Primary Primer: A Voter’s Guide to Some of the Most Hotly Contested Races on the NY Ballot

Issue 256

John Tarleton Jun 15, 2020

New York is a one-party city where elections are almost always determined in the Democratic primary. Until 2018 these primaries were a yawn. Incumbents rarely faced a serious challenge and served as long as they pleased, often passing their seat on to a carefully groomed successor. Not anymore!

In 2020 incumbents are under siege like never before from the left and also from the right in the case of some of the leftists who won big in 2018. The 12 races chronicled here only scratch the surface of contested primaries taking place up and down the ballot on June 23. If you see a candidate that inspires you, look up their campaign website or Twitter feed and get involved. Coming together with other like-minded folks to replace elected officials who don’t share your values with those who do is how we turn the power of mass protest into the power to pass new laws and change institutions. For more on how to cast a ballot, see

New York Presidential Primary

New York’s June 23rd presidential primary offers one last chance for Bernie backers to make a statement and vote for their guy before his candidacy flickers out. Ten other candidates will be on the ballot including Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Mayor Pete and Andrew Yang. Only quick action by Yang’s lawyers saved the primary from being canceled last month by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his minions at the New York State Board of Elections.


Congressional District 15
Samelys López
  Ritchie Torres  Ruben Diaz Sr • Melissa Mark-Viverito • Ydannis Rodriguez

Samelys López.

Despite the AOC effect, congressional seats in New York still rarely turn over. So when Jose Serrano’s announced he was retiring, it set off a free-for-all for the Bronx congressional seat he has held since 1990.

Samelys López, a former Serrano aide and community organizer, has consolidated the left lane in this race with backing from AOC, Bernie Sanders and the DSA among others and is hoping for a late burst.

Ruben Diaz Sr.

The one poll taken so far in the race shows the López lagging behind two well-known City Councilmembers, real estate industry darling Ritchie Torres and Ruben Diaz Sr., a notorious homophobe and all-around cretin who once claimed the City Council he serves on is run by the “homosexual community” and who refused to attend a Council-mandated Me Too training because, he explained, he would never “rat out” another man who engaged in sexual harassment. Former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (East Harlem) and Councilmember Ydannis Rodriguez (Washington Heights) are also running. Neither lives in the district and their campaigns have failed to gain traction.

Congressional District 16
Northern Bronx/Southern Westchester County
Eliot Engel • Jamaal Bowman

Jamaal Bowman.

Many candidates are going out of their way during the pandemic to organize and deliver relief supplies to hard-hit residents of their districts and to be seen doing so. Not Eliot Engel. Since March the 16-term incumbent has mostly holed up in his Potomac, Maryland home while his majority-minority district that encompasses northern Bronx and southern Westchester County was decimated by COVID-19. Shamed into coming back to his district, he was then caught on a hot mic during a press conference in the Bronx following the George Floyd killing saying “I wouldn’t care except that I have a primary.”

Eliot Engel.

While Engel can’t seem to get out of his own way, Jamaal Bowman, a Bronx middle school principal who backs Medicare for All, a Green New Deal and a sweeping criminal justice overhaul, continues to soar. He has been endorsed by a slew of progressive groups and elected officials who sense he can replicate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 upset victory over 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley. As an educator, Bowman has played a prominent role in opposing standardized testing and would be a powerful voice in Congress for groups that oppose top-down, corporate school reforms that have alienated teachers, parents and students across the country.


Julia Salazar. Photo: Photo: Erik Rist.

Senate District 25
Bed-Stuy/Clinton Hill/Fort Greene/Boerum Hill + parts of Park Slope/Gowanus/Red Hook
Jabari BrisportTremaine Wright Jason Salmon

Jabari Brisport.

It’s outsider vs. insider in the race to replace 35-year incumbent Velmanette Montgomery in this Brooklyn Senate district. Jabari Brisport is a public school teacher and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) who has hundreds of volunteers working on his campaign. He also has out-fundraised his opponents while relying on small-dollar donations.

Tremaine Wright.

