Progressives Take On New York’s Democratic Machine In Historic Primary

From governor to state Senate and even party committees, the Empire State’s old party bosses are on the defensive.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks at the Democratic gubernatorial primary debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead on Aug. 29.

The Resistance is coming ― for New York’s Democrats.

The blue bastion, which nominates Democrats for state office on Thursday, has a liberal reputation. In practice, however, its state government is corrupt, undemocratic and beholden to a handful of rogue Democrats who have effectively blocked progressive priorities, including protections for undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers, increased support for abortion rights and the modernization of voting rules.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and eight renegade Democratic state senators all face robust primary challenges Thursday. The left is backing Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout in a vicious three-way battle for attorney general, and a new crop of local activists are vying for spots in the Democratic Party’s influential but little-known county committees. 

Polls close in New York at 9 p.m. Thursday. Here’s what’s at stake. 

Cynthia Nixon is credited with nudging Gov. Andrew Cuomo to the left, but few predict an upset win for her in the New York Democratic gubernatorial primary on Thursday.

Andrew Cuomo, Progressive Villain?

The highest-profile Democratic primary in New York ― the contest between Cuomo and actress Cynthia Nixon ― will be the toughest one for progressives to win.

There are few Democrats in American politics who elicit as much scorn from the activist left as Cuomo. To these critics, Cuomo uniquely personifies the sort of inauthentic and transactionalbig-money-driven politics that has helped sink the Democratic Party to its lowest point of national strength since the 1920s.

Cuomo has drawn the ire of many in the party base for enabling GOP control of the state Senate, first by approving its gerrymandering plan and then by reportedly blessing the formation of the Independent Democratic Conference, or IDC, a breakaway faction of Democrats that handed Republicans power. He is likewise loathed for cutting corporate taxes and education spendingcozying up to corporate donors, employing close aides who were convicted of corruptionneglecting the New York City subway system and reveling in political dirty tricks

Nixon’s showing that you actually can stand up to bullies and effect real policy change. Joe Dinkin, Working Families Party

In short, knocking out Cuomo would be by far the biggest progressive primary win in this election cycle and would set New York on a path to take its place among the most progressive state governments. Beating back his money advantage alone ― he raised $35.6 million to Nixon’s $2.5 million ― would spook establishment Democrats across the country. 

If the polls and pundits are to be believed, however, Nixon stands little chance of unseating Cuomo on Thursday. Nixon trails the governor by 41 percentage points in the latest public poll.

New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams, who is running for lieutenant governor as Nixon’s running mate, likely has a better shot of defeating Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, a moderate Democrat from upstate characterized by her loyalty to Cuomo. As The New York Times noted in its endorsement of Williams, he could bring a much-needed check on Cuomo’s power to what is ordinarily a symbolic role.

Voters interested in pressuring Cuomo to the left may still consider voting for Nixon.  

Cuomo, who is rumored to be considering a 2020 presidential run, will have his eye on the margin of victory. If Nixon outperforms Teachout, who shocked the state by picking up 34 percent of the vote against Cuomo in 2014, Cuomo may give additional progressive reforms serious thought.

Teachout’s primary challenge already nudged Cuomo in a considerably more progressive direction. In his second term, Cuomo banned fracking, raised the minimum wage to $15, passed paid family leave and created a paltry college scholarship program that nonetheless improved on the status quo.

And since Nixon’s entry into the race, Cuomo has restored voting rights for paroled felons, released a state study that reviewed marijuana legalization favorably and, perhaps most significantly, in April struck a deal to end the IDC (albeit after passage of the state budget in March). The Nixon campaign has dubbed the shift the “Cynthia effect.”

Regardless of the outcome, “Nixon’s showing that you actually can stand up to bullies and effect real policy change,” argued Joe Dinkin, head of campaigns at the Nixon-backing Working Families Party.

New York state Sen. Jeffrey Klein, former chairman of the Independent Democratic Conference, faces a fierce primary challenge from Alessandra Biaggi.

Democrats In Name Only

Progressive prospects are brighter for the challenges against eight former members of the Independent Democratic Conference, the group of rogue Democrats that ensured Republican control of the state Senate from 2013 to 2018 in exchange for higher pay and other perks. Together with Simcha Felder, another Democrat who caucuses with Republicans, the IDC prevented a raft of key progressive legislation passed in the Democratic-controlled Assembly from even coming up for a vote. GOP control of the state Senate has denied New York the opportunity to become a progressive leader on immigration, women’s rights, climate change, and single-payer health care.

Although the IDC alliance lingered in obscurity for many years, after Donald Trump’s presidential election in 2016, activists began waking up to the scandalous arrangement, and New York’s congressional delegation soon followed suit. State Sen. Michael Gianaris, now chairman of New York’s reunited Senate Democratic Conference, led the effort to recruit challengers for the IDC members (though he has remained neutral since April as part of the deal Cuomo brokered for IDC members to return to the fold).

Punishing the former members of the group is a priority for New Yorkers eager to establish the state as a bulwark against Trump’s agenda and ensure that no future Democratic lawmakers engage in any similar betrayal of their party.

“The states can’t be a laboratory for progressive ideals if you don’t control the state Senate,” said a New York Democratic strategist who requested anonymity in order to speak freely.

Traditionally the New York state legislature has a re-election rate slightly higher than the Soviet politburo. Democratic strategist

The strategist also noted that unified control of state government allows Democrats to at least threaten the prospect of retaliation for Republican gerrymandering elsewhere in the country, providing the party a better chance at taking control of the U.S. House.

