Campaigns & Elections

Jay Jacobs backs Hochul after giving Cuomo a “heads-up”

The state Democratic Party chair throws his support behind the governor to discourage primary challengers.

Jay Jacobs at a press conference on Oct. 4.

Jay Jacobs at a press conference on Oct. 4. Rebecca C. Lewis

Gov. Kathy Hochul received a key endorsement on Monday ahead of her campaign for a full term next year: state Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs. Although Jacobs said his endorsement was done in a personal capacity that does not reflect the intent of the state party, the announcement already had some on the left seeing his backing as evidence that Hochul is just business as usual. He also called former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a onetime close ally, to alert him of the endorsement – further driving home that point.

Both behind the scenes and in public, Jacobs had been discouraging other potential candidates from challenging Hochul next year before Monday’s announcement. “I believe a party torn apart by multiple candidates in multiple primaries for multiple offices will exhaust precious resources, divide us and make us weaker in a year we have to be the strongest,” Jacobs said at the Nassau County Democratic Committee headquarters on Long Island, an organization he also chairs. He was likely referring to state Attorney General Letitia James, whose entrance into the race for governor would lead to a wide open primary for her seat that would likely attract many candidates, including several current legislators. “Ambition is a necessary trait in our business, but no one should supplant the unity and success of our party with their own ambition,” Jacobs said, adding that his endorsement was also made in a bid for transparency as he works to get Hochul elected.

Jacobs also endorsed James for attorney general, a seat that she may not even seek again. “I respect her tremendously and I understand her position,” Jacobs said after praising James’ work as attorney general. “I think she’s got to use her own judgment and then see if this is right for her.” A spokesperson for James did not immediately return a request for comment.

Jacobs’ decision to weigh in on the race before other candidates even have announced whether they are running did not sit well with some progressives. “I would say not the best messenger for progressives who are hoping for (a) new and fresh way (than) the status quo,” said political consultant Camille Rivera in a text. “He was the last man standing with the former (governor). Jacobs brings the sign that (it) is politics as usual.” Jacobs described Hochul as a “pragmatic progressive,” a phrase used by the likes of Cuomo and New York City Democratic mayoral nominee Eric Adams to differentiate themselves from left-wing members of their party. But Jacobs immediately followed that up by calling Hochul a moderate with “a message that will resonate with an overwhelming majority of New Yorkers.” State Republican Party Chair Nick Langworthy questioned what those dueling descriptors actually mean. “What the hell is a progressive moderate?” he asked on Twitter.

Further muddying the waters is the fact that Jacobs said he called Cuomo, an ally who appointed him to lead the state party, to give him a “heads-up” about the endorsement. “It was just a courtesy call. I called all the leaders. I’ve spoken to each of the major people who would consider being a major candidate – almost all of them,” Jacobs said. Questioned whether he thought Cuomo still holds significant political sway, Jacobs described Cuomo as a private citizen “not trying to advance any policy or views.” But he also said that he had not called any other former governor to alert him of the endorsement as a “courtesy,” adding that he plans to call former Gov. David Paterson.

The call to Cuomo raised eyebrows among political observers. “That kind of confirms the tea leaves that Cuomo is actively trying to influence what’s going on in Democratic Party politics, and is perceived as doing so,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, in an interview. Cuomo has not remained completely silent since leaving office as he and his surrogates have continued to cast doubt on the attorney general’s report. Shortly before Jacobs’ endorsement, his campaign sent an email to supporters in which he said he fears “the state is in a dangerous moment” with “extremists and political expediency” ruling.

Kaehny said the “gossip” around Albany is that Cuomo is eyeing a primary run, although Jacobs said the former governor never indicated anything of the sort to him. Still, he said “anything is possible,” while saying such a move would be “counterproductive” for the Democratic Party. “With a guy like him with unlimited political ambition and vengeance burning in his heart, I would think that we’re not going to really know until much further down the road, much closer to the primary,” Kaehny said of the prospect of Cuomo jumping into the race.

Jacobs’ endorsement of Hochul also was not well received by at least one potential primary challenger. New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams lambasted Jacobs in a statement. “His role, and that of the highest ranking Democratic officials in our state, should be to uplift Democratic candidates, Democratic voters and democratic values,” said Williams, the first to explicitly state his interest in becoming governor through the formation of an exploratory committee. “Instead, he is clinging to the systems that have empowered him, in the same way he and many others clung to Governor Cuomo – until it was politically impossible to do so, but long after it was in any way justifiable.” Jacobs was among the last to call for Cuomo’s resignation, after most other lawmakers at the state and federal level had already done so.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, another potential challenger, authored a tweet Monday afternoon that seemed aimed at the Jacobs endorsement. “.@ericadamsfornyc is a common sense Democrat who emerged victorious in a crowded Democratic primary,” Bellone wrote. “In any election, the best approach is to let the voters decide.” A subtweet if there ever were one.

Kaehny said that despite Jacobs saying this was a personal endorsement, it didn’t change the optics of the head of the state party jumping into the discourse. “It’s an example of dysfunction for any organization to have your boss running around saying, ‘As a person I feel this,’” Kaehny said. But ultimately, he doesn’t think Jacobs’ endorsement will change any hearts or minds of those considering a run, noting that he has a track record of making personal endorsements like this. It’s a fact that Jacobs acknowledged on Monday. “I am also not so arrogant as to assume that anyone will follow me or that a candidate who is currently considering a run will change course at this time,” Jacobs said, before downplaying his own influence as the head of the state party.

When asked about the endorsement and the call to Cuomo at an unrelated event on Monday, Hochul declined to say whether she thought it was appropriate for Jacobs to alert her predecessor of his decision but welcomed his support.