The scramble is on for Rep. Jose Serrano’s House seat in the Bronx, as a slew of young politicians line up to run for the retiring congressman’s seat. Many of them, including New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres, 31, and Assemblyman Michael Blake, 36, are part of a rising class of elected officials in New York City who are young, ambitious progressives of color. The demographics and ideology of the city’s political leadership is catching up that of its rank-and-file voters.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 29, is the most famous example of this new generation, but she hardly stands alone. First-time candidates Zellnor Myrie, 32, Jessica Ramos, 33, and Julia Salazar, 28, swept establishment state senators out of office in the 2018 primaries, with campaigns that turned out large numbers of young voters. Last year also saw then-City Councilman Jumaane Williams, 42, nearly unseat Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, winning a New York Times endorsement over his incumbent opponent and setting the stage for his triumphant run for public advocate.
Members of the City Council like Torres, Antonio Reynoso, 35, and Rafael Espinal, 34, have made names for themselves by getting front and center on issues like pedestrian and bike safety, public housing and the city’s inexplicable laws against dancing. In all of these victories and headline-grabbing work, these officials have established themselves as different kinds of progressive leaders than previous generations of politicians of color in the city were.
Speaking about how politicians of color in New York City today are changing the political landscape, Espinal told City & State that is a generational shift. “I would say that there's probably one striking difference and it's our ages,” the councilman from Brooklyn said. “The ones who are here now on the council, we came in into politics at a much younger age than, let's say, Bill Thompson and Mayor (David) Dinkins did, and I think our youth has has been able to give us a different perspective of how we approach certain issues.”
Espinal, who took a leading role in doing away with the city’s Cabaret Law, told City & State that his entrance into politics was driven in part by frustration in watching legislation get crafted and implemented without the input of communities on which the laws wound up having the largest impact. “I think it's important to have representation of someone who actually experienced or experiences what what those policies and changes do to our own lives to be able to lead the conversation,” he said. With the 2017 repeal of the Cabaret Law, Espinal fought to abolish a requirement that establishments get a special license to allow dancing, which critics called racist. He also sponsored the bill that created a night mayor, an official intended to serve as a liaison between bars, restaurants and clubs and the communities around them. These issues were a logical fit for Espinal’s district, which spans blue-collar black and Latino areas from East New York to gentrifying Bushwick.
While Espinal took a more conventional path to elected office, working for City Councilman Erik Martin Dilan and winning the backing of former Assemblyman Vito Lopez's machine, many of his cohort ran successful insurgent campaigns – including Ramos, Myrie and Salazar and Reynoso, who was chief of staff for his predecessor Diana Reyna but also defeated Lopez in a primary for the seat he currently holds.
“They're going outside of the traditional model,” said Fordham political science professor Christina Greer. “And they're making the case to their voters that, ‘Well we've had politics as usual for 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, what have our communities gotten? And so why don't you take a chance and actually see if you can imagine, or reimagine a different type of politics?’”
Ironically, many of these African-American and Latino officials were elected in part because of the votes of mostly white, relatively affluent artists and professionals who recently moved into their districts. Salazar’s support came heavily from the gentrified areas of her North Brooklyn district, including Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Ocasio-Cortez and Ramos did best in the gentrifying Western Queens neighborhoods, such as Astoria and Woodside, in their overlapping districts. Adem Bunkeddeko, 31, who won the New York Times endorsement and came within 1,100 votes of unseating Rep. Yvette Clarke, also did best in the gentrified sections, including Park Slope and Windsor Terrace, of Clarke’s predominantly African-American and Caribbean-American district. Myrie won in part by carrying the gentrifying areas of the 20th state Senate District in Brooklyn, such as Prospect Heights.
But Myrie also hung tough in neighborhoods where incumbent Jesse Hamilton had the most support, such as eastern Crown Heights. He argued that his vision for fixing the city’s housing crisis was what put him over the top and that his policies will specifically help the black and Latino voters of the district. “The issues that affect the working-class people in our district, primarily housing, has been one that has been persistent, and the crisis has occurred under the old way leadership,” Myrie told City & State. “These are people that claim to have been carrying the mantle for the black working class, and who were selling themselves out to the real estate industry, and so the fact that I ran explicitly on stemming and mitigating our affordable housing crisis, I think is tells you very clearly who the victor is going to be.” Salazar made a similar argument against then-state Sen. Martin Dilan, whose tenure coincided with rapid housing cost increases in the district.
