News & Politics

New York Democrats Aren’t Trying Very Hard To Elect New York Democrats

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The New York State Democratic Committee, the party organization charged, in theory, with electing as many Democrats as possible across the state, is getting busier these days. On Tuesday, the party and its de facto leader, Governor Andrew Cuomo, hosted a rally for House Democrats, vowing to turn the state’s congressional delegation completely blue. “We promise you if you violate your office, you defraud the voters, you hurt the people of this state — we will remove you from office,” Cuomo boomed at the Javits Center. “Those are not just words. You can bet your political life.”

What was notable about the theatrics was all that was left unsaid. No Democrat onstage, including Basil Smikle, the party’s executive director, uttered one word about Republican control of the state senate, a far more consequential roadblock to liberal change in New York. Nothing was said about the Independent Democratic Conference, an eight-member breakaway group that has spent more than four years in a power-sharing agreement with the Republican majority. No one thought it odd that Cuomo, who has been governor since 2011, never spearheaded such an aggressive statewide effort before in pivotal House elections during the 2012, 2014, and 2016 cycles.

And no one could express what most political watchers understand, and most newcomers to state Democratic politics learn quickly, once they start paying attention: The statewide party organization doesn’t fight to elect Democrats other than Cuomo. This is not necessarily a break with tradition. For decades, the state party organization has been little more than a sizable campaign war chest for the state’s most powerful Democrat. When George Pataki, a Republican, was governor, the longtime Assembly Speaker, Sheldon Silver, who resigned in 2015 following a corruption conviction, decided what the state party did and didn’t do. When Cuomo rose to power, the party organization naturally followed his lead.

Democrats across America struggled to party-build in the Obama era. The party suffered massive losses in statehouses and other local legislatures. No state-level party organization is without blame. No Democratic Party machine can say it did its job particularly well.

But New York’s party organization under Cuomo barely exists as a party organization at all. There are four paid staffers in the central office. An out-of-date website still lists Steve Israel, a former congressman who didn’t run for re-election last year, as part of the party’s leadership. The website also lists Sheila Comar as acting chairwoman of the party, even though Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown was named chairman last year. Brown didn’t speak at the rally on Tuesday.

The last high-profile party chair, former governor David Paterson, functioned more like a Cuomo puppet than a defender of Democratic politicians and policy. Paterson, a former state senator himself, was a reliable mouthpiece for the governor and didn’t hesitate to attack members of the state legislature who offered criticism of the executive branch. Paterson was all but silent on the IDC–GOP alliance.

In other states, party organizations take a much more active role in recruiting and supporting candidates on all levels of government. In California, where infighting has broken out among establishment Democrats and those aligned with the Bernie Sanders wing, the state party proactively assists Democrats down the ballot. The party aids local political organizations with tasks like building websites. Unlike in New York, Democrats in California have full control of government and will probably not relinquish it for a long time.

Smikle still argues that his state’s organization stacks up fine against anyone else’s.

“The State Democratic Party has worked hard to advance the candidacies of Democrats up and down the ballot,” he said in a statement to the Voice. “From providing grassroots, financial, candidate training, legal and voter engagement support to working with our counterpart organizations on the state and federal levels, we have been and will continue to be at the center of the movement to make New York a deeper blue each year.”

There is scant evidence, however, that the state party in the Cuomo era has done much other than aid Cuomo’s gubernatorial and policy campaigns. This is by design. The party is entirely under Cuomo’s control. No dollar is spent without his approval.

Cuomo has long been dismissive of the idea of Democrats controlling the state senate. As a centrist wary of his party’s left wing, he has found a Republican majority conducive to his aims. He played an active role in the formation of the IDC and has not joined other local and national Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi and Keith Ellison, in unequivocally calling for a Democratic majority.

The state party’s spending, or lack thereof, paints a damning picture. At any given time, the state party’s campaign account and housekeeping accounts sit on at least a few hundred thousand dollars, if not much more. This money almost always goes to Cuomo.

In the 2014 election cycle, when Cuomo was re-elected, his campaign account transferred nearly $16 million of its own funds to the state party, according to an analysis by Competitive Advantage Research, a firm that crunches political data. The state party, in turn, allocated about $13 million for a direct expenditure to support Cuomo. There are several advantages to this sort of arrangement. Chiefly, party organizations can get better deals than individual campaigns on prices for campaign mail. Letting the party organization spend for you is cost-efficient.

Expenditures on the state senate are comparatively paltry. In the 2016 cycle, the state party sent $11,000 to three Democratic candidates in contested races. The campaign committees for senate and assembly Democrats didn’t receive anything. “There is no history of financial support going from state party level to conference committees, or even the reverse occurring. These appear to be separate fiefdoms,” said Jon Reznick of Competitive Advantage Research.

Senate Democrats are routinely outspent by Republicans, who benefit both from a lack of infighting (the IDC never spends money to defeat Republicans) and the largess of the state’s richest people. Real estate and financial industry heavyweights help underwrite the Republican majority. And there remains a significant overlap between the people who bankroll Republicans and Cuomo. If anything else, Cuomo has single-handedly nurtured the dying flame of the Republican Party in New York.

CORRECTION: This article originally stated that Sheila Comar was the state’s Democratic party chairwoman because she was listed in that position on the state party’s website. In fact, Byron Brown is the current chair. 

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