Queens Assembly candidate Khaleel Anderson (photo: @KhaleelAnderson)
A younger generation of Democratic political candidates — which has grown up amid the Great Recession, growing inequality, rising costs of higher education and massive student loan debt, the ticking time-bomb that is climate change, and other crises including, now, the coronavirus pandemic and its fallout — has been offering ambitious policy goals and great urgency around achieving them, resonating with voters and finding success in their runs for office.
In recent election cycles, New York has seen many younger candidates win their bids for state legislative and congressional seats, one facet of the Democratic Party’s internal reckoning that shows an ascendant left wing in part led by a new generation of activists and candidates.
Some, but not all, of these candidates are democratic socialists, a far left brand of politics with a young base, as shown by support for U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, the septuagenarian figurehead of the progressive movement in America, who won 65% of New York voters aged 18-29 in his 2016 Democratic primary contest against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who won every other age group, according to CNN exit polling data. And although the movement has not found victory through either of Sanders’ two presidential bids, down-ballot races have told a different story.
And that story is of a generational shift underway in New York politics, with major potential implications for public policy coming out of the state capital in Albany, not to mention other power centers like New York City Hall and borough-based Democratic Party organizations. It is also already manifesting itself in the state’s and city’s representation in Congress and impact on the national stage.
The recent trend of New York electing both younger and further left candidates kicked off with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s June 2018 primary victory over then-Rep. Joe Crowley, with the then-28-year-old democratic socialist shocking the world and immediately becoming a national standard-bearer for those of her generation and politics.
Then came September 2018 victories of now-State Senators Alessandra Biaggi, Jessica Ramos, Zellnor Myrie, and Julia Salazar, all in their twenties or thirties when elected as progressive insurgents against more moderate, older incumbent Democrats. All went on to easily win their general elections, as is the norm in almost every New York City electoral district given Democrats’ heavy voter enrollment advantage. In a Brooklyn swing district, Democrat Andrew Gounardes, then-33, beat Republican Martin Golden, then-68, helping the Democrats win back a State Senate majority and advance a long list of priorities.
Then came 2020, and a combined state and congressional (and presidential) June primary day amid a pandemic and massive resultant socio-economic crisis.
Younger, left-leaning candidates, often supported by many progressive groups and individuals, won a long list of Democratic primary victories. They ran on policies that, in sum, included single-payer health care, more urgent efforts to combat climate change and foster a “just transition” to a green economy, free public college, greater tenant protections, higher taxes on the wealthy, homes and jobs guarantees, more education funding, marijuana legalization, decriminalization of sex work, and, during the pandemic, rent cancellation.
The winning candidates included Khaleel Anderson, 24 years old; Zohran Mamdani, 28; Phara Souffrant Forrest, 31; Emily Gallagher, 36; and Jenifer Rajkumar, 38, all of whom won primaries for the State Assembly, along with Jabari Brisport, 33, who won a State Senate primary; and Ritchie Torres, 32, and Mondaire Jones, 33, who won Congressional races. Jamaal Bowman, 44, also won offering generational change and far-left ideology in his challenge to 73-year-old incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel, and other Assembly candidates in their forties, Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas and Marcela Mitaynes, beat incumbent Democrats while offering a far-left message.
Souffrant Forrest, Mamdani, and Brisport were all endorsed by New York City’s branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, an organization that also backed Salazar and Ocasio-Cortez in 2018 and 2020, and had six of its seven endorsed candidates win this election cycle (DSA-backed Samelys Lopez lost to Torres in the 15th Congressional District primary).
Growing dissatisfaction with government and social conditions is something Torres, one of the youngest people elected to the City Council in modern times and likely to soon be one of the youngest elected to Congress, says has contributed to the success of younger elected officials, who are often those challenging incumbents.
“We’re living in an anti-establishment moment. When the electorate has a bias for youth and energy. I think if you have a young insurgent running against an established politician who’s been entrenched in office for decades, the young insurgent has a greater advantage now more than ever,” Torres said. “At a time of peak suffering, the argument for insurgents might be helped because if you have been entrenched in office for decades, and your district is in the same position that it was when you first entered public office, does your tons of experience really matter?”
