A Local Loss

Christopher Marte’s campaign for City Council didn’t win, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t successful.

Photo by Izzie Ramirez

Christopher Marte’s campaign for City Council District 1, which includes NYU’s “campus,” ended in an ornately decorated red dining room at Jing Fong restaurant in Chinatown. The rich colors, hot food, and cups of merlot directly contrasted the rainy cold weather outside. Many of Marte’s supporters and campaign volunteers appeared distraught as he took the stage to give his concession speech. Several people, still damp from spending the day outside canvassing, cried.

Marte’s campaign against incumbent Democrat Margaret Chin was one of the only competitive council races in all of New York City. Most incumbent candidates won their elections by upwards of 80 percent, or ran unchallenged.

Photos via the author

Marte first caught the attention of those outside of the District 1 when he nearly beat Chin in the September 12 Democratic primary; he lost by only 222 votes. Determined, and supported by a community with a lot on the line, Marte ran on the Independence Party line, though Marte still firmly identifies as a Democrat.

Photos via the author

“Chris is the true Democratic candidate,” said Sam Haass, a political strategist hired to consult on the Marte campaign. It was a sentiment that was repeated throughout the night, as it became clear that Marte’s seemingly miraculous campaign would not win the day.

“People are so invested because they saw this race between two democrats, and they saw how tangible the effects of local government can be,” Haass added.

Questions of Democratic qualifications aside, there’s no doubt that Marte’s campaign forced Chin to improve her own. As an incumbent Democratic candidate in a city where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans 6 to 1, she had no reason to run a large or extensive campaign.

That is, until Marte showed up on the scene.

Marte’s campaign was supported by community members who were opposed to waterfront construction in Lower Manhattan. Many residents felt the construction could present huge environmental concerns for the community. Chin has faced criticism throughout her tenure over numerous controversial developments that have popped up in the district on her watch.

In January 2017, a community meeting to discuss the development of the project was disrupted by activists and organizing groups, pleading with city government officials to delay any further action on the project until more community feedback was available.

This wasn’t the only area where Marte’s campaign gained momentum. A fight to save the Elizabeth Street Garden, a popular spot in the community, has hung over Chin’s head throughout the campaign. Chin supported redevelopment of the garden’s land with senior affordable housing. Marte sided with community activists in wanting to save the garden.

But Marte’s campaign faced plenty of critique, especially from Democratic party members.

Aries Dela Cruz, a board member for West Harlem Democrats and the President of Filipino American Democrats, was vocal on social media about how harmful he thought Marte’s campaign was. Dela Cruz did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Dela Cruz pointed out that Marte’s campaign required allocation of more money and resources on Chin’s reelection campaign, which hurt Democrats across the city.

There’s no evidence that this is actually true. New York City’s Democratic candidates won in nearly every race, and Marte’s campaign seemed to bring Margaret Chin back to accountability to her constituents.

Social media detractors weren’t the only challenges facing Marte’s campaign. On November 7, a City and State article posited that the Marte campaign headquarters were possibly violating campaign financing rules. Multiple members of the Marte campaign believed it had little to no affect on the results of the election.

But with numerous council members and candidates having questionable relationships with developers, why was Chin in particular so vulnerable?

It wasn’t just popular opinion about a garden and questioning developers’ motives that put a 28-year-old resident of the Lower East Side in the position of unseating an incumbent.

It was countless hours on the ground, out in the community, forging connections with residents.

“We worked really hard,” said Caitlin Kelmar, the campaign manager for Marte’s campaign. Kelmar graduated from NYU in May, and started on the campaign while she was a student. Prior to running Marte’s bid for office, she had only interned for one other campaign. She and Marte met in the NYU Library. “I know that’s so cheesy to say, but we worked really really hard.”

Marte echoed the sentiment, highlighting the legwork that goes into a grassroots campaign.

“Walking 20 to 25 miles a day, losing over 40 pounds, you learn a lot,” said Marte, his eyes as red as the walls around him from tears shed earlier. “You try to figure out what’s right, what’s wrong. You know, how can you improve the lives of people that live a few blocks away from each other?”

While conceding, Marte didn’t give up on the larger fight for his community. “This is the beginning to create something beautiful,” he said, choking up as he looked out over a room full of people who shared his vision for District 1.

Chin ultimately won 11,468 votes, 49.8 percent of the vote, while Marte won 8,502, registering 36.92 percent of the electorate. Two other candidates rounded out the vote: Republican Bryan Jung got 8.75 percent and Liberal Aaron Foldenauer won 4.4 percent.

“It’s not fair,” said Steven Wong, a supporter of Marte’s campaign, expressing his discontent with Margaret Chin and her last eight years of governance. Wong hasn’t lost faith in Marte, despite the loss.

“You are not finished. We support you, everyone in this room supports you. You are at the beginning,” Wong said, addressing Marte directly.