New Yorkers elected a new city council November 3, with some remarkable, and contradictory, results. Some incumbents were sent packing, some new progressives were elected and some important victories were gained over the Brooklyn Democratic Party machine. At the same time, the pernicious effects of racism were exposed in some races, most notably the 19th district, in Queens.
Overall, the election results were better than might have been expected. Some of these important results are mentioned above. Another is that, for the first time in this city’s more than 400-year history, most seats in the council are held by an African American, Latino, or Asian American, meaning that the council much more accurately represents the complexion of this predominately racially and nationally oppressed city. Four members, or about eight percent of the new council, will be openly gay, the highest number yet.
In addition, about 25 percent of the incoming council’s members will be non-incumbents, i.e. new members. This is for various reasons: some went off to fight for higher office, others simply retired. But there is another, more important reason: popular revulsion with those city councilors who agreed to go along with Bloomberg’s plan to override the will of New Yorkers and overturn the results of two term limits referenda-thus paving the way for himself to run for a third term. Many have seen this as an undemocratic power grab. Five incumbents were defeated, at least partially due to complicity in Bloomberg’s power grab, marking the highest number of sitting councilors thrown out in nearly two decades.
At the same time, there were some serious setbacks. Two council seats were lost to Republicans, giving that party a total of five out of 51 seats. Worse still, one of the seats they picked up can be attributed to anti-Asian racism.
John Liu, the first Asian-American ever elected to any city office, left his council seat in the 20th district, which includes Flushing and surrounding Queens communities, to fight for-and win-the seat of city comptroller. There were several Democratic candidates who ran in the primary. Two Korean Americans, two Chinese Americans and a white candidate. In this district, the necessity was to build a coalition of Korean and Chinese people, as well as the relatively small African American community and some of the white population in order avoid a vote fractured along ethnic lines-and losing to the Republican.
John Choe, one of the Korean American candidates and Liu’s former chief of staff, was in the best position to do this: he had worked for years with the entire community, and had the backing of the Queens Democratic Party. However, his candidacy was not able to overcome the divisions, especially given that another candidate, S.J. Jung, also a Korean American, received the backing of the Working Families Party. Choe ultimately lost to the little known Chinese American candidate Yen Chou, who lost to the (also Chinese) Republican candidate Peter Koo. It is worth noting that the margin of difference was less than the total number of votes cast for the Working Families Party and Green Party candidates if they were combined.
In the 19th council district, in Queens, Democrat and Korean-American Kevin Kim lost to Republican heathen Dan Halloran for the seat given up by Democrat Tony Avella. This, the other Republican pickup, looks to be due entirely to racism. Halloran ran an almost openly racist campaign, in which he essentially told voters that were Kim to be elected, Asian developers would change the entire community to look like (overwhelmingly Asian) downtown Flushing.
To make matters worse, the term used above, “heathen,” was not an insult: this is what Halloran calls himself. In fact, he’s a member of a bizarre religious sect called Theodism, which describes itself as heathen. This sect worships the gods and goddesses of Northern Europe-and has been linked to extreme racial beliefs.
Also, Kim’s Asian campaign workers were reportedly harassed and surrounded by white thugs who chanted “white power” and “Asian man out!” all while carrying Halloran paraphernalia. It is clear that, in a district that is very much Catholic-and therefore not predisposed to vote for heathens and where Asian American campaign workers were set upon, and which had been previously Democratic, that the use of racism was the primary reason for Kim’s loss.
It would be wrong to paint all whites in the 19th district as racist, of course. Halloran, beat Kim by only about 1,300 votes, so it is clear that at least a good section of the area’s white population voted for Kim. Clearly, there is a basis here for the struggle against anti-Asian racism going forward.
At the same time, there were strong gains for Asian Americans. As mentioned above, John Liu, who was born in China’s Taiwan province, has become the first-ever Asian-American elected to any citywide position. Also, Margaret Chin defeated incumbent Alan Gerson in the Democratic primary in the first city council district in Manhattan, making her the first ever Chinese representative of the district that includes Chinatown. Both of these elections are historic steps forward for the Asian American community, and New Yorkers should celebrate them.
