A Democratic District in Manhattan Has No (Official) Democratic Candidate

Manhattan’s 76th State Assembly District has long voted Democratic, but this year, no candidate on the ballot is officially affiliated with the Democratic Party. The wealthy Upper East Side district is instead immersed in a messy, constantly changing race.

Rebecca Seawright, the six-year incumbent, was dropped from the Democratic Party line after missing a filing deadline; she is running under an independent line she created, “Rise and Unite.”

The Republican candidate, Lou Puliafito, works as a doorman in the neighborhood he is seeking to represent, won’t say whether he backs President Trump, boasts that he doesn’t fully agree with the GOP, and also appears on the ballot as the candidate of the Liberal Party.

“My Trump-loving Republican opponent … at the height of the COVID outbreak filed to have me bounced on a minor technicality,” says Seawright, the current assemblywoman. “I was sick back in the spring,” she says, explaining why she failed to properly file her paperwork, “and that’s why I went out and got over 5,000 signatures — five times more than what was required — to run on the independent line.”

Puliafito, also ran against Seawright in 2018 as a member of the Reform Party, but eked out only 3.5 percent of the vote.  

GOP candidate Lou Puliafito speaks to Upper East Side voters. (Photo/Monica Hunter-Hart)

Before entering politics, Puliafito worked in the mailroom at Merrill Lynch followed by a 20-year career in IT at New York Life Insurance Company. In addition to his doorman position, he hosts the Decent Life, a talk show on the  Manhattan Neighborhood Network, and cares for his grandchildren during the day.

Puliafito got on the Republican Party’s radar after his 2018 run, and the GOP tapped him in January. While he is the only candidate affiliated with a major party in this race, he doesn’t consider himself a typical Republican.

The party “told me that I didn’t have to agree with them in entirety, I didn’t have to bend over backwards for them,” says Puliafito. “Me being on the Liberal line tells you that I’m a free thinker.” And despite Seawright’s claim that he supports Trump, Puliafito hasn’t disclosed which presidential candidate he backs.

Puliafito has a colorful way of sizing up the race: “I compare Seawright to the aging monarch of a crumbling regime,” he said. “And I’m the barbarian at the gates.”

Such claims don’t faze Seawright: “Women are used to being called names. I’ve worked harder than any man that’s ever run against me.” She believes Puliafito is purposely misleading voters and is “trying to trick voters by campaigning on and running on a Liberal line.”

Their rivalry escalated in early September when Seawright moved her campaign headquarters into the luxury condo building on East 70th Street where Puliafito works as a doorman. Says Puliafito: “A nice person, a regular person, would put their campaign headquarters somewhere else.”

Until a few days ago, there was a third contender: Patrick Bobilin, an activist-turned-politician who sought to bring Socialist policies and progressive legislation to the Upper East Side.

Seawright petitioned to have him removed from the ballot, pointing to a clause in the state Constitution that requires legislative candidates to live in New York for at least five years prior to an election. Bobolin suspended his campaign Saturday.

Rebecca Seawright (Photo/Andre Beckles)

All of these ballot changes and blurred party lines have confused some voters, including Patricia Parenti, who has lived in the district for 43 years and says she has never missed an election. “I’ll vote for Lou Puliafito. I’m not a Republican, but I thought that he was the more middle-class person and not a professional politician,” she said.

The two candidates differ on some priorities and issues. Seawright is particularly passionate about women’s rights and social justice. Her 2017 mammogram bill expanded access to early breast-cancer screening. She’s working to add an Equal Rights Amendment to the state Constitution. She co-sponsored bills that made police misconduct records public and raised the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 years old, keeping adolescents from being held in adult facilities.

Puliafito says he advocates backing the police and fighting systemic racism in the same breath. He supports LGBTQ rights, saying he saw the brutal effects of discrimination when he lost a brother to AIDS in the 1980s. His politics, he says, are moderate — though many of his positions are conservative, including his emphasis on fiscal responsibility, opposition to recent bail reform, and criticism of the way the city implemented a so-called “homeless hotel.”

Meanwhile, the pandemic has eliminated door-to-door canvassing and has made voter education more important than ever.

“There’s a lot of confusion about absentee ballots,” says Seawright. “Every single day we have people walking into our campaign office asking for absentee-ballot applications and voter-registration cards.”

There are no public polls in this race, but the historical odds are tough for Puliafito. He would be the first Republican to hold the seat since the district was created in 1966, and the first to represent any state Assembly district in Manhattan since 2003. And if campaign financing is any indication, Seawright has a massive advantage. According to state filings, she spent more than $213,000 from July through September, while Puliafito spent less than $1,900.

Still, the district may be getting slightly more conservative, said Michael Oliva, a political consultant who used to work with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The pandemic, recent crime spikes, and growing homelessness on the district streets are all factors. “If a Republican can win in Manhattan, it’s gonna be on the Upper East Side,” he said.