After months of publicly considering whether or not she would run against Gov. Andrew Cuomo, former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner declared in mid-June that she would launch an independent gubernatorial bid on the Serve America Movement line. The Serve America Movement, or SAM, was founded by a bipartisan group unhappy with the choices in the 2016 election and dissatisfied with the increasing partisanship in both parties. They created SAM as a third-party alternative after the election.
SAM is all but unknown in New York, and it is looking to gain ballot access through Miner’s candidacy, but it’s difficult to envision the party’s long-term role, given that it takes no stance on many issues.
Miner said that she was approached to run for governor by several parties, such as the Democratic, Republican, Working Families and Liberal parties, but that she realized to fight corruption she would have to launch a bid outside of the current party system. (Representatives of SAM had heard Miner on a podcast in May and approached her afterwards.)
“I really found myself agreeing with the values that they put forward, and the direction that they wanted to go: saying that we have to engage in civil dialogue, that we can't demonize each other, that we should remember we all have dignity as human beings and as citizens to focus on fact-based dialogue and to remember that it's about public service, not partisanship,” Miner said.
SAM’s three priorities are electing independent candidates, supporting ballot measures for electoral reform, and gaining ballot access across the country, according to SAM strategist Reed Galen, a former presidential campaign staffer for George W. Bush and John McCain. SAM being run by Republicans such as Galen and former Bush White House official Sarah Lenti raised concerns in some quarters that this was a GOP effort to elect the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Marc Molinaro, by drawing votes away from Cuomo. However, Galen refutes that claim, noting SAM also includes Democrats such as Obama administration veteran Hagar Chemali.
Under state election law, Miner needs to obtain 50,000 votes in the general election on the SAM line in order for it to get ballot access in New York.
SAM promotes moderate, technocratic, business-friendly policies such as ending mass incarceration, environmental protection, balanced budgets and investing in infrastructure and education – causes which are also supported by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. When asked why SAM chose to back an independent candidate in this race, instead of the incumbent who shares their priorities, Galen said the party was not interested in reinforcing the rule of Republicans or Democrats.
“So a lot of candidates, whether it's Gov. Cuomo or anybody else, might speak to a lot of issues, but the question is, on any given day, are those things actually being turned into policy, is it making individual voters’ or individual residents' lives better?” Galen asked. Cuomo has, in fact, enacted a wide range of policies to promote green energy and technological innovation, and he has put a cap on spending for every agency. Cuomo has failed to get many of his proposals through the state Legislature on electoral and voting reform and anti-corruption measures.
According to Galen, SAM is “not supporting Republicans and we're not supporting Democrats.” However, Miner is a Democrat, although she has been critical of Cuomo for several years. Her running mate, Pelham Mayor Michael Volpe, is a Republican.
When asked if she identified less as a Democrat now than as an independent, Miner avoided answering directly. “I will tell you that there is no room for me in Andrew Cuomo's Democratic Party in New York state,” Miner said. “You cannot cast aspersions at the Republicans in Washington for not holding President Trump accountable for the actions that he's taking, and at the same time turn a blind eye to what is going on with the corruption in Albany.”
Many of New York’s legislative leaders in both parties, including former Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, have faced corruption charges, as have close associates of Cuomo, including his former right-hand man Joe Percoco. If Miner focuses on corruption, she could get a boost from the ongoing “Buffalo Billion” trial involving alleged bid-rigging in state economic development contracts.
While eliminating corruption is a bipartisan cause in New York, it’s also a wonkish one, somewhat removed from the visceral subjects that motivate most voters.
SAM does not have a position on many social issues important to New Yorkers, such as access to abortion and LGBT rights. Instead, SAM leaves social policy up to its candidates. “Once you start to have candidates, it's going to be those candidates in their state who are going to have to start really putting the fine touches or putting the specifics on those details,” Galen said.
That approach, however, ignores the fact that many voters will only vote for candidates who share their values on these hot-button issues.
