By Carlotta Mohamed
“Dreamer” Catalina Cruz celebrated her victory at a Jackson Heights club after unseating state Assemblywoman Ari Espinal (D-Jackson Heights) and fending off fellow challenger Yonel Letellier Sosa in last week’s Democratic primary.
With 100 percent of the precincts reporting, Cruz secured 53.4 percent of the votes, while Espinal obtained 43.1 percent and Sosa tallied just 3.22 percent, according to unofficial results from the city Board of Elections.
Cruz was cheerful as she stood on the platform in Club Evolution — located at 76-19 Roosevelt Ave. — where she was joined by a sea of upbeat supporters — including City Councilmen Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) and Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), as well as City Comptroller Scott Stringer — as they chanted “Catalina!”
“The hard work was not the last six months. The hard work is coming in January,” Cruz said. “Making sure we’ll be able to push through legislation, make budgetary changes, we’re able to fight for our dreamers, parents, workers, our sisters and brothers in the Muslim community…that we make sure everyone is protected — this is the beginning.”
Espinal, a Corona native, ran unopposed and won an April special election to fill the vacated District 39 Assembly seat previously held by City Councilman Francisco Moya (D-Jackson Heights) before he was elected to the City Council last year. Espinal had previously served as an aide on Moya’s staff. The 39th District covers parts of Corona, Jackson Heights and Elmhurst.
“This win today is for all of those undocumented parents that are still out there fighting for kids like me. This is for them,” Cruz said. “This one is for all of those parents and children who are in those detention centers separated. This one is for all the Dreamers who still have to work two jobs to pay for school… we got this, baby.”
“I’m over the moon about Catalina’s win,” said Divya Sundaram, who is a part of Amplify Her, an organization that endorses women running for office. “She’s run such a strong positive campaign, and it’s built on pure people power. She’s the first Dreamer and I think she’s going to be a strong advocate for immigrant rights. I want immigrants to have a better experience in this community.”
Aliya Latif, of Elmhurst, and a board member of the Muslim Democratic Club of New York, said from fund-raising to getting out the vote, the Muslim American community rallied behind Catalina’s vision and the power of her story.
“We are witnessing a progressive blue wave in politics lead by women of color and it is changing the game,” said Latif.
Michael Goldfried, of Jackson Heights, shared the same sentiments saying he’s thrilled women of color are on the ascendency of the Democratic Party.
“I think the heart of the Democratic Party is a passion for justice and these women like Jessica Ramos and Catalina Cruz are going to reignite the heart of the Democratic Party and bring us back to what we believe in — which is justice, equality and compassion in government,” said Goldfried.
The 35-year-old Colombian-born “Dreamer” was undocumented for the first 13 years she lived in the United States before becoming a legal citizen in 2009. She fought for tenant, immigrant and workers’ rights in her years as a lawyer and civil servant in both the Cuomo administration and office of City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland.
Both Cruz and Espinal ran grassroots campaigns to achieve their goals of making change by bringing more resources to their communities. Cruz pledged to help resolve community issues such as affordable housing, school overcrowding, and providing health care for poorer residents.
In her statement about the election primary results, Espinal said she will continue to be involved in the community.
“Local government matters, and I have devoted my life to empowering our community. I am proud of the work I’ve been able to accomplish so far and I will continue to do whatever I can to make Corona, Elmhurst, and Jackson Heights better for all of us,” said Espinal.
She added, “We are in an important moment in our nation’s history and this race saw historic voter turnout. Democrats are engaged and we must continue this momentum into the midterms and in 2020. I wish Catalina Cruz the best of luck in the Assembly.”
Cruz, who currently does not have an opponent in the Nov. 6 general election, would be the first “Dreamer” to hold public office in New York state and the third “Dreamer” to serve in an elected office in the country.
In Nov. 2016, U.S. Reps. Adriano Espaillet (D-NY) and Ruben Kihuen (D-NV) — both Dreamers — were elected to Congress.
Stringer said he’s looking forward to working with the Assemblywoman in Albany.
“She’s the new blood we need in Albany to raise issues at a time that Donald Trump is changing a lot of what we used to take for granted,” said Stringer. “I think Catalina is someone whose reputation as an advocate is beyond question, and am so glad to have been a part of it.”
Reach reporter Carlotta Mohamed by e-mail at cmoha