The New York Democrat Who Progressive Activists Are Targeting Next

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning upset over Joe Crowley has energized the left, but two-term Governor Andrew Cuomo may be tougher to beat.

Seth Wenig / AP

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—“Do you love me?”

Andrew Cuomo, his arms outstretched, bellowed these four words to a gymnasium filled, mostly, with his supporters last week.

The response was a mix of cheers and chuckles. The governor’s question had come somewhat in jest, tacked to the end of a lengthy list of love-seeking entreaties for the many local elected Democrats who had joined him inside a poorly-ventilated, inner-city recreation center decorated with the iconography of historic Brooklyn and African American leaders.

The query was, however, appropriate for the occasion. Andrew Cuomo is a governor in search of affirmation and, in a couple of months, renomination to a third term leading New York state. Polls have shown him comfortably navigating a Democratic primary challenge from the actress and activist Cynthia Nixon. But Cuomo’s visit to the long-neglected neighborhood of Brownsville came nine days after his party’s progressive electorate stunned Representative Joseph Crowley, the veteran congressman and chairman of the Queens Democratic machine, by turning him out in favor of 28-year-old political newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The anti-establishment earthquake nearly toppled another entrenched New York Democrat, Representative Yvette Clarke, who came within 1,100 votes of losing the primary for the central Brooklyn district she’s represented for 12 years. And even the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, got an earful from local Democrats who showed up to a scheduled town hall at his longtime synagogue last week only to find out the senator was stuck in Utica and could only participate by phone.

“We’re now in a danger-filled time for all incumbents,” said state Senator Kevin Parker, a Cuomo supporter who represents parts of central Brooklyn. “Having Trump in the White House has brought political awareness to every single American, and particularly New Yorkers.” A leading Democrat backing Cuomo told me, on the condition of anonymity, that the governor and others on the primary ballot should “run scared, as if you’re down” in the next two months to avoid Crowley’s fate.

Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory has given new hope to progressive activists who have long bristled at leading New York Democrats who they view as being too cautious and too centrist. Their next target is Cuomo, who by his name, his office, and his brand of old-school politics embodies the establishment like no other Democrat in the state. Over two terms the governor has racked up a series of victories on progressive causes, including the early legalization of same-sex marriage, stricter gun-control laws, a phased-in $15 minimum wage, and most recently, paid family leave. But Nixon and her supporters on the left have assailed him as a corporate, centrist Democrat who has run a corrupt administration in Albany. They blame persistent income inequality and a lack of affordable housing on Cuomo’s ties to Wall Street and real-estate developers, and he has taken heat for the deterioration of the state-controlled New York City subways.

Nixon and Ocasio-Cortez endorsed each other in the days before the congressional primary, and in its aftermath Nixon’s campaign has argued that Crowley’s defeat is a harbinger for Cuomo. While Ocasio-Cortez has fast become a national star, Nixon has won several more endorsements in the last week, including from the former speaker of the New York City Council, Melissa Mark-Viverito. “Cynthia and Alexandria are running on a similar message—of creating a New York for the many, not the few—and clearly, that message is resonating,” Nixon’s campaign manager, Hayley Prim, wrote in a memo to reporters. “Insiders thought Joe Crowley was safe, for all the same reasons they’re saying Andrew Cuomo is unbeatable. Both men are powerful, entrenched incumbents with near-unanimous establishment support, massive fundraising advantages, and vaunted political machines behind them. Those assets were not enough to make the difference for Joe Crowley with voters, and Andrew Cuomo now faces the same prospect.”

Because New York holds primaries for state and federal offices on separate days, the governor won’t face the voters until September 13, giving him another two months to heed whatever lessons he might glean from Crowley’s defeat. Cuomo has dismissed comparisons between Crowley’s loss and his own impending primary as “apples and oranges,” attributing Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in a majority-minority congressional district to voters “angry” at and “afraid” of the Trump administration in the midst of an uproar over the separation of immigrant families. He’s running a heavy dose of aTV ads thanks to his fund-raising advantage. And Cuomo’s supporters believe this race is more analogous to last year’s gubernatorial primary in Virginia, when front-runner Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam held off a spirited challenge from former Representative Tom Perriello, a favorite of liberals.

