It’s Bigger Than the Candidates

New York’s Democratic primaries reveal how the movement is breaking the machine.

Noah Kulwin
September 14, 2018
Julia Salazar alongside Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Bushwick. Photo: A Katz via Shutterstock

IT TOOK ONLY 30% of precincts in New York reporting Democratic primary results on Thursday before the vote count exceeded 2014 totals. Put another way: Andrew Cuomo trounced Cynthia Nixon by more 30 points, but Nixon’s 512,000 votes surpassed what Cuomo won with in 2014, when he beat back Zephyr Teachout.

Although this turnout surge failed to make a dent statewide (Cuomo and his allies also defeated challengers from the left in the attorney general and lieutenant governor races), its effect was felt deeply further down the ballot. All but two of the Democrats who served in the Independent Democrats Conference—a group of Albany legislators who caucused with Republicans, handing the GOP a legislative majority in a Democratic stronghold for much of the last decade—lost their races to upstart progressives.

The defeat of the IDC is perhaps more significant than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise victory in a New York City Congressional primary in June. In spite of Cuomo-approved gerrymandering that favors the Republicans, New York Democrats may yet take back the State House this November; presently, they are only one vote short of a majority. Cuomo, already pushed leftward out of his comfort zone because of Cynthia Nixon’s campaign, now has a left flank that he needs to pay attention to for the first time in his tenure as governor. Expanding voter access, beefing up social services, prison and prosecution reform, and, yes, fixing the subways, could be in play. Cautious optimism is wholly appropriate.

The most exciting part of it all, however, is that the left’s Thursday victories are not stories of uniquely gifted or charismatic candidates or expertly deployed campaign dollars. What has taken place is nothing less than a tectonic shift in political will and energy, reflective of both increased organizing capacity on the part of left-wing political activists as well as heightened voter enthusiasm.

In no race was this more apparent than in Julia Salazar’s triumph over New York political boss Martin Dilan in north Brooklyn. Over the last few weeks, Salazar was accused of lying about her Jewish identity, college degree, immigrant roots, and of attempting to scam the then-wife of former Mets star Keith Hernandez. The drama continued up until election day: on Tuesday, Salazar released a statement saying that a right-wing tabloid (The Daily Caller) was about to out her as a victim of sexual assault for having identified a high-ranking Israeli official, Benjamin Netanyahu spokesman David Keyes, as her assailant.

In the end, none of it mattered. Salazar destroyed Dilan, beating the 15-year State Senate veteran by 17%. Dilan was the New York real estate lobby’s favorite politician, and he took almost twice as much money from it as any other state senator, and almost as much as any Democrat in the senate since 1999. Salazar, whose campaign was centered on the increasing housing costs in Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant, ran on a set of ideas that resonated deeply in a district where one in five rent-stabilized housing units have disappeared under Dilan’s tenure (David Keyes, meanwhile, was forced to take a leave of absence as a dozen other women emerged with their own claims of sexual misconduct).

That Salazar won against such a powerful and deep-pocketed incumbent while enduring a deluge of negative stories in the national media in the days before election day should not come a surprise. Spiraling inequality, the collapse in breadth and quality of public services, and (of course) the election of Donald Trump have shifted the country’s political imagination sharply to the left, as seen in rising support for Medicare for All and soaking the rich in taxes; Brooklyn is hardly immune. And on the ground, groups such as The Jewish Vote and the Democratic Socialists of America went door-to-door, performing the kind of political legwork normally reserved for the high-stakes of presidential elections or the mania of the Christian right.

Finally, a moment has arrived in which the corrupt political class who sustained this broken arrangement is suffering the consequences for it, in spite of the rigged electoral system it created to insulate itself. And the force of the upsurge is so great, it doesn’t seem to matter who’s leading the charge, even in the face of weeks of press so bad that national publications were putting together weekly scandal recaps of a state senate race.

The failures of Cynthia Nixon, Jumaane Williams, and Zephyr Teachout speak to the limits of what this new energy and down-ballot organizing can accomplish on their own; New York’s left has yet to crack the big money machine in statewide races. But after decades of far-right resurgence and moribund, corporate-aligned liberalism, a left-wing counter movement is taking shape. Bernie Sanders in 2016 was the prologue, and Thursday may have just been the beginning of the real thing.

Noah Kulwin is a writer and contributing editor at Jewish Currents. He is also co-host of the podcast Blowback, and an associate editor at The Drift. He lives in New York.