Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


10 Races & More to Watch in the General Election

people festival mayor's office

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

With the primaries over, there is still room for evaluating what happened and analyzing what it all means, but it is also time to shift into the general election and what to watch as the city heads toward Tuesday, November 7: Election Day 2017.

Unless there are races too close to call, that night we will know who the mayor will be for the next four years, as well as who will hold the other citywide offices of comptroller and public advocate, the five borough president positions, all 51 City Council seats, and more.

There are several races to watch, though the competition in general is less fierce than it was for the primaries given the city’s severe Democratic tilt and that many interesting races were in City Council primaries, especially for most of the 10 “open” seats where the incumbent is not seeking reelection this year, either because of term limits (seven cases) or personal decisions (another job, family move, corruption conviction).

Still, there are a few City Council races worth paying attention to, as well as the three citywide races: incumbent Democrats Mayor Bill de Blasio, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and Public Advocate Letitia James all have competitors running to unseat them. There are also borough presidency challengers in each case, where the five incumbents are all seeking re-election to their posts.

In addition, there are other interesting storylines worth attention now and over the next several weeks, including the Election Day votes on three ballot questions: whether New York should hold a state constitutional convention; whether corrupt elected officials should have their pensions stripped; and whether New York can open up a small portion of protected land preserves. These questions will be on the back of the ballot.

Other interesting and important storylines and events to watch include the general election debates; the Board of Elections administration of the election; voter turnout; how much independent expenditure money is spent attempting to influence races; and more.

As de Blasio seeks reelection his main challengers are Republican Nicole Malliotakis, independent Bo Dietl, and Sal Albanese, who just came in a distant second to de Blasio in the Democratic primary, but is running on the Reform Party line in the general. There will be several other candidates on the mayoral ballot, including Green Party nominee Akeem Browder and Mike Tolkin, the third-place Democratic primary finisher running on his self-created Smart Cities ballot line.

De Blasio is a heavy favorite. He has the powers of incumbency, including huge name recognition and fundraising advantages. Malliotakis is running an aggressive campaign and hitting the threshold to receive public matching funds will soon give her a big boost in money to build her name recognition and get her message out to more voters. She’s been crisscrossing the city and attacking de Blasio at every stop. It’s not yet clear that she has crafted a powerful message for why she should be mayor other than that she’s not de Blasio, which will not be good enough to win. She also faces daunting odds given the city’s party enrollment disparities and that de Blasio has the vast majority of support from labor unions, known for their get-out-the-vote capabilities, especially valuable in low turnout elections.

One other problem for Malliotakis, an Assemblymember from Staten Island, is that Dietl will likely siphon votes from her. While there is some question about whether Dietl may actually do better in the end than Malliotakis, she has shown herself to be a more serious candidate and will likely outpace him. But, if they split most of the anti-de Blasio vote, neither will have a chance to unseat the mayor.

Albanese, meanwhile, will continue to push his message of political reform, better management of the city, and de Blasio’s unfitness for the office. He received about 15 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary while barely qualifying for the sanctioned debates based on his fundraising and spending numbers. He performed fairly well at those debates, but is now in danger of getting overshadowed by Malliotakis and Dietl.

Scott Stringer has performed well as comptroller, in part because he spent most of the first three-plus years of the term pulling no punches in going after de Blasio, whom Stringer was considering challenging in the Democratic primary for mayor. Stringer abandoned that consideration when neither de Blasio nor his associates were charged in twin law enforcement investigations. As Stringer said all along, the job of comptroller is about holding City Hall accountable. That’s also the job of the public advocate, but we’ve seen a lot less bite from Letitia James given that she is a long-standing de Blasio ally -- something her main general election opponent is making an issue of (see below).

Stringer wound up exchanging endorsements with de Blasio. Now, in the general, his main challenger is Republican Michel Faulkner, a minister who had been in the mayoral race for a while before dropping down to run for comptroller and endorsing Paul Massey, who later dropped out of the mayoral race himself.

