Progressive Women Are Aligning to Break Up New York's Political Boys' Club
Women running in New York, like Cynthia Nixon, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Zephyr Teachout, have campaigned alongside each other, strategically forming a "sisterhood" to overthrow a bloc of sitting male incumbents.
Scott Heins for Getty Images/Broadly
Alessandra Biaggi’s response to the 2016 election was to begin teaching what she calls “civics classes” in living rooms across Pelham, the Westchester County neighborhood where she grew up.
Biaggi covered the basics. Did people know who their federal representatives were? What about their local representatives? And, finally, did they know about the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), the group of Democratic state senators that broke away from their party in 2011 to vote with Republicans?
Did they know that their district’s state senator, Jeff Klein, was its leader?
As Klein’s opponent in District 34’s state senate race, Biaggi has once again found herself giving her neighbors a crash course in government. When she goes door-to-door or hits the streets—as she did on a recent 90-degree day, handing out campaign lit near her headquarters in Riverdale—part of convincing voters to unseat Klein involves educating them about how the eight members of the IDC have stalled progressive legislation in the state senate for the last seven years, and how a 32-year-old first-time candidate could help get the party, and the state, back on track.
Though the IDC, which is specific to New York, and has made statewide races in New York particularly contentious, was formally dissolved in April, challengers like Biaggi warn that if its former members aren’t unseated on Thursday, the group’s majority male voting bloc will continue to reign.
“I’m a true Democrat—I would never betray my party,” Biaggi tells me in a small room in her campaign offices. “Klein has proven he’s not loyal to Democrats.”
Klein's office did not immediately respond to Broadly's request for comment.
Fighting to topple Klein has been a group effort, not just by Biaggi’s campaign staff, and not just by the seven other IDC challengers, who are mostly women—but by an entire slate of progressive female candidates running down ballot in New York this cycle, which has coalesced into an alliance to break up what many of them refer to as Albany’s “boys’ club.”
Learn about one progressive woman’s bid for office in New York, and you’ll inevitably hear about several others. Support Biaggi? You might also like Zephyr Teachout, the attorney general candidate who’s given Biaggi her official backing. If you like Teachout, maybe you’re also inspired by gubernatorial challenger Cynthia Nixon, who traded endorsements with Teachout last month. After Nixon, you might hear tell of some other insurgent state senate candidates, like Jessica Ramos, for whom Nixon recently mixed drinks at a joint campaign fundraiser, or Julia Salazar, who’s teamed up with Nixon at rallies, news conferences, and panels.
The narrative of a historic rising tide of women running for office this year has inherently tethered them together. But the strategists and organizers behind these progressive women’s campaigns—as well as the candidates themselves—say that though there is certainly something unique about the extent to which New York women have supported each other’s candidacies, it’s also strategic.
Like a significant chunk of the record number of female 2018 candidates, many of the women running in New York are political newcomers trying to unseat entrenched incumbents. They might not know how to raise the kind of money they need to beat an establishment candidate, how to find a campaign manager, or even how to go about filing to run for office in the first place. (“The paperwork is a whole other conversation,” Biaggi says. “It was confusing for me, and I’m a lawyer.”)
Figuring it out together—swapping notes and talking about the hurdles they’ve run into along the way—can make it easier.
“It’s really daunting to be a young woman in this political arena run by older white men who derive power from creating the idea that they can’t be unseated,” says Monica Klein, a former senior adviser to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Earlier this year, she co-founded the all-women political consultancy firm Seneca Strategies, which does work on Nixon, Ramos, and, as of recently, Salazar’s campaigns. “There’s power in numbers."
New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is partly responsible for establishing a climate where progressive women in the state would help each other cross the finish line. After pulling off a major upset in her own primary, she turned her attention to the other women, in New York and across the country, trying to clinch similar long-shot victories. Ocasio-Cortez has backed Nixon, Teachout, Salazar, and Biaggi, and on Saturday, she appeared (and later danced) alongside some of them at a Brooklyn rally for one final push before Thursday’s primaries.
“Together we will abolish ICE; together we are going to get single-payer health care,” Ocasio-Cortez said on the stump. And “together we are going to elect a progressive slate of women to office.”
