How the New York Democrats’ Midterm Debacle Unfolded and What Comes Next

Issue 275

A cascading series of blunders by leading NY Democrats handed half of Congress to the Republicans. Can the state party's dysfunction be reversed?

John Tarleton Nov 23, 2022

This year’s midterm elections saw the much-anticipated Republican “red wave” turn into a red trickle in most of the country with one glaring exception: bright blue New York.

President Joe Biden won the state by 23 points in 2020. Democrats control all of New York’s statewide offices and wield super-majorities in both houses of the state legislature. National Democrats expected that the party’s control over the once-in-a decade redistricting process would help shore up its razor-thin congressional majority. 

A mighty stream of hubris, incompetence and cronyism laid waste to the New York Dems’ own electoral aspirations and that of Democrats across the country. 

Instead of expanding their majority, New York Democrats lost four congressional seats in an election in which their party didn’t lose more than two seats in any other state. Meanwhile, as The Indypendent goes to press, the Republicans appear headed for a tiny (one to three seat) House majority once all the mail-in votes are counted in California. The New York Dems’ debacle will be the difference between ceding control of the House of Representatives to a MAGA heavy Republican caucus intent on creating partisan gridlock as opposed to continuing Democratic control of the White House and Congress that would make more progressive legislation possible during the second two years of the Biden administration. 

There was no one cause, nor one culprit, for the New York Dems’ face plant. Instead, the causes of their failure flowed into each other as tributaries forming a mighty stream of hubris, incompetence and cronyism that would lay waste to their own electoral aspirations and that of Democrats across the country. 

A Journey in 11 Steps

1. State Senate Leaders Rush a Top Court Pick

Madeline Singas and former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo at an event supporting an extension of the NY Property Tax Cap. Seaford, NY, June 2015. Photo by Ann Parry

Madeline Singas was a controversial choice to join the New York Court of Appeals (the state’s highest court) when she was nominated by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in May 2021. Singas, the Nassau County DA was a career prosecutor who once redacted information from a police report that could have helped prove the innocence of three men that were wrongfully convicted of double murder and spent 24 years behind bars before being released in 2021. 

Singas is well to the right ideologically of the Senate Democrats, including Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris who championed the nomination of his fellow Greek American. Five state senators led by Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn) wrote a public letter opposing Singas’ nomination. Salazar told The Indypendent she thought she could rally enough Democratic votes to block Singas’s confirmation. But the fix was in. Two weeks after her nomination, the State Senate leadership brought Singas’s nomination to the floor. They took advantage of pandemic-era rules to rush her nomination through while several senators were outside the Senate chamber. Singas got her 14-year term on the high court. It wouldn’t take long for Gianaris and his Senate colleagues to rue the day they put her there.

2. Kathy Hochul Takes Command, Sort of

Kathy Hochul. Photo by Marc A. Hermann / MTA

Cuomo resigned in disgrace in August 2021 after being credibly accused of sexual harassment by 11 women. His Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul was sworn in as New York’s first governor. She soon won praise from fellow Albany politicos for running her administration in a more collegial manner than the vengeful Cuomo. At the same time, she quickly took advantage of the power of her office and New York’s lax campaign-finance laws to raise tens of millions of dollars from the same wealthy special interests that bankrolled Cuomo. With a huge campaign warchest, she could look forward to mimicking Cuomo’s tried-and-tested electoral strategy: Carpet bomb New York with television and digital ads while doing minimal in-person campaigning. Hochul also decided to keep Jay Jacobs, a longtime Cuomo ally, as the head of the New York State Democratic Party despite the grumblings of progressives.  

3. Dems Go to Sleep on a Key Ballot Initiative

Chair of the New York State Democratic Committee Jay Jacobs. Photo by NYS Democratic Party.

