Cathy Nolan Leaned In, but she couldn't win a rigged game

In the race to replace Sheldon Silver as speaker of the New York State Assembly, a rumor emerged that Cathy Nolan was a “stalking horse” for Queens County Democratic Chairman Joe Crowley. This implied she was a proxy, intended as a bargaining chip for someone more powerful. Absent any facts, it served only to undermine her candidacy. But why was it even plausible that a 30-year veteran of the Assembly would feverishly phone bank members and publicly pitch herself for speaker if she wasn’t serious? The notion was easily debunked when Nolan remained in the race after Crowley threw his support behind Carl Heastie.

Submittng pleasantly to an insulting question, Nolan confirmed her motivation: “I chair one of the top committees in the Assembly. I’ve been here a long time. I felt that made me a contender.”

Cathy Nolan leaned in, but she couldn’t win a rigged game.

Albany is dominated by machine politics, and the patronage that comes with it. As party bosses, Heastie (Bronx), Joe Morelle (Monroe County) and Keith Wright (Manhattan) had a treasury of chits to cash in. Wright quickly bowed out with a suspected promise of support for an eventual run for Congress. Morelle couldn’t win in a conference dominated by New York City members, even though he was considered the Governor’s favorite (but notably not his pawn). Lastly, the chairman of the powerful Codes Committee, Joe Lentol jumped ship when his own Brooklyn boss got behind Heastie.

That left Nolan with only her record to run on. Although she lost for many reasons not related to her gender, the male-dominated party system mostly excludes women from entrenched political and social networks, putting them at a structural disadvantage.

“Politics is very much monopolized by men, they’re always taking care of each other,” said one assemblywoman who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “You don’t have a certain interaction with them because it’s always inappropriate. I’m not going to go hang out at my married colleague’s house on a Friday night and drink.”

The situation is different in the New York City Council, where traditional machine politics are less relevant, replaced by organized labor and the WFP-backed Progressive Caucus. In the 2013 race for Council speaker, the Caucus used its 21-block vote to effectively sideline the party bosses and elect Melissa Mark-Viverito. When the Kings County Chairman caved to the Caucus, he left Heastie and Crowley, who were supporting Dan Garodnick, out in the cold.

But the Progressive Caucus didn’t just defeat the machine. It defied the conventional wisdom, spouted after Tish James won the public advocate’s race, that there couldn’t be more than one woman in citywide office. This outdated idea was not only sexist, but failed to acknowledge a more straightforward logic: as multiple female candidates run for city office, increasingly more of them will win. Today women make up nearly a third of the body, and half of all citywide elected officials.

In contrast, Nolan ran for an office only ever held by men, in a body that’s about a quarter female. Just as importantly, the hastily formed Reform Coalition, which wobbled into existence like a newborn foal, didn’t have the institutional capacity to redefine the process.

Despite the outcome, Cathy Nolan made a crack in Albany’s glass gavel.

“When I first got to Albany people told me it was a fluke that I won. I think it’s one of the reasons I stayed so long, because I wanted to show people it wasn’t a fluke, I wanted to show people I had talent and ambition,” Nolan explained.

She did more than that.

The first woman to run for Assembly speaker will not be the last.

Alexis Grenell (@agrenell on Twitter) is a Democratic communications strategist based in New York. She handles nonprofit and political clients.