City Council adds historic number of women to its ranks as Republicans gain

New York Elections
Shahana Hanif

Newly Brooklyn Councilmember elect Shahana Hanif spoke at a rally in City Hall Park supporting female candidates, July 13, 2021. | Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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This article was originally published on Nov 3 at 8:15am EDT by THE CITY. Sign up here to get the latest stories from THE CITY delivered to you each morning.

NEW YORK — New York City’s legislative branch will be packed with newcomers in 2022 and will have its first female majority. Meanwhile, the GOP gained at least one more Council seat.

As voters chose moderate Democrat Eric Adams as mayor, the City Council replenished its ranks of progressives in an election that turned over most of its seats on Tuesday, while potentially adding some Republican newcomers.

Three races were too close to call as of early Wednesday morning — including a re-election bid by Brooklyn Democrat Justin Brannan, who wants to become the Council’s speaker. 

The coming class of 51 City Council members includes many first-time candidates and more women serving than in any time in its history. The 31 women who won or are favored to win will more than double the current Council’s class of female leaders. 

Among them will be the first Muslim woman to serve, Shahana Hanif of Brooklyn’s 39th District. Speaking to supporters Tuesday night in Brooklyn — following her participation in 10 days of a 14-day hunger strike with taxi workers — Hanif said she will “keep a check on the mayor” in her new role.

“I don’t work for the mayor. I work for the people. I recognize the fights ahead, particularly for South Asian and Muslim communities,” she said.

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Democrats lost at least one seat in Brooklyn, to newcomer Republican Inna Vernikov, an attorney. In the election’s final days, Vernikov, who railed against COVID-fighting vaccine mandates, received a boost from a robocall by Donald Trump Jr.

At her victory party in Midwood Tuesday night, Vernikov told THE CITY her priorities are to “refund our police” and prevent homeless shelters “being built next to our schools in middle-class neighborhoods.” How would she meet those goals in a mostly blue Council?

“I build relationships with all kinds of people, whether it be Democrats or Republicans,” she said. “I look to oppose the progressive policies, but I’m not looking to fight with every Democrat.”

Republican Brooklyn Council candidate Inna Vernikov, center, joins supporters at her election night party, Nov. 2, 2021.

Another Republican, Vickie Paladino, led the returns in a seat currently held by a term-limited Democrat in Queens, Paul Vallone, with a more than 1,600-vote edge over Democrat Tony Avella.

In Brooklyn, Brannan was neck and neck early Tuesday with Republican challenger Brian Fox, while Democrat Ari Kagan led GOP candidate Mark Szuszkiewicz by a slim margin.

If undecided races tip in favor of GOP candidates, Republicans could double their current three Council seats.

Among current or recently departed Council members, 35 faced term limits following two or three terms. 

The new Council winners will have a shortened window of time to make their mark. Because of redistricting that follows each U.S. Census, all incoming Council members will serve for only two years instead of four, running again in 2023 in newly redrawn districts. 

They will then be entitled to run for another two full four-year terms.

The City Council will also welcome Jan. 1 its first two members who were formally endorsed by the New York City Democratic Socialist of America: Tiffany Cabán, the Queens Democrat who mounted a strong run for district attorney in 2019, and Alexa Aviles of Brooklyn.

Brooklyn City Councilmember Justin Brannan speaks in support of Eric Adams at a campaign rally in Cadman Plaza on Wednesday, June 2, 2021.

Changing Perceptions

Republicans held onto the southern Queens seat held by term-limited Eric Ulrich despite a challenger from the left who had the backing of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Queens GOP Party chair Joann Ariola prevailed over Felicia Singh, a teacher and first-time candidate who is of Guyanese and Punjabi descent. Ariola’s platform focused on public safety and quality-of-life issues. She opposes any reduction in the NYPDs budget as well as the closure of Rikers Island.

On Tuesday night, Ariola ripped up a concession speech to Singh in front of cheering supporters at Russo’s on the Bay in Queens.

“This race wasn’t only won on message,” Ariola said. “It was run because each and every portion of this district felt that I represented them.”

Republican Council candidate Joann Ariola celebrates her win over Democrat Felicia Singh at Russo’s on the Bay in Howard Beach, Queens, Nov. 2, 2021.

