In a January 26 letter to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, the Brooklyn elected official wrote that he “delivered historic investments” to his district, encompassing Cypress Hills, Bushwick, Brownsville and East New York, over the past six years.
He touted other accomplishments, including building affordable housing and new classrooms, rehabbing and creating green spaces, delivering a workforce center, opening East New York’s first community center, and creating a program to legalize basement apartments for tenants.
Espinal, who was elected to the City Council in 2013, championed green roof and community garden legislation, repealed the city’s Cabaret Law and created the nation’s first Office of Nightlife.
“Twelve years after taking my first job in government and eight years in elected office, I leave with the confidence that I have performed the duties of the office to the best of my ability,” Espinal wrote in the letter.
On Monday, Espinal announced that he has been named as the new executive director of the 500,000-member Freelancers Union. He will assume the position on March 2.
He will be tasked with leading a “50-state strategy to protect the freelance workforce,” including expanding safety net protections for the country’s 57 million independent workers.
The former councilman will also focus on building the union’s membership and expanding its political influence.
“Independent workers are now one-third of the U.S. workforce and have a huge amount at stake in our changing economy,” said Hanan Kolko, chair of the Freelancers Union Board of Directors. “Rafael is the ideal person to expand our reach nationally, build our membership and amplify the voices of freelancers in important policy debates.”
Founded in 1995 by Sara Horowitz, the union’s key achievements include leading a campaign for New York City’s “Freelance Isn’t Free Act,” which gives freelancers protection from nonpayments or late payments. Espinal was a co-sponsor of the legislation in the City Council.
The union has also created a benefits model for freelancers, developed an annual survey for the workforce, and created a Freelancers Hub.
Espinal will serve as the union’s third executive director in 25 years, succeeding Caitlin Pearce.
“Whether it be to supplement their income or gain more flexibility, independent work is the way of the future as more and more people are embracing freelancing,” he said in a statement. “Under my leadership, Freelancers Union will continue to lead the way in building a new system of benefits and protections for independent workers.”
A son of Dominican immigrants and a graduate of Queens College, Espinal served as an adult literacy teacher, chief of staff and an assemblyman for two years before his election to the City Council.
Last week, Espinal dropped out of the race for Brooklyn borough president. He also ran for public advocate last year on his own “Livable City” party line. He placed seventh, collecting 12,929 votes, just north of 3 percent.
When news broke of Espinal’s departure from government, his colleagues wrote notes of gratitude on Twitter.
Councilman Chaim Deutsch wrote that he will miss Espinal, and wished him luck for “great things” ahead.
“His work fighting for Holocaust survivors in New York City is something I will always be grateful for as a son of suvivors,” Deutsch wrote.
Borough President Eric Adams said the borough is a better place because of Espinal’s “energetic leadership.”
“He’s been so thoughtful on so many issues, including his creative thinking to save our environment and our work to grow our future in urban agriculture,” Adams wrote. “I’m excited for his next chapter.”
Councilman Stephen Levin said on Monday that the opportunity Espinal was presented “doesn’t come along that often.”
“I congratulate the Freelancers Union because Rafael is a very dedicated, committed and effective person,” he said.
Levin said he expects the vacated City Council seat to be filled quickly. Mayor Bill de Blasio must call a special election within 80 days.
“When we’ve had instances like this in the past, the speaker’s staff has done a pretty good job of making sure that all the constituent needs are being filled,” Levin said. “Certainly, my office is available to anyone in that neighborhood.”
According to reports, Espinal called himself and dozens of term-limited members of the City Council “lame ducks.”
Asked to respond to those claims at an unrelated event on Monday, Johnson replied, “we are,” but noted that being a lame duck doesn’t mean not getting anything done.
“For me, I’m going to be in the council until my final day,” he said. “I’m excited about that because there’s a lot of work to do regardless of what happens in a future election.”
Johnson, a candidate for mayor in 2021, noted that there are some council members who are looking ahead to the next chapter when their terms come to an end. He said he doesn’t begrudge them for that.
“That’s one of the problems with term limits, honestly,” Johnson added. “It’s a system we have and a system we live with.”