Cuomo rallied for Democrats in tossup races. But they were kept off stage.

US National Capitol in Washington, DC.
US National Capitol in Washington, DC.
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The U.S. Capitol Building.

Cuomo rallied for Democrats in tossup races. But they were kept off stage.

Democratic event to win the House and state Senate didn't feature any key candidates.
September 19, 2018

The New York Democratic Party event on Tuesday was was billed as a general election kick-off rally to “take back the House” and to “flip the (state) Senate.” It kicked off a little after noon with remarks from the state party chairman, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, and ended just over an hour later with a speech from Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul. But by the time the 200-plus attendees shuffled out of the ballroom at the Sheraton Times Square Hotel, none of them had heard from the candidates who might actually take back the House or flip the state Senate.

Some of those Democrats were in attendance, like congressional candidates Max Rose, who is mounting a strong challenge against Republican Rep. Dan Donovan on Staten Island, and Liuba Grechen Shirley, who is trying to upset Republican Rep. Pete King on Long Island. Rep. Tom Suozzi was there, who’s hoping to hold on to his seat in a swing district on Long Island, and so were Andrew Gounardes, who is challenging Republican state Sen. Martin Golden, and Jim Gaughran, who is taking on state Sen. Carl Marcellino, in two races that could decide the balance of the Senate.

But none of them got to speak. Instead, the collection of elected officials, party operatives, union members and journalists heard from the top of the ticket: Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who leads the state party and whose team planned the rally. His allies and running mates, Hochul and attorney general candidate Letitia James, also spoke. (State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli had a previous engagement in Albany, according to his campaign.)

In a surprising sign of unity from the governor, his political nemesis New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was given the mic. Though the crowd did hear from a member of Congress, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, and a state senator, José M. Serrano, both are locks for reelection in November.

Some of the candidates who are actually fighting for their seats downplayed the snub. Kim Devlin, a spokeswoman for Suozzi, said the congressman “thought the event was awesome and he was happy to be there.” Gounardes told City & State that he didn’t have any expectation of speaking, and that those who did speak made it clear that their priority was bringing the House and state Senate into Democratic control. “I feel very comfortable with the level of support with that the governor has offered and has continued to offer,” he said.

Who spoke at the rally and who was left out might be a non-issue if it weren’t for Cuomo’s record. The governor has long been criticized for not bringing the fight to congressional Republicans sooner. He didn’t argue for congressional district lines to benefit Democrats in 2012, and after Democrats lost three House seats in New York in 2014, then-Rep. Steve Israel said Cuomo hadn’t done enough to help.

Cuomo’s relationship with state Senate Republicans has seen been even more closely scrutinized dating back to when a joint coalition of Republicans and the Independent Democratic Conference kept Democrats out of power in 2013. Cries of “do something!” by fellow Democrats continued until Cuomo helped negotiate the IDC’s dissolution earlier this year in April. The breakaway Democratic group, which had helped further Cuomo’s political goals for years by serving as a dam against an influx of progressive legislation, had finally become too politically toxic in the Trump era.

At Tuesday’s rally, Cuomo talked about winning races in November, but he also gloated about his primary victory over Cynthia Nixon. Some observers saw the same old Cuomo.

“This is not about the party per se, this is about image control,” said a Democratic consultant who spoke to City & State on background in order to speak freely about Cuomo. “Andrew is not building a party.”

Another Democratic insider who requested anonymity said it would have been nice for the state Senate and House candidates to get some face time on stage, but suggested that Cuomo could help in other ways. “Rallies are important, but even more important is resources,” the insider said.

Cuomo faces his own reelection in November, which he’s expected to win comfortably. With Election Day seven weeks away, Democrats will be expecting a lot more time and money from the governor before he can prove that he’s a team player.

Cuomo has donated money, with his federal political action committee donating the $2,700 maximum to 10 Democrats running for Congress in New York. But that limit pales in comparison with what Cuomo could do with the campaign account of the state Democratic Committee, which faces far fewer financial restrictions. That state committee so far has been used almost exclusively to benefit Cuomo – most recently paying for the widely maligned mailer accusing Nixon of anti-Semitism – and there’s no indication yet that Cuomo will unleash funds to help candidates take back the House and state Senate.

In some ways, Cuomo has appeared to be turning over a new leaf. He held a rally last year with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi pledging to take back the House, and his peacemaking with de Blasio Tuesday seemed relatively convincing. He has personally endorsed a number of Democratic state Senate candidates, and those in attendance at Tuesday’s rally were invited to a strategy session with the governor afterwards.

In a statement to City & State, Cuomo campaign spokeswoman Abbey Collins said the governor started laid a “robust infrastructure” to win Democratic legislative seats more than a year ago. “As we head towards November, we will continue to build on the State Party’s dynamic field, data and mail program and ramp up fundraising and advertising efforts,” she said. “There is no more urgent task ahead than defeating Trump and Democrats have never been more energized and united to win the day.

The decision to leave out those candidates in competitive races at Tuesday’s event was probably logistical, said another Democratic consultant who spoke to City & State on background in order to speak freely about Cuomo. “If I have a candidate, you always want them to be on stage. But the reality is, once you let one candidate speak, you have to let them all speak,” the consultant said. “Once the governor let de Blasio speak, it was clear he wasn’t leaving anyone out for personal reasons.”

Jeff Coltin
is a staff reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.
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