By Nelson A. King
A young Brooklyn lawyer of Caribbean roots has his eyes set on replacing Sen. Jesse Hamilton in the 20th Senatorial District in Brooklyn.
Zellnor Myrie, 31 — whose late grand-parents hailed from San Antonio, Westmoreland, Jamaica, and parents from Costa Rica — tells Caribbean Life, in an exclusive interview, that “our community is at a crossroads, and we need a real Democrat in Albany to fight for us.
“Our immigrants — the lifeblood of this community — are walking around in fear; afraid to go to work, afraid to go to school and afraid to go to the hospital out of fear of deportation,” said Myrie, who was born and raised in Brooklyn after his parents, Marcelina Cummings and Mel Myre, migrated from Costa Rica 40 years ago.
“This is a disgrace, and we have a duty as a community of immigrants to stand up for them,” added Myrie, who was trained at Fordham Law School and has announced his candidacy to replace Hamilton.
“We can pass the Liberty Act, which would give every immigrant facing deportation a lawyer, and the DREAM Act, which would allow children who were born in another country, but who were raised in New York, to get financial aid to go to college,” he continued. “These are common sense protections that have passed in the Assembly every year, but which meet their demise in the Republican-IDC controlled Senate.”
Myrie — who was introduced to the community two Sundays ago at a “Women Celebrating Women” Awards ceremony at Tropical Paradise Ballroom on Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, organized by the Progressive Democrats Political Association (PDPA) by Congresswoman Yvette D. Clarke — said the community is also facing a housing crisis.
“It is the civil rights issue of our generation,” he said. “Homelessness is up; and homeownership is down. Evictions are up; rent-stabilized units down. Buildings are going up; and affordable housing is going down. Tax breaks for developers are up; paychecks for the working class are down. We can’t afford to keep doing business as usual, not in this district.”
He said there are currently more than 50,000 rent-regulated apartments in the 20th Senatorial District, including the apartment that he grew up in.
“As it did for my mother, each of those apartments amounts to a chance for a family to achieve its version of the American dream,” he said. “Each of those apartments is a foundation on which a successful life may be built. It doesn’t take a lawyer — or a scholar — or a study — to see how important this is, both to families struggling to make ends meet, and to the larger community around them.
“Without secure housing, lives are upended; children are moved from school to school; and neighborhoods lose their sense of continuity,” Myrie said. “With rent regulation, people have the chance to thrive.
“It is exactly why I’m calling for a vast expansion of rent-regulation, our greatest source of affordable housing,” he added. “Over the past 40 years, tens of thousands of rent-regulated units have been returned to market because of laws written by the real estate lobby and the politicians they have bought off.
“It’s why I’m not taking a single dollar from real estate special interest groups and why I’m running an aggressive campaign centered on housing,” Myrie assured. “People’s lives are being destroyed by policies like preferential rent, vacancy bonuses and tax breaks that favor big developers over small homeowners.”
He said now is not the time for “lukewarm New York Democrats to be cozying up to wealthy developers, who have a tendency to see right through the needs of the lower classes.
“Nor is it the time to abandon those who would most benefit from our assistance,” he added. “And yet, my opponent has aligned himself with the state’s Republicans, showing us exactly where his sympathies lie.”
Stating schools in the 20th Senatorial District are owed US$36 million dollars from the state, Myrie said he will fight “to get our children what they deserve.
“Our NYCHA (New York City Housing Authority) facilities are in disrepair; I will fight for adequate funding,” he said. “Our public hospitals only get three percent of the funding allocated for the whole state; I will fight to correct this injustice.
“And our families are making the choice between putting food on the table or paying a medical bill; I will fight to pass universal healthcare,” he added. “All of these policies are in the hands of the state senate; a state senate controlled by Republicans and fake Democrats like my opponent who give them the keys of control.
“Enough is enough. Next year, many of our housing laws will be renewed; it is a unique opportunity for us to pass laws that will have a generational impact,” Myrie continued. “We need elected officials coming to that table with clean hands — not one foot in and the other one out.”
He said after his parents moved to Crown Heights 40 years ago, they worked in factories; his father in a sponge factory and his mother in a textile factory.
He said his dad would go on to become a special educations teacher and proud member of UFT for the past 17 years. His mom would go on to own a jewelry shop on Flatbush and Hawthorne.
Myrie said his family moved from Washington and Montgomery to Maple and Flatbush in Brooklyn, when he was five, and that he attended P.S. 161 for elementary and middle school (back when it was the Crown School for Law and Journalism), Brooklyn Tech for high school, then undergraduate and graduate school at Fordham University, where he also earned his Master’s in Urban Studies.
Afterwards, Myrie said he worked as a legislative director in the City Council where, among other bills, he helped draft and pass the Tenant Bill of Rights.
At the Council, he said he also worked on bills to make buildings greener, provide computers for non-profits, increase transparency in the reporting of hate crimes, and reduce the city’s cooperation with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.
After leaving the Council, Myrie said he became chair of his Neighborhood Advisory Board where, through community organizing, he helped secure nearly US$400,000 in federal funding for job training, after school programming and tenant protection.
At Cornell Law School, Myrie said he served as student body president, an editor on the Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy, a constitutional law instructor in prison, and a pro bono scholar – a position that allowed him to take the New York Bar during his last semester in exchange for working full-time at Justice 360, a criminal justice reform organization.
After law school, Myrie said he joined an unidentified prestigious international law firm in Manhattan.
“I still remained committed to public service, however,” he said, disclosing that he provided over 600 hours of pro bono service to immigrants seeking asylum, victims of police brutality and illegal stop-and-frisks, special education students not receiving services from the Department of Education, and victims of domestic violence.
“I also remained committed to my community as a member of the neighborhood advisory board, junior board for the Legal Aid Society, and president of my tenant’s association,” he added.
“The Republicans who control the senate are strong Trump supporters. This is who my opponent has allowed to make the laws for the people of Flatbush and Crown Heights,” Myrie claimed.
“It is unacceptable,” he continued. “I’m a real Democrat who will work with the rest of my Democratic colleagues in Brooklyn — all of whom vote with Democrats — to get our communities what they deserve.”