Incumbency Buoys Candidates in City Council Primaries, for Better and Worse

Several council members with substantial records in support of bus lanes, bike lanes, or pedestrian safety improvements fended off challengers.

The City Council won't be changing very much in 2018. Photo: Momos/Wikimedia Commons
The City Council won't be changing very much in 2018. Photo: Momos/Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday night was a good night for City Council incumbents, and for once that’s largely good news for the future of transit, biking, and walking in NYC.

The watershed City Council election was four years ago, when several first-time lawmakers swept into office after running on strong platforms for better transit and safer streets. Yesterday’s primaries were a test of that cohort’s staying power more than an opportunity to reshape the council.

In 2013, most of the churn happened in open seats, thanks to term limits. The one insurgent to unseat an incumbent then was Carlos Menchaca in the 38th District, where he beat Sara Gonzalez to represent Sunset Park and Red Hook. Menchaca has been a strong voice on the council for improving conditions for bicycling, and yesterday, in one of the more competitive races, he withstood challenges from Gonzalez and sitting Assembly Member Felix Ortiz to win a second term.

Council members Antonio Reynoso, Mark Levine, and Ydanis Rodriguez — all with substantial records in support of bus lanes, bike lanes, or pedestrian safety improvements — also fended off challengers. In Lower Manhattan, Margaret Chin seems to have won her race, though it’s a tight one and hasn’t been called yet.

Overall, 10 of the 16 primary contenders endorsed by StreetsPAC either won last night or have the lead in the vote tally so far, including three newcomers running for open seats: Carlina Rivera in District 2 and Keith Powers in District 4, both on the east side of Manhattan, and Justin Brannan in Brooklyn’s District 43. (Brannan still has a competitive primary ahead of him against Republican John Quaglione.)

In races where StreetsPAC backed challengers, the power of incumbency was too much to overcome. Laurie Cumbo won reelection over StreetsPAC-endorsed Ede Fox in District 35; despite amassing less than 42 percent of the vote, Mathieu Eugene held on to his seat in District 40 against a divided field including StreetsPAC pick Brian Cunningham; and StreetsPAC candidate Randy Abreu came up short in his bid to unseat Fernando Cabrera in District 14.

Established Albany pols making the switch to the City Council, where the pay is better and the commute is shorter, also won most of the primaries they competed in yesterday. State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., most recently seen in Streetsblog trying to kill a bus lane in an area where 76 percent of households don’t own cars, will be moving his office to 250 Broadway. Assembly Member Mark Gjonaj narrowly defeated StreetsPAC-endorsed Marjorie Velazquez in the East Bronx. And 111th Street bike lane opponent Francisco Moya snuffed out a comeback bid by convicted felon Hiram Monserrate in a central Queens district where Julissa Ferreras, who declined to seek a third term, will be sorely missed.

One exception to the Albany trend appears to be District 8 in East Harlem, where outgoing Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s deputy chief of staff, Diana Ayala, has a narrow lead over Assembly Member Robert Rodriguez. Rodriguez won the StreetsPAC endorsement on the strength of his support for Move NY toll reform, but Ayala’s close ties to Mark-Viverito give transportation reformers cause for optimism.

While the overall composition of the council doesn’t figure to change very much as a result of this election, a big unanswered question is who will succeed Mark-Viverito as speaker. For 12 years, she staked out progressive positions on transit, biking, and walking — reaffirming just last week that she strongly backs congestion pricing.

A large and cohesive Progressive Caucus bloc, as well as pressure from newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio, helped elect Mark-Viverito speaker in 2013. When the new City Council convenes in January to elect a new speaker, will they choose someone so attuned to what most New Yorkers need from their streets and transportation system?


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