New York State

Battleground: New York

New York is the epicenter of the struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party.

New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon visits Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez during her primary victory party in the Bronx.

New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon visits Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez during her primary victory party in the Bronx. Mark Hallum/Shutterstock

New York Democrats have an opportunity this year to finally wrest control of the state Senate from the Republican Party and wield power in the upper chamber. In three of the past five election cycles, Democratic candidates have won Senate majorities only to be thwarted, first by two rogue senators who would later be convicted of crimes and then by the Independent Democratic Conference and Democratic state Sen. Simcha Felder. After years of pressure from progressives, the IDC disbanded earlier this year, but Felder continues to caucus with Republicans, giving them a 32-31 advantage.

All eight former IDC members face primary challengers this year, as does Felder, and Republicans must defend 10 of the 12 state Senate seats identified as “battleground” races by Ballotpedia.

The stakes are high. If Democrats take the state Senate, New York could adopt a host of progressive policies – voting reform, expanded reproductive rights, gun control, higher taxes on the wealthy, stricter rent regulation – that currently are locked in a legislative stalemate. With redistricting coming up after the 2020 census, Democrats could even shut the GOP out of power entirely in New York for a decade or more.

New York also has a raft of Republican congressional seats that could be vulnerable in a Democratic wave election.

And yet the progressive challengers who have garnered the most enthusiastic activist energy and media attention this year have been those running against mainstream Democrats, including the governor. At a time when New York’s left might expect to be united in opposition to President Donald Trump, it’s instead more divided than at any time in recent memory. But from that discord, and even if the insurgent candidates mostly lose, the left may win a larger victory. To some extent, it already has.

“If we’re going to really fight against Trump and Trumpism, we’re going to need a less corrupt and compromised Democratic Party.” – senior staffer for an insurgent candidate in New York City

As is so often the case in progressive politics, New York has been at the leading edge of a national left-wing insurgency this year. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory over 10-term incumbent Rep. Joseph Crowley in the Democratic congressional primary represented politics at its sexiest, with a young, charismatic Latina democratic socialist defeating a middle-aged white man with a position in the House Democratic leadership and control of the Queens County Democratic Party. Crowley is a loyal lifelong Democrat, but some progressives see him as too close to Wall Street, too removed from the lives of his mostly nonwhite district and too soft on the IDC. Since that dramatic upset, dozens of progressive challengers across the country have styled themselves, or have been characterized by observers, as “the next Ocasio-Cortez” – often benefiting from an endorsement and a guest appearance from the overnight political sensation herself.

In the battle for the state Senate, they include Alessandra Biaggi, who’s challenging former IDC leader Jeff Klein, and Jessica Ramos, who’s trying to unseat former IDC member Jose Peralta as well as Julia Salazar, who’s challenging North Brooklyn’s Martin Malavé Dilan, whom the Village Voice characterized as a “machine relic.” Ocasio-Cortez’s win, Biaggi told The Journal News, “put a massive crack into cynicism – in a way that people are like, ‘Whoa it is possible, and you can win,’ which of course I knew. These are races that are winnable races and I think her race allowed other people to also see that.”

It also laid bare an intraparty rift. The divide is grounded in real ideological disputes and also fights over style and strategy – from whether government should provide health insurance to whether Democrats should raise campaign dollars from the financial and real estate industries.

But while that divide dominates the media coverage, it’s just one of several dynamics shaping this year’s battle for New York.

Across the country, the surge in Democratic political engagement since President Donald Trump took office and the proliferation of new “resistance” groups like Indivisible have driven a spike in turnout in special elections. In 11 House and U.S. Senate races since Trump’s inauguration, Democratic candidates have performed better than the partisan lean of those districts by an average of 15 percentage points, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight. One might expect that to help challengers.

But it’s not so simple. Primaries, especially in midterm years, tend to be decided by the party’s most engaged voters due to low turnout. That means the Democrats’ most “consistently liberal” members may very well determine the party’s nominees, according to the Pew Research Center. However, the backlash against Trump cuts both ways: It’s not just the party’s hardcore base that’s voting. Higher turnout means some less ideological voters are casting ballots too. So, whereas Ocasio-Cortez was carried to victory by a cadre of young, digitally connected progressives in an election with only 13 percent turnout, other left-wing challengers may have to win over more moderate voters.

