Gotham Gazette

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Races to Watch in State Legislative Primaries

alcantara diaz jr

State Senate candidate Marisol Alcantara & BX BP Diaz Jr. (photo: @NYAlcantara31)

With state legislative party primaries rapidly approaching, there are several races New Yorkers should keep a close eye on, both in the city and across the state, including some that could play key roles in deciding majority power in the state Senate, which is currently under Republican leadership.

The September 13 vote in some races, especially in Democrat-heavy New York City, will likely determine the winner in November. Still other races have little competition for the party primaries, but will be hotly contested for the general.

With Donald Trump’s controversial candidacy at the top of the Republican ticket in November, Democrats are hoping to tip the scales in their favor, especially in the state Senate, while Republicans across the state decide whether to embrace their presidential nominee or not. The 63-seat New York State Senate is currently almost evenly split between Democrars and Republicans, though there are complicating factors like one Democrat who caucuses with Republicans (Brooklyn Sen. Simcha Felder) and the five-member Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), which has had a power-sharing agreement with Senate Republicans.

The 150-seat State Assembly is controlled by Democrats, who hold a vast majority, including many members from New York City, led by Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx.

September’s in-party match-ups will decide whose names appear on the general election ballots in November. In several cases, there are open seats where the incumbent is not seeking re-election or has already left office - these head our “races to watch,” followed closely by races in New York City where incumbents are facing competitive challenges.

Gotham Gazette identifies three key categories to pay attention to for September 13:

  • Open seats within New York City (Senate; Assembly)
  • Competitive incumbent challenges within the five boroughs (Senate; Assembly)
  • Competitive primary races outside of the city for open seats (jump)

There are two vacancies in the state Senate and five in the state Assembly representing New York City residents. If there is more than one Democrat or Republican running, nominees will be decided through the September 13 party primaries. In most cases in the city, the Democratic nominee will win the seat through the November general election.


In Senate District 31, which includes the Upper Manhattan neighborhoods of Washington Heights and Inwood and runs down the West Side into Hell’s Kitchen, Senator Adriano Espaillat is leaving his seat to run for Congress in New York’s 13th Congressional district -- an election he is favored to win, which would make him the first politician born in the Dominican Republic to be elected to the House of Representatives. Espaillat won a competitive Democratic primary in June.

Vying to replace Espaillat in the state Senate are four Democratic candidates: Marisol Alcantara, Luis Tejada, former City Council Member Robert Jackson, and Micah Lasher, the former chief of staff to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Espaillat, a variety of Hispanic elected officials, several labor unions, and the five-member, GOP-aligned Independent Democratic Conference of the state Senate have thrown their support behind Alcantara, who has said she will caucus with the IDC if elected.

While the candidates largely agree on the issues, they have different resumes, relationships, and political allies.

Gotham Gazette recently reported on the race to replace Espaillat and several other Senate races around the state that “could have significant implication for billions of dollars in state budget money and major policies of all kinds.” In SD31, the result could play a major role in control of the Senate while also having implications for political power in New York City.

In Senate District 36, which includes parts of northern Bronx neighborhoods like Allerton, Baychester, Eastchester, Wakefield and extends into Mount Vernon, Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson left the Senate in July to become Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Special Advisor for Policy and Community Affairs of New York State Homes and Community Renewal.

To replace Hassell-Thompson on the Democratic primary ballot will be Jamaal T. Bailey, Robert Diamond, Que English, Pamela A. Hamilton-Johnson, Edward A. Mulraine, and Alvin Ponder. The winner on September 13 will not face a Republican in a general election. BronxTalk host Gary Axelbank moderated a debate among the six candidates on August 29.

On the Assembly side, Assemblymembers Phillip Goldfeder (AD23), James Brennan (AD44), Annette Robinson (AD56), and Keith Wright (AD70) will not be seeking re-election; and Assemblymember Barbara M. Clark (AD33) passed away in February. There are not competitive primaries in all these seats, though.

