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A few thousand Queens voters will decide NYC's first test of ranked-choice voting

David Brand :: Queens Daily Eagle

Billionaire Stephen Ross has weighed in. So have Bernie Sanders , the lead singer of Vampire Weekend and three local members of Congress.

In the end, however, New York City’s first test of ranked-choice voting will come down to constituents like Mary Zuckerman, a Briarwood native who visited the polls Jan. 25 to cast her ballot early.

Zuckerman, one of 2,039 early voters in the special race to replace Rory Lancman , said she did her homework before filling out her ballot inside Queens Borough Hall.

The new ranked-choice format allows voters to designate their top five candidates in special elections and primaries. If no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote, the last-place finisher is eliminated and voters who picked that candidate will have their second choice tallied. That process will continue until one candidate receives a majority of the vote.

“I thought it was a wonderful idea, but at first I was afraid I couldn’t wrap my brain around it,” Zuckerman said. “But I studied the chart and thought about it and figured it out.”

She said she ranked five candidates, picking former Councilmember James Gennaro first, Democratic District Leader Neeta Jain second and attorney Soma Syed somewhere in the mix, she said She couldn’t remember the other two candidates.

On Saturday, she was back at borough hall to accompany a friend to the polls. The woman, Romila, spoke little English but said she planned to choose just one candidate: Jain.

It remains to be seen how many voters in the low-turnout race treat their ballots like Romila and how many, like Zuckerman, use the new ranked format.

One thing is for sure, however: The eight-candidate contest in Central Queens has played out much like traditional, pre-ranked-choice races. Outside money has poured in through independent expenditures, candidates have taken shots at one another on social media and in forums, and rivals and their supporters have broken along the “progressive”/“moderate” divide dominating local politics.

(Check out this story and debate for more information on where the candidates stand on specific issues and policies, including ending homelessness, building a shelter in Briarwood, closing Rikers Island, constructing a new jail in nearby Kew Gardens and funding education, as well as their perspectives on boycotting Israel — an important issue in the district).

Candidates hesitated to form coalitions with one another, and just one, progressive organizer Moumita Ahmed, has described her ranked ballot. She said she voted early and listed business owner Deepti Sharma second during a forum hosted by the Eagle and Gotham Gazette.

The race is chance for a council district to elect a South Asian representative for the first time in New York City history. Six of the candidates are South Asian and the field also includes Dilip Nath, a higher education executive; Muhjib Rahman, a conservative and the president of the Bangladesh Society of North America; and real estate agent Michael Earl Brown.

Elected officials, community boards and nonprofit groups have hosted several educational events in the district. “Queens is ready to rank,” said Janggo Mahmud, the Queen organizer for the group Rank the Vote NYC.

But disparate access to reliable internet has eroded some of those efforts, said Queens political strategist Martha Ayon. So has a dearth of materials in relevant languages, she said.

“The demographic that has the most access to information will know about ranked-choice voting and the election, but if they’re not watching then it’s totally missing them,” Ayon said.

In the district’s Jewish communities, few people still seem to know about or fully embrace ranked-choice voting, said Howard Schoenfeld, a Kew Gardens Hills resident active in local politics.

He said he and his family members ranked five candidates — he declined to give the names or the order — but found that many of his Orthodox Jewish neighbors planned to vote only for Gennaro. A large get-out-the-vote effort motivated hundreds to vote at Queens College Sunday, the final day of early voting.

Hundreds lined up to vote at Queens College Sunday, the final day of early voting. Photo courtesy of Howard Schoenfeld

“People who just vote casually knew little about it,” he said of ranked-choice voting.

Gennaro, the former chair of the Council’s Environmental Committee, has name recognition and remains popular among moderate voters, particularly in the district’s Jewish community. He also got a boost from a series of mailers funded by the political action committee Common Sense NYC.

The PAC — backed by Ross, the head of Related Cos. and a major Donald Trump supporter — spent $206,840 on literature backing Gennaro and Syed and attacking Ahmed, a progressive organizer affiliated with the Democratic Socialists of America, financial reports show .

That amounts to about $100 per early voter.

Gennaro has racked up several union endorsements and says he wants to further his environmental goals in the Council. But he has faced criticism from some constituents for skipping two forums hosted by South Asian groups, including one co-organized by Bangladeshi Americans for Political Progress, the Muslim Democratic Club of New York City and Muslims for Progress in December.

“It was an important forum for him to attend, not just for putting his vision out there but also showing he cares for the community,” said Bangladeshi American Advocacy Group NYC Chairperson Kamal Bhuiyan. “He didn’t do much for the South Asian communities when he was in office.”

Gennaro represented the district for 12 years from 2001 to 2013 and said that he directed funding to Captain Tilly Park and other parks located in predominantly South Asian neighborhoods, worked to expand the Jamaica Muslim Center and appointed the first Bangladeshi member of Community Board 8.

“No one has done more for South Asian communities in the Council than I have,” he said.

Most of the South Asian candidates, meanwhile, have conducted outreach across the diverse district, with some like Jain, Syed, Sharma and higher education executive Dilip Nath reaching out to constituents in the Jewish community.

Jain has worked as a psychologist in the district for decades and is an elected Democratic district leader. Nath has helped out past candidates through his organization New American Voters Association. Syed is head of the Queens County Women’s Bar Association.

Few have launched aggressive get-out-the-vote campaigns among residents of the Pomonok Houses, however. Five attended a forum hosted by the Queens Community House where they addressed issues affecting NYCHA residents, an underserved and overlooked group.

“I want to bring NYCHA leadership from 250 Broadway and have the residents directly lay their concerns, and not just walk the grounds and see the conditions, feel bad and then leave,” Sharma said at the forum.

Sharma said working with Pomonok tenants was a major focus of her campaign. She runs an organization that connects with local food vendors to cater corporate events and she has helped the Pomonok Residents Association conduct regular food drives, with one scheduled for Monday, she said.

Ahmed, meanwhile, has emerged as persona non grata in the Orthodox Jewish community because of a controversy involving her response to an anti-Semitic tweet in 2015 and her support for boycotting travel to Israel and the purchase of Israeli-made goods due to the government’s treatment of Palestinians. She apologized for the tweet.

She, too, brings name recognition to the race having run for district leader last year. Her campaign centered on economic justice has mobilized a coalition of economically disadvantaged and progressive voters, including neighbors inside her apartment complex. A Monday endorsement from Bernie Sanders could help galvanize some hold-outs.

A few groups, including Ahmed’s campaign and Jewish community organizations, have organized transportation to take voters to the polls Tuesday, one final chance to drive turnout.

But that will be a challenge with nearly two feet of snow on the ground.

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