When I arrived at the Kingsborough Houses in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood on a warm day in May, motorcycles and cars were speeding recklessly along the paved areas that the public housing residents use as walkways. Pedestrians yelled at the young men as they raced by. To be sure, the youth were engaging in unneighborly behavior, but as Jamell Henderson, 36, a tenant organizer who has lived here since he aged out of foster care, told me, the problem is one of resources: to restrict vehicles to residents and delivery trucks would require either a guard or an electronic system. Both cost money, which the New York City Housing Authority is unlikely to provide.
These projects are across the street from the Weeksville Heritage Center, the site of a free Black community that thrived during the 19th century and was a refuge for people fleeing capture after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850. Today, Kingsborough residents, most of whom are Black, are doing their best to help their community and families flourish, while enduring the legacies of slavery: deprivation, discrimination, and violence.
I was on a tour of the Kingsborough Houses with Ana María Archila, 43, the left-wing candidate for lieutenant governor of New York. She wore a bright pink jacket and black jeans, a colorful beaded necklace, and gold earrings. Henderson, who serves as the regional board chair for Citizen Action New York and had just been to a tenants’ rights protest in Albany with Archila, was excited about her campaign and wanted her to get to know his community. Before she arrived, Henderson told me, “She is completely authentic. And that’s rare.” As we walked with her, I began to see what he meant.
As residents detailed their problems, Archila listened closely, responding not with talking points but with curiosity and a commitment to try to change things. Parents told her they have nowhere to take their kids to play. One woman said she’s afraid to go outside because of recent shootings in the area. Other residents showed her playgrounds inside the projects that haven’t been repaired and aren’t safe. Archila asked where they go when they want to be outside with their children, and most mentioned green spaces that are far away: Prospect Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park. “We take our kids elsewhere to enjoy the good scenery,” said Derrick Brown, who was planning to take his three kids—along with some other Kingsborough families—to Central Park that weekend.
“The most they can do is paint the benches,” Brown said of the New York City Housing Authority. “They don’t care about the projects.” He complained of overpolicing: “We can’t even have a cookout for the kids,” because the police will break it up. The Weeksville Heritage Center is given permits to shut down the street for its events, he said, but “if we do it, it’s a criminal offense. We don’t get no respect in the projects.” Archila was so focused on what he was saying that when the two shook hands, Henderson had to remind her that she was campaigning and then told Brown, “You just shook hands with the next lieutenant governor!”
The residents took us to a child care center in one of the buildings. It’s lovingly supplied with books and toys, but now it’s unusable due to an unbearable stink—a sewer problem. The day care teacher said they do their best to ventilate it and keep the windows open when the kids are there.
New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who is running for governor and asked Archila to be his running mate, joined us, along with a reporter for The New York Times. The sewage problem in the day care center got their attention: Both took notes and said they would follow up.
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” Archila told the residents. “There is so much wealth in New York state, but it’s so unequal.” There is plenty of money in the state to address these problems, she explained, but we need politicians willing to tax the rich more. That’s why Archila is running for lieutenant governor. Talking with residents, she pointed out that the current governor, Kathy Hochul, just spent $850 million on a football stadium, even though one in five children in the state live in poverty. This does not represent what Archila calls “a culture of care.”
Realizing, with a bit of panic, that she was late to go pick up her kids, Archila had to leave abruptly. Later, in a café near City Hall, we discussed motherhood and how it changes your politics. She said she now looks at everyone and realizes “that someone took care of that person. We are all here because someone took care of us. That is actually what allows us to be. So let’s have politics that invite people into care.”
Initially, given Hochul’s popularity, Achila’s campaign seemed merely symbolic. But that began to change in April, when Hochul’s handpicked lieutenant governor, Brian Benjamin, was forced out of office after the federal government indicted him on numerous corruption charges, including bribery, wire fraud, and conspiracy.
Hochul then pushed the legislature to rewrite the election laws to allow her to choose a new running mate. Showing a shocking disregard for the fortunes of the national Democratic Party, she selected Antonio Delgado, a US representative from an upstate purple district. Delgado had been in a tight race to hold on to his seat in the 19th District, which includes parts of Hudson Valley and the Capital Region, against Republican Marc Molinaro. Even before Hochul tapped Delgado, the vote was expected to be tight in a year in which the Democrats’ House majority is in peril. As the August primary looms, there is still no well-known Democrat in that race.
With centrist Democrats disgracing themselves, Archila’s campaign suddenly looked winnable. In many ways, she is the right person for this opportunity. Archila is beloved in the immigrant labor rights community, and she has political connections in the Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island neighborhoods where she’s worked as an organizer for Make the Road, the immigrant advocacy group she cofounded in 2007. Williams, her running mate, came close to winning the lieutenant governor seat in 2018, suggesting that a progressive candidate could succeed. Unabashedly on the side of the working class, she is magnetic and charming.
