Democrats in Southern Brooklyn: ‘Our Party Didn’t Even Put Up a Fight’
As Republicans look poised to oust veteran Democratic lawmakers, some officials are publicly sounding the alarm about the state and county party organizations.
The red wave that fell short nationally and statewide engulfed Democrats in south Brooklyn on Tuesday, with Republicans close to claiming multiple seats in the Assembly.
Even as Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, beat Republican Lee Zeldin in Brooklyn by 42 points, she lost in Bensonhurst, a neighborhood that Andrew Cuomo won handily four years ago, by 32 points — a 54 point swing. To the east in Homecrest, Hochul lost by 57 points, four years after Cuomo lost it by just 5 points. The rightward swing in those neighborhoods contributed to the likely ouster of two longtime state Assembly Democrats, Steve Cymbrowitz and Peter Abbate Jr.
After voting was done, local Democratic elected officials spoke to THE CITY about the alarms they say they’d raised privately with the state and county party organizations during the campaign about needing more canvassers, literature and resources as Zeldin and down-ballot GOP candidates flooded neighborhoods with signs and made repeated campaign stops.
The Republican candidates and messaging stoked fears about crime and changes to elite public schools admissions policies — issues of particular interest to many Asian voters in the area.
State Sen. Andrew Gounardes, who’s based in Bay Ridge, first won his seat in a tough fight against longtime Republican incumbent Marty Golden four years ago that helped Democrats claim control of the Senate. This time, he told THE CITY, he saw little of the organized get-out-the vote effort that made his win possible.
“Where the hell was the state party? When I won in 2018, there was coordinated lit, there were coordinated field operations, there were joint campaign strategy meetings, there was a plan,” said Gounardes Wednesday, after easily winning his own race in a newly drawn district that extends north into bluer precincts all the way to Park Slope.
“We were literally left to die on a vine here. And it’s deeply frustrating that our party didn’t even put up a fight.”
He wasn’t the only Democrat in southern Brooklyn who’s faced a tough general election in recent cycles to warn about the GOP’s gains this year.
“Over the past decade we worked hard to turn and keep Bay Ridge blue, but the Democratic Party has all but lost big swaths of voters in south Brooklyn outside of Bay Ridge, who are now reliably voting Republican,” said Justin Brannan, a Democratic City Councilmember who barely won his own re-election race last year against the same Republican who just lost to Gounardes. “We’ve been sounding the alarm on these headwinds for years. Maybe now they will listen.”
In southern Brooklyn, several races are still too close to call but have incumbent Democrats on the ropes.
Assemblymember Mathylde Frontus, who represents neighborhoods that include Coney Island and Gravesend, currently trails behind Alec Brook-Krasny, who formerly represented parts of Brooklyn in the assembly as a Democrat but changed his party affiliation to Republican this year.
He has a 797-vote lead in the preliminary count, according to state Board of Elections data as of Wednesday.
Brook-Krasny was first elected to the Assembly in 2006 and served until 2014 before stepping down to work in the private sector. He was later arrested and eventually beat charges that he’d helped a doctor run a multi-million dollar pill mill operation.
Brook-Krasny ran a pro-law enforcement campaign, promising to increase funding to the NYPD and roll back bail reform.
“The message regarding law and order, the message regarding refunding the police, getting rid of cashless bail, those messages were very much related to the voters these days,” said Brook-Krasny. “It’s my experience, my passion, my resume, my record, people they know me. They know I’m a doer, not a talker. I’m looking forward to serving my district again.”
At a watch party on Tuesday, Frontus thanked her supporters, suggesting they were the victims of a larger political shift.
In Coney Island, incumbent Democratic Assemblymember Mathylde Frontus addresses supporters on her likely loss:— George Joseph (@georgejoseph94) November 9, 2022
“People are riding on anti-Democrat support. I understand that,” she said. “That is the way democracy swings in America.” pic.twitter.com/Wbs76vW82M
Abbate, who has represented neighborhoods including Bath Beach and Dyker Heights since 1986, trails his Republican opponent Lester Chang by 668 votes, according to election data.
And Cymbrowitz, first elected in 2000, lost to his Republican challenger, Michael Novakhov, by thousands of votes, data shows. Novakhov is a political novice who co-founded the Russian-language radio station Freedom FM in 2019, according to his campaign website.
