Gotham Gazette

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2020 Primary Results Certified by Board of Elections; Show 23% Turnout Among New York City Democrats

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Voters cast many absentee ballots (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Over a month after the June primary, the New York State Board of Elections has certified the results, which show a relatively large voter turnout aided in part by the pandemic-induced expansion of absentee balloting. Almost all of the primaries in New York City were among Democrats, including a number of hotly-contested races for the House of Representatives, both houses of the State Legislature, Queens Borough President, and more.

The elections saw several Democratic incumbents toppled by progressive insurgents while the ascendent New York “left,” led by activists and groups including the Working Families Party and New York City branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, also did well in “open” races where there was no incumbent. But several incumbents also held onto their seats amid challenges.

In the only citywide race, the Democratic presidential primary, there were 844,448 votes cast, including 528,976 in-person votes and 315,472 absentee/military ballots; therefore, absentee ballots represented 37.4% of all ballots counted in New York City in that primary, with in-person voting accounting for 62.6%.

Those more than 315,000 absentee ballots were the ones accepted and counted by the Board of Elections, while roughly another 84,000 (84,108 according to The New York Post) were returned by voters but disqualified for a variety of reasons. After Governor Cuomo ordered boards of election to send all eligible voters an absentee ballot application due to the pandemic, about 778,100 New York City voters requested and were sent an absentee ballot, though many thousands were sent late, and voters returned just over 400,000, more than three-quarters of which were counted. 

With 3,617,982 registered Democrats in the city as of this February -- including 1,172,317 in Brooklyn; 837,162 in Queens; 832,312 in Manhattan; 636,791 in the Bronx; and 139,400 on Staten Island -- the 844,448 presidential primary votes represents a turnout rate of 23.3% among New York City Democrats.

By comparison, in the April 2016 New York Democratic presidential primary, 1,007,161 voters in New York City cast ballots, for a turnout rate of 32.8%. That Bernie Sanders-Hillary Clinton primary was still competitive at the time, unlike this year’s primary, which was postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak and, by the time the vote occurred, saw Joe Biden clear the field. On the other hand, this year’s primary included both universal absentee ballot access and a combined primary day for all federal and state races.

By borough this year, for the Democratic presidential primary, absentee ballots accounted for 106,591 (49.4%) of Manhattan’s 215,557 votes’ 35,901 (26.2%) of the Bronx’s 136,890 votes; 95,126 (34.8%) of Brooklyn’s 273,310 votes; 66,982 (34.6%) of Queens’ 193,537 votes; and 10,872 (43.2%) of Staten Island’s 25,154 votes.

Some of the above and below numbers may change, however, because after plaintiffs won a lawsuit against the State Board of Elections in which a judge ordered the counting of thousands of dismissed absentee ballots, the BOE is appealing the decision. Those ballots, disqualified because they were not postmarked by the post office, have not yet been counted.

Here are the certified results in many of the more competitive New York primaries for the House, State Senate, State Assembly, and Queens Borough President - all are Democratic primaries unless otherwise noted:

NY-6 - Queens
Total votes: 47,127
Grace Meng (incumbent): 30,757 (65.3%)
Melquiades Gagarin: 9,444 (20.0%)
Sandra Choi: 6,756 (14.3%)

NY-9 - Brooklyn
Total votes: 95,911
Yvette Clarke (incumbent): 52,114 (54.3%)
Adam Bunkeddeko: 23,564 (24.6%)
Isiah James: 9,910 (10.3%)
Chaim Deutch: 9,342 (9.7%)
Lutchi Gayot: 839 (0.9%)

NY-10 - Manhattan/Brooklyn
Total Votes: 75,795
Jerry Nadler (incumbent): 51,037 (67.3%)
Lindsey Boylan: 16,495 (21.8%)
Jonathan Herzog: 7,818 (10.3%)

NY-11 - Staten Island (Republican)
Total Votes: 22,839
Nicole Malliotakis: 15,688 (68.7%)
Joseph Caldarera: 7,040 (30.8%)

NY-12 - Manhattan/Queens/Brooklyn
Total Votes: 93,520
Carolyn Maloney (incumbent): 40,176 (43.0%)
Suraj Patel: 36,680 (39.2%)
Lauren Aschcraft: 12,530 (13.4%)
Peter Harrison: 3,938 (4.2%)

NY-13 - Manhattan
Total Votes: 78,154
Adriano Espaillat (incumbent): 46,064 (58.9%)
James Keith: 19,798 (25.3%)
Ramon Rodriguez: 11,858 (15.2%)

NY-15 - Bronx
Total Votes: 59,473
Ritchie Torres: 19,090 (32.1%)
Michael Blake: 10,725 (18.0%)
Ruben Diaz Sr.: 8,559 (14.4%)
Samelys Lopez: 8,272 (13.9%)
Ydanis Rodriguez: 6,291 (10.6%)
Melissa Mark-Viverito: 2,561 (4.3%)
Tomas Ramos: 1,442 (2.4%)
Chivona Newsome: 1,366 (2.3%)
Marlene Tapper: 392 (0.7%)
Julio Pabon: 244 (0.4%)
Frangell Basora: 189 (0.3%)

NY-16 - Bronx/Westchester
Total Votes: 89,139
Jamaal Bowman: 49,367 (55.4%)
Eliot Engel (incumbent): 36,149 (40.6%)
Chris Fink: 1,625 (1.8%)
Sammy Ravelo: 1,139 (1.3%)
Andom Ghebreghiorgis: 761 (0.9%)

District 18 - Brooklyn
Total Votes: 33,010
Julia Salazar (incumbent): 28,590 (86.6%)
Andy Marte: 2,627 (8.0%)

District 25 - Brooklyn
Total Votes: 57,398
Jabari Brisport: 32,967 (57.4%)
Tremaine Wright: 20,009 (34.8%)
Jason Salmon: 4,215 (7.3%)

District 31 - Queens
Total Votes: 9,602
Khaleel Anderson: 3,565 (38.1%)
Richard David: 2,770 (28.8%)
Lisa George: 1,819 (18.9%)
Shea Uzoigwe: 690 (7.2%)
Derrick DeFlorimonte: 392 (4.1%)
Tavia Blakley: 342 (3.6%)

District 34 - Queens
Total Votes: 9,893
Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas: 4,087 (41.3%)
Michael DenDekker (incumbent): 2,374 (24.0%)
Joy Chowdhury: 1,457 (14.7%)
Nuala O’Doherty-Naranjo: 1,347 (13.6%)
Angel Cruz: 579 (5.9%)

District 35 - Queens
Total Votes: 7,994
Jeffion Aubry (incumbent): 5,197 (65.0%)
Hiram Monserrate: 2,759 (34.5%)

District 36 - Queens
Total Votes: 16,426
Zohran Mamdani: 8,410 (51.2%)
Aravella Simotas: 7,986 (48.6%)

District 38 - Queens
Total Votes: 7,346
Jenifer Rajkumar: 3,816 (51.9%)
Michael Miller (incumbent): 1,851 (25.2%)
Joseph De Jesus: 1,667 (22.7%)

District 50 - Brooklyn
Total Votes: 18,708
Emily Gallagher: 9,727 (52.0%)
Joe Lentol (incumbent): 8,895 (47.5%)

District 51 - Brooklyn
Total Votes: 10,280
Marcela Mitaynes: 3,591 (34.9%)
Felix Ortiz (incumbent): 3,319 (32.3%)
Katherine Walsh: 2,437 (23.7%)
Genesis Aquino: 933 (9.1%)

District 56 - Brooklyn
Total Votes: 17,954
Stefani Zinerman: 10,171 (56.7%)
Justin Cohen: 7,665 (42.7%)

District 57 - Brooklyn
Total Votes: 27,885
Phara S. Forrest: 15,376 (55.1%)
Walter Mosley (incumbent): 12,464 (44.7%)

District 65 - Manhattan
Total Votes: 13,673
Yuh-Line Niou (incumbent): 8,748 (64.0%)
Grace Lee: 4,875 (35.7%)

District 68 - Manhattan
Total Votes: 12,683
Robert Rodriguez (incumbent): 7,041 (55.5%)
Tamika Mapp: 5,541 (43.7%)

District 73 - Manhattan
Total Votes: 13,148
Dan Quart (incumbent): 8,672 (66.0%)
Cameron Koffman: 4,427 (33.7%%)

District 79 - Bronx
Total Votes: 11,357
Chantel Jackson: 2,944 (25.9%)
Cynthia Cox: 2,599 (22.9%)
George Alvarez: 2,456 (21.6%)
Elvis Santana: 1,536 (13.5%)
Eric Stevenson: 1,383 (12.2%)
Dion Powell: 410 (3.6%)

Total Votes: 192,919
Donovan Richards: 65,122 (33.8%)
Elizabeth Crowley: 52,502 (27.2%)
Costa Constantinides: 32,823 (17.0%)
Anthony Miranda: 22,717 (11.8%)
Dao Yin: 8,504 (4.4%)

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

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Max & Murphy Podcast: The Working Families Party's Big Primary Wins

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Sochie Nnaemeka of the NY WFP (photo: @sochiesays)

August 5, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Sochie Nnaemeka on the Working Families Party's Big Wins & Future Challenges

Sochie Nnaemeka, director of the New York Working Families Party, joined the show to discuss the party's endorsements and successes in the 2020 New York primaries, and what comes next.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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As State Withholds Contract Payments, Substance Use Treatment Providers Worry About Rising Overdoses, Disease Outbreaks

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Naloxone training to reverse overdoses (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office)

With the pandemic blowing a hole in the economy and leading to a drastic drop in state tax revenue, budget officials have for months been withholding payments for state contracts to manage cash flows. Among the victims of that fiscal approach are substance use treatment providers who are being forced to cut already-limited services and consider staff layoffs and furloughs, which they say will likely lead to a sharp increase in overdoses and new disease outbreaks around the state. 

The pandemic caused a 14% drop in expected revenue for the state in the current fiscal year, roughly $13.3 billion, leading the state to reduce $4 billion in spending so far by withholding contract payments across the board and imposing freezes on new contracts, hiring, and pay raises, according to the Division of Budget. Governor Andrew Cuomo has said the state cannot meet the shortfall unless the federal government provides aid, failing which he would cut about 20%, or $8.2 billion, of funding for local governments for everything from education and social services to health care programs. 

But several nonprofit providers that contract with the state to run substance use treatment programs – including syringe exchanges, sexually-transmitted infection (STI) screenings, naloxone overdose rescue training, and more – are already feeling the crunch, having gone months without being paid by the state. The state has also cut local funding for substance use and addiction treatment programs by 31%, according to news reports, exacerbating providers’ worries about being able to provide services.

In interviews, providers and harm reduction advocates painted a dire picture. They say that the already rising rate of overdoses that they are witnessing is at risk of spiking to the same levels as 2016, when the opioid epidemic reached its peak and spurred local and state officials into action. Since official data lags behind and could be unavailable until even a year after the fact, they fear that by the time the actual numbers become apparent, it will be too late. A generational crisis could be underway.  

Syracuse-based ACR Health receives nearly 90% of its funding from the state Department of Health and has been grappling with months of delayed payments. The nonprofit has had to furlough 70 out of 142 staff members and close three of its five offices. “We've really been struggling with the lack of consistent payments from the state,” said Wil Murtaugh, ACR Health executive director, in a phone interview, noting that the state was more than $1 million behind in payments. The first notice they received that funds would be placed on hold was near the end of June, leaving the group scrambling for solutions. 

Alessandra Miller, director of ACR’s Department of Drug User Health, said the organization was planning to resume outreach operations that were suspended when the pandemic hit. “We're no longer really able to perform physical outreach to this population because of this lack of funding,” she said. 

Besides Syracuse, ACR also has centers in Utica and Watertown, but they have had to cut services at those two centers down from five days a week to two. Their programs cover nine counties in and around the area, where people have the highest needs.

“Of course, that's going to increase overdoses and consequently deaths related to overdoses. But also, you're talking about latent consequences of drug use and substance use like HIV and Hepatitis C,” Miller added. Miller and Murtaugh said their testing program has already seen a massive increase in STIs.

Jay Dewey, a spokesperson for Hudson Valley Community Services, similarly said his organization has not been paid for most of its state contracts since February. They’re owed as much as $1.6 million and they may have to resort to dipping into reserve funds while also relying on a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan. “But the TPP funding will be gone within a few days and so we estimate that by the end of August, we may need to look at furloughs, layoffs and a reduction of some of our services,” he said. 

The nonprofits may also have no option to enforce the contracts. Dewey said a state elected official suggested that they may have grounds to file a lawsuit against the state for nonpayment. “But that's kind of laughable because if we don't have money to continue programs, how will we have money for legal fees to sue the state of New York? So, it was an answer from a representative but not a very satisfactory one,” he said. 

At Evergreen Health Services in Buffalo, Emma Fabian, associate vice president of harm reduction, expressed concern about what cuts to programs could mean for rural communities that rely on their services. Evergreen runs syringe exchange programs in Buffalo and Jamestown and runs a mobile unit that serves surrounding areas. Between the two sites, the program serves more than 100 people per day, providing naloxone, sterile injection equipment, as well as medication-assisted treatment for addiction.

Already, Fabian said, fatal and non-fatal overdoses in Erie County are on track to be higher than in 2016. “What the numbers are showing is it’s not only statewide,” she said. “It’s perhaps a serious issue our entire country's going to be facing, again.” 

A spokesperson for the state Division of Budget emphasized that funding has not been cut, but is being withheld, at least for now. “There has been no permanent reduction in support for these services at this time,” said Freeman Klopott, the spokesperson. “Instead, the State is holding back a portion of payments as it contends with a cash crunch caused by a 14% drop in revenue due entirely to the pandemic and the State needs the federal government to deliver much-delayed funding to cover this revenue loss so that we can continue to provide support for the most vulnerable New Yorkers.”

The End Overdose NY coalition has been lobbying lawmakers and the governor to address the current crisis with more urgency, as service providers across the state increasingly head towards a fiscal cliff. Alexis Pleus, executive director of Truth Pharm and the co-chair of the New York State Harm Reduction Association, said the twin issues of non-payment of contracts and the cuts to funding for services are colliding, as localities without resources of their own cannot afford to step in to fill the gaps. “It's not even as if a county could suddenly support these programs that New York State is under contractual obligation to pay,” she said in an interview. 

