Brian Benjamin's Past, Central Harlem's Future
Ethics Scandals, Harlem's Machine, Lessons from the Comptroller Primary, and an opportunity for the Left in 2022
"Some people think you learn things when you go to Brown and Harvard. They don't know anything until you come to Harlem. That's where you learn what's really going on”
Standing outside the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Building on West 125th Street, flanked by the Reverend Al Sharpton and New York’s NAACP Chapter President Hazel Dukes, newly minted Governor Kathy Hochul introduced Brian Benjamin as her Lieutenant Governor.
Benjamin, a State Senator from Central Harlem, is transitioning to statewide office, the second Black Lieutenant Governor in New York’s history, part of the ongoing shuffle in the wake of Andrew Cuomo’s stunning resignation. While Lieutenant Governor is largely ceremonious, Cuomo’s departure and Hochul’s ascension accentuated the importance of the position that is first in line for succession.
Benjamin’s selection was met with praise, especially from members of the Harlem political establishment, particularly Keith Wright, Chair of Manhattan’s Democratic Party, and Charlie Rangel, who represented Harlem in Congress for 46 years. Notably, in the final months and weeks of the Cuomo administration, many members of the Harlem establishment were reluctant to call for his resignation, making Hochul’s pivot for their support all the more noteworthy, underscoring the notion that such help is critical to her re-election next June.
Hochul hails from Erie County in Western New York, a world away from the Central Harlem district Benjamin represented in the State Senate. Hochul’s Erie County is 79% white, with a higher median income and greater concentration of swing voters, whereas Benjamin’s Central Harlem is 54% Black and 23% Hispanic with more reliably Democrat voters. Erie County was Clinton+5 in 2016, while Benjamin’s Senate District was Clinton+90. Hochul, looking to balance out her ticket, both geographically and racially, was no doubt keenly aware of these dynamics.
Benjamin will prove to be a strong partner to Hochul in the everyday aspects of governing, as he has drawn praise from his colleagues for his work ethic and fiscal/financial knowledge. However, Hochul is still a politician, and part of her political calculus in selecting Benjamin is because she hopes him and his allies will help shore up her biggest weakness: Black voters. Given Hochul’s weakness downstate, there will be significant pressure on Benjamin to coalesce support for their ticket in New York City. Look for Benjamin to take on a more involved and active role in campaigning with Hochul next year than any former Lieutenant Governor. In the past, Gubernatorial candidates like Cuomo and Spitzer hailed from New York City, while possessing greater name recognition with the general public and more concrete support from the City’s Black and Hispanic working class, two distinct advantages Hochul does not have.
But Benjamin, who has never won a competitive primary at any level, is not guaranteed to help her with the City’s Black voters. Hochul is staring down a rematch with Public Advocate Jumaane Williams while contending with the possibility that Attorney General Letitia James will enter the race, both of whom are Black Brooklyn elected officials. Their biggest strength is Hochul’s biggest weakness.
Benjamin, born in Harlem to Caribbean Immigrants, will be integral to Hochul’s chances. He boasts strong ties to many Black political power brokers in the area, and wracked up many impressive endorsements in his race for Comptroller, including former Governor David Paterson, Congressman Adriano Espaillat, Councilmember Diana Ayala, as well as both Jamaal Bailey and Rodneyse Bichotte, who were also in consideration for the LG role. Mainstays of the Harlem political establishment like Rangel, Dukes, Wright and Inez Dickens have been longstanding supporters of Benjamin. Hochul is hoping that Benjamin and his allies will buoy her chances with Black voters next year.
Meanwhile in Benjamin’s Central Harlem district, the political character and demographics of the neighborhood are changing considerably, opening the door for new leadership. Benjamin’s vacated senate seat presents a compelling opportunity for New York City’s ascendant leftist movement to seize power and further expand their socialist caucus in Albany. But first, they must go through the Harlem machine.
“We didn’t leave there so you could go back”
While Benjamin was born at Harlem Hospital, his family moved to Starrett City, Brooklyn when he was 5. Benjamin grew up middle class, the product of his parents’ well compensated union jobs, which helped spur him on to the Ivy Leagues, landing him a Bachelor’s Degree from Brown and an MBA from Harvard.
