James, Cuomo, Hochul, DiNapoli (photo: @andrewcuomo)
Governor Andrew Cuomo emerged triumphant and emboldened from the State Democratic Party’s nominating convention on Long Island, with the party’s designation in hand and embraced by top national Democrats and elected party representatives from across the state. The governor basked in the support of centrist establishment figures like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Vice President Joe Biden, while they and much of the rest of the convention sought to frame Cuomo as a progressive standard bearer who represents the values of a Democratic Party that continues to move leftward.
Cuomo and others framed the two-term incumbent as a progressive who gets things done, a trailblazer who doesn’t just talk, but has real accomplishments and is actually a unifying figure for the party -- though he is again being challenged from his left in this year’s primary as discontent from the progressive wing has reached a fever pitch. That fever was not particularly evident at the state party convention, however.
“We are about to embark on the most consequential campaign in our lifetime,” Cuomo declared in his acceptance speech on Thursday, framing his reelection amid Democratic efforts to retake the state Senate and U.S. House, with several swing districts in New York. “We are at a political crossroads and our decisions and actions are going to define the soul of this state and the soul of this nation.”
Cuomo’s coronation comes at a time when progressives are incensed with his centrism and triangulation with Republicans, and are pushing to elect a “true blue” Democrat to the governorship, personified in this case by Cynthia Nixon. But Cuomo’s supporters have warned of the dangers of liberal absolutism, as Democrats seek to retain what control they have over state and federal branches of government while also unseating Republicans in an age of Trumpism. The stakes are high for both parties, and some question whether Democratic infighting does any good while Republicans control the presidency, both houses of Congress, and many state legislatures (New York’s is split, with one house controlled by each party).
The Democratic State Committee had already concluded its nominations on Wednesday, leaving party members free to glad-hand and pat each other on the back as they sang the praises of Cuomo and other top party officials. Cuomo won the party designation with 95 percent of the state committee vote, a resounding victory over upstart challenger Nixon, who did appear at the convention as her campaign launched a blistering effort to paint Cuomo as in bed with Republicans. She continued to criticize him as a fake Democrat whose governing style smacks of expediency rather than sincerity.
The party also designated as its official nominees incumbents Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli for another term each, and selected New York City Public Advocate Letitia James as the designated candidate for attorney general to replace Eric Schneiderman, who recently resigned after facing allegations of physical abuse by four women. Hochul is facing a primary challenge from New York City Council Member Jumaane Williams, while James is facing Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout and Leecia Eve, a former Cuomo and Clinton aide, in the primary.
Given how the state committee voted, Nixon, Williams, Teachout, and Eve will all have to collect petition signatures to get on the primary ballot. Nixon and Williams have the backing of the liberal Working Families Party, but may eschew its ballot line for the general election if they are unsuccessful in the Democratic primary. The WFP has said it wants to give its attorney general ballot line to either James or Teachout, depending on who wins the Democratic primary.
Though there was much party business and some controversy, the convention went mostly smoothly for Cuomo, who was the unequivocal star.
While Cuomo has indeed governed from the center, he was held up as a paragon of pragmatic progressivism at the convention, in line with the image he has sought to craft for himself in recent months, if not years. Before he spoke to the convention, Cuomo was lauded on Wednesday by Clinton and on Thursday by Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez and by Biden, who has a long-standing friendship with Cuomo, as a leader who has ushered in transformative change and created a model of governance that Democrats across the nation should envy, and emulate.
Marriage equality? Cuomo made it happen in New York and helped launch the nation on the path to full realization. Gun control? Cuomo moved quickly after the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre to ban the military-type assault weapons that have been used in many school and other mass shootings since. College tuition? Cuomo made it free for many middle-class students. A $15 minimum wage? Cuomo put a program in place. Paid family leave? Again, Cuomo.
In a lofty and lengthy address, filled with anecdotal life lessons, Biden waxed eloquent about the values of the Democratic Party, of American cultural exceptionalism, of the middle class American dream, as he inveighed against the Republican Party’s “phony populism” and “fake nationalism” that threaten to undermine them all. He spoke of his deeply personal ties to the Cuomo family, and of his and the governor’s shared interest in muscle cars (both of them own vintage Corvettes, he noted).
He proudly touted Cuomo’s record. “Andrew Cuomo has never backed away from his progressive principles, not one single time,” he said to applause.
Perez, occasionally peppering his speech with Spanish, said Cuomo and his running mate Hochul were “charter members of the accomplishments wing of the Democratic Party.”
“What I’ve grown to love about Andrew Cuomo is he understands that governance isn’t about speechifying,” Perez said. “It’s about making a real difference in people’s lives,” he said. “New Yorkers don’t want rhetoric, they want results. That’s what Andrew Cuomo has delivered.”
To an audience filled with many union workers, Perez hailed Cuomo’s support of labor unions and the state’s immense success in creating jobs under his tenure. And he drew a contrast between the governor and “this other New Yorker in Washington that’s giving a bad name to New York values,” though he stopped short of saying the name Trump.
State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, of the Bronx, commended the governor for managing to pass ambitious policies despite Republican control of the state Senate. “When you have a quarterback that’s a winning quarterback on a winning team, there’s no reason to change,” he said in his endorsement of the governor. And Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Democratic minority leader, credited him with reuniting the fractured Senate Democratic conference, setting her up to eventually become the state’s first woman and woman of color to lead a legislative house if the party wins additional Senate seats in the elections this fall. “We can do this and we will make history by finally putting a woman in the room,” she declared.