“I don’t think the governor’s paying attention at all,” she said. “He's literally taking this population and just throwing their lives away, saying their lives are not valuable at all.” 

“Without those programs, diseases will run rampant, again,” Pleus said. The “ripple effect” of the lack of services could last a decade, if not more, she added. 

As advocates and service-providers have pointed out, the general public health guidance during this pandemic is in direct opposition to the advice that harm reduction providers give to substance users. People who would usually be told to avoid use alone are now being told in glaring public notices to maintain social distancing and isolate as much as possible. 

“We had a substance use disorder and opioid crisis before the pandemic hit, and because of the pandemic, we are now having more people suffering in isolation,” said State Senator Pete Harckham of Long Island, who chairs the Senate’s Committee on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse and who has discussed his own battles with substance use and addiction. Harckham has called for a $38.5 billion federal emergency aid package for behavioral health programs across the country. 

Harckham said the state’s withholding of contract payments is akin to “taking a tattered safety net and just shattering it. This is like cutting emergency rooms and ICUs in the middle of a pandemic. These clinics and these nonprofits are the ICU for people with substance use disorders.”

Harckham acknowledged that the state is in a difficult position as it lacks the necessary revenue to shore up these services. “But this is among the most vulnerable populations and for them to be on the brunt of this is really concerning,” he said.

“We're taking a step backwards with our health-care delivery,” said Murtaugh of ACR Health. “A program is a person, and if you have less persons, then you have less programs. Period. That's exactly what it is and it's very scary to step backwards like that.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Cuomo Re-Launches State Census Efforts

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Governor Cuomo at a Census conference early this year (photo: governor's office)

After months of relative silence about the ongoing 2020 Census count and with New York at risk of a large and costly undercount, Governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday re-launched a state effort to urge New Yorkers to fill out the once-a-decade federal questionnaire.

The COVID-19 pandemic turned the 2020 Census on its head, forcing officials at the city, state, and federal levels to reconsider outreach plans and pivot awareness campaigns. The self-response deadline was extended from July 31 to October 31. The federal Census Bureau has since resumed limited field operations in several parts of New York and New York City officials have continued a robust alternative program to reach city residents through phone- and text-banking, a multimedia ad campaign, and more.

As of July 28, about 58.3% of New Yorkers across the state had filled out the Census, according to the CUNY Mapping Service’s census tracking project, compared to a 62.6% response rate nationwide.

The state effort lagged behind significantly even before the coronavirus outbreak in New York, and the governor’s announcement was the first major step since the pandemic hit the state. In a statement, Cuomo announced “Census Push Week” and emphasized the “absolutely critical” need for people to fill out the population questionnaire, which affects the level of federal funding the state receives and its electoral representation in Congress. With a loss of population over the last decade and a possible undercount, the state could lose as many as two seats in the House of Representatives.

“There's no doubt that COVID-19 has presented unprecedented obstacles to completing the Census,” Cuomo said. “However, the pandemic also highlights a key reason why the Census is so vital—New York State continues to seek substantial funding and aid from the federal government. I urge every New Yorker to complete the Census, and remember, New York State can help if you encounter any issues along the way.”

Originally Cuomo had pledged a $70 million Census outreach effort, including $20 million allocated in last year’s budget that was meant to be awarded to community-based organizations for direct contact but never went out the door. The state’s budget woes from the pandemic could mean that money will never be allocated (even as another $10 million was added in the new state budget passed in early April), an issue that has outraged advocacy organizations who say the state dragged its feet for far too long. The other $40 million was to be spent via a reallocation of state resources whereby different agencies and offices would work to get out the count -- plans now said to be launching many months after being promised.

As part of the new effort announced on Tuesday, the state Office for New Americans will partner with El Diario and Telemundo to host a two-day phone banking event, primarily for Spanish speakers. The state is also partnering with the Association for a Better New York, a prominent business group, to promote the Census through two events on July 30 and August 10.

At the same time, state entities have taken steps to urge participation in the Census without holding in-person events, the governor’s office said. The MTA is advertising across its subway, bus, and rail systems; the Department of State is promoting the Census through Community Action Agencies; and the Department of State’s Division of Licensing Services is boosting awareness through its customer service phone line. The Department of Financial Services and Empire State Development are also spreading the word through their respective networks.

State and local officials are organizing a slew of other events this week to barnstorm hard-to-count neighborhoods where self-response rates have been historically low. The administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio is already in the midst of a “Census Week of Action” this week, and as part of that the New York City Census office has signed up 500 volunteers and is holding public events every day till August 2, including in-person events across the five boroughs. In Brooklyn, State Senator Zellnor Myrie is organizing a Census March for Racial Justice on August 2 to raise awareness in communities that are falling behind in the count.

The Census questionnaire is roughly ten questions and can be filled out by one member of a household to include all residents of that household. It can be filled out online or by phone, and the Census Bureau has also mailed paper questionnaires to households that have not responded.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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How a Big Brooklyn Upset Unfolded

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Emily Gallagher with campaign supporters (photo: @em4assembly)

Community activist Emily Gallagher ran a successful insurgent Democratic primary campaign like few others: one with no endorsements from elected officials, no support from ascendent lefitist groups the Working Families Party or New York City branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, and relatively little money compared to her opponent, a 47-year incumbent State Assembly member who had not even faced a primary challenge for a decade.

Gallagher, who has lived in North Brooklyn’s Assembly District 50 for 13 years and been active on issues of sexual assault, the environment, and tenants’ rights, among others, declared victory on Wednesday after thousands of absentee ballots were finally counted, overcoming a 15-point deficit from the in-person tally against incumbent Joe Lentol, who has been something of an institution in state government.

Gallagher’s victory was part of a trend but also unique, given that several other primary challengers unseated incumbents in this year’s primaries but Gallagher did so without some of the support and firepower that others had. She was also taking on an officeholder who appeared to have limited room for criticism from the left, given Lentol’s track record on issues like criminal justice reform and climate change.

Nevertheless, Gallagher had organized an impressive campaign team and won several important endorsements from progressive leaders and groups, and made the case to voters in Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and Clinton Hill that it was time for generational change and a representative promising more independence and aggressiveness on crucial issues like affordable housing.

“I’m really grateful and I’m never going to forget what is like outside of the chambers that I’m about to go into,” Gallagher said of her win, in an interview on Thursday. “And I’m going to try to bring as many people in as I can.”

Gallagher ran on a platform that includes passing a New York Homes Guarantee (a slate of legislation pushed by activist organization Housing Justice for All that includes universal rent control), decriminalization of drugs and sex work, increasing the funding and power of the Department of Environmental Conservation, and support for defunding the NYPD. Some of these policies went further left than Lentol, like decriminalizing all drugs (although he does support legalizing marijuana) while others were shared by both candidates, like the homes guarantee.

In some ways Lentol seemed to many like an odd representative for leftists to pick a fight with given his progressive track record, including recent police reforms like the repeal of a law blocking the release of officer discipline records, and ways he had delivered for the district, such as with new green space. Lentol had seniority in the Assembly majority and apparent sway with Speaker Carl Heastie, and he was endorsed by a slew of Democratic elected officials, progressive organizations, and major labor unions, including Congressional Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the teachers’ and nurses’ unions, and the Working Families Party.

But, looking deeper, Gallagher seized on key issues that galvanized supporters and carved out differences between herself and Lentol. She seemed able to appeal to some long-time district residents through her knowledge of hyperlocal issues from her decade of activism, but also to newer, younger residents who make up a significant portion of the district and appeared to appreciate her far-left politics and the chance to have someone of their own generation and experiences represent them. She also ran an insurgent campaign with volunteers and staff that appear to have overmatched an incumbent completely out of practice at competitive elections.

“Despite the understandable perception in the wider political world that this was a nearly unwinnable or at least massively difficult race, I honestly never felt that way,” said Andrew Epstein, Gallagher’s campaign manager, in an interview. “Partially, that just had to do with how I was seeing the district vote.”

Gallagher started her Assembly run focused on issues of transportation rights and environmentalism, two key concerns for residents of the district, home to large numbers of commuters, including many cyclists, and a great deal of waterfront.

When she launched her campaign, she said it was essential to replace Lentol because residents in the district “have crumbling infrastructure next to gleaming glass towers. We have regular floods of raw sewage lapping up on our long-promised parks. Bikers and pedestrians are killed every week,” and she would be able to better address these issues.

Gallagher’s platform included policies like pushing for a 100% reduction in sewage dumping in rivers and increasing the number of bike lanes in the district.

Then it expanded to canceling rent during the coronavirus crisis that quickly left hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers newly-unemployed as the primary was unfolding. The public health and socio-economic crises brought on by COVID-19 altered races and campaigning across the city, and for some voters surely made certain issues and questions of government representation more pressing.

In the midst of the campaign and the multiple coronavirus-related crises, Lentol helped push through the Assembly and Legislature a rent-relief bill to support certain impacted New Yorkers. But it drew criticism from progressives who said it didn’t do enough, a marker of the divide between many incumbents accepting compromise on one hand and challengers and activists demanding bolder action on the other.

Gallagher’s campaign appealed to the significant population of younger voters in a district that overlaps with that of State Senator Julia Salazar, a democratic socialist elected in 2018 on a platform significantly focused on housing, and that in recent Democratic primaries swung heavily for progressives like presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in 2016 and gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon in 2018, even though they both performed poorly overall in Brooklyn.

But the district, which has seen a great deal of change over the last 10 to 15 years, including a lot of housing development and influx of younger residents, in some ways appeared ripe for a younger, far-left candidate, despite Lentol’s significant strengths.

Still, Gallagher’s win is surprising to many. For one, Lentol’s name recognition, track record in the district (which was also represented by his father and grandfather), and initial campaign war chest of more than $350,000 from past fundraising efforts. Lentol raised close to $200,000 more (including $45,000 from the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee) as of July 16 and had outside groups spend almost $400,000 in support of him between January 1 and primary day, June 23, through independent expenditures. Those two buckets brought the total spending in support of Lentol to close to $1 million, a virtually unheard of amount for an Assembly campaign.

Meanwhile, Gallagher raised a little over $80,000 and spent about $70,000 of it as of her most recent campaign finance filing, submitted June 12 (another filing is overdue). While Gallagher had only three paid staff on her campaign, the campaign manager and two field operation leaders, Lentol was able to hire more staff and outside consultants, like Red Horse Media Strategies, and spend big on mailers and other campaign materials.

Michael Kinnucan, a member of the New York City branch of the Democratic Socialists of America who worked as deputy campaign manager for Salazar’s 2018 campaign, where she upset incumbent State Senator Martin Dilan, said at a certain point money becomes less effective.

“There are real diminishing returns to money in campaigns,” Kinnucan said. “Fundamentally, Joe [Lentol] spent, what, $600,000 or something like that on the race? And what was he doing with it? I mean once you send six mailers, sending a seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth, if the message isn’t connecting, is not going to move the ball.”

Kinnucan went on to say that despite absentee ballots historically being used by older voters who tend to be more loyal to establishment candidates, his experience with campaigns this cycle as a DSA member showed a surprising number of young voters excited at the prospect of voting absentee.

When Governor Andrew Cuomo extended eligibility for absentee ballots for the June primary so the “temporary illness” “excuse” included the possibility of contracting COVID-19, Kinnucan said many young voters seemed more comfortable with ordering an absentee ballot online, as opposed to traditional in-person voting. Gallagher could likely appeal more of these younger voters, who are potentially less aware of Lentol’s track record, tend to identify with her anti-establishment, self-identified democratic socialist campaign, and whose votes for candidates like Sanders and Nixon were what made Epstein confident the district was open to change in the first place.

According to census data, the median age in district 50 is about 30, while the median age in New York City is closer to 37; while 23% of the district is between the ages of 30 and 39, that number is only 16% for the city. The district is also 72% white (both Lentol and Gallagher are white), according to the same data, and includes Williamsburg and Greenpoint, two of the most gentrified neighborhoods in the city — other qualities often friendly to progressive challengers.

But other progressive challengers — at least those who find success — usually have the backing of organizations like the WFP or DSA, which can provide them with organized support and volunteers and give their candidacies added credibility, at least among some target voters. Yet Gallagher was not without important endorsers and validators as she sought to gather support in the primary.

Besides her existing activist network, Gallagher won the backing of groups including the New Kings Democrats (NKD), a reform club founded by former Obama volunteers committed to breaking the Brooklyn Democratic Party “machine” through a focus on local offices. NKD had previously approached Gallagher to run for District Leader of the same district in 2016, which she did but lost by less than 350 votes to another long-term incumbent, Linda Minucci, who had been in the position for over 30 years.

“New Kings Democrats, Brooklyn Young Democrats and, actually…Our Progressive Future, they were so helpful, and I think it’s because they are also activists,” Gallagher said. “All of them saw me and knew me and wanted to be a part of it. They really stuck their neck out for me. In many of the meetings that I went into, they would say, ‘Who’s supporting you?’ and that was what I had to name. I didn’t have a [elected] politician I could name, even though I fought full out, everybody was a little uncomfortable with what I was doing.”

Gallagher said her community ties paid off in this way, and others, with people coming up to her during her campaign who said they knew her from things like a 2016 meeting about violence in the park, or her regular column in the Greenpoint Star, or other activist projects of hers that were often about hyperlocal issues.

Though she did not have any elected officials behind her, Gallagher did get support from groups and some progressive stars, namely Zephyr Teachout and Cynthia Nixon, two recent candidates who with a lot of lefist support.

Epstein said sometimes endorsements from organizations could be just on paper, but Gallagher’s came with credibility and resources, including a three-page document on strategies used by past candidates who have had success in the district, provided by NKD. That document was an often-referenced “roadmap” to victory for the campaign.

Gallagher was also endorsed by progressive organizations New York Communities for Change, True Blue New York, The Broad Room, and StreetsPAC, as well as Phara Souffrant Forrest, a NYC-DSA-backed candidate who also pulled off a surprising, insurgent victory over an incumbent, in her case Assemblymember Walter Mosley in Brooklyn’s 57th District. Like Lentol, Mosley had a strong progressive track record, the support of the Working Families Party, and also establishment ties. Gallagher also picked up a seal of approval from good government group Citizens Union.

