Takeaways From New York State’s June 23 Democratic Primaries

NY State Government: Week in Review

The final results from the June 23 primaries are just being certified this week by the New York City Board of Elections, over a month after the primary was held. There are three takeaways from these electoral results.

1. Progressives are ascending, but not ascendant, in New York State’s Democratic primaries.

Progressive candidates are ascending in New York’s Democratic primaries as evidenced by recent election results, but to declare that the progressives have become ascendant in Democratic primaries is simply not accurate. The areas that progressive candidates carry are growing, from Peekskill to Plattsburgh in Upstate and in NYC districts where minority candidates carry the progressive banner in communities increasingly dominated by gentrification. But progressive candidates have not prospered on Long Island, in the bedrock Black and outer-borough Jewish and White Catholic neighborhoods of NYC, or in Upstate west of Albany. And in the northern suburbs of Westchester and Rockland counties, progressives need just the right mix of multi-candidate fields and/or challenges to older incumbents in order to win.

In New York’s 2020 congressional and legislative primaries, progressives won two congressional races by large margins: Jamaal Bowman took out longtime incumbent Eliot Engel in a Bronx/Westchester district by 16 percent and Mondaire Jones won the primary for the open Nita Lowey seat in Westchester/Rockland with 42 percent of the vote in a multi-candidate field where the closest competitor was snaring only 16 percent of the vote. In a third race, long-term incumbent Carolyn Maloney carried her Manhattan/Queens/Brooklyn district by only 3,700 votes in a dogged multi-candidate rematch of her two-way 2018 race against Suraj Patel. In the Bronx race for the open Jose Serrano seat, candidates marching in rhythm to the progressive pulse finished first (Ritchie Torres), second (Michael Blake) and fourth (Samelys Lopez), while Ruben Diaz Sr., who proclaimed himself the anti-AOC candidate, finished third. But progressive challengers lost in landslides to incumbent Congressmen Thomas Suozzi, Gregory Meeks, Jerrold Nadler, Adriano Espaillat and Joseph Morelle (i.e., from Long Island to Western New York).

In the State Assembly primaries, six incumbents were defeated by progressive challengers: three in Brooklyn (Emily Gallagher beat Joseph Lentol, Marcela Mitanyes beat Felix Ortiz and Phara Forrest beat Walter Mosley) and three in Queens (Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas beat Michael Den Dekker, Jenifer Rajkumar beat Michael Miller and Zohran Mamdani beat Aravella Simotas by just under 400 votes). These were significant gains, but most incumbent Democrats won comfortably (e.g., Cathy Nolan, David Weprin and Jeffrion Aubry in Queens and John McDonald and Harry Bronson in Upstate New York). There were fewer State Senate primaries, but in Brooklyn the progressive stalwart Jabari Brisport beat Assemblywoman Tremaine Wright, the chair of the Black, Hispanic and Asian Caucus in the State Legislature, for the open seat long held by Velmanette Montgomery. Moreover, the primary challengers against incumbent progressive leaders failed: Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Mike Gianaris won by 3-1 margins, and Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou won by just under 2-1 against a well-funded opponent.

The gentrifying neighborhoods of Western Queens and Brooklyn’s Brownstone Belt seem to be replicating what happened in Manhattan, the North Bronx and narrow pockets of Brooklyn in the 1960s and early 1970s, when that generation’s reformers defeated longtime incumbents in districts undergoing sharp demographic changes. Today’s progressives can point to these results in legislative districts with great pride, but they have not yet shown the ability to win statewide primaries. Zephyr Teachout (in the 2014 gubernatorial primary and the 2018 primary for attorney general) and Cynthia Nixon for governor in 2018 were not able to win a third of the statewide primary vote. The point is that based on the numbers, the progressive share of the Democrats’ primary electorate is clearly ascending, but in countywide, citywide and statewide primaries, progressive candidates are not ascendant.

2. Did ideology drive the progressive successes or was demographic change the underlying current powering these victories?

Everyone seems primed to view these progressive upsets solely through the prism of ideology. There is a clear ideological thrust motivating these victorious progressive candidates and their campaigns, but in the three progressive wins in Queens’ Assembly races, two of the challengers were of South Asian ancestry and the other was Latina. Progressives are ascending fastest where the demographics in a given district have changed sharply and where vibrant minority challengers step to the fore. It is also worth noting in measuring the developments within New York’s diverse Hispanic communities that after decades of being represented by Hispanic men, Hispanic voters in recent years are voting in more and more Latinx candidates, such as Councilwoman Carlina Rivera, Senators Jessica Ramos and Julia Salazar, Assemblywomen Catalina Cruz, Carmen De La Rosa, Nathalia Fernandez and Karines Reyes—and now Marcela Mitanyes and Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas in the Assembly.

Whether the Democratic Socialists prosper long term or the candidates allied with them fold into the larger Democratic coalition over time, or whether they fade from view like Congressmen Vito Marcantonio and Leo Isacson who did not adapt to the post-war concerns of the voters who originally brought them to Congress, will depend upon events likely unforeseen. Consequently, by the end of the decade, we may come to see these 2020 primary election returns as another page in Gotham’s political history, namely where more than ideology is the driving factor as voters from emerging minority groups demand to have leaders from their communities and a seat at the table where decisions are made.

3. The progressives learned from the Melinda Katz-Tiffany Caban Queens district attorney race.

In the 2019 primary for Queens district attorney, the progressive Tiffany Caban was ahead when the machine ballots were counted on election night. But when the absentee ballots were counted, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz won by a narrow margin. That led to a presumption this year that with the explosion of absentee ballots cast due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the state loosening up on the requirements for voting by absentee ballot, the incumbents would have the edge with absentee ballots. However, when the absentee ballots from the June 23 primaries were counted, the progressive candidates often exceeded expectations, and some overcame machine ballot deficiencies to win in the end (e.g., Gallagher, Mitanyes and Forrest) or did well enough to hold a declining margin once the absentees were counted (e.g., Mamdani and Bowman).

The progressive candidates “flipped the script” and proved they could be effective in securing support from those casting absentee ballots, as those ballots exploded from their usual 4 percent to 7 percent of the total vote to often becoming a majority of the vote in these contests. Thus, the progressives removed what was presumed to be a major tactical advantage for the incumbent candidates.

Beware of those pundits who will argue for or against the progressive pulse, as if actual trends will move overwhelmingly in only one direction. Our state’s political history teaches that we are too diverse along regional, racial, religious, ethnic, gender and now generational divides to move in unison, as those rivalries have always engendered contrapuntal pressures within the body politic. While the past is not always prologue, it is more likely than not that these takeaways could create new, unforeseen and contradictory political forces shaping the future fault lines and hence the energy of our state’s politics.

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