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Democratic socialists, progressives make waves in NY Assembly primaries

Democratic State Sen. Julia Salazar, seen in 2018,

Democratic State Sen. Julia Salazar, seen in 2018, easily turned back a challenge by a more moderate Democrat in Brooklyn.   Credit: AP / Mary Altaffer

ALBANY — In this summer’s New York Democratic primary, young progressive and Democratic socialist newcomers defeated seven liberal incumbents in Assembly races, a result that political scientists said may move New York State government even farther to the left.

Democratic socialists also celebrated the reelection victory by their standard-bearer in the State Legislature, Sen. Julia Salazar, who easily turned back a challenge by a more moderate Democrat in Brooklyn. 

All ran in traditionally liberal New York City districts dominated by Democratic voters, so winning the Democratic primary usually means token, if any, opposition in the November general elections.

Although the wins won’t overhaul the makeup of the 150-seat Assembly, or seriously threaten Speaker Carl Heastie’s leadership, analysts said they likely will help move all of state government further to the left.

“I think we are definitely seeing a generational shift,” said Meena Bose, a political-science professor at Hofstra University. Even before the summer’s primary, a half-dozen seats were open because incumbents retired before risking an uncertain election — a common Albany practice for incumbents — or chose to run for the state Senate or Congress. There is strong support for new representation.”

The Democratic Socialists of America had backed three of the newcomers who defeated incumbents, and the Working Families Party, the traditional liberal wing of the Democratic Party since 1988, backed three others. The seventh was supported by both parties.

The progressive candidates who won were:

  • Marcela Mitaynes, a tenant organizer endorsed by both Democratic Socialists and Working Families, who beat Assistant Speaker Félix Ortiz, who had held the Brooklyn seat since 1994;
  • Phara Souffrant Forrest, a nurse and tenant activist who beat Assemb. Walter T. Mosley in Brooklyn;
  • Zohran Mamdani, a housing counselor who beat Assemb. Aravella Simotas of Queens;
  • Emily Gallagher, an activist against sexual assault who beat Assemb. Joseph Lentol in Brooklyn; 
  • Jenifer Rajkumar, a human rights and immigration lawyer who beat Assemb. Michael Miller in Queens; 
  • Jessica González-Rojas, a community organizer, who beat six-term Assemb. Michael DenDekker in Queens;
  • Amanda Septimo, a community organizer who won the Bronx seat long held by Carmen Arroyo, who was kicked off the ballot because of an election violation shortly before the primary.

Heastie had provided more than $200,000 in campaign funding to incumbents.

On Jan. 1, Heastie will have to find a way to lead his traditionally liberal conference with the likely addition of a growing cadre of young progressives to its left, who ran on the premise that the Legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo have been too tepid on progressive policy and too stingy in funding education and social services.

“It’s clearly a repudiation of Heastie and the regime in Albany,” said Doug Muzzio, political science professor at Baruch College.

The Democratic Socialists of America believe “working people should run both the economy and society democratically to meet human needs, not to make profits for a few.” By that, it means government should use regulations and tax incentives to give workers and communities a voice in corporate decisions such as exporting jobs or polluting.

The group, however, opposes centralized, authoritarian government. Instead, it seeks to transform capitalism into an economic system that acts for the public good to protect civil rights and provide financial security for all.

There have been other liberal surges in past decades. Some have fizzled under the rules based mostly on seniority and loyalty to the speaker to attain powerful committee chairmanships and conference leadership positions.

But some have stuck, often following scandals in the Assembly and Senate. The biggest in recent history was in 2018, when Republicans lost the Senate majority.

Cuomo and the Legislature over the last two years adopted landmark liberal measures long bottled up by Republicans. They passed a $15 minimum wage, ended cash bail in most cases, required that police disciplinary records be made public and enacted more protections for immigrants while bolstering abortion and voting laws, among several long-standing goals.

Candidates backed by the Working Families Party and Democratic Socialists of America, however, said most of the measures didn’t go far enough, and they criticized Albany for failing to pass single-payer health care, failing to provide more money to schools and to build affordable housing; failing to redirect funding from police into social services; and failing to pay for it all by higher taxes on millionaires and billionaires.

“All three leaders — in the Legislature and the governor — have to be attentive to the proposals and the policy changes recommended within their party,” Bose said. “At the state level, political parties are a combination of elites and grassroots interests, and it seems the political leadership in Albany is going to have to be more attentive to grassroots concerns.”

“Now, the challenge for governing is going to be harder,” Bose said.

The primary results may be troublesome for Democrats in the Assembly, but the calculus is more complex in the Senate.

When Democrats won control of the Senate in 2018, they owed much of the historic win to moderate Democrats known as “the Long Island Six.” They can’t afford to be handcuffed by some of the Senate’s most liberal tendencies, particularly in criminal justice and in spending, the authorities said.

“As impressive as those wins were, it would be a mistake to read too much significance into them as far as the statewide balance of power even within the Democratic Party is concerned,” said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies. “The swing vote in state, as well as national elections, remains suburban moderate voters.”

“This will pull politics to the left — they already have,” said Gerald Benjamin, distinguished professor of political science at the State University of New York at New Paltz. But he said governing requires a coalition, now headed by more traditional Democrats.

“I don’t think that coalition will change,” Benjamin said. He also said the summer’s leftward gains could provide Republicans with a receptive audience, even though they are shut out of power in state government.

“It will create opportunities for the middle and right to compete,” Benjamin said.

Much of how this plays out beginning in January will depend on how long the extraordinary factors that heated up the summer primary will last or remain motivational for the new progressives and their constituents, the analysts said.

The state Democratic primary was conducted amid frustration over the COVID-19 virus, historic joblessness, volatile protests against police brutality, rallies by white supremacists, anger at both major political parties and a polarizing president in Republican Donald Trump.

“The bottom line is everyone has a deep sense that things are falling apart,” said Richard D. Wolff, a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and author of several books on capitalism and the rise in opposition to it. “To tell them they could do better is not a hard sale.”

Lentol, 77, a liberal lion over 24 terms, was the top incumbent to lose in the Democratic primary.

“I think it was the perfect storm of events that really coalesced all at one time that made it a lot easier for them to win,” said Lentol, 77, chairman of the powerful Codes Committee and sponsor of many progressive criminal justice laws. The Brooklyn fixture was so admired by the current Black progressives in the Assembly that they affectionately called him the O.G., for old gangsta.

“I think there was a lot going on that socialists learned,” Lentol said in an interview. “It’s kind of identity politics. I don’t look like a lot of my constituents now. I used to, when I started, but I don’t anymore. I have a feeling a lot of these people moving into the neighborhood saw her as more of a radical candidate, opposed to my being the calming influence in the neighborhood and one who delivered.”

“They maybe saw me as being in office too long, or too much of an establishment candidate and I think that played into it this time,” Lentol said. “They couldn’t get Trump until now, so they started eating their own.”

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