Seven years after leaving the City Council after three terms, Jim Gennaro appears to be headed back to City Hall representing the 24th district after besting a field that featured fresh faces, Asian voices and more progressive views.

William Alatriste/NYC Council

James Gennaro in 2010, during his earlier stint on the Council.

A special election in Queens dealt a setback to progressives on Tuesday as James Gennaro appears to have easily won back the City Council seat he vacated seven years ago. The district covers Kew Gardens Hills, Briarwood, Utopia and Pomonok.

Unofficial returns indicate Gennaro, most recently an environmental official in the Cuomo administration, nabbed just shy of 60 percent of the vote in a special election to replace Rory Lancman, who resigned in November to join the governor’s team. 

Moumita Ahmed, who was endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, came in second with 15.6 percent of votes. In third was Soma Syed with 8.5 percent. Deepti Sharma (5 percent) and Dilip Nath (4.4 percent) rounded out the top five, with Neeta Jain (3 percent), Mujib Rahman (2 percent) and Michael Earl Brown (1 percent) trailing.

The Board of Elections has at least 600 mail-in ballots to tally in the race, and that number could grow because ballots can be accepted until Feb. 9. However, Gennaro has a nearly 2,500 vote lead, making it unlikely the uncounted ballots will alter the outcome. The race was the first in the city in which ranked-choice voting was in place, but Gennaro’s commanding lead meant the mechanism has not been triggered.

Read more elections coverage here.

The winner of the race will take over the 24th district seat until Dec. 31. Along with every other City Council seat, the June 22 primary and Nov. 2 general election will determine who represents the district in the new term that begins Jan. 1, 2022. It is expected that some of the candidates in Tuesday’s special election will be in the primary.

Tuesday’s vote was the second in a string of five special elections necessitated by departures from the Council in late 2020. Andrew King’s expulsion from the 12th district led to a Bronx special election on Dec. 22. Donovan Richards’ elevation to Queens borough president created a vacancy that voters in the 31st district will fill on Feb. 23. March 23 will see voting in the 11th and 15th districts in the Bronx, vacated by Andrew Cohen (who became a judge) and Ritchie Torres (who went to Congress), respectively. 

Special elections often result in low turnout. The 5,651 votes cast in early voting or on Tuesday compare pretty favorably to the number of ballots in the 2017 primary in the 24th district, when 6,240 people voted. However, Tuesday’s turnout was about 7 percent of the 82,136 active voters in the district, and some 15,000 participated in the last general election. Special elections are nonpartisan: Gennaro, like the other candidates, ran on an ad hoc party line; his was called “Queens Strong.”

Seven of Tuesday’s candidates, including Gennaro, received public financing. At last report, Gennaro was being outspent in the race by four other candidates, but final figures aren’t yet available. Either way, he didn’t prevail on his own: An independent group largely bankrolled by real-estate magnate Stephen Ross spent heavily on mailers that said Ahmed was “too dangerous for the City Council” and depicted her as an anti-Semite. Gennaro said he agreed with those sentiments.

During his three terms on the Council from 2002 through 2013, Gennaro emphasized environmental issues, but he’s a centrist who has sworn not to defund the police and to hold the line on property taxes. Tuesday’s results could signal that, in some districts at least, the 2021 elections will pose challenges for progressives seeking to tilt the Council further to the left—especially when big money comes in to support a centrist candidate. 

However, an off-cycle election in one district in the middle of a snowstorm and a pandemic might not be a particularly accurate barometer of citywide sentiment. Add to that the fact that Gennaro was well known to many voters because of his 12 years of prior service (not to mention his unsuccessful 2008 campaign for State Senate) and the presence of six South Asian candidates in the race, and the message becomes somewhat muddled.

“While it appears that Jim Gennaro is likely to prevail, we look forward to watching the democratic process work and every vote be counted,” Sharma told City Limits in a statement. “I’d like to congratulate all of the candidates on running robust campaigns that have engaged voters throughout the district. I look forward to continue working with each of them to help build a better Queens.”

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