Despite some questioning from his parents, Benjamin returned to Harlem upon the completion of his degrees. When Benjamin graduated undergrad in 1999, over 55% of Central Harlem households had an income below $40K, while the neighborhood itself was 77% Black, a number that would continue to precipitously drop as more longtime residents were displaced over the last 20 years.
After working as an Investment Advisor for Morgan Stanley for three years, Benjamin pivoted to real estate. He was hired by Genesis Companies, a Black owned Real Estate development firm based in Harlem that specialized in “mixed income” developments. Through partnerships with community non-profits coupled with generous tax breaks from both the city and federal government (totaling millions), Genesis was able to refurbish older, dilapidated buildings and convert them into affordable housing.
However, Genesis has a suspect reputation, often feuding with tenant organizers and housing rights groups over poor conditions in their buildings. While Benjamin was serving as the managing director of business development, Genesis purchased “dozens” of buildings from a financially strapped non-profit as part of a “fire sale” at a diminished cost. The company has frequently landed itself in housing court with hundreds of violations, including rodent infestations, inadequate heat and water supply, mold, and defective plumbing. Genesis frequently antagonized many of the constituents Benjamin went on to represent, often ignoring their complaints, leaving one confused Harlem resident to ask, “So my Senator is also my landlord?”.
Even when he was a State Senator, Benjamin was retained on a $60K yearlong consulting contract by Genesis, which caused a fury amongst ethics watchdogs. While Benjamin acknowledged he was consulting with Genesis, he insisted that he was not being paid to do so. Yet, a form filed with the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) detailed that Benjamin was on a paid retainer by Genesis which began in June 2017, a month after his election, and lasted until June 2018, with payments of $5K a month.
Politically, Benjamin broke out in 2007, founding “Harlem for Obama”, which ultimately raised $250K for the future President during the contentious primary of 2008. Much of the infrastructure developed under “Harlem for Obama” was transitioned into Benjamin’s next organization, “Young Professionals United for Change”, which sought to increase political involvement amongst Harlem’s Black youth. In 2012, he was an Obama delegate to the DNC and joined Community Board #10 in Central Harlem. In four years, Benjamin became Chair of the Community Board, further raising his profile at the perfect time.
Benjamin’s big break came in 2017. Bill Perkins, a longtime Central Harlem politician, left the State Senate to rejoin the City Council, where he had previously served from 1998-2006. Thus, Perkins vacated his Central Harlem State Senate seat, triggering a controversial process to pick him replacement.
This vacancy created the need for a special election. Special elections are called in order to address the seat vacancy in a timely fashion, but are often held outside of the normal primary or general election schedule, oftentimes leading to extremely low turnout spurred by lack of awareness from the voting base. However, special elections for state seats are not an open primary, as the candidate that ultimately is chosen to be on the Democratic party ballot line is handpicked by the local County Committee. Each election district, made up of a small number of city blocks, has 2-4 County Committee members. Thus, in State Senate district 30, there are a few hundred County Committee members. In many areas of the City, the County Committee is composed of party insiders handpicked by the local machine. In scenarios like this, the Party Establishment has a tremendous amount of power, as the candidate placed on the Democratic Party ballot is all but guaranteed to win the general election. This allows the local political machine to effectively install whoever they want to fill such a position, a perfect opportunity to reward allies and friends.