This is the first time in 30 years the seat has not had a sitting incumbent, on account of Clark’s long Assembly tenure. Vying for the Democratic nomination in AD33, representing Queens Village, Bellerose Manor, Hollis, and Cambria Heights, will be candidates Bryan J. Block, Sabine French, Roy Paul, Clyde Vanel, and Nantasha Williams.

With Brennan’s retirement, Democratic primary candidates Robert Carroll, R. M. Curry-Smithson, and Troy Odendhal compete in Assembly District 44, representing Park Slope, Kensington and Flatbush-Ditmas Park. The winner of the Democratic primary will face Republican Glenn Nocera.

Brennan, the Working Families Party, and a variety of Democratic officials and organizations have endorsed Carroll, an election lawyer and president of the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, a political group his grandfather helped start in the late 1960s. Carroll supported Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, though he is not the only Sanders supporter in the race: Curry-Smithson, a public school history teacher, volunteered for the Sanders campaign. Carroll is well ahead of the field in endorsements as well as fundraising.

Democrats Karen Cherry and Tremaine Wright face off in the Democratic primary for Assembly District 56, representing Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights. The winner will go into the general election without a Republican opponent.

It was reported back in February by Kings County Politics that Assemblymember Robinson was strategizing to run for re-election just so she could hand the election to Wright, her chosen successor and vice-president of the Vanguard Independent Democratic Organization. This plan was spoiled and thus Wright faces Cherry in the primary. The two candidates answered questions from Kings County Politics on education policy. Both candidates see challenges with co-locations where separate schools exist in the same building and want to see more equitable access for all students in public, private and charter schools.

To replace Assemblymember Keith Wright, who lost his congressional bid to Espaillat, are one Democrat and one Republican, who will face off in November. Republican Heather Tarrant and Democratic City Council Member Inez Dickens run to represent Harlem in the Assembly. Dickens is a heavy favorite due to the Democratic enrollment advantage in the area. It is rumored that Wright will run to replace Dickens if she wins and thus gives up her Council seat.

Democrat Stacey G. Pheffer Amato and Republican Alan N. Zwirn, both running uncontested in their respective primaries, will face-off in the general election for Assembly District 23, representing parts of Far Rockaway, Rockaway Park, Arverne, Broad Channel, Howard Beach and Ozone Park.

In addition to races for open seats throughout New York City, there are several incumbents attempting to fend off primary challenges.


In Queens, state Democratic state Senator James Sanders Jr. faces an insurgent primary contest from Adrienne Adams in Senate District 10, encompassing neighborhoods including Jamaica, Rosedale, Richmond Hill, Ozone Park, Springfield Gardens and the Rockaways. The incumbent, who outwardly supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, and his primary opponent held a debate on NY1. In an unusual twist, Adams has the support of much of the Democratic establishment after Sanders had at one point expressed his intention to challenge sitting Congressional Rep. Gregory Meeks.

The race for Queens’ 16th Senate District has also been heating up, with incumbent Democratic state Senator Toby Ann Stavisky taking on Democratic primary challenger S.J. Jung. This is a repeat contest from 2014.

Jung is being ridiculed for a statement he made about erasing same-sex couples from school textbooks, as reported by The Daily News. Though Stavisky is not free from her own controversy, as the Observer found the incumbent and ranking member of the Committee on Higher Education to have taken tens of thousands of dollars in contributions from for-profit colleges, including one that’s been involved in a bribery scandal that implicated an Assembly member from Queens in 2009. The candidates participated in a candidates’ forum at Queens Library in Flushing on August 23, as reported by the Queens Tribune.

In Northern Brooklyn’s 18th Senate District, incumbent state Senator Martin Dilan is being challenged by insurgent candidate Debbie Medina, another Bernie Sanders supporter who is receiving attention for her firebrand democratic socialism rooted in tenant organizing. Her core message addresses gentrification and the affordable housing crisis in New York, though Dilan has been critical of his challenger for accepting campaign contributions from the young professionals pushing people out of the neighborhoods she says she wants to keep intact.

