The 2017 election season in New York City is undoubtedly much sleepier than the one that rolled around four years ago. Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer are not on the ballot. We have a pretty good idea who our next mayor will be. (Spoiler alert: the current one.) There are no serious fights for any of the other citywide offices. The City Council, which underwent a radical shift in 2013 because of term limits, will see some new members elected, but not nearly as many. Most of the news focus remains on the national scene, where New Yorker Donald Trump confounds and terrifies us daily. Turnout on Tuesday, across the board, is projected to be quite low.
But that doesn’t mean the Democratic primaries aren’t worth paying attention to. Some compelling races could have a significant impact on the direction the city takes over the next four years. Even Bill de Blasio’s waltz against his no-name Democratic opponents — they have worthy ideas, but are largely unknown to the public — could have implications for his second term.
Here are a few races and story lines to keep your eye on as we approach Tuesday.
When a Fordham Law professor named Zephyr Teachout ran in a primary against Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2014, she was initially viewed as little more than a brainy gadfly on a vanity campaign to promote her forthcoming book on political corruption. Teachout, who ran on a platform of good government and assailed Cuomo for his first-term fiscal conservatism, ended up racking up 34 percent of the vote, despite a massive disadvantage in fundraising and name recognition. Beyond the five boroughs, she was quite successful, winning 31 of New York’s 62 counties.
What Teachout represented was a general dissatisfaction among left-leaning voters in New York State with Cuomo’s tenure. Cuomo took note, striking a far more liberal posture in his second term — at least on certain issues. He ushered in a minimum wage hike to $15 an hour, launched a paid family leave program, and partnered with Bernie Sanders to make state colleges tuition-free (with serious caveats) for family incomes of $125,000 or less.
Cuomo’s active interest in propping up Republicans in the state senate and his continued failure to reckon with the city’s deteriorating subway system will motivate another progressive primary challenger next year. Someone more famous and more well-funded (Cynthia Nixon, anyone?) could do substantial damage.
But Cuomo, in his own way, did attempt to reckon with Teachout’s surprising showing — even if he didn’t do nearly enough.
De Blasio’s version of Teachout is Sal Albanese, a former city councilmember who has run for mayor twice before and never come close to winning. The parallels are far from perfect. De Blasio proudly identifies as a progressive; Albanese, while launching populist attacks on de Blasio’s coziness with real estate developers, is more conservative than the Democratic mayor on policing and criminal justice reform.
Still, lingering resentment against de Blasio has kept his approval ratings from ticking up too high. In Albanese’s old Bay Ridge stomping grounds and in other outer-borough neighborhoods, de Blasio is viewed as aloof and elitist, despite his everyman Park Slope roots. He has never been beloved, despite his accomplishments, and corruption investigations that ended earlier this year left some voters jaded.
All this could be building toward a surprisingly strong showing for Albanese. Strong, of course, is relative: If Albanese hits 30 percent, that still means seven out of ten Democratic voters chose the incumbent. But de Blasio, a lifelong political operative, will understand what it would mean for Albanese to expose real vulnerabilities that could dent his legacy. (De Blasio is term-limited in 2021 and denies having presidential ambitions.)
De Blasio has begun efforts to win over some outer-borough neighborhoods, increasing the frequency of town halls and even stepping up his visits to Staten Island. His first-term accomplishments shouldn’t be dismissed, but most voters still aren’t aware of what major programs he has in store for the next four years, like expanding universal pre-K to three-year-olds.
Perhaps a stronger-than-expected Albanese performance will motivate de Blasio to become a better communicator, or even become slightly more press-friendly. Maybe he will poach one of Albanese’s ideas (democracy vouchers, anyone?).
Or maybe Albanese gets trounced and nothing changes. We’ll find out soon enough.
As I wrote about previously, the race for Brooklyn district attorney may be the most consequential of all those on the ballot this Tuesday. The Brooklyn D.A.’s office is one of the five largest in America, and every year hundreds of thousands of Brooklynites, one way or another, come into contact with the criminal justice system.
Acting D.A. Eric Gonzalez took over for Ken Thompson, Brooklyn’s first black D.A., when he died of cancer last year. Gonzalez, now running for a full term, has all the advantages in the Democratic primary — money, labor support, and the backing of most prominent elected officials. He is hoping to build on Thompson’s reform legacy.
But five other Democrats are running against him, with two in particular mounting consequential challenges. All, to varying degrees, claim they are reformers — the race has revolved around who can commit the least amount of injustice against the poor and people of color, rather than who can rack up the most convictions in the name of public safety. All the candidates have to reckon with the legacy of the man Thompson defeated in 2013, Charles Hynes, since five out of the six contenders worked for Hynes at one point, and the remaining candidate endorsed him four years ago.