“She has this really wonderful way of listening to people and putting her ego aside and listening to the data, listening to what people in the district are citing as their most relevant concerns and she built a campaign around it and its genuine,” said Jessica Thurston, Vice President of Political Affairs for NKD, of Gallagher. “I trust her, and I imagine the voters did to, to thoughtfully address these issues that affect people in the district in very disparate ways.”

Thurston mentioned real estate development as an example, an issue that benefits newer residents and gentrifiers who end up living in new apartment buildings, but also can displace other, previously existing residents. Both groups will make up Gallagher’s constituents, and Thurston said she trusts her to represent both interests.

The issues of gentrification, displacement, and tenants’ rights formed perhaps the most prominent broad theme of the campaign, which makes sense for the district. Gallagher sought to differentiate herself from Lentol by standing further to the left on housing.

While Lentol co-sponsored the $100 million, means-tested rent-voucher bill that passed the State Legislature amid the pandemic, Gallagher was among those calling for rent cancelation legislation. In a previous interview with Gotham Gazette during the heat of the primary, Lentol described the voucher bill as a solid, realistic compromise that could help those struggling to pay rent due to the pandemic while not hurting smaller landlords who need rental income they generate to stay afloat, and called legislation to cancel rent (which would have applied to economically-devastated tenants and included provisions for landlords) “a free rent program that’s never going to pass.”

This, Gallagher said, was one way in which Lentol may have been out of touch with his district, which Census data shows is made up of over 80% renters.

“Joining in the call to cancel rent during the quarantine was a really big thing that people appreciated,” said Gallagher, who has referenced her own struggles to maintain housing throughout her campaign. “The majority here are renters but I would say that the people who routinely have had their voices very clearly heard are small homeowners.”

And so it is unsurprising that New York Communities for Change, a Brooklyn-based activist organization for which housing is a top issue, was one of Gallagher’s relatively small number of endorsements. Executive Director Jonathan Westin said the group was proud to have supported her in what he described as one of the biggest upsets he’s seen.

“Affordability and housing are the top issues in the district, and I think across the city and, frankly, across the state,” Westin said in an interview. “Even more so now that people are out of work, they don’t have the money to pay the rent and they want real solutions here and not piecemeal, frankly bullshit, which is what the Assembly passed. The priorities of Albany are absolutely absurd, and I think that’s what we’re seeing in the upending of so many incumbents.”

Westin said Gallagher’s and other leftist candidates’ primary wins showed the rejection by voters of a Democratic establishment he said is “out of touch with the everyday voter,” something Lentol himself seemed to partly acknowledge in a concession statement on Wednesday.

"It's decided: The voters in the 50th Assembly District voted for change. It's been a great honor to represent the people of North Brooklyn in the Assembly. I'm proud of my years of service, delivering important legislation and always attending to constituents' needs,” Lentol said. “My successor will be busy as the new Assembly Member. I wish her well as she faces the enormous challenges ahead."

Brooklyn Democratic Party Leader and  Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte said in a statement that Lentol has been “a progressive champion for his district, Brooklyn and New York State in its entirety,” and thanked him for the work he’s done, while congratulating Gallagher on the win and saying she looks forward to working with her “to continue that progressive agenda.” Lentol was not made available by his campaign for an interview for this story.

Despite his track record of significant progressive legislation, Lentol only seemed to out-perform Gallagher in South Williamsburg, an area with a large population of Hasidic Jews with close ties to the incumbent. Still, this gave him a 2,000-vote lead in strictly in-person voting, although it’s something Gallagher’s campaign had anticipated from the outset.

“The thing about this race was, from the beginning I knew that we were going to have to win 65-75% in Greenpoint and the Northern part of Williamsburg just because of the historic relationship between Hasidic leadership and Assemblymember Lentol,” Epstein said. “And that was going to be a huge deficit for us and to overcome that we were just going to have to run up spectacular margins in Greenpoint and North Williamsburg.”

And that’s what they did. Two days after election day, Gallagher tweeted a graphic showing how those two areas that she performed well in were also the areas where a greater number of absentee ballots were requested. Like with some other insurgent campaigns, such as Marcela Mitaynes’ in Brooklyn’s 51st District, where she upset Assemblymember Felix Ortiz, a deficit turned into a lead when absentee ballots were counted. Assuming they win their likely uncompetitive general elections, if they even have them, Gallagher and Mitaynes will be among a fairly long list of new, younger, diverse, and independent Assembly members promising to move the chamber further to the left and have it deliver on long-stated priorities like single-payer health care, higher taxes on the wealthy, and marijuana legalization, as well as others like stronger eviction protections.

To run its absentee balloting operation, Epstein said the Gallagher campaign used open source software developed by grassroots campaigns, like the text-banking tool called “Spoke” used by Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign or the app “Reach” created by a Long Island City developer for Congressional Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign. He also said that, besides spurring some people to want change, the pandemic provided an advantage in some ways due to the fact that it made apps like these more effective and mailers typically used by old-guard politicians like Lentol less so, because many people had left the city and might be more easily reached by cell phone.

Epstein also said absentee ballots reduced the advantage of name recognition incumbents often have, as voters had more time to consider and research the candidates before sending in their votes by mail, instead of going to the voting booth on election day and being unable or less likely to look up candidates they didn’t recognize on their ballot.

Gallagher’s phone-banking initiative was a major focus of the campaign, according to the candidate, who said she got her mom to make calls for her, as well as a friend who had to temporarily move back to Scotland due to the pandemic but still made plenty of calls while outside the country. Overall, she described a passionate, volunteer-run phone-banking operation that worked at least three hours a day three days a week for months, although Gallagher herself (and her mom, among others) would call potential voters each day. According to her campaign, this resulted in an accumulated 10,000 phone calls. And after an initial round of text-banking to reach 15,000 people two to three times each, the campaign had two text-banking sessions a week where they would contact around 2,000-4,000 people.

“Fewer people are picking up the phone, but the willingness to engage in meaningful political conversations on the phone was so much more present than I had ever seen it before,” Epstein said, attributing this partly to more people being at home due to the pandemic.

Through phone-banking, Gallagher was able to do what many of her supporters and staffers said she was good at: listen to people.

“I think what people wanted in this moment was to have a conversation and be in conversation with someone who could really understand the emergency they were going through right now,” Gallagher said. “As the year wore on, the sick and tired feeling just grew and grew and grew, and we didn’t want somebody who was saying, ‘Oh, I’ve evolved so much in the last few years and I have power and you should trust me,’ we wanted someone to say ‘This is broken and it’s not working and it’s time to fix it now and the old ways don’t work.’”

[Read: Wins Pile Up for the New York Left]

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Wins Pile Up for the New York Left

phara souffrant forrest

Phara Souffrant Forrest (photo: @phara4assembly)

Leftist organizations like the Working Families Party and New York City branch of the Democratic Socialists of America are piling up wins in the June primaries, with absentee ballot counting near an end and a wide array of candidates they supported — many of whom are challengers to incumbents — on the verge of winning seats in Congress and the New York State Legislature.

The wins shatter preconceived notions that incumbents are heavily favored to win, conventional wisdom that was deeply shaken in 2018 when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her congressional primary, followed by group of insurgent State Senate candidates unseating seven incumbent Democrats to dramatically alter the legislative landscape.

That effort only picked up steam this year, where some of the insurgent leftists unseated incumbents and others won “open” Democratic primaries with no incumbent in the race but often overcoming another candidate supported by the traditional political establishment. Given almost every election district in New York City is dominated by Democrats, prevailing in the party primary is often a guarantee of winning the seat.

For the most part, the candidates backed by some combination of the WFP, DSA, and other groups and prominent progressive endorsers ran on single-payer health care, raising taxes on the wealthy to put more funding into education and other social services, eviction protections, legalizing adult use of marijuana, and more. They ran on going further than the Democrats in power, especially Governor Andrew Cuomo, on virtually all fronts, from criminal justice reform to combating climate change.

In some contested primaries, there was minimal daylight between candidates, but the leftist promised demographic representation more closely resembling district residents and a more vocal, independent presence in government.

“Because of the way our election results are trickling out over weeks, it's not getting the attention it deserves, but NY just unseated a whole slew of incumbents and replaced them with progressive candidates of color at the state and Congressional level,” wrote Shannon Stagman, an organizer with the progressive group Empire State Indivisible, in a Wednesday tweet.

Stagman and many others -- in New York’s progressive movement and not -- reacted on Wednesday to the news of additional primary upsets, the latest evidence that leftist forces were picking up legislative seats and building momentum to alter New York politics.

On Wednesday it was Democratic primary wins for Phara Souffrant Forrest over Assemblymember Walter Mosley in Brooklyn’s 57th District; Emily Gallagher over Assemblymember Joe Lentol in Brooklyn’s 50th District; and Zohran Mamdani over Assemblymember Aravella Simotas in Queens’ 36th District. If that was it, the New York left would in most years have had a very strong showing, knocking off three incumbents. But that was far from it.

Those wins came on the heels of Marcela Mitaynes defeating Assemblymember Felix Ortiz in Brooklyn’s 51st District; Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas defeating Assemblymember Michael DenDekker in Queens’ 34th District; Jenifer Rajkumar defeating Assemblymember Michael Miller in Queens’ 38th District; Amanda Septimo winning over ballot-disqualified Assemblymember Carmen Arroyo in the Bronx’s 84th District; and “open” seat victories for Khaleel Anderson in Queens’ 31st Assembly District and Jabari Brisport in Brooklyn’s 25th State Senate District.

Leftist candidates like Brooklyn State Senator Julia Salazar and Manhattan Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou also held onto their seats in the face of more centrist challengers.

And the state legislative wins come alongside the historic victories of Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones (both backed by the WFP and other progressive groups and individuals, while Bowman had the backing of the Democratic Socialists of America) in New York’s 16th and 17th Congressional Districts, respectively. Ritchie Torres is also making history in the 15th Congressional District, though many leftist groups, including the WFP and DSA, backed one of his primary opponents, Samelyz Lopez, in the race to replace retiring Rep. Jose Serrano.

Indeed, not all the lines were clear cut, and progressive groups did not always all back the same candidates or even endorse in some races. The all-volunteer DSA endorses in far fewer races than the better-funded, more professional Working Families Party, which issues dozens of New York endorsements, not to mention a variety of other groups and clubs.

But the unmistakable trend is a continued ascension by the left wing of the Democratic Party in New York.

Even if the scorecard is a bit complicated. For example: the WFP backed several winning insurgents, like Gonzalez Rojas and Anderson, that were not on the DSA roster; the DSA backed Mamdani while the WFP stayed out of that race. Neither the WFP nor the DSA backed Gallagher or Rajkumar. Both Mitaynes and Brisport had the backing of both the WFP and DSA.

Also important to a number of the leftist successes in these races were groups like Make the Road Action, Empire State Indivisible, the Sunrise Movement, New York Communities for Change, the New Kings Democrats, and others. Essential to campaigns were many staff and volunteers, some of whom came from these groups and others who did not. DSA is becoming especially known for its army of volunteers that accompanies local endorsements, and though the group endorses a relatively small slate -- seven candidates in the New York primaries -- it makes the support count.

“NYC-DSA has proven that we can hold our own against the corporate-backed machine in past elections,” NYC-DSA Brooklyn Electoral Working Group Co-Chair Julian Graham said in a statement one day after the June 23 primaries. “Tonight, we proved we can do it on a city-wide scale. All of our candidates started out as underdogs, but you don’t need wealth and connections when you have a movement fighting alongside you.”

The DSA’s state legislative slate of Salazar, Brisport, Mitaynes, Mamdani, and Souffrant Forrest all appear headed to victory. The group also backed Ocasio-Cortez for reelection and Lopez in her bid to enter Congress, the only loss of the bunch. In his race, Brisport beat a sitting Assemblymember, Tremaine Wright, who gave up her seat to seek a promotion to the Senate, in the competition to replace retiring Senator Velmanette Montgomery, who endorsed Wright.

Several DSA candidates had significant disadvantages when it came to funding, at times due to incumbents’ war chests, left over from previous elections. For example, about a week before election day Mitaynes had raised a little over $70,000, while her opponent, 26-year incumbent Ortiz, had raised about $80,000 in the same time period but also had an additional $156,000 to start with from past election cycles. But Souffrant Forrest outraised incumbent Mosley by $20,000, according to the most recent filings, and Mamdani raised about $240,000 through nearly 6,000 individual transactions — very large numbers for an Assembly campaign.

Gallagher was drastically outspent by Lentol, but nevertheless was victorious on the strength of her message, roots in the district, and many volunteers. Gallagher had raised only $60,000 as of a month before primary day, compared to Lentol’s $400,000 at the time, much of which came from previous election cycles. Several of the incumbent Assembly members also benefited from large gifts from Speaker Carl Heastie through the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee or his own Speaker Heastie PAC (political action committee).

In a tweet, Gallagher credited progressive stalwart and law professor Zephyr Teachout and activist and actor Cynthia Nixon, both of whom have run for office as progressive insurgents in recent election cycles, for aiding her campaign through their endorsements.

“This is a @ZephyrTeachout and @CynthiaNixon appreciation tweet. We weren't endorsed by a single elected official. We were astronomically outspent. But they saw what we were building, stepped up and threw in with the underdogs. That's what courage and vision looks like,” Gallagher wrote.

Gallagher was behind by 15% — about 2,000 votes — before absentee ballots were counted, a significant deficit to overcome. But, like many other challengers, she performed extremely well when it came to absentee votes, and was ahead by 265 votes in total with a growing lead as of Tuesday, according to her Twitter. Mamdani, Souffrant Forrest, and Mitaynes were also in close races before pulling ahead when absentee ballots were taken into account.

Some if not all of the successful insurgent campaigns ran organized absentee ballot operations, including educating voters. After absentee ballots were counted, Mamdani partially attributed his victory to registering new voters in minority communities, such as Muslims and South Asians. As an Indian-American Muslim himself, Mamdani also emphasized the importance of demographic representation.

“We began this campaign with the idea that all New Yorkers deserve so much more than they’ve been offered by the status quo,” Mamdani said in the statement. “They deserve guaranteed housing as a human right. They deserve lower energy prices from publicly owned utilities. They deserve to live in safe and stable neighborhoods, free from police abuse and the violence of mass incarceration. And in particular, those New Yorkers who have long been excluded from our politics - including the vibrant Muslim and South Asian communities here in Astoria - deserve representation that speaks to their unique experience.”

