Two Years After AOC Shook Up Bronx and Queens Politics, Voters Still Appear Hungry for Change

Two Years After AOC Shook Up Bronx and Queens Politics, Voters Still Appear Hungry for Change

People vote during the Democratic primary at PS 149 in Jackson Heights, Queens, June 23, 2020. Ann Choi/THE CITY

By Ese Olumhense and Christine Chung, THE CITY

Early returns from Tuesday’s primary elections suggest longtime Democratic Party politicians in Queens and The Bronx could be ousted by relative newcomers in boroughs where the establishment’s power was not long ago all but assured.

Just one result is certain in a sea of uncertainty: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who launched a new era for Queens and Bronx politics with her surprise win two years ago over an entrenched incumbent, handily won the Democratic nomination for her seat spanning the two boroughs.

The wild cards: more than 200,000 absentee ballots mailed to Queens and Bronx voters under a special push from Gov. Andrew Cuomo to promote social distancing amid the pandemic.

After a primary where many voters complained about problems at the polls, the counting of the absentee votes starts on July 1.

In The Bronx, home to one of the city’s more powerful Democratic party machines, educator Jamaal Bowman — endorsed by Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as well as Ocasio-Cortez — has already declared victory over 16-term incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel, citing a roughly two-to-one vote margin so far.

“Many doubted that we could overcome the power and money of a 31-year incumbent,” Bowman said in a Wednesday email announcing what he called the “stunning upset” in the Bronx-Westchester primary.

“But the results show that the people of NY-16 [congressional district] aren’t just ready for change — they’re demanding it,” he added.

Challengers Lead the Way

The winds of change also breezed through Queens, where several state Assembly primaries — usually rituals of re-election for incumbents — saw challengers in the lead after Tuesday night.

Jessica González-Rojas, former executive director of the National Latina Institute, heads the five-way race for the 34th Assembly District in Jackson Heights and Woodside, with 12-year incumbent Michael DenDekker trailing by 16 percentage points.

González-Rojas said that while it was too early to claim victory, she hopes the margins will hold as absentee ballots get tallied up by the city Board of Elections.

Her campaign had strongly encouraged voters to cast their ballots by mail, she said — adding that she was “shocked” by the Primary Day and early voting turnout of nearly 7,000 people, out of nearly 37,000 active Democrats in the 34th Assembly District.

“I’m a woman of color in a five-way race against an incumbent in the middle of a pandemic,” González-Rojas said. “I feel good. I feel really good.”

Jenifer Rajkumar, a lawyer and CUNY professor, has a 25 point lead over incumbent Michael Miller, who has represented the 38th Assembly District — Glendale, Woodhaven, parts of Ridgewood — for six terms.

Political strategist Mia Pearlman said that Rajkumar and González-Rojas’ potential victories may have been precipitated by a changing electorate seeking representatives more emblematic of their communities.

In the 2010 Census, maps from CUNY’s Center for Urban Research show, the 34th Assembly District was 25% Asian and 58% Hispanic, while the 38th district Rajkumar seeks to represent was 15% Asian and 50% Hispanic.

“It was really just a matter of time with those incumbents who just didn’t match their districts anymore in terms of politics or their ethnic representation,” Pearlman added. DenDekker and Miller are white.

In Astoria, Zohran Mamdani, a leader in the Queens Democratic Socialists of America branch and a housing counselor, held a seven point lead over Assemblymember Aravella Simotas, who has been in office since 2011.

Mamdani said while the absentee numbers had yet to be factored in, his campaign was “confident that our multiracial movement of the working class is close to victory.”

He attributed his advantage to a get-out-the-vote operation that prioritized “communities long ignored by the political establishment, including our Muslim and South Asian neighbors, with a platform that spoke directly to their needs and concerns in an unprecedented way.”

Reading the Maps

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, whose 12th Congressional District includes parts of Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn, currently holds a tenuous lead of less than two percentage points over Suraj Patel, a lawyer and lecturer at NYU.

The in-person ballots cast show distinct trends, preliminary analysis from the CUNY Center for Urban Research suggests: Patel took swaths of Queens and Brooklyn, while Maloney held onto her areas of Manhattan, particularly the Upper East Side.

In the South Bronx, Councilmember Ritchie Torres led a pack of 12 seeking to succeed retiring Rep. Jose Serrano in the 15th Congressional District. Running in perhaps the most competitive races in the country, Torres gained the support of nearly a third of those who voted in-person Tuesday.

Torres, who raised the most money in the race with $1.3 million, was not backed by progressive powerhouses like Sanders or Ocasio-Cortez. But he fended off multiple challengers that included fellow Councilmember Ruben Diaz Sr., well known in the district as a minister, former state senator and father of the Bronx Borough President who shares his name.

Torres, who is openly gay, outperformed Diaz, who has made homophobic statements, in the 77-year-old politician’s own council district on Tuesday.

 

Diaz’ struggle to woo his base of voters — many of them socially conservative Christians — broke with predictions of strong turnout for a county Democratic Party fixture.

In-person and early voting data suggest the strength of establishment political power in The Bronx was tested, noted John Mollenkopf, director of the Center for Urban Research at CUNY Graduate Center, in an email.

It is “probably too much to say the Bronx machine is crumbling, but it certainly took some blows yesterday, assuming the results from the polling booths hold up after the absentee ballots are counted,” Mollenkopf said.

More Counting to Come

As former Queens District Attorney candidate and near-winner Tiffany Cabán can attest, anything can happen in the absentee ballot count — all the more so when mail-in absentee ballots were for the first time available to any New Yorker on demand.

According to procedures set by state law, paper ballots cast on voting machines at Election Day were re-canvassed Wednesday. Starting July 1, absentee ballots will be counted at the various borough offices across the city.

Multiple election attorneys representing candidates in Queens said that last year’s tumultuous Queens District Attorney’s race between public defender Cabán and former Borough President Melinda Katz served as an example of how absentees can dramatically change the odds.

“It shows that anything can happen, though it usually doesn’t,” said Sarah Steiner, an election attorney representing Assemblymember Aravella Simotas. “As far as lessons, we saw how 90,000 ballots can be processed in view of all the world, and people who watched that process closely know what to expect.”

Election lawyer Jerry Goldfeder, who is representing several candidates, including borough president contender Elizabeth Crowley, said that last year’s recount “provided BOE staff an intensive experience which will serve them well this year.”

Crowley is one of five Democrats in the race to succeed Katz. Councilmember Donovan Richards led the pack in the in-person voting.

This story was originally published on [June 24, 2020] by THE CITY.”

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