In a House Race With Big Names, 2 Women With Local Ties Rise

Two months ago, the megawatt contest for a rare open House seat in New York City seemed destined to be shaped by one of a handful of nationally known candidates.

There was the former New York City mayor, an ex-congresswoman, a former federal prosecutor who helped impeach Donald J. Trump, and even a sitting congressman from the exurbs.

But with the Aug. 23 primary less than three weeks away, the contours of the race have been redefined. Two women with local bona fides but little national stature have surged toward the front of the pack, upending early conventional wisdom and scrambling the race.

In recent public and internal polling for the Democratic primary, Carlina Rivera, a councilwoman from Manhattan, and Yuh-Line Niou, a Manhattan assemblywoman, are running neck-and-neck with the two well-resourced men considered heavyweights: Representative Mondaire Jones, a recent transplant to the district, and Daniel Goldman, the impeachment investigator, who has never held elective office.

Ms. Rivera and Ms. Niou have one particularly compelling advantage: they already represent parts of the congressional district, and have proven bases of support among voters and Democratic groups in the area — a likely boon in a late-summer contest where voter turnout and interest are expected to be low.

Ms. Niou, speaking at a recent candidates forum in Brooklyn, is backed by the Working Families Party.Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

Indeed, in a brief canvas on Thursday of would-be voters in Ms. Rivera’s district on the Lower East Side, the vast majority said they were not following the race. Campaign signs were almost nonexistent — save a couple for Mr. Goldman.

But Wilfredo Lopez, a 73-year-old resident walking by Hamilton Fish Park, was an exception. He said he was voting for Ms. Rivera because “she’s from the neighborhood and she’s for the neighborhood.”

On the surface, Ms. Rivera and Ms. Niou have similarities; both are 30-something women of color with far-left roots.

When she was first running for Council, Ms. Rivera, a 38-year-old Lower East Side native of Puerto Rican descent, was a dues-paying member of the Democratic Socialists of America; her campaign said that she attended only one meeting.

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She has since tacked toward the center, resisting the anti-development predilections of the left and defining herself as a pragmatic progressive, as someone who gets things done.

Ms. Rivera has nonetheless won the support of the progressive Brooklyn political establishment — the borough president, Antonio Reynoso; Nydia Velazquez, the congresswoman whose current district overlaps with the newly redistricted one; and several unions — even as she has also more aggressively courted the real estate sector.

Ms. Rivera has been endorsed by Representative Nydia Velazquez, whose current district overlaps with the new contours of the 12th District in Brooklyn.Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

Ms. Niou, 39, has never been a D.S.A, member, but has retained her far left posture, winning the support of left-leaning organizations like the Working Families Party and the Jewish Vote, the political arm of Jews For Racial and Economic Justice.

Since she was elected to the New York State Assembly in 2016, Ms. Niou has focused on combating racial discrimination and sexual harassment. In the past six years, she has been the prime sponsor of 15 bills that became law, according to her campaign, including one establishing a toll-free hotline for complaints of workplace sexual harassment.

During the tail end of Andrew Cuomo’s tenure as governor, Ms. Niou could sometimes be found sparring with him and his staff. After The New York Times reported on a $25,000-a-couple fund-raiser hosted by the governor during the legislative session, Ms. Niou and two colleagues held a news conference to express their outrage. Mr. Cuomo’s spokesman responded by calling her and her colleagues “[expletive] idiots.”

During this race, Ms. Niou has assiduously courted the left-most flank of the Democratic Party, even expressing support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement — a decision that may cost her votes in a district with a substantial Jewish population.

John Mollenkopf, a political science professor at the CUNY Graduate Center who analyzes voter data, estimates that at least 16 percent of the primary voters in the 10th Congressional District will have Jewish surnames. He said those voters might take issue with Ms. Niou’s B.D.S. stance, “partly because there are other quite acceptable candidates to center-left Jewish voters in the race.”

Ms. Niou’s and Ms. Rivera’s national policy stances are similar: They both champion federal abortion rights; the Green New Deal plan advanced by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; and more liberal immigration and refugee policies.

But at the local level, pronounced distinctions have emerged.

Ms. Rivera staunchly backs the ongoing effort to tear down and then rebuild East River Park at a higher elevation, to make the neighborhoods it abuts less vulnerable to storms like Hurricane Sandy. Protesters booed Ms. Rivera for that stance at a recent environmental forum, but on Monday she won the backing of the forum’s host — the New York League of Conservation Voters.