Tremaine Wright is an incumbent Assemblywoman in Bed-Stuy backed by Montgomery and the Brooklyn party machine. Former Montgomery staffer Jason Salmon is also running as a “practical progressive.” With support from Councilmember Carlos Menchaca, he could do well in Sunset Park and Red Hook. Brisport, meanwhile, will benefit from having a pair of DSA candidates running in assembly districts that overlap with his.

Assembly District 43
Crown Heights/Prospect Lefferts Gardens
Diana Richardson • Jesse Hamilton

Diana Richardson.

Incumbents can get away with a lot. Sometimes they think they can get away with anything. In early 2017, then-state Sen. Jesse Hamilton decided to join the Independent Democratic Conference, a rogue group of Democratic senators in Albany who allied with Senate Republicans in return for perks.

Jesse Hamilton.

This act of treachery came shortly after Trump’s inauguration when his Central Brooklyn constituents were burning with resistance fervor. For his turncoat ways, they rose up and threw Hamilton out of office in a 2018 primary. His successor, Zelnor Myrie, has been a progressive stalwart in Albany the past two years. Rather than seek a rematch against Myrie, Hamilton is challenging Diana Richardson, a two-term incumbent who has consistently been one of the most progressive members of the Assembly. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and former Brooklyn party boss and shameless courthouse grifter Frank Seddio are rumored to be backing Hamilton’s comeback run against Richardson who is known for bucking the machine. Myrie has Richardson’s back in the race. And hopefully her constituents will as well.

Assembly District 57
Fort Greene/Clinton Hill/Prospect Heights/parts of Crown Heights & Bedford-Stuyvesant
Phara Souffrant Forrest • Walter Mosley

Phara Souffrant Forrest.

Nurses have been on the frontlines of the pandemic. In Phara Souffrant Forrest, voters in Assembly District 57 now have the chance to put a union nurse and tenant activist on the frontlines of the state Assembly where officeholders mostly come up through the ranks of lawyers and political staffers — officeholders like Walter Mosley, who was a legislative staffer before succeeding Hakeem Jeffries in 2012 when the latter moved on to Congress.

Walter Mosley.

Souffrant Forrest, a democratic socialist, is leaning on the legions of volunteers DSA can mobilize to turn out younger and more irregular voters on her behalf. To bring out older party regulars, Mosley can count on the support of the Progressive Association for Political Action Democratic Club, which is run by his mother Marilyn Mosley.

Assembly District 51
Sunset Park/Red Hook
Félix Ortiz • Marcela MitaynesGenesis Aquino • Katherine Walsh

Félix Ortiz.

Félix Ortiz has quietly amassed power during his 25 years in the state Assembly and these days is a member of the inner circle round Speaker Carl Heastie. In 2000, Ortiz passed the first legislation in the U.S. banning motorists from driving while using hand-held cell phones. Later, to much derision, he tried to push legislation that would have barred restaurants from using salt. This year the consummate insider finds himself challenged by three outsiders, all women running to his left who say they are unimpressed by his bland leadership.

Marcela Mitaynes.

Marcela Mitaynes is a tenant organizer in Sunset Park whose family lost their apartment to a predatory landlord. She’s led groups of predominantly working-class immigrant tenants to Albany for many years to plead with their legislators to overhaul the state’s rent laws. One of the legislators she would lobby was Félix Ortiz. Now the Peruvian-born immigrant is running for Ortiz’s job with the support of the DSA and many of the tenants she has organized with over the past 14 years.

Also running is Genesis Aquino, a community and tenant organizer backed by the New Kings Democrats and the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats. She emigrated from the Dominican Republic when she was 11 and became a U.S. citizen in 2014. She’s calling for the abolition of ICE. Katherine Walsh, a third challenger, is an urban planner, community board member and green energy expert who has spent the past 10 years working with hundreds of city and state governments across the U.S. on climate planning.

Assembly District 50
Joseph Lentol • Emily Gallagher

Joseph Lentol.

Three generations of Lentols have held the Assembly seat in Greenspoint/Williamsburg almost continuously since 1918, including Joseph Lentol who inherited the family business in 1972. From his perch in the Assembly leadership, Lentol has been a reliable defender of real estate interests and a shill for tech titans such as Airbnb and Lyft. He wrote legislation on Airbnb’s behalf to overturn city laws on short-term rentals and has received lavish support from a Lyft-backed astroturf group that opposes collective bargaining rights for exploited gig workers who don’t have the same job security as Lentol.

