How NY’s establishment Democrats are testing progressives’ staying power in 2024

After the progressive waves of the Trump years, some Democrats are challenging one-time insurgents.

Westchester County Executive is looking to unseat Rep. Jamaal Bowman in New York’s 16th Congressional District.

Westchester County Executive is looking to unseat Rep. Jamaal Bowman in New York’s 16th Congressional District. George Latimer Campaign

If you’ve been to the city of Kingston and you like Italian food, then you know about Savona’s. Gabi Madden, a Democrat running for Assembly in the 103rd district, is probably more aware of the restaurant and bar than most. Madden’s family helped start the business back in the 1950s, and she launched her campaign with a packed party there earlier this year. The venue often hosts political events, but this early February event was a little closer to home. Here we had Steve Noble, mayor of Kingston, the district’s largest city, his family decades-entrenched in local politics. Democratic state Sen. James Skoufis, Madden’s former boss and one of the biggest players in Hudson Valley politics, gave a speech. “We need our leaders to focus solely on the priorities of our people, from delivering millions in your tax dollars back home to serving as your advocate in the face of government bureaucracy,” Madden said that night. “This is about your electeds working for you. Bringing government back to the basics, no fear, no intimidation, just service.”

Madden is a young, charismatic candidate challenging an Assembly incumbent, but her primary campaign differs greatly from the headline-grabbing ones that toppled moderates and longtime lawmakers in 2018, 2020, and even in some places in 2022. Madden is a product of the establishment – and she’s coming for a newly elected socialist incumbent, Sarahana Shrestha.

The Trump era of politics saw a corresponding swell of support for progressive policy in New York, buoying candidates like socialist Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman, state Sens. Julia Salazar and Jabari Brisport, and Assembly Members Emily Gallagher and Shrestha, to name a few. To be sure, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party remains formidable in New York, but it’s increasingly clear that centrists aren’t content to let bygones be bygones. In some areas where the progressives are now the incumbents, the Democratic establishment seems to be kicking the tires, looking under the hood and seeing just how much staying power progressives have left in the tank. 

In 2018, rocket-launched celebrity politician AOC was the talk of the New York congressional delegation. Who’s in the spotlight in 2024? Returned Rep. Tom Suozzi, a lifetime politician and “common sense Democrat” who touted hawkish border policy and was tapped by Democrats to run in a special election in the 3rd Congressional District over more progressive options. The marquee race of the upcoming primary elections is a matchup between Bowman, a two-term socialist former school principal, and Westchester County Executive George Latimer, who has held political office since the 80s. Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who resigned from office over a sexual harassment probe and disputed COVID-19 death figures, saw polling suggesting there was an appetite for his return. Meanwhile, New York’s Democratic Socialists of America have had to contend with a state Board of Elections penalty that could imperil their entire war chest based on a paperwork error. And progressives up and down the ballot are seeing challengers, some more serious than others. 

State Sen. James Skoufis speaks at Gabi Madden’s Assembly campaign launch party in February.
State Sen. James Skoufis speaks at Gabi Madden’s Assembly campaign launch party in February. / Photo credit: Gabi Madden Campaign

New York State Democratic Committee Chair Jay Jacobs said there is some fear about how progressive messaging can have ripple effects throughout the Party, but there isn’t any real animosity. “In the messaging, everyone’s got to be careful to remember when they are addressing one constituency, other constituencies can hear them too,” Jacobs said. Former Cuomo Secretary Melissa DeRosa agreed: “People have a perception that Democrats in New York are lax on crime. People have a perception that in New York Democrats care about tax and spend. That is a practical thing, we have the highest taxes in the country – period. We just do,” DeRosa said. 

She said policies like this simplify things for voters who already find themselves bombarded with negative media stories from New York City pillorying Democratic policies. In crucial congressional districts, DeRosa said the impact can look like what the party saw in 2022 – when Democrats lost several New York House seats. 

“Whether or not members of Congress in Long Island had a say in that, (voters are) like ‘the Democrats are in power, Hochul is a Democrat, I’m blaming Democrats – I’m voting Republican,’” DeRosa said. 

Hudson Valley turf war

In his high-profile primary of Bowman in the 16th Congressional District, Latimer has said he would focus on “results, not rhetoric.” He has framed the race as one between a candidate focused on a district and one focused on his national profile and progressive policy. 

“What they are remarking about is not that this competition is a battle between this ideological Democrat and this other ideological Democrat,” Latimer said. “This is, ‘I know George, I’ve worked with George, he’s accomplished things, he’s campaigned with me, and that contrasts with the incumbent who hasn’t done those things.’”

