This is a post about New York State Democratic politics but not about the coup this week in the State Senate, which is a rapidly-developing story being covered by reporters on the scene. Comic operas could certainly be written about either New York or California state politics without having to change a single fact.
Like most liberal Democrats who have been frustrated for most of the last 40 plus years, with a very brief respite for Jimmy Carter and some years of sympathetic agony with Bill Clinton, I’m a huge fan of President Obama (and his whole family.) Whatever compromises he’s making with what would seem to be liberal principles are dwarfed by the enormous strides he is taking to make America a fairer and more equitable society.
But I’m also a New Yorker and being a Democrat in New York carries its own set of frustrations. We haven’t elected a Democratic mayor in New York City since the kind but feckless David Dinkins 20 years ago. We replaced the brazenly imperious Giuliani with the more gently imperious Bloomberg, and we seem stuck with Mayor Mike for as long as he cares to pay to stick around.
But it is at the state level that the annoyance is greatest. There was cause for great optimism when we followed three terms of Pataki by electing crusading Attorney-General Eliot Spitzer by a record 70+% majority in 2006. Even before his weakness for paid sex became public, Governor Spitzer had stamped himself as an even more arrogant tyrant than Giuliani himself (although Spitzer’s public policies were more socially conscious and at least he paid for his own out-of-wedlock dalliances; Giuliani used city funds to “protect” his paramour and now wife while he was still married to Donna Hanover, the woman he got elected with.) And meanwhile we found out that the State Comptroller we elected, Alan Hevesi, was abusing the public trust as well and was forced out of office.
What a mess. But it got worse. David Paterson, whose limitations were not readily apparent when he was the Minority Leader of the NY State Senate, replaced Spitzer as Governor and has demonstrated almost daily that he’s not up to the job. Among the many things he did that we might wish he hadn’t was to appoint a relatively conservative upstate Congresswoman, Kirsten Gillibrand, to replace Senator Clinton when Hillary became Secretary of State. The calculus, apparently was “upstate” and “female”, and that narrowed the choices to a second term Congresswoman whose family is at least as Republican as it is Democratic and whose Palin-like credentials included that she and her husband slept with a gun by their bed to ward off possible intruders.
Now here’s where I part company with my new President.
It is a reality of New York State Democratic politics that, in a statewide primary where there is a clear liberal and a clear “moderate” (we NY Democrats don’t do “conservative”), the liberal will always win. This rule was formulated by my late friend, Professor Richard Wade, who demonstrated it by helping Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo to the governorship. Carey defeated the highly favored (and more “moderate”) Howard Samuels in the primary in 1974; Cuomo knocked off favored NYC Mayor Ed Koch in 1982.
In fact, just about any clearly-liberal downstate Democrat would beat Gillibrand in a primary in 2010.
The New York Democratic establishment, which now consists primarily of Senator Chuck Schumer but also includes the Clintons, is supporting Gillibrand. I don’t know their reasons. The White House is involved too, putting pressure on potential opponents in the 2010 primary to stay out of the race. They were successful in persuading Congressman Steve Israel to withdraw. Congresswoman McCarthy from Long Island, who isn’t that liberal on many issues but is a champion of gun control (as is Schumer, for that matter), has also pulled her hat out of the ring. So now the one chance we have to knock off this faux Democratic senator foisted on us by a weak Democratic governor is that NYC Representative Carolyn Maloney will take her on. Congresswoman Maloney is my representative in Congress and I fervently hope she’ll make the attempt, even though the White House is strongly discouraging a race.
From the President’s perspective, he is just seeking peace within the Democratic Party. I am sure he — and his political strategist, Rahm Emanuel — thinks that avoiding primaries makes the party stronger. So he’s also trying to prevent new Democrat Arlen Specter from having to face a primary for his Senate seat in Pennsylvania.
But I think that notion is just plain wrong and Obama need look no further than his own election last year to prove it. Primaries energize the Democratic Party. They bring in new blood and they inspire volunteer effort. Congressman John Hall in the Hudson Valley, who won his seat in 2006 at the same time Gillibrand was winning hers, had to beat several candidates in a Democratic primary. Without the several-month organizing runway that primary fight gave him, he wold never have beaten 6-term Republican incumbent Sue Kelly in November.
If Maloney opposes Gillibrand, she’ll beat her. And Maloney would be a stronger candidate against the Republicans (not that we need it; any Democrat will win) in November because she’ll have an enthusiastic party behnd her. Similarly, if Congressman Sestak beats Specter in Pennsylvania, he’ll beat whatever arch-conservative the Republicans nominate on their side.
So if the White House would just stay out of these battles, they would end up with stronger support in the Senate in 2011. Primaries in the Democratic Party are far more likely to build the party than to weaken it.
For you publishing junkies, my apologies for staying clear of it today. But remember that from this Friday morning, June 12, until Monday morning, June 15, the full video of my “Stay Ahead of the Shift” speech will be linked from this site for anybody to see. For those of you who are subscribers to PublishersMarketplace.com, you don’t have to wait. That’s where it lives.