Felicia Singh changed the Narrative
How the daughter of a taxi driver expanded the electorate, centered working class communities of color, united Democrats throughout the borough, and is now poised to vanquish the Queens GOP
In a locality where Democrats outnumber Republicans 8 to 1, much of November’s general election is largely a formality. Party primaries, now held in the sweltering June heat, have come to rule the day - pitting dynasties, machines, local organizations, power brokers, and insurgents against one another, as each hopes to seize, build, or maintain the ever elusive power of elected office.
For the last few summers, New York City has been the national epicenter of these rapidly evolving dynamics, of which Democratic Party primaries have taken center stage, culminating in the largest recorded turnout in the City’s vast history just a few months ago.
The local political cycle, ever so unpredictable, is able to retain the attention of the most seasoned operatives, fervent readers, and rabid supporters on a year round basis.
Yet, for the city’s working class, tuning into the everyday workings of local politics is a luxury many do not have. What political bandwidth is available is concentrated on the June primary, the non-competitive mayoral race, or even focused up north on the showdown in Buffalo - a race which itself is essentially an extension of the Democratic Primary.
As such, the general election has turned into an afterthought. For much of the City, Democrats run unopposed, or thoroughly dominate with astronomical margins. This year, even the Mayoral election will be a rout, as much of the media has fully embraced the coronation of Eric Adams.
As the electoral tides have turned and the city has grown more liberal, Democrats have sought to push Republicans further to the margins of local government, trying to maroon the City’s GOP on Staten Island and sideline them from any consequential decisions in the City Council (with the hopes of future gerrymandering still to come).
However, Republicans still control one lone Council seat outside of Staten Island, in Queens’ District 32 - which comprises the immigrant heavy South Ozone Park, Woodhaven, and Richmond Hill, and the notoriously whiter, more conservative Howard Beach and Broad Channel, in addition to the western section of the Rockaways, including Belle Harbor and Breezy Point.
Despite a 3-to-1 registration advantage for Democrats, the past twelve years saw Eric Ulrich, a Republican who is now term-limited, easily dispatch Democratic opposition en route to three terms on the council.
Editor’s Note: In District 32, according to the Board of Elections, there are 54,764 registered Democrats - 17,826 registered Republicans - and 21,276 Independents
Past Democratic nominees, like Michael Scala, too often tried to play to the district’s more conservative voters, concentrated in Howard Beach and Breezy Point, as part of a failed attempt to win over Republicans and Independents, who still clearly preferred Ulrich. Unwilling to expand the electorate or build far-reaching progressive coalitions to stymie the fear-mongering of the Queens GOP, Scala and other Democrats were doomed to keep repeating their same mistakes.
In doing so, many large swaths of potential voters in the district’s north were largely shut out of the political process, due to a lack of good-faith outreach.
To end the Republican stranglehold on District 32, the ideal Democratic candidate would not only comprehensively expand the electorate into these aforementioned immigrant communities, but center them throughout the campaign - something which had never been done prior - all while unifying the many perpetually at-odds factions of Queens Democrat politics. A tall, precarious task no doubt.
Along came Felicia Singh.
Born and raised in Ozone Park by working class immigrants: her father, a yellow cab driver from Punjab, India and her mother, a school bus matron for children with disabilities from Guyana - Felicia Singh’s story is not atypical in the ethnic mosaic of Ozone Park, Woodhaven or Richmond Hill. Yet, such diversity (ideological, economical, and lived experience) is not reflected in the area’s electoral representation, leaving entire communities left unattended at the margins. Singh’s proximity to and intimate knowledge of the plight of working class immigrants in her district has not only been the driving force behind her campaign, but the result of her family’s own experiences.
Her father, Dalip, bought a taxi medallion for $250,000 in 1987. What was supposed to provide a path towards economic mobility for the family quickly led to financial precarity:
“We were always just scrambling to maintain a mortgage on a house, and then any other occurring bills. But on his side with a taxi, it’s like $3,200 a month, plus $800 insurance, plus another $800 on repairs for taxis, plus surcharge. That was anywhere between $800 to $1,200. So you’re looking at anywhere between $6,000 to $8,000 a month if you add up all your bills. Do we make that much in a month driving a taxi? Absolutely not.” (City & State)
After scraping by for decades, disaster struck, as Singh’s father suffered a stroke in 2014, spurring him to take drastic action by borrowing $750,000 against the medallion’s value, forgoing his right to fight back in court in the process.
