Insurgent Wave in New York Pushes Old Guard Democrats Aside – The New York Times

It was evident in marquee congressional contests, in a county district attorney race and in numerous battles for state legislative seats: A political sea change has swept New York.

After the count of ballots cast in person last week, insurgent Democrats were poised to topple or succeed longtime incumbents. Many of the challengers are candidates of color; many of the incumbents are white.

Representative Eliot L. Engel, a House veteran in his 32nd year who leads the Foreign Affairs Committee, appeared to be the biggest name likely to fall; he was badly trailing Jamaal Bowman, a black middle school principal from Yonkers.

In the State Legislature, at least six incumbents, mostly male and white, were either trailing or in close races against insurgent candidates.

With nearly two million absentee ballots issued to voters statewide because of the coronavirus outbreak, very few races have been called; county elections officials will begin counting those ballots on Wednesday.

But the machine ballot count made it clear that New York politics is in the midst of a generational political shift, one that has been precipitated not only by the progressive energy and shifting attitudes toward racial equity that have swept the nation, but by the diversity in race, sexuality and gender of the candidates that voters are catapulting to office.

The shift was magnified by the candidacies of two men, Mondaire Jones and Ritchie Torres, attempting to make historic runs for the House: If elected, they would become the first openly gay black members of Congress.

In the South Bronx, Mr. Torres, who identifies as Afro-Latino, has twice as many votes as his closest competitor, Assemblyman Michael Blake, the vice chair of the Democratic National Committee.

And in the race to replace Representative Nita Lowey, who will be retiring after a 32-year career, Mr. Jones, 33, held a seemingly insurmountable lead in a suburban district that is 60 percent non-Hispanic white. His closest challenger, Adam Schleifer, a former federal prosecutor whose father is a wealthy pharmaceutical executive, had outspent him by a four-to-one margin.

Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times

Much of the leftward lurch is rooted in President Trump’s election in 2016 and his re-election bid this year, and fueled by the inroads of Senator Bernie Sanders’s two presidential candidacies, which thrust his democratic socialist ideology and calls for revolution into the political mainstream across the country.

But it was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning primary upset in 2018 against Joseph Crowley, one of the House’s highest-ranking members, which gave voters and progressive groups the confidence to take on entrenched incumbents, especially in New York.

A few months later, the members of the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of Democrat state senators who worked with Republicans, were vanquished in the state primary. And the following June, Tiffany Cabán’s performance in the primary race for Queens district attorney — nearly defeating the party-backed candidate, Melinda Katz — truly crystallized what was to come.


Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

“This moment feels like continued momentum and progress,” Ms. Cabán, now a national political organizer for the Working Families Party, said in an interview. “You can call it progressive, you can call it liberal, or you can call it people who just want a foot off their neck.”

The political shift has also been accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has magnified longstanding racial health disparities, and the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minnesota.

Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party, said that last Tuesday’s elections were a “referendum on black lives” that signaled a political realignment was in progress.

“This was a ‘what side are you on’ moment,” he said.

The early results underscored a national trend in Democratic politics that seems to be playing out in New York, too: Candidates of color are assembling broad winning coalitions that bring together liberal white voters and voters of color. White majority districts can be led by people of color and black candidates if the message is broad, progressive and inclusive, said Sochie Nnaemeka, head of the New York State Working Families Party.

“Voters are hungry for a different type of leadership,” she said.

Nowhere does that appear to be more true than in Mr. Jones’s race in the 17th Congressional District, which includes Rockland County and parts of Westchester County and is majority white and only 10 percent black.

“My story is quintessentially the American dream, and people want to be inspired by their elected officials,” said Mr. Jones, who grew up poor in Rockland County and then went to Stanford University and to Harvard Law School. “When people bring their lived experience with them to policymaking, that process becomes more informed.”

Race and identity politics were not necessarily the only thing driving insurgent campaigns. Most candidates ran on unabashedly left-wing platforms, supporting Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. They hammered their opponents for being absent from their districts.

In Westchester County, a female federal prosecutor, Mimi Rocah, whose campaign was centered on a progressive “Right Side of Justice” agenda, was leading the incumbent district attorney, Anthony Scarpino.

Many challengers had deep ties to their communities: They were teachers, activists, tenant organizers. But race was certainly an underlying factor in many of the candidacies, and it was amplified by the recent civil unrest over police brutality.

During Mr. Bowman’s speech to supporters on the night of the primary, he talked about how black men in America experience “death and homicide and suicide” at an early age. Poverty, he said, was “by design” and rooted in America’s racist history.

“Eliot Engel, and I’ll say his name once, used to say that he was a thorn in the side of Donald Trump,” Mr. Bowman said, referring to the incumbent he’s looking to unseat. “But you know what Donald Trump is afraid of more than anything else? A black man with power.”

In an interview, Mr. Bowman, 44, said he spoke about his experience as a black man in America, and how he worked to help underserved children and families in the Bronx in all parts of the district during the campaign.

“I don’t expect white allies to have the same consciousness of being black in America as me when I first meet them,” Mr. Bowman said. “There is a learning process and a dialogue process that happens.”

The anti-establishment sentiment was also prominently in display in Queens, one of the most ethnically diverse parts of the country and the bedrock of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign.

There, three candidates for State Assembly — Jessica González-Rojas, who is of Paraguayan and Puerto Rican descent; Jenifer Rajkumar, who is Indian-American; and Zohran Mamdani, who is from Uganda and is of Indian descent — were all beating white incumbents as of Tuesday.


Credit…Desiree Rios for The New York Times

Bruce Gyory, a Democratic political consultant, said young, energetic candidates of color were successfully fusing left-wing activism with the changing demographics of Queens.

“I’m not saying the political philosophy is unimportant, but the kindling for this fire is demographic,” Mr. Gyory said.

Matt Thomas, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, which backed Mr. Mamdani’s campaign, credited the group’s success to ideology, not demographics or race.

“People are starting to realize there is a whole different set of values and philosophy of progressivism,” he said. Still, none of the group’s five candidates this election cycle were white.

One of the group’s tactics was to engage minority communities that had long been marginalized. Mr. Mamdani’s campaign crafted mailers and policy proposals to target Astoria’s Muslim and South Asian communities.

The group’s organizing tactics have also been sharpened with each successive election season, and its fund-raising has become more robust following its earlier successes.

The momentum of left-leaning minority candidates could spill over into New York City’s citywide 2021 election. Jumaane Williams, the public advocate, who is black, is being urged by some to reconsider his pledge to not run for mayor next year.

Other mainstream Democrats such as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the No. 5 Democrat in the House, may also face insurgent candidates of color.

In 2018, Mr. Cuomo easily turned back Cynthia Nixon’s Democratic primary challenge; Charlie King, a longtime Democratic operative and a former senior campaign adviser to Mr. Cuomo, said that the governor and Mr. Jeffries most likely had little to worry about.

“When predators are at the watering hole looking for wildebeest or elephants to eat they don’t go after the strong ones; Hakeem the elephant and Cuomo the elephant have tusks,” Mr. King said. “The Engel elephant — who was very powerful in his day — had three legs.”