Schumer had been set to appear with Singh at a campaign rally Sunday in Belle Harbor, Queens, but pulled out of the event after his security team was alerted to threatening comments made by a nearby counter-protester. 

The protester was heard telling volunteers for Singh’s campaign that “all Democrats should be shot,” according to the volunteer and her campaign. 

After moving the rally to a different location, Singh said her volunteers “were pursued and further intimidation continued to the point where police arrived,” she wrote on social media.

Singh said in conceding the race Tuesday night that her run had nonetheless made a difference in southern Queens, by changing perceptions of what local leadership looks like.

 ”It had everything to do with our communities of color, our immigrant communities about people who had never been a part of the electoral process at all,” she said. “Folks who have felt erased and neglected year after year after year after year.”

Queens Council candidate Felicia Singh embraces supporters at her Election Day party, Nov. 2, 2021.

The Ariola-Singh contest was one of several to attract the interest of outside spending groups, allowed to lavish unlimited funds on elections outside the city campaign finance system.

Other People’s Money

Significant spending by outside groups made a dent in some cases — and flopped in others.

The NYPD’s largest union, the Police Benevolent Association, used to $140,869 supporti Ariola —  and spent $77,460 opposing Singh. 

But the PBA’s more than $375,000 blanketing Staten Island voters with mailers and ads boosting ex-Councilmember Sal Albanese failed to make a dent. Results showed him trailing far behind Republican David Carr.

Also getting mixed results was the group Common Sense NYC, backed by real estate mogul Stephen Ross, cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder and other wealthy donors who spent heavily to elect centrist candidates for Council. 

The Super PAC spent $90,000 in an unsuccessful attempt to boost Democrat Steve Saperstein against Vernikov, for the seat held by Democrat Chaim Deutsch before he pleaded guilty to tax fraud and was expelled. Deutsch backed Vernikov over his own party’s nominee.

Common Sense sponsored mailers to sideline Singh and also spent to defeat Fox in his battle against Brannan.

Back for More

On Staten Island, Republican Councilmember Joe Borelli easily defeated his Democratic opponent, teacher Olivia Drabczyk, a teacher. 

Albanese lost to Carr — chief of staff to the district’s term-limited incumbent, Steven Matteo — despite law enforcement union endorsements and a longtime rivalry with de Blasio, who is deeply unpopular in the borough, in past elections and other political fights.

Albanese was one of several Council alumni who made attempts to return after waiting out the requisite four years following term limits, and the only one to be unsuccessful.

Gale Brewer, coming off two terms as Manhattan borough president, will return to her former Council seat on the Upper West Side. Brewer won 87% of the vote over Republican Nancy Sliwa, wife of failed GOP mayoral candidate Curtis Sliwa.

Charles Barron, the longtime East New York, Brooklyn, leader, will return from the state Assembly to the 42nd Council District, which his wife, Inez Barron, represented for the past eight years. He received 98% of the vote in his uncontested race.

In neighboring District 41, Darlene Mealy will return to her old job representing Brownsville and Crown Heights. Mealy served as Council member there between 2006 and 2017 and eked out a primary win against incumbent Alicka Ampry-Samuel in June. Mealy won her former seat with 95% of the general election vote on Tuesday. 

Experienced Hands

Most of the newly elected members have never served there before — but many are already experienced hands in the Council, having served as aides to their predecessors.

Those include Hanif, who was on the staff of Councilmember Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn), elected Tuesday to be city comptroller. 

Among others are Crystal Hudson, who worked for Laurie Cumbo (D-Brooklyn); Erik Bottcher, a staffer for Council Speaker Corey Johnson in Manhattan, and Amanda Farías of the Bronx, once employed by then-Queens Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley.

Queens City Council candidate Shekar Krishnan spoke in support of debt relief for cab drivers during a City Hall demonstration, Sept. 23, 2021.

Some new members won with the support of Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-Manhattan) as well as bloggers who had received money from their campaigns: Shaun Abreu and Carmen De La Rosa in upper Manhattan and Pierina Sanchez in The Bronx.

The new Council will also feature progressive members with no prior City Hall ties. Besides Cabán, they include teacher and activistKristin Richardson Jordan in Harlem, who defeated incumbent Bill Perkins in the primary; anti-development activistChristopher Marte on Manhattan’s Lower East Side; and activist lawyer Shekar Krishnan in Jackson Heights, Queens.

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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