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New York primary races were wake-up call for incumbents

The state congressional races for Democratic Party candidates on June 26 showed the strength of political newcomers who were challenging incumbents.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, left, with Cynthia Nixon at her

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, left, with Cynthia Nixon at her victory party in the Bronx after upsetting incumbent Democratic Rep. Joseph Crowley on June 26. Photo Credit: Getty Images/Scott Heins

It was a good night for political newcomers in the state's recent Democratic primary races for Congress.

On Long Island, on June 26, first-time candidate Perry Gershon beat former Suffolk County Legis. Kate Browning in the 1st District, and activist Liuba Grechen Shirley defeated Legis. DuWayne Gregory, presiding officer of the Suffolk Legislature, in the 2nd District. 

In the Bronx and Queens, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — a young activist who had never before run for public office — toppled Rep. Joseph Crowley, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, in an upset that made waves nationally.

Upstate in the 24th District, Syracuse University professor Dana Balter beat former prosecutor Juanita Perez Williams, who was backed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party's fundraising arm for House candidates.

The results in those and other primary races sent a warning to longtime incumbent Democrats, even if they don't necessarily portend a wave of anti-establishment victories around the nation this November, political experts said.

“There’s youth and energy, and there’s some life here,” said Kenneth Sherrill, Hunter College professor emeritus of political science.

“Primaries work," said Basil Smikle, former executive director of the New York State Democratic Party. "They force you to knock on doors where you haven’t knocked on doors, and they force you to take positions where you would have sat on the sidelines.”

But amid the wins by those insurgent Democrats who ran to the left of the local or national party favorites, several incumbents kept their seats, and more moderate or experienced hopefuls also won their primaries.

Reps. Gregory Meeks, whose 5th District includes a small portion of western Nassau, Carolyn Maloney of Manhattan and Eliot Engel of the Bronx remained on solid footing despite facing challenges.

In the 19th District in the Hudson Valley, former corporate litigator Antonio Delgado, who raised nearly $2.3 million, beat seven Democratic hopefuls and will face GOP Rep. John Faso in the general election.

In the 21st Congressional District in the Adirondacks, represented by Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik, Democratic victor Tedra Cobb was the only candidate on the primary slate who previously had held elected office. Cobb was a St. Lawrence County legislator.

In general, better-funded candidates with wider bases can be expected to maintain the upper hand, said Jeanne Zaino, professor of political science at Iona College.

"There is obviously a distaste for insiders and incumbents, but there are other aspects to the story and one aspect is money," Zaino said.

Progressive or far-left candidates may find that attracting funding for big ideas such as Medicare for All or a federal jobs guarantee won't be an easy task, Zaino said.

Still, it was big and bold messages that helped attract voters to Ocasio-Cortez, Smikle said.

Younger voters and those who support Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) "are far more interested in radical change than incrementalism," said Smikle, a Democratic strategist.

Ocasio-Cortez, a Sanders organizer during the presidential campaign, said in her victory speech: "We meet a machine with a movement."

Ocasio-Cortez, 28, a self-identified Democratic socialist, beat Crowley, a 10-term congressman, by a 15-point margin.

She is considered the favorite against Republican Anthony Pappas, a St. John's University professor, in November because registered Republicans make up only 10 percent of the active electorate in the 14th District.

In the 1st District in eastern Suffolk County, Gershon, an East Hampton businessman, beat Browning by five points and will face Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) in the general election.

In the 2nd District, which runs along the South Shore in Nassau and Suffolk counties, Grechen Shirley, of Amityville, won the primary by 16 points against Gregory. Grechen Shirley will challenge 13-term Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford).

Late last month, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she didn't consider Ocasio-Cortez’s win a harbinger.

“They made a choice in one district,” said Pelosi, 78, a House member since 1987. “Let’s not get yourself carried away as an expert on demographics and the rest of that — within the caucus or outside the caucus.”

Meanwhile, Crowley, conceding on election night, picked up a guitar and dedicated Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" to Ocasio-Cortez. He said he would support her in working to regain a majority in the House "as a united Democratic Party."

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