In New York the center is holding.
After initially struggling with how to respond to a high-profile Democratic primary challenger on his left in Cynthia Nixon, New York's centrist governor Andrew Cuomo seems to be back in a more solid position. And he got there as he embraced other centrist Democrats derided as relics. None other than Hillary Clinton delivered the keynote at Cuomo's state party convention Wednesday (he presented her with a bouquet of flowers, which made some observers cringe.). Former Vice-President Joe Biden followed with an introduction for Cuomo a day later.
In between, Cuomo grabbed 95 percent of his party delegates, ensuring that Nixon would have to petition her way to the ballot in the September 13 primary. (While Cuomo’s support was suspiciously overwhelming, the convention was indeed held at Hofstra University on Long Island — not Pyongyang.)
The party ended on a controversial note: Tom Perez, the Democratic National Committee chairman, endorsed Cuomo, even as he’s said the party shouldn’t interfere in primaries. That’s led to charges the establishment is rigging the system against Nixon — as many claim it did at the expense of Bernie Sanders in 2016.
But while it’s early, I wonder if Nixon is, like Sanders, firing up a vocal minority that remains just that: passionate, but unsuccessful at the ballot box in New York. So far I don’t see her ushering in a great Democratic Party crack-up, prompting a majority to oust its putative leader.
Rather, Cuomo remains stable after simultaneously mastering four feats so quickly that I can still hear jaws dropping from Jones Beach to Lake Erie: he milked his control over his state party; convinced the party faithful that New York is resistance-central to the Trump administration (even as he helped Republicans in Albany stay in power in the State Senate); co-opted a left-ish platform; and seized quick-moving events that have changed this race.
A poll from earlier this month shows Cuomo 22 points ahead in the primary (although Nixon leads among “very liberal” Democrats). If that enviable position holds in the next survey, the Governor may want to give New York City’s Public Advocate Tish James a gift subscription to the New Yorker.
It was the magazine’s website that May 7 broke the story of how what Schneiderman says was perceived sexual role-playing — reportedly while intoxicated — was in the views of many women on the other end of it unwanted, painful, and potentially illegal abuse. Schneiderman resigned later that night. The story of his alleged abuse quickly replaced what we political reporters had been heretofore writing: Nixon was giving Cuomo trouble, leading him not only to exhibit some strange behavior, but to warm to positions he’d heretofore rejected: marijuana legalization; voting rights for parolees; unifying Democrats in the State Senate in Albany.
The dominant local political story then morphed into who would replace Schneiderman. That brings us to James. Apart from leading the City should something happen to the Mayor, the public advocate doesn’t have too much power. But it is a warming spot for ambitious politicians; Bill de Blasio is James’ predecessor.
With Schneiderman ousted, James seized the opening, jockeying first to replace him immediately as the choice of the State Legislature. Then, when that backroom deal — intended to open up a game of musical chairs for other politicians looking for a new office — was exposed to unwanted to scrutiny, James starting gunning solely for a full term as a new candidate.
For reasons that scratch heads still, James all but let Cuomo shepherd her through a process that helped neuter the governor’s political opponents while undermining her own base. James first won office on the Working Families Party line, where she has joked she’s “godmother.”.
But then she refused to run on it again when it came to her first bid for statewide office. James at first denied that Cuomo was orchestrating the move, but it was hard to see otherwise. After supporting him four years ago — following a last-minute backroom deal brokered by Cuomo’s longtime frenemy Bill de Blasio — the Working Families Party now backs Nixon, and Cuomo has searched for ways to undermine it ever since.
Cuomo is on his way in his WFP disembowelment campaign as local unions departed the party — with the international head of the subway workers union calling Nixon a “Prosecco-sipping Manhattanite masquerading as a progressive.”
The farthest James went was May 21, allowing “there were some issues with a number of party leaders who had philosophical and political differences with the Working Families Party line.” She didn’t specify who those party leaders were, but it wasn’t hard to read between the lines. She’s never been a prolific fundraiser. Cuomo may help her; as of his last filing, in January, he had $30.4 million.
In New York, politicians can run on more than one line simultaneously. And working with Democratic leaders, Cuomo helped land James the overwhelming support of the state Democratic party. In return, the pair joined hands as the balloons dropped in Long Island Thursday. It was the precise tableau he craved: James is African-American, and Nixon has been pinpointing black women voters as crucial to a win.
(Nixon drew criticism for suggesting African-American and Latino New Yorkers should get first dibs on marijuana dispensaries if they’re legalized as a form of “reparations.” She’s since said she’s not going to use the term anymore.)
Like Nixon on the gubernatorial line, others are expected to petition to be on the Democratic ballot for attorney general, including Cuomo’s 2014 opponent, Zephyr Teachout (gaining a surprisingly robust 34 percent of the vote), and Leecia Eve, a former aide to both Clinton and Cuomo. That newly competitive attorney general’s race also works in Cuomo’s favor: it diminishes the focus on him.
Nixon was never the party favorite — that’s part of her appeal. She’s been steadily picking up support from progressive groups, including Our Revolution, which formed out of Sanders’ campaign for president. But as Politico’s Edward-Isaac Dovere detailed, the group is flailing and largely ineffective. Cuomo meanwhile has $30.4 million in his campaign kitty as of the last report.
There are many reasons why Nixon cannot be written off. Her campaign is run by the same professionals who helped de Blasio win the 2013 Democratic primary when he was an afterthought just weeks before winning. While this is her first run for office she has both national name recognition that ensures coverage, and a real background in New York City politics. More Cuomo gaffes are quite possible, especially if she continues to close the gap between them in the polls. And as Schneiderman’s fall shows, things can change quickly in life and in politics. Angry voters may be more motivated to vote.
Then again, the September 13 primary lands on a Thursday (with Rosh Hashanah and the Sept. 11 commemoration the preceding Tuesday). With diminished turnout expected, that requires the turnout operation that Cuomo’s campaign chest and union support provide.
Cuomo’s critics gripe that he’s vindictive, trying to divide progressives. “There’s an old saying in political circles, for Andrew Cuomo it’s not enough for him to win — other people have to lose — he really goes out of his way,” Bill Lipton, director of the New York State Working Families Party, told my NY1 colleague Errol Louis.
If Nixon’s backers feel that angle entices New Yorkers come election day, then no one should begrudge them. And vindictiveness — if that’s what it is — may not be a healthy way to live.
But when thinking about how this governor operates, I am reminded of another quote. It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both, Niccolo Machiavelli wrote. Andrew Cuomo, who has seen an election or two in his 60 years, has — for now — adroitly seized opportunities that left others stunned.