Insurgents Topple Incumbents in a Democratic Primary That Bodes Well for Congestion Pricing

If Democrats gain even a single State Senate seat in November, the political terrain for congestion pricing will look even better.

New faces in the State Senate next session (clockwise from top center): Alessandra Biaggi, John Liu, Julia Salazar, Jessica Ramos, Zellnor Myrie, and Robert Jackson.
New faces in the State Senate next session (clockwise from top center): Alessandra Biaggi, John Liu, Julia Salazar, Jessica Ramos, Zellnor Myrie, and Robert Jackson.

A wave of anti-establishment energy carried insurgents to victory in several primaries for seats in the state legislature Thursday, sweeping aside the faction of Democrats who for years caucused with Republicans in the State Senate.

Angry at the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference for defecting from their own party to team up with the Senate GOP, voters came out in large numbers to reject members of the IDC. Turnout in some Senate districts was four times higher than in 2014.

The winning challengers include several candidates who staked out stronger positions on congestion pricing, transit policy, and street safety than the incumbent Democrats they defeated. Five candidates endorsed by StreetsPAC knocked out sitting legislators. The most consequential of those wins belonged to Alessandra Biaggi, who vanquished IDC ringleader Jeff Klein, a mainstay of the Bronx Democratic machine.

This primary was a watershed event for the State Senate’s Democratic conference. When the legislature convenes again, the Senate will have fewer cynical, listless Democrats doing as little as they can for transit riders, and more energetic newcomers who ran on promises to do right by their subway- and bus-riding constituents — i.e., most New Yorkers.

If Democrats retake the Senate in November, the path to enacting landmark legislation like congestion pricing will be clearer than ever, while a replay of this year’s failure to expand NYC’s speed camera program will be nearly unthinkable.

The statewide results were less dramatic. In the end, Governor Andrew Cuomo didn’t have to sweat the challenge from Cynthia Nixon, but her campaign forced Cuomo to defend eight years of failed transit policy, during which the quality of subway and bus service took a nosedive. Transit was a more prominent issue in this governor’s race than any in recent history, and Cuomo had to repeatedly reiterate his support for congestion pricing.

When Nixon hammered Cuomo on transit, it echoed in the down-ballot races. Several State Senate challengers articulated thoughtful positions on congestion pricing, reining in transit capital costs, and how they plan to provide oversight of the MTA once in office. Many of those challengers will be seated in Albany next session.

While this election will transform the Democratic conference in the Senate, the resounding defeat of Klein and several other IDC members will not be sufficient to change the balance of power. As long as the Senate Republican caucus includes Simcha Felder (who defeated challenger Blake Morris yesterday), Democrats still need to pick off at least one sitting Republican in the general election to gain control of the chamber.

Before we get to November, here’s an overview of the major State Senate results from yesterday.

District 34: Alessandra Biaggi dethrones Jeff Klein

Jeff Klein is the Joe Crowley of the state primaries — an alpha dog of New York City politics toppled by a charismatic woman running for office for the first time. Alessandra Biaggi never let voters forget Klein’s role leading the IDC and how he divided the Senate Democrats. Now she’s heading to Albany to represent the Bronx seat Klein held for 14 years.

Biaggi captured the StreetsPAC endorsement with her support for congestion pricing and speed cameras. Her victory may also pay immediate dividends: She endorsed a road diet for Morris Park Avenue that DOT has been hesitating to implement. Klein didn’t take a position on the project when we asked his office about it, but his buddies at the Morris Park Community Association are fighting it tooth and nail. Biaggi’s win might give DOT the confidence to go ahead and restripe the street.

In recent sessions, Klein was a sponsor and supporter of speed camera legislation. But longtime Streetsblog readers will also remember Klein as a congestion pricing opponent in 2008, a panderer to motorist entitlement, and a road rager who could snap at any moment. He belongs to a cohort of legislators who were apathetic, at best, about using their influence to improve transit, and whose numbers in Albany are dwindling thanks to challengers like Biaggi.

District 13: Jessica Ramos knocks out Jose Peralta

IDC member Peralta also sponsored speed camera legislation, which may explain StreetsPAC’s reluctance to endorse Ramos. But when questioned by Streetsblog, it was Ramos who gave the more straightforward affirmation of protected bike lanes and other street redesigns for her district, while Peralta hedged his support for the 111th Street redesign.

Don’t think the voters didn’t notice. “I have a bike that I can’t even use,” Ramos voter Martha Leve told Streetsblog outside a polling place in Jackson Heights. “There’s a lot of accidents; people don’t care and they don’t really do anything in Queens, and I think she will [make] a difference in Queens.”

