How New York Democrats Blew It
Mary Harris: Hey, everyone, quick head’s up. There’s some unbleached language ahead. There are a number of metrics you could use to answer the question How blue is New York State? By blue, I mean likely to vote for a Democrat. An answer to how blue is very. There are twice as many registered Democrats as there are Republicans here. A Republican has not won statewide office in two decades, and Joe Biden won New York by 23 points. Which is why it’s so strange that last week, as Democrats all across the country looked at midterm results and heaved a sigh of relief, Democrats in New York cringed after suffering embarrassing losses.
Speaker 2: And so we’re looking at New York. It’s just sort of this this curious, singular case and where we’re left to wonder, well, okay, why was there a red wave that started on Long Island and seemingly crested somewhere around upstate New York? And why didn’t it happen anywhere else?
Mary Harris: Jimmy Vielkind is a reporter at the Wall Street Journal. He says the last few days have involved a lot of finger pointing among local politicos. But before we get into all that, let’s just talk about the numbers at the moment. New York’s got 19 Democratic congresspeople. Next year, it is set to have 15. One of the most breathtaking losses for New York Dems was in the 17th District. That’s where Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney ran. Maloney also happens to be the chair of the D, triple C, the committee whose whole job it is to get Democratic congresspeople elected. A D triple C chair has not lost an election in 40 years.
Speaker 2: I started to get concerned when I saw numbers on Long Island and really in Rockland County, which was the core of Maloney’s new district.
Speaker 3: Everyone has their eyes on the 17th Congressional District between Republican State Assemblyman Mike Lawlor and longtime Democratic Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, with 95% of the votes being reported. Lawlor is ahead by a little over point at 50.6%. Like I said.
Mary Harris: It was clear this race was too close. If you are Democrat.
Speaker 3: Maloney is a five term congressman and may lose his seat to a less well-known politician. And this could give Republicans an unforeseen advantage towards taking control of Congress.
Mary Harris: The thing is, Congressman Maloney tried every trick in the book to set himself up for this midterm. He switched to a district that was friendlier to Dems. He got friends in Democratic leadership to lend him some money. None of it seemed to help.
Speaker 2: Hubris is a big thing in politics, and sometimes it catches up with you very, very, very, very quickly. You look at a person like Congressman Maloney, you’re not in trouble until you’re really in trouble. And by the time you get yourself to be really in trouble, it’s very difficult to get out of it because getting yourself into trouble has meant spurning a lot of the people who could help you along the way.
Mary Harris: It’s interesting because you say that in New York, Democrats are pointing fingers at each other over what just happened. But over the weekend, I was watching how various news organizations were doing the math of what’s going to happen in Congress, which we still don’t know as of this recording. And MSNBC revised its estimate of which party would take the house. And it said that they’re estimating Republicans are only going to win 219 seats, which is a one seat majority. Very, very slim.
Mary Harris: And while you see Democrats in New York are pointing fingers at each other right now, I wonder if that materializes where there’s such a slim majority in the House for Republicans. Whether that finger pointing around New York will become a national game. Because if New York hadn’t lost just a handful of seats. What the House of Representatives looked like could be very different.
Speaker 2: Well, that’s exactly the point. And New York, it’s a blue state. It hasn’t broken for a Republican presidential candidate in almost 40 years. We have a Democratic governor. We had Democrats who control both houses of the state legislature. And so, therefore, for the first time in since the 1960s, you had all Democrats in control of the redistricting process, theoretically in a position to make sure that New York was not a place where there were losses for the party, but there were gains. And it just it just really all went wrong. And to the point of national blame. Howard Wolfson, who’s a spokesman on Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2008. He worked for Michael Bloomberg. And he said, you know, quote, It’s infuriating that as good a night as it was for Democrats overall is undone by arrogance and incompetence in New York.
Mary Harris: Today on the show, How New York Democrats Lost their groove. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to What next? Stick around.
Mary Harris: Even before last week’s election was finished. Pundits were sharpening their pencils, getting ready to write the story of what exactly happened in New York. Many had even figured out who to blame. A full week before the midterms, Slate published this article titled If a Red Wave Hits New York, Blame Andrew Cuomo. A lot of people want to blame Andrew Cuomo. Did your home state Democrats kind of screw this up for the National Party?
Speaker 4: Redistricting in New York was an incompetent disaster, and it started, by the way. Like many of the recent horrible things in New York with a guy by the name of Andrew Cuomo.
Mary Harris: Who this is, Mondaire Jones, is now out of work, New York congressman. On CNN this weekend, he is making the argument that the trouble for New York really began when former Governor Andrew Cuomo refused to take redistricting seriously.