Still, Archila faces an uphill climb in these remaining days before the primary. New Yorkers have not elected someone so solidly on the left to statewide office since Franklin D. Roosevelt became governor in 1928. She has little name recognition outside of New York City. Going against big money—especially New York’s real estate and finance sectors—takes people power. And Archila may not have the statewide relationships and organization to pull it off, a gap that reflects the state of the left rather than any shortcomings of the candidate.
Archila’s politics were formed amid intense violence and conflict. She grew up in the 1980s and ’90s in Bogotá, Colombia, a war zone of competing drug cartels and political bloodshed. During the country’s 1990 presidential race, when she was 11, three of the candidates were assassinated. Her father was a human rights activist; many of his friends were killed. One day, he told her he was leaving for the United States, as the country had become too dangerous for political activists. “Anyone who was in Colombia at that time was shaped by the war,” she said.
Yet despite the traumatic situation in Bogotá, it was also a time of democratic experimentation, and Archila, who stayed behind with her mother for a few years before joining her father in Brooklyn, was able to glean valuable political lessons.
Growing up, she was influenced by Antanas Mockus, a philosopher who became Bogotá’s mayor, who ran for office “proposing that to make Bogotá safe, we needed to build a new culture, a culture of care,” she said. “He did all sorts of unusual, extravagant things.” Archila, who was 12 at the time, recalled Mockus donning a superhero cape to meet with the Colombian president. As mayor, instead of hiring police to patrol crosswalks, he recruited mimes to mock people who disregarded traffic rules. He introduced games to promote the idea that in every society, Archila said, “everyone gives, and everyone takes. The question is whether we each give our fair share.”
At 17, Archila joined her father in New York City, where her aunt, who had been a lawyer in Colombia, was cleaning houses because her English wasn’t good enough to allow her to practice law. The aunt, Sara María Archila, found that immigrants like herself faced terrible conditions and lacked labor rights. Seeking to change that, she became an organizer—and a mentor to Ana María. When Sara María started the Latin American Integration Center, an immigrant workers’ nonprofit, Archila joined her at its Staten Island branch, thinking she was going to run arts activities for the children. Instead, her aunt trained her to organize. When Sara María was diagnosed with cancer, she taught her niece everything she’d need to know to run the LAIC after her death, from raising money to creating “spaces of respect.” Archila became its executive director in 2003. “She died, and the next day I was holding her legacy in my hands,” Archila said. “I was 22 years old.”
In 2007, the LAIC merged with another immigrant rights organization, Make the Road by Walking, to form Make the Road New York, and Archila became a codirector of the new organization. Make the Road’s membership grew from 2,000 people to some 23,000 today, and it expanded its focus from pressuring employers on wage theft and working conditions to helping immigrant workers form unions and secure their organizing rights. In a 2013 article for The Nation, the veteran organizer Jane McAlevey chronicled the group’s victories, which included passing stronger state laws on wage theft and helping car wash workers form unions. McAlevey described the culture of Make the Road New York as one of “love and agitation,” praising the group’s emphasis on “high participation” and concluding that if more of the US progressive movement were to adopt its approach, “we’d spend less time licking our wounds and more time celebrating our successes.”
By the mid-2010s, Archila was well-known in activist circles in New York City for her roles in Make the Road and a companion national organization, the Center for Popular Democracy, where she’d become the codirector in 2013. Under her leadership, the CPD won victories on housing policy (strengthening renter protections, for example), democracy (making it easier to vote), and numerous other areas. Then, in 2018, Archila achieved national fame.
After Brett Kavanaugh was accused of attempted rape, Archila, who is a survivor of sexual assault, went to Washington, D.C., with other women to protest his Supreme Court nomination. As Republican Senator Jeff Flake stepped out of an elevator in the Capitol, Archila and Maria Gallagher, a woman she’d only met that day, confronted him about his support for Kavanaugh. “What you are doing is allowing someone who has actually violated a woman to sit in the Supreme Court,” Archila told him, with CNN cameras running. She reminded Flake that he has children: “What are you doing, sir?” Flake looked extremely uncomfortable, and the reporters present tried to get him to respond. A few days before, Archila had told the story of her own sexual assault to protesters assembled outside Flake’s office. The elevator confrontation went viral on social media and was widely covered by the mainstream press. Later, Flake changed his position slightly, saying he would support Kavanaugh only after the FBI had investigated the accusations. Explaining his shift, Flake credited the women’s elevator intervention. (Unfortunately, after a brief FBI probe led by Kavanaugh’s law school classmate, the judge was confirmed, 50 to 48, largely along party lines.)
At a press conference at New York’s City Hall, where Archila announced a slate of endorsers, I met Sophie Ellman-Golan of the Jewish Vote. She told me that although Archila is famous for her encounter with Flake, her role in supporting other women and encouraging them to speak up was just as important. “Ana María is absolutely not about ego,” Ellman-Golan said. “She never sought to make it about herself.”
