Progressive Energy Is Sweeping the Country — But Not New York’s Democratic Party

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Cynthia Nixon got the attention of the media, but not delegates. Photo: Justin Lane/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

The Democratic Party’s blue wave of resistance has been churning across the country for over a year now, catapulting liberals to primary victories up and down the ballot. And so when state Democratic Party delegates from New York — “the Progressive Capital of the United States,” according to one speaker — convened at Hofstra University on Wednesday for their biannual convention, it was easy to imagine a barn burner of an affair, with fire-breathing paeans to progress, civil rights, and the struggles of the working class.

Instead, the 2018 Democratic Party State Convention began with a PowerPoint address. Followed by another.

“When you see this PowerPoint you are going to be reinvigorated. You are going to be reenergized,” Christine Quinn said, her voice echoing off the walls of the basement of the university gymnasium.

Indeed part of the point of the Democratic convention, if not the New York State Democratic Party, is to smother that progressive energy in a warm embrace. For Democrats, progressive energy spells danger. It is what has launched Cynthia Nixon, a few months ago a hardly well-known premium-cable TV star, into a real race with the two-term governor. It is what could inspire Preet Bharara to jump off the sidelines and run for attorney general against Cuomo’s chosen running mate, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James. It’s an unlikely possibility at this point but one that sends state political figures into paroxysms of panic, since Bharara would have subpoena power and little regard for the current etiquette that rules Albany.

If the energy of the resistance was going to make it to Hofstra, Nixon would have to bring it herself. The business at hand was nominating Governor Andrew Cuomo to a third term (along with the rest of the Democratic ticket); since Democratic regulars make up the vast swath of the convention’s floor votes, the chances of Nixon avoiding a bloodbath were slim. Still, Nixon gamely headed out to Hempstead, coming off the 7:39 a.m. from Manhattan. She met with reporters at the end of the LIRR platform, dressed in a light-gray glen plaid double-breasted suit with oversized white cuffs and white loafer heels. “I am attending the convention today because New York Democrats deserve to have at least one actual Democrat running for governor at their state convention,” she told the assembled press.

The stakes were relatively low. A candidate has to reach 25 percent of the vote among the delegate roll-call to be automatically included on the primary ballot. Failing that, they have to petition their way on, which means stationing signature-gatherers in out-of-the-way locales like Onondaga and Schoharie, since the threshold must be reached at each congressional district in the state. It’s a laborious process, but a by no means impossible one for a candidate who genuinely wants to win a statewide race. Getting 50 percent means you are the party’s official designee, which doesn’t get you that much more than bragging rights. Heading in, most observers pegged Nixon’s ceiling at around 10 percent.

Still, Nixon brought the heat.

“The truth is the governor isn’t a progressive and he knows it,” she told the press. “That’s why he and his allies have bullied progressive community groups and rallied the full force of the big-money establishment. But I won’t be scared out of the room. New Yorkers deserve a choice. And that’s why I’m here today.”

Then Nixon, after taking some selfies with a couple of LIRR workers apparently unconcerned that they could face repercussions for selfie-ing with their boss’s enemy, hopped into a waiting black car. She surfaced again during the roll call, when the delegates were officially announcing who they would support. Her appearance on the floor to do an interview with NY1 set off a brief scramble among the press corps.

There were only a smattering of voices calling out “Nixon” when their turn came during the roll call, and those who did were often met with boos from the floor.

“I couldn’t do it,” said Nick Rizzo, a liberal delegate from Williamsburg and Greenpoint who abstained on the floor. “If I voted for Nixon all my friends here would hate me. If I voted for Cuomo, all my friends back home would hate me. Actually, my district is divided between Cuomo and Nixon. The Hasids are for Cuomo and the hipsters are for Nixon”

“He is going to have to do better for folks to applaud him in the manner that he would appreciate,” said New York City Councilman Bill Perkins, a Democrat from Harlem, when asked why progressives have been slow to embrace the governor. “He doesn’t have a good touchy-feely kind of style. I think he could be less distant. This party is looking for a more progressive visionary approach that the governor hasn’t launched yet. I think people expected more.”

Cuomo chose Hillary Clinton to offer the convention’s keynote, but that move only raised the hackles of some of his progressive opponents further. Jumaane Williams, a city councilman from Brooklyn who is running for lieutenant governor against Kathy Hochul, Cuomo’s chosen pick, said that Clinton represented one side of the bitter civil war that consumed the party in 2016.

“Is this the speaker that is most helpful to unify the party? Are they intentionally trying to agitate one side when they should be providing unity?” he said, suggesting that the party should have chosen Bernie Sanders to speak as well. “When they talk about unity it is usually the party leadership telling the left that they should shut up and be quiet.”

When Clinton’s turn came to speak, she discussed the need for more women in elective office, but didn’t mention Nixon. She didn’t mention Cuomo either until a few minutes into her speech, although she did talk about the last time she was at Hofstra, when she debated Donald Trump for the first time. “It was a great night,” she said. “Mostly because I won.”

Cuomo made a surprise appearance after her speech, presenting the one-time U.S. senator and secretary of State with, of all things, a bouquet of flowers.

Not that it much mattered. Cuomo ended up getting more than 95 percent of the vote on the floor, and by the time Clinton spoke, Nixon was already gone.

Progressivism Sweeps Country — But Not NY’s Democratic Party