Superficially, the neighborhoods of Howard Beach and Astoria could not be more different. Located on the opposite ends of Queens, one is densely populated with views of Manhattan across the East River, while the other has a suburban appearance with breeze from Jamaica Bay and noise from airplanes at the nearby airport. What they have in common is that on November 2, the New York City Council seats for these two neighborhoods are up for grabs with a very real possibility of a leftist victory in each one.
“There are two specific candidates: Tiffany Cabán and Felicia Singh. They have espoused the same rhetoric of the DSA – defunding the police, legalization of prostitution, and supporting the BDS movement,” said Michael Nussbaum, a longtime activist in local politics who started a PAC to campaign against these two candidates. “Many electeds are aware of their views and they’re standing on the sidelines. I’ve established a PAC to stop these BDS candidates.”
A resident of Queens Village, Nussbaum recognized the influence of independent political committees to swing elections by raising unlimited amounts of money for mailers, social media ads, and robocalls to targeted communities in raising their turnout. In his district’s June Democratic primary, Linda Lee narrowly defeated leftist Jaslin Kaur in a seven-person race that blunted the momentum of the Democratic Socialists. This intra-party movement made national news in 2018 when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated the county’s party leader Joe Crowley in an upset primary.
Nussbaum’s PAC, Sensible Government (sensiblegovernment.org), has already raised more than six figures for the races in Districts 22 and 32, but any amount is welcome in turning out the vote. “This entity is dedicated entirely towards overtly defeating the DSA candidates in Queens,” he said. “The nonprofits where I am active are limited in what they can do and say. With the Sensible Government committee, I can do and say more, within the guidelines of the elections.”
District 32 covers the neighborhoods of Woodhaven, Ozone Park, Howard Beach, Broad Channel, and two-thirds of the Rockaway peninsula. Historically, it had been a bastion of conservative politics and is the last Republican Council district in Queens, represented by Eric Ulrich, who is term-limited. In recent years, changing demographics have flipped this district, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans. The GOP’s internal divisions on the county level, and the unpopularity of former President Donald Trump, have also contributed to its declining results in elections.
Queens Republican Party Chair Joann Ariola seeks to reverse the tide, running on her experience as a staffer for elected officials, as a Community Board member, and as president of the Howard Beach Lindenwood Civic Association. In the latter role, Ariola fosters the sense of community as a unified voice before public agencies and officials in regard to services, charitable activities, and public events. Last year, she ran for Queens Borough President, losing to Donovan Richards.
Countering the Democratic narrative of momentum, Ariola notes that her party gained 17,000 new members between the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, a percentage gain that exceeded the Democrats during that period. In their efforts to secure new voters, Ariola and Singh have a fundamental difference.
“Voting is a sacred right that must remain tied to citizenship,” Ariola said in a statement last month, opposing a bill in the City Council that would allow noncitizens to vote in local elections. “This bill would chip away at the value of citizenship and the incentive for new Americans to make the commitment to become citizens. Not surprisingly, my radical opponent wants this and testified in favor of it in the Council hearing.”
Singh is the daughter of Guyanese immigrants of Indian background, raised in the Sikh religion, which has many followers in southern Queens. On the civic scene, she coordinated census outreach efforts last year and is the Vice President of Our Neighbors Civic Association of Ozone Park. The first in her family to earn a college degree, Singh’s biography exemplifies an immigrant success story, which, she notes, involved overcoming obstacles.
“I do not believe that our city government understands the needs of our working-class communities like I do,” she said in an interview in June with Times of India. “I’ve navigated systems that are built to keep our communities behind intentionally, and I hope to be a part of a City Council that finally centers our immigrant and working-class neighborhoods.”
Such narratives appeared earlier this year in the candidacies of Moumita Ahmed, who lost to Jim Gennaro, and Kaur. Nussbaum noted that his opposition to those candidates had nothing to do with their backgrounds or party affiliation; it was strictly on their platforms.
“The question isn’t about party; it is about the ideology of the candidates. The survival of New York cannot allow a far-left radical group to take over the City Council. I am also concerned for the funding and programs of the Jewish community.” As president of the Queens Jewish Community Council, Nussbaum spoke of the role that elected officials play in funding the food pantries, senior centers, afterschool programs, and cultural events in the Jewish community, along with support for the security of Israel.
He said that although Singh has the endorsement of Democratic Party leaders after winning the primary, there are enough conservative Democrats, Republicans, and independent voters in southern Queens who can secure the seat for Ariola if they’re given a reason to vote. Among them is former Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder, who endorsed her last month. “While I was in the Assembly, Joann and I fought together for safe streets, reliable transportation, a solid education for our children and resiliency against future storms, and I know that Joann Ariola is the only candidate who can deliver for every neighborhood,” he said. His former boss, Senator Chuck Schumer, supports Singh. In his endorsement, he spoke of flipping the borough’s last Republican seat to the Democrats.
In western Queens, Cabán is running in the 22nd District, which was represented by term-limited Costa Constantinides prior to his resignation in April. The outspoken public defender became a front-page story in 2019 after narrowly losing to Melinda Katz in a tight primary for Queens District Attorney. Her district is close to the Rikers Island prison, which she seeks to close as part of a larger agenda that would reduce the number of incarcerated individuals facing trial. Nussbaum concedes that defeating Cabán is an uphill effort, as her district heavily favored her and other progressive candidates such as State Senator Zohran Kwame Mamdani, candidate for Borough President Jimmy Van Bramer, and Ocasio-Cortez.
Cabán’s opponent is Felicia Kalan on the Republican line. “Cabán wants to be the speaker. There has to be a reason to come out to vote,” Nussbaum said. “Many people are convinced that Eric Adams is already the mayor and will sit at home in November. This could work for the DSA, but it could also work for the Republicans. Don’t give up the possibility of an upset.”
This district covers Astoria and Steinway neighborhoods, which were historically composed of Greek and Italian immigrants. In the past generation, the population density has increased, and the neighborhoods have gentrified with an influx of younger and progressive voters.
Kalan and her husband Andy have backgrounds in the church; he is the pastor at Journey Queens and works in digital marketing; she worked in the past as a Presbyterian church youth leader and advocated for victims of human trafficking. As a PAC leader, Nussbaum cannot work directly in partnership with Ariola and Kalan, but he can independently express support for their candidacies. He seeks to help them win by focusing on their opponents.
“We are faced with two dangerous candidates. A couple of seats means that they can come after other city and state seats. The DSA can then lead the party, rather than someone with a sense of moderation. The City Council can override a mayor’s veto. They care about power, control, and ideology. They’re called socialist for a reason.”
By Sergey Kadinsky