Several Democratic incumbents are in hot water after their primaries against progressives in New York City on Tuesday, the city’s first primary election during the coronavirus pandemic — but results in many races are not expected anytime soon with hundreds of thousands of people casting absentee ballots.
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New Yorkers requested at least 700,000 absentee ballots this cycle compared to 65,000 in the primaries four years ago. Thus, full results and winners in close races may not be known for days or weeks because absentee ballots that have to be counted by hand. The counting of absentee ballots won’t begin until June 30. The ballots that were counted Tuesday were the in-person votes from Primary Day and early voting.
The New York City Board of Elections said last week it mailed ballots to more than 95 percent of people who applied for one, leaving 30,000 still waiting for theirs.
With those subset of ballots, the Associated Press called only six races Tuesday:
- The Democratic presidential primary, for Joe Biden (67.4 percent to Bernie Sanders’s 19.1 percent)
- The 14th Congressional District, for Queens and Bronx Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
- The 5th Congressional District, for Queens and Long Island Rep. Greg Meeks
- The 6th Congressional District, for Queens Rep. Grace Meng
- The 7th Congressional District, for Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan Rep. Nydia Velazquez
- The 13th Congressional District, for Manhattan and Bronx Rep. Adriano Espaillat
What Did People Vote for?
All seats in the U.S. House were up for election, as well as all seats in New York State Senate and Assembly. There was also a primary for Queens borough president.
New Yorkers voted in the presidential primary, although it was a formality since former Vice President Joe Biden already clinched enough delegates for the Democratic nomination.
Depending on where you live, you had smaller races as well, such as municipal court.
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The Primary Challenge of Eliot Engel’s Life
With national attention and endorsements, insurgent Jamaal Bowman had a good night of early returns in the Democratic primary for the 16th Congressional District, a district on the Bronx and Westchester border.
As of 4:20 a.m. Wednesday, he led 31-year House Member Eliot Engel by a little more than 9,000 ballots (60.9 percent to 35.6 percent).
"Our movement is designed to restore that faith, to restore that hope, to bring back the belief in what is possible, to root our values in everything we do,” Bowman, an education activist and former middle school principal, said in a speech to supporters Tuesday night.
Democratic challengers are hoping to ride a progressive wave in recent years to oust several longtime House incumbents in the city, and Bowman is center to their hopes.
Bowman — viewed as a challenger who could mimic Ocasio-Cortez’s upset primary win two years ago against former titan Rep. Joe Crowley — has been endorsed by several high-profile progressive politicians and groups, including Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders, the Justice Democrats, and the Sunrise Movement.
In response, many establishment Democrats endorsed Engel, including former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Engel has been under fire for his sparse appearances in the district during the coronavirus pandemic, and for this remark caught on a microphone when he was seeking to speak at a news conference in the Bronx earlier this month: “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.”
Challenger in a Dead-Heat with Maloney
Like Engel, Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat who represents parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens in the 12th Congressional District, is in a fierce fight in her primary.
As of 4:20 a.m., she led Suraj Patel, an activist and New York University professor, by less than 600 votes (41.5 percent to 40 percent).
Given the extremely close margin, the winner will not be declared before the absentee ballots are counted. After that, it’s possible a legal fight could brew over the vote counting and which ballots are considered, which may extend the wait on the final call by weeks. A similar situation played out last June when Tiffany Caban led by a small margin against Melinda Katz in the Democratic primary for Queens district attorney. Several weeks later, Katz was declared the winner by a few dozen votes after all paper ballots were counted, and after a legal battle between the two campaigns.
The dead-heat between Maloney and Patel is a political shock for incumbents. Maloney has represented the district for 14 terms and rarely faces primaries. She’s also the chair of the powerful House Oversight Committee, and, like her fellow incumbents, had the fundraising edge in the race.
But this does mark the second straight primary Maloney has faced — both against Patel, who gave her a scare in 2018 when he earned 40 percent of the vote. Now Patel is looking to finish things off and join the small list of South Asians elected to Congress.