Brisport, who is further to the left of Torres, nonetheless voiced a similar sentiment and said the reason for more young people challenging incumbents is their want for bigger changes.
“It is predominantly younger people that are unseating incumbents, are making up this new guard and I think that speaks to a hunger and a thirst for much bolder progressive policies throughout New York,” said Brisport, currently a middle-school teacher and of central Brooklyn, in an interview. “My generation, millennials and below us, Gen-Z, we are seeing firsthand capitalism really unfurling on itself, runaway income inequality, a world where we don’t see ourselves as eventual homeowners in the way our parents did, our American dream is no longer to get a house and 2.5 kids the dream is just to survive this nightmare, this hellscape of capitalism that we live in where rents are spiraling out of control, health care — you’re lucky if you have it and if you don’t you’re confined to a lifetime of medical debt — and if you’re Black, indigenous, person of color, you might just get shot by police for the crime of existing. It’s a confluence of factors that is extremely terrifying for people in my generation and revolutionary politics is much more alluring in a scenario like that.”
Some of those more progressive policies have seen more support from young people: a 2019 Quinnipiac University poll found that New York State residents aged 18-34 were the biggest supporters of congestion pricing (at 62% in favor), stricter gun laws (70%), legalizing marijuana (84%), and protecting abortion rights (80%).
And, although only 36% approved of single-payer health-care generally, if it were to decrease health care costs (even at the cost of raising taxes), they were the biggest supporters of single-payer health-care, too, at 57%. Younger people are more open than older generations to raising taxes if it means reducing individual health-care costs. Nationally, a poll conducted last year by the Institute of Politics (IOP) at Harvard Kennedy School found that 51% of those aged 18-29 support free public college for those from families making $125,000 a year or less and free community college for all — even if it costs $47 billion a year.
“I’ve seen multiple recessions, I’ve seen, in many ways, the failures of capitalism again and again and again kind of replayed ad nauseum,” said Mamdani, currently a housing counselor and of western Queens, in an interview. “There is a real fear with regards to health-care and with regards to debt, specifically student loan debt. We have seen, in many ways, much of capitalism’s promises, we have seen the terms and conditions of those promises in our lifetime. And generations older than us, there have been more of the promises delivered to them, while for us that promise has been extinguished and now it’s all of the fine print.”
Attaining higher education and employment are two interwoven issues for young people: higher education costs are rising (by over 25% in the last decade, according to a CNBC analysis of The College Board data), while a college degree is becoming more and more essential to find employment (as a 2014 report from Burning Glass, a labor market analytics company, shows). And most recently, during the coronavirus pandemic, young New Yorkers were most affected when it comes to losing employment — unemployment of those aged 16-24 skyrocketed from 6.6% to 35.2% from February to May, according to a report by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer. For the city writ large, it had gone from 3.5% to 19.9%.
Anderson, currently a supplemental instructor at his alma mater, Queens College, and likely to be the youngest member of the state Legislature next year, noted that many struggles young people face — from affording higher education to getting a job to paying for rent — contribute to one another.
“Young people, we’ve got to focus on ensuring that we can have a future,” Anderson, of southeast Queens, said in an interview. “Whether it was succumbing to gun violence, whether it was succumbing to student debt, whether it was not being able to afford health-care, whether it’s living in the Rockaways in the Rosedale section of the district and facing constant flooding, these are the things that young people are genuinely concerned about and that’s how my politics will be guided.”
Anderson, who got started in politics as an organizer with the Rockaway Youth Task Force, went on to explain that he believes young people are at the center of many different issues, from being the most common perpetrators and victims of gun violence, to being those disserved by failing school systems, to being unable to afford housing, sometimes due to student debt.
“We’re at the epicenter of everything and until someone comes in like myself and other young leaders who will come behind me, comes in and understands the youth perspective and how we need to continue to invest in youth so that all of that trickles down and translates to everyone else, you will continue to see these problems perpetuate,” Anderson said.
Tenants’ rights, specifically, have been a cause many younger people are rallying around, according to Cea Weaver, a longtime housing activist who helped push stronger rent regulations through the Legislature last year and is the campaign coordinator of the Housing Justice for All coalition.