“The idea of purchasing a medallion was supposed to be about our ticket to middle-class life. But really, it just was a ticket to debt. I’ve always known a life of debt.”
As Uber, Lyft, and other ride-sharing apps entered the marketplace, devaluing once-precious medallions while avoiding scrupulous regulation, Singh’s father defaulted on his loan, before filing for bankruptcy as his medallion was soon seized.
This February, unbeknownst to Singh and her family of five, who all live together in their Ozone Park home, a bankruptcy court had placed a “For Sale” sign outside their home with no warning: “We were in deep shock. The way we [first] found out was someone rang the doorbell to ask for a listing.” The family was given an ultimatum - come up with $250,000 in 90 days or face homelessness.
Forced to settle with the trustee for $150,000 - Felicia and her family avoided bankruptcy court, but further plunging into deeper debt. “My father will never be able to retire.”
Out of the 6,000 medallion owners, approximately 1,200 are over the age of 62. The vast majority of whom, like Singh’s father, may never be able to retire.
This devastating story of economic plight is not limited to Singh’s family, but has defined life for countless New York City taxi drivers - 94% of whom are immigrants - for the past two decades, the result of unchecked corruption and runaway greed.
A groundbreaking 2019 New York Times investigation revealed the extent of the malfeasance, as predatory lenders, city officials and medallion brokers colluded to artificially inflate the prices of taxi medallions - a gateway to a closed market that was subsequently opened - at the expense of those who bought medallions. The Pulitzer Prize-winning piece was published after a rash of suicides amongst taxi drivers suffering from crippling debt. The report detailed that over one thousand medallion owners had filed for bankruptcy, pre-pandemic.
Zohran Mamdani, a State Assemblymember representing Astoria, summarized the malfeasance well:
“In 2001, [then–Mayor Mike] Bloomberg got into office and had a $3.8 billion shortfall. He identified taxi medallions as a way to make revenue for the city. The city then makes $855 million off medallion sales, additionally implementing a 5 percent transfer. Then the city sets the opening bid at every auction. The city is artificially inflating the value of these medallions. The city has an internal review that says the cost of the medallion is outstripping the actual value because for decades the medallions cost around $200,000. No change in the market and now it’s four to five times the worth? It’s completely nonsensical.
As all of this is happening, they also let Lyft and Uber come in with no regulations. The worth of these medallions is predicated on the fact that there is a closed market. Uber and Lyft are only allowed to be villains because the city let them. It’s the culpability of the city again and again and again.” (Mother Jones)
Mamdani, alongside taxi drivers, other elected officials and allies, are currently engaging in a hunger strike outside of City Hall to protest Mayor de Blasio’s lackluster debt relief plan, which still insists on loan payments up to $2,000 and that subsidies end within twelve months, which is untenable for most drivers. What Singh, Mamdani, and the New York Taxi Workers Alliance are advocating for is a city-backed guarantee, which was endorsed by the City Council’s own internal review. By eliminating risk for the lenders, they are incentivized to offer more affordable conditions: lower principals, monthly payments, and interest rates: “The power of government is not simply to replicate the market—it is to take on the market.”
While the impending stress of medallion debt has dogged Singh and her family for years, it fully crystallized during her campaign, only hardening her resolve to deliver for her community as a councilmember. But first, she had to get there.
“I ran a campaign on the adjectives of being a daughter of working class immigrants, as a teacher, and a workers rights advocate. Those adjectives resonate throughout the entirety of the district.”
Unlike most local candidates for office in New York City, Singh would have to win two competitive elections: the primary and the general. Amidst six candidates in the Democratic primary, Singh not only had to differentiate herself, but also fight the political consensus that had paralyzed local politics in District 32 for the past decade.