Historically, incumbents are almost never challenged, but in recent years the trend has changed throughout the country with activists demanding change and complaining that longtime members of Congress are disconnected from their voters — a charge Engel and Maloney have faced.
Councilman Leads Against 11 Democrats in the Bronx
Although it would not be on the same scale as defeats to Engel and Maloney, another potential shock to a longtime elected official could come in the 15th Congressional District in the Bronx. Arguably expected to be the tightest race in the primaries, the district is essentially an open seat as Rep. José Serrano is retiring at the end of the year.
It was open season, then, as 12 Democrats ran, including several progressives such as Bronx Councilman Ritchie Torres, Bronx Assemblyman Michael Blake, former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Manhattan Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, and activist Samelys López. Bronx Councilman Rubén Díaz, Sr., a socially conservative Democrat with wide name recognition in the borough, was seen as a major player as well if the progressives split the vote.
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As of 4:20 a.m., however, Torres led the pack with 30.5 percent of the in-person ballots cast. His next closest competitor, Blake, clocked in at 19.4 percent. Díaz was in third with 14.7 percent, while López had 13.2.
Although polling has been sparse in all the primaries, a Data for Progress poll in May found Díaz with 22 percent, Torres with 20 percent, and no other candidate above 6 percent — although 34 percent of likely voters were still undecided.
Although he did not declare victory Tuesday, Torres was emotional about his standing in the early returns:
In many ways, Díaz and Torres ran as complete contrasts. Torres is only 32 and is openly gay, while Díaz is 77, has been a longtime elected official in the Bronx, and has a history of making homophobic statements. And while Torres has hammered President Donald Trump, Díaz has praised him and flirted with voting for the president.
Díaz’s status as a conservative Democrat has concerned many in the party, and inspired the launch of a political action committee dedicated to electing anyone but him.
“New York’s 15th Congressional District is one of the bluest in the country and Rev. Rubén Díaz Sr. is essentially a Republican," said Eric Koch, strategist for Bronx United. "He said he’s open to voting for Trump, he is constantly opposed to women’s right to choose, he has insulted the LGBT community.”
Díaz’s campaign rejects any arguments that he’s not a true Democrat, saying he’s aligned with the party on nearly all issues but gay and abortion rights.
No Worries for Some Incumbents
Despite very promising data in the Engel and Maloney races, progressives appear to have hit a wall against other longtime House incumbents.
- Brooklyn Rep. Yvette Clarke Won Her Last Primary by Under 2,000 Votes. Now Several Candidates Want to Unseat Her.
As of 4:20 a.m., seven-term Rep. Yvette Clarke had a massive lead — 62.3 percent to the 17.9 percent of her next closest challenger, community activist Adem Bunkeddeko, who lost to her in the primary two years ago by less than 2,000 votes. Another challenger to the left, Army veteran and Democratic socialist Isiah James, is in fourth place at 9.4 percent.
Which is about the same amount of the vote that Brooklyn Councilman Chaim Deutsch has. Viewed as a wild-card candidate, Deutsch appeals to Orthodox Jewish and Russian voters, and was thought to be a potential spoiler in a primary where the four other candidates are black.
Like Díaz, Deutsch is a conservative Democrat with a history of making homophobic statements, but he hoped to win in a solidly blue district by turning the out the vote in his strongholds of support while candidates to his left split the more liberal share of the vote.
Instead, Clarke looks set to coast to victory by a much more comfortable margin than she did in 2018.
Rep. Jerry Nadler, meanwhile, had an enormous lead over progressive foes himself. As of 4:20 a.m., he had 61.8 percent to Lindsey Boylan’s 25.5 percent and Herzog’s 12.7.
Nadler has been in office since 1992, representing the 10th Congressional Distirct in Manhattan and Brooklyn. His foes to his left argued the congressman has not done enough for his district, which they said needs a new generation of leaders.
Nadler is one of the most high-profile Democrats in the House as the House Judiciary Committee chair, and was one of the impeachment managers.
AOC Aces Her First Re-Election Test
One of the few local congress members who won Tuesday solely on in-person voting, Ocasio-Cortez crushed challengers hoping to take her out just two years after her own upset primary victory over Crowley in the 14th Congressional District in Queens and the Bronx.