“New York’s a majority-renter city and it always has been,” said Weaver, who is 31. “So, I think, when you’re talking about New York City, I think it’s been a little bit surprising just how few elected officials have really centered renters’ rights. But I think as people become more active and as the housing market is more and more out of control, I think we’re just seeing a whole generation of younger electeds who are responding to a younger tenants movement.”
Many of the younger state candidates elected in 2018 — particularly Myrie, Biaggi, Ramos, and Salazar — ran on platforms centering tenants’ rights and in opposition to big real estate interests, including promises not to accept donations from developers. Housing was a key issue they had to distinguish themselves from their incumbent opponents, who were generously supported by the real estate industry.
Since then, many more candidates — incumbents and insurgents alike — have taken pledges not to accept real estate donations, and in 2019 historic legislation was passed by the State Legislature and signed by Governor Cuomo to increase protections for millions of rent-regulated tenants.
And it’s an issue that was at the center of many of the recent primaries, such as in Gallagher’s race against incumbent Joe Lentol, where her support of canceling rent contrasted with Lentol’s work in passing a more moderate rent voucher bill, and in Mamdani’s, where he highlighted his opponent breaking her pledge not to accept real estate donations.
Canceling rent is one policy challengers like Gallagher, who sometimes shared similar platforms with their also-progressive opponents, distinguished themselves. While many current Assembly members, like Lentol, dismissed the policy as unrealistic and having the potential to hurt small landlords, Gallagher argued it was essential to help those facing extreme financial insecurity due to the pandemic and who could not pay their rent (the bill in the Legislature would not cancel rent for those who could afford to pay and would provide relief for smaller landlords).
“A lot of these voters, they identify with someone who has student debt, or hasn’t lived in the community as long or hasn’t been paying rent themselves as long in the community and therefore are paying a higher part of their income to live on,” said Jerry Skurnik, a long-time political consultant at Prime New York and former aide to Mayor Ed Koch, in an interview. “I can’t prove it but I’m assuming Joe Lentol, because he lived in his community for 70 years, probably was paying less rent per square foot than Emily Gallagher did, not that he did anything unfair by doing that.”
Like other challengers discussing their own challenges with bills and burdens, Gallagher used her experiences struggling to afford rent to connect to voters during her campaign, and had previously said that, were she not in a rent-stabilized apartment, she likely would not have been able to live in the northern Brooklyn district, which has been home to massive development and accelerated gentrification over the past decade-plus.
“For something of this magnitude, for the times we’re living in,” said Brisport, an extreme measure like canceling rent “is fine, and it should be expected to think completely outside of the box. What’s the alternative, you’re just going to evict a million people? How is that not worse? From a moral standpoint, yes. From a public health standpoint, for the economy, everything, it would actually be more disruptive to have hundreds of thousands, over a million evictions happen in New York than to cancel rent and then have a small fund for landlords.”
Gallagher and Briport, among other younger progressive candidates, held out their personal experiences as renters in New York City in connecting with voters and activists who are passionate about tenants’ rights, according to Weaver.
“A lot of the people who are the young folks in elected office right now are also rent-stabilized tenants,” Weaver said. “Every single candidate is taking the housing crisis much more seriously than their predecessors…We have younger folks who are willing to think creatively about what a solution would look like in this movement and who don’t have decades of housing policy telling them that the most important thing is to bail out the real estate industry.”
But some see defeating older, experienced Assembly members, like Joe Lentol, as a huge loss to the community. Bob Liff, Senior Vice President of George Arzt Communications, said although he has nothing against newcomers like Gallagher, Lentol and others provide a lot of value due to their experience and the connections they build over time.
“What you’re losing is an awful lot of institutional memory,” Liff said in an interview. “And when you’re at a certain age and you think that you are inherently soiled by your experience, well that’s all well and good, until you realize you don’t know where the bodies are buried. These people do because they buried them.”
Liff — who through his firm is a spokesperson for the Brooklyn Democratic Party but was speaking only for himself, he stressed — criticized some younger candidates, especially those in the Democratic Socialists of America, for being seemingly unwilling to acknowledge valid points against them or their policies, such as the fact that the organization does tend to perform best in gentrified areas, and that some of their candidates come from wealthy backgrounds while offering their working-class messaging.