The district’s ideological and racial polarization is quite real, with South Conduit Avenue serving as the line of demarcation.
To the north, the diverse communities of Ozone Park, Woodhaven, and Richmond Hill are populated with immigrants from India, Bangladeshi, Latin America and Guyana - communities which past Democrats had taken for granted, reflected in lackluster outreach that culminated in meager turnout. According to CFB analysis, South Ozone Park, Woodhaven, and Richmond Hill were among Queens neighborhoods with the lowest turnout in 2017 and 2019.
“The voting data matched what we saw with our eyes - communities were being ignored.” - Rapi Castillo, leftist data guru, progressive organizer, and Co-chair of both QUIP (Queens United Independent Progressives) and New York’s WFP Chapter.
To the south, the ideological and racial composition changes significantly. Conservative and moderate voters, both Republican and Democrat, are the electoral backbone of neighborhoods like Howard Beach, Broad Channel, Belle Harbor and Breezy Point. In particular, issues of public safety and police reform remain charged, as Blue Lives Matter flags can be seen around Breezy Point and Howard Beach, while pro-cop processions paraded through Broad Channel for the duration of Summer 2020 in response to calls to cut the NYPD budget.
Given the purple nature of the district, many Democratic candidates actively chose to pivot towards the electoral middle - in this case, the more conservative communities in the district’s southern portion. The political orthodoxy deemed that a progressive candidate was an electoral mismatch, not only for the Democratic primary, but the district at large.
Aaron Narraph Fernando, a socialist organizer, highlighted such dynamics: “It would be so easy for the Democrat in this district to be a traditional boring centrist who pays lip service to cops out of fear and cowardice. But luckily instead we have Felicia, who vanquished that very Democrat in the primary by turning out working-class people of color.”
This dogma was put to the test throughout this year’s primary, as Singh ran an unabashedly progressive campaign, unafraid to champion polarizing issues like divesting $1 billion from the NYPD, in addition to other leftist policy pillars, like increasing investments in climate resiliency, CUNY, and NYCHA improvements. Combined with her experience - serving as a field lead for Tiffany Cabán and being the Queens Borough Director of Amplify Her - Singh garnered impressive endorsements throughout the primary, winning backing from the Working Families Party(very early), New York Communities for Change, Sunrise NYC, Jessica Ramos and Zephyr Teachout among others. She further distinguished herself by winning the support of many large labor unions, like 1199 SIEU, 32BJ, DC37, and the AFL-CIO, whose mailers and volunteers are crucial in smaller, lower turnout primary elections.
Singh’s main competition was a familiar face in the area, Attorney Michael Scala, who had previously won the 2017 Democratic Primary but lost in a blowout victory to Ulrich in the general election. Scala, a Howard Beach resident, ran a more centrist campaign that contrasted with Singh’s progressivism, especially on issues of policing, as he sought to build a more moderate coalition: “I think about up-down issues, not left-right issues.”
On election day, Singh held a narrow lead - only edging Scala by 68 votes, a margin of 0.66%. A recognizable pattern emerged, with Scala triumphing in the more conservative southern portion of the district, while Singh’s base in the northern portion turned out heavily on her behalf. While Scala won a single election district north of South Conduit Avenue, Singh won four ED’s in neighborhoods Scala expected to win, as she did especially well in both Rockaway Beach and Rockaway Park.
Singh and members of her field team spoke to me about their strong emphasis on ranked choice voting, which paid dividends on the later rounds, as Singh lead widened from tens to hundreds. Nowhere was this more evident than in the Bangladeshi communities within South Ozone Park, where a third candidate, Helal Sheikh, won multiple precincts, often with large margins. When Sheikh, who finished with 10.6% of the vote on the first ballot, was eliminated in the penultimate round of ranked choice voting, an overwhelming amount of his votes conveyed to Singh, ensuring her triumph.
At the completion of the ranked choice voting tabulations, Singh defeated Scala 4,662 (52.46%) votes to 4,225 (47.54%) - a winning margin of 437 votes.
