New York City’s municipal primary elections are tomorrow, and across the five boroughs, New Yorkers are saying, wait, there is a mayoral race happening right now, as in this year?
There is, though it is the least exciting mayoral race in recent memory (even Bloomberg’s seemingly easy reelections were more interesting, especially on the Democratic side). Bill de Blasio may be a terrible politician (and, I’m increasingly convinced, an underrated mayor!), but he attracted no serious primary challengers. Barring an unprecedented upset, tomorrow or in November, Mayor de Blasio will get a second term.
What else will a tiny fraction of the city’s population be voting on? If you’re a New York City voter, the city’s campaign finance board produces a helpful voter guide. The local press does its best, too, with Gothamist publishing a guide to the most competitive city council races, and WNYC and Gotham Gazette and CityLimits producing an interactive guide to every race on the ballot. Ballotpedia, most helpfully, has a table of endorsements from major advocacy and interest groups in every City Council race, generally the best way to determine which candidate to support when one doesn’t otherwise have enough information to make a decision—just check your district and see which candidate won the endorsements of groups you trust. (The New York Times, for its part, has been shamefully quiet on the municipal races, only even endorsing five city council candidates in a year with seven vacant seats and multiple competitive races.)
As usual, for most races, the winners of the Democratic primaries will go on to win the general elections. Many will not even face Republican challengers. New York’s primaries are closed, meaning only registered Democrats can vote in them. If you aren’t a registered voter in New York, your deadline to register in time to vote in these primaries was last month. If you’re registered with any party other than the Democrats, you had to change your party affiliation last year in order to vote in tomorrow’s primaries. New York’s municipal elections are held in odd-numbered “off-years” to limit participation, and give more power to organized interest groups and party machines. Outside of the top citywide positions, multi-candidate races are decided by simple first-past-the-post pluralities, with no runoffs, instant or otherwise. This is a ridiculous way to do elections. For obvious reasons, the people for whom this system works are not eager to change it.
With the mayoral race a foregone conclusion—and the public advocate, comptroller, and borough president races similarly predictable—the most interesting and consequential race in the city this year is probably for Brooklyn district attorney, where six people are running to succeed Ken Thompson, who died in office last year. Acting District Attorney Eric Gonzalez seems to be the favorite to win, but because, again, it’s a difficult-to-poll six-person race that will end in a low-turnout election decided by a simple plurality with no runoff, it’s impossible to say who will win.
Nearly every candidate is battling to sound the most progressive. Nearly all of them are saying the right things about reforming the criminal justice system to make it fairer and less punitive. This is a good thing, and, along with the primary victory of Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, a sign of a positive trend, at least in urban politics. But while everyone is trying to sound like a reformer, most of them have similar resumes, including time in the office they’re fighting to lead.
The issue of bail reform has been one of the most contentious. Gonzalez has taken heat for getting donations from bail bonds interests.
The 5 Boro Defenders, a group of pro-reform public defenders, has helpfully graded each candidate on their commitment to ending mass incarceration.
As you can see, if you care about radical criminal justice reform, there are basically two candidates you should be considering: Anne Swern, the only candidate in the race with any experience as a public defender, and Marc Fliedner, formerly with the D.A. office’s Civil Rights Bureau. Fliedner is most notable for leading the prosecution (and winning the conviction) of Peter Liang, the NYPD officer who killed an unarmed man in a housing project in 2014. Fliedner resigned from the office when his boss, Ken Thompson, decided not to seek jail time for Liang.
This race is a very difficult one both to handicap and to vote in. A few months ago, Swern seemed the obvious choice for reformers looking to vote for the candidate with the best chance at winning. She has endorsements from popular, mainstream elected Democrats, including State Assembly member Jo Anne Simon and City Council member Stephen Levin. She’s genuinely good on the relevant issues and her experience at Brooklyn Defender Services gives her relevant experience her opponents can’t match.
But then Fliedner (whose chief campaign strategist is a well-connected local activist who organized for the Bernie Sanders campaign) began picking up a lot of organized leftwing support. Fliedner, who proudly touts his membership in the Democratic Socialists of America, was endorsed by Our Revolution, Bernie Sanders’s political organization. Since then, most of the reformist momentum has seemed to be with him—though, again, no one knows for sure, because all we have to work on is one low-sample size poll, in which Fliedner hit double digits and Swern didn’t.
In the absence of ranked choice voting (by the way, let’s institute ranked choice voting!), it’s hard to say what is the wiser strategic vote, but it might be Fliedner (who, also, just announced that he’s suing Gonzalez for slander).
Meanwhile! There are also Civil Court judicial elections—but only in Brooklyn, where a group of “insurgents” is challenging a slate of party machine-picked candidates. The insurgents are running mainly to make the point that New York judicial elections are a confusing, corrupt joke, and the candidates were selected by a gadfly who asked “friends of friends” for recommendations so it’s not at all clear that these challengers would be, say, good judges. And that is the point, I think, because it’s also not clear that the people backed by the Kings County Democratic machine would be good judges. So... read up on them here, and choose wisely!
Finally, there’s the City Council. All 51 seats are ostensibly up for grabs, a number of members have been term-limited out of contention, and quite a few incumbents are facing unexpectedly serious primary challengers.
In the 18th district, in the Bronx, the odious Ruben Diaz, Sr., is running to return to his old City Council job, because it pays more than his current job in the State Senate. (That is not a joke.) Diaz is one of the most appallingly anti-LGBT politicians in New York or anywhere else in the country. Seriously, he’s scum. He’s also the odds-on favorite to win, as long as he can beat Amanda Farias, who has the support NOW, Planned Parenthood NYC Votes, and various liberal and good-government groups.
Meanwhile, in Queens, in the 21st District, Hiram Monsserrate is running for his old seat, which he also left to go to the State Senate, except Monserrate was then ousted from the State Senate after he was convicted of violently attacking his then-girlfriend. Monserrate also has a history of anti-LGBT politics, and he also went to prison on federal corruption charges. He also might win. Democrats are scrambling to try to stop him, though; John Lewis just recorded a robocall for his opponent, Francisco Moya.
In the 43rd District, in south Brooklyn, Rev. Khader El-Yateem has gotten a lot of press (read about him at Splinter!) for his biography and (trend alert!) for being an unabashed socialist. He still faces an uphill battle against the Democratic Party’s favored candidate, Justin Brannon.
One of the most heated races in the city is also in Brooklyn, in the 35th District, where incumbent Laurie Cumbo may be a victim of the backlash to the rapid gentrification of a largely poor and black community. Tenant advocates and other anti-gentrification activists have endorsed challenger Ede Fox. Other left-wing groups have put their support behind Jabari Brisport—another self-proclaimed socialist—who will face Cumbo in the general election anyway, on the Green Party ballot line.
That’s one race where an incumbent could benefit from the splitting of the anti-incumbent vote—something similar may happen in Brooklyn’s 40th, where two well-liked and qualified challengers are both running to replace a largely absentee incumbent—which is yet more evidence that New York City needs comprehensive and major electoral reform, just like your community probably also needs it, along with the nation as a whole.
In November, New York voters will decide whether or not to hold a state constitutional convention. Such a convention might be captured by monied interests or abused by entrenched incumbents—but it also could be our best chance in a generation to fundamentally reform the way this state elects politicians, if enough people are willing to fight to make that happen.