Lessons from primary day
There are several enduring factors from Tuesday’s primary returns that will have an outsized impact going forward on the politics and governance in New York state.
The first factor worth measuring is the impact of the primaries on the political leverage of state Sen. Jeff Klein, who leads the Independent Democratic Conference. Currently, the Senate breaks down with 31 Republicans, plus Simcha Felder, who ran as a Democrat but conferences as a Republican, forming a scant 32-member majority, buttressed by the five members of the IDC, with the 26-member mainline Democratic Conference in the minority.
Most pundits tend to see Klein’s IDC and Felder as allies in preserving the Republican-led majority, but in reality they are currency-trading competitors. When Felder’s vote formed a Republican majority (after the 2014 election), Klein’s political currency was reduced to a cushion factor. However, when the Senate Republicans needed Klein’s IDC votes to form a majority (after the 2012 election), it was Felder’s political currency that was reduced to a one-vote cushion. The Klein-Felder rivalry may not be angry, but it is real.
So in this week’s primaries, Senator Klein made a smart play to expand the IDC’s influence. The conference strongly backed Marisol Alcantara in the Democratic primary to succeed Adriano Espaillat in upper Manhattan’s 31st Senate District. Klein’s IDC invested a great deal of fundraising resources in Alcantara’s campaign, enabling her to connect with the potent vote-pulling power of Espaillat. That gamble will pay dividends if Alcantara joins the IDC as expected, enhancing Klein’s leverage over both major party conferences in the state Senate.
Nor is it certain which party conference it is in Klein’s interests to align the IDC with until the votes are counted in November. There are four contested races in Nassau County and three races in the Hudson Valley, and both Republicans and Democrats exude confidence in the outcomes. Why should Klein commit until he knows the arithmetic of each party’s conference and what direction each conference will head in policy-wise? With Alcantara, a progressive Latina, in the fold for the IDC, Klein may be loath to risk that gain.
The second factor revolves around the independent expenditure efforts of the Education Tax Credit PAC, which targeted two incumbent Latino legislators in Democratic primaries: supporting Cabrera against Rivera in the 33rd S.D. and Giovanni Mata against Phil Ramos in Suffolk County’s 6th Assembly District. In losing these primaries, as well as the Assembly races against Latrice Walker and Pam Harris, both African-Americans from Brooklyn, all by landslides, these education “reformers” made a grievous political miscalculation.
Going back several years, many Latino legislators were not nearly as hostile to the tax credit bill as many progressive Assembly Democrats were. By targeting two incumbent Latino Democrats, the Education Tax Credit PAC led the United Federation of Teachers to strongly support Rivera and Ramos (plus Walker and Harris) in their Democratic primaries. It is the second time the charter school reformers have played hardball this political season after also opposing Todd Kaminsky with a million-dollar broadcast TV buy in the special election for Dean Skelos’ Senate seat in Nassau County.
The third enduring factor emerging from these primaries was Yuh-Line Niou’s strong victory in the primary for Shelly Silver’s old Assembly seat. While Niou had run a strong special election race in losing against Alice Cancel last April, most pundits did not predict her lapping the field in the September primary.
The prevailing notion was that Niou would be stymied by the Asian vote being divided among three Chinese-American candidates, and that Paul Newell would snare reform votes severing her crossover appeal from April. However, The New York Times endorsed Niou and progressive voters apparently agreed, rewarding her perseverance from April carrying over to September.
As an aside, I was surprised that one of New York’s most astute political analysts, Christina Greer, said on a primary night panel on NY1 that the Times endorsement had become the “kiss of death,” referring to the paper’s endorsement of Micah Lasher in the open Espaillat seat. When the final returns were in, Lasher finished a close second to Marisol Alcantara and the Times endorsement was a big part of Lasher’s closing surge. In fact, in this election cycle the Times endorsed Lasher, Yuh-Line Niou, Robert Carroll and Gustavo Rivera, with only Lasher losing, proving that the Grey Lady’s stamp of approval is hardly a death knell.
Secondly, the explosion of Chinese-American voting was much deeper in this district than most projected (if you aggregate the votes of Yuh-Line Niou, Don Lee and Gigi Li it totaled 52.8 percent of the primary vote) and the second-place finisher, Jenifer Rajkumar, an Indian-American, got 19 percent to Niou’s 32 percent. Niou’s victory will be seen as a key building block in the inevitable ascension of the Asian influence in New York politics.
If you are looking for a connecting thread from this year’s primaries it is perseverance and bridge-building. Candidates who lost past races ultimately prevailed (Espaillat and Niou) and the diversity coursing through the veins of Gotham’s politics could be a very healthy development for the body politic.
Bruce Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.
Correction: A previous version of this op-ed incorrectly stated that state Sen. Jeff Klein endorsed Fernando Cabrera in the Democratic primary for the 33rd Senate District.