Part of my awkward youth was spent in service of the New York State Democratic Party, an act of true hubris if you grew up, as I did, in rural upstate, where it was easier being a Menshevik than a Democrat.
So solidly Republican was my small hometown back then that when the local Democratic chairman showed up and asked my father, who owned a drugstore, to run as the party’s candidate for mayor, Dad gently rushed him out the back door for fear of losing business if anyone heard.
To call yourself a Democrat was risky, although we did have a Democratic congressman, the rather conservative, pro-Vietnam Sam Stratton, and a local industrialist who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination four times. But for the most part, in those days, being a Democrat implied a certain frisky turn of mind that was inimical to the more hidebound of bucolic upstaters, and even worse, meant someone who might tend to favor that downstate Gomorrah known as New York City, where all manner of depravity resided, especially spending taxpayer money on stuff.
As a teenager, I did volunteer work for the Democrats, canvassing, making phone calls, taking boxes of candy to the poll workers on Election Day. Because of this and apparently for lack of other, suitable upstate candidates, one day I received a telegram (they were rare to get even then, especially for a 17-year-old) informing me that I had been appointed to an official Democratic State Party Commission on Youth Participation in Government and Politics (honest, that was its name).
It turned out I was the token youth on the youth commission; I lowered the median age of the other members to about 55. The person closest to my age was our intern. We spent the summer before my freshman year of college being very important, holding hearings around the state and ultimately issuing a report filled with sterling recommendations for reform that as far as I know has steadfastly been ignored ever since.
The commission experience marked my first time in a hotel alone, my first Chinese restaurant, my first strip club, and worst, my first real exposure to a statewide political machine. Even as a kid, I could see it was a broken, corrupt system. Many years later, I went to a holiday reception thrown by the state party and was troubled to see that a lot of the same hacks I had met while working for that commission still were in place.
I worked on several campaigns after the commission, including the quixotic presidential bid of George McGovern, and finally concluded that the life of a political professional that I once had fancied probably was not the way forward for me. Better to stay interested by writing and commenting on the scene as an informed observer, a bit above the fray. And so I did.
Now I’m not so sure. After all these years, Thursday’s Democratic primaries here in New York have got me rethinking getting involved in a more direct, hands-on way.
True, the old NY Democratic machine clanked into gear once again and fueled by a reported $25 million, Governor Andrew Cuomo won the nomination for a third term. His campaign flooded the zone with mailers, TV ads and robocalls, defeating challenger Cynthia Nixon (although her candidacy definitely pushed him leftward) and providing coattails for his chosen candidate for lieutenant governor, incumbent Kathy Hochul, and attorney general candidate Letitia James, currently New York City’s public advocate.
James beat anti-corruption reformer and law professor Zephyr Teachout, a progressive favorite, a well as Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney and Leecia Eve, a Verizon lobbyist who has worked for Cuomo and Hillary Clinton. If elected, Tish James will be the first African-American woman to hold statewide office here.
But what’s especially heartening and exciting about the September 13 results is not the almighty Cuomo Democratic machine, a fusty yet still powerful and crooked contraption of smoke and mirrors, corporate and union cash, smear tactics and spare parts. It’s the explosive achievement of No IDC NY, a grassroots campaign that successfully managed to overthrow six of eight Democratic state senators who had aligned themselves with the Republican Party, effectively preventing the progressive agenda New York State really needs.
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IDC—the so-called Independent Democratic Conference—empowered Senate Republicans, greasing the wheels for the governor’s secret deal-making with the GOP and effectively blocking progressive legislation passed by the legislature’s lower house, the Assembly, including single-payer health care, protection of women’s reproductive health, election law reform and increased support of renewable energy.
Created in 2011, earlier this year, the IDC claimed to have dissolved itself at Cuomo’s urging, returning to the Democratic fold, but that wasn’t enough for a dedicated group of young activists, many of whom had never before worked in politics. They came together and vowed to defeat the turncoat Dems. With little money, No IDC NY used the power of volunteers and the fierceness of their commitment to back an alternative slate of progressive Democratic primary challengers. They were successful beyond hope.
Knocking on doors, telephoning, mailing handmade postcards, even covering sidewalks with chalk messaging, they got out the word. Elections, especially primaries, are all about turnout, identifying the voters who back your candidates and getting them to the polls. Large infusions of cash from real estate and financial interests made the IDC incumbents complacent; the insurgents beat them using all the tools of electoral, asymmetric warfare. This was old-fashioned retail campaigning, neighborhood by neighborhood, augmented by a savvy use of email and social media.
As Politico New York’s Bill Mahoney reported, “The IDC defeats were unprecedented in a state in which incumbents almost never lose. From 2006 through 2016, there had never been a year in which more than three members of the 213-person Legislature were defeated in a primary… Sen. Jeff Klein, who led the conference since its creation in 2011, became the first former legislative leader not under indictment or federal investigation to lose in four decades.”
(Klein, who spent more to hold onto his Senate job than Cynthia Nixon spent on her entire gubernatorial bid, was knocked down by Alessandra Biaggi, a young lawyer and former aide to Cuomo. Also losing: Sen. Jesse Hamilton in Brooklyn, beaten by lawyer and community activist Zellnor Myrie; Sen. Tony Avella and Sen. Jose Peralta in Queens, defeated by former City Comptroller John Liu and Jessica Ramos, a former Latino media advisor to Bill de Blasio; Sen. Marisol Alcantara, taken down by former NYC councilman Robert Jackson; and Sen. David Valesky, who lost to Syracuse University’s Rachel May. And while not an official member of the conference, IDC-friendly Brooklyn Sen. Martin Dilan, heavily funded by real estate interests, was beaten by newcomer Julia Salazar, who in the final weeks was tailed by controversy surrounding her biography but won by a healthy margin.)
“If you are a progressive, these are the results that matter,” Charlie Pierce wrote in Esquire. “Turnout was robust all over the state; Nixon got more votes on Thursday than Cuomo did the last time he ran. Cuomo got shoved to the left on a number of issues and now he doesn't have the votes in Albany to walk those new positions back. If you want Andrew Cuomo defanged, and what sensible person doesn't, then this is the next best thing than beating him outright. To get anything done, he now has to deal with people he otherwise would have ignored.”
There’s still the general election in November and Democrats need to flip some Republican-held seats to truly take control of the State Senate. What’s more, all of the IDC Dems remain on the ballot as third party candidates. But should you choose, New Yorkers will continue to be able to cast a vote against Andrew Cuomo – former Democratic mayor of Syracuse Stephanie Miner is running as an independent, and depending on discussions over the coming weeks, Cynthia Nixon may remain on the ballot as the candidate of the Working Families Party.
Thursday was a momentous day for New York State Democratic politics. Change is happening after years of incumbent-driven inertia. Fueled in part by reaction to Trump’s election and its horrific impact on civil society, a multitude of voters are angry, energized as they haven’t been for years and committed to throwing the rascals out at every level; federal, state and local.
This may be a tectonic shift, that fundamental change in the political landscape that Nixon talked about in her concession speech. It is, she said, “what happens when we hold our leaders accountable… We have changed what is expected of a Democratic candidate running in New York.”
With luck and hard work, it could be just the beginning, especially if more of us get involved, not only as volunteers but even as candidates. As primary winner Rachel May told a Syracuse newspaper Thursday night, "We need to encourage people to run. I'm not doing this to be a career politician. I'm doing it so someone great can challenge me in a few years."