As Democrats eye majority control of the New York State Senate that has effectively eluded them for a decade, party leaders and a coalition of progressive activists are descending on Southern Brooklyn’s District 22, where Democrat Andrew Gounardes is challenging Republican Senator Marty Golden and where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans more than two-to-one.
The Senate Democratic conference currently holds 31 seats and needs just one more for a majority in the 63-seat upper chamber of the state Legislature, while their party-mates already overwhelmingly control the Assembly. With surging turnout and a blue wave of progressive energy rousing the party’s base, they see an opportunity to pick up several seats across the state. Senate District 22 -- which covers the neighborhoods of Bay Ridge, Fort Hamilton, Dyker Heights, parts of Bensonhurst, Gravesend, Sheepshead Bay, Manhattan Beach and Marine Park -- is one of only two in New York City represented by a Republican (the other is District 24 in Staten Island, a solidly Republican seat held by Senator Andrew Lanza). Golden, a former NYPD officer, has held the seat for 16 years, prior to which he served on the New York City Council.
In the September 13 primary, Gounardes, who is counsel to Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, beat journalist-turned-politician Ross Barkan to win the Democratic nomination. The race was less bitter than other Democratic primaries across the city, and saw more attention focused on Golden’s eight-term Senate record and history of personal controversy.
“We’ve been running full-speed, nonstop since [primary] night,” Gounardes said in a Wednesday phone interview, 47 days until Election Day, November 6. “I was at the subway at 7:30 on Friday morning and we’ve been campaigning straight through.”
Gounardes has challenged Golden before, in 2012, but Golden outspent him and easily defeated him, getting 38,584 votes, or 52 percent, against Gounardes’ 28,243 votes, 38 percent, out of a total 74,451 votes cast. There were a total of 154,316 registered voters in the district at the time, including 77,594 Democrats, 33,621 Republicans and 36,731 unaffiliated voters. (Gounardes also ran on the Working Families Party Line and Golden ran additionally on the Independence Party and Conservative Party lines).
In 2014, Golden again faced a Democratic challenger, Jamie Kemmerer, who received little support from the Democratic establishment and lost by a wide margin in a low turnout election. Only 36,348 voters cast a ballot in that race, with 23,580 voters, or 65 percent, voting for Golden and 10,633, or 29 percent, for Kemmerer. Voter enrollment was largely unchanged -- there were 154,001 total registered in the district, with 77,328 Democrats, 32,710 Republicans, and 37,250 unaffiliateds.
Two years ago, the Democrats did not put up any opponent even as they were attempting to win back the Senate, allowing Golden to be reelected unopposed with more than 62,000 votes.
This year, however, is nothing like the last two elections. As Golden cruised unopposed in 2016, Donald Trump was surprisingly elected president. Awareness of the New York State Senate -- the fact that it has been controlled by Republicans, with the help of nine rogue Democrats -- grew. Activists organized. Party leaders, while feeling pressure from the base, began to see more seats as in play.
Turnout surged on primary day, September 13, and is expected to carry forward into the general. Voter registration has also climbed. As of April this year, there were 167,219 registered voters in District 22: 83,244 Democrats, 35,786 Republicans and 41,458 unaffiliateds.
“My approach has always been pragmatic progressivism,” Gounardes said, noting the issues that have defined his campaign and that he will be talking about for the next seven weeks: education, pedestrian safety, the city’s subway crisis, the high cost of living in the district, especially housing and health care, and corruption and good government reform.
“I have very progressive values but I’m also a very pragmatic person. Nothing in my platform is anything that I think is out of the mainstream,” he said. “I don’t think it’s out of the mainstream to talk about speed cameras. I don’t think it’s out of the mainstream to talk about fixing the MTA. Frankly I don’t think it’s out of the mainstream to talk about universal health care in the year 2018...I’m really focused on issues that we can have a direct impact on in as pragmatic a way as possible.”
He credited his primary victory to a robust field operation and a strong coalition of activists and labor unions that backed him. “We’re gonna do the same thing we did in the primary, we’re just gonna do more of it,” he said of his strategy to beat Golden. “The last four days of the election, we knocked on, I think, north of 15,000 doors in four days....We identified more than half of the voters in our target universe and we pulled them all out. And we predicted our turnout numbers, we predicted our margin, we hit all our metrics really, really strong. So we’re gonna do all of that but we’re gonna do it ten times more. That’s how we’re gonna win.”
Golden seems unperturbed by the challenge. The senator prides himself on being able to work with lawmakers from across the aisle and has called himself an “economic development nut,” who cares about lowering taxes and creating jobs. “My neighbors know I get good things done,” he said in an emailed statement to Gotham Gazette. “Bringing back billions of dollars to schools, advocating for common sense MTA reforms, standing up for labor, supporting law enforcement, driving economic development and job creation, keeping prescription medicine affordable and Brooklyn health care excellent - these have always been my priorities year in, year out.”
He has a strong fundraising advantage. He has raised more than $782,000 for reelection, spent just about $720,000 and has about $485,000 in cash on hand. Gounardes has only raised about $276,000, spent about $101,000 and has about $153,000 left.
Golden has also been endorsed for reelection by several prominent law enforcement and uniformed workers unions, including the Sergeant’s Benevolent Association and the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, and by the Civil Service Employees Association Local 1000, the New York League of Conservation Voters, and DC37, an influential labor group. “My focus - beginning, middle and end - are the Southern Brooklyn neighborhoods I have the honor of representing. The support I get is from them. However others try to frame this this race, it's not about - and has never been about - anything other than our communities,” Golden said.
