How New York Politics Has Changed

Susan Kang

Andrew Cuomo took his victory lap in last week's New York election. But the incumbent class below him has been shattered, and his base is hungry for radical change.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Interview by
Ella Mahony

Election season in New York is effectively over. After a left-wing primary challenge by Democratic Socialists of America–backed candidate Cynthia Nixon, incumbent governor Andrew Cuomo remains in place. But the political situation around him has changed.

Turnout doubled this election, handing Nixon over 500,000 votes — a good deal more than the 361,380 Cuomo claimed in 2014. Her campaign forced him to disband the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of Democrats in the New York State Senate that caucused with Republicans. The IDC lent the Republicans an artificial majority in the state senate and kept progressive bills from reaching Cuomo’s desk, allowing the governor to maintain a left-wing image without actually passing any left-wing legislation.

Activists went further, forming a coalition called No IDC NY that mounted a slate of challengers to the onetime IDC senators. With Nixon highlighting their project at every turn, they were overwhelmingly successful. On election night, challengers ousted six of the eight IDC senators, including IDC founder Jeff Klein. What’s more, socialist candidate Julia Salazar, who sustained such an onslaught of inquiries into her personal history that she became the most-covered state senate candidate in history, trounced her landlord-backed opponent Martin Dilan by seventeen points.

Salazar and the six anti-IDC challengers enter the state senate in a precarious alliance that mirrors the relationship between DSA and a broader milieu of progressive activism in the city. That milieu is less ideological than the growing socialist left and more dedicated — as can be gleaned from names like True Blue NY — to refurbishing the Democratic Party. But it shares the same appetite for challenging incumbents, gravitates towards the policy pole DSA has erected, and aims at the same base. Together, these two forces have succeeded in shifting the terrain of New York politics.

To understand the No IDC effort that bracketed DSA’s runs, and the new political reality New York organizers now operate in, Jacobin editor Ella Mahony spoke to Susan Kang. Kang is an associate professor of political science at the City University of New York; a co-founder of No IDC NY, and an active DSA member in Queens. They spoke about how No IDC got started; its political character; and the barriers the Left still faces with Cuomo in Albany.

Ella Mahony

First, why don’t you talk about how No IDC came to be, and how it recruited its candidates. For example, how did Alessandra Biaggi’s campaign against IDC founder Jeff Klein come about?

Susan Kang

No IDC NY’s initial creation was by a group of mothers after [Queens state senator] Jose Peralta defected to the IDC in January 2017. We were really angry, but we realized that no one else understood what the IDC was. So we created a website.

A bunch of activists who lived in different parts of New York, in IDC districts, contacted us, also through Facebook chat. We were able to link up, and we created a little committee. We decided to support, help recruit, and raise money for IDC challengers in all eight districts. We created a coalition with groups with similar goals, like True Blue NY and various Indivisible groups.

It was really hard to find someone to run against Jeff Klein. But eventually we found Alessandra Biaggi. She wanted to run against Jeff Klein, according to her narrative, because of her experience in Cuomo’s office. There, she was in charge of trying to get the Women’s Reproductive Health Act passed. She found that she couldn’t do it because of the IDC, and then she found out that she lived in Jeff Klein’s district.

It wasn’t clear that she was going to be the candidate who would really take off, but that’s what happened. As somebody who was going after Jeff Klein, she got a lot of attention. None of us thought this was possible, back when we were sitting in rooms at the Working Families Party office, with groups of organizers.

Then things really picked up momentum after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won.

Ella Mahony

Across all of these candidates, and across the coalition, what would you say the politics is, besides “we don’t like fake Democrats”?

Susan Kang

The “fake Democrats” thing is literally just marketing. We use that as shorthand to talk to our neighbors. But the real message — and there was a lot of disagreement on this — was that there’s all these gaps: there’s a lack of policy protections for many, many vulnerable New Yorkers, whether it’s people with uteruses, or trans people, or immigrants, or students, or people who lack sufficient medical care.

We tried to make a narrative that we could have all these nice things if it weren’t for the IDC, which probably isn’t true. It’s not that easy, but they’re the easiest institutional players to point to. Year after year, the New York assembly would pass progressive bills like the Climate Change and Community Protection Act, and then they would never even leave committee in the senate. Same thing with the single payer bill, the New York Health Act.

Ella Mahony

It’s true that by knocking down all but two of these IDC senators, you have removed one of the major barriers to passing legislation like this. At the same time, Cuomo himself disbanded the IDC in response to Nixon’s pressure a few months ago. Clearly he doesn’t think he 100 percent needs it to advance his agenda, or to conserve power. What are the remaining challenges to passing great legislation like the Women’s Reproductive Health Act, or the New York Health Act?

Susan Kang

Cuomo might spin this as, “I won,” but I don’t think that anybody who understands politics in New York would agree with him. He had to spend millions of dollars to win.

He brokered the IDC deal back in December. That was his way of telling all the institutional players — except for the WFP which he threatened — that you have to back off and not support any challengers to the IDC, because “look, we’re unified again.” It was an attempt to take the wind out of the sails of the challengers.

Of course, the unity didn’t come until after the budget was passed. The budget is passed in April. He got to put through another conservative budget that didn’t have any of these progressive reforms in them.

