Campaigns & Elections

A fight for the progressive soul of Western Queens

Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas and DSA-backed Zohran Mamdani compete over the same platform in Astoria.

DSA Candidate for Assembly District 36 Zohran Mamdani.

DSA Candidate for Assembly District 36 Zohran Mamdani. Submitted

The New York City Democratic Socialists of America may not have started in Western Queens, but with the election of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018, it did become the birthplace of the current DSA movement in New York. She provided proof of concept – a progressive DSA candidate is capable of unseating an entrenched Democratic Party-backed incumbent.

Now the DSA is looking to capitalize on the energy in the area by targeting an Astoria Assembly district. A win on June 23 would help reaffirm the DSA’s power in the part of New York City where its influence has been most prominent, especially after a narrow loss in last year’s Queens district attorney race.

The group has backed Zohran Mamdani, a housing counselor for foreclosure prevention, in the Democratic primary for Assembly District 36. He’s running against Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas, a 10-year incumbent backed by the Queens County Democratic Party who is now facing her first primary challenger. “We are infusing this Assembly district with the first true grassroots campaign in years,” Mamdani told City & State. 

Because of her progressive record, Simotas doesn’t fit the mold of other DSA-targeted incumbents. Although recent election results show that DSA-backed candidates do well in Simotas’ Western Queens district, Mamdani, a recent transplant to the borough, still faces an uphill battle in challenging her from the left.

Based on their policy platforms, very little seems to separate Simotas and Mamdani. Both candidates support canceling rent during the coronavirus crisis, passing tenant protections that amount to universal rent control, eliminating cash bail and raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for public services.

That has made it hard for Mamdani to gain widespread traction in the insurgent progressive wing of the Democratic Party. “I’ve worked with Aravella, and I’m not quite sure how you could be more left-leaning than she is,” said Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, who won a 2018 race against a party-backed incumbent in a nearby Queens district and has endorsed Simotas. Asked about Mamdani’s assertions that Simotas is too close to the Queens Democratic Party, Cruz brushed aside the criticism as irrelevant. “For me, what matters is what have you done for your community,” Cruz said. Cruz added that she questioned campaigns whose only goal is to challenge the machine, which she asserted no longer has power in Western Queens anyway.

Mamdani has framed his campaign as challenging the county’s Democratic political machine. He has questioned Simotas’ ties to the party, pointing to it supporting her in her first race and her employment of political consultants used by other machine-backed politicians. Simotas took issue with the accusation that she’s too close to the Queens County Democratic Party. “I call them out when they do something wrong,” Simotas told City & State. She gave examples, including denouncing the party for endorsing Donovan Richards in the nonpartisan special election for Queens borough president. She thought the contest should have remained an open race free of party interference. Asked about the county organization’s backing in her own 2010 open primary, she said the organization chose to endorse her, but she would have run without its blessing.

Simotas also pointed to when she called on Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie to send a bill to Gov. Andrew Cuomo for signing during the contentious Queens district attorney recount between Cabán and then-Borough President Melinda Katz. The bill, which passed before the election but sat unsigned, allows more affidavit ballots to be considered valid even if they contained minor technical mistakes. Cabán supporters, of whom Mamdani was one, believed it would have allowed more of her votes to be counted.

But Mamdani also said that he was not challenging Simotas simply because her district is in the heart of the DSA’s hotbed of support. He raised several issues with her record on education, housing, state spending and unions. Mamdani pointed to a 2015 bill that Simotas co-sponsored, which never came to a vote, that would have provided tax credits for donations to private school scholarships and a budget vote the same year that tied teacher evaluations to state test scores. Teachers unions strongly opposed tying evaluations to test scores and have fought for years to undo the mandate. Left-wing education advocates generally disapprove of any public subsidies for private schools, arguing that education funding should go to public schools. Mamdani also said Simotas sued to stop a homeless shelter from being placed in her district back in 2014. And he attacked her for voting for Cuomo’s first budget in 2011 that included many cuts amid a $10 billion shortfall, and for voting in favor of slashing public employee pensions in 2012. The latter bill was a Cuomo proposal that passed quickly after its introduction as part of a package of contentious issues with little time for public scrutiny. “When you never have a challenger, there isn’t much accountability,” Mamdani said. “And in this race, we’re also trying to make it clear that the reason I’m challenging this person has been voting over the past decade.”