State Republican Party Chair Ed Cox said in a statement, “Marty Golden is one of the most effective leaders in the state. He delivers for his district and his constituent service is second to none. People trust him and know they can count on him -- it's why Brooklynites from all political persuasions vote for him and it's why he'll be re-elected this November.”
On the other side, Gounardes is being aided in his effort by prominent elected officials and labor unions as well, including 32BJ, the powerful building services workers union that just played a significant role in defeating Senator Jeff Klein, former leader of the Independent Democratic Conference, in the primary. A campaign spokesperson for Governor Andrew Cuomo said they see the seat as in play and will be supporting Gounardes as the governor spearheads the party’s effort to flip the senate.
“We believe in this blue wave year, every seat is in play and the governor is laser focused on doing our part to take back the House and flip control of the State Senate this November to fight back against Donald Trump’s divisive, anti- New York agenda,” the spokesperson, Abbey Collins, said in a statement.
The Working Families Party and the True Blue coalition, made up of 60 activist groups, also intend to flood the district with volunteers and efforts to turn out voters, which they successfully employed in several other contested Democratic primaries. On Saturday, the Gounardes campaign is holding a large general election kickoff rally, and on Sunday, True Blue activists will join with City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and others to canvass in the district.
“Now that the primary’s behind us, there’s no other competitive general election to the State Senate in any one of the five boroughs except for our race here,” Gounardes pointed out. “So we feel very, very bullish about that fact and we’re encouraged by it because it means that volunteers, instead of getting on a bus and going to Pennsylvania or New Jersey or wherever else to go help with a congressional race, they now have an opportunity to take the subway down, if it’s running, and come down to Bay Ridge, and help us knock on doors and make phone calls.”
He has also been in touch with Barkan, his primary opponent, inviting him to the Saturday campaign event, and said that Barkan’s campaign volunteers and donors have reached out to offer support. “[H]e really spoke about Marty’s record in a way that I couldn’t have, with a platform that I just didn’t have,” Gounardes acknowledged of Barkan.
Barkan intends to assist the campaign which, he said in phone interview, could lead to a “sea change” in Southern Brooklyn. But he is still figuring out how he will get involved. “To defeat Marty Golden, you have to motivate Democrats, progressives, newer voters, younger voters, and really get them to come out,” he said. “I think this could be the year to do it. I certainly think Marty Golden is vulnerable, I always did. He is a state senator whose views are out of step with much of the district. It’s not an easy fight. I knew that going in, Andrew knows that too. But it’s a winnable fight.”
To Democrats, Golden’s weaknesses are legion. He is an avid supporter of President Donald Trump and has made a variety of bad headlines. In February last year, he falsely claimed that some of the 9/11 hijackers were Bay Ridge residents. In June 2017, he referred to now-Council Member Justin Brannan as “fat boy” at a sit-down with reporters. Then, in December, he apparently impersonated a police officer while his driver tried to force a cyclist out of a bike lane to get through traffic. In 2015, he made, and later deleted, a crass joke on Facebook about same-sex marriage and recreational marijuana being legalized. In 2012, he advertised and then later cancelled a workforce development seminar for women that had sexist overtones. In 2008, he spent more than $200,000 in campaign funds on events at a catering hall that he previously ran. He was investigated in 2014 for alleged campaign finance violations and used campaign funds for his defense, though no charges were filed. In 2005, Golden hit an elderly woman with his car -- she fell into a coma and died six months later -- and paid her family a settlement though he was found not to be at fault. He also believes Palestinian and Arab communities don’t vote because of cultural differences. And, in January, he made remarks about the opioid crisis that invited allegations of racism.
“We’re not talking about a quality candidate here,” said Harris Doran, a steering committee member of No IDC NY and an activist at Rise and Resist, two activist groups under the True Blue coalition. “He’s messed up his own record. No one else needs to do that. This is just a list of facts that are horrible. And he’s also super for Trump.”
[Read: After Primary Wins, Progressive Activists Eye Flipping State Senate Seats, and Wide Majority]
Golden also has a lengthy record of speeding tickets, which many saw as particularly hypocritical because of his shifting positions on the renewal of a law in this year’s state legislative session related to a speed camera program in place around New York City schools. The Democratic Assembly pushed to expand the program and the Republican Senate refused, leading to an expiration of the program that has since been resurrected by City Council legislation and a Cuomo executive order.
“A lot of people frankly are startled or shocked when they hear some of the policy positions or some of the things that Marty Golden stands for and the fact that someone can hold these views in 2018 in the city of New York,” said Brannan, a close Gounardes ally whose City Council district overlaps with Senate District 22. Brannan won his seat by defeating John Quaglione, who is Golden’s deputy chief of staff.
Brannan conceded it will be a tough battle. “We’re gonna have to work very hard because the district is very heavily gerrymandered but I think we’ve got the numbers,” he said.
Golden, however, downplayed the massive uptick in turnout in the district. “Slogans like ‘blue wave’ have a way of glossing over and missing the reality of neighborhoods,” he said. “Every district and community is different. I am proud and grateful to have longstanding support from all parties, all ages, all backgrounds, and from throughout the district.”
Gounardes believes Golden’s base has likely soured on his record. “The message has always been for years that if we run a strong, smart campaign, Golden is vulnerable,” he said. “We know that because his support in the district is a mile wide but an inch deep and his record is really poor on a lot of critical issues.”
He added, “We’re gonna flip the Senate when we win this race and so people wanna be a part of that history-making moment and they can do it without having to leave the city.”