Each summer for the last quarter century, Jeffrey Dinowitz returned to the 81st Assembly District from Albany to share his accomplishments from the spring legislative session. He made the rounds to community boards and local political groups, talking about what lawmakers got done and what they hoped to achieve the next year.
Before 2019, it never took quite as long.
“I have so many things to talk about, I actually have notes,” Dinowitz said at a June 22 meeting of Concerned Citizens for Change, a Bronx-based political group founded in 2008 as Northwest Bronx for Obama. “I never speak with notes.”
Dinowitz was part of a historically productive and progressive session in 2019. Together with Democratic colleagues in the Assembly and the state senate, Dinowitz helped pass new protections for tenants, LGBTQ individuals, women and consumers. Major bills addressing criminal justice reform, reproductive health and climate change were passed.
He also led the fight on ending religious exemptions to mandatory vaccinations and shepherded “Erin’s Law” —requiring age-appropriate curriculum on sexual exploitation for elementary schools — through the Assembly.
In the end, 28 of Dinowitz’s bills passed both chambers of the legislature.
For his opponent in next year’s Democratic primary, it’s too little and too late.
George Diaz Jr., a former aide to Councilman Oliver Koppell, argued Dinowitz’s support of former state Sen. Jeffrey Klein delayed progressive legislation for years. Klein was the head of the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group of Democrats who aligned themselves with the Republican majority in the state senate between 2011 and 2018.
“None of these bills were likely to get passed if Jeff Klein and the IDC were still around,” Diaz said in a speech at Bronx Community Board 7’s June 25 meeting. “Unfortunately, there are also those like Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz who worked to keep Klein and the IDC in power.”
Dinowitz often talks about passing progressive legislation in the Assembly over the years, only for it to be stonewalled by the Republican-controlled senate. At the Concerned Citizens meeting, he talked about finally passing a bill creating the office of a consumer advocate for residential utility customers.
“We passed it in the Assembly a few times, but never in the senate because the senate was …” Dinowitz paused for a moment, searching for the right word. “… bad, at the time.”
For Dinowitz, the Republicans were the obstructionists. Klein and the IDC were simply trying to get things done — like $15 minimum wage, gun control measures, and free college tuition at state colleges. Opponents, like now-state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, blamed the IDC for Republicans blocking progressive legislation.
Dinowitz explained his support of Klein last year in an endorsement letter published in The Riverdale Press signed by him and Councilman Andrew Cohen ahead of the September primary.
“As elected officials, no one wants a Democratic majority in the state senate more than us,” the two wrote. But even after Klein and the seven other IDC members rejoined the Democratic conference last spring, the Republicans still held a single seat majority, since Democratic state senator Simcha Felder worked with the Republican majority separate from the IDC.
“There is a simple choice,” Dinowitz and Cohen wrote in their endorsement letter. “Fight among Democrats, or fight against Republicans.”
Across the city, left-leaning Democrats appear to have chosen both. Anti-establishment progressives are energized by the victories of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, six of eight IDC primary challengers in 2018 and, most recently, Tiffany Cabán in the Democratic primary for Queens district attorney.
The fight over the IDC, in particular, has become a litmus test for Diaz and other progressives. If an elected official backed the Republican-empowering Klein and his IDC colleagues just last year, how can they be trusted to uphold progressive values going forward?
Dinowitz predicted as much in the September letter from him and Cohen.
“Those who demanded that the IDC rejoin the regular Democratic conference were not satisfied once they actually got their wish,” the elected officials wrote. “They claimed it was too little, too late. It seems they really weren’t concerned about political unity and achieving a Democratic majority, only retribution.”
Despite the IDC’s near eradication and Klein’s banishment to a Manhattan lobbying firm, the war over the future of the Bronx Democratic Party is unlikely to cool off anytime soon.
It remains to be seen whether Diaz can galvanize the grassroots, anti-establishment bloc in the Bronx that helped Ocasio-Cortez and Biaggi to victories in 2018. Other candidates may get in the race. A lot can happen between now and the primary next June.
Dinowitz isn’t taking any chances. He’ll spend the next year touting his record across the district and making the argument he is just as progressive as the next guy. In June, his campaign committee spent $517 on targeted Facebook ads seen by thousands of New Yorkers. Each ad promotes Dinowitz’s progressive position on issues like housing, transportation and education.
Diaz doesn’t buy it. After getting reprimanded by one Bronx community board for getting too political in his remarks, he toned it down for his speech at CB7. But he shared the original draft of his speech with The Press.
“Don’t let him fool you when he says he’s a progressive listening to us,” Diaz wrote. “He’s a hypocrite choosing politics and Klein’s influence over us. I’m fighting for our future and I’m not here to go along to get along.”