The race for the District 46 New York City Council seat has nine candidates, seven of them Democrats. This crowded field may be best explained by the many challenges facing this working-class Brooklyn neighborhood.
It straddles Jamaica Bay, so it is susceptible to flooding, as its residents found out when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012.
District 46 also has the highest foreclosure rate in the city. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the district’s 11236 zipcode area was a “foreclosure hotspot” in 2019, according to Property Shark, “with 120 first-time foreclosures, accounting for 15% of the borough’s annual volume.”
So the district needs a champion. In response, nurse, businesswoman, mother, and advocate Mercedes Narcisse is stepping forward… again.
She ran for the seat in 2013 but narrowly lost in the primary to Democratic-machine-backed-candidate and Chuck Schumer-protégé Alan Maisel, who got 8,387 votes (59.67%) to her 5,669 (40.33%). But that strong first-time showing encouraged her to try her chances again in the upcoming primary on Jun. 22, 2021. (Maisel ran unopposed in the 2017 primary.)
The winner of that Democratic primary is almost assured of victory in the Nov. 2 ballot because District 46 is 70% registered Democratic voters. The district is also heavily Haitian-American; they make up a large part of the neighborhood’s 86.6% Black population, based on statistics of Canarsie, which covers most of the district.
Although she leads the field in name recognition and campaign fundraising (having raised over $54,000, largely from doctors and nurses), Narcisse nevertheless is again an underdog. She is not the favored candidate of Brooklyn’s Democratic machine, although she does have important endorsements from Nick Perry, the Assemblyman for District 58, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, former Congressman Ed Towns, former Assemblyman Darryl Towns, Democratic State Committeeman Cory Provost, and the powerful union 32BJ/SEIU. The 21 in ’21 Initiative, a nonpartisan, citywide effort formed in 2017 to increase the number of women elected to the New York City Council, has also endorsed her.
But underdog status has defined Narcisse’s life. Born in St. Marc, she never knew her mother and was raised by her grandmother since she was six months old. Her father emigrated to the U.S. when she was only three.
As a teenager who spoke no English, she emigrated to Brooklyn in 1983 and enrolled in Tilden High School, from which she graduated two years later. She then attended New York Institute of Technology (New York Tech), graduating with a degree as a Registered Nurse. But her trials were only beginning.
“I ended up working three jobs,” she told Haïti Liberté. “One to pay the babysitter, one to pay bills, and one to invest in business. Basically, I didn’t sleep. That’s how I ended up with a small business. That’s what most of us from the Caribbean have to do, I guess.”
Although rotating between shifts at Elmhurst Hospital and two nursing agencies, she found the time and resources to raise four children, open a surgical supply store, and buy property in Canarsie, which has been the only home she’s known since coming to the U.S..
Her success from such humble beginnings as well as her ebullient personality are what began to propel her into seeking public office. She became the president of the 41st Assembly District Democratic Club, founded by District 46’s former three-term (2002-2013) councilman , the late Lew Fidler, and a member of the Real Action Democratic Club. She is also a member of the NAACP’s Brooklyn Chapter, Community Board 18, the National Association for the Advancement of Haitian People, the Haitian Nurses Network, the Avenue L Merchants Association (past president), and Canarsie Bridges. She also participates in medical missions and projects in Haiti.
But, in recent years, many residents of Canarsie and East Flatbush know Mercedes from her years as an administrator and mother-hen at two senior care facilities in Brooklyn: Excellent Senior Care and Renaissance Home Care. There, one could observe her entertaining, questioning, chauffeuring, organizing, and cheering up her elderly charges.
“I think she’s prepared herself to be a great councilwoman,” said Nick Perry, the Assemblyman representing the 58th Assembly District
“She’s been good to the community, and they love her,” said Ed Rainer Sainvill, a Haitian political activist who writes a weekly column about Haitian music in Haiti Liberté and worked with Mercedes at Renaissance. “The Democratic Party machine doesn’t like Mercedes because she is too independent, she is not part of the establishment. But in terms of popularitiy, she has more than anybody else.”
