Inside A Hookah Bar In Brooklyn—A cinnamon raisin bagel with lox. A ceremonial bridge opening that fell flat. A mailer that sparked outrage. And a proxy battle of endorsements between New York’s beefing preeminent female rappers.
So ended the bruising New York Democratic primary—the final intra-party contest in a lengthy election cycle—as Andrew Cuomo sailed through on Thursday on his way to a likely third term as governor of New York. He captured 66 percent of the vote in a race the Associated Press called even before challenger Cynthia Nixon showed up to the Cafe Omar in Brooklyn, where the hookahs had been replaced by a horde of cameras and a DJ booth playing Usher. Among those milling around the room with a red interior design were actress Mary Louise-Parker and Richard Schiff, as well as a cadre of activists who had boosted the campaign.
As turnout swelled from 2014, Nixon actually topped Cuomo’s vote total from four years earlier even as she roughly matched Fordham Law Professor Zephyr Teachout’s 30-point loss in that contest. Just as the polls closed, Nixon’s campaign sent out a memo lowering expectations saying that if Cuomo didn’t win by a 41-percent margin, as the most recent Siena College poll suggested, it “would be a major embarrassment and significant under-performance for the two-term incumbent.”
Cuomo did not underperform, earning almost 1 million votes on his own. But neither did he emerge unscathed as a host of New York State senators who had been members of the so-called Independent Democratic Conference or IDC that caucused with Republicans for years and let them keep control of the chamber—with Cuomo’s implicit blessing until he forced them to return to the mainline Democrats earlier this year—nonetheless lost their races to progressive challengers. The losers included former leader Jeff Klein, who was recently accused of sexual misconduct. This led members of the Working Families Party to declare victory on Thursday night, saying “The IDC is dead” to huge cheers at Nixon’s event.
“The center of gravity has shifted, and Andrew Cuomo will face a radically different Albany,” New York Working Families Party Director Bill Lipton said.
These victories were enough to allow Nixon to deliver a rallying triumphant speech as the bar filled up and the temperature rose to a stifling level.
“We started with nothing and we earned every single vote,” she declared, ushering boos from the crowd when she said she had called and conceded to Cuomo. “This is more than a campaign; this is a movement.”
By the time she was giving her speech, Teachout had lost her race for Attorney General, earning 30 percent of the vote but ultimately falling short of New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, who will likely be the first African-American woman to serve in the position. New York City Council Member Jumaane Williams, who mounted a very strong challenge, was narrowly losing to incumbent Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul.
In her speech Nixon also acknowledged that Cuomo took her seriously, as evidenced by the money he spent.
In the final week of his campaign against Nixon, an actress and long-time activist who assailed the incumbent at every turn, Cuomo and his team drew outrage from voters and elected Democrats over a mailer sent by the New York State Democratic Committee accusing Nixon of being anti-Semitic.
The mailer, and the changing stories about the involvement of people in proximity to the incumbent governor, cast a negative shadow on his slash-and-burn efforts to stave off the spirited challenge from his left. Cuomo had denied knowledge of the creation of the mailer, but The New York Times reported on the eve of the primary that a former aide crafted the language that appeared on it and a former secretary for the governor, Lawrence Schwartz, “inadvertently” approved it, somehow. The story around the piece of mail came out in drips throughout the last week of the campaign as Cuomo embarked on a ceremonial opening of a new span of bridge named after his father. That event, complete with Cuomo riding in an old FDR car and joined by Hillary Clinton proved a bust, after the project was delayed due to concerns that the adjacent old Tappan Zee Bridge could collapse on it.
In the final 24 hours of the campaign, Cuomo campaigned throughout the state, in many instances with visits that were unannounced to reporters, a highly unconventional closing move his opponents and many members of the press saw as an attempt to evade questions.
These shenanigans were not enough to convince voters that Cuomo did not deserve a shot at a third term.
With a massive multi-million dollar war chest at his disposal and the endorsements of key Democratic figures both locally and nationally, Cuomo spent as much per day as the campaign came to a close as Nixon had raised in total. He campaigned largely as the figurehead of the state’s liberal resistance to President Trump, while Nixon ran on an indictment of the withering New York City subway system, corruption in the state’s capital and the failure of the Cuomo administration to enact liberal policy goals like marijuana legalization, a reformation of the criminal justice system and single-payer health care.
This lack of time serving in elected office may have been what gave voters some pause about selecting Nixon on Thursday. Early on in the campaign, she solidified her progressive bona fides among New York voters with the backing of the Working Families Party after which Nixon marshalled the support of Indivisible, a resistance organization formed after Trump took office, and Our Revolution, the political outfit spun out from Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) presidential campaign. (Sanders did not endorse in the governor’s race).
Despite dismissing Nixon as simply an actress, and joking about Brad Pitt also running, Cuomo by all accounts took the challenge more seriously than he did in 2014, when he refused to shake hands with or debate Teachout.
The fear of being toppled by an insurgent Democrat came in a year when progressives have staged massive upsets from Massachusetts to Florida to New York, where 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez soundly defeated 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley in the 14th Congressional District in late June.
That momentum did not translate to a statewide win for Nixon, but it did seem to help seven Democratic challengers oust sitting state senators, including Democratic socialist Julia Salazar, who handily defeated Martin Dilan despite a barrage of negative stories about her changing accounts of her own life story.
Of eight challengers against IDC members, six won including Alessandra Biaggi in the Bronx and Westchester, Jessica Ramos in Queens, Robert Jackson in Upper Manhattan and Zellnor Myrie in Brooklyn. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) endorsed all four of them and The New York Times also backed all of them save for Jackson.
Despite Nixon’s loss, she claimed credit for the dissolution of the IDC earlier this year and their losses tonight, getting policy concessions from Cuomo including his inching towards marijuana legalization (which was dubbed the “Cynthia Effect”) and actually getting the governor to promise in the debate that he would not seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. “The only caveat is if God strikes me dead,” he said when asked about serving a full third term as governor.
“To all the young people,” Nixon declared Thursday night, in conceding. “To all the young women. To all the young queer people who reject the gender binary. Soon you’ll be standing here, and when it’s your turn, you’ll win.”
“Aint nobody gonna turn me around,” a group of singers sang in chorus onstage as the party began to die down.