Running as part of a wave of women has been an effective way to get noticed this cycle, particularly for insurgent candidates. If you don’t have the kind of campaign funds—and few non-incumbents do—to bombard voters with television ads and yard signs, appearing alongside more well-known candidates can go a long way.
Some male insurgent candidates have also exchanged endorsements with a number of first-time women candidates in New York, like lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Jumaane Williams, who's earned the backing of Nixon, Ramos, and Teachout, and given them his. But by and large it's New York women who are creating the web of support they hope will snag sitting politicians.
“We need to amplify each other, echo each other, and lift each other up because we’re connected,” Nixon says. “This is a movement that is happening; we’re a thousand points of light and we want to connect to each other.”
Last month, Women’s Health and Reproductive Rights, a Brooklyn-based community organization that goes by WHARR, hosted a talk called “Women Smashing the Status Quo” in Gowanus. The panel featured Nixon, Teachout, Salazar, and Jasi Robinson, a first-timer challenging IDC member Diane Savino in Staten Island. A couple of people in the audience told me they’d heard of the first three women, but that they hadn’t known someone named Jasi Robinson was running for office in New York until that night.
On stage that evening, Robinson seemed aware that her campaign had flown under the radar. While Nixon, Teachout, and Salazar dove right into their responses to the moderator’s first question, Robinson felt she had to introduce herself first: “For those who don’t know me, my name is Jasi Robinson and I’m running for the New York state senate in the 23rd district,” she said, explaining that she was inspired to run after she attended Erica Garner’s vigil in January. “Tell people I’m running for office!” she added at the end of the conversation. “I need cash too.”
After the talk, some young women hovered near Robinson to ask for a photo, and to tell her they were excited to learn about her campaign. Weeks later, she met up with her fellow panelists again, at the same Brooklyn rally where Ocasio-Cortez spoke of electing a “progressive slate” of women to office.
“I’d met Cynthia Nixon before, but that panel was the first time I shared the stage with her,” Robinson tells me. “I got a slight bump from campaigning alongside Nixon and Teachout and the fact that both women support me has opened doors for me.”
The spotlight on women candidates has even been helpful for someone like Nixon, who—while by no means lacking name recognition—has been taken seriously by the press and by her opponent in a way some say Teachout, who challenged Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2014, was not. Not only did Cuomo refuse to debate Teachout at the time, but not a single poll assessing where Teachout stood in comparison to Cuomo came out until the day of the primary. In the end, Teachout fell to Cuomo, but managed to earn roughly 35 percent of the vote.
“There is a sort of sense that for these women, by combining their fights together, they can help some of the candidates who might have otherwise been overlooked,” Sean McElwee, the cofounder of progressive research firm Data for Progress, and a close spectator of New York races, says. “The women who are benefitting from a larger number of endorsements and attention want to make sure their success comes along with the success of others.”
McElwee, however, points out that there are limits to just how far this network of women extends: Candidates running upstate and in the outskirts of New York City like Rachel May, who’s challenging IDC member David Valesky in Syracuse, and Julie Goldberg, another IDC challenger, running in the 38th district, haven’t gotten the same kind of national attention as the rest of their cohort, despite running similar progressive campaigns. Geographically, it’s much more difficult for them to ride the wave, he says.
And Robinson, though buoyed by Nixon and Teachout, says she’s felt written out of the narrative of women in New York running the cycle, citing stories she says mentioned her candidacy but didn’t bother to quote her. “As far as being included in the sistership of the progressive women’s movement, I’m often ignored,” Robinson says. She speculates that it’s because she’s an afro-Latina candidate, arguing that black women historically have been sidelined in the Democratic Party. “My race is just as equally important as Alessandra Biaggi’s,” she says.
"Supporting each other this way is absolutely a nod to the sisterhood, it's a way to say we need each other to fight a machine that privileges men."
As Robinson alludes, many of the women candidates running have gone beyond endorsing each other: In response to the state capital’s “boys’ club,” some New York women instead see themselves as being part of a sisterhood.
Ocasio-Cortez called former Missouri congressional candidate Cori Bush her “sister” in a speech she gave before Bush’s primary, and at last month’s WHARR talk, Teachout spoke too of a sisterhood with the other women on stage with her. “There’s something so inspiring and necessary about outsider women coming in,” Teachout said at the time. “I feel it every single day, the joy of being side-by-side with my sisters here.”
