Voter Apathy Energizes Longshot State Assembly Candidates
With an eye on AOC’s historic upset win four years ago, candidates challenging the Queens and Bronx establishment are looking for an edge in what’s expected to be another low-turnout primary.
Just a trickle of New Yorkers have cast ballots in three days of early voting so far, 25,995 Saturday through Monday — with turnout overall expected to be low in the first of two primary elections this summer.
And that’s just fine with some outsider candidates who are crossing their fingers that voter apathy paired with disruptive redistricting could help squeak them to the Democratic nomination.
Anthony Andrews Jr., an administrator and instructor at York College in Jamaica, hopes to garner enough votes to unseat a 31-year incumbent, Assemblymember Vivian Cook, who represents parts of southeast Queens.
“We are energizing the base by going door to door,” Andrews told THE CITY. “I’ve personally knocked on over 10,000 doors.”
He’s also relying on endorsements to push him to victory, including municipal workers’ union DC37, more than two dozen faith leaders and even disgraced former state Senator Shirley Huntley, who spent time in prison for pocketing public funds.
“She is quite possibly more influential and more powerful now than she was as a state senator,” he said.
Cook defeated her last primary challenger in 2016, collecting 4,021 votes versus an opponent who received 1,141. Cook did not respond to questions from THE CITY about her strategy to turn out voters.
Have I Been Redistricted?
Search Your Redrawn District and Who’s Running in New York
Last November, less than a quarter of registered New York City voters cast a ballot in the mayor’s race, the lowest percentage since the city started tracking turnout in the 1950s.
Even dedicated voters have good reasons for fatigue to deepen this summer. There’s the ongoing stalemate on Capitol Hill over proposals from infrastructure and student loan relief to guns and the economy. A chaotic year in New York politics saw the resignation of a once lauded governor over sexual harassment allegations and the indictment and subsequent resignation of a new lieutenant governor.
“It feels like the electorate is a little depressed, honestly,” said Susan Kang, a political science professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“Everyone is angry about inflation. In New York City, we’re upset about this budget that passed that cut a bunch of funding from schools. Everything just feels like ‘eh’ and rough,” Kang told THE CITY.
Two-plus years of the pandemic have also worn down New Yorkers and left us “on edge,” she notes. “To use the words I use on my children: We’re not really at our best.”
Following a presidential election in 2020, a ranked-choice mayoral election and City Council races in 2021 and a smattering of special elections in recent months, not only is there widespread “voter apathy” but a general sense of “voter fatigue,” said Christina Greer, a political scientist and professor at Fordham University.
“We ask our populace to go to the polls a lot. And for some people it’s confusing and for other people it’s just like ‘You want me to keep turning out and there’s not a lot of change that I need, so what’s my incentive?’” Greer added.
Enter the return of two separate primary dates, which had been consolidated to a single day in June in 2019, after the state’s highest court struck down Albany Democrats’ newly drawn district lines for Congress and state Senate and brought in an independent special master for a do-over.
Margaret Groarke, a political science professor at Manhattan College in The Bronx, said that asking New Yorkers to vote twice instead of once, dilutes mobilization efforts.
“It makes it harder for anybody who’s trying to get people out, whether it’s getting them out to vote for me, or getting them out to vote for whoever they think is best,” she said.
“It just makes that challenging, and that’s a real obstacle to turnout this year.”
Ester Fuchs, a professor of international and public affairs and political science at Columbia University, as well as director of Who’s on the Ballot, a civic engagement group, agreed the two primary dates will be problematic, but said she believed that it’s minor compared to other issues depressing voter turnout.
“We cannot lose focus on addressing the long-term problems affecting turnout,” Fuchs said. “Too many people just think voting does not make a difference.”
In an age when a few motivated supporters, fired up via social media and other organizing, can outweigh mass apathy, primaries have been the scene of high-profile upsets from candidates outside the mainstream.
Most famously, in 2018 now-Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated the fourth-highest ranking House Democrat, Joe Crowley. Because the primary was contested, voter turnout actually increased over previous cycles when Crowley ran unopposed. Nonetheless, the vast majority of Democratic voters in the Queens and Bronx district stayed home during that primary.
That same year, progressive insurgents such as Alessandra Biaggi and Julia Salazar defeated longtime incumbents, including the head of the Republican-aligned Independent Democratic Caucus, bringing Democrats to majority power in Albany.
