By David Brand
For the first time in his legislative career, six-term Assemblymember Michael DenDekker is facing an opponent to represent the 34th Assembly District — several actually.
Local civic association president Nuala O’Doherty Naranjo, a veteran Manhattan prosecutor, has already filed a campaign committee with the Board of Elections and has begun fundraising. So has National Latina Institute Executive Director Jessica González-Rojas. Another potential candidate, Juan Ardilla, has also considered entering the race for AD-34, according to information shared by the Democratic Socialists of America.
DenDekker, a county Democratic party stalwart, was first elected to represent parts of Jackson Heights, Woodside and East Elmhurst in 2008. He has sailed to victory without a primary or general election opponent five times since then. This time around, he said he welcomes the challengers.
“I think elections are good,” he said. “I think elections keep an elected official working hard and give the residents a chance to rate their elected officials.”
“This is really a litmus test on your work,” he added. “A review or a rating by your employer.”
O’Doherty, one of DenDekker’s constituents, actually rates him highly in some respects.
“If you look at his record, he votes in a pretty liberal, progressive way,” she said, adding that he hasn’t taken many positions that she disagrees with.
The problem, she said, is that the district needs a leader in Albany now that Democrats control both legislative chambers.
“For so many years, people in the Assembly just voted for liberal policies and didn’t have to worry about it,” she said. “But the world has changed and we need people up in Albany who will actually fight for these things.”
O’Doherty has led the Jackson Heights Beautification Group, the neighborhood’s oldest civic association, for several years and serves as policy director of Amplify Her, a group that works to elect women lawmakers. She spent 23 years as a prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, experience she said gives her unique perspective on criminal justice reform bills she wants to pass — or to tweak.
“Raise the Age, discovery reform and bail reform were very good, but there are a lot of little tweaks that need to be made,” she said. “When they made the changes, they didn’t make them detailed enough.”
On discovery reform, for example, “there needs to be clearer paths for witness protection and how we deal with people [affected by] violent crime,” she said.
The law’s 15-day discovery mandate is feasible in most situations, she said, but “larger crimes — where more [defendants] are likely to be held in jail, the indictment comes very quickly and you have scores of detectives working on a case — take a lot of time and the 15 days just doesn’t apply.”
O’Doherty’s long tenure as a prosecutor could open her up to criticism from the left-wing of the party, a faction that helped elect local U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and State Sen. Jessica Ramos and carried public defender Tiffany Cabán to within 55 votes of the Democratic nomination for Queens district attorney.
But she has mitigated some of that criticism by working on the campaigns of each of those candidates. Her work advising Cabán on policy actually put her and DenDekker in opposition well before she announced her bid for the Assembly.
DenDekker was a proxy for Cabán’s opponent, Borough President Melinda Katz, who won the race in August. He served as a volunteer election observer on behalf of Katz and the Queens County Democrats during the recount.
Whoever else enters the widening field, the race will serve as a referendum on DenDekker’s tenure. He says he’s ready for that.
“There is no data on how the community feels about me in an elective capacity because there has not been a race. So of course it’s a very good thing,” he said. “It will let me know if I am doing the right thing.”