New York City

10th District campaigns dogged by what-ifs after Goldman victory

Dan Goldman spent his way to a win in the open seat in Congress, and the left is pointing fingers. But would candidates dropping out have stopped the first-time candidate?

In the 10th Congressional District, getting supporters of different campaigns to coalesce around one leading progressive candidate and actually vote for them is easier said than done.

In the 10th Congressional District, getting supporters of different campaigns to coalesce around one leading progressive candidate and actually vote for them is easier said than done. Alex Law and Andrew Horton

If you just look at the numbers, the case for consolidation was obvious – in hindsight. Dan Goldman, holder of the moderate banner in the 10th Congressional District primary, won with 26% of the vote, according to preliminary election night results. The three more progressive candidates who got second, third and fourth place got a combined 59% of the vote. That’s in a district where, according to a July poll from the Working Families Party, 51% of likely voters identified as progressive and another 29% as moderate leaning progressives. Just 18% called themselves moderates or conservative. So these lower Manhattan and western Brooklyn neighborhoods, which combine into what is described by some as one of the most progressive districts in the country, will be sending a white male former prosecutor, rich from generational wealth, to Congress – barring any shocking political developments between now and November, like a long shot challenge on the Working Families Party ballot line.

How did Goldman, a first time candidate, pull it off? And why couldn’t progressives unify to stop it? 

Turns out that getting supporters of different campaigns to coalesce around one leading progressive candidate and actually vote for them is easier said than done. Especially when there isn’t agreement on who’s leading, and who’s progressive.

No one asked Carlina Rivera to drop out. “We just kept running,” she told City & State Thursday after the election. “We had our message, we knew we had our base of support.” Rivera, a New York City Council member, represents a sizable chunk of the 10th District, including the East Village and Lower East Side. She finished fourth in the race, according to preliminary election night results, earning 17% of the vote. That was just 792 votes shy of third place finisher Rep. Mondaire Jones, who got 18%, and 4,395 votes short of Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou, who finished second, with 24%. Potentially thousands of absentee ballots won’t be counted until a week after the election (a small percentage of the nearly 65,000 votes counted so far), but the results aren’t expected to change. The Associated Press called the race on election night, and Goldman is doing the rounds as the presumptive nominee. 

Even if nobody directly asked Rivera to drop out, the argument was being made in the race’s final days – by progressive stakeholders and even by Niou herself. “I do believe that progressives need to consolidate,” Politico reported Niou saying. “And I believe that based on the ground game, the coalition that we have … and based on the polling, that ours is the campaign to consolidate around.”

Niou’s campaign hit that message hard in the final days. Fundraising emails highlighted polling results, showing Niou ahead of Rivera and Jones, and “just a few points behind multi-millionaire Dan Goldman. She CAN win.”

There’s anecdotal evidence the messaging worked, at least a little. Gothamist reported on a voter on primary day who wanted to stave off a win by Goldman. She preferred Rivera, but voted for Niou because she was polling higher.

The Emerson College Poll driving that argument was released after early voting had already begun, and actually ended up accurately reflecting the election night results quite well, including the final order of the top six candidates. Individual polls should never be taken as gospel, and this one received its fair share of criticism from campaigns in the race. But the most important aspect may not have been that it showed Goldman with a solid lead, but that it showed Niou, Jones and Rivera all within striking distance within a week of the primary. Previous public polls in the race showed a tight field, with candidates separated by single-digit margins, if separated at all.

“It’s not like Carlina or any other of these candidates were polling at 1%,” said one New York City politician who endorsed one of the progressive candidates and asked for anonymity to speak freely about the race. “It’s really hard to tell a candidate who’s been working for months you’ve got to drop out” – especially when they can still imagine a path to victory. 

Any talk of the progressive movement choosing one candidate to run in the race should have happened much earlier, argued Evan Roth Smith, a consultant with Slingshot Strategies who advised Rivera’s campaign. “I don’t think the time for consolidation is at the end of the campaign – ever,” It’s unprecedented to think that “viable, major leading campaigns in a crowded field would drop out” of a congressional primary, he said. 

