Causing trouble for Cuomo

September 16, 2014

Julian Guerrero explains the results of the Democratic Party primary in New York--and what they mean for the genuine left-wing candidates in this year's election.

ANDREW CUOMO is the incumbent Democratic governor of New York. He won his last election by a landslide. He's the son of a famous party leader and former governor, with connections throughout the Democratic establishment. He had $35 million in the bank for his re-election campaign as of early July, at least 10 times more than any opponent in either the primary or general election.

But Cuomo has grown so unpopular--particularly among the liberals and progressives who the Democratic Party relies on to win elections--that he couldn't stop a challenger with barely any name recognition a month ago from winning more than one-third of the vote in the Democratic primary for governor.

That's a good sign for the Green Party's candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, Howie Hawkins and Brian Jones--who will present a real alternative to Cuomo's candidacy for the 1 Percent when the general election takes place in November.

In New York's primary vote on September 9, Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout, who emerged from the disillusioned ranks of the Working Families Party (WFP) to run in her first-ever campaign for elected office, took 34 percent of the vote. Teachout's running mate, Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu, did even better, winning 40 percent in the vote for the lieutenant governor nomination, against Cuomo's choice, former U.S. Rep. Kathy Hochul. In the governor's primary, activist and political satirist Randy Credico got 4 percent of the vote.

Zephyr Teachout on the campaign trail
Zephyr Teachout on the campaign trail (Thomas Altfather Good)

Turnout for the primary election was low, showing, as the Hawkins campaign wrote in a statement, "that voters feel that neither of the major parties offer real alternatives that will improve their lives and are disgusted by the culture of corruption."

But the hundreds of thousands of votes for Teachout and Wu show that Cuomo has stirred up bitter anger with his four years of multibillion-dollar cuts in public education; attacks on public-sector workers, including a two-year wage freeze; and tax breaks for some of the world's richest corporations.

Now the question is how left-wing forces can channel the anti-Cuomo sentiment into a stronger independent challenge in November and beyond.

Earlier this year, the WFP rejected Teachout's bid to be the party's candidate for governor in November, and instead put Cuomo on its ballot line--in keeping with the past practice of this nominally independent party that traditionally "cross-endorses" the Democratic Party candidate. Teachout has said she won't endorse a candidate until the end of October, just before the election--which will allow her to avoid criticism for lining up behind Cuomo, as she is expected to do.

That leaves Howie Hawkins and Brian Jones as the only significant progressive alternative to Cuomo and Rob Astorino, the Republican sacrificial lamb running against him. Anything the left can do to connect the anti-Cuomo sentiment from the primary to support for the Hawkins-Jones challenge will be a step forward for independent politics and the struggles to come in New York.

MOST POLITICAL analysts expected Cuomo to win the Democratic nomination for governor decisively--he had all the money, all the name recognition, all the institutional backing from unions and liberal organizations.

Randy Credico never really took his primary challenge seriously, seeing it as more of way to shame Cuomo. But Teachout, despite a campaign run on a financial and organizational shoestring, managed to connect with the concerns of progressives who are finding it difficult to work up any enthusiasm for another vote for Cuomo.

In the run-up to the primary, Teachout toured the state, collecting endorsements from liberal groups and some unions who weren't afraid of Cuomo's intimidation and reputation for vindictiveness. Cuomo's strategy was to ignore calls for debates by Teachout and Republican Rob Astorino--so Teachout held press conferences alongside Astorino to build her candidacy, and even participated in a debate with the Republican in an effort to pressure Cuomo.

Teachout also did unexpectedly well in upstate New York, which traditionally votes more conservative than New York City. Not this time--Teachout won support from working people frustrated by the ongoing economic crisis. Perhaps even more important was her stand against natural gas fracking. Teachout visited anti-fracking activists around the state and promised to ban the environmentally destructive practice that is stirring angry opposition in many rural communities.

As opinion polls showed Teachout's support growing, Cuomo pulled out all the stops to try to contain the revolt of progressive voters. At the end of May, in return for a few liberal promises, such as marijuana decriminalization, he won the nomination of the WFP over Teachout. He then attempted a legal challenge against Teachout's campaign in the Democratic primary, and he engineered the creation of another pseudo-independent party, the Women's Equality Party, to get another ballot line with his name on it--making a total of four for Cuomo.

Teachout and Wu may have given Cuomo a run for his massive loads of money, but the limits of their claim to be "real progressives" are clear.

Teachout's challenge didn't extend to the Democratic Party's wholehearted support for Israel--she promised to maintain New York state's relationship with Israel if she was elected governor. Wu, who is known in legal circles for coining the term "net neutrality," stated that he was a supporter of government deregulation on other issues, including in relationship to the state's notorious anti-union Taylor Law.

More immediately, both renegade Democrats are likely supporters of Cuomo in November. Wu has already endorsed the Democratic ticket, citing his political allegiance to the Democratic Party. Teachout says she won't endorse a candidate until October 28, which means she will be able to evade the difficult question of why she isn't supporting the only genuine progressives in the race: Hawkins and Jones. With a week to go before the vote, she will almost certainly call for a vote for Cuomo on the WFP ballot line.

Both Teachout and the WFP are part of a long tradition in the Democratic Party of maneuvering to co-opt progressive voters and left-wing political movements. Teachout was harshly critical of Cuomo before September 9, but now--unless she breaks radically with her past and that of the WFP--she will round up votes for Cuomo against the real progressive challenge in the November election.

ALTHOUGH THEY haven't gotten as much media coverage as Teachout, Hawkins and Jones will be the only choices on the ballot for anyone who wants a left-wing alternative to the two-party status quo.

Howie and Brian--a Teamster at UPS and a New York City educator, respectively--are both open socialists. Among many other demands, their platform calls for: support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israeli apartheid; a raise to a $15 an hour minimum wage, and indexing to tie the minimum to productivity, not inflation; a timetable to shift New York to a completely green and sustainable energy policy by 2030; and an end to the "war on drugs" that has incarcerated hundreds of thousands of mainly Black and Latino New Yorkers for petty drug crimes.

Their campaign and platform reflect the demands of many social movements in New York and across the country, and represent an effort to bring these struggles together. The Green Party ticket has strong poll numbers for a third-party campaign, and its recent appeal for funds surpassed all the donations raised in Hawkins' previous campaign for governor.

The potential for a campaign to get working people one step closer to political independence is clearly visible. One goal of the Hawkins-Jones ticket is to create space for the formation of a new political bloc representative of social justice movements fed up with the Democrats. This won't be accomplished in one single campaign, but combined with other left-wing independent initiatives across the country--most notably, Kshama Sawant's victory in the Seattle City Council election a year ago--we are seeing signs of success.

To come closer to the goal of a politically independent working class movement, we need the support of all New Yorkers organizing, fundraising, donating, volunteering and spreading the word to their coworkers, classmates and community members. On November 4, a vote for Howie Hawkins and Brian Jones will be a step along the path to building an independent political alternative.

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