Then there’s the feud between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, which has become an inescapable feature of state politics. The bad blood between the two is both personal and political, born of drastically different styles, divergent ideological approaches and competing ambitions. One might call de Blasio’s election in 2013, in which he upset front-runner City Council Speaker Christine Quinn with a focus on economic inequality, and the subsequent breakdown in his relationship with Cuomo, the prelude to this year’s widespread series of competitive primaries. Cuomo and de Blasio have clashed over policy, such as the governor’s refusal to let New York City raise taxes on the rich, and process, such as Cuomo’s perceived reneging on a deal, brokered by the mayor, that the governor made with the Working Families Party for their support in 2014.

Now Cynthia Nixon, a friend of de Blasio’s and whose wife worked in his administration, is running against Cuomo. A number of observers see Nixon’s candidacy as a proxy war between de Blasio and Cuomo, in part because the former “Sex and the City” star tapped several veterans of the mayor’s first campaign for key positions on her team.

Another factor playing out in often unpredictable ways is that New York has the highest union density of any state in the country, so organized labor remains a major force in progressive politics. Unions tend to be risk averse and back Democratic – and sometimes even Republican – incumbents who haven’t gone out of their way to antagonize organized labor. So unions are splitting in this cycle: Some are enthusiastically backing insurgent candidates, while many others getting behind Cuomo and the erstwhile IDCers. For instance, Biaggi received the endorsement of 32BJ SEIU, while most other major service sector unions are sticking with Klein.

Labor has to make some especially tough political calculations after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 that unions can no longer compel nonmembers to cover the costs of their representation. One progressive activist and union delegate who didn’t want to be identified due to the sensitive nature of the issue said, “We know that because of Janus, we’re all fucked, and we also know that the governor is running for re-election. And we see the governor basically signing a bill that protects us from the worst effects of (the decision). So everybody is freaking out because in a post-Janus world, you’re only as strong as your advocate.”

Some unions have nonetheless backed insurgent candidates. The Communications Workers of America endorsed four of the eight challengers to the former IDC members: Biaggi, Ramos, John Liu and Zellnor Myrie. “The calculus,” said the delegate, “is that taking out the IDC is worth the risk of jeopardizing their relationship with the governor.”

A veteran progressive organizer who was granted anonymity to speak freely about the situation said “things are pretty tense between labor and community and advocacy groups because of this whole situation.” Progressives who have worked together on issues like a $15 minimum wage are finding themselves on opposing sides of some races. The starkest example of this came in April when several unions left the WFP because the party backed Nixon over Cuomo.

Jessica Ramos is trying to unseat state Sen. Jose Peralta, a former member of the Independent Democratic Conference.
Photo courtesy Jessica Ramos for state Senate.

To a degree, the battle for control of the Democratic Party is separate from the party’s efforts to take back one or both chambers of Congress and check the Trump administration’s power. But many insurgents see increasingly left-wing policy preferences and effective resistance to Trump as inseparable. “These aren’t two fights; they’re one fight,” said a senior staffer for one insurgent candidate in New York City who asked not to be named in order to talk candidly about issues not directly related to the campaign. “If we’re going to really fight against Trump and Trumpism, we’re going to need a less corrupt and compromised Democratic Party. A lot of people woke up on Nov. 9, 2016, and realized that Democrats in New York had been winking and nodding to progressives and our agenda but then not following through.”

Leftist activists see the mobilization against Trump as an opportunity to move the party in their direction, a moment they have long-awaited. The marquee races at the state level – Nixon’s challenge against Cuomo, primaries against the former IDC members, and, for some candidates, the contest to succeed former state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman – are the product of years of pent-up frustration on the left.

A state with more than two Democrats for every Republican should have unified Democratic control and progressive policies on par with their West Coast counterparts like California, the insurgents and their supporters reason. The impediment, as they see it, is Democrats who pay lip service to liberalism while taking campaign donations from big businesses and colluding with Republicans to serve those interests. For example, as of June, Peralta’s top two donors were a political action committee run by the Real Estate Board of New York and the LeFrak Organization, a major landlord in Queens run by Richard LeFrak, a close friend of Trump’s. The establishment Democrats counter that their policies are unaffected by their fundraising. “Senator Peralta has a long history of fighting for rent reform and legislation to protect tenants, which is why he was endorsed recently by the LeFrak Tenants Association,” Tom Musich, a spokesman for Peralta, said in an emailed statement.

But it is process, as much as policy, that has driven New York’s left-wing insurgency: outrage over Albany insiders continually cutting deals that gave Republicans control of the state Senate and the gerrymandering, restrictive voting rules and lax state campaign finance regulations that have kept a disproportionately white, male and Republican state Legislature in office.

But can they convince a majority of primary voters, many of whom are less than expert on the inner workings of Albany, that incumbents with mainstream Democratic positions are actually impeding progress? “The challenge for the insurgency is to explain that when Cuomo postures that he’s for the DREAM Act or criminal justice reform or campaign finance reform, he’s actually used the IDC to block those very things,” Bill Lipton, a co-founder of the Working Families Party and its New York state director, told City & State. “It’s a hoax being perpetrated on the working people of New York.”

