Progressives Fight The Machine.

Political campaigning can seem complicated, but sometimes it’s very simple. Decades deep into the digital revolution, a lot of it comes down to how much mail you can send out. 

“Samy Olivares and his allies’ nasty campaign is straight out of the Trump Republican playbook,” read a flier distributed by a group called Common Sense New Yorkers, a group funded by business organizations like the New York State Association of Realtors. “Warning! Samy Nemir-Olivares is approved by the socialists that threaten public safety,” reads another.

The political group was backing Assemblyman Erik Dilan, who has neighborhoods like Bushwick and Cypress Hills in the state assembly since 2015 and, before that, in city council for over a decade. Olivares had mounted what turned out to be one of the more significant efforts to displace the powerful lower politico.

“I do credit the negative campaign and the mailers for the fact that we didn’t win,” Olivares told me in the days after the primary results came in this summer. Olivares’ campaign came just about 200 votes shy of unseating the Dilan political dynasty, whose hold on the neighborhood had dated to Dilan’s father, a state senator replaced by Julia Salazar in 2016. 

Olivares’ campaign was part of a latest effort by progressive groups to change the face of political representation in the outer boroughs, to align its elected officials closer to the younger voters who have moved there over the last decade. 

“In the past several years, there has been a real surge of progressive candidates coming from these communities to represent a larger agenda across New York. The urgency of the issues have changed in Brooklyn – when it comes to housing justice, when it comes to climate justice and resiliency, when it comes to immigrant rights,” says Sochie Nnaemeka, a director at the Working Families Party. “

Olivares had been part of a slate of candidates the party had endorsed; the “We Can’t Wait” slate of assembly candidates, as a March press release from the group had called them. Olivares, according to the group, would have been “the first genderqueer state legislator in New York.”

A tale of two progressive campaigns for seats in the New York Assembly: Olivares’ campaign fights negative fliers and online attack ads, while Juan Ardila’s campaign meets for a rally at Porcelain, a new restaurant in Ridgewood. Olivares would end up blaming a “negative campaign and the mailers” for their narrow primary loss to loss to Assemblyman Erik Dilan. Ardila was elected this past month.

With some exceptions, Nnaemeka’s efforts to challenge entrenched Democratic Party incumbents were ultimately not successful.

As Olivares counts it, the groups backing Dilan had spent “around $4 million” attacking various other progressive campaigns around the city, most other self-identified progressive candidates challenging incumbents, though the Common Sense group also ran an attack campaign on sitting New York Assemblyman Ron Kim, described by a writer at the Queens Daily Eagle as “one of the most progressive state lawmakers in the borough.” Kim narrowly beat the challenge by about 500 votes or so.

The group had spent about $500,000 on its opposition to Olivares, who calls the group’s work a “disinformation campaign” aimed at “all the other progressive and socialist candidates who were running for assembly and state senate.”

“They sent out images presenting me as a criminal, in a photo where I was being arrested and put that next to statistics about subway murders and subway shootings,” says Olivares. “When, in fact, that photo showed me performing civil disobedience for housing justice.”

Olivares is reflective about the loss. A bombastic figure in local Bushwick politics, Olivares had won a slot as Democratic Party district leader in 2020, beating out incumbent Tommy Torres. It had been a feat Olivares had hope to replicate.

The mailers had a large impact with seniors, Olivares told me. “A lie repeated many times becomes a truth and they were able, with money, to spread eight different mailers attacking me. There’s nothing we can do to reach voters to response to that in a mass way, that quickly,” Olivares said.

The coordinated move against Olivares and other progressive candidates could be said, in a somewhat counterintuitive way, to reflect an increasingly solidified divide between two of the Democratic Party’s consistently warring factions. 

“It’s clear that in Democratic primaries in New York, progressives are no longer the start up, they are equal players to what you might refer to as the establishment,” a political consultant named David Belsky told me. 

Belsky says that Olivares’ candidacy, in particular “speaks a lot to how strong the progressives are becoming and it’s really uncovering the clash between the two sides that I hope both sides are able to find the middle ground in.” 

Belsky runs a group of Brooklyn political consultants called Good Rebellion; they’ve aided campaigns that often sit in between candidates supported by either side, like Françoise Olivas’ failed primary campaign against both the establishment-friendly Elizabeth Crowley and the race’s eventual winner, Kristen Gonzalez.

“They’re winning a lot more,” says Belsky, before erupting in booming laughter. “And if they’re not winning, they’re coming close!”   

A candidate with a winning campaign that Nnaemeka’s group can stake some claim to have won is Juan Ardila, a former Brad Lander staffer who ran unsuccessfully a year ago against city councilman Robert Holden; he lost by roughly 500 votes. But if wasn’t able to win the majority of votes in a city council district that stretched far northward to Middle Village, Ardila was able to secure 85% of the vote in nearby Ridgewood. 

“It helped a lot,” Ardila told me. This year, he had been convinced to run for the place of Cathy Nolan, a state assemblywoman who announced that this past term would be her last in Albany. 

 “A few people reached out to me, right after the council race, they thought I should go for assembly. I didn’t really want to think about it, at first. I wanted to reflect,” he said. 

A kind of genial, charismatic organizer of political capital, Ardila had been a program coordinator at the Legal Aid Society for about three years after getting a masters degree from NYU. 

“I’m someone that likes to put my heart on my sleeve and I didn’t make it a secret,” he says. “They kept knocking on my door and things happened the way that it did.”

Ardila had been anointed the race’s progressive candidate.

Without the power of an incumbent in the race, his campaign had the free range to show how the city’s newer political infrastructure could vacuum attention in the race from what Ardila told me had been “one of the most crowdest races in Queens.” 

Loud endorsements pushed his name in front of local voters, each building on the power of the last. Tiffany Cabán. Donovan Richards. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

“People don’t really go against incumbents,” he says. 

This article was written as part of the 2022 NY State Elections Reporting Fellowship of the Center for Community Media at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.

Top image taken by Samy Olivares.

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