The candidates challenging former IDC members are Alessandra Biaggi in the Bronx and Westchester (Senate District 34); Jessica Ramos in northwestern Queens (13); Zellnor Myrie in central Brooklyn (20); Robert Jackson in Upper Manhattan (31); John Liu in northeastern Queens (11); Julie Goldberg in Rockland County and part of Westchester (38); Rachel May in metropolitan Syracuse (53); and Jasmine Robinson in Staten Island (23).

All eight candidates are progressives who back the implementation of state-level single-payer health care and support stronger protections for tenants, ensuring that their election would dramatically change the character of the legislative chamber. Those stances and others have won them the support of the Working Families Party, the New York-based group also backing Nixon’s gubernatorial bid.

The IDC challengers face an easier task than does Nixon because they can make a simple partisan case against ex-IDC members in addition to an ideological one.

Biaggi, who is taking on ex-IDC leader Jeff Klein ― the man activists call the “head of the snake” and who has been accused of sexual misconduct by a former staffer ― illustrates this phenomenon. A former deputy operations manager for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, Biaggi subsequently worked as an attorney in Cuomo’s office, where reproductive rights legislation she was working on for Cuomo could not come up for a vote because Republican Senate leadership that Klein had empowered would not permit it. (Biaggi has not endorsed anyone in the governor’s race; of the anti-IDC candidates, only Ramos, Jackson and May are backing Nixon.)

Unlike Biaggi’s congresswoman-to-be, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has canvassed for her, Biaggi stops short of describing herself as a “socialist” (“Wouldn’t Jeff Klein love it if I did?”). She identifies as a “progressive” but is keenest to emphasize to voters on their doorsteps that she, unlike Klein, is a “real Democrat.”

Several of the IDC challengers, as they are known, have picked up key momentum in recent weeks, including an outpouring of volunteers, and endorsements from labor unions and prominent elected officials.

Many New York poll watchers expect three to four IDC challengers to prevail. The most commonly named are Biaggi, Ramos, Jackson and Myrie, all of whom won the blessing of the New York Times editorial board and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

Even if all eight win, Felder needs to return to the fold or another Republican senator needs to lose for Democrats to retake the majority. (Felder is also being challenged by attorney Blake Morris, but he is a long shot in the race.) 

But the mere fact that the seats are competitive is enough to shake up New York politics and possibly keep the heat on Cuomo to usher in more reforms.

“Traditionally the New York state legislature has a re-election rate slightly higher than the Soviet politburo,” the Democratic strategist said.

Zephyr Teachout, candidate for state attorney general, speaks in front of Cynthia Nixon on Aug. 8, when the two endorsed each other.

New York’s Top Cop

The New York attorney general holds one of the most powerful offices in the country, though its occupant rarely puts that power to much use against the state’s business titans. With so much of the American corporate and financial world ― including the Trump Organization ― headquartered in New York, the attorney general has prosecutorial jurisdiction over everything from Wall Street to the president’s business books.

With Cuomo likely to survive his primary challenge, the open attorney general post is also the best hope for cleaning up the notorious corruption in New York politics. Teachout has won a national audience on the American left for her anti-corruption work and has earned the endorsement of The New York Times and the New York Daily News.

New York City Public Advocate Letitia James has the support of virtually the entire New York political establishment ― an embrace that has often been a liability in an election year dominated by outsider enthusiasm and status quo discontent.

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), doesn’t have James’ endorsements but is supported by millions of dollars raised from real estate developers, Wall Street banks and corporate law firms through a novel campaign finance structure that may be illegal.

Polling has consistently shown a wide-open race: There are more undecided voters than there are supporters for any particular candidate.

Queens Party Bosses Exposed

When the Queens County Democratic Party filled the ranks of its county committee with the names of people who never agreed to run for the elected office and used enforcement of technicalities to disqualify newcomers, it was business as usual.

But when the disqualified candidates fought back with a lawsuit and exposed the scandal in The New York Times, it was a sign that even in New York’s most corrupt backwaters, change is afoot. 

The Queens County Democratic Party committee is a panel of more than 1,000 local Democrats meant to serve as a board of “block captains,” who represent the needs of local Democrats to the county party’s leadership and beyond.

In practice, it has become a patronage body that established players can use to ram through appointments to local judgeships ― and seats on the city elections board, which, of course, is the body that threw out the ballots of the newcomers.

The rejected petitioners were mainly comprised of members of the New Queens Democrats, a reform-minded political club that wants the county committee to meet more frequently and be more transparent about its makeup, goals and meetings. One of them, Jesse Rose, an attorney, sued on behalf of the petitioners, though the ballot rejections were ultimately upheld by the state elections board.

As someone always really invested in national politics, it’s opened my eyes to how important it is to get involved locally, and that matters no matter where you live. Deb Scher, New Queens Democrats petitioner

The lawsuit has nonetheless generated political attention for the petitioners who now have allies like New York City Councilman Costa Constantinides. The petitioners now stand a chance of being appointed to the committee by the Queens County Democratic Party, but they will not appear on the ballot. 

“As someone always really invested in national politics, it’s opened my eyes to how important it is to get involved locally, and that matters no matter where you live,” said Deb Scher, one of the petitioners from the New Queens Democrats.

It’s no surprise then that for progressive leaders Thursday’s elections are as much about democratizing an ossified, corrupt political system as they are about any one given policy.

“We’re looking at the potential toppling of the corporate-driven Democratic Party in New York, which is a machine that’s been in New York for decades upon decades going all the way back to Boss Tweed,” said Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change, a low-income advocacy group backing the various progressive primary candidates.

“New York is one of the biggest Democratic states in the nation,” Westin added. Progressive victories on Thursday “would have huge effects in terms of how Democrats are standing up to corporations and Wall Street and real estate interests, and really actually working on behalf of the people. That’s what’s at stake here.”