A year ago, Democrats were wise to the possibility that the midterms might get ugly, but they had high hopes for New York.
Red states across the country were redrawing voting districts to a new extreme, shoring up congressional advantages for their party. New York, it seemed, could do the same for Democrats—make the state even bluer, a competitive rejoinder to a redistricting cycle that seemed certain to play to Republicans’ advantage.
The year 2021 marked the first time in a century that the New York Democrats had total control of state government, giving them unimpeded power in redistricting. Party leaders “optimistically predicted that new district lines could safeguard Democrats and imperil as many as five Republican seats,” noted the New York Times. Rumors circulated that Dems could lock in as much as a 23 to 3 advantage.
Today, all of that seems like a far-off fantasy.
A startling nine of New York’s 26 congressional seats are currently in play for the GOP; party leaders are flocking to the state to help campaign for Democrats holding on by a thread. Jill Biden announced Thursday that she would campaign for one such Democrat, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who opted to run in an easier, bluer district and was put in charge of House Democrats’ entire national reelection apparatus, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He’s now on the ropes.
What the hell happened here? And who’s to blame?
Luckily, there’s an easy answer for the last question: Look no further than erstwhile Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo.
If Cuomo is known for anything beyond his miscreant behavior in office, it should be for his willingness to abet the state’s conservative forces for his personal gain, often to his own party’s disadvantage. Nowhere was this more obvious than his judicial appointments, where Cuomo routinely elevated conservative appointees—gleefully scoring points against his progressive opponents in Albany and New York City by moving the judicial branch rapidly to the right.
In particular, he appointed four conservative-leaning judges to 14-year terms on the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest judicial body. They are the former Republican Janet DiFiore, Republican Michael Garcia, and conservative Democrats Anthony Cannatarro and Madeline Singas. Forming a majority of the court’s seven members, these four emerged as a bloc in the most recent session, voting together in 96 of 98 cases during the term that ended in mid 2022.
And they made some pretty suspect decisions! As the reporter Sam Mellins wrote in City and State, “these four judges have used their power to prevent criminal defendants from presenting expert testimony supporting their innocence, bar workers from suing employers for workplace injuries, and make it harder for victims of police misconduct to sue for damages, among other rulings.”
But their coup de grace was the ruling on New York state’s proposed redistricting. In April of this year, they sided with Republicans in a shock 4-3 decision that threw out the state’s redrawn maps, written by the Democratic-supermajority legislature, saying that they violated the state’s constitution. The opinion was written by Chief Judge DiFiore, with, of course, Judges Garcia, Singas, and Cannataro concurring.
In 2014, an amendment to the New York state constitution outlawed partisan gerrymandering, which, in theory, limited just how far Democrats could go in their redistricting in the eyes of the law.
Still, the ruling wasn’t a certainty, and Cuomo’s conservative bloc didn’t just trash the Democrat-friendly map, some of which was merely correcting some of the egregious Republican gerrymandering that Cuomo signed off on a decade prior. The judges went so far as to take redistricting power away from the legislature altogether, eventually reassigning the task to a special master of the court’s choosing.
The decision drew blowback from even moderate Democrats, since the court could have simply reverted back to the old maps or returned them to the legislature for a revise, a possibility that even a lower-level Republican judge in New York state had suggested. Instead, that power was granted to Jonathan Cervas, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University.
The ruling sent New York’s whole election cycle into a tailspin. Primary elections were delayed from June to late August, making them among the latest in the country. The new maps roped Democratic incumbents in Congress into numerous, vicious, member-on-member races that hurt the caucus even further. Voter turnout sank to record lows.
“What we’re seeing now is Cuomo’s fingerprints,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, director of the New York Working Families Party, a progressive group that Cuomo often opposed. “The redistricting process was Cuomo’s design. The court appointees that overturned the Democratic redistricting plan were Cuomo’s appointees.”
Indeed, Cuomo exerted his influence on the redistricting process in direct and indirect ways over the course of his decade as governor. The scrapping of the Democrats’ map by Cuomo appointees wasn’t the first time Cuomo had, in some form, made gerrymandering into a partisan win for Republicans. In 2012, during the last once-a-decade redistricting cycle, he signed a GOP-gerrymandered map into law, in exchange for the Republican-majority state senate’s support for the ballot referendum that was supposed to end future partisan gerrymandering.
That ballot referendum passed, and a separate commission was set up to handle redistricting for the most recent cycle, taking map-drawing away from the legislature and placing it in the hands of a bipartisan commission that was fiercely criticized from the get-go. Sure enough, the commission deadlocked and couldn’t settle on a map, handing responsibility back to the legislature. The legislature’s maps were then thrown out this year by DiFiore as Republicans cheered. The final maps, drawn up at the court’s direction, were substantially more favorable to the GOP.
As the Brennan Center for Justice noted, the 2014 constitutional amendment resulted in a process that is “far more open to political manipulation and is far less independent than those of states that adopted more comprehensive reforms.” Even with Cuomo gone from office, the political manipulation that resulted was yet again a boon for Republicans, and a thumb in the eye of Democrats.
Judge DiFiore, Cuomo’s personal pal, has several dubious connections. When the governor first faced allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct in 2021, Cuomo made a push to ensure that it was DiFiore who would oversee the investigation. That campaign failed, and Attorney General Tish James was ultimately put in charge; she delivered a damning report that led to Cuomo’s resignation. A year prior, DiFiore had used her close personal relationship with Cuomo to quietly receive priority COVID testing during the first days of the pandemic.
In a surprise decision, Judge DiFiore announced her intention to resign her post in July, and left the chamber at the end of August, one year after Cuomo. “Good riddance,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the highest-ranking New York Democrat in the House, in a statement issued at the time.
Cuomo is now on the comeback trail, hocking a new podcast titled As a Matter of Fact … With Andrew Cuomo. He recently announced the creation of a new political action committee, dedicated to electing “the right people to office.” He also maintains control of an election account with millions of dollars.
But his national legacy of leaving the Democrats scrambling in his home state should precede him. The centrist governor, who hamstrung New York Democrats for the entirety of the 2010s, has also positioned his own party to suffer for the remainder of the current decade, all the way up to the national level, giving Republicans new life in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans two-to-one. As Nnaemeka told me: “Cuomo set the stage for the return of the Republican Party in New York.”