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Issue #8: Cuomo, the Left, and New York Politics
Cuomo is gone, can Hochul win her own term?
Just yesterday, after a damning report from the Attorney General showed Andrew Cuomo had harasser multiple women over many years, the 3-term Governor announced he would resign. Cuomo’s resignation comes after the state legislature made it clear that impeachment was inevitable otherwise. Cuomo’s fall means that Lt Governor Kathy Hochul, a former Congresswoman from Buffalo, will soon take power in Albany. Hochul will be able to run for her own term in 2022. However, no one expects a lefty primary challenge will not emerge. Hochul hails from the moderate wing of the party. While she has not been so openly combative with the left, like Cuomo was, she still is not trusted by the left.
Of course, as Cuomo’s 3 terms show, being disliked by the left does not mean you are electorally doomed. New York Democratic primary politics is far more complicated than left v center. Upstate v downstate, progressive v moderate, and politicians competing for all the assorted racial and language communities that reside in New York City.
In the wake of Cuomo’s resignation, and with 2022 not far off, I wanted to take a look at some recent primary races in New York. This might give us a clue into the state of play in the Empire State.
The 2018 Democratic Primaries
By 2018, Cuomo’s horrible relationship with the democratic left was well know. Cuomo, always with his eye on a potential Presidential run, did not want to be driven to far to the left, (And yes in general Cuomo has never been a super lefty). Cuomo backed the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of Democratic Senators who defected to form a coalition with the GOP in the state senate. Cuomo also worked to knee-cap the Working Families Party in the state.
Cuomo always remained very powerful in the state, and by-and-large was popular with Democratic voters. The battles with the left were rarely well-known outside political circles and too “in the weeds” for most voters just trying to live their lives. Cuomo had easily beaten progressive activist Zephyr Teachout in the 2014 Democratic primary; 62%-33%.
In 2018, Cuomo was challenged by actress and activist Cynthia Nixon. While Nixon would win several up-state counties, she still fell far short of victory, losing by a similar margin as Teachout did in 2014.
Nixon’s biggest issue was her 30 point loss in New York City. Nixon' did very well with white progressives that dotted parts of Manhattan and hipster communities like Williamsburg Brooklyn. However, Cuomo retained strong support from working class whites and voters of color. Hispanic and African-American voters, and the leaders in those communities, stuck with Cuomo.
The primary result well-reflected the progressives who disliked Cuomo. Many voters didn’t really equate Cuomo as an anti-lefty politician. The same day Cuomo was winning this primary, many members of the Independent Democratic Caucus lost their primaries to progressive challengers. Many voters cast ballots for progressive state senators and for Cuomo at the same time.
Cuomo’s running mate, Lt Governor Kathy Hochul, also featured a primary challenger. Her primary was much closer; defeating New York City councilman Jumaane Williams by just 7%.
Williams did worse upstate, but won New York City. Williams dominated the vote with white progressives, but also racked up solid margins with more educated/upper income liberals in Manhattan. Williams, who is African-American, was able to easily carry his community.
Winning the city is critical for any statewide Democratic politician. The city can account for 55%-60% of the primary vote.
Since this race, Williams has been elected the Public Advocate for New York City.
Will Williams make a move for Governor? Cannot rule it out. Many candidates will consider running. Another is Attorney General Letitia James.
James, who’s profile is incredibly high right now thanks to her office’s report being the thing that brought down Cuomo, was elected Attorney General in 2018. As the incumbent Public Advocate for New York City at the time, James won a 3-way Democratic primary by dominating in New York City. James beat Teachout (of 2014 fame), who maintained a base in the upstate region around Albany, and Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney.
Hailing from New York City, it should be no shock James easily took the city. She won across the city outside of the white, liberal communities that still backed Teachout; while Maloney did good with working class pockets, especially in State Island.
James’ election made her the first African-American and first female Attorney General in the state’s history. If she runs, she will be a strong contender.
The 2022 primary is very likely to be a major Democratic fight. Hochul will no doubt work to tack to the left (which she already has to a degree) and mend relations with progressives. The left, meanwhile, will be under pressure to consolidate if possible around one candidate - otherwise risking a split.
Next year’s New York primaries will no doubt be titanic clash.