"Though endorsing is an accepted political formality as a show of support, this runs much deeper," Heather Stewart, a co-organizer at Empire State Indivisible, a grassroots organization backing progressive candidates in New York, says. "Supporting each other this way is absolutely a nod to the sisterhood, it's a way to say we need each other to fight a machine that privileges men."
Still, some are skeptical of whether the show of “sisterhood,” cross-endorsements, and joint campaigning will have any effect at all on Thursday’s results.
“[Cross-endorsement is] helpful in the sense that she needs momentum,” Bradley Tusk, an ex-adviser to former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, told Politico in July, speaking specifically of Nixon’s candidacy. “From a voter standpoint, nobody cares. Unless Donald Trump or Barack Obama endorses someone, nobody cares.”
In some ways, the fact that these progressive candidates are women is one of the least remarkable facets of their campaign. Yet there’s also certainly a gendered dynamic to some of their races, that make it worthwhile to emphasize their gender: Biaggi’s opponent was accused of sexual harassment in January, and then later joined three other men in a closed-door meeting in Albany to decide on crucial sexual harassment legislation. Not to mention that the very existence of the IDC has arguably kept the Reproductive Health Act from coming to the floor, and Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins from becoming the first black woman majority leader in the state senate.
However, there are far more—arguably more politically relevant—things that unite the candidates beyond their gender, and much that distinguishes them from one another.
While Salazar is an explicitly democratic socialist campaign powered by her fellow Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) members, Biaggi’s—though grassroots—is slightly more by the book, perhaps reflective of her experience working for both Cuomo and Hillary Clinton, and descending from a former congressman. (She had her press secretary sit in on our interview.)
But both share views that healthcare is a human right; that the New York State senate should pass single payer healthcare and enshrine Roe v. Wade into state law; they join Nixon, Teachout, Ramos, and many others in rejecting corporate donations and calling for criminal justice reform, a higher minimum wage, and many other progressive goals that would turn New York state into a “true progressive leader,” as Biaggi likes to say.
In these progressive candidates’ view, so-called “women’s issues” encapsulate more than reproductive rights and sexual harassment, and their campaigns—whether or not they’re ultimately successful—are changing how we talk about them.
“While access to abortion is key and non-negotiable, women on the campaign trail have made clear ‘women’s issues’ also include wage equity, healthcare affordability, workplace discrimination—the list goes on.”
“For decades, men in power have defined ‘women’s issues’ as one thing: reproductive rights,’” Ramos, who’s running in District 13 to unseat IDC member Jose Peralta, says. “While access to abortion is key and non-negotiable, women on the campaign trail have made clear ‘women’s issues’ also include wage equity, healthcare affordability, workplace discrimination—the list goes on.”
Nixon sees this as a major blindspot for Cuomo, a “remarkably awkward person” whom she says is “never more awkward than when he’s trying to say the right thing about women.”
“It’s hard to think of a man’s issue that’s not also a woman’s issue,” Nixon says. “Racial justice is a woman’s issue. Mass incarceration is a women’s issue. Affordable housing is a woman's issue. Education is a woman's issue. The MTA is a woman's issue.”
Cuomo's office did not immediately respond to Broadly's request for comment.
If voters choose these women over their opponents on Thursday, and, in November, decide to send them to Albany, New York state could look a lot different. But sending just one woman to the state legislature, turning one into the next attorney general, or electing one to be the governor of New York won’t be enough to enact the progressive change each of them envision.
“If you’re running on your own, what happens when you get to the state legislature and you’re still surrounded by establishment Democrats who don’t want to get anything done?” Klein says. “You’re in a better position, practically, if you’re surrounded by other progressive women who can help support your legislation and build a coalition with you.
“It’s going to be so much better for Alessandra if Jessica is there and Jessica if Jasi [Robinson] is there and for all of them if Cynthia Nixon is governor.”
“We can’t vote for each other, but we want to be able to work with each other,” Ramos, who’s running in District 13 to unseat former IDC member Jose Peralta, says. “I want to codify Roe v. Wade with Biaggi, with Jasmine Robinson, Rachel May, and Julie Goldberg.
“I don’t want to pass laws in Albany with their opponents,” Ramos continues. “I want to pass laws with them."
Eve Peyser contributed reporting.