Faulkner has struggled to raise money and has not been especially active on the campaign trail of late. Faulkner could look to make a mark during the formal, televised debates, but Stringer is expected to win reelection with a high margin of the vote.

Public Advocate
James has reimagined the office of public advocate as “the people’s law firm,” using her legal background and additional staff attorneys to file more lawsuits against the city, to mixed success. She has also taken a much more serious and rigorous approach to legislating from the office, introducing and passing more bills than her predecessors, a group that includes Bill de Blasio. James has a strong record to run on in terms of that legislation, including her push to see a ban on employers asking the salary history of job candidates, a law that seeks to reduce gender pay equity, and outreach -- she’s held dozens of town halls across the city. On the other hand, James has been noticeably quiet about de Blasio’s issues related to transparency and ethics.

In the general election, Republican J.C. Polanco is James’ main challenger. He’s running on a fairly moderate platform that he hopes will appeal to unaffiliated, AKA independent, voters as well as some Democrats. Polanco has an extensive resume in public affairs and government, and is putting forth many substantive policy ideas. He, too, is struggling to raise money, though, and will have a hard time building name recognition or qualifying for debates through the Campaign Finance Board system that determines the sanctioned, televised contests. He challenged James to debate him anyway, and she accepted.

A debate between James, herself a former City Council member, and Polanco, who was once president of the city Board of Elections and has worked for the state Assembly minority, will probably be the most substantive of the general election.

City Council
There are a small handful of City Council races to pay any attention to in the general election. Most City Council competition occurred during Democratic primaries for “open” seats where the incumbent was not seeking reelection.

Council District 43
Perhaps the only real swing City Council district of the 51 in the city, District 43 includes Southern Brooklyn neighborhoods like Bay Ridge. Justin Brannan, a longtime aide to outgoing, term-limited Council Member Vincent Gentile, won a crowded Democratic primary. John Quaglione, an aide to state Senator Marty Golden, won a crowded Republican primary. Now, it’s Brannan versus Quaglione for the seat.

The district has a Democratic enrollment advantage, but the key for Brannan to make it work will be turnout. Quaglione has been campaigning with Malliotakis, and the anti-de Blasio sentiment in the area is significant, though it is not clear how much so. Brannan, who worked in the mayor’s administration at the Department of Education, was not endorsed by de Blasio in the primary, seemingly because it could hurt him, though de Blasio aides helped Brannan get out the vote.

Above all, the district is one where a focus on local, neighborhood issues and constituent services is key. Both Brannan and Quaglione have been working in the district on these issues for a number of years and have deep community ties.

Council District 13
Assemblymember Mark Gjonaj won a crowded Democratic primary to replace term-limited Council Member James Vacca, who had backed Marjorie Velazquez. Gjonaj, who is seen as fairly moderate, won in part by spending a record sum for a City Council campaign. In the general election, he will face Republican John Cerini.

Just after the primary, Bronx Republican County Chair Mike Rendino released a statement saying, "In a stunning rebuke to politics as usual, Mark Gjonaj couldn't even break 40% in his Democratic primary election after spending more money than any council candidate in the history of the City’s campaign finance system.”

The statement also said: "Developer Mark Gjonaj is now going to have to defend his record against John Cerini in the general election. John is a longtime community leader and small business owner in Throgg's Neck and has been fighting for us his whole life. I like our chances."

Gjonaj, who is favored to win, issued a statement upon winning the primary that said he is looking forward to “protecting the common-sense Democratic values that are vital in safeguarding our working and middle-class families, keeping our streets safe, ensuring every child receives a quality education and securing affordable housing options for the most vulnerable.” He promised to work with his constituents to fight against an oversaturation of facilities like supportive housing. “Together, we will fight for fair share and prevent The Bronx from being the dumping ground for our City’s growing homeless crisis.”

