State Sen. Brian Benjamin’s seat isn’t cold yet – in fact, it’s not even technically vacant – but the race to replace him is already heating up. With the Harlem Democrat set to officially become lieutenant governor after Labor Day, it seems that everyone who lives there has some interest in getting in on the special election. The insular world of Harlem Democratic politics doesn’t often change, and this election may prove no different. But with a recent shakeup at the City Council level and potentially more special elections on the way, change may be coming to the neighborhood nonetheless.
Benjamin won’t get sworn in as lieutenant governor until after Sept. 6 so that the special election to fill his state Senate District 30 seat will align with the general election in November, when New Yorkers will be electing a new mayor, comptroller and many City Council Members. That’s good news for turnout, as special elections generally attract lower numbers of voters. But the real fight for the seat will happen before voters ever have a chance to weigh in. The candidates interested in the seat have to win the favor of the Manhattan Democratic County Committee in order to make it onto the ballot.
Unlike nonpartisan municipal special elections in New York City, candidates for state specials are chosen by the party without a primary process. Although candidates who don’t have party backing could gather petition signatures and run as independents, winning against the Democratic nominee would be exceedingly difficult and has rarely – if ever – happened in New York City. And without real competition from Republicans, if they run a candidate at all, the Democratic nominee is all but assured to win the actual election. Under the current special election system, local party leaders are effectively able to handpick the person who will take over the seat before the voters head to the ballot box.
With that in mind, the many candidates looking at, or rumored to be looking at, the state Senate seat will have to make their case to party leaders before the voters. And the list of interested people is long, beginning with the Assembly members who already represent part of the district. The likely frontrunner is Assembly Member Inez Dickens, whose spokesperson confirmed to City & State that she is running and that “she is in it to win it.” Dickens’ district overlaps the most with state Senate District 30 out of the six Assembly districts included in it, and she’s a Harlem power player in her own right. She recently held a birthday fundraiser attended by, among others, former Rep. Charles Rangel, who still holds influence in the neighborhood as part of the old Harlem Democratic machine. With roots in the district that begin with her representing it in the City Council, her ties to party leaders and the area she already represents, Dickens likely has the most institutional support needed to succeed in the special election.
Assembly Member Al Taylor has also said he wants to take over the seat, declaring as much at the event naming Benjamin as the new lieutenant governor. If either he or Dickens win in November, that will trigger another special election to replace them, and likely will see a similar pool of candidates competing.
There are plenty of people who don’t currently hold elected office who are preparing for a race. Among them is Ali Diini, a community organizer and Democratic Socialists of America member who wants to expand the progressive group’s influence in Harlem. She has already been endorsed by incoming City Council Member Kristin Richardson Jordan, a fellow DSA member who narrowly beat Council Member Bill Perkins in the primary for District 9. “A lot of people are just ready for some change and some radical changes, actually,” Diini said. She acknowledged that winning the support of the Manhattan Democratic Committee might be tough, but said that she intends to run in next year’s primary even if she doesn’t win this year. “From as long as I’ve known, I was only seeing one person on the Democratic ticket during the primaries for state Senate and Assembly,” Diini said. Her election, like Richardson Jordan’s, would represent a major shift in the insular world of Harlem politics.
Another first time candidate is Shana Harmongoff, who most recently served as Benjamin’s district office director and director of community affairs. She was also part of Benjamin’s campaign when he was elected in 2017 through a special election. “I am actually just fortunate to have a relationship with the county committee, just by way of going through the process with Sen. Benjamin,” Harmongoff said. Seen by some political observers in the area as a strong, young candidate, she added that the interest of sitting Assembly members will not deter her. “I think I'm just as prepared, if not more prepared, than the other two electeds that stated that they were interested in running for the position.”
Other names have been floated as well. Kim Watkins, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for Manhattan borough president this year, told City & State that she is thinking about a campaign for the Senate seat. Political observers in Harlem also said that many candidates who ran for City Council District 9 are considering jumping into this special election as well, including Athena Moore and Cordell Cleare, who finished third and fourth in the June primary, respectively. Several Harlem-based political strategists and consultants including Keisha Sutton-James – granddaughter of civil rights leader Percy Sutton – have also been mentioned as potential contenders.
A current unknown factor in this special election is the role that the Working Families Party might play. Although there is no primary process for the seat this year, the WFP could nominate their own candidate to compete against the Democrats’ pick for the position. This wouldn’t be the first time they did this – Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou ran on the WFP line 2016 in a special election for her current seat, although ultimately lost that particular race. A spokesperson for the party said “we’re paying close attention to the race,” but did not say whether it would run its own candidate.
Many of the same names may appear again if the county party taps Dickens or Taylor as the nominee in November. Winning that race would leave their own seats vacant, triggering yet another special election. It would likely continue the musical chairs of Harlem politicians and up-and-comers with ties to the party. Benjamin, who is close to Manhattan Democratic Party Chair Keith Wright, won his seat in a 2017 special election. Taylor was elected in a special election too, replacing his former boss Denny Farrell effectively as his hand-picked successor in 2017 as well. Dickens replaced Perkins in the City Council in 2006, who then won his seat again in a 2016 special election when Dickens ran for Wright’s Assembly seat after he chose not to seek reelection. Perkins returned after serving in the 30th Senate District, taking over for David Paterson, who had left to become lieutenant governor. Coming back to the City Council opened up the state Senate seat for Benjamin, which is open once again after its inhabitant was tapped (again) to be lieutenant governor. The more things change, the more they stay the same. But with Richardson Jordan upsetting Perkins to win his Council Seat, the shuffling in Harlem happening now may yet still lead to big changes.