The Low-Key Matriarch Cultivating Brooklyn’s Progressive Movement

Twenty-six years before Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez toppled incumbent Joe Crowley in a stunning primary defeat that propelled her to Congress and the national stage, there was Nydia Velázquez, a street-smart transplant from Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, in her late thirties and determined to climb the rungs of New York City political power to better her community.

She ran against a nine-term incumbent in a district recently redrawn to enable more Latino representation in Congress. After a bruising campaign in which the New York Post published details of her attempted suicide, Velazquez won by a slim margin and became the first Puerto Rican woman to serve in the U.S. Congress.

“My election, as you can see, enriched the institution of Congress,” she said at a press conference with newly elected House Democrats in 1992. “My election is a clear mandate for change, for action.”

Now, 30 years later, her actions are bearing fruit. Velázquez has cultivated an extensive network, providing guidance and mentorship to a flock of progressive lawmakers who are challenging the establishment.

“I always think about my legacy,” Velázquez told Gothamist/WNYC after a recent press conference in City Hall Park. “I want to feel that in some way I paved the way to bring along young, progressive public servants who will be dedicated to bring about transformative changes for the people that we represent.”

Nydia Velazquez in 1992 shortly after she was elected to Congress.

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In this most recent election cycle, the 68-year-old congresswoman went to bat early for a slate of a dozen local candidates, 10 of whom won their races. She said it was the culmination of years of work building a new on-ramp into local politics, one that circumvents the old-school party boss system.

Velázquez supported five new progressive candidates, all of whom won their races for city council: Lincoln Restler, Alexa Avilés, Sandy Nurse, Shekar Krishnan, and Jennifer Gutiérrez. She made calls throughout her network on behalf of mayoral candidate Maya Wiley whom she supported early, before progressive groups lined up behind Wiley. And she hit the campaign trail with gusto, including with Council Member Brad Lander when he was campaigning for city comptroller in her district.

“She is relentless. I was struggling to keep up,” said Lander, describing an afternoon where he and Velázquez spoke to hundreds of voters in Sunset Park. “Every single voter she was like I am going to win them over for you.”

Velázquez’s careful cultivation of relationships with younger lawmakers did not begin this election cycle. She was an early supporter of young progressives entering the state legislature and embraced the most left-leaning flank of the Democratic party by co-endorsing candidates supported by the Democratic Socialists of America.

When Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou ran in 2016 for Sheldon Silver’s Lower Manhattan seat, she faced racist anti-Asian attacks—mailers that said she was backed by “Chinatown Crooks” and constituents telling her her parents should “go back” where they came from. Niou said Velázquez would call to make sure she was okay.

“She’s 100% paved this whole different path that made it possible for so many other women, for so many other people of color, to have a different thought of what’s possible,” Niou said. “I don’t know if she’s building a machine per se but she’s mentoring a lot of young women, especially young women of color.”

Velázquez’s willingness to support younger elected officials could keep her more relevant as her district, which spans parts of Lower Manhattan, a swath of Brooklyn from Greenpoint to Sunset Park, and an itsy bit of Queens, undergoes dramatic demographic shifts, according to Eli Valentin, a political analyst and professor at Union Theological Seminary. It could also help stave off a challenge from the progressive left.

“She does understand that the shift has taken place,” Valentin said. “Part of her political survival depends on how she will navigate that.”

For decades Velázquez challenged, and was challenged by, North Brooklyn’s political power structure. Brooklyn’s late democratic party boss Vito Lopez supported several primary challengers against her while she backed his opponents, such as Antonio Reynoso, who ran against Lopez himself in 2013. (Lopez had resigned in disgrace from the state assembly and was trying to make a political comeback in the city council.)

“She was the first one that supported me and gave me instant legitimacy and allowed me to run my race against Vito,” recalled Council Member Reynoso, who just won the Democratic nomination for Brooklyn Borough President. He dismissed the idea that Velázquez was building a new political machine, saying she had a different approach.

“She wanted to find the stars, her job was like, ‘Are there people who are shining, not because they’re helping me, but because they’re helping the community?’” Reynoso said.

In 2008 she threw her weight behind the New Kings Democrats, a group founded as an alternative to the Democratic Party in Brooklyn. Lincoln Restler, one of the group’s co-founders, said he first met the congresswoman in 2009 in a public library basement at a book discussion with the author of “Bargaining for Brooklyn,” which chronicled Lopez’s influence. Velázquez waltzed in, asked questions, and then regaled the crowd with her own tales of butting up against Lopez machine, Reslter recalled.

“It was a lonely existence in politics for Nydia Velázquez in Brooklyn for many, many years,” Restler said, who just won his race for Steve Levin’s city council seat with Velázquez’s backing. “Vito controlled North Brooklyn with an iron fist and demanded total loyalty from every assemblymember, and councilmember, and state senator across our neighborhoods and Congresswoman Velázquez was the only one who said, ‘Hell No.’”

Nydia Velazquez after a press conference in City Hall Park on July 15, 2021.

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Nowadays Velázquez is much less lonely, with allies she’s fostered at every level of New York government. Asked if she’s Brooklyn’s new progressive boss, Velázquez chuckled.

“I am not a boss, I do not intend to dictate,” she said, adding, she feels a sense of hope at the new generation of leaders rising through the ranks. “They don’t see elected office as an end but as a means to transform budget priorities in our state and our city.”

And, she said, they see her.

“For me to take on a machine or Vito Lopez, it tells them that when they see something that they don’t like they have every right to question,” she said. “This is what makes democracy work.”