New York primary elections signify next generation of political leaders

New York primary elections signify next generation of political leaders
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New York held its primary elections this week. Even before the absentee ballots are counted and the results are certified, we already know one thing about the political landscape. It is fundamentally changing in the state as a new generation uproots the establishment. It is a realignment based on the factors of demography, diversity, and disposition.

Representatives of the Empire State once occupied the gleaming turrets of seniority. Today a wave of political energy from the streets crumbles the marble. Joseph Crowley, Nita Lowey, Jose Serrano, and Eliot Engel have yielded to the new and different generation of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Mondaire Jones, Ritchie Torres, and Jamaal Bowman.

Engel remains about 25 points behind Bowman. Addressing his supporters on election night, Bowman said, “Elliot Engel used to say he was a thorn in the side of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal prosecutor speaks out, says Barr 'has brought shame' on Justice Dept. Former Pence aide: White House staffers discussed Trump refusing to leave office Progressive group buys domain name of Trump's No. 1 Supreme Court pick MORE. But you know what Donald Trump is more afraid of than anyone and anything else? A black man with power.”

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Carolyn Maloney clings to a razor thin lead over Sural Patel, as the field of candidates against her won 60 percent of the vote. The son of immigrants from India, Patel describes himself as a “full time organizer” who “helped build communities” to support a new generation of leaders.

In suburban and exurban Westchester and Rockland counties, currently represented by the retiring Lowey, who also chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee, victory will likely go to Jones. He is the child of a single Black mother and has been described by the New York Times, which also endorsed him, as “a favorite of the activist left.”

Speaking of the House Appropriations Committee, the open seat left by Serrano will be filled by Torres, who is a mix of Black and Latino ethnicity and was the first openly gay candidate to be elected to legislative office in the Bronx. Here are the factors that help explain the changes.

First, there is demography. The older generation of members of Congress has aged. Those networks of support that elected and reelected them are being replenished by new networks. I saw it for myself, when I ran my final campaign for Congress in 2014, and realized that my own electorate was aging out and the growth was among young voters who were newborns in my first election and, as voters, had little idea of who I was.

Second, there is diversity. Safe blue seats remain blue, but the voters are of different backgrounds. The Black population rose by 6 percent in New York between 2000 and 2019, and the Hispanic or Latino population rose by 30 percent in the same period, according to the census.

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Third, there is disposition. The old rules like paying your dues are rightfully cast aside by a resistance to Donald Trump that does not believe that the nation can afford to wait. Once upon a time, new lawmakers were keen on “going along to get along.” Yet this week, Bowman told his supporters that he could not wait to get to Congress to “cause problems.”

There are some circumstances worth noting. When I was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, I never really believed that one primary told a story. They were only chapters. It is true that New York voters shift in primary elections, but Joe BidenJoe BidenFormer Pence aide: White House staffers discussed Trump refusing to leave office Progressive group buys domain name of Trump's No. 1 Supreme Court pick Bloomberg rolls out M ad buy to boost Biden in Florida MORE won 67 percent of the vote. Engel may have lost his seat after committing unforced errors, such as saying on a hot mic, “If I did not have a primary, I would not care.” He accidentally wrote a powerful narrative for his opponent.

Finally, Jerry Nadler convincingly beat back his opponents. I have written that he is an underestimated street fighter. He never left the streets of his district in New York, providing constituent services and attending local events even as he took the lead with the impeachment effort. There is a lesson in that for incumbents worried about the future.

There is no question that Black Lives Matter had an impact on the primary races. What remains to be seen is whether the intensity is sustained in the general election, and whether this is a reaction that weakens if Trump is defeated. The activists want to stop Trump, but they also want to stop the injustices that sent them to the streets in the first place. Incrementalism is not in their political bloodstreams. I may not agree with their positions on certain issues, but their energy enhances our democracy.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and was the chairman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.