Victoria Cambranes is no stranger to city council politics. Born and raised in Greenpoint, she ran to represent district 33 in 2017 against incumbent council member Stephen Levin. “I knew there was a very slim chance of me winning, but I just wanted to let him know that he was not running unopposed,” Cambranes told Greenpointers. “I conceded to Steve, and I told him that if you do good by your community, I’ll be right there behind you, and if you don’t, I’ll be your shadow.”
Referring to herself as “the policy wonk in the race,” Cambranes’ emphasizes that it’s precisely the chance to work on local issues that excites her about this position. “I’m very well versed in land use and zoning policy, which is one of the primary responsibilities of the council and the particular reason why [I’m seeking] the council and not any other seat. I’m not seeking to become a career politician and enter Congress, I’m not looking to fight with Republicans in Albany – I’m particularly looking at council because of the land use responsibility and responsibility over the budget.”
Cambranes spoke to Greenpointers about her love of the waterfront, creating a local Green New Deal, and why we can’t afford the “politics as usual” of neoliberalism.
For our readers who might not know you, can you give us a quick introduction? What motivated you to run in the first place?
I’m born and raised in Greenpoint. I’m the daughter of immigrants. My parents came here from Guatemala and Poland. I went to school here locally in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, and for college I got a full scholarship to Skidmore. After that, I went to grad school in England. I went to University of York, started my career in digital marketing in London and was there when the 2016 election happened. After that devastating result, I realized I had to stop just talking about politics and be active in protest culture and get involved in the fight. I decided to move back home, and I got involved in local community organization, board meetings, and the Women’s March. And what I did find was that our local council member [Stephen Levin] was really not responsive to any questions I had over concerns about the neighborhood. That was one of the big reasons why I ran against him in 2017. There was a death of a cyclist that he was very unresponsive to, and I had warned about the dangers of that street, and I decided to run against him to put some pressure on him. I’ve continued that community activism and engagement since. I’ve sort been an impromptu constituent services rep on a volunteer basis, and I’ve worked very closely with housing activists, tenants rights issues, and development land use issues.
One of the things that I really want to focus on is economic recovery. I consider myself a socialist when it comes to economic policy. I believe that the neoliberal austerity politics that have gotten us to the point where we are completely divesting in social services and relegating most of our budget to the real estate industry was unsustainable before COVID-19 and then when COVID-19 happened, it really exacerbated those issues and really brought them to light even further. Everything that activists had been fighting for all these years became very apparent during COVID and so that’s why I want to tackle the root cause of these issues. I fight for a lot of social justice issues. I work with domestic violence assault victims, having been a survivor myself.I’ve worked with a lot of homeless individuals, I’ve worked with tenants, I’ve worked with victims of crime, and all of these social justice issues always come back to one question which is “How do we fund it?”
The funding question is a fundamental economic question. And that’s where you have to change the direction where this neoliberal politics has taken us. So that’s my main goal, to steer the ship in a different direction, and to do that from one of the most consequential seats in the entire city for the council, which is district 33. It’s the home of backdoor politics. It’s the home of the boys club – we’ve never had a woman in this seat. We’ve never had someone born and raised in this district run this district. And the reason for that is because it’s a template for how the real estate industry runs this city, and it’s a blueprint for gentrification, displacement, and development, which you can see for yourself has had really disastrous effects.
What would you say are the top three issues or projects specific to this district that you plan to tackle?
The first one is economic recovery. We have to ensure that both tenants, commercial and residential, as well as small landlords, are not fed to the lions in this huge transfer of wealth that is currently happening before our eyes. The council, as well as the state representatives and Congress have been lacking in a lot of urgency in offering up relief. The reason for that is there’s a conjunction of different policies and things that happened during COVID that allowed for a huge transfer of wealth. That includes the tax lien sale being reintroduced today. That includes all the speculation that is happening, and the real estate industry is actually continuing to buy up properties for flipping.
That’s why I put the working class tenants alongside small landlords. Small landlords happen to be the last vestige of affordable housing we have left in district 33. Feeding them to the lions is only going to increase your rent through house flipping in the near future. We need to preserve both of those categories, and we do that by spending, pushing infrastructure, Green New Deal, pushing for recovery through a sort of a post-war mentality. We do that through union labor, strengthening our workforce, mandating union labor in the outer boroughs for construction projects, which is currently not happening, and that’s why we see Scabby the Rat near the Greenpoint waterfront all the time. And ensuring that we can build up that tax base, build up people’s living standards, so the economy has that influx of cash, influx of taxes coming in, so that we can spend on social services the year after that instead of cutting them.
The second policy would be the Green New Deal, from Greenpoint to Gowanus, which is a local Green New Deal. That’s really about ensuring that all of the construction and the boon that we’re seeing in our community is taking into account our combined sewer overflow issues, ensuring that we have our Superfund and Brownfield sites cleaned up and that they’re done to a standard that we can ensure the health and safety for future generations, to build up projects and promote projects whether on a pilot basis or a city-wide basis, to create a haven for green collar jobs and LEED certification and ensuring that we’re educating students and getting them involved to build up an example of what green infrastructure and green building projects can look like across the city. My vision for district 33 is to take this incredibly polluted, toxic, industrial past, and turn it into an example of a beacon of rehabilitation. And that’s completely possible if we put our money in the right places.