The campaigning for the committee’s favor was nonetheless contentious, as Benjamin was accused by district leader Rev. Al Taylor (who currently serves in the State Assembly) of having the process rigged in his favor. Taylor and his allies, including Congressman Adriano Espaillat, State Senator Robert Jackson, and the outgoing Perkins, highlighted Benjamin's close allyship with Keith Wright, Chairman of Manhattan’s Democratic Party, to further their case. Espaillat and Wright, who had battled a year prior in a bruising Primary for Charlie Rangel’s open seat, saw the county committee votes as a proxy war to judge their respective influence in Central Harlem. The arduous process of whipping votes highlighted the schisms and fractures within Harlem’s political establishment. Additionally, a controversial rule shook up the process, creating more outrage and chaos:
“Committee members’ ballots are weighted according to how many people in their area voted for the Democratic candidate in the most recent gubernatorial election. Thus, Upper West Siders wielded outsize influence in the decision process because of vastly higher turnout rates in their neighborhood—even though it makes up a relatively small portion of the district.” (Observer)
Benjamin curried favor with the Upper West Side portion of the district by disavowing the IDC, a group of State Senate Democrats that defected to caucus with the Senate Republicans, which stymied progressive legislation for years, much to the chagrin of Andrew Cuomo. In addition to his pledge not to join, Benjamin stated he would raise money and campaign against each member, borne out in a letter he distributed throughout the district a week before the vote. Benjamin was endorsed by Comptroller Scott Stringer, who at the time had considerable influence throughout the wealthier, whiter swaths of the district. Benjamin’s campaign for County Committee votes was also boosted by then Governor Andrew Cuomo, former Governor David Patterson, Mayor Bill de Blasio, then Public Advocate Letitia James, Congressman Jerry Nadler, and Charlie Rangel among others.
After much hand-wringing, Benjamin prevailed, with 170 of 263 cast votes. Just like that, Benjamin was ushered into the State Senate.
In the Senate, Benjamin quickly established himself as a leading voice for progressive criminal justice reform. He introduced legislation to close Rikers Island in three years, running counter to Mayor de Blasio’s ten year plan, which Benjamin deemed as lacking urgency. Benjamin co-sponsored legislation to end cash bail, end solitary confinement, restore the voting rights of parolees, and amend parole violation laws - so that testing positive for drugs, failing to report, or failing to notify a change in address would not lead to re-incarceration.
Benjamin introduced and passed the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act, which criminalized the use of chokeholds by police officers that result in injury or death. Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother, has been a proud supporter of Benjamin ever since.
On Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Benjamin tweeted “I support the movement to defund the police because I believe that there are parts of the NYPD budget that are not essential for public safety.”
Many of Benjamin’s progressive views on policing and criminal justice reform are destined to clash with Hochul’s more moderate base of suburban white voters. These voters are skeptical of new bail reform laws, see police as an integral framework of their community, and are more likely to favor narratives about rising crime. Such tension is worth monitoring, especially to see if Benjamin, now in a statewide position, will tailor any of his views to the Governor.
On fiscal issues, Benjamin helped to successfully push State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli to divest New York’s Public Pension fund from private prisons. As Chairman of the Committee on Revenue and Budget, Benjamin went further, pushing public and private banks, introducing and passing legislation that pushed New York State chartered banks (many of which were international) to cease such investments. Benjamin’s legislation was lauded for spurring Bank of America to cut ties with detention centers and private prisons.
Foreshadowing the budget shortfalls of 2020/21 and fiscal uncertainty brought about by the Coronavirus pandemic, Benjamin proposed legislation in October of 2019 to help New York City establish a “Rainy Day Fund”, essentially a tax stabilization reserve fund that would insulate the City from crippling budget cuts if a fiscal crisis arose. Such a fund is not currently allowed because of the “Financial Emergency Act of 1975”, which required the City to balance their budget each year - a product of a precarious era where the City was annually risking financial insolvency. In a familiar blunder by Andrew Cuomo, such legislation was tabled, and left unpassed throughout the pandemic, where it would have almost certainly made a difference. Benjamin would be wise to encourage his new boss, Governor Kathy Hochul, to streamline such an initiative through the legislature.
However, Benjamin’s time in the legislature was not without controversy. In July of 2020, Benjamin joined the board of directors for Nexpoint Acquisition Corp, an investor relations firm, accruing a $50K annual salary with up to $250K worth of stock. Additionally, Nextpoint’s CEO, Andrew Neuberger, had a dubious reputation as a former Morgan Stanley executive that oversaw the firm's many loans to subprime mortgage lenders, which culminated with the collapse of the housing market in 2008. During Neuberger’s tenure, the Federal Reserve loaned Morgan Stanley $107 billion to keep it solvent, after the firm had issued billions in loans and bonds that proved to be toxic investments. Many progressives deemed Benjamin’s board position within Nextpoint and stock holdings as an unethical conflict of interest, given his chairmanship of the Senate Budget and Revenue Committee. 34 progressive organizations, including NYC DSA, New York Communities for Change and the New York Taxi Workers Alliance penned a letter to State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins asking for Benjamin’s removal as chair. Benjamin resigned from Nextpoint’s Board in March 2021 amidst his run for City Comptroller.