Considering that Maya Wiley, the only viable progressive in the Mayoral Primary, finished fourth in District 32, behind Adams(1st), Garcia(2nd) and Yang(3rd), provides even further context to the impressive nature of Singh’s primary win as a progressive. Singh also received more votes on the initial ballot than any of the Mayoral candidates, illustrating the depth of her appeal, and strength of her relational organizing and canvassing.
Singh’s primary victory, and campaign in itself, was a repudiation of many narratives that had taken hold throughout the district. The skewed perception that the immigrant communities in the district’s northern portion would not deliver the necessary votes needed to win a primary, let alone the general, was used to reinforce other candidates' greater focus on the southern portion of the district, setting up voices from these communities to dominate the discourse.
In exposing this catch-22, Singh correctly highlighted that the low turnout in the district’s north was due to a lack of genuine, consistent outreach from Democratic candidates, and had nothing to do with the engagement of the voters. Instead of relying upon the same failed strategies that doomed Democrats in District 32 for the past dozen years, Singh sought to expand the electorate and create her own unique coalition - which had untapped potential and ultimately delivered her the election.
What has always separated Felicia’s campaign was the strength of her organizers and volunteers, which, despite the district’s ideological polarization, vast geography, and lack of transit accessibility, was shown in her campaign’s ability to knock every Democratic door during the primary.
Singh, who prides herself on community accessibility - she has literature in six different languages (English, Spanish, Bangla, Polish, Chinese, Punjabi) and runs two language phone banks - has made weekly visits (every Friday) to mosques throughout the district for over a year. Her message, which comes off as authentic and fresh, undoubtedly resonates. Ali Rokshana, who first met Singh during a voter registration drive in Ozone Park, immediately took notice, “When she came to the masjid and introduced herself as the ‘daughter of a taxi driver’, folks were stunned but uplifted that a candidate for office would embrace that part of their identity so openly.” Throughout the campaign, whether at a masjid, a community group, or a local block party - such positive sentiments, particularly centered around representation, have become hallmarks of their movement.
Most city Democrats who prevail in their June Primary election can expect considerable downtime post-primary, having cleared the biggest hurdle to office, they tediously await either tepid Republican opposition or sometimes no opponent at all. While Singh and her team were afforded no such liberty, the campaign carried tremendous momentum into the general election, boosted by an already established, well-known universe of voters.
Waiting for Singh in the general election was Republican Joann Ariola, Chairwoman of the Queens Republican Party. Ariola, fresh off a loss in last November’s election for Queens Borough President, represents a metaphorical “last stand” for the County GOP.
Ariola herself has established a reactionary reputation, almost impatient to revert to her talking points centering on rising crime and quality of life policing. She is a fervent supporter of former President Donald Trump, rallies against vaccine mandates, vehemently opposes homeless shelters in the district, and is keen on reinstating the heavily controversial NYPD plainclothes “anti-crime” unit, which was recently disbanded following a legacy of civilian killings.
Editor’s Note: Even police commissioner Dermot Shea noted the anti-crime unit was “part of an outdated policing model that too often seemed to pit officers against the communities they served… they were involved in a disproportionate number of civilian complaints and fatal shootings by the police.” (New York Times)
Despite Queens still having the most registered Republicans of any borough (approximately 140,000) while witnessing a significant uptick in votes for Donald Trump amongst majority Hispanic and Asian precincts in the last election, the actual County Party, which Ariola presides over, has been marred by scandal, dysfunction, and infighting. Much of the power struggle revolves around whether Bart or John Haggerty, vice chair and executive director of the county party, are calling the shots behind the scenes, instead of Ariola.
Editor’s Note: I encourage everyone to read “Queens is More Diverse Than Ever and More Republican than 20 years Ago” by Socialist writer/researcher Matt Thomas
In a disturbing episode that illustrates this chaos, Phillip Grillo, a Republican district leader, who had pictures with Ariola on the county website, was arrested for participating in the January 6th Capitol riots. Per the New York Times, Grillo still retains his position as a district leader while the case is adjudicated.
