Left to right: Democrats Richards, Crowley, Constantinides, Yin, Miranda
This story was published in partnership with the Queens Daily Eagle
Early voting begins today -- Saturday, June 13 -- for the Democratic primary for Queens Borough President, a race that was triggered when the previous officeholder, Melinda Katz, was elected the borough’s district attorney last year and took office in January.
As much as borough presidents hold largely ceremonial roles, they do have important powers, healthy budgets, and a make-what-you-will-of-it bully pulpit -- they can have real world impact and the office-holder matters. This is especially true as the city faces a tough road to recovery from the devastating impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and its fallout.
In terms of nuts-and-bolts powers, the borough president makes advisory recommendations on land use issues, appoints members to the borough’s 14 community boards, and allocates funding from a $65 million discretionary capital budget.
In normal circumstances, the vacancy left by Katz would have been filled fairly quickly through a nonpartisan special election. But after COVID-19 struck and New York City became the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States, the state’s electoral calendar was disrupted. A special election scheduled for March 24 to name a borough president for the rest of the year was initially suspended by Mayor Bill de Blasio on March 15, just one day after early voting began.
Subsequently, Governor Andrew Cuomo delayed the special election to June 23 before outright cancelling it so it would not clash with the primary scheduled the same day, part of the election to determine the officeholder for all of 2021, when there will be yet another election in the city’s normal four-year election cycle. Interim Borough President Sharon Lee has wound up with a far longer tenure than anyone foresaw when she was sworn in just after Katz had to resign to take her new post.
There were six candidates running in the special election – sitting City Council Members Donovan Richards and Costa Constantinides; former City Council Member Elizabeth Crowley; retired NYPD Sergeant and police reform advocate Anthony Miranda; former Queens Assistant District Attorney Jim Quinn; and Dao Yin, a community activist with corporate experience. Quinn, who did not petition to get on the primary ballot, has since been forced to drop out of the race after a failed court challenge to restore the special election.
“While I strongly disagree and believe this decision disenfranchised Queens voters who have a right to an elected borough president before January 2021, at this point further legal action would be futile and we must accept the judge’s ruling,” he said in a May 29 statement.
The other five candidates -- a group with diverse backgrounds, viewpoints, and priorities for Queens -- are on this month’s Democratic primary ballot. Along with early voting June 13-21 and primary day, June 23, all eligible voters can utilize absentee balloting per a Cuomo order aimed at reducing the risk of coronavirus spread.
The pandemic has far-reaching implications for the election and its aftermath, particularly since Queens, with more than 2.3 million residents, contains some of the neighborhoods hardest hit by COVID-19. As of June 10, the city reported 205,011 confirmed cases of coronavirus, 53,369 hospitalizations and 21,960 confirmed and probable deaths. There have been 6,389 confirmed and probable COVID-19 deaths in Queens alone.
Neighborhoods in western and southeast Queens have borne the brunt of the outbreak, seeing more cases than most other zip codes across the city. That also raises the question of who will turn out to vote. There is no polling model for voter behavior in the middle of a pandemic and there have been no public polls at all to gauge the state of the race.
With most people sheltering at home and wary of casting their ballots in person at polling sites, and with the state hoping to avoid new clusters of infection, Governor Cuomo passed a series of executive orders that first allowed any voter to request an absentee ballot and then directing the State Board of Elections to mail a postage-paid absentee ballot application to all registered voters.
The candidates themselves have had to adapt to the new reality. Each of them abandoned on-the-ground canvassing efforts and turned to digital and social media to reach voters. They have continued to participate in town halls and debates, held virtually.
On the issues, the candidates largely express similarities, though they have taken varied stances on some important topics and have different focal points of their campaigns. All of them, save for Yin, have presented themselves as progressives who want criminal justice reform, economic development, more affordable housing, environment protections, and improved transit. They all supported the closure of the Rikers Island jail complex. Yin’s focus seems to be mostly on protecting small businesses, and he’s also tacked to the right on policing.