A few minutes later, a crowd of teenagers protesting gun violence burst into City Hall Park. Archila went over to talk with them. Like the residents of the Kingsborough Houses, the teens liked her immediately; she seemed so plainly trustworthy and was entirely focused on them. They were soon taking selfies with her. Archila is “the real thing,” as Henderson, the tenant organizer, said: She’s all that a leader should be. Her message of redistribution and hope is a good one, and with children taking to the streets to protest gun violence in the wake of Uvalde, it’s clear that a “culture of care” is long overdue.
When I asked Archila about her campaign efforts upstate, she talked about the immigrant worker-organizers she had met on a recent trip; they sounded like amazing people doing great work. But her campaign has no physical offices—not even in Brooklyn. The field operation is particularly skimpy upstate, without a lot of volunteer opportunities even in June, and in New York City this spring, she had far fewer canvassing events than many candidates for a state Assembly or City Council seat, though she dramatically escalated her get-out-the-vote efforts in the weeks leading up to the primary.
Archila’s platform is similar to those of other left candidates this cycle: housing for all, health care for all, public safety, child care, a “Green New York,” and funding for public education. These are the right issues for a working-class campaign, and they have resonated in Brooklyn and Queens politics in recent years, but it’s not clear that has translated into either broad or deep support for Archila’s candidacy.
Antonio Delgado was able to transfer the money from his congressional campaign to the lieutenant governor’s race, and as a result, he has over $2.2 million—more than seven times the amount Archila has raised. Even more troubling, the other candidate in the race, Diana Reyna, a machine politician aligned with the conservative Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Suozzi, has also raised more than Archila. Most of the donations to Archila’s campaign have come from Brooklyn, many from the activist community. Few are from upstate, and fewer are in amounts less than $50. (When a candidate receives small contributions, it is often seen as a sign of working-class enthusiasm.)
While many progressive politicians—especially those connected with the Working Families Party, which recruited Archila to run—have endorsed her, it will take a broader coalition to win statewide. In some ways, the race seems like a missed opportunity for the left. The lieutenant governor, New York’s second-highest-ranking official, becomes acting governor if the governor dies or is otherwise unable to do the job. That’s a situation that seems hypothetical, until suddenly it isn’t—after all, Andrew Cuomo once seemed indestructible, and now his lieutenant, Hochul, is governor. Given Archila’s personal gifts and her political priorities, it would be wonderful to have her in executive office; and given the conflict between centrists and the left in the legislature, it would be a major advance to have someone firmly in the latter camp as president of the state Senate—one of the lieutenant governor’s roles.
Then again, it’s hard to fault the left for not going all in on Archila’s campaign. There are many other priorities this election year. A bigger socialist, progressive, and left presence is needed in the state Assembly—as we’ve just seen from that body’s failure to pass the Build Public Renewables Act (which did pass the state Senate) and the Good Cause Eviction bill, which would have greatly strengthened protections for renters. While several candidates supported by the Democratic Socialists of America, including Samy Olivares, a North Brooklyn district leader running for state Assembly, have endorsed Archila, NYC-DSA has not given a formal endorsement or, crucially, the volunteer resources and work that such an endorsement entails.
This should be no surprise to those closely following New York politics: The organization favors candidates active in the DSA and with a clear path to victory, and in any case NYC-DSA is stretched thin, running 13 campaigns this year, all for Assembly and Senate seats, reflecting the organization’s statewide priorities of tenant protections and publicly funded renewable energy.
The Working Families Party is showing up for Archila, but it has also endorsed candidates in a number of other New York state races, many of them more promising than the one for lieutenant governor. Left and progressive candidates who are unaffiliated with these larger organizations—CUNY activist Tim Hunter in Crown Heights, for example—are attracting enthusiastic volunteers. And there are also the efforts to expand the Squad in Congress, such as Brittany Ramos DeBarros’s campaign to fend off centrist Max Rose and then flip the seat held by January 6 Republican Nicole Malliotakis in a district that covers Staten Island and parts of southern Brooklyn. If the New York left had deeper and broader institutional reach—if, for example, more labor unions supported progressive electoral campaigns—these efforts would begin to feed off one another. But we’re not there yet.
Archila does not minimize the challenges of this race. “The difficulty was: Could I build a statewide organization? I’ve never run for office,” she said. “I’ve never raised money for that, never asked for endorsements. Is this a reasonable thing to do? I didn’t know if it was reasonable or not, but I did know that a coronation was about to happen”—referring to the process by which Hochul and Benjamin were chosen as the New York Democratic Party’s nominees before the primary. “When coronations happen, the communities that lose are working-class communities, Black and brown communities.”
During the pandemic, Archila continued, working-class people lost loved ones, jobs, and homes. “Our communities were fatigued and demoralized. When we were fatigued, the forces that didn’t lose loved ones, the people that didn’t lose jobs, the billionaires that didn’t lose anything—who gained during the pandemic—were reorganizing. And we’ve lost enough.”