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Why Kathy Hochul Takes on the Left
What she does - and doesn't owe them
Of late, I’ve written a little bit about how Kathy Hochul, the newly-elected governor of New York, has been outflanked by fellow Democrats, many of them progressives, in the State Senate. Hochul already became the first governor in state history to have the legislature block a nominee to the Court of Appeals, the state’s version of the Supreme Court. Democrats successfully halted Hector LaSalle in the judicial committee, pushing back against him because he is not sufficiently liberal. LaSalle also drew the ire of organized labor, typically more aligned with gubernatorial priorities, and this helped sink him. Hochul is now contemplating legal action to force a full floor vote on LaSalle, but it’s not even clear she’d win there. Democrats have a supermajority in the State Senate and Hochul would need at least 11 votes for LaSalle if every single Republican decided to support him, which is no guarantee.
Undoubtedly, Hochul and her team stumbled, failing to line up meaningful support for LaSalle in the Democratic conference before the nomination was announced. She did not lean on large labor unions—the governor’s office enjoys great leverage over them—to push him forward. The planning and execution was poor and it was a reminder that Hochul, who replaced Andrew Cuomo after he resigned in disgrace a year and a half ago, is not his equal when it comes to the dark art of Albany strategy. Cuomo, who dominated and triangulated the legislature for most of his tenure, would not have allowed himself to fail so publicly. Either he would have found a way to jam LaSalle through—perhaps trading legislative pay raises for a confirmation—or pulled back when it was clear when the votes were lost.
But it’s worth asking, for progressives especially, why Hochul has been so intent on not only trying to get LaSalle confirmed but also further chipping away at the criminal justice reforms passed in 2019. After winning a narrow victory against Lee Zeldin, a staunch Donald Trump supporter who ran an aggressive law-and-order campaign, Hochul has offered few olive branches to the progressive and socialist lawmakers who sit in the legislature, as well as their attendant NGOs and the Working Families Party. Her State of the State did include several important priorities that could be described as progressive—upzoning the suburbs, indexing the minimum wage to inflation, building out a new train line in working-class Brooklyn and Queens—but she has been mum on supporting the sort of tenant protections, like good cause eviction, favored by the left. She has stated flatly she doesn’t want to raise taxes on the wealthy. And after weakening bail reforms last year, she wants to go further in this session, giving judges more discretion to assign bail in violent felony and high-level misdemeanor cases.
Why is Hochul fighting for LaSalle? Why does she care so much about bail? Why does she insist?
It’s plausible she doesn’t feel she owes the left anything at all.
This was the danger of the primary waged against her last year, one I did warn about. If a powerful incumbent is going to face a primary challenge, the campaign must pose some kind of threat to her. If the candidate is not going to win, the candidate must prove they can marshal a significant coalition. Otherwise, the campaign merely reveals the impotence of the opposition.
This lesson, strangely, was lost in 2022. After Letitia James, the state attorney general, decided against challenging Hochul, the WFP and their allies fully committed to Jumaane Williams, the New York City public advocate. The move had plenty of surface logic to it. In 2018, Williams, who is Black and hails from Brooklyn, almost defeated Hochul when she was the lieutenant governor running on a ticket with Cuomo. Williams carried Brooklyn and Manhattan despite getting badly outspent, proving he could fuse together white liberals and moderate Black voters in a formidable coalition. Williams has long been a star in activist circles and could have launched a viable mayoral bid in 2021. He passed, setting his sights on the governor’s race the following year. This was to be the WFP’s primary political project.
Williams represented the second time the WFP has explicitly backed a primary challenger to a sitting Democratic governor. It was the third cycle, overall, where a progressive candidate ran. In 2014 and 2018, neither insurgent won, but each shoved Cuomo, who was then governor, leftward. This was no easy feat. Cuomo, a Clintonian centrist, was openly hostile to progressive Democrats, and did his best to dismantle the WFP when he was governor. In 2014, he successfully pressured the WFP to not endorse Zephyr Teachout, the leftist law professor running against him. Teachout, running on an anti-corruption, anti-fracking, and pro-union platform, won more than 33 percent of the vote, far more than pundits predicted. Teachout had little money and the entire Democratic establishment against her. Her performance both angered and sufficiently intimidated Cuomo. Shortly after he was re-elected, he announced a moratorium on fracking in New York, came out in favor of an increased minimum wage, and grew closer to the public sector labor unions that he had warred with, openly, in his first term. On the substance, Teachout’s campaign was quite successful. She never expected to win but changed the trajectory of the Cuomo administration. She kickstarted the progressive revival in New York Democratic politics.
