It was a gentle spring morning in Ridgewood, the season’s first flowers blushing innocently in the breeze. A field organizer was passing out fliers advertising the campaign of one Kristen Gonzalez, a young, bright-faced Columbia University graduate who had moved to neighboring Long Island City shortly before the neighborhood would prove to be the center of a new district in the state senate in Albany. The future state senator had not arrived, but the air twisted with anticipation.
The flyers painted a rosy image of this coming future. Her name, printed in not-quite copper black font – “at least I remember paying for a font named Rose Ave,” the organizer excitedly told me. The muted pastels were unavoidably tasteful. They lacked the explosiveness of the neighborhood’s normal run of political advertising – a year earlier, the failed campaign behind a local former city councilwoman named Elizabeth Crowley had courted controversy by printing out campaign mailers that looked like eviction notices. Another candidate had printed fake newspapers endorsing himself. The ones from Gonzalez’s campaign, however, looked like notices announcing the opening of a new lifestyle store. “People over profit,” the bubbly font read. They were printed with a QR code to learn more.
“The company you keep matters,” a Queens city councilwoman named Tiffany Cabán was telling the assembled crowd. Some in the crowd wore t-shirts that advertised one of her previous campaigns. A few years ago, the Times had bequeathed Cabán “More Significant to Progressives Than Ocasio-Cortez” shortly before she narrowly lost a primary race for district attorney in Queens. Her candidacy a year later for a far-off city council seat representing parts of Astoria and Rikers Island received less press and Cabán had quietly won that easily, securing her accedence from organizer to politician. She was a charismatic figure who was visibly at ease in the utilitarian language of contemporary leftist politics. Gonzalez had yet to arrive, but Cabán was prepared to tell us that it hardly mattered and, in fact, had a better way to say exactly that: “Candidates are vehicles for organizing, “ she told the restless crowd, which had the air of aspiring politicians and bureaucrats.
For them, this was a story about representation. “For the first time Ridgewood has been in one district. Everyone will be having the same representation, you should share that,” the volunteers were told; among themselves, two discussed prospects for the limited number of jobs given out by the Working Families Party, a minor political group that makes endorsements in local races in the city. The volunteers would go on, knocking doors in the sleepy neighborhood and informing voters about their upcoming chance to reject machine politics and put in in power aspiring politicians who were supported by groups that were voracious in their admonition that they were, in fact, not part of a political machine. What was admirable about these people was their sense of boundless loyalty; they were all putting in their time, for someone who had put in her time. It was a principle of organization that had fallen out of favor over a decade ago, but here it was again.
In the end, it would not matter. A month later, the new district would be redrawn again, pushing the primary date, initially set for June 28, to sometime in August, and pushing the borders of the district westward. What was once called District 17 would become District 59, Ridgewood would no longer be included and random chunks of Manhattan would be – the new lines of the new ‘D57 would hug both sides of the East River.
The new borders have already brought the widely-ordained Gonzalez some stiffer competition. An older and more popular podcaster named Nomiki Konst would jump into the race in the weeks after the new district lines were announced, a move that pulled at the loyalties of all the allies Gonzalez spent the last few years gathering in the city. If Konst’s campaign is able to gather enough signatures to make it on the primary ballot, then Gonzalez would have more trouble positioning herself as the main alternative to Crowley, who had conveniently announced that she was running for the new district as well. The sense of panic from Gonzalez’s advisors was palatable – a painfully photoshopped image of Gonzalez and Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez paired together was quickly tweeted out that day to drown out the prospect of more division. (Online, a flack for Gonzalez’s campaign asserted that, actually “nobody is doing this on Kristen’s team” and claimed that any concern about Konst’s campaign among Gonzalez’s supporters were coming from “random people.”)
It had, after all, already been a crowded race.
“It’s funny, my first apartment in New York City was in Murray Hill,” Françoise Olivas, another candidate, told me. Unlike Konst, Olivas had been in the race for about as long as Gonzalez and Olivas was also a first time candidate in the race, a distinction that supposedly means something to voters who identify as cynical of the machinations of local politics. For much of the race, Gonzalez had been campaigning against her by pointedly ignoring Olivas’ candidacy.
Unlike Gonzalez, Olivas has not been putting in the time with various minor local Democratic Party functionaries in order to politically exist, whatever that might mean. Instead, Olivas had been running a small store in Greenpoint that, according to her LinkedIn, was a “women’s lifestyle pop-up focusing on conscious consumerism.” Before then, she had worked as a trend consultant for various fashion brands like J. Crew and Lou & Grey. She tells me that she had been among the first to forecast how big “collaborations” were going to be.
