When New York saw state Senate districts were redrawn – again – in May, many senators were sucked into the shuffle of running in, and soon, representing new areas of the city. Democratic state Sen. Robert Jackson of District 31 can attest to this, as his northern Manhattan district experienced a drastic change as lines shifted up from as far south as Midtown, and repositioned to parts of the western Bronx. The facelifted District 31, which is now 65% Latino, is set to assume its new boundaries in January. Jackson faced a strident primary challenge this month from former teacher Angel Vasquez, who was backed by Bronx powerbroker Rep. Adriano Espaillat and a super-PAC that supports pro-charter school candidates. Despite the hype, Jackson swept the moderate-leaning Angel Vasquez by more than 25 percentage points. Vasquez is a former chief of staff of another one-time Espaillat ally, Marisol Alcantara, who previously served the 31st District. City & State spoke with the senator just two days after the heated election, and Jackson is quite confident that the doubts of his opponents won’t stick with him in the reorganized district
Your campaign leading up to the primary featured tense opposition from Espaillat. Why do you think this is? Does Espaillat feel threatened by your politics?
I think that he feels threatened at the fact that all of the unions, all of the progressive groups around the city were supporting me and the fact that he put together his entire squad in order to try to take me out. We prevailed. People say to me, “Congratulations, you did it.” And I say to them, “No, we did it.” We did it and it was a democratic process, democracy in action. And we're in favor of democracy, but not as a result of one person ruling northern Manhattan and the Bronx. That would be a dictatorship. We are for the democratic process that we're used to in New York City and the state where people have good enough signatures, get on the ballot and can run and after it's over, being able to say thank you to everyone that we've done a good job on behalf of the people talking about their issues and concerns that impact their daily lives – and that's what my campaign was about.
Your opponents emphasized the need for a Spanish-speaking and Latino senator for District 31. Do you think this will be a roadblock for you as an English-speaking Black man?
Not at all. You know what the people want? People want an individual that's going to work with them, that's going to represent them and deal with the issues and concerns that impact them. And they want someone that knows how to get it done. I give the example of when people asked me, So what's your top priority? I've been asked that question so many times. And I've said to them loud and clear – my top priority is the safety and security of the people that are represented. And if we're not safe in our homes in our community, all of us are in trouble. Beyond that, making sure that everyone has a roof over their heads and that says stability of their homes, whether or not a rental home or their private home.
So many people in my district are immigrants that came here from another country. And they're working hard in order to provide for their families, whether they can work in one job and earning enough money, or working two or three jobs in order to make ends meet for them and their family here in New York. So many people, including my family, send money abroad to our family to help them, and that's what this is about – trying to make enough to survive and to have a community that's going to be safe, clean and people not having to worry about being mugged and robbed.
Since the redrawing, how have you had to pivot the campaign and your current leadership of the district?
Well, I had to pivot my campaign to an area of the Bronx where I never represented before. One-third of my district is in the Bronx, so I pivoted real quick and went to all the major areas where people are transporting themselves to work, to home to child care centers and everything. So talking to people, them seeing me, getting my literature and telling them they can go to my website to see more information. They had the opportunity to speak to me while they were going to work or coming home. And that's my commitment as far as all of the major hubs. That's where I want to hold town hall meetings so people can say, I've seen him, I've talked to him. He had a town hall meeting even before he was elected to take over. That's the commitment basically every day – communicate with people and have access to them.
Is your success thanks to any particular strategy, person or endorsement?
You know, I look at the people that have endorsed my candidacy and most of them were on my palm card. I look at all of the labor unions – DC 37, 1199, 32BJ, Communication Workers of America, UFT and so many more – they could not all fit on my palm card. That's grassroots unions that are working with their members. I worked for a labor union for 23 years, where I represented people. I am a representative and a labor relations specialist that's doing the job trying to best represent the 320,000 constituents of my senatorial district, which will now include parts of Morris Heights, Fordham Heights, Kingsbridge Heights and parts of Riverdale.
Some of your supporters have framed this race as another anti-IDC (Independent Democratic Conference) race, since Angel Vasquez used to work for state Sen. Marisol Alcantara, who was part of that group of Democrats that caucused with Republicans. Do you agree with the framing? Did your campaign capture some of that 2018 energy?
I think that there was a continuation of that. Angel was the chief of staff under Marisol which under Marisol, education funding never happened, housing never happened, immigration reform never happened.
Many of those things happened when the leadership of the state Senate went to Andrea Stewart-Cousins, so things got done after we ran. Angel alone with his representative that he was working as a chief of staff – didn't do the job representing our people. That's proven. After January 2019, things started to move. We also found out that hedge funds and real estate were pumping money into the campaign via an independent expenditure – and directly through his campaign. So you tell me in evaluating that, knowing what the IDC was about and knowing what has occurred and finding out all of this in order to try to get him elected. You ask the people. Ask them what they think and they will tell you. This was about a group of individuals under the leadership of Adriano Espaillat trying to get me out of this seat. Because I am the only person as an elected public official in northern Manhattan that can challenge Adriano regarding a work ethic to get the job done. And that's why they elected me to represent them in January, those new people in the Bronx, and the ones in northern Manhattan and Community Board 12.
What did you do differently in this year's race compared to 2018?
I think that we worked with more diversity within the various groups. So for example, besides all of the labor unions, the individuals not affiliated with labor unions, all of the endorsements of current representatives, and former representatives, like former Congressman Charles Rangel, and former Borough President Fernando Ferrer.
How have you learned to navigate the campaign trail to score nominations and ultimately succeed leading up to elections? What mistakes have you learned from previous state Senate losses?
Well, I think that we just made sure that we have to get the word out to everyone and to social media and to communicate with people, having visibility; being there. People want to see you. So for example, when my campaign offices is on the main drag here in Washington Heights, on 181st Street. My campaign office is between Broadway and Fort Washington. There are many people that come off the A train, they walk down to Broadway and Wadsworth Avenue and get on the buses that go right into my district in the Bronx. So this is a strategic place to have an office and that's why Adriano Espaillat has a government office, (on the same street as) my campaign office.
Now that the primaries have come and gone, what’s next for you in the days leading up to the general election?
Well, I plan on spending some time with some relatives of mine that are visiting the country. I plan on, as I said to you in September, holding town hall meetings and meeting with constituents of my new district and my current one here, so that when we get ready for January, I'm focusing on what was said to me and communicated to me by my constituents.