Speaker 4: How do folks don’t know that? The reason we lost a congressional seat in New York State is because 89 more people did not complete the census. The governor at the time could have disbursed funds that the legislature had allocated for purposes of census completion.
Mary Harris: This is Andrew Jones argument goes like this. If 89 more people completed the census, New York would have kept the same number of Congress members it had last cycle. Instead, they lost a seat and then they had to draw new maps. And that didn’t work out so great either. Jimmy Vielkind would not go so far as to say this is all Cuomo’s fault, but he can see why Jones thinks that.
Speaker 2: It’s true that for many, many months and years that the state dithered on providing funding to make sure that there was outreach, to make sure there was a vigorous census, to make sure, as Congressman Jones said, that the state’s population would be counted as as robustly as possible and we would maintain representation in Congress and throughout that whole thing for basically couldn’t be bothered to to add to money or to really engage in that process. His spokesperson has sort of dismissed this this claim said that the population was was affirmed by the census in New York as being, if anything, over over counted in 2020. But it certainly is a criticism.
Mary Harris: Okay. So New York lost a congressional seat and then it has to draw its maps and sit down and do that with this new process that was devised a decade ago when Andrew Cuomo was governor. So what happened then?
Speaker 2: Well, the process went to shit. And if I can say shit on your podcast, can I say shit on your podcast?
Mary Harris: Do it.
Speaker 2: We’re going to let it go. Okay. The process went to shit.
Mary Harris: Jimmy saying the process went ahead because of another relic of Governor Cuomo, his time in office. The state’s Independent Redistricting Commission this year was its first time in action.
Speaker 2: Essentially, the independent commission was supposed to come up with these maps and it didn’t do so. It failed to produce two sets of maps.
Mary Harris: It deadlocked.
Speaker 2: And when it failed, arguably by design or by purpose, and I haven’t heard actually a good counter argument against that. It went back surprise, surprise, to the state legislature. So it ended up that with all of this new fangled independent commission with a capital I, that lawmakers were once again in control of drawing their own district lines and drawing district lines for the House of Representatives. And so they drew them. So they drew them. The first round with respect to the House would have created a map in New York that was 22 seats that looked pretty good for Democrats and four seats that looked for they were pretty good for Republicans.
Mary Harris: Is that a fair map? That seems like not that many Republicans.
Speaker 2: Well, if you consider that Republicans take up, you know, about a third of of voters in the state, it is an underrepresentation. And when you consider that there are currently eight Republicans in the New York delegation, it certainly would be a diminution. And that was exactly the Republicans put forward. So they saw this map and they sued anyone. Basically, they brought the case to court. They said that these lines were drawn by Democratic lawmakers. And they they they complained about the procedure by which the lines were drawn. And after a few lower court rulings, it gets to the court of Appeals in New York, which is the state’s highest court, seven judges. And in a43 decision, the court of appeals backed the Republican challenge.
Mary Harris: And the four people who hung together, they were appointed by Cuomo. Correct. And are quite conservative.
Speaker 2: That’s exactly right. The actual opinion was drafted by Janet DiFiore, who is the chief judge of the Court of Appeals. But DiFiore wrote an opinion that was was pretty scathing. Not only did she. Knock out the map that had been drawn by Democrats, she said. And you legislators can’t be trusted to try this again. And so she placed the mapmaking power in the hands of a judge in Steuben County. And they hired an outside expert who drew a map that had 16 seats that were safe for Democrats, five seats that were pretty safe and Republican and five that were generally thought to be competitive.
Mary Harris: One congressman called this map an extinction level event for New York Democrats.
Speaker 2: Yeah, Democrats were really, really, really upset.
Mary Harris: And it’s important to point out that this justice ruled that an independent person should come up with these maps, a special monitor, because she could have just as easily sent it back to the legislature. Right. And said, just redo this. Make it better.
Speaker 2: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. And so there were some people who were furious with Judge DiFiore. She actually ended up resigning over the summer this year. And also it was reported by The Wall Street Journal and other outlets that she was under investigation by the Commission on Judicial Conduct at the time of her resignation for what was what was believed to be improper conduct with regarding the head of the State Court officers union.
Mary Harris: So to sum up for the people who see what happened in New York this midterm cycle is kind of Andrew Cuomo’s revenge. They have all this evidence to pile up, which is that he underresourced the census, in their opinion, causing the state to lose a congressional seat in the first place. And then they also argue that Governor Cuomo helped set up a wonky redistricting process and then stocked the state’s higher courts with conservative judges who made this choice to redraw the map for the legislature and make it pretty conservative and not a great map for Democrats.
