7 New York Democratic primary races to watch

7 New York Democratic primary races to watch
Effie Nidam/CNN

How tight is Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s grip on the New York state Democratic party?

Consider the opening of its May convention, when a pair of bishops delivered the invocation.

“Governor Cuomo has been called since his mother’s womb,” they said. “His family was chosen so that they may be able to lead us.”

On Thursday, Democratic primary voters in New York will decide whether to choose him for a third term in office, matching his father, the late Gov. Mario Cuomo.

In the other corner stands Cynthia Nixon, whose insurgent campaign has cleared a path for progressives up and down the ballot. The primary results could adjust the balance of power both within the state party and in Albany, the state capital, where a divided legislature — and, progressive critics say, an obstinate governor — has stymied efforts to pass more ambitious legislation.

Here are the races to watch Thursday night:

Gov. Andrew Cuomo vs. Cynthia Nixon

This is, of course, the big one, even if the most recent polling — indeed, all of the available public polling — suggests Cuomo will cruise to the nomination.

If Nixon scores a late comeback shocker, she’ll have to thank some combination of a fired-up progressive grassroots and Cuomo’s stuttering campaign.

Over the past week, the governor has cut the ribbon on a new bridge span only to see its actual opening delayed over safety concerns related to the one it replaced, leading to accusations he rushed the process in order to secure a photo op — alongside Hillary Clinton — before the primary. A day later, the New York State Democratic Committee, which Cuomo effectively controls, was busted for sending out a mailer to voters that falsely implied Nixon is anti-Semitic. (The rabbi at the synagogue Nixon attends denounced the mailing in a long Facebook post.)

As the flier furor grew, the state party apologized and Cuomo, at a Sunday press conference, sought to distance himself from the backlash, saying he knew nothing about its printing and distribution while disavowing its content. Nixon said she found that his claims to ignorance were hard to believe and the New York Times editorial board, which endorsed Cuomo, seemed to agree.

“Sorry, Mr. Cuomo, but that strains credulity,” the board wrote of his assertion that he didn’t know about it. Late Wednesday, the Times reported that an email draft of the language eventually used in the mailer had been approved by longtime Cuomo adviser Larry Schwartz. The campaign confirmed that Schwartz signed off on the language in the email but denied that he saw it used on the mailers, which a spokeswoman said he reviewed in an “ad hoc fashion” without ever setting eyes on the “negative section.”

Still, the late series of ugly headlines doesn’t seem likely to overturn Cuomo’s lead in the polls. The Democratic establishment, which rallied behind him early on, has remained in his corner, and the Times stuck by its endorsement. (Nixon called on DNC chair Tom Perez to rescind his, to no avail.) Cuomo’s considerable advantage in campaign spending — something like 20-1 — has kept the airwaves gorged with his television ads.

Nixon, meanwhile, is hoping the progressive groundswell that delivered other outsider candidates to surprise victories earlier this year, like her close ally Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, can conjure up one more historic upset.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul v NYC Councilman Jumaane Williams

Incumbent Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul also holds a considerable lead in the most recent polling of her race with New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams. But Williams supporters are hoping that voters anxious about handing over the top job to the inexperienced Nixon will split their ballots and back the challenger as a way to put a symbolic check on Cuomo.

Hochul on Wednesday touted kind words from Clinton from the state Democratic convention in May, when the former secretary of state praised her as “one tough customer.”

Williams, meanwhile, has the backing of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and, like Nixon, the largest New York-based chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

At a rally this weekend with Nixon and other progressive candidates in Brooklyn, he slammed both President Donald Trump and the national Democratic establishment.

“I know that every Republican is not a bigot, but every bigot voted for Donald Trump,” Williams said. “And I say that because we don’t have Donald Trump because of those bigots — they did what they were supposed to do. We have Donald Trump because of the Democrats who refused to adopt the message that would’ve protected us irrespective of what candidate they chose.”

Attorney general: Zephyr Teachout vs. Tish James vs. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney vs. Leecia Eve

It’s the race that no one saw coming.

