What the Hell Is Going On in New York?
We need to increase the institutional strength of the Democratic Party coalition to cut off rising extremism in the Empire State.
George Santos - con man, huckster, sociopathic liar and goofy young fascist - elected to Congress from Long Island. New York’s voters nudging the radical Republican Congressional delegation over the top and helping to elect extremist anti-American speaker Kevin McCarthy, now busily kissing up to Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Proud Boys, and Vladimir Putin (in approximately that order). The media-approved Father Coughlin style campaign of inveterate hater and Oath Keepers ally Lee Zeldin, who needed a late Democratic surge to taste career-ending defeat. The reelection of three New York Republican Representatives who sided with the insurrectionists who brutally attacked the U.S. Capitol. Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul’s disastrous self-damaging nomination of a conservative to lead the state’s most powerful court, the Court of Appeals - which last year led the way in creating pro-Republican Congressional districts under the disgraced former chief, right winger Janet DiFiore.
What the hell is going on in New York?
Aren’t we a tried and tested blue state? Haven’t we voted for every Democratic Presidential nominee since 1988? Isn’t this Clinton, Obama and Biden territory?
Obviously not. For those of us with longer memories, three terms for George Pataki (late life MAGA convert, sad to note), the mayoralties of Giuliani and Bloomberg (and Adams, there I said it, and I’m not sorry), the various Republican machines from the days of Al D’Amato and the Conservative Party have always argued for purple status at best. Eastern Long Island is red, Staten Island is red, and many areas to the north of Putnam County - just keep going to find “upstate” - are as red as the sunset over Montauk. Pockets of the Democratic Bronx are red, so are enclaves in Queens. Some corners of well-organized Democratic Westchester. Many across Nassau County.
Much of “blue” New York is up for grabs - and powered by cruel (and inaccurate) demagoguing of justice reform and crime (and let’s be honest, race), the far right Republicans (unfortunately, few moderates remain, none in office) grabbed five Congressional seats they should not have won. Disgracefully, the media followed “Oath Keeper Lee” Zeldin to his crime scene tour and led with his false attacks on successful reforms. And then there’s Santos - a national joke, whose fraudulent election should rightfully be laid at the feet (or on the heads) of the extremist GOP junta in New York, led by Zeldin and Mar-a-Lago pilgrimage goer Elise “My Husband Is a Gun Lobbyist” Stefanik, who once posed as a moderate and now lets her full MAGA bile fly as freely as a reckless luge run up on Lake Placid.
The George Santos scandal is a damning indictment of the New York State Republican Party. It highlights the corruption and political expediency that has become commonplace within the party, and the utter disregard for integrity and ethics displayed by its leaders.
The scandal goes deeper than just the actions of one individual. It reveals a wider culture of corruption and political manipulation within the New York State Republican Party. Zeldin and Stefanik, as prominent leaders within the party, must take responsibility for the actions of those within their inner circle. Their failure to address and condemn Santos' behavior is a clear indication of their own moral shortcomings.
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Yet, those shortcomings are - in my view - too often assigned to Democrats and more specifically, the New York State Democratic Party, whatever that is. This is convenience masquerading as actionable outrage and effective activism. “Fire Jay Jacobs!” goes the angry rallying cry through the drawing rooms and brunch gatherings of certain donors and progressive doyennes. As if canning the volunteer chairman of both the state party apparatus and the Nassau County committee would make any kind of immediate impact. Let’s get things straight:
The New York State Democratic Party is both an elected statewide committee (with the quaint notion of a male and female member from each district) and a tiny back office of a few employees, supported by a few desultory consultants, chugging by on a budget that really wouldn’t cover Democratic outreach in Montana.
There is no machine.
The next Congressional election it influences will be its first.
It’s an adjunct of the Governor’s political operation, and not the most potent one at that. The Governor would name Jacobs’ successor (and given the current political climate, many would not be pleased with the rumored names).
No, the failure of the Democratic Party in the state is one of institutional weakness - a recurring theme right here on The Liberal mailing list.
Democrats in New York do not have evident institutional strength. Let’s repeat that for those in the back: Democrats in New York do not have evident institutional strength.
Yet that’s exactly what we need. You can fire Jacobs and replace him with a revenge pick by an angry Governor still steaming from her loss at the hands of liberals and organized labor …. or …. Voilà! … you can actually notice just how effective that coalition was in defeating her conservative pick for Chief Judge - and build that coalition into a powerful and functioning state party.
While the media wallowed inaccurately in their cut-n-paste “progressives vs. moderates” framework over the judicial battle, the actual victory was being carved out by liberal Democrats and organized labor, which worked with progressives to defeat Hector LaSalle’s nomination. Post Dobbs and with the stench of DiFiore’s conservative nullification of legislatively approved Congressional districts in favor of a single right wing judge and his out-of-state consultant henchman still lingering along the benches in the State Senate, the power shifted.
Now, it’s Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Deputy Leader Mike Gianaris, and bedrock organization liberals like Senator Shelley Mayer running the show - and much of state policy. Even amidst the Congressional losses, the Senate kept its super-majority - and frankly, Stewart-Cousins kept her political head and served up defeat cold as ice to Governor Hochul. No drama, no angry words, just send us your next nominee, Gov.
Working with labor and other liberal organizations, the coalition to defeat LaSalle showed the kind of real institutional strength that the New York State Democratic Party lacks. How cool for this Yonkers native, descended from a New Dealer ward leader grandfather, that two State Senators from that great city held sway?
We need institutional strength - that’s how a liberal democracy strives to make a better America, in the words of Sidney Hillman (himself a socialist, but also an organization man).
The real enemy is extremism, which can lead to the erosion of civil liberties and the rise of authoritarianism. History has shown that when extremism takes hold, it leads inexorably to the suppression of dissenting voices and the erosion of democratic institutions. This is a particularly pressing concern in the current political climate, where democratic norms and institutions are already under threat.
Five years ago, I stood outside a Kingsbridge bar with my friend Hector Figueroa toasting the defeat of the Independent Democratic Conference, a cynical splinter group siding with extremist Republicans to deny an elected Democratic majority in New York. Hector led his union, Local 32BJ SEIU, into battle to defeat the IDC - and that successful fight was an exemplar of both institutional strength and the right coalition to actually bring about progress for the people of New York.
We lost Hector, in my view a brilliant political mind and a unique leader, the very next year.
In his final op-ed essay, published posthumously in the Times, Figueroa argued that institutional strength for organized labor is vital to building a stronger liberal democracy that brings together government, political organizing, activists, nonprofit organizations, and organized labor. A strong institutional framework is necessary to ensure that all members of society have a voice in the political process and that their interests are represented.
For a democracy to be truly representative, it must include a wide range of voices and perspectives. This is particularly important for marginalized communities, who often lack representation in government and other institutions. By strengthening institutions that represent these communities, such as labor unions, we can ensure that their interests are taken into account in the political process.
When labor unions are strong, they are able to advocate for policies that benefit workers and push back against policies that harm them. Similarly, when nonprofit organizations are strong, they can hold government accountable for its actions and advocate for policies that benefit the communities they serve.
This is how Hector closed his last essay - and I suspect it’s a great rallying cry for what comes next:
I once heard it said that most people miss opportunity because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work. If that’s the case, let’s get to work, my brothers and sisters.
That’s the real message in New York for Democrats.