It was “an electoral earthquake that reverberated all the way to Syracuse.”
That’s how State Senator Brad Holyman, an out gay Democrat who represents Manhattan’s West Side, described the September 13 primary that saw seven Democratic state senators, including six of the eight former members of the controversial Independent Democratic Conference, lose to progressive and aggressive challengers.
Since 2011, the IDC has frustrated Democratic efforts to win control of the Senate by caucusing with the Republicans, who through much of that period held a minority of the seats. Though IDC incumbents have successfully faced down challengers in the past, the rise of progressive energy statewide that followed Donald Trump’s 2016 election focused anger on the eight IDC members, who were called Trump Democrats by some of their critics.
Sensing their vulnerability in this year’s primaries, the IDC, in April, returned to the Democratic fold in a deal brokered by Governor Andrew Cuomo — who was faulted by many, including his challenger Cynthia Nixon, with facilitating the rump faction’s long abandonment of their Democratic colleagues.
Despite the return of the IDC members, Democrats, with 32 of the Senate’s 63 seats, remained unable to take control of the chamber because Democrat Simcha Felder, who represents socially conservative Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn, has also caucused with the GOP, separate from the IDC, since his 2012 election.
IDC members likely believed that their strategic retreat in April would save them from retribution at the ballot box, but they were sorely mistaken. Their leader, Jeff Klein of the Bronx, was beaten by Alessandra Biaggi; former City Councilmember Robert Johnson bested Marisol Alcántara on Manhattan’s West Side; Queens incumbents Tony Avella and José Peralta were outpolled, respectively, by former City Comptroller John Liu and Jessica Ramos; and in Brooklyn, Jesse Hamilton lost to Zellnor Myrie. In the Syracuse area, IDC Senator David Valesky was defeated by Rachel May, according to unofficial election returns.
Among the IDC incumbents, only Diane Savino on Staten Island and David Carlucci in Rockland County survived.
A seventh Democratic state senator, Martin Malavé Dilan of Brooklyn, who was not affiliated with the IDC, lost to progressive challenger Julia Salazar, despite high profile accusations in recent weeks that she has not been honest about her background.
Asked to assess the significance of the primary results, Hoylman told Gay City News, “I think incumbents have been put on notice that voters want change, particularly when you’re talking about Albany and the intransigence on the part of the Senate when it comes to basic issues like equality, housing, and decent wages.”
The Senate has refused to take up reproductive freedom and rent regulation reforms pushed by the Assembly, and Hoylman has been a consistent and harsh critic of the Senate GOP’s refusal to take up any LGBTQ-related issues since the 2011 enactment of marriage equality. A ban on so-called reparative therapy being used on minors and reform of state law to allow for gestational surrogacy have been stalled in the Senate, which has, for the past 16 years, also declined to allow a floor vote on the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, a transgender civil rights measure.
“What struck me wasn’t just the activism that was unleashed by groups like Rise and Resist and No IDC and the number of elected officials who supported the challengers, but also the quality of these candidates,” Hoylman said. “Primary challenges to incumbent legislators are rare in New York. To be challenged by people who are really capable and have deep roots in their communities is even more unusual, and these candidates across the board were very skillful in these areas.”
The extraordinary rejection of seven incumbents, he added, will challenge the “status quo” that has long choked Albany.
“It’s exciting and, I believe, transformative,” Hoylman said. “As a senator, I find it hopeful that voters are paying attention and that Albany is not going to remain a backwater of second and third tier senators… It’s taken a long time for voters to focus on but they are a lot smarter than many elected officials give them credit for.”
Noting that the regular Democratic Conference in April had been willing to “turn the other cheek” in welcoming the IDC contingent back, he said, “the voters chose otherwise.”
Hoylman acknowledged that the primary was only the first step in winning a progressive majority in the Senate. Democrats must still hold their current seats and win at least one more from the Republicans in November in order to achieve a Felder-proof majority.
Among the opportunities Hoylman sees for Democratic pick-ups include Brooklyn’s District 22, where Democrat Andrew Gounardes, former counsel to Borough President Eric Adams, faces off against Marty Golden, an eight-term Republican incumbent; Long Island’s District 5, where Republican Carl Marcellino will once again face James Gaughran, who lost by less than two percent two years ago; District 7, also on Long Island, where first term Republican Elaine Phillips will face Anna Kaplan; District 39 in the Hudson Valley where longtime Republican Senator William Larkin’s retirement opens up an opportunity for Democratic Assemblymember James Skoufis; and District 43, further up the Hudson, where Republican Senator Kathy Marchione’s retirement similarly gives Democrat Aaron Gladd an opening.
Hoylman warned, however, “I don’t think any one can take anything for granted,” in making the point that Democrats cannot automatically count on holding on to all the seats they currently hold. First term Long Island Democratic Senator John Brooks and Valesky’s primary vanquisher, Rachel May, in particular, he said, will face strong GOP competition in November.
Asked what impact the loss of his IDC allies will have on Cuomo — who beat Nixon by roughly the same 30-point margin he did Zephyr Teachout in 2014 — Hoylman responded,
“Every incumbent got a message. I think Albany got a message. Albany is all that stands between New York and Donald Trump’s Washington.”
Ken Sherrill, an out gay professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College, however, told Gay City News that he believes the primary election results delivered a more problematic verdict on the governor. Despite a comfortable win over Nixon, Cuomo remains, after eight years in office, out of favor with a third of the Democratic electorate. At a minimum, he said, that might discourage early endorsers should the governor jump into the 2020 presidential race. The fact that his lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, edged out challenger Jumaane Williams, a Brooklyn city councilmember, by only six points, and that his favored candidate in the attorney general primary, Public Advocate Letitia James, won but with less than 41 percent of the vote, suggests that Cuomo’s coattails are not very strong, Sherrill added.
The rout of the IDC, a group whom he said “carried the governor’s water for a half dozen years [but] were allowed to drown in it,” suggests that Cuomo has demonstrated little political loyalty and may have trouble in the future in asking others to takes risks on his behalf.
“If there is a Democratic Senate majority in January, I don’t think they’re going to feel very indebted to him,” Sherrill said.
That could mean that Cuomo will face the kinds of taxing and spending demands by the Legislature that, in Sherrill’s view, he’s largely been able to avoid through Republican control of the Senate.
On a day when progressives proved their moxie in State Senate races, a Queens Assembly primary proved a disappointment. In District 30 that stretches from Middle Village and Maspeth through Woodside into portions of Astoria and Long Island City, longtime transgender activist Melissa Sklarz came up short in her challenge to first term Democrat Brian Barnwell, garnering just over a third of the vote. In her campaign, Sklarz had criticized the incumbent for his votes against the Reproductive Health Act, which would update the state’s 1970 abortion rights law to fully encompass all guarantees provided by the US Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, and the New York State Liberty Act, which would restrict state and local law enforcement involvement in federal government immigration round-up efforts.
In a Facebook post late on primary night, Sklarz wrote, “Not this year. I did my best.”