With redistricting coming up in 2021, Albany Democrats put a measure on the ballot to ensure that the courts would not take over the process if a bipartisan commission could not agree on new legislative maps. New York Republicans spent $3 million to oppose the initiative and toured the state to rally opposition to it. The New York Democratic Party spent no money nor did it campaign for the measure which was defeated. Jacobs had other priorities at the time, namely stopping India Walton, a socialist who won the Democratic primary in the Buffalo mayor’s race. Jacobs backed Buffalo’s incumbent mayor, who ran as a write-in candidate, while denouncing Walton, a Black woman, as being the political equivalent of a former KKK grand wizard. Walton would ultimately lose. Hochul ignored renewed calls for Jacobs’ resignation. 

4. Dem Legislators Pass Redistricting Maps

After the bipartisan redistricting commission failed to agree on new maps, responsibility for completing redistricting shifted to the Democratic-led state legislature. In February, the legislature released maps that would have put the Dems on track to win 22 out of 26 seats statewide. New York City’s only Republican district, NY-11, was redrawn to loop in heavily Democratic Sunset Park and Park Slope to offset conservative-leaning Staten Island. A district that would have pitted Park Slope stroller moms against retired Staten Island cops in the middle of the largest media market in the country would have been a culture-war blockbuster for the ages. But alas, it was not meant to be. 

5. Singas Delivers the Decisive Vote

Chief Justice Janet DiFiore. Photo: NYSBA.

After their stinging defeat in the legislature, the Republicans decided to go shopping. Judge shopping, that is. They found a sympathetic district judge in Steuben County, in New York’s rural Southern Tier, who ruled that the legislature’s maps violated the state constitution. The case made its way to the Court of Appeals where a 4-3 majority upheld the lower court. Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, a close ally of Andrew Cuomo, authored the majority opinion. Madeline Singas delivered the decisive fourth vote. The case was remanded to Judge Patrick McAlister in Steuben County who was given the final say over redistricting. 

6. Hochul Raids Congress for a New Lt. Gov

Former Lt. Governor Brian Benjamin.

Hochul originally tapped Harlem State Senator Brian Benjamin to be her lieutenant governor. Benjamin brought racial and gender diversity to the ticket as well as regional balance with Hochul being from Western New York. He also brought five indictments on federal corruption charges that were announced by federal prosecutors on April 12. Whoops! 

Hochul quickly sacked Benjamin and replaced him with Antonio Delgado, a Hudson Valley congressman who had won two hard-fought races in 2018 and 2022 in New York’s 19th congressional district. Delgado’s departure would put Dems at a disadvantage in a key swing district. 

7. The Final Maps

The final redistricting maps were released on May 21. A swath of light blue districts were established across the Hudson Valley and Long Island that could be flipped if the Democrats faltered in what was expected to be a red wave year. 

8. Sean Patrick Maloney Puts Himself First

Sean Patrick Maloney

Fleeing for higher ground in the face of an expected red wave, Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney took advantage of the chaos unleashed by the new congressional maps to abandon NY-18, the district in the Hudson Valley he repped for 10 years, to run in the slightly more Democratic-leaning NY-17.

The only problem was this district already had a Democratic congressman, Mondaire Jones, a Black, gay progressive who was elected to a first term in 2020 by 24 points. Jones decided not to duke it out with his senior colleague. Instead, he moved 30 miles south to Brooklyn to run for a newly created seat but fell short in that primary. Maloney’s selfishness was all the more stunning given that he was the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the very group in charge of defending and expanding the Democratic majority. 

Maloney used a 10-1 fundraising advantage to crush a subsequent primary challenge from progressive State Senator Alessandra Biaggi who he denounced for being a bail reform supporter. On primary night, Maloney crowed that his victory was a win for “common-sense Democrats” who reject “defund the police” radicals. The tables would soon be turned on Maloney. 

9. NYC Mayor Stokes a Crime Panic

Photo by Caroline Williams / Mayoral Photo Office.