But there are degrees of difference and the candidates each have their areas of expertise. Constantinides, as chair of the Council’s environmental protection committee, can squarely declare himself the green candidate and has sought to claim ground as the most progressive candidate. Richards has spent years focused on police reform, including as chair of the Council’s public safety committee, and smart development, including of mixed-income affordable housing. Crowley is a more moderate liberal, focused on job growth and quality of life, with reform through steady, incremental change. Miranda declares himself the outsider with no ties to the current or former political establishment. And Yin is the longer longshot candidate, with a far less active campaign than the others.
For the undecideds, the voters who wait till the last minute to make their choice, the recent protests in the city spurred by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis could also be a determining factor. Queens voters could reject candidates who stand alongside the police rather than the protesters, or vice versa. Some voters may base their choice on who they’ve heard speak to them on issues related to police reform, the NYPD budget, and combating structural racism. Some voters may yearn for limited change -- while western Queens has become a hotbed of progressivism, the eastern part of the borough remains more moderate and conservative, and home to many in law enforcement.
Richards is among the frontrunners, having secured the backing of the Queens Democratic Party. But the county party is a shadow of what it once was and may no longer play the kingmaker of past elections.
But Richards, who is black and represents District 31 covering southeast Queens and Far Rockaway, isn’t relying on the party infrastructure to lift him to the top. He’s confident that he’s the most experienced and accomplished candidate in the race. “If you had a major surgery, do you want somebody to operate on you their first day on the job or do you want somebody who’s actually had the experience and record of getting you through a successful surgery?”
This isn’t the first time Richards has had to tailor his campaign to a major emergency, he said, noting that he was first elected to the City Council in a special election in 2013 just months after Hurricane Sandy. As he was working to deliver food and emergency supplies to those affected by the hurricane then, he’s been working to ensure that Queens residents have access to personal protective equipment, testing, and other necessities during the COVID-19 pandemic. And he has been a vocal proponent for reforming the NYPD and cutting the department’s budget amid the ongoing movement against police brutality during which the mayor has mostly dug in his heels.
“People want to see you out in the street. They want to know that during a time of crisis, you're going to respond and you're going to be on the ground,” he said. “A campaign shouldn't be about slogans and about who can get the best sound bite in a debate. It should be about, what is your record in a time of crisis.”
Richards proudly touts the resources and investments he’s brought back to his community: $1.5 billion for sewer infrastructure in Southeast Queens when he was chair of the environmental protection committee; $139 million under the Downtown Far Rockaway rezoning, which includes about 2,000 units of affordable housing, new libraries, parks and commercial space. He also played a role in creating the city’s OneNYC sustainability plan, aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change and had a hand in the final design of the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing affordable housing policy when he chaired a zoning subcommittee.
All the other candidates “have never lived that experience of bringing a community back after eight years from the devastation of a hurricane,” he said.
“There's no community in Queens that’s seen more investment than ours. So that's what people are looking for and I think I have the blueprint of how to achieve that for the entire borough,” he added.
As the borough and the city at large struggle with an affordable housing crisis, Richards said he’s the only candidate “who actually understands housing policy” since he led the subcommittee on zoning and franchises. “In a community like mine, you can literally and physically come in and see 10,000 units of affordable housing being built,” he said. “While the rest of Queens’ economy is sort of stagnating and you're not seeing new commercial come into communities, in the Rockaways, there’s about 300,000 square feet of new retail coming in. New plazas, new streets, new infrastructure. That's the difference.”
Richards said he has broad support across the borough, not only in his district. He has been endorsed by several prominent labor unions including 1199 SEIU, DC37, the United Federation of Teachers, 32BJ SEIU and the Hotel Trades Council, along with nearly two dozen state, local and national elected officials including Reps. Hakeem Jeffries and Gregory Meeks (who leads the Queens County Democrats). “We’ve built out a broad enough coalition,” Richards said.
With the movement on police reform having gathered strong momentum leading up to the primary vote, Richards also believes his record on pushing for police accountability sets him apart. “My first vote coming into the City Council was on the Community Safety Act, which actually ended stop-and-frisk technically,” he noted of the 2013 legislation, passed over a Mayor Michael Bloomberg veto, that established an inspector general of the NYPD and strengthened protections against racial profiling in police stops.
He’s also sponsored several bills to reform the department including, most recently, one that would create a disciplinary matrix for officer misconduct. “There’s no one who’s been more entrenched in the work than me,” he said. The legislation, first introduced by former City Council Member Dan Garodnick last Council session, may be finally set to move, though while a hearing was recently held, chaired by Richards, a full Council vote has not been scheduled.