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is targeting progressive Congress members throughout the country with a $100 million war chest, and they’ve endorsed Latimer and funneled at least $600,000 into his campaign. There’s been quiet talk of a possible divide between the Jewish and Black communities in the district, but the real undertone to the race is the staying power of Bowman’s progressive platform – which has included consistent criticism of Israel. He’s been steadily outraised by Latimer thus far and has had some unflattering hit pieces circulated but believes his track record and what he stands for will be the deciding factor. Bowman said he was disappointed to learn that Latimer would run against him, especially because of what he perceived as a lack of collaboration and mentorship since he first entered politics.

“They can continue to distract all they want, but the results speak for themselves,” he said. In contrast to the way the race has been framed, Latimer claimed that he himself is a progressive. Upon hearing this, Bowman laughed. “You know what’s hilarious,” Bowman asked. “When someone has to declare themselves as something, that means they’re not really that thing. Even when I talk about myself now I don’t even call myself progressive, I’m a Black man in America.”

Rep. Jamaal Bowman speaks at a Banned Book Week press conference in September. He says his progressive stances will speak for themselves.
Rep. Jamaal Bowman speaks at a Banned Book Week press conference in September. He says his progressive stances will speak for themselves. / Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Hudson Valley is also home to two Assembly primaries where establishment candidates are testing the waters. Madden’s old boss, former Assembly Member Kevin Cahill, lost a primary to Shrestha in 2022. Now Madden is attempting to win the seat back. But what looked like a concentrated attack on a progressive incumbent has been recast with a duller edge. 

Shrestha, the only upstate elected official in the Legislature endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, got the overwhelming support of both the Ulster and Dutchess County Democratic committees in late February. There’s an entire race left to be run, but, “it’s all about how you bring those people into your politics,” Shrestha said. “It’s not necessarily that people disagree on the policies themselves. Even Republicans and independent voters do have a base for economic justice. And they may be conservative on ‘cultural issues,’ but the whole point is to bring them into our political process.”

South on the Hudson River is the 92nd Assembly District, located wholly in Westchester County. Assembly Member MaryJane Shimsky holds the seat after she beat former Assembly Member Tom Abinanti in the 2022 Democratic primary. 

Shimsky is not exactly an outsider, having previously served for over a decade in the Westchester County Legislature. But when they endorsed her in 2022, then Working Families Party Executive Director Sochie Nnaemeka called her a “strong advocate for our progressive values.” Abinanti, a former 12-year incumbent, reportedly hopes to return. He is expected to announce his candidacy soon.  

Even in western Queens…

In New York City, several progressive candidates are fending off challengers this spring. 

Assembly Member Juan Ardila’s 37th Assembly District is odd in that he’s a footnote in his own race. Ardila was a progressive darling when he was first elected in 2022, but after sexual misconduct allegations were brought against him, his star faded dramatically. He ultimately denied the allegations. He’s running for reelection, but the real race is between union organizer Claire Valdez and attorney Johanna Carmona. Former Assembly Member Cathy Nolan chose Carmona as her handpicked successor in 2022. 

Valdez’s roots as an organizer are on full display as her campaign knocks on doors throughout the district. She said she expected her socialist leanings to be a line of attack during the campaign, but it wouldn’t prove to be much of an issue. 

“Taxing the rich has overwhelming support in New York state. In New York City certainly there’s majority tenants – tenant protections, building affordable housing that’s deeply and permanently affordable is broadly popular,” said Valdez. “We’re really reflecting a broader constituency of working families in the state, and that’s what we’re going to fight for when we win.”

Carmona bristled at the framing of the establishment given her roots in the community both professionally and as a community organizer. She also worked in the Brooklyn district attorney’s office and as a staffer for New York City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams. “When they say establishment, is it that they're against someone from the community?” Carmona asked. “I'm not really sure what that means.”

Carmona lost to Ardila in 2022 but now has to face off against Valdez, a well-funded DSA member who appeared to be the front-runner in the early days of the campaign. Carmona said this time will be different, her experience in the last campaign serving valuable lessons. She cautioned that voters have less appetite for progressive policy ideas than they do for results in their community. Valdez has other ideas. 

“It’s one of the most progressive districts, frankly, in all of New York state,” Valdez said.

Over in Brooklyn, there were also rumblings late last year that state Sen. Jabari Brisport would face a primary challenge rumored to be backed by House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries. Maternal health care advocate Chanel Porchia-Albert announced a campaign run in 2023 and has accepted donations into the new year but does not have a campaign website, nor did she respond to requests for comment. Brisport won his Democratic primary in 2022 handily. 

