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Elections Brief: NY State Politics Just Got Interesting

Cuomo prevails, Biaggi helps topple ex-IDC members, and the grassroots' Julia Salazar triumphs.

A Julia Salazar campaign poster on a street pole (Twitter: @nycDSA).

Thursday's primary election results reflect the struggle for power between the Democratic establishment machine and the grassroots. Gov. Andrew Cuomo easily took out his progressive challenger Cynthia Nixon, but NY's political landscape shifted from his grasp as state Senate challengers replaced six of eight ex-IDC members and Julia Salazar overcame Martin Dilan's eight-year incumbency.

After New York’s primary election results trickled in last night, did you cheer, or did you sulk? Odds are you probably did both.

NY State endured a series of fierce battles for the future of its Democratic party on Thursday, and the aftermath could change the state’s entire political landscape as we know it.

Andrew Cuomo won the nomination as Democratic candidate for governor against his progressive, NYC-DSA-backed challenger Cynthia Nixon by a wide margin of 30 percentage points. Cuomo raked in over 64% of the vote, leaving Nixon around 34.6%, which parallels the results of NY Attorney General candidate Zephyr Teachout’s run against the governor in 2014. But to say Cuomo’s win came without his breaking a sweat would negate the power of Nixon’s strong grassroots campaign, which put some political and financial dents in the governor’s facade of invincibility.

The most obvious burden was the more than $20 million Cuomo felt threatened enough to spend on his campaign, including $7.5 million on TV ads in the last three weeks. Cuomo outspent his opponent 20 to 1, so Nixon employed a digital media and door-to-door ground game strategy. Controversy struck the Cuomo campaign after they sent out a mailer falsely smearing Nixon as anti-Semitic. Even The New York Times editorial board, who endorsed Cuomo, called out the governor. Cuomo claims he knew nothing about the mailer.

The other dent, which many laud as Cuomo’s political adaptability, is Nixon forcing the governor to move left on marijuana legalization and restoring voting rights to felons. Some question whether Cuomo is simply being a political opportunist.

Many New York residents – and certainly the national Democratic establishment – view Cuomo as the skilled centrist New York needs to fend off the evils of President Trump. Other more progressive, even radical voters saw Nixon as an idealist challenge to the corporate cogs of NY’s mechanized, financially-bought political system. Regardless of your politics, Nixon changed the conversation and roused populist suspicion of the politicians running our so-called “liberal” state.

The establishment also prevailed in the primary races for attorney general and lieutenant governor.

Letitia James, ally to Governor Cuomo, made history on Thursday when she won the Attorney General Democratic primary, becoming the first black woman to win a major party statewide nomination. She won with 40.6% of the vote, leading the progressive favorite Zephyr Teachout, who took zero corporate PAC money, by over 100,000 votes and corporate-backed challenger Sean Patrick Maloney by over 200,000 votes.

Cuomo’s running-mate Kathy Hochul won the lieutenant governor’s nomination less comfortably against Jumaane Williams, the NYC-DSA-endorsed candidate who ran side-by-side with Cynthia Nixon for a corporate PAC-less New York State. Hochul inched to victory with a margin of 6.6 percentage points.

But the real news – the real shake up – was in the state senate.

Democratic socialist Julia Salazar triumphed over eight-year incumbent Martin Dilan, despite controversies over Salazar falsely implying that she’s a Colombian immigrant and her ancestral links to Judaism. Salazar surged through the negative press and crushed Dilan by 17 percentage points. Running on a progressive platform of affordable housing, abolishing ICE, Medicare for all, criminal justice reform, and expanding sex workers’ rights, all the while taking no corporate campaign money, Salazar joined Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the wave of successful democratic socialist candidates.

Dilan’s shady history with the NYC real estate sector and lack of grassroots support cost him the election- yet another warning sign to the Democratic politicians held accountable by the corporations that fund their incumbency. Cuomo, Hochul, and James maintained the establishment’s hold on statewide office, but Salazar’s win shows that the grassroots are coming for them.

Let us not gloss over that after Thursday the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), though formally “dissolved” in April, is officially dead. Challengers unseated six of the eight former state senate members of the IDC, a group of Democrats that notoriously broke from their party allies and began caucusing with Republicans in 2011, effectively turning a Democratic legislature into a Republican one. They are credited with inhibiting NY Democrats from passing progressive legislation like single-payer health care, legalizing marijuana and the DREAM Act, and more generally stifling the state Senate’s functionality.

In the Bronx and Westchester, Alessandra Biaggi ousted the IDC’s former leader and powerful Albany politician, Senator Jeff Klein, who spent over $2 million on his campaign. Granddaughter of Mario Biaggi, a NY congressman who eventually resigned when confronted with corruption charges, Alessandra was Hillary Clinton’s deputy national operations director in 2016. Although Biaggi is not a democratic socialist, she knocked on doors with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and ran a campaign many had thought was destined to fail. Like Ocasio-Cortez, Biaggi achieved the impossible.

In Queens, Jessica Ramos defeated Jose Peralta and John Liu took out Tony Avella; in Brooklyn, Zellnor Myrie beat Jesse Hamilton, and in Manhattan, Robert Jackson unseated Marisol Alcantara. Finally, in Syracuse, Rachel May expelled Senator David Valesky.

Jasmine Robinson, however, whose bumpy campaign almost didn’t make it to the election, failed to remove Diane Savino. Julie Goldberg in Rockland also was unable to oust her ex-IDC opponent, David Carlucci. Blake Morris, a progressive candidate in Brooklyn who ran on being a “Real Democrat,” was defeated by Brooklyn IDC member Simcha Felder.

The more than 60 progressive anti-IDC organizations in New York helped set the groundwork for incumbent challengers. Julie Goldberg told The Intercept that groups such as the New York Progressive Action Network, True Blue NY, the Working Families Party, and No IDC NY had already been phone banking IDC districts and growing a volunteer base before some candidates entered the races. While not all of the challengers joined the grassroots parade of Julia Salazar, confronting the former IDC members is a renegade feat.

The destruction of the conservative – and Cuomo-backed – IDC foreshadows a change in the New York State Senate that threatens the status quo. Democrats could take the state Senate and force the governor out of his comfort zone, a Republican-controlled Senate, which has allowed him to take credit for liberal achievements such as the $15 minimum wage and marriage equality, while quietly upholding the financial interests of corporations.

Could this change in the Senate break the establishment from the inside out? New York’s Democratic party is changing. Cuomo has already been shoved to the left by an Albany outsider­– how far could he go when shoved from the inside? We’ll have to wait till November to see, but in the meantime, New York politics just got very interesting.

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