QUEENS — The New York Assembly member representing part of Queens has been in office for less than a year, but she’s spent more than half her life in politics.
Ari Espinal is only 30 now, so that’s saying something. She worked for Francisco Moya and won his seat in an April special election when Moya assumed a spot on the City Council.
“I’ve been involved because I want to make the lives of my neighbors better,” she said. “I want to better Corona. I want to better Elmhurst. I want to better Jackson Heights.”
She considers herself a Queens woman through and through, but it’s her relationship with a Brooklyn man Espinal feels best describes what she’s like as a community leader. While working as Moya’s director of constituent services, Espinal helped Patricia Caming, a woman who worked in the building, fill out a form. Caming passed away from cancer shortly after that, leaving behind an adult son with developmental disabilities.
Espinal is now Clayton Caming’s legal guardian. He turns 51 on Saturday.
“He’s someone who’s entered my heart in a good way,” she said. “He’s part of my family now.”
Espinal is a first-generation U.S. resident. Her parents came here from the Dominican Republic and she’s spent her life in Corona. She often doesn’t need to introduce herself to potential voters because of that.
“Most of them already know me in the streets because I was born and raised in this neighborhood,” Espinal said. “I know the issues because those are the same issues that come from my home, from my family.”
She can’t list three top issues she’s working on because there are four main area’s she’s focused on in the district. Espinal has spent her time in office focused on immigration rights, workers’ rights, housing and overcrowded schools. She’ll continue to work on those areas if re-elected on on Nov. 6.
“I represent two of the most overcrowded school districts in Queens,” she said, noting that some students spend their days learning in trailers. “How do you teach with 36 children in one classroom?”
Espinal will face off against Catalina Cruz and Yonel Letellier Sosa in the September primary. She’s confident in her chances against them. Espinal said she knocks on doors and meets voters at subway stops everyday.
“I’m not introducing myself to the community, I’m just remind them about the election,” she said. “No one out here is outworking me.”
Her day-to-day work as an assembly member has included hosting several “Know Your Rights” forums for her immigrant constituents. She also worked with Moya to push for the DREAM Act seven years ago.
“I have a slew of minorities living here and we need to focus on their rights,” Espinal said.
Almost half the population is foreign born in District 39, which means the relationship of many of her constituents to politics is very uncomfortable on a national level given President Donald Trump’s focus on immigration.
“Everyone has a bad case of politics syndrome right now and I think we can change that at a local level,” she said.
Part of that is her focus on relationships with community members. There’s nothing she loves more than being from the neighborhood and she wants the people she meets each day to know it.
“I love this community and I don’t think I’m ever leaving it,” Espinal said. “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life, be a public servant.”