In a distinct contrast to the aforementioned disharmony, Singh was able to accomplish a rare feat for Queens politicians: unite the many competing ideology factions within the borough behind her effort. After her victory in the general, endorsements from all over the political spectrum poured in, highlighting her campaign’s diverse appeal, from Queens Borough President Donovan Richards to Public Advocate Jumaane Williams to Senator Chuck Shumer.
Castillo summed up the coalition nicely, “How often do you have a race where WFP leads a Saturday canvass, and then the very next day Queens County Democrats lead canvass for the same candidate?”
While the looming threat posed by Ariola only heightened the sense of urgency amongst Democrats to coalesce behind Singh, her unique strengths as a candidate created the conditions that made such a broad alliance possible. No Democratic candidate in District 32 history had ever galvanized and excited the borough’s leftists and progressives while still engendering support from the county machine - an act of solidarity within the party that is far from commonplace.
An examination of the district’s voting history illustrated that, in spite of a fractured party, Ariola has reasons to be optimistic. When siphoning through this data, a clear pattern emerged: Democrats did extremely well in even years, headlined by top of the ticket races like President and Senate that drastically boosted turnout down the ballot, allowing Democratic candidates to capitalize on their significant registration edge within the district. However, during city elections, which take place during odd years and have lower turnout, Republicans have done well up and down the District 32 ballot.
Editor’s Note: In District 32, Nicole Malliotakis beat Bill de Blasio in the 2017 Mayoral election while Joe Borelli edged Jumaane Williams in the 2019 Public Advocate election.
Ariola, despite her ill-fated 2020 run for Queens Borough President, nearly won District 32 with 46.17% of the vote in the higher turnout race. She received 1,480 more votes than Trump did in District 32, and nearly eclipsed his boroughwide total, which was the highest vote share for a Republican Presidential candidate in Queens since 2004. Ariola’s strong performance, as well as her familiarity with the district’s voters, particularly those in Howard Beach, is cause for great concern amongst those who hope that Singh prevails.
Editor’s Note: In District 32, Biden defeated Trump by a margin of 33,801(57.36%) votes to 24,510(41.59%)
One key reason for this year-to-year voting discrepancy is the concentration of outside resources, as Republicans and right-wing actors can consolidate their efforts in order to keep their electoral foothold alive in the borough. Ariola, who has also been endorsed by outgoing councilmember Eric Ulrich, the New York Daily News and New York Post, has seen an influx of outside spending target Singh in the last few weeks, setting up a familiar narrative of grassroots taking on special interests and outside PACs.
While City Council races face an spending cap of $190,000, Independent Expenditures circumvent such rules and are allowed to pour in hundreds of thousands more. In the June Primary, this tactic was deployed by Billionaire Real Estate developer Stephen Ross against progressive and socialist candidates throughout the city. Mass mailers that not only traffic in fear mongering, but attempt to provoke an incendiary reaction from the reader, can be dangerously effective, especially in a small council district, where a lack of information about the election still persists.
These mass mailings, designed to paint Singh as a threat to the welfare of the district’s communities, is a tired, but common tactic often deployed against progressive candidates. The biggest culprit is the Police Benevolent Association, led by their racist President Pat Lynch, who directed the union’s independent expenditure to mercilessly target Singh, spending nearly $280,000 - a startling fee which indicates the lengths that special interests will go to buy off an election.
The mailers have a common theme: public safety, as Ariola has attempted to make the race about a single issue - defunding the police. Singh, who has remained steadfast to divesting resources from the NYPD into social services, has received more pushback on the issue than any other, but it has only strengthened her will to have more difficult conversations throughout the district.
In bad faith, Ariola has sensed Singh’s commitment to such a policy as a wedge issue she can use against her base. Despite showing an unwillingness to engage in good faith with the northern portion of the district, much less publicly identify herself as a Republican, Ariola and her allies have eagerly deployed provocative mailers throughout the district’s immigrant communities in an attempt to exploit the social conservative values held by some voters, a sign that she is scared about the electorate expanding.
“You’ve never cared for us before, and now you try to come and scare us, not even with your presence, but with mailers paid for by Republican billionaires.”
