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City Council Races to Watch

Issue 264

John Tarleton Jun 11

The mayor’s race dominates the headlines, but every city office is on the ballot this year including all 51 city council seats. The winners of most of these races will be determined in the June 22 democratic primary. Thanks to term limits, there are 35 open city council seats. Altogether, hundreds of candidates are running including a six-person slate backed by the Democratic Socialists of America. If elected, they have vowed to act in concert as a squad which will greatly increase their power to set an agenda that moves the rest of the council to the left.

Because New York is a one-party town you get all types competing in the primary — democratic socialists, progressives, conventional machine candidates and a sprinkling of cranky conservatives who sound like they would be more at home at a MAGA rally. It’s a lot to keep track of. Here’s a guide to some of the key races with endorsements to consider when filling out your ranked choice ballot. For more of our primary coverage, visit this page.

DISTRICT 1
BATTERY PARK CITY • FINANCIAL DISTRICT TRIBECA • CHINATOWN • LOWER EAST SIDE SOHO • WASHINGTON SQUARE

Top Choices
CHRISTOPHER MARTE
2) JENNY LAM LOW

Gigi Li

Big Real Estate eyes this Lower Manhattan district like a wolf looks at a lamb chop. And it’s helped itself to a feast over the past 12 years with an assist at every turn from Margaret Chin. Over frequently fierce community opposition, the former Maoist-turned-developer friendly councilmember has supported NYU’s Mercer Street mega-redevelopment, mega-towers on the Two Bridges waterfront, the proposed destruction of the Elizabeth Street Community Garden, the SoHo rezoning and the Governor’s Island rezoning. Chin also supports building a new jail in Chinatown as a part of a plan to close Rikers Island.

Chin’s Chief of Staff Gigi Li is running as Chin’s heir apparent. She has also been endorsed by Andrew Yang. Li ran for Sheldon Silver’s former Assembly seat in 2016 and lost.

Christopher Marte

Jenny Lam Low, an aide to Council Speaker Corey Johnson with a long history in Chinatown, has raked in more than 20 union endorsements and has the support of Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou (who defeated Li in that 2016 Assembly race), Congresswoman Nydia Valasquez and neighboring Councilmember Carlina Rivera.

“In the past our differences have always been used to pit us against each other,” says Christopher Marte who narrowly missed capitalizing on Chin fatigue in 2017, losing to her in the Democratic primary by only 222 votes. He’s back this time with support from a number of progressive downtown political clubs and the Chinatown Working Group, an unstinting critic of Chin’s pro-development stances. A victory for Marte would mark a clean break with the Chin era.

DISTRICT 2
LOWER EAST SIDE • ALPHABET CITY EAST VILLAGE • UNION SQUARE GRAMERCY • MURRAY HILL • KIPS BAY

Top Choice
ERIN HUSSEIN

Carlina Rivera

The battle over the future of East River Park is dominating this race. Incumbent Carlina Rivera carries the baggage of having backed Mayor de Blasio’s plan to demolish the 58-acre park and its nearly 1,000 mature trees in order to build a new park atop 8 feet of landfill. Opponents of the park demolition are calling for an earlier plan to be revived that would keep 70% of the park intact but inconvenience motorists on the adjacent FDR Drive.

Erin Hussein

Erin Hussein, a longtime tenant association leader, belatedly jumped into the race in February. She’s raised enough money to run a viable campaign and is willing to listen to her constituents, something Rivera has shown little interest in doing. Hussein is also keenly interested in helping her district’s many pandemic-battered small businesses bounce back. Rivera has the money, the endorsements, the name recognition and is thought to be a frontrunner to be the next Council speaker. But as was the case with Margaret Chin in 2017 (See District 1), the betrayal felt by many of Rivera’s constituents may make this race closer than expected.

DISTRICT 7
MANHATTAN VALLEY • MANHATTANVILLE MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS HAMILTON HEIGHTS

Top Choices
MARIA ORDONEZ
2) MARTI-ALLEN CUMMINGS

3) DAN COHEN

Marti-Allen Cummings

Stretching along the west side of Manhattan from 96th to 162nd Street, this uptown district embodies the diversity and the disparities of the city at large. With outgoing councilmember Mark Levine running for Manhattan Borough President, 15 candidates are vying to replace him. Tenant lawyer Shaun Abreu is Levine’s anointed successor. He also has the backing of local Congressman Adriano Espaillat and his Dominican machine.

Maria Ordonez

Three progressive candidates are also in the race. Drag queen/community activist Marti-Allen Cummings has received three times as many donations as any other candidate and has been endorsed by State Senators Julia Salazar and Alessandra Biaggi among others. At 21, former Bernie organizer Maria Ordonez would be the youngest City Councilmember in NYC history and is eager to bring the “political revolution” to her corner of New York. She quickly qualified for the maximum $160,000 in public matching funds available to qualifying candidates. Her endorsers include Our Revolution, Black Lives Caucus, The Jewish Vote, Progressive Women of CUNY and PSC-CUNY. Affordable housing advocate Dan Cohen has the backing of Zephyr Teachout and State Senator Robert Jackson. For any one of the three progressives to win, their supporters will need to support the other two via ranked choice voting.