Council District 32
Mike Scala won a three-way race for the Democratic nomination in Queens’ District 32, and will now take on incumbent Council Member Eric Ulrich, one of just three Republicans in the City Council’s current class. Ulrich is the most moderate of those three Republicans and has been backed by Democrats in the past and again this year. Ulrich flirted with a mayoral campaign, but wound up not pursuing the race and instead endorsed Bo Dietl, who he says has the best chance of defeating Mayor de Blasio.

Scala is an attorney who has had experience drafting legislation in the state Senate. He’s focused on transit in his community work, among other issues. Ulrich, meanwhile, has fought the opening of new shelters in the district and assailed the de Blasio administration for its lack of follow through in the ongoing recovery from Superstorm Sandy.

Council District 44
City Council Member David Greenfield announced he would not seek reelection at the perfect time to help his preferred successor, Kalman Yeger, be assured of the Democratic nomination in Brooklyn’s Council District 44, virtually assuring Yeger the seat. But, Yeger is being challenged by Yoni Hikind, the son of Assemblymember Dov Hikind, who does not get along with Greenfield.

While Yeger is seemingly the favorite, and he has Greenfield’s all-out support, he is facing an opponent in Hikind whose last name carries weight in the area. As the general election season proceeds, expect this race to become especially contentious.

Council District 35
City Council Member Laurie Cumbo survived a tough Democratic primary challenge by a larger margin than some expected, defeating Ede Fox somewhat handily. Cumbo is a heavy favorite in the general, but she cannot simply coast. Jabari Brisport, the Green Party nominee, is running a vigorous campaign and has garnered a bit of media attention. It’s unlikely Brisport can catch fire enough to make the race close, especially given his minimal campaign fundraising, but if the activists who backed Fox’s campaign get behind him, he could raise more than a few eyebrows.

As it was in the Democratic primary, the dominant issue in the race will continue to be gentrification and affordability for this changing Brooklyn district. Most specifically, the redevelopment of the Bedford Union Armory will continue to be a focal point of debate as the proposal from the de Blasio administration is renegotiated, with Cumbo in the spotlight, and the land use review process clock ticking.

Council District 40
Brian Cunningham is continuing into the general in his quest to unseat incumbent Democratic City Council Member Mathieu Eugene. Cunningham, now on the Reform Party ballot line, came in second to Eugene in the Democratic primary, about 1,400 votes behind. This, while the third place finished, Pia Raymond, received almost 3,000 votes. Eugene is the favorite again, but if Cunningham can retain his nearly 4,000 Democratic voters and add some of Raymond’s and beyond, he may make Eugene sweat.

Council District 4
Keith Powers won an impressive victory in a crowded and qualified Democratic field to replace term-limited Council Member Dan Garodnick. Now into the general, Powers faces Republican Rebecca Harary. Also on the ballot will be Rachel Honig, who placed a distant third in the Democratic primary and will be on the Liberal Party ballot line. Powers is a heavy favorite, but Harary is a veteran political player who will attempt to galvanize what is not a small anti-de Blasio sentiment in the Manhattan district, and Honig will carry over some of the momentum she built in the primary.

The Three Ballot Questions
Question two, on the pension forfeiture, appears a no-brainer to virtually everyone. The other two may take some studying up, though many groups have already taken their positions on the constitutional convention, or “con con,” as it is known. Generally speaking, many reformers are for a convention, while labor unions and some issue-focused advocacy groups across a broad spectrum are against it, largely out of fear of what may be stripped or added through a convention.

Many leading politicians are urging a “no” vote, largely expressing fears about how the process may unfold. Those who have seen ethics, campaign finance, and voting reforms repeatedly stalled in Albany, however, believe that a “yes” vote is needed so that voters can take matters into their own hands. The con con question will be the first on the back of the ballot and is already seeing a great deal of money, largely from the labor unions worried about pension guarantees, spent trying to sway voter opinion.

The third of the three “yes” or “no” ballot questions, to allow a small portion of the “forever wild” land to be used for what some say are necessary infrastructure projects, is not particularly a New York City issue. A relatively small amount of land would be put aside that localities can then apply to use for certain classifications of projects, like water infrastructure.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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