One area where Richards may lose progressives, however, is his willingness to accept contributions from real estate developers, which have become taboo for some over the course of several years as the city’s unaffordability crisis has worsened. Richards has insisted that he’s shown an ability to drive a hard bargain and that he wouldn’t be beholden to those donations. “I think it's going to be incumbent that we have a borough president who understands and knows how to work with development, and how to shepherd in benefits for local communities. It’s not just writing a blank check to developers,” he said.
His campaign fundraising and expenditure is second to Crowley. As of June 8, he has raised $295,382 in private donations, received $751,284 in public funds from the Campaign Finance Board and has spent about $826,312.
City Council Member Costa Constantinides, who is white and represents District 22, covering Astoria, East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, and Woodside, has also been primarily focused on the response to the pandemic. “This is the challenge of our lifetimes and that’s not an understatement. This is life and death,” he said.
“My priority as a Council member and as a candidate is taking care of people, first and foremost...What sets me apart is that we have a real plan,” he said. He pointed out that the very issues he’s advocated for – a ‘Green jobs plan,’ reducing pollution and investing in renewable energy, environmental justice and public health – have all converged under this pandemic caused by a respiratory illness. Neighborhoods with more pollution tend to have higher rates of asthma, which in turn can put people at higher risk of dying from COVID-19, according to at least one study. The massive job loss and recession brought about by the coronavirus shutdown have also made the need for green jobs more urgent, Constantinides argues.
His advocacy for environmental causes has earned him the endorsement of the Sunrise Movement NYC and Sierra Club NYC. He has several labor backers including RWDSU, Teamsters Local 553, UFCW Local 1500, IUOE Local 94 and CWA Local 1106. And a number of Democratic clubs have also endorsed him including Stonewall Democrats, the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, New Queens Democrats, and Muslim Democratic Club of New York. He has the support of StreetsPAC, Our Revolution, and the Hispanic American Voters Association.
“We have built a progressive coalition that's focused on fighting for the future of Queens and what kind of world we want to live in,” he said.
Constantinides sees almost every issue, whether its infrastructure or economic development or even a criminal justice issue like closing the Rikers jails, from an environmental perspective. That’s the foundation of his green jobs plan, which he said would be essential in driving the borough’s recovery from COVID-19.
“We need 21st century middle-class jobs,” he said while also taking a shot at the failed Amazon deal that did not include a guarantee of union jobs. He envisions “rebuilding Rikers Island, when it closes, with green renewable energy. Looking to solarize and green roof every city building in Queens. Having public works projects that are going to invest in our borough, that’re going to lift people out of poverty and into middle class jobs and at the same time reduce the burden on environmental justice neighborhoods that are suffering from decades of environmental racism.”
While the city has suspended the land use review process during the pandemic, Constantinides has been pushing to restart it at least for the redesignation of Rikers as a public space.
He also seemed to express some displeasure with Katz’s tenure as the borough president. “I'm not the status quo. I'm not willing to go along with what's been going on for the last seven years,” he said.
The city’s matching funds program has also put him at largely an even footing with the other candidates. Constantinides has raised $266,261, received $720,754 in public funds, and has spent $860,104 as of June 8.
Former Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, who is white, has laid the groundwork for a run for borough president for several years — at least since her narrow defeat to Bob Holden in Queens’ District 30 in 2017.
She has outraised her opponents, raking in $505,614 in private contributions and $1,152,592 in matching funds as of June 8, and she has outspent them — making big TV ad buys ahead of the canceled March special election.
To Crowley, the office of borough president demands a leader who can unite the sprawling borough’s diverse communities in pursuit of common goals.
“I don’t look at the role as a cheerleader. I look at it as a master planner. Someone who understands how to properly grow communities,” she said. Crowley supported Amazon’s plan to establish a sprawling campus in Long Island City and has said that Queens will be “open for business” if she were elected. She has the support of various trade and transit unions, including Transit Workers Union 100 and the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 9 — her own former union.
She has also has the backing of various firefighters unions, whom she worked with as chair of the Council’s Fire and Criminal Justice Services committee. Her cousin, former Queens Democratic boss and Congressional Representative Joe Crowley, has fundraised for her.
