District 31 Race To Be A Ranked Choice Voting Test

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 Attention District 31 voters. You are wanted at your nearest voting booth to cast your ballot for your next City Council member! But pay attention, with ranked choice voting in the works, this ballot may look a bit different.

With early voting now open at the Rockaway YMCA and election day set for the special election for City Council District 31, those on the east end of the peninsula and other parts of southern Queens, are getting to experience ranked voice voting for the very first time. Another City Council election in Queens District 24 gave some New Yorkers the first taste of ranked choice voting but with low voter turnout and incumbent, Jim Gennaro, in the race, it wasn’t much of a test. Gennaro earned more than 50% of the vote needed to win the race, so the ranked choice system didn’t come into play, but with no incumbent in the running and nine candidates to choose from, ranked choice voting may have a bigger impact in District 31’s race to fill the role that now Queens Borough President Donovan Richards vacated in December.

Ranked choice voting, passed in a 2019 ballot measure, is being implemented for the first time in New York City primary and special elections this year for offices such as Mayor, Public Advocate, Comptroller, Borough President, and City Council. How does it work? Instead of selecting one candidate, voters will have a chance to select up to five by ranking them by preference from first to fifth. Voters don’t have to utilize the ranked choice option and can select their top candidate, but there are benefits to filling out the other bubbles. If one candidate receives more than 50% of the total vote, they will be declared the winner. But if not, counting will continue in rounds and candidates with the fewest votes are eliminated in each round. If your top choice is eliminated, your vote goes to the next highest ranked candidate on your ballot. This process is repeated until there are only two candidates left and the candidate with the most votes is declared the winner.

With nine candidates to choose from in the City Council District 31 race, ranked choice voting may play a bigger role as candidates are less likely to obtain the 50% needed to win the race. Each of the nine candidates are hoping for a chance to represent the communities of Arverne, Brookville, Edgemere, Far Rockaway, Laurelton, Rosedale and Springfield Gardens. The candidates on the ballot include LaToya Benjamin, Selvena Brooks-Powers, Latanya Collins, Sherwyn James, Nicole Lee, Nancy Martinez, Pesach Osina Shawn Rux and Manny Silva.

At a recent virtual forum sponsored by Common Cause, Rank the Vote NYC and Disability Rights New York, six of the nine candidates were on hand to introduce themselves and discuss ranked choice voting.

As Dr. Shawn Rux said, “Ranked choice voting has made it that we work together. You know, campaigns are deliberating on a level that I don't think NYC has seen before, and I believe it levels the playing field.” Pesach Osina said he believes it creates a friendlier atmosphere. “The one thing with RCV, I would say it's allowing myself as a candidate to help build the bridges of all the other communities out there, whereas in other races you might say someone got an endorsement from this specific Democratic organization, you would throw them under the bus and couldn't have outreach from them again. It creates unity.”

Yet, after February 23, there will only be one winner. Currently, among the top candidates are Selvena Brooks-Powers and Pesach Osina.

Far Rockaway resident Brooks-Powers, the current M/WBE compliance project manager with the JFK Redevelopment Program, has been involved in politics as a staff member for the Mayor’s Office, the NYS Senate and the NYC Comptroller. She has earned the endorsements of local elected officials Senator James Sanders, Rep. Gregory Meeks and Borough President Donovan Richards. She also has the endorsement of the Queens County Democratic Party and prominent unions like 1199 SEIU and 32BJ, among others.

In 2013, Osina came close to winning the election for City Council District 31, losing to Richards by just 79 votes. Osina, a Far Rockaway resident, has been involved in politics since 2009, having worked with former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the New York State Assembly, New York City Council, and most recently as Queens Borough Director for NYC Comptroller Scott M. Stringer. In the 2013 race, Osina had heavy backing from the Orthodox Jewish community of Far Rockaway. In this race, Osina says he’s not so focused on endorsements from various groups, but rather bridging the gaps between groups.

Manny Silva, born and raised in District 31, has close connections to the role of City Council in District 31 as he served as Chief of Staff to Donovan Richards for three years. At the recent forum Silva said, “My time as chief of staff for the former council member has given me the experience to not only build relationships with every single neighborhood, but I’ve also learned about what’s important to everybody in every single neighborhood,” he said. Silva has earned the endorsement of the Queens United Independent Progressives.

Nancy Martinez, a longtime Rockaway resident, has not been involved in politics, but she is a small business owner as the founder of the Rockaway Adult Social Center, which assists seniors, and the New York Career Training School, which helps New Yorkers develop skills to launch a career. Martinez has also helped connect those who need it most with healthcare and serves on the Board of Directors for the Joseph Addabbo Healthcare Center and on Community Board 14.

Dr. Shawn Rux, the current Deputy Superintendent for District 29 in Queens, has not been involved in politics but has been heavily involved in making improvements to the education system. Rux had served as the principal of Middle School 53 in Far Rockaway, where he created an incentive program that helped increase attendance and reduce suspensions at the school.

Rockaway resident Latanya Collins is also a big advocate for education, having worked in NYC public education for nearly 20 years. She has been designated Citywide Master Teacher of Special Education, by the NYC Department of Education and served as a leader in various NYC transformation and turnaround schools.

Far Rockaway resident Nicole Lee is a single mother of a child with autism and is a strong advocate for those disabilities. She is also a small business owner, selling cosmetics for over 20 years and running a daycare center for children with disabilities.

LaToya Benjamin, the Director of Economic Development for the NYS Senate, got an early start in politics, having served as an intern for local Congressman Gregory Meeks. Earlier this year, she was elected as Queens County Judicial Delegate.

Sherwyn James, an immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago, is an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church and an analyst for the Department of Education. In June, he was elected as Democratic Male District Leader for the 29th Assembly District Part B

Whoever wins, will not be sitting comfortably for long. This special election is meant to fill the remaining term for Donovan Richards, which ends in December 2021. After this race, the winner will have to face off once again in the Democratic Primary in June and then the general election in November.

Early voting is now open through February 21. Voters will also have an opportunity to vote on election day, Tuesday, February 23 at their local polling place.

 By Katie McFadden

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