News & Politics

Inside DSA deliberations on Juan Ardila’s Assembly seat

An endorsement forum is expected next month that could have a major influence on the primary race to oust the incumbent.

Bernie Sanders supporters gather at a large rally in western Queens.

Bernie Sanders supporters gather at a large rally in western Queens. Getty Images

As embattled Assembly Member Juan Ardila continues to resist calls for his resignation following allegations of sexual misconduct, progressives are already scrambling to replace him. That includes the local branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, who stayed out of the race last year. The organization has scheduled an endorsement forum on Sept. 11 for District 37 in western Queens, and at least two candidates will seek the group’s backing in the Democratic primary next year. 

The DSA holds significant influence in western Queens. Socialist state Sen. Kristen Gonzalez represents part of the district in the upper chamber, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and City Council Member Tiffany Cabán represent neighboring communities. Picking up District 37 in the Assembly would give the organization an even greater foothold in the area.

Émilia Decaudin, a DSA staffer and district leader who previously expressed an interest in running for the seat last year, and Claire Valdez, a community organizer, have both applied for the DSA endorsement and will participate in the September forum. Members of the organization’s electoral working group will gather to hear from candidates seeking an endorsement, and afterwards will hold a vote on who to recommend to the broader local branch. Once members of the local branch vote on who to endorse, that candidate is sent to the citywide leadership committee for final sign-off. “The process itself has a lot of voting, it’s a very democratic, member-led process,” Grace Mausser, a member of the NYC-DSA electoral working group, told City & State. “And hundreds of members have the opportunity to weigh in at different stages, and we do that because… we really value that our endorsement is not a paper endorsement.”

So far, only Decaudin has officially announced her candidacy, a decision that did not sit well with at least some members of the DSA. “I’ve heard nothing but good things about Émilia, but since she’s running as a Democratic Socialist, it’s disappointing she’s announced before DSA started our endorsement process,” DSA member Alex Pellitteri wrote in a July tweet. “The socialist candidate for this seat should be whoever we democratically decide to endorse.” Decaudin announced last month that she was running for the seat as a small-d democratic socialist, though not as part of the DSA. According to progressive sources with knowledge of conversations happening among DSA organizers, Pellitteri was not alone in his discontent with Decaudin’s decision to announce before the formal endorsement process.

When asked by City & State, Decaudin said she would “absolutely” suspend her campaign if DSA chose to endorse another candidate like Valdez. She previously told City & State that she chose not to launch a campaign last year when progressives coalesced around Ardila for the Assembly seat so as not to split the leftwing vote. The DSA also focused heavily on state Sen. Kristen Gonzalez’s race, which overlaps with the Assembly district, last year, according to Mausser. The organization generally endorses a small slate of candidates in order to offer significant support to those it’s backing, so the DSA often only gets involved in a handful of races to preserve its resources.

Valdez has filed to run in the district, but has not formally announced a campaign yet. She confirmed to City & State that she will participate in the September endorsement forum, and that like Decaudin, would not challenge the DSA candidate if members don’t back her. “Our power as an organization comes from collective decision making and uniting behind the will of the many, not the few,” Valdez said in a text. “So of course, I would suspend my campaign and support the DSA candidate.”

Mausser said that there’s nothing wrong with a candidate seeking the backing of DSA announcing their campaign before the formal internal endorsement process. “It actually happens quite commonly, and it’s not disqualifying in any way,” she said. “I can’t control what an individual member feels about it, but it’s happened many times, and often needs to happen for campaign logistical reasons.” Mausser gave the examples of state Sen. Jabari Brisport and Jason Salmon both seeking the DSA endorsement after announcing their campaigns in the 2020 race for an open Brooklyn state Senate seat, and City Council Member Crystal Hudson and Michael Hollingsworth in the 2021 race for an open New York City Council seat. But in those cases, neither Salmon nor Hudson suspended their campaigns after losing the DSA endorsement. Mausser says the organization asks candidates in the endorsement questionnaire what they would do if the DSA backed someone else. And while it’s not a requirement to receive the endorsement, the organization generally hopes that those candidates would drop out to support the backed candidate.

Although it’s not uncommon for candidates to announce before DSA makes its endorsement decision, member Alex McCoy argued that this year and this race is different from those in the past. “Past cycles, there may have been, yes, multiple candidates seeking the endorsement,” McCoy, who supports Decaudin and will be able to vote on the endorsement as a local branch member, told City & State. “But in every case I can think of, there was a clear front-runner, obvious choice, and I think in this case, it’s less obvious.” He called it a “sign of continued growth and strength” for the DSA in New York, which has grown its influence in state and local government despite a less-than-stellar electoral cycle last year.

A third candidate, housing organizer Hailie Kim who unsuccessfully ran for the City Council this year, has also filed to run in the 37th Assembly District, and sources say that she also requested a DSA endorsement questionnaire. It’s unclear whether she returned the questionnaire and will participate in the September forum. “Hailie is focused on her family following the loss of her grandfather, so we’ll have nothing campaign-related to announce this week,” Chris Sosa, who identified himself with the Kim campaign, told City & State in a text. Kim has not formally announced a campaign yet.

Correction: This article previously said that Michael Hollingsworth didn’t suspend his campaign after losing the DSA endorsement. Hollingsworth received the endorsement and Crystal Hudson did not suspend her campaign.

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