What does it mean to be a New York Democrat these days?
Last November, New York’s often rowdy Democrats covered up their stark differences to celebrate the defeat of Donald Trump, a development that briefly united the relatively moderate party leader, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, to the wing. ascending left of the state.
A year later, the New York Democrats are in a very different place. Mr Cuomo resigned in disgrace and faces the prospect of a criminal trial. President Biden is in the White House, and the center-left politics that propelled his campaign have been adopted by the new governor, Kathy Hochul, and the likely next New York mayor, Eric Adams.
And statewide, a series of election day contests set up new tests and tensions over the leadership and identity of the Democratic Party.
In New York, Mr. Adams, who is widely favored to win Tuesday’s election, has already declared himself the face of the Democratic Party, and many national Democrats have lifted him up.
Mr Adams, a former police captain who fought for reforms within the system, described himself as both a “pragmatic moderate” and “the original progressive”. But he is also a sharp critic of the “defund the police” movement; it makes explicit overtures to the large business community; and he defeated several other liberal rivals in the primary.
A very different face of the Democratic Party may be emerging in Buffalo: India B. Walton, a Democratic socialist, who defeated incumbent Democratic mayor Byron W. Brown in the June primaries. Mr Brown, former chairman of the state’s Democratic Party, is now running as a written candidate in a closely watched rematch that has become a proxy battle between left-wing leaders and more moderate Democrats.
Then there are the Democrats, from the Long Island district attorney candidates to the occasional New York City Council hopeful, who face serious opponents in races that will deliver the first tests of the Republican Party’s energy to the Biden era.
After an extraordinary summer of political upheaval, the dynamics of power are now being renegotiated at all levels of government, shaped by questions of race, age, ideology and region. The influx of new leaders has implications for public safety and health issues, for debates over education and economic development – and for national issues surrounding party leadership.
“There is a storytelling battle in New York City,” said State Senator Jabari Brisport, a socialist from Brooklyn. “You have Eric Adams who is elected in New York, then you have a socialist like India Walton who is elected in Buffalo, in Governor Hochul’s backyard. New York is coming together.
The most important election in New York this year is the mayoral race for the country’s largest city, which will be decided on Tuesday as Mr. Adams competes with Curtis Sliwa, the Republican founder of the Guardian Angels.
The backlash from New York City’s vaccine warrants in more conservative corners of the city, and the prospect of a relatively low voter turnout, inject a measure of unpredictability into the final hours of the race and could affect profit margin, some Democrats warn – but in a city where Republicans are vastly outnumbered, Mr Sliwa is seen as a long shot.
The most telling contest for the leadership of the Democratic Party takes place about 300 miles away in Buffalo.
This mayoral race is unfolding in raw and confrontational terms: Ms Walton called Mr Brown a “Trump puppet” who has become complacent about Buffalo, as his campaign questions his character and portrays his sweeping proposals as “too risky” for the city, a message that it launched as an alarmist.
As a sign of the intensity of the tensions, Jay Jacobs, the president of the State party, aroused outrage when he used a hypothetical application by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke to say the party was not obligated to support all candidates, including Ms Walton. He then said he “should have used a different example and for that I apologize” but maintained his decision not to support her.
The competition has caught the attention of prominent figures state and nationwide, as well as a number of Democrats considering running for higher positions.
Jumaane D. Williams, the New York City public attorney who formed an exploratory committee for the governor, campaigned for Ms Walton and urged other Democrats to support her, as have U.S. senators from New York, although other party leaders have stayed on the sidelines.
Ms Walton is one of many local candidates who have amplified ideas popular with the left of the party – on issues ranging from reallocating police budget funds to how best to protect tenants – and have won primaries this summer, continuing a trend started three years ago with the primary victory for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, another Walton endorser.
“There is a lot of appetite for these kinds of policies,” Williams said.
The Democratic Party has unmistakably shifted to the left in recent years – on issues such as criminal justice reform and tackling climate change – and Mr Williams has argued that internal divisions are often more a matter of tactics than background.