Benjamin still owns all of his NextPoint stock holdings.
Editor’s Note: THE CITY published a report today detailing how NextPoint acquired California firm LoanMe, which preys on borrowers with poor credit histories in states that have few restrictions on interest rates. LoanMe charges borrowers rates between 98% and 500% and has been sued 33 times in the past five years. New York State considers rates over 25% to be criminal and caps most loans at 16% - LoanMe does no business in New York.
Furthermore, Benjamin drew the ire of progressive activists for his flip-flop on the Good Cause Eviction bill. The bill, sponsored by State Senator Julia Salazar, would give every tenant in the State the right to a renewal lease while requiring landlords to justify rent increases above 1.5% of the consumer price index. If passed, the legislation would prevent no-fault evictions, requiring landlords to have “just cause” to evict a tenant in an unregulated or “market-rate” housing unit, per Housing Justice For All. Benjamin, originally a cosponsor, curiously withdrew his support for the bill, leading to a series of tense and awkward moments. After protesters lined the walls of his office hallway, Benjamin cancelled a fundraiser with REBNY, the Real Estate Board of New York, who opposed the bill. After speaking with Salazar, Benjamin rejoined the bill as a cosponsor, but the damage had been done, as his antics alienated many progressive in the process.
Despite never running in a competitive primary, let alone a citywide election, Benjamin launched a well funded bid for City Comptroller. He faced a crowded field including former CNBC Contributor Michelle Caruso-Cabrera (fresh off being obliterated by AOC 75%-18% in her 2020 primary), Brooklyn State Senator Kevin Parker, Queens Assemblymember David Weprin, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson (after he exited the Mayor’s race), and Brooklyn City Councilmember Brad Lander. The latter two, Johnson and Lander, proved to be the most formidable.
Johnson was backed by almost the entirety of organized labor, as union heavyweights like 1199 SEIU, 32BJ, DC37, UFT, and the Hotel Trades Council threw their considerable might behind him. Johnson entered in late March, shaking up the race while getting out to an early polling lead. Johnson’s entrance particularly hurt Benjamin, who was in a good position to pick up considerable union support that ultimately broke for Johnson. Such dynamics significantly hindered Benjamin’s long term viability. Despite raising over $3 million (including matching funds), the fourth highest total in the race, Benjamin was never able to break out from the pack.
Upon Johnson’s entrance, polling showed Benjamin and Brad Lander, who eventually won the race, both toiling in single digits in the 5-10% range. Yet, Lander, despite working from behind, was able to make up his polling deficit and peak towards the end of the race. Lander was spurred by endorsements from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who was prominently featured in his many ad buys) and The New York Times Editorial Board, which united a coalition of liberal and leftist voters, bridging the younger, socialist adjacent voters of Western Queens and North Brooklyn with the older, wealthier liberals of the Upper West Side, Park Slope, and Brooklyn Heights. Lander, in many respects, combined the coalitions of Mayoral candidates Maya Wiley and Kathryn Garcia on his way to victory.
As Ross Barkan frequently points out, Lander, a Clinton/Warren voter who supported the City Council’s plan to build four new borough based jails, is no democratic socialist. Yet Lander has been willing to embrace and outwardly court the emerging AOC wing of New York City’s Democratic electorate, and has proven to be a reliable ally on tenants rights issues. Benjamin showed a lack of willingness to court such a base, proudly continuing to take real estate developer cash even as his top opponents swore off such donations. Additionally, a bizarre donation scandal, where 23 people “gave” money to Benjamin “through” an intermediary - but lacked any knowledge of such a transaction, or of who Benjamin was. Such information, when combined with Benjamin’s checkered history with Genesis and NextPoint, turned off many progressive voters.