But the movement didn’t have much time to plan. The race started with a political earthquake in May. There would be a new district in lower Manhattan and western Brooklyn. The two longtime Congress members who represented most of the area over the past 30 years, Jerry Nadler and Nydia Velázquez, were running elsewhere. That meant an open seat in some of the most vote-rich – and financially rich – areas in the city. Iconic, dense neighborhoods with decades-old political clubs would be getting its first new representatives in decades. Within days, Jones announced he would leave the Lower Hudson Valley district where he had earned a reputation as a progressive rising star and run for this seat instead. Niou had already generated excitement on the left for her planned challenge to state Sen. Brian Kavanagh’s reelection. She too switched races and jumped in. And Rivera, fresh off a disappointing end to her campaign for City Council speaker, saw another opportunity for a bigger role, in the district where she was born and raised (...and had moved out of, just months before). Other big names jumped in too: former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who actually would take progressive hints and drop out. Assembly Member Jo Anne Simon, who just had a solid performance in the 2021 race for Brooklyn borough president. Liz Holtzman, a former Congress member, Brooklyn district attorney and city comptroller, who last held office in 1993. And, of course, Goldman. The lead counsel to the House Democrats during the first impeachment of President Donald Trump had burnished his #Resistance hero credentials as a legal commentator on MSNBC, just like 2021 New York City mayoral candidate Maya Wiley before him. Goldman had never held office before, but he briefly launched a run for attorney general in late 2021. His campaign says he raised $1 million in just 24 hours, proving his formidability as a candidate – but dropped his bid when it turned out Letitia James would be seeking reelection after all. The open seat in his home district presented another opportunity. 

So among Niou, Jones and Rivera, voters in the 10th Congressional District had a glut of ambitious, progressive people of color under 40 years old with experience in elected office who were looking for their support. To many, that seemed more of an asset than a problem – at least until Goldman proved himself to be a serious threat. 

Major endorsers in the progressive movement were split among the three from the get-go. Others never endorsed at all – such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and New York City Comptroller Brad Lander – possibly unwilling to choose among multiple candidates who shared their values. Among the backers who did choose, some are expressing regret. “I think a whole bunch of people should never have dropped in! Once you’re in it’s hard to drop out,” said George Albro, co-chair of the New York Progressive Action Network, which endorsed Jones. “But maybe this wasn’t the right fit for him. Maybe he should have taken on Sean Patrick Maloney in a district where people knew him more.” (Yes, the progressive what-ifs extend far beyond the bounds of the 10th Congressional District). 

Albro is hardly alone. What Went Wrong has been one of the hottest topics among New York progressives on Twitter post-election and the subject of articles in Politico, The Nation, and Crain’s. It’s even earned in-jokes from Joni Kletter, a campaign staffer for a certain former mayor, who dropped out of the race in July. “Lots of blame going around, but one thing is for sure,” she tweeted, “nobody can blame Bill de Blasio.”

But it’s much harder to predict what would have happened had a candidate dropped out of the race than it may seem at first. It’s a vast oversimplification to assume that, if Jones had dropped out of the race and endorsed Niou, she would have won. Jones’ campaign spent about $700,000 on ads criticizing Goldman in the final two weeks of the campaign, explained Bill Neidhardt, a consultant for Jones. Having Jones in the race, spending that money, may have done more to drive down Goldman’s vote share than dropping out would have. “The question was always going to be, this guy (Goldman) is putting in $4 million,” Neidhardt said. “Is he going to do that unchecked? … It’s as legitimate an argument to me as consolidation is.”

Goldman’s own campaign was also eager to tamp down any arguments that Goldman was only the choice of a privileged, moderate minority in the district. His pollster, Jeff Liszt presented some compelling poll numbers in a Twitter thread, days after the election. He asked likely voters their second preference in the race, as well as their first, weeks before the primary. And sure enough, voters who preferred Jones or Rivera weren’t all voting for Niou if their candidate dropped out – just as many of them might have backed Goldman instead. 