All those Democrats, and the governor himself, put Cuomo on a large pedestal, as a leader who could forge a new path for the Democratic Party and whose administration was an exemplar for other states. The State Democratic Party, as is the case with its national counterpart, is counting on a blue wave that has been building across the nation since Trump’s election. Cuomo has trained his attention, and the state party’s resources, at flipping the state Senate and replacing Congressional Republicans with Democrats.
Cuomo welcomed the responsibility, insisting that the nation has its eyes turned to New York. “Our challenge is twofold. First, we must continue to move our state forward as the progressive capital of America because that’s what we are,” he said. “And at the same time, we must overcome the current national extreme conservative movement that is threatening this nation.”
Although he claimed he never appreciated his father’s self-proclaimed title of “pragmatic progressive,” Andrew Cuomo made no effort to distance himself from its definition: “We deliver practical progress for people in need,” he said.
Taking an expansive look at the Democratic Party, Cuomo said working- and middle-class voters had abandoned the party out of despair in 2016, and that the party must return to its roots. “No more platitudes, no more posturing, no more delay, no more incompetence, no more hypotheticals, no more hyperbole,” he said. “They want action. They want results and they want actions and results now. They don’t want pontification from an ivory tower.”
Cuomo's criticism of the Democratic Party and assertion that it had lost the election to Trump struck some as awkward, even insulting, given that Clinton -- the party's 2016 presidential nominee -- had praised and endorsed him the day before.
The convention also marked how far Cuomo has shifted in the last two years under the Trump presidency and, significantly, in the last few weeks under a deluge of criticism from a left-leaning progressive wing galvanized by Nixon’s candidacy.
For a time after Trump’s election, Cuomo refused to say “Trump” even as he criticized the federal government or “Washington.” In his speech on Thursday, he said the president’s name 18 times. “Today the Albany Republicans all carry the Trump doctrine,” he said. “They all drank the Trump, Ryan, McConnell Kool-Aid and their radical assault is draconian and all-encompassing...They think America was great when women were subordinate and when minorities were disenfranchised, and when the big private market corporations ruled the land and when labor was voiceless. That’s the America they want to take us back to. And we are not going back, ever.”
Cuomo did little to tamp down the rumors that he is considering a presidential run ahead of the 2020 election, something that his opponents from the left and the right have criticized him for.
Marc Molinaro, the gubernatorial candidate to Cuomo’s right as the Republican nominee, did not escape Cuomo’s scathing critiques either. “The Republicans in this state put on the top of their ticket a Trump mini-me. He's anti-woman, anti-LGBTQ, anti-gun safety, anti-immigration, anti-education equity, and pro-Trump's New York tax increase. All he is is a banner carrier for the extreme conservative movement,” Cuomo said, incorrectly characterizing some stances by Molinaro, who has opposed the federal tax reform and has said he did not vote for Trump for president.
But Cuomo did name Molinaro or Nixon, whose campaign sent out “fact check” emails as the governor spoke, contrasting his rhetoric with his record as they framed it. Notably, Cuomo pledged in his speech to “start a new movement of education funding equity” to ensure that public schools receive the resources they need to provide a sound education to all students. It’s a cause that Nixon has championed for nearly 20 years, largely placing blame for insufficient education funding on the governor, who has repeatedly shifted the way he talks about education funding.
"The Governor's attempt to reset his campaign this week failed," said Nixon campaign spokesperson Lauren Hitt in a statement on Thursday. “His highly choreographed convention inflamed old divisions, and provided a series of bizarre, tone-deaf moments. Simply put, the Governor did little to push back on the growing realization among New Yorkers that he has more much in common with his wealthy Republican donors than Democrats.”
For Democratic State Committee members, Cuomo had successfully grasped the title of progressive. Several members, enthused about a strong and diverse statewide ticket, seemed almost offended that anyone would challenge their champion.
“I think we put together a great ticket, I like the diversity of it,” said Crystal Peoples-Stokes, who holds the dual role of state Assemblymember and Democratic State committee member from Assembly District 141. “I think it’s important that the ticket looks more like the electorate,” she said, in apparent reference to the fact that James is an African-American woman, whom Cuomo has backed for the attorney general position, as well as Hochul’s presence on the ticket.
“I do take some exception to people always questioning what has happened when most of the progressive things we’ve done in the state have not been done in the rest of the country,” she added.
Andre Waldron, a committee member from Nassau County, said Cuomo’s speech was a “home run” and that the convention was “phenomenal.”
“I think this time we’ve come out even more inclusive, having all groups represented,” said Louis Goldstein, who said he has been a state committee member from the Bronx since 1970. “I love the fact that we have a female, who happens to be black, as our candidate for attorney general. I think we’re moving in the correct direction.”
As with others, Goldstein expressed reservations about Nixon’s candidacy. “She’s a good actress. I compare her as being our quote-unquote Trump, as far as no government experience, she really does not know how to politically get things done,” he said.
Mary Gault, a Dutchess County committee member, said the party has a “wonderful team” on the ticket. “Andrew Cuomo, I believe, he did so much good for this state over his eight years. Kathy Hochul...she’s terrific too. And of course, I’ve got a New York pension, [and] Tom DiNapoli, he watches out for us.”
Gault said she didn’t give Nixon consideration, though her own county committee is very progressive. “The way she speaks, perfect! I would vote for her in a minute,” she said, “but she doesn’t have the skill set and she doesn’t tell us how she’s going to do it. She’s not a viable candidate, but her platform is perfect.”