round two

Amazon Slayer Mike Gianaris Gets a Primary Amid Ongoing HQ2 Fallout

New York State Senator Michael Gianaris speaks with THE CITY in Astoria about his decision to oppose the Amazon deal, Feb. 19, 2019.
New York State Senator Michael Gianaris speaks with THE CITY in Astoria about his decision to oppose the Amazon deal, Feb. 19, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Sign up for “THE CITY Scoop,” our daily newsletter where we send you stories like this first thing in the morning.

State Sen. Michael Gianaris’ vocal opposition to Amazon’s proposed Long Island City headquarters brought him widespread attention and a legion of new progressive-leaning fans.

When the tech giant abruptly canceled its plans on Valentine’s Day, Amazon supporters laid blame directly on Gianaris (D-Queens) and his appointment to a state board with veto power over the project. Opponents of the tech behemoth’s so-called H2Q hailed him as a hero.

Eight months later, Gianaris’ involvement in scuttling Amazon’s New York headquarters has put a target on his back: He faces a likely primary challenge for the first time since being elected to the State Senate in 2010.

Justin Potter, a newcomer to politics and to the Democratic Party, has registered a campaign committee and says he’s exploring a run to dislodge Gianaris, who has held the seat since 2011.

The incumbent says he’s not budging — and points to plenty of friends standing by him.

“We successfully took on the most powerful to bring historic progress to New York. We have more to do and can’t allow right-wing interests to drag us backward,” Gianaris told THE CITY.

The Queens lawmaker will announce his 2020 bid for re-election Thursday night at a bar in Astoria flanked by progressive leaders who galvanized a grassroots campaign against Amazon and sparked a broader leftward shift in New York politics.

Those slated to attend include Tiffany Cabán, whose June near-win in the Queens district attorney primary rocked Democratic politics. Gianaris bucked the county Democratic machine this summer by endorsing Cabán’s insurgent bid over the party’s pick, Borough President Melinda Katz.

Tiffany Cabán addresses supporters on primary election night, June 25, with Sen. Mike Gianaris standing behind her.
Tiffany Cabán addresses supporters on primary election night, June 25, with Sen. Mike Gianaris standing behind her. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Also joining will be state senators in the party who last year dislodged Republican-aligned Democrats in hard-fought primary contests to win control of the chamber.

Their victories boosted Gianaris to become the second highest-ranking member in the Senate, under Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. He then used his position to work for grassroots groups that now stand to help him turn out voters for his reelection bid.

A ‘Very Good Partner’

Gianaris was a “very good partner” in leveraging his clout to push back against Amazon, said Javier Valdés, the co-executive director of Make the Road Action, the political arm of Make the Road NY, an immigration advocacy group.

“I think that’s something that our folks really appreciated— him kind of standing up with us as we’re going up against the largest corporations,” Valdés said.

Jonathan Westin of New York Communities for Change said that Gianaris is the first candidate the grassroots group is endorsing in the 2020 election.

“Mike has taken on the biggest corporations, you know, not only in New York, but I think, around the world. Amazon and the real estate industry combined,” Westin added.

Gianaris said he’s committed to progressive causes for another term and then some.

“While we just brought New York the most productive and progressive session in its history, our work is not nearly done,” he said.

Sen. Michael Gianaris at an anti-Amazon rally in front of City Hall.
Sen. Michael Gianaris at an anti-Amazon rally in front of City Hall. Photo: Senator Mike Gianaris /Flickr

“There is much left to do in our state to combat the Trump agenda, including finally tackling the growing problem of wealth inequality, giving our schools the resources they need to succeed and transforming our health care system.”

Party Hopper

While Gianaris runs on the momentum of his Amazon conquest, Potter, 39, is looking at his potential campaign as a chance to make Gianaris pay for extinguishing the online giant’s Long Island City dreams.

A December 2018 Quinnipiac poll found 60% of Queens voters supported the Amazon deal.

“He did not provide constituents with a fair hearing. That did not happen with Amazon,” said Potter, who runs a business selling decorative branches and dried flowers. “His swing to the far left has been very problematic.”

Active Democrats in the western Queens Senate district outnumber Republicans seven to one, according to state Board of Elections records, almost guaranteeing that whomever wins the primary will prevail in the general election.

With the votes likely stacked against him, Potter abandoned his Republican party registration in February — the same month Amazon decided to abandon its Queens plans. Via his political committee Citizens for Queens, Potter is encouraging others to follow in his steps to switch their enrollment to the Democratic Party.

Until recently, a campaign to get voters to switch parties for next year’s election would be a lost cause, because of rules that would have required re-registration no later than last Friday, Oct. 11. But a law signed last month by Gov. Andrew Cuomo now gives voters until Feb. 14, 2020 — as it happens, the anniversary of Amazon jilting LIC — to make the leap.

Long Island City resident Justin Potter is taking on incumbent state Sen. Michael Gianaris.
Long Island City resident Justin Potter is taking on incumbent state Sen. Michael Gianaris. Photo: defeatgianaris.com

Potter told THE CITY he registered as a Republican in 2002 because the primaries were “more interesting,” but always voted for the Democratic presidential nominee. He even voted for Gianaris in previous elections, he said.

While he filed paperwork with the state Board of Elections in April in order to challenge Gianaris, Potter has yet to make a formal campaign announcement, calling the last few months an “exploratory period.” Citizens for Queens has $2,385.94 on hand, while Gianaris had $352,000 in his campaign account as of July.

Potter points to Gianaris’ going to bat against Amazon and for sweeping rent reforms as signs the incumbent has joined the far left of the Democratic party — or the Democratic Socialists of America, as far as Potter is concerned.

“He is by default the DSA candidate,” Potter said.

The Queens DSA chapter declined to comment on the race, but Gianaris is expected to receive an early endorsement Thursday from the sole DSA member in the state Legislature, State Sen. Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn).

Another ally from the Amazon war trenches says they’re ready for another fight.

“I think when you stand up to a bully, they’re going to come back at you and we fully expect that Amazon and the real estate industry are going to try and go after Mike,” said Westin.

Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Potter had reported no fundraising.

Want to republish this story? See our republication guidelines.