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The top DSA primaries to watch in New York

In hotly contested Assembly races in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, the DSA is backing challengers who have drawn opposition from several outside groups, including the newly launched Solidarity PAC which supports pro-Israel Democrats in state and local races

Just a day after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, the Democratic Socialists of America’s New York City chapter drew widespread backlash for promoting a controversial Times Square rally where attendees were seen glorifying the violence that had just taken place and amplifying antisemitic messages.

Though the DSA later apologized amid rebukes from such high-profile members as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), the group has continued to double down on its staunch opposition to Israel as it seeks to energize supporters in the lead-up to New York’s impending primary elections, where it is backing a slate of candidates for state and federal office.

Declaring that “Palestine is on the ballot” in next Tuesday’s primaries, the DSA, which has long used Israel as a litmus test in its endorsement process, is aggressively embracing a messaging strategy that situates the ongoing war in Gaza at the top of its issue set — fueling concerns among Jewish and pro-Israel activists who are rallying to oppose the group.

The DSA’s marquee candidate — and likely its most endangered — is Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), who recently won its endorsement after distancing himself from the far-left group in the aftermath of the Hamas attacks. The embattled Squad member is now facing an onslaught of attack ads from a super PAC affiliated with the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC, which the DSA has accused of “teaming up with Republicans to attack democratic socialists opposing genocide,” echoing Bowman’s rhetoric. 

Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist, said he believes that the DSA’s focus on Israel will be unlikely to sway most voters, arguing that it has instead “shone a very bright light” on what he described as the group’s increasing extremism — and its dwindling attention to local issues such as universal healthcare and affordable housing.

“This is a group that amplified Hamas messaging days after Oct. 7, when New York Jews and Israelis in New York were still digesting pain and grief and fury,” he said in an interview with Jewish Insider on Wednesday. “It has really not taken its foot off the pedal since.”

Still, if Bowman fails to defend his seat against Westchester County Executive George Latimer, whom polls show is leading by double digits, the DSA is also fielding more promising down-ballot candidates in a bid to expand its influence in the state legislature, where the group now counts a handful of members.

In hotly contested Assembly races in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, the DSA is backing challengers who have drawn opposition from several outside groups, including the newly launched Solidarity PAC, established by the New York Solidarity Network, or NYSN, which supports pro-Israel Democrats in state and local races.

In a statement to JI, Sara Forman, the treasurer of Solidarity PAC and the executive director of NYSN, framed the DSA races as part of an ongoing battle between extremism and moderation. “Do primary voters want common sense Democrats or socialist extremists? That’s the choice in this election, so we’re optimistic,” she said. “We’re standing up for the backbone of the Democratic Party and we’re going to be in this fight — on Tuesday and for the long haul.”

According to sources familiar with the races who spoke with JI this week, undisclosed independent polling has shown that two moderate Democratic incumbents — Stefani Zinerman in Brooklyn and Michael Benedetto in the Bronx — are defending their seats in close primaries against DSA-backed challengers. The DSA could also prevail in another race in Queens as well as one in upstate New York, experts speculated.

The DSA did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday regarding how it expects to fare in the primaries.

“No one should take anything for granted,” Jake Dilemani, a Democratic strategist who is involved in efforts to oppose the DSA in some Assembly races, told JI. “The DSA has shown itself to be very adept at organizing in these types of primaries, and so every single one of them is deemed competitive at this point.”

Here’s a rundown on the top DSA races to watch ahead of Tuesday’s elections.

Bed-Stuy Brawl

In the closely watched race for an Assembly seat covering Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, Eon Huntley, a political newcomer backed by the DSA, has made his outspoken criticism of Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza a centerpiece of his campaign to unseat Stefani Zinerman, the incumbent, whom he has accused of failing to clarify her views on the conflict.

“Palestine is on the ballot this June,” reads a recent Huntley campaign mailer, which touts that he “is calling for a permanent and immediate ceasefire in Gaza and an end to U.S. military aid for Israel’s war crimes in Palestine.”

Zinerman, who assumed office in 2021, is endorsed by establishment Democratic leaders such as state Attorney General Letitia James and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), who has previously sparred with the DSA and whose district overlaps with the assemblywoman.

In addition to Solidarity PAC, which has yet to disclose its total fundraising figures, a pro-business independent expenditure committee, recently renamed Defeat the DSA, is seeking to boost Zinerman, who has been outraised by Huntley, a former fashion designer. The group is spending around $75,000 in the primary, according to a source familiar with its engagement.