“The political mood does not necessarily translate into unseating incumbents in a primary, and the turnout is just too low,” said political consultant Sam Raskin. He added that a wave of seats shifting to the center of the Party was unlikely this year, especially as galvanizing issues such as the war in Gaza and public safety continue to shift ahead of the primary election date. But progressive incumbents don’t have a cakewalk to stay in office either. Links to some divisive policies take work to smooth out with a constituency.

“There is obviously a pressure for some of these left-wing incumbents to fold on some of these issues, and what we've seen is that they've had to sort of walk that tightrope,” Raskin said. 

The outcome he said was that in many cases, progressives figure out a way to marry their policy stances to their district in a way that doesn’t put them in peril electorally simply for being progressive. 

“I think some of these lawmakers have done a very good job of doing the constituent services, of being palatable to voters across their district,” Raskin said.

Jacobs went even further and said that some parts of New York simply need progressive candidates, and the Party needs to respect that. “You have to have a place in this electorate for elected officials and candidates who represent progressive areas and who are themselves progressive,” he said. 

DSA money problems

Pushback against progressives extends to the legal realm also. New York’s chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America is currently involved in a court case over its campaign spending in 2022. Michael L. Johnson, chief enforcement counsel of the state Board of Elections, claimed the DSA didn’t file the proper paperwork when setting up a campaign committee, D.S.A. for the Many, for its candidates. The suit alleged the committee violated election law, fundraising and acting on behalf of candidates who never authorized them to do so. 

The state Board of Elections decided during a hearing in December that socialists were in violation of election law and needed to pay a settlement and fine totaling over $300,000. That came at a time when the DSA’s national apparatus faced an ongoing budget deficit and layoffs. DSA has denied the allegations Johnson brought against them, saying BOE officials advised they were in compliance, but has to head to state Supreme Court in Albany as Johnson attempts to have the financial penalties enforced. 

“It appears,” Johnson’s attorneys wrote in court filings, “that Respondents seek to elevate DSAFTM into a new category of political committee, allowed to include whomever Respondents wish to support with an ever-changing slate of candidates regardless of whether actual authorization is provided by the candidates themselves, that is untouchable by the Election Law...”

Johnson was both a former Cuomo staffer and Cuomo’s nominee for the role when he took the position in 2021. While in office Cuomo was openly hostile toward progressives, writing that the modern progressive platform was flawed and that New York was an example of “the shortcomings of some modern-day progressivism.” In a 2019 Daily News op-ed, he added progressive failure was fuel for Republican attacks. Years later, progressive organizers are seeing that sentiment and those fears play out.

“Whether they intend to or not, this sends a chilling message to grass-roots organizations,” Jeremy Cohan, a leader of DSA’s New York chapter during the time it was using the fundraising mechanism in question, told The New York Times in January. “This is ultimately a case about paperwork and not substance. I myself am a little flummoxed as to why it has been an enforcement priority.”

Even with inroads made by the progressive politics, DeRosa said the Democratic establishment base looks the same. “It’s unions, it’s Black churches, it’s the party chairs, it’s the same as it’s always been,” she said. 

Speaking to progressive politicians and party leaders, many don’t feel under the gun at the thought of the Democratic establishment testing their strength. The challenges aren’t being discounted by any means, but with past primaries serving as examples of their staying power and local Democrat committees cognizant of incumbent popularity, progressives are operating as if it is business as usual. 

“We take all the threats seriously,” said New York Working Families Party Co-Chair Jasmine Gripper.  “We know we are going to work really hard to protect our champions and keep them in office. That is one of our top priorities beyond just growing our power: It’s protecting the power that we have built.” 

Her Co-Chair Ana María Archila said the reason progressive electeds remain successful is because they have to work harder and smarter as they go against the grain of mainstream politics. 

“They understand they're swimming against the tide, so their efforts are much more forceful, their ideas are much more clear and their visible commitment to organizing support both in their communities and amongst their peers to win is much more obvious,” she said. “It is rare to find a progressive legislator who says ‘nothing we can do here,’ and that distinguishes them from other electeds.”

Veteran consultant Hank Sheinkopf, reflecting on the past several years of Democratic policy and election results, contended that any antipathy from established Democrats had more to do with retaining control than anything else. He said rather than push back against progressive elements because they disagreed with them, they wanted to keep the status quo.

“It’s all about power, it's not about ideology,” he added. “Who controls the votes, who gets the resources, who determines priorities?”