It’s primary day again in New York City. Thanks to last year’s redistricting for city council, New Yorkers must elect every member in their new districts. Without a simultaneous mayoral election and with attention mostly turned to Washington and events abroad, however, these races are shaping up for extraordinarily low turnout, even by the city’s dismal standards.
Thanks to New York’s closed primaries, millions of registered Independents, unaffiliated voters, and most Republicans will be ineligible to cast a ballot. But in a few noteworthy districts, progressives are on the defensive, facing viable challenges—a striking reversal from their position two years ago. And two regularly scheduled and contested Democratic primaries for district attorney, in the Bronx and Queens, provide some insight into how attitudes on crime are shifting in Gotham.
In the Bronx, incumbent District Attorney Darcel Clark, whose backing by Democratic leaders helped ensure that she faced no primary opposition in her two previous races, is squaring off against Tess Cohen, a criminal-defense attorney who has embraced discovery and bail reforms without amendment. The more moderate Clark, who enjoys a wide fundraising advantage and broad party support, will likely cruise to the nomination.
In Queens, the race is more complex. Incumbent Melinda Katz, who previously held office as a city councilmember, state assemblymember, and Queens borough president, enjoys support from Mayor Eric Adams, Governor Kathy Hochul, and large labor unions. In 2019, she defeated Tiffany Cabán, a democratic socialist (and now city councilmember) who vowed to end mass incarceration and the war on drugs, by a mere 55 votes. Given the momentum at the time for progressive reformers, Katz promised to reduce arrests for low-level offenses like fare evasion, retail theft, and marijuana.
Since then, though, Katz has straddled a careful balance between following up on these promises while steering clear of the progressive-prosecution brand espoused by Eric Gonzalez in Brooklyn and Alvin Bragg in Manhattan. For much of her tenure, she prioritized gun- and drug-trafficking takedowns, but in recent months her office has focused on greater enforcement against illegal pot shops and repeat retail theft, drawing some criticism from progressives.
This time, Katz faces challengers from both sides. Running to her left is Devian Daniels, a public defender who has anchored her campaign on ending mass incarceration. Last Thursday, Katz’s campaign sued Daniels for noncompliance with registration and reporting requirements. Backing Daniels is Hiram Monserrate, the former city councilmember and state senator, who was expelled from the upper house in 2010 after his conviction for misdemeanor assault on his girlfriend.
Katz’s more serious challenge comes from the right, in the person of George Grasso, who most recently served as the administrative judge for criminal matters in the Queens County Supreme Court. Prior to his life on the bench, Grasso rose through NYPD ranks from beat cop to the department’s chief legal counsel and first deputy police commissioner under former commissioner Ray Kelly.
Grasso, who helped devise and implement the NYPD’s strategy in the early 1990s that targeted quality-of-life offenses to deter disorder and escalating crime, has earned the endorsement of former commissioner Bill Bratton and the Asian Wave Alliance, an ascendant Asian-American advocacy group. If elected, he vows to oppose bail and discovery reforms, bolster victims’ services, and prosecute quality-of-life offenses like fare evasion and petit larceny. Broadening the race’s consequences for the city as a whole, Grasso has framed his candidacy as the start of New York’s crime recovery.
Indeed, though they are generating less attention than during last year’s midterms and gubernatorial election, city crime levels remain elevated. While most categories of serious index crimes are lower by single-digit percentages compared with this time last year, felony assaults and auto thefts are up 6.4 percent and 18.2 percent, respectively, as of June 25. Go back further, to 2010, and those increases spike to 62.2 percent and 51.6 percent.
Last Tuesday, an urban brigand stabbed my 21-year-old neighbor in the shoulder at 11 in the morning. The victim was walking down a boulevard less than a block from home, in our ordinarily tranquil corner of Northwest Queens. No prior history existed between the two, nor any provocation or indication that someone would lunge at the victim—in cowardly fashion—from behind. The blade was lodged some four inches deep, handle protruding from his shoulder as he waited for paramedics to arrive.
It’s tempting to call such violence “random,” but chances are good that the perpetrator has been involved with the criminal-justice system before. There’s nothing random about policy choices and laws that have diminished or even eliminated the ability of police and prosecutors to impose meaningful consequences and incapacitate those who commit harms to persons and property. Today, New Yorkers attentive enough to vote can signal what they think of the status quo.
Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images