When Ryder Kessler talks about his adoration of New York and Assembly District 66, in which he has spent much of his life, it’s hard not to feel optimistic. So when he talks about the city’s issues, it’s clear he means business.
“We need Albany to be doing much more and we need Downtown Manhattan to be leading the charge,” Kessler said. “We need Downtown Manhattan to be showing what it looks like to have an affordable, equitable and sustainable community that can be a model for the rest of the city and state.”
After working behind the scenes in politics for the past four years, Kessler has stepped into the spotlight himself in his campaign for NYS Assembly, which he launched in mid-January. In a year of crowded races, like that for District 73 and 75, Kessler’s the only one to challenge longtime incumbent Assembly Member Deborah Glick. He’s made his identity as a gay man an integral part of his campaign and “did not expect” to run against someone like Glick — who became the first openly-LGBTQ+ state legislator when she was first elected over three decades ago.
But now, Kessler wants to tackle issues like housing, the city’s streetscape and public safety with a sense of urgency that he feels the current Assembly is sorely lacking. “We need legislators who don’t just come around — we need legislators who lead,” he said.
Activism At Home, At Large
Kessler grew up in the neighborhoods he now hopes to represent — he was born at St. Vincent’s Hospital — and has lived in Greenwich Village since graduating college. It’s an area steeped in LGBTQ+ history, one in which Ryder’s family took part; he remembers “watching the Pride Parade on my father’s shoulders” and said his mother “used to sneak into the Stonewall Inn before the 1969 riots, as a teenager.” Kessler’s great uncle, he added, walked the district in drag.
“That connection informs my work today,” he said. “That history made it possible for me to be here, living my life.”
He traces his current political involvement back to 2011, when he founded DipJar, a company that created a new way for coffee shop aficionados — and patrons of all kinds of businesses — to tip using their credit cards in an age of digital transactions. It was one of Kessler’s first stabs at improving life close to home, to “help these folks collect those tips that they’ve lost” due to the shift from “cash to plastic.”
But Kessler soon wanted more — and saw a different mode of achieving it. “I started this company thinking a credit card tip jar was going to really move the needle on folks who were struggling to make ends meet,” he said. “And in doing the work, I saw that what they needed — more than credit card tips — was a higher minimum wage and a labor union. And that they needed their housing to be more affordable and they needed their healthcare and education to be more affordable.”
Politics became his new course through life. Spurred to action by the 2016 election, Kessler contributed to the creation of Flippable, a PAC that raised funds to support legislative candidates running across the country for seats that Democrats, if they won, would “flip.” In 2018, Kessler served as campaign manager for Tracy Mitrano, who ran for Congress in NY-23. Two years later, he did “voter protection work” in Maine and in 2021 put his skills to work for Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock’s Senate runoffs in Georgia.
“We Know What Does Work”
In the District 66 race for NYS Assembly, Kessler now finds himself at the front of his own campaign, leading a charge to improve, first and foremost, the city’s multifaceted housing problem. There’s the “unaffordability of housing,” he explained, and the fact that too little housing exists in the first place. “There are lines around the block at every open house,” Kessler said. Then, there’s the issue of homelessness and the unappealing state of homeless shelters, he added.
A step in the right direction, according to Kessler, would include more development (and measures like the approval of basement units) to bring down rent costs, plus a greater number of Safe Havens and Stabilization Beds, both alternatives to traditional shelter settings.
He’d also like to “reimagine” the city’s streets to better accommodate modes of transportation other than driving; implement “congestion pricing”; and keep outdoor dining alive. As for safety, he’s adamant that “bail reform rollbacks” aren’t productive — but that prioritizing mental healthcare, boosting jobs and backing “community-based solutions that do not rely on armed officers” would make a positive impact.
“The status quo is not working — and we know what does work,” Kessler said. “We know what does work on housing, we know what does work on the streetscape, we know what does work on shelters, we know what does work on public safety.”
“We can get there, with enough vision and enough political will,” he added.
Many of the issues Kessler’s keen to address disproportionately impact minority groups — including the LGBTQ+ community. Taking a personal approach, Kessler believes, only makes his campaign stronger.
“Being a gay man running to represent the queer heart of Manhattan is very important,” he said. “As a person who came from — or who is a part of — that community that has faced marginalization, historically and today, it is an experience that provides empathy and understanding for all the ways that marginalized people are burdened in New York.”
“We need legislators who don’t just come around — we need legislators who lead.” Ryder Kessler