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Semafor LogoDavid Weigel
David Weigel
politics

New York Democrats can’t take much more of this

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New York Governor Kathy Hochul.
Flickr/Marc A. Hermann/MTA

Flickr/Marc A. Hermann/MTA

Democrats have spent the last few weeks basking in the glow of the midterms, in which the party defied predictions of a “red wave” and gained a Senate seat. But it’s a different story in New York, where a collapse in Democratic support almost single-handedly cost the national party control of Congress. And the recriminations have only gotten worse since then.

Post-election infighting between New York Democrats spilled into new fronts this week, from finger-pointing around their loss to a Republican congressional candidate who fabricated his resume, to frustration with Gov. Kathy Hochul for picking a conservative-leaning judge for the state’s highest court, preserving its centrist tilt.

The first blow came on Monday, in a front-page New York Times story revealing that Republican Rep.-elect George Santos had misled voters about his biography, education, finances, and employment. On Wednesday, a Democratic-led committee reviewed whether another Republican, state Assemblyman-elect Lester Chang had won a seat in Brooklyn without meeting residency requirements.

Democrats hadn’t raised questions about either candidate before the election, frustrating party activists who’ve called on state party chair Jay Jacobs to resign. They did not convince Gov. Kathy Hochul, who’d praised Jacobs for a “great job” in November.

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“We actually want to work with her in identifying somebody willing to build a real Democratic Party,” said Erica Vladimer, a state Democratic committee member who signed the November letter opposing Jacobs. “It would have been nice to have a state party apparatus that was coordinating campaigns across the state, and could have looked into George Santos.”

On Thursday, Hochul faced new criticism over her choice of Hector D. LaSalle for chief judge of the state court of appeals.

A coalition of progressive groups had previously urged Hochul not to pick LaSalle, and to take a rare opportunity to move the state’s high court to the left.

The decision also enraged partisans who are still smarting over a 4-3 decision this year that blew up an ambitious Democratic gerrymander — the key swing vote had since resigned, making the pick a chance to potentially revisit it down the line.

By Friday morning, four Senate Democrats suggested that they would oppose the nominee, citing LaSalle’s background as a former prosecutor and a past ruling in favor of an anti-abortion center.

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“It's indefensible to ask for Black votes and then work to incarcerate us,” state Sen. Jabari Brisport, a member of Democratic Socialists of America, wrote on Twitter.

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New York Democrats we talked to this week were stunned by the Santos story, casting blame in multiple directions, and only occasionally hitting the state Democratic Committee.

Josh Lafazan, a Nassau County legislator who lost the Democratic nomination to face Santos, called on the U.S. Attorney to investigate the Republican’s “potential criminality.” But he said that Democratic candidates were put in position to lose because voters were in revolt over crime — a political problem exacerbated by the left-leaning state legislature.

“We saw from the beginning that bail reform was a real concern amongst voters,” said Lafazan. “I think Albany didn't react soon enough.”

Progressives tell another story, about party machinery left behind by ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo that was effective at disciplining left-wing candidates in primaries, but not at messaging effectively against Republicans. They called the committee a Cuomo Party, not a Democratic Party, and recalled how the former governor cut deals to keep Republicans in full or partial control of the state senate until 2019.

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“It hasn’t changed, except for the fact that Cuomo is no longer around,” said state Sen. Andrew Gounardes, who easily won his southern Brooklyn seat while Republicans gained ground inside it. “There was no joint operation, there was no outreach. We lost seats down-ballot in south Brooklyn – there was just no coordination.”

Jacobs has defended the party’s performance, and how it kept its lock on the state legislature despite losses in Long Island. But some progressives wanted him gone last year, forcing a doomed “no confidence” vote after another set of weak off-year elections, and after he refused to support the party’s mayoral nominee in Buffalo — a socialist who’d beaten the Democratic incumbent in a primary.

That year, the party spent little to pass election reform ballot measures, including one that could have prevented courts from taking over the redistricting process. Republicans spent money, turned out their voters, and defeated them, while romping in off-year Long Island elections. Jacobs admitted that “a ball was dropped” and the party could have done more on the ballot measures.

All of this left little goodwill between left-wing Democrats and the party leadership heading into the midterms. And then came the LaSalle nomination, which puts progressives in the position of opposing — and they hope, sinking — the first Hispanic nominee to lead the state’s high court.

Some of the motivations behind the progressives trying to wrestle the party away from Hochul and Jacobs are ideological, but most, in my conversations, were practical. While they were panicking in New York, Democrats watched Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his state party gerrymander favorable seats, build a massive voter registration advantage, and deliver on nearly everything conservatives wanted. They want a ruthless party that wins and then pulls the ladder up behind them.

Title iconRoom for Disagreement

In a statement to Semafor, Jacobs said that many post-election complaints were being driven by “those on the Far Left who will not engage in a meaningful, open-minded discussion on the merits of our policy disagreements.” The state party’s job was to “coordinate between the various campaigns across the state and to provide support in the way of supplying canvassers and field operations in competitive areas,” which it did.

“Much like Trump, who accuses his opponents of doing the things that, in fact, HE, himself is actually doing, these critics are the ones who have a rather publicly stated strategy of engaging in party primaries to remove moderate incumbents — even in districts a Far Left Democrat cannot possibly win,” said Jacobs. “Yes, I have either not endorsed or, on a few occasions, opposed Far Left candidates in primaries where I do not believe their winning will result in success for the Democrats in the General Election. Apparently, those on the Far Left can throw a punch – but they cannot take one. I suggest they look in the mirror if they want to find responsibility for numerous examples of Democratic losses.”

Title iconNotable
  • Journalist Ross Barkan games out the LaSalle nomination and what it means for the governor. The backlash represents “the opposite of what Hochul should want as she pursues an ambitious legislative agenda in Albany,” he writes.
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