Who’s facing a 2020 primary challenge in the state Legislature?

Josh Pierre.
Josh Pierre.
Jonathan Ystad
Josh Pierre.

Who’s facing a 2020 primary challenge in the state Legislature?

Progressives are targeting several longtime Democratic lawmakers.
November 15, 2019

The 2020 elections are more than a year away, but a number of Democratic state lawmakers are already facing primary challenges. 

Several longtime lawmakers could pay a political price for past donations from the real estate industry, while others are being targeting for their deep ties to the Democratic Party establishment. In 2018, now-state Sen. Julia Salazar made history by taking out then-state Sen. Martin Dilan, a mainstream Democrat, by challenging him from the left and arguing that he was too close to the real estate industry and the Democratic establishment. The upcoming 2020 Democratic primaries will test whether this can be a winning strategy moving forward, months after democratic socialist Tiffany Cabán just barely lost the Democratic primary for Queens County district attorney to establishment favorite Queens Borough President Melinda Katz.

Support from groups like the Democratic Socialists of America and No IDC NY could be crucial for many primary challengers in the upcoming Democratic primaries. The DSA was a key supporter of Salazar and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the last election cycle, while No IDC successfully targeted six of the eight former members of the Independent Democratic Conference – a breakaway group of Democratic state senators who had helped Republicans keep control of the chamber. By targeting relatively moderate members of the Assembly Progressive group, are now looking to replicate the success they had in pushing the state Senate leftward.

No high-profile challenges to incumbent Republican lawmakers have yet materialized, but that could change in the coming months. 

Here’s a list of incumbents who are facing primary challenges and the key dynamics in their races, as of Oct. 10.

State Senate District 12

Parts of Astoria, Long Island City, Woodside, Sunnyside, Elmhurst, Maspeth, Ridgewood, Glendale, Woodhaven, and Ozone Park in Queens.

Incumbent: Michael Gianaris (D)

A failed effort to build a satellite headquarters for Amazon in Long Island City, Queens has inspired the first primary challenge against state Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris since he was first elected to the chamber in 2010. First-time candidate and small-time businessman Justin Potter – who only recently joined the Democratic Party – is attacking Gianaris for the loss of the potential jobs the Amazon deal would have brought to the district, as well as Gianaris’ recent moves to the political left. However, Potter faces long odds of unseating Gianaris. Potter has little money and name recognition to compete against Gianaris, one of the most powerful Democrats in state politics and a prolific fundraiser. 

State Senate District 18

Parts of Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Bushwick and Cypress Hills

Incumbent: Julia Salazar (D)

Self-described Marxist state Sen. Julia Salazar faces her first primary challenge after unseating longtime incumbent state Sen. Martin Dilan in 2018. Her position on the far left edge of the Democratic Party might theoretically create political space for a credible challenge from a moderate candidate. However, Andy Marte will struggle to fill that niche. He has deep roots in the district and is a former staffer to longtime Assemblyman Vito Lopez, but Democratic primary voters are not unlikely to support in large numbers a candidate whose social media presence reflects an affinity for President Donald Trump’s tweets. Lopez’s purported authorship of an upcoming book called “Moving America To The Right Side” hardly helps.

State Senate District 21

Parts of Flatbush, East Flatbush, Park Slope and Windsor Terrace in Brooklyn

Incumbent: Kevin Parker (D)

2020 declared primary opponent: Josue Pierre

Parker, a nine-term incumbent, is facing a challenge from a local district leader after running unopposed in the 2018 Democratic primary and cruising to victory in the general election. Pierre is a former staffer to city Comptroller Scott Stringer and a Haitian immigrant whose path to victory depends on crafting a winning coalition between the politically-ascendant Haitian-American community and progressive voters in the gentrified western portion of the district. Parker, chair of the state Senate Energy Committee, voted in favor of landmark bills on rent regulations, climate change and criminal justice reforms this past session, but Pierre argues that Parker is not progressive enough for his longtime district. Parker could also be vulnerable because of his history of angry outbursts

State Senate District 25

Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Red Hook, Downtown Brooklyn parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Gowanus and slivers of Sunset Park and Park Slope in Brooklyn

Incumbent: Velmanette Montgomery (D)

