In the run-up to the June primary, the Bronx Democratic Party is backing more women candidates for the New York City Council than ever before, which could tip the scales for the first time toward a female majority of local Bronx legislators.
The shift reflects the changing face of politics, which throughout more recent years has seen more women run for office. For Marjorie Velazquez, who sought the party's endorsement in 2017 but was snubbed, greater female representation means addressing important topics such as sexual harassment.
"When you're not including all of us at the table, like women, it means something," Velazquez told Gothamist/NYC, adding that women lawmakers can offer a different perspective when it comes to discussing issues such as sexual harassment, which can help craft tougher laws against it.
There were four women candidates endorsed last month — Pierina Sanchez for the 14th Council District, Althea Stevens for the 16th Council District, Velazquez for the 13th Council District, and Amanda Farias for the 18th Council District. While the 14th and 16th Districts are open seats, the 13th and 18th Districts are each held by a male legislator who, while having been backed by the party in prior elections, declined another run. The Bronx is divided into eight Council districts.
Ariana Collado, executive director of the Bronx Democratic Party, said the endorsements did not merely check off a box. They came after the candidates were vetted following an interview with the party.
“I think women candidates are seeing themselves being reflected in the leadership of the borough in a way that hasn’t been seen before, not just with AOC but with the new wave of female leaders running and winning races across the city,” Collado said.
The party's promotion of female candidates aligns with a goal carried out by "21 in ‘21," a female-led initiative that intends to get 21 women elected to the New York City Council this year. Melissa Mark-Viverito, the former New York City Council speaker, is among the stakeholders in the race.
While party machines have earned a bad reputation for an often-secretive, almost insular process of who will be backed, their endorsements are considered a coveted get, as they bring dedicated volunteers who can carry petitions, phone bank, or draw even more supporters.
Over the years, the party base has been criticized for ignoring female office-seekers. That was evident in 2017, the last year when three Council seats were up for grabs. The presumption that year, given the availability of seats, was women candidates would be promoted, joining a delegation in which the only female lawmaker then was Councilmember Vanessa Gibson of the 16th Council District. That never came.
Even so, the endorsements aid Velazquez and Farias, two women who previously faced the same male incumbents in 2017. The men, Councilmembers Mark Gjonaj and Ruben Diaz Sr., two socially conservative Democrats, announced they will not seek re-election, blaming a hostile political climate.
But the endorsements can also be viewed as a convenient, safe bet for the party since the incumbents in these contests are either term-limited or declining to seek re-election as in the case of Gjonaj and Diaz.
"You had, in my view, competent women who were running for those two vacancies,” Michael Benjamin, a political observer and former state assemblymember who sits on the New York Post editorial board, said. “To me, it didn't make sense to support Diaz and Gjonaj, two guys I've worked and I like, it didn't make sense to support them.”
Benjamin added, "We're looking at changing times, shifting attitudes."
The endorsements come several months after state Senator Jamaal Bailey, a progressive Democrat who represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester County, was installed as the current party chair. Bailey is considered a stalwart bridge between establishment lawmakers and political newbies. His mentor in politics, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, had served as party leader from 2009 to 2015, and did back female candidates, notably Assemblymember Latoya Joyner. Bailey's predecessor, Marcos Crespo, had also backed female candidates who went on to win office, including Assemblymember Nathalia Fernandez and Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark.
Still, female endorsements represented rare exceptions for the party, which often threw support toward a male candidate over a female candidate. In 2018, the party backed state Senator Jeff Klein, the leader of the Independent Democratic Conference, the faction of Democrats that shared power with Republicans in Albany. Klein had faced Alessandra Biaggi, a woman who went on to defeat Klein that year. Also in 2018, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez had defeated incumbent Representative Joe Crowley, who was also backed by the party.
"Jamaal Bailey comes from a different generation politically," Benjamin said. "His leader in the State Senate is a female, it's a woman. He sees how good with women leadership is in politics, and he's choosing to back the women [...] who are representative of the community, and would do well in elected office."