Welcome to the fourth edition of this NYC election-focused newsletter! I’m independent journalist Felipe De La Hoz, and our goal is to bring you some coverage of the upcoming municipal primaries from the perspective of constituencies and communities.
We’re holding off on doing the second part of the deep dive into criminal justice that we published last week because we still want readers to weigh in with questions, concerns, thoughts, and anything else to get a better sense of what you’re considering as we go into this election. Reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today, we’re spotlighting the race for City Council in District 24, which encompasses Queens neighborhoods including Jamaica, Kew Gardens Hills, and Hillcrest, among others. This is not exactly an open race in the way many of this year’s other council contests are, in the sense that there is no term-limited incumbent. Instead, former council member Rory Lancman left to take a job in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration, and current member James Gennaro won a special election earlier this year. He must now run again for a full term.
Voting in New York City can be confusing. Did you know you have to register with a party before you can vote in its primary, or that this year will feature the first round of ranked-choice voting, where you can select an order of candidates by preference? For more guidance and resources, see here:
NYC Campaign Finance Board Voter Guide
Gotham Gazette guide to early special elections for City Council
Do you have any topics you want us to focus on or questions you want this newsletter to answer? We’d love to hear from you! Reach us at NYCelections@url-media.com
Among the reasons the race is notable — beyond determining the representative for one of areas hardest-hit by the Covid-19 pandemic — is that the special election featured no less than four candidates of Bangladeshi backgrounds. The upcoming election will feature two of those candidates running again and is including another Bangladeshi, for a total of three candidates who could each become the City Council’s first elected member of South Asian descent. Moumita Ahmed, Mujib Rahman, and Mohammed Shabul Uddin are all immigrants from Bangladesh seeking to represent the multi-ethnic area’s varied immigrant communities. According to data analyzed by the Asian American Federation, the Bangladeshi community over the past decade has been one of the fastest-growing Asian ethnic groups in the city, mostly in Queens. About three-quarters of them were foreign-born, and of these, around half are naturalized citizens.
As I’m sure many of our readers have noticed, there’s a tendency in political reporting to cover ethnic groups as monoliths, with across-the-board views and concerns. Stories on the special election often noted the fact that four Bangladeshi candidates were running, but didn’t delve much into what set them apart; there’s been relatively little coverage of the race going into the new election. There is no doubt that shared cultural backgrounds and experiences often shape people in similar ways (which is the essence of the idea that representation in positions of power is a worthy goal in itself), but that’s only half of the story.
People can take away very different lessons and viewpoints from comparable personal histories, and what struck me looking at this group of Bangladeshi-Americans running for just one council district is how different their political positions are. The district, like many others around New York, is facing a steep economic and social recovery from the ongoing crisis, but the candidates’ solutions differ enormously.
Take Ahmed, a 35-year-old organizer running in the Democratic primary, who in 2015 founded Millennials for Bernie, a group dedicated to engaging younger voters with progressive causes and advancing the campaign of former presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders. Her immigrant background has directly fed into her political identity. “Bangladeshis are more working-class than other South Asian ethnic groups. We also have a rich political history of fighting for our collective liberation. Growing up in a mostly Bangladeshi neighborhood meant growing up celebrating this history of Bijoy Dibosh, and Ekushe February,” she told me, referencing the celebration of Bangladesh’s liberation and its mother tongue, respectively.
This experience of a joint struggle has led her to the position that both the road to recovery from the pandemic and the community’s long-term stability and prosperity will run through sustained government investment, social programs, and regulation, including through the cancellation of back rent, increased protections for gig workers, and higher taxes on the wealthy, among other proposals. She names housing as her primary focus, recalling how her parents shared a one-bedroom apartment with another family when she was a child. On that front, she would work to, among other things:
- Legalize basement dwellings
- Promote a right to counsel tenants
- Try to halt rezonings until the city can develop a new approach that is more reliant on community input
- Provide funding for community and tenant organizing efforts
Rahman, a former public servant with the IRS and the Census Bureau and president of the Bangladesh Society of North America, is on the other end of the political spectrum. While there’s been some confusion over whether he’d even be competing in the Democratic primary, he clarified to me this week that he is ultimately not planning to run as a Democrat at all, but rather on the Unity Party ticket in the general election in November. While he and Ahmed may agree on some broad objectives — increasing affordable housing, for example — he believes these initiatives should be undertaken without government spending. The primary area where he thinks public funds should be kept stable or even increased is public safety, with the NYPD’s headcount kept the same or expanded.
“There’s conservancy in my district,” he explained. “There are [candidates] who don’t like American [ideals] and a capitalistic society. I’m different,” he told the Queens Chronicle in January, and stated that he felt that there were enough rules already in place constraining the police.
Community advocate Uddin falls somewhere in between, with positions in favor of reducing criminal sentencing, guaranteeing minimum leases for small business owners, and increasing social services for seniors. All three will be running against incumbent Gennaro and another candidate named Stanley Arden. Despite their on-paper parallel formative experiences, these candidates have landed at distinct worldviews that fall along various points on the left and right. Ahmed believes that progressive views are prevalent in the community, but this hasn’t come across in either political campaigns or political coverage. “Previous Bangladeshi candidates ran a very identity-based campaign. ‘I’m Bangladeshi, and if you are too, then vote for me’. We’re not doing that and that’s what makes us outliers,” she said.
This is but one example of the ways in which the ethnically focused lens with which New York City political coverage is frequently conducted is useful, but limited. As communities of color continue to expand and become more dominant in the city’s political life, many voters will face the question of not only whether they will be supporting a candidate from a certain ethnic enclave, but which one. The failure of the national media to grapple with the political differences among Latinos in various significant elections has shown that politicians treat communities as homogenous to their own peril.
What we’re reading:
NYC seeks Haitian Creole translators for 2021 elections
From S. Mitra Kalita, CEO of URL Media and Epicenter’s Publisher:
I moderated the Asian American Federation’s forum earlier this week. Catch the replay here.
A few takeaways:
– The virtual event was “sold out.” That points to a hunger for info on the race as we get closer to the June 22 primary. I also think the Asian community really cares about the balance between stopping Asian hate and criminal justice reform. That was the gist of many of the comments in the chat.
– You can tell the candidates are spending their nights on Zoom forums like this and the answers are often rote. I tried to add some levity with lightning rounds asking about movies, favorite Chinatowns and whither spring rolls or samosas (that’s a loaded question from an Indian-American moderator). They came alive in these segments and I really missed the humanity and serendipity of in-person campaigning. I am sure they do, too.
– The straw poll vote among participants went for Maya Wiley, Ray McGuire and Scott Stringer. Andrew Yang, who is leading in polls and would be the city’s first Asian-American mayor if elected, came in fourth. I would characterize the crowd of Asian-Americans and their fellow New Yorkers, based on the comments posted in chat, as more left-leaning.
This newsletter was written by Felipe De La Hoz for URL Media, a network of Black and Brown news and information outlets. Our collaborative elections coverage is sponsored by a grant from the Center for Community Media.