After legislative stalwart Velmanette Montgomery announced her pending retirement from the New York State Senate in January, the contentious June 23 Democratic primary to replace the 35-year veteran lawmaker has turned into a free-for-all — with the establishment-backed Assemblywoman Tremaine Wright battling two progressive insurgents to represent the borough’s 25th senate district.
Soon after announcing her candidacy for the seat, which spans from Bedford-Stuyvesant to Sunset Park, Wright quickly garnered the endorsement of both the Kings County Democratic Party and dozens of elected officials — including Montgomery, who threw her support behind Wright’s candidacy shortly after her retirement announcement.
The only female candidate in the race, Wright is backed by organizations like Planned Parenthood, EMILY’s List and Eleanor’s Legacy as well as progressive politicos like Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon, and Congressman Hakeem Jeffries. She’s also been endorsed by groups like Independent Neighborhood Democrats and a slate of unions representing people of color.
Wright’s establishment credentials, however, have been a source of criticism from her opponents — 32-year-old schoolteacher Jabari Brisport, and 34-year-old Montgomery staffer Jason Salmon — who accuse Wright of being too beholden to backroom-politics and high-dollar campaign donors.
Wright, for her part, laments the “soundbite-ish” attacks from her opponents, and defended her style of governing by accusing Brisport and Salmon of ignoring the practical concerns of governing.
“I have never seen them produce any work products, so I’m not focused on them,” she says. “I believe in collaborative work. That is the work of legislators, working together.”
Among Wright’s biggest concerns is the economic recession brought on by the coronavirus pandemic — citing her desire to promote economic development through a “works Progress Administration-style” program, which would employ a significant number of New Yorkers for large-scale public works projects.
She also highlights her beliefs of the need for investment in renewable energy, such as wind and solar, as among her top priorities, saying smart investments would bring substantial economic growth to the state.
Yet one of the biggest critiques leveled against Wright, who was elected to her Bedford-Stuyvesant assembly post in 2016, is her perceived closeness to the real estate industry — particularly her 2019 opposition to the so-called “good cause” amendment, which would have made it more difficult for landlords to raise rents and evict tenants.
Wright, however, claims that her aversion to that bill was based on concerns about the constitutionality of the legislation — rather than any ties she has to the real estate lobby.
“Was that a well written bill? It was not,” she said. “I cannot pass the bill, because it was constitutionally flawed.”
Still, her opponents criticize her for failing to advocate for significant progressive change — including on the environment, where Brisport says her “record on climate issues is worse than the average Democrat and even worse than some Republicans,” — though, she received back-to-back perfect scores on the EPL/Environmental Advocates’ yearly environmental scorecards.
“She’s voted against congestion pricing, against setting a standard for low-carbon fuels, and against increasing access to community-distributed generation,” said Brisport. “We need dramatic change, and she can’t even be counted on to vote for common-sense environmental laws.”
Brisport — who boasts endorsement from the Democratic Socialists of America, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders — has also criticized Wright for her support of charter schools. But, despite her opponent’s career as an educator, Wright has garnered the support of the New York State United Teachers and the United Federation of Teachers.
On the timely, hot-button issue of policing, Wright — who chairs the Assembly’s Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Legislative Caucus — points to her work in helping to pass recent reforms, including repeal of secrecy laws surrounding police records and banning chokehold statewide.
Her left-wing competitor, however, blasted those measures as “absurdly basic,” and called for defunding the police.
“It’s past time to defund the police and re-invest in the crucial social programs that Albany has been systematically defunding over the past 40 years,” he said.
Brisport, for his part, has been criticized by the outgoing Montgomery for “besmirching” Wright’s record, and spreading misinformation about his fellow candidate.
“For a legislator who is as hard-working, prepared, experienced, and committed as Tremaine, it is the height of disrespect to have her accomplishments misrepresented and distorted. Especially by someone for whom there is no demonstrated record of activities or engagement in the issues impacting the people and communities in the 25th Senate District,” she wrote in an email to Wright’s supporters. “Our district deserves a State Senator with proven leadership, integrity, experience, and commitment. For me, that candidate is Tremaine Wright.”
The divide between the candidates, with their differing policy proposals and political tactics, has turned the race into yet another a proxy between the “moderates” of the party, and the more left-leaning progressive wing — with Wright boating her “experience and leadership” in passing legislation, while the election’s two progressives citing the need to go further than the status-quo.
And, throwing this election further into flux, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended traditional campaigning for all three candidates in the race — making the outcome even more unpredictable.
“I have to keep working, talking to voters, spreading my message, and helping the community to see the work that I have accomplished,” said Wright.
Jason Salmon’s campaign did not respond to request for comment.
The 2020 primary election is June 23. For more information and a full list of candidates, check out our election guide.
Update: This story has been updated to include additional information and comment from outgoing State Senator Velmanette Montgomery.