Another socialist candidate targets NY’s housing market

Zohran Mamdani running for Assembly in AOC’s ’hood

The Democratic Socialists of America are crashing Long Island City again.

Zohran Mamdani, a foreclosure-prevention counselor and DSA member, aims to unseat Assembly member Aravella Simotas next year. The district touches parts of Astoria, Long Island City and Western Queens, and overlaps with the area represented by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, another DSA product.

The young activist said he is running to decommodify housing. “The market can’t be the only way we determine if someone can live somewhere, or live at all,” Mamdani said.

He also called Amazon’s retreat from Long Island City “the best Valentine’s gift ever” and the good-cause eviction proposal an “anti-speculation measure.” Mamdani said his priorities are housing, school desegregation and criminal justice.

“There are too many elected officials in Albany and not enough organizers,” said Mamdani, who was an organizer on Tiffany Cabán’s near-miss campaign for Queens district attorney. “I’m going to make a real issue of something if [Assembly speaker] Carl Heastie refuses to let it come to the floor [for a vote].” He was referring to the fate of good-cause eviction legislation last session in Albany.

Cabán’s bid, which fell short by a few dozen votes in the Democratic primary in June, was unnerving enough to real estate interests that Corcoran Group CEO Pam Liebman emailed all of her employees a warning that their business could suffer if Cabán won.

Young, left-leaning activists have been portrayed as newcomers to their communities, but Mamdani, who moved to Astoria late last year, said he is not worried about that.

“Whenever someone agitates for change they will always be painted as an outsider,” Mamdani said. “There is a narrative that we are only white college students. I’m a young, South Asian, Ugandan, Muslim man in the city.”

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Simotas, according to her website, is a lifelong Queens resident and product of its public schools. She took office in 2011 after having served on a local community board and worked as a commercial litigator and as a City Council aide to Speaker Peter Vallone Sr. and his son Peter Vallone Jr. She is married to a Civil Court judge in Queens.

Before helping the DSA run Cabán’s campaign, Mamdani worked on two other unsuccessful bids for public office: Khader El-Yateem’s 2018 try for a Bayside City Council seat and Ross Barkan’s 2018 Democratic primary run for state Senate, for which he was campaign manager. Mamdani is also a high-ranking leader in the Queens branch of the DSA.

A request by TRD to interview Simotas was met with an odd response from a representative for the Assembly member.

“You report about real estate,” said Nichole Rondon, a spokesperson for Simotas. “I don’t see the relevance of politics.”

It was a curious statement, to say the least: The legislature in which Simotas serves passed a sweeping overhaul of rent stabilization in June and over the years has enacted many measures that profoundly affect the real estate industry.

The incumbent herself cited the rent bill as an example.

“I was a sponsor of the historic legislation to protect tenants that passed the legislature in 2019, and in 2018 I proudly pledged to reject any real estate contributions to my campaign,” Simotas said in a statement to TRD.

Observers note that challenges from the political left or right of an incumbent, or the mere threat of them, can influence the elected official’s votes and other political decisions.

Although Simotas accepted $9,750 in real estate-linked donations in 2018, according to campaign finance disclosures, she joined scores of other politicians in pledging to not accept money from real estate in November of that year. Simotas has not deposited any checks from real estate since then.