But the governor’s presence in Brownsville last Thursday, like his recent moves to the left on a range of policy fronts, suggested he was fully aware of the threat posed by the energy of progressive activists. With multiple campaign stops in Brownsville and surrounding neighborhoods, Nixon has tried to make in-roads with African American voters, who were key to Cuomo’s primary victory over Zephyr Teachout in 2014. This section of Brooklyn is far from the high-priced areas swamped in recent years by white professionals and Hollywood film crews; this is the Brooklyn still plagued by gun violence, food deserts, failing hospitals, and struggling schools. And so Cuomo had come bearing an expensive gift: $1.4 billion in funding for a comprehensive revitalization program encompassing health care, housing, education, youth recreation, and job training. It was, state Assemblywoman Latrice Walker boasted, the largest ever public investment by the state in central Brooklyn.

Yet if this was an election-year present for a key constituency, it had already been unwrapped. The state legislature approved the money a year ago, officials acknowledged. Held before an invitation-only audience of elected Democrats and members of a local SEIU affiliate supportive of Cuomo, the Brownsville event was a campaign rally masquerading as a formal gubernatorial announcement. The gathering was not aimed so much at announcing the program, Parker told me, as it was in making sure the community was aware that Cuomo “was the one responsible for it.”

In speech after speech, the governor and his validators did just that. “It is a great testament to Governor Cuomo’s commitment to central Brooklyn,” Walker said by way of introduction. “He understands the challenges we face and is working with us to lift up Brooklyn families. The fact is, there is no stronger friend or advocate for central Brooklyn other than Governor Cuomo.”

Letitia James, the New York City public advocate whom Cuomo recently endorsed in her bid to be the state’s next attorney general, paid a similar debt of gratitude. “He’s not talking about it. He’s getting it done,” she said of the governor. “It was because of his leadership, and this is exactly what we need.”

The Brownsville rally was in some ways an illustration of the advantages Cuomo has that Crowley did not. Both are long-serving incumbents, but by virtue of his office and his powerful hand with the state legislature, Cuomo can point to specific deliverables, a more tangible record of accomplishment to reassure a restive base. By the time he lost, Crowley had been in the House minority for the last seven-and-a-half years, his recent record a series of votes taken in opposition and fights waged in defeat.

Yet the subtext of Cuomo’s speech—and those thanking him—was an acknowledgement of his own shortcomings, of his own responsibility for the neglect of neighborhoods left out in Brooklyn’s well-documented revival and hurt by the gentrification that came with it. “This is something we’ve been talking about doing for a long, long time. But it’s never really happened,” the governor, who along with his late father, Mario Cuomo, has ruled New York for 20 of the last 38 years, said of the $1.4 billion infusion known as Vital Brooklyn. “Central Brooklyn has been overlooked for decades,” Cuomo said at another point. “For decades. For decades.”

Would voters welcome the long-overdue money and give Cuomo credit for delivering it, or would they wonder what took so long, and why, after eight years in office and two months before an election, the governor was only now prioritizing the struggling inner city? “There’s 1.4 billion reasons why it’s taken so long,” Cuomo said when I asked him this question during a brief session with reporters after the event. “This is going to be a national precedent. $1.4 billion is a lot of money and normally funds a program for an entire state. To concentrate that amount of money, those resources, in this small an area—this is unprecedented.”

The governor spoke to a favorable crowd in Brownsville, a group of people largely predisposed to support him. Still, there were skeptics in the audience. “We’re going to hold his feet to the fire,” Joe Montana, a 57-year-old retiree and lifelong resident of the neighborhood, told me afterward. “It would be blasphemous if the governor did not stick to every word he said in there,” he added, warning Cuomo not to “leave it to his minions” to tend to central Brooklyn once the campaign is over.

Montana said he applauded Nixon for running—“It’s always good to have a breath of fresh air,” he said—but like others I spoke to you in Brownsville, he was sticking by Cuomo. It might not be the love the governor was seeking as he took the stage, but in this season of Democratic discontent, he’ll take their votes all the same.