leader has, but I’m trying to use the position as a bully pulpit and a tool for community organizing. So we’ve involved 160 people to run for this position called county committee, which represents a few square blocks, and I’m working with them and everyone else to start to identify, “What are the things we want fixed around here?” A lot of transportation stuff, speeding, potholes, putting in a stop sign, and, “Hey, there are drug dealers on this block. Can you send the cops over?” We’ve got a whole list online. Even if this position doesn’t have any power, over the next two years, I have to deliver. It’s about being creative in organizing the community and how we can use soft power to get things done, to improve stuff around here.

Fighting corruption is super important to me; it’s what I ran on. And people responded incredibly well to it. I think that anti-corruption has much more salience than words like “good government” and “transparency” or “reform.” I believe in all of those things, but I think calling it “anti-corruption” cuts to the heart of what we’re trying to do. But besides that, you have to deliver on all that small stuff that really does matter in people’s lives that live around here. Like, how we deal with all of this development is going to be a huge part of that.

Jumping off of that, over the next two years, the face of Greenpoint is going to drastically change with the new waterfront development plan. How important an issue is that in the neighborhood, or even more broadly?

I think affordable housing is the most important problem in Brooklyn and in New York generally. There’s all of this resentment amongst people who have lived here forever, and now the neighborhood is changing on them, and it’s something they don’t have control over. I get it. Neighborhood change is really, really tricky. Almost everybody who rents is worried about being priced out; God knows I am. And it’s hard because it’s global macroeconomic factors that are causing this. As the pool of capital shifts around the globe more easily and it accrues for relatively fewer people, you have about one percent of the population, or 7 million people, who control a third of the world’s wealth, which, I think, is about $65 trillion. So that’s 65 with twelve zeros after it. And for all these people, wherever they are in the world, it’s worthwhile for them to buy a place in New York, even if they’re going to be here a couple weeks a year. Among other things, it’s an asset that doesn’t seem to decline in value, it puts your wealth out of the hands of government, and our tax structure here is ludicrously lenient towards it. In One57, which is going up over there [he points to Manhattan], they’re building apartments that go for $25 million, and they pay $18,000 a year in taxes.

That prices out the lawyers, which then prices out everybody else, and it just trickles down. Almost everyone is gentrifying and being gentrified. Both, as this thing pushes out there. And the solutions to that are really hard. We can have affordable housing developments set aside, and we really, really should. But that just only affects the people who are lucky enough to get them, which is a very small percentage of the total people, it seems like. And it’s good: we need more of that; we need to acquire a larger percentage for affordable housing. But now it seems to me the demand is global, so expanding supply doesn’t do as much good as it would do in a normal market or 30 years ago. Now it’s making things a little bit cheaper for the only relatively extremely wealthy people in Brazil, China, or Russia. So that’s a really, really hard issue that I don’t have an answer to. But I know our tax structure needs to change on that. Right now, you’re incentivized to live less than half the year in New York because if you can show you live here less than half the year, you’re not subject to the income tax. We need to figure out a way to tax apartments that they do not live in half the time. If we can really restructure the tax incentive on that, that might have some effect.

But it’s a hard thing to do, and sixteen hours into being a district leader, I don’t know what we can do, but I’m gonna try my damnedest to figure it out: whatever way we can get more for the community than what the developers are currently offering. It continues to be negotiated. I think what’s on the table now is terrifying in terms of just the scale of it. I love my village life up here, and it really will change unless it’s phased over time to allow the people who come in first there to see what it’s like around here and then assimilate to that, and everyone else will follow. If we just have massive new developments on the water that are completely inward-facing and the people only care about a beautiful view of Manhattan as opposed to living in this place because it’s the best neighborhood in New York, that would be a shame.

The whole point of this city — this city, more than any other city in the world — is about, “It’s not where you’re born; it’s about if you want to come here and fight in this struggle to survive here,” and your participation. You’re welcome to it. We have a big, green metal lady in New York Harbor that’s all about that for the whole country, and it’s right here. For 400 years, people in New York have been resenting new people that move into their neighborhood, and for 400 years, they’ve been wrong. They’ve been nativists. This situation of gentrification, though, makes things different because it brings this complicating class factor, which is worth thinking about. I don’t see what the community is really getting out of it right now. We need much clearer standards, like what kind of affordable housing we’re getting right now, where the income cutoff could be in the six figures or it’s below $20,000. That’s crazy. There needs to be something in the middle.

Do you see this stuff playing out all across the borough?

We certainly all suffer from political corruption. I think rent is rising in all of Brooklyn. Places are changing at different speeds, certainly, and this is absolutely an issue that affects all of Brooklyn. I don’t want anti-corruption to forever be a privileged-person issue in the “reform movement,” which has existed well over 100 years, this battle between machine Democrats and reform Democrats. This is something that we all suffer from, but, frankly, poor people suffer from it more. This is just the beginning. Trying to empower people to run for county committee is something I’m serious about happening all over Brooklyn. This is all about our responsibility to make things better.

