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Republicans Eye 2021 Mayoral Race with Optimism, But Wary of a Primary

City Hall

City Hall (photo: Benjamin Kanter, Mayor's Office)

With the 2021 party primary elections less than a year away, more than a dozen candidates have either declared or are openly exploring a campaign to become the next Mayor of New York City. But while that long list includes some prominent current elected officials, a few former public servants and several lesser known contenders, it contains few Republicans.

By all indications, there will be a fiercely fought Democratic mayoral primary as a crowded slate vies to replace outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio, a term-limited Democrat. Republicans, on the other hand, are hoping to coalesce around a single candidate that can focus all their efforts on the fall general election rather than wage an internecine battle ahead of the June primary. But there still could be a Republican primary as several potential candidates have indicated they are considering a run, though none have made any official declarations.

The most prominent potential candidate that has expressed public interest is John Catsimatidis, the billionaire supermarket magnate who previously ran in the 2013 mayoral primary and lost the Republican nomination to Joe Lhota, who went on to lose to de Blasio. Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels, has said outright that he is running for mayor and has spoken with Republican Party officials about his campaign. Sara Tirschwell, a former Wall Street executive who is chief financial officer of Foundation House, a mental health nonprofit, is seriously exploring a bid. Kelly Mack, president of Corcoran Sunshine Marketing Group, is also rumored to be considering a run.

But none of them have created an official campaign committee yet. Republican Party officials are also casting a wide net as they try to recruit viable candidates to eventually land on the strongest nominee possible against daunting odds in the overwhelmingly Democratic city – they launched a website last month, as first reported by the New York Post.

Republicans are at an overwhelming voter enrollment disadvantage – as of February 21, there were 3.6 million registered Democratic voters compared to 530,000 Republican voters in the city, according to the State Board of Elections. But Republicans believe they can overcome that gulf by appealing to moderate Democrats and nearly 1 million “independent” voters who are registered to vote but unaffiliated with any political party (998,810 voters). Those voters, party members and officials say, are tired after two terms of de Blasio, his big-government progressivism, and his perceived failures on several fronts. But some say the first challenge will be to avoid a primary that could end up bruising their nominee and waste valuable resources that would be better spent targeting Democrats.

The potential candidates could provide polarizing choices for Republican voters in a primary that will not be open to the more moderate voters Republicans believe they need to win in the general election.

Catsimatidis, whose Red Apple Group owns the Gristedes supermarket chain, WABC radio station, and holds major real estate and oil and gas interests, is a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump, though he has in the past donated to both Republicans and Democrats.

Catsimatidis has repeatedly cited concern for public safety and quality of life as he has publicly mulled a decision to run for mayor. He’s been broadly critical of the current Democratic leadership in the City Council and State Legislature, lambasting police reform legislation, the plan to close the Rikers Island jail complex, and the Black Lives Matter movement.

In a June interview on the Bernie & Sid show on WABC radio, he spoke of bringing together a broad swathe of voters that will believe in his “common sense” agenda. “I was a Bill Clinton Democrat…I’m a common sense guy. I’ve worked with Democrats, I’ve worked very closely with Democrats, I’ve worked very closely with unions. I’ve worked very closely with Republicans. I had the Liberal Party nomination and I was proud of it...Am I a liberal? Yes. I believe in helping people. Especially people of our inner city.”

But he has also shared some of the same conspiratorial tendencies prevalent in portions of the Republican Party, including at the highest levels. For instance, in that interview, he questioned whether the “Antifa-type people” participating in Black Lives Matter protests are being paid to incite riots and even wondered aloud whether funding could be coming from Chinese government officials “getting even” for the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests.

Catsimatidis’ representatives did not respond to an interview request for this story.

Tirschwell said in a phone interview that she is still in the exploratory phase and has been meeting with campaign management and finance experts, and closely consulting with Keith Wofford, a Republican who ran for state attorney general in 2018. “I’m not your average Republican,” Tirschwell said. “I'm pretty fiscally conservative and I'm center-left socially. So I would consider myself kind of more in the mold of a Rockefeller Republican.”

