June 22, 2020 |
After a massive wave of voters shook New York’s 2018 primary elections and subsequent state government, this year’s primary turnout could be hobbled by the lasting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whereas the 2018 primaries for state Legislature, governor, and other state-level seats saw an immense jump in voter participation from 2014, this month’s party primaries — almost all of which are again among Democrats — for president, state Legislature, the U.S. House of Representatives, and other seats, could see a drop.
Many of the strategies employed by campaigns and activists in 2018 — explored in-depth in part one of this two-part series — have simply not been possible during the coronavirus shutdown, fundraising has become a major challenge, and many voters are less able to focus on politics given the public health and economic hardships ravaging New York City.
Across boroughs and races, Gotham Gazette spoke to a diverse array of campaigns to understand how tactics have shifted throughout the coronavirus crisis, and how they are trying to draw voters to the polls — or to the absentee ballots all eligible voters can use given gubernatorial order based on the pandemic — as millions of New Yorkers' lives are upended, advantages of most incumbents appear strengthened, and there is an immense unknown when it comes to voter participation.
Several of these races are in districts that overlap with pivotal districts from the 2018 state primary elections. While there are no statewide seats on the ballot this year as there were in 2018, the state and federal primaries (state Legislature, U.S. House, president) are combined this year while in 2018 they occurred over three different primary days.
Some of the results from 2018 may be instructive in 2020, especially when it comes to the tactics and strategies used by activists and campaigns, the coalitions that formed or grew and remain active, and where within specific districts saw the largest voter turnout jumps in the prior primaries. But at the same time, 2020 has become an election year like no other in recent memory due to the pandemic.
From Door-Knocking to Delivering Groceries
The neighborhoods within Queens’ 34th Assembly District — parts of Jackson Heights, East Elmhurst, and Woodside — were some of the hardest hit in the city by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Jackson Heights, one in every 25 people have contracted the coronavirus; in East Elmhurst, one in 23 people have contracted it; and in Woodside, one of every 39 people have had it, according to Department of Health data analyzed by The New York Times.
The devastation and dangers wrought by the virus made normal political campaigning untenable. In its place, candidates started using their campaign apparatuses as mutual aid networks to help residents in need.
“My office and campaign volunteers have shifted to providing much-needed supplies and food to my constituents,” Assemblymember Michael DenDekker told Gotham Gazette. His campaign has largely been on pause since March, and only recently began again, mostly online. “The need has been overwhelming,” he said.
DenDekker is vying to keep his seat from four challengers this competitive primary season; the first time he has had to overcome any primary competition in a 12-year legislative career.
Three of his challengers — former Manhattan prosecutor and local civic leader Nuala O’Doherty-Naranjo; former National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health Executive Director Jessica González-Rojas; and Uber driver and organizer Joy Chowdhury — also began to funnel campaign energy and resources into fighting the effects of the pandemic, they said in interviews.
O’Doherty-Naranjo started the COVID Care Neighborhood Network in Jackson Heights, which delivers supplies and staffs a helpline residents with the coronavirus can use to connect to different services. Instead of fundraising for her campaign and appealing to voters, O’Doherty-Naranjo has been raising tens of thousands of dollars to support COVID Care.
“It’s a weird kind of campaign,” she said.
Chowdhury paused his campaign for a few months and started delivering food to residents in need through the Queens Mutual Aid Network. Both Chowdhury and González-Rojas used their campaign staff to deliver groceries and supplies.
“The priority was not IDing voters, but checking in on neighbors,” said González-Rojas, who has amassed significant support from progressive individuals and groups, such as the Working Families Party and immigrant rights group Make the Road Action. State Senator Jessica Ramos, who won her seat in 2018 in the partially overlapping Senate District 13 after upsetting another long-standing incumbent, former State Senator Jose Peralta, had similar progressive support from the WFP and Make the Road Action, among others.
González-Rojas and O’Doherty-Naranjo also said they have prioritized educating voters about the new, pandemic-driven practices around absentee ballots, with both campaigns noting that many voters are confused about the ballot.
Absentee ballots are perhaps the biggest wild card in this year’s primary election cycle, as the New York City Board of Elections scrambles to deliver on an unprecedented increase in absentee ballot requests. It is unclear whether everyone who wants to vote absentee will be able to have their vote counted.
Whether and how campaigns have urged their likely and potential voters to access the absentee voting process could be determinative in closer contests. While absentee voting strategies have always been important, more so in some races than others, this year’s circumstances have given such tactics an unprecedented weight.
In grassroots and insurgent campaigns, where candidates don’t have the benefit of name recognition that the incumbent has, the pandemic has made the hard task of winning even harder.
“The number one most effective thing is for the candidates themselves to be able to speak directly to voters,” said Mia Pearlman, a co-founder of the grassroots political organization True Blue NY, which has endorsed González-Rojas and a slate of other candidates in this month’s primaries. “And then after that, the next most effective thing is for activists like us to do so, or people who work with the campaign. So that’s really been a struggle for campaigns to redesign their strategy in the moment in order to reach voters.”
