Farrell does seem to have recognized that it’s time to strengthen the party. He has hired a full-time fund-raiser, Jackie Brot, who recently worked for presidential candidate Joe Lieberman. And he’s planning to hire a full-time communications director. “We can always do better,” he says. “But the bottom line is, I think we’re doing pretty well right now.”
Democrats are hoping that the party leadership will use its clout to avert the same disaster that cost them City Hall last time. The 2005 primary threatens to be a rerun of 2001, when Dems, divided along racial lines, allowed Bloomberg to prevail.
“The state party will have a critical role to play in keeping Democrats unified in the runup to the ’05 and ’06 elections,” says Howard Wolfson, an operative who helped defeat nonpartisan elections and supports Farrell. “The party leader has to say, ‘If you’re running in a mayoral primary and you’re not willing to support the nominee the next day, then the hell with you.’”
No one is saying that a state chairman can assert absolute authority over a Democratic party that tends toward factionalism. But a dynamic leader can certainly enforce a semblance of unity. He can do other things, such as assemble a communications shop to provide a constant critique of Republicans.
So how aggressive will Farrell be? Asked if he would step up criticism of Bloomberg in preparation for 2005, Farrell said: “If he’s wrong, I will go after him. And if he’s right, we’ll stand silent.”
Such talk is not likely to reassure impatient Democrats. They’ve been awaiting a comeback for a long time. The party began its slide under Governor Mario Cuomo, who allowed it to deteriorate until 1994, when he lost to Pataki.
With the GOP’s stark anti-crime, anti-tax message resonating among suburban and upstate voters, the GOP under Pataki built a daunting statewide machine. Although the Democrats were pulled out of debt by former party chair Judith Hope, they were unable to mount a real challenge to Pataki.
But other forces have been changing the electoral landscape. In the suburbs, lower crime and the failure of Republicans to slash taxes have blunted the GOP assault. “The suburban economy shifted against the GOP, shattering their message as the party of tax-cutters,” says political consultant Richard Schrader. “With people of color and city Democrats moving to the suburbs, the Republican machines are losing steam.”
Suburban gains have also created a new generation of young Democratic pols and operatives across the state—a kind of political farm team that, if harnessed by a capable leader, could become a formidable statewide operation.
One school of thought holds that in the media age, only a charismatic candidate can really unite a party. With that in mind, some Democrats are envisioning Eliot Spitzer, the presumptive Democratic nominee for governor in 2006, as the next de facto party leader. Others are looking to Hillary Clinton, who has thus far avoided asserting control over the party in order to avoid riling up Silver and her senior senator, Chuck Schumer. She’s expected to grow more dominant when she’s up for reelection in 2006.
It may be that the topography of today’s Democratic Party makes it increasingly hard to assert central authority. The state party, like the national one, is more than ever a loose confederation of groups and individuals, each pursuing a distinct agenda—labor unions, interest groups, and elected officials with individual fiefdoms.
“It’s the Democratic elected officials who have the power to make the party strong,” says Manhattan state senator Eric Schneiderman. “The secret is that few of them want to.”