Nearly six months after beating a moderate Democratic incumbent for Staten Island’s House seat, Republican Rep. Nicole Malliotakis is already facing a challenge from an unapologetic progressive raising money from across the country.
Political newcomer Brittany Ramos DeBarros, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America’s Staten Island chapter, pulled in nearly $129,000 in just over two months, with nearly 80% of her itemized donations coming from outside of New York. Meanwhile, Malliotakis notched $358,263 in the first three months of the year, with 63% raining in from beyond the state.
Both Malliotakis and then-freshman Rep. Max Rose attracted millions in PAC support and contributions from national party leaders and donors. The critical swing seat is yet again drawing interest — and cash — from outside the district, which covers all of Staten Island and a swath of southern Brooklyn.
Anti-Malliotakis forces are galvanizing over the vote she cast to refusing to certify legitimate presidential election results, even after insurrectionists invaded the Capitol on Jan. 6. Her vote spurred protests outside her Brooklyn office and the formation of NICPAC, an effort dedicated to foiling her re-election next year.
And upcoming local redistricting carries the potential to spur a serious challenge from candidate far more progressive than one-termer Rose, who lost as Malliotakis’ rode a Staten Island Trumpian wave.
“Instead of trying to court someone else’s base, let’s take the time to invest in expanding and consolidating and strengthening our base. And that has not been a strategy we’ve seen for this seat in over a decade at least,” said Ramos DeBarros, a 32-year-old anti-war activist and Army veteran.
Prior to the insurrection, Malliotakis portrayed herself as a would-be leader of the right’s answer to “The Squad” — the band of young Democratic women of color associated with Queens and Bronx Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Now, Ramos DeBarros, who is shaping up as Staten Island Democrats’ answer to AOC, is the first lining up to take on Malliotakis.
New District Lines on Tap
New York’s 11th Congressional District currently includes Staten Island, where Republicans often win borough-wide races, and parts of some center-to-right Brooklyn neighborhoods. But new district lines expected to be drawn by the Democrat-controlled state Legislature before the 2022 election could give Ramos DeBarros –– and other pols –– a fighting chance.
In January, the Democratic supermajority in the state Legislature reduced the threshold needed to approve recommendations made by an independent redistricting commission from a two-thirds majority to a simple majority. Republicans decried the move as a sign that Democrats plan to create favorable partisan lines for future state and congressional races.
But while new lines may help Ramos DeBarros, other candidates will almost certainly jump into the race if the district extends into more liberal spots like Brooklyn’s Sunset Park or Lower Manhattan, according to Jonathan Yedin, a founder of NICPAC.
“That’s not going to happen until we know what the lines are,” said Yedin, referring to other candidates wading into a Democratic primary. “I think a lot of elected officials want to see what the lines look like before they make that decision.”
Rose, an Army veteran like Ramos DeBarros, is currently working for the U.S. Defense Department as special advisor on COVID-19, making another bid unlikely unless he leaves the post.
If Democrats in the New York state Legislature approve new district lines that go further north of Bay Ridge and into Sunset Park, ambitious politicians like Councilmember Carlos Menchaca, a short-lived mayoral candidate, may see an opening. And if the lines are moved into Lower Manhattan, it would open the floodgates to an array of other Democrats who believe they can juice turnout outside of Staten Island.
A spokesperson for Malliotakis’ campaign didn’t return a request for comment about Ramos DeBarros’ candidacy.
‘We’re the Bench’
Nationally, Malliotakis’ seat is seen as crucial, with Democrats holding a slender six-member edge over Republicans in the House of Representatives and the president’s party traditionally at a disadvantage in midterm elections.
Locally, progressives are seeing an opening in a district where moderate Rose’s two immediate predecessors and his successor hail from the GOP.
Staten Island activists credited the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and his overwhelming win on Staten Island, for galvanizing left-leaning activist groups in the borough to mature. And now, those activists said, there’s more pressure for Democrats to speak their language.
Progressive groups in the district, like Fight Back Bay Ridge, have been organizing marches and political efforts for years now. They’ve also been bolstering other movements, including Black Lives Matter, efforts to stop racist anti-Asian violence and environmental causes.
Among the Democrats running for borough president are Lorie Honor, a co-founder of Staten Island Women Who March and Democratic candidate for borough president, and Cesar Vargas, an attorney and advocate for local immigration issues.
“This is a long game where we’re picking up the mantle where there’s a void in political leadership,” said Honor, who has out-fundraised the party’s pick, Mark Murphy, an unsuccessful candidate for the borough’s Congressional seat nearly a decade ago.
“If there wasn’t a bench before, we are the bench now.”
But some political strategists, observers and activists who spoke with THE CITY said that winning over voters on Staten Island with progressive messaging would be difficult and has no modern equivalent in the district.
“It’s going to be tough because the district results have shown that Democrats can’t win this district with just Democratic voters. We need [independent and third-party voters], which there are about a third of in this district and we need some Republicans to support Democrats,” said Yedin. “That’s how Max Rose won. That’s how [Democratic District Attorney] Mike McMahon won.”
‘Issues are Intersectional’
Instead of trying to court a wide swath of voters, Ramos DeBarros wants to energize Democrats to come out in greater numbers than in the past by committing to progressive policies like a Green New Deal and Medicare for All.
“When you look at Max Rose’s primary where he got 11% turnout of registered Democrats in the district, what that is telling us is that people are hungry for someone who is not trying to be a centrist or right-wing Democrat,” she told THE CITY.
Jasi Robinson, an activist on the organizing committee for DSA’s Staten Island chapter, told THE CITY that burgeoning groups could potentially create an infrastructure for a progressive candidate in a way Democrats couldn’t previously muster.
When she joined the borough’s DSA chapter, leaders were only holding workshops. Now, they regularly execute calls to action, including getting the borough’s district attorney to stop using facial recognition software and organizing a march on Saturday where hundreds turned out to save wetlands on Staten Island.
“The change is that we’re more organized and we see what other allies are doing in other boroughs and we’re using that in our messaging strategies and actions,” said Robinson. “So now you see more groups collaborating than ever before because we realized that issues are intersectional. If it matters to you, it has to matter to me.”