left turn

Queens Political Novices Step Up to Challenge Democrats

Zohran Mamdani talks to THE CITY in a Jackson Heights deli.
Zohran Mamdani talks to THE CITY in a Jackson Heights deli. Photo: Christine Chung/THE CITY

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A long roster of progressive political newcomers is targeting Queens incumbents in local and national races — setting off primaries next year for some elected officials who’ve run unopposed for years.

The latest case in point: Zohran Mamdani, a 28-year-old leader in the Queens Democratic Socialists of America branch and a foreclosure housing counselor at advocacy group Chhaya. He told THE CITY he plans to challenge Assemblymember Aravella Simotas (D-Astoria), who was first elected in 2010 to represent parts of western Queens.

“There are a lot of people who have not been represented, there are a lot of electeds who have just cakewalked into office, have never been challenged and never even had their policies and finances scrutinized,” Mamdani said.

“And when people take a closer look, they see that they don’t actually like this.”

Mamdani, whose mother is filmmaker Mira Nair, is one of roughly a dozen new farther-left Democratic candidates in the borough. Most describe themselves as DSA members and are throwing their hats into the ring for the first time.

They say they are propelled by frustration with inaction by elected officials and a desire to move past the status quo to fight for more progressive stances on both the state and national levels.

Taking a Page

Many also say they’re inspired by the successes of the borough’s other political novices who’ve gone up against the Queens Democratic Party, aka “The Machine.”

Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

They cite many of the same names: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, state Senator Jessica Ramos, and more recently, public defender and district attorney candidate Tiffany Cabán.

Nuala O’Doherty-Naranjo is a DSA member and one of three candidates running against Assemblymember Michael DenDekker (D-Jackson Heights). She said volunteering for Cabán and Ocasio-Cortez’s campaigns showed her how to become a fighter for change.

“What I saw from AOC was this idea of political courage … that you have to stick your neck out,” she said. “At this time we can’t let the machine keep rolling on. We have an opportunity for change.”

DenDekker, who was first elected to the Assembly in 2008, said he isn’t focusing on the June primary just yet. He wants his constituents to instead direct their attention to the Queens district attorney race in November, possible impeachment proceedings against President Trump and the presidential primary in April, he told THE CITY.

As for the three other primary challengers lining up against him and other contested races, DenDekker said he is content that “people are getting more involved in politics.”

“We should not allow a small percentage of registered voters to make decisions for everybody,” he said.

Simotas declared herself “one of the strongest advocates for victims and women’s rights in New York,” and planned to continue that fight in the months ahead.

Offering ‘Democratic Options’

Candidates are also challenging Assemblymembers Cathy Nolan and Michael Miller, and State Senator Toby Ann Stavisky.

Newcomer Mary Jobaida is running for the New York State Assembly.
Newcomer Mary Jobaida is running for the New York State Assembly. Photo: Courtesy of Mary Jobaida

Mary Jobaida, 39, moved from Bangladesh to Long Island City in 2001. She said she’s running against 35-year incumbent Nolan with a goal of being a candidate who asks “people what they want instead of imposing decisions on people.”

She said she’s voted for Nolan in the past — because there was no other candidate on the ballot.

“Our government sells democracy all over the world and we do not have the democratic options in our own backyard,” Jobaida added.

Nolan, who was first elected to the Assembly in 1984, could not be reached for comment.

Federal Cases

Left-flank challengers are also setting their sights on congressional races, targeting Reps. Carolyn Maloney, whose district includes parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Roosevelt Island,  Grace Meng and Queens Democratic boss Gregory Meeks.

Maloney faces the most crowded primary, with four announced challengers — Peter Harrison, Lauren Ashcraft, Erica Vladimir and Suraj Patel. Patel is the only one who has run for office before.

“Right now, interest and energy in the Democratic party is surging — and the number of people running for office up and down the ticket is a major sign of that. Policy-driven debate and discussion strengthen our chances of winning at all levels of government in 2020,” Maloney said.

Carolyn Maloney.
Carolyn Maloney. Photo: Gabriela Resto-Montero/DNAinfo

The Queens DSA’s electoral working group has begun hosting forums to hear from candidates seeking their endorsement. Aaron Taube, a DSA leader, said he was “encouraged by the wave of left primary challengers all over Queens.”

“If nothing else it’s awesome that folks are actually going to have a choice at the polls,” he added. “For so long we just didn’t have competitive elections here and I think it’s really exciting that incumbents are sort of forced to bring their records and ideas to the public and the public can decide what they think of that.”

A ‘Hotbed’ of Races

Queens is overwhelmingly Democratic, almost guaranteeing whomever wins the primary will prevail in the general election. Active enrolled Democrats outnumber their Republican counterparts nearly six-to-one in the borough, according to enrollment data.

Political strategist Mia Pearlman said it was no surprise that Queens was a “hotbed of electoral races” given Ocasio-Cortez and Ramos’ recent election, and Cabán’ near-victory in the district attorney primary. But she cautioned the potential downsides of a race with too many candidates, noting that many challengers can dilute the voting pool.

“With each race, the local grassroots grew in number and sophistication, and Queens DSA became a force,” Pearlman added. “Now everyone wants to be the next AOC, which is exciting but obviously problematic. It’s very hard to unseat an incumbent when there is more than one
challenger in a Democratic primary.”

Given gentrification and “shifting patterns of migration,” it’s natural that a crop of challengers are springing up in Queens, said Christina Greer, a Fordham University political science professor.

Gentrifiers are in a “higher economic class, tend to vote more and tend to demand things that community members have gotten used to not having,” she said.

The borough became home to substantially more Asians, Hispanics and Latinos between 2000 and 2017, according to a review of Census and American Community Survey data. Meanwhile, the white population in Queens has decreased.

Betting on Change

Shaniyat Chowdhury is a 27-year-old DSA member and Cabán volunteer running against Meeks because he believes the veteran pol is out of touch with his constituents.

Shaniyat Chowdhury.
Shaniyat Chowdhury. Photo: Corey Torpie Photography

Meeks, who’s held his seat since 1998, said he sees the growing list of primary challengers in Queens as a symptom of a national trend of people becoming more politically aware.

“I think that when you have a president that is threatening your democracy, people want to participate in the democracy,” Meeks told THE CITY. “So they’re out running and want a say, to have their voices heard and so I take it as a healthy thing.”

As for his upcoming primary, he said he’s not worrying about it.

“What I focus on is my job and trying to make sure I’m delivering to the folks of my district,” he said.

Chowdhury, of Jamaica, is betting Meeks’ constituents want change.

“I think we are just tired. Everyday people are just tired of being told to wait our turn, being told to sit down and shut up and let them do the work,” he said. “All that experience has not gotten anything because they don’t live in the reality that we do.”

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