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Jeff Coltin, Emily Ngo and Joe Anuta

City Council races: GOP's Marmorato leads in Bronx; Brannan cruises in Brooklyn

Democratic City Council Member Marjorie Velázquez (center) trailed Republican challenger Kristy Marmorato in the Bronx in Tuesday's elections. | Emil Cohen/NYC Council Media Unit

NEW YORK — Republicans in New York City appeared on the verge of picking up a Council seat in the East Bronx on Tuesday night, even as they fell short in another bitterly contested race in southern Brooklyn.

Republican Kristy Marmorato, who ran against new housing development in the mostly low-rise district, declared an upset victory against incumbent City Council Member Marjorie Velázquez, a Democrat representing several Bronx neighborhoods including Morris Park, Throgs Neck and City Island.

In Brooklyn, Democratic incumbent Justin Brannan cruised to a win over Democrat-turned-Republican Ari Kagan in a bitter battle over Bay Ridge and parts of Coney island. Brannan was up 58 percent to 36 percent with nearly all votes counted, and he declared victory over his opponent at an election night party.

In a newly drawn Asian-majority district nearby, Democrat Susan Zhuang handily defeated her GOP rival Ying Tan and Conservative Party candidate Vito LaBella.

And in Harlem, Democrat Yusef Salaam celebrated the unlikely arc that landed him in elected office Tuesday. The Central Park Exonerated Five member was wrongly accused of rape, vilified, jailed and finally cleared before running for office two decades later.

In the Bronx, with nearly all of the ballots counted, unofficial results showed Marmorato ahead of Velázquez by more than 800 votes — a lead that would be unlikely to be reversed through a count of mail-in ballots.

The surprising upset of an incumbent lawmaker would be an indication of just how far to the right that section of the Bronx has drifted in recent years — part of a larger trend as New York grows more purple — even though Democrats far outnumber Republicans in the district.

“They want moderation,” Marmorato said of Democrats in an interview ahead of Election Day. “They just want a safe place to live. They don’t want somebody who was on the Progressive Caucus. She’s a left-progressive and her values do not align with the city and our district.”

Marmorato is an X-ray technician and first-time candidate, but entered the race with deep political ties.

Her brother, Michael Rendino, is the Bronx GOP chairperson, and her husband, Gino Marmorato, is a Board of Elections commissioner. Republican candidates Lee Zeldin and Curtis Sliwa both performed well in the district in recent years and endorsed Marmorato. Like them, she criticized state laws barring judges from setting cash bail in many cases, blaming it for an increase in crime.

No Republican has held local office in the Bronx since 2004, when Republican state Sen. Guy Velella resigned after pleading guilty to conspiracy charges.

Democratic Rep. Ritchie Torres, a close ally of Velázquez, had called the race the most important in the city.

“We can’t afford to have a MAGA Trump Republican win a council seat in the most Democratic county in America. It would be a national embarrassment,” he said recently.

The district voted decisively against Donald Trump in 2020, but Republicans have seen more success in lower-turnout elections. While Marmorato tried to present herself as a common-sense moderate, Velázquez’s campaign highlighted her support from Trump-world figures.

With a John Fetterman like physique, New York Council Member Justin Brannan is the kind of politician who many New York Democrats picked as having a future on the national stage. | Terrence Jennings/Redux

In a new district covering Bay Ridge and Coney Island, however, it was a different story.

Brannan won in a race that was thought to be a barometer of the shifting political winds in southern Brooklyn.

“Tonight is really a victory for the end of divide-and-conquer politics in neighborhoods that really need some representation,” Brannan said in his victory speech, “in neighborhoods where the politicians often try to keep their constituents in the dark, so they don’t realize they’re just getting fed some crumbs. Tonight, we’re here to say we’re going to bring the full loaf.”

Southern Brooklyn has been the source of surprising gains for Republicans: Trump and Zeldin did well there, and the GOP flipped three state seats last year.

But on Tuesday night, Brannan bested Kagan in a contest that, through a quirk of the redistricting process, pitted two incumbents against each other.

Brannan won his last race by only a few hundred votes, and he seemed to strike a difficult time in the lead-up to Election Day this time around.

He dropped his membership in the Council’s Progressive Caucus but accepted an endorsement from Sen. Bernie Sanders, a standard-bearer of the far left. And he staked out a position on the Israel-Hamas war slightly to the left of Kagan in a district home to both Palestianians and Jews with strong feelings about the conflict.

In addition to Sanders, Brannan was backed by House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, with whom Kagan was closely allied during his years as a Democrat, along with Gov. Kathy Hochul, New York City Mayor Eric Adams and a host of high-profile Democrats and several labor unions.

Super PACs funded by labor unions and real estate interests reported spending nearly $400,000 to support Brannan ahead of Election Day — far eclipsing the effort for Kagan, which ended short on cash. “When you have unions and PACS, it’s a whole different ballgame,” Kagan adviser John Seravalli told POLITICO. “We didn’t expect this many PACs and this many unions to spend what they spent.”

New York City Council candidate Yusef Salaam speaks during an interview with The Associated Press on May 24, 2023, in New York. | Mary Altaffer/AP

Brannan was able to reach victory without the help of the Brooklyn Democratic Party.

Its leader, Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, had been criticized in past cycles for not doing enough to push back against GOP gains in the southern part of the borough. This time around she actively criticized Brannan.

Kagan, meanwhile, received formal support from Zeldin, Rep. Nicole Malliotakis and law enforcement unions.

In Zhuang’s race, all three candidates appealed to moderate voters and Tan, the Republican, touting the support of Zhuang’s primary rival, Wai Yee Chan, a Democrat.

In eastern Queens, Republican incumbent City Council Member Vickie Paladino blocked Democrat Tony Avella’s attempt at a comeback to the council. Incumbent Democrats Sandra Ung and Linda Lee also won decisively.

For Salaam, he was able to defeat two state assemblymembers in June to win the Democratic nomination for City Council. And though he had no general election opponent, he hosted a victory party with family and friends.

“Today, we stand here together, not as separate individuals but as a united force that has collectively triumphed over adversity,” he told supporters.

Jason Beeferman contributed to this report.

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