New York, Democratic battleground and vote-by-mail laboratory

By Jorge Fuentelsaz

New York, Jun 21 (efe-epa).- New York, one of the traditionally Democratic US states, on Tuesday will hold its political primary election in which most of the party’s candidates who win their respective races are guaranteed to win the November general and local elections over their Republican rivals.

The fight between the Democratic Party’s old and new guards, the relatively new vote-by-mail option and voter participation will be the keys to this week’s set of elections.

US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (widely known as AOC), state assembly member Catalina Cruz and state Sen. Jessica Ramos are just three of the female politicians in the young progressive generation that burst onto the scene in the 2018 mid-term elections, unseating – as in Ocasio-Cortez’s case – former heavyweights within the Democratic Party’s apparatus on the national level.

But in addition, this year there are other aspirants to office such as Jamaal Bowman, who is facing off against veteran Eliot Engel with the support of Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who have also launched themselves into the political arena to challenge the party’s traditional candidates.

What the state is seeing is a change of leadership in New York City’s legislative delegation, a change that began in 2016 when Dominican Adriano Espaillat defeated long-time – and very powerful – Congressman Charles Rangel. He was followed two years later by Ocasio-Cortez’s win over Joe Crowley, who at that time was one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress, City University of New York political scientist John Gutierrez told EFE, adding that he believes that this trend will continue this year.

The weakness of the Republican Party in New York state, the scanty number of registered conservative voters and the overwhelming majority of Democrats on the voting roles – with their dominance in the state’s two legislative chambers – make the winner of the Democratic primaries the favorite to take the general and local election, especially in New York City, with the exception of certain parts of Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island.

In New York state there are 6.5 million registered Democratic voters and just 2.8 million Republicans, a difference between the voting blocs that is even more overwhelming in the Big Apple, where there are 3.6 million registered Democratic voters and just 530,000 Republicans.

Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz and Ramos, along with other candidates like Julia Salazar and Alexandria Biaggi, are running in the primaries to try and shore up their support and clout on the political scene given that during their brief time in office so far – just two years since they came into office with the last elections – their names may not yet be very well-known among their constituents.

The most dangerous years for a newly-elected officeholder are the first few years after they are elected, because people don’t know them very well yet, they’re relatively new and they’re not yet anchored into their positions, Gutierrez said.

Lawmaker Catalina Cruz, who is running for re-election for the first time in Queens, is aware of the risks facing new candidates, but she said that’s not her situation, telling EFE that she’s worked “very hard” and hasn’t been “sitting around waiting” for people to get to know her.

Ocasio-Cortez has become one of the symbols of the new Democratic and progressive generation who is seeking to carve out a niche within the party ranks and change its agenda on the national level, strengthening its insistence on dealing with issues such as universal health care and education for all and brandishing the Green New Deal as one of their key objectives, the ecological reorientation of the US economy to put an end to environmentally harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

Her political stances in Washington, where she has allied herself with other progressives such as Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan – the four of them known as “The Squad” – have sometimes brought criticism from within her own party, along with the ongoing broadsides from Republican lawmakers and pundits, who call them radicals and communists.

Ocasio-Cortez – who is of Puerto Rican heritage – will face off on Tuesday against three challengers from her own party, among whom the best-known face is former television host Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, who has blamed the lawmaker for radicalizing and polarizing the political arena and not defending the interests of her constituents, who live in residential neighborhoods in The Bronx and Queens.

But Ocasio-Cortez has not focused her efforts just on parrying the arguments of her opponent, whom she accuses of being financed by Republicans, but also on forging a new political alliance within her party that will result in her not being so alone in Congress and in garnering support on the state level.

In fact, the young progressive has supported newcomer Jamaal Bowman, who some observers are calling the new AOC, against Engel, who has the support, among other backers, of former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Another of the keys to these primary races will be voting by mail, which is being implemented for the first time in New York state, as well as voter participation, the level of which will conceivably be affected by the pandemic and by the new voting system that also includes early voting at some polling places set up to allow for it.

The question is how well it’s going to work and how many people request mail-in ballots and then actually use them, Columbia University political science Professor Robert Shapiro told EFE, adding that the primary could foreshadow – to some extent – what could happen in the presidential and general election in November, when participation will admittedly be much greater.

Voting by mail has been seriously called into question by GOP lawmakers and by President Donald Trump, who have stated – albeit without evidence – that it opens the door to election fraud. Many analysts view that as a bogus argument that, in reality, hides the fear among Republicans that mail-in voting could result in a much larger turnout among traditionally Democratic Latino and African American voters, and that would hurt GOP candidates’ election chances in key states such as North Carolina, Texas and Florida.

Shapiro said, however, that it’s not clear whether mail-in voting would favor the Democrats since many older white voters – a large number of whom traditionally vote Republican – may want to avail themselves of the opportunity to cast mail-in ballots so as not to expose themselves to the coronavirus by standing in long voting lines and entering crowded polling places.

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