No politician has worked harder to revive the 1970s-era image of New York as a crime-ridden hellhole than Mayor Eric Adams. The former NYPD police captain teamed up with the New York Post in 2021 to ride fear of rising crime all the way to City Hall. The murder rate jumped in 2020 amid pandemic lockdowns and then plateaued in 2021. Since becoming mayor, Adams has continued to stoke crime fears, claiming that NYC was experiencing the same level of violence as the early 1990s when the murder rate was five times higher than it is today. As for the Post, it delivers a steady drumbeat of sensational, crime-themed cover stories — and local television news often follows suit with similar coverage. 

Adams’ success in turning a crime panic into electoral gold inspired his centrist Democratic allies. They launched similarly lurid attacks in New York City Council and state legislative races. Their targets: leftwing candidates from the Working Families Party and the Democratic Socialists of America. Adams fearmongering also provided bipartisan validation for little-known Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin who ran a one-note campaign about crime. With a boost from the Post, his polling numbers soared in September and October. In the race’s final days, Zeldin pulled to within a few points of Hochul. Adams’ alarming rhetoric and over-the-top media coverage had also had a powerful effect on the surrounding suburbs. 

10. Hochul’s Listless Campaign

Kathy Hochul started her election campaign as an overwhelming favorite and then ran like she was in a witness protection program. There was little in the way of voter outreach. “No text, no phone calls, zero campaign volunteers in my neighborhood,” tweeted a concerned Democrat in Forest Hills, Queens. “No idea what the Hochul campaign is doing.” When it became clear that Hochul just might lose the race, the Working Families Party leapt into action in the final two weeks of the campaign and launched phone banks and door-to-door canvasses. Hochul would ultimately prevail by six points. She won New York by 17 points less than Biden did in 2020, the worst underperformance by any sitting Democratic governor in 2022. While she survived, her weak showing at the top of the ticket took a toll on down-ballot candidates. 

11. Maloney Caught By Surprise

After Sean Patrick Maloney bulldozed his way into NY-17, he had a lot of new constituents to win over. A post-election report in Slate suggests he barely tried. When Maloney wasn’t antagonizing or ignoring local grassroots groups, he disappeared on an October junket to Europe. Late in his race, Maloney realized he was in danger of losing. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee he was in charge of shifted money from toss-up races on the West Coast to prop up Maloney. He lost anyway as did the candidates in O-5 and CA-27 who were defunded on his behalf. The Dems also narrowly lost Antonio Delgado’s old seat further up the Hudson Valley plus two more seats in the suburbs of Long Island. Maloney pointed to Hochul’s lackluster performance and the role of the media in whipping up a crime panic whose blast radius extended far into the suburbs outside New York City. As for his own shortcomings, he had little to offer. 

•   •   •

Since election day, calls have grown for State Party Chair Jay Jacobs to step down. On Nov. 14, more than 1,000 elected officials, party leaders and organizers signed a letter urging Gov. Hochul to dismiss Jacobs. While many of the signatories were progressives who had previously clashed with Hochul and the party establishment, they were joined by normie Democrats such as State Senators Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) and Andrew Gounardes (D-Brooklyn). 

The Democratic Party, like the Republican party, has never been controlled by a grassroots base.

The reformers say they want a new leader who can unify the left and the center of the party to better fight the Republicans instead of each other. Hochul waved away critics, many of whom had just rescued her faltering campaign. She insisted she would keep Jacobs and vowed to oversee the party’s rebuilding herself. 

“There’s a lot of different ideas for how to get to basically the same result and I’m the person who has to be responsible for that,” Hochul said. “I gratefully own that mantle.” Translation: You can run along now. 

Amid the clamor for the New York Dems to change their ways, it begs the question, what exactly is the Democratic Party? Is it a brand? Is it elected public officeholders, staffers, candidates and campaign consultants? A collection of bank accounts stuffed with contributions from wealthy special interests looking to turn money into political favors? A political safe harbor for historically marginalized groups who are threatened by the Christian nationalist white supremacy of the other major political party? The repository for goodwill generated by the party’s past ties to the New Deal and the Civil Rights eras? A political battleground where a fraught coalition of capitalist class interests and grassroots social reformers are constantly vying for power, resources and control of a ballot line of incomparable political value? 

