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In the News: The Primaries

by Jonathan Trichter and Susan Reefer, Sep 01, 2000
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The Democratic Rundown

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by Jonathan Trichter

On September 12th, New York City Democrats in effect chose their elected officials. This is when we voted in party primaries. The Republicans had a primary race this year within the city limits, an obscure one in Staten Island. But there were a ton of Democratic primaries. This is a Democratic town, so in many cases our primaries were tantamount to the general election, and are where the real competition took place.

Real competition is not something that happens in every race, of course: At the top of the ballot was the Senate race between you-know-who and someone you don't know; Hillary Clinton's primary opponent was Mark S. McMahon, an orthopedic surgeon. Was anybody surprised that he lost?

But there were some noteworthy contests, and though most incumbents won out over their challengers, there were some interesting outcomes, including the resurrection of Adam Clayton Powell IV and of Pedro Espada Jr., the selection of two strong candidates for State Senate, Lorraine Coyle Koppell in the Bronx and Liz Krueger in Manhattan, who will be formidable challengers to the Republican incumbents, and the overwhelming election of a woman who is dead. Here is a run-down, based on results from unofficial tallies. [The Citizens Union Voters Directory offered a non-partisan but opinionated guide to all primary races, including those of third parties, and will put out a new guide for the general election in November.]

IN THE BRONX:

  • The most exciting Democratic primary was in the 17th Congressional District, where State Senator Larry Seabrook challenged six-term Congressman Eliot Engel, unsuccessfully. (Engel 50 percent, Seabrook 42 percent) Larry Seabrook is African American while Eliot Engel is Jewish, and Democratic Party boss, Roberto Ramirez, has made it his mission to elect more minority representatives. When Engel was first elected, the district was predominantly white-ethnic. But the demographics shifted; the majority of Engel's constituents are now minorities. So Engel was fighting the Bronx machine in a race about race. [See Gotham Gazette Issue of the Week entitled "The New Ethnic Politics" which focuses on this race] The race got nasty, with published reports accusing Seabrook of filing joint tax returns with his wife when he had already divorced her, and Seabrook accusing the Engel campaign of leaking the information. If though Engel has won, though, this could be his last term. For the 2001 reapportionment may make this a minority district once and for all.
  • For the 32nd State Senate primary, incumbent David Rosado ran against former incumbent Pedro Espada. In 1998, it was Rosado who unseated Espada by less than 1,000 votes. In 2000, Espada has now returned the favor, winning by a large margin.
  • The cutthroat congressional primary in the 17th CD has spilled into the State Senate primary for the 33rd Senate District. Samuel Bea, Jr. was the undistinguished incumbent. As payback for being abandoned by the local party, Engel backed Ruth Thompson. Thompson won.
  • The 34th SD includes the affluent Riverdale section of the Bronx. The state senator there is Republican Guy Velella. Two Democrats, Michael Benedetto and Lorraine Coyle Koppell, were vying for the opportunity to challenge Velella. While Benedetto had the backing of the Bronx Democratic machine, it may be because he was the weaker candidate; Velella has enjoyed good relations with Democratic Party bosses. Coyle Koppell is the wife of former Attorney General G. Oliver Koppell. She won.
  • In the 76th Assembly District, incumbent Peter M. Rivera had an easy primary, winning 62 percent of the vote. His opposition, Charles R. Serrano, has run against him three or four times and has never come close.

IN BROOKLYN:

  • In 1998, Anthony Weiner defeated Noach Dear and Melinda Katz in the Democratic primary for New York's 9th CD (United States Senator Chuck Schumer's old seat). Dear ran as a Democrat in this year's primary and will run as a Republican in the general, which means he is favored to lose twice.
  • In 1998, Barry Ford ran an ill-fated primary against incumbent Rep. Edolphus Towns in New York's 10th CD. This year, Ford ran again, with the same results: Towns defeated him, 57 to 43 percent.
  • Major Owens is the Congressman from the 11th CD. His challenger, Una Clarke, was his friend and protegee, and is now a member of the City Council. The race was acrimonious, the candidates accusing each other of exacerbating tensions between African-Americans and Caribbean-Americans. The incumbent kept his seat.
  • In the 17th Senate District, Richard Velazquez challenged incumbent Nellie R Santiago. Vito Lopez, who runs an effective political operation, backed Velazquez. To siphon votes from Santiago, Lopez fielded a third candidate whose last name is also Santiago (no relation to Nellie). If the intention was to confuse voters and split Santiago's support, it didn't work. Nellie Santiago won with 53 percent of the vote.
  • In an upset that party experts expected, in the 40th State Assembly District, incumbent Edward Griffith lost to his challenger, Diane Gordon, who was supported by Congressman Edolphus Towns.
  • Rhoda S. Jacobs represents the 42nd Assembly District, which is 90 percent African American. Jacobs is Jewish and is vulnerable against any African American candidate. Yet somehow, she has survived two legislative reapportionments. Zacary Lareche, her Haitian challenger, got knocked off the ballot, so Jacobs endured again.
  • On top of running the Kings County Democratic Party, Clarence Norman represents the 43rd Assembly District. In 1998, community activist James E. Davis caught Norman off guard. Norman barely ran a re-election campaign, and Davis got within a few hundred votes of victory. This year, Norman has focused his energy on defeating Davis decisively -- and did so, with 60 percent of the vote.
  • Lena Cymbrowitz represented the 45th Assembly District until she passed away just weeks ago. That did not stop 85 percent from voting for her anyway against perennial primary challenger Michael J. Hizme.
  • The Assemblywoman for the 46th District is Adele H. Cohen. This year, Cohen almost got primary competition from Alec Brook-Krasny. Brook-Krasny is part of the new wave of Russian immigrants who came to America in the 1970's. It may soon be time for these Russian Jews to make an electoral mark, but not yet: Brook-Krasny did not make it on the ballot.
  • Roger Green represents the 57th Assembly District. He has a reputation for being a lazy campaigner. His opponent, Hakeem Jeffries, is a successful lawyer with a reputation for being a workhorse. I thought this would come down to the wire. But Green won handily, with 59 percent of the vote.

IN MANHATTAN:

  • Upper East Side Democrats living in the 12th Congressional District (CD) voted to re-nominate Congresswoman Nydia M. Velazquez with 77 percent of the vote. While Rep. Velazquez is a safe incumbent, she has had internal disagreements with local party leaders. So, no free passes for Nydia; the party always runs a token candidate against her. This year, her name was Mildred Rasario.
  • Upper West Side Democrats from the 15th CD re-nominated the Hon. Charles Rangel by 83 percent of the vote. His opponent was Ruben Vargas. Vargas has run against Rangel before. Sometimes he gets knocked off the ballot. Sometimes he shows up on the Right-to-Life line.
  • In the 26th State Senate District (SD) on the Upper East Side, Democrats chose Liz Krueger overhwelmingly over perennial candidate Robert J. Bellinson, 76 to 24 percent Bellinson usually runs unopposed in the primary and then gets pummeled by Republican Roy Goodman in the general. This year, Liz Krueger poses a more credible threat to Goodman.
  • Olga Mendez is the 22-year incumbent of the 28th SD (this senate district represents a sliver of Manhattan but more of the Bronx). A Democrat, Mendez plays footsie with Senate Republicans; as the majority party in the Senate, they have all the power. Still, Mendez has kept her party credentials and the support of local leaders. Though she drew a fiercely Democratic opponent named Felix Rosado, she easily defeated him, 68 to 32 percent.
  • In the 68th Assembly District (AD), incumbent Nelson A. Denis was trounced by Adam Clayton Powell IV, 53 to 40 percent. In the past, Powell has been a mediocre candidate. Nevertheless, the initials "ACP" pack potential energy.
  • Incumbent Edward C. Sullivan won overwhelmingly against Louis M. Nunez in the 69th AD. Nunez is politically aligned with Rangel's opponent, Ruben Vargas. It's a good thing that neither Nunez nor Vargas quit their day jobs.
  • The race in the 72nd AD was between incumbent Ramon S. Echavarria and Adriano Espaillat, whose family feud with Democratic leaders is as intense as the Hatfields and the McCoys. For the political families involved, this race was critical. Everyone else just hoped that nobody gets hurt. Espaillat won with 83 percent of the vote.
  • Republican John Ravitz holds Manhattan's 73rd Assembly seat. In the Democratic Primary, Jerome Polansky ran against Kirk A. Swanson, a race that, the morning after, was too close to call. Indeed, only eight votes separated the two candidates! Two years ago, Polansky dropped out of the primary. This year, he is in it for keeps. Of course, this seat is Ravits' for keeps, unless he runs for Mayor in 2001.

