From musician-activist to lawmaker: What it's really like to be an NYC councilman

Councilman Justin Brannan.
Photo by Sam Becker

Justin Brannan will be the first to tell you that the life of a city councilman in New York City isn't glamorous — and neither is his windowless office across the street from City Hall in Manhattan. "I only come here if I have to," he says. "I'd rather be in the district."

Brannan, a 41-year-old first-term city councilman from Bay Ridge, represents New York City's 43rd district, comprising the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst, Bath Beach, and Dyker Heights. Like all other New York City council members, he now earns an annual salary of $148,500 for trying to solve problems for his constituents.

His professional life could hardly be more different than it was in his 20s and early 30s, when he focused on playing music, touring the world, championing for issues he cared about and working several jobs throughout New York City to be able to make rent.

From the touring van to City Hall

Growing up, Brannan says, he never saw himself as a politician. In fact, he spent much of his youth taking aim at authority as an activist and musician.

As a high school student in the '90s, Brannan started a hardcore punk band with some older friends, and began playing shows and hanging out at music venues and other places around New York City. During this time, he says, that he became involved in AIDS awareness campaigns, as well as social justice and animal rights activism.

Before running for office, Brannan was most well-known for being a member of two hardcore bands, Indecision (which he started in high school) and, later, Most Precious Blood.

While Brannan's time as a musician gave him a chance to tour all over the world and experience different cultures, it wasn't lucrative. He was mostly concerned with how he was going to pay the next months' rent — and his tuition — as he worked toward an undergraduate degree in journalism at Fordham University.

Justin Brannan.
Courtesy Office of Councilman Justin Brannan

After graduating, he continued to play music while working a variety of low-wage jobs in his 20s and 30s including stints on Wall Street working in the mail room at Bear Stearns and later, as an announcer with a local radio station in New York.

He eventually found a job that allowed him to earn some more money while also allowing him to tap into his activist roots: Brannan ended up working for his local city councilman, Vincent Gentile, as his director of communications and legislative affairs. When Gentile decided to retire in 2017, Brannan made the decision to run for his seat — and he narrowly won.

'I'm actually going to try to get some of this stuff done'

As a city councilman, Brannan represents more than 160,000 people. "More people than Mayor Pete represents!" he says. Perhaps more importantly, his new job gives him the ability to try and take aim at some of the societal issues that he's cared about since he was a broke activist and musician.

"The things that were important to me at 17," like social justice and animal rights issues, "those things are still important to me," Brannan says. "Now I have a chance to actually write laws — I'm actually going to try to get some of this stuff done."

Justin Brannan.
Courtesy Office of Councilman Justin Brannan

And he has been able to get things done already. One of his most successful legislative projects so far is the creation of the city's Office of Animal Welfare. The Office will effectively bring all of the city's animal-related services under one authority. Previously, issues related to feral cats or lost dogs would be taken care of by one agency, Brannan says, and another might deal with problems related to the mistreatment of carriage horses.

Brannan wanted to develop and codify a new authority that acts as "an agency that has a bit of heart" to handle those issues. Mayor Bill de Blasio's office was supportive and signed the bill creating the Office of Animal Welfare in November. It's expected to begin operations sometime in 2020.

There's a lot of work to do to further the goals of animal welfare advocates, but Brannan says he is making a difference where and when he can, with the tools that he has at his disposal as a city councilman. The establishing of the Office of Animal Welfare is hopefully just a first step, and he hopes that other local politicians can use his legislation as a blueprint to pass laws where the federal government is coming up short.

Politicians can get things done, Brannan says: "You just have to be the squeakiest wheel."

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