There was something warm and comforting about talking to Olivas – of the candidates in the race, she has a kind of homespun, neighborly appeal. Occasionally, she would lapse into talking about herself from the perspective of a third person admirer. “You are ‘for the people’ and you aren’t an extreme,” she told me she had heard about herself and her self-consciously middle-of-the-road campaign. It was sweet and, at times, affecting. “I’m so over the word progressive,” she told me, amid rejecting lots of other labels. (The phrase she likes most is “for the people.”)
Olivas has hinged her campaign on two elements of her autobiography – her longtime involvement in various small businesses groups in Greenpoint since leaving the world of big box fashion retail and her more recent identity as “a mother to a four year old.”
“She looked at me and asked me if humans are going to be extinct like the dinosaurs,” said Olivas about the “moment” that convinced her to run for the open spot in the New York State Senate. There was something affecting too about the sincerity of her conviction as it animated Olivas’ story of her child earnestly asking how her mother would solve climate change.
Among the few wins she’s landed with the public relations firm she hired to run her campaign – a Brooklyn shingle called ‘Good Rebellion’ – was a sympathetic nod in the Washington Post’s Lily newsletter about getting repeatedly asked how she planned “to juggle being a mom and running for a Senate seat.”
“The questions Olivas faced on Monday demonstrate that these candidates still face persistent bias,” the lifestyle writer at the Post quipped. The larger impact of the stunt, however, was muted perhaps by the fact that all of the local race’s other candidates are also women.
“Oh yeah, I’m definitely getting pushed out,” Olivas told me. “I understand it from a branding perspective and it’s an interesting way to try to win. The socialists are trying to replicate an AOC-Crowley [kind of election],” in reference to Ocasio-Cortez’s primary win in 2018. A budding figure in Greenpoint politics – Olivas tells me that her friends had tried to convince her to run for city council last year in the neighborhood, but the race had “eight candidates and I knew five of them” – Olivas is using the race to keep count of who is paying attention.
It has given her campaign a kind of David and Goliath energy, which she believes will resonate with voters. “Both Crowley and Gonzalez come from political machines,” she said. “And I think there’s an authenticity [to our campaign].” She was also keeping track of who’s making a point to forget she’s in the race.
“And it all gets back to me, which is fine.”
Some sense of delusional grandeur is perhaps a requirement for campaigning for any elected office. But there was nothing at all delusional about Olivas’ rival, the steely, determined and 26-year old Gonzalez. While as awkward and uncharismatic as just about anyone who moved so diligently from the Dalton School to a degree in race and ethnicity studies from Columbia University to a brief internship at the White House’s Office of Public Engagement in the waning days of the Obama administration – Gonzalez’s story brought to mind the overachieving feats featured often in the biographies of politicians. There was only the matter of finding her an office to occupy.
“When I was in the fifth grade, [my mother] was very clear that education was a path for a better life and she saw that my [local] school was underfunded and overcrowded and she got me a scholarship to go to a private school in the Upper East Side,” Gonzalez told me. It was a nice story and, in fact, it had made its way to her well-designed website, where it reads, in her campaign’s not-quite copper black font – “we lived paycheck-to-paycheck.” (Gonzalez declined to say anything about her father, who she claimed passed away shortly after she was born.)
When Gonzalez had returned from Washington, D.C., she had noticed the sharp ascendency of another political figure who had also spent some time interning on Capitol Hill.
“AOC – I mean Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – was running in my home neighborhood of Elmhurst,” Gonzalez told me. When Donald Trump took power in 2016, Gonzalez’s initial move had been to stay, only leaving the White House for an internship with the moderate Chuck Schumer, a senator from New York.
“It was her campaign that brought me to the DSA,” Gonzalez said. At her local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, she became involved in the party’s tech action working group; a post on the group’s site indicates the group’s intent to “to disrupt this perverse symbiotic relationship” between tech companies and the police state. When Gonzalez talks about her involvement in the group, she instead focuses on a less-revolutionary public broadband campaign. (Online, the group poses the question “What does class have to do with internet access?” under clip art that brings to mind the cover of Macintosh Plus’s chillwave classic Floral Shoppe.)