As a housing counselor seeking to represent areas that have seen significant gentrification, Mamdani centered the negative effects of displacement throughout his campaign, and also used his opponent’s donations from some real estate developers and landlords as a major point of criticism, alleging she represented those interests and pointing out that she had broken a related fundraising pledge.

Housing development, affordability, and availability issues have been at the forefront many recent elections, and this cycle they were essential to the campaigns of Mamdani, Mitaynes, Souffrant Forrest, Gallagher, Brisport, and others. Both veteran tenant organizers, Mitaynes and Souffrant Forrest, whose profession is currently as a nurse, have worked with the nonprofit Neighbors Helping Neighbors and Crown Heights Tenant Union, respectively. Souffrant Forrest made her 2016 experience, when her apartment building went through a condo conversion and she almost lost her home, a centerpiece of her campaign.

As has been the case in other recent elections, like Salazar’s 2018 victory over incumbent Senator Martin Dilan, many of the strongest leftist performances have been in some of the city’s most rapidly gentrifying areas, where housing development has been rampant and rents rising quickly. Yet at times members of DSA and others behind some of the leftist candidates have been called gentrifiers themselves, and those insurgents have often done far better in more gentrified parts within the districts at hand when the votes are cast. DSA wins have often been due to “mostly white, relatively affluent, college-educated voters in gentrifying neighborhoods,” reported City and State.

“Why did the DSA do so well elsewhere, but only come in fourth in that 15th congressional district?” asked a Democratic consultant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, about Lopez’s loss in the Bronx. “Because there is not a significant gentrifying phenomenon in that district. To me, that is very telling.”

Again, the dynamics don’t always cut cleanly, though, and the DSA, WFP, Make the Road Action, and other leftist groups have been supporting candidates of color with deep roots in their diverse communities. New York Communities for Change, a Brooklyn-based, housing-focused group led by people of color, put significant energy behind the housing-focused campaigns of Brisport, Gallagher, Mitaynes, and Souffrant Forrest.

Policies like the “good cause” eviction bill, which would protect tenants in market-rate apartments from being evicted without reason, and rent cancelation for those struggling financially due to the pandemic, were popular talking points of this primary’s leftist candidates, many of whom criticized the State Legislature for passing a $100 million rent voucher bill in place of rent cancelation legislation. Some incumbents like Lentol supported the bill as a doable step to help those struggling, but they were incessantly criticized for not doing enough. Others — perhaps feeling pressure from their far-left opponents — voted against it, like Simotas.

Brisport said the “good cause” eviction bill was among his top priorities in a previous interview with Gotham Gazette, something co-chair of the NYC-DSA Chi Anunwa also highlighted when speaking in support of the State Senate candidate.

“Jabari’s likely victory represents a big step forward for housing and racial justice politics in New York,” Anunwa said at the time. “With Jabari’s election, New York State will now have two socialists in the State Senate who are champions of the tenants’ rights movement and the movement for more radical police reform.”

Brisport and Salazar, the two democratic socialists who will likely be neighboring state senators, are now poster children for both the DSA and WFP: young people of color with independent streaks and far-left agendas.

Endorsing a much larger slate than the DSA, the WFP had an especially strong 2020 primary showing, starting with the congressional wins by Jones and Bowman, who appears ready to join Ocasio-Cortez and like-minded far-left members of Congress.

For state office, along with Salazar and Brisport, the WFP backed newcomer Assembly candidates Mitaynes, Gonzalez-Rojas, Anderson, and Septimo, as well as incumbents like Yuh-Line Niou and Dan Quart, all of whom appear on the verge if not guaranteed victory. The WFP lost in support of Lentol and Mosley.

As New York’s 2020 primaries are finally sealed, attention will turn to both this year’s general election, which will include minimal competition in New York City but important races for the House and State Senate elsewhere in the state, along with the closely-watched race in the 11th Congressional District between Democratic Rep. Max Rose, no close ally of democratic socialists, and his Republican opponent, Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis.

Leftist groups, candidates, and officeholders from New York City will likely be focused on helping Democrats hold the State Senate and U.S. House, flip the U.S. Senate, and take the presidency. Some are already looking at the 2021 city elections, which will feature dozens of races for “open” City Council seats, four Borough President positions with no incumbent running, and wide open races for Comptroller and Mayor.

It’s to be seen what momentum leftist groups will carry into 2021 and where they will focus their efforts. But well before votes are cast next year, the new crop of elected officials will begin to make their impact in Albany and Washington, D.C. How much change they can bring, individually and collectively, is another unknown. Like the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, the majority in the State Assembly is very large, at more than 100 members. Still, there is power in numbers and the leftist insurgents elected this year appear ready to work together and with allies who helped them get elected to shake things up and move state government left.

In a statement on her victory, Souffrant Forrest emphasized that her win, like many others, indicates a want for something different from the status quo.

“I am so honored and so proud to have the chance to represent my community. Our win is a victory for every person who is struggling in this state. It is a win for nurses without protective equipment, for Black and Brown people targeted by police violence and chronic disinvestment, for immigrants deprived of their democratic rights, for tenants who can’t make rent, and for the thousands of unemployed people struggling to survive,” Souffrant Forrest said. “Our win is a rejection of politics as usual. This win shows that our time is now.”

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

'Break in the Dam': New York Sees Flood of Long-Stalled Police Reforms in Response to Outcry

Eric Garner police reform NYPD

Eric Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, at a recent press conference (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)

New York, and the nation, was teetering on the edge when it was suddenly and violently pushed over it on May 25, as George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota by police officer Derek Chauvin. It was an incident as shocking as it was familiar, an unarmed Black man dying at the hands of a police officer with the episode caught on video and broadcast to millions of people.

“I can’t breathe,” Floyd cried out, as Chauvin knelt on his back and neck for nearly nine minutes and three other officers either helped restrain the man or simply stood by while he was clearly in distress. It was eerily familiar to the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island six years ago. Garner uttered those same words and his death was met with similar anger and protests.

But even though Garner was killed here, the levers of power in New York did not move with the same urgency then as they have now.

No one could have predicted what would happen after Floyd’s death. The country was in the middle of a historic pandemic, suffering from skyrocketing unemployment and an unprecedented fiscal crisis that further revealed and exacerbated the inequities suffered by Black and brown Americans. Almost overnight, there was an immense outpouring of anger and unrest as tens if not hundreds of thousands of people marched and rallied against the abuses of law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and society at large every day for weeks.

What would eventually become the largest movement in the country’s history, and which is still continuing to this day, ushered in a seismic shift and, here in New York, prompted the passage of long-delayed legislation on police reform, some of which had languished since after Garner’s death, new executive measures on accountability at the state and city levels, and significantly shifted conversations about municipal budgets and the people and programs they prioritize. 

“I feel like it is a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Reverend Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network and a longtime civil rights leader, in a phone interview, adding he feels a “guarded” sense of progress. “I’m just making sure that it’s sunlight and not the train coming.”

“It’s been a stunning couple of months,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, reflecting on all the action taken at the city and state levels.

Elected officials were spurred into action, from Governor Andrew Cuomo and members of the State Legislature -- which is led by two Black officials, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins -- to Mayor Bill de Blasio and members of the City Council, led by Speaker Corey Johnson. They said they realized the necessity of responding to the moment and acted accordingly, even if their actions left some activists wanting.

Among the laws that passed were those criminalizing chokeholds by police officers, allowing officer disciplinary records to be made public, standardizing NYPD disciplinary action, mandating disclosure of police surveillance technology, tracking enforcement of low-level offenses by demographics, creating a new hate crime category for filing a false police report based on race, and much more.

“We’ve been trying to do this for years,” said David Galarza, an activist with the New York Justice Committee. “These are movement victories,” he added, calling them nothing short of “monumental.”

Even as some like Galarza are taking stock, the totality of the sweep cannot yet be appreciated, as new laws must be implemented and enforced, executive orders are still being carried out, investigations of police conduct are ongoing, and many, many promises must be kept. And the changes have been met with fierce resistance from members of law enforcement and their close allies, including within the NYPD and leaders of police labor unions, as well as elected officials on the right and center.

For activists, the mass protests helped accomplish in a few weeks what they had sought through years of advocacy. It took five years, after all, for Officer Daniel Pantaleo, whose chokehold killed Eric Garner, to be fired. Repeatedly disappointed in politicians who either opposed their demands or only offered piecemeal concessions, activists -- including mothers and other relatives of Black men killed by police officers -- were now achieving victories that would have seemed unimaginable just a few months ago. Elected officials who had more often than not acted to obstruct or water down police reforms were now bending over backwards to expedite them.

“You have to wonder in the stillness of the night, if we didn’t have the pandemic and everyone’s attention, would they have moved?,” Sharpton said.

The conditions of the pandemic, said Mark Winston-Griffith, a longtime civil rights activist and executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, “created this perfect storm where people had the anger, the bandwidth, the motivation, the focus to take to the streets in a way that was somewhat unprecedented.”

Winston-Griffith, who has been active in central Brooklyn and beyond for decades, pointed to the participation of people who were previously far removed from the justice movement, particularly the involvement of white people. “Ordinary people suddenly became politicized, suddenly got the courage to even utter the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ and were able to consider things that have never been considered before,” he said, citing the debate around defunding police.

In the past months, words like “abolish” and “defund” went from the mouths of activists to the vocabulary of a much larger swathe of the general public. Black Lives Matter, a movement supported by a majority of Americans and already a household term, was now ubiquitous in every form of media. “These notions are things that would have reflexively been rejected before,” said Winston-Griffith, as he reflected on the historic events and how the Overton window shifted to the left on policing and public safety.

Further cementing the very core of the movement’s demands was that the official response to the protests, even in “progressive” New York City, often resembled authoritarian impulses of repressive regimes, with the NYPD repeatedly reinforcing activists’ complaints about brutal policing. Officers often acted as if with impunity, violently cracking down on demonstrations, largely with public approval from Mayor de Blasio, who variously defended his police department while promising to investigate and discipline any misconduct.

As de Blasio repeatedly turned a blind eye to unambiguous evidence that officers had crossed the bounds of permissible behavior, except in select instances where he said he did not like what he had seen, protestors and their supporters -- including many elected officials -- only grew more enraged.

“The veneer of invincibility, impunity has been peeled away,” said Lieberman. “That’s huge because what Black people have known, have lived now part of the consciousness of people of all races and ethnicity and that’s an important foundation for progress.”

“I’m glad I lived to see the day that we start seeing the break in the dam,” Sharpton said, “but I wish George Floyd had lived to see that day, I wish others had lived to see that day.”

Sweeping Sets of Stalled Bills Move Through Albany and City Hall
Within a month of the protests, elected officials at the city and state levels advanced legislation that had long languished and embraced ideas that activists had repeatedly fought for.  

“This is undeniable progress in bending the arc of history a little bit towards justice,” said Lieberman, who spoke of the exasperation that marked decades of incremental progress. “At times, you feel like you’re yelling into the void and there’s no way that people are ever going to get it.”

The state Legislature passed a package of bills that were the most consequential police reforms that New York has seen in decades. On June 12, Governor Cuomo signed what he called the “Say Their Name” agenda, a title meant to evoke the many victims of deadly police violence like Floyd in Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, Georgia, and Garner here in New York — among many others. The pieces of the package mostly had not been Cuomo priorities in the past, but were on the agendas of certain activists and legislators.

The State Legislature quickly passed and the governor signed a long list of bills, even beyond what Cuomo included in the “Say Their Name” agenda.

The state approved the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act, which criminalized the use of chokeholds by police officers if such use leads to “serious injury or death.” Another significant measure repealed Section 50-a of the state Civil Rights law, which had shielded police officers’ disciplinary records from public disclosure. (The New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board, a city entity that investigates allegations of NYPD officer misconduct and abuse of power, quickly announced it will create a database to make those records available online.)

“We’re tearing down, finally, the wall of secrecy that the NYPD, and other police departments across the state, have used to hide behind to protect abusive police officers,” Galarza said.

Also among the package was a bill that codified a Cuomo executive order appointing the state Attorney General as a special prosecutor in incidents where an unarmed civilian is killed by police. Another was dubbed the ‘Amy Cooper’ bill, which makes it a hate crime to make false 911 calls that are race-based. The bill was prompted by a recent incident of a white woman who called police on a Black man, Christian Cooper, in Central Park when he confronted her about leashing her dog. Her apparent attempt to weaponize his race against him, telling the police that a Black man was threatening her, led to a broad public outcry and even charges of filing a false report by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance.

The governor also signed the Police Statistics and Transparency Act (STAT), which mandates that courts collect racial and demographic data on low-level offenses and publish it online every month. It also requires police departments to disclose any deaths during an arrest to the Department of Criminal Justice Services, with a report due every year to the legislature and governor.

Other new laws require prompt reporting by officers when they discharge their weapons and one that requires that people in custody are given medical and mental health assistance when needed.

The governor also signed into law bills to require State Police patrol officers to wear body cameras and another to create the Law Enforcement Misconduct Investigative Office under the state Department of Law. The office will be tasked with investigating complaints of misconduct against any local law enforcement agency.

“Black New Yorkers, like all residents of this state, deserve to know that their rights, and lives, are valued and protected by our justice system,” said Senate Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester Democrat, at the June 12 bill-signing. “The legislation that will be signed today will help stop bad actors and send a clear message that brutality, racism, and unjustified killings will not be tolerated.”

At the bill-signing, Cuomo called on the federal government to pass criminal justice reforms. But he also insisted that “New York State is the progressive capital. We never sit back and say just what the nation should do, we show the nation what it should do. We lead by example and we lead by getting it done. We are a state of action and that's us at our best.”

Activists, however, have expressed frustration that elected officials like Cuomo and many in the State Legislature and elsewhere only showed the willingness to get things done once it became too politically risky to not do so.

Constance Malcolm’s son, Ramarley Graham, was shot and killed by a police officer in the Bronx in 2012, and she has spent years rallying and marching for better, more accountable policing. “It's important to understand that the murder of George Floyd sparked uprisings across the country but police violence and systematic racism are not new issues,” she said in a phone interview.

Malcolm is among many other New Yorkers who have similarly lost family members at the hands of police and who work with the Justice Committee, a grassroots organization, to push for institutional reform. Gwen Carr, Eric Garner's mother, has also been active with the group, and worked to put pressure on elected officials to pass reforms. Malcolm noted how some, like Iris Baez, the mother of Anthony Baez, who was killed by a police officer in 1994, have had to endure the same pain for so much longer.