We have to ensure that public safety encompasses more than just the issue of overpolicing. I stand firmly against the building of four new mega jails and firmly against the beefing up of the NYPD budget. I think that that budget absolutely needs to be slashed because the responsibilities that they have, they aren’t trained for. We shouldn’t have cops in schools or in hospitals. We shouldn’t have cops in the MTA stopping fair jumpers. It’s outside of the purview of what cops were originally meant for. They shouldn’t be involved in mental health issues as well. They’re not equipped for that. I had a personal experience with my dad who had a panic attack several years ago. I called 911, and when I opened the door, there were six cops in front of me. I put my hands across the door and said “You’re not coming in.” My dad’s a 75 year old Latino man, you’re not gonna scare him even further and give him a heart attack. And that is due to a law where cops have to come in before EMTs can assess the situation. That’s not right. They deal with mental health all the time but they’re not prepared for it. So there’s a lot of things that are happening with policing that needs to be reformed, but beyond that, a lot of public safety means ensuring that cyclists are safe on the road, that pedestrians are safe, and ensuring that women and domestic violence victims are safe. All of that is encompassed in what I consider public safety.
How have your experiences living abroad shaped your politics and worldview?
I’m a Polish and American citizen, which allowed me to stay in the UK without a visa. In doing that, I had my life saved actually by the NHS [National Health Service, the publicly-funded healthcare system of the United Kingdom]. I was super happy to see my tax breakdown at the end of the year showing me how much money I paid into the NHS, and I was proud to pay that money, because I saw how the type of anxiety you have when you’re worried about losing your health insurance is just completely non-existent in that universe. The level of fear that people have over going to the doctor or paying a medical bill is completely erased in that equation. Living in that kind of a system really taught me how cruel the American healthcare system is. I remember the first time I got free birth control at a clinic while I was still studying, I was looking over my shoulder when I left the clinic, like “They just let me leave without paying!” like someone was going to run after me with a receipt. It was so bizarre to me, to have that kind of a system.
Beyond that, living with really good labor rights, really good pensions, really good safety measures and measures for unemployment, gig workers and freelancers, the way that they handle the homelessness issue, and housing individuals, there are so many things. I would have conversations with my girlfriends who were from Denmark and them asking me to explain things like “What is a co-pay?” or “What is the gender wage gap about?” because it’s not even in their consciousness, and that blew my mind. That’s definitely affected why I am a socialist, and why I believe those principles are not anti-American, they’re actually uniquely American. The Europeans borrowed those things from us, like social security and welfare, and they went in that direction, and we went in the opposite direction.
What is your favorite thing about living in this district?
The water. I’ve always had this special relationship with the waterfront. I live two blocks away from the water, and I remember as a kid, my dad would take my brother and I in the car, and he would drive to the end of the piers before they had crumbled. And we would dangle our feet off the pier, looking at the view of Manhattan. As the piers broke down when I was in high school, I remember being an angsty teenager, taking my Nirvana CD and cassette player and my journal and sitting by the broken up rocks on the pier, just writing all afternoon on weekends. The weird thing is actually during the pandemic, I found myself doing that again. It was this really peaceful and really eerie moment in history that I wanted to capture in my mind forever, and that water really helped me to feel connected and at peace with all the chaos that was going on.
Protecting that waterfront really is a huge thing that I advocate for because people don’t realize that it’s such a huge resource, not just for Brooklynites but for all New Yorkers. We’re surrounded by water, and it can be used in a lot of different ways. We’ve done a lot of destruction to it, but we can also use it for bettering our city. There have been plans and conversations around using barges to carry construction materials, so that we’re not filling up our streets with trucks. There have been talks about cleaning up the water enough to have people start swimming in it.
The Newtown Creek Alliance is planting these habitats for fish and wildlife to start growing and to prevent further inland flooding. There’s all sorts of remediation things we can do with that water if we simply put our minds to it. And it’s not just for us, it’s for future generations. We need to think that far ahead. We can’t just think in terms of election cycles. The city is going to be around in a 100 years, and the decisions we make today are going to affect the future.
Any other last thoughts about what our readers should know about you?
City Council is not a small position. It’s a very consequential position, and we cannot allow for the real estate forces and establishment background deals to run the neighborhood into the ground. That’s exactly what will happen if we don’t elect the right person into this seat. There are four fabulous women who are very well educated and very experienced running for this office, and I found a lot of solidarity in speaking to them. But it’s not just about electing a woman to district 33. It’s about making sure the person with the best plan for the future and the most honest, transparent person of integrity. We are in a crisis situation, and we cannot allow politics as usual.
New York City’s 2021 Primary Election is on June 21. Ranked-choice voting will allow voters to select their top five candidates for each position. Greenpointers will feature an interview with every City Council Candidate for District 33. Catch up on our conversations with Lincoln Restler, Ben Solotaire, and Elizabeth Adams.