Progressive congressional candidate Samelys López has scored major endorsements from the Working Families Party, US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the Bronx and Queens, and former Queens district attorney candidate Tiffany Cabán, giving her a boost in a wide-open Democratic primary race to replace outgoing Congressmember José E. Serrano in the South Bronx.
López, who already had the backing of the Democratic Socialists of America, could play a sleeper role as an outsider in a crowded field that includes several political figures with years of experience as elected officials. Anti-LGBTQ Councilmember Rubén Díaz, Sr., and his out gay colleague Ritchie Torres have been the two most prominent candidates in the race for the open District 15 seat, but former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, State Assemblymember Michael Blake, who is also a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, and Manhattan Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez are also among those clamoring for the coveted open seat.
“Samelys defines what it means to be a representative,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a written statement announcing the endorsement. “After growing up in the NYC shelter system, she’s dedicated her life to fighting housing insecurity and other injustices in the Bronx. She supports policies that put working people before corporations, like universal rent control, a federal jobs guarantee, full and fair funding of NYCHA, Medicare for All, and a Green New Deal. Samelys would be an invaluable ally in Congress and in the Bronx.”
López had already landed an endorsement in February from Ocasio-Cortez’s new Courage to Change political action committee.
Cabán, who electrified progressives in Queens en route to a razor-thin loss last year in the district attorney’s primary race against Melinda Katz, who was then borough president after holding a variety of other elective offices, pointed to parallels between her own upbringing and López’s while voicing her confidence in the Bronx activist’s commitment to bring a people-powered agenda to Capitol Hill.
“Like me, Samelys is a working-class Latina who grew up in overpoliced, resource-starved communities,” Cabán said. “Samelys knows, firsthand, why we need to deliver real affordable housing, universal healthcare, and criminal justice reform for Black, brown, and low-income New Yorkers — and I’m proud to endorse her for Congress today. Too often our elected officials put wealthy New Yorkers over working people and communities of color. New Yorkers deserve leaders in Congress who will fight for tenants, immigrants, and working families — and Samelys is the champion we need in Washington.”
The Working Families Party, meanwhile, suggested that a driving factor behind its decision to endorse López was the need for progressive policies at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll on marginalized communities. The congressional district is among the poorest in the nation.
“In moments of crisis, we quickly see which leaders stand with working people — and Samelys has been fighting for New York’s working families since day one,” the party’s New York director Sochie Nnaemeka said in a written statement. “López has spent her entire career fighting for food access, affordable housing, and fair wages — exactly what all New Yorkers need to have a chance at surviving this crisis and thriving beyond it… More than ever before, we need leaders like Samelys in Congress who know, firsthand, why we must build a New York that delivers for the many, not the wealthy few.”
The Working Families Party’s decision to back López was a blow to other candidates who have established ties with the party. Torres, for example, ran on the Working Families Party ballot line during his two Council bids, and the party helped elevate Mark-Viverito to the speakership in 2014. Torres declined comment for this story, and Mark-Viverto did not return inquiries seeking comment on April 17.
López trails leading contenders in funding by significant margins — she has pulled in just north of $80,000 compared to a whopping $1.27 million for Torres, $599,510 for Blake, $270,353 for Mark-Viverito, and $194,293 for Diaz. But López has self-imposed fundraising restrictions as part of her effort to show the community that she is not beholden to special interests.
The issue of campaign finance blew up in this race last October when Torres took heat from members of the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City for his willingness to rake in real estate cash, prompting him to shift the focus to his rival Mark-Viverito, who he said “presided over four years worth of rezoning that arguably led to more gentrification, not less.” Torres was also soundly ripped for accepting more than $11,000 from billionaire Daniel Loeb and his wife, Margaret, just two years after Loeb made racially insensitive comments.
Diaz is well being the pack in his fundraising and he also has a long history of making bigoted and inflammatory comments about the LGBTQ community as well as women’s reproductive freedom and other feminist issues, but his decades-long history in elective office, on the Council and in the State Seante, and his strong name recognition, especially among voters with ties to socially conservative faith communities — he himself is a Pentecostal minister — could offset those disadvantages.
López, who was among the candidates who participated in a January 7 congressional forum at Destination Tomorrow’s Bronx LGBTQ Community Center, is running on a queer-friendly platform that calls for federal non-discrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, the requirement of organizations receiving federal funding to comply with nondiscrimination protections, the establishment of guarantee of housing to to address LGBTQ homelessness, and the full decriminalization of sex work.
Despite never serving in elected office, López has played a role in local community politics. She previously worked for Serrano, served on Bronx Community Board 7 as chair of the Long-Term Planning Committee, and is currently involved in activist work with Housing Justice for All, a statewide coalition dedicated to housing initiatives. She was also a member of Public Advocate Jumaane Williams’ transition team after he won a contentious non-partisan special election race for that seat last year.
It is unclear how the coronavirus pandemic will impact the primary contest. In order to promote social distancing, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced earlier this month that he would use an executive order to allow New Yorkers to vote by absentee ballot in the June 23 elections, which includes the race for New York’s 15th Congressional District.