The Democratic Party is the world’s longest-enduring political party. Founded in 1832, its architect was New York governor and future president Martin Van Buren, the original machine politician. Over nearly two centuries, the party has been all over the political map — from defending slavery and states rights in the 19th Century, to becoming the party of the New Deal and civil rights in the 20th Century to aligning itself with corporate-friendly neoliberalism in recent decades — but like the Republican Party it has never been controlled by its grassroots base. 

Here in New York, the institutional Democratic Party over the past decade became a “cheering squad for Andew Cuomo” says George Albro, co-chair of the New York Progressive Action Network (NYPAN). The party apparatus was further distorted, Albro says, by Cuomo’s penchant for enabling alliances between Republicans and rogue Democratic legislators in order to stave off progressive demands on his administration. 

Cuomo’s autocratic reign overlapped with a surge in left electoral campaigns in New York. These came after Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential run showed working-class champions could be a force in electoral politics. Bartender-turned-political phenom Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected to Congress in 2018. Progressives rode a blue wave and flipped the State Senate later that year. Eight democratic socialists have been elected to the legislature, the largest such bloc in modern U.S. history. 

Cuomo resigned in disgrace last year, but the state party he fostered is still attuned to fighting the left instead of the right. How to engage (or not) the Democratic Party has bedeviled the left for over a century. For a rising new generation that has jumped into electoral politics, the calculations are additionally complex. 

Maria Ordoñez, 23, joined NYPAN in the wake of Sanders’ 2016 campaign and finished second in a crowded field when she ran for a city council seat in 2021. In June, she garnered more than 5300 votes to became the first non-machine candidate from West Harlem’s Assembly District 70 to win a seat on the New York State Democratic Committee in decades. 

Ordoñez signed the petition calling for Jacobs’ ouster and is hopeful Hochul will yield as more party officials voice their displeasure. She also uses her position’s bully pulpit to advocate for issues such as affordable housing that are of concern to her community and helps constituents with accessing government services.

“Virtually all of them were born into the political class. And the status quo works for them, even when it’s not at all working for the vast majority of New Yorkers.”

“It’s what you make of it,” Ordoñez said of her position.

Being on the State Committee has allowed her to see the workings of the party up close. Progressives now make up 20% of the state committee, Ordoñez says. They are treated to emails from Jacobs boasting of his accomplishments. In September, the Committee re-elected Jacobs by voice vote lest dissidents have a chance to put their opposition on the record. Despite the hostility progressives face from the party establishment, Ordoñez vows not to walk away.

“I think that the way to create change is through going inside [the party] and getting people involved,” Ordoñez added. “To ignore the Democratic Party is like trying to cover the sun with one finger.”

In 2018, Julia Salazar became the first open socialist elected to the state legislature in almost a century and at 28 years old she became the youngest woman to ever serve in the New York State Senate. She has called for Jacobs’ resignation since last year. She also signed the petition calling for Jacobs’ ouster, but doubts it will have any effect. With Hochul safely re-elected and set to wield power for the next four years, most prominent New York Democrats are publicly avoiding the controversy. 

“I think they have no motivation to lead in any meaningful way,” Salazar said of the party’s leaders. “Virtually all of them were born into the political class. And the status quo works for them, even when it’s not at all working for the vast majority of New Yorkers.”

While she’s “begrudgingly” a Democrat, Salazar says she prefers to focus on building her home organization, the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. The DSA is a member-led organization which in New York has knocked off a slew of entrenched incumbents in recent years and is active in the militant wing of the labor movement. 

“It is strategic and practical for everyone left of center who has electoral politics as a part of our theory of change to continue to participate in Democratic Party politics,” Salazar said. “But we have to simultaneously be building something that is beyond capitalism and is resistant to it and actually represents the interests of working people. Otherwise we’re going to see the Democratic Party continue to reach the limit of being able to represent people’s interests, because its interests are always going to be split between capital and the wealthy versus the working class.”

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