The next mayor, she said, will have to tackle the prevailing problems of racism, segregation in education, and the “baseline issue” of crime while also reforming the police. But at the core of it, she said the city needs to level the playing field for New Yorkers who continue to suffer from a lack of equal opportunities for success.

“The city needs somebody who is ready to fight what I call ‘the man,’” she said. “I’ve spent my entire life fighting ‘the man.’ Anybody who knows me knows this is a woman who fights ‘the man’ and ‘the man’ is essentially a system with obstacles that serves to protect those in power...Those systems need to be dismantled.”

Tirshwell previously worked as a distressed debt investor at TCW Group Inc, a major asset management firm. She sued the firm in 2018 after being fired, alleging that her former boss had retaliated against her for filing a sexual harassment complaint against him. The lawsuit, which made headlines as the #MeToo movement arriving on Wall Street, was partly dismissed by a New York State judge in June.

Staten Island Council Member Joe Borelli, one of three Republicans in the 51-member legislative body and a vocal Trump supporter, is convinced that this phase of Democratic leadership is about to end as it did when Rudy Giuliani became mayor in 1993. “Why were people willing to undo at that point 20 years of Democratic leadership and vote for Rudy Giuliani? It was because the city no longer felt safe to people and they no longer felt the city was generally heading in the right direction,” Borelli said, citing the similarities between then and now as crime, though dramatically lower, has seen an uptick in recent months. “If you took the temperature of the city, I think you’d find that across the political spectrum.”

He pointed out that five out of the last seven mayoral races were won by Republicans, citing the two terms served by Giuliani and the three terms of Michael Bloomberg (though Bloomberg was a Democrat before he registered as a Republican to win the mayoralty and had become a registered independent before he ran for his third term). Both Guiliani and Bloomberg ran and governed as immigrant-friendly, socially-centrist and at times liberal, fiscally-conservative, tough-on-crime city managers, significantly different from the Trumpian Republicanism of today.

Without large groups of moderate voters affiliated with both major parties and no party at all, Giuliani and Bloomberg wins would have gone to Democrats. “You have to be a moderate person who's focused on city management,” Borelli said. “I bet you there are 51% of New Yorkers who, if polled, would answer the question in the affirmative that they would prefer someone who is a competent manager over someone who is an ideological leftist.”

Catsimatidis could make that argument, Borelli said, given his success as a businessman.

J.C. Polanco, an attorney, commentator, and former Republican candidate for New York City Public Advocate, similarly said Catsimatidis can make an effective argument as an immigrant success story, a businessman, and a job creator. “He has an incredible story to tell,” Polanco said.

“This is going to be a great opportunity for the party to reestablish itself as a centrist party,” he said. But he insisted that he party will have to avoid the divisions that have characterized national politics where President Donald Trump looms large and hardline ideological stances are almost a prerequisite for Republicans. “If we’re trying to attract voters in the New York City market, and we know that the market is a progressive, moderate, independent market, we can’t shove a product into the market that has been rejected and expect success,” he added.

The financial heft that Catsimatidis can bring to the race is also an appealing factor to some. According to the New York Post, he is ready to spend as much as $100 million of his own money on the race should he run.

Brendan Lantry, chair of the Staten Island Republican Party, said the race is “not a closed door process” and that the party is encouraging broad participation in selecting candidates for citywide office. “We need candidates for Mayor but we also need candidates for Public Advocate and Comptroller,” he said of the three citywide positions, all of which are on the ballot next year, in a phone interview. He said the five county committee chairs, including Manhattan GOP Chair Andrea Catsimatidis (John Catsimatidis’ daughter), are going to conduct interviews with candidates in January before they decide who to back.

But he emphasized that it would hurt the party’s chances if there is a primary. “I think every cent spent in a Republican primary is one less cent that's being used to articulate our message to a broader group of voters and it's one more cent that’s being used attacking each other rather than focusing on our Democratic opponents,” he said, expressing a sentiment that was at times prevalent when Lhota had to fend off Catsimatidis in 2013 (52.7%-40.6%), for a September primary, before trying to restock his coffers and focus on the general election, which he lost 23.9%-72.1%.

