Andrew Gounardes, left, and David Yassky
Following a chaotic redistricting process in New York, an interesting State Senate primary is shaping up in parts of Brooklyn.
State Senator Andrew Goundares, who represents the current 22nd district, and former City Council Member David Yassky are the only two Democratic candidates who have entered the race for the new 26th State Senate District. The district includes some of Gounardes’ current district, notably his home turf of Bay Ridge, as well as the neighborhoods of Dyker Heights, Fort Hamilton, Cobble Hill, Gowanus, Red Hook, and parts of Sunset Park, Park Slope, and South Slope. Some of those areas were part of the City Council district represented by Yassky from 2002 through 2009.
The winner of the August Democratic primary is expected to win the general election easily given the heavy Democratic tilt of the district. Early voting will be August 13 to August 21, and primary day is August 23.
The new 26th State Senate District is part of the redrawn Congressional and Senate district maps mandated by the decennial process using new Census data. The first new boundaries drawn by Democrats in the New York State Legislature were ruled unconstitutional, delaying the previously scheduled primaries for these two sets of races from June to August. State Assembly and statewide primaries remain in June.
Following the redistricting, State Senator Brian Kavanagh, a Democrat who has represented the current 26th district since 2017, decided to run for reelection in the newly-redrawn 27th district, which is centered in Lower Manhattan, including major parts of his current district. With his Bay Ridge home and political base drawn into the new 26th and no other incumbent there, Gounardes opted for that race.
The close to 320,000 residents of the new district, per 2020 Census data, are 49.9% white, 23.9% Hispanic, 15.3% Asian, and 6% Black, according to Redistricting & You: New York from the CUNY Mapping Service. Voters of these neighborhoods casted their ballots heavily Democratic during the 2020 presidential election, with 81.5% voting for now-President Biden and 18.5% voting for then-President Donald Trump, according to Redistricting & You.
The 2022 Democratic primary between Gounardes and Yassky forces Gounardes to campaign in a lot of new territory, but with the strengths of incumbency, including recent state government accomplishments, while Yassky attempts a comeback after several years out of office, but able to rely on at least some longtime support in his old district.
State Senator Gounardes has represented the 22nd district serving neighborhoods in Southern Brooklyn since 2019 after he turned a seat from Republican to Democratic in the 2018 election, helping his party flip the State Senate after many years in the minority.
That change meant Democrats controlled all of state government and were able to pass a very long list of pent-up priorities on topics including voting reform, reproductive rights, gun control, climate action, and much more. Democrats in the Legislature have now spent the last four years passing more and more legislation and crafting new state budgets, while also dealing with the pandemic.
As he runs in the new 26th district, Gounardes is touting many of his accomplishments of the last two terms, including legislation and funding efforts he spearheaded on issues like speed cameras in city school zones, workplace sexual harassment protections, support for freelance workers, investments in CUNY, and more.
If reelected to the Senate, Gounardes told Gotham Gazette that his top priorities will be to expand his work on the more than 60 bills he has written and passed in office, including transportation accessibility and reliability, pedestrian safety, workers’ rights and more.
“My approach to this job is really community-based and community first, and so I view my role as elevating the voices of the different communities that I represent, and I will continue to do that,” Gounardes said. “Because I’ve had a lot of on-the-ground experience working with diverse communities, I’m best positioned for the new challenges and new issues, and some of the new neighborhoods that this [current] district did not cover, and I’m eager for that opportunity.”
When asked about his vision for the 26th district, Gounardes said he hopes to push for full accessibility of the subways, noting that the neighborhoods have access to many subway lines. He said the district is heavily affected by traffic violence, which has led him to prioritize pedestrian safety and address other public infrastructure concerns, such as reimagining the crumbling Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
Gounardes said much of the district is home to working class New Yorkers and that he is focused on upholding workplace fairness and strengthening protections for immigrants. His campaign outlines the importance of protecting victims of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace through increasing the statute of limitations from three years to six years, granting fair pay regardless of gender and race, and more.
Gounardes also has plans to increase the affordability and accessibility of housing, healthcare, childcare and education. He wants to invest funds into CUNY and SUNY and other higher education programs, reform the property tax system and pass legislation regarding the compensation for personal data among Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and other companies.
During a recent podcast interview with Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max, Gounardes said he is excited about running in the district where he has spent most of his life, and he believes he has a strong base of support due to his relationships with community activists, political leaders and elected officials in the neighborhoods
“Despite the conservative leanings of my current district, I’ve stayed true to my values,” he said on Gotham Gazette’s Max Politics podcast, when asked about how he may adjust his politics to a more progressive district as he seeks votes there. “I led on issues that I think are incredibly important to deliver for people in the neighborhoods I represent, plus the neighborhoods across the city, dnd I don’t think that’s going to change at all with this new district.”