To understand why the activist left so opposes Cuomo and the former IDC members, despite Cuomo’s many liberal policy achievements – some of which the IDC helped pass – including banning hydraulic fracturing, raising the minimum wage and passing stricter gun control, one has to know the backstory.

Early in his first term, Cuomo formed the Committee to Save New York, a nonprofit advocacy group that raised money from a group of donors which, according to The New York Times, was “dominated by New York’s powerful real estate industry, long a major source of money for political campaigns.” In the two years before it was disbanded, the committee spent more cash lobbying Albany lawmakers than any other group, and those dollars, reported the Times, “were spent to advance core items of Mr. Cuomo’s fiscal agenda: reducing state spending, passing a cap on local property taxes, and cutting pension benefits for public employees.” It also served “as a pre-emptive counterweight to possible critics of the governor, like labor unions seeking more money through the state’s annual budget process.”

Cuomo wielded the IDC in similar fashion. For Democrats, control of the state Senate has been like the “Peanuts” trope in which Lucy pulls the football away from Charlie Brown over and over again. Every time the Democrats win a majority, some sadist snatches it away from them. In the eyes of progressive activists, these power plays are all rooted in corruption. Republican state Senate leaders gave IDC members stipends, known as lulus, that were typically only paid to committee chairs.

While the average voter may not have followed these machinations, the left sees them as both a product and cause of Albany’s long-standing culture of corruption. And, since that corruption plagues both parties, these activists believe that challenging mainline Democratic incumbents is as worthwhile as going after Cuomo or Klein. During Cuomo’s tenure, more than a dozen members of the state Legislature – most of them Democrats – have been convicted or pleaded guilty to crimes, most related to bribery, pay-to-play schemes or embezzlement. Meanwhile, Cuomo’s former top aide Joe Percoco was convicted on bribery charges in March. In July, Alain Kaloyeros, once seen as a “rock star” of the Cuomo administration, was convicted of bid-rigging. (None of the allegations have involved Cuomo himself.)

A spokesperson for the governor didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time.

Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham Law professor who is vying with three other Democrats to become the next state attorney general, makes the pitch that she would be the most aggressive in confronting both Trump’s policies and Albany’s cesspool. “Some lawsuits are shields and some lawsuits are swords,” she told City & State. “Some are shields against illegal behavior – and they’re absolutely critical – but we also need to use the law as a sword and go after the heart of Trump’s power, which is his businesses.” She pointed to her work on litigation brought by the attorneys general of Delaware and the District of Columbia that alleges Trump is violating the Constitution’s “emoluments clause,” and promised that she would continue to “follow the money” if elected.

“Cuomo postures that he’s for the DREAM Act or criminal justice reform or campaign finance reform, (but) he’s actually used the IDC to block those very things.” Bill Lipton, Working Families Party co-founder

The attorney general’s race is a good example of how this year’s primaries don’t always fit neatly into the typical left-right framework. Of the top two contenders in polls, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, is a moderate white upstate New Yorker, and New York City Public Advocate Letitia James is an African-American woman with a thoroughly progressive record and agenda. So in most races across the country, James be the furthest-left candidate – but not in this race. James has sought establishment support, lobbying the state Legislature to appoint her to fill the position temporarily. (James later said she would not seek the appointment.) She won the Democratic designation for attorney general at the state party convention – other candidates had to gather petitions to get onto the ballot – and spurned the WFP, in apparent deference to Cuomo, who has feuded bitterly with the left-wing party.

Cuomo endorsed James, and helped her raise money for the race, according to the Times. She’s also received the endorsements of the overwhelming majority of party players who have weighed in so far. These maneuvers make some liberal reformers wonder if she’ll tackle corruption in Albany.

But James is testing if one can be the candidate of progressives and party power brokers simultaneously. On the stump, she levies withering criticism at the Trump administration, talks passionately about criminal justice reform, calls for legalizing marijuana and touts her work with Cuomo to bring new affordable housing units to the city. “Tish James has a real record of progressive accomplishments – from banning questions about salary history, to protecting tenants from unscrupulous landlords, to defending our most vulnerable communities,” said Delaney Kempner, a spokeswoman for James, in an emailed statement. “New Yorkers know that she is the most qualified and experienced candidate to take on Donald Trump and continue advancing the lives of all.”

According to the latest Siena College poll, James is leading by a healthy margin, but with 4 in 10 New Yorkers remaining undecided, it’s still considered up for grabs.

