Four months before the June primary, Bronx City Councilmember Mark Gjonaj has announced he won't be seeking re-election, citing the political climate that's been critical to his centrist Democratic positions. The decision now paves the way for his challenger to win the primary and ultimately become the Democratic nominee for the November election.
Gjonaj (pronounced jo-nigh) announced his decision Wednesday evening. A realtor who entered public life in 2012 after winning the 82nd Assembly District — becoming the state's first Albanian-American legislator — Gjonaj won the 13th Council District seat in 2017. He currently chairs the Council's Small Business Committee, where he pushed to restrict fees for third-party delivery apps while underscoring the lack of Paycheck Protection Program loans to Bronx businesses last year.
"It is not a decision that I have come to lightly and I know it will come as a surprise and disappointment to many of my supporters," Gjonaj wrote in a two-page statement. "The current political climate is not favorable to a centrist ideology that my constituency, community, and I embrace."
Without mentioning specifics, he said ethnic smears against him also inspired his decision to leave office.
"Instead of genuine debates on ideas and public policy, all too often public discourse has devolved into the 'politics of destruction,'" Gjonaj continued. "I will not allow myself to be used as a weapon to divide the district or be used to tarnish a community or ethnicity."
The 13th Council District had been a Republican stronghold in the Bronx for many years before it flipped blue in the early 2000s. Though Democrats dominate the district, patches of it remained largely socially conservative, particularly in Morris Park, a sleepy neighborhood that held a "back the blue" pro-police rally in September last year. Other sections of the district include Country Club, a community with more registered Republicans than any other part of the district. Gjonaj's politics had reflected his community, most notably in his decision not to vote for the Women's Rights Act while in Albany in 2014. The omnibus bill would have codified the right to an abortion in New York State, among other things. (Most of the legislation passed the following year.)
While Gjonaj has pointed to the political climate for his departure, he had been linked to a number of scandals throughout his tenure. In 2018, he had reportedly earmarked $130,000 to an unregistered nonprofit tied to him. That same year, a video surfaced showing Gjonaj aggressively shouting into a megaphone during a protest against current state Senator Alessandra Biaggi, a left-leaning lawmaker who won her election that year against former state Senator Jeff Klein, a strong ally of Gjonaj. More embarrassing headlines came in 2020, when an advisor for Gjonaj helped the notorious Hells Angels open a headquarters in Country Club. Gjonaj had reportedly been the subject of a probe by the Bronx District Attorney, though an outcome hasn't materialized.
Even as he represents a district that has mostly backed him, Gjonaj's decision comes amid changes to the Bronx political landscape, which has veered further to the left, with younger, more progressive lawmakers coming to the fold, most notably Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
It also comes as familiar names have left the Bronx political scene, including Councilmember Andy King, who had been expelled from the Council late last year, and Councilmember Ruben Diaz Sr., who announced he too won't seek re-election. Diaz's son, currently the Bronx Borough President, is effectively leaving public life after deciding not to run for the City Council.
A spokesperson for Gjonaj did not answer what the lawmaker's next move is when he leaves office. But his decision to drop out of the primary—after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in the race—now clears a path to victory for his challenger, Marjorie Velazquez. Velazquez, a community organizer and District Leader for the 82nd Assembly District, ran against Gjonaj in the 2017 primary, coming within several hundred votes to Gjonaj, who spent millions of dollars in the campaign to win the seat, making it the most expensive race in Council history.
Velazquez gained a competitive edge over Gjonaj this week after her campaign received $159,494 in matching funds. Repeating his decision in 2017, Gjonaj did not participate in the program.