Primary elections don’t normally receive large turnouts and this one was no different. Still, these primaries have set the stage for an exciting November general election. This week we enlisted civics reporter Felipe De La Hoz to help us understand the results and what they mean.
Epicenter: What are some of the key takeaways from Tuesday’s primaries?
Felipe: As you mention, one key takeaway certainly is that the turnout appears to have been abysmal. With almost all the votes counted, it seems like only a single primary contest surpassed 10,000 votes, and that was the “hotly contested” Upper Manhattan Council District 9, which saw just above 11,000 votes. Bear in mind that these are districts with around 170,000 people each. This is especially jarring given that this is an odd post-redistricting year, where technically the entire City Council was up for reelection, not to mention the Bronx and Queens district attorneys and a slate of civil judges, which would seem like a recipe for ample competition and voter motivation, but which in reality saw relatively few competitive contests.
Not to belabor a point that often gets raised, but in New York City, the Democratic primary may as well be the general election given the huge imbalance between Democratic and Republican voters in most of the city (of course, we’ve also written about the growth of a local MAGA movement, and there are certainly areas of the city where that’s not the case, but the trend holds). That means that what is basically the definitive election for a good number of these districts, citywide turnout was on track to hit less than 5% of registered voters, which is already about half the city’s total population.
At this stage, pointing out the almost laughably anemic turnout in local elections feels like beating a dead horse, but maybe it shouldn’t. I certainly don’t want to accept that every local election from now until the end of time will be determined by a minority of voters, yet it seems like things are actually going in the wrong direction. Perhaps more initiatives like the participatory budgeting project we wrote about last week can turn things around, but it likely needs to be a much more concerted effort both from city officials, elected leadership, and grassroots organizations around the city. They need to impart the importance of turning out, and make it easier to do so. Even simple steps like the legislature holding local elections on even years, as it recently did for counties other than NYC, could have a big impact.
Anyway, beyond my gripes about turnout, there were a few interesting results from the primary, though nothing I would call shocking. Perhaps the biggest takeaway is the apparent victory of “Exonerated Five” member Yusef Salaam, a political newcomer who until recently lived in Georgia, in the three-way race to replace outgoing Harlem Council Member Kristin Richardson Jordan. He beat out a sitting assembly member who had represented that same district for ten years in the council. Another takeaway is the apparent defeat of Charles Barron, a longtime East New York fixture (and persistent foil for current House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries), at the hands of a challenger that had been running against Barron and his wife, Inez Barron, for the last decade. We’ll get more into both of those below.
Epicenter: It seems Asians are not as Republican as everyone feared?
Felipe: I assume here you’re referring to the primaries for the new 43rd City Council district, the controversial so-called Asian opportunity district, which was created during the redistricting process to encompass an Asian majority by including Sunset Park.
Given that it’s practically a new district, and current District 43 incumbent Justin Brannan was forced into a separate district primary (more on that later), it was relatively up for grabs. Ultimately, none of the Democratic candidates were particularly left-leaning — as NY1 put it, they seemed to have been “trying to out-centrist each other” — but former Brannan aide Way Yee Chan leaned a little to the left and Community Education Council Member Stanley Ng leaned a bit to the right, while Susan Zhuang, former chief of staff to Assemblyman William Colton and the ultimate winner of the race, was squarely in the middle.
Ultimately, it seems like Zhuang’s run-of-the-mill moderate centrism — which did feature a somewhat bizarre focus on alleged anti-semitism in the CUNY system, which Zhuang used to attack Chan — resonated the most with voters, as she’s ending up with nearly 60 percent of the vote in the first round, thus avoiding a runoff. Not to harp on my earlier turnout point, but this primary seems to be wrapping up with around 3,500 votes cast, meaning that, despite a large percent difference in share of the vote, Zhuang is only beating second-place Chan by less than a thousand votes with 98% of scanners tallied.
There was also a primary on the Republican side, featuring the contest’s sole non-Asian contender: Vito LaBella, a former cop who once said “I hate f—cking Brooklyn” and who some community leaders viewed as having been handpicked by the Brooklyn Republican Party, to their chagrin. Ultimately, in the extremely-low-turnout race (819 with 98% reported), LaBella seems to be losing to community activist Ying Tan. That would pit Tan against Zhuang in November’s general election; it’s not the city’s most Democratic district by a long shot, but I would bet on a Zhuang victory here.
Epicenter: What races should we be following?