In 2017, as de Blasio sought reelection in a largely uncompetitive Democratic primary (he won 65% of the vote), Republicans coalesced around Staten Island Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis without a primary, but she still lost handily to de Blasio, 27%-65%.

Lantry is optimistic about the party’s shot at victory in 2021. “I think eight years of Bill de Blasio are making people really long for the days of Giuliani and Bloomberg and sanity in City Hall,” he said.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Note: this article has been corrected with the figures for registered Democrats, Republicans, and independents in New York City, the original figures were for New York State.

2021 Borough President Election Set to Unfold Amid Dramatic Shift in Bronx Politics

Bronx Democrats Crespo Diaz Jr

Bronx Democrats (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)

The Bronx’s political landscape is undergoing major shifts, full of electoral upsets and unexpected political departures. While Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie remains one of the most powerful elected officials in the state, the borough’s Democratic County Party that he has been leading, in essence, for many years is faltering amid election losses and retirements from politics, all setting the stage for what will be an immensely important 2021 New York City election cycle with a great deal at stake both within the borough and across the city.

Several longtime Bronx figures in city and state politics have exited or are about to exit the political arena, most prominent among them being Ruben Diaz Jr., the borough president for over a decade who surprised many by opting out of the 2021 mayoral race. City Council Member Ruben Diaz Sr. announced after losing in a recent congressional primary that he will be retiring at the end of his current term in 2021, and Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, a longtime ally of the Diazes and Heastie abruptly resigned his Assembly seat and his post as chair of the county Democratic Party earlier this year for a private sector job.

This wave of retirements marks the end of an era in Bronx politics, as David Cruz recently wrote in Gothamist, with the Bronx Democratic political machine apparently reaching its zenith in 2015, when Heastie was elected Assembly Speaker. Where it was supposed to be gearing up to try to elect Diaz Jr. as mayor next year, the party is now facing the need to reinvent itself, and refocus its priorities on finding common ground with insurgents, winning local races, like those to replace both Diaz Jr. and Sr., and influencing the mayoral race in other ways.

The race to replace the term-limited Diaz Jr. -- who has held the position since he won a 2009 special election -- as borough president is shaping up to be one of the most interesting races in the borough. Two City Council members are already running to replace him and more current Bronx elected officials are expected to join them, among other candidates in what will likely be a crowded, competitive Democratic primary. That election will take place in June 2021 and is all but certain to determine the next officeholder in the very heavily Democratic borough.

With the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including mass unemployment, among other long-standing issues in the Bronx, the next borough president will have their hands full, even in what is a position with limited powers. Whoever takes office in January 2022 will also have big shoes to fill after Diaz Jr.’s nearly 13-year tenure, in which the borough’s unemployment rate fell from 14.1% in January 2010 to 4.6% in February 2020, an all-time low for the borough, then shot up to 24.7% as of this June given the shutdown of the local economy.

Essential to the role of borough president are making community board appointments, allocating capital funding for local projects and initiatives, weighing in on land use matters, being a cheerleader for the borough and using the office to set an overarching vision for the borough, and taking on special projects that can range widely depending on the office-holder’s priorities.

Declared Candidates & Initial Fundraising
There are currently three declared candidates running to be the next Bronx Borough President: City Council Member Fernando Cabrera, City Council Member Vanessa Gibson, and Victor Gutierrez, who does not seem to be running much of a campaign.

Gibson was interviewed for this story, while Gutierrez did not respond to Gotham Gazette interview requests, and Cabrera was unavailable for several days, a spokesperson said, due to a family health emergency outside of the city.

Out of the declared candidates, Cabrera leads the field in fundraising, with $50,493 raised so far and $40,406 currently in his campaign account. Gibson has raised $20,692 thus far and has an estimated campaign balance of -$9,430 at the moment (her campaign has spent almost $30,000 so far). Roughly 58% of Cabrera’s contributions and 51% of Gibson’s came before this year. Guitierrez has raised $175, including a $100 contribution from himself, and has not spent any of his campaign funds as of the most recent disclosure filing.