In the 34th district, which represents Williamsburg and Bushwick, Brooklyn, as well as Ridgewood, Queens, incumbent Democrat Diana Reyna handily defeated, by a margin of 60-35 percent, her main opponent, Maritza Davila.
While Reyna is an incumbent Democrat, this race represents a victory for the grassroots. Vito Lopez, who represents the Brooklyn Democratic Party machine, and is notorious for alleged patronage and corruption scandals, and who is known to place people into office based on their allegiance to him, backed Davila, because Reyna, in essence, decided to fight for affordable housing instead of take Lopez’s orders.
Even though she lost the Democratic primary, Lopez decided to take Davila to the general election anyway, on the Working Families Party line: He made an unholy alliance between himself, Democratic clubs he controls, the WFP and the Catholic Church. (The Brooklyn diocese is particularly thankful to Lopez for helping to scuttle state-level legislation that would have lifted the statute of limitations on child rape; the church claimed that if all their victims in Brooklyn and Queens were awarded compensation, the diocese would likely be bankrupted.)
Lopez failed miserably, delivering a rout to the Brooklyn Democratic machine, and empowering progressive currents within the party there.
On Staten Island’s north shore, in a blow against racism, Debi Rose was elected the first African American council person to serve any area of the Island. In addition, Rose is openly progressive; she’s a member of Staten Island’s Peace Action and other organizations.
In uptown Manhattan, Ydanis Rodriguez, who is connected to Dominican left organizations, won with 94.7 percent of the vote-10,672 ballots to 592-after winning about 60 percent of the vote in a six-way primary. Rodriguez has been a staple figure in New York City progressive politics, especially in the fight for immigration reform.
In the primary elections, Jumaane Williams beat incumbent Kendall Stewart in the 45th district in Brooklyn, making him the first Grenadian to ever occupy a seat in the council. So ebullient was the Grenadian population, in New York City and abroad, Williams and his family were invited to meet with, and be congratulated by, the Prime Minister of Grenada. Williams beat Stewart in a six-way primary race by 12 points. Stewart, unpopular for siding with Mayor Michael Bloomberg in changing city term limit laws over the objections of city voters, ran on the Independence Party line in the general elections, after running an extremely dirty campaign. In that election, he suffered an even worse defeat, by a difference of 59.1 points.
Williams, who is only 32, has worked with progressive city council members, including Rosie Mendez, D-Manhattan and others, and has spent his time fighting for housing rights.
Of course, New York City has a number of progressive city councilors who were reelected. Perhaps the most well-loved on this list would be Letitia James, who enjoys an almost celebrity status in Brooklyn, as well as around the other boroughs, for her work in civil and human rights, as well as leading the fight against Forest City Rattner, a multi-billion dollar developer aiming to demolish much of the Fort Greene and Prospect Heights sections of Brooklyn in order to build luxury condos.
Twice in this discussion the Working Families Party was mentioned as playing a nefarious role. This fact cannot be avoided, but, at the same time, it is important not to demonize the WFP. Virtually all of the elected progressives (aside from Reyna) were backed by them. As the party is based in the city’s labor movement, both the progressive and reactionary trends on display in the latter are also on display in the former. As we were so glaringly shown in the mayoral race, there are some big divisions in the labor movement-and they were also on display in these elections as well. The question for progressives becomes not how to defeat the Working Families Party, but how to help it, and all of labor, become more united, and to defeat reactionary trends. A weakening of the WFP would be a weakening of the progressive movement. The same goes for labor overall: progressives must work to help unite the labor movement.
Further, the Working Families Party is now leading or has recently led a number of important campaigns: it is fighting to ensure that all New Yorkers are eligible for paid sick days; it fought for fair share tax reform a few months ago; and, in what may have been its most heroic move this election cycle, the party fought a strong, if unsuccessful, battle to stop Bloomberg from overturning the term limits law.
This is only a brief sampling of some of the more exciting races, and some preliminary analysis, but even here it can be seen that the results of the elections were contradictory: some reasons for jubilant optimism, as well as reasons to renew important fights, especially against racism (as the mayoral election showed) are on display.
The struggle continues.