Home Foreclosure Specialist Aims to Take Fight For Housing & Racial Justice from Astoria to Albany

Zohran Mamdani is harnessing thousands of small-dollar donations and grassroots power ahead of June 23's Democratic primary in the race to represent Assembly District 36.

John Tarleton Jun 19, 2020

Burdened by soaring rents and gentrification, voters in state Assembly District 36 in northwestern Queens have swung dramatically to the left in recent years.

In 2018, they helped flip a congressional seat to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Last year, Tiffany Cabán carried nearly 75 percent of the vote in AD 36 in her near-miss run for Queens District Attorney. This year, Zohran Mamdani hopes to ride a similar wave of support all the way from Astoria to Albany. 

A 29-year-old foreclosure prevention counselor, Mamdani is running against five-term incumbent Assemblymember Aravella Simotas, a conventional Democrat, who has tried to adjust with the times. She has promised that she would no longer take real estate industry money and recently disavowed the support of law enforcement unions whose money she had previously taken. 

‘Our platform is first and foremost to reduce the power and the presence of the police.’

Mamdani, the son of acclaimed Marxist scholar Mahmood Mamdani and Oscar-nominated film director Mira Nair, is backed by the Democratic Socialists of America. He has also been endorsed by Zephyr Teachout, Cynthia Nixon and State Senator Julia Salazar while Ocasio-Cortez has steered clear of the race.

He argues the district needs an activist representative who will unabashedly fight the moneyed special interests that dominate New York State government. As a proof of theory, he is waging an intensive grassroots campaign, raising $120,000 as of early June from more than 3,500 donations while Simotas has raised $220,000 from 260 donations. During Ramadan, Mamdani provided more than 12,000 meals to the district’s Muslim residents as a part of a mutual aid initiative.

Mamdani recently spoke with The Indypendent about the race. With the George Floyd protests raging in the streets, the future of policing and criminal justice reform was much on his mind.

Can you tell us something about yourself as to why you are running?

I am a foreclosure prevention housing counselor. I work with immigrant families across Queens who are facing evictions from their long-time family homes and I’m also a tenant here in the neighborhood.

This campaign is really built around homes, ensuring every New Yorker has a place to live. We can do this by passing a homes guarantee, which would make housing a right rather than something you can access through the market. We have built this campaign around housing, around justice and around public control of our energy system. 

I spent many months working on Tiffany Cabán’s campaign. One of the main pillars of the work that we’re doing is to take her vision for decarceration and real criminal justice reform and bring it from Astoria all the way to Albany. 

The George Floyd protests have underscored the crisis of policing in this country. Is it fair to say that your solution is less about trying to make the police nicer and more about minimizing their presence in people’s lives?

Absolutely. A lot of times when an institution is faced with a serious critique, the answer is to try and reform. When Black Lives Matter initially began, we saw so many calls from people saying we need body cameras, we need implicit bias training. But look at Minneapolis and Minneapolis police reform. They were held up as a success story in implementing those reforms. And where did it get us? They still took George Floyd’s life. 

It just shows that we need to fight for a solution that does not increase funding to the police under the auspices of reform. We need to fight for a solution that radically reshapes how we provide and sustain safety and that does not require police officers to be armed and responding to everything from a homeless person in the subway to someone having a mental breakdown in their home. 

What kind of policing and criminal justice reforms would you like to see?

Our platform is first and foremost to reduce the power and the presence of the police. In terms of the NYPD’s budget, that’s primarily decided upon by the New York City Council. But we’ve made it very clear that we as a campaign and as a movement here in Astoria are in favor of defunding the NYPD by at least $1 billion this year. 

We are also in favor of taking moves to reduce police presence and interactions in peoples’ lives — decriminalize sex work, end cash bail, ban solitary confinement, pass elder parole. We need to think about more imaginative ways that we can resolve this crisis of policing that we’ve been facing for decades and change the way that we understand how to create safety and how to sustain it.

Your primary opponent recently donated $5,350 in campaign contributions from police unions to a protester bail fund. How did you succeed in pressuring her to flip like this?

Prior to this outbreak of protests, we had noticed in the first filing period that Assemblymember Simotas had taken money from corrections unions that were against the closing of Rikers Island and we had been speaking out about it. 

On May 29, we sent out a tweet that made it clear to people why it is so difficult to cut police budgets, change cash bail and change the laws to hold crooked cops accountable. We said that the reason is the enormous political power of the police and at a bare minimum you have to break that power. A minimal first step is to refuse their money. 

We outlined how Assemblymember Simotas had received thousands of dollars from these unions. Amid the mass protests on May 30, we made it very clear that the police unions, which have contributed over $10,000 dollars to her, oppose all of the major reforms that are being proposed right now including repealing law 50-a, which bars the release of police disciplinary records. And then within seven minutes she tweeted that she would return $5,350 from police affiliated groups to the New York City Bail Fund.

What do you attribute that to?

I attribute that to a primary. I think that frankly the NYPD has been brutalizing black and brown people across this city for years, for far longer than my opponent has been in office. To give back the money just from this re-election cycle speaks to a changing of calculus by my opponent in terms of deeming this money as tainted. But frankly, if you think this money is tainted in this moment, which it is, then all money you’ve received from similar donors is tainted because they’ve all been extracted from the beating of black and brown bodies across this city and across this state.

You are a part of a slate of democratic socialist candidates running for state and federal office this cycle who all come from non-traditional candidate backgrounds. What is that like?

Running can very often be a very lonely task. So it’s lovely to be a part of a slate. Too often we have seen candidates and politicians not representative of the breadth of experiences across the city and across the state. It’s high time that we have a slate of candidates just like ourselves that not only look like the city, but who have also worked on and experienced how this city is. It’s a beautiful place to live but also one that can break you down and we are trying to ensure that it does not do that any longer.

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