Cabrera is the Council’s majority whip and chair of the Government Operations Committee. He is a pastor who was registered as a Republican until 2009. After his party switch, he was first elected to the City Council, defeating incumbent Maria Baez with the backing of the Bronx County Democratic Party in the primary in that same year. Baez had been an ally of onetime Bronx County Party Chair Assemblymember Jose Rivera, but became a target of the new county party leadership, under Heastie, when the latter dethroned the former in 2008.

Cabrera challenged State Senator Gustavo Rivera, who is not an ally of the party machine, twice in Democratic primaries, in 2014 and 2016, losing by 20 and 25 points, respectively. In his 2017 reelection to the Council, Cabrera received 55% of the vote in his district primary. Last year, he briefly launched a primary challenge to Rep. Ocasio-Cortez before switching to the Borough President race.

In his campaign announcement video, Cabrera touts metrics that have improved in his district over his tenure, before the pandemic hit, including the unemployment rate (down from 23.5% to 5.7%) and crime (down 66%). Recently, he sponsored legislation to legalize e-bikes and scooters in the city. He also touts his sponsorship of the Cure Violence initiative, which allocated $27 million to gu violence reduction, and the Tenant Bill of Rights in 2014 among his top accomplishments.

Gibson chairs the Council’s Capital Budget Subcommittee and co-chairs the Council’s Women’s Caucus. Last Council term she chaired the Public Safety Committee. She previously served for four years in the State Assembly, then moved to the Council by winning a 2013 primary by 27 points, and ran unopposed in her 2017 primary.

Both Cabrera and Gibson are term-limited from running again for their current seats.

Potential Candidates
Gibson and others expect more candidates to jump into the Borough President race within the next few months and quite a few Bronx elected officials have been rumored to be weighing whether or not to throw their hats in the ring.

A senior Bronx political strategist with ties to Assemblymember Nathalia Fernandez says that she is “seriously considering” and “exploring” a run for the borough presidency. Fernandez, who represents the Alterton, Pelham Gardens, and Morris Park neighborhoods of the Bronx in the 80th Assembly District, served as chief of staff to then-Assemblymember Mark Gjonaj and then as Governor Andrew Cuomo’s liaison to the Bronx before winning a special election for Gjonaj’s Assembly seat upon his election to the City Council.

State Senator Luis Sepúlveda, who represents the southwest Bronx in Senate District 32, told Gotham Gazette on August 5 that he is “considering” a campaign for the borough presidency and expects to make a decision “within the next three weeks.” Sepúlveda has been in the Senate since 2018 after winning a special election to replace Ruben Diaz Sr., who’d made the jump to City Council, and before that was elected three times to the Assembly.

Several sources familiar with Bronx politics named City Council Member Andrew Cohen, who represents the northwest Bronx in Council District 11, as a possible candidate. A spokesperson for Cohen replied to a Gotham Gazette inquiry that Cohen “does not plan to make a definitive decision regarding a run for Bronx Borough President until after the November election.” Cohen is himself term-limited from seeking reelection in 2021.

Declined and Unlikely Candidates
Another Bronx Council Member, Rafael Salamanca Jr., who represents the southeast Bronx primarily along the East River in the 17th Council District, is eligible to run for reelection in 2021, but has also been named by people familiar with Bronx politics as a potential candidate for the borough presidency. His office did not respond to requests for comment for this piece. Salamanca, who chairs the powerful Council Land Use Committee, is also seen as a potential candidate to seek becoming the next Speaker of the City Council if reelected to his Council post.

Council Member Gjonaj is running for reelection to the Council in 2021, according to his Chief of Staff Reginald Johnson.

State Senator Gustavo Rivera and Assemblymembers Michael Blake, Latoya Joyner, and Karines Reyes all told Gotham Gazette that they will not be seeking the Borough President position.

While there has been speculation over whether the New York City branch of the Democratic Socialists of America will field a far left candidate for the Bronx Borough President race, Chi Anunwa, who co-chairs the group’s steering committee, told Gotham Gazette, “as a chapter, we’re probably going to focus on Council races. In terms of city races, we are prioritizing two demands, defunding the police and housing, so going forward we are trying to endorse candidates who can advance our demands in those areas.”

