Noel Ellison is a Bronx voter who offers Democrats reason to be simultaneously optimistic and worried about the race for governor.

The 70-year-old property manager, who is Black, decided to cast his vote for Gov. Kathy Hochul over her Republican opponent Rep. Lee Zeldin. He has never met Zeldin, unlike Hochul, with whom he said he had shaken hands.

“The devil you know versus the devil you don’t,” he said about his calculus. He lives in Co-op City, the sprawling affordable housing development known for being home to highly engaged voters.

The self-described conservative Democrat supports abortion rights, a key talking point for Democrats, but worries about crime, which the GOP has staked much of its campaign on. One of his family members, he said, was murdered several years ago.

“I'm feeling more independent this time around than I'm feeling Democrat,” he said, adding, “This is one of those years where everybody's questioning everything.”

With four days until Election Day, the concerns of Bronx voters speak to the challenge facing Hochul and the Democratic Party’s future as she tries to boost turnout in a closer-than-expected race. A loss or weak performance by Hochul in the Bronx could prompt a wake-up call to Democrats over their outreach and messaging to Black and Latino communities. An analysis by the New York Times found that Donald Trump in 2020 doubled his performance in parts of the borough where residents of Dominican descent form the majority.

At around 55%, Latinos make up the majority in the borough. Puerto Ricans have been the dominant political force in the Bronx, but in recent years Dominicans have built their own coalition and ascended into top elected offices.

“If Kathy doesn't do well and there are losers there, it will say a lot about Democratic engagement with the Latino community and that there's a problem there,” said Basil Smikle, a former Democratic strategist who got his start in politics in the 1990s working for Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer.

Democratic stronghold

The Bronx has historically been a Democratic stronghold where nearly three quarters of active voters are registered Democrats. It has also been a well-trodden campaign stop for courting Latino and Black voters, a key base for the party.

But those same voters tend to be working- and middle-class residents whose lives are disproportionately affected by economic and public safety trends. Like other Republicans, Zeldin has seized on rising inflation and crime, which are playing out nationally but could resonate especially well in the Bronx. The borough is home to the poorest New Yorkers — with nearly a quarter of residents living in poverty in 2020, according to census data. Crime has typically been high compared to other parts of the city.

“When people are frustrated, they sometimes express dismay with the party in power,” said Carl Heastie, the state Assembly speaker who represents the northeast Bronx. “So that, to me, is the reason why people are saying that this race is too close.”

When people are frustrated, they sometimes express dismay with the party in power. So that, to me, is the reason why people are saying that this race is too close.
state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie

Bianca Rosado, a 27-year-old hospital clerk who lives in Co-op City, said that a string of violent attacks on straphangers has prevented her from taking the subway. “I don't feel comfortable yet,” she said. These days, she leaves for work at 5 a.m. to catch a bus for an hourlong commute that typically only takes 30 minutes by train.

Rosado said she intended to vote but had not made up her mind yet about the two candidates.

In the final stretch, Hochul has shifted from a focus on abortion rights to public safety. On Monday, she released a TV ad that promises to provide New Yorkers with “a subway ride free of fear.”

The entire borough is currently represented by Democrats, but over the last decade their politics have reflected a broad spectrum, from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive star in the Democratic Party, to Ruben Diaz Sr., a former Democratic state senator and member of the City Council who praised Trump and flirted with voting for him. In 2019, he came under fire for making homophobic remarks.

There are political divisions along both race and class, too, that demand a nuanced understanding of the borough. The Bronx may often be thought of as working class, but it has leafy, predominantly white suburban areas like Riverdale, Country Club, and Woodlawn that more closely resemble Westchester County. Swaths of the northeast Bronx have high concentrations of Black homeowners, made up of African Americans as well as Caribbean and African immigrants whose interests skew conservative.

Amid this landscape, Zeldin has tried to make targeted inroads in the Bronx within minority communities, most recently attending an event hosted by the Bangladeshi community. And he has gained a top surrogate in Diaz Sr., who wields influence over a network of Latino clergy members in the Bronx and East Harlem. On Friday, the two were scheduled to meet voters at the Pentecostal church founded by Diaz in the Bronx.

The governor, meanwhile, has also stepped up her campaigning in the borough. On Tuesday, she visited a subway station on Gun Hill Road, where she greeted early morning commuters alongside Heastie and state Sen. Jamaal Bailey, who heads the Bronx Democratic Party. Afterward, she met with Bangladeshi community leaders and delivered remarks at a breakfast with Latino officials.

All politics is local

Beyond crime, local battles around housing have given way to simmering anger at Democrats. They include a controversial rezoning that would build affordable apartments in Throgs Neck, a plan to build housing for formerly incarcerated people in Morris Park, and the now-scrapped proposal to build an encampment for migrants at Orchard Beach.

Last week, a rally held by Democrats for Hochul was interrupted by pro-Zeldin hecklers holding signs with sexist obscenities.

It was not clear if the protesters were from the Bronx. But John Doyle, a Bronx district leader who attended the rally, speculated that the clashes over local issues had made “Republican elements in the community animated in a way I’ve never seen before.”

Despite that, many longtime Democrats say Bronx voters will not perceive Zeldin as a palatable choice. He is a Trump supporter who voted against certifying the 2020 presidential election results and opposes abortion rights.

“Ultimately, we are a largely Democratic borough,” said Bailey, the state senator. “And I think that that's not going to change in this election.”

Outside a Co-op City strip mall, two female shoppers spoke with visible anger about Zeldin’s stance on abortion.

Sandi Lusk, a longtime community organizer and Democrat who lives in Pelham Bay, said most of the longtime Democrats she knows believe Zeldin is not an option.

At the same time, as someone used to grassroots outreach, she lamented that Hochul had not campaigned enough across the borough. In her mind, elected officials had become overreliant on social media rather than traditional retail politics. “You feel you don't have that personal touch,” she said.

“People are afraid,” Lusk added. And Zeldin is “hitting all the right notes.”