On the first place vote, Benjamin finished fourth with 65,667 votes of the 861,886 total cast, approximately 7.6%. He placed behind Michelle Caruso-Cabrera (13.4%), Corey Johnson (22.5%), and Brad Lander (31%). Lander defeated Johnson in the 10th round of Ranked Choice Voting, 52-48%.
In my previous piece on Kathy Hochul, I detailed her weaknesses in her 2018 matchup with Jumaane Williams, who will almost certainly declare his candidacy for Governor in the coming months:
“Williams ran up huge margins in the gentrifying leftist hotbeds of Astoria, Long Island City, Greenpoint, North Williamsburg, Bushwick, Ridgewood, Red Hook, Sunset Park and the East Village - which was to be expected. Williams, buoyed by The New York Times endorsement, consolidated support amongst wealthier white liberals, winning neighborhoods like Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene, Park Slope, the Upper West Side, and the West Village. Hochul was routed in many of these precincts…Hochul particularly struggled with the City’s Black voters. Williams outperformed Hochul in Black neighborhoods Cuomo had won, like East New York, Canarsie, and Central Harlem, while crushing her in other Black strongholds, like Bedford-Stuyvescant, Crown Heights and Flatbush. Hochul only retained significant support from the City’s Black voters in Southeast Queens and the Northeast Bronx.”
Given Hochul’s more moderate, competency focused politics, she is unlikely to be actively courting the leftist vote, a quality she shares with her new Lieutenant Governor. However, Hochul needs to make inroads with Black voters, especially in Brooklyn. As repeated by me ad nauseam, both Jumaane Williams and Letitia James have a proven electoral track record of consistently durable support from the City’s Black voters.
Extrapolating a citywide Comptroller primary to running as a Lieutenant Governor statewide is by no means perfect science. Yet, by looking into the results of the Comptroller’s race, one can glean what type of impact Benjamin could potentially have on Hochul’s ticket next June.
If the Comptroller’s race is any indication, Hochul’s gambit - that the addition of Benjamin along with the de-facto support of the Harlem machine will help her make inroads with Black voters - is quite risky. Benjamin failed to build a distinct coalition or base and struggled in many predominantly Black neighborhoods where Hochul’s weaknesses, and Williams and James’ strengths, are greatest.
In any of Brooklyn’s predominantly Black Assembly Districts, Benjamin did not finish higher than fourth place.
Benjamin’s best showings were in Bedford-Stuyvesant(61% Black) and East Flatbush(87% Black), where he placed fourth, but still was unable to eclipse 10% in either Assembly District.
In Brooklyn’s other majority Black Assembly Districts, Benjamin’s struggles worsened. In both East New York and Ocean Hill-Brownsville, where the Black population is 70%, Benjamin placed fifth, behind Lander, Johnson, Parker (who held his own in East Flatbush and many adjacent Black neighborhoods) and Caruso-Cabrera (who consolidated support from Hispanics in the area).
In Assembly District 42, which cuts through the heart of Flatbush and is 56% Black, Benjamin placed sixth. I argued in my last piece that Rodneyse Bichotte, who represents District 42 in the State Assembly, would have been a more sound choice for Hochul, given her ties to Brooklyn’s Caribbean communities and status as Chair of the Brooklyn Democratic Party.
Many of Hochul’s same weaknesses with Brooklyn’s Black voters are shared by Benjamin.
Boroughwide, Benjamin finished sixth in the Comptroller primary, a troubling statistic for Hochul, as Brooklyn is the largest county in the state and boasts a large and active voting base.
Reminder: Each election district (or ED) is made up of a small number of city blocks.
An oft overlooked fact is that, out of a possible 5,421 election districts throughout New York City, Benjamin won a mere 78, a distant sixth out of all the candidates, despite him finishing fourth in total vote share. Even the other middling Comptroller candidates carved out a base of support in certain areas of the City. Caruso-Cabrera won many Bronx Hispanics, David Weprin won Orthodox Jews and conservative whites, and Kevin Parker won Afro-Caribbean voters in East Flatbush. One would be hard pressed to look at a map of the Comptroller results and identify such a base for Benjamin.
