It’s Primary Day in New York, a phrase you’ve already heard twice before this year. You can thank political intransigence for the fact that New York never consolidated primary dates, so we’ve already held primaries for presidential and congressional races. Today it’s the state legislature’s turn and things are a little less boring than usual. Here are four races to watch out for and why they matter.
65th Assembly District — Lower Manhattan
The contest to replace the disgraced Sheldon Silver, the former Assembly speaker, won’t tilt the balance of power in the heavily Democratic Assembly. But it will matter for the locals in on Lower East Side, Chinatown, Battery Park City and other parts of downtown that haven’t known another assemblyman in 40 years. In the tradition of a city of immigrants, the district’s growing Asian population is seeking to flex its political muscle.
In April, a special election anointed Alice Cancel, a Silver loyalist, to his old seat. But incumbency did not dissuade five other Democrats from trying to take her out. Paul Newell, a Democratic district leader and the lone Jewish candidate in a district once overwhelmingly Jewish, has his own progressive credentials as the man who dared to challenge Silver at the height of his power. Yuh-Line Niou, a former chief of staff to Queens Assemblyman Ron Kim, is the Working Families Party candidate also running with the strong backing of Comptroller Scott Stringer, a potential mayoral contender. The Queens Democratic machine, fond of growing loyalists beyond their borders, is pushing for Niou as well. Gigi Li, a former community board chairwoman, has the support of Councilwoman Margaret Chin, a Chinatown power player. Don Lee, an information technology businessman belonging to a prominent Chinatown family associate, is also in the mix. Rounding out the field is Jenifer Rajkumar, a district leader who aggressively challenged Chin in 2013 and could be formidable again. Like many low turnout primaries, the race could come down to a sliver of voters, and the Democrat is all but guaranteed a win in November. Can Cancel galvanize Hispanics and Silver followers? Can Niou, with the help of WFP, distinguish herself from the pack? Is Newell rewarded for defying Silver once before?
31st Senate District — Upper Manhattan
As detailed already by the Voice, this may be the most intriguing and relevant primary in the five boroughs, if not the state. The incumbent, Adriano Espaillat, is the Democratic nominee for Congressman Charlie Rangel’s seat and will vacate the district, which snakes up from Chelsea and the Upper West Side to the heavily Latino enclaves of Washington Heights and Inwood, at the end of the year.
Espaillat, set to become the first Dominican-American elected to Congress, wants to crown fellow Dominican immigrant Marisol Alcantara, a union organizer, as his successor. Former Councilman Robert Jackson, something of a perennial candidate after running for borough president in 2013 and the state senate in 2014, wants to stop her, and maybe set up his own congressional run in a few years. Micah Lasher, the Upper West Side product, is Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s former chief of staff and the fundraising leader; while he’s tried to downplay his tenure as Michael Bloomberg’s Albany representative, where he fought for the expansion of charter schools, he’s reportedly holding a fundraiser with Bloomberg tonight at the billionaire’s townhouse.
The real reason this race matters is the Independent Democratic Conference, a five member breakaway group of Democrats who have helped Republicans control the State Senate, wants to pick a winner. Though she was a Bernie Sanders delegate, the otherwise populist Alcantara has no qualms with joining the IDC and perhaps empowering the GOP majority next year. Lasher and Jackson, staunch Democrats, have criticized Alcantara for making overtures to the IDC, which is spending heavily to elect her. Voters, though, probably won’t care, and she’s expected to perform well in what will be a tight race.
33rd Senate District — West Bronx
This Bronx primary rematch pits State Senator Gustavo Rivera, one of the brighter lights in the Senate Democratic conference, against Councilman Fernando Cabrera. Cabrera, a socially conservative pastor with ties to the right-wing Family Research Council, failed to unseat Rivera two years ago, drawing condemnation then for speaking out in praise of a Ugandan anti-gay law. Blaming the “liberal media” for his loss, Cabrera has a little more help this time, thanks to a half million dollar independent expenditure partially funded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton. The committee supports a bill that would give tax credits for donations to private and charter schools, which Cabrera supports and Rivera opposes. The state teachers’ union, in turn, is propping up Rivera, though it hasn’t matched the firepower of the Walmart-backed expenditure.
Cabrera, like Alcantara in Manhattan, has expressed interest in joining the IDC. While his conservatism could complicate the group’s image, it’s not clear he would be outright rejected. Either way, a Cabrera victory would be a significant setback for progressive Democrats in Albany.
Male District Leader, Queens Democratic Leadership District 35 Part A
It’s a race for an unpaid, obscure post in Corona, Queens, so why is it on this list? Because one of the two contenders is Hiram Monserrate, one of the more heinous Democrats in Albany’s checkered history. A former city councilman and state senator from the area, Monserrate was expelled by his colleagues (the last time this happened was 1781) after he was caught on video dragging his bloody girlfriend through his apartment lobby (he was convinced of misdemeanor assault charges.) A few years later, Monserrate was sentenced to a couple of years in prison for misusing about $100,000 in city money to pay for one of his Senate campaigns.
Monserrate is barred by state law from seeking paid, elected official again, but the district leader post, with duties that include voting for the borough’s Democratic chairman and helping to nominate judges, does not fall under that umbrella. Before his campaign website exceeded its bandwidth limit, it was playing McFadden & Whitehead’s disco groove “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” on endless loop. He is up against George Dixon, a member of the local NAACP chapter and a Vietnam veteran. It’s fair to say we hope Dixon wins.