“These are movement victories, not his doing,” Malcolm said of the governor. “In fact, Cuomo fought us every step of the way on these bills.”

“It’s sad to see that we’ve been fighting for so long, marching, protesting for this change and it took George Floyd’s death to really wake people up,” she added. “The same words that Eric Garner screamed and yelled...are the words that this man said before he died and it took his death to spark changes.”

In New York City, the City Council simultaneously passed a package of six bills that were not only a response to long-standing demands from advocates but also addressed issues that had arisen in the NYPD’s crackdown on protests.

The Council had its own chokehold bill, which was controversially amended after Floyd’s death to include a prohibition against an officer compressing an individual’s diaphragm during an arrest, and goes further than the state law in that and other ways, such as by criminalizing any instance where an officer uses a chokehold. Chokeholds have long been banned under NYPD policy but they will now be considered Class A misdemeanors. The bill also criminalizes other forms of restraint that place pressure on an individual’s back or neck that could prevent them from breathing or stop blood from reaching the brain.

Eric Garner Gwen Carr City Council“As God as my witness, I never want to see another human being cry out ‘I can’t breathe’ as their life is choked or squeezed out of them by a police officer,” said Council Member Rory Lancman, a Queens Democrat who sponsored the chokehold bill, shortly before its passage on June 18. Lancman first introduced a version of the chokehold bill soon after Garner’s death in 2014. Carr has appeared with him all along the way to fight for its passage, as well as her advocacy for firing Pantaleo and the passage of other reforms in Albany.

“This isn’t a radical idea,” Lancman said. “The NYPD banned chokeholds as a matter of policy nearly three decades ago. Tell that to Anthony Baez. Tell that to Eric Garner. Tell that to the hundreds of New Yorkers who filed chokehold complaints with the [CCRB] in the years after Eric Garner’s death. Someone must police the police.”

The NYPD pushed back and lobbied hard against the diaphragm provision, with top brass claiming that they otherwise supported the bill despite their past opposition to it. After years of his own opposition to the prior version of the bill, de Blasio changed his tune amid the protests sparked by Floyd’s killing.

When he signed the bill into law at a celebratory event in the Bronx, after painting a Black Lives Matter mural, de Blasio recognized the NYPD concerns and, in an especially rare statement, indicated lawmakers might need to be open to amending the law.

“I am signing this bill, because I believe we can make it work,” de Blasio said. “I believe we can find a way to hear those real concerns, to keep people safe, to retrain our officers the right way,” he said. “But I also believe that we need to acknowledge those concerns, because they’re saying in the effort to keep us safe, they want to make sure they can do their job on our behalf, and I take that as an honest concern. So, we will work together. We will make these pieces of legislation work together. As with all legislation, if something happens that’s unintended, we will name it, and we will determine how to act together.”

The Council also approved another bill that was the subject of significant NYPD pushback, which appeared to keep both off the Council’s calendar for years, the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act, which requires the NYPD to disclose the types of surveillance tools it uses and the privacy safeguards it has in place to protect the public.

The bill package also addressed accountability issues at the NYPD, requiring the creation of an internal disciplinary matrix to standardize discipline meted out to police officers for wrongdoing and improving the Early Intervention System that tracks officer behavior to prevent misconduct and flag those who need additional training or perhaps another line of work.

Other measures that had been introduced in the past seemed particularly pertinent after the NYPD’s actions during the protests – one, sponsored by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, affirms the right of the public to record police activity and another requires that officers display their badges at all times. Repeatedly during demonstrations in the city, officers had attempted to interfere with members of the public and even press who sought to capture their actions on video. Dozens of officers also covered their badge numbers with black bands, a clear violation of NYPD policy. 

“Because of the advocates who pushed this need for years, we are now codifying the right to record into city law, further protecting the ability for the public to provide transparency and demand accountability as we move forward together in a holistic strategy to have safer streets and better policing at the same time,” said Williams, in a statement after the bill was signed. “We cannot give into the false and destructive notion that communities must choose between accountability and transparency in policing or safer streets. The people of this city deserve both. Working together, we can provide it.”

BLM de Blasio signingMayor de Blasio signed all the bills into law on July 15. ”Every time we do these things, we are saying Black lives matter in a tangible and real way,” he said. “Now, we’ve only begun and we have to do more, because...the day has to come where every interaction a New Yorker has with a police officer is filled with neutral respect. That is what neighborhood policing is building...It has to be done, and these bills will help us do it, because they will create more trust and more accountability.”

Promises from Executives
In the wake of the protests, both Cuomo and de Blasio took executive steps aimed at improving police discipline and tactics.

In mid-June, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea disbanded the 600-officer plainclothes anti-crime unit, which targeted getting illegal guns off the street, but was known for its aggressive tactics and was involved in a disproportionate number of shooting deaths of civilians, Shea explained.

Two days after that announcement, the mayor unveiled a set of reforms to the department’s disciplinary system that would ensure that officers would be disciplined faster, discipline decisions would be made public, and that body camera footage would be released in a timely manner. However, the department has been slow to implement previously promised reforms and has missed several of its own deadlines to do so. 

“I came into office with a promise to fundamentally change the way this city is policed - and that’s exactly what we’ve tried to do,” the mayor said in a statement accompanying the announcement. “Historic wounds run deep and we know much work lies ahead, but we won’t give up. This is another step in the right direction and we’re not stopping here.”

As de Blasio has announced these measures and his recalcitrant support for Council legislation, he’s also repeatedly argued that his administration has made significant progress in improving policing and police-community relations over his six-and-a-half years in office. He points to a major reduction in stop-and-frisk, an immense reduction in arrests and summonses, fewer complaints about police officer misconduct, and the new paradigm of neighborhood policing. But, the mayor remains committed to so-called “broken windows” policing that focuses on enforcement against low-level, quality-of-life offenses, which his critics say continues to disproportionately harm communities of color, and data on various fronts has repeatedly showed drastically disproportionate enforcement by race, from marijuana arrests or summonses to those for social distancing during the pandemic.

At the same time, Commissioner Shea has been decidedly opposed to how far the recent reforms have gone, in part blaming them and the protests for an increase in gun violence in the city. “I think if you examine New York City there has been a chipping away of tools that the NYPD uses, and I think those discussions are good and I think they’re helpful and I think you have to examine each one and what’s the impact on public safety,” he said in a CNN interview on July 16. “And I think that we have gone too far, I think we’ve crossed the tipping point on many levels in terms of taking tools away from the police in these last two months, it's just a completely different situation, where it’s a toxic environment.”

[Read: De Blasio Says He’s Reformed the NYPD and Improved Police-Community Relations. The Reality is Complicated.]

As with Cuomo, de Blasio’s rhetoric rings hollow to some who have spent their lives pursuing the cause of social justice, particularly after the passage of the recent city budget. Advocates had wanted the mayor and City Council to cut $1 billion from the NYPD’s roughly $6 billion annual operating funding, but the final agreement made relatively minor cuts, offers a planned reduction in police overtime that is, based on past performance, highly unlikely to be met, and included a deal to shift school safety out of the police department’s purview and back to the Department of Education, over the course of multiple years.

“He should never have been mayor in the first place,” Constance Malcolm said. “He said he cut $1 billion from the NYPD budget and we know that’s a lie. He’s proved time and time again that we can’t trust him. And then you have elected officials that say they’re protecting Black and brown people in our community when they voted against the budget cuts.”

Also in mid-June, Cuomo signed an executive order, titled “New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative,” mandating that all police departments across the state adopt a plan, approved by the state, by April 1 of next year that “reinvents and modernizes police strategies and programs in their community based on community input.” If any police department fails to comply, it would risk losing state funding (though that funding is a very small portion of the NYPD budget).

Cuomo said localities must bring stakeholders around the table and should discuss a total reinvention of policing as they see fit, arguing that community voices must be heard and made to believe they are designing public safety. At the same time, he disparaged those calling for defunding the police by $1 billion as lacking clear demands for moving forward, though many of the activists and groups do subscribe to certain visions for the future of policing and public safety.

Winston-Griffith noted that the governor’s past actions undermine his newfound enthusiasm for change. Earlier this year, the governor was among those leading a push to roll back an extensive reform passed last year that had banned cash bail for most nonviolent offenses. “In the beginning part of this year, we saw an onslaught on the whole notion of bail reform,” Winston-Griffith said. “Just as the pandemic was breaking, we were fighting the governor because he spearheaded the repeal of bail reform, which essentially meant he was looking to put more people behind bars, to keep them there even in the midst of this pandemic. I don’t think that would have happened in May or June.”

Ongoing and Next Debates
Activists say their fight is far from over, particularly as they worry about the pushback against a movement that has gained much ground, especially amid an increase in gun violence in the city, growing criticism of the reforms, and calls for the NYPD to be re-empowered. 

Winston-Griffith said the push for cutting funds from the NYPD and reinvesting them in communities of color will continue in the next budget cycle. “It sets us up for a fight in next year's budget, where the concept of ‘defund’ has already been introduced,” he said.

Council Speaker Johnson, who conceded that he was “disappointed” with the scope of cuts in this year’s budget after arguing for a true $1 billion cut to the NYPD, has also indicated that that debate has not come to an end. “I think we were able to do a lot of good in this budget, and I look at this as really the beginning, not the end,” Johnson, a Manhattan Democrat who plans to run for mayor in next year’s election, told Gotham Gazette in a recent interview. Johnson said publicly that he was sorry it took Floyd’s death to get the Council to move the chokehold bill, and others, introduced after Garner’s death.

“American politics is a pendulum that swings back and forth,” said Sharpton. “And while it has started to look like it is swinging our way, we need to get much more done...because if it swings back the other way, the only thing that will protect us is if laws are in place.”

Sharpton said the next battle is at the federal level, where Democrats have announced similar sweeping police reform proposals that Republicans have resisted.

“We can’t stop until these laws are national, federal laws and that all 50 states are subject to those laws...We have the Eric Garner law in New York State on chokeholds, but if you go through the Holland Tunnel to New Jersey, that doesn’t cover you,” he said.

The pushback that Sharpton spoke of has already been underway, or rather, is a persistent factor. In the city, calls to cut $1 billion from the NYPD budget weren’t fully met, and divided the City Council that includes 47 Democrats and three Republicans, with one empty seat, exposing complicated fault lines among the majority, with many Black and Latino members supportive of the budget deal, not clamoring for a blanket defunding of the NYPD, while also insisting on legislating reforms.

Law enforcement unions, in particular, have sought to curtail or reverse efforts at reform, often with misleading and incendiary rhetoric, warning that changes will lead to a return to “the bad old days” when crime was rampant. Though there is no clear connection to the reforms being passed, they point to a recent increase in crime citywide, particularly shootings, as proof of their warnings.

City Council Member Joe Borelli, a Staten Island Republican, voted against the recently approved city budget because of the cuts to the NYPD. “I think 2020 will be a marked moment when the pendulum began swinging back in the other direction after three decades of violent crime reduction,” he said in an interview. “Holding police accountable is important. It’s something the NYPD has long done but we will look back at this moment as a time when we reversed 30 years of good work from police and Democratic and Republican elected officials.”

He particularly opposes the city’s ‘chokehold bill,’ which would criminalize any arrest maneuver where an officer compresses a person’s diaphragm and many police officials and their allies have come to call the ‘diaphragm bill.’ Borelli echoed the NYPD and police union belief that it makes it impossible for officers to arrest a person who is resisting. “It changes the balance of criminality in the types of struggles that occur every single day between police officers and those they are trying to arrest,” he said.

“I challenge the mayor and any member of the City Council to put handcuffs on me without violating this rule. Show me how it’s done,” he added. The former Assembly member said he would have voted for the State Legislature’s proposal, which is less restrictive.  

There are also criminal justice proposals at the state and city levels that have gathered new momentum, such as a bill that would require that juveniles be allowed to speak with a lawyer before being interrogated by police officers, measures to end solitary confinement, expand elder parole, and more.

After being asked by Governor Cuomo to do so, Attorney General Letitia James is currently leading an investigation of the NYPD’s actions towards protesters during demonstrations in the city, with an eye towards systemic reforms. On July 8, she issued a preliminary report, which recommended, among other things, the creation of a commission to oversee the NYPD with the power to select and terminate the commissioner and other members of department leadership. James said her investigation of the NYPD’s tactics is ongoing, but that given the clear lack of trust many New Yorkers have in the police, she thought it was essential to offer broader reform proposals before her review is complete.

The Democratic leaders of the State Assembly and Senate have pledged to continue to pursue more reforms. “We know that this is the beginning, but it's a move to bring justice to a system that has long been unjust,” said Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins at the June 12 bill-signing held by Cuomo.

"The Assembly Majority has fought tirelessly over the years to deliver meaningful and necessary criminal justice reforms for our state. This year, our members answered the call from people from across New York and the country by passing sweeping law enforcement reforms that will build on the gains we have made,” said Speaker Heastie, in a statement. “We have accomplished a great deal, but we know our work is not finished. We will continue fighting to improve police and community relations, and to create a more fair and equitable system for all people.”

There are several other pieces of policy that advocates also want to pursue, said NYCLU’s Lieberman, including legalizing recreational marijuana (and investing the revenue in communities of color), eliminating the police’s enforcement of “walking while trans,” and removing cops from schools, as well as prison reforms like banning solitary confinement.

“These are the bills that could’ve and should’ve been passed as part of a fundamental change agenda by the State Legislature,” she said. “They speak to the moment. They’re about undoing injustice and bending New York towards justice and they’re yet to be done. So there’s work to do.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Democrats Flipped a Brooklyn State Senate Seat in 2018; Is It In Play In 2020?

Senator Andrew Gounardes Brooklyn Albany presser

State Senator Andrew Gounardes in Albany (photo: @sen_gounardes)

Pro-NYPD and Black Lives Matter protesters clashed, sometimes violently, in Southern Brooklyn last weekend, a conflict emblematic of the changing and complicated politics in traditionally moderate to conservative neighborhoods that have been home to leftward political movement, partially due to an influx of new residents.

One marker of the changes was the 2018 election of Democrat Andrew Gounardes in State Senate District 22, where he defeated long-time Republican incumbent and former police officer Marty Golden to flip the seat and help flip the Senate, thus creating all-Democratic control of state government and ushering in an era of sweeping progressive change in New York.

