The last time New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s name was on a primary ballot, in September 2018, more than 65% of Democratic voters backed him for a third term. In a defiant news conference the day after the vote, Cuomo brushed back suggestions that a progressive wave was sweeping the state.
“Not even a ripple,” he said.
But as the results came in on election night, they arrived with a warning – and a signal that the political dynamics in a state Cuomo has ruled now for more than a decade were beginning to shift under his feet. A slate of progressive challengers in state Senate races nearly wiped out a band of incumbent Democrats who had for years, up until a few months before the primaries, caucused with Republicans as part of a power-sharing deal that assured a GOP majority and kept the legislature at an impasse.
The demise of the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference was not only a rebuke to the powerful governor, who used the gridlock to tighten his grip on power, but the early rumblings of a political earthquake now rolling through New York Democratic Party politics.
A new generation of mostly young, diverse and progressive Democratic lawmakers, unbound to the traditional power brokers, entered the state Senate in 2019 determined to demystify its opaque machinations and hammer through an aggressive agenda that had been tied up for years in the capital. Within months, new abortion rights guarantees had been written into state law, rent stabilization rules were expanded, marijuana decriminalized and undocumented immigrants offered access to drivers licenses. The list goes on. Cuomo signed off on the new measures, but progressives insisted his support was largely driven by lawmakers who had backed him into a corner.
As the governor now contends with a series of scandals that could derail his plans to seek a fourth term next year, or potentially result in his impeachment before he has the chance, New York Democrats are entering a period of upheaval unseen since the fiscal crisis of the 1970s. At the state level in New York City, which will elect a new mayor this fall, and throughout the party’s traditional political power bases, leadership is either changing or in flux. Meanwhile, coronavirus cases are on the rise again and the roiling debate over how to rebuild a battered economy seems poised to create new alliances and further endanger old ones in an increasingly blue state.
For some, it is an unraveling to mourn. For others, a renaissance to celebrate. But the transformation has been a long time coming.
The demographic and ideological makeup of the city and some of its suburbs have been evolving for decades and the party machinery that zealously guarded the political pipelines has often failed to keep up. County parties in the city have suffered a series of embarrassing defeats over the past three years. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 primary victory over 10-term Rep. Joe Crowley threw the Queens Democratic Party, which he chaired, into turmoil. Two years later, Rep. Jamaal Bowman shook up the status quo in the Bronx when he denied Rep. Eliot Engel, by then the longest serving New Yorker in the House, a 17th term. Months later, the Covid-19 pandemic arrived and, through successive cataclysmic waves, set the stage for a mayoral race in 2021 whose winner will inherit from term-limited New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio a shell-shocked city now beset by racist violence against Asian Americans. The city council is also poised to see historic turnover thanks to term limits, approved by voters two decades ago, that are now in full effect – leading hundreds of candidates to run for places on the 51-seat body.
“There is a huge generational shift happening. The old guard is retired, being defeated or getting indicted and they are being replaced by younger people,” said Kenneth Sherrill, a professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College.
These are heady days for New York progressives, but in a mirror of the debate that consumed Democrats during the 2020 presidential primary, moderates are quick to warn that an unchecked left could threaten the party’s foothold in less blue parts of the state.
“It’s a tough state, and you’ve got to balance these various constituencies because you have Democrats from the city who are being pushed by the far left, or in some cases are members of the far left,” New York State Democratic Committee Chair Jay Jacobs told CNN. “But you balance that with (the risk of) passing things that will put a target on the back of moderate Democrats who have a tenuous hold on their districts here in the suburbs.”
Progressive surge complicates old alliances
Ocasio-Cortez’s primary triumph three years ago stunned the city and state political establishment, including many outside organizations, like the Working Families Party, which along with union allies, parlayed the new sense of possibility – and a super-charged progressive grassroots – into a bull rush against the turncoat Democratic state Senate incumbents.
The upheaval continued over the next two years with progressive and leftist candidates ousting incumbents and seasoned, machine-backed candidates up and down the ballot.
“The defenders of the establishment were in denial for a couple of years,” Democratic state Sen. Mike Gianaris, the deputy majority leader, told CNN. “Everyone had an excuse for everything that was happening other than what was staring them in the face, which is that there is an energized movement of progressives that is now affecting results on the ground.”
The left’s gains, however, exposed some deep-seated cracks in the traditional progressive coalition.
In the run-up to the 2018 gubernatorial primary, the alliance of labor and community groups that made up the Working Families Party, which was founded in New York two decades earlier, blew up over the party’s decision to endorse actor and activist Cynthia Nixon’s campaign. Unwilling to break so spectacularly from the governor, who would end up spending more than $26 million on the race, the unions left the Working Families Party.
Their defection underscored Cuomo’s consuming hold on the state, but also signaled the opening of a gap between progressive and leftist groups, like the ascendant Democratic Socialists of America, and organized labor. The liberal revival, which had shifted the window of legislative possibility to the left, also exposed fundamental divides between the approaches favored by activist organizations and most of organized labor’s largest political operations.