DISTRICT 9
CENTRAL HARLEM • EAST HARLEM

Top Choice:
KRISTIN RICHARDSON JORDAN

Kristin Richardson Jordan

In 2017, Bill Perkins regained his former City Council seat after a decade in the State Senate. He then pretty much vanished amid repeated rumors that his physical and mental health have declined. Kristan Richardson Jordan is the most exciting of the 15 candidates vying to succeed Perkins. A self-described “3rd gen Black LGBTQ revolutionary on a mission to disrupt district 9 with radical love,” she is a poet, author and activist who founded an independent publishing house and was active in Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. KRJ is one of only two candidates to raise the maximum $160,000 in public funding and has received endorsements from City Councilmember Brad Lander, the Black Women’s March, the Sunrise Movement and the Stonewall Democrats of NYC. She would bring a fresh burst of movement energy to a seat that has been neglected for the past four years.

Bill Perkins

Other leading contenders of a more conventional bent are former Perkins Chief of Staff Cordell Cleare, Athena Moore, an aide to Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and Mario Rossler, a partnership manager at LinkedIn and former co-chair at the New York Young Leadership Board. Perkins unexpectedly entered the race in March and could win a chunk of votes on name recognition alone despite not actively campaigning.

DISTRICT 14
MORRIS HEIGHTS • UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS • FORDHAM • KINGSBRIDGE

Top Choices
ADOLFO ABREU
2) PIERINA SANCHEZ

Pierina Sanchez

Pierina Sanchez and Adolfo Abreu both grew up in working class Bronx families that struggled to make ends meet, both excelled at an early age and then followed distinct paths that brought them to the present moment in which they are the leading contenders in a liberal vs. left battle for a council seat held by term-limited conservative Democrat Fernando Cabrera.

Sanchez graduated from Harvard on a full-ride scholarship and received a Masters in Public Administration at Princeton. She did casework as a District 14 City Council staffer. She interned at the Obama White House, returned to New York to work for the Regional Plan Association, was appointed to Bronx Community Board 5 and served on the board of the Bronx Young Democrats.

Adolfo Abreu

Where Sanchez was groomed by elite institutions, Abreu got his political education at the Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition, a member-led grassroots organization with its origins in the mid-1970s struggle by Bronx residents to save their community from ruin. He joined NWBCCC’s youth organizing arm at age 12 and his name repeatedly pops up in old newspaper stories from the late 2000s as a teenager leading protests over the future of a local library and the redevelopment of the Kingsbridge Armory as well as a citywide campaign by public school students to preserve discounted Metro cards. He later became NWBCCC’s organizing director and was deeply involved in 2019 in mobilizing Bronx tenants to participate in the coalition that won historic rent law reforms in Albany.

Both candidates have garnered a spate of endorsements though Sanchez has the support of more elected officials and some of the city’s largest unions: SEIU1199. DC 37 and UFT. Abreu is endorsed by the DSA which has run circles around the Brooklyn and Queens party machines in recent years but is still looking for its first breakthrough in the Bronx. He also has the support of leftwing unions such as New York State Nurses Association, PSC-CUNY and LIUNA Local 79. Both candidates would be a significant upgrade over Cabrera. But only Abreu has a history of organizing the kind of people-powered movements whose voices are so often ignored by our city government.

DISTRICT 22
ASTORIA • ASTORIA HEIGHTS

Top Choices
TIFFANY CABÁN
2) EVIE HANTZOPOULOS

Tiffany Cabán

Astoria has been at the heart of the left-wing electoral resurgence in NYC. It gave large majorities to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and dumped a five-term incumbent to elect a democratic socialist to the State Assembly last year. In 2019, former public defender Tiffany Cabán swept the vote in District 22 in her near-miss run for Queens DA. Cabán, a democratic socialist, has been the overwhelming favorite since the day she entered the race for an open seat and has been showered with endorsements. If she wins, she will be a powerful voice for visionary social movements in this city.

Evie Hantzopoulos

Community activist and non-profit executive Evie Hantzopoulos has raised almost as much money as Cabán and has won a smattering of endorsements from liberal groups. In late May, the race received a jolt when it was learned that big real estate interests and police unions had thrown down $325,000 to help conservative Democrat John Ciafone. Expect the campaign against Cabán to get ugly before all the votes have been cast.

DISTRICT 24
JAMAICA • JAMAICA HILLS • HILLCREST ELECTCHESTER • FRESH MEADOWS POMONOK • KEW GARDEN HILLS

Top Choice
MOUMITA AHMED

Moumita Ahmed

Moumita Ahmed doesn’t give up. On Feb. 2, Ahmed, a Bangladeshi American community activist and former Bernie Sanders organizer, was soundly defeated by James Gennaro, a conservative Democrat, in a special election to fill a District 24’s vacant seat for the remainder of 2021. Gennaro benefitted from $221,000 poured in at the end of the race by billionaire real estate moguls intent on stopping Ahmed and from Republicans being able to vote in a non-partisan race.

