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Socialists and Big Business Both Lose Bids to Sway State Assembly Elections

Incumbents survived all but one challenge and progressive groups failed to make new gains — while outside spending failed to make a dent. More than $200,000 on one Bronx candidate yielded just 956 votes.

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Bronx Assemblymember José Rivera, defeated after two decades in office.

New York State Assembly

All but one Democratic incumbent in 28 Assembly primaries across the five boroughs were able to stave off challengers in Tuesday’s election — the first in a split primary season that has seen notably low voter turnout.

The results were a setback for the Working Families Party and Democratic Socialists of America, two groups that backed progressive challengers to sitting members and had past breakthroughs in such contests. 

The Assembly races coincided with a primary election for governor dominated by New York’s centrist incumbent: Gov. Kathy Hochul easily won with two-thirds of the vote, with Lt. Gov. Antonio Delgado gaining a lesser but solid 57% majority.

The primary for state Senate and U.S. House of Representatives will take place Aug. 23, after legal challenges and revisions to new district maps prompted delays. Thanks to a separate court case, the Assembly lines will change too, putting incumbents in a more precarious position — but not until the 2024 election.

The sole Assembly member to lose Tuesday was Jose Rivera, who has represented parts of the western Bronx since 2001, after an earlier stint in the city council in the 1980s. The winner was George Alvarez, an information-technology specialist who is no outsider, as the vice president of the Bronx Democratic Party and a member of Community Board 1.

Also losing to Alvarez was Community Board 7 chair Emmanuel Martinez, who benefited from more than $200,000 in mailers, billboards and field workers paid for by a group called Moving NY Forward, funded exclusively by Wall Street electronic trader Michael Jenkins. As of Wednesday afternoon, Martinez had just 956 votes to Alvarez’s 1,860.

Another candidate who attracted large outside spending also lost: In Manhattan, Layla Law-Gisiko, who vowed to block demolition of buildings near Penn Station, came in second in the five-way primary to succeed retiring Assemblymember Dick Gottfried, despite $49,000 spent by a property owner in the Penn project’s path on her behalf. The winner of that contest was Gottfried’s pick, Tony Simone.

Rivera once led the Bronx Democratic Party — only to be ousted in 2008 in the “Rainbow Rebellion,” in which opponents accused him of providing patronage to fellow Puerto Ricans while locking Black and white Bronx politicos out of power. 

Only 4,162 voters out of more than 41,000 active enrolled Democrats cast their ballots in the 78th district primary, with Alvarez nabbing nearly 45% of the vote and Rivera garnering almost 27%.

Alvarez was buoyed by endorsements from U.S. Reps. Adriano Espaillat (D-Manhattan/The Bronx) and Ritchie Torres (D-The Bronx) as well as Dominican local leaders who included including Councilmembers Oswald Feliz and Pierina Sánchez — in a sign of what political observers say reflects the emergence of Dominicans as formidable voting bloc in the west Bronx.

George Alvarez won the 78th Assembly District race in The Bronx.

George Alvarez for NY Assembly/Facebook

“I want to thank the voters of the 78th Assembly District for trusting and supporting me in this journey to build a better Bronx,” Alvarez wrote in a statement declaring victory an hour after polls closed Tuesday night, where he also thanked the incumbent “for being there for the Bronx for so many years, including during its most difficult times.”

Rivera, who remains in the job until Jan. 1, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Alvarez will face Republican Michael Dister, who did not have a primary challenger, in the November general election.

“All credit goes to Espaillat,” said Eli Valentin, a political analyst and lecturer at Union Theological Seminary, who says that thanks to his ability to mobilize volunteers and dollars, the congressman in his district “has more influence than any other Latino elected official in New York.”

Former El Diario editor in chief and current NY1 commentator Gerson Borrero said Rivera’s defeat is a sign of the fading political power of Puerto Ricans in the borough.

“There’s such a thing as overstaying your welcome,” Borrero said of Rivera.

Tiny Turnout

Other challenges failed to dislodge incumbents. In The Bronx, the Working Families Party backed Jessica Altagracia Woolford, a former staffer of U.S. Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, against longtime Riverdale and Kingsbridge incumbent Jeffrey Dinowitz. The party also supported Jonathan Soto, an organizer and former campaign aide to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in a challenge to Michael Benedetto. 

Bronx State Assembly candidate Jonathan Soto spoke outside the Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point, Jan. 6, 2022.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

In Brooklyn, Samy Nemir Olivares, a DSA-backed former Center for Popular Democracy communications staffer who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential election campaign, had the strongest showing of the organization’s slate, with just 200 votes separating him and incumbent Bushwick and Cypress Hills Assemblymember Erik Dilan.

Nemir Olivares’ team, which was also supported by the WFP, banked on a strong ground game and claimed to have knocked on thousands of doors in the district. But the socialist challenger failed to pick up enough votes in the less white, more working class eastern side of the district, where Dilan’s team invested in getting out the vote on primary day. 

Near the Van Siclen train stop in Cypress Hills on Tuesday, Dilan and other establishment-backed candidates had hung large posters around the neighborhood and paid staff scattered over several blocks to hand out flyers to residents walking by or coming off the train.

Samy Nemir Olivares during an unsuccessful 2020 run for City Council.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Dilan’s camp also benefited from a flood of opposition mailers sent by a real estate-funded PAC, which portrayed Nemir-Olivares opponent as an anti-police radical.

Of the more than 47,000 active enrolled Democrats who live in the district, fewer than 5,000 voted for Dilan and Nemir-Olivares combined. 

A smattering of Cypress Hills residents interviewed by THE CITY said they were not interested in the contest, which garnered fewer votes than even low-level races for Democratic Party posts on the more affluent western side of the borough. 

“It wasn’t really on the radar,” said Joshua Vargas, 19, who said public safety on the subway and the city’s housing crisis were his top issues.

On Tuesday evening, the teenager was sporting a navy blue Erik Dilan shirt and handing out literature to residents leaving the train station. Still, Vargas didn’t show up to the polls to vote for the candidate who he said was paying him $200.

“It was just a job for me,” he said.

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