The language of this new left appealed to Gonzalez, or at the very least she began talking in it. She discovered that she was not just another scholarship kid darting up the ladder of social mobility, but was actually part of the “working class,” a phrase that appears often in her stump speeches. To fund her life while doing her time with unpaid work for the DSA, she had taken a gig working for one of the largest financial companies in the world and on the fliers her campaign hands out, she uses the DSA’s linga fraca to market herself as a “tech worker” – to the chagrin of some.
“Kristen Gonzalez is a product manager for American Express — but the 26-year-old scrubbed any trace of that work from her online presence, deleting her LinkedIn and locking her Facebook account,” Conor Skelding wrote in a sudden New York Post hit piece in early February. Skelding had assembled an extensive list of Gonzalez’s alleged hypocrisies, which had gone as far back as her internship with Schumer’s office – “through a Congress Hispanic Caucus Institute program funded by anti-union Walmart.”
“It’s not a political job,” Gonzalez told me, keenly talking around her work for American Express, which she said was too “jargon-y” to get into. “I think it’s entirely possible to be a democratic socialist and work in every industry,” she said, before turning again to the working class.
“I’m a working class kid from Queens and I’m not going to make apologies for that. The deck is still stacked against working class families, which is why I’m running for office,” she said, mildly peeved.
Skelding had also criticized Gonzalez’s decision to leave her family’s working class home to instead live “high above the proletariat in a 58-story luxury building in Long Island City” that purportedly includes “an indoor pool, movie theater, and sauna and steam rooms.”
But Gonzalez tells me that she thinks her actual prospective constituents will mind less.
“There are a lot of folks in Long Island City that are millennials working in that industry,” she told me. It was there where she was told to run for elected office by “friends from organizing spaces [who would not] want their names published.”
Instead, Gonzalez spoke fondly about her time doing unpaid work for a different group, the Western Queens Community Land Trust. She says she got the job from a friend she met while working at a fellowship doled out by a political action committee called Arena, a group that’s stated goal is to “convene, train, and support the next generation of candidates and campaign staff.” Founded by a group of former Obama and Hillary Clinton campaign staffers, the group is largely funded by a small group of “venture capitalist and technology workers out of Silicon Valley,” according to a website run by a rival conservative think tank called the Capital Research Center, which is funded by the Koch family and ExxonMobil.
“I didn’t get into politics in a traditional way,” Elizabeth Crowley told me. She says this because she is considered the most insider-y candidate in the race, against whom both Gonzalez and Olivas have publicly positioned their campaigns. (“She’s going up against the machine that is Elizabeth Crowley,” one of Olivas’ flacks wrote to to me, by way of introduction. Gonzalez’s people also call Crowley a “machine” a lot too.) This is likely as much because of the near decade that Crowley had already spent in city hall as much as because of her last name – her brother, Joseph Crowley, had been the Congressman that Ocasio-Cortez displaced in 2018. Their paternal uncle is the late Walter H. Crowley, another city councilman, notable for posthumously getting his name on a playground and a middle school in Queens.
Like her brother, she had been elected out of office. Unlike him, however, she has been trying to get back in, though she told the Queens Daily Eagle that “It’s not like, ‘oh, I’m looking for something to run for,” when announcing her run in the since-rejected 17th district. In the past two years, she’s run twice for Queens Borough President, losing both times to Donovan Richards. “It hasn’t been that long” since she has been in office, she tells me. Her voice is warmer and sounds foggily broadcast from an old radio. Her catalog of defeats spoke to her sensibility as someone “who doesn’t back down,” she said.
If she wasn’t deterred by losing, she also wouldn’t be deterred by not actually living inside the borders of the new 19th district that had come down last month.
“While I may not live within the boundaries of the district, the law will allow me time to move there and I intend to follow the law, given the opportunity to represent,” Crowley told me. Keith Davies, her campaign manager, later clarified that “Elizabeth has a residence in Long Island City where she spends a significant amount of time and she has lived and worked across the district throughout the years.”
She said it would be important to her that she would move there, in case she does win. Crowley noted that the primary race didn’t seem to be a matter of issues, all of which almost all the candidates in the primary seemed to largely agree on.
“While I do support, say, a banner cause like ‘good cause eviction,’ which my opponent and most people in the city also support, I’m running as an accomplished, experienced elected official,” she added. Like everyone else, she wants to be elected. Respected, selected, call collected. After that, the change will come.
Correction: an earlier version of this story misattributed a quote to a staffer on Gonzalez’s campaign. That error has been corrected.
Top image taken by Andrew Karpan.
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