Incumbent Benedetto, challenger Soto debate for second time in Assembly District 82 race

Jonathan Soto, left, debates incumbent Assembly Member Michael Benedetto, right, on June 17, 2024, just ahead of the June 25 Primary Election. This year is the third time Soto has mounted a bid against the longtime incumbent.
Jonathan Soto, left, debates incumbent Assembly Member Michael Benedetto, right, on June 17, 2024, just ahead of the June 25 Primary Election. This year is the third time Soto has mounted a bid against the longtime incumbent.
Photo Emily Swanson

With the primary election just a week away, incumbent Assembly Member for the Bronx’s 82nd district, Michael Benedetto, joined familiar challenger Jonathan Soto for a spirited debate on June 17 at the BronxNet studios at Lehman College. 

The debate was moderated by veteran BronxTalk host Gary Axelbank, who has moderated 96 political debates in the Bronx. 

This is the third time that Soto, a progressive, will challenge Benedetto, a moderate Democrat who has served since 2005 in the Assembly seat representing east Bronx neighborhoods of Co-op City, Throgs Neck, Morris Park, Edgewater, Westchester Square, City Island, Country Club and Pelham Bay. 

Soto’s family moved from Puerto Rico to New York City and worked multiple jobs to get by. The son of ministers, he is the director of the NYC Center for Faith and Community Partnerships and is active in education policy, as the father of a 13-year-old who attends public school.

Benedetto chairs the education committee in the Assembly and has supported extended mayoral control of the public schools, which Soto opposes. 

In 2022, Soto ran against Benedetto and lost with 36% of the tally, compared to Benedetto’s 56%. Soto also launched a campaign in 2020, but ended up dropping out to do relief work in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.

Benedetto has rarely faced challengers throughout his long Assembly career — and Soto, who has the backing of the Working Families Party and the New York chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, as well as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for whom he was a campaign staffer — is trying to make the third time a charm. 

The race sets up another example of divisions within the Democratic party that are playing out in local and national contests, including the race between progressive Rep. Jamaal Bowman, who is 48 and Black, against moderate Democrat George Latimer, a 70-year-old white man. Meanwhile, Ocasio-Cortez, 34, faces a primary challenge from 66-year-old Marty Dolan, who has said that his opponent’s “socialist” policies have failed people in the district.

Since the last election, Soto said he has passed the bar exam and continued to advocate for education rights and climate justice. He said he is running again now because with many major issues such as environmental justice, housing and economic stability being debated and legislated, “My family’s future is on the line,” Soto said.

Benedetto said he expects to defeat Soto with a larger margin of victory than last time, and he vowed to remain ever-present in the community. Of those politicians who only show up around election day, “I always promised my constituents that that would not be said of me,” he said. 

Before the debate and after it concluded, Soto and Benedetto shook hands and engaged in small talk, with Soto recommending yoga classes to his opponent. They commiserated on the rigors of running for office and agreed that June 26, after the result is known, will be a day of rest for both of them.


On the topic of housing, Axelbank specifically asked the candidates about the Good Cause Eviction law that went into effect in April 2024. The bill limits rent increases and prevents landlords from evicting tenants without valid reason (i.e., nonpayment of rent or substantial lease violations).

The bill was sponsored and co-sponsored by several Bronx lawmakers, including state Senators Jamaal T. Bailey, Jose M. Serrano, Gustavo Rivera and Luis Sepúlveda and Assembly Member Karines Reyes. 

Benedetto said that some of the best tenant safeguards in the country were already passed in 2019, which protected tenants against late fees, required more advance notice for lease non-renewals and more. Benedetto said there “may be good reason” for the Good Cause law but “there are two faces to this argument, both with good points,” he said.

Soto took a stronger stance by saying the Good Cause Eviction bill “didn’t go far enough” to protect tenants and that it “watered down” the 2019 protections. Soto said that while more housing development is necessary, the balance of power has “tilted to developers and corporate landlords.” He said as many New Yorkers struggle to regain economic footing in the post-pandemic era, “[Housing] advocates are asking for more because we need more.”

Crime and policing

On the issue of public safety for New Yorkers, Soto said the state has invested too much in “crime reaction” and not enough on preventive measures such as mental health resources, affordable housing and youth programming. The state cannot incarcerate its way into safety, he said, adding that he works with police officers and that “a critique is not an attack.” 

“It is possible to have safety and racial justice at the same time,” said Soto. “It may cost me some support to say the truth.”

Benedetto said that defunding the NYPD is not the answer. He mentioned his successful efforts to get more surveillance cameras in the district, which he said were recently used by the NYPD to catch an assault suspect in Throggs Neck. 

“Crime might be down, but the perception of crime is not down,” said Benedetto.

He pointed to the need to control that perception while providing adequate funding to police departments.

“The only things that have been defunded are crime prevention services,” said Soto, who called himself the “public safety candidate.” 

Metro-North transit and development project

The four new Metro-North stations planned for Co-Op City, Hunts Point, Morris Park, and Parkchester/Van Nest are “a great thing” that he advocated for for years, said Benedetto. He said commercial and residential development around the stations is also needed, especially in places like the area surrounding Montefiore Einstein in Morris Park, where it makes sense to build high-density towers to house the many people working nearby, he said. But Benedetto cautioned that development needs to be done “smartly, so it doesn’t impact too much on the neighborhoods.”

Soto expressed a similar concern that some areas could become a “Trojan horse for gentrification.” He said city initiatives such as City of Yes for Housing Opportunity need oversight from entities such as the Assembly and that wherever housing is built, the surrounding infrastructure also needs to be supported. 

Casino or no?

Soto was a flat “no” on the idea of a casino next to the Bally’s golf course in Ferry Point. He cited crime concerns and corporate greed and said that community members should have input on what goes onto park land. “I don’t want a casino next to my daughter’s public school,” said Soto.

Benedetto said he was “still listening to opinions” for and against a casino. He said that while he has concerns about traffic and would be concerned about development of housing on the land, he also likes the idea of generating jobs for district residents. “I’m not 100 percent sure that I want to say no” to that prospect — but “I’m also not committed to it yet,” said Benedetto.

Soto said that jobs are needed, but “we don’t need a casino for that.” 

All 150 seats in the Assembly are up for election this year, and the job comes with a salary of $142,000 per year, according to Ballotpedia. Assembly members serve two-year terms and are not subject to term limits. 

Early voting for the primary is already underway, and primary election day is Tuesday, June 25. For more information on when, where and how to vote, visit

Reach Emily Swanson at or (646) 717-0015. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes