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

Jessica González-Rojas, candidate for Assembly District 34.
Jessica González-Rojas, candidate for Assembly District 34.
Kisha Bari
Jessica González-Rojas, candidate for Assembly District 34.

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

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

The 2020 state legislative primaries are six months away, but there are already signs that some progressive insurgents are doing better than others in mounting credible challenges against Democratic incumbents.

Some have received high-profile endorsements from community and political groups that are helping them get early attention from voters. Others have raised significant amounts of money to bankroll the monthslong efforts they will need to prevail in the June primary. Whatever their reasons for running, money and endorsements are the main metrics of success at this point in the race. 

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 Democratic primaries will test whether this can be a winning strategy moving forward in a year following the success of democratic socialist Tiffany Cabán, who only lost the Democratic primary for Queens County district attorney by a narrow margin 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 groups 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 Jan. 16.

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)

2020 declared primary opponents: Justin Potter, Ignazio Terranova

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 reported $7,052 on hand in January and has little name recognition to compete against Gianaris, one of the most powerful Democrats in state politics and a prolific fundraiser. Ignazio Terranova, a former official at the New York City Department of Sanitation, has also entered the raise and reported $8,675 on hand in January – mostly raised from three donors, including himself. Gianaris has reported $210,910 on hand.

State Senate District 18

Parts of Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Bushwick and Cypress Hills

Incumbent: Julia Salazar (D)

2020 declared primary opponent: Andy Marte

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. Marte’s fundraising totals were not available as of Jan. 16.

Assembly District 34

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

Incumbent: Michael DenDekker (D)

2020 declared primary opponents: 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. Fundraising totals for both challengers was not available as of Jan. 16. DenDekker has $57,564 on hand, a relatively low amount of money for an incumbent. Gonzalez-Rojas told City & State her upcoming financial disclosure will show she has raised more than $64,000, and now has about $44,000 on hand, she told City & State

Assembly District 35

Parts of East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, North Corona, Corona, Elmhurst and Rego Park in Queens

Incumbent: Jeffrion Aubry (D)

2020 declared opponent: Hiram Monserrate

Call it the most politically incorrect legislative comeback of 2020 – but former state Sen. Hiram Monserrate is taking on a 14-term incumbent whose booming voice regularly presides over the Assembly floor. Monserrate’s return to the political arena got a big boost in 2018 when he won election as a district leader more than a decade after he was accused of slashing his then-girlfriend with a piece of broken glass. The state Senate voted to expel Monseratte from its ranks following his conviction for misdemeanor assault for dragging his then-girlfriend through the lobby of a building after the slashing, which both she and Monserrate said was an accident. Two years later, a federal court sentenced him to two years in prison on a fraud conviction for misappropriating about $100,000 in nonprofit funds. Monserrate has reportedly raised more than $60,000 already for the race, but funding disclosures show that Aubry has nearly twice that amount on hand – plus, he’s not a convict. 

Assembly District 36

Astoria, Queens

Incumbent: Aravella Simotas (D)

2020 declared opponent: Zohran Mamdani

Zohran Mamdani, a 28-year-old foreclosure housing counselor, has opened a campaign account and plans to challenge five-term incumbent Aravella Simotas. As a member of the Queens chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, Mamdani is running to Simotas’ left and looking to question her record on issues like housing and education. As a longtime Democratic incumbent and Greek-American, Simotas can lean on her party and community connections in the historically Greek neighborhood, as well as a record that includes her involvement in the passage of new statewide sexual harassment standards. 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. Simotas has more than $100,000 on hand as of Jan. 16, while Mamdani has about $45,000 on hand.

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. Nolan has $72,852, according to her January financial disclosure. Jobaida’s fundraising totals were not available as of Jan. 16.

Assembly District 38

Parts of Ridgewood, Glendale, Woodhaven, Ozone Park and Richmond Hill in Queens

Incumbent: Michael Miller (D)

2020 declared primary opponent: Jenifer Rajkumar, Joey de Jesus

Assemblyman Michael Miller has cruised to reelection five times since he won a special election in 2009 to represent the district, but he faces a formidable primary challenge this time around. Financial disclosures filed in January show that attorney Jenifer Rajkumar has more than $223,000 on hand to challenge Miller, who reported $37,302. Miller in some ways represents a more old-school brand of Queens politician. His legislative website highlights his support for passing on-time budgets and requiring sex offenders to register their employment address. Rajkumar, whose parents are Indian immigrants, is trying to define Miller as a “do-nothing” legislator who is out of touch with the district. She previously represented lower Manhattan as a district leader, but lost two races to represent the area in the City Council and Assembly. More recently she served as the director of immigration affairs and special counsel for the New York Department of State.

While Rajkumar has an edge in fundraising, she is hardly the candidate with the most left-leaning campaign platform. That distinction goes to Joey de Jesus, a poet and adjunct professor at Borough of Manhattan Community College, who is highlighting issues like a Statewide Homes Guarantee, a “radical reduction in NYPD enrollment” and the Boycott and Divestment Movement. A campaign website states that de Jesus has raised about $3,000 for the campaign. 

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 opponent: 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. Lentol, though, is flush with cash – nearly $350,000 – according to his latest financial disclosure. Gallagher has reported $23,440 on hand as of Jan. 16. 

Assembly District 51

Red Hook, Greenwood Heights and Sunset Park neighborhoods in Brooklyn

Incumbent: Félix Ortiz (D)

2020 declared primary opponents: 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. Ortiz reported a solid war chest for his campaign, $156,174 – well ahead of Mitaynes ($21,337) and Walsh ($37,497). A fundraising total for Aquino was not available as of Jan. 16.

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 opponents: 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. The amount of cash on hand for Dilan is hardly formidable – $75,684 – but he is still well in front of his primary challengers. Nurse and Santos reported $31,076 and $23,641, respectively.

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 opponents: 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. Mosley has not pulled too far away from Forrest for her to catch up on fundraising, but his $73,223 is still nearly triple the $23,572 she has on hand.

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

2020 declared primary opponent: Grace Lee

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 is running on local issues like the clean up of brownsites in the district and is seeking to contrast her pragmatism with Niou’s brand of progressivism. 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. She is also proving to be a formidable fundraiser for a primary challenger, with $86,418 now on hand to compete against Niou, who has $156,547.

Assembly District 73

Parts of Midtown East and the Upper East Side in Manhattan

Incumbent: Dan Quart (D)

2020 declared primary opponent: Cameron Koffman

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. His connections to the New York elite, however, appear to be paying off, considering that he has raised nearly $450,000 in recent months, with $347,269 on hand. Quart, meanwhile, has been spending more ($77,556) than he has received ($55,975) in recent months, leaving him with $40,809 on hand.

 

Correction: The story originally included Jonathan Soto in the race for Assembly District 82, but he has suspended his campaign.

Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at City & State.
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