Seven Democratic state senators were ousted during last week’s primary elections by left-leaning candidates, some of whom ran on pro-tenant or even anti-development platforms.
Six of those upsets took place in New York City districts and five of the winning candidates ran on platforms focused on affordable housing. Some advocated local control over rent regulations and at least one has promised to fight upzoning altogether.
“We’re trying to figure out what’s next”
Meanwhile, in a race that drew 1.5 million voters to the polls, Gov. Andrew Cuomo fended off universal rent control advocate Cynthia Nixon with 65 percent of the vote, while Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and Letitia James, the establishment pick for attorney general, survived similar contests by narrower margins.
The top ballot results raise questions as to whether the Senate outcomes represented a progressive wave or simply backlash against the Independent Democratic Conference, or IDC, a block of Democratic senators who caucused with the Republicans.
Likewise, it’s unclear how much sway these new candidates — most of whom are all but assured a seat in the next legislature — will have once they reach Albany, where Republicans hold a slim majority in the Senate and entrenched Democrats remain plentiful.
“It’s hard to say for sure what policy shifts will actually come into play,” said Christian Hylton, a former legislative attorney and one-time lawyer for City Council.
“The influence of some of the people who have been elected with progressive agendas may pull the dialogue in a certain direction, but ultimately they’re going to face roadblocks to implementing some of their policy ideas, especially with the governor and lieutenant governor still in office.”
The most striking upset, both from a real estate perspective and for state politics at large, was Julia Salazar, a democratic socialist and first-time candidate, who defeated long-time senator Martin Dilan in rapidly-gentrifying North Brooklyn.
During a campaign that was mired in personal controversies related to her upbringing and personal background, Salazar’s top priority was changing affordable housing regulation to make it harder for landlords to raise rents. She also supported universal rent control and vowed to fight upzoning.
Salazar’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment this week.
Dilan, who was first elected in 2002, had been working with landlords and tenants in his district to craft compromise legislation to reform the Loft Law, the state’s policy on converting former industrial spaces into legal dwellings.
When reached Tuesday, Carolyn Daly, a spokeswoman for the landlord advocacy group NYC Community for Improving Residential Conversions of Lofts, or CIRCL, said the organization is still regrouping in the wake of the primary results.
“We’re trying to figure out what’s next,” Daly said. “We lost our lead sponsor on the compromise bill, which would have allowed landlords to collect rent so they could make the necessary improvements to bring these buildings up to code while still protecting the tenants.”
John Banks, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, said the industry group will work with any public official, regardless of political affiliation. He said the focus on affordable housing gives REBNY common ground with the Democratic heirs apparent.
“If there’s one common denominator among both incumbents and new elected officials it is that everyone understands the critical need for more housing in New York City,” Banks said in a statement.
“Regardless of who’s in elected office, our ability to communicate, execute, and push a policy agenda in favor of the production of more housing will resonate with people because it is based on sound economics and facts.
‟If we can work on these issues together, we are happy to engage with anyone who’s interested in trying to address the housing shortage.”
Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change, said he’s encouraged by last week’s result because he believes it will tilt the political playing landscape in favor of tenant advocacy groups.
Westin pointed to the success of candidates, such as Salazar, who used Dilan’s real estate backers as a cudgel against him, as a sign of populist disdain for development in low-income communities.
He added that his group is pushing for universal rent control and an end to the Affordable New York program in favor of the state subsidizing only fully-affordable housing projects. “We’re in for a future of more legislation that benefits tenants instead of landlords,” he said.
Democrats outnumber Republicans 32 to 31 in the state, but one Democratic senator, Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, caucuses with GOP, giving it a slim majority. The eight IDC members bolstered that majority until this past April when a deal was reached to dissolve the conference.
Six IDC members were voted out of office last Thursday, including conference leader Jeffrey Klein from the Bronx and Westchester, who lost to Alessandra Biaggi, a first-time candidate who worked as an aide for Gov. Cuomo and campaign staffer for Hillary Clinton.
Marisol Alcantara of Manhattan lost to former councilman Robert Jackson. Jesse Hamilton of Brooklyn lost to lawyer Zellnor Myrie; Tony Avella of Queens lost to former comptroller John Liu and Jose Peralta of Queens lost Jessica Ramos, the city’s former Latino Media Director.
Ramos said she’s willing to work with anyone interested in making housing affordable but noted that she would not be “beholden to real estate” or other outside interest groups.
“The progressive message has worked because it speaks to the needs of working class New Yorkers,” she said. “You don’t have to be progressive to say no to real estate or to fossil fuel companies or any other group. We want to be beholden to the people and no one else.”
IDC deputy leader David Valesky of Oneida was also ousted, while conference whip David Carlucci of Orange County held off a challenge by Julie Goldman, 54 to 46 while Diane Savino of Staten Island won her primary handily.
In order for Democrats to take control of the Senate in this November’s general election, they’ll need to flip at least one seat. Hylton said the most vulnerable incumbent is Martin Golden, a South Brooklyn Republican whose once-red 22nd District has become purple in recent years. Westin said there are a handful of competitive races on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley that his 20,000-member group is hoping to tilt to the left.
“Regardless of who’s in elected office, our ability to communicate, execute, and push a policy agenda in favor of the production of more housing will resonate with people because it is based on sound economics and facts.”
Regardless of how the general election goes, Hylton said it will be tough for Democrats in Albany to ignore the public’s response to the progressive ideal presented in the primaries, especially as they drew almost three times as many voters to the polls as four years ago. However, how that translates into policy remains to be seen.
“The progressive principles that have been forwarded by the candidates challenging IDC members now have an active voice within the state senate,” Hylton said. “It really depends on how leadership responds to it as to whether any of those proposals will be given serious consideration or enacted.”