But in a district where voters have expressed their dissatisfaction with President Joe Biden’s approach to the Israel-Hamas war, progressive energy could help fuel Huntley’s insurgent campaign, particularly in a low-turnout election, observers say.

The source, who asked to remain anonymous to discuss the race, said he had recently seen polling that showed Zinerman up by just a couple of points. “It’s not going in the right direction,” he told JI. “In that district, guess what, the messaging is they’re OK with a socialist.”

Bronx Rematch 

Jonathan Soto, a former campaign staffer for Ocasio-Cortez, is seeking a rematch in the East Bronx against state Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, whom he unsuccessfully challenged last election cycle. This time around, Soto has claimed an endorsement from the DSA, which is officially supporting just three challengers in Tuesday’s primaries.

In contrast with Huntley’s race, the war in Gaza hasn’t featured prominently in the Bronx primary, even as Soto has dismissed Benedetto as a “pro-war Democrat who refuses to call for a ceasefire or support Not on Our Dime,” a controversial bill in the state legislature that seeks to strip nonprofit groups of their tax-exempt status for “engaging in unauthorized support of Israeli settlement activity.”

Like Huntley and his allies, Soto has also taken aim at Solidarity PAC, which has endorsed Benedetto, casting the group as funded by “right-wing forces.”

Benedetto, a veteran Democrat who has held office for just under two decades, has indicated that he is not concerned about Soto’s challenge, claiming that his opponent “is completely out of step with” voters in the district, which includes Co-Op City, Throggs Neck and Westchester Square.

But one Jewish community activist who supports Benedetto suggested that the primary could be “very close,” citing independent polling conducted in the district.

Queens Contest

In a hotly contested primary in western Queens, two challengers are vying to unseat a scandal-plagued assemblyman, Juan Ardila, who has faced calls to resign over recent accusations of sexual misconduct — which he has not denied.

Claire Valdez, a union organizer endorsed by the DSA, is locked in what experts view as a tight race against Johanna Carmona, an attorney backed by pro-Israel groups including Solidarity PAC and the Comittee for Sensible Government.

Valdez has vocally called for a cease-fire, accused Israel of “genocide” and claimed to have left her ballot blank in the April presidential primary to protest Biden’s support for Israel. Meanwhile, she has also echoed her DSA allies in casting pro-Israel groups as “Republican-backed dark money PACs,” warning the “election will be about who determines our future.”

By contrast, Carmona has been more cautious in her comments on the Israel-Hamas war, emphasizing that her purview as a state legislator won’t include foreign policy decisions.

“What’s happening in Palestine is horrific. What happened on Oct. 7 was horrific,” she said at a candidate forum last week. “I think that seeing senseless deaths is so painful for all of us here in this community to watch. But in addition to that, to also see what happened on Oct. 7, and something like sexual violence, I will never stand for the use of a weapon, especially as a special victims prosecutor.”

In a section of Queens where polling has shown most voters hold a favorable view of socialist candidates, Valdez may hold an advantage in the primary, observers say.

A source who conducted polling in the district months ago told JI that Carmona was shown to be trailing far behind her DSA-backed rival. The source added, however, that Carmona had narrowed the gap to a low single-digit deficit in a more recent follow-up survey.

Carmona, who ran for the seat in 2022, has won endorsements from several labor unions and elected officials, including the Queens borough president, Donovan Richards, and Gregory Meeks (D-NY), who chairs the Queens County Democratic Party. 

The district includes such neighborhoods as Sunnyside, Ridgewood and Long Island City.   

Hudson Valley Scramble

Some 90 miles north of New York City, the DSA is defending an incumbent, Sarahana Shrestha, in the mid-Hudson Valley, where she is facing a challenge from Gabi Madden, who served as a chief of staff to former Assemblyman Kevin Cahill — whom Shrestha herself unseated last cycle.

The primary has showcased some sharp divisions over the war in Gaza, including a recent debate at which Shrestha, a vocal critic of Israel, staunchly defended her decision to cosponsor the “Not on Our Dime” act, arguing that “we are losing revenues in tax exemption to charities that are funneling that money into war crimes and settler violence.”

Madden, for her part, dismissed the bill as “a non-starter,” noting that it is “not supported by Democratic leadership.”

While some experts see Madden’s campaign as viable, others are less certain she will be able to pull off an upset in a district that one pro-Israel activist who chose not to engage in the race called a “super socialist area.”

Shrestha is the only DSA-backed state lawmaker to represent an upstate district, which includes Ulster and Dutchess Counties.

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