Emily Gallagher.

Lentol’s first serious primary opponent in decades is Emily Gallagher, 36, a socialist who has used her position on the local community board to fight gentrification and rally opposition to a natural gas pipeline being built in her community. Gallagher was passed over for a DSA endorsement as the group wanted to focus its work in predominantly people of color communities. She is backed by Zephyr Teachout, New York Communities for Change and the New Kings Democrats, a reform group that opposes the Brooklyn party machine. One sign she’s making Lentol sweat is that amid the George Floyd protests he forked over some of his recent police union donations to a protester bail fund after taking dirty cop money for decades.

Senate District 18
Greenpoint/Williamsburg/Bushwick/Cypress Hills
Julia Salazar Andy Marte

Andy Marte.

The New York State Senate passed a raft of progressive legislation in 2019 including rent law reforms, groundbreaking climate legislation and laws guaranteeing a woman’s right to choose and banning gay conversion therapy. First-term Senator Julia Salazar was right in the thick of all that and more. Her well-funded opponent Andy Marte is a former Trump supporter promising a “return to reason.” He’s looking to rally older, more conservative Democrats in the district who never supported Salazar, a democratic socialist, and hope that Salazar’s legions of young supporters forget to show up.


Congressional District 14
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez • Maria Caruso-Cabrera


Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has made a lot of enemies in the ruling class so surprise, surprise she’s facing a primary challenge from a Wall Street-backed opponent. Her name is Maria Caruso-Cabrera, a former Republican and CNBC television host who lived for years in a $15,000-per-month apartment at the Trump International Hotel & Tower before moving to Sunnyside, Queens late last year to run for AOC’s seat.

Maria Caruso-Cabrera.

Caruso-Cabrera has raised more than $1 million from her wealthy friends to wage a scorched-earth campaign. With working-class residents of the district devastated by COVID-19 and sky-high unemployment, AOC’s campaign isn’t leaving anything to chance, mounting a massive outreach effort to remind her supporters to cast their ballots.

Assembly District 36
Astoria/Astoria Heights
Zohran Mamdani • Aravella Simotas

Zohran Mamdani.

The DSA has rocked Queens Democratic Party politics twice in the past two years, first by backing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her 2018 primary victory and then in 2019, helping public defender Tiffany Cabán come within 55 votes of being elected Queens District Attorney. In 2020, the DSA is only contesting one race in Queens, a primary in Assembly District 36 between 10-year incumbent Aravella Simotas and DSA-member and home foreclosure counselor Zohran Mamdani who is running on a platform that includes housing justice, defunding the police and a public takeover of utilities. When he recently tweeted about Simotas taking police union money while also proclaiming support for Black Lives Matter, she announced she was giving the money away to a protester bail fund seven minutes later.

Aravella Simotas.

Western Queens delivered large majorities to both Cabán and AOC but only Cabán has endorsed him. Why not AOC? Here’s a guess. Simotas’s close ally Michael Gianaris is the number two Democrat in the state Senate. Next year when census results are in and the state legislature redraws congressional lines, Gianaris will have an important say in how the legislature reshapes congressional districts, including AOC’s.


Congressional District 12
Carolyn MaloneySuraj PatelPeter Harrison • Lauren Ashcraft

Carolyn Maloney.

Carolyn Maloney is liberal on social issues while taking piles of Wall Street and real estate industry cash. She has also flirted with anti-vaxxer tropes in the past. This year she faces a trio of challengers running to her left. Her opponents include Suraj Patel, a former Obama administration official and professor of business ethics who supports Medicare for All. Patel is back for a second bite at the apple after cracking 40 percent in a below-the-radar run against Maloney in 2018 that may be best remembered for his campaign directing volunteers to recruit potential voters by catfishing them on dating sites such as Tinder, Grindr and Bumble.

Suraj Patel.

Patel is joined in 2020 by housing activist Peter Harrison who is currently on rent strike and financial analyst and comedian Lauren Ashcraft who is emphasizing climate action in a district that stretches along the East River from below the Williamsburg Bridge to 96th Street. A divided field will likely benefit Maloney who can win even if she slides below 50 percent.


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