IN QUEENS:

  • In the 34th Assembly District, incumbent Ivan C. Lafayette should won with 59 percent of the vote. After the next reapportionment, however, this should become a predominantly Latino district. Challenger William H. Salgado, who got about a quarter of the vote, is setting himself up for a more realistic run in 2002.
  • The 36th Assembly District is the only Democratic open seat in the city this year. (Incumbent Richard Butler is retiring.) Kimon C. Thermos ran against Butler last year and only lost by 300 votes. This year, the primary was between Thermos and Michael N. Gianaris, both Greek Americans. This is a Democratic seat, so the winner of the primary will be the next Assemblyman. The winner was Gianaris.

IN STATEN ISLAND:

The Democratic primary for New York's 59th State Assembly District was won either by Raymond G. Jorgensen or John Lavelle. It was, the day after the primary, too close to call.


Republican Reflection

by Susan Reefer

When I think back on the summer of 2000 in New York City, many years from now, I'm guessing I won't remember the cool, rainy weather. I won't remember the infestations, either of mosquitoes, or scooters. I probably won't even remember much about the Presidential contest, once it sorts itself out.

What I will remember about this summer are the cows.

Here in New York, this summer, there are cows. Everywhere. Wherever you go, in midtown or in the park or in Grand Central, there are cows-- fiberglass, full-size cow statues, painted by artists, commissioned by sponsors, placed all around the city unexpectedly, so that you have the uncanny sense they were passing through one night and just decided to stay. It's the Cow Parade. There are cows that look like taxis, and cows that look like pianos. There is a ballerina cow, a rhinestone-studded cow, and there's the cow the jumps over the moon in the broadway musical, Rent. There's a doorman cow, a tourist cow, a zebra cow.

I am sure I will remember the cows. I am not sure I will remember the candidates. The Republican Party, greatly outnumbered in parts of the city, couldn't even find one candidate to field in many contests. Indeed, there was only one Republican primary race within the five boroughs, the 23rd State Senate District, which covers parts of Staten Island close and Brooklyn, in which Robert DiCarlo, the 43-year-old former State Senator, won out over Charles Capetanakis, a 38-year-old attorney. DiCarlo will thus have a chance to take back the seat he lost in 1996 to Democratic incumbent Vincent Gentile.

Primaries, where they do happen, reveal something worth noticing about the party and its members. In primaries, voters are often asked to pick between two or more candidates, any of whom would be their choice in a general election.

That can sometimes lead to divisions within a party organization, but it doesn't have to. Sometimes a primary, apart from choosing a nominee, allows the party members to sort out what they stand for, individually, and as a larger organization. It can be healthy, and even help the eventual nominee get press coverage and keep interest high during the otherwise politically stagnant summer months.

And for the political observer, a heated primary is the ultimate in political spectacle.

Some primary contests are truly competitive; battles between well-matched candidates vying for the chance to carry their party's banner.

But others, perhaps even most primary campaigns are more abstract. They are intended to make a point, or to pull the more established candidate in one direction, usually away from the center.

This year, for instance, there was a Republican primary in the 2nd Congressional District. Joan Johnson, the Islip Town Supervisor, was the local Republican party's designated candidate. She was hand-picked by the party leadership to try and hold on the seat of Republican Congressman Rick Lazio, who is running for U.S. Senate.

Johnson faced a primary challenge after Republican diplomat Robert Walsh enter ed the race. They have different genders, backgrounds, and levels of experience. Walsh, who is pro-life, feels that Johnson is not conservative enough to represent the district. Going against the formidable Republican machine in the 2nd District may seem illogical, but Walsh may have had his reasons for running that are exclusive of his desire to serve in Congress.

Primaries are a good opportunity for parties to measure the strength of their organization, by turning out the party faithful to support the designated candidate. This can often make the difference. Most primaries are decided by just a fraction of the electorate; often fewer than one in ten registered voters show up to vote in their party primary. It is a number that is usually manageable for even an under-funded and short-staffed campaign.

Susan Reefer is a Republican pollster and media strategist. She is based in New York City.




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