In Queens City Council Race, It’s Billionaire Bullies vs. Bangladeshi Bernie Organizer

Can Stephen Ross and his wealthy cronies stop democratic socialist Moumita Ahmed as she gains momentum in District 24’s Feb. 2 special election?

John Tarleton Jan 28, 2021

Stephen Ross, billionaire real estate tycoon and lead funder of a political smear campaign.

If you like this article, see “She’s Got Mou-mentum” and “We’re in a Race Against Time”: Interview with Hegemony How-To Author Jonathan Smucker.

Moumita Ahmed has lived in a rent-stabilized apartment building in Jamaica Hills, Queens near the final stop on the F train since her family emigrated from Bangladesh when she was 8-years-old. 

Stephen Ross lives in a 8,274-square foot penthouse atop the south tower of the Time Warner Center. It overlooks Columbus Circle and Central Park. Founder and majority owner of the Related Companies and a Donald Trump supporter, Ross recently knocked down the asking price on his home from $75 million to $62.5 million. 

Isaac Ash is the founder of a global apparel manufacturing empire with sweatshops in Asia. He made the New York Times when he paid $18.5 million to move into a 17-room duplex on the Upper East Side that includes a keyed elevator that opens directly onto a private landing with a marble entrance gallery on both floor and a spacious room facing Central Park that could be used for entertaining other high-flying 1 percenters. 

Jack Cayre is a principal in Midtown Equities and a second-generation member of the Cayre family real estate dynasty. Midtown Equities maintains a portfolio of more than 100 properties that encompass more than 14 million square feet. 

For progressives, helping get Ahmed over the finish line would be time well spent as more is at stake than a single council seat. 

Now 30, Ahmed, is a community activist and former Bernie Sanders organizer who played a key role in building his massive youth following. She is running for City Council in a Feb. 2 special election to fill the seat vacated last fall by Rory Lancman. And, Ross, Ash and Cayre aren’t happy about that. 

When Ahmed entered the 8-candidate race to fill the empty seat in District 24 in Eastern Queens, former three-term City Councilmember Jim Gennaro was the favorite to regain his old seat.

However, it’s Ahmed who gained momentum (Or “Mou-mentum” as she is fond of saying),  racking up a slew of endorsements while running as an unabashed champion of working class immigrant communities that have been battered by the pandemic and the economic crisis. 

That was when her fast-rising political campaign collided with the class interests of a trio of billionaires. Since mid-January, District 24, which encompasses Jamaica, Jamaica Hills, Jamaica Estates, Hillcrest, Electchester, Fresh Meadows, Pomonok, Parkway Village, Briarwood and Kew Garden Hills, has been inundated with mailers that denounce “Reckless Moumita Ahmed. No Experience. Plenty of Bad Ideas.” and lift social media photos of her hugging a Bernie doll and flexing a bicep with a Bernie tattoo, as if somehow that was disqualifying. 

As required by New York City law, the top funders of this attempted political hit — Ross, Ash and Cayre — had to list their names on the mailer. Their independent expenditure committee, Common Sense NYC, also sent out a second mailer extolling Gennaro. Altogether Common Sense NYC has dropped more than $40,000 into the race and has raised more than $1.4 million to dump in other city races this year, according to City & State.

Gennaro’s former chief of staff Jeffrey Leb is listed as the treasurer for Common Sense NYC on the mailers. 

Gennaro, of course, is shocked, just shocked by these mailers and has denied any connection to Common Sense NYC’s smear campaign. “I am running a positive campaign and I believe the debate should be on the issues,” he recently tweeted

“Stop hiding behind your cowardly friends,” Ahmed fired back

It’s a tale of two cities where billionaires drop money bombs on communities they have no connection to while a young upstart has to justify $10 and $20 contributions from her neighbors.

Meanwhile, she has had to burn up precious time and energy in the final month of the campaign wrangling with the Campaign Finance Board which initially refused to disburse $140,000 in small donor matching funds that Ahmed thought she had qualified for. The CFB questioned the veracity of her in-district donations, citing concerns about the signatures that accompanied 48 of those donations which came from other residents at her apartment building, many of them fellow Bangladeshi immigrants.

What’s happening in District 24 is a tale of two cities where billionaires drop money bombs on communities they have no connection to while a young democratic socialist has to justify the $10 and $20 contributions from neighbors who have known her for decades. Expect this power struggle to continue in the regularly scheduled Democratic primaries in June when bold millennial progressives and socialists will face off against old guard machine Democrats and their deep-pocketed financial backers who are intent on running post-pandemic New York as they see fit. 

Whether the negative attacks on Ahmed succeed or backfire remains to be seen. 

“When billionaire developers are funding negative ads against you YOU KNOW you’re doing something right,” former gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon tweeted in support of Ahmed.

Early voting in the District 24 special election ends this Sunday and election day is on Tuesday. Ahmed plans to continue her grassroots campaign this weekend with more phone banking and socially distanced canvassing. For progressives, helping get Ahmed over the finish line would be time well spent as more is at stake than a single council seat. 

If Ahmed were to prevail, she would be the first Southeast Asian to serve on the New York City Council. It would launch into public office one of the most talented, charismatic young organizers to emerge out of the Bernie Sanders movement. It would be another jarring defeat for the city’s Democratic Party establishment and its wealthy backers. And, it would further energize the campaigns of dozens of other diverse young leftist candidates who are running for City Council in June’s Democratic primaries when most races will be decided. 

“I have the opportunity to establish the tone of the races in 2021,” Ahmed told the Indypendent. “If I win, then everybody will have to realize that being progressive and having convictions is important to winning the hearts and minds of working-class people.”

Update: As of 2/2, Common Sense NYC has reported more than $221,000 in spending. To see all of its media buys, click here.

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