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Brooklyn, Here are the Primary Election Races to Watch

Establishment candidates versus upstart progressives is a common theme running through several races.

With so much going on — from the COVID-19 pandemic to widespread protests — it's easy not to realize that the 2020 primary elections are around the corner.

Thousands of voters are expected to cast ballots by mail for the city's June 23 elections, which could have unexpected outcomes.

The races in the central Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights are drawing attention owed to issues tied to race and gentrification and a wave of upstart progressives intending to shake up the existing power structure.

Gentrification has brought significant demographic changes to those neighborhoods. Central Brooklyn has long been a political stronghold of Black Democrats who now find themselves competing for power with young progressives — some of them White. Consequently, a sometimes tense political battleground has emerged.

The race for the 56th Assembly District, which encompasses Northern Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy, pits Justin Cohen against Stefani Zinerman. They are competing to replace Assemblymember Tremaine Wright, who is running for state Senate.

Stefani Zinerman 56th Assembly District Candidate
Stefani Zinerman 56th Assembly District Candidate. Photo: Screenshot.

On Monday, Zinerman said at a virtual debate against Cohen that she is a third-generation Bed-Stuy resident with 15 years of community service. "My candidacy is focused on preserving the rich legacy of Bedford — Stuyvesant and Crown Heights," she stated in her opening remarks.

An NAACP member, Zinerman wants to enable families in those neighborhoods to afford housing in the community, where she wants also to improve schools and health care options, as well as create an environment where small businesses could thrive.

Cohen spent his career in the nonprofit sector and advocating for social justice and police reform. An audience member asked him to "reconcile" being a White man running to represent a historically Black district.

Justin Cohen 56th Assembly District candidate
Justin Cohen 56th Assembly District candidate. Photo: Screenshot

He responded that there was a consensus in his circle of grassroots activists that he should run for office to bring a different approach in Albany to fixing inequality.

"Although I was not an ideal messenger, I was in accountability to those organizations and activists I worked with, and as long as I continue to be in accountability that there would be trust there," he added.

In the 25th Senate District race, Wright is competing against Jabari Brisport and Jason Salmon for a seat that will open with Sen. Velmanette Montgomery's retirement. The district spans from Bed-Stuy and Ft. Greene/Clinton Hill to Red Hook. Much of the focus in this race has centered on the narrative of the establishment candidate versus progressives.

Wright told BKReader in an earlier interview that she rejects the old-school Democrat label.

Tremaine Wright, 56th Assembly District New York, campaigns 25th Senate District
Assemblymember Tremaine Wright. Photo: Courtesy Tremaine Wright for NY Senate.

"I think it's very interesting that a Black woman who has come out of community organizing and community service and activism is now painted as the establishment after three and a half years in office," she said.

Nevertheless, after receiving an impressive list of endorsements from Black political leaders, unions and nonprofit organizations, many see Wright as part of the Democratic Party machine.

However, Wright argued that she brings something of value to the table that her opponents lack.

"I am the only candidate in this race with a demonstrated history and demonstrated leadership, commitment and experience," Wrights said at a virtual debate on Thursday against Salmon and Brisport.

Jabari Brisport 25th Senate District candidate
Jabari Brisport 25th Senate District candidate. Photo: Screenshot

Neither of her opponents has ever held elected office. Salmon describes himself as a progressive Democrat. At the debate, Salmon noted that he is biracial, from a Black father born in the Caribbean and a White Jewish mother, with deep family roots in the community.

Brisport, a Democratic Socialists of America-backed candidate, is also a native Brooklynite and a public school teacher. His endorsements from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and state Sen. Julia Salazar add to his left-leaning credentials.

An audience member asked Salmon to respond to concerns that he and Brisport would split the progressive vote.

"People who say that do not understand the nuances of this district," Salmon said. "There isn't just the progressive vote and a conservative vote. From Red Hook to Ocean Hill, there are many views."

The 9th Congressional District race has a similar establishment Democrat narrative. Incumbent U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke was first elected to Congress in 2006 — a seat that was once held by Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress. Some of Clarke's opponents, including U.S. Army veteran Isiah James, are painting her as a party machine candidate and a "do-nothing Democrat."

In addition to James, a democratic socialist, Clarke also faces a rematch with Adem Bunkeddeko. who came close to unseating her in 2018. Clarke's other opponents are City Councilmember Chaim Deutsch and Lutchi Gayot, who ran as a Republican in 2018 against Clarke.

Phara Souffrant Forrest. Photo: Phara Souffrant Forrest.
Phara Souffrant Forrest is running for State Assembly. Photo: Phara Souffrant Forrest.

Assemblymember Walter Mosley also faces a challenge from the left to defend his 57th Assembly District seat, which he has held since 2012. The district includes Ft. Greene/Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights and parts of Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights.

Mosley's past real estate industry campaign donations prompted Phara Souffrant Forrest to challenge the incumbent. Forrest, a democratic socialist, told BKReader that her decision to run came last year when she was arrested in Albany for protesting in support of tenants' rights bills.

The 18th Senate District race, which covers Bushwick, Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Cypress Hills, flips the script in that the incumbent, Sen. Julia Salazar, is a social democrat. Salazar is defending her seat from a challenge by Andy Marte, a former staffer to Democratic Party boss and Brooklyn power broker Vito Lopez, who died in 2015. Marte says he's running on behalf of longtime district residents of color who feel threatened by gentrification.

Also in Bushwick, the 7th Congressional District race pits 14-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez against performance artist Paperboy Love Prince. His left-leaning platform includes a universal basic income of $1,000 a month and Medicare for all.

Paperboy Prince

At the citywide level, several candidates are vying to replace City Councilmember Mathieu Eugene, who has represented City Council District 40 since 2007. The district encompasses Flatbush, Midwood and Prospect Lefferts Gardens. The candidates include Brian Cunningham, who narrowly lost to Eugene in the last election cycle, and public school teacher and community activist Rita Joseph. Her campaign raised $20,600, according to figures reported in January to the NYC Campaign Finance Board, outpacing Cunningham who reported $20,297 for that same period.

About the Author: Nigel Roberts

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