Young New York State Senate candidates see opportunity after Ocasio-Cortez win

Several young Democratic candidates for the New York State Senate hope the surprise Congressional primary win by 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a sign of a new progressive wave.

Ocasio-Cortez’s victory over longtime incumbent Joseph Crowley (D-Queens/Bronx) showed “that you can run on a very progressive message, and you don’t have to run from that,” said Zellnor Myrie, who is challenging central Brooklyn’s State Sen. Jesse Hamilton (District 20) in the Democratic primary in September.

“This is what we believed was possible since the beginning,” said the 31-year-old, who is running for office for the first time. “It’s exciting now to see other folks start believing in progressive wins.”

Myrie, a lawyer and former legislative director in City Council, is among a handful of millennials running for the Senate, where most policies impacting New Yorkers are set, including 27-year-old community organizer Julia Salazar (District 18), 28-year-old journalist Ross Barkan (District 22), 32-year-old lawyer and former operations director on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign Alessandra Biaggi (District 34), and 33-year-old Andrew Gounardes (District 22), counsel to Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

Three of them are challenging Democratic incumbents: Martin Dilan in District 18, Hamilton in District 20 and Jeff Klein in District 34. Hamilton and Klein are former members of the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of Democrats who caucused with Republicans, giving them a majority. Gounardes, who previously ran against Republican incumbent Marty Golden in 2012, and Barkan will first face each other for the right to challenge Golden. The primary election is Thursday, Sept. 13.

The candidates have different reasons for choosing to run, but the election of Donald Trump was a common driving force.

“Trump really changed everything for people,” said Barkan, of Bay Ridge. “Most of us understand we can’t wait on the sidelines anymore. Donald Trump is president, he is stacking the Supreme Court with right-wing justices, ICE is breaking up families and targeting immigrants of color. It’s a very scary time, and it’s also a time to organize and fight back.”

The economic recession and racial tensions across the county were also motivators for some of the candidates.

“We went through Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland and Eric Garner and ultimately the election of this president,” Myrie, who was born and raised in what is now Prospect Lefferts Gardens, said. “We’re living through the worst administration in our lifetime so we have taken it upon ourselves to kind of step up and not do things as usual because business as usual has led us to where we are right now.”

They see a need to bring new voices to the State Senate to protect affordable housing, pass the New York Health Act, which would create a universal single-payer health plan, approve the DREAM Act to give educational opportunities to immigrants, reform campaign finance and to hold the MTA accountable for fixing the transit system.

“There is a lot of complacency in the State Senate,” said Salazar, who grew up in Florida and now lives in Bushwick. “The specific importance of new candidates is that we’re not accountable to the establishment.”

The incumbents in each of the races have said they are proud of the work they’ve done for their districts and have confidence in their re-election bids.

One of the main attacks by Biaggi, Myrie and Salazar is that their opponents take money from the real estate industry, claiming it influences their decisions. A spokeswoman for Klein said “contributions have zero impact on his policy and legislative decisions.”

In a statement, Dilan said most of his contributions are not from corporations and that he supports or sponsors bills that could protect tenants against rising rents. “Every year I fight to get these passed in a Republican-controlled Senate,” he said.

A spokesman for Golden was unconcerned about either of his Democratic challengers, saying the senator “is proud of the neighborhoods he represents, proud of his record of getting important things done for them, and proud to have their continued support.”

Hamilton’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

The insurgent candidates say they reject corporate donations and have prioritized raising money by knocking on doors and canvassing throughout their district’s neighborhoods.

“The political currency of our time is not dollars, it’s people,” Biaggi, of Pelham, said, echoing Ocasio-Cortez’s “We’ve got people. They’ve got money,” quote in her viral campaign video.

The boots-on-the-ground strategy has been embraced by each of the candidates, with the goal of reaching people who feel they haven’t been heard by their current representatives.

“You can’t limit yourself just to talking to the same people who come out to vote time and time again because you know what, change happens when the people who don’t (show up) actually start showing up and the people in the past who were ignored are no longer being ignored,” Gounardes, of Bay Ridge, said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated where Julia Salazar was born. She was born in Florida.