Erik Dilan, a Vito Lopez acolyte, won his primary Tuesday, as did John Sampson. But a bunch of progressives also won; obviously, de Blasio came in this January. Where are things going?

I do believe that the arc of history bends towards justice. I also think Brooklyn politics are much less corrupt than it used to be, and this will continue. It is possible to make things better. There will also be resistance to it. A lot of it. It won’t be easy. I think things are absolutely changing. Look: Brooklyn is a one-party regime. It is dominated by the Democratic Party, and that party has influence over the board of education and the judges. It’s a system that is dominated by these low-turnout primaries, as long as everyone isn’t voting. I won extremely handily with just 2,000 votes yesterday. As long as that’s the case, where people are tuned out of this stuff, that lets the corrupt ones win. People being aware of this stuff and active is what changes it.

Stepping back to the state level, can you talk about the race Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu ran? Obviously, they spoke a lot about corruption. And they grabbed a lot of votes, but they lost.

They had one percent of the money Cuomo/Hochul had. No sitting politician endorsed them, period; they were ignored entirely by the political class. I didn’t endorse them either, because I’m scared, too. All the talk was that they’d get in the mid-twenties with votes, so they really outperformed that.

So what got you into politics?

I think I always wanted to be a New York politician. Weirdly, like, from an absurdly young age, living in Berkeley, California, because I knew New York was the center of the world, and I think a huge part of it was Mario Cuomo. My mom really liked him, but, for the most part, my parents really didn’t delve into politics. I’m a child of academics — my father is a retired professor, and my mother edits a literary magazine and teaches and writes books. I’m very lucky. They have political opinions, and they’re very left-wing, as Berkeley academics would be. This is my thing, not theirs. My parents live here half the year, and they actually just got here. My dad came out to a community center where I was at, and my parents were out campaigning for me yesterday, which I really appreciated. I was never going to ask them to do that, but they offered, and I ultimately accepted.

Is district leader just the first step? Do you want a career in politics?

I think so. There has to be something wrong with you. You have to have something wrong with you to have a career in politics. It really involves trying to throw away your life in the hopes of changing something. I am one of those freaks where the bug bites you young. I’ve wanted to be a politician since a very young age. But I’m terrified by the process, in that only people who are as single-minded as me seem to be getting in. And that’s terrifying — that is so terrible for the process. Right now we are governed by a class of people who work very, very hard but largely aren’t able to have any other interest besides politics. This has incredibly corrosive effects. Honestly, my main goal in politics is to try to break a Kool-Aid Man-sized hole in the wall, such that after this, normal people are able to get involved. That’s the most important thing. It shouldn’t all be freaks like me. If we can get a couple thousand people who are willing to give one day a month, two weeks a year, volunteering in politics to that degree, empowering them as much as possible with the technology we finally have to democratize decision-making, that’s the most important thing.

You worked in media for a few years after college. Why’d you leave?

Politics was always the thing I was most passionate about. It was certainly something I wanted to try from a young age. In 2009, I worked on three losing elections in a nine-week span, and I got so burnt out on politics. It’s said that the only three things that you need for a successful career in journalism are some small literary ability, a passable manner, and rat-like cunningness. I’m very vain about the fact that I never took a journalism course. Journalism is cool because I believe any clever person can do it. It was fun, but I think the whole time I knew wanted to get back into politics. That being said, I haven’t had time to write for the last six months. Now I will. Being district leader, it’s not quite an empty title, but it’s close, and it gives you ability to see things and get into places that ordinary people don’t go and don’t see and don’t hear. I hope to report back on what I see. I wouldn’t ever return to journalism full-time, but yeah, I absolutely plan to keep writing.

Jimmy Breslin ran for president of City Council, and Norman Mailer ran for mayor in 1969. They came in fourth or fifth. There’s a famous story about the speech that Norman Mailer gave in the campaign when Jimmy Breslin realized he wasn’t joking about running. But they lost. And Hunter S. Thompson ran for office too, and he lost. In other countries, it’s more popular for journalists to run than it is here. However, it does bring a different perspective, and I think it’s a valuable perspective. There’s too much bullshit in politics, and I’m trying to cut through it.

Do you think that’s your top priority in the role?

Cutting through bullshit? Yeah, actually. I definitely plan on speaking my mind a lot more. I’m less afraid to speak my mind than a lot of politicians because they don’t want to be punished for it. Maybe two years from now, though, I won’t be a politician anymore.

John Surico is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Village Voice, and BKLYNR. He lives in Crown Heights.

Mike Hicks is a freelance photographer and multimedia producer. He lives in Park Slope.

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Asphalt Archaeology

Like insects in amber, reminders of everyday life can be found preserved just under the surface of New York City’s asphalt. Photos by Mikhail Mishin