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Progressives Push for City Council Turf Eastward in Queens

Queens City Council candidate Felicia Singh Courtesy of Singh Campaign

The progressive players who helped newcomer Tiffany Cabán nearly notch the nomination for Queens district attorney in 2019 are now looking to win City Council elections in historically conservative central and eastern parts of the borough.

The Democratic Socialists of America endorsed just two candidates in Queens for open Council seats: Cabán, who is now running in Astoria — and Jaslin Kaur, who is campaigning in Glen Oaks and Douglaston near the Long Island border.

The labor-backed Working Families Party, meanwhile, has backed 11 Council candidates in the borough — including Kaur as well as Moumita Ahmed in Kew Gardens Hills and Jamaica Estates, and Felicia Singh, who is running for the seat held by Queens’ only Republican Council member, Eric Ulrich.

These candidates are running platforms centering justice for workers and tenants, establishing immediate rent relief for small businesses, divesting the NYPD’s budget, and implementing the Green New Deal for NYCHA. They’ve also received recognition from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ Courage to Change PAC for committing to a pledge bridging these issues and more.

Candidates and political consultants are viewing these races as a litmus test for the growing strength of the progressive movement in the borough, which helped propel Ocasio-Cortez to national prominence with her surprise 2018 win over longtime rep and Queens Democratic boss Joe Crowley.

Kaur — who is also among the nine Council candidates endorsed by Ocasio-Cortez personally — described her race as “a definite test of what DSA can do and in one of the most tucked away corners of Queens.”

Results from Cabán’s 2019 district attorney contest show a sharp geographic split in the borough, with the reformer dominating in western neighborhoods while winner Melinda Katz, a product of the Queens Democratic establishment, won the east.

“With Tiffany Cabán’s stronghold in Astoria, and my stronghold in eastern Queens, we’re holding the mantle for the two edges of our borough. But I think between us we have so many important races to win,” said Kaur, 25.

The Van Wyck Divide

Since Ocasio-Cortez’ 2018 upset win in a district that includes parts of Jackson Heights and Astoria as well as some Bronx neighborhoods, vocally leftist candidates have been on a winning streak in western Queens.

State Sen. Jessica Ramos won in the same election, followed by Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani in 2020 — both thanks to organized progressive efforts targeting centrist sitting lawmakers.

That same year, Khaleel Anderson, then 24, defeated a party-backed candidate to win an open Assembly seat in south Ozone Park and the Rockaways.

Now those energies are pushing eastward.

The Van Wyck Expressway, which slices through the center of Queens from Corona-Flushing Meadows Park to JFK Airport, is a divider of political values, said Parkside Group strategist Evan Stavisky.

“It’s like the Mississippi River of Queens,” Stavisky added. “East of the Van Wyck is a very different borough than west of the Van Wyck for a variety of reasons, related to housing stock, transportation, income, demographics, and linguistics. So far running as a progressive east of the Van Wyck has posed definite challenges.”

Several candidates, consultants and campaigns told THE CITY they believe the timing is right for an eastward shift.

“The movement has, geographically speaking, not come out this far, but it’s only a matter of time,” said Mel Gagarin, campaign manager for Aleda Gagarin in District 29, which covers Rego Park and Richmond Hill just west of the Van Wyck.

Camille Rivera, a partner at consulting firm New Deal Strategies, said that ever since AOC’s win and Cabán’s near-victory, there’s been “a real path and a space for many progressive and left-leaning individuals.”

Council candidate Moumita Ahmed, who ran and lost against James Gennaro in February’s District 24 special election, said she believes that residents there aren’t necessarily more moderate than the rest of the borough, but that many communities of color just haven’t been heard yet.

“I think there’s a big majority of people here that just aren’t voting and that’s because they didn’t have a reason to,” said Ahmed, who’s running again in the primary election. “It’s just that they’re historically disenfranchised and aren’t able to vote in a bloc the same way other communities have.”

Gennaro campaign consultant Joe Reubens, of the Parkside Group, said that Gennaro and Moumita have “real differences of opinion” and that their second match-up would reflect who was “closest to the will of the voters,” who he described as representing an older, more moderate population. With Gennaro securing over 60 percent of the vote in February, Reubens said the campaign did not expect the primary election results to be “markedly different.”

“Moumita is running a far left campaign which works very well in some parts of the city, I guess we’ll see tomorrow if it works in the district,” Reubens said. “This area is not Long Island City and Astoria and Jackson Heights…. This is not an area that has been overwhelmed by transplants, younger people who are moving in that are hardcore progressives.”

