Along with a new mayor, a large majority of City Council members will be freshmen next year and progressive organizers, including the Democratic Socialists of America, are hoping to swing the City Council further left as the city flickers to life and begins the arduous recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among the many races, two have been remarkably pitched and could be a test case for how far the left has come—particularly in neighborhoods where centrists have traditionally held power. In eastern Queens, the DSA is hoping to elect a young activist, Jaslin Kaur, to replace the outgoing Barry Grodenchik, a city councilman closely aligned with the Queens Democratic Party.
In the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, and Crown Heights, the DSA is hoping to build on last year’s successes, electing another socialist, tenant organizer Michael Hollingsworth, in an area that just sent Jabari Brisport and Phara Souffrant Forrest to Albany.
“I’m the right candidate because this time calls for a different kind of candidate,” Hollingsworth, who was recently backed by Bernie Sanders, said. “It calls for a candidate who’s not going to be in the mold of what we had before and connected to the same harmful forces—whether it’s real estate or political—that have done so much damage to our community.”
Though the Democratic primary is crowded, only two candidates in this Brooklyn race have accrued the vast majority of endorsements: Hollingsworth and Crystal Hudson, a former staffer to both the term-limited council member, Laurie Cumbo, and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.
Hudson and Hollingsworth, on individual issues, disagree on little. Both are in favor of defunding the NYPD and reappropriating city funds to various social services. Both talk about the need for deeply affordable housing. Both would abolish the standardized test for specialized high schools and speak openly about the need to desegregate city schools. Outside observers expect the primary, with ranked-choice voting, to be incredibly close.
But the race, in many ways, is revealing schisms among local Democrats and the left more broadly. Almost every major labor union has endorsed Hudson, along with both members of Congress in the area, Yvette Clarke and Hakeem Jeffries, who may one day be House speaker. Well-known progressive politicians outside the district, including Brad Lander and Jessica Ramos, are backing Hudson.
Maya Wiley, the candidate for mayor who is viewed as the most viable progressive choice, campaigned with Hudson on Friday.
“I’m proud of the fact I have the biggest, broadest and most diverse coalition of supporters and endorsers,” Hudson said. “Everybody is welcome at my table. I’m running to represent everyone, not some people or only people who agree with me 100 percent of time on 100 percent of the issues.”
Hudson also benefits from an anti-Hollingsworth effort in the district, largely funded by wealthy outside interests who fear a wholesale socialist takeover of the City Council. The Common Sense PAC, a political action committee funded by the conservative billionaires Ronald Lauder and Stephen Ross, is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars against DSA-endorsed candidates, including Hollingsworth.
The ultimate victor in Council District 35 will have to knit together a coalition of older, longtime residents—many of them Black—with younger, more affluent voters who have flocked to the neighborhoods, with their relatively easy commutes to Manhattan, over the last 20 years. The district, in addition, has a large Hasidic Jewish population in Crown Heights.
Hollingsworth and Hudson have clashed bitterly over what vision of change is best for the district. Hudson, who hopes to be the first openly gay Black woman elected to the City Council, argues that her time spent as a government staffer, operating on the inside, best prepares her to represent the neighborhoods. “Trump had no experience, right? And look what that got us for four years,” she said.
Adding, however, that she is not a “career politician,” Hudson noted that she worked in sports marketing for more than a decade and developed her political awareness as a caregiver for her mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.
Hollingsworth touts his history as a tenant organizer and his lack of ties to any kind of Democratic establishment. While Hudson was more circumspect about the legacy of her old boss, Cumbo—she promised better constituent services if elected—Hollingsworth was far more critical.
“I gave her a D,” Hollingsworth said. “Her legacy is one of disappointment, division, and displacement. Three Ds. It’s time for us to have a city council member who won’t pit folks against each other.”
Cumbo has been a target for ire among progressives in the district (and other candidates as well) over her role in negotiating the redevelopment of the Bedford Union Armory, which drew criticism for not delivering enough affordable housing units. She has not endorsed in the race to replace her.
In the eastern Queens neighborhoods of Fresh Meadows, Douglaston, Bellerose, and Queens Village, the council member leaving office has endorsed, however. Grodenchik is supporting his former counsel, Steve Behar, in a crowded field that has two other marquee candidates: Kaur, the DSA-backed organizer, and Linda Lee, a nonprofit executive.
Kaur or Lee would be the first woman and first non-white candidate to represent the area in the City Council. The suburban swath of eastern Queens, with its lack of subway access and large number of homeowners, is far more diverse than it used to be, with growing Chinese, Korean, and South Asian populations.
Kaur, who is South Asian, is the daughter of a taxi driver and hopes to secure a city-funded bailout for drivers who were ruined financially when the prices of taxi medallions plummeted. In the car-centric district, she is backing the creation of more bus rapid transit and wants to prioritize legislation to mandate that senior centers have linguistically and culturally appropriate services.
“This race has been one about building out power in Queens in a place that has long been ignored,” Kaur said.
Unlike Hollingsworth, who is running on terrain where DSA has thrived, Kaur is attempting to sell herself as a Democratic Socialist to a district that is not known for its progressive politics. Defunding the police is far less popular in Glen Oaks or Little Neck than Fort Greene. Older Jewish voters recoil at DSA’s full-throated support of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement targeting Israel.
Kaur has won the support of the large healthcare workers’ union, 1199 SEIU, as well as the Working Families Party. Both supporters and detractors alike have been impressed by the sheer number of volunteers DSA has been able to dispatch to Kaur’s campaign.
The question remains whether her politics can win out in the district; Lee, who has the support of Congresswoman Grace Meng and the United Federation of Teachers—a powerful union in an area home to many schoolteachers—is running in a more moderate lane, stressing the delivery of social services and more responsive government over issues tied directly to ideology.
“I am not for defunding the police, I don’t think the answer is taking resources away from folks helping to fight anti-Asian hate crimes and anti-Semitic hate crimes that have been rising,” Lee, who is Korean American, said.
Lee’s campaign has attacked Kaur for misrepresenting her own socialist views, downplaying them as canvassers now seek to turn out the vote. Kaur’s website details a public safety platform that includes many of the goals of the defund movement, like deploying “nonviolent” service workers to handle mental health and homelessness crises but does not explicitly use the langue “defund the police.”
Kaur rejected the suggestion that she was not running as a proud socialist.
“I’m not a secret socialist by any means,” Kaur said. “This isn’t me shying away and hiding my political virtues. I share my commitment to democratic socialism with people I meet on the doors.”