Ms. Niou took issue with the plan to make the area more resilient.

Ms. Niou and Representative Mondaire Jones, embracing after the candidates forum, are among the more left-leaning contenders in the primary contest.Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

“The city and the way that the city operated raise a lot of questions for me,” Ms. Niou said.

In the City Council, Ms. Rivera has acted as the first primary sponsor on 25 pieces of legislation that have become law, including a bill requiring restaurants give bathroom access to delivery workers.

Ms. Rivera also supported a bid to build low-income senior housing in a wealthy neighborhood’s community garden, a project codeveloped by Habitat for Humanity. Ms. Niou sued to stop the development, alienating the former local councilwoman, Margaret Chin, who has endorsed Ms. Rivera instead.

“I’m so disappointed in her,” Ms. Chin said of Ms. Niou.

“Normally I would support an Asian woman, we need more representation, but in this case,” Ms. Chin said, trailing off.

Ms. Rivera has also backed a bid to allow more density, including affordable housing, in the Manhattan neighborhoods of SoHo and NoHo, an initiative Ms. Niou says she had doubts about.

This year’s unusually messy redistricting process fundamentally reshaped the 10th District. Where the district once stretched from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Bensonhurst Brooklyn, the new map makes it more compact, encompassing only Lower Manhattan and the northwest precincts of Brooklyn.

Jerry Nadler, the congressman now representing the district, opted to run in the 12th District against a longtime colleague, Representative Carolyn Maloney, after his Upper West Side home base was moved there. The result was a rare open seat in the heart of New York City, and a political gold rush that drew a dozen or so candidates, including Mr. Jones, the congressman who currently represents Rockland County and parts of Westchester.

Mr. Jones and Mr. Goldman are by far the race’s best-resourced candidates. At the end of June, Mr. Jones had $2.8 million to spend. Mr. Goldman had $1 million, though he also has a vast reservoir of personal wealth to draw from and told NY1 he intends to use it. He has up to $253 million in personal wealth, according to Bloomberg News.

“I am extremely grateful for the opportunities I’ve had, and that is why I’ve committed my life to public service,” Mr. Goldman said in a statement. “I’m running for Congress to continue that service, to build a better future for all of our children, and to give everyone the opportunity to succeed.”

His financial disclosures with the House indicate that he has a line of credit from Goldman Sachs worth up to $50 million, and hundreds of investments, including in weapons manufacturer Sturm, Ruger & Co, in oil companies, including Chevron and Exxon Mobil, and even in Fox Corporation.

A spokesman for Mr. Goldman said he will put his assets into a blind trust upon entering Congress, as he has done in the past, and that he has such a wide breadth of investments because his portfolio is structured to mirror the S&P 500.

“How the hell can this guy claim to believe our democracy faces a five-alarm fire, and to care about public safety, when he’s got investments in Fox News and deadly gun manufacturers?” Mr. Jones said in a statement.

Even so, Mr. Goldman’s paid role as a legal analyst on MSNBC, and his time as an impeachment prosecutor have won him supporters, including Joan Manzioni, a 67-year-old restaurateur who on Thursday said she was considering voting for Mr. Goldman or Ms. Holtzman.

Mr. Goldman and Mr. Jones are the only two candidates with television ads, according to Ad Impact, an advertising analytics firm. As of Thursday, Mr. Goldman had spent $2.2 million on television, while Mr. Jones had spent $684,000.

The third presumed heavyweight, former Mayor Bill de Blasio, dropped out of the race in July, citing his inability to sway voters. Elizabeth Holtzman, the former congresswoman, is doing better than expected in some of the polls, but is far behind in fund-raising and is combating doubts about her age, 80.

Ms. Rivera trails two Democratic rivals in fund-raising, but has $150,000 more than Ms. Niou.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

As of late June, Ms. Niou had $202,000 on hand; Ms. Rivera had $354,000. In an effort to compete financially with Mr. Jones and Mr. Goldman, Ms. Rivera has raised money from major developers, including the CEO of Two Trees, which is based in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Dumbo. In recent weeks, she has reached out to at least two other executives in the real estate industry for donations, according to recipients of her outreach.

And, in apparent expectation of super PAC support, she has also put a so-called “red box” on her website, which candidates use to communicate indirectly with super PACs.

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