Parsing the Results of a Chaotic New York Primary


Four years ago, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s shock victory in a low-turnout midterm primary election in New York changed the shape of American politics. On Tuesday, the state held low-turnout midterm primaries with no such results. Instead, what the most-watched races offered was the latest glimpse of the ongoing fight between progressive insurgents and Democratic Party loyalists in New York. Loyalists claimed the day’s biggest victories, thanks in large part to the state’s new political maps—a consequence of a 2020 redistricting process that some of those same Party loyalists, led by then Governor Andrew Cuomo, botched so badly that a state judge ultimately outsourced the job to a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon.

The race that got the most attention, and which had the closest outcome, was for an open seat in the newly redrawn Tenth Congressional District, where the attorney Dan Goldman—who served as the House Democrats’ lawyer during Donald Trump’s first impeachment—squeaked out a victory in a crowded field. The old Tenth District was a zigzagging triumph of gerrymandering, running from Morningside Heights, in upper Manhattan, to Borough Park, in South Brooklyn. The new district is much more compact, covering SoHo and Wall Street, in lower Manhattan, plus a large chunk of western Brooklyn, across the East River. It’s a diverse district—Latin American and Caribbean communities, traditionally Black neighborhoods, and both Manhattan’s and Brooklyn’s Chinatowns are situated within its borders—but it is also undeniably the current capital of yuppie New York. After the updated map was revealed, earlier this year, it seemed that every politician in the district was thinking about getting into the race. Thirteen Democrats eventually qualified for the ballot, including former Mayor Bill de Blasio, who dropped out in July, after polls showed him performing dismally. (He netted a few hundred votes on Tuesday.)

Goldman won with more than sixteen thousand votes, good for about twenty-five per cent of the total vote. An heir to Levi Strauss, he was propelled by millions of dollars in self-financing, and by the endorsement of the Times editorial board, which argued that his “uncommon experience, particularly his knowledge of congressional oversight and the rule of law, could prove especially valuable in Congress in coming years.” It’s notable that the Times chose to endorse the leading white-guy candidate in the race, who will now go on to become one of the richest members of Congress, over a diverse field of candidates with deep experience representing local communities. In the endorsement itself, the Times pointed out that, if Goldman won, he would need to work to “convince the large numbers of lower-income and middle-class Americans he would represent that he understands the issues facing those constituents.” Errol Louis, one of the deans of New York’s political press corps, called this argument “​​a mini-masterpiece of elite liberal reasoning.”

Goldman’s closest competitor, the State Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou, got more than fifteen thousand votes, about two per cent less of the total than he did. Niou gained prominence last year, as one of the insurgents who raised the pressure on Cuomo to resign after he was accused of sexual harassment and corruption. But her effort to be the progressive champion in the race was challenged by Carlina Rivera, a City Council member from the Lower East Side, and Mondaire Jones, a first-term U.S. representative and one of the first openly gay Black members of Congress, who opted to run in the Tenth District after his own district, in the suburbs north of New York City, was redrawn. As a result, even though Goldman was the subject of the most overt criticism of any candidate in the race, the contest also felt like Goldman versus everyone else, obscuring the qualities of his critics. In the race’s closing days, Niou and Jones held a joint “anybody but Goldman” press conference. It seems voters responded to their call. Rivera and Jones each attracted more than ten thousand votes. Two other candidates, the State Assembly member Jo Anne Simon and the former congresswoman and Brooklyn District Attorney Elizabeth Holtzman, attracted more than twenty-five hundred votes apiece.

If the Tenth District was wide open, then the Twelfth District, in upper Manhattan, was the opposite. For decades, Manhattan had separate congressional seats representing the Upper West and Upper East Sides. The new map this year merged the two districts, meaning that Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney, both in Congress since 1993, faced off against each other. As in the Tenth District, the refusal of the candidates to get out of each other’s way, and the difficulty that they had articulating what, precisely, voters had to gain or lose depending on who they voted for, meant that the race in the Twelfth District devolved into a battle of personal ambitions. While the news in Washington was focussed on climate change, inflation, and former President Trump’s potential treason, voters in New York’s Twelfth were treated to the spectacle of Maloney, the current chair of the House Oversight Committee, suggesting that Nadler, the current chair of the House Judiciary Committee, was “senile” and “half dead.” A third candidate in the race, a thirty-eight-year-old lawyer named Suraj Patel, who had tried to unseat Maloney several times before, tried to pitch voters on the need for generational change in Washington. It didn’t work. Nadler wound up winning easily.

One state race in which New York insurgents were hoping for an Ocasio-Cortez style outcome was in the Seventeenth District, where Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, faced a challenge from State Senator Alessandra Biaggi. Biaggi called Maloney, a longtime Democratic Party lieutenant, a “selfish corporate Democrat with no integrity.” Voters in the Seventeenth District went for him by a two-to-one margin. “Tonight, mainstream won,” Maloney said, during his victory speech on Tuesday. Like Niou, Biaggi was a prominent critic of Cuomo and a central voice in calling for his ouster. In fact, Niou and Biaggi are friends, and have been roommates in Albany during legislative sessions. They were both part of a cohort of younger politicians in Albany who, in recent years, have made a persuasive case that the state government is in urgent need of reform. It’s a shame that, in pursuing these ultimately unsuccessful congressional bids, both have set that project aside.

On Tuesday night, as the results came in, insurgents consoled themselves by focussing on some victories down ballot, in State Senate races. National attention, meanwhile, turned to the special election in the Nineteenth District. The seat there became open in May, when Governor Kathy Hochul tapped its former occupant, Antonio Delgado, to be her Lieutenant Governor. Many Democrats at the time worried that the district, which runs from the northern New York City suburbs to Albany, and which includes plenty of rural areas, would be lost to the Republican Party. But, after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Democratic candidate in the race, Pat Ryan, declared that he was going to “nationalize” the contest. “I believe this has to be a national referendum on Roe,” he told the Washington Post, in July. “It’s our first chance to send this message, that the country is not going to tolerate this erosion of our fundamental rights.”

Ryan is no A.O.C. 2.0, but the results of his race may prove consequential all the same. It’s notable that the election in the Nineteenth District wasn’t a primary. New Yorkers, particularly in New York City, get precious few chances to vote in competitive general elections. The state’s primaries are closed, and in recent years primary dates have bounced around the calendar, further dampening turnout and making it harder for voters to follow what’s happening. It shouldn’t take just sixteen thousand votes to represent the center of New York City in Congress, as Goldman will. It should be a lot harder than that. ♦


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