District 18: Julia Salazar defeats Martin Dilan

The soap opera that was the Salazar campaign is coming to Albany, ending Dilan’s perfunctory eight-term, 16-year tenure in the State Senate. Say what you will about her personal history, in her Streetsblog Q&A, Salazar gave the strongest defense of street redesigns of any candidate, saying, “I reject arguments that halt or kill projects that are proven to save lives in order to save a handful of parking spots.”

District 20: Zellnor Myrie overpowers Jesse Hamilton

Progressive Democrats had high expectations for Hamilton when he won this central Brooklyn State Senate seat in 2014, but his defining act during four years in office was his decision to join the IDC in 2016.

Myrie, a StreetsPAC endorsee, could make a much bigger impact for the district if he follows through on campaign positions in favor of congestion pricing, bus service improvements, and safer walking and biking infrastructure for Linden Boulevard.

Sophie Berman, a Myrie voter, said his transportation positions resonated with her. “I bike, in large part, because riding the subway is a really terrible experience… and I do think a lot of the more progressive, or new wave Democrats are focusing on [that] as well,” she told our stringer outside the Brooklyn Museum on election day.

District 11: John Liu ousts Tony Avella

Anyone familiar with John Liu‘s track record of craven opposition to measures like the Bikes in Buildings Bill and the Ravitch bridge toll plan will feel some trepidation about his victory. But in beating Tony Avella, Liu dispatched a vociferous bike lane basher and one of the loudest antagonists of congestion pricing in Albany. All things considered, this result from Flushing and eastern Queens is probably a net plus for New York City streets and transportation policy.

District 22: Andrew Gounardes over Ross Barkan

There was no incumbent to challenge in this primary — that won’t come until November, when Gounardes takes on State Senator Marty Golden in what figures to be the most important state legislative election this cycle. Running for a shot to beat Golden and flip the Senate to Democratic control, both candidates staked out good positions on congestion pricing and street safety issues. If Gounardes wins this southern Brooklyn seat in November, he’ll have a great chance to turn those positions into real policy.

Other results

StreetsPAC-endorsed political veteran Robert Jackson took out IDC member Marisol Alcantara to represent Upper Manhattan in the State Senate. And State Senator Diane Savino will head back to Albany as the lone ex-IDC member to survive a New York City primary, fending off Jasmine Robinson on Staten Island.

Outside NYC, IDC member David Carlucci repulsed a challenge from Julie Goldberg in Westchester and Rockland, moving on to what may be a competitive general election match against Republican C. Scott Vanderhoef. In Syracuse, challenger Rachel May, a strong supporter of tearing down the downtown portion of I-81, appears to have beaten incumbent IDC member David Valesky. The margin is extremely close, and Valesky has indicated he may campaign on other ballot lines for the November general.

Over in the Assembly, StreetPAC pick Catalina Cruz took out incumbent Ari Espinal to represent the 39th District in central Queens, while the Mathylde Frontus/Ethan Lustig-Elgrably match remains too close to call.

With reporting by Ben Jay.

  • Riverduckexpress

    Definitely great news but we would be remiss to not acknowledge that all 6 defeated IDC members will still be running in the general election on the Independence Party line; some of them will also run on the Women’s Equality Party and/or the Reform Party linss. I really hope those 6 senators see the writing on the wall and bow out gracefully, but if some of them plan on still running in the general election, we’ll have to be prepared to defeat them again.

  • Williamsburg Raider

    You seem to be equating congestion pricing with Dem control of both state chambers. I’m pretty sure that’s not right, plenty of GOP’ers and non-lefties agree with congestion pricing.

  • ortcutt

    The most interesting thing about the IDC is that the eight people who did it probably thought they would get away with it.

  • SteveVaccaro

    So excited about these primary victories! Wearing my hat as a StreetsPAC Board member I got an hour of quality time with most of them to discuss possible legislative fixes for traffic violence requiring action at the state level, including a legal presumption that the owner of a positively-identified hit and run vehicle was the driver who did the hit-and-run unless they reported the car stolen or can finger someone else. And, of course, we discussed congestion pricing, which all fo these candidates support. Looking forward to continuing those discussions!

  • walks bikes drives

    In other words, what Ben is pointing out on the article he referenced, is that it doesn’t matter how many people support it. If the Republicans hold the power, then Flanagan has the say in what happens, and he has stated that he lets Golden et al call the shots. So no matter what the pulse of the Senate is, whatever these three people say is what Flanagan will follow, and Flanagan has the power, alone, to make or break it.

  • vnm

    Liu is definitely a lot better than Avella. This is good.

  • Joe R.

    There may be issues with John Liu but honestly he’s about the best you can expect for now in fairly car-centric northeastern Queens. Any way you look at it, getting rid of an automotive apologist like Tony Avella is a huge win.

    And I thought Salazar was done for once her personal history came out. I’m glad she made it.

  • NYCBK123

    “Say what you will about her personal history.” I say Salazar is a liar, because she is. It’s a great quote from her Q&A but her behavior shows she can’t be trusted. Don’t count on her for anything.