Cuomo can choose to veto laws that get passed, but the next step then is to mobilize lots and lots of people. With the six IDC challengers, and Julia Salazar, we’ve got a new progressive caucus in the New York state senate. They can amplify this message, that Cuomo has to sign this or that bill.

I’m reading all these things saying that Cuomo’s national ambitions are crushed, because the IDC races were a litmus test of whether or not he had strength. Many electeds came out for IDC challengers. That happened because of Ocasio-Cortez’s victory — none of them will admit it but that’s what happened. Still, if they took Cuomo seriously, they wouldn’t have gotten involved in these fights. Plus, challengers were able to mobilize new pockets of supporters and volunteers that had never done this before.

Ella Mahony

Going forward, as we get into these fights with Cuomo, and pressure him to not veto bills, all of that’s going to require a grassroots response. You talked about how all these challengers have accessed new pockets of volunteers and energy. Organizationally, what will that grassroots response look like on the ground?

Susan Kang

Traditionally in New York it’s very hard to mobilize voters and volunteers outside of these regular Democratic institutions — like the [Democratic] clubs, which are very conservative, and take their cues from leadership. Now there’s the #resistance groups and the Indivisible groups, the volunteer network that emerged around Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Bernie infrastructure, and DSA.

We’re now a counter-machine, that can mobilize volunteers and our own networks, to challenge existing power.

One thing I discovered is that a lot of the people who were hardcore Hillary Clinton supporters, and are part of the #resistance and Indivisible groups, are way to the left of the Democratic leadership, and way to the left of Hillary Clinton. They all think that things like single payer are just common sense.

Ella Mahony

On this question of where, politically, the base of these Indivisible groups is, I wanted to read you a quote from the New York Times on the IDC races.

They wrote, “Still, the divergent fates of the challengers, compared to Ms. Nixon and Ms. Teachout, suggested that the IDC upsets spoke more to the strength of anti-Republican antipathy across the Democratic Party than of anti-establishment sentiment in its far left flank.” Do you agree with that?

Susan Kang

It’s really irritating. It misses the fact that the issues really mattered in these races. People weren’t just mad about the IDC because they didn’t like Republicans. They were mad about it because we talked about all the things that we needed in our community. This reporter’s ignoring the content of the policies that we were talking about with the voters — and willfully so. As if these policies are middle of the road, moderate, Democratic policies, and they’re not. Instead, they’re what I’d call minimalist social democratic policies.

All the anti-IDC challengers talked about rent regulations, fixing the MTA, and single payer health care. Ten years ago moderate Democrats wouldn’t talk about these things because they’re expensive. We’re talking about redistributive policies that take inequality seriously. For the reporter to act like the issues that we were talking about weren’t left of center, that’s just willful distortion of the way that these campaigns were run.

They weren’t just saying, oh, vote for me because I’m a Democrat, and Democrats are good.

Ella Mahony

They’re not policies that average Democrats, anointed by the party, are inclined to support without pressure.

Susan Kang

Right. The most common thing that centrist Democrats now talk about is, “We’ll support our immigrants.” They see that as a discrimination thing, as opposed to, we’ll support our immigrants with housing, or health care, or better funded education.

Ella Mahony

Do you think that there’s any tension between the broader, No IDC, “pushing the Democratic party left” type project, and a more explicitly democratic socialist campaign, like Julia Salazar’s?

Susan Kang

I thought that a lot of people in my neighborhood, who didn’t seem to have a left identity, would be turned off by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez being a DSA candidate. In fact, a bunch of them joined DSA. People who I thought were just regular liberals, so I was wrong about that.

Julia Salazar’s platform was very similar to — though not the same as — many of the anti-IDC challengers. In fact, Alessandra Biaggi said that her platform was very similar to DSA’s platform and values. Part of the reason why is that to distinguish yourself from an IDC incumbent, you have to go left. What else do you have to offer? You can’t be a centrist, then you’re just an inexperienced person with the same ideological commitments as the person you’re running against.

There’s going to be a lot of support from a range of people for the policies that Julia supported. I saw that on the ground when I was knocking on doors and canvassing. People came up to me and talked to me because of my Julia shirt. And it was almost all working-class Latinx people. I assume that everyone’s saying that the white hipsters elected Julia. I know that’s not true.

Here’s the thing though. Some people said to me, “I’m voting for Julia, she supports the people. She’s going to protect people like me who feel like I can barely afford to live in New York anymore. I also voted for Cuomo, because he’s also for the people.”

Ella Mahony

Hopefully it will be harder for Cuomo to walk that line going forward. He’ll have to more openly oppose more left policy, if he doesn’t have the IDC there covering for him, and keeping things from reaching his desk.

Susan Kang

We may find backroom deals going on to keep things from reaching his desk. But then we’ll just remind them, hey, remember your old colleagues that we replaced? We’re going to replace you too. The great thing about this election is that even though we weren’t successful in every race, we have started to destroy the concept of incumbency advantage.

Alexandria did it, Alessandra did it, Julia did it. The idea that it’s near impossible to unseat an incumbent is going away.

I want job security for everybody but elected officials. They should feel that they have to earn your vote in the community every day that they’re in office.