Elisa Crespo’s first memory of politics is being asked whom she was going to vote for in the 2000 election.
She was just shy of 10 years old.
“I obviously couldn’t vote, and I didn’t really know anything about the candidates,” she said. “I knew what a bush was, so I said ‘Bush,’” Crespo said as she laughed, reflecting on the impossibility of supporting a conservative candidate today.
In the 20 years since, Crespo’s life experience has shaped her into one of the most progressive candidates in the New York City Council election March 23.
Crespo is running for District 15’s seat vacated by Ritchie Torres upon his election to Congress in November. Torres made history by becoming the first Afro Latino gay man elected to Congress. If elected herself, Crespo would become the first transgender woman of color to be elected to the New York City Council.
But Crespo, 30, is not interested in making history because of her gender identity.
“So many folks want to paint me as a trans candidate because of the historic nature of it,” she said. “This campaign is not just about all of the fixation on identity, but it’s actually about improving people’s quality of life and breaking down those barriers.”
‘A new generation of political leaders’
Born in New York City and raised primarily by her mother, Crespo said she became independent early. “I kind of had to deal with my own trauma and difficulties on my own,” Crespo said. “That really taught me how to survive and deal with difficult situations.”
“When I was a child, I knew I felt different, and that there was something about my life that I couldn’t figure out,” she said. “It wasn’t until I saw other trans people that it sort of clicked for me.” Crespo transitioned at 15.
At 26, Crespo discovered politics as an undergraduate at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where she majored in political science and became a student activist.
“What really got me more into politics was going back to school as an adult and finishing my college education,” Crespo said. “It was there I really understood that I wanted to be part of making change.”
As a university student, Crespo was inspired by her classes and by politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
For Crespo, the 2016 presidential campaign pitted Donald Trump’s “white nationalism and xenophobia” against Sanders’ commitment to addressing the issues that mattered to young people like herself.
“It was the first time I’d ever heard someone talk about these things on a national stage, about what the problems really are in our country,” she said. “It made me feel my lived experience, my narrative, my background, was something I could bring to the table to make change.”
After graduation, Crespo landed a job as education liaison at the Bronx Borough president's office, where her work focused on advocating for the families of special education students. She said she “gained a lot of insight there about what was working and not working for Bronx students.”
In February 2020, she decided to run for office herself.
“I’d never run for office before,” Crespo said. “I felt as though there weren’t enough people in these kinds of political spaces with my lived experience.”
Crespo wants to be one of many more progressive candidates to win their races.
“We have a really unique opportunity here in New York City,” she said. “There are more than 35 City Council seats up for grabs which is more than half of the City Council.”
“I think it’s going to take a new generation of political leaders to bring systemic change to our city.”
‘Sensationalized for clickbait’
Crespo has encountered obstacles, including other politicians who think she should “wait her turn” to run for office.
“Politics is politics and there are folks who have been planning to do this for years,” she said.
In addition, some news coverage has fixated on her experience with sex work.
Last November, the New York Post published a story with a headline that referred to Crespo as an “ex-prostitute.”
Crespo called it “intentionally violent and sensationalized for clickbait.”
“That was printed and delivered all over New York,” she said. “It was traumatic to live through that again when I have worked so hard to change the trajectory of my life.”
Crespo has spoken openly about her personal history and about the topic of sex work.
“This is not a decision you make because you want to engage in survival sex work,” Crespo said. “This is a decision you make because there are barriers to employment for marginalized communities.”
Policy over identity
If elected, Crespo will represent New York City’s District 15, one of the 51 council districts in the city.
Crespo said her district encompasses both middle class and poor neighborhoods.
Many in her district have been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The Bronx has one of the highest unemployment rates,” she said. “Some parts of my district have unemployment rates of up to 20 percent,” a problem the private sector cannot handle on its own, Crespo said.
If elected, Crespo wants to chair the Civil Service and Labor committee with an eye toward creating a public option for employment.
“A Public Option for Employment means, simply, that New York City will have a job for everyone who is ready, able, and willing to work when the private sector is not fulfilling our city’s economic needs,” she wrote in an op-ed.
The public option for employment is part of Crespo’s policy-orientated platform focusing on issues rather than her identity, which she sees as incidental.
“I’m not here to create history. I am not here to be the first. I am just a candidate who happens to have this story,” she added.
However, Crespo does recognize that her victory could have symbolic importance to young transgender people.
“There are young trans people in the Bronx not having their voices heard and if it helps one of them feel that they can run for office despite having challenges in their past, that is what it is about,” she said.