If Democrats want to make progressive policy for the next two years, they’ll have to do it in the states.
Locked out of power in Washington, liberal activists are turning to the dwindling number of state governments their party still fully controls, hoping to use those bastions both as a bulwark against the Trump administration and as laboratories for policymaking that can fuel a national comeback.
The number of state capitols that have the trifecta of a Democratic governor and two legislative majorities is down to five: California, Hawaii, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Delaware. But there is another large state where Democrats are tantalizingly close to unified government, and it just happens to be the home of the soon-to-be president, Donald Trump.
That would be New York, and in an early post-election skirmish, national progressive groups are pressuring Governor Andrew Cuomo to put his considerable political weight behind securing the Democratic majority in the state senate that the voters technically—but quite narrowly—elected in November. Cuomo, however, has for years resisted demands that he insert himself into a factional legislative power struggle driven as much by personal animosities as by ideological division. And he’s shown no sign of shifting course now. It’s an article of faith among many Democrats in New York that Cuomo has preferred to preside over a split legislature, where he’s been able to broker compromises on progressive issues like legalizing same-sex marriage, raising the minimum wage, and enacting paid family leave—all of which carry a bipartisan stamp because of an unusual, GOP-led coalition majority in the state senate.
The progressive activists are hoping 2020 considerations will change the governor’s mind. With Hillary Clinton no longer blocking Cuomo’s national ambitions, they are holding up the legislative fight as a test of his party loyalty. “The first step for him to be taken remotely seriously as a national leader would be to demonstrate he can lead his own state party into unified opposition to Trump's toxic agenda,” said Ilya Sheyman, executive director of MoveOn.org. “A failure to do so,” Sheyman added, “would be disqualifying.”
Groups endorsing the pressure campaign include the Working Families Party, Color of Change, and Our Revolution, the grassroots advocacy group that grew out of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Perhaps the most significant statement, however, came from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee—an official party organization devoted to winning state legislative races. “New Yorkers elected a Democratic majority to represent them in both chambers of the legislature, and Governor Cuomo has an obligation to stand up and ensure that the will of the voters is respected in the New York Senate,” DLCC executive director Jessica Post said. “As head of the party in the state, Governor Cuomo needs to unify the Democratic caucus, and as a national Democratic leader, he needs to firmly establish the Democratic governing trifecta voters clearly wanted when they cast their ballots in November.”
Post’s statement was unprecedented for the committee; a spokeswoman, Carolyn Fiddler, said it was first time in her knowledge that the DLCC had publicly called out a Democratic governor in that manner. “Special circumstances call for special action,” she told me, “and in the era of Trump, Democratic leaders like Cuomo have a responsibility to fight harder than ever before to protect our freedom and rights at the state level.” The DLCC statement came four days after Cuomo was named policy chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, a campaign arm headquartered one floor away in the same Washington D.C. building as the party’s state legislative committee.
In many ways, the urgent pleas from progressive activists and the DLCC are an understandable venting of frustration after a dismal election for Democrats. Beyond Clinton’s stunning defeat and the GOP’s victory in key congressional races, the party fell woefully short in its bid to flip as many as a dozen or more state legislative chambers. In New York, Democrats were briefly energized by a narrow apparent victory in a state senate race in Long Island. That win would mean that technically, candidates running as Democrats won 32 of the state’s 63 senate seats—enough for a one-seat majority.
But the politics of the state senate are notoriously complex, even bizarre. And actually securing a governing Democratic majority requires two more heavy political lifts. The first is to unify the 24-member mainline Democratic conference with the seven members of a breakaway group known as the independent Democrats who have aligned with Republicans in a coalition government. The second would be to win the support of a conservative Brooklyn Democrat, Simcha Felder, who has caucused with Republicans for the last few years. Felder, who ran on the Democratic, Republican, and conservative ballot lines, announced soon after the election that he would stay with the GOP.