That quiet rift is on display now as top unions have scattered their support among the New York City mayoral hopefuls and stand by quietly as New York Attorney General Letitia James investigates multiple claims of sexual harassment and other improper behavior against Cuomo. Even the most historically progressive unions, including those who backed challengers to the erstwhile turncoat Democratic members even after leaving the Working Families Party, have stopped short of calling for the governor to resign as they weigh their interests – and opportunities – during a period of remarkable uncertainty.
The president of 32BJ SEIU, Kyle Bragg, told CNN that while the union has “zero tolerance for sexual harassment,” it would withhold judgment on Cuomo until the state attorney general’s probe had run its course.
“There’s an investigation that’s taking place by a Black woman, who’s our attorney general who carries the respect of many people in this state, 32BJ included in those ranks, and believe that she will do a very competent, thorough job of investigating that,” Bragg said. “As she completes her investigation and we have access to the facts as exposed to through the investigation, we will be better positioned to decide what we want to say and do publicly about the governor.”
Cuomo has denied ever touching anyone inappropriately and apologized for making others feel uncomfortable.
Whether the governor ultimately stays or goes, labor leaders suggested that their alliances with liberal groups going forward would be considered on a case-by-case basis.
“We will always make decisions that are based on protecting the interests of our members. And that might not always align with other organizations. It might not always align with the WFP,” Bragg said. “Where we can find places to work together, we’ll work together. But it’s not a formal relationship because my responsibility is to my membership. Not to any other organization.”
Hae-Lin Choi, the New York state political and legislative director for the Communications Workers of America, District 1, another traditionally progressive union, whose leadership helped found the Working Families Party, said the new dynamic posed difficult questions for her organization and others.
“We have members to represent and institutional relationships to maintain,” Choi said, “and now that the field to the left has broadened, sometimes we’re constrained in how far we can go.”
Old guard stumbles as its power wanes
All through the state and in the city, traditional sources of power and influence are finding themselves either split or their standing diminished. County political machines in the city, for example, have been waylaid over the past few years.
“The (county) parties have grown weaker in the city,” said Jacobs, the state party leader. “There’s no question – you see what happened to Joe Crowley, who was the chair in Queens, and you look at Brooklyn, which used to be the strongest Democratic organization in the country, perhaps alongside Cook County in Chicago, and you see how those parties have fractured. They’re far less influential. They’re not without influence, but they don’t have the strength that they used to have.”
Their ebbing sway was underscored in 2019, when former Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, with the backing of the county party, barely scraped by public defender Tiffany Cabán, who fell only a few dozen votes short of an upset that would have rivaled Ocasio-Cortez’s, in a Democratic primary for Queens County district attorney.
Cabán, who campaigned with the support of the Working Families Party and DSA, is running again in 2021 – this time for a city council seat in Queens. If she wins, Cabán will be among the most prominent new faces in the body, a traditional launching pad for ambitious politicians.
New York’s estimable Black political establishment, like the county parties, is also facing questions over its leadership amid a reordering determined as much by ideology as age and newly emerging pathways to power.
Much of the old guard in New York has either stood by Cuomo or stopped short of calling for his resignation. Cuomo, in turn, has sought refuge in their embrace, appearing alongside leaders like Hazel Dukes, president of the New York State chapter of the NAACP, and prominent Black clergy. Former New York Rep. Charlie Rangel and state Assemblywoman Inez Dickens, a veteran city and state elected official, have been among the most willing and forceful advocates against calls for Cuomo to immediately step down. The two most powerful Black New Yorkers in Congress, Reps. Hakeem Jeffries and Gregory Meeks, have also refused to join the chorus.
But even as Cuomo and his allies point to his strong standing among those figures and Black voters, as seen in recent polling, mostly younger and more progressive Black political leaders and activists have pushed hard in the opposite direction. Late last month, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams – who ran a strong but unsuccessful campaign for lieutenant governor in 2018 and is expected to seek higher office again – headlined an anti-Cuomo rally in New York City, where Citizen Action of New York political director Stanley Fritz accused the governor of using Black people as “props” to distract from the scandals swirling around him and his top aides.
Cuomo’s fate has also become one of, if not the most significant, dividing lines in a large and chaotic mayoral field.
Less than three months before the Democratic primary, businessman and 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang has emerged as the favorite, but recent polling suggests at least half of primary voters remain undecided.
Yang’s idiosyncratic politics have added another layer of uncertainty to the mix, but for now at least, his energetic, happy-go-lucky campaign appears to be outpacing other, more familiar contenders, like Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer and Maya Wiley, a former counsel to de Blasio and chair of the city’s police oversight board.
Stringer, Wiley and others have called for Cuomo to resign. Yang and Adams have not, instead asking that he step aside during the investigation. The race, which will be determined with a ranked-choice vote, has been mostly driven from the headlines by the drama in Albany, making it difficult even for those paying closer attention to parse the candidates’ messages.
