In a parallel universe, one where Hillary Clinton keeps to her previous pledge not to run for president again in 2016, this would be Andrew Cuomo’s moment.
Long believed to harbor national ambitions, the governor who tamed New York’s rowdy political culture, passing a series of on-time budgets and ushering in a wave of socially liberal legislation—including gay marriage, strict new gun laws, and a $15 minimum wage—would have had record-breaking campaign bank account and be returning home to a state that twice elected him by large margins, finally fulfilling the destiny that his father, Mario, abandoned.
Instead, Cuomo is facing the 2016 Democratic primary in New York as a surrogate. He has turned into a full-throated Clinton supporter, hosting a pair of rallies for her and standing in a marked contrast to his more liberal bete noire, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who slow-walked an endorsement of Clinton and even last week was calling on Congress to reject the Pacific trade deal in language that echoed that of Bernie Sanders.
And now New York’s restive liberals, who powered de Blasio to his 2013 mayoral victory, see the Democratic primary as a prime chance to show the governor—and the nation—who rules the Empire State.
It is battle that is playing out across the country as the Sanders phenomenon shows itself to be deeper and wider than many expected. For progressives, the Sanders map and playbook reveal a path forward after feeling stymied in their efforts to create a “Tea Party of the left” type of movement that would hold elected Democrats to account. But perhaps no place are the battle lines quite as hardened as they are in New York. On the one stands Hillary Clinton, the home state senator endorsed by every member of the state’s political establishment. On the other, a battle-tested network of progressive outfits that have shown a knack for going door to door and pulling out voters in local elections.
Even though Bernie Sanders faces a steep polling deficit, liberals believe that if the Socialist from Vermont is able to get to the mid-40’s against hometown favorite Hillary, that it will show the power of the progressive resurgence—and convince Cuomo to bend to their will. And anti-Cuomo Democrats say that the right candidate—perhaps de Blasio or attorney general Eric Schneiderman— would be able to capitalize on the grassroots organization that Sanders has built but combine it with more of an appeal to African-American and Latino voters than Sanders.
“This is a proxy battle,” said Democratic strategist and former Cuomo advisor Hank Sheinkopf. “It is going to show how much of the traditional left really exists in New York State. If Bernie Sanders is able to get into the mid-40’s, it will force politicians who want to stay in power to move further to the left.”
Liberals in New York have seethed almost since Cuomo was elected. In his first term, despite passing marriage equality legislation and a strict new gun law, he refused to help Democrats in their fight to retake control of the State Senate, which meant that many liberal priorities were shelved. Cuomo cut Medicaid and school funding and reduced taxes for millionaires and home owners. He engaged in long-running feuds with Schneiderman and de Blasio. And when it came time to seek the endorsement of the influential Working Families Party, in 2014 Cuomo made a point of showing his reluctance to even be consorting with such an outfit. “We now know that Democrats cannot count on New York’s supposedly Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, as an ally, and every Democratic primary voter in the entire country should know that, too,” decried MSNBC host Chris Hayes, a sentiment that was repeated often in the liberal mediasphere at the time.
That was when a little-known liberal upstart named Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham law professor, decided to challenge the incumbent in the Democratic primary. She shocked Cuomo by stealing a third of the vote despite lacking any support from the state’s Democratic establishment. Since then Cuomo has moved aggressively to the left, pushing for a $15 an hour minimum wage and a robust paid family leave policy.
In 2016, the Working Families Party has been a major booster of Sanders’s effort, and has been using his upstart candidacy to build its own profile outside of New York.
“The Working Families Party is an idea whose time has come. Bernie proves that,” said Bob Masters, the political director of the Communication Workers for America and one of the founders of the WFP. “Bernie is the candidate the Working Families Party has been waiting for since its inception. You hear talk about the ‘Warren Wing’ of the Democratic Party, and this is where we are headed. Bernie’s campaign suggests that the energy and the future of the party lies in the kind of populist appeal that he has been articulating.”
If Sanders does well in New York, progressives think they will finally have leverage over Cuomo to force him to fight for Democratic control of the state legislature, and to go even further on minimum wage, family planning and criminal justice issues.________. And they say that their experience in turning out voters is exactly the kind of thing that turns polling into an unreliable predictor of how the final result will look.
“This isn’t a campaign—it’s a movement,” said Masters. “And what we have seen over the last few months is that polling doesn’t really capture the kind of self-mobilization that is Bernie’s campaign.”
But if it is true that a surprisingly close result, or even a victory by Sanders would mean trouble ahead for Democrats who don’t repeatedly toe the liberal line, the opposite is true as well: that a disappointing result would mean that the supposedly re-energized left’s bite isn’t as big as its bark in the Empire State.
For as much as the Clinton-Sanders showdown is a home game for Clinton, if the Working Families Party and their liberal allies cannot win in a state that has decidedly progressive bent, and where a critical mass of lawmakers in the New York City Council and the state legislature owe their seats to them, then why should Andrew Cuomo or any other political aspirant care much about their carping?
“This is a good state for Berne,” said George Arzt, a Democratic consultant and former Clinton advisor. “The electorate has gotten younger, and there are geographic pockets that can be targeted by Bernie in almost every borough and college towns throughout the state in which he would be strong. He should do very well.”
Added Arzt, “If he loses by more than 10, or by more than the polls say, then people will say maybe this state isn’t as progressive as we thought.”