Insurgent Assembly candidate Mamdani holds tight lead over incumbent Simotas, but absentee ballots yet to be counted

Aravella Simotas and Zohran Mamdani.

Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas and her challenger, Zohran Kwame Mamdani, are in purgatory. 

Following Tuesday’s in-person voting, the progressive insurgent candidate led the five-term assemblywoman by less than 600 votes. With potentially more than 16,000 absentee ballots to count in the Astoria district, the true outcome of the election will remain undecided until at least July 1. 

At least one thing is clear though – during a campaign season upended by an unprecedented global pandemic, an upstart candidate, with little name recognition and backed by the Queens chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, made the race for the 36th Assembly District one of the closest in the borough.

“I expected a whole range of possibilities, and this was on the best case scenario side of it,” Mamdani said.

Simotas, who had run unopposed in every one of her primaries dating back to her first in 2010, said that despite the tight race, she was proud of her campaign and of her neighborhoods, who showed up to the polls in ways she hasn’t seen in the past.

“It’s a beautiful thing to see when your community is engaged civically and politically,” Simotas said. “I think it’s wonderful that so many voters cast ballots to express their desire for who they want to represent them in government.”

When the pandemic first hit Queens, campaigns across the borough were forced to stop in-person campaigning. Knocking on doors, meeting voters in the street and attending community meetings – all strategies considered valuable to an insurgent candidate who the public has yet to meet – suddenly became dangerous campaign methods.

Simotas said that luckily, her campaign had started far before the pandemic hit. Her campaign was able to knock on 16,000 doors and make over 300,000 calls to voters, she said.

For Mamdani, this posed an issue.

“That had been so much of the struggle of the campaign,” Mamdani said. “We were left to simply send pieces of mail, make phone calls and send texts – things that people are used to ignoring.”

But in the weeks preceding the June 23 primary, Mamdani said his campaign was able to mobilize in different ways. Door knocking and the like were still out of the question, but there were other opportunities to get his name and his message out there. 

The candidate said that in the past month, he’s been able to turn his campaign into an organized apparatus aimed at delivering the very principles and policies he hopes to implement if elected to office. 

He turned his campaign office – which was going unused despite already being paid for – into a space for a mutual aid network to distribute groceries and hot meals. According to Mamdani, his campaign has also been able to help LGTBQ New Yorkers and people experiencing homelessness fight for their legal rights. 

“No matter what happens at the BOE, none of these things are up for debate,” Mamdani said. “They’ve already happened, they’re already things that we should always remember and be proud of.”

Simotas said she feels the same.

Throughout her career in the state Assembly, Simotas has passed a flurry of bills aimed at protecting the rights of women. Recently, the legislator sponsored a bill – which has since become law – that gives New Yorkers convicted with crimes in their youth the opportunity to clear their record.

Those legislative wins will remain, regardless of Tuesday’s outcome, Simotas said.

What comes next?

The Board of Elections mailed 16,414 absentee ballots to voters in Assembly District 36, more absentee ballots than any other Assembly District in the borough. Only a fourth of those ballots were returned to the BOE by June 23, according to the election agency. 

While the BOE won’t begin counting absentee ballots until June 30, it’s hard to say when the Assembly District 36 race will be decided – the BOE has thousands of absentee ballots to count in each race across the city. 

During a normal election, absentee ballots tend to be requested by older voters, who are less likely to vote for a progressive candidate. However, this election cycle is different, Mamdani’s campaign said. 

The age demographics of the voters who requested absentee ballots this June more accurately reflects the overall demographics of voters who typically vote in person. In fact, voters ages 25-34 requested absentee ballots at a higher rate than any other age group, according to Mamdani’s campaign. 

For Simotas, whatever happens at the BOE, she said she’s still proud of her positive campaign and her community. 

“I’m incredibly proud of the positive campaign that we ran,” Simotas said. “It’s beautiful to see that my constituents and my community are engaged.” 

Simotas added that she wants “to make sure every ballot is counted.”

Mamdani, however, says he’s a little more suspicious of the Board of Elections. As a volunteer on Tiffany Cabán’s campaign for Queens District attorney in 2019, a race that was decided during a Board of Elections recount, he says he wants eyes on the processes. 

Though claims of fraud against the BOE were made during the recount of the Cabán and Melinda Katz race, none were proven. However, there are specific ballot requirements mandated by the BOE which, if not met, will invalidate the vote – for instance, absentee ballots must be sent inside two envelopes. 

Mamdani’s campaign wants to be present for any invalidation in order to challenge the ruling. His campaign is in the process of training 40 volunteers to oversee the BOE’s absentee counting process in person. 

“It’s a process that we have to be present for and a process we have to observe and really ensure the veracity of,” Mamdani said. “That’s something we have to prepare for.”  

Regardless of the result though, Mamdani said, his work in the community is not over. 

“Win or lose – though I am excited about the prospect of winning and confident – we are going to renew our office lease until at least November,” Mamdani said. “We’re going to continue to have our space available to anyone in Astoria who is trying to build a better world.” 

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