Emily Gallagher is no stranger to assuming the role of David against a political Goliath. In 2016, she lost a race to unseat an entrenched district leader in North Brooklyn who had served the district longer than Gallagher had been alive.
Now, Gallagher is running to represent North Brooklyn in the New York State Assembly against someone who—again—has been in office longer than she has been alive: Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, beloved by many during his half a century in elected office.
Greenpointers spoke with Gallagher ahead of the June 23rd primary elections to discuss how her campaign has changed in the midst of a pandemic and to get her take on the citywide protests that have erupted after the killing of George Floyd.
Note: This interview was conducted prior to the incidents between the NYPD and protestors in Williamsburg on Thursday night. Gallagher has since called on all elected officials to denounce violent policing.
The interview has also been edited and condensed for clarity.
To voters who don’t know you, can you introduce yourself and explain why you’re running for election to the Assembly?
I am a 14-year resident of Greenpoint. In my second year in the neighborhood, I became involved with activism around the environment. Additionally, I became very involved in activism around safe streets and transit advocacy, pushing for better subways, pushing for bike lanes, pushing for justice for pedestrians and cyclists.
Throughout all of this activism I started learning how important it was to have allies that both were willing to champion the causes of the neighborhood but were also able to push for forward-thinking policy in advance. I’m a survivor of sexual assault. I love the idea of pushing for public hearings and for trauma-centered and victim-centered discussions. I saw a lot of hesitancy to participate from our Assemblymember, and then I learned he’s been in office nearly 50 years. I decided it’d be worth it to challenge him and to the very least have a conversation about these issues and at the ideal get someone in there who—me—understood the story of the community.
The death of George Floyd has reverberated across the nation, with protests erupting across New York City. Do you think police brutality is an issue in North Brooklyn, and if so, what policies would you support to combat it?
I think that police brutality is an issue in North Brooklyn. I have seen in my own community people receiving poor treatment by the police, especially around the issues of cycling. I think this is an issue for our whole country, and North Brooklyn could be a leader in changing the tide. A big part of my platform is actually shifting from being police-centered to thinking about how policing is the band-aid solution for every other problem that we have.
I think we should start shifting to solving the roots of the problems. We see so much interaction between the youth and the police. We’re also seeing jobs programs being cut. We’re seeing after school programs being cut. A lot of times, we are using the police as a way to hide the poor services that we are giving to vulnerable community members, and I think that we can actually shift the power in a way that benefits everyone.
I’ve also been calling for the repeal of 50-a for months. There’s a lot that we do to protect bad-acting cops, when what we should be doing is protecting vulnerable people and making sure that they have the resources that they need and are protected.
No one could have anticipated COVID-19 when the race for the 50th Assembly District began. How has COVID-19 changed your campaign and what pandemic-related issues would you focus on if elected to the Assembly?
COVID-19 upended our campaign. As a grassroots candidate relying solely on community support and individual donations, I didn’t have a large wallet to be spending on mailers or other kinds of paid advertisements. What I was really relying on was door knocking and public events and discussions. We had started that out already pretty early, but we have a photo from our canvassing launch and it was just a couple weeks before shelter-in-place. Now we look at that, and it’s just a relic from another time.
I think that one of the things that’s been distressing for me is how this state really cedes a lot of power to the governor, even though we’re electing officials to have our voice and to be a balance of power. In a dire situation, we need to be able to trust that our elected officials are pushing to be active and pushing to have the voice of their constituents really loudly heard.
We are a community of over 80% renters. Many of those people are living in rent-stabilized apartments, like myself, who without an income cannot afford to live there anymore. The kind of rent relief we were looking for was swift, fast-acting ways to prevent the blood loss of personal economies. And to not have income and to not be able to pay rent is just a disaster. We saw the legislature really drag their feet on passing anything.
Furthermore, this pandemic has made it difficult for those who are undocumented, who we have many of in this community who are working under the table, who are working freelance jobs or multiple jobs and are not able to easily prove their income. We’re already seeing that these people are trapped in the employment system because they aren’t able to get immediate relief because of all the paperwork that they have to do.
Also, the vast number who are being impacted by COVID are people who are from vulnerable populations. We’ve seen how the vulnerable communities in the state have been left to their own devices. I think that’s my number one concern to resolve. I think through creativity and really pulling apart the system we can create a system that actually works for everyone in the state.
What do you think is the most pressing problem facing the 50th Assembly District?
Housing and renters rights are important issues here. I think that ties into the environment because we have a mix of two different kinds of buildings that are not carbon neutral. We have old buildings that leak a lot of energy. We have new buildings that are concrete and glass. We are a frontline waterfront community, and we are going to have some of the worst impacts of climate change. I think all of these things are tied together. To try to separate them is not useful for thinking up the policies that we really need. For housing, it’s not only unaffordable, it’s also not sustainable.
Is there anything you’d like to communicate to voters?
We take a lot of pride in our society being a democracy, but I think the actual lived experience of democracy—which is debate, which is challenge, which is participation, which is open conversation—is not strong in our community. We need to start thinking about how we would be better served to have more voices in a room. I just want to say, if given the chance to serve this community in Albany, I promise I will deliver high levels of constituent services, but I will also be a fighter in the halls of the state house for the people’s voice to be heard. That is what this is truly about.