According to Anunwa, Borough President races are not a priority for the group, compared to Council races, at this time.

Vanessa Gibson
“I love what I do, being a public official,” Council Member Gibson told Gotham Gazette in an interview. “It comes with so many challenges, but a lot of rewards. I would really love the opportunity to expand on what I’ve learned on the Council and from being a state legislator, putting all of that together and really being the leader of the borough.”

“Being the president of a borough is really about being the champion of that borough and its constituents, about elevating the voices of those who have felt voiceless and powerless, and that’s never been more apparent that in the response to COVID-19,” Gibson continued.

“I’m really looking at this opportunity as a way to take the Bronx to the next level to continue a lot of the great investments through this [Diaz Jr.] administration, but also the work that lies ahead and what the next leadership of the Bronx and the entire city is going to look like,” Gibson said.

When asked about her relationship with the county party, Gibson asked voters to “judge me by my record. There’s nothing wrong with having relationships if they’re going to help your districts, but I also work with candidates who didn’t get county’s backing. I just try to work with officials who are trying to do right by their constituents. You don’t necessarily need the county’s support to do your work as a legislator.”

Gibson said “great partnerships and relationships” are integral to the job of a borough president, saying “you cannot do this work by yourself.” She named key challenges of the next borough president as attracting public and private investment to the borough, particularly for infrastructure projects, and supporting the Bronx’s City Council delegation, most of whom will be new members given turnover in part spurred by term limits.

Food access, stable housing, healthcare access, and sustainable jobs are four issues that Gibson believes are the biggest challenges facing the Bronx in the next few years, saying “the next administration needs a very keen focus on recovery, healing, and rebuilding from COVID-19.”

“Many of the residents who lost their battles to covid, had underlying health conditions and those diseases are preventable. We have to find a way to focus on better food in our communities and too many residents are uninsured and underinsured without access to primary care,” Gibson said.

She proposes that the Bronx commit more to urban agriculture programs, particularly in Hunts Point, and community gardens as a way to bridge gaps in access to healthy food options for Bronxites. At the same time, she says “there’s no way you can talk about healthy options and wellness without stable housing.”

Gibson praised Diaz Jr.’s record on employment, helping take the borough’s unemployment rate from an all-time high when he took office to under 4% in the months before the pandemic. She said job growth in the borough should be “self-sustaining, union, prevailing wage jobs in industries like tech and construction.”

“I’m not a fan of the trash and the waste industry, how the South Bronx is one of three neighborhoods that absorbs most of the city’s trash,” Gibson said. “That’s unacceptable. We can’t be the dumping ground for the rest of New York City. Everybody should take care of their own damn garbage.”

“Because I know how the budget process works, I absolutely would have a very close partnership with the Council and State Legislature delegations, because the delegations are critical to carrying the voice of the Bronx to the broader bodies of government,” Gibson said, when asked about the historic underfunding of the Bronx she noted. As part of the Bronx Council delegation for the past seven years, she said she has steered funding towards Bronx projects such as the Hip-Hop Museum, Orchard Beach, and the Bronx’s CUNY colleges.

“Over the years, I acknowledge things have gotten a lot better, but I still think we have a lot of challenges that remain and the next administration is going to have to have a very aggressive plan to attack the Bronx’s historic challenges,” Gibson said.

Land Use
On land use, one of the key focus areas for all borough presidents as mandated by the position’s few set powers, Gibson said, “I’m a very big fan of engagement and partnerships,” pointing to her experience with the Jerome Avenue Rezoning in which she engaged, along with Cabrera, with working groups and advisory boards to get community buy-in for the rezoning. She promised if elected borough president to “formulate an advisory board composed of the community boards and their land use point-people so that the whole borough is at the table.”

“Parts of the Bronx are less dense than others, with more open lands, vacancies, and opportunities but the goal is mutual balance and common goals and compromise. We don’t always get it right,” Gibson conceded.

“Land use applications are controversial because they’re always perceived as a form of displacement and gentrification,” Gibson said. “The land use application process and ULURP both have to be fundamentally shifted and revamped a little bit, because the recommendations of the community boards are just recommendations. They don’t have a real foothold in making a final decision like the Council members and Borough Presidents do.”

