Upstart rocks Bronx political world

Sean Sanders

Alessandra Biaggi celebrates victory at the Bronx Alehouse in Kingsbridge on Sept. 13.

Hunts Point waterfront will have a new state senator

Alessandra Biaggi’s team was nervous but optimistic Thursday, as they planned their routes for getting out the vote on the final day of the candidate’s Democratic primary campaign. That evening, a sense of nervousness gripped them as they filled the Bronx Alehouse in Kingsbridge, where they held the vote-watching party.

More than 200 friends, family and supporters gathered shoulder to shoulder at the pub at 9 p.m., watching anxiously as the screen showed Biaggi trailing 13-year incumbent Jeff Klein, who was heavily favored, in the early moments.

But when the official announcement came shortly after 10 p.m.that Biaggi had pulled the upset, a sea of blue “Vote for Biaggi” shirts erupted in chants and cheers. 

The 34th State Senatorial District is comprised mostly of the central and western Bronx, but also includes a swath of the Hunts Point waterfront with the politically powerful food distribution markets and about a few dozen residential blocks. 

Biaggi, 32, is no stranger to close races. She previously worked as Deputy National Operations Officer for the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. She has said that Clinton’s loss in the 2016 presidential race caused her to shift her focus towards millennials and women, a strategy that helped shape the upset. 

When asked at the victory rally what caused people to vote for her, Biaggi responded: “The heart, not just mine, but of the over 500 volunteers who gave their heart and soul for this race. This proves that this is the grassroots.” 

The outcome was the latest in a series of upsets reshaping the city’s political landscape. In June, 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stunned another powerful incumbent, Rep. Joe Crowley, in an upset that has grabbed national attention.

Recognizing his challenge trying to beat back the well-spoken Biaggi, a lawyer, Klein raised well over $2 million on his campaign, much of it from real estate interests. Biaggi raised just over $450,000, much of it from small, individual contributions.  

Klein’s role as founder and lead presence on the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), which caucused regularly with Republicans in the State Senate, was a factor in his loss but did not seem to persuade the small handful of voters in Hunts Point. Out of 175 residents of the peninsula who cast votes on Thursday, 110 voted for Klein and just 65 for Biaggi. Across the Bronx, however, Biaggi received 15,656 votes, to Klein’s 14,224.

The 34th State Senatorial District.

On primary day at P.S. 48, the Joseph R. Drake School, the district’s main polling station, last-minute voters trickled in before the 9 p.m. deadline to cast their ballots. Mother and daughter Maria Bennet, 55 and Ashley Bennet, 31 had stark differences in their choice for Senator.

Transparency and visibility were major concerns for Maria Bennet, who noted that she hadn’t heard much from either candidate about their positions on the issues before the elections. Even so, she said she voted for Klein because of his consistency and because she knew what to expect from him. 

“People promise, but what do we ever see out of it,” she said.

Her daughter Ashley chose not to vote for the incumbents. “We need change, and in our community, I haven’t seen any,” she said.

Maria Torres, president of The Point CDC, said that the waterfront area within the district includes some crucial opportunities for change that can benefit from help from Albany. Those include work on a renewable energy project in a former MTA building near Barretto Point Park, a project to expand wifi in the peninsula, and an initiative that began in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 to invest in infrastructure to protect the area—including the food distribution markets—from flooding.

“We look forward to meeting with her about the many projects that are happening here,” said Torres.

Biaggi will be heavily favored against her next opponents, Richard Rubistello on the Republican ticket and Antonio Vitiello on the Conservative line, in the general election on Nov. 6. At press time Klein had not yet responded to questions about whether he intends to run as a fourth party candidate.

Joe Hirsch contributed reporting. 

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