Simotas defended her two budget votes, saying that sometimes compromises must be made when it comes to the massive omnibus bills in order to get the good parts. This year, Simotas voted against the budget because of the freeze to school aid, the lack of new taxes on the ultrawealthy and rollbacks on bail reform. 

When it came to education more generally, Simotas said she was able to secure $5 million for her community’s schools last year. “Teachers and parents know my commitment to public education and that is why I have earned the support of the (United Federation of Teachers) and (New York State United Teachers) for my reelection,” Simotas said in an email. When asked about her 2012 pension reform vote, she similarly pointed to public union support for her reelection. 

Simotas also denied that she ever opposed providing shelter for the homeless, saying that she sued Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration because it was excluding the community from the discussion around making a temporary shelter in the area permanent. “Instead of going through the normal process of land use, (de Blasio) was just pushing it and claiming it was an emergency,” Simotas said, adding that the shelter was operating rooms without kitchens, which she found unacceptable. 

However, the shelter was a contentious neighborhood issue, and many in Astoria opposed it outright. “We didn’t want a homeless shelter in this community,” Rose Marie Poveromo, president of a local civic association, said at a 2015 town hall.

Aside from the specific votes that he brought up, Simotas supports nearly every position in Mamdani’s platform. Mamdani wants to pass the New York Health Act, which would create a single-payer health care system statewide; Simotas has voted in favor of it each of the past four times it was brought to the Assembly floor. Mamdani wants to pass universal rent control; Simotas is a co-sponsor on every piece of legislation that makes up the Housing Justice for All coalition’s platform, including a good cause eviction bill considered the cornerstone of universal rent control and a bill to create a pied-à-terre tax. Mamdani wants U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement out of courtrooms; Simotas penned a letter in 2017 asking that courts restrict immigration agents’ access. “I work exceptionally hard in Albany to write and pass progressive legislation, and that has been recognized by my neighbors,” Simotas told City & State.

Simotas recently became the first state lawmaker to donate campaign money from police groups in the wake of citywide protests against police brutality and racism. Simotas, who is co-sponsoring a bill that would repeal the law protecting police disciplinary records from public view, said in a tweet it was “time to draw a CLEAR line in the sand.” The move came after a Mamdani supporter tweeted a spreadsheet of lawmakers who had accepted police-related donations, and Mamdani celebrated when she returned the money less than 24 hours after the post.

Simotas has also long fought for more protections for women against sexual assault. In 2019, she sponorsed a law that amended the statute of limitations for second- and third-degree rape, and she currently sponsors a bill to redefine rape to remove the penetration requirement that so far has only passed the Assembly. She was one of the key lawmakers pushing for a slate of landmark sexual harassment reforms that passed last year, along with state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, who has endorsed Simotas. 

Biaggi said Simotas was the first Assembly member she sat down with after winning her primary, offering to partner on the package of sexual harassment legislation. “She doesn’t back down; she doesn’t take no for an answer,” Biaggi told City & State, noting that she’s seen Simotas stand up to legislative leaders. “In my time working with her, I’ve seen nothing but her working being a champion for the people who are incredibly vulnerable.”

But Mamdani is not just challenging Simotas on her legislative track record. He said that her endorsements show she is out of touch with her district, which he called one of the most progressive in the state. The area went for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton, whom Simotas endorsed, in the 2016 presidential election. It swung for Ocasio-Cortez rather than the Simotas-endorsed Rep. Joseph Crowley in 2018. The same year, the district voted for Zephyr Teachout for state attorney general and Cynthia Nixon for governor while Simotas remained silent in those contests. And in 2019, it went for Cabán over party-backed Katz, another race where Simotas was neutral. “I think if we’re looking to have someone who is a representative, they should be representing where the district is at in terms of the progressive vision they want to see,” Mamdani said.