“I’m hopeful, I just think that as you mature hopefully you understand that you need more allies, and that the way that you get more allies is not to trim your sails but to respect the idea that other people might have different views and you might have to work with them. I mean, God forbid, settle for half a loaf,” Liff said, referencing his belief in the necessity to find compromise to achieve meaningful legislation. “It’s an argument for the idea that this country changes in an evolutionary rather than in a revolutionary way. But you can’t tell me that we’re not better off than we were in the 1950s.”
Liff mentioned Ocasio-Cortez as someone he believes has done a great job fighting for her policy goals while also working with her colleagues in Congress.
Brooke Smith, 39, is student body president at CUNY’s Medgar Evers College and a supporter of Anderson. When living in the Rockaways years ago, she saw Anderson volunteering in front of the supermarket, getting signatures for the state senator at the time. Two years later they met again on a bus for a CUNY advocacy trip, and by the end of the day he had shared with her his plan to run for office, and moved her and her husband to donate to him. That donation allowed Anderson to reach the minimum required for him to open his campaign account.
As someone who is not technically a millennial but has worked with many young people pushing for a tuition freeze and free CUNY education, among other things, as a student representative, Smith has a unique perspective on the younger generation, and said she sees a sense of entitlement Liff described as a negative in a more positive light.
“What I’ve noticed is that the younger generation, they’re a lot more radical than the two generations above them,” said Smith, who has also been an advocate for families who have stillbirths after losing her daughter in 2014. After the more radical civil rights era, subsequent generations were more hesitant to seek significant change and reform, she said, until now. “They’re kind of experiencing all the privilege that they should. Not really feeling different. They feel entitled to certain things because they do feel worthy, that they belong here, that they deserve the same treatment, things of that nature. So now, as they start to actually see some of the things that some of these other generations were talking about, they have become more radical because they feel more empowered because of the entitlement that was given to them from several generations down. So, I actually think it’s a beautiful thing because it’s causing a whole different level of change.”
Smith also feels the lack of government experience candidates like Anderson have can also be a plus, as it means they are not as invested in the status quo, echoing a similar sentiment Weaver made regarding old guard politicians’ approach to housing policy.
“That sense of entitlement is going to push them to not really fall into the culture that much,” Smith said. “They’re so radical that I feel like there’s a fearlessness, so I expect to see [Anderson] be able to stand up and bring up to the table that most people are afraid to mention because of their colleagues, because of the things that they have to go back-and-forth with each other, because he’s not coming from that culture.”
Torres similarly said that insurgents' lack of political experience and work on the outside of government is becoming more and more of an advantage, and less of a disadvantage, in these races. A liberal who does not identify as a democratic socialist and has in fact been very critical of the DSA while agreeing on several issues, Torres’ primary win in the Bronx resulted in the DSA’s only local loss of this election cycle. He sees the recent success of younger candidates generally as a sign that people want change, and as many of them are activists, that they want someone used to challenging those in government.
“Young elected officials tend to function as advocates rather than as insiders,” Torres said in an interview. “I think the greatest change is that politics is going to become as much about the outside game as it is about the inside game.”
He said he is part of a generation that “has been failed by the government,” and referenced the rising costs of housing, healthcare, and higher education. Growing up in public housing himself, he said he felt abandoned by the federal government — one of the reasons he recently ran for Congress, which historically has played a greater role in the funding of public housing. After beating the Bronx Democrtic Party’s chosen candidate in his 2013 primary win, Torres has had an independent streak during his Council tenure, and been one of the most vocal critics of Mayor Bill de Blasio, a fellow Democrat.
Torres noted that the only wholly consistent characteristic of the successful insurgents mentioned is their younger ages, suggesting that voters are looking at more than just the policies candidates support.
“Voters are not so much voting for a particular ideology, they’re largely voting for change,” Torres said. “For a new generation of leadership. Because even among the elected officials there are considerable ideological differences.”