Of the five former prosecutors taking on Gonzalez — Ama Dwimoh, Anne Swern, Marc Fliedner, Patricia Gatling, and Councilmember Vincent Gentile — Dwimoh and Swern are viewed by watchers of the race as the greatest threats to Gonzalez’s re-election. Swern, a top deputy under Hynes, has served as managing counsel for Brooklyn Defenders and is expected to perform well in Brooklyn’s white, more affluent brownstone belt, where she is a district leader. Dwimoh, who would be Brooklyn’s first black female D.A., could challenge Gonzalez in vote-rich central Brooklyn.
If Gonzalez does win as expected, criminal justice reformers will want to know how this race shapes the office and if he will move the needle as far as they want. Gonzalez has not yet committed to ending the cash bail system (he drew fire for taking, and later refunding, donations from the bail bonds industry) and does not support legislation to change New York State’s retrograde discovery laws.
If crime ticks upward, will Gonzalez or any future D.A. be as committed to reform as they say they are? Will he or she revert to a more tough-on-crime approach? Can Gonzalez, a career prosecutor with no political experience, move beyond simply fulfilling the outlines of Thompson’s vision?
De Blasio, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and Public Advocate Letitia James are all likely safe. So are a large majority of the 51 councilmembers.
A few, though, are fighting for their lives.
In central and western Queens, Liz Crowley is battling for a third term against Bob Holden, a fiery civic leader who heads the Juniper Park Civic Association, one of the city’s largest and most active civic groups. Juniper Park is aggressively anti-Crowley, regularly printing magazines dedicated to attacking her record and the tenure of her more famous cousin, Congressmember (and Queens Democratic Party boss) Joe Crowley.
Holden, who is running with the endorsement of Queens state senator Tony Avella, is a primary challenger who should not be dismissed. Conservative Democrats in the district believe Crowley wasn’t a strenuous enough opponent of a proposed homeless shelter in Maspeth and may take out their animus against de Blasio on her. Anger over the homeless shelter was enough to propel a local lawyer, Brian Barnwell, to victory over a seventeen-year incumbent in an assembly race last year.
In the Sunset Park and Red Hook neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Carlos Menchaca is scrapping for a second term after upsetting an incumbent four years ago. Menchaca, a member of the council’s progressive wing, is now trying to fend off that same opponent — ex-councilmember Sara Gonzalez — as well as Felix Ortiz, a current assembly member who has represented Sunset Park since 1995.
Ortiz has the endorsement of arguably the state’s most powerful union, 1199SEIU, while Menchaca has scored the backing of other unions like 32BJ SEIU, local elected officials, and the New York Times. A divide among anti-Menchaca forces may save him. If it doesn’t, it will be a substantial loss for the City Council’s nineteen-member progressive caucus, which doesn’t want to bleed any more members.
North of Menchaca, Laurie Cumbo is battling her 2013 opponent Ede Fox to retain her Crown Heights– and Prospect Heights–based seat. Cumbo, unlike Menchaca, has secured the backing of most unions and elected officials and is believed to be de Blasio’s favored candidate. Fox’s primary challenge has been waged on Cumbo’s tepid opposition to the redevelopment of the Bedford-Union Armory, a de Blasio administration priority that local activists say will fuel gentrification. Fox is waging a strong challenge, though Cumbo is expected to hold on.
Similarly, Helen Rosenthal on the Upper West Side is locked in a 2013 rematch. Runner-up Mel Wymore, who hopes to become the first transgender elected official in city history, believes Rosenthal is a tool of the real estate industry, failing to protect small businesses and gird against overdevelopment. But labor unions, elected officials, and institutional forces have largely stuck with Rosenthal. Another member of the council’s progressive caucus, Rosenthal will not be easy to unseat.
On the North Shore of Staten Island, Debi Rose is quietly facing a vigorous challenge from a local civic leader, Kamillah Hanks. Hobbled by health issues, Rose has been a less visible presence in the City Council in recent years, and Hanks is hoping backing from the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association can put her over the top. The working-class North Shore is quickly gentrifying, and economic development projects, including a long-delayed Ferris wheel, have brought both hope and consternation.
Brooklyn’s Mathieu Eugene always seems to survive a pile on of opponents every four years, though civic leader Pia Raymond has managed to outspend him this year — never a good sign for an incumbent.