Kings County Politics asked both candidates to comment on poverty and affordability in South Williamsburg and Bushwick. In response to this question, Medina echos a Sanders stump speech advocating “higher taxes on the wealthy to fund spending on our roads, rails, and bridges.” Both candidates believing in better wages, while Dilan had a more holistic response encompassing education, job creation and transportation.

State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, who has served in the Senate for 32 years in Brooklyn’s 25th Senate District representing Red Hook, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and parts of Brooklyn Heights, Sunset Park, Park Slope, and Crown Heights, is faced with a re-election challenge from experienced political operative Michael Cox, a Crown Height native who once served in the Obama Administration in an advisor to the Assistant Secretary for Economic Development and the Assistant Secretary of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs.

In the Bronx, incumbent Democratic state Senator Gustavo Rivera is facing a primary contest from City Council Member Fernando Cabrera, who lost in a 2014 bid to unseat Rivera. The race is causing tension within the Bronx Democratic County party, whose leaders were hoping Rivera would run uncontested in the primary to keep things civil between the two rivals and allow them to focus more on representing their shared constituents and less on critiquing each other. Causing tension to rise even higher, the Super PAC New Yorkers for Independent Action has funded mailers attacking Rivera and singing Cabrera’s praises. The two candidates faced off in a debate on NY1’s Inside City Hall.


Assembly District 46 is represented by Assemblymember Pamela Harris, who won a special election last year and is in a tight race with challenger Kate Cucco to represent residents of southern Brooklyn including Bay Ridge, Fort Hamilton, and Coney Island.

The race has included news reports of Harris’ personal financial struggles, with Harris issuing a public letter in response. Harris is also being forced to discuss her non-profit organization that she ran before being elected to the Assembly. Cucco is one of several challengers to incumbents who are receiving campaign contributions from New Yorkers for Independent Action, a Super PAC supported by wealthy donors from the education reform movement. [Read more about the race from Gotham Gazette here.]

Assemblymember Latrice Walker, representing Brownsville, Ocean Hill and parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant in the 55th Assembly District, faces a Democratic primary challenge from City Council Member and District Leader Darlene Mealy. Any challenge from a sitting elected official can put pressure on an incumbent and this race puts Walker in a tough position given Mealy’s experience in government, though Mealy is not known as a particularly productive legislator in the City Council.

In the 65th Assembly District, incumbent Assemblymember Alice Cancel -- who won a special election to replace convicted former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in April -- will share the vote with five Democratic primary challengers: Yuh-Line Niou, Gigi K. Li, Jenifer Rajkumar, Don Lee, and Paul Newell. Cancel was Silver’s choice to fill his seat, though she faced a tough challenge from Niou in the special. It is expected to be a close fight now. The New York Times writes that the candidates reflect the ethnic diversity of the 65th Assembly District, one of the city’s most diverse. Newell challenged Silver in 2008 and has been active as a district leader, as has Rajkumar. Niou has the backing of the Working Families Party - she ran on the WFP line in April when she narrowly lost to Cancel.

In Manhattan’s 72nd Assembly District, incumbent Assemblymember Guillermo Linares faces opponents George Fernandez and Carmen N. De La Rosa. De La Rosa, who released her campaign platform at the end of August, is being backed by a significant group of Democratic elected officials, including Sen. Espaillat and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. Linares is among those who lost to Espaillat in his Democratic congressional victory. The Manhattan Times has more information about Fernandez, Linares’ other challenger, a tenant organizer who served three terms as Chair of Community Board 12.

Long-time incumbent Jose Rivera is facing a challenge in Assembly District 68, which includes Kingsbridge, Belmont, and other Bronx neighborhoods. Rivera is being challenged by Ischia Bravo, who has been a longtime political aide and operative in the borough. Bravo has worked for both Congressman Jose Serrano and State Senator Jose Serrano Jr. She is currently a community board member and from 2008 to 2016, she was the executive director for the Bronx Democratic County Committee.

