New York, NY – Voting booths at the Brooklyn Museum of Art
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The first inside the gates was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, when she knocked off Queens machine boss Joe Crowley in June 2018. Three months later, a slew of progressive and socialist insurgents beat incumbents in New York state legislative primaries: some who’d been serving decades, and others who’d been part of the renegade Independent Democratic Conference, which shifted power in Albany toward Republicans. Those primaries brought Jessica Ramos, Alessandra Biaggi, Julia Salazar, and a host of others to Albany, where they uncorked a burst of bottled-up of progressive legislation.
Then came Tiffany Cabán, a former public defender who ran a shoestring campaign for Queens district attorney and came out ahead on election day in the summer of 2019, only to lose by a few dozen votes when the absentee ballots were counted.
The campaigns of the last two years created a roadmap for left-wing insurgents this cycle, with the Cabán and Ocasio-Cortez races pointing progressives to the New York City neighborhoods where their strength is particularly strong, exposing opportunities to unseat new incumbents. The 2018 bids for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general, by Cynthia Nixon, Jumaane Williams, and Zephyr Teachout, respectively, left behind additional local data. While Jamaal Bowman’s challenge to Rep. Eliot Engel has gotten the most coverage, Reps. Yvette Clarke, Greg Meeks, and others are fending off spirited challenges from the left. Progressive Mondaire Jones, meanwhile, has moved into the lead in an open congressional primary in a southern New York district. That same force is rattling the cages of the machine in down-ballot races throughout the city.
The 34th Assembly District in Queens, for instance, covering Jackson Heights, has been represented for years by Michael DenDekker, a reliable cog in the local machine, yet it broke 59-26 for Cabán. Jessica González-Rojas, a longtime activist and the executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, saw what was happening around her. “We saw wins like AOC, who’s my congresswoman, and Jessica Ramos, who took out an IDC member, which is the Independent Democratic Conference, and then Catalina Cruz, who’s my neighboring assemblywoman, who was a former DREAMer,” she said. “All these inspiring Latinas breaking glass ceilings, and then a lot of my neighbors are like, ‘Is DenDekker still there? Why don’t you run against him?’”
Despite the presence of other progressives in the primary, González-Rojas has the consolidated support of New York’s socialist and progressive organizations. (Ocasio-Cortez has not endorsed in this race, having weighed in only on competitive local primaries outside of her district. “I understand that endorsements are complicated,” González-Rojas said.)
González-Rojas is one of a slate of credible progressive challengers taking on state Assembly incumbents in the June 23 primary, running largely on the argument that New York’s pandemic-and-Trump-administration-produced budget crisis should be resolved by taxing the wealthy rather than austerity. The insurgency is also coming for the top prosecutor in Albany, with a Bernie Sanders-backed challenger taking on a 16-year incumbent. Jabari Brisport, meanwhile, a public school teacher and Democratic Socialists of America activist, is running for an open Brooklyn state Senate seat against the machine-backed Tremaine Wright; he has the backing of Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, Salazar, Nixon, the Working Families Party, and most of the institutional left. If Brisport follows Salazar to Albany, the city’s Senate delegation will have significant DSA representation.
In addition to Brisport, the NYC DSA is backing Samelys López for the House of Representatives, Zohran Mamdani for Assembly in Queens, and Phara Souffrant Forrest and Marcela Mitaynes for Assembly in Brooklyn. The group nearly doubled its first quarter fundraising goal, raising more than $175,000 to support phone banking, mailers, and other critical resources for the campaigns in its slate of endorsements.
Nixon’s endorsement by the DSA during her 2018 gubernatorial run was controversial within the organization, but the argument that backing her would help build the group’s capacity now appears prescient. She has remained active with the group, and appeared alongside Sanders surrogates Nina Turner, Philip Agnew, and Jaboukie Young-White at a high-profile NYC-DSA fundraiser on May 31. They raised $60,000 that night. The rising insurgency is a sign that the multiracial, class-conscious movement inspired by Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez and led largely by young and working people is alive and well — even as politicians and news organizations critical of Sanders have penned its obituary in the wake of his failed presidential bid. “When we talk about the political revolution that means building power at every level of government,” Sanders tweeted after two socialists won primaries for state legislative office in Philadelphia this month.
The challengers, most running in New York City, have public opinion on their side, according to a new survey by Data For Progress. Four in five voters favor high taxes on those making more than $2 million per year and an additional tax on investment gains made by billionaires. Three-quarters backed a tax on people with multiple homes, and four in five supported a tax on digital advertising platforms like Google and Facebook. Just three in 10 supported cuts to Medicaid.
A broad coalition of progressive groups — Make the Road New York, Citizen Action of New York, New York Working Families Party, New York Communities for Change, VOCAL-NY, Community Voices Heard, and the Alliance for Quality Education — has rallied behind most of those candidates, while being split on others, and seized on the results of the survey. “During this pandemic, he has balanced the state budget on the backs of working-class Black and brown people once, and threatens to do it again,” the coalition said in a statement, referring to Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “This data show that New Yorkers categorically reject the Governor’s approach and demand urgent action from him and the legislature.”
“We keep hearing that the coronavirus has put New York state in debt and put us in a position where cuts are necessary. We progressives, myself included, are saying, wait a second, there’s money on the table that we’re not addressing,” González-Rojas. “What’s exciting about the poll is that there’s data there. It’s not just hearsay or conversations. There’s real numbers behind it, that we shouldn’t be cutting education or health care or housing in a moment where there’s money on the table.”