“The policies that are pushed are not really what is at issue,” he said. “What is sometimes at issue is how far the political risk, how far the establishment leaders have gone, how far, when the executive or the head of the House calls and says no, how far ‘where would you go beyond? “
But obviously there are policy differences between Democrats as well, and in New York, those distinctions are particularly sharp when it comes to public safety issues.
“Do you want to fund the police?” Long Island Rep. Thomas Suozzi asked when campaigning for Mr. Brown in Buffalo.
“No!” the crowd responded.
“Do you want to let the criminals out of jail no matter what they’ve done?” He continued, as the crowd shouted their objection.
“We will lose if we let them win,” he said, referring to those he said were seeking to push Democrats in an “extreme” direction. “We will lose the American people, we will lose the New Yorkers, we will lose the Oxen if we take this type of extremist agenda.”
Jesse Myerson, spokesperson for Ms Walton, dismissed the idea that her ideas were extremist, while suggesting that left-wing candidates were particularly successful in energizing voters.
The politicians who “drive new voter registrations, those who donate small amounts, those who get more volunteers knocking on doors and making calls, you’ll find they are Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez and Cori Bush, ”he said. noted. “And other politicians whose vision closely aligns with India Walton’s, not pro-business Democrats.”
But Mr Suozzi, a potential gubernatorial candidate next year, argued in an interview that if Ms Walton wins, “it’s a national story that is bad for Democrats.”
The major races of 2022 in New York will also help shape the narrative of the party’s leadership. Ms Hochul, who succeeded Mr Cuomo after his resignation this summer, is running for a full term. Letitia James, the state attorney general who has closer ties to New York’s institutional left, is challenging her, and others, including Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York, may also step in. And a young and diverse class of new New York City Council members are gearing up to remodel City Hall, with machinations surrounding the chairman’s race in full bloom.
But one of the biggest national stories coming out of New York City involved Mr. Adams, who is said to be the city’s second black mayor. He won the primary thanks to the support of working and middle class voters of color and said America did not want “sophisticated candidates,” despite its own close ties to major donors.
Some National Democrats have embraced it, believing it offers a model on how to promote both police reform and public safety – although that depends on how Mr. Adams, who did the subject to careful scrutiny of transparency issues, finances and past inflammatory remarks, rule if he wins.
Yet New York Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, who chairs the House’s Democratic campaign arm, described Mr. Adams as “a rock on which I can build a church.”
“What Eric Adams’ victory showed me is that the Democratic Party, at its best, is a diverse blue-collar coalition that is not a victim of elite or academic notions of what has makes sense in the real world, ”he said.
Mr. Adams and Ms. Hochul – a former congressman from the Buffalo area – have the two compared themselves to Mr. Biden.
The comparison, say the allies, is as much about tone, faith in relationship building and sense of pragmatism as it is about a particular political agenda.
But if the two Democrats believed to be New York’s most powerful rulers are seen as relative moderates, it hardly reflects the entirety of New York’s new leadership.
In New York City, there are signs that the next likely comptroller, some suspected city council members, the public attorney, and possibly the new Manhattan district attorney, will be to the left of Mr. Adams on key issues, putting in place potential battles over how to create a more equitable education system, the power of the real estate industry and big business, and the role of the police in promoting public safety.
Ms Hochul, for her part, came to power with a reputation as a centrist, but she pursued a number of policies that appealed to left-wing lawmakers.
Rana Abdelhamid, who challenges Representative Carolyn Maloney, noted that Ms Hochul had adopted proposals such as extending the moratorium on evictions – a sign, suggested Ms Abdelhamid, of the power of the left: “Because of this movement progressive and because of the organization and because of progressive elected officials who are really gaining ground.
The race for governor, already underway, will accelerate on Wednesday as the political class heads to a conclave in Puerto Rico. This election will become the next major battle over Democratic leadership, in a historically difficult midterm year for the president’s party. But many political leaders say the question is not categorically whether New York remains a Democratic stronghold – it’s about what kind of Democrats win.
“It will be either blue or dark blue,” said former New York Rep. Steve Israel. “If you have more elected Hochuls and Adamses, it’s a lighter shade of blue; if progressives and “The Squad” are sweeping across the state, it’s obviously a deeper blue. The point is, it stays blue.
Julianne McShane and Arielle Dollinger contributed reports.