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New York’s Rusty Political Machine

A man at a podium addressing a packed room of diners

Thomas A. Ferrara/Newsday RM/Getty Images

Jay Jacobs speaking at the Nassau County Democratic Party’s Annual Fall Dinner, Woodbury, New York, October 14, 2021

To retain their House majority, Democrats could not afford to lose more than five seats in the midterm elections. They almost pulled it off. A resilient showing by the Democratic grassroots around the country kept the GOP to a majority of (probably) a mere nine or ten seats. The widely predicted Republican gains materialized only in New York, whose Democratic delegation to the House was reduced from nineteen to fifteen representatives. If Dems in Long Island and the Hudson Valley had held onto their districts, their party would have come much closer to holding onto its national majority.

It wasn’t just the House. In the gubernatorial race, every county in New York swung to the right, most by double digits, and Democrat Kathy Hochul beat her opponent by only six points. “Fetterman wins PA in a Biden +1 state,” the Brooklyn city council member Chi Ossé tweeted on November 9. “Whitmer wins Michigan in a Biden +2 state. And Democrats are getting THRASHED across Biden +24 NEW YORK because our state party has failed us.” (Fetterman won by five points in the end, Whitmer by almost eleven.)

Why did New York Democrats fail uniquely? How could the GOP gain ground in a blue stronghold? It was said that the Republicans, led by Hochul’s opponent Lee Zeldin, successfully stoked a moral panic over “crime” (a term that in New York also functions as a racist metonym) and exploited discontent about inflation. The Dobbs decision, it was pointed out, did not affect New York as much as it did other states. 

The problem with these issue-oriented explanations is that Republicans ran on crime and inflation all over the country, not just in New York. Dobbs was less salient all over the Northeast, and it cost Democrats only in New York. Voters in New Jersey, with its similar socioeconomic profile, produced no red wave. It follows that a structural political weakness peculiar to New York has been revealed. Inevitably, the subject of the most intense scrutiny has been the state party, led by the New York State Democratic Committee (NYSDC). On November 13, hundreds of New York elected officials, party leaders, and Committee members signed a statement calling on Hochul to replace the Committee’s current chair. “The writing is on the wall,” it asserted, “and has been for some time: Jay Jacobs is not fit to serve as Chair of the State Democratic Party.”

The Committee is involved in many party operations across the state: overseeing the county parties, developing and coordinating political strategies for statewide and federal candidates, fundraising, organizing primaries, managing the redistricting process for the benefit of the party, and, less officially, advancing the power of certain Democrats instead of others. Its ultimate responsibility is to make sure that Democrats prosper politically—that they win as many elections as possible at the expense of the Republican Party.

Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

Sean Patrick Maloney, Congressman for New York’s 18th District, left, after delivering his concession speech at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee headquarters, Washington, D.C., November 9, 2022

In reality, things are not that straightforward. The New York Democratic Party is controlled by machine politicians who date back to the days of the ultimate machine politician, Andrew Cuomo. In the machine tradition, legitimate public service is mixed with determined, occasionally scandalous careerism. Ethical risks—conflicts of interest, slush funds, opaque quid pro quos with lobbyists and donors—are viewed as a normal part of politics. Your party is seen as a utility—a source of jobs, contracts, business deals, special favors, and money. (Mayor Adams appointed a 911 dispatcher to the position of NYPD deputy commissioner for employee relations at a salary of $241,000.) It’s considered normal and indeed admirable to engage in Machiavellian power moves, even if it means undermining your own party. Cuomo was so intent on amassing personal power that he reportedly helped set up a breakaway faction of Democratic senators, known as the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), that collaborated with the GOP and denied Democrats a State Senate majority.

Cuomo picked Jacobs to serve as the NYSDC chair from 2009 to 2012 and again in 2019. The Committee’s executive chair, Christine Quinn—who in 2006 became both the first woman and the first openly gay politician to serve as speaker of the New York City Council—is another relic from the Cuomo era. In 2014 she helped organize the Women’s Equality Party purely to draw support away from Cuomo’s primary challengers, first Zephyr Teachout and then Cynthia Nixon—both movement Democrats.

In New York, as in Washington, there has long been a conflict between machine and movement Democrats. The former view the latter as a threat to their power; the latter view the former as a threat to the people. The quintessential movement Democrat is Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. The day after the elections she tweeted, “NYS Dem party leadership, which was gutted under Cuomo, stuffed with lobbyists, works to boost GOP, and failed to pass a basic state ballot measure to protect NY redistricting, must be accountable. I called for Jay Jacobs’ resignation a year ago and I still hold that position.”

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She was referring to the NYSDC’s inability in the latest redistricting cycle to produce political maps that would favor Democrats. When you add this serious failure to the party’s underperformance in the midterms, it becomes hard to justify keeping Jacobs in office. It’s not necessary to show that he blundered in this or that regard, or to point out that his commitment to defeating the Republican Party has never been strong, or to argue that his political instincts and skills (like those of New York representative Sean Patrick Maloney, who lost to his Republican challenger) are worse than irrelevant in an age of intense partisan battle. Rather, the question for New York Democrats is: Why shouldn’t we have a first-rate party chair? Wisconsin Democrats enjoy the extraordinary leadership of Ben Wikler. Why shouldn’t we have a state party that energizes and unites voters? What’s wrong with winning more elections?

These questions are of national importance. If Democrats wish to regain and retain their House majority, they cannot allow New York to underperform. The new House Democratic leader will almost certainly be Hakeem Jeffries, a New York machine politician to his fingertips. If he’d like to be Speaker in 2024, it’s in his interest to shake things up in his home state. He should tell Governor Hochul to fire Jay Jacobs and replace him with someone of integrity who enjoys the whole party’s confidence.

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