“It’s way more complicated than the arguments folks had made,” that a unified progressive front would have won, Goldman campaign spokesperson Simone Kanter told City & State. In the press, and on the debate stage, Goldman and his campaign had to spend a lot of energy explaining that his policy positions were actually progressive. He doesn’t support limits on abortion care (despite what he said, and quickly retracted, in one interview with Orthodox Jewish outlet Hamodia). He wants to expand health care coverage (but doesn’t think universal, single-payer is the way to do it). Biden’s plan for forgiving student debt doesn’t go far enough (but shouldn’t go as far as universal forgiveness). He thinks the U.S. Supreme Court has a legitimacy crisis following recent conservative rulings (but expanding the court would be antidemocratic). Goldman may have been a moderate candidate in this race, but on the national scale, in Congress, he’s at least a mainstream Democrat, if not a progressive. Kanter said he’ll join the Congressional Progressive Caucus and scoffed at the idea of joining the Blue Dog Coalition of moderates. 

Remember, this is somebody who endorsed Alvin Bragg for Manhattan District Attorney in 2021. Goldman may be outcast by the city’s progressive movement, but he is far from a Republican. “Folks take small differences and try to blow them up out of proportion to try to gain leverage in the race,”Kanter said. “There's been a very coordinated effort on our part to clear the record.”

And Goldman was able to do that, thanks in part to the $4 million he gave his own campaign, plus the additional $2 million and counting he was able to raise from outside donors. While highly informed voters may have eagerly watched the back-and-forths over policy, Goldman was, per his campaign, making 2.1 million phone calls, sending 774,000 text messages and knocking on 127,000 doors with a clear, positive message about the public servant who helped protect our democracy by impeaching Trump. He won what might have been the most coveted endorsement in the race, from The New York Times editorial board, which praised his federal law enforcement experience. Goldman got outside support from the Mainstream Democrats super PAC, which further bolstered his credentials among moderate Democrats. The Tzadek super PAC helped turn out Orthodox Jewish voters, helping lead to his massive margins in the Borough Park sliver of the district. Another super PAC, indirectly funded by the conservative leaning American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, slammed Niou time and time again on topics like a receiving a tax warrant from the state, and her verbal support for the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement’s right to protest the Israeli government, which may have limited Niou’s appeal. Taken as a whole, pro-Goldman spending absolutely dominated the race, where candidates had just three months to get their names out.  

The starkest differences between Goldman and the progressive runners up may be identity and class. Jones is Black and gay and grew up in section 8 housing. Niou is a Taiwanese immigrant, out queer and autistic. Rivera is a Puerto Rican raised in the district as the daughter of a NYPD civil servant. Goldman is a straight white man raised in Washington, D.C. with generational wealth from his ancestor’s leadership in Levi Strauss & Co. and Smart & Final grocery stores. He’s an easy target for the left, and that’s why so many in the progressive movement are now eager for a do-over. And not just at the next primary in 2024, but as soon as November. Progressive leaders are calling on Niou to take the Working Families Party ballot line and take on Goldman again in the general election. It might not happen, for a hundred different reasons, but Niou has kept the door open, telling NY1 on Friday that she’s in discussions “with WFP and my community.”

Asked for her thoughts on the idea, Rivera took the role of a curious outsider. It’s a hypothetical for now, she said, but “I’ll be interested to see what the plan is.” The candidate was holding her head up high, amid talk of what went wrong for progressives – though she couldn’t resist a dig at Goldman. “Ultimately people should be able to run if they want to. And my candidacy and everything it stood for deserved a place in this race and I’m proud of what we accomplished. I imagine it’s much easier to run a campaign when you have $4 million of generational wealth or a war chest to run on.” But Rivera stood by her campaign message, of a Latina running to serve an urban agenda. “We certainly had a place in this race, and as hard as it was and as hot of a summer as it turned out to be, I don’t regret a thing.”