House Democrats Are Panicked About Primaries, and New York Shows How Potent They Can Be

Cynthia Nixon won, actually.

New York Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, center, asks a question as New York state legislators hold a public hearing in Albany on sexual harassment in the workplace on Feb. 13, 2019. Biaggi defeated Sen. Jeff Klein, head of the Independent Democratic Conference, last year. Photo: Hans Pennink/AP

A specter is haunting the House of Representatives: the specter of primaries. All the powers of the status quo have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter. Blacklists have been drawn up; arms have been locked. The ferocity with which House Democratic incumbents have rallied around each other reached absurd new dimensions this week. With Crisanta Duran, the first Latina state House speaker in Colorado history, challenging Rep. Diana Degette, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus weighed into the primary — on behalf of Degette

Democratic Reps. Dan Lipinski, Ill.; Eliot Engel, N.Y.; Henry Cuellar, Texas; Steny Hoyer, Md.; and Jerry Nadler, N.Y., are all facing primary challenges, and paranoia is being stoked inside the Democratic caucus. “The question that comes up all the time is, is there anybody internally assisting and abetting, encouraging people to run against incumbents?” Rep. Bill Pascrell, a Democrat from New Jersey, told Politico.

Those members have had an outsized role in shaping the agenda of the new caucus and shifting the national conversation to the left.

In 2018, primary challenges — including by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley — and progressive bids in open seats — from candidates like Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Katie Porter, Mike Levin, Lauren Underwood, and Jahana Hayes — yielded just a handful of victories, but those members, once elected, have had an outsized role in shaping the agenda of the new caucus and shifting the national conversation to the left. 

But without a Democratic Senate or White House, their ability to muscle through an agenda has been limited. For a real-time look at how effective winning a handful of critical primaries can ultimately be on a political agenda, look instead to New York, where this year’s legislative session produced a progressive tsunami that all started with the earthquake of Donald Trump’s election.

For at least half a century, “three men in a room” was an Albany cliche that stood in for New York state’s governing structure, a simple yet ingenious method of cooling the passions of the electorate, lest they expect the government to do something for them. 

The roles of the three men were played by different characters over time, but their job titles remained the same: governor, Assembly leader, Senate leader. The three got together and hashed out deals that the rest of the government had to rubber stamp and carry out. For decades, the arrangement worked nicely because power was divided between the two parties. They traded the governor’s mansion back and forth, while Democrats held the state Assembly and Republicans the Senate. 

But as the state became bluer, the arrangement was threatened, so a deal was pushed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo: Some politicians who campaigned for the Senate as Democrats, would, in Albany, caucus with Republicans. In January 2011, they became known as the Independent Democratic Conference. If Democrats controlled both chambers and the governorship, then voters might demand they deliver on their promises. But if power was divided, all power was then in the hands of Cuomo and the legislative leadership. Any activist or interest group who wanted anything done had no choice but to seek Cuomo’s blessing, and he had an easy mechanism to punish any group or person who slighted him. He could simply kill whatever it was they wanted passed.

As an activist, Jessica Ramos often went to Albany to push for one progressive priority or another. “You knew that your only hope was to convince the governor to take pity on you and actually want to work on your issue and figure out how to get it through the Republicans,” she said. “That was the main reason he created the IDC, was to create that [power] center for himself.”

A political concoction like the IDC has staying power because any of the interests who want to see it undone also need the power brokers on their side on a day-to-day basis. And for voters, the whole thing is too confusing to organize a grassroots movement against. Or, at least, that was the case until Trump.

The shock election of Trump in November 2016 sent liberals across the country into spiraling series of emotions, often beginning with despair, then evolving into anger, and ending with crystallized determination to fight back. The question of how precisely to do that led to a flowering of new organizations dedicated to channeling energy from blue areas and transforming it into donations and phone banking in swing districts, whether through national groups like Sister District or Swing Left. But people also wanted to take action at home, and many wound up doing so through newly formed Indivisible chapters. In New York, and especially in New York City, people assumed that there wasn’t much for them to do, because local politics was thought to be decidedly progressive. 

As people began to research their local representatives, they noticed something was off.

But as people began to research their local representatives, they noticed something was off. The Democrat they had reliably been voting for all these years was, bizarrely, caucusing with the party of Donald J. Trump. Sarina Prabasi, owner at the time of two independent coffeehouses in New York City called Buunni, said that she was stunned to learn that her state senator, Marisol Alcantara, was part of the IDC. She had trouble believing that something like it existed in reality, rather than in the fever dreams of conspiracy theorists. “I was horrified to learn that such a thing existed, and had existed for so long,” said Prabasi, author of the recent book “The Coffee House Resistance.” “By coincidence, both of the Buunni coffeehouse locations had an IDC challenger, Robert Jackson and Alessandra Biaggi, and we supported their campaigns.”

The IDC’s eight members, led by state Sen. Jeff Klein from the Bronx and Westchester, had been effectively handing away power in exchange for a little bit of it for themselves. Across New York, people began raising their hand to primary those state senators, and a group called No IDC launched in early 2017 to try to organize the effort. 

The movement’s greatest gift, it turned out, would be Cynthia Nixon. The “Sex and the City” star, a longtime activist and educator, volunteered to challenge Cuomo in a primary, a move nobody in New York politics who wanted a future career was willing to make. What Nixon lacked in organizational structure, she made up for with celebrity. She used her high name recognition and ability to draw the media to events to highlight what became her core issue: the IDC. 

