Incumbent Democrats Could Face Reckoning in New York Primary

(CN) — New York’s last primary election produced the political earthquake of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unseating a congressman who served for two decades in the House of Representatives to become one of the most powerful freshman Democratic representatives in memory. 

Defending her seat on Tuesday, Representative Ocasio-Cortez tests not only her own staying power but also the influence of her endorsements in helping make the House lean further to the left.

The Democratic race to watch in that effort is New York’s 16th district, pitting 16-term Representative Eliot Engel against Jamaal Bowman, a longtime middle school principal and advocate of public schools.

Backed by Senator Bernie Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, Bowman’s insurgent campaign caught headwinds from the political establishment with a stunning New York Times endorsement.

“Certainly, Engel is facing a stiffer challenge that he has ever has before,” Daniel DiSalvo, a professor at City University of New York, commented in a phone interview.

Rattling off the factors for Bowman’s rise, DiSalvo listed the Ocasio-Cortez endorsement and the changing demographics of Engel’s district.

“It’s a curiously shaped district including parts of the Bronx and lower Hudson Valley-Westchester,” DiSalvo added. “That district demographically, even the Westchester part, which one could imagine being more favorable to Engel has also changed demographically with a big influx of younger progressive families from Brooklyn, who are certainly in the current moment much more open to an African American candidate.”

For Nomiki Konst, a former Sanders surrogate, Bowman’s rise is a testament to the power of progressive organizing and voters’ reaction against Engel’s disconnect to his district.

“When you look at what happened with AOC and [former Congressman Joe] Crowley, you have a similar dynamic in terms of candidates,” Konst said, referring to Ocasio-Cortez and the 10-term Democrat she unseated. “You had an extraordinary candidate running against someone who — although he had a lot of power in Queens, he was very removed from the district, very removed from the community.”

As the coronavirus pandemic pummeled both the Bronx and Westchester, the congressman weathered criticism for staying in Washington. Engel returned home to speak in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, only for the gesture to backfire when the Democratic leader appeared to be caught on a hot mic announcing — twice — that he cared about the protest because of the primary.

Footage of the gaffe went viral, along with a cascade of embarrassing press coverage that went with it.

Professor DiSalvo believes that traditionally low primary turnout will test how closely undecided voters pay close attention to such reports.

“So it may have shored up support people who are already planning to vote for Bowman,” DiSalvo said. “How many people who were previously Engel supporters would have moved them into the Bowman camp? [The number] is probably relatively small.”

Bowman’s donations surged with in the wake, with the candidate going into the election raising $2 million, nearly half that amount since April 1.

That equals Engel’s war chest, an astonishing haul given the incumbent congressman’s leadership on the House Foreign Affairs committee.

The ongoing protests against police brutality have made waves with other New York races, not only among candidates who — like Bowman — are black.

Bobby Catone, center, the owner of a Staten Island tanning salon, speaks to a crowd outside his business on May 28 after police gave him a summons for defying a pandemic rules requiring nonessential businesses to stay closed. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Over in Staten Island, incumbent Democrat Max Rose marched with his wife and child in a Black Lives Matter demonstration on June 5, a principled but politically risky stand in New York City’s most conservative borough and home to large numbers of NYPD officers.

“Police officers and their families make up a substantial share of voters in Staten Island,” DiSalvo noted.

The New York Post reported immediate blowback from the Sergeant Benevolent Association, a powerful police union known for its vitriolic attacks against politicians who criticize their ranks.

“Why is Max Rose indicting every cop in the country right now?” the union’s president Ed Mullins asked. “That’s what he’s doing.”

Rose, a combat Army veteran, returned fire at what he called the “snowflake” union leader.

On Tuesday, Republican voters will choose Rose’s challenger for New York’s 11th district seat. Trump has backed state Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, and the National Rifle Association recently threw its weight behind former prosecutor Joe Caldarera — a test for the declining power of both endorsements as the president’s poll numbers dip and the gun lobby’s institutional in-fighting.

In the state’s 22nd district, Tuesday’s primary will determine whether there will be a political rematch over a seat held by Democrats only twice in 68 years. In 2018, Congressman Anthony Brindisi wrested that seat from Republican Claudia Tenney, who will seek that seat again against challenger George Phillips. Backed by Trump, Tenney turned down Phillips’ offer for a political debate.

In a poor and blue congressional district in the South Bronx, a pro-Trump Democrat with a history of anti-gay and anti-abortion remarks currently is in the lead

The seat had been occupied since 1990 by Representative Jose Serrano, whose Parkinson’s diagnosis pulled him out of contention this year, leaving Democrats anxious about his potential successor, New York City Councilman Ruben Diaz Sr.

Diaz has characterized the City Council as a body “controlled by the homosexual community” and compared abortion to the Holocaust. When he held a rally against same-sex marriage, his granddaughter organized a counterrally supporting LGBT rights across the street.

“Partly the issue there is there’s so many candidates in the primary and Ruben Diaz obviously has the advantage of being a longtime politician in the Bronx, having held various offices in the past,” DiSalvo noted, adding that the councilman “is very well known, especially to seniors, who are more socially conservative and potentially closer to him on some of the controversial statements.”

New York City Councilman Ruben Diaz Sr. (left) and Council Speaker Corey Johnson (center) speak at a 2018 press conference with Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez. (Courthouse News photo/Amanda Ottaway)

For Konst, Diaz also benefits from name recognition as a Pentacostal minister sharing a name with his son, Rubén Díaz Jr.

“This race is so unusual — I mean this is a district that is more Democratic than any other district in the country,” Konst said. “It’s the most impoverished district in the country, and it also has extremely low turnout generally speaking, and I think that’s because Democrats and other organizations have not put the energy that this district deserves in cultivating a voter base.”

As for the presidential primary, New Yorkers nearly were denied their choice after election authorities canceled the contest following Sanders’ withdrawal from the race as Joe Biden’s only remaining challenger. New York election authorities justified their decision on the coronavirus pandemic. 

When dropping out of the race, Sanders pointedly added that he would continue to add delegates to change the Democratic party’s platform, and he joined a successful lawsuit filed by fellow candidate Andrew Yang to add their names back on the ballot. The candidates won their challenge both in the trial court and on appeal. 

How the newly revived presidential race will affect the down-ballot contest remains unclear, but the New York primary will likely receive higher-than usual numbers of absentee ballots form voters protecting themselves from Covid-19.

New York Board of Elections spokesman John Cochlan estimated 1.7 million absentee ballots had been requested.

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