In 2018, the expectations were raised for Cynthia Nixon, the famed actress and political activist, when she ran against Cuomo. This time, the WFP and their NGOs all proudly backed Nixon, as did many left-leaning elected officials. Despite this level of progressive institutional backing and the favor voters showed to insurgent campaigns that year—on the same day Nixon was on the ballot, six of eight challengers to the conservative Independent Democratic Conference were successful—Cuomo held Nixon, roughly, to Teachout’s margin. Cuomo campaigned aggressively and spent almost $30 million against her. Some Democrats, in the Donald Trump era, appeared wary of handing over an executive position to another entertainer, even though Nixon ran a thoughtful, serious campaign. Though the outcome, for progressives, was a disappointment, it clearly mattered to Cuomo that Nixon took 35 percent of the primary vote. In 2019, with Democrats now in charge of the State Senate for the first time in a decade, a raft of liberal priorities were forced to Cuomo’s desk. The partial end of cash bail, tuition assistance for undocumented immigrants, and the end of vacancy decontrol—the ability of landlords to rip apartments out of the rent-stabilization system—were just some of the policy goals that became law that year. Many on the left termed it the Cynthia effect.
In 2023, there will be no Jumaane effect. Williams did not win 35 percent of the vote against Hochul. He won 19 percent. Tom Suozzi, a Democratic congressman campaigning to Hochul’s right, took 13 percent. More than 80 percent of the Democratic primary electorate voted for the incumbent governor or a rival who didn’t sound all that different than Lee Zeldin. Williams’ running mate, Ana María Archila, got too late a start on the campaign and fared only marginally better, winning 26 percent against Antonio Delgado, a former congressman from the Hudson Valley who was unknown in New York City. Insurgent campaigns for lieutenant governor, in both 2014 and 2018, won at least 40 percent. The Williams campaign, in particular, was so weak that few New Yorkers can probably recall that it happened at all, which in a strange way is helpful to WFP, which can move right past it from a public relations standpoint. The only neighborhoods Hochul lost to Williams in New York City were Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Prospect Heights, and parts of Park Slope. All were concentrated in Brooklyn. Everywhere else, including most of middle-class, outer borough Black Brooklyn and Queens, voted overwhelmingly for the white upstate governor over Williams.
In May, a month before primary day, the New York Times asked why the Williams campaign had not taken off, noting he had not fundraised enough to appear on television or be a presence in a statewide race that, realistically, required a multimillion dollar investment. Though Williams, the newspaper said, is “careful not to blame his campaign woes on it,” the reporters noted that his wife was diagnosed with cervical cancer and their daughter was born prematurely. Williams’ wife told the Times that he twice, privately, offered to drop out of the race. It remains unclear how much his endorsers in the progressive and nonprofit world tried to push him to a respectable showing. Given the outcome of the race, whatever efforts WFP and their allies put in were simply not enough.
In the fall, progressives happened on a new narrative with some truth to it—in New York City, they helped Hochul beat Zeldin. Hochul’s campaign was listless and WFP paid for a GOTV operation, helping to pull liberal votes out in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. Progressive and socialist politicians campaigned for Hochul, who was cross-endorsed by the WFP in the general election—in order for WFP to keep its ballot status as a political party, Hochul needed at least 130,000 votes statewide. She got those votes and the WFP, as an official party with automatic ballot status, survived. But while progressives and even some members of the media cemented this narrative, there was no guarantee Hochul herself would see the campaign that way. Rather, she can ask how the same machinery that netted just 19 percent of the Democratic primary vote against her could somehow be responsible for saving her statewide, in a race that cost many millions of dollars. Williams did not inspire fear in Hochul. Like any politician, she has a memory and isn’t above holding a grudge. Are progressives angry that she wants to chip away at bail reform? Tough, she might say behind closed doors. You ran against me and lost. What do I owe you? When Cuomo faced down Teachout and Nixon, he perceived a movement behind them, and acted accordingly. Hochul merely saw a candidate who was demolished in every part of the state.
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