Andrew Karpan


The special election for Rafael Espinal’s seat on the New York City Council will not be happening after all, according to an order Governor Cuomo quietly put out at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night. According to the order, the Democratic primary for that seat will still go on, but its winner won’t take office until November and only one candidate is currently allowed to run.

At least five candidates had vied for the seat representing the 37th District– which includes some 150,000 people living in parts of Bushwick, Crown Heights, Cypress Hills and East New York–but only a Democratic Party official named Darma Diaz, is allowed on the primary ballot, following a controversial ruling last week by the New York State Board of Elections. Diaz’s rivals, who have spent the past three months vigorously campaigning against her, are calling Cuomo’s latest order blatantly anti-democratic. 

Candidates from left to right: Kimberly Council, Rick Echevarria, Sandy Nurse, Darma Diaz, and Misba Abdin

Last month, we reported on another Cuomo executive order that pushed the election date back to June 23rd, the date initially scheduled for the Democratic primary in the same race, an admittedly confusing double-do that would have had Democratic voters casting their vote twice for the same elected office. Last Friday, Cuomo announced, in another order, that the Board of Elections was to mail ballots to all registered Democratic voters for the June primary.

On Monday, the Board announced that the primary race for the Democratic presidential nomination, which had been scheduled to be conducted on the same day in June, would not be happening either. The primary contest between Vice President Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders, while already resolved with Sanders’ departure from the race last month, would have brought in voters who might not have been aware of down-ballot contests, like the race for the 37th district, some argued.

“Voting—we still have elections in the midst of all this chaos,” Cuomo said in his press briefing back on Friday. While these daily conferences have given some voters the image of a transparent government blazing publicly through a crisis, decisions regarding elections are taking place in sudden gestures and moves, rarely explained.

Make the Road Action is among the groups who called Cuomo’s decision undemocratic.

More dramatic news arrived just three days earlier: the Board of Elections, rejected the candidacies of all but one person running for Espinal’s seat. Only Diaz, endorsed by both Espinal and Brooklyn Democratic Party boss Rodneyse Bichotte, remained on the ballot. A member of the Kings County Democratic Committee had filed vigorous challenges to the petitions that her rivals put forward to appear on the ballot for the Democratic Party and, as of last week, there is nobody else running against her.

In order to appear on a ballot for the primary in such a race, state law dictates that candidates need to collect the signatures of 900 registered Democratic voters who live in the district on those bright green forms so pervasive most Springtimes. Perversely, after a change-up in 2012, the New York City Charter dictates that the number be no higher than 450. Another executive order, issued as the COVID-19 shutdown was beginning last month, had slashed the number to be “30 percent of the statutory threshold,” a phrase whose vagueness now fell at the mercy of long-simmering differences between the state and city government. For what it was worth, the Board did not take a side either way but decided to hold the candidates up to the 450-vote threshold and, consequently, ruled that Diaz would be able to run unopposed in the Democratic primary.  

In cancelling the special election only three days later, Cuomo’s order effectively solidified the Board’s ruling, further closing off Diaz’s competition from competing in the race. 

Among Darma Diaz’s rivals for the city council seat, Sandy Nurse was the first to criticize Cuomo’s Saturday night order.

As it happened, Cuomo’s weekend ruling was the opposite of what Mayor DeBlasio had wanted. According to The City, the mayor had urged Cuomo to set the special election for June and nix the primary. This would have locked in the candidates who were to be on the special election ballot and the winner would have served out a truncated term that would end in 2021. On Monday, Kings County Politics reported that de Blasio went so far as to send a letter to Cuomo, urging him to do this–at the behest of the campaign of Sandy Nurse, one of Diaz’s rivals and whose campaign was being run by one of a former de Blasio advisor’s consulting firm.

The Board’s ruling had been especially hard on her campaign, which had the least number of signatures that the Board was willing to accept and it’s hard not to hear in her voice a note of betrayal. In a press release last week, Nurse called De Blasio “complicit with this machine power grab.”

Amid her campaign’s fight to stay on the ballot, Sandy Nurse has been involved in efforts to bring groceries to vulnerable communities in the district.

