New York’s Left Looks to the Post-Cuomo Era

The Left faces a tough road in any challenge to New York governor Kathy Hochul, who is now in position to win the primary in this year’s gubernatorial race. But the lieutenant governor’s race holds promise for the state’s progressives.

The New York left is finding that Governor Kathy Hochul is not the clean break from her predecessor that her reputation suggests. (Marc A. Hermann / MTA via Flickr)

The new governor of New York, Kathy Hochul, is unlike her predecessor Andrew Cuomo in many ways. She doesn’t go out of her way to alienate and bully fellow Democrats. She’s more willing to negotiate with the Left. She’s not a sociopath.

But the Left — progressives, socialists, and various advocacy organizations — is finding that Hochul is not the clean break from the former occupant of the governor’s mansion that her reputation suggests. She has raised more than $20 million as she seeks a full term in office, hoovering cash from the same real estate and Wall Street elites that gave so generously to Cuomo. Lately, she has been attempting to weaken the sweeping criminal justice reforms passed several years ago, disingenuously tying the partial end of cash bail to a crime spike that is ultimately national in scope.

How to work with and against Hochul, a more genial operator, is a central question for left-leaning Democrats in the state legislature. Meanwhile, the Working Families Party (WFP) is hoping to apply pressure on her by running Jumaane Williams, the New York City public advocate, in the gubernatorial primary. The WFP is also supporting the prominent nonprofit leader and activist Ana María Archila against Hochul’s lieutenant governor, Brian Benjamin. In the June primary, the governor and lieutenant governor will run on separate ballots, allowing for the possibility that Hochul could be on a ticket with Archila in the general election.

The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which backed Cynthia Nixon and Williams when they ran on a ticket against Cuomo and Hochul in 2018, is very likely sitting out the race. It is concerned, rightly, about its own capacity to influence such a big race, and how many viable campaigns in one year it can support. DSA is mature enough to recognize it doesn’t have the clout to meaningfully impact the outcome of a statewide race. Instead, socialists are focusing on a few key contests in the state senate and assembly, where they have a chance to make further inroads.

WFP and its attendant nonprofits are all in on the statewide races, however. This is reasonable, given that Hochul should feel more pressure from the left. But the third party must get more serious quickly about taking the fight to Hochul’s ticket, or progressives will look weak in the face of a governor who could only grow more emboldened in the months and years to come.

It starts with boosting Williams’s anemic fundraising. The public advocate is a talented politician who could have won the 2021 mayoral race if he had bothered to run against Eric Adams. Williams passed to take a free shot this year at a statewide bid, hoping to build on the strength of his 2018 campaign for lieutenant governor against Hochul, when he came within 10 points of winning.

Williams struggled to fundraise then, bringing in less than $1 million, but benefited from Hochul’s lack of name recognition in New York City. The Buffalo area native is much stronger for this rematch, sitting on an enormous war chest that is bound to get larger as every special interest in the state closes ranks around her. The disgraced Cuomo is threatening a comeback, but the Democratic establishment is firmly in Hochul’s corner. Assuming Cuomo doesn’t run, Williams has only the narrowest path to victory.

Will it damage the Left if Williams is beaten badly? It’s a question DSA would consider — it’s increasingly reluctant to invest in races that are obvious long shots — but WFP won’t bother with, since the pragmatic labor wing of the party has dissipated. The party is right to want to put heat on Hochul, but it is going to misfire unless it finds a way, through its online fundraising list and some high-profile endorsements — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a starter — to get Williams more money. As of January, he had less than $200,000 in his campaign account, which is not only a paltry showing for a statewide race but less than a number of state legislative candidates entering competitive elections this year. Running in sixty-two counties means the typical grassroots organizing work will only get you so far when your opponent is pounding the airwaves every day for weeks on end. Without more money, the campaign won’t impact Hochul’s politics very much.

The good news for WFP is that there is much more promise in the lieutenant governor’s race. Last year, I argued Williams should’ve dropped down on the ticket to run there because it was a relatively easy win for him: the current lieutenant governor, Benjamin, has never won a competitive election and is little known beyond the state senate district he used to represent. He’s also been embroiled in various ethics scandals. In 2021, before he was tapped to be Hochul’s lieutenant, he ran for city comptroller and finished a distant fourth, losing his own senate district.

Even with Williams deciding to run for governor, WFP does have the chance to beat Benjamin if it’s able to successfully fundraise for Archila. A founder of Make the Road New York and a former executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, Archila is a telegenic activist with the ability to galvanize progressives. After challenging Jeff Flake in an elevator in 2018 over his decision to vote for Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Archila became a celebrity in liberal circles and was AOC’s guest at the State of the Union.

Archila is the sort of candidate who can outflank Benjamin and win the nomination for lieutenant governor outright with an effective, well-funded campaign. Having Archila a heartbeat away from the governor’s mansion could pay dividends for the institutional left. She’d have a bully pulpit to fight for stronger tenant laws, a statewide single-payer health care system, unemployment benefits for undocumented immigrants, and other progressive priorities. Electing progressives and socialists to the legislature ultimately matters more but having a statewide ally will help. She has a chance to get there.