Now, Gounardes is up for reelection and facing an opponent whose platform centers around the polarizing topic of police reform and argument that Democrats in Albany have lurched too far left. In fact, Gounardes’ opponent in the upcoming November general election, former nightclub owner Vito Bruno, who ran unsuccessfully for Brooklyn borough president in 2017 and also serves as president of Brooklyn’s Edmund G. Seergy Republican Club, attended the pro-NYPD rally, as did Golden, which wasn't simply supportive of the police, but included people espousing racism and misogyny in virulent verbal and sometimes physical attacks on Black Lives Matter supporters.

Like many Democrats, Gounardes has walked something of a middle ground, expressing support for police officers and public safety, while lamenting police brutality and racism and calling for reform. He’s also voted for reform, with the Legislature recently passing a package of new police oversight and accountability measures.

In response to the weekend protests and chaos that ensued at times, Gounardes and his close ally, City Council Member Justin Brannan, who represents an overlapping district, denounced all violence involved and reiterated a nuanced stance.

“We’ve seen videos and read eyewitness accounts of the protests in Bay Ridge. What we saw and read is deeply troubling and disturbing. Violence initiated by both protestors and counter-protestors, eggs thrown at police officers, people being pepper-sprayed, American flags burning, and inflammatory and hateful rhetoric spewed venomously,” the statement reads. “As we have done consistently when violence has erupted at protests across the city, we forcefully condemn this unacceptable behavior. All of it. We support everyone’s right to demonstrate for what they believe in, but will not stand for instigating violence.”

Multiple videos circulated of pro-NYPD protesters using sexist, racist language against counter-protesters. Some said they hoped Black Lives Matter protesters would be raped and that Black lives were "garbage," as reported by Gothamist. And despite assaults being committed by individuals of both groups, as Gounardes and Brannan noted in their statement, two Black men part of the Black Lives Matter protests were arrested, while no pro-NYPD protesters displaying similar behavior faced charges, according to Gothamist. Gounardes and Brannan did not address this in their statement, although they condemned local organizers for not doing more to denounce the “violence, racism and misogyny” of Sunday’s protest in Dyker Heights.

They also said they have asked for a full investigation into a video showing a Black man having a brief exchange with police officers before being shoved, tased, and tackled by police (video appeared to show that protestor previously throwing a helmet into a crowd of pro-NYPD ralliers), and said they would be meeting with the captain of the 68th precinct for a full briefing of the events.

Although it is unclear if they live in the district, Twitter users on both sides of the issue seemed displeased with the politicians’ response, indicative of some of what both Gounardes and Brannan must navigate in what is about as much of a swing district as exists in New York City. Gounardes defeated Golden in 2018 by less than 2% of the vote, with 33,507 votes to 32,236 votes. Brannan won his 2017 general election by just 794 votes over his Republican opponent, John Quaglione.

“Real ‘very fine people on both sides’ energy,” Nicole Murray wrote, referencing President Donald Trump’s remarks about a 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA that were widely criticized for equating white supremacists to anti-racist protesters.

“You guys are a disgrace to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, NYC and politics for not supporting your police. You don’t deserve to live in my city,” Carlo D'Angelo Jr. wrote.

Bruno has made support for the police and a tough-on-crime stance a focus of his campaign and has blamed spikes in crime on Democratic policies like state bail reform. He’s been endorsed by Curtis Sliwa, a radio host and the founder of the Guardian Angels anti-crime organization that encourages street patrols, and who has a history of misogyny and racially insensitive comments.

“Nobody out here is with the defunding of the police,” Bruno said of the district in an interview. “The crime has gone through the roof since the bail reform laws were passed, I know they tried to do a little bit of a fix, but the crime has gone through the roof. It’s absolutely frightening to the people that live out here.”

Bruno was referring to changes in the law that went into effect at the start of the year that drastically curtailed the use of cash bail for almost all defendants, other than those accused of violent misdemeanors or felonies. The laws expanded use of supervised release and other pre-trial mechanisms for ensuring defendants continue to show up for court and their proceedings without being jailed while not convicted of a crime.

However, after backlash from District Attorneys, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD, and others who claimed crime rates increased because of the new bail system, Governor Andrew Cuomo and the State Legislature rolled back portions of the law to expand bailable offenses. In a deal reached in early April that went into effect July 1, crimes like second-degree burglary, any crime that results in a person’s death, and others, were again made eligible for bail. Added restrictions were also put on certain people with narcotics related charges, who are on probation or parole, and who are charged with a felony after having two prior felonies.

“When it comes to things like bail reform, it is all a part of the Republican fear machine of — even yesterday the New York Post put out an article showing how the NYPD’s own statistics disprove that the increase in crime, which is happening nationwide, it’s not like a New York City thing, has nothing to do with bail,” Gounardes said in a recent interview. “Obviously, I take every issue of public safety very seriously and I’m just as concerned as the next person about spikes in shootings and spikes in fireworks and spikes in handle surfing crimes and crimes of convenience, but we have to be smart about the approach we’re going to take to combat those issues, and work with our law enforcement partners, target solutions that actually get to the root cause of this stuff and that’s how we’re going to solve these problems. Not fear-mongering, not scapegoating, not finger-pointing, and certainly not pumping your chest and saying that just because you support police you’re a better person.”

The Post cited NYPD statistics of shootings through June 30 that show just one person released under the bail reform laws has been charged with a shooting. It also shows 91 of 11,000 people released from Rikers Island through the same reforms were involved in a shooting, and of those over half were either victims or witnesses.

Asked about that data, Bruno said it does not prove those released without bail are not committing more of the shootings as the data only uses information on people who are caught by police. He claimed more people released due to the bail reform could be committing shootings but not getting caught and stood by the claim by the NYPD that the legislation was responsible for the spike in crime.

“If somebody does a violent crime, they should not be out in two hours. It’s just wrong,” Bruno said, although the bail reforms allowed for those accused of two violent crimes — burglary in the second degree and robbery in the second degree — to be released without bail. Otherwise, those accused of other violent crimes have been required to post bail, if they are released at all.

Gounardes refutes Bruno’s depiction of him as lacking support of the police, referencing his sponsorship of a bill that made first grade police officers who have served for 25 to 30 years eligible for the same pension benefits as those in higher positions and of a bill that increases the benefits by 3% for spouses of fallen police and firefighters, among other legislation.

“My record on supporting law enforcement is pretty unimpeachable when it comes to those things, and I have no problem matching my record against his on these things,” Gounardes said.

“It’s just kind of ironic that Vito himself is trying to be the law and order candidate when he’s made his entire career on the club and drug scene of the ‘80s and ‘90s that ravaged New York City,” Gounardes said. “I just find it very rich that all of a sudden he found the gospel and is now preaching law and order.”

Bruno had been accused of (and even appeared to admit to) breaking multiple laws while running his nightclub, Odyssey, including throwing parties that broke the curfew at the time, bribing police officers, and obtaining drugs for his celebrity friends. When asked, Bruno denied the claims, said those times were long behind him and expressed frustration that they continue to be brought up.

“Everybody likes the sensationalism of stuff that’s 40 years old. It’s really all settled,” Bruno said. “All of that’s not true and all of that stuff is just me being sarcastic with people. Me running a nightclub that, back in those days, the clubs all stayed open late, that’s what it was. And you’re competing with somebody and then you get in trouble. That’s all in the past.”

The effectiveness of Bruno’s law and order platform is yet to be seen, but some, like Liam McCabe, who ran in the 2017 Republican primary in the 43rd City Council District now represented by Brannan, believe Gounardes is in a difficult position as a representative often seeking to find a middle-ground amongst his constituents in a district with vocal supporters of President Donald Trump and more conservative views but also of progressive politics and politicians. A potentially ‘silent majority’ of voters, though, seem to support candidates who seek middle ground and don’t regularly flock to one political pole or the other, such as their current representatives: Gounardes, Brannan and Congressional Representative Max Rose.

“Andrew and Justin and Max are all in a very, very difficult political situation because they can’t, ultimately, appease both sides,” McCabe said of the three Democratic officials representing the area.

McCabe mentioned members of the “Defund the NYPD” movement who protested outside Brannan’s house after he voted ‘yes’ for the new city budget that did not cut the demanded $1 billion from the NYPD. He said those on the right would be just as unhappy with Brannan, who had committed to voting for a budget only if it had $1 billion in meaningful NYPD cuts, for supporting the defund movement, while those on the left were not satisfied with the final result, either. Brannan voted in favor of a budget deal he said did meaningfully shift resources from the police department to things like youth services, including a significant amount of capital money that allowed the total figure to surpass $1 billion.

Still, Brannan, Gounardes, and other politicians in the area have sought to maintain something of a middle ground, while mostly trying to focus on local, quality of life, and community issues, and constituent services.

When it comes to the Defund the NYPD movement, Gounardes was not prepared to provide an answer during the interview with Gotham Gazette, but later said in a statement, “Many of our law enforcement officers’ current responsibilities relate to mental health and social services — we can and should allocate resources for the safety of all New Yorkers while ensuring NYPD officers can do their core jobs.”

On bail reform, Gounardes said in a statement, “The old system of guilty until proven rich wasn’t working but we made changes to the law that were responsive to the concerns of people on the ground.”

Gounardes believes his record of listening to his constituents and to all sides on an issue while trying to find common ground will help him win come November. It’s unclear how competitive Bruno and Republicans can make the race, and what kind of effort Gounardes and his supporters will have to make to ensure his reelection. In Gounardes’ 2018 win over Golden, Governor Andrew Cuomo campaigned with him in the district multiple times, and progressive groups who had focused a great deal of energy on Senate primaries were able to also devote significant attention to the only competitive general election Senate race in the city.

This year, Gounardes has been endorsed by the Working Family Party, New York Immigration Coalition Action, Planned Parenthood, labor unions including 1199 SEIU, UAW Region 9A, CWA D1, the New York State Nurses Association, and the National Association of Social Workers, and political clubs Bay Ridge Democrats and Stonewall Democrats. That list is likely to continue to grow significantly as November approaches.

“I haven’t seen a single plan or idea from my opponent since he announced his candidacy,” Gounardes said in the interview. “It’s easy for someone to come in and just yell and scream and point fingers. It’s another thing for someone to come to the table with solutions and come to the table and say that you were wrong and listen to and speak to everyone in your community. I think that my record shows that I have given everyone in the community a voice and a seat at the table, it doesn’t matter who they are or where they come from or what language they speak. We have a very, very diverse district and anyone that wants to represent this district has to acknowledge and empower that diversity.”

Gounardes cited his votes as part of the new Democratic majority for legislation he had said he would help pass if elected in 2018, such as the Child Victims Act, the Reproductive Health Act, speed camera authorization, and gun control legislation.

With the city’s spike in shootings front-and-center as the race unfolds, Gounardes’ campaign emphasized his role in gun control legislation, especially as a sign that he has meaningfully worked toward addressing the problem while his opponent has not proposed any solutions.

Asked to elaborate on what he sees as the solution to the increase in gun violence, Bruno again emphasized his opposition to Gounardes.

“Obviously, the gun control is not working,” Bruno said, going on to restate his criticism of defunding the NYPD and bail reform, as well as the recent disbandment of the NYPD’s “anti-crime unit” made up of plain-clothed officers who focused on getting guns off the street but NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said had at times exacerbated tensions with communities.

Bruno also said that emphasis from the Defund the NYPD movement and others on redistributing resources from the police to mental health, employment, youth, and other services in order to reduce what they believe are root causes of crime is misguided.

“I know what they’re all saying and a lot of those programs do already exist,” Bruno said. “It’s the culture that’s the problem. And statistics will show — and I know they’ll turn it into a racial thing, which I do not want to. I do not want to — but statistics show that households that don’t have a father, the crime and all that is through the roof.”

Bruno also mentioned affordability and relief for small businesses as priorities for his campaign. When asked on multiple occasions to name policies or legislation he supports, Bruno declined to do so but said his campaign will roll out “legitimate policies and legislation” in the next few weeks.

Mike Murphy, a campaign spokesperson for New York Senate Democrats, said he believes Gounardes’ track record when it comes to legislation, especially compared to Bruno’s limited experience in government, makes the seat one Democrats are confident they will hold.

“Gounardes has been a huge part of the conference and has really made a name for himself. I think it’s one of those districts that we expect to win pretty handily,” said Murphy, who also runs communications for Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. “Bruno has a lot of issues that will obviously be highlighted.”

The district, which voted for Obama in 2012 and then Trump in 2016, has been considered fairly favorable for Republicans — as were others prior to 2018 — though Democrats have had a voter registration advantage for several years. It is among the areas previously helpful to electing Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg as mayor, and parts of the Senate district went for Republican Nicole Malliotakis in 2017 as she attempted to unseat Mayor Bill de Blasio, even as district voters also elected Brannan to the Council by a narrow margin. While it has a sizeable pro-Trump voting bloc, it is also home to many supporters of Bernie Sanders.

The Senate District has 176,315 registered voters, with 87,648 Democrats and 36,645 Republicans; 1,323 registered with the Conservative Party and 4,498 with the Independence Party; and 45,129 unaffiliated with a political party (often referred to as “independents”).

Shockingly to some, Golden ran for reelection unopposed in 2016. In 2014, he won by over 30% of the vote against Democrat Jamie Kemmerer, and defeated Gounardes himself in 2012 by about 15% of the vote.

After the 2018 elections, when Republicans lost many seats in the State Senate, there is not a clear path back to the majority for the party that is now down to only 23 seats in the 63-seat Senate.

When Republicans lost the Senate majority, they lost significant financial support, too. They have received fewer donations from formerly-reliable sources, like the real estate lobby, which went from donating over $200,000 to the Senate Republican Campaign Committee in 2016 to about $60,000 in 2018 to $0 so far this year. Meanwhile, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee raised more than $2 million in the last six months, from January to this month’s filing deadline, according to the New York Daily News, and the SRCC just $248,000.

That checks out in Senate District 22, where Gounardes has over 10 times more money on-hand than Bruno, with a nearly $400,000 balance compared to Bruno’s $24,000, as of the most recent campaign finance filings. Gounardes outraised his opponent, with $340,000 this last six-month period to add to a starting balance of around $170,000. Comparatively, Bruno raised a little under $40,000 for his campaign.