Crowley’s top priority is ensuring Queens gets its “fair share” in terms of public transit, school funding, and medical facilities. The fair share argument is a common complaint at community board meetings and town hall events in Queens, where parents decry sending their kids to the most overcrowded schools in the city. The COVID-19 outbreak has highlighted the borough’s inadequate number of hospital beds, exacerbated by the shutdown of three hospitals since 2008.
Transportation has remained the centerpiece of Crowley’s campaign. Before announcing her candidacy, she championed a plan to resuscitate a discontinued rail line linking Jamaica and Long Island City, with stops in Middle Village. She has also long called for free bus service, a de facto policy during the COVID-19 crisis that she said should remain in place.
Improved transit access and brand new routes would lead to more jobs and affordable housing, she said.
Crowley, who made nominations to Queens Community Board 5 during her time as a Council member, has raised eyebrows with her responses to questions about community boards during her campaign. In November 2019, she and Constantinides signed a pledge to defer to local boards on “any and all” recommendations — a commitment she repeated during a candidate forum in Little Neck in February. Nevertheless, she has described community boards as “out of touch” with a need for more young voices.
She has squared the seemingly divergent perspectives by explaining that her board appointments would truly reflect each district, making their recommendations more representative of the community’s interests. As borough president, she would have the power to overhaul the make-up of Queens community boards.
Crowley has distinguished herself from her two former Council colleagues in the race, Constantinides and Richards, by tacking to the center-right on public safety. She proudly accepted the endorsement of the city’s Police Benevolent Association and stood by their support, even as other Queens elected officials publicly denounced the union and returned campaign contributions from the cops.
“I still stand by our police but I know that reform needs to happen,” she said. “While there is systemic and generational racism in the police department and other city agencies, and that’s something we need to combat, at the same time the vast majority of officers are going to work every day to protect and serve.”
She has pledged to form an office task force to examine and combat anti-Semitism and other hate crimes.
At the same time, she has pointed to her progressive record on criminal justice issues, citing her early advocacy for closing Rikers Island jails (which appeared to cost her significantly in her 2017 campaign versus Holden) and passing the Raise the Age measure, which finally moved children off Rikers in 2018.
Crowley has also rejected contributions from developers — an issue she said is important for a potential borough president who makes advisory recommendations on land use issues.
“I’ve seen firsthand how for-profit developers drive out communities,” she said. Ridgewood, located within her former Council district, has seen a surge in new development and rising rents, similar to other parts of the borough, especially in western Queens.
While Crowley, endorsed by the PBA and rated “A+” by the Presidents Co-Op and Condo Council, seeks to appeal to moderate voters, another candidate has emerged as the most conservative voice in the primary.
Dao Yin, an entrepreneur and business consultant born and raised in China, has differentiated himself from the field by championing the NYPD’s response to Black Lives Matter demonstrations and the police crackdown following isolated looting incidents.
“We are all appalled by the looting across our city,” Yin said in an interview. “The chaos and anarchy on our streets screams for more officers in our streets to defend our working men and women.”
He said the looting was yet another assault on small businesses battered by exorbitant commercial rents and the COVID-19 economic lockdown. Fostering a business-friendly environment is one of his main focuses, he said.
“We must protect our businesses and residents across our city. The economy is already devastated by COVID,” said Yin, who has raised $122,915 in private contributions and $407,041 through the city’s matching funds program as of June 8.
A borough president has no formal role in creating law enforcement policy or ensuring public safety, but Yin said he would orient the office around establishing respect between communities and law enforcement. He said he would specifically set up a division within the borough president’s office to liaise with Queens police precincts and the Queens District Attorney’s Office.
“The police department in the community is more important than ever now. If I’m elected, the first thing I’ll do is collaborate with community leaders throughout Queens to promote respect,” he said.
He would also use the office to promote a plan for “reasonably priced prefabricated buildings” to foster cost-effective affordable housing development. The concept has begun to gain some traction, with a prefabricated modular affordable housing complex in the works in Brooklyn.
“It would ensure developers can make a profit while charging reasonable rent prices. The material cost is cheaper and building time is shorter,” Yin said.
