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.’”