“As housing continues to change and as rents are going up, we have to find a way as the government to put a control mechanism in place on things that we can control,” Gibson said.

“People have to want to vote for someone. If you don’t ask, you don’t receive, so I will be very much in the streets, talking to voters,” Gibson said. “You have to have a say in who your leaders are. More candidates will emerge with their records of accomplishment, but I’m excited. I’m worried and disturbed by what I’m seeing, but I’m also optimistic.”

[Note: when Council Member Cabrera is available for an interview about the borough president race, Gotham Gazette will add his comments to this article]

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

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Progressive Challenger Launches City Council Campaign to Unseat Conservative Democrat in Queens

juan ardila park

Juan Ardila (photo: campaign website)

First-term City Council Member Bob Holden, a conservative Democrat from Queens known for controversial statements and criticism of the de Blasio administration, is facing a 2021 challenge from Juan Ardila, a first-generation immigrant and Maspeth native who says Holden is failing the 30th Council District.

Ardila, the son of a Honduran-Cuban mother and Colombian father, says he is running to fight for working class families in a district plagued by rising costs of living, lack of mass transit, limited employment opportunities, and overcrowded schools.

Holden is expected to run for reelection, aiming to continue representing a district that includes Glendale, Maspeth, Middle Village, Ridgewood, Woodhaven, and Woodside. Though he is a registered Democrat, he narrowly won the 2017 general election on the Republican line after losing the Democratic primary to then-incumbent Council Member Elizabeth Crowley. Holden also appeared on the Reform and Conservative Party lines as well as a ballot line he created called “Dump de Blasio." Holden won that election attacking Crowley over her support for closing the jails on Rikers Island and for not taking a hard enough line against homeless shelters in the district.

Holden has consistently been among the more moderate or conservative members of his party in the 51-seat Council, regularly voting with a handful of other conservative Democrats and the three Republicans in the body. He’s a staunch supporter of law enforcement, decrying the city’s recent police reforms and opposing local limits on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  

Holden did not respond to a request for comment for this article. He has yet to create a reelection campaign committee and has not raised any funds for the race. Ardila has raised about $20,500 and spent $7,500 so far.  

Ardila said in an interview that his path to public service began when his mother was almost deported when he was 17. He abandoned plans to become a forensic scientist and instead decided he wanted to study immigration law and public policy.

“I really focused essentially my entire adult life on public service,” Ardila said in a phone interview. He had a two-year stint as office manager for Brooklyn City Council Member Brad Lander. He then worked as a consultant for the New York City Department of Education, helping with the expansion of universal pre-kindergarten and the 3-K for All program. He followed that with work at the International Rescue Committee, the humanitarian nonprofit organization, where he mentored and tutored refugee and asylee children, he said, and helped them with college and residency applications and employment authorizations. 

Ardila is now at the Legal Aid Society where he helps New Yorkers get access to public benefits and legal representation. Just two months ago, he graduated from NYU with a Master’s in Public Administration, with a focus on public policy analysis. 

Ardila says that Holden has been a lackluster Council member, sponsoring few pieces of legislation while also failing to bring the resources needed back to the district. Unlike his predecessor, Holden did not opt in to the City Council’s participatory budgeting program, which would have allowed residents to vote on roughly $1 million in infrastructure improvement projects for the 30th District.

“We used to have it and Holden forced us to opt out of the program,” Ardila said of participatory budgeting. “Ultimately what it's done is just eliminated the opportunity for any form of decision-making and civic engagement from the people on how these public dollars are spent. That's a big problem.”

There are programs that Ardila said would be invaluable in the district but haven’t been implemented such as the city’s FRESH Program, which provides fresh food options to grocery stores. He is also pushing to partner with Meals on Wheels so homebound seniors don’t have to risk their health during this pandemic to buy groceries. And he faults Holden for not ensuring that residents have access to those services. “The leadership is just not there and it's just not going to be there, unfortunately,” Ardila said. 