James Gennaro

This time a full four-year term is at stake and only registered Democrats can vote. Ahmed, who touts her status as the only tenant in the race, has qualified for the maximum $160,000 in public funding. She hopes to win big in her working class Southeast Asian community while Gennaro looks to run up the score again in enclaves of well-to-do homeowners and among Jewish voters who value his vocal support for Israel. Ahmed has been endorsed by Bernie Sanders. Endorsements from State Senators Jessica Ramos and Julia Salazar may help her class-based appeal land with working class Hispanic voters in the district who are in the same boat economically as the Southeast Asian community. The contrast between the past and the future of the Democratic Party couldn’t be more stark than in this race. May that future arrive sooner instead of later.

DISTRICT 37
BUSHWICK • CYPRESS HILLS • OCEAN HILL BROWNSVILLE • EAST NEW YORK

Top Choice
SANDY NURSE

Ten years ago this fall, Sandy Nurse played a key role in organizing Occupy Wall Street’s street protests. She later gravitated toward building alternative institutions in North Brooklyn — co-founding the May Day Space community center and founding BK Rot, a composting service that hires local youths. Nurse tried to run for a vacant City Council seat last year but the Brooklyn party machine used technicalities to bounce her off the ballot. She’s back with a coalition of more than 30 labor unions and community organizations as well as endorsements from prominent progressives including Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, State Senator Julia Salazar and Zephyr Teachout.

Darma Diaz

Nurse’s main opponent, Darma Diaz, won last year’s special election after Nurse and other aspiring opponents were thrown off the ballot. This time she will have to earn it. In addition to the party machine, Diaz can expect to find support from older, middle class homeowners in the district who may be wary of defunding the police. She’s also tried to make an issue of Nurse’s dual Afro-Latinx identity, as if a person can’t be both.

Last June, Nurse returned to her protest roots as one of the organizers of Occupy City Hall, a protest encampment demanding City Council cut $1 billion from the NYPD’s annual budget. The effort failed, but “Hurricane Sandy” could soon come ashore inside City Hall fighting for transformative change. If so, she will be a force.

DISTRICT 38
RED HOOK • SUNSET PARK GREENWOOD HEIGHTS • WINDSOR TERRACE DYKER HEIGHTS • BORO PARK

Top Choice
ALEXA AVILES
2) RODRIGO CAMARENA

3) CÉSAR ZÚÑIGA

Alexa Avilés

Last year, voters in Sunset Park/Red Hook tossed out a 13-term Assemblyman in favor of Marcela Mitaynes, a DSA-backed tenant organizer. Now, Mitaynes’s ally Alexa Avilés is running for City Council to replace term-limited incumbent Carlos Menchaca. In addition to DSA’s backing, Avilés has been endorsed by more than a dozen unions and two dozen community organizations.

Avilés has served as a PTA president and community board member in South Brooklyn over the past decade. She will bring her background as an education organizer with her as New York City public schools seek to bounce back from the pandemic. Moreover, her deep familiarity with neighborhood-level politics bodes well for her being a representative who can respond to her community’s immediate needs while still keeping the democratic socialist horizon in view.

Rodrigo Camarena

Also running a strong campaign from the left is Rodrigo Camarena, an economist, immigrant rights advocate and non-profit executive. Camarena formerly led the New York City Department of Small Business. He currently heads Immigration Advocates Network, a network of nonprofit legal advocates committed to defending immigrants. His top priority is regulating delivery apps and “stopping the Amazonification” of New York City.

Other leading candidates in the race include César Zúñiga, Chair of Community Board 7, Victor Swinton, a 37-year veteran of the NYPD, and businessman Yu Lin who wants more surveillance cameras to be installed, more parking lots to be built and fewer regulations for business.

DISTRICT 39
COBBLE HILL • CARROLL GARDENS • GOWANUS PARK SLOPE • KENSINGTON

Top Choice
BRANDON WEST
2) SHAHANA HANIF
3) JUSTIN KREBS

Brandon West

The most important thing City Council does every year is hammer out the nearly $100 billion annual city budget with the mayor. If the police get defunded, that’s when it happens. DSA-backed Brandon West has been there. He previously worked in the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget and the City Council Finance Division. If West wins the crowded race to succeed Brad Lander as the rep for this progressive bastion, he will play a key role in any socialist/progressive bloc that pulls City Council to the left.

Shahana Hanif, Lander’s director of organizing and community engagement, would be the first Muslim elected to City Council. She has received more group endorsements than West, has raised more money and has a larger social media following.

Shahana Hanif

Many progressive groups give out “letterhead endorsements” like candy on Halloween, but don’t back it up with much. This race will be a rigorous test of the DSA’s ground game and its strategy of mobilizing hundreds of members (inside and outside of New York) to canvas, phone bank, write postcards, etc. for the handful of candidates they decide to pour all their efforts into.

Other candidates of note in this progressive bastion include Justin Krebs, director of national campaigns for Move On and civil rights lawyer and local district leader Doug Schneider.

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