In the race for the 39th Assembly District in Queens, it’s grassroots vs. grassroots.
That’s how both leading contenders in the upcoming Democratic primary describe their campaigns, and both have legitimate reasons to make that claim.
Assemblywoman Ari Espinal, who was born and raised in Corona, Queens, has been a community organizer in the community since she was 13 when she was inspired to get involved by her mentor Francisco Moya. She would later work for Moya as his director of constituent services during his eight years in the Assembly, eventually taking his place when he was elected to the New York City Council. “I am what you call the grassroots candidate. I am from here,” Espinal, 30, told City & State. “When it comes to people wanting a difference, people wanting to see a change, if you go into a dictionary you'll find the word Ari Espinal.”
Despite the bonafide community credentials, the method by which she came to hold her Assembly seat has cast her candidacy in a different light: as the establishment candidate of the Queens Machine. Espinal was elected to her seat in an April special election, when party leaders choose the person they want to appear on the ballot. There are no primaries for special elections. In this case, Republicans did not run an opponent, meaning that Democratic county leaders effectively handpicked Espinal as Moya’s successor. But she pushed back on the idea that she is a member of the party establishment. “I consider myself that I am from that new young wave that's coming in,” Espinal said. “I’m not an established candidate… I'm a loyal person who wants to do good by this community.”
However, many of the Democratic primaries this cycle have been characterized as young, progressive insurgents taking on the entrenched establishment. In this race, her opponent, Catalina Cruz, has been cast in the role in the role of the former, even if the race itself does not fit neatly into those boxes. Born in Colombia, she came to the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant at the age of nine. Cruz gained permanent residency in 2005 after 13 years of living in the country and obtained full citizenship four years later.
“Ideally I would (run) nine to 10 years from now, but we’ve got Trump in office, destroying basically every single right in our community and gutting the services and the funding for very much needed programs,” Cruz, 35, told City & State. “It felt like the only choice that I had to make sure I was giving back to our community and our country.”
Cruz has the backing of grassroot progressive groups like New York Progressive Action Network and Citizen Action New York, as well members of the Progressive Caucus of the New York City Council and progressive Democratic clubs. But she is also a veteran politico: she most recently worked for an elected official as New York City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland’s chief of staff, whose district is part of Assembly District 39. She has a fairly extensive background in government before that, previously working for such establishment bastions as Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the New York City Council and the state Department of Labor.
Despite her own establishment resume, Cruz argued hers is the true grassroots campaign, saying that she has been a constant presence in the community who has built her platform around conversations with community members. She called the special election system broken and seeks to now give constituents a choice. “This is the time in which our community is showing that we are tired of having our leaders chosen for us,” Cruz said.
While she would not say outright that Espinal has failed when it comes to listening to and representing the needs of the district, Cruz did point to the contentious 82nd Street development as an example of her opponent’s absence for an important community issue. It would have led to a new 13-story building and was opposed by many in the community for what they believed would be its possible gentrifying effects. “I cannot recall seeing her at any of the public hearings, and I went to every single public hearing. And I went to almost every single rally,” Cruz said.
Espinal campaign spokeswoman Daniele de Groot said in a statement, referring to the fact that the idea for the building first was raised while Cruz was working for then-Councilwoman Ferreras-Copeland. “Let’s get one thing straight - the nearly disastrous 82nd Street Development is the direct result of Catalina Cruz and her brief tenure working in this neighborhood. This is her latest attempt to conceal both her role in bringing the 82nd Street Development and the fact that she just moved to this community.” While the land use process technically began under Ferreras-Copeland, the councilwoman said the specific proposal about building a 13-story, mixed-used tower was never discussed. She said she met with the developers about the possibility of building a school or community center at the site. The land use application for the new proposed building did not officially get sent to the City Planning Commission for review until after Moya took office.
When the proposal was rescinded in July, Espinal took credit in a press release for having convinced Councilman Moya to withdraw his support. She had earlier sent him a letter in May making that plea.
Espinal told City & State that the difference between them is that unlike Cruz, she is from the district, which includes neighborhoods like Elmhurst, Corona and Jackson Heights, and has lived there all her life. She said Cruz is a recent transplant who does not share her roots in the district. Cruz says she originally came to Bayside, Queens when she entered the country, but moved all over the borough, including living at times in the district, throughout her childhood. “It’s easy to have a social media campaign,” Espinal said. “I’m not going to look for the headlines … I know that the voters want something different, and that’s me.”
Cruz did not directly address questions about her residency, instead suggesting that any such criticism is xenophobic. (Espinal is herself the daughter of Dominican immigrants.) “When you are formally undocumented, people will question, ‘Do you belong here, do you live here, when did you move in, can you even speak the language?’” Cruz said. Cruz currently lives in Jackson Heights with her husband, and she said that she has long been involved in the community. Espinal asserts that Cruz moved to the district a year ago, a claim Cruz refused to confirm or refute, reiterating that to merely ask the fairly standard question is bigoted towards her because, over a decade ago, she was an undocumented immigrant.
Another tenet of Cruz’s grassroots campaign is her pledge not to accept corporate donations, echoing the promises of insurgent candidates like Zephyr Teachout and Cynthia Nixon. According to Cruz, for a campaign to be truly grassroots, “It’s impossible to run a grassroots campaign unless you’re only taking donations from the community.”
However, according to financial disclosures filed with the state Board of Elections, Cruz has technically accepted three donations that were filed as “corporate.” Each are for less than $200 and are explained by Cruz as coming from small local businesses. She further elaborated that her pledge referred to large companies and real estate developers. According to Espinal’s financial disclosures, she has accepted four “corporate” donations, and has similarly not accepted money from real estate developers.
Although both candidates are trying to benefit from grassroots campaigns, only one can ultimately claim victory and the decision comes down to which one voters believe more.
Correction: This article was corrected to reflect the fact that Cruz would not be the first formerly undocumented immigrant to serve in the state Legislature. It also has been updated to clarify that, while the 82nd St development began the land use review process during Ferreras-Copeland's tenure, it was not formally proposed with all of its controversial elements until later.