The Bronx has long been a hotbed for political tensions, and this last year was no different. The New York City borough got slammed by coronavirus, and it still has the highest positive testing rate in the city. While wealth flushes into Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, the predominantly Latinx and Black Bronx is still fighting to stave off the forces of encroaching gentrification during a housing crisis while trying to preserve its longstanding communities. And despite the borough being home to several tourist spots like Yankee Stadium and the Bronx Botanical Gardens, very little of that money makes it back into community coffers: Poverty rates in the Bronx are double that for New York State as a whole. All of this, of course, informs the borough’s politics. And now the Bronx is the site of a particularly heavily contested city council race — and if Elisa Crespo wins, it might be a groundbreaking one, too.
New York City has four special elections in 2021, including the one for city council in District 15 in the Bronx, where Crespo is running. These elections are complicated: Whoever wins the special election on March 23 (early voting begins March 13) will begin serving immediately. But to retain the seat beyond this year and serve a full four-year term beginning in 2022, that person will have to win again in the June primary and then once more in the November general.
Crespo, a 30-year-old native New Yorker who’s lived in the Bronx for the past 10 years, is facing off against nine other candidates next month, but she's optimistic about her chances. “It’s a real unique opportunity for a new generation of bold progressive leaders to rise up and to create real systemic change in the city of New York,” Crespo tells Mic.
Crespo launched her campaign last February, after then-councilmember Ritchie Torres announced he’d be running for the U.S. House. (Torres won his race in November and is now a congressman.) She grew up across all but one of New York City’s boroughs — she never made it to Staten Island, she says — and experienced firsthand what it’s like to rely on the city infrastructure she’s running now to change. “We lived in public housing, I went to public schools, I rode on public transportation,” she says. “I'm a product of the very same institutions that need to be reformed and improved.”
“My story, despite how it may be unconventional to some folks, is actually quite common, echoed in the stories of a lot of people in the Bronx.”
The parts of Crespo’s story that make her a representative of her community are the same ones that make her campaign groundbreaking: Crespo would be both the first out trans person to serve on the New York City Council as well as the first city councilmember to identify openly as a former sex worker.
“My story, despite how it may be unconventional to some folks, is actually quite common, echoed in the stories of a lot of people in the Bronx,” Crespo notes. The Bronx has the highest poverty rate of all five boroughs, with a nearly 10-point differential between it and the next-highest borough, Brooklyn. And as of 2019, it also had the third-highest population of public housing tenants in the city, despite being the second-smallest borough. Across New York City, meanwhile, sex workers — particularly Black and brown trans sex workers — have struggled to survive the pandemic, lacking a social safety net because their existence is criminalized.
Crespo’s campaign has netted big-ticket endorsements from across the city, including current state Sen. Julia Salazar, former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the LGBTQ Victory Fund, and the New York Black Lives Caucus, among several others. Another of those endorsements came from a younger group, but one associated with big political power: the Bronx chapter of the Sunrise Movement, the coalition of young activists urging action on climate change.
The group gave Crespo their first organizational endorsement. It wasn’t an obviously “green” policy that caught their attention, though; it was her focus on the Bronx’s unemployment rate. “There's a real lack of meaningful, family-sustaining work opportunities. It's a district where a third of the people have less than a high school education. Certain communities have a 25% unemployment rate,” Crespo tells Mic. “The core theme of our campaign is about jobs and justice.”
In November, Crespo summarized her jobs plan in an op-ed in the Gotham Gazette, tracing its roots back to FDR’s New Deal. She explained her support for a jobs guarantee for all New Yorkers, which would begin with a part-time apprenticeship program that pays no less than $18 an hour and include a pipeline to full-time employment. Crespo specifically wants the program to focus initially on historically underserved communities. To pay for it, she suggests cutting into the budget for constructing new jails across the city — an intense source of controversy for abolitionist and criminal justice reform advocates — and “taxing the ultra-rich.”
“Having someone with the will to risk ... that political capital to promote a policy proposal like that, is just wild,” says Michael Villanova, a student at the City University of New York’s Hunter College and a co-founder of the Sunrise BX chapter. It’s a gutsiness that he thinks is much needed. And even though Crespo “said very earnestly, ‘Climate isn't my thing,’ meaning that she doesn't know about the specifics, like, nuclear or solar,” Villanova says, her collaborative approach was enough to win over Sunrise BX. Crespo does list a few environmental policy proposals on her website, including a proposal to amend zoning laws to create space for urban gardens and a multi-step plan for a "Green Bronx."
It makes sense that Crespo is particularly activist-friendly. Her first political gigs in New York City came via internships with state officials, and then she served as the education liaison for Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr. But all the while, she was paying attention to what was happening on the ground. “I saw the power of organizing, and I started to look around myself and say, ‘Gee, I'm smarter than these folks. I do this work,’” she says, describing her pivot from political aide to grassroots politician.
With a campaign as unique as Crespo’s, it perhaps isn’t a surprise that transphobic and anti-sex worker rhetoric has made its way into the race. A widely-publicized article about Crespo’s campaign drew outrage due to its sensationalizing focus on Crespo’s identities and experiences rather than on her platform. Torres, the former holder of the District 15 seat, wrote on Twitter, “I speak from first-hand experience: The voters of the Bronx won’t be swayed by appeals to bigotry. ... Word of advice: Transphobia is not only bad morals. It’s bad politics.” Torres was the first openly LGBTQ+ elected official in the Bronx.
For her part, Crespo wasn’t surprised by the hit. “It's always going to be challenging when you're an unconventional candidate, when your story hasn't really been told in this way,” she says. “Politics has never been an arena where trans people of color have been welcomed or have felt comfortable joining the process. ... The world has just recently come around to trans people — very recently — and we still have a very long way to go.”
“We're not here to make history. We're here to fight for working people and improve people's quality of life.”
For Crespo, commentary around her past experiences, including her time as a sex worker, just shows how disconnected “establishment” politics (in her words) is from the lived realities of her community. “We are moving towards a place where people are now understanding that sex work is work. We're not quite there yet,” Crespo says. “We've used this as an opportunity to call attention to and shed light on what the real scandal is, which is that in one of the richest cities in one of the richest countries in the world, trans people still have to resort to survival sex work to take care of themselves to put food on the table and take care of their families.”
Crespo notes again that it’s an issue of employment justice. “There are not enough job opportunities for trans people,” she says.
Fittingly, given her focus on economic justice, Crespo was inspired to get into politics by Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign. “Originally, I wanted to work for policymakers behind the scenes,” she says, but that year’s election of Donald Trump spurred her into a candidacy of her own. “Very few people know the trauma and the pain of what it was like to be a trans person in America during the Trump presidency,” she explains. “It can be very difficult to live in a country where you feel like your leader doesn't believe that you have the right to be who you are, that you have the right to exist, and that you have the right to equal access to health care or shelter or to serve your country.”
That said, Crespo explicitly doesn’t see herself as “the trans candidate” or “the sex worker candidate.” Her instinct, in fact, is to decenter herself as much as possible in service of the issues she cares about. “Our campaign is changing the narrative of what people think is possible in politics. No one ever thought that someone like me could be doing what I'm doing right now,” she says. “But we're not here to make history. We're here to fight for working people and improve people's quality of life. And if we make history while doing that, then that's cool, too.”