‘Our district was suffering’: Émilia Decaudin on why she’s challenging Juan Ardila

A socialist running in a very left-leaning district, Decaudin would be the first out trans lawmaker in the state Legislature.

Émilia Decaudin

Émilia Decaudin Corey Torpie Community Portraits

After making history as the first out trans state Democratic Committee member and one of the first two out trans district leaders, Émilia Decaudin could make history again as she announces her new bid for the Assembly. Decaudin, who uses both she/her and they/them pronouns, is looking to unseat scandal-ridden Assembly Member Juan Ardila in Sunnyside, Queens. Ardila has resisted repeated calls from former supporters and legislative leaders to resign amid allegations of sexual assault – which he has denied – and local progressive leaders have been looking for someone to run against him. Decaudin is running as a democratic socialist and plans to apply for an endorsement from the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

This isn’t Decaudin’s first run for elected office. They previously announced a campaign to unseat former Assembly Member Catherine Nolan in 2022, but ultimately dropped out after Nolan retired and Ardila shifted from running for state Senate to Assembly. A year later, Decaudin is ready to take on Ardila. They filed to run back in April, but didn’t officially announce until Tuesday

Decaudin spoke with City & State about why she chose to announce now, how she will better deliver for her constituents and the historic nature of her run. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What went into the decision to shift from exploring a run to actually announcing?

Primarily, it was coming from conversations with community members who really encouraged me to do this. I had already been motivated by the fact that we effectively don't have a representative. This is someone who's iced out from Albany, who has had his discretionary funding cut, who was pretty unproductive, even for a freshman Assembly member. And our district was suffering from that. Beyond that, there's so many needs for our district: housing, climate, street safety. Advocating for that, it's not just a matter of voting the right way; it's a matter of being an effective advocate in conference, organizing your fellow electeds. And so seeing that inaction, seeing the needs of our districts, and getting this encouragement put me over the edge.

This isn’t your first time announcing an Assembly run. Do you think you’re in a better place to run in 2024 than you were last year?

I believe so. I’ve had a lot more time to think about it. Last year, I think, happened very quickly and it wasn’t even really my idea. When Huge Ma dropped out (of the Assembly race) because of redistricting, my co-district leader and I and other folks in the community had been trying to find someone to run against (incumbent Assembly Member) Cathy Nolan. And the folks I was working with to do this started asking me, ‘Is this something you want to do?’ After a week of (them) pushing me on this and encouraging me, I decided to go for it. And then Cathy announced her retirement, the progressives decided the best thing was for Juan to move from the Senate race down to the Assembly race, and I stepped aside to let it happen. Since then, the needs of our district haven't changed. And I knew that I have the support of a core group of people around me, and that this is something that I'd be able to do if I wanted to. And I think it's the right moment.

How have you been engaging with the community since becoming a district leader after moving to Sunnyside, and how have you been received by residents who have lived there longer?

I think people really appreciated – compared to the previous leadership in the district – appreciated the fact that I was someone who was always out there. This is my home. I'm invested in these outcomes, not just because I care about people, but because this stuff affects me as a working person living in a rent stabilized apartment. I think people also saw that I was fighting for them with the same zeal that I fight for myself or more. That wasn't just for like ‘big-ticket items,’ so to speak, but also for like, very hyper-local issues. I've also been in a good position with my co-leader to start building bridges between different ideological groups, different stakeholders, to start to build that civic infrastructure that we haven't had in this district. 

Now that you have announced, is this an indicator that progressives in the district have coalesced around your candidacy as the best to take on Ardila next year?

It's a little bit early to say that. I don't want to be presumptuous about where everyone else is at, even beyond the conversations I have had with people who are supporting (me) even if it's not public yet. But I definitely feel confident that we’re going to be able to coalesce the progressive left field. Right before we got on the phone together, we had already hit $5,000 (in donations), for just today. The response that we're seeing already now, with my announcement, I think that I'm the clear choice. And I think that in a year like this, it's the right time for the progressive and left movements to be supporting trans leadership, in New York and in general. So, I'm confident that we're going to be able to bring the band back together, so to speak, and do this in a unified fashion.

If you win, you would again make history as the first, or one of the first, out trans person elected to any government office in New York. How do you view your own role as someone who breaks barriers, and what does that mean for other trans people looking to see themselves represented?

In some ways, it's a little surreal. I never saw myself as someone who would be in this position, least of all because growing up I hadn't connected to my trans identity. But it's the case, and I can't deny that. I try to see myself as part of a tradition or a chain of people who came before me, who have really made it possible for me to even be in this position: all the other state legislators who are trans in the rest of the country, Melissa Sklarz, Elisa Crespo, everyone else who's run for office in New York who’s trans. 

And from there, to flip it around, I feel like especially in this moment, I have a responsibility to bring personal and direct experience of being a trans person to the Legislature. While we have a lot of competent and dedicated allies who have been really phenomenal when it comes to supporting trans rights in the Legislature, at some point, there's always going to be a gap in terms of dedication (and) experience, when it's not personal to somebody. With everything that's going on in this country right now, I think that in some ways I have a responsibility to step up to this mantle and then be able to be someone who fights for that.