As of 4:20 a.m., Ocasio-Cortez led by almost 20,000 votes (72.6 percent of the vote compared to her Michelle Caruso-Cabrera’s 19.4).
One of the national powerhouses of the progressive movement, Ocasio-Cortez’s main challenger was Caruso-Cabrera, a former TV journalist who raised over $2 million and is to the right of the congresswoman who calls herself a Democratic Socialist. Caruso-Cabrera said the congresswoman cared more about celebrity than her district, said she was too divisive, and argued she cost the district jobs, referring to Ocasio-Cortez’s successful opposition to Amazon’s HQ2 deal. Caruso-Cabrera also particularly hammered the congresswoman for being the sole Democrat to vote against a coronavirus relief package in April.
Ocasio-Cortez, for her part, raised over $10 million in her race and has support from fellow progressives across the United States. She also faced community leader Badrun Khan, who supports universal basic income, and chess champion Sam Sloan, who says Ocasio-Cortez is too radical.
A “Bluer Wave” for the Assembly?
Upsets of three incumbent State Assembly Democrats in Queens could be brewing with Primary Day voting.
In the 34th Assembly District in Queens, six-term Assemblyman Michael DenDekker is trailing Jessica González-Rojas, a former volunteer on Cabán’s near-victorious campaign for Queens district attorney last year.
As of 4:20 a.m., the progressive led the Assemblyman 40.4 percent to 22.8 percent, a lead of nearly 1,100 ballots.
Cabán endorsed González-Rojas, who worked as the executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. If she wins, she would be the first Latina to ever represent in the Assembly the heavily Hispanic 34th District.
Joy Chowdhury and Nuala O’Doherty-Naranjo, also former Cabán volunteers, are in the race as well but are behind DenDekker in the early returns.
In the 36th Assembly District, which covers Astoria, there has been a huge demographic shift to a much younger and more progressive — even socialist — voter. Aravella Simotas, the Assemblywoman for the district, is facing a challenge to her left from housing advocate Zohran Kwame Mamdani.
As of 4:20 a.m., Mamdani led the incumbent 53.7 percent to 46.3 percent, an advantage of about 600 ballots.
And in Assembly District 38, Jenifer Rajkumar is leading incumbent Assemblyman Michael Miller, 52.1 percent to 25.8 percent, up by about 1,300 votes as of 4:20 a.m.. Joseph DeJesus, meanwhile, is only about 200 votes behind Miller.
Some incumbents in the state legislature are holding on so far, though.
Brooklyn's Joe Lentol has represented the 50th Assembly District since 1973. He leads activist Emily Gallagher 57.7 percent to 42.3 percent, a margin of almost 2,000 ballots, as of this writing.
And in the 43rd Assembly District, which covers Crown Heights in Brooklyn, Asssemblywoman Diana Richardson has a wide lead over former state senator Jesse Hamilton, 71.6 percent to 28.4 percent, a roughly 5,300-ballot lead.
Hamilton was attempting a comeback in a new chamber. He is a former member of the IDC, a breakaway group of Democrats that had a power-sharing alliance with Senate Republicans in the New York State Legislature. Several progressive Democrats defeated most IDC members in the 2018 primaries, ending their control of the Senate en-route to giving the party control of New York state government.
Richardson could secure the win despite having a big falling out with the Democratic county organization, which did not endorse her.
"There are a lot of games being played right now where I am concerned in the 43rd Assembly District, and there are a lot of games being played right now in central Brooklyn," Richardson said in a post on Facebook earlier this month.
Meanwhile, a Democratic primary to watch in the state Senate: the 25th District in Brooklyn. Voters in the district, which includes Clinton Hill, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Red Hook, will have a new state senator for the first time since the 1980s, as Velmanette Montgomery is retiring.
Montgomery has endorsed Tremaine Wright, the assemblywoman for the Assembly’s 56th District — parts of which overlap 25th Senate District — since 2017.