Miner supports abortion rights and is a longtime advocate for women’s rights. When asked if SAM could support Miner and, at the same time, support a hypothetical candidate in Texas who was opposed to abortion, Galen indicated that SAM doesn’t have stances on many economic issues either. “Someone running for governor of Texas on the SAM line might very well have a different set of priorities because first and foremost, Texas is a right-to work-state, unions aren't a thing there, it doesn't have an income tax,” Galen said. “The candidates will have to run their campaigns from a policy perspective on the things about which their constituents are most concerned.”
When asked whether this could make it difficult for SAM to get a foothold in New York, Galen avoided answering directly. “Remember that for decades, generations even, a Southern Democrat had a very different worldview than a Northern Democrat. And a Northeastern Republican had a very different worldview than a Western Republican,” Galen said. “But for whatever reason they were all able to live together, and the boundaries by which you could be a Republican or Democrat were not so rigid.”
In a winner-take-all election system that incentivizes disparate interests to agglomerate into two major parties, this point would seem to undermine, rather than bolster, the case for a third-party effort. If having more than two major parties made any sense in the American electoral system, then the era when Democrats were divided between their Northern liberal and conservative Southern wings would have been a propitious time to develop a third party. That they didn’t – and that, instead of starting a third party, Southern Democrats joined the GOP when the Democrats enacted civil rights legislation – is arguably a historical case against SAM’s theory of politics.
Also, as Galen implicitly acknowledges, the parties have sorted out ideologically in the last few decades. Voters today expect parties to adhere to a policy agenda. Cable news and social media further reinforced already solidifying partisan trends. In recent elections, other centrist, pro-business third-party movements such as Unity08 and Americans Elect have similarly tried to paper over the divisions on social issues, with limited success.
Ironically, the system of ideologically heterodox parties that Galen mentions was partially the product of local party machines that were more interested in patronage than political philosophy, which is part of what SAM opposes. Those party organizations also were overwhelmingly white and male.
Jeanne Zaino, a professor of political science at Iona College, said that SAM could have difficulty establishing itself in New York, in part because “they haven't taken stands one way or the other on a lot of other issues that voters will care about.”
“Which sliver of the voting population are they looking to pull over? Probably not Working Families folks, probably not the progressive wing of the Democratic Party,” she said. “Maybe it's the moderate Democrats who are frustrated with Cuomo on the issue of corruption, and (think) he may be too right-wing fiscally, but I'm not sure there's enough of those people there.”
Miner doesn’t believe that SAM’s lack of a position on major social issues wouldn’t matter to New York voters because she herself is supportive of women’s rights. “I think if they're running a candidate who has been an outspoken advocate of women's health care and reproductive choice, I think it shows that SAM is open and supportive of those positions,” she said.
Zaino guessed that even if Miner is not elected governor, she could continue to work with SAM if she gets enough votes for it to become a party in the state.
But Miner’s commitment to SAM is stronger than it is to the major party that supports expanded women’s rights, as she plans to keep working with SAM, rather than the Democrats, after the election. “I believe in their principles and their values, and I think we in this country and this state need to focus on governing, to focus on solving problems, to focus on civil dialogue,” Miner said.
Galen refuted another common claim of opponents to Miner’s bid – that it could split the Democratic vote and elect Republican Marc Molinaro with a mere plurality – by making an argument that past third party candidates as Ralph Nader and Jill Stein would applaud. “Right now, in the vast majority of elections, both choices are bad. Voters go to the ballot box and say, it's bad or worse,” Galen said. “So what are you spoiling? If both choices are bad, a better option that voters haven't had before is probably a good thing, not a bad thing.”
New York voters are overwhelmingly Democrats, so Miner and SAM will have to win over a lot of Democrats to win the governor’s race. Whether Democrats who remember the 2000 and 2016 presidential elections will be convinced by Galen’s argument, however, remains to be seen.
Zaino said that introducing another candidate “couldn’t hurt” Molinaro, but that that it was also unlikely to get him elected since it is a “horrible, horrible, horrible” year to be running as a Republican in a liberal state. “I don't believe we're going to see the enormous split that people are banking on," she said. "Is it possible? I guess theoretically, but I just don't see it in the offing right now.”