Asked about these criticisms in a phone call with THE CITY, Jay Jacobs, chair of the New York State Democratic Committee, said the party did its job, pointing to its spending and its work with unions to get the vote out across the borough.
But the chair wasn’t sure how the party’s resources were split across the borough.
“I can’t remember south Brooklyn as opposed to other parts of Brooklyn,” said Jacobs, describing the party’s spending decisions. “I would say it was probably $150,000 easy in Brooklyn in the last week. And I don’t know what they’re talking about. I don’t think they know what they’re talking about.”
Hochul’s historic win came with the narrowest margin of any Democratic gubernatorial candidate so far this century, and some prominent elected officials called that a warning sign for the party. .
“The state Democratic Party failed the governor, let’s put it that way, and failed Democrats in New York,” Rep. Nydia Velázquez, a longtime power within the party and the city, told THE CITY at the annual SOMOS conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Wednesday.
In the weeks before Election Day, she said, panicked Democrats called on her and others to help get out the vote.
“When people realized that we were in trouble, you saw a lot of engaging and trying to activate our base,” Velázquez said. But if we did the groundwork and the outreach, things would have been much differently” down the ballot.”
Brooklyn Party Chair and Flatbush Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn faced criticism for organizing a fundraising gala for the party’s housekeeping fund instead of embattled candidates last week. In a statement, she lauded Democrats’ federal and statewide victories and defended the party’s record.
“In our combined campaign, we reached out to 1.1 million Brooklynites by phone, mail and on the streets to get our message out and we won,” said Bichotte Hermelyn. “There were parts of south Brooklyn where the headwinds appear to have been too great, but all that means is we go to work to return those seats to the Democratic column in 2024. Thank you, Brooklyn Democrats. The fight goes on.”
‘Not the Type of Engagement We Need’
This year’s losses come a year after Republican mayoral candidate Curtis Sliwa had a strong showing in southern Brooklyn, doing surprisingly well in the borough’s fast-growing Chinese American communities and winning several of the Assembly districts that Democrats lost this week.
Sliwa zeroed in on issues that resonated with many Asian American voters. He promised to keep public schoolgifted and talented programs, vowed to increase funding for the NYPD, and proactively responded to crimes against Asian Americans – an agenda that Zeldin and other GOP candidates continued to emphasize this cycle.
Yiatin Chu, president of the Asian Wave Alliance, a group that endorsed a mix of Republican and Democratic candidates across the borough, said state Democrats failed to invest in and tailor their outreach to Chinese American and other Asian voters.
“Oh my goodness, if you were on WeChat you wouldn’t even know Hochul was running a campaign,” Chu said, noting that the numerous Chinese American activists in Queens and Brooklyn used the popular social media platform to rally for GOP candidates.
Likewise, in the commercial corridors of Sunset Park and Bensonhurst, Chu continued, Chinese American volunteers were handing out GOP campaign literature and putting down lawn signs for Zeldin. But Hochul’s forces had far less of a presence.
“Basically in all of what is considered south Brooklyn [there was] very little. The only thing I really would see is electeds on social media tweeting pictures,” she said. “But if you didn’t know and you didn’t pay attention to that and were just walking along the streets you wouldn’t think that there were Democrats running, certainly not Hochul.”
By this summer, Gounardes said, he was raising concerns about Democrats’ engagement with Asian-American voters with the governor’s team, but their response was limited.
“The governor, to her credit, came down here and did a meet-and-greet with the Chinese community,” he said. “But a one-and-done is not the type of engagement we need. Lee Zeldin has been campaigning here every other week.”
Hochul’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Frank Seddio, Brooklyn former Democratic Party boss and a longtime party executive from Canarsie, suggested that Hochul may have been making a political calculation, refusing to take more punitive stances on crime that may have played well in these areas.
“The progressive vote made the difference. She would have been brought down if she had taken that position,” he said. “I’m absolutely positive that was part of the calculation. Kathy Hochul is a very smart, middle-of-the road person.”
Asked if the state party needed to make a bigger investment of campaign resources in south Brooklyn’s Chinese American and Russian neighborhoods, Jacobs said: “I don’t know specific to the Russians and the Asians in south Brooklyn, what we’ve been lacking in giving them.”
He continued: “But I would say to you wherever we can help any group best we can to get elected in competitive seats, those are the things we do to accomplish them.”