Benjamin’s struggles indicate he lacks a base, and, when combined with his ethics scandals, it is worth questioning what voters he can actually bring into Hochul’s coalition.
This was nowhere more apparent than in Benjamin’s own State Senate District, which spans Central Harlem, Morningside Heights, and East Harlem while including a bit of the Upper West Side. Benjamin placed third in his own district behind Johnson and Lander. Benjamin did well North of 130th Street while playing Johnson to a stalemate in East Harlem. Yet, Benjamin struggled in the western portion of the district, Morningside Heights and the Upper West Side, both neighborhoods where Lander performed his best, helping him pull away. Lander, to his credit, did quite well throughout the entirety of the district. Even in precincts where he did not place first, he remained competitive everywhere, especially in areas with traditionally more moderate Black and Hispanic voters, like the the Northern portion of Central Harlem and East Harlem’s public housing.
Editor’s Note: Maya Wiley lost Senate District 30 to Eric Adams: 31.6% to 26.7%
Lander's strong showing highlights the district’s appetite for a progressive candidate. In City Council District 9, which is almost perfectly drawn along the “boundaries” of Central Harlem, Kristin Richardson Jordan, a Black lesbian socialist who openly campaigned on prison abolition and defunding the police, defeated establishment backed incumbent Bill Perkins (remember him?) by 126 votes after thirteen rounds of ranked choice voting. Jordan, who was not endorsed by DSA (but was backed by Lander and Sunrise NYC) stunned Harlem’s political establishment. A familiar pattern emerged, as Jordan’s leftism excited voters in the western and southern portions of the district, areas with higher concentrations of younger, newer residents. Perkins’ strength rested with the public housing residents along the eastern border coupled with the older voters in the largely un-gentrified northern section.
Jordan, who ran the epitome of a grassroots campaign without much backing from New York City’s left wing apparatus, benefitted from being cast as an underdog in a crowded field (13 candidates on the ballot, 8 of which received over 5% on the first vote). After Jordan’s stunning upset, the next socialist to run in Harlem will likely encounter a more unified and concentrated effort from the Harlem political establishment.
With Benjamin’s vacancy, State Senate District 30 will have a special election that Governor Hochul will schedule to coincide with the November General election. The same process (scroll up for a quick refresher) that selected Benjamin in 2017 by vote of the local county committee will determine who occupies the Democratic Party ballot line in this November election. Party insiders and the local machine will have tremendous sway over the process, rendering chances of a leftist being chosen obsolete. Whoever is chosen by the county committee will effectively be installed in the office come January 2022. The county committee will likely be deciding between two state assembly members: Inez Dickens (AD 70 - Manhattanville/Central Harlem) and Al Taylor (AD 71 - Hamilton Heights/Sugar Hill/Washington Heights).
While Taylor was Benjamin’s runner up in 2017, I believe that Dickens has the inside track with the county committee and they will ultimately select her. Dickens has greater electoral roots IN Central Harlem than Taylor, as well as a better relationship with Manhattan Democratic Chairman Keith Wright, whom she succeeded in the state assembly with his blessing. Wright’s backing will be instrumental throughout the county committee selection process, and Taylor, who clashed with Wright in 2017 over his favor towards Benjamin, is poised to see history repeat itself. Dickens herself has represented Central Harlem in the City Council as well, where she served 11 years in the District 9 seat recently won by Jordan.
If Dickens is selected, a game of Harlem music chairs will commence, as her state assembly seat will be vacated, triggering the same process to select her replacement - likely to favor one of the district leaders backed by the party in AD70. District Leader Cordell Cleare would be a leading candidate to be selected to fill Dickens’ assembly seat. Cleare placed fourth in the District 9 City Council primary, and was backed by 1199 SIEU and Make the Road Action. While she is rumored to be mulling a run for the open Senate seat, replacing Dickens through the county committee would be a less bruising, and more feasible path to higher office.
Whoever is selected by the county committee in the next few weeks will be placed on the Democratic Party ballot line for the November 2nd election, then will almost assuredly take office on January 1, 2022.