When she talks to Bushwick Daily, Nurse reiterates the point.

“We feel like the governor and the mayor are complicit in allowing the Brooklyn Democratic machine to kick off a grassroots, progressive candidate during the middle of a global, very deadly health crisis,” Nurse says. “Our leadership, from the top of the state to the top of the city is complicit in this, otherwise they would have taken different action.”

As her phrasing might indicate, Nurse has billed herself as Diaz’s “progressive” alternative and has collected the support of State Senator Julia Salazar, and the state’s Working Families Party. She has been the most vocal about being pushed off the ballot. Last week, Nurse’s campaign secured notable, extensive plugs in both the New York Post and the Intercept, the billionaire-backed blog co-founded by Glenn Greenwald. Reporter Akela Lacy, writing there, warns readers that Diaz is “a landlord,” and is critical, also, of “the $15 minimum wage.”

Combined with the Board’s decision to rule that Nurse was ineligible for the primary, Cuomo’s cancelation of the special election also denied Nurse the chance of facing a narrow race primarily between her and Diaz–both Kimberly Council and Rick Echevarria, also rivals for council seat, had withdrawn their attempts to qualify for the special election in lieu of the primary race.

In a press release, issued on Sunday, Nurse had quickly taken aim at Cuomo’s Saturday night decision and painted it as an ultimate injustice.

“By canceling the special election yesterday, the Governor is saying that a high needs African-American and Latino community should lack representation for nearly a full year. This is by far the most blatant anti-democratic power grab,” she said.

The wording hewed closely to that of a press release issued by a political group called Make the Road Action, who told its followers on Sunday that “trying to sneakily suppress democracy during a pandemic is absolutely outrageous.” The group urged the Mayor to tell the Board to accept a threshold of 135 signatures, which would allow Nurse to stay on the ballot.

The entire race, Nurse later told Bushwick Daily, had been marked by confusion that felt almost deliberate.

“The decision to resign and create the election calendar that is in place right is squarely at the feet of Rafael Espinal,” Nurse adds.

Nurse–along with fellow rivals Rick Echevarria, Kimberly Council and Misba Abdin–have appealed the Board’s ruling at the Brooklyn Supreme Court. Nurse and Council delivered their arguments to the court on Friday. Echevarria is doing so on Monday and Abdin will on Tuesday.

Abdin, an East New York businessman who also runs a Bangladeshi-American community group in the neighborhood, told Bushwick Daily that Cuomo’s decision to cancel the special election was “ridiculous” and adds that his campaign had only stopped gathering signatures based on one of the earlier shutdown order.

“We submitted whatever we had,” Abdin says. 

In Abdin’s eyes, Diaz’s decision to challenge the signatures casts a bad moral shadow over a figure who, now, is the only candidate left running for the district’s seat on city council.

“While we were concerned about our community in this pandemic, she was concerned about how to kick everybody off the ballot,” he says, “I feel that, if she’s that kind of person, how could she run the district? How can she be a good advocate for our community?”

Another of Darma Diaz’s rivals for Espinal’s seat, Rick Echevarria, tells Bushwick Daily that he’s recently been working with a temporarily shuttered 99-cent store on Wyckoff Avenue to make virus-resistant outfits and masks for essential workers who need them. (credit: Rick Echevarria)

Rick Echevarria tells Bushwick Daily that he was less worried about the decision to cancel the special election. Last February, he had declined to run in that race, telling Gothamist, at the time, that it was an “insider’s race.” He still has his eyes set on the primary, however. 

“While it is unfortunate, I think that it is necessary because of the COVID crisis,” he tells Bushwick Daily of Cuomo’s late night move.

In the time since, Echevarria collected more petitions than any of Diaz’s rivals for the primary ballot, but was still not enough to hit the suddenly elevated bar of 450 signatures.

He sounds optimistic that the Brooklyn Supreme Court will reverse the Board’s decision and allow him to run in the primary but he doesn’t share the view of Nurse and her allies that nixing the special election was entirely a bad thing.

He says there’s benefits to having a longer election.

“You can get a lot of candidates pointing out defects in the system,” he adds, something he notices is well on its way to happening already.

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