Cuomo allies and a number of New York Democrats say the liberal activists demanding the governor’s help are betraying a lack of understanding about the political dynamic. Cuomo, they say, can’t just get everyone in a room and knock some heads together. “It’s kind of a non-starter for a host of reasons,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic strategist who worked for the governor’s reelection campaign in 2014. For one, the respective leaders of the mainline Democrats and the independent Democrats, Senators Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Jeff Klein, don’t get along. And none of them have much leverage over Felder, who sticks close to the priorities of his heavily Orthodox Jewish district in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood, which voted for Trump over Clinton last month.
So far, the outcry against Cuomo has been limited, and he hasn’t face public pressure from anyone in the state’s congressional delegation or even from Bill de Blasio, the considerably more liberal New York City mayor and a frequent rival. One Democratic lawmaker, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the issue, said Cuomo would be under more fire for his stance if it weren’t for Felder, who is considered an immovable force. “The frustration is understandable, but the politics are complicated,” the lawmaker said. “The pressure would be much more intense on Governor Cuomo to step in and help remedy the situation if it was the Independent Democrats making the governing difference. I have no doubt about that.”
This Democrat raised another, less obvious obstacle to Cuomo’s involvement—fear of being investigated for corruption. A steady parade of New York politicians have been marched off to jail in recent years. Preet Bharara, the hard-charging U.S. attorney, won two recent indictments against a pair of former top Cuomo aides. Felder’s situation is so well-known in New York that any deal Cuomo might strike with him could draw the attention of prosecutors—even if it was perfectly legal. “It would trigger an investigation from someone looking for headlines, and I’m sure he doesn’t want to do it,” the Democratic lawmaker said.
Cuomo’s allies point to his 70 percent approval rating with Democrats statewide, which is considerably higher than the 52 percent earned by de Blasio. (Cuomo is actually the more popular Democrat in the Big Apple itself, according to a recent Siena College poll.) They also note that unlike previous years, the governor campaigned aggressively and raised money for Senate Democrats. At an event last week, Cuomo told reporters he had no intention of getting involved in the legislative mess. “The situation in that caucus—you have personal rifts, you have personal agendas, I mean that has gone back for years and that they’re going to have to work through, if it’s going to be worked through,” he said. “So that I will leave to them and it’s not my place to get involved in that and I have no desire to.”
Cuomo’s best argument, however, is to point to his own success in winning legislative victories despite the absence of unified Democratic control. Even the liberal activists give him credit for those achievements; in fact, they say the fact that he’s such an effective negotiator is precisely why he should try to bring the warring Democrats together. “When he wanted to pass gun legislation after Sandy Hook, he found a way to do that in record time,” Justin Krebs, MoveOn’s campaign director, told me. “When he wanted to pass marriage equality in 2011, he found a way to get the Republican votes he needed.
“For whatever else you say about him, Governor Cuomo knows how to make deals and knows how to get things done,” he continued. “He hasn’t tried. He hasn’t put his attention to this in past years. If anything, he has seemed to find some benefit to the triangulation.”
Democrats in the Senate say that for every policy victory Cuomo has achieved already, there’s another one that Republicans are blocking. They include broader criminal-justice reform, more protections for immigrants, and a wide array of voting-rights and access legislation, such as early voting and automatic registration. At the very least, they said, the governor should try. “Anybody who knows the governor knows that when the governor is focused on something he is very much a formidable person,” Stewart Cousins, the would-be Democratic majority leader, told me. “He’s the head of the party. So I’m sure that his involvement would be extremely helpful.”
As much as any politician in the country, Andrew Cuomo is a man who picks his battles. Democratic legislators in New York and liberals desperately seeking another foothold want him to pick this one. But they will probably be disappointed. “His style is use his power selectively and effectively,” Sheinkopf said. He predicted the presidential angle would have little sway with the governor, who must first win reelection in two years. “Using 2020 as a pressure device is like asking someone his age, what are you going to do when you’re 120?” he said. “In politics, five minutes is 20 years. It doesn’t matter. It’s not the best use of energy.”
For Democrats emerging from defeat, there is plenty of energy but precious few places to put it to real effect. In New York’s senate chamber, as in so many other capitols, they’ll likely have to wait another two years.
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