Interviews & Profiles

Sam Berger’s victory could hold lessons for Democrats in other purple districts

The Assembly candidate in Queens said: “Everything we had been looking at said that it was going to be a very tight race.”

Sam Berger was victorious on Tuesday night in the Assembly District 27 special election in Queens.

Sam Berger was victorious on Tuesday night in the Assembly District 27 special election in Queens. Sam Berger Campaign

Sam Berger, the moderate Democrat who comfortably won an Assembly special election in eastern Queens on Tuesday, was nevertheless expecting a close race.

Though Assembly District 27 has been held by other moderate Democrats for years, parts of the district have shifted to the right in recent elections. Both Berger and Republican opponent David Hirsch were vying for key constituencies in the district: the Orthodox Jewish community and Asian American communities. In the end, Berger led Hirsch by roughly 11 percentage points, according to unofficial Board of Election results.

Catching up with City & State the day after the election, Berger credited his supporters – including his parents, a Democratic district leader and the president of an elementary school – with his success, and urged candidates in other purple districts to focus on the local issues that are at the tops of voters’ minds. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You won by a decent margin on Tuesday night, were you expecting it to be a tighter race?

To be honest, everything we had been looking at said that it was going to be a very tight race. But in my gut, I’ve known that it wouldn’t be a matter of me, but it would be a matter of my parents and the work that they’ve done for the community, and I had confidence in the good that they’ve done coming back (to) us. The whole day, we had been getting pictures – both me from my friends, and my parents from their friends, and from a lot of the community – of people just saying, “Hey, we voted.” So going in, I was very positive.

When you say you expected it to be a tighter race, what was giving you that impression?

We expected it to be very low turnout, this being a special election. With Labor Day, with 9/11, we expected that nobody was going to want to show up to this, and so there was that toss-up factor.

The dynamics of the district and its recent voting trends, was that a factor in your impression too?

Absolutely. This is a very moderate, purple-ish district. So you have to walk a very thin line in being able to represent everybody. And that can be tough, and that can also make it a little bit closer.

The campaign and your supporters really seemed to come out in full force in the last week or so of the campaign, maybe before that too. You had lots of union supporters, you had elected officials from around the state. Was that show of force necessary to win – and win by the margin you did?

I certainly think it helped. Being able to have the labor unions come out, work together to pull out their own members who are people that I would represent, and having them take the time to come out on a special – that really made (it) a big deal.

Was there a particular area in the district where you focused your efforts in the last days of the race or on Election Day, or certain constituencies that you were concerned about that you focused on? You won Kew Gardens Hills, which is a neighborhood that Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin won in 2022. Did you devote a lot of resources there or anywhere else in particular?

We tried to give each portion of the district enough time. Obviously, from the Kew Gardens Hills area, my family is very, very well-known there. People either know me or they know my parents or they know some of my sisters. So we expected a higher turnout rate from that area, but we tried to give time to College Point and to Whitestone, and to Pomonok and to Electchester.

Your opponent mentioned that some of the priority issues he was running on were crime, the migrant crisis and education. What were your priorities in the message you delivered to voters?

I tried to focus on making promises that I could keep and understanding what I can do as a member of the Assembly, and what I can’t do. I am a staunch believer in, right now, listening to the constituents and what they want. What I was hearing was public safety being the No. 1 issue. People were concerned about quality-of-life crime and dealing with that. And that’s why I was humbled to have the support of the Police Benevolent Association. After that, it was education. This being a very, very diverse district – with 32% of the population being from the Asian community, with the Orthodox Jewish community, the Black community, the Hispanic community – and finding that education was a very shared value. We all have children at the end of the day, and we all want them, our kids, to have the resources that they need to thrive in the future. So that was something that we were running on, because that was something that I found was common ground and a shared value within the whole of the district.

On those two issues, public safety and education, are there any specific policies or priorities that you want to pursue in the Legislature?

There are, but there’s nothing specific that I’d like to go into yet. We’re still having conversations, and I want to find out where I can make the most impactful difference. So we’re still just honing in on how we’re going to make the most of what we’re doing.

One of the issues your opponent focused on was the asylum-seeker crisis. Where do you stand on migrant shelters being set up in your district? Do you see yourself having any role to play on this issue in the Assembly?

I certainly think that this is an issue that’s going to be prevalent, and we need to work on it. I believe that leadership needs to work on this and come up with solutions, and to that end, I’m willing to work with the mayor, with the state Legislature, with the federal government, to make sure that we can get this done. Because I don’t think that this is a Democratic issue, I don’t think that it’s a Republican issue, I think that this is an American issue. We need to stop politicizing it, and just work with what we have. I know that for my own district, the constituents do not want another shelter. And I want to work with leadership to make sure that we create solutions that have long-lasting positive change, as opposed to just placing the blame game on each other.

Some Democrats are concerned about districts that Republican might have an opportunity to pick up in upcoming elections – some purple-ish districts that share characteristics with yours. What does your victory say about what Democrats need to do to win those seats going into the future?

I think we need to work to make sure we’re understanding what the constituents are asking for. At the end of the day, we represent not what our own desires are, but the people that we represent. And so we have to be making sure that we’re constantly listening to our constituents, that we’re constantly on the ground talking to people. I think that the country as a whole is becoming very much, “Are you on the blue team or are you on the red team?” And this is not a sports game. We need to find our common ground, find our shared values, and look at the local issues. Especially at the state Legislature, especially when you’re dealing with the City Council. Look at the local issues that your constituents are facing. And we have to work on that, and make sure that we’re improving that as much as possible before we do anything else. Because if we don’t do that, if we don’t come away from our extremes and be able to look at people who we don’t necessarily agree with and talk to them and work with them – if we don’t do that, then we’re going to tear ourselves apart.