If you’re a progressive looking to revive a flagging faith in American politics (and/or the Democratic Party), just turn your eyes to the shining city on a hill that is Albany, New York.
That advice might sound sadistic. Until recently, telling a despairing liberal to seek solace in Albany’s example was like telling a doubting communist to take heart in Chernobyl’s. New York’s capital city has long been a byword for plutocratic corruption. This is a place where a literal criminal ran the State Assembly for two decades; a town where real-estate developers won tax abatements for “housing” that sheltered little beyond the ill-gotten gains of foreign kleptocrats; a Gomorrah on the Hudson where conservative Democrats helped Republicans keep control of the State Senate even after voters evicted the GOP’s majority.
Yet it is precisely Albany’s well-earned reputation for graft and dysfunction that has made recent events in that miserable municipality so heartening.
Last week, New York’s state government wrapped up a historically productive — and progressive — legislative session, which included the passage of 20 major laws. Some of these were almost inevitable from the moment Democrats won control of the State Senate last fall. Strengthening gun-control laws, abortion protections, and LGBT rights has long been part of Andrew Cuomo’s agenda, and the legislature passed important bills on all those fronts, as well as voting rights, by January’s end. Measures to restrict the use of cash bail, close the gender wage gap, aid Dreamers, and reform campaign-finance laws soon followed.
But New York Democrats did not restrict their ambitions to areas of longtime intraparty consensus.
For nearly two decades, progressives had been fighting to give New York’s undocumented population access to driver’s licenses. In the session’s closing weeks, liberal lawmakers finally realized that ambition despite a groundswell of opposition from law-enforcement groups, Republicans, and moderate Democrats. Then progressives defied the will of virtually all of the state’s major industry groups by enacting the most ambitious climate legislation in the U.S. to date. Finally, New York Democrats achieved the unthinkable: They passed major housing legislation that prioritized the interests of working-class tenants over those of landlords and developers.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of that last development. The New York State Legislature breaking with the real-estate lobby is a bit like Iran’s Consultative Assembly defying its ayatollah. The Real Estate Board of New York’s titans themselves could not believe their own defeat. As the New York Times reported earlier this month,
Less than a day after newly emboldened Democratic lawmakers announced bills that would significantly tighten tenant protections, prominent real-estate developers got Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on the phone to make a last-ditch plea to persuade him to block the measures … But on Wednesday, Mr. Cuomo rebuffed the developers, telling them that “they should call their legislators if they want to do something about it,” said a person briefed on the call, which lasted about 15 minutes.
The phone call capped a humiliating moment for an industry that had long reigned in the state capital.
“I’m in shock. I think many of us in my industry are in shock,” said James R. Wacht, president of the firm Lee & Associates and a board member of Real Estate Board of New York, the industry’s leading trade group. “It’s a lot worse than we anticipated.”
All this invites a question: What happened to New York’s Democrats? How did a party that ceded the State Senate to Republicans — and the Big Apple’s skyline to absentee billionaires — find the backbone to put disenfranchised immigrants above xenophobic police bureaucracies, the global climate above parochial fossil-fuel interests, and low-income tenants above James R. Wacht and his associates?
One shouldn’t underestimate the impact of freeing mainstream Democrats from the tyranny of Republican veto power; the center of gravity in Blue America has been moving steadily left for years. And even with the hurdles posed by a GOP Senate, Cuomo had assembled no small list of progressive achievements before this year.
That said, the success of progressive insurgents in a series of Democratic-primary elections last year almost certainly stiffened the party’s spine. To some observers, Cuomo’s trouncing of Cynthia Nixon in last year’s gubernatorial primary confirmed that the left was a marginal force in the Democratic Party (and/or that “Twitter is not real life”). But if anti-Establishment progressives came up short in statewide races, they proved formidable on the district level.
In 2012, the turncoats of the Independent Democratic Caucus (IDC) helped Republicans retain effective control of the Senate in defiance of the electorate’s will. In 2018, the Working Families Party and other progressive organizations launched a campaign to oust every active Democrat who had participated in the (by then defunct) IDC. They ended up beating six out of eight, including former IDC leader Jeff Klein, who outspent 32-year-old lawyer Alessandra Biaggi ten to one and still lost to her by more than eight points. Meanwhile, Democratic Socialist Julia Salazar ousted longtime Democratic state senator Martin Dilan in Brooklyn. Dilan had more money, and Salazar more personal baggage. But she boasted an army of door knockers and a boldly anti-developer message — and these assets ultimately proved more significant.
It’s hard to imagine that these results did not weigh on the minds of center-left Democratic lawmakers when they contemplated this year’s bills on rent regulation and climate change, if not other issues. Progressives’ primary victories demonstrated that defying the left’s wishes could come at a cost, one potentially too high for incumbents to cover with corporate contributions. In this way, the left’s insurgency changed not just the occupants of a few Democratic Senate seats but also the incentives facing all other Democratic lawmakers in the Empire State.
The left’s success in New York offers broader lessons to the progressive movement. One is that claiming ownership of the Democratic brand — rather than distance from it — is often more conducive to winning power in contested primaries. Bernie Sanders’s approach of seeking influence within the Democratic Party while emphasizing his independence from it may have utility in certain circumstances (particularly in red-leaning states where the Democratic label commands more enmity than enthusiasm). But Salazar’s impressive showing notwithstanding, New York’s progressives notched the bulk of their victories last fall by leveraging the Democratic-primary electorate’s partisan grievances. The “No IDC” campaign disparaged its targets as “fake Democrats” who had betrayed the party faithful by empowering Republicans. This message appeared to land. As the Times reported last September:
Nearly all the voters at the Bronx poll site who backed Ms. Biaggi cited Mr. Klein’s role in the I.D.C. as a motivating factor.
“He’s a good man, but I don’t think it’s time for ushering in another Republican majority,” Peter McHugh, 59, said of Mr. Klein.
The Democratic electorate’s partisan pride can be an impediment to progressive politics, as when reverence for President Obama muted liberal resistance to his drone war and deportation regime. But it is also a powerful force that can be leveraged to left-wing ends. The “No IDC” campaign didn’t replace right-leaning Democrats with standard-issue ones but rather with some of the most progressive voices in New York State politics. Further, given that the Democratic brand already commands the allegiance of much of the nonwhite working class, Democratic Socialists may make faster headway by embracing that partisan identity — then working to redefine it in the eyes of the rank and file — than by attempting to build a completely independent mass political identity from a base of just 60,000. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has largely taken this tack. And recently, Sanders has begun leaning toward it, casting his candidacy as a crusade to redeem and complete the political vision of the Democratic Party’s patron saint.
Regardless, the main lesson of recent events in Albany is that elections have consequences. This year’s legislative session wasn’t bereft of disappointments: Marijuana legalization failed (even as decriminalization progressed); the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act sets ambitious targets, but how they will be enforced remains unclear; and while strengthening rent regulation will provide much-needed relief to millions of embattled tenants, it will do little to improve affordability for those not covered by such protections. But the perfect isn’t the enemy of the good, and imperfect reforms can be indispensable friends to working people. By engaging in intra-Democratic electoral politics, the left has made progressive change in Albany.
And if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.