True Blue NY was part of a coalition of grassroots organizations that helped trigger a wave of insurgent progressive candidates to overtake incumbents in the New York State Senate in 2018. Those races, along with a competitive, intense and high-spending gubernatorial primary, and a renewed interest in local politics spurred by the 2016 presidential election, led to a record-breaking primary turnout in New York in 2018.
These factors helped Ramos, who True Blue endorsed, to victory that year. Voters in swaths of Assembly District 34, especially in Jackson Heights, turned out in force for Ramos in 2018, potentially signaling that the district could be ready for another progressive insurgent in 2020. While the races have many differences, some of the neighborhoods and players are the same.
Pearlman is concerned that challengers this year may get lost in the shuffle.
“The pandemic is an incumbent protection machine,” she said. “Everything about the pandemic favors the incumbents. And it creates a situation in which challengers are really fending off a lot of problems simultaneously.”
Campaigning Without Contact
Typical campaign tactics like door-knocking, rallies, and in-person fundraising events became an impossibility in mid-March, when social distancing measures were put in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Instead, campaigns amped up phone-banking and -texting operations, dipped their toes into virtual events, and tried to meet voters where they were — at home.
In Brooklyn’s competitive 9th Congressional District primary, the race to draw in voters has become more important than ever.
“We’ve had to completely shift the way campaigning works,” Krysten Copeland, the communications director for incumbent U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke’s campaign, said in an interview.
Clarke’s campaign has conducted Zoom and Facebook Live events, and several weeks ago held a virtual campaign rally featuring various prominent endorsers to kick off the stretch run toward primary day, June 23.
The primary race looks tight: four challengers have been campaigning against Clarke, including Adem Bunkeddeko, who narrowly lost to Clarke in 2018 in what was a one-on-one contest. Other challengers this year include City Council Member Chaim Deutsch, small business owner Lutchi Gayot, and U.S. Army veteran Isiah James.
Clarke, who was first elected in 2006, represents a diverse swath of Central and South Brooklyn, spanning from Park Slope to Crown Heights to Brownsville and Gerritsen Beach.
In normal election cycles, campaigns often highlight prominent endorsements to build momentum and gain goodwill with voters. In such an unusual election year, endorsements represent one of the additionally limited tools campaigns have to catch voters’ attention.
Clarke is being backed by a long list of elected officials and power players, including U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the 32BJ SEIU union, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and State Senator Zellnor Myrie, whose district overlaps with NY-9, to name just a few. “I think it sends a strong message that the people of Brooklyn know that Congresswoman Yvette Clarke has been fighting for them in Washington,” Copeland said of Clarke’s local endorsers.
The Brooklyn Young Democrats are among those endorsing Clarke. The group’s president, Christina Das, said that the pandemic has vastly impacted campaigning strategies as they work to get candidates they support elected in Brooklyn.
“It is a stark contrast comparing 2020 to 2018,” she said.
Das and many BYD members campaigned for Myrie when he was making an ultimately successful insurgent bid for incumbent Jesse Hamilton’s seat in 2018. Instead of canvassing and knocking on doors as they did in the area in 2018, the group has been phone-banking and hosting virtual events.
“It feels so much less energizing to get on the phone from your bed…than to knock on doors,” BYD Executive Vice President Julia Elmaleh-Sachs said.
With so many people out of work due to the coronavirus-forced economic downturn, it has also been difficult for campaigns to fund-raise. “I don’t think they can give their $30 to a fundraiser right now,” Elmaleh-Sachs said of many voters.
Both Das and Elmaleh-Sachs said that they think insurgent candidates will have a tougher time this election, as those candidates often rely on new and non-traditional voters heading to the polls.
Myrie was able to score a victory over Hamilton through an extensive campaign network of political groups, volunteers, and progressive activists able to turn the tide of the district and attract new voters, a feat that may be more difficult without in-person campaigning. Additionally, Myrie snagged a broad spectrum of endorsements, including from many of Brooklyn’s big-name Democrats, such as some of the borough’s Congressional delegation, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and Council Speaker Corey Johnson, among others.
Bunkeddeko said in an interview that he has made reaching out to residents a priority during the coronavirus crisis, participating in mutual aid efforts across the district and encouraging people to sign up for absentee ballots to not put their health at risk at the polls.
“Our big push has been to push everyone to vote absentee,” he said.
In a crowded field, Bunkeddeko said that his progressive policies and his track record running for election in the district before have helped him stand out to voters when his campaign calls.
“We’ve run the race before,” he said. “We were primarying people before it became cool.”
As of late May, Bunkeddeko’s campaign had hundreds of volunteers, made over 14,000 calls, and sent over 12,000 texts to voters, according to a campaign email. Those efforts have only intensified in June.
“One thing that’s been really powerful as we make calls for Adem in his race is the fact that you’re calling and checking in on people,” said Ricky Silver, the co-lead organizer with Empire State Indivisible, a progressive political activist group formed after the 2016 presidential election and has endorsed Bunkeddeko in NY-9.
“Phone-banking for a candidate as a part of outreach for mutual aid has been, I think, a really critical development in the post-COVID world,” Silver continued. “There’s been a real positive response to those types of outreach calls, because people are looking for help.”