Since losing the majority by such a wide margin in 2018, Republicans have tempered expectations about retaking it in 2020, seeing it more as a two-cycle project, going through the 2022 elections, which will be the next gubernatorial election year. Even McCabe, a staunch Republican, said flipping the Senate is likely a long-term process. Still, he said winning seats like Gounardes’ back is a “big part” of being able to do so.

Republicans have “always had seats in the Senate, in the city, and I think they need to continue to regain those and hold on to them,” McCabe said. “You don’t have to win the entire city, but you have to hold on to a certain position of it to do well statewide.”

State Senator Pam Helming, the newly-named chair of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, said there “is not a seat we are not focused on,” and that, although Democratic enrollment far exceeds that of Republicans, she feels areas including the Hudson Valley, the Finger Lakes region, Western New York, and the North Country have voters across the political spectrum who are concerned about one-party rule of the state and want to see a change.

Helming, who represents Canandaigua, said it would be Bruno’s presence in the community, more than anything, that would be key in propelling him to victory.

“I’m very excited about our candidate, Vito Bruno, he is an exceptional candidate, a very successful businessman and he’s just brought this level of energy and excitement to the neighborhood,” she said in an interview. “The feedback we’re getting from people, it’s something that’s missing, something that the present senator, he’s not actively engaged in the community, he’s not out there and he doesn’t have a strong presence. This is going to be a close race that we win.”

Gounardes has disputed the idea that he is not in the community and cited the work his office has done in feeding thousands of families by providing hot meals five days a week, groceries, and unemployment filing assistance throughout the pandemic.

He’s also made a pitch to voters about the work he will continue to do if reelected, highlighting priorities like free public higher education, improvements to the MTA, specifically with regards to accessibility, and improved action on climate change. He said “We have to start talking about what it means to live in a post-COVID world,” and referenced the need to address child care, creating an education system that works for everyone, investing in public hospitals, and having a safety net for people as key issues he is “going to run on, and that’s what I’m going to win on.”

But Helming, like Bruno, also focused on high crime rates she says Gounardes’ constituents are concerned about.

“The Republicans are going to take back this seat because they want common sense restored,” Helming said. “They are seeing this dramatic rise in crime in the New York City area, they are feeling like it’s becoming dangerous to live in their areas. They want change, they want stability back, they don’t want someone who supports criminals over crime victims. They want someone who’s going to protect all people, including our law enforcement.”

In a statement, Gounardes further framed himself as a legislator who finds a middle ground in a diverse district.

“The local Republican leadership here keeps running on the same old tired tropes,” Gounardes said. “They don’t understand that yes, you can be against racism, believe that Black Lives Matter, and still respect our local police. It's the job of a leader to find common ground and not further contribute to the divisive politics that are tearing our country apart — and now threaten the civic fabric of our own communities."

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

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Push Is On for 10 Bills to Strengthen Absentee Voting and More Ahead of Fall Election

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Voting during a pandemic (photo: @NYCVotes)

Ahead of a special state legislative session set for next week, a coalition of election reform advocates is backing ten bills that would change or codify elements of the now widely-used absentee voting process before the fall general election.

The agenda, released Thursday by the Let NY Vote coalition, comes amid party primary elections where the voting is over but the counting is ongoing after for the first time nearly every registered voter in the state was made eligible for an absentee ballot. The pandemic-induced move by Governor Andrew Cuomo caught local boards of elections unprepared and revealed some significant weaknesses in the absentee voting system, which appear to be leading to many thousands of voters who tried to cast ballots either not being able to or having their attempted vote invalidated.

The legislative package centers on making law the broader eligibility criteria for absentee voting, the executive order for which has now expired, and putting safeguards in place to prevent mail-in ballots from being thrown out for technical reasons. The bills are being pushed now in anticipation of an even higher demand for absentee ballots in the fall presidential election, where turnout is expected to be immense. Other general election contests, for state Legislature, Congress, and other local seats, will also be on the ballot.

"The June primary election was unprecedented, but democracy does not pause, it adapts," said Susan Lerner, executive director of the good government group Common Cause New York, in a press statement from the coalition, which is comprised of over 175 organizations. "New York lawmakers must prioritize planning for the November election today. The Boards of Elections need ample time to prepare for the Presidential Election to guarantee that all votes count."

"I'm sure there will be lessons to learn, but life is alternatives and I don't know that we had a better alternative, and I don't know that we're going to have a better alternative in November," Cuomo told reporters Thursday in response to questions about the number of rejected absentee ballots and whether he would again open up absentee voting in the general election.

Cuomo signed the executive order in April expanding the definition of "Temporary Illness," one of the accepted reasons to vote absentee, to include the risk of spreading or contracting COVID-19 in the June primaries. Legislation sponsored by State Senator Alessandra Biaggi and Assemblymember Michael Blake, two Bronx Democrats, would permanently allow voters to vote absentee if there is "a risk of contracting or spreading a disease," effectively applying the governor's measure to the general election and beyond, as long as the public health emergency continues.

"The governor's executive orders to expand absentee ballot voting are band-aid solutions," Biaggi said in an interview. "By codifying the expansion of absentee ballot voting, we can provide indisputable clarity now on how New Yorkers can safely access the ballot box in November, and give the Board of Elections the time they need to properly prepare for elections throughout the course of this pandemic."

Across the five boroughs, close to 400,000 voters requested, received, and returned absentee ballots to the New York City Board of Elections in the June primaries. But thousands of ballots were rejected on technicalities, like failing to properly sign or date the ballot envelope or including additional markings on the ballot. Some yet to be determined number of ballots received by election administrators was invalidated because they were not postmarked. Some voters did not even receive their requested ballots by the voting deadline.

A number of the bills supported by the Let NY Vote coalition aim to address or correct these issues. One would ensure absentee ballots are counted when there are markings on the ballot as long as the intent of the voter is clear. Another would require election administrators to make a "good faith effort" to contact a voter if their ballot is received unsealed or partially sealed with tape or glue -- if the voter can certify in writing that they sent the ballot in that condition it will be counted. Both bills are sponsored by Brooklyn State Senator Zellnor Myrie and Westchester Assemblymember Amy Paulin, both Democrats.

Two other bills, also carried by Myrie, who chairs the Senate's elections committee, would give voters an opportunity to correct their absentee ballot if it has been challenged and would require the ballots to be counted even without a postmark. Both bills lack a companion in the Assembly, which is necessary for passage.

Other bills in the package are aimed at increasing access to the ballot box, in-person or by mail.

One, sponsored by Senator James Sanders, a Queens Democrat, and Assemblmember Jeffrey Dinowitz, a Bronx Democrat, would require boards of elections to include a pre-paid return envelope with absentee ballots, which are not currently provided in every county, according to Let NY Vote.

"We do not charge a price to vote at a polling place and voting absentee shouldn't cost the voter either," reads a memo from Sanders accompanying the bill. Lawmakers have not determined the fiscal impact of the provision, according to the memo.

Dinowitz is also the prime sponsor of legislation that would require SUNY and CUNY to provide information to students on voting absentee, including links to absentee ballot applications, in addition to the voter registration information already required. The bill, which is sponsored in the State Senate by Manhattan Democrat Brian Benjamin, also modified language of the existing law to make it easier for the public university systems to comply.

Myrie and Blake are carrying another voter registration bill that would let eligible New York City residents register through an online portal run by the New York City Campaign Finance Board. The provision would sunset when the state Board of Elections opens its own online portal, expected in 2022.

"Our communities deserve legislation that meet our needs as we continue to navigate the Covid crisis by making voter registration more accessible, guaranteeing access to absentee ballots and protecting our votes," wrote Marcela Barrientos, Interim Executive Director at New York Civic Engagement Table, a coalition member, in a statement.

Some of the bills in the legislative package will not place an additional burden on administrators because they simply deal with how ballots will be counted. But others, like the mandates that local boards of elections contact voters whose ballots have been challenged, will require entirely new processes to be established.

The coalition-backed legislation with perhaps the heaviest impact on election boards is a bill to increase the number of early voting locations required in each county from seven to ten sites, and for larger counties each town and city must have an early poll site. The bill was first introduced last December by Assemblymember Charles Lavine and Senator Anna Kaplan, both Democrats from Long Island, after the state's first election with early voting.

When early voting was being debated and even after it became law in New York, local boards of elections raised alarms about the costs associated with operating multiple poll sites over several days.

A spokesperson for the New York City Board of Elections said the agency had "no comment" on any of the bills in the Let NY Vote agenda. The New York State Board of Elections, a regulatory and oversight body, did not return a request for comment.

"We made history last year by making voting more convenient and accessible for Long Islanders and all New Yorkers, but we recognize that there's still more that needs to be done to ensure that everyone can have their voice heard at the voting booth without unnecessary barriers," Kaplan wrote in an email to Gotham Gazette.

The Kaplan-Lavine early voting bill has already passed the State Senate and is in committee in the Assembly. On Wednesday, the Assembly Elections Committee advanced a separate bill requiring at least one early voting site in a county's largest population center, a measure that passed in the Senate in January, Lavine told Gotham Gazette.

Of his own bill, he said the Assembly is considering it and "I am confident that it will be passed at some point."

Separately, Assemblymember Dan Quart and State Senator Brad Hoylman, both Manhattan Democrats, have a bill to require a system wherein voters can track their absentee ballots, among other provisions. "It's time for New York to conform to the absentee ballot standards in other states," Hoylman recently told Gotham Gazette.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Max & Murphy Podcast: The Looming Eviction Disaster

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The housing picture is tenuous (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

July 15, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: The Looming Eviction Disaster

Fitzroy Christian of CASA Bronx joined the show to discuss housing, rent, and the looming eviction disaster amid the coronavirus crisis that has devastated people and communities across New York on several fronts.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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After Strong Primary Showing, Will New Crop of Progressives Push Assembly Democrats Further Left?

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The State Assembly (photo: @NYSA_Majority)

For some time, a lack of Democratic control in the New York State Senate prevented progressive legislation from becoming law. But even after the chamber flipped from red to blue through the 2018 elections and a long list of Democratic priorities were acted on, some bills that once passed the State Assembly when Republicans held the Senate are now having trouble reaching that chamber’s floor, leading to frustration that multiple insurgent campaigns capitalized on in this year’s primary elections.

Longtime incumbents who, at least on paper, support legislation that has been stalled in the Assembly — like the New York Health Act to institute single-payer health care in the state, raising taxes on the wealthy, and legalizing adult use of marijuana — faced tough primary challenges and, in some cases, are on the verge of losing their seats to candidates with very similar platforms but who said they will do what their opponents have not: get things passed.

“It’s not good enough to just vote the right way,” said Jessica González-Rojas, an activist who is well ahead of incumbent Michael DenDekker in Queen’s 34th Assembly District as absentee ballots are being counted. “Now, we need champions for these policies.”

If her primary lead holds and she wins the likely noncompetitive general election in the heavily Democratic district, González-Rojas could be one of several new Assembly members with a brand of punchy, anti-establishment progressivism more focused on delivering on campaign promises than toeing the party line. They will join several other incumbent Assembly members retaining their seats who are also outspoken and more independent than the bulk of the large Democratic conference dominated by New York City officeholders and led by Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx.

Senators with similar agendas and ideology were essential to Democrats flipping the Senate in 2018, as many of them won primaries against members of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a rogue group that had a power-sharing agreement with Republicans, often preventing progressive legislation from being passed.

In some ways, but definitely not all, the Assembly has become the more moderate house, although it remains to be seen how additional independent progressives entering the majority may change that. A number of frustrated return incumbents and several new like-thinking members, often of a younger generation and representing marginalized communities, could impact the direction of the Assembly majority and how its leader, Speaker Heastie, operates. At least that’s what those candidates and incumbents, and some of the progressive activists behind their rises, hope.

But unlike those who challenged members of the IDC, many of this year’s insurgents lacked significant platform differences from their incumbent or establishment-backed opponents. Instead, they mainly distinguished themselves demographically and through their activist backgrounds, claiming they would be a stronger voice for constituents and would fight harder to see meaningful legislation passed.

These candidates made their positions on the outside of the political establishment a key area of difference from their opponents, distancing themselves from the ineffectiveness they, and some voters, associate with the current Legislature. They say that the state is not aggressively enough addressing crises including poverty, public health, public housing, and more, with many pointing the finger at both Governor Andrew Cuomo, a third-term Democrat with a strong moderate streak, and the Legislature’s unwillingness to go further and force Cuomo along. These officials and candidates and their supporters found additional urgency leading into this year’s primaries given the COVID-19 crisis that worsened many existing problems and inequalities, as well as the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement to end police racism and brutality following the killing of George Floyd.

The Assembly candidates who broadly fit the category at hand include González-Rojas, Jenifer Rajkumar, Khaleel Anderson, Emily Gallagher, Zohran Mamdani, Danielle Brecker, Mary Jobaida, Phara Souffrant Forrest, Marcela Mitaynes, George Diaz, Garfield Holland, and Mahfuzul Islam (as well as Sarah Clark outside the five boroughs).

González-Rojas, Rajkumar, Clark, and Anderson are in strong position to win their primaries after the in-person vote; while Mamdani, Souffrant Forrest, and Mitaynes are in seemingly toss-up territory in their challenges to incumbents; and Gallagher, Brecker, Jobaida, Diaz, Holland, and Islam are near defeat — though a great deal could change given the unprecedented number of absentee ballots.

The Candidates and the Progressive Push in Albany
Though he is not unseating an incumbent, Anderson, a 24-year-old organizer for a non-profit, is well ahead of the local party’s pick in the Democratic primary for an open Assembly seat in Queens, where the most recent officeholder, Michele Titus, vacated the post for a position as a New York City Civil Court judge. Anderson is the likely winner of the primary in Assembly District 31, which covers parts of Southeast Queens. 

Anderson, who had the backing of a wide array of organizations including the Working Families Party, TenantsPAC, True Blue NY, Citizens Union, and Rockaway Youth Action Fund, ran on a platform of fighting environmental racism in his district, which borders Jamaica Bay and includes JFK Airport, increasing public school funding, food justice, and affordable housing through housing vouchers.

“Now that we have a new body, we can energize some of the members that have been kind of on the edge with this stuff and mobilize them and really get them to understand that this is what the people want,” said Anderson, who could become one of the youngest elected officials in New York City history, in an interview. “And we just need to find the best way possible to package it to ensure that we’re speaking for as many folks as we can, and supporting and getting resources to as many folks as we can. I’m super excited to get in there and to start getting some of these bills moved.”