Simotas countered that she endorsed progressive Jessica Ramos in her race against former IDC state Sen. Jose Peralta in 2018, bucking the Democratic Party’s stance to not back IDC challengers. Simotas also said she focused on Crowley’s established history and the ways he could leverage his leadership position in the House of Representatives to help the district, but that she now works very well with Ocasio-Cortez, who she finds inspiring. And Simotas said she chose not to support Katz despite being pressured by some to do so. Asked why not then endorse Cabán, if she supported criminal justice reform, Simotas said she didn’t know her well enough at the time. “I see myself primarily as a legislator and not a politician,” Simotas said, in contrast to Mamdani’s assertion that her bully pulpit is equally important. “All my energy was devoted to passing my bills on sexual harassment, expanding the statute of limitations for rape and reforming the criminal justice system, because I believe that’s the best way I can serve my constituents.”

Up until the end of 2018, Mamdani was not one of those constituents. Fitting with the common criticism of the DSA that they are wealthy transplants, Mamdani, 28, lived in Morningside Heights, Manhattan, from the age of 7, when he emigrated from Uganda, until he moved to Astoria a year and a half ago. Mamdani and his family are ethnically Indian. In a podcast Mamdani recorded in March 2016, he said he was living in a “lush apartment” rent-free. “My parents’ house, son!” he shouted into the mic. By his own description and according to voter registration records, he still lived at his parents’ Manhattan address on Riverside Drive until he moved to Astoria.

Mamdani also grew up affluent. His mother is Oscar-nominated filmmaker Mira Nair. For years, Nair owned a Chelsea condo that she rented out for $6,500 a month. She put it on the market in 2017 for $1.85 million. The family lived, and his parents still do, in Columbia University housing, where his father is a professor. 

In many ways, Mamdani fits into the demographic accused of gentrifying Western Queens and contributing to the affordability crisis that is central to his campaign. Some have pointed to those wealthy transplants to explain the recent leftward swing for DSA-backed candidates that Mamdani said is evidence of Simotas being out of touch with her community.

Mamdani did not deny the economic realities of his upbringing. “I have never claimed to grow up any other way than one where I had the privileges of economic comfort,” he said, adding that did not shield him from racism. “It didn’t stop immigration officers from pulling me aside to double-mirrored rooms and asking me if I had intentions of attacking this country, or if I just returned from a terrorist training camp.” He also said he specifically moved to Astoria because he spent time in the neighborhood visiting family, and it was a place he always felt at home as a South Asian and a Muslim New Yorker. He said one goal of his campaign is to get the Muslim community in the district more civically engaged.

Still, Mamdani’s background offers a fairly sharp contrast to Simotas’, who has lived in Astoria since she was an infant. (Like many pre-gentrification Astoria residents, Simotas is Greek American.) “My brother and I shared the living room and we slept on cots, and my parents had the bedroom,” Simotas said. “When we immigrated to the United States, that one-bedroom saved our lives, and that’s why I’m adamantly pro-tenant.” She has deep ties to the district and local affairs, having been a member of Queens Community Board 1 and the United Community Civic Association before becoming an elected official.

Although Mamdani said his campaign is inspired by his work as a housing counselor, assisting low-income minority homeowners avoid foreclosure – a job he started around the time he moved to Astoria – and his own experiences with burdensome rent, he did not consider running until he was asked to in August of 2019 by a DSA colleague. “I realized there was no time to postpone this any longer,” he said. “If you see an elected official, and you see a record that is out of place with regards to the district, and you see someone who hasn’t been representing the district … it’s incumbent upon you to challenge them.”