Anyone who has paid attention to a tight political race, especially in a major city like New York, knows beating an incumbent can be an almost insurmountable challenge.
Justin Sanchez learned that lesson the hard way earlier this month when he and two other challengers — Randy Abreu and Felix Perdomo — lost the endorsement of the Benjamin Franklin Reform Democratic Club by a wide margin to incumbent councilman Fernando Cabrera.
But Sanchez, a 25-year-old lifelong resident of the 14th council district, says he thinks he knows how to do it.
“The way that I see it is we have an incumbent who is going to be running a certain kind of race, the establishment race,” he said. “You’re not going to beat an incumbent running that style of race because the incumbent is the incumbent because he won that game.”
Instead, Sanchez said, he wants to run a different style of campaign. One he calls “old-school Bronx politics.”
No, not the Boss Tweed political machine of the 19th century. Instead, Sanchez said he wants to get voters more involved in elections and campaigns.
“A lot of people like to talk about being grassroots, but we are actual grassroots,” Sanchez said. “The only thing that is going to win this race is not endorsements, it’s not money — it’s votes.”
And getting votes is exactly what Sanchez says he does best. While working as a recruitment director for the Working Families party — a national political group that focuses on economic and wage disparity — he was able to attract hundreds of people to work on campaigns and advocate policy.
But while doing that, Sanchez said he kept waiting for someone to rise up against the sitting councilman in his own district, a councilman he felt had not been active enough at listening to community concerns.
“Every day I refreshed the (campaign finance) page to see who would be challenging Fernando Cabrera,” Sanchez said. “At this point I was saving up money for school, I’m planning my schedule around all my community meetings, and my city council member was nowhere to be found.”
Still, it wasn’t until Donald Trump took office Jan. 20, and soon after the White House website page about LGBT rights was removed, that Sanchez — an openly gay man — decided to run for office.
Sanchez said he couldn’t bear having not only someone in the White House who didn’t stand for LGBT rights, but one in city council as well. Sanchez said he got that impression of Cabrera, the current councilman, as a result of a video that surfaced in 2014 where Cabrera is seen apparently praising a law in Uganda that imprisons homosexuals.
“I filed (to run) that day,” Sanchez said. “I didn’t want to let a little Trump be in my own backyard.”
Cabrera maintains those video comments were taken out of context, and that his own voting record supporting LGBT rights should eclipse his own personal opinions. Sanchez, however, said the campaign was more than just those concerns.
“While the LGBT issue means so much to me, the message is focused on … getting people involved in democracy again,” Sanchez said. “We have a fundamental disconnect between the local government and the local community.”