Anderson, who is Black, is one of several insurgents who are vocal supporters of the New York Health Act, which he said was especially important due to how it could be a step forward in addressing health inequities that affect Black people, and especially Black women, in New York.

Rajkumar, who is on the verge of winning the Democratic primary in District 38 over incumbent Assemblymember Michael Miller, also stressed the importance of pushing ahead on the single-payer health care bill that Assembly Democrats championed when the Legislature was split but did not push when Democrats took control of both chambers last year. 

“The New York Health Act has never been more needed, the pandemic has made that clear, and it has passed the Assembly at least four times,” Rajkumar said. “The new generation of legislators will be able to make sure that it is signed into law.”

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who is responsible for what legislation ends up on the floor of the body, said in 2017 when the Assembly again passed the New York Health Act, “While lawmakers in Washington debate giving tax cuts to the wealthy and cutting funding for healthcare for those who need it most, the Assembly Majority remains committed to ensuring every New Yorker has access to the care they need and deserve,” and called on the State Senate to act. Now, he has been relatively quiet concerning the legislation.

Heastie’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article. Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a close ally of Heastie, said the New York Health Act has simply been held up.

“As a sponsor of the New York health bill, I certainly would love to see that go,” Peoples-Stokes, who represents Buffalo in the Assembly, said in an interview. “The thing that in some ways kind of holds that up, notwithstanding the fact that the Assembly has passed that in the past, we still need to have partners.”

Though most members of the Senate Democratic conference either have been co-sponsors of the New York Health Act or ran in support of it in 2018, that majority also did not make it a priority in this first two-year session of its reign. The lead sponsors of the bill, Assemblymember Dick Gottfried and Senator Gustavo Rivera, have continued to push for the legislation, including by holding hearings around the state, and have said they don’t think the lack of official movement on it means it is dead. They’ve said they need to continue to build public support for it to make it a political necessity.

As Rajkumar indicated and as many others have argued, Rivera has said that the mass unemployment wrought by the pandemic has made it abundantly clear that health insurance and quality health care should not be tied to employment. Opponents of the legislation, including Governor Andrew Cuomo, point to its massive cost and the need to raise taxes on many New Yorkers while overhauling huge portions of the state’s economy.

There has also been frustration among some progressive Assembly members, groups, and candidates about how Heastie and the conference back-tracked or proved reluctant on other high-profile priorities, such as campaign finance reform, including a public matching system. While a system did eventually become law earlier this year, it was met with some frustration over the details of the donation limits as well as the fact that it appears to make life much harder for the liberal Working Families Party, which has been at war with Cuomo for years and supported many of the 2018 and 2020 insurgents for legislative seats.

Additionally, legalizing adult use of marijuana, which the governor and both majorities say they support, is among other bills and progressive priorities yet to be acted upon after talks fell through last year and thus far this year.

Peoples-Stokes, the lead Assembly sponsor of the marijuana legalization bill, said such policies have simply taken more time to finalize. Although she welcomes new progressive Assembly members and their voices, she does not see them being elected as playing a major role in whether or not the bills get passed.

“That speaks to their electorate and their decision to want to see a new person in that seat,” Peoples-Stokes said. “Clearly, when the new Assembly members arrive they will have the same opportunity that I do, one vote. That’s not going to change, you still need to have the majority of the people say the same thing at the same time to have it passed.”

The Democratic majority has put some money to back incumbents, with legislators like Assemblymember Joe Lentol of Brooklyn controversially receiving $45,000 from the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee, which to some is only supposed to help Democratic Assembly candidates win general elections. But in some of the closest races, where after the in-person voting incumbents appear most at risk of losing their seats, current Assembly members received little support. Incumbents Miller, DenDekker, and Aravella Simotas, all of Queens and in tight races with or trailing challengers Rajkumar, Gonzalez-Rojas, and Mamdani, respectively, have all received nothing from the DACC. Miller and DenDekker received around $4,000 each from Speaker Heastie's PAC, all as of the most recent filings.

Progressive Assembly members already in the body have been frustrated with limited action on certain legislation. In interviews, Assembly members mentioned a wealth tax as well as higher taxes on upper income brackets, plus the Home Stability Support anti-homelessness rental subsidy, the “good cause” eviction bill, NYCHA funding, and other previously-stated policies. Tensions were particularly high when none of those measures were included in this year’s state budget, which narrowly passed the Assembly. Several progressive members, such as Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, expressed significant disappointment with what she called an “austerity budget.”

Niou, who represents the 65th Assembly district in Lower Manhattan and has repeatedly criticized Cuomo, said in an interview, “Why is it that we passed austerity budget after austerity budget after austerity budget?...It's really important that people are speaking out that are saying we need to prioritize our working families over wealthy corporations and the multi-million and billionaires. Why is it that we have folks who are still asking ‘What if multi-millionaires and billionaires move away from New York?’ Well, but what if people die?”

Niou is a leading voice of a growing number of progressive Assembly members willing to criticize the status quo, including the annual budget process, which is always lacking in transparency, even for members of the Legislature. Lawmakers often do not have a chance to actually read the budget bills they are voting on as the bills are passed just before or after the start of the new fiscal year.

The recent budget barely passing — one key budget bill received the bare minimum 76 “yes” votes in the 150-seat chamber — puts on display what seems to be a growing divide within the Assembly between progressives further to the left and others, particularly leadership. Assemblymember Ron Kim of Queens, who also voted “no,” said he hopes incoming Assembly members will further strengthen the former group.

“The outcome is clear, that the public wants real change up in Albany. They want people who are there to genuinely speak up for their interests, the people’s interests, and protect the most vulnerable members of our communities first,” said Kim, who represents the 40th Assembly District. “As a legislative body, we have done some positive work but not enough to deliver fundamental change that should have taken place, especially at a time like this pandemic, when we know there are hundreds of thousands of families that have been left behind.”

Kim said not being able to pass long-term progressive priorities such as single-payer health care and a wealth tax has been “super frustrating and completely demoralizing.” He said Cuomo uses his immense influence to ensure the state follows his agenda.

“Many of us are sick and tired of playing this song and dance where we pretend that we’ve actually done something, but when you actually look at the policies in the budget, it’s completely watered-down and it’s just giving the facade that we’re actually championing peoples’ values when we’re not,” Kim said, going on to state that he hopes the Assembly’s ability and willingness to pass progressive legislation and block what he sees as regressive policies will change after this year’s elections. “With the changes that are coming, there is no way we would pass another budget that cuts Medicaid in the middle of an emergency, they wouldn’t have the votes to get it done. That alone is significant enough to change the culture of how we legislate and how we focus on new solutions.”

But other Assembly members, even those who are part of the push for more progressive legislation, like Assemblymember Catalina Cruz of Queens, say it's not a lack of want preventing these policies from being put to the floor, but the often slow and bureaucratic reality of governing.

“It’s too soon to tell how effective those folks are,” said Cruz, who represents the 39th Assembly District, of incoming progressive Assembly members. “I’ve been on both ends, where I’ve been an advocate, where I’ve been inside of government implementing laws, and where I’ve been the one creating them. One thing is to be on the outside advocating for something, another completely different reality is once you get in and you are one of 150.”

Cruz cited marijuana reform as an example. She said the governor’s stated support did not manifest itself when lawmakers were trying to work out how to make the legislation happen and, although there are many vocal supporters, there are also many members of the State Senate and Assembly firmly against it — even some who support an array of other progressive measures.

Asked for comment on some of these points and critiques, a spokesperson for Cuomo put the focus elsewhere.

“We've spent the last 130 some odd days dealing with a global pandemic, where New York was the global epicenter,” said Rich Azzopardi, a senior advisor to Governor Cuomo. “We tamed the beast, but it’s not over and we have no time, and frankly no patience, for small and asinine palace intrigue."

Progressive Activists and Organizers Push for Change
Many on-the-ground organizers have echoed Niou and Kim’s sentiment that change is all the more needed due to the pandemic, such as Javier Valdés, Co-Executive Director of Make the Road Action, an immigrant advocacy organization that gathers many volunteers to help on selected campaigns. 

Valdés was among the leaders of the push for recently-passed pro-immigrant policies like the New York Dream Act, which allows undocumented immigrants to access state college tuition assistance, and the Green Light bill, which allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain New York driver’s licenses, two policies cited by Cuomo and many Democrats in the Legislature as evidence of their aggressive pursuit of progressive priorities under full Democratic control of state government.

But even with those and other wins, Valdés said after fighting for a long time to flip the Senate, Make the Road Action turned to the Assembly because of the lack of movement on some issues.

“For us, the Assembly races were the next step,” Valdés said of the transition from 2018 to 2020. “A lot of times these incumbents would say ‘well I always voted for you on your issues,’ and I think what we actually need is people that actually are champions of our issues, that actually get our issue to be voted on and are fighting for us.”

Valdés said policies such as the “good cause” eviction bill, the excluded worker fund for workers not getting support from the federal government during the pandemic, particularly undocumented individuals, and repealing the “walking while trans ban” in order to decriminalize alleged loitering for the purpose of prostitution, are some of Make the Road Action’s priroities.

Valdés said he has not seen much energy in the Assembly regarding these topics, but hopes new “champions” like González-Rojas -- whom Make the Road Action put significant resources behind -- can help to make a strong push for them along with current progressive members like Kim, Niou, and Cruz, who have all been endorsed by Make the Road Action.

But Cruz said she felt, in some cases, that unseating an incumbent can put the progressive movement behind if the incumbent is already fighting for these issues and has the benefit of connections made and experience gained from being in office.

She emphasized the distinction between someone who is running purely to challenge the “political machine” and someone who is running because they truly think they can make an effective change in their community.

“To me, when I see a perfectly progressive incumbent…who has been on the right side of history, and then somebody comes in and is trying to out-left them, I don’t know how I feel about that,” Cruz said, without naming names other than Brooklyn State Senator Julia Salazar, whom she said ran to defeat the machine and with a new vision for her community in her 2018 primary victory. “If they were doing a good job, if they’re representative of their community, but your beef or your problem is with the machinery rather than whether the person is doing a good job or not, you’re going to have a rude awakening when you actually get in the room where decisions are being made and you have to work with another 149 people.”

Two incumbents facing stiff challenges who made such a case have been Assemblymembers Aravella Simotas of Queens and Lentol of Brooklyn. While Simotas is neck-and-neck with Mamdani (he’s up 589 votes), Lentol has a solid 1,763-vote lead ahead of Gallagher — with thousands of absentee ballots being counted in each race.

Jonathan Westin, Executive Director of New York Communities for Change, a group focused on affordable housing and socioeconomic equity, does not necessarily disagree with Cruz, but he said some incumbents being around for decades creates an element of complacency, and a tendency to want to maintain the status quo.

“The challenge with the Assembly is that there is honestly just so much entrenched power that’s been there for decades,” Westin said. “So many Assembly members have literally been in office for two, three, four decades and have never been challenged, and really are just there to continue the same power structure in New York that has existed for years and years and years.”

Westin said this is particularly problematic due to the connections Assembly members build with lobbyists working for finance, real estate, and technology companies, and that elected officials who take money from those lobbyists and industry leaders are often the ones to block major reforms like taxing the rich, canceling rent, and creating a fund for excluded workers.

Westin said Speaker Heastie, who has served in the Assembly since 2000 and as Speaker since 2015 and has been a leader of the Bronx Democratic Party, is obviously part of the entrenched and calcified power structure of the Assembly.

“His view of politics very much resembles a machine view of ‘everybody needs to fall in line,’” Westin said of the speaker, whose job is to find consensus among his members. “A lot of times those machines are propped up by the industries that need to curry favor in Albany and we continue to see that.”

Both Make the Road Action and New York Communities for Change were among the long list of progressive groups who organized to defeat six of eight IDC senators in the 2018 primaries and backed quite a few Democratic insurgents this year, largely in the Assembly but also for Congress, such as Jamaal Bowman in the Bronx and Westchester. As the calendar this year turns toward the fall general election, State Senate Republicans will be using the progressive surge in New York City Assembly races as campaign fodder to convince suburban voters to help flip the Senate back to Republican control. Senate Republicans often warn voters outside the city that New York City "radicals" are setting the agenda in Albany without the check of a Republican Senate.

Among those progressive organizations, the Working Families Party (which includes several of the aforementioned groups) and the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (NYC-DSA) are among the most prominent when it comes to campaign tactics, including the type of voter contact seen as essential to winning contentious local elections. In her bid to unseat Brooklyn Assemblymember Felix Ortiz, Mitaynes had the support of the WFP, NYC-DSA, and other groups as they argued for the need for change in the Assembly. The WFP backed González-Rojas and Anderson, while the DSA supported Mamdani and Souffrant Forrest, who took on Brooklyn Assemblymember Walter Mosely.

NYC-DSA has grown significantly in recent years and put a lot of muscle into policy and electoral organizing, helping several favored candidates win competitive primaries. It has particularly supported candidates who take on the real estate industry and call for raising taxes, among other priorities in opposing the political establishment.

The DSA has worked to find and support primary challengers to a growing list of incumbents, even some considered by many to be strong progressives, as Cruz indicated. For example, Mamdani is his bid to unseat Simotas in western Queens. Mamdani claimed throughout the race that Simotas, a staunch progressive, was a product of the “Queens political machine” and called her out for breaking her pledge to not accept real estate donations.

Co-chair of the NYC-DSA Sumathy Kumar said she hopes the work her organization and others have done will encourage the Speaker and the Assembly Democrats to enact more far-reaching progressive legislation.

“The Speaker has a lot of responsibility for what gets passed and what doesn’t get passed and what comes up to the floor and what doesn’t,” Kumar said, going on to say that, even so, she is hopeful electing more progressives will push him and the body to the left. “He listens to the rest of the Assembly and that’s why it’s really exciting that we have more progressive voices in the Assembly so that we can push the legislation from the bottom up.”

[Read: 'Not A Budget Anybody Should Be Celebrating': Democratic Legislators Displeased with Albany Compromise]

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

Note: this article has been corrected to reflect that González-Rojas was not endorsed by NYC-DSA as previously stated. It has also been updated to reflect that Lentol received $45,000 from the DACC, with $25,000 coming after the initial $20,000 originally stated here.

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