But, as of 4:20 a.m. a candidate to Wright’s left was leading her. Jabari Brisport, a public school teacher and Democratic Socialist, was leading 52.3 percent to Wright’s 40.7 percent, a nearly 4,000-vote advantage. Jason Salmon, an activist and former aide to Montgomery, was in third with 7 percent of the vote.
Queens Borough President Primary
In the primary for Queens borough president, Councilman Donovan Richards had 36.8 percent of the vote. He led former Queens Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (28.4 percent) by about 9,000 ballots. In third place was Queens Councilman Costa Constantinides (15.5 percent of the vote), followed closely by retired NYPD lieutenant Anthony Miranda (14.8 percent). Richards, Crowley, and Constantinides led in fundraising.
The special election for the race was canceled in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. While the office is viewed as a stepping stone for higher office, borough presidents have influence over land use and development projects in their borough, appoints members to community boards and other boards, and can spearhead legislation at the City Council in partnership with a Council member, although they cannot vote on bills.
Setting Up for a Fierce Swing Race in November
In the 11th Congressional District, which covers Staten Island and parts of southern Brooklyn, Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis had a significant lead over Joseph Caldarera, an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn. Caldarera is running to Malliotakis’s right and claims she is a phony conservative.
As of 4:20 a.m., the assemblywoman led by nearly 40 percentage points (about 7,500 votes).
Malliotakis enjoys widespread name recognition in the district, which is setting up to be a key swing race in November as Democrats look to hold on to the House of Representatives. Malliotakis has hammered the incumbent, Democrat Rep. Max Rose, for voting to impeach President Donald Trump, who is popular in the 11th Congressional District. The general election for the seat is likely to be the only competitive congressional race in the city in November, as the district has historically voted for Republicans.
Voting During the Coronavirus Pandemic
For New Yorkers who have an absentee ballot, it will be counted as long as it was postmarked Tuesday. It must reach the city Board of Elections by June 30. People who did not get their absentee ballot voted in person Tuesday.
Voters on Tuesday were required to wear a face covering when casting their ballot. Social-distancing markers reminded people to keep at least six feet apart at the poll sites.
Poll workers were disinfecting when and where they could, and voters got an antiviral handwipe at the poll site entrance.
Screen guards were installed at poll sites to protect voters and poll workers from the spread of the coronavirus. And the Board of Elections mandated that each polling location be professionally cleaned overnight.
Despite a surge in New Yorkers requesting an absentee ballot so they could avoid the risk of contracting COVID-19 when going outside to vote, people throughout the city complained Tuesday that they never received their absentee ballot and had to vote in person. It’s not clear as of this writing how many New York City voters did not receive their absentee ballots, an issue cited in absentee voting in other states as well.
Some voters also reported long lines that lasted hours.
In the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, hiccups were reported at P.S. 69Q after some of the ballots were not ready, and voters said polls opened 30 minutes late because an election worker was late.
The city's Board of Elections said it was doing everything possible to make voting safe, including handing out masks and encouraging social distancing. But some voters Tuesday said not all health protocols were closely followed and some election workers seemed unprepared, although most voters were understanding and sympathized with them having to work during the pandemic.
"They're pretty underprepared,” one voter said. “I really appreciate them being here, they're putting their life on the line for it, but there's not enough support for everything that needs to happen.”
“There was three separate pages and they didn't have the one. So I had to wait,” another said. “They did find it eventually. Took about a half an hour."
A similar issue was cited at P.S. 122 in Astoria, where some voters complained they did not initially receive ballots including the presidential primary.
As expected with the primary happening during the coronavirus pandemic, and with the proliferation of absentee voting, turnout was light for the most part Tuesday, although it was steady at times at some poll sites.
For example, at M.S. 301 in Morrisania, the lines were steadily growing around 5:45 p.m., possibly due to the intense interest in the primary for the 15th Congressional District.
Whoever is declared the winner of each primary will move on to the general election in November. In a heavily-Democratic city, many of the primary winners are expected to win the general election, making Primary Day the most impactful election day for local races this year.
This story includes reporting from Emily Ngo, Bobby Cuza, Zack Fink, and Rocco Vertuccio.
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