Usually, important people like campaign managers stay up in the suite with the candidate, but at last Tuesday night’s victory celebration, Kevin McCabe, who manages Peter Vallone’s gubernatorial campaign, was bouncing around the ballroom of the Grand Hyatt like a giddy high-school kid at graduation. McCabe, with his sharp political mind and bouncerlike physical stature, wanted to be downstairs among the politicians, journalists, aides-de-camp, gadflies, and oddballs who, for whatever reason, get their kicks hanging around the rest of us. McCabe was on the job, but basically he wanted to bask: “How many of these people thought six months ago we’d win this thing?”
His joy was to be expected, but in truth there was little sense of drama or surprise at the Hyatt, where Vallone, Chuck Schumer, and Eliot Spitzer all held their victory parties. Indeed, the only unexpected thing about Vallone’s and Schumer’s victories was their breadth: Both men pummeled their opponents across virtually every demographic group, and in every region of the state. Spitzer, the candidate for attorney general, did nearly as well.
But if the decisions themselves weren’t surprising, the message they sent was: Democrats have nominated their most centrist slate of statewide candidates in more than 30 years. In doing so, the 750,000 or so New York Democrats who voted in this primary – the most liberal statewide voting bloc anywhere in America – rejected candidates cut of classic New York-liberal cloth. It was the end of a political era.
Since the mid-sixties, when the reform candidates started chipping away at Tammany, leading New York Democrats have generally been of a single, very liberal mold. They believed in the welfare state, racial empowerment, new bureaucracies; they did not believe in cops, the white working class, or, sometimes, winning elections. That politics was defensible and even productive in its time, but it hasn’t brought the Democrats many winners lately.
Last Tuesday, Democratic-primary voters said good-bye to all that. Sure, it made a difference that the winners all had the deepest coffers. But money just buys exposure; voters have to like what they see. And last week they saw, and liked, types that liberal Democratic voters rarely do: an old-fashioned fellow from drowsy Astoria who goes to Mass at seven every morning (Vallone); the son of an exterminator from white-ethnic Brooklyn (Schumer); and a rich lawyer from a real-estate family (Spitzer). More incredibly, all three support the death penalty! Who’da thunk that? New York Democrats may have been slow to embrace pragmatism, but once they did it, they really went all out. “The left’s hold on Democratic politics is over,” says consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “And it’s not just white or just black. It’s everybody.”
The scope of all three victories only reinforces the argument. “Remember, these are the most aware Democratic voters,” says consultant Norman Adler. “If anybody had any doubts on Tuesday morning about where they stood, they can’t have had any on Wednesday morning.” This is especially true of the Senate race. No one’s polled it, but it seems clear that thousands of voters who felt more ideologically at home with Mark Green voted for Schumer because Al D’Amato couldn’t “too liberal” Schumer as easily.
That didn’t stop the D’Amato camp from proclaiming that “the Democratic Party has nominated the most left-of-center candidate they could” – a line that sounded like something out of a generic 1982 GOP campaign kit. D’Amato is one of the country’s toughest and savviest campaigners, but he’ll have to do better than that. Schumer has an eighteen-year record of congressional votes for D’Amato to scour.
Schumer, meanwhile, was on the mark last Tuesday night. His themes, that D’Amato has been in office long enough, that he flip-flops, and that he has cast votes that have hurt New York, just may sell. Odds don’t favor him – New York City Jews win statewide office about as often as the Rangers win the Stanley Cup – and it’s been nearly twenty years since he’s really been tested in a campaign. Not to mention that there could be a downside to this new centrism. Schumer’s record is clearly very different from D’Amato’s, but it’s not as different as Green’s. It’s possible that the hard-core Democratic constituencies, feeling a tad taken for granted, won’t turn out in large numbers. But Schumer has walked these minefields before, and there’s a feeling of resolve and purpose around his inner circle that one did not see, for example, in the 1992 Bob Abrams campaign.
Abrams was another of the old reform liberals. He and his generation are off the stage now, as cohort Geraldine Ferraro finally acknowledged last Tuesday night after a gutless campaign that tanked beyond anyone’s expectations. Ferraro was always mainly a symbol, albeit an important one. But perhaps last Tuesday New York Democrats buried their faith in that kind of symbolism, too.