Her platform is very progressive and similar to democratic socialist legislators like U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and fellow Brooklyn Haitian-American nurse, Phara Souffrant-Forrest, who last year won the 57th Assembly District seat.
“ICE should not be picking up people,” Narcisse says. “This is a sanctuary city. This country was built by immigrants. We are in a pandemic, and immigrants are often the front-line workers who are delivering our food and providing us healthcare. So these are the very people we’re trying to throw under the bus? No, we need to take care of people and make sure they have the protection they deserve, especially here in New York City. The NYPD should not give access to ICE in our community.”
She not only supports abolishing ICE but also defunding the police. “We need to redirect funding from the police budget to address other issues, like mental illness, which should not be addressed by the police,” she says. “When you call for help with a case of a mental illness, it should be a different number. A trained person should address a situation like that, not police officers. That can antagonize the person in crisis.”
Narcisse also feels that “we should not have police officers in our school buildings. We should have trained support for our children. I’m pushing for mental health for all, including pre-K and kindergarten. Especially during this pandemic, we have to make sure we’re creating a support system in our school buildings, not police officers.”
Since George Floyd’s killing last May, she has been at many demonstrations. “I’ve been marching for Black Lives Matter because I’m the mother of three Black men in America,” she said. “And it’s not only that. In my community, I want to see justice. We need to eradicate the system we have and come up with a better plan. Police should only be addressing crime.”
She agrees with closing Rikers Island prison and relocating jails in the five boroughs but “I’m not for putting people in jail. We need to treat people who get in trouble. For a lot of those folks, the underlying cause is mental illness.” She also wants to see support and services for people getting out of jail. “What kind of society are we creating where we have a pipeline to jail? We have to provide the services to make sure we don’t have a revolving door. In other countries, they have systems where former prisoners can be productive members of society. Here in America, we do it wrong. We need to reassess.”
Narcisse supports Medicare for all. “I think healthcare should be a right for everybody, just like school,” she says. “We have to reimagine how we do things.”
She wants to establish mobile health units and clinics in underserved communities, and preventive care. “Hospitals are underfunded, people have to wait for diagnostic tests, and we must address food insecurity.”
Narcisse calls for a moratorium not just on rent, but on mortgages where necessary. “We are 60% homeowners in our district, yet we have the highest rate of foreclosures in the city,” she says. “We don’t want people to lose their homes.”
As for renters, “one of my legislative initiatives would be on the signing of any lease and before any eviction, the landlord would provide tenants the right to legal counsel, especially in those big buildings, where they like to push people out,” she continued.
There currently is a $25,000 yearly income cap on the program that provides free legal counseling to tenants threatened with eviction. “That threshold should be raised to $50,000 for a single person, and $115,000 for a couple,” she says. “And the landlord should pay.”
Regarding homelessness, Narcisse says it exists in Canarsie, “but its different. In the Caribbean community, we put our friends and family on the floor or on the couch in our living room.” Among other things, she wants to see the AMI (average median income) criteria for eligibility to get affordable housing adjusted to match the incomes of the 46th District’s mostly working-class residents.
“They can’t be applying an AMI which is used for downtown Brooklyn or Manhattan,” she said. “That’s why we see empty apartments, which is unacceptable.”
Finally, she has turned down money from real-estate developers, raising her war chest instead from the community she knows: doctors, nurses, and small individual donors. “I cannot take money from people who want to control me,” she says. “I’m running independently with the people.”
“I think she’s prepared herself to be a great councilwoman,” said Nick Perry, the Assemblyman representing the 58th Assembly District, which partially overlaps the 46th City Council District. He has endorsed Narcisse’s candidacy. “She knows the community, she understands what’s needed from a representative who would sit on the city council on their behalf, and, of the bunch of folks running for this position, I think she’s the most qualified.”
Mercedes Narcisse perhaps best sums up her own candidacy. “I’m not a politician. I’m a servant. I want to bring legislation that makes sense and that benefits the underserved. It’s all about serving the people and fighting for justice.”