The focus on bringing in newer voters and a fresher message than the previous or entrenched leaders in government has also allowed this younger generation of electeds to penetrate institutions that historically usually backed white politicians. The Times, for example, endorsed Mark Green over Fernando Ferrer for mayor in the 2001 Democratic primary and Christine Quinn over Bill Thompson in 2013, but it picked Williams over Hochul and then tapped Williams again for public advocate this year.
According to Greer, elite, mostly white, liberal institutions like the Times editorial board are increasingly willing to hear out candidates with campaigns based on issues instead of resumes. Greer said that Williams got the Times endorsement “because he was a candidate that had some really interesting ideas.”
“Whereas, what was the point of Kathy Hochul?” Greer continued. “She hadn't done anything for four years years, whereas Jumaane actually had ideas. I don't think that people were voting for him because you know, he was some young, quote unquote, articulate black man, I think the people were voting for him because he actually represented someone who wanted to work in the job, and actually had an agenda.”
The new public advocate himself echoed that idea. “Identity politics, your race, religion, gender, where you live, it's still a thing, for various reasons, good and bad, you can never discount,” Williams told City & State. “But I believe that we're seeing that people, if your message is stronger than the person you identify with, are willing to listen.”
The landscape for running for office has changed for new candidates as well. Term limits for the New York City Council and citywide offices have opened seats to new contenders who don’t have to take on entrenched incumbents every election cycle. Williams and other elected officials credited the city’s public campaign financing system as a change that has helped the next generation of progressive leaders of color who were previously put at a disadvantage against older politicians and those with more access to large donors.
“Most importantly, I think public financing helped a whole generation of people who normally would not get into this arena,” Williams said. “As a community organizer, without campaign finance reform, I don't know if I would have been elected to the City Council.” Referring to Cuomo’s campaign war chest last year, he contrasted the state and city election systems. “I had a message that people liked when I ran for lieutenant governor, but I didn't have the money to compete with $30 million,” Williams said. “On the city level, I did, because of public financing.”
Espinal echoed Williams’ endorsement of public financing, telling City & State it helps candidates from less-wealthy areas get citywide reach. “Especially representing the neighborhoods like East New York, where there is very little wealth for me to tap into to run in the citywide race – if it wasn't for public financing, I wouldn't have a shot at running,” Espinal said about his recent public advocate campaign.
The internet has also broken down fences that younger, less-connected candidates would previously have had to climb over, both in terms of fundraising appeals and media coverage from newer local outlets and national sites that promote younger insurgent voices. And, of course, the internet gives opportunities to candidates to communicate outside of traditional media avenues.
“The biggest change (in city politics), I would say, is how we're able to communicate,” Espinal said. “And I think that social media plays a large role in that, we all now now have an avenue to be able to talk about the issues we’re working on and are able to reach a much broader audience. That has allowed folks who might have a tougher time gaining traction in the media to be able to get the word out. And I think that has opened up the opportunity for more folks who probably wouldn't normally be tuned in to local politics and see what's happening and also help fuel like candidacies, like AOC, and future young leaders.”
And so while, for example, the Queens machine is nodding to demographic changes in their borough by replacing Joe Crowley as county leader with African-American Rep. Gregory Meeks, younger, more progressive-minded candidates in communities of color are embracing avenues that don’t rely on machine politics to get started or advance in local politics. “Seeing these electeds be successful is having a huge impact,” Brandon West, the president of the reformist New Kings Democrats, told City & State. “I think it’s also the realization that you can create your own models for power. It's not just, ‘OK, you have to talk to your elected, and they’re the district leader also, and then you’ve got to join this club, and you have to follow our leaders and go get signatures for our judges before you can really be involved.’ You don't have to do that. You just speak to people about what matters to you, show up and start applying pressure.”
The visibility of these young elected officials may even inspire people in their neighborhoods to pay more attention to politics. “One of my favorite stories that I’ve heard,” Williams said, “was somebody telling a friend of his, who’s probably a bit more into street life than they are into politics, that they worked for an elected official. And the first thing that person said was, ‘I don’t really dabble in politics.’ And then once she told him who she worked for, the person said, ‘Oh I fucks with him,’” Williams said, laughing as he recounted the constituent’s profane expression of approval. “That's a highlight for me of why we need to continue doing what we're doing, because we’re reaching people who may not be engaged, getting them engaged, and seeing the transformation that happening around them in a positive way.”