Flush with campaign funds from supporters across the nation, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-The Bronx/Queens) pivoted to community service during the pandemic, linking volunteer tutors with hundreds of children facing learning disruptions.
Homework Helpers was the brainchild of her campaign staffer Jonathan Soto, a public school parent in Throggs Neck. Now Soto, like AOC four years ago, is waging a primary challenge to take on an entrenched Democratic incumbent: in this case, northeastern Bronx Assemblymember Michael Benedetto.
Soto is expected to announce his Assembly candidacy on Monday.
“I’m running because we can’t allow the legacy of this pandemic to be one where we forget all the amazing things that happen when workers come together to serve each other through mutual aid, through commitments to serve our schools and communities,” he said in an interview with THE CITY at Havana Café on East Tremont Avenue.
Soto, 36, aspires to be the latest in a swell of progressive upstarts shaking up Democratic primaries for state legislature, where Democratic Socialists of America-endorsed candidates such as Sen. Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn) and Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani (D-Queens) have toppled incumbents.
He’s launching his campaign with an “insurrection” at the Trump Ferry Point golf course in the district on Jan. 6, the anniversary of the right-wing insurrection at the Capitol, where he will unveil his ideas for the land and the rest of his agenda.
He said his work launching Homework Helpers — which also teaches English as a New Language to adults — helped inspire him to run for an office where he can advocate for solutions.
“As an organizer, as a public school parent, one of the things I know is that as a community, we can organize to solve our problems,” he said. “And we need to clear the barriers at the government level to make sure that those solutions are implemented.”
In an emailed statement, Benedetto said he was proud to run on his record as chair of the Assembly’s Education Committee.
“I welcome Mr. Soto back into the race for the 82nd District, again,” he added. “Our democracy is vibrant when all challengers who feel they can do a better job decide to put their credentials forward and run.”
Benedetto, who has represented Throggs Neck and City Island since 2005, is not the only longtime Assembly incumbent facing a primary challenge.
In Kingsbridge and Riverdale, Jeffrey Dinowitz, who has held the local Assembly seat since 2005, will face off with Jessica Altagracia Woolford, a former staffer for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) who launched her bid in November.
And last month, pandemic folk hero and “TurboVax” creator Huge Ma announced a primary against Assemblymember Cathy Nolan in Queens.
In 2020, all seven candidates for New York state legislature endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America won their elections. DSA — which backed AOC in her insurgent run for Congress — has not yet announced its 2022 slate of candidates. Soto says he will be seeking a DSA endorsement.
Ocasio-Cortez herself has yet to name her picks for 2022 elections. She declined a request for comment through her spokesperson.
In his interview with THE CITY, Soto, who was raised between Puerto Rico and Long Island and has lived in Throggs Neck for nearly a decade, identified as a public school parent first and an organizer second.
He said he plans to center his campaign around education — targeting mayoral control of New York City schools, which he believes should cease when the current authorization from the state Legislature expires next summer.
Soto said he would like to see the City Council control Department of Education matters instead. He described his experiences as a parent and as a volunteer organizer grappling with the multiple impacts of school shutdowns as eye-opening.
From emergency food to providing one-on-one tutoring support, he said, he saw volunteers step up to fill giant voids left by government.
“We have politicians who sell us out, and we’ve been able to improve as a community during the pandemic by partnering with teachers, pastors, parents, faith community and the congresswoman [Ocasio-Cortez] to provide hundreds of thousands of meals to residents in the community and to provide thousands of hours of free tutoring help, which should be services that the state should be providing,” he said.
He described frustration in trying to influence official decision-making during the pandemic — even with his association with the best known member of New York City’s congressional delegation.
“Oftentimes, when we were doing that work, we saw that most of the things that were harming us were decisions outside of our control. So as a public school parent, we felt that we didn’t have control,” he added
He grew frustrated when schools reopened this year without a remote option for most families, and contends that Benedetto, the Education Committee chair — and himself a former public school teacher of nearly 30 years before his election to the state Assembly in 1994 — will be too closely aligned with Mayor-elect Eric Adams on education issues.
Soto also plans to challenge Benedetto’s record on development, citing his endorsement in 2015 of the Trump Ferry Point golf course project — as well as donations to Benedetto of $2,500 from the Trump Organization the year before the deal was inked and $4,100 from Trump Links in September 2015, three months before Donald Trump launched his bid for president.
Benedetto does also check some progressive boxes: he’s a co-sponsor of the New York Health Act, the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, and the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019.
And it’s not the first time Soto challenged Benedetto: In June 2019, he announced his primary run, endorsed by the political group No IDC NYC before dropping out before the end of the year.
At the time, Benedetto said of Soto’s attacks on the Trump-related donations: “I think Mr. Soto is grasping at straws and trying to make something out of nothing. I disdain everything that’s going on these days with Washington.”
In his more recent statement to THE CITY, the incumbent wrote: “I decided the best course of action was to take the funds in question and quietly redirect them towards immigration activists who were fighting the most harmful policies of his administration. Donald Trump doesn’t need his money back, he doesn’t even pay his taxes, and I hope every penny of his past donation was used to thwart his deplorable administration.”
Soto said he abandoned the previous campaign because he launched it amid the unfinished rebuilding of a school in Puerto Rico that was destroyed after Hurricane Maria in 2017.
“This project was not complete by the time the 2020 election was taking place, so I waited until now, and I’m running to help our community retake control of their schools and land here as well,” he said.
Soto, who holds a law degree from Brooklyn Law School, is a liberationist Christian community organizer. He is a former lecturer at Union Theological Seminary and led the mayor’s Clergy Advisory Council under Bill de Blasio for four years starting in 2015.
He said his anti-poverty politics are deeply rooted in his faith.
“My faith plays a large role in the work that I do, in the sense that we are taught to care for the least amongst us,” he said. “We’re called to clothe, feed, teach, and uplift, and most of our attention and focus should be on that.”