Editor’s Note: Ariola deliberately hides her status as a Republican - her party affiliation is absent from her mailers, website homepage, and lawn signs
Ariola’s main strategy, and ultimate path to victory, revolves around supercharging her base with the polarization, hoping to peak Republican turnout while relying on the outside expenditure mailers to depress Singh’s turnout and siphon off socially conservative independents. Given Ariola’s financial advantage, progressives are in a precarious position.
Despite Ariola’s hunger to make the race revolve around a single issue, Singh rejects the notion that the district’s voters are a monolith, indicating that such an effort indicates that Ariola is out of touch with the many diverse needs of communities throughout the district, especially on hyper local issues:
“It depends on where you are. In South Ozone Park, it might be that trees need to be trimmed. I cannot tell you how many conversations I have had about trees. In some parts of Ozone Park, people focus more on illegal dumping of garbage. Whereas in Howard Beach and Lindenwood, there is more straight up public safety - are you for defund or not. In some communities, voters talk about climate resilience, in others, healthcare issues. We are not a one issue district. But my opponent has made it so, but it is just not true.”
If the district’s new council member is a Republican intent on isolating themselves from the body, the real folks who will suffer will be the district’s residents, who will see less improvement and progress, a pitch that Singh has not shied away from on the trail - drawing a parallel to Ulrich’s time in office of the last decade, where some communities received more resources than others.
While Singh has always shown a commitment to her progressive values, she cautions members of the left to withhold judgement and practice compassionate voter outreach and education:
“We have to meet voters where they are, we have to have difficult conversations. We cannot allow third parties, media or organizations, to dictate what keeps our communities feeling valued. We need to fix City agencies to instill confidence that Democrats can fix these issues.”
In the final weeks and days, the race will come down to the strength of Singh’s large field operation versus the mounting influx of capital determined to kneecap her effort.
“The community raised me. The biggest thing I could ever give back, would be to represent them in City Hall.”
For the folks working on her campaign, a better, more equitable district 32 is not only attainable, but on the horizon.
In an experience that has still resonates with her to this day, Maria Kasper, a Field Lead for Singh in Howard Beach, recalls when her neighbor called the police on two Black men helping her parents set up sandbags around their home in preparation for Hurricane Sandy, an embodiment of the racial strife that has long dogged the community. Dismayed by the racial intolerance pervasive throughout the neighborhood, while anxious about the impending threat that climate change posed to her water-bound community, Kasper delved into progressive politics. She cites her Catholicism as a strong influence in developing her leftist values, eventually leading her to reach out and volunteer with the campaign, speaking once more to Singh’s ability to build a coalition that transcends not only race and class, but religion as well.
In many instances, the best, most impactful campaigns are those in which voters can see themselves in the candidate.
“The folks who created the platform with me live in this district.
The people who relationally organize live in this district.
The field leaders live in this district.”
Nalisa Budhu, the campaign’s Field Director, exemplified this spirit: “As someone who is Indo-Guyanese, it meant a lot to see someone run for office in this district whose values really aligned with mine. We have never been represented in the City Council before.”
“Her focus on people who have not voted before is something I have never seen before.” said Rokshana, “Before Felicia, folks were not calling on our doors to try and get us out to vote. They had given up on the Bangladeshi community.”
“I can’t express what it meant to me to knock doors for Tiffany Cabán in South Richmond Hill with a fellow Indo-Guyanese as the field lead, when my own politics were still developing,” added Aaron Narraph Fernando.
Regardless of the final outcome, Felicia Singh, along with her team of organizers, volunteers and community members have succeeded in building something far greater than themselves.
While politics as usual will commence after November 2nd, during this fleeting moment in time, Singh has helped unite Democrats from across Queens behind the district’s working class voters of color. She did so with an unwavering commitment to the strong progressive principles which led her to this moment.
Special thank you to Felicia Singh, Rapi Castillo, Nalisa Budhu, Aaron Narraph Fernando, Ali Rokshana, Maria Kasper, and Kristina Teschner for their contributions to this piece :)
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