  • kevin

    From what I understand Liu won’t back congestion pricing unless there is some sort of expansion plan for transit deserts.

  • bolwerk

    Which of course there should be, and won’t be.

    Not under Cuomo and de Blasio anyway.

  • snrvlakk

    Lightrail trams to the Little Neck, Bayside and Broadway stations on the LIRR Port Washington Line, instead of (or addition to) the BQX? Easier than a new subway line.

  • Joe R.

    While I don’t think we should hold congestion pricing hostage, Liu’s position here isn’t entirely unreasonable. From the perspective of an outer borough resident I’m tired of seeing Manhattan get all the goodies, like bike share, more bike lanes, new subway stations, and so forth while we here in Queens are left high and dry. I think fixing the transit deserts should be given the highest priority. We should build at least 100 miles of new subway in the outer boroughs. We should also make this system useful not just for traveling into Manhattan, but also for trips entirely within the borough. If we want to get people out of cars, this is what you need to do.

  • Andrew

    If you build 100 miles of new subway in the outer boroughs, and that new subway trackage attracts new riders, then you also need to provide capacity for additional trains to carry those riders into Manhattan, where many of them will be going.

    Before expanding the reach of the subway and exacerbating existing crowding problems, a prerequisite is to expand the capacity of the existing system. Hence, e.g., the Second Avenue Subway, which even with only Phase 1 open has already reduced crowding on Lexington Avenue. Simply extending lines without considering how the trains will handle the new ridership is doomed to failure.

    Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan of a decade ago would have added, in the short term, 309 additional buses to increase capacity in corridors projected to see ridership diverted by congestion pricing from private car to transit:

    https://a.disquscdn.com/uploads/mediaembed/images/2112/3279/original.jpg
    https://a.disquscdn.com/uploads/mediaembed/images/2112/3280/original.jpg
    https://a.disquscdn.com/uploads/mediaembed/images/2112/3278/original.jpg

    And let’s please stop talking about transit deserts in a setting like this. There are no transit deserts on that map.

  • Joe R.

    Yes, obviously any expansions must be done with consideration of how the additional trains will impact the entire system.

    On those maps, sure, it looks great when you look at the map. One thing to keep in mind is lots of those buses have headways of 10 to 20 minutes during non-rush hours. Some aren’t even all that great during rush hours. Next consider that many useful trips will require one of more transfers. At 10 to 20 minutes for each transfer under typical conditions that adds a lot of time to many trips. Finally, note there are quite a few places where you might need to walk up to half a mile to a bus stop if you happen to be smack in between two lines. You might need to do a similar amount of walking towards your destination. When you account for all of these things, your typical 5 mile bus trip from one part of Queens to another might consist of 15 minutes walking, 20 or 30 minutes waiting with one or two transfers, and 30 minutes actual travel time. That’s the same average speed as a fast walk. In fact, I’m located only two blocks from the bus to downtown Flushing, which leaves me right there. Even so, on average I find it’s just as fast or faster to walk those three miles than to take the bus.

    Decreasing headways and speeding up the buses would do a lot in the short term. In the medium/long term we need subways along the most heavily used corridors. A bus just can’t match a subway in terms of capacity or average speed.

    Cycling can also be a really viable way to get around the outer boroughs but we need the infrastructure. We need safe bike paths which also bypass the many uncoordinated traffic signals which exist on arterials.

  • bolwerk

    Might depend what he’s talking about. Trains from, say, Queens to The Bronx are unlikely to add traffic to Manhattan, while trains from Staten Island to Brooklyn probably would.

    Also it seems to me subways could easily see dissuaded (the opposite of induced) demand. Once they start getting too crowded, some people can and will walk away.

  • bolwerk

    For the highest impact, go for light rail in dedicated lanes on every east river bridge. When they diffuse across the boroughs, they wou;dn’t even need dedicated lanes.

  • snrvlakk

    Yes. Excellent suggestion. (Better than mine, I think–although I was specifically thinking of the transit desert in the Avella-Liu section of Queens). I guess the question it raises (as does mine) is, if you’re gonna have a dedicated lane, why not save a passel of money, make ’em dedicated bus lanes, and then forget about lightrail entirely?

  • bolwerk

    ¯_(?)_/¯

    Probably sometimes, but in several cases there is a need for more rail capacity. Running 40 or so LRV trains makes more sense than running 300 conventional buses, and that’s ignoring the added pollution of the buses and all the logistical problems related to running that many buses at peak.

    Several subway services not having much inbound rush hour capacity is an actual problem that buses aren’t really going to solve. I think BQX’s critics exaggerate how terrible BQX is, but it’s not exactly addressing any crises in its present form. Yet, with a BRT proposal on Woodhaven proposed to have an implementation cost as much as a comparable light rail service in other cities, this city just has cost control problems.

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