For Ardila, most of the district’s needs revolve around its lack of access to mass transportation. Much of District 30 is a transit desert with no access to the subway system and with few bus lines running through it. That makes it harder for residents to find affordable housing that is easily connected to the rest of the city, and thus jobs, and prioritizes vehicles at the cost of pedestrian safety and public health, he said. 

Ardila is calling for a major expansion of bus routes and bus lanes, increasing bus speeds, expanding the Fair Fares discount Metrocard program for low-income New Yorkers, improving the Access-A-Ride paratransit system, and making more MTA subway stops accessible to those with disabilities.

District 30 is home to a large middle-class population of New Yorkers. Just over half its residents are white, and about 40% of the population is foreign-born. The largely residential district contains mostly one- and two-family homes besides large green spaces. 

In 2017, Republican mayoral nominee Nicole Malliotakis handily won the district over Mayor Bill de Blasio, though there are more Democratic registered voters than Republicans in the district. As of February 21 of this year, there were 86,774 registered voters in the 30th Council District, including 45,321 Democrats, 16,010 Republicans, and 21,561 party-unaffiliated voters (often called independents).

The race could be a test for where and how much progressive groups and leaders, including elected officials, want to expend their resources in the 2021 election cycle, where all of city government will be on the ballot, including the citywide and borough-wide positions, and all of the 51 City Council seats, including roughly three dozen "open" Council seats where no incumbent will be running due to term limits. Holden's stances on a variety of issues don't match with some of the progressive currents sweeping through New York politics, nor even some of the more moderate Democratic views, as evidenced by often Holden votes in the minority in the Council. But, Holden's grasp on his district is another story, and he is sure to have a base of support heading into his expected reelection bid.

Though it is home to many home-owners, the district is not immune to the citywide unaffordability crisis, Ardila said. “A lot of renters are getting displaced throughout the district as a whole,” he said. 

On the issue of homeless shelter siting, one of Holden’s main focuses, Ardila finds himself on the same side as the incumbent, though for different reasons. Holden won his election after helping to ignite a firestorm of controversy around a hotel used as a homeless shelter in Maspeth, as he criticized the de Blasio administration’s homelessness policies at large. The Council member, known for his many “not in my backyard” stances as president of the Juniper Park Civic Association, made largely unfounded claims that the shelter was a severe public safety hazard, raising the spectre of crime and drug use by the homeless men housed there. He has similarly been an ardent opponent of another shelter that opened in Glendale in February, repeatedly calling for it to be shut down.  

Ardila said homeless shelters are a “bandaid” to the larger crisis and he also believes the Glendale shelter should be closed, but he said it’s because the district lacks the resources and interconnectivity that would give the shelter residents the services they need to get back on their feet. “Glendale is located smack in the middle of a transit desert. There’s only one train station and very intermittent bus service,” he said. “The challenge with that is when you're a homeless person in a location that is a transit desert, with expensive fares, in an area where there’s essentially no employment opportunities and lack of social services that they need, you’re not really supporting them. They’re isolated. They’re on the outskirts.”

Though he would have little power over broader housing policies as a City Council member, Ardila said the solution is to build more affordable housing density around transit hubs and to fund it with taxes on the wealthy and by eliminating tax incentives for real estate developers, both of which are the purview of the state Legislature.

“Homelessness is intertwined with other factors leading to poverty,” he said. “We're pushing for housing for all. We view housing as a human right and unfortunately the real estate culture in New York City views housing as a speculative investment.” He said the city should follow the “Housing First” model that Columbus, Ohio put in place 20 years ago when it started building permanent supportive housing for homeless people.

The other major issue in the district, Ardila said, is overcrowding in schools. “Students do better with more individualized attention and we need bigger classrooms. We need to support teachers, we need to support counselors,” he said. Ahead of the passage of this year’s city budget, he criticized the mayor for proposing cuts to the Department of Education and for not reallocating funds from the “bloated NYPD budget” that could go to school resources.

Ardila is confident that he can win over a diversifying electorate. He believes the district is more “purple” than red or blue, and that residents care more for local issues than citywide ones. “We want to focus on the in-district issues,” he said.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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