NEW YORK — For Brittany Ramos DeBarros, an Afro-Latina combat veteran and activist, running for Congress as a Democrat in the historically conservative borough of Staten Island serves as the kind of challenge that puts her life’s work into action.
“I learned in the military and so many different contexts of leadership what it means to really lead with heart and in a way that is about serving people and not about you or your ego,” DeBarros told Yahoo News in a video interview last week.
The Texas native who has worked with the Poor People’s Campaign and About Face: Veterans Against the War is running to represent New York’s 11th Congressional District, which includes all of Staten Island and parts of southern Brooklyn.
DeBarros, whose mother is white and father is Black Puerto Rican, adds that she hopes people in the district “see something of themselves in me, and more importantly, in this campaign.”
The 32-year-old is looking to do what many see as nearly impossible: unseat freshman GOP Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, who has made waves after two months in office by voting against then-President Donald Trump’s second impeachment, spewing unfounded challenges to the November election results and continuing to show unabashed allegiance to the former president. Malliotakis, who has yet to announce if she is running again in 2022, is a staunch conservative who was endorsed by Trump during her run in 2020. She then voted to overturn the presidential election results over unfounded accusations of election fraud.
Yet in comparison to his standing in the neighboring liberal hubs of Brooklyn and Manhattan, Trump is wildly popular on the 58-square-mile island known to many as the “forgotten borough.” In November, Trump received 57 percent of the vote on Staten Island, garnering more than 120,000 votes, a 33 percent increase in the votes he received in 2016.
Following this trend, Malliotakis last year beat out incumbent Max Rose, who positioned himself as a conservative Democrat. She got 56 percent of the vote, beating Rose by nearly 18,000 votes. Malliotakis has found a footing among conservative Staten Island voters where others have faltered. Now, she’s the only Republican elected to Congress to represent New York City.
Malliotakis did not respond to Yahoo News’ request for comment.
But DeBarros believes she can overcome the numbers by not trying to flip Republicans, but instead by speaking to the intrinsic values that voters have.
“Our strategy is about loving and organizing and energizing tens and hundreds of thousands of voters — working-class, voters of color and people who have been forgotten and left behind by the system — to have something to be excited about,” DeBarros said. “People are just waiting to be energized by a candidate who really speaks to them.”
Staten Island boasts a diverse demographic makeup: 60 percent white, 18 percent Latino and 9 percent Black and Asian communities. There are also more registered Democrats than Republicans in the borough, but voters have shown a propensity to vote off party lines. Only four Democrats have won the borough in presidential races since 1936.
It’s part of the reason that Staten Island politics are so complex. And later this year, things will get more complicated. Following the 2020 census, the districts will be redrawn, which means District 11 is likely to extend more into Brooklyn or lower Manhattan, which would include more liberal voters, boding well for DeBarros.
Still, for a borough that largely ignored mask mandates during the height of the COVID-19 spread, rallied for and against the Black Lives Matter movement and has picked Trump outright for the past two presidential races, a political newcomer with progressive policies like DeBarros will be forced to overcome stiff adversity.
“This entire system was built to make people like me feel like we’re not enough, like we don’t deserve to lead or like we don’t deserve power,” she said, admitting that there may be procedural details she has to learn. “But what I also know is that those are things that you can learn and be taught. What you can’t learn is what it feels like to struggle.”
DeBarros grew up in a conservative military family in Texas. Her parents were hardworking, often juggling multiple jobs to make ends meet. They almost lost their home several times during DeBarros’s childhood, and church friends had to help them buy groceries. But this only made the family tighter and even more patriotic. DeBarros’s parents instilled a deep sense of service and justice in her at a young age.
“I knew that I wanted to fight for people and to be of service in whatever ways that I could,” she said. “I really believed in the values that I was taught that America is supposed to be about, and my parents did too.”
DeBarros joined the Army to help pay for college, and in 2011 graduated and was commissioned as an officer, eventually becoming platoon leader in charge of 40 soldiers while stationed in Afghanistan.
But her time at war was less than ideal.
“I spent a lot of time getting to know Afghan people, and I could see that we were doing a lot more harm than good,” DeBarros said. “So I came home very confused.”
DeBarros settled in Staten Island, the only place as an adult she has called home, and now wants to continue the fight for those she says have been “forgotten.” The redistricting of the 11th District is a positive sign for DeBarros, but Rose’s former campaign manager, Kevin Elkins, says “there are no sure bets.”
Staten Island “is where conventional wisdom goes to die,” Elkins told Yahoo News. “It’s a centrist-right region, but it’s a Trump district. … It’s a very difficult area for a Democrat to win and even more difficult for a Democrat to keep.”
Elkins added that Rose, who now serves as senior coronavirus adviser to the secretary of defense for the Biden administration, was able to win because he “appealed to everybody” and “he ran on who he was, taking on both parties.”
But standing for what he believed in ultimately lost him reelection. “In 2020, impeachment was the original sin and he knew it could cost him, but he felt it was the right thing to do,” Elkins said.
And then Malliotakis used Rose’s decision to march for Black Lives Matter as a tool to bludgeon him with. “She was able to demagogue someone for doing the right thing,” Elkins said. Rose still hasn’t announced whether he’s running again in 2022 or not.
Assemblyman Charles Fall, who became the first Black and Muslim candidate elected to the state Legislature from Staten Island in 2019, echoed Elkins’s sentiments in understanding the complexities of the borough’s constituency.
“I feel like Max lost his race because the march was mischaracterized,” Fall said, noting the Black Lives Matter march in June 2020 on Staten Island was organized in conjunction with the NYPD. “It was not an anti-police march,” he said, but Malliotakis characterized it as such and the voters clung to this.
Fall, who was born and raised on Staten Island, added that for a Democrat to win in the 11th District, “it comes back to hard work and hitting those doors.”
“People are looking for someone to deliver for them,” he said.
Ultimately DeBarros hopes to build the kind of momentum in Staten Island she has yet to experience elsewhere.
“I know firsthand how difficult it is to have the space to just really dream and say what’s possible,” she said. “But I think that this campaign is about building momentum around saying that this isn’t about being anti anything. This is about us coming together and saying, ‘What do we want for our communities?’”