Former state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was expected to cruise to the nomination, again, right up until The New Yorker on May 7 published a report in which multiple women accused him of assault. He resigned a few hours later.

His departure opened up one of most powerful statewide jobs in the country — one that will place the eventual winner in position to challenge Trump and his administration and also police Wall Street.

Schneiderman’s two predecessors, Eliot Spitzer and Cuomo, both used the office as a launching pad to the governorship. Maloney, New York’s first openly gay congressman, pledged during a debate last week to keep focused on the task at hand.

“I think it would be great if we gave people in New York four years without a bunch of ego and without a bunch of scandal,” Maloney said. “I think that doing the damn job should be the standard for the next attorney general.”

But he also caused a potentially damaging stir by calling Teachout’s comments about his vote to roll back some Dodd-Frank bank regulations “unhinged.” Teachout later called it an “overtly gendered attack.”

Endorsed by Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, Teachout, who is currently pregnant, is the candidate most likely to win out of the high profile progressive contenders — including Nixon and Williams — running on Tuesday. But her credentials with New York progressives were solidified years ago, when she challenged Cuomo from the left in the state’s 2014 primary.

“We found a crack,” Teachout said of that campaign. “We shook them up and I honestly believe that campaign helped with some of the key progressive agenda items we needed to get done, but right now people aren’t willing to just make a difference — we’re talking about taking over offices.”

Tish James, the New York City public advocate, is the Cuomo-endorsed candidate for the office. She also has deep roots in the state’s progressive politics. A former city council member, James was first elected on the Working Families Party ballot line. Her decision to get on board with Cuomo this year rankled some on the left, but the WFP is expected to back her if she wins the primary.

“There are two incredible progressive women in this race,” WFP state director Bill Lipton said of James and Teachout back in May. “New Yorkers would be lucky to have either as our next Attorney General.”

The down-ballot challengers

The former leader of a breakaway group of state Senate Democrats who joined forces with Republicans for seven years, in the process effectively guaranteeing GOP control of the chamber, state Sen. Jeff Klein agreed to rejoin the mainline Democratic caucus in April.

But the dissolution of the Independent Democratic Conference didn’t dampen enthusiasm on the left to oust its members. If anything, the progressive fervor to unseat IDC members grew throughout the campaign. Klein is now facing a high-profile challenge from Alessandra Biaggi, a lawyer who worked for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and in Cuomo’s counsel’s office.

In an interview Tuesday, Biaggi said her campaign was mostly dismissed by voters until Nixon entered the race and Ocasio-Cortez won hers.

“The moment that Cynthia got into the race, it helped my campaign because she started talking about the IDC almost incessantly,” she said. “Everyday, the IDC, the IDC, the IDC, and for people who didn’t know what it was, it gave them the education about what had been going on.”

Biaggi’s momentum was stoked in late June, when Ocasio-Cortez defeated Rep. Joe Crowley in the congressional primary, and doubtful voters — in New York and across the country — began to take a second look at longshot progressive candidates.

“Her race put a massive crack in cynicism, in a way that people said, ‘Whoa, this is possible and it can happen here,'” Biaggi said of Ocasio-Cortez, who campaigned with her down the homestretch of the state primary.

Other leading IDC challengers include Zellnor Myrie, who like Biaggi has the backing of New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson in his push to unseat state Sen. Jesse Hamilton in Brooklyn’s 20th district. Running against state Sen. Jose Peralta of Queens in District 13, Jessica Ramos was endorsed by Gillibrand, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (who also backed Myrie) and the Times editorial board, which called their campaigns “inspiring.”

DSA’s candidate in Brooklyn

Progressives will also be keeping close tabs on Julia Salazar’s bid to unseat longtime incumbent state Sen. Martin Dilan in the 18th district, where the 27-year-old democratic socialist is running a leftist campaign focused on affordable housing.

Salazar is pushing for universal rent control and has attacked Dilan for his ties to real estate interests. But her personal biography has come under intense scrutiny over the last few weeks after critics began to surface inconsistencies — like where she was born (in the U.S., not Colombia) and whether she had graduated from Columbia University (she did not).