Elected last fall, 28-year-old City Councilwoman Diana Reyna represents parts of Williamsburg and Bushwick. She is also the first elected Dominican woman in New York City politics. As political junkie, I was itching to meet her. After rescheduling a half a dozen times, we settled on a weekday in the middle of August, which turned out to be the hottest day of the year.
Searching for her office, my vision blurred. The South Williamsburg streets started to look hazy. My great uncle’s voice echoed in my head: only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun. And me, I muttered. When I reached the office, Ms. Reyna’s staff graciously ignored my appearance. The air-conditioned office had the buzz of a new business with a young staff working hard and really hoping it pays off.
Diana Reyna arrived a few minutes later. The heat hadn’t touched her. We settled in for a half hour talk. Her chief of staff joined us and, as all good staffers do, tried to keep the councilwoman on schedule. If the Daily News were running a story on Reyna, the headline might read “Local Girl Makes Good.” Reyna is a product of south Williamsburg, and she didn’t come to politics with money and high-profile family friends. For other young members of the new city council, such as speaker Gifford Miller, a political career follows in the tradition of noblesse oblige. It is hard to imagine that a political future was not discussed at Mr. Miller’s pre-school parent teacher conferences.
In contrast, Diana Reyna came to politics by accident. It wasn’t the obvious first choice for a Dominican girl from Williamsburg. First, Reyna had to convince her parents to let her go away to college in Westchester, which was no easy task. Traditional and protective, Reyna’s family was reluctant to let her go. But they did, and she later returned with a degree and some powerful political connections.
Reyna was studying to be a nurse at PACE University in Pleasantville, NY when she took a college internship in Assemblyman Vito Lopez’s office. She did so, she explains, “really only because it sounded interesting.” Indicative of her fine political instincts, Reyna continued to intern for Assemblyman Lopez’s office, commuting between Williamsburg and her classes until she graduated. After graduation, she became a legislative assistant and later the chief of staff for Lopez. Reyna didn’t leave Lopez’s office until she had been elected in her own right. During her seven years in Assemblyman Lopez’s office, she built her ties to the city’s power structure.
Councilwoman Reyna is indeed well connected. Animated and energetic, she is quick to acknowledge that her connections have been a source of criticism as well as power. Reyna’s ties to Lopez and the Democratic machine in Brooklyn are substantial. She is being groomed for power, with Lopez clearly helping her navigate the political waters. Many of Reyna’s political priorities, including advocating for the loft laws, fall within Lopez’s overarching agenda.
Reyna’s grassroots political strategy also bears the imprint of Lopez. For example, Reyna is active in bringing together groups of constituents to talk about issues important to the district in a format she likens to “mini-town hall meetings,” and it does seem like a great idea. The meetings create a network of residents with common interests and provide a forum for Reyna’s constituents to speak in a unified voice to those in power. Still, the spark for the meetings sometimes seems to come more from Lopez than Reyna herself, as there is considerable logistical coordination between the two offices.
That it is sometimes hard to hear her own distinctive political voice begs the obvious question: Is Diana Reyna her own woman? There is grumbling that she is not, and at this point there’s probably some truth to it. But her critics may misread the political realities that Reyna faces. Reyna’s constituents do not bring to her the automatic clout that comes with Miller’s Upper East Side district, or even with the well-heeled districts of Brooklyn. To be of use to her constituents, Reyna has to build her power base. In the chaos of the new city council, which is brimming with young, ambitious, and newly elected members vying for media attention, seeking cover may be smart politics.
Reyna is young and, despite her tenure as a staffer for Lopez, relatively inexperienced. But she knows it, and so is seeking the mentorship of more experienced and powerful politicos. Mentors are essential in politics, particularly for those not born into the power structure, where influential figures are often casually invited over for holiday dinners. No one makes it in politics without sponsorship. The irony is that true outsiders who make it on their own merit are often accused of being puppets of the machine because they have to visibly gain the power that the members of the political elite are granted behind the scenes.
Reyna wants to bring the resources and political power that exist in New York to Williamsburg and Bushwick. She is “focusing on three key areas: economic development, affordable housing, and youth services.” In terms of strategy, she is “building networks and bridges” to help improve these areas. As an example, Reyna notes that her district falls within a federal Empowerment Zone, which provides money for economic development. Yet, as she points out, little of the money gets spent in the district because local small business owners “do not know how to access the funds.” Many of the business development organizations, which traditionally provide technical assistance to local businesses applying for funding, have collapsed or are struggling for their own survival.
Reyna wants to build connections between her constituents and the city’s power structure and its resources. She seeks to provide the support for the reemergence of community business associations that can act as intermediaries for local business owners and available development funding. The synergy of power, politics, and community interests Reyna. She doesn’t just want to use political channels to funnel resources into her district; she wants to build up the local infrastructure so that “individuals can directly access the resources needed to build strong businesses and families.” Williamsburg businesses and people, Reyna hopes, can then become resources of interest to those in power, creating a reciprocal and mutually beneficial relationship.
Reyna speaks with the optimistic, on-message tone typical of young politicians. When our conversation turned to the low voter turnout in the last election among Latinos in her district, however, Reyna looked distressed. Her voice lowered. She won the election, but she did not convince as many people to vote as she had hoped she would. Reyna had gone door-to-door during the campaign talking to people about her candidacy and the political system. She campaigned to win, and she won. But she also campaigned for the political system and the people she sought to represent. She wants each to recognize the potential of the other. She has not succeeded in that yet, but this is a task beyond any one politician’s control.
As I walked away from Diana Reyna’s office, I looked at the buildings and the streets and saw Reyna’s vision for economic development. I watched people escaping the heat of their apartments for the slightly less oppressive heat of the street and saw them as the constituents Reyna wants to bring into the political process. I hope she succeeds. The political irrelevance of an iconoclast is a luxury that Williamsburg and Bushwick cannot afford. A young, energetic machine politician may be just what the district needs to initiate a local renaissance for all north Brooklyn residents.
Robin Rogers-Dillon, a resident of Greenpoint, is an assistant professor of sociology at Queen's College.