New poles of power emerge in the capital
Community activists have been among the governor’s harshest critics and their clashes are becoming even more fierce now as the state faces a deadline to agree on its annual budget, a legislative leviathan in which progressives want to include taxes hikes on the richest New Yorkers to help raise revenue to fund a post-pandemic recovery that prioritizes the public sector.
The lawmakers at the center of the fight are many of the same figures who came into office over the last five years – a generation that ascended from the grassroots and fancies, rather than shies away from, challenging Cuomo and other establishment bulwarks.
“There is no longer a center of gravity which solely fits within the Democratic establishment under Cuomo’s thumb, but poles of power outside and leaders who have broad, popular backing of voters cheering them on,” said Working Families Party state director Sochie Nnaemeka. “They are opening up the chambers to public view, shedding lights and forcing out of the darkness a lot of the shadowy figures that thrive in Albany.”
State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi and state Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, both Working Families Party allies, have emerged as two of the governor’s most aggressive critics. Their condemnations of Cuomo’s bullying style of politics predated the current round of scandals.
Nnaemeka compared the young lawmakers’ “really sophisticated use of social media” to the pioneering style that Ocasio-Cortez has popularized at the national level.
“Alessandra Biaggi also uses social media to unearth what was meant to be hidden in the process and fundamentally forces her colleagues, whether they do subscribe to those type of politics or not, to act differently because they are now on notice,” Nnaemeka said.
Niou, who first met Biaggi in 2016 and officiated her wedding, arrived in Albany two years ahead of her close friend and political ally after being elected on the same night Donald Trump won the presidency.
“It felt very weird. I couldn’t even celebrate,” Niou said of her first victory. “I literally felt like, ‘Oh my God, I’m definitely here for a reason.’”
She now occupies the seat once held by longtime Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who is serving a prison sentence after being convicted – twice – on federal corruption charges. While Silver became emblematic of the capital’s pervasive culture of secrecy and double-dealing, Niou has taken special care to be hyper-communicative about nearly every decision she makes.
When, at the beginning of the pandemic last year, she voted against giving Cuomo emergency powers, Niou explained in a video her frustration over the closed process, which ended with the legislature approving a measure many lawmakers had little time to consider.
“It is easy to give up power during times of fear,” she said then, “but history tells us that it is rarely easy to take it back. We, as the legislature, are supposed to be the check on this and here we are, ready to hand all of the power to the governor. In a day.”
More than a year later, Cuomo, even after the legislature clawed back some of the authority it granted to him last March, has largely dictated the pace of reopenings, which have continued to move forward despite a recent jump in Covid-19 cases, and the parameters of vaccine eligibility.
‘A preview of the preview’
The Cuomo of last spring, who was celebrated for his daily press conferences and the façade of transparency he projected to the public, is in a very different place now – his poll numbers have begun to tick down, though they have not plummeted, and his political fate increasingly appears tied up in the results of a series of potentially career-ending investigations.
In addition to the state attorney general’s probe, the governor is also being investigated – on multiple fronts – by lawyers retained by the state legislature, whose findings could set off impeachment proceedings. And the US attorney’s office in Brooklyn, along with the FBI, is scrutinizing the handling of data surrounding Covid-19 deaths in long-term care facilities in New York, according to a law enforcement official.
Asked if he expected Cuomo to seek reelection to a fourth term next year, Jacobs, the state party chair and a close ally of the governor, demurred.
“I honestly don’t know the answer to that question,” he said.
Should Cuomo resign, be forced out or simply choose not to run again in 2022, the upheaval of this year would be cast into overdrive. Over a decade in office, the governor has commanded state politics – even after his power was diluted by the progressive resurgence in the state legislature – with an unbending will.
For a time, the way Cuomo projected his political will on state government and his reputation as a strict manager fueled his appeal with frustrated voters. His election in 2010 followed former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s 2008 resignation following a prostitution scandal and the wobbly tenure of his successor, Gov. David Paterson, who served out Spitzer’s term.
“Among the political class, both Democratic and Republican, there was a yearning for strong leadership,” Sherrill, the political scientist, recalled of the 2010 elections. “Even people who had been subject to the Andrew Cuomo treatment in his years as his father’s campaign manager were so happy to have somebody who could take charge that they willingly ceded power to him. And he used it very skillfully. He simply consolidated almost all power in the state by force of personality and by virtue of the absence of any serious opposition.”
Whether the progressive movement, which has often defined itself in opposition to the domineering executive, can stick together in his potential absence is an open question few are ready to breach. The splintering of the left in the mayoral race suggests that it will not be a slam dunk.
The consensus, instead, is that predicting the future is a fool’s errand – and that uncertainty is, for now, the only guarantee. Former state Sen. Daniel Squadron, whom Niou recalled being among the first of those who encouraged her to run, said the state is currently in an “anticipation stage” and only seeing a “preview of the preview” of what’s to come.
“There’s a lot of tumult, a lot of headlines going on, but no shifts yet,” Squadron said. “It’s coming. The water has started to recede from the beach, but we don’t yet even see the wave cresting towards us.”