Incumbent Bronx Democratic Assemblymember Victor Pichardo faces a repeat primary challenge from Hector Ramirez, a Bronx-based activist facing a 242-count indictment for voter fraud related to the last time he ran against Pichardo. Initially it appeared Pichardo would be running against former 86th District Assemblymember Nelson Castro, once an informant for the federal government implicating fellow elected officials to reduce charges over election-related perjury. Castro said he decided to drop out of the race over a lack of fundraising. Ramirez is expected to be a much tougher primary challenger for Pichardo than Castro would have been, assuming he’s not found guilty of voter fraud.



  • Pamela Stewart-Martinez is challenging incumbent Democrat Assemblyman Luis Sepulveda for his seat in the 87th Assembly District.
  • Central Queens Assemblymember Margaret Markey will face Democratic primary challenger Brian Barnwell in the 30th Assembly District, where Markey has served since 1999.
  • Queens Assemblymembers Michele Titus and Vivian Cook will also face primary challenges from Nigel Loncke and Rodney Reid, respectively.
  • Running in the Democratic primary against 59th Assembly District incumbent Assemblymember Jaime Williams -- who won a special election in April to replace state Senator Persaud in her former Assembly seat -- is Spencer Cineus.
  • Veteran Greenwich Village Democratic Assemblymember Deborah Glick is facing her first primary challenge in over 26 years of service in New York’s 66th Assembly District, according to The Villager. Her challenger is none other than Jim Fouratt, an activist who was present at the 1969 Stonewall Inn Uprising. Both Democratic primary candidates are openly gay, and Glick was the first openly gay person elected to public office in New York City. Fouratt believes Glick has been too silent on important issues like the corruption in Albany prompting his campaign challenge.
  • Southern Brooklyn’s 42nd Assembly District incumbent Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte also faces a challenger in the Democratic primary, hers from Victor Jordan, who received 6 percent of the vote to Bichotte’s 49 percent in the 2014 primary.
  • In the Bronx, incumbent Assemblymember Carmen Arroyo has two challengers in the Democratic primary election for the 84th Assembly District: Carmen Muniz and Jackson Strong. Incumbent Democrat Assemblymember Marcos Crespo is facing a rematch of his 2014 primary against William Moore, which Crespo won with 79 percent of the vote.
  • On Staten Island, incumbent Republican Assemblymember Ronald Castorina Jr. - who won a special election in April 2016 to replace now City Council Member Joseph Borelli - faces a primary challenge from Janine Materna who ran for City Council as a Democrat in 2009, in AD62.


  • Incumbent Bronx state Senator Ruben Diaz Sr. faces a primary challenge from Elliot Quinones, who previously ran for Diaz’s seat in 2014 but was removed from the ballot before the primary.
  • Southeast Queens Assemblymember Alicia Hyndman, who won her seat in the 29th Assembly District in a 2015 special election to replace scandal-ridden former Assemblymember William Scarborough, will face two challengers in the Democratic primary: Lorraine Bridges and Linda Guillebeaux.
  • In the 19th Senate District encompassing parts of Sheepshead Bay, Canarsie, Brownsville, and East New York, two former political allies are battling it out to become the Democratic nominee. Incumbent Democratic state Senator Roxanne Persaud faces a challenge from Mercedes Narcisse, who experienced a “long falling out,” according to Kings County Politics, over her entrance into the race and abruptly-ended run for the overlapping 59th Assembly District female Democratic District Leader position.

There are a number of other primary races to watch outside of New York City. Many deal with empty seats or seats being vacated by incumbents not seeking re-election.

Leaving their state Senate seats are Republicans Jack M. Martins (SD7), Hugh T. Farley (SD49) and Michael F. Nozzolio (SD54), and Democrat Marc Panepinto (SD60). Vacating their state Assembly seats are Republicans Stephen M. Katz (AD94), Claudia Tenney (AD101), James Tedisco (AD112), Janet L. Duprey (AD115), Angela M. Wozniak (AD143), and Jane L. Corwin (AD144), and Democrat Michelle Schimel (AD16). Sen. Todd Kaminsky (formerly of AD20) filled the 9th District state Senate seat following the expulsion of Dean Skelos. Kaminsky is running for re-election to the Senate while his Assembly seat will be filled this year.

by William Fowler for Gotham Gazette

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