2020 declared primary opponent: Jabari Brisport, Jason Salmon

Brisport, a public school teacher, is making another run at elected office after losing a 2017 race against City Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo. This time around, he has a DSA endorsement to tout as he seeks to replace Montgomery, the longest-serving Democratic state senator. Montgomery has yet to address rumors that she plans to retire at the end of her current term. The entrance of her former staffer Jason Salmon suggests that she may not run for reelection in the district, which stretches across some of the richest and poorest areas of Brooklyn. It is unclear how Salmon – who unsuccessfully sought the DSA endorsement – will be able to leverage his association with her relatively moderate record. Brisport might be able to follow the playbook of other left-wing insurgents like Salazar and Ocasio-Cortez: drawing disproportionately from mostly white gentrifiers and benefitting from their higher rate of turnout. 

Assembly District 34

Parts of Jackson Heights, Woodside, Corona, North Corona, Elmhurst and Maspeth in Queens

Incumbent: Michael DenDekker (D)

2020 declared primary opponent: Nuala O’Doherty Naranjo, Jessica González-Rojas

Six-term incumbent Assemblyman Michael DenDekker is facing the first primary challenges of his legislative career. Veteran prosecutor Nuala O’Doherty Naranjo has criticized recently passed criminal justice reforms, which she says do not do enough to protect witnesses and people affected by violent crime. Jessica González-Rojas, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, has also declared her candidacy and says she is running to promote immigration-related issues. 

Assembly District 36

Astoria, Queens

Incumbent: Aravella Simotas

2020 Declared Candidates: Zohran Mamdani

Zohran Mamdani, a 28 year-old foreclosure housing counselor, has opened a campaign account and plans to challenge five-term incumbent Simotas. As a member of the Queens chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, Mamdani would presumably run to Simotas’ left. As a longtime Democratic incumbent and Greek-American, Simotas can lean on her party and community connections in the historically Greek neighborhood. Interestingly enough, the primary will feature two candidates who were born in Africa. Simotas was born in Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe) which has a significant Greek population. Mamdani was born in Uganda, which has a significant Indian population. 

Assembly District 37

Long Island City, and parts of Astoria, Maspeth and Ridgewood in Queens

Incumbent: Catherine Nolan (D)

2020 declared primary opponent: Mary Jobaida

Nolan was one of the few local elected officials who supported plans for Amazon to build a satellite campus in Long Island City. Jobaida, a local activist who works in the healthcare industry, is looking to take advantage of that in launching the first primary challenge against Nolan in a decade. Jobaida faces an uphill battle to defeat Nolan, considering the eighteen-term incumbent’s deep ties to party leadership. The race will in some ways reprise Ocasio-Cortez’s insurgent campaign against former Queens Democratic Party boss and former Rep. Joe Crowley: a white pro-business, moderate incumbent from an earlier era of Queens politics faces a younger woman of color who may have a shot if she holds her own in the working-class non-white portions of the district while winning big in the liberal, gentrifying neighborhoods in western Queens. If Jobaida were to win the primary and the general election, she would become the first Bangladeshi-American in the state Legislature. This effort could be helped by new efforts to organize the Bangladeshi-American community citywide.

Assembly District 50

Greenpoint, parts of Williamsburg and slivers of Fort Greene, Clinton Hill and Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn

Incumbent: Joe Lentol (D)

2020 declared primary opponents: Emily Gallagher

Lentol has been a diehard liberal ever since he first won election to the Assembly in 1973, but is he progressive enough in 2019 to win another term? In the past session, he was an outspoken advocate of bail reform and other progressive causes – but that does not mean that progressives have always been happy with him. His support of Airbnb and donations from the real estate industry have provided an opening for local community board member Emily Gallagher to run against him. The DSA recently declined to endorse her, but has not ruled out endorsing another candidate who better fit with the group’s political platform. Gallagher’s campaign recently got a boost after she received an endorsement from the New Kings Democrats, a progressive reformist political club in Brooklyn. 

Assembly District 51

Red Hook, Greenwood Heights and Sunset Park neighborhoods in Brooklyn

Incumbent: Félix Ortiz (D)

2020 declared primary opponent: Marcela Mitaynes, Genesis Aquino, Katherine Walsh

The arrest of Ortiz’s former chief of staff on a wire fraud charge has come at a bad time for the longtime lawmaker, who was first elected in 1994. Mitaynes, a local housing activist, could benefit if the fundraising scandal ends up hurting Ortiz’s standing with voters. Mitaynes, however, will have to show voters that her advocacy for the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019 makes her more qualified to represent the district moving forward than Ortiz, who was actually in a position to vote for it this past session. Aquino is an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who is vowing to put immigration issues at the center of her campaign. She lost a 2018 race for a district leader position by a close margin to a close Ortiz ally, Arelis Martinez. Aquino has received the endorsement of the New Kings Democrats.

Assembly District 54

Cypress Hills, parts of Bushwick and East New York and a pinch of Bedford-Stuyvesant, in Brooklyn

Incumbent: Erik Martin Dilan (D)

2020 declared primary opponent: Boris Santos, Sandy Nurse

The 45-year-old Erik Dilan has served the area in the City Council and the Assembly since 2002, but Santos is looking to make his experience a liability by highlighting Dilan’s past donations from the real estate industry in the same way that avowed Marxist Salazar, whom Santos served as chief of staff, did against Erik Dilan’s father Martin in 2018. Santos has also cast his campaign as a test of whether democratic socialism can appeal to voters outside of gentrifying areas. The district is to the east of most of Salazar’s district and it is mostly low-income, African-American and Latino. It has not gentrified nearly as much as Williamsburg and more western parts of Bed-Stuy and Bushwick have. Santos received the DSA endorsement in the race over Sandy Nurse, a community organizer who is also running against Dilan. Nurse was recently endorsed by the New Kings Democrats. 

Assembly District 57

Fort Greene, Prospect Heights and Clinton Hill and a small slice of Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Crown Heights in Brooklyn

Incumbent: Walter Mosley (D)

2020 declared primary opponent: Phara Souffrant Forrest

Mosley’s past campaign donations from the real estate industry inspired Forrest to mount a primary campaign against him. The DSA has already thrown its weight behind Forrest, a tenant organizer who was arrested at the state Capitol in June. Forrest will have no problem running to Mosley’s left on issues like housing when her self-described “hidden agenda” is the abolition of rent. But Mosley has already pushed back by labeling her as a challenger who is too focused on her political ideals rather than getting things done.

Assembly District 65

Chinatown, the Lower East Side and the Financial District, parts of Tribeca, East Village and SoHo in Manhattan

Incumbent: Yuh-Line Niou

Businesswoman Grace Lee is challenging two-term incumbent Yuh-Line Niou to represent the district formerly held by disgraced ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Lee’s announcement video signaled that she intends to run to the right of Niou – an outspoken progressive – on taxes. In addition to the power of incumbency and the name recognition that goes along with it, Niou has the added advantage of being a Taiwanese-born legislator running in a district with a sizeable Chinese population. Lee is a first-generation, Korean-American.

Assembly District 73

Parts of Midtown East and the Upper East Side in Manhattan

Incumbent: Dan Quart (D)

Dan Quart is facing the first primary challenge of his legislative career following his 2011 victory in a special election. While he remains popular in the district and is known as a prolific fundraiser, his 2021 candidacy for Manhattan district attorney make him vulnerable to charges that he is more focused on moving up the political ladder than serving his constituents. However, 22-year-old challenger Cameron Koffman is inexperienced and may not be eligible to run for the seat because he has voted in Connecticut in recent years. Wealthy family members like real estate baron Richard LeFrak (a close confidant of President Donald Trump) could help Koffman raise money, but Koffman’s past ties to conservative politics will likely not play well with Democratic primary voters.

Assembly District 82

Pelham Bay and Throgs Neck neighborhoods in the Bronx

Incumbent: Michael Benedetto

2020 declared primary opponent: Jonathan Soto

Soto wants Benedetto to pay for his ties to the Bronx political establishment and his past contributions from Donald Trump. Benedetto has represented the district since 2005, but painting him as a tool of entrenched interests is easier said than done. The longtime lawmaker is a former teacher who chairs the Assembly Education Committee and will lean on the background in making his pitch to voters for another term. However, changing demographics in the East Bronx could work to the benefit of Soto, a Puerto Rican community activist who was the first candidate backed by No IDC NY in the 2020 election cycle. 

Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at City & State.