Speaker 2: It’s very clear that you can draw a line from the actions that Andrew Cuomo took over his more than a decade as governor of New York. And, you know, knowing his relationships with legislators, knowing his approach to power, his influence here is clear. And his fingerprints on what happened should not be erased. But I think when you look at the other factors that were involved here from the national tied to the personalities involved, to the people who were on the ballot and who were in charge and who actually. Followed that process, Who drew those maps? Who watched those maps get thrown out? I think that there’s plenty of blame to go around for people looking for someone in New York to point their finger at.
Mary Harris: Yeah. I mean. I think you would also argue New York Democrats overshot here. They created a redistricting map that would have been very gerrymandered in their favor and just kind of crossed their fingers that no one would call them out on it.
Speaker 2: Yeah, I remember that episode of The Simpsons where Bart forges his report card so he can go to Camp Krusty. He forges all his F’s into a pluses, and Homer looks at him and says, Oh, boy. At least forge plausible grades. It turns into a B so easily.
Mary Harris: After the break, another New York Democrat finished this round of midterms with an underwhelming performance. But she doesn’t have the census or Cuomo or redistricting to blame. And now she’s governor.
Mary Harris: I want to talk about New York’s Democratic governor, Kathy Hochul, and her campaign, because I think what’s interesting, if we look at the gubernatorial campaign in New York is that, you know, we just talked a lot about redistricting, but redistricting doesn’t really impact the governor’s race, statewide elections, not about districts. And while Kathy Hochul won, she struggled a lot. And that points to different issues. So I guess maybe start here, which is what were the first signs of trouble that you saw in Kathy Hochul campaign?
Speaker 2: I think the first sign of trouble was about two weeks out when you saw a pretty quick pivot. There were some polls that came out that showed who had been showing the governor’s race as sort of a 15 point fare, which is about right. It’s a little bit low for a Democrat, but again, it’s going to be a red year.
Mary Harris: But Hochul running away with it.
Speaker 2: Yeah, Hochul up by about 15. Not not bad. Not a problem at all. And all of a sudden, there were single digit polls and people started to have their eyes bug out of their head. Mark Colvin, the borough president for Manhattan, he he held a rally that he organized called Wake Up Dems. Hmm.
Mary Harris: Yeah. For me, I got worried when I noticed Bill Clinton and Joe Biden coming to campaign for Kathy Hochul. And usually you don’t need that kind of firepower in New York State.
Speaker 2: Usually you don’t need the Democratic Governors Association to be spending money on your behalf. You don’t need rallies with top tier people. It should be not much of a contest. And this year it wasn’t. And the big moment was that Hochul was not directly addressing What polls showed was the number one issue for voters, which was elevated crime. And that’s a message that was particularly resonant in New York City suburbs, not by people who probably live in the core of New York City, but who are commuting in or who go there every once in a while and who have since the pandemic observed that there is more visible disorder and that there are more random attacks. And the statistics show that these incidents are up and the media coverage has really amplified it and it has created a perception of elevated crime. And Zeldin capitalized on this.
Mary Harris: Lee Zeldin, the Republican core Republican opponent.
Speaker 2: That’s right. Lee Zeldin, the Republican candidate focused on this whole did on it. And Kathy Hochul was seen as arriving somewhat late to the party. She spent most of her summer and most of her campaign money on ads that essentially attacked Zeldin described his position on abortion. He’s he’s pro-life. He opposes abortion and is out of step with the majority of New Yorkers and also emphasized his ties to former President Trump. This is Lee Zeldin, the Republican nominee for governor. And on the day our Capitol was attacked, a day that led to the deaths of five brave police officers, Zeldin still voted to overturn the election. Kelly Zeldin is extreme and dangerous. Zeldin worked with Trump. He praised Trump. And Zeldin was one of the members of Congress who voted against certifying Joe Biden’s win in the 2020 election.
Mary Harris: But it’s interesting because that approach really worked in other states.
Speaker 2: One thing that struck me covering several Democratic rallies is the disconnect between when I would talk to voters who were there or people who are attending and say, well, what are your big issues? And they would almost invariably mention the higher crime. And then I’d listen to the speech and it wouldn’t really address that. There was complete synchronicity in talking to people at the Republican Zeldin rallies and listening to the message coming from the stage. I don’t know why that is. I think that part of it could be the fact that in New York, abortion is legal. It is solidly enshrined in statute. And so when the Dobbs decision came down, there was no no change in the state. Obviously, abortion is an incredibly important issue for people. But it didn’t seem to be under grave threat. As it might have been in Michigan or in Pennsylvania.
Speaker 2: And then with regard to democracy. New York is a blue state in presidential elections. There’s no sign that it won’t be a blue state in presidential elections. So that, too, wasn’t as as salient an issue as it might have been in a swing state like Michigan or Arizona or Nevada, where the eyes of the nation really will be upon them in 2024.