More recently in Buffalo, Democratic Socialist India Walton defeated four-term Mayor Byron Brown in the Democratic primary where just 20% of the city’s 106,000 registered Democrats came out to vote. Brown ultimately defeated Walton in the 2021 general election after a rigorous write-in campaign.
Candidates running to the right of left-of-center Democrats have taken notice.
While Assemblymember Brian Barnwell (D-Queens) won’t be running for reelection in the newly reconfigured District 30, covering parts of Woodside, Sunnyside, Elmurst and Maspeth, his former chief of staff Steven Raga is in the race, with a left-leaning agenda and endorsements that include progressive luminaries like lieutenant governor candidate Ana Maria Archila, state Sen. John Liu and local Councilmember Shekar Krishnan.
“The top issue not just in the district, but throughout the city, is housing,” Raga said, noting that he doesn’t want New Yorkers to get “pushed out” of their neighborhoods.
He’s facing off with Ramón Cando, a Laborers’ Union member who bills himself as a “common sense Democrat” and is pushing a message of getting tough on crime.
Cando called recent incidents of violence a “scourge” on the city that reminded many like himself of the countries they left.
“We have to put a stop to it,” said Cando, who was born in Ecuador.
Cando’s public safety rhetoric mirrors that of Hiram Monserrate, a former state senator who served time in prison for taking public funds and convicted of domestic assault, who is now an Assembly candidate in another part of Queens.
Monserrate is attempting to unseat Assemblymember Jeffrion Aubry to represent a district covering East Elmhurst, Corona and Rego Park. Cando said he met Monserrate in 2018 and sees him as a friend who is a dedicated public servant, currently serving as a district leader.
“I think everyone needs a second chance,” Cando said. “And I don’t see Monserrate as a monster that people try to show.”
Door to Door
Meanwhile the progressive Working Families Party is hoping to make inroads in the Bronx, backing two candidates — Jessica Altagracia Woolford and Jonathan Soto — who are aiming at veteran incumbents resembling Crowley: white, male, powerful and comfortable.
Soto is challenging 17-year incumbent Assemblymember Michael Benedetto, who chairs the education committee, in a district spanning Throggs Neck to City Island and Pelham Bay.
He anticipates that low turnout might work in his favor.
“We think our voters are much more enthusiastic about us than Benedetto voters are, especially when they learn about the Trump association,” he said, in reference to campaign donations from former President Donald Trump and family members to the Assembly member at the time that Trump sought successfully to take over the ailing Ferry Point Park golf course in the district.
Benedetto said on Tuesday that he was “embarrassed” to have accepted the donations in the first place, noting that he gave the $6,600 in Trump-tied donations to the New York Immigration Coalition in 2019. He previously brushed off Soto’s critique as “grasping at straws and trying to make something out of nothing.”
Benedetto campaign manager John Doyle said the re-election campaign had knocked on “over 10,000” doors and “anticipate doubling or tripling that by election day.”
The campaign is up against the forces of the Working Families Party, which has a longstanding canvassing operation to spread awareness of its candidates and get out the vote.
“The way that we think of campaigns, we are trying to talk to literally every voter in the district. So we’re constantly making passes, canvassing, door-knocking, on the phones,” said Nina Luo, deputy political director at WFP.
Volunteers for Woolford, who is primarying powerful incumbent Assembly member Jeffrey Dinowitz in Riverdale and Kingsbridge, have either called or knocked on doors for 35,000 voters, while volunteers for Soto have done the same for 55,000 people, Luo said Thursday.
That’s compared to Dinowitz’s re-election campaign, which said the candidate knocked on “over a thousand doors during this campaign year,” according to campaign spokesperson Matt Rey, and 20,000 in all.
Rey touted the incumbent’s “broad level of support,” in a statement on Friday, adding that since the pandemic started the Assembly member and his office “solved over 6,100 constituent cases; held over dozens of events to give out thousands of items of PPE, food, and test kits; passed landmark tenant legislation to keep people in their homes; and made healthcare and vaccines more accessible.”
He added: “Jeffrey’s record of delivering for the North Bronx and standing up to powerful interests on behalf of his neighbors speaks for itself.”
Woolford said she sees the impact of her volunteer ground game — and claims to have reach her rival doesn’t.
“You go to some communities like in Wakefield and Kingsbridge, even some other parts like Marble Hill — I hear a lot from people saying, ‘No one has ever knocked on my door. I’ve never heard from him, and I’ve never seen him,’” she said of Dinowitz. “Or the next response I hear is, ‘I had a horrible interaction with his office.’ And I’ve heard that a lot from people, this sense that they felt dismissed.”