Yin also touted his business credentials and said he would work to lure major corporations to the borough in the wake of Amazon’s decision to pull out of Long Island City. At a candidate forum hosted by the Queens Chamber of Commerce in February, Yin said he would have flown to Seattle to beg Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to change his mind.
He doubled down on his support for Amazon in the recent interview.
“Queens is a borough of small businesses, we have thousands of small businesses, but we have to work with large corporations like Amazon,” he said. “Amazon would have invested in us.”
Yin said he would welcome other large corporations to the borough. “Amazon is the largest but Amazon has rivals,” he said.
Like Yin, retired police sergeant Anthony Miranda has attempted to outflank his opponents. But in Miranda’s case, it’s from the left, framing himself as the most progressive candidate in the Democratic primary. He was the only candidate to endorse Bernie Sanders from the very beginning of Sanders’ campaign — Constantinides endorsed Sanders after Elizabeth Warren dropped out.
Miranda has specifically advocated for a moratorium on luxury development in the borough and said he would reject any land use plan that does not include 100 percent affordable housing.
“We’re in a housing crisis and again we’re giving away land,” Miranda told the Queens Eagle, while discussing his opposition to a rezoning proposal along the Flushing Creek Waterfront. “This is a pattern consistent all over Queens. We’re in an affordable housing crisis and our solution is to build luxury apartments?”
Reporting on Miranda’s past campaigns calls some of his current progressive messaging into question, however. In 2010, he ran against Assemblymember Jeff Aubry and criticized Aubry’s efforts to repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws, according to the Queens Chronicle and Queens Courier.
Miranda disputed that reporting on his 2010 campaign and said he has championed police reform as a leader of the National Latino Officers Association. He texted two Getty Images photos of himself standing with Sean Diddy Combs, Russell Simmons, and then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo at a press conference demanding the repeal of the Rockefeller Drug Laws.
“We were speaking about these issues before it was safe or popular,” he said, adding that he would have “representatives from every single community in the borough functioning in our office.”
Miranda, who has raised $82,915 in private contributions and $377,484 in public matching funds as of June 8, remains aligned with close friend and one-time boss Hiram Monserrate, a former state senator and City Council member convicted of both public corruption and a domestic violence-related misdemeanor. Miranda defended his ties to Monserrate, who is now running for Assembly against Aubry, and said justice reform means giving people new opportunities after they serve their sentences.
He also pointed out that Costantinides, Crowley, and Richards attended a forum at Monserrate’s East Elmhurst Corona Democratic Club in 2019.
Miranda has been sharply critical of the three current or former Council members in the race when it comes to affordable housing and police reform. He went on the offensive during a NY1 candidates’ forum in early June, calling out Richards for his votes to increase NYPD funding.
Miranda has also blamed them for the lack of diversity on Queens community boards.
“They have all been part of that process, and it is either direct neglect or inattentiveness to that fact that there has been this lack of representation,” Miranda told the Queens Eagle in December 2019.
He said that as borough president he would assist Council members and local community boards with conducting community outreach to ensure people from underrepresented communities, especially Latino residents, apply to the boards. All 14 Queens community boards have significant racial, gender and ethnic disparities compared to the districts they represent.
Miranda has the backing of the Voice of Pakistani Americans, The Bangladeshi American Advocacy Group, New York City Deputy Sheriffs Association and 100 Hispanic Men.
He acknowledged the limited role of the borough president in terms of crafting policy. The main function of the office is to coordinate the borough’s many elected officials to more effectively lobby for the borough, he said.
“A coordinated process would have brought better results for Queens in the past,” he said. “The Queens borough president is supposed to be the chief cheerleader and organizer of all the political leaders in Queens and I would ensure that happens.”
All Queens Democrats are eligible to vote in the Borough President primary, which is happening via early voting June 13-21, primary day June 23, and absentee balloting open to all voters due to the pandemic. The winner of the primary will advance to the fall general election and be favored to win, then take office January 1, 2021, before having to run for reelection in the June 2021 primary and, if successful, fall 2021 general in order to then serve a full four-year term from 2022 through 2025.
by Samar Khurshid of Gotham Gazette & David Brand of the Queens Daily Eagle
Note - this article has been updated.