Peter Koo in Flushing, Queens, is fighting off Alison Tan, the wife of an assembly member in an overlapping district, Ron Kim. Koo and Kim were friends but aren’t any longer. Tan has painted Koo, a former Republican, as being too conservative for the area, but it will be difficult to unseat the longtime incumbent.
In south Queens, several candidates are competing to replace Ruben Wills, who was forced from the council earlier this year after a corruption conviction. Adrienne Adams, a local community board chairwoman, has the backing of the Queens Democratic Party and Cuomo, making her something of a favorite. But she is no lock: Civic leader Richard David and Hettie Powell, running with the support of 1199SEIU and the Working Families Party, have real chances of winning.
Over in southwest Brooklyn, Justin Brannan, a top staffer to outgoing councilmember Vincent Gentile, has racked up just about every endorsement and on paper looks to be coasting to victory. But Reverend Khader El-Yateem, backed by the Democratic Socialists of America, is staging a strong challenge and could pull off an upset if he galvanizes enough of Bay Ridge’s Arab American voters. (Three other candidates, district leader Kevin Peter Carroll, district leader Nancy Tong, and attorney Vince Chirico, are also running.) A competitive three-way Republican primary among John Quaglione, a staffer to State Senator Marty Golden; former GOP staffer Liam McCabe; and supermarket manager Bob Capano could produce a rare competitive general election in a district home to a sizable number of conservatives.
In Brownsville, Brooklyn — where de Blasio campaigned on Saturday — Alicka Samuel is running with the lion’s share of endorsements to replace term-limited councilmember Darlene Mealy, an exceedingly low-profile lawmaker. Despite boasting endorsements from de Blasio and major labor unions, Samuel is facing well-funded challenges from a number of candidates, including district leader Cory Provost and community board district manager Henry Butler. Neither should be counted out.
Lured by higher pay and a shorter commute, more and more state lawmakers have been seeking to make the jump to the City Council. This year is no exception. In the Bronx, despite vigorous opposition from Amanda Farias, Elvin Garcia, and Michael Beltzer, State Senator Rubén Díaz Sr. appears set to enter the council — giving the liberal legislative body a lawmaker who is proudly anti-abortion and opposed to same-sex marriage.
Assembly Member Mark Gjonaj has spent more than $700,000 to get himself elected to a City Council seat in the northeast Bronx. Despite Gjonaj’s massive fundraising advantage and the backing of the Bronx Democratic Party and many major labor unions, close watchers of the race say he is less assured of victory than Díaz. His top two opponents, district leader Marjorie Velázquez and civic leader John Doyle, are aggressive and plenty competent. Velázquez, identifying as the most liberal of the contenders, has the backing of the Working Families Party.
In East Harlem, outgoing Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is hoping to block Assembly Member Robert Rodriguez from jumping to the council by supporting her deputy chief of staff, Diana Ayala. The district, which also extends to the South Bronx, has divided loyalties: The Bronx Democratic machine wants Rodriguez, but the borough president, Rubén Díaz Jr., is supporting Ayala. At stake is a contentious East Harlem rezoning, as well as Mark-Viverito’s legacy — it’s very possible Rodriguez, who ran unsuccessfully against Mark-Viverito in 2009, will prevail.
On Sunday, Cuomo announced his support of Rodriguez, putting himself at odds with de Blasio, who campaigned for Ayala. Surprise, surprise.
Can he really do it?
Hiram Monserrate went to prison for stealing from a nonprofit. He was expelled from the state senate for slashing his girlfriend in the face. He is the definition of a disgraced politician.
Yet Monserrate, a former councilmember and state senator from East Elmhurst and Corona, is making a serious bid to regain his old Queens council seat. Still well-known and even well-liked in his old stomping grounds, he is waging a populist campaign, calling for full affordable housing at Willets Point, the scrapyard near Citi Field that has been eyed for development for decades.
Just about everyone is endorsing Monserrate’s opponent, Assembly Member Franciso Moya. De Blasio campaigned for him. Unions and elected officials are lining up to back him and furiously denounce Monserrate. The Queens Democratic Party is lending its full weight. Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, the outgoing councilmember, is in his corner.
Moya should win, but those keeping close tabs on the race remain concerned. Monserrate is the more natural politician. Beyond attacking Monserrate at every turn, Moya — a rather undistinguished lawmaker with residency issues — has not articulated a compelling rationale for his candidacy, other than that he is not Hiram Monserrate.
What would happen if Monserrate were actually to win? Would any of his colleagues work with him? Would he be utterly shunned? Moya — and many others — are hoping we never even have to consider these questions.