Speaker 2: So the other complaint has been that she focused too heavily on television, that there wasn’t enough coordination with unions or officials or grassroots groups on the ground who know how to drive and get out the vote. Some people said that they didn’t hear from her until the final days of the campaign. And I think that that is also a valid particularly if over the summer, you don’t think you’re going to be in a close election. So the result of this has been progressive groups who have been very good in New York at getting out their vote and driving the base, that they do have good grassroots operations. They went they activated, they pushed their button for Kathy Hochul, even though she’s not their preferred candidate and she doesn’t have the policies that they would necessarily like to see. And they’re saying that they got her over the finish line.
Mary Harris: Do you think that’s fair? Do you think they did get her across the finish line?
Speaker 2: It’s hard to say exactly what got her across the finish line, but it was certainly a boost. It was certainly a boost in New York City in core Democratic areas that carried her to this victory, even as she lost in suburbs, including Long Island, where the last Democratic candidate performed very well.
Mary Harris: I look at the fingerpointing among New York Democrats right now, and it kind of wonder like who’s who’s running this party a little bit? And I feel like Democrats are asking themselves the same question. Like in the last couple of days, there have been really loud calls for a guy named Jay Jacobs, who’s the head of the New York Democratic Party, to resign or be fired. You know, just in the last day or so, there’s been this letter put together by Democrats in the state Senate and assembly asking the governor to bring in new leadership. Do you think a change in leadership would have made a difference here? Will make a difference moving forward.
Speaker 2: If you if you look at the history of the Democratic Party over the last, say, 15 years, I don’t know that would make a difference because you have powerful Democratic officials. Each of them have grown used to running their own operation, doing their own campaigns. And that left the state Democratic Party to sort of exist as a titular organization that would have to call balls and strikes during primaries that would sort of spend some money on on mailers. But things are good for Democrats. And when you contrast that with the Republicans, the Republicans have done a much better job in the last 15 years of. Making sure the state party is working with candidates up and down the ballot to move the ball forward.
Speaker 2: And so. It’s unclear what the future of this state Democratic Party is going to be, because regardless of who runs it, you still are faced on the Democratic side of the aisle with this fight between the progressives and the moderates. And until that fully gets resolved, as long as everybody’s winning, I don’t know that you’ll see the Democratic State Committee, the Democratic Party emerge as a major force in the state because as of now, it doesn’t really need to be.
Mary Harris: I can’t shake the feeling, looking around at the political blame game in New York, that all the people with theories of the case here have something they’re trying to sell me. Like progressives want me to blame Cuomo and party laziness. Moderates want me to blame, defund the police and, you know, crime. And we couldn’t we just couldn’t come back to that. Do you think there’s one case here that’s more compelling or better?
Speaker 2: You’re exactly right. Everyone does have something to sell you. And the end result of that sales pitch is that they should be on top in this never ending struggle between the two wings of the Democratic Party here. When you look at where the losses are and when you cover this in cycles over time, it does seem talking to voters and looking at their sentiments in New York that. The focus on the issues was a major driver. And if you look at where the losses occurred, it does seem to provide a more coherent explanation than the critique of not listening to the more progressive side of the equation. But I’m sure having said that, there will be lots of people who disagree and offer a sort of counter counter explanation.
Mary Harris: I was going to ask you what the lessons would be for places outside of New York, people who don’t give a hoot about Kathy Hochul who live in California or of Michigan. And listening to you, I feel like you’d say the lesson is don’t get too comfortable.
Speaker 2: Yeah, the lesson is don’t get too comfortable. Don’t take things for granted. And don’t forget that the electorate shifts. Things change just because Democrats in New York have a greater than 2 to 1 enrollment advantage. It doesn’t mean that voters will stay loyal to the party. So I think that people looking at New York and Democrats looking at New York should. Realize that even in the bluest of states, nothing can be taken for granted and nothing should be taken for granted. Regardless of whether or not it seems as though a race is going to be competitive.
Mary Harris: Jimmy, I’m super grateful for you coming on the show and walking me through it.
Speaker 2: Thanks for having me. It’s always a pleasure.
Mary Harris: Jimmy Vielkind is a reporter at the Wall Street Journal. He covers New York state politics and government. And that’s our show. What next is produced by Elena Schwartz, Carmel Delshad and Madeline Ducharme. We are getting a ton of support right now from Anna Phillips, Jared Downing and Victoria Dominguez. We are led by Alicia montgomery and Joanne Levine. And I’m Mary Harris. And go track me down on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s desk. Thanks for listening. I’ll catch you back here tomorrow and.