April 14, 2022 By Christian Murray (updated)
Assembly Member Brian Barnwell announced earlier this week that he would no longer be running for his Assembly District 30 seat—and a replacement has been made for him on the ballot.
Steven Raga, who unsuccessfully ran for city council last year and is currently the executive director of Woodside on the Move, will appear on the ballot in Barnwell’s place. He will run against one other candidate in the June 28 Democratic primary– Ramon Cando, a Democratic District leader who has strong ties to Hiram Monserrate.
The pair will be vying for a seat that covers parts of Maspeth, Woodside, Middle Village, Sunnyside, Jackson Heights, East Elmhurst, Elmhurst and Rego Park.
Barnwell, who filed his petitions to get on the ballot earlier this month, announced via social media Tuesday that he was not seeking re-election. A committee to replace him—consisting of five people— met Wednesday night and selected Raga to take his spot on the ballot.
The committee consisted of Gregory Meeks, who leads the Queens County Democratic Party, along with Melissa Sklarz, Steven Raga, Patrick Martinez and Kathleen Nealon.
Sklarz, Raga, Martinez and Nealon are all listed as candidates running to be Democratic District leaders in District 30.
“We voted for Steven,” said Sklarz in an interview with the Queens Post Thursday. “He makes for an excellent choice,” noting his Filipino heritage will prove helpful in what is now an Asian-dominated seat following the redistricting.
The district was redrawn earlier this year to connect Queens’ Asian communities in parts of Elmhurst, East Elmhurst and Woodside’s “Little Manila’. The new district population is nearly 50 percent Asian and 19 percent white whereas the current D-30 population is about 27 percent Asian and 39 percent white.
Raga, who was Barnwell’s chief of staff for four years, has a long track record in government and the non-profit sector.
Prior to joining Woodside on the Move, he was the Northeast Regional Manager for Policy and Advocacy for the Susan G. Komen Foundation, where he oversaw healthcare legislation in 11 states.
He has been a member of Community Board 2 since 2016 and sits on the boards of Queens Pride and the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA). He is also the Founder of Pilipino American Unity for Progress (UniPro) which he started in Woodside in 2009.
Raga could not be reached for comment about his selection. However, when the news broke Tuesday that Barnwell was not running, he told the Queens Post that he was stunned.
“It has shocked a lot of us. It has come out of left field,” he said. “I hope everything is ok with him.”
The appointment of a candidate via a vacancy committee is rare.
It requires a candidate to file the requisite number of signatures with the Board of Elections to get on the ballot and then file a “certificate of declination” within a week. If the “certificate of declination” deadline is missed, the candidate’s name appears on the ballot and a replacement is not permitted to be selected.
Candidates, when they file their signatures with the Board of Elections, state the names of the individuals who would be part of the vacancy committee to appoint a replacement in case they drop out.
The maneuver is criticized if it is invoked by an incumbent—and it is without good cause. Many people choose not to run for office when they know the incumbent seeks reelection, as opposed to the seat being vacant. Furthermore, it is too late for people to get into the race when the “declination” is filed.
Barnwell told the Queens Post Thursday that he decided to drop out because he was done playing politics. He said the decision was prompted by the budget last week when lawmakers decided not to make the illegal possession of a firearm bail eligible.
“The recent budget was the final straw for me,” Barnwell said. “We see all the gun problems and innocent people being killed around the city and country. We need to be strong on this issue.”
He said that it was unacceptable for Albany not to take a stronger stance when it comes to guns.
“What it boils down to is that people would rather play politics than solve the real problems we are facing,” Barnwell said.
Barnwell said his sudden announcement and his decision to file a “certificate of declination” was not about backroom deal making.
“I planned on running. I even spent money in campaign costs. But then the budget happened…and then basically the next day I said I wasn’t running.”
He said that he will not weigh in on the election to replace him. “I will be neutral,” noting that he did not endorse Raga when Raga ran for council last year.
Barnwell, who is an attorney and is religious, said that he will finish his term this year and has nothing lined up for the future. “No plans at the moment but perhaps practicing law and/or helping to spread the Gospel.”