Alessandra Biaggi
Photo by Claire Lorenzo
While the Democratic Socialists of America has seen its membership surge and first-time candidates have jumped into Democratic primaries from the left in great numbers, there’s reason to believe that the insurgency may ultimately be swamped by mainstream Democrats, especially in potentially swing districts where voters may not want to take a chance on an insurgent candidate. Nationally, more experienced candidates are still performing better. In Democratic primaries for open seats across the country, an analysis by FiveThirtyEight found, “Having held elected office before has given candidates a 12-point boost, on average, in vote share.” The IDC challenger to rack up the most endorsements from elected officials has been Robert Jackson, a former city councilman from Manhattan who – unlike every other IDC challenger besides former New York City Comptroller John Liu, who is challenging state Sen. Tony Avella – has held elected office before.

Perceived electability may have helped Antonio Delgado secure the Democratic nomination in the hotly contested 19th Congressional District. Delgado, an attorney for the powerhouse law firm Akin Gump, was arguably the most centrist candidate in the seven-person primary, favoring a public insurance option over “Medicare for All” and remaining noncommittal on proposals to combat global warming, such as a carbon tax. But he’s charismatic, has an impressive resume and stressed his ability to beat the Republican incumbent, Rep. John Faso. “I can win,” he said to this reporter during the primary campaign. “And that’s an important piece. I’ve been working very hard over the past year building an organization that touches every corner of this district. I’m the only candidate to (raise more money) than John Faso. (I was) the first candidate to go on TV and in mailboxes.”

Delgado garnered the endorsements of lefty grass-roots groups like Citizen Action of New York, in addition to several mainstream Democratic organizations. Zach Feuer, who runs a private Facebook group of around 2,500 local progressive activists in the district, said a few of its members grumbled about Delgado’s moderate policy positions, but in the end, his “perceived electability was the decisive factor.”

If Nixon fails to win, the irony of the race may be that Teachout made Cuomo harder to beat.

The same dynamic could play out when state and local primaries are decided in September, potentially protecting incumbents from the progressive wave. Nixon continues to trail Cuomo by more than 30 percentage points, according to the latest Siena College poll, perhaps because it is hard to convince many working-class Democrats to trust an untested celebrity over a governor running ads about policies he has delivered.

If Nixon fails to win, the irony of the race may be that Teachout, who worked briefly on Nixon’s campaign before jumping into the attorney general’s race, made Cuomo harder to beat in 2018 by challenging the governor in the 2014 primary and forcing him to cover his left flank in his second term. “When Zephyr ran against Cuomo, it created a clear data point that he was in trouble with progressives,” Lipton said. “(Since then), the insurgency has been so strong that he’s had to shift to the left. But when he has shifted left, it’s been in ways that were very carefully crafted to not alienate his donors.”

Most of the IDC challengers must contend with voters being cynical about the state government and New York Democrats not all being as liberal as one might assume. Some of the former state Senate IDC members, including Klein, Avella, Diane Savino and David Carlucci, represent districts in the suburbs or the far reaches of the outer boroughs, where many registered Democrats are not necessarily liberals or loyal partisans.

Like Cuomo, the former IDC members are talking up their accomplishments and downplaying their backroom maneuvering. Facing a challenge from Jackson, state Sen. Marisol Alcántara told City Limits, “My opponents are trying to wipe out my entire career of work – in the labor movement, for immigrants, and on behalf of women’s issues – because of a year and a half that I spent in the IDC. My opponent doesn’t talk about anything that I’ve voted on.”

The other complicating factor in New York is race. Nixon has struggled to put together the multiracial coalition that Ocasio-Cortez rode to victory. According to the Siena College poll, Cuomo’s strongest support comes from the African-American community, which backs the incumbent by a 56-point margin. Keith Boykin, who teaches at the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, explained that “black Democrats, especially older black Democrats, often tend to support mainstream candidates they believe can win in a general election.”

Whether or not challengers from the left can pull off Ocasio-Cortez-like upsets this fall, the insurgency is already moving New York to the left: The IDC is no more and Cuomo has begun to embrace progressive causes he previously opposed, such as recreational marijuana legalization. “(The left is) building a movement that can influence legislation 10 years from now,” said John Krinsky, a political science professor at The City College of New York. “We tend, for often quite good reasons, to have a pretty presentist view of politics. But movement-building needs to take a longer time horizon, or it never builds.”

Correction: This story originally misstated the number of challengers to former IDC members the Communications Workers of America endorsed.

Clarification: This story was updated to note that James eventually took herself out of the running for an attorney general appointment by the Legislature.