“The moment that Cynthia got into the race, it helped my campaign, because she started talking about the IDC almost incessantly,” Biaggi, who upset IDC leader Klein, said in an interview on CNN. “Every day, 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.”

Nixon’s run also diverted Cuomo’s attention on to her rather than on to the IDC challengers. He fired off more than $20 million worth of negative advertising to disqualify her in the public’s mind. He was also focused on making sure his ally Letitia James, rather than his 2014 primary challenger Zephyr Teachout, won the attorney general’s race. That left him little time and money to attack the IDC challengers. In the spring, the IDC formally dissolved under pressure, but activists suspected it would reform the day after the next election. 

The IDC formally dissolved under pressure, but activists suspected it would reform the day after the next election.

Teachout, too, made the IDC a major part of her campaign, and raised millions in small dollars. Teachout and Nixon both endorsed the IDC challengers, and also endorsed Ocasio-Cortez. AOC, too, made the IDC central to her congressional campaign. She told me that her focus on it helped her demonstrate a distinction between herself and then-incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley when he endorsed IDC member Jose Peralta over challenger Jessica Ramos in May 2018. “When he made that endorsement, it made things much clearer to residents that he is part of supporting that Cuomo/IDC camp. That’s how we ended up getting Indivisible and TrueBlue/NoIDC endorsements this week,” she told me in early June 2018, ahead of her primary.

Later that month, Ocasio-Cortez shocked the political establishment with her victory over Crowley. That win made voters think that ending the IDC was also possible. “We had been building and building, knocking on doors and doing everything we could, but a lot of the rhetoric I was met with from day one was, ‘You know, [Klein] is so powerful, and you have an uphill battle and I don’t know if I want to donate. I received so many no’s and so many question marks, asking if it was possible,” Biaggi told CNN. “Then June 26th happened.”

Ocasio-Cortez campaigned heavily for the IDC challengers until the state primary in September, 2 ½ months after her congressional primary. On Election Day, the IDC was annihilated, with six of the eight senators going down. One of those to win was Ramos, the activist who’d witnessed Cuomo’s three-men-in-a-room routine up close. Zellnor Myrie, John Liu, Robert Jackson, Ramos, and Biaggi won throughout Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, and Rachel May, a prominent academic and environmentalist, flipped a Syracuse seat.

Outside of the IDC contests, insurgents scored victories as well. Julia Salazar, with backing from Ocasio-Cortez and the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, beat her incumbent opponent, Martin Dilan, an ally of the IDC. In a Jackson Heights state Assembly race, Catalina Cruz, an attorney who once was undocumented, knocked off a machine incumbent. 

In January, when the new members were sworn in to the New York state Senate, Democrats fully controlled the state legislature, and progressives were driving the agenda. As its first act, the new body passed into law the Reproductive Health Act, a sweeping defense of reproductive freedom that Cuomo had long claimed to support, but the IDC had bottled up. 

On January 22, 2019, he signed the bill into law. In February, in alliance with the newly elected women in the legislature, the Sexual Harassment Working Group held its first hearing, geared toward rooting out what had become an endemic rape culture in Albany’s men’s club. 

The rest of the session saw win after win. When the legislature finally adjourned, the New York Times editorial board would marvel, “Albany, of all places, has provided a glimpse of what can happen when politicians believe that they owe the voters rather than the donors.”

Indeed, the real estate developers who watched in dismay as Dilan and the IDC fell one by one on election night could hardly have imagined just how much influence their money had previously purchased. With the developers in retreat, Albany pushed through a sweeping affordable housing package that was so tilted toward renters that landlords and developers decried it as having been pulled from the campaign website of Cynthia Nixon. 

On climate, New York passed the most ambitious legislation any state has attempted to implement, pledging to zero out carbon emissions by 2050, banning most kinds of single-use plastic bags, and implementing congestion pricing aimed at reducing traffic in Manhattan. 

A criminal justice reform bill eliminated cash bail for many crimes and required prosecutors to come clean about evidence much faster. Undocumented immigrants won the ability to obtain a driver’s license and apply for scholarships and financial aid to college. Sexual harassment laws were toughened up. Conversion therapy for children was banned. Hate crime laws were expanded to cover transgender people. Farm workers won overtime pay. 

One of the ways machine politicians had held on to control for so long was by making it super difficult to vote, but major election reform will change that in New York. The practice of allowing companies to contribute directly to campaigns was limited. Tougher gun laws were passed. Over the objections of insurance companies, the Catholic Conference of New York, and the Boy Scouts of America, a bill making it easier to prosecute child sex abuse passed. And even the anti-vaxxer crowd took an L, with the legislature stripping their ability to refuse vaccination by citing religious objections. 

Marijuana legalization came close to passage, but advocates had to settle for decriminalizing it for now. It was, however, a legislative session unlike anything that had been seen in living memory. “Not everything we advocated for passed, as evidenced by marijuana,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive consultant who worked on the Nixon campaign. “But what happened in Albany was much more in line with the Albany we believe in, versus the one Cuomo was advocating.”

Parts of this article were drawn from Ryan Grim’s new book “We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement.”

Correction: July 11, 2019, 3:50 p.m. ET
A previous version of this article inaccurately described the campaign finance reform that was passed. 

Join The Conversation