Liff and Skurnik both mentioned that, similarly, discontent during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and 1970s led to a movement of young insurgents running against the establishment and for change. Skurnik said Democratic Congressional Rep. Eliot Engel, who recently lost his seat after being outflanked from the left and outworked by Bowman, the democratic socialist former middle school principal, got his start in politics during this time as an anti-war politician. Engel was first elected to the State Assembly in 1977, when he was 30 years old. Lentol also entered office at the age of 30, in 1973, and was often seen as one of the major progressive leaders in the state, especially when it came to criminal justice reform.
“That would be unfair to the incumbents who do grow and do embrace these issues,” Liff said, mentioning how although Lentol was originally for the death penalty, he ended up playing a pivotal role in ending it in New York State. “And the reason there’s been progress on these issues is because they have, in fact, understood the political forces, the fairness, the justice, the inequality issues.”
Similar to those who were motivated to join politics during the Vietnam War, or after Watergate, Skurnik said the election of President Donald Trump in 2016 had a similar effect.
“I would say more Trump than anything else. Trump energized people, generally progressive people, to get more involved and pay more attention,” Skurnik said.
One policy area Trump has motivated movement on is climate change, as he has denied it is happening, called it a “hoax,” took America out of the Paris Climate Agreement, and appointed officials to top posts who have rolled back environmental regulations.
The New York City Sunrise Movement, a youth-led advocacy group focused on electing politicians who recognize the dangers of climate change and support legislation such as The Green New Deal, has had significant success in New York, including by putting major resources to help elect Bowman.
“Trump is a caricature of what was already wrong with American politics, and so I think that he has kind of exaggerated everything that was already going wrong and made it painfully obvious to everyone so that you could no longer possible ignore it,” said Grace Cuddihy, a 16-year-old member of the group.
The NYC Sunrise Movement itself was founded in 2018 and has made substantial efforts to support politicians that oppose Trump’s policies. In New York, they have helped to get many of their endorsed candidates into office, including Mamdani, Brisport, Souffrant Forrest, and other insurgents who won in 2020, as well as some in 2018, including Ocasio-Cortez, Biaggi, and Myrie. Fourteen of their 16 endorsed candidates won this year, many of them younger progressives.
Cuddihy said the organization made 60,000 calls for its endorsed candidates, and its national branch — which she is also a part of — made hundreds of thousands of calls just for Bowman.
“It really is my future and my life and because I am so young — they say we have nine years left, I’m going to be 25,” Cuddihy said, referencing some of the most disastrous projected impending consequences of climate change. “As someone who can’t vote…watching democracy deteriorate before my eyes and not being able to go to the voting booth and do something about it has motivated me to be more active in terms of phone-banking and volunteering for candidates and organizing for political leaders.”
And although the Green New Deal championed by Ocasio-Cortez and many other but not all New York representatives has not gained as much traction in Congress as activists would like, New York has passed significant climate change and green economy legislation that included investments in renewable energy and enacted goals to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and 100% clean power by 2040.
But candidates such as Brisport and Mamdani want more ambitious climate policies, such as making energy a public utility and having New York divest pension funds from fossil fuels (something being pursued to an extent at the city level but not at the state level).
“The threat is right here, it’s already here, it’s happening and the urgency is so right there for my generation that the notion of strong redistributive policies, shifting billions of dollars from the wealthiest people into fighting climate change isn’t some laughable idea, it’s a necessary thing to do,” said Brisport.
While younger and more progressive voters recently helped elect candidates with ambitious left-wing agendas, such as Brisport, it is yet to be seen what the impact will be on the legislative bodies they are entering. When a wave of progressives like Myrie, Biaggi, Ramos, Salazar, and Gounardes helped Democrats to win back the State Senate in 2018, it resulted in sweeping legislation at the state level — although some of the most ambitious far left policy goals were left on the back burner, forming the platforms of some of this year’s insurgent left-wing candidates.
Skurnik thinks a similar thing will happen in 2021, as incoming members will push the state farther left, but not all the way, with policies such as those focused on tenants’ rights.
“They will move more incumbents, the establishment people, to a more progressive position. Maybe not as far as they say they want to go,” Skurnik said. “I don’t think they’re gonna cancel rent, but I think they will do other things for tenants that, three or four years ago, weren’t even on the horizon.”
Note: this article has been corrected to note that NYC Sunrise did endorse Ocasio-Cortez in the 2018 Democratic primary.