However, the real opportunity exists in next June’s Democratic primary, where the City’s leftist movement should absolutely mount a challenge to Dickens, Taylor or whomever is chosen by the county committee. State Senate seats are hard to come by, and the Harlem machine is vulnerable, with many electeds having never run in a competitive primary.
To win, a leftist candidate will likely need to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in addition to having a strong digital organizing team to reach voters amidst the noise of the Gubernatorial and Congressional elections. Such organizing will be crucial to activate newer voters who have rarely engaged politically before and may have just moved into the district. This candidate must be able to consolidate and unite the progressive and socialist left behind them.
If Dickens or Taylor is picked to fill Benjamin’s vacant senate seat, the left should also mount a primary challenge against their replacements in the state assembly. Electing a progressive in either district is possible. Brad Lander won both AD70 (closely) and AD71 (quite comfortably) while Maya Wiley narrowly lost to Eric Adams in Dickens’ AD70 (35.3% to 30.6%) and Taylor’s AD71 (29.4% to 28.8% - although she overtook him on later rounds of Ranked Choice voting).
Such an effort would need to be well coordinated, but running two elections at the same time with overlapping electoral turf is a sound strategy, which DSA brilliantly deployed in 2020 when supporting Jabari Brisport for Senate and Phara Souffrant Forrest for Assembly in Central Brooklyn. DSA has an active chapter in Upper Manhattan (shared with the Bronx) that could make a concerted effort to help win both the Senate and Assembly seat.
Inez Dickens, the favorite for the Senate seat, is vulnerable to many lines of attack, and the left should relish the opportunity to face her. Dickens is a slumlord who has racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid code violations while being named on the Public Advocate’s “Worst Landlords Watch List”. Dickens has also been accused of being the ringleader behind “New York for Harlem”, an organization that was presented as a community nonprofit, while in actuality being a front for Dickens, Benjamin, Taylor, and Robert Rodriguez to solicit campaign contributions. She is one of the wealthiest members of the state legislature and could very easily be cast as out of touch with her district. Dickens has not had to win a competitive primary since 2005, and despite backing from the political establishment, could falter when faced with renewed scrutiny.
While the prospective field of leftists candidates for Central Harlem’s Senate seat has not fully materialized, there are two names that stand out.
The first being Ali Diini, a Somali refugee, community organizer, and member of DSA who immediately scored the endorsement of Kristin Richardson Jordan. Diini, like Richardson Jordan, is a prison abolitionist who disavows corporate and real estate money. Her chances of being selected by the county committee are slim to none, but she has already committed to running next June. If elected, she would be the youngest woman and first Muslim to hold the seat. Her campaign is in its infancy, but if she gains traction as next June approaches, she is worth monitoring. This will be an early test of whether Richardson Jordan and her allies can replicate their success.
However, the most intriguing option is Exonerated Five member Dr. Yusef Salaam, who declared his intention to run this past weekend. Salaam, at fifteen, was falsely imprisoned for seven years as part of the infamous Central Park jogger case (Salaam, Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson and Raymond Santana all had their convictions overturned in 2002 by DNA evidence). He is a strong leader on criminal justice issues and commands universal respect through his lived experience and advocacy. Salaam’s activism has merged with local politics before, as he endorsed Tiffany Cabán for Queens DA in 2019 and Alvin Bragg for Manhattan DA in 2021.
Cabán, upon hearing Salaam’s intention to run, offered high praise, “I can’t think of a more powerful, compelling, and capable person to fight for our people.” Salaam’s riveting story and journey to elected office will receive much favorable media coverage, further helping him build out a grassroots donor base that could compete with the large campaign coffers of the Harlem machine.
Few candidates have as high a ceiling as Salaam, who could unite younger leftists seeking progressive criminal justice reform and a break from the establishment with older voters who can identify with his lived experiences and value his deep ties to the neighborhood.
With Benjamin’s departure, the dynamic war between the City’s ascendant left and the political establishment is not going away. The cooldown from the Mayor’s race and the current focus on Kathy Hochul may have provided a momentary reprieve, but the tension is still building.
Central Harlem is the next battleground. A shakeup could be looming.
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