By Christine Chung, THE CITY
This story was originally published on May 14, 2019 by THE CITY.
If last year’s victory of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for the congressional seat held by the Queens County Democratic Party chair was the earthquake, then Lumarie Maldonado Cruz’ bid for a civil court judgeship is an aftershock.
For the first time in a generation, a candidate is running in a party primary to challenge the county Democrats’ pick for a seat on the bench — testing the strength of a machine pushed back on its heels. The insurgent just moved to Queens from the Bronx, inspired by Ocasio-Cortez’ upset victory last year over longtime Rep. Joe Crowley.
“AOC’s victory reminded me of my obligations to stand up for what is right,” Maldonado Cruz said. “Queens is the new frontier of empowering minorities and women and she reminded me of all of that.”
Until last week, when she moved to Jackson Heights, Maldonado Cruz lived in Throggs Neck. She works as an attorney for the Character and Fitness Committee of the state Supreme Court’s Appellate Division in Manhattan, which conducts background checks on individuals seeking admission to the New York bar.
While candidates for civil court do not have to live in the district or borough they intend to serve, she said she believed her new Queens residency would help validate her campaign.
Maldonado Cruz, 47, called the usual absence of civil court primaries in Queens “unconscionable.”
She will go head-to-head in the June 25 primary with Wyatt Gibbons, 56, a Kew Gardens attorney who has worked closely with the Queens County Democrats.
Donations to the Queens Party
Since 2011, Gibbons has donated nearly $6,000 to the Democratic Organization of Queens County, according to state Board of Elections records. Court records show he has received tens of thousands of dollars in compensation in recent years for court-appointed duties from Queens Supreme Court judges, serving as a guardian for incapacitated people and in other roles.
In February, the Queens Democratic Party designated Gibbons, along with three others, as candidates for four Civil Court vacancies.
Only one of those four seats is contested — the one Maldonado Cruz is vying for. Gibbons told THE CITY that he’d sought the party’s designation for more than a year.
“This isn’t something that you should do impulsively,” Gibbons said. “I think you should be fairly well certain to do something like this. It is an awesome responsibility being called to be a judge…. Now I happen to have a challenge, so I have to rise up to the challenge.”
Maldonado Cruz said she only began seriously contemplating running in February. She gathered her petitions along with Jose Nieves, one of the seven candidates in the Queens District Attorney race.
“Yes, [Gibbons] got the [Democrats’] endorsement,” she said. “I’ve got the 9,547 people that signed my petition. That accounts for something, and people are tired of the machine politics.”
Maldonado Cruz confirmed she has been endorsed by the East Elmhurst Corona Democratic Club, which counts embattled Queens Democratic Party district leader Hiram Monserrate as a member.
Michael Reich, executive director of the Queens Democratic Party, said the February civil court designations were decided by a unanimous vote at a district leader meeting that Monserrate attended. He said that the party’s backing is a “big push” for candidates in meeting challenges like getting on the ballot and running in a countywide race.
“It’s a recognition of the stature and work of the individual candidates, and I think that people would rather wait and get the support of the organization than take on the organization directly,” Reich said.
A Challenge to the System
Maldonado Cruz said she chose to run in Queens instead of the Bronx because she saw a greater need there. “Given the Latino demographics in Queens County and the need for more representation on the bench in the borough, I choose to run in Queens County,” she said. She declined to discuss her positions, in keeping with rules prohibiting judicial candidates from disclosing their views.
Political strategists said that the lack of civil court primaries over the decades reflected the strength of the Queens Democratic Party.
“They still run the courthouse,” one attorney active in Queens politics said. “This is supposed to be the race they control…. If people can become judges without them, what else do they got?”
Peter Beadle, a member of both the Queens County Democratic Committee and insurgent New Queens Democrats, said that he was heartened to see a candidate challenge the system, à la Ocasio-Cortez.
“For too long we’ve all kind of sat back on our haunches,” Beadle said. “The leadership gets to exercise so much power in deciding who will end up on your ballot, and most people don’t even know that’s what is happening behind the scenes.”
Maldonado Cruz said she’s banking on what she sees as the machine’s waning power.
“No one has had the courage…. If you don’t have people elected by the people, you don’t have judges sympathetic to the issues,” she said. “Power doesn’t cede itself. It should not be politics as usual.”
This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.