Workers for Rep. Jamaal Bowman's campaign continued messaging through the end of Primary Day. Credit: Mariana Navarrete Villegas

Tuesday was primary day in New York, though most voters did not find themselves participating. As is sadly typical, turnout was pretty low, clocking in at under 15,000 voters with even competitive state legislative races. Most congressional races saw similarly lethargic turnout, with the exception of the closely-watched primary between incumbent Rep. Jamaal Bowman and Westchester County Executive George Latimer in the 16th district, encompassing the suburbs north of NYC and a slice of the north Bronx.

That became the most expensive primary race in U.S. history, with $15 million coming from an AIPAC-linked super PAC that went all-in on defeating Bowman over his skepticism of Israel’s military operations in Gaza. Ultimately, that conflict came to define the dynamics of the race and helped drive a turnout of over 75,000 voters as of current results, with Latimer winning a very comfortable 58%to Bowman’s 41.

I and others had called that race a sort of proxy for internal Democratic Party fights over progressive versus moderate approach and policy, and that’s definitely true. It’s also true that this level of outside money really moves the needle, and there will be many who say, with plenty of merit, that big-money pro-Israel donors effectively overwhelmed voter sentiment in the district. That said, I want to add the standard disclaimer that every race also ends up being about the individual people running, and Bowman certainly made missteps.

This became the most expensive primary race in U.S. history.

The AIPAC-backed ads that ran constantly on local television, for example, did not actually largely hit him on Israel but on his vote against the bipartisan infrastructure deal. Bowman didn’t vote against it out of opposition to the substance of the legislation, but in protest to its separation from Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which Democratic leadership pledged to instead pass later (they did not). Ultimately, though, the headline was the same: Bowman voted against the president’s signature infrastructure plan, and otherwise alienated Democratic leadership.

Beyond this race, the primary provided few surprises; practically every incumbent won, with the exception of Queens Assemblymember Juan Ardila, who was barely running anyway and had been completely sidelined after facing sexual harassment allegations early into his term. That includes progressive Democratic incumbents facing challenges from the right and centrist ones facing them from the left (there were few contested Republican primaries, aside from the contest for the Upstate 24th congressional district, where incumbent Claudia Tenney handily beat right-wing challenger Mario Fratto). It’s another mark in favor of the sheer power of incumbency in the state, especially in very low-turnout races where name recognition and even a small base of voters can make the difference.

As the results came in, many New Yorkers also had something else on the mind: the ongoing saga of congestion pricing, the long-awaited $15 toll for drivers coming into Manhattan below 60th Street that Gov. Kathy Hochul abruptly and unilaterally derailed just weeks before it was slated to go into effect this coming Sunday. At the Metropolitan Transit Agency’s board meeting yesterday, the agency outlined steep potential cuts to all manner of services and capital improvements as about 140 people signed up to give public comment, mostly in support of congestion pricing. As was expected, the board, whose members are appointed by the governor, followed her lead in formally scrapping the program (temporarily, they insist, though most observers are skeptical) even as the federal government has given its own sign-off for it to begin.

Congestion pricing was supposed to begin this month. Credit: poludziber

This doesn’t mean that the fight is over and the plan is dead. All eyes are now on the potential lawsuits, including one floated a couple of weeks ago by City Comptroller Brad Lander and a series of advocates, MTA bondholders, various residents, and other stakeholders. The potential litigation could hinge on a number of arguments, but the most basic is that congestion pricing was mandated by state law, and the governor can’t simply refuse to implement it.

That certainly passes a gut check. If the State Legislature passed and the governor signed a bill that, say, cut certain taxes or changed some requirements for hospitals or implemented education reforms, we’d all understand that the governor couldn’t just then choose not to do it. Yes, the MTA and the state’s Department of Transportation are controlled or otherwise overseen by the governor, but this was not an executive policy. It’s a law that was handed over for the governor to implement, not decide whether or not to pursue.

That’s the procedural argument. The other legal arguments center more on the upshot of this decision, including a novel one centering on the new state constitutional right to “clean air and water, and a healthful environment,” which we’ve written about more indepth before. Given the toll’s stated purpose of reducing vehicular congestion and the air pollution that comes with it, advocates are exploring the argument that pausing the plan for purely economic (or, if we’re going to be honest about it, political) reasons is violating that provision of New York’s constitution.

Then there’s the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which the MTA has already long been out of compliance with. Last year, it reached a settlement with riders with disabilities who had sued to force the agency to make stations more accessible (though the plan got ridiculed for committing the MTA to equip 95% of subway and railway stations… by 2055, by which time a number of the plaintiffs will almost certainly have died). A big chunk of the money slated to do this was to come from congestion pricing, meaning that the pause actually threatens compliance with the settlement and federal law.

It’s worth noting here that, despite Hochul’s continued assurances that all projects will go forward, she has not presented a credible plan to infill the $1 billion annually the toll was supposed to bring in. A lot of money has already been spent on the technology and infrastructure to enable the tolling to take place. And, according to the good-government group Reinvent Albany, the disappearing funds put over 100,000 New York jobs at risk, some 88,000 of which are in private industries that build the trains and buses and otherwise provide support for the MTA. These are general projections, but there’s no denying that a lot of business was gearing up for this now-uncertain funding pool.
A Siena College poll taken after Hochul’s decision showed that New York voters, even those in Manhattan, remain opposed to the program 45-23, but my sense is that this is going to start eroding as transit projects are scrapped and delays start getting blamed on Hochul, with advocates banging the drum about all this. Hochul did this for political reasons, but it might well end up being bad politics, too.

Felipe De La Hoz is an immigration-focused journalist who has written investigative and analytic articles, explainers, essays, and columns for the New Republic, The Washington Post, New York Mag, Slate,...

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