A win for Kaur in her suburban-like area could send an even louder message.

Susan Kang, a political science professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, noted Kaur is “born and raised in eastern Queens, and her candidacy resonates with the concerns that voters in the district have for their own children.”

Sumathy Kumar, co-chair of the New York City DSA, sees a potential Kaur victory as evidence of an effective socialist ground game.

“When I think of Jaslin’s race, I’m like, yes, this is a test. Can we organize this neighborhood and this district? Can socialism win here?” said Sumathy Kumar, co-chair of the New York City DSA. “But in Tiffany’s race, it’s AOC’s district, it’s Zohran’s district. It feels like that district is ready for socialism.”

If Kaur wins, her race would serve as a “blueprint for how to organize and win in other places in districts that are majority people of color and working class,” the people who “need socialism the most,” Kumar added.

Rematch After Bitter Round

Multiple eastern Queens council candidates, including Kaur, Ahmed and John Choe in Flushing, were among candidates targeted for their policing and criminal justice platforms by Common Sense PAC, a real estate-funded independent expenditure group in an effort to stop “socialist approved” candidates.

John Choe is running for City Council in Queens.
John Choe is running for City Council in Queens.
John Choe/Facebook

Some of those same candidates meanwhile found support from labor-affiliated groups and other progressive PACs.

Ahmed, who was among Common Sense PAC’s first targets during the special election, said that the ads highlight the real estate industry’s fear of progressivism and its potential power to reshape the Council on critical issues like land use and development.

“We are presenting a different world. We are not telling people to go back to the normal because for working people the normal did not work,” said Ahmed, who previously worked for former Councilmember Costa Constantinides and for the election reform nonprofit Common Cause. “I think this is a huge opportunity for us to see and create and build a working class City Hall.”

Daniel Altschuler, co-executive director of Make the Road Action, a backer of progressive super PAC Road to Justice, said that no individual race would be sufficient to declare a progressive victory or failure.

He named several western and central Queens Council candidates the group is supporting, such as Shekar Krishnan in Jackson Heights and Elmhurst’s District 25, and Amit Bagga, one of the 15 candidates running to represent Long Island City and Sunnyside’s District 26.

“By electing people like Tiffany Cabán, Shekar Krishnan, Amit Bagga, we’re going to have a strong cohort of independent progressives who are making decisions based on the needs of their diverse constituents, and not out of being beholden to a county apparatus,” he said, referencing the Queens Democratic Party.

Cabán told THE CITY that “our communities have been starving” for the growing movement across the borough and cited her district’s early voting numbers as an example of the expanding electorate. Roughly 20% of early voters cast ballots in a primary for the first time, she said.

“The support we are receiving is going to contribute to a redistribution of power into our communities where it belongs,” Cabán added. “The next City Council will be the most progressive in history, and will have the political will necessary to fight for climate, economic, social, and racial justice.”

Running Against ‘Republican’

Queens may also contribute to further Democratic domination on the Council. Only three Republicans currently sit on the 51-member Council, two from Staten Island and one from Queens. Singh, 32, is endorsed by the Working Families Party and other progressive groups like the Queens United Independent Progressives. She’s a contender in the open race to replace Ulrich, the borough’s sole Republican Council member.

Juan Ardila, 27, is levying a primary challenge against incumbent Robert Holden in Maspeth and Ridgewood. Ardila, who has worked for Councilmember Brad Lander and is currently a coordinator at Legal Aid, said he sees himself as the lone progressive and “only Democrat” in the race.

In 2017, Holden, a registered Democrat, lost to then-incumbent Elizabeth Crowley in the Democratic primary, then won on the Republican line in the general election.

“His voting record only confirms his ideology,” Ardila said.

Councilmember Robert Holden (R-Queens) speaks during a hearing of DoITT officials at City Hall.
Councilmember Robert Holden (R-Queens) speaks during a hearing at City Hall, March 3, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Holden, who counts support from unions such as the Police Benevolent Association, did not directly address an inquiry about whether he’d run on the Republican line.

“The Councilman is not going to lose the primary,” said his campaign spokesman Kevin Ryan, adding that Holden is “pro-common sense” and a “lifelong Democrat.”

After November, it’s possible that the Republican Party no longer has any representation from Queens in the city Council, Stavisky said.

Results for many races may be unknown until mid-July, but candidates told THE CITY they are feeling optimistic about their chances to change the borough and the rest of the city.

“I’m just really excited to make sure that we can win this not just for my election, but to build up this pipeline for more of a progressive class in this part of Queens,” Kaur said. “I feel electric.”

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