Few Democratic primaries in New York City end up mattering, but one ferocious Manhattan contest may determine who controls the State Senate next year.
On September 13, registered Democrats in the 31st District — which snakes up Manhattan’s West Side, taking in a sliver of Chelsea, a much larger chunk of the Upper West Side, and the predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhoods of Washington Heights, Inwood, and Marble Hill — will essentially vote to replace Adriano Espaillat, the likely successor to the legendary congressman Charlie Rangel.
It’s a quintessentially New York contest, pitting three racial voting blocs against one another in a district that has traditionally reinforced Dominican-American pride. Espaillat, set to become the first congressman from the DR, wants to install a loyalist, and his interests just happen to align with an Albany power broker who loves doing business with the Republicans, State Senator Jeffrey Klein.
Never mind that the loyalist, union organizer Marisol Alcantara, was a Bernie Sanders supporter while most of New York’s political establishment, Espaillat included, fell behind Hillary Clinton.
“He advocated for a fifteen-dollar minimum wage,” Alcantara explained, emphasizing her own working-class roots. “I’ve knocked on these doors, I go to churches, I go to subways. I know people in New York cannot live on the current minimum wage.”
Espaillat won his seat six years ago and spent most of the time trying to escape, unsuccessfully challenging Rangel in 2012 and 2014 before vanquishing several non-Rangel candidates this year, when the Harlem Lion is retiring. This being Manhattan, any candidate or voter will tell you affordable housing is the most pressing issue in the area. The district is about 54 percent Latino, 31 percent white, and 9 percent black, and whites are rapidly gentrifying the Latino enclaves.
On demographics alone, Alcantara, 43, should win, especially with Espaillat’s uptown machine — whatever it’s really worth — fully in her corner. On the issues, she may be the most populist, calling for eliminating the city income tax for anyone making less than $50,000, though former City Councilman Robert Jackson, aggressively backed by the United Federation of Teachers, gives her a run for her money.
The Harlem establishment is supporting the African-American Jackson, who led a lawsuit against New York State over underfunding public schools. Two years ago, he and a little-known candidate in this year’s primary, Luis Tejada, lost to Espaillat.
“I feel I’m the best candidate because I’m the only one out of all of them that has legislative experience as a legislator,” Jackson, 65, said. “None of them have that…my proven experience speaks for itself.”
As a legislator needs emphasis, because no one in the race arguably has more relevant experience with state and city government than its youngest candidate, 34-year-old Micah Lasher. A white candidate hailing from the Upper West Side, Lasher is your prototypical New York Times profile subject (he got his at age 28, don’t worry), a political savant who stumped for candidates as a preteen, co-founded the powerhouse consulting firm SKDKnickerbocker, and published a book of magic tricks when he was fourteen (The Magic of Micah Lasher: More Than 50 Tricks That Will Amaze and Delight Everyone—Including You). Most recently, he served as Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s chief of staff, and is making big promises in the campaign, including a “Marshall Plan” for the city’s beleaguered public housing.
“I’m not gonna go up there and get rolled,” Lasher said. “If we win a Democratic majority only to tinker on the margins, then it wasn’t worth anything.”
Lasher’s past still haunts his candidacy. As a nineteen-year-old staffer on Mark Green’s 2001 mayoral campaign, he reprinted a racy New York Post cartoon depicting Green’s Latino rival, Fernando Ferrer, kissing Rev. Al Sharpton’s oversize behind. Lasher later apologized, but Green paid the price in the general election when Michael Bloomberg, Lasher’s future boss, eked out a win thanks in part to disaffected black and Latinx Democrats deserting Green. Ferrer, strongly hinting that he hasn’t forgotten the Post cartoon, recently endorsed Alcantara.
In 2009, Lasher became Bloomberg’s point man in Albany, a position that entailed, among many things, fighting for the expansion of charter schools. He went on to found StudentsFirstNY, a pro-charters group that’s helped prop up Republicans, though his time heading up Michelle Rhee’s New York outfit is not mentioned in his campaign bio. Otherwise a staunch liberal, running with the support of the Upper West Side’s vaunted Democratic establishment, he’d rather not talk about that.
“We get very reductionist,” Lasher said. “Charter schools educate fewer than 10 percent of kids in the City of New York. It seems like we spend 90 percent of our time and oxygen [on them].”
In the eyes of a theoretical progressive beholder, Jackson also has his own flaws — until this June he was a registered lobbyist for Dart Container Corp., a Styrofoam company that fought the city’s move to ban the hard-to-recycle material. But ironically, it’s Alcantara who could end up scuttling the dream of a left-wing Albany.
Klein, the leader of a five-member breakaway Democratic conference that spent two years in an alliance with Senate Republicans, is spending campaign cash on her behalf, and Alcantara wouldn’t rule out joining the Independent Democratic Conference if she was elected. The Democrats are expected to pick up enough seats this fall to potentially retake control of the chamber, perhaps spearheading the kind of campaign finance reform (publicly-funded elections, lowering donation limits) that the likes of Alcantara would like to see and Republicans, as long as they’re in power, would block. Klein has played coy about which conference his IDC will govern with next year, since the GOP currently holds a slim majority.
Though Jackson is more outwardly critical of the IDC, it’s Lasher who will pose the greatest threat to Klein’s cabal. He has raked in about $330,000, by far the most in the primary, and would be a fundraising juggernaut for the Senate Democrats. A savvy progressive with a bridge to the moneyed interests that usually turn on their spigots for the Republican conference, Lasher is the kind of Democrat Klein doesn’t want near Albany.
Alcantara, though, downplays all the insider talk. Do the people in her district really care?
“No one has mentioned anything to me about the IDC,” she said. “They want to know what you’re going to do when you get to Albany.”