Cynthia Nixon Lost the Battle, But Progressive Women Won the War
Cynthia Nixon fell to Governor Andrew Cuomo Thursday night, but the insurgent candidates who challenged former members of the Independent Democratic Conference sailed to victory.
Jose Alvarado for Broadly.
Trae Thomas and Emma Donnelly, two 18-year-old students at the Fashion Institute for Technology, voted for the first time on Thursday—in an off-year state-level Democratic primary.
Later that night, they hovered near an open bar at Cafe Omar, the Brooklyn nightclub where gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, attorney general candidate Zephyr Teachout, and lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Jumaane Williams were hosting a joint results viewing party.
Thomas, who was born two years after Sex and the City premiered, told me he of course knew about Nixon from "the TV show," but learned about her as a political candidate primarily through social media. He and Donnelly said Nixon's messaging on LGBTQ rights resonated with them, as did her calls to make driver's licenses available to undocumented immigrants in New York. Their friend, Krystal Serdinsky, 22, added that she liked that Nixon supported single-payer healthcare; Governor Andrew Cuomo, she said, "hasn't brought much change to the table."
When I asked them how they'd feel if Nixon lost, they looked stricken.
"Depressed," Thomas told Broadly.
"I would cry," Serdinsky said. "I want to her to win so badly, and if she doesn't I'm going to be crushed. It would feel like everything is just going to keep digressing."
In the end, Nixon didn't pull off her long-shot bid to unseat Cuomo. Teachout, in her third run for political office, fell to Leticia James in her race for attorney general. And Williams—though he came close—couldn't edge out incumbent Kathy Hochul to become the next lieutenant governor.
Considering these returns, it would've made sense for the trio's results party to turn into something of a funeral. But instead, a crowd of a few hundred people, sweaty and pressed up against each other, found at least half a dozen reasons to celebrate: Six insurgent candidates, many of them women, defeated former members of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), the group of eight Democratic state senators that broke away from their party to caucus with Republicans in 2011.
The evening was punctuated with cheers for Alessandra Biaggi, who successfully unseated the IDC's former leader, Jeff Klein, in the Bronx; Zellnor Myrie, who beat state Senator Jesse Hamilton in Brooklyn; John Liu, who defeated Queens' Tony Avella; Robert Jackson, who will replace Marisol Alcántara to represent a state senate district stretching along the west side of Manhattan; and Jessica Ramos, who declared victory over Jose Peralta in Jackson Heights.
During Nixon's concession speech, which she gave around 10:30 PM, a man standing on a chair to the left of the stage took advantage of a brief silence to belt to the room: "Rachel May won!" May, who'd challenged former IDC member David Valesky, had won her primary by a little more than 600 votes.
"The IDC is dead," someone in the crowd told the person standing next to them.
Nixon, who continued to speak of her dreams for a more progressive New York, gave a nod to the IDC's vanquishers in her speech, telling them: “Your victories have shown the blue wave is real, and it’s not just coming for Republicans.”
The IDC's decisive downfall was the obvious bright spot of the night for a room full of people itching to disrupt New York politics.
"I'm really excited for the IDC challengers," Jessica Capers, a Brooklyn resident, gathered around one of Cafe Omar's many televisions airing NY1, told Broadly. "You can tell the constituents felt betrayed by their representatives who joined the group and this is the backlash that they're getting."
The backlash, which came on Thursday in the form of a slate of electoral victories for their opponents, is no small feat, especially considering the average New Yorker might not have known the IDC existed just a few months ago.
“A lot of people didn’t know what the Independent Democratic Conference was before 2016,” Biaggi, Klein's vanquisher, told Broadly earlier this month. “The first chapter of this election involved educating people about the IDC. The more people learned about it, the more angry they became."
The IDC formally dissolved in April, marking a shift in New York politics some attributed to the pressure insurgent campaigns like Biaggi’s placed on the group’s members. Biaggi and her progressive peers running to unseat the IDC and IDC-adjacent state senators consistently painted their opponents as fake Democrats holding up progress in a blue state that should have no problem passing single-payer health care, safeguarding abortion rights, or protecting undocumented immigrants. They insisted that it wasn't enough to dissolve the IDC to achieve these legislative goals; its members had to be voted out of office.
Nixon, though running a gubernatorial race, was vocal throughout her campaign about Cuomo’s role in “empowering” the Republican-aligned group, and knocked him for capitalizing on the optics of brokering a deal to disband it. “If you’ve set your own house on fire and watch it burn for eight years,” Nixon said in April, “finally turning on the hose doesn’t make you a hero.”
For organizers, Thursday's results prove that having strong progressive candidates was enough to wake voters up to the way the state's political system has functioned for more than a decade, and move them to vote in high numbers in an off-year primary.
“We’ve been railing against the IDC since its formation—it’s members wouldn’t budge,” Joe Dinkin, campaigns and communications director at the Working Families Party, which endorsed Nixon, Teachout, and Williams, said. “So we built up grassroots energy, and before long we had a slate of candidates challenging them. The IDC had to dissolve under pressure. But by that time it was too late.
“They thought disbanding would blunt the momentum of their challengers,” Dinkin continued. “It didn’t work.”
Part of challengers' success in overthrowing the IDC may be attributed to the network of support progressive women formed during their campaigns, anchored in many ways by Nixon, Teachout, and congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Biaggi, ahead of her victory, credited Nixon with helping to raise awareness around the IDC and why her race against Klein mattered." The moment that Cynthia got into the race, it helped my campaign because she started talking about the IDC almost incessantly," Biaggi told CNN. "Every day, the IDC, the IDC, the IDC.”
Ocasio-Cortez, whose congressional district overlaps with Biaggi's, also canvassed for her campaign, and, in the final hours before polls closed on Thursday, endorsed another IDC challenger, Ramos, when she learned Ramos' opponent had been using a photo of her in his campaign lit without her permission. And either Nixon or Teachout had already endorsed Biaggi, Ramos, and Salazar, or exchanged endorsements, during their campaigns.
Women running in New York this cycle have set their own agenda. Instead of looking to traditional power structures to uplift their campaigns—corporate donors, Democratic clubs—the progressive candidates running down ballot looked to each other. This, experts say, is how New York women's primary bids, even the losing ones, have already changed the political landscape.
“We have to measure success for women in ways other than electoral success or defeat,” Kelly Dittmar, an assistant research professor at Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics, told Broadly ahead of Thursday night’s results.
“Simply by running—and the ways in which they’re running—as well as the voices and perspectives they’re bringing to campaigns this year, they’re disrupting the status quo in American politics," Dittmar continued. "And they can have a lasting effect in that way even if they don’t end up in office.”
“Simply by running—and the ways in which they’re running—as well as the voices and perspectives they’re bringing to campaigns this year, they’re disrupting the status quo in American politics."
Dittmar says it can take multiple election cycles to begin to feel the effects of the kind of jolt to the system politics is getting with the number of women running for office. She told me she sometimes worries that the much-anticipated "Year of the Woman" of 2018 might go the way of 1992's "Year of the Woman," and turn into one single historic year whose gains taper off over time because people take it for granted. "A conversation like this catches fire in an election cycle," Dittmar said. "The long-term effect of this year can be very positive if we make sure we're creating conditions for women to be successful and well-represented."
But standing on stage Thursday night, Nixon had a clear view into the future. She saw where someone like her—but not her—would soon be standing in her position accepting a victory.
"To all the young women, to all the queer people: You will be standing here when it's your turn," Nixon said Thursday night. "You will win."