As he declared for the new district, Gounardes quickly announced a number of endorsements in the primary, including New York City Comptroller Brad Lander, who represented Park Slope in the City Council prior to winning citywide last year, City Council Members Justin Brannan and Lincoln Restler, both of whose districts overlap some with the new Senate district, as well as District Leaders Joanne Seminara, Julio Peńa, Douglas Schneider, and Chris McCreight, and others.
Gounardes also has a long list of labor unions and other organizations with him in this year’s election, including 32BJ building service workers, the state nurses association, public employees union DC37, the RWDSU retail workers union, the communications workers, transportation workers, CUNY faculty union, the Working Families Party, the Bay Ridge Democrats, and more.
Gounardes previously worked as an aide to then-City Council Member Vincent Gentile and as Counsel to then-Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, whom Gounardes endorsed in his successful mayoral bid last year and considers a close ally. Among other topics, they worked together recently on the speed camera legislation that passed, allowing the expansion of the school zone program that has proved to enhance street safety.
“We have a thing in my office, that no matter what happens on any given day, if we could end every day knowing that we helped at least one person then we will have done our job,” he said. “And so for me, the joy of being able to be in this position is knowing that we have the ability to affect people’s lives for the better — some ways big and some ways small.”
Yassky said he is running for the new 26th State Senate District to represent some of the same neighborhoods he had previously served as a City Council Member for the 33rd district, which covered neighborhoods in downtown Brooklyn.
“Albany is a mess, just to sum it up in a word,” Yassky told Gotham Gazette in an interview. “I have real concerns about where the city and state are heading. It’s still the greatest place in the world to live, and I am bullish on New York City long-term, but there are real warning signs.”
Yassky has recent state government experience to draw from. Since leaving the City Council at the end of 2009, after losing a bid that year for city comptroller, Yassky became the commissioner of the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) as an appointee of then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He later became the dean of Pace University School of Law from 2014 to 2018, and then worked as the Director of State Policy in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration from 2019 to 2021. He was named to Eric Adams’ mayoral transition team in late 2021.
If elected into the State Senate, Yassky’s top priorities would include housing, transportation, climate, the impact of the pandemic on education, and public safety. “The safety issue is real,” he said. “The state Legislature has not grappled with that, and in some ways, they've exacerbated the problem.”
Yassky said a large part of public safety concerns — on the streets and in the subway — is tied to mental health and the effects of covid isolation over the last two years. He said the state needs to massively increase the number of residential facilities, ranging psychiatric hospitals, crisis stabilization centers, and supportive housing, in order to address the root of many crimes.
Yassky said the 26th district also has opportunities to build more affordable housing by partnering with community-based organizations that have concrete plans. He believes that state legislators have not adequately addressed the concerns of residents who live in New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) developments, and said that public housing is in worse shape than when he left City Council. “New York City is housing half a million people as a landlord, and it's the worst landlord in the city,” he said, mentioning wanting to work with tenant leaders and reduce bureaucratic delays.
On transportation, Yassky said the state has a “once in a generation” opportunity to improve the transportation network given the massive federal infrastructure bill passed last year by Congress and President Biden. He pointed to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway and the importance of involving the community in an infrastructure plan before it is unusable.
Yassky added that the bike lanes are not properly laid out for the usage of e-bikes and e-scooters, and said he wants to create a regulatory system that ensures public roadways can be shared safely among electric vehicles, bicycles, and others.
He also said he would be focused on continuing to move the state toward more use of wind and solar energy. Yassky hopes to clean up the Gowanus Canal, similar to how he helped lead the transformation of Newtown Creek in Greenpoint from a dead waterway, he said.
During an Independent Neighborhood Democrats endorsement meeting last month, Yassky said his agenda would also focus on addressing gun violence, the status of gig workers, and the conversion of empty office buildings and hotels into housing.
Yassky pointed to what he said were his top accomplishments in the City Council, including passing inclusionary zoning, tripling the number of jobs in the film and television industry through incentives, changing taxi cabs to hybrid electric vehicles, and converting the city’s garbage collection to a barge and rail system.
“It’s been a while since I’ve knocked on doors and talked to people that I didn’t know about politics and policy, and I love it,” Yassky said of campaigning this year. “I was lucky in the past, and I’m lucky now, to be running in an area where people really care about their neighborhood, they’re engaged, they want to talk about what’s right, and they have different points of view often.”
Before the Legislature’s new maps were thrown out in court and new districts were drawn, Yassky had been campaigning to represent the 23rd State Senate District, with parts of Brooklyn and Staten Island. Then his home base in Downtown Brooklyn was drawn into the new 26th district. After the new district lines were introduced, Yassky lost a prior endorsement from the Independent Neighborhood Democrats to Gounardes.
Prior to his time in the City Council, at TLC, Pace University, and Cuomo’s office, Yassky was a budget analyst for the New York City Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget then chief counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Crime under then-Rep. Charles Schumer, where he helped pass the Brady Bill, which mandates background checks on some firearm purchasers and implemented a five-day waiting period on some gun purchases.