Seven years into his tenure as governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo finally took executive action on Wednesday to restore voting rights to former felons on parole. His executive order returns the vote to around 40,000 disenfranchised people, a disproportionate number of whom are black or Latino. The move is nothing radical — 18 other states and Washington, D.C. allow parolees to vote — but voting rights efforts in New York’s state legislature have been consistently blocked by the Republican-controlled Senate.
Cuomo’s order is the right one and is being rightfully lauded. The question, however, is one of timing. The governor has always had the power to take this sort of executive action and the push for parolee voting rights is nothing new. In 2016, for example, a bill to restore the vote for parolees made some initial progress in the State Assembly with the support of numerous community groups and criminal justice advocates, but, as the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy think tank, noted at the time, “Cuomo has not mentioned rights restoration as a legislative priority for 2016.” So why now?
Anyone with an eye for realpolitik could see a cynical motivation driving Cuomo’s executive action: Cynthia Nixon.
Anyone with an eye for realpolitik could see a cynical motivation driving Cuomo’s executive action: a response to the growing popularity of his opponent in the upcoming Democratic gubernatorial race, Cynthia Nixon. Nixon, who is opposing Cuomo from the left, has prioritized criminal justice reform. From this view, Cuomo’s action signals the potential power of left-wing campaigns against the Democratic establishment — efforts that antagonize and threaten the comfort of centrist incumbents, rather than appealing to their purported goodwill — to move the political field in a progressive direction.
“It is unconscionable to deny voting rights to New Yorkers who have re-entered society,” Cuomo tweeted, announcing his executive order. Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham Law professor, activist, and former Cuomo opponent in the 2014 gubernatorial primary, responded on Twitter, “Wasn’t it unconscionable in 2012?” As appears to be happening with Nixon, Teachout’s formidable and surprising challenge from the left had pushed Cuomo’s agenda, at the time, with regard to public labor unions, environmental protections, and minimum wage.
Other responses to Cuomo’s announcement were more direct in their assessment. Humorist Jason O’Gilbert satirized the governor: “‘I am absolutely not worried about Cynthia Nixon,’ Governor Cuomo announced in a Black Lives Matter hoodie as he legalized drinking in public parks.”
Cuomo’s office, meanwhile, denied that the executive action had anything to do with Nixon’s progressive criminal justice reform platform. “Governor Cuomo has worked for years on a variety of initiatives aimed at increasing opportunities to vote and removing barriers to re-entry and community reintegration,” a representative from the governor’s office told The Intercept. The spokesperson added, “To suggest otherwise is to disrespect the hard work of the members of the administration who have worked on these initiatives and the stakeholders who have provided critical input and support over the years.”
One need not deny Cuomo’s record of criminal justice reform — which includes raising the age of criminal responsibility and improving the re-entry processes for former prisoners — to note the suspect timing of this move. Nor does it make his executive action any less important a step in the fight against disenfranchisement. If Cuomo’s timing was indeed informed by political expediency, it does not take away from a marker of social justice progress in New York. Instead, it speaks to the virtues of a strengthening left that those in power — especially those like Cuomo, whose modus operandi has been to get things done by siding with Republicans — are pushed to see the progressive choice as the expedient one.
“I think she learned there’s anger on the left.”
Watching mainstream Democrats err leftward in the face of popular challengers feels like a edifying rebuke to centrist orthodoxy, but it is hardly a sign of a party establishment willing to raise up its left flank. There’s little doubt that, without Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, Hillary Clinton would have supported the “Fight for $15” minimum wage push. “I think she learned there’s anger on the left,” former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Clinton supporter, told Politico in 2016 . “Had she run unopposed, or with only Martin O’Malley, she never would have learned that.”
At the time, however, Clinton’s camp was adamant that, as Politico noted, “she had anything to learn from Sanders” and the party, at large, rejected the popular elder statesmen as a marginal radical. When former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn called Nixon an “unqualified lesbian” in March (Quinn being a lesbian herself), the Democratic establishment once again made clear its fiercely limited, technocratic view of candidate viability.
Cuomo, like Clinton, is not a progressive candidate; and Nixon, like Sanders, is no radical — without a groundswell of leftist organizing, neither liberal figure would pose a challenge to the Democratic, neoliberal center. It would also be unwise to overplay the willingness of those, like Cuomo, who are dedicated to realpolitik to uphold a coherent progressive platform. The same week Cuomo announced his executive order on parolee voting rights, he reportedly threatened the funding of community activist groups with ties to the left-leaning Working Families Party as it considered endorsing Nixon. It should not be lost on observers that these very groups had worked with Cuomo on issues like raising the minimum wage and criminal justice reform — which he now uses to tout his progressive credentials.
Pushing centrists to make progressive choices is not the end game of organizers all around the country working to get left-wing candidates elected at local and state levels. It is, however, a positive consequence of such efforts and a reflection that establishment politicians recognize voter desire for progressive change beyond liberal centrism.