How Chi Ossé Went From Nightlife Promoter to City Council

Photo: Ryan McGinley; Styled by Brandon Tan

“Holy shit, we’re in the lead” tweeted Chi Ossé, candidate for the municipal council of the 36th arrondissement, on the evening of June 22. He was reacting to early returns from the Democratic primary, which showed voters in his Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant band had placed him ahead of four opponents. Days later, it seemed even more likely that the first-time contestant would win. “I’m always like ‘What happened?'” Ossé told Curbed on Friday afternoon. He looked relaxed, dressed in shorts and sneakers, perched on a concrete ledge in a Crown Heights park. “I was confident in our race; I feel like we have worked very hard, ”he said. “But everyone told us we were going to lose. “

The 23-year-old nightlife promoter-turned-organizer of the Black Lives Matter protest has spent the past year walking through Brooklyn and Instagram with a megaphone, beret and clenched fist as his campaign logo. Yet political office is a leap for Ossé, a self-proclaimed queer dropout who lacked the support of the Brooklyn Democratic Party establishment, Workforce unions, or business leaders. They supported his closest opponent in the race, Henry Butler, a retired subway driver and party servicesl Whose platform was built on familiar days before the Democratic Party: unionized jobs, affordable housing, quality health care and more investment in public schools. Like Butler, Ossé prioritized housing, schools and sanitation; unlike his opponent, he promised to cut the NYPD budget and refused real estate donations. And it seems to have worked; after weeks of chaos in the counting of the votes at the top of the poll, Ossé was ahead by 14 points, and Butler conceded July 7.

Since the election, Ossé has invited DJ at a fundraising party for a record store in difficulty in his neighborhood; meet with the oldest democrat in the state, Senator Chuck Schumer; and attended Pyer Moss’ sewing debut at the Hudson Valley Mansion, where black cosmetics entrepreneur Madame CJ Walker hosted Renaissance leaders from Harlem. He also has appears in Spike Lee’s new HBO documentary series, New York Epicenters: 09/11/2021½, to talk about last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. Traveling between these different circles, Ossé seems to project that he is simultaneously a grassroots guy, a black cultural agent and a rising political force. In the absence of a Republican challenger in the general election, he will likely join city council at a historic moment, one that was opened by term limits to a younger, more diverse application areas. More than half of the 51 seats in the legislative body will go to newcomers, including progressives like Ossé.

Photo: Ryan McGinley; Styled by Brandon Tan

Before the pandemic, Ossé organized parties on the roof of Ian Schrager’s PUBLIC hotel and in Paul Sevigny’s very exclusive Baby Grand lounge. In the meantime, he held odd jobs promoting fashion and retail brands. When George Floyd was killed by police in May 2020, “I was filled with anger, sadness and pain, like many blacks and browns in this country, and I took to the streets,” he said. -he declares. Ossé and a group of other protesters formed Warriors in the Garden, a Brooklyn-based collective that organized daily protests against police brutality. Two weeks after the protests started, one of her aunts told her that walking was not enough. “And she came up with the idea, ‘Why don’t you run for office? »», Declared Ossé.

He had never thought of it before. “But it was good then,” he said. He decided that if he wanted to change the city’s funding priorities, like cutting the city police budget, he should be inside.

Ossé’s new friends in the Black Lives Matter movement were ready to help him introduce himself, even though “neither of us had worked on a political campaign before,” he admitted. But it had its own advantages. He was a third generation Brooklynite who had grown up in Crown Heights since the age of 10. And he had been raised in a well-connected household – Ossé’s father was Reggie Ossé, known to many as Combat Jack, a former entertainment lawyer who went on a legal internship at Def Jam Records in a practice representing hip-hop heavyweights such as Jay-Z and Damon Dash. Ossé’s African-American and Chinese mother, Akim Vann, is co-founder of the popular Bakery on Bergen in Prospect Heights; her father was Grammy Award-winning record producer Teddy Vann. Ossé attended Friends Seminary, Manhattan’s elite private high school.

