In an Upper Manhattan city council neighborhood, a dozen candidates are on the Democratic ballot, including a former assistant mayor, tenant rights lawyer, nonprofit executive, 21-year-old student and a drag artist with an activist at the roots.
In the Bronx, eight candidates, some of whom have recently entered politics, are running for a seat left vacant by a longtime political pillar. And in Queens, six Democratic candidates are vying for a chance to overthrow that borough’s only Republican Council seat.
As New York City voters went to the polls to choose a new mayor, a contest with significant ramifications for the city’s post-pandemic trajectory, the city council elections have drawn far less attention. But the city’s legislature faces heavy turnover, drawing dozens of candidates into overcrowded races that could prove to be just as important in shaping New York’s future.
Activists and left-wing leaders in particular are making a vigorous push around council races, hoping to elect candidates who will advance a progressive platform regardless of the outcome of the municipal elections. The Council votes on the city’s budget after negotiation with the mayor and plays a key role in the city’s spatial planning process, which affects development projects.
Sochie Nnaemeka, New York state director of the Working Families Party, said city council can play “a vital role in supporting a progressive agenda set by the mayor or blocking and opposing a restrictive agenda or limit”.
All 51 council seats will be on the ballot, and in 32 of those districts the current incumbent will not show up, guaranteeing a plethora of freshman faces. Many incumbents face major challenges; a handful are themselves new to the job, having won special elections earlier this year. City council chairman Corey Johnson is among those stepping down, making it unclear who will ultimately set the council’s agenda and negotiate with the mayor.
“It will be a sea change for everyone,” said Yvette Buckner, a political strategist.
In many races, candidates hope the electorate sees the possibility of a major change as a godsend and seize the opportunity.
In the Bronx, Rubén Díaz Sr., a Pentecostal minister who infuriated the Council in 2019 when he said he was “controlled by the gay community”, retires from politics after nearly 20 years in office public.
Of the eight candidates on the ballot in the district, three – Amanda Farias, Michael Beltzer and William Moore – ran for the seat in 2017. At the time, voters rebuffed their arguments for new leadership; this year, this result is guaranteed.
In Upper Manhattan District 7, a group of progressive candidates united, urging residents to use the ranked voting system to lobby for real change.
Five of the 12 candidates in the race – Marti Allen-Cummings, Dan Cohen, Stacy Lynch, Maria Ordoñez and Corey Ortega – asked voters to rank them all in the five points on the ballot. Excluded from the pact was Shaun Abreu, a housing lawyer whom the current board member has approved as his replacement.
The stakes in the Democratic primary are particularly high in New York, where winners from nearly every district will be heavily favored to win the general election in November. Only three Republicans sit on city council – two from Staten Island and one from Queens.
Despite this strong left base, city voters tend to be more centrist when choosing a mayor; when Bill de Blasio won in 2013, he was the first Democrat to do so in 24 years. In this year’s election, the more moderate candidates, Eric Adams and Kathryn Garcia, are leading the latest polls.
By contrast, progressives have successfully wielded their influence in state and national legislative competitions, including recent races in which elected officials like Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman and Senator state leader Julia Salazar defeated establishment Democrats by mobilizing left-wing voters. .
Ms Buckner said she expected the same pattern to continue in this year’s election.
“Overall, New Yorkers are likely to want a more centrist or moderate voice for the mayor, and they’ll likely go with a more progressive city council,” she said, “because the issues that translate into the terrain are very different in a small community.
This trend seems to have shaped the strategies of some progressive groups. The city chapter of America’s Democratic Socialists did not approve the mayoral race, instead focusing its support on six city council candidates.
In some cases, left-wing groups take advantage of preferential voting to hedge their bets. The Working Families Party, seeing opportunities to win seats, began approving candidates for city council races in early last fall and has so far supported 30 people in 27 districts.
Ms Ocasio-Cortez, perhaps the state’s most prominent leftist politician, has personally backed nine candidates in eight Council races. Its political action committee supported 60 candidates in 31 city council districts.
Ms Nnaemeka said she believed the pandemic had prompted voters to demand change. Faced with the crisis, many residents have become more sensitive to the impact of local government on their neighborhoods.
“We have a tremendous opportunity that has emerged from the crisis to rebuild and reinvent our city,” she said.
Such surges have often been felt closer in city council than in the race for mayor, said Bruce Berg, professor of political science at Fordham University. Over the years, the council has shifted to the left, he said, in part because of the city’s changing demographics.
“Each of the 51 members seeks to represent their constituency, instead of pursuing the general interests of the city,” said Berg.
Even so, the makeup of city council did not often reflect these demographics, which many candidates hope to change.
Although more than half of the city’s residents identify as women, only 14 women sit on the city council. Ms Buckner, who heads an initiative to support female nominations, said there were at least six districts that had never been represented by a woman.
“There are so many more candidates running – so many more women, so many people of color in places you would never have seen them running before,” she said.
Ms Buckner highlighted District 32 in South Queens, where term limits prevent incumbent Republican Eric Ulrich from running for re-election. Democrats have targeted his seat, hoping to win the borough’s last Republican office.
Queens is one of the most ethnically diverse counties in the country, and immigrants and people of color have gradually settled in District 32. The Democratic candidate pool reflects the changing population: most candidates do not are not white.
One of the reasons for the influx of Council candidates, across the city, is the city’s public fundraising program, which was boosted in 2018 to provide an 8-to-1 match for donations of up to $ 175 from residents. from the city. The system produced strong candidate fields for Council positions. In District 26, which covers parts of Astoria, Long Island City, Sunnyside and Woodside in Queens, 15 candidates will be on the Democratic primary ballot.
Most of the dynamics that shape city council races mirror those that shape the mayor’s race. In several districts, the new arrivals face candidates with political ties.
In central Brooklyn, Crystal Hudson, a first-time candidate who worked for the city’s public counsel and Democratic Majority Council leader, leads a close race against Michael Hollingsworth, an organizer and candidate for the first time supported by Democratic Socialists. Both have the backing of left-wing lawmakers – Ms Hudson has just been endorsed by mayoral candidate Maya Wiley – and the experience has become a major factor in the race.
“We need leaders who are ready to go and who have a habit of putting those who need them most first,” Hudson said. “I understand the urgency of this moment.”
There are also a number of former city council members looking to regain the seats they had left vacant and who are taking on newcomers.
Gale Brewer, the Manhattan Borough President prevented by the term limit from running for office, seeks to return to the Upper West Side headquarters she left in 2013. Charles Barron, a member of the Assembly of state, is running for its former seat in Brooklyn. It is being held by his wife, Inez, who took it from him but faces term limits this year.
Whatever the outcome of the primaries, any referendum on the city’s electoral future that emerges from this year’s council races could also prove short-lived.
Due to a provision in the City Charter, candidates elected in November will only have a two-year term, instead of the usual four years. After the redistribution process, which takes place every 10 years after a national census, candidates will have to run again along the new constituency lines in 2023.
“Everyone will have to cut their teeth and prove themselves very quickly,” Ms. Buckner said. “And then they have to start campaigning again, right after their first year.”