Felipe: Aside from that 43rd district matchup, we should watch the showdown between Brannan, the former District 43 incumbent, and council colleague Ari Kagan in the new District 47, which now includes parts of Bay Ridge in addition to Coney Island, Bensonhurst, and other South Brooklyn neighborhoods. Kagan, for his part, handily won the Republican primary, which he was eligible to run in since he switched his affiliation from Democratic to Republican last year, a change that he attributed to the leftward drift of the former but which many observers think was driven by rancor over the redistricting process (it carved up his former district).
Even some of Kagan’s longtime associates were shocked by the development, and Kagan and Brannan — neither of them particularly shy or reserved — have been trading barbs for months. As for the race itself, it’s anyone’s guess. Brannan scraped by with a razor-thin margin in 2021, a nail-biter that he and others attributed to a drift toward the GOP in South Brooklyn, which is politically resembling neighboring Staten Island in some ways. Still, it’s certainly not a lock for the GOP. Kagan, for his part, was already in the Council and had been around the district, but it’s his first time running in a general election as a Republican. Will that R next to his name be enough to topple Brannan?
All of this makes it one of the most interesting races to watch this season. It inevitably will act as a proxy for broader political dynamics; the gruff, no-nonsense, blue-collar progressive Democrat in an immigrant-heavy, politically ambivalent district versus the disaffected former Democrat who is raking the party over the coals for supposed apathy towards public safety and a deference to ostensibly out-of-touch cultural lodestars.
Then there’s Queens’ 19th district, where it seems like former Democratic Council Member Tony Avella might get a rematch with incumbent Vickie Paladino, who defeated him in 2021 as part of a broader GOP gain in the City Council (not exactly a wave; they doubled from three to six). Whether that happens or not will depend on subsequent rounds of primary vote tallies (remember, we have a ranked-choice system now). Avella was barely edging out second-place finisher Christopher Bae, a political neophyte who previously served as a Queens assistant district attorney, with just about 39% of the vote to Bae’s nearly 37%. The winner will ultimately be determined by which of them is the top second choice for third-place finisher Paul Graziano.
Paladino has been, shall we say, a colorful presence in the Council, having gained some notoriety for introducing what was described as an “anti-mandate” package that targeted vaccine and mask mandates, as well as getting in an on-camera fight with a pot-smoking constituent who she tells to “go f— yourself,” giving taxpayer funds to an anti-abortion clinic, and other mishaps. That record seems to be one of Avella’s primary targets in the race, with the candidate suggesting that Paladino is focused on national culture war issues and not on the local community. Avella is certainly no left-wing Democrat, having been a longtime proponent of adding a police precinct to the district, but certainly runs to the left of her on social issues.
Epicenter: What results were the most surprising?
Felipe: As mentioned above, Harlem Council Member Kristin Richardson Jordan decided not to seek reelection (regular readers will know that I had a pretty dim view of her tenure and thought she made the right decision in stepping back).
The three-way race ended largely between Assembly Member Inez Dickens, who represented the district from 2006 to 2016 before making the jump to the assembly once she reached her term limit, and Salaam, who famously served a seven-year prison term after being wrongfully convicted in the “Central Park Five” case. After his release in 2002, he became a community advocate for issues such as police reform before moving to Georgia, where he’s lived for most of the past six years.
Politically, the candidates were quite aligned (I’ll note that, pre-election, I asked both of them what their main points of disagreement were, and neither could really provide much of an answer). Ultimately, that left the race as a contest between an experienced, known candidate who had some stubbornly old-fashioned positions — she ruffled feathers in the race’s waning days by opposing a law that would let the city further lower speed limits despite having a district were a minority of constituents own or use cars — and a more fresher-faced outsider with a compelling personal history but little in the way of working knowledge of the City Council. Prior to the election, he raised eyebrows by appearing not to know how many council members there are or even how large the city’s municipal budget is. Well, he’ll have plenty of time now to learn all of that, as he’ll almost certainly join the council (there isn’t even a current GOP contender).
In Brooklyn, Barron seems to have been felled by Banks, a community activist who made it something of a calling card to challenge the Barron family’s political positions — he’s run against Charles or Inez five times in the last decade. Charles Barron was first elected to the City Council in 2001 after having held positions in Black militant organizations including the Black Panthers, and has made it a point to thrash the longtime Brooklyn political machine, including with a 2012 congressional challenge against Jeffries.
Banks’ apparent victory is already being read by many political observers as Jeffries’ carefully calibrated revenge, though Barron’s own bombastic and often caustic style certainly couldn’t have helped (In 2011, for example, he doubled down on his longtime support for Robert Mugabe, and threw in some praise for Muammar Gaddafi while he was at it).