In a time where so many people are looking for assistance, the outreach shows voters that the campaign is looking to help those in the district, not just “transactional ways to get elected,” Silver said.
Empire State Indivisible backed Myrie in his race in the somewhat overlapping State Senate district in 2018. Bunkeddeko has received some of the same endorsements and progressive support that Myrie did in 2018, including an endorsement from The New York Times, but endorsements from many of the major elected officials that backed Myrie have eluded him.
One of the key differences between some of the most contentious 2018 primaries and the 2020 ones is the presence (in 2018) or absence (in 2020) of the State Senate Independent Democratic Conference, whose members had lost a great deal of support from other elected officials, labor unions, and other key electoral players.
While Myrie was running to unseat a Democratic state senator who had helped empower Republicans, Bunkeddeko is again running to unseat a member of the House delegation in solid standing with most of her colleagues. While Ramos ran in Queens to similarly unseat a Democratic state senator whose conference allied with Republicans, some of the Assembly primaries happening in and around her district do not have that galvanizing element for the insurgents.
As Some Things Change, Some Things Stay the Same
Though the pandemic has radically impacted how campaigns are normally run, certain objectives remain the same: attract voters and endorsements, raise funds, and run a compelling campaign.
In the race for the 16th Congressional District, which includes parts of the northern Bronx and southern Westchester, incumbent U.S. Rep Eliot Engel faces one of the most competitive matchups of his political career and this year’s primary election cycle. Engel has three challengers: middle school principal Jamaal Bowman, retired NYPD officer Sammy Ravelo, and tax attorney Chris Fink.
Bowman’s progressive campaign has made enormous waves in recent months, netting high-profile endorsements from the Working Families Party, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and Bronx State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, among many others within and outside New York, such as U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. He has reportedly raised $2 million in campaign contributions, and has benefited from a few high-profile gaffes Engel has made over the course of campaign season.
However, the incumbent has many major endorsements of his own, including Governor Andrew Cuomo and former Secretary of State and New York Senator Hillary Clinton.
Last election cycle, in 2018, Biaggi was able to unseat a powerful incumbent, former State Senator Jeff Klein, in a district that overlaps some with NY-16. Bowman hopes to have a similar upset against Engel, who has held a congressional seat since 1989.
Biaggi’s door-knocking was a key voter engagement strategy for her campaign, and her largest shares of voters were also in the neighborhoods that had some of the highest increases of voter turnout in the district, such as Riverdale. While in 2018 the candidate and volunteers were able to pitch Biaggi’s message to thousands across the district in person, Bowman has had to adjust his own strategies in the age of social distancing.
Luke Hayes, Bowman’s campaign manager, and Biaggi’s before that, said in an interview that phone-banking and Bowman personally calling voters has been a boon to the campaign. The campaign has also sent out mailers, hosted listening tours and livestreams, and connected with volunteers. Bowman has also developed a fairly large social media following, regularly posting direct-to-camera video messages that range from reflective to inspiring to singing and dancing.
“Jamaal is like, ‘Give me more voters to talk to,’” Hayes said.
As of mid-June, Bowman’s campaign had made over 850,000 calls to voters in the district, and thousands of people have signed up to volunteer with the campaign, its representatives said. In the days leading up to the primary, as coronavirus restrictions began to ease, Bowman and the campaign were out in the field more, and are conducting a bus tour around the district to encourage voters to choose the challenger.
In a sign of Bowman's momentum, Biaggi herself recently changed her endorsement from Engel to Bowman.
“Very few people have voted for elections by absentee in New York," Hayes said of the big outstanding question of how that process will unfold and which campaigns may be best able to take advantage of the shift. "So we’re all in the same boat.”
Ravelo’s campaign also has an extensive phone-banking strategy, a representative said.
“The first weeks of the pandemic, we felt destroyed. Because nobody wanted to hear about politics,” said Catherin Corrales, a volunteer coordinator for the campaign. After two weeks, the campaign adjusted, and volunteers started making calls to check in on residents and offer information during the pandemic.
“For everybody, this is a moment to learn and come up with a new plan. In the end, this wasn’t what we were expecting, but at least we were able to do something else,” Corrales said.
Similarly, Fink said via email that he has an extensive phone-banking, targeted email and social media strategy. He is working with a local production company to make videos of himself talking about the issues on camera, as a substitute to talking to voters in real life.
Though campaigns across the city have adapted to a year of new strategies, the results of hotly contested primary races is anyone’s guess.
“You have a massive number of variables interacting in a different number of ways, it’s extremely difficult to predict,” Baruch College political science professor Doug Muzzio said in an interview. Muzzio pointed to the destabilizing effect that the pandemic has had, along with the protests brought on by the police killing of George Floyd, a black Minnesotan, as factors that could drive the election in different ways.
“In New York politics, there’s always problems going to the polls,” said Pearlman, of True Blue NY. “It’s a mess on a good day.”
With all of the issues the pandemic created, turnout for 2020 is anyone’s guess, Pearlman said.
“That, in my opinion, is the number one biggest question mark right now. What will the turnout be?”
Source: Gotham Gazette