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What is the Left Doing with the Governor's Race?
Tish vs. Jumaane, with Kathy Hochul's $11 million looming over it all
This week, Jumaane Williams will announce his bid for governor. Outside of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, there is no brighter local star among progressives. The public advocate since 2019, Williams sat out a mayoral race he probably would’ve won, choosing instead to prepare for a statewide run. A Black Democrat with unquestioned Left bona fides, he is well-situated to seek a higher office.
When Williams makes it official, he will be the third high profile Democrat competing in the gubernatorial primary next year. Kathy Hochul, who became governor in August after Andrew Cuomo resigned in disgrace, has reportedly banked $11 million for the race already. Attorney General Letitia James, after laying the groundwork for months, is now a contender, hoping to parlay her anti-Trump credentials and takedown of Cuomo into a formidable bid. Williams begins this race as an underdog; Hochul and James are statewide elected officials, and both seem poised to raise significantly more money.
Among activists and NGO leaders, there is great excitement for Williams running, and it’s easy to see why. In 2018, Williams ran for lieutenant governor and garnered 47 percent of the vote against Hochul, who was running on a ticket with both Cuomo and James. Considering that Cuomo was spending nearly $30 million to crush his progressive primary challenger, Cynthia Nixon, and using that money to prop up Hochul and James on the airwaves, Williams’ showing was quite impressive. He won Brooklyn and Manhattan outright on a shoestring budget, raising less than $1 million.
The hope, for the Working Families Party and their constellation of allied nonprofits like Make the Road and Citizens Action NY, is that Williams can build on this momentum and defeat both Hochul and James in a crowded primary that could end up including Mayor Bill de Blasio and Long Island Congressman Tom Suozzi. In a multi-candidate field where the winner may not even need forty percent of the vote, it’s easy to see why Williams, a popular progressive with a real base in New York City, would have a shot.
But the Williams gubernatorial bid carries great risks for himself and the broader Left. It is unlikely he will be able to generate the same amount of enthusiasm around his campaign as he did in 2018, when he was explicitly running as an anti-Cuomo progressive. Williams distinguished himself at the time for being one of the few Democrats unafraid of challenging Cuomo in public. Even the Democratic Socialists of America decided to endorse him, a move that is highly unlikely to come next year. The WFP can effectively raise money, hire consultants, and guide a campaign, but it is not a mass-member organization that can mobilize thousands of voters across New York State. No NGO has that kind of clout. If every progressive organization endorses Williams out of the gate, it will be helpful but not terribly impactful on such a large scale. This isn’t a City Council campaign or even a mayoral race. There are no matching funds to be had.
If Williams can’t find a way to raise half as much money as Hochul, who is better-known now and will air copious TV commercials, he is probably not going to win. There is a belief in politics that taking on long-shot challenges and losing can enhance your standing for future campaigns, and this was true for Williams in 2018. But for every campaign like that one, or the Bernie 2016 effort, there are failures that cripple careers. Beto O’Rourke and Kirsten Gillibrand did not burnish their brands in the 2020 presidential race. If Williams finishes a distant third or even worse, he may also undercut left-leaning Democrats in Albany who want to demonstrate their policies have broad appeal. Hochul, a pro-choice Democrat, won’t hesitate to remind voters the Jumaane Williams record on abortion was once much murkier. If the Supreme Court strikes down or weakens Roe v. Wade soon, this will become a serious liability for him.
The other problem is James. Like Williams, James is a Black Democrat from Brooklyn. It is inarguable Williams operates, in this current climate, to the left of James, who used to be Cuomo ally and spent much of her career in the circles of the Democratic establishment. James does not belong to DSA, once repudiated the WFP, and will probably try to fundraise from some of the millionaire donors who flooded Cuomo’s campaigns. But she is also shifting leftward, supporting good-cause eviction and attempting to distinguish herself as a Democrat who was willing, at long last, to challenge Cuomo’s hegemony. Hochul has already drawn closer to the real estate industry and is unlikely to make such a concession to tenant organizers and progressive Democrats.
Williams will have a far easier time kneecapping James than winning next year. Both Democrats need working-class Blacks and Latinos in New York City to support them. Both need white, left-leaning Democrats and young leftists to vote for them too. The powerful coalition that, together, would have easily defeated Eric Adams in the June mayoral primary must show up for James or Williams. If it’s divided, it’s not hard to imagine Hochul running up big numbers in the suburbs and parts of upstate while peeling away enough establishment-minded Democrats in the city—white and nonwhite alike—to win. With the specter of a disastrous midterm for Democrats looming, Hochul, along with James, will probably make another important pitch to regular Democrats: I can win a general election and stop Lee Zeldin, who could be a threat to become the first Republican to win statewide in 20 years. Williams, who has never won statewide and calls himself an activist-politician, will have a tougher time making that argument.
It’s still not clear how long Williams will remain in the governor’s race. James and Hochul can raise millions of dollars and secure the backing of some large labor unions. The biggest unions in the state—1199 SEIU, NYSUT, the building trades—will not support Williams. They will remain neutral or drift to Hochul or James, depending on fundraising and polling. The next filing period in January will be pivotal, as well as the next few public polls. If James can bank nearly as much as Hochul by then and Williams is nowhere close, there may be pressure on him to drop out. The unpredictable factor here is Cuomo himself, sitting on $18 million that was supposed to go towards his own 2022 race. It is hard to imagine Cuomo running next year, but this is New York and he may decide being the chaos candidate is attractive. If not governor, he can try for attorney general. At the minimum, James must worry about Cuomo financing a major PAC expenditure against her.
Williams does have an attractive statewide option that he can still choose to exercise: another bid for lieutenant governor. Logic dictates this is what he should do and it’s possible, after huddling with allies, he chooses this path in the end. Hochul’s lieutenant, Brian Benjamin, ran for city comptroller this June and finished a distant fourth, losing his own State Senate district. He lacks name recognition and would struggle mightily against Williams in New York City. It can be argued he’s in an even weaker position than Hochul was in 2018, since he was just appointed lieutenant governor in August. If Williams runs and wins, he will hold a statewide perch where he can pressure the next governor—likely Hochul or James—and build a profile for a future gubernatorial bid or even a run for mayor in 2029, when Adams is term-limited.
But if ambition gets the better of him, the next few months could get ugly. Williams has an uphill fight against Hochul and James. Crucially, he must articulate a rationale for a campaign against a governor who is not controversial or polarizing. This might be Hochul’s greatest strength—that she shows up everywhere, like Chuck Schumer, and manages to defang critics. We don’t really know yet what type of governor Hochul will be because she’s only been in office a few months. She has retained Cuomo’s budget director, a decision that is disastrous from a Left perspective, but has purged the state government of other top Cuomo aides. She has killed one Cuomo pet project, the LaGuardia AirTrain, while reimagining another, the redesign of Penn Station. Next year, negotiating her first state budget while seeking re-election, she will face pressure to please restive progressives and neutralize both James and Williams.
For the Left, it might be best to shove Williams into the lieutenant governor’s race, giving the broader movement a much better chance of having one of their own in a statewide position. Coupled with the chance to elect Zephyr Teachout attorney general, there is the distinct possibility that the left flank of the Democratic Party will be well-represented in positions of power come 2023. What happens next is ultimately up to Williams. James and Hochul are locked into running for governor. He still has another hand to play.