Assembly District 36
Incumbent Aravella Simotas largely votes the Democratic line, but that might not work anymore in this district, where Ocasio-Cortez and Cabán both romped over their opponents in gentrifying Astoria, and voters also backed Nixon, Williams, and Teachout in their 2018 statewide races. Housing activist Zohran Mamdani, whose race is a major priority of DSA, doesn’t have the backing of much else of the more established progressive infrastructure, such as the WFP, making it an interesting test of the strength of the DSA and the left absent that institutional support. Simotas, meanwhile, is backed by companies fighting labor protections for gig workers; New Yorkers for Flexible Work, which appears to be a front group for companies like Uber and Lyft, is running ads on Spotify in support of her. Uber’s top lobbyist, Patrick Jenkins, donated $1,000 to Simotas last month. Jenkins is a longtime friend and former college roommate of New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. Simotas also received a contribution of $500 from Savas Konstantinides, a city taxi fleet owner under federal investigation into possible lending fraud in the city taxi industry. Mamdani’s campaign is focusing on rights for drivers in the district.
Assembly District 37
Part of this district, gentrifying quickly, is similar to Mamdani’s, but part is still traditional Queens neighborhoods, where young people and progressives have made fewer inroads. Incumbent Catherine Nolan, not particularly progressive, is fortunate to have two challengers rather than one — Mary Jobaida and Danielle Brecker, who may end up splitting the progressive vote. Local activists say Jabaida, running a shoe-string operation, is giving Nolan the most serious challenge and has the most progressive support, though neither has institutional backing from the coalition backing a broader slate.
Assembly District 51
Assistant Assembly Speaker Felix Ortiz has served since 1994, and has been tied up in a corruption investigation. Marcela Mitaynes, a housing activist, has the backing of everyone from DSA to WFP and Ocasio-Cortez, whose willingness to endorse against a member of the Assembly leadership raised eyebrows in the city. This is arguably the city’s closest-watched Assembly race.
Assembly District 57
This rapidly gentrifying district in the heart of Brooklyn was once represented by Hakeem Jeffries, now a member of Congress and major power player locally and nationally. Jeffries’s friend and successor, Walter Mosley, has the backing of the WFP (he bucked leadership to back WFP’s ballot access), but nurse and housing activist Phara Souffrant has the support of DSA and Ocasio-Cortez — making this race something of a proxy war between Jeffries and Ocasio-Cortez, two local titans whose congressional staffs have been engaged in high-profile conflict. New Yorkers for Flexible Work, the group running ads against Simotas, is also spending on ads in support of Mosley.
Assembly District 84
Carmen Aroyyo, the 84-year-old machine incumbent in this South Bronx district, was challenged by 29-year-old Amanda Septimo from the left with the backing of WFP. Arroyo falsified her petition signatures and was disqualified from the ballot, meaning the insurgent will waltz into the seat. Septimo had run a strong race for the seat in 2018, and is an example of the adage that if you want to win, you often have to run twice.
Assembly District 108
Sam Fein, an Albany County legislator, was recruited by the WFP to take on incumbent John McDonald III. The local SEIU is behind Fein, but there is little progressive infrastructure outside New York City to boost him. This race could help build that, giving local progressives something to organize around.
Assembly District 149
Adam Bojak, a tenants rights attorney, is running with the backing of DSA national, as well as its Buffalo chapter — a test of DSA’s strength outside the city. WFP is behind Jon Rivera.
In a handful of other races, the left is working to fend off challenges to progressive incumbents.
Assembly District 40
Steven Lee, a controversial New York police officer, is challenging Assemblyman Ron Kim, a foe of the local real estate industry who was pivotal in fending off Amazon’s headquarters. Lee and his campaign chair were recently caught ginning up racist memes to attack Kim.
Lee’s campaign chair Mike Cheng, in a chatroom run by Lee, shared a cartoon of Kim Jong Un praising Lee’s politics, and suggested people circulate it, adding, in a remarkable admission, “Because we use other fake account but it’s maxed out and they have spam filters.”
That provoked Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who has been broadly hostile to the insurgency, to condemn the assault: “Let me be clear — racist attacks and cyberbullying have no place in our public discourse, and the attacks that my colleague, Ron Kim, has been experiencing are truly disgusting. Racist dog whistles hidden behind phone accounts are beyond contempt and cowardly. Now more than ever we should be looking to lift each other up. Ron is a true champion for his district and an important voice in our Assembly Democratic Majority. He works hard for his community and I am proud to call him a friend.”
Lee, who distanced himself from the fake spam accounts, also falsely suggested he had the support of Rep. Grace Meng.
Assembly District 65
Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou’s recent floor speech against Cuomo’s Medicaid cuts became a rallying cry for progressives. A former backer of Elizabeth Warren who later endorsed Sanders, this Manhattan representative now has both senators’ support as she fends off a challenge from Grace Lee, who has the heavy backing of real estate interests.
Assembly District 43
Dianna Richardson was elected in 2015 with her name only appearing on the WFP ballot line, and has emerged as a leading progressive voice in the legislature. Jesse Hamilton, a former member of the turncoat Independent Democratic Conference, is challenging her in a primary, with the Brooklyn machine doing nothing to help the incumbent Richardson — revealing once again that the machine’s defense of incumbents is linked to ideology, not incumbency.
Correction: June 20, 2020
This story originally misspelled the name of Jessica González-Rojas.