Along with his new militant friends, these are the people who came forward when he started his campaign. Another Friends graduate, Martin Rather, grandson of journalist Dan Rather, has become one of its campaign finance consultants. Longtime family friend Tai Allen brought his experience working on another Brooklynite’s campaign for the State Assembly to his role as senior advisor to Ossé. And in his nightlife circle, he recruited another party host, Brandon Tan, who works for him as a freelance stylist.

But he distances himself from traditional elite circles – “The Friends Seminary is certainly not like a Horace Mann, certainly not like a Dalton,” he said. And as recently as 2017, when his father passed away, a family friend organized a GoFundMe fundraiser with the goal of raising $ 250,000 “to help meet some of the burden his family and four are facing. school-aged children are currently facing “. The reader remained open until July of this year and only raised $ 13,576.

Ossé believes his advantage comes from his cultural connections, his upbringing in a multiracial household, his long history with Crown Heights, and his exposure to the music industry. The campaign workers he rallied from the ranks of Black Lives Matter protesters are similarly culturally appropriate – young people working in mass media, graphics, the arts and education who have come together across the board. anti-racist activism and learned about political campaigning by working on his race. Campaign manager Paul Spring is a 32-year-old musician from Minnesota with no previous political experience who met Ossé at street protests in Brooklyn and was impressed with his leadership character. “We joked that it was like the X-Men, and Chi is definitely our X-teacher,” Spring said.

As a spring and a summer of protests give way to an autumn and a winter of countryside, Ossé plunged into municipal politics and knocked on thousands of doors. He listened to residents talk about everything from affordable rent to pest control. “Let’s talk about rats,” reads a flyer from the Ossé campaign. “We treated him like an incumbent,” Allen said, explaining that the block-level service work Ossé has done, from neighborhood park cleanups to COVID vaccination campaigns, was something he foresaw. to do as a current board member.

Photo: Justin Aharoni

The campaign gained momentum at the start of the year, propelled by a mix of voter outreach, street protest energy and the occasional glamor. Endorsements by Ilana Glazer of Big city and Run the Jewels rapper Killer Mike rounded out the less flashy but important nods of the Working Families Party, controller candidate Brad Lander and, in June, the Courage to Change political action committee founded by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The campaign has not been flawless. Ossé, posing as the diligent learner with the detailed platform, groped a debate question in May on the redevelopment and the role that board members play in the process. He re-raised his opponents but was initially counterpart funds refused. It took almost a week apologize for offensive tweets of his past that surfaced in June.

But his preparation also helped him stand out. “It was so repeated that at first I was a little put off,” said Mark Winston Griffith, executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center who interviewed Ossé for a survey of Working Families Party candidates. But he was quickly impressed by the completeness of the candidate’s knowledge: “He could speak more in depth about the issues than the other candidates. He was more prepared. And he was able to carve out a niche or a progressive voice that others couldn’t. “

Griffith also speculated that Ossé won due to shifting political allegiances in central Brooklyn. In 2020, the same neighborhoods that voted for Ossé sent two political newcomers approved by the Democratic Socialists for America to the state legislature: Senator Jabari Brisport and Assembly Member Phara Suffering Forrest. “So you not only had the rise of the aroused gentrified voter, you also had a fracture from the old regular Democratic electorate,” Griffith said. “The electorate is now younger, whiter, richer in some pockets, and Chi Ossé has taken that position.”

Even without a challenger in November, Ossée said he plans to spend part of the general election season delivering food to the needy and running for more voters. He anticipates that his first tasks as a council member will be to advance two projects in Bed-Stuy that have been blocked: a garage for the city’s sanitation trucks, which would shorten the neighborhood’s wait for pickup. garbage ; and a renovated community recreation center in Herbert Von King Park.

Ossé is aware that many are watching him, wondering what he’s actually going to accomplish. “I would be a fool to think it wouldn’t be hard work, and that’s why I take it very seriously,” he said. But his racing rivals may not yet be ready to take him seriously. As Reverend Robert A. Waterman of the Antioch Baptist Church told Curbed, Ossé should be careful not to succumb to “superstar, no service” syndrome. But listening to Ossé talk about his campaign so far, it’s clear he doesn’t intend to be a mainstream public figure. “It’s all been a party,” he laughed. “The ups and downs. The drunk girl crying in the bathroom. All.”

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