On the face of it, the most exciting New York State primary in a long while ended in disappointment for voters seeking change. Incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his hand-picked slate of candidates — incumbent Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and current New York City Public Advocate Tish James for Attorney General — won, after all.
But while Cuomo’s nearly 30-point victory over Cynthia Nixon is being heralded as a landslide, it is also undeniable that New York will be a demonstrably more progressive state precisely because she ran. Nixon may have secured only slightly more than 30 percent of the vote. But she still proved that primaries matter, even if you get trounced during them.
In the span of several months, Cuomo suddenly went from decrying marijuana as a “gateway drug” like a 90s after-school special to loudly supporting its legalization. Suddenly, he started supporting the restoration of voting rights to convicted felons out on parole. After a couple years of almost never being named in stories about New York politicos criticizing President Donald Trump, he rebranded himself as the Queens native’s chief antagonist, recently going so far as to refer to the president as “that boy.”
The anxiety stirred in him by Nixon — and, arguably, by Attorney General candidate Zephyr Teachout — was palpable. In the last days of the primary, Cuomo rushed the opening of a bridge named for his father, dragging Hillary Clinton out at its unveiling, where he also drove around in an old car. The bridge immediately had to be closed, because the one it is replacing — the Tappan Zee — is in danger of falling on it.
Cuomo’s personality never changed during the primary. He continued to pass the buck to others (including for a sleazy mailer that attacked Nixon as anti-Semitic). He continued making excuses and blaming others for problems of his own creation, including insisting throughout the campaign that the horrific state of New York City’s subway system was not his fault, even though the governor literally controls the MTA.
But in choosing to challenge him, Nixon finally demanded something Cuomo’s has never really accepted: accountability. This is, after all, the man who got away with creating an ethics commission that he specifically authorized to investigate everyone, including him, then disbanding it when it did, indeed, come close to investigating his office. But this election seemed to chip away at his previous invincibility, and the day before, he did his damnedest to avoid encountering any reporters, refusing to send out a campaign schedule outlining the various speaking engagements he held. The night of his win, he didn’t even show up to his own party.
While Cuomo’s victory was fairly decisive, the other contests demonstrated the limits of the faith that New Yorkers have in him. Hochul only beat New York City Councilmember Jumaane Williams by a mere six points. Tish James beat her closest opponent, Cuomo antagonist Zephyr Teachout, by just nine points. (Those margins could of course change slightly after affidavit ballots are counted, given the extent of problems reported at the polls.)
The AG race also mattered for the first time in years — and largely due to Cuomo’s interference. During her campaign, James lamented that her strategic relationship with Cuomo appeared to sully her in the eyes of some voters. More significantly, the anti-establishment “blue wave” that resulted in several incumbent state lawmakers losing their seats should demonstrated to James that—contrary to her claim—AG’s don’t need to have relationships with lawmakers to get things done. The AG’s job is to investigate, not legislate, so the relationships James touted are not just unnecessary, but counterproductive.
James now has a chance to prove herself worthy of the #MeToo bona fides she touted during the campaign. One of the rare ways she differentiated herself from Cuomo was by supporting a call for public hearings on state-level sexual harassment legislation for which a group of women who were victimized by lawmakers in Albany have been advocating. Cuomo has steadfastly ignored these women and refused to support such hearings, for no discernable reason. James now has an opportunity to show whether she’s a true advocate by upholding her promise to these women, rather than doing Cuomo’s bidding. My guess is that the primary results will convince her to take it.
The fact that Nixon pushed Cuomo left usually wouldn’t mean much in the long run, considering Cuomo’s tendency to renege on promises. No doubt he will create some sort of task force on marijuana or parolee voting rights that never meets or issues recommendations that he ultimately underfunds.
But for the first time ever, Cuomo is facing a state legislature that might not be under his tight-fisted control. He lost a number of allies in this election. Of the eight lawmakers formerly involved in the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) — a group of breakaway “Democrats” that allied themselves with Republicans more than their own party, often to secure some sort of benefit for Cuomo — six have been replaced by insurgents who ran on explicitly anti-IDC platforms. The ousted members include Jeff Klein, the founder of the IDC and one of the “three (sometimes four) men in a room” enacting legislation behind closed doors with Cuomo. Klein was accused of sexual misconduct with a former staffer and was unseated by newcomer Alessandra Biaggi. Also out are Martin Dilan and Jesse Hamilton, longtime allies of the late disgraced Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who sexually harassed and assaulted at least four staffers — behavior that Hamilton’s chief of staff, who was formerly Lopez’s, knew about and ignored, according to a state ethics report.
More incumbents lost seats at the district level in this primary election than ever before, and now it’s up to these newcomers to hold onto the ideals on which they ran and refuse to be controlled by Cuomo or moneyed interests, unlike their predecessors.
It won’t be easy. One major takeaway from this primary is that statewide elections appear to still be controlled by those moneyed interests. Cuomo vastly outspent Nixon; the majority of her campaign contributions, came from small donors, less than one percent of Cuomo’s did — and even that one percent turned out to be questionable. (Perhaps the real winner of this primary is Queens resident Christopher Kim, who will forever be remembered in history for the 69 small donations he made to Cuomo as the filing deadline approached.)
But that doesn’t seem to be the case with the more local elections. This is huge and hugely promising news. These local electeds are referred to as legislators for a reason: They make laws. And now they can make new, better ones. They can choose to change the way money influences elections in New York State. They can choose to hold Cuomo accountable.
The same administration may be in power at the top. But, fundamentally, the New York Democratic Party was transformed on Thursday night. And it’s because people like Nixon had the temerity to actually challenge the stale status quo.