By Vivian Wang, Sept. 13, 2018
Years of anger at a group of Democratic state senators who had collaborated with Republicans boiled over on Thursday, as primary voters ousted nearly all of them in favor of challengers who had called them traitors and sham progressives.
The losses were not only a resounding upset for the members of the Independent Democratic Conference, who outspent their challengers several times over, but also a sign that the progressive fervor sweeping national politics had hobbled New York’s once-mighty Democratic machine, at least on a local level.
The most high-profile casualty was Senator Jeffrey D. Klein of the Bronx, the former head of the I.D.C. In that role, he was for years one of Albany’s most powerful players, sharing leadership of the chamber with his counterparts in the Republican conference and participating in the state’s secretive budget negotiations.
[What exactly was the I.D.C.? Read our explainer here.]
But on Thursday, he was defeated by Alessandra Biaggi, a lawyer and former aide to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, after a campaign in which Ms. Biaggi cornered Mr. Klein into spending more than $2 million, an astonishing sum for a state legislative race. (Cynthia Nixon, in her unsuccessful bid against Mr. Cuomo, spent less.)
“If this doesn’t prove that political currency is people over money, I do not know what does,” Ms. Biaggi, who spent one-tenth as much as Mr. Klein, said at her victory party. “We have now cut the head of the I.D.C. snake.”
Mr. Klein did not appear at his watch party.
Also defeated were five other former I.D.C. members: Senators Tony Avella and Jose Peralta in Queens; Senator Jesse Hamilton in Brooklyn; Senator Marisol Alcántara in Manhattan; and Senator David Valesky in Syracuse. They fell to John Liu, Jessica Ramos, Zellnor Myrie, Robert Jackson and Rachel May, respectively.
The only former I.D.C. members to survive the primary were Senator Diane Savino, of Staten Island, and Senator David Carlucci, of Rockland County.
In another high-profile race, Senator Martin Dilan, who was not part of the I.D.C., was defeated by Julia Salazar, a 27-year-old democratic socialist whose candidacy energized young voters in swaths of gentrifying Brooklyn, despite near-constant controversy in the final weeks of the campaign.
“This is a victory for workers,” Ms. Salazar told supporters at a party in Bushwick.
The I.D.C.’s challengers had offered themselves as “true blue” alternatives to a cast of so-called fake Democrats. Though the I.D.C. disbanded in April— the move was widely viewed as a concession to rising pressure from the party’s left wing — the challengers were not satisfied, insisting that the incumbents had proven they were more interested in self-advancement than progressive change.
In reality, the challengers’ victories alone will have little effect on the fate of progressive legislation in Albany. The true test of that will come in November’s general election, when Democrats seek to flip several Republican-held Senate seats.
But the challengers’ wins sent a resounding symbolic message: The restless, impatient mood that has swelled within the national Democratic Party this year had come for local incumbents, too.
Several of the I.D.C. challengers, as well as Ms. Salazar, had aligned themselves with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old first-time politician who, in a June congressional primary, upset Representative Joseph Crowley, the No. 4 Democrat in the House. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Ms. Biaggi and Ms. Ramos. Ms. Ramos’s district overlaps with Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s.
Ms. Salazar in particular drew comparisons to Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, who campaigned vigorously for Ms. Salazar, dispatching her own volunteers to Brooklyn to canvass for her and promoting her to her large Twitter following.
“I think young women are a very visual, but also functional, embodiment of a rebuke of basically New York’s old-boy network,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview at Ms. Biaggi’s party. “And voters get that.”
The I.D.C. challengers also allied themselves with Ms. Nixon’s opposition to Mr. Cuomo, and to Zephyr Teachout’s attorney general bid. The Working Families Party, a progressive minor party and frequent antagonist of the governor, endorsed all the challengers and provided training and staff for their campaigns.
Bill Lipton, the state director of the W.F.P., cast the I.D.C. losses as a major triumph, even in the face of Ms. Nixon’s defeat.
“The center of gravity has shifted, and Andrew Cuomo will face a radically different Albany,” he said.
Still, the divergent fates of the challengers, compared to Ms. Nixon and Ms. Teachout, suggested that the I.D.C. upsets spoke more to the strength of anti-Republican antipathy across the Democratic Party, than of anti-establishment sentiment in its far-left flank.
At a polling site in the Bronx, several voters who said they had chosen Ms. Biaggi also picked Mr. Cuomo over Ms. Nixon, citing the governor’s experience.
That was also true of many of the establishment figures who endorsed the challengers yet backed Mr. Cuomo, such as Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Representative Carolyn Maloney and the City Council speaker, Corey Johnson.
Indeed, for allies of the insurgent slate that had challenged the Democratic Party machine, the anti-I.D.C. candidates emerged as the only electoral victors of the night.
Mr. Klein and his fellow former I.D.C. members, by contrast, campaigned as virtual islands. While they nominally won the support of Mr. Cuomo and their Democratic colleagues in the Senate after announcing their dissolution, Mr. Cuomo — who himself has been accused of tacitly supporting the I.D.C. — said little if anything about them on the campaign trail.
The I.D.C. members had faced primary challenges before, and they had long been a target for Democratic activists. But that anger, for years restricted to only the most politically attuned New Yorkers, crested over the past few months, in tandem with the surge of progressive energy nationwide after the 2016 presidential election.
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Activists began calling the I.D.C. members “Trump Democrats” and sought to educate voters who knew nothing about their senators’ so-called betrayal.
“We didn’t exist a few months ago, and now we’ve raised over $250,000,” said Jim Casteleiro, the campaign manager of No I.D.C. NY, a volunteer group.
Nearly all the voters at the Bronx poll site who backed Ms. Biaggi cited Mr. Klein’s role in the I.D.C. as a motivating factor.
“He’s a good man, but I don’t think it’s time for ushering in another Republican majority,” Peter McHugh, 59, said of Mr. Klein.
Also potentially harmful to Mr. Klein was the barrage of negative headlines in recent months, including an accusation of sexual misconduct against him and a state Board of Elections finding of improper campaign financing.
The challengers’ victories boosted the emerging progressive narrative that the old political model — buying expensive television ads, cozying up to real estate, corralling union support — had been displaced by vigorous grass-roots organizing.
Each challenger outspent his or her opponent on Facebook advertisements, sometimes by a huge margin. Ms. Biaggi and her allies spent between $14,500 and $93,800 on Facebook ads since May, while Mr. Klein and his supporters spent between $2,400 and $14,796.
Ms. Salazar adopted similar tactics against Mr. Dilan, who although he was not a member of the I.D.C. was successfully portrayed as another out-of-touch corporate Democrat. The Democratic Socialists of America, of which Ms. Salazar is a member, deployed its full organizing power for her in Brooklyn.
A string of negative headlines about Ms. Salazar in the final weeks of the campaign — suggesting that she had misled reporters and voters about her immigration status, religious background and socioeconomic status — seemed to have little impact.
Still, Lina Newton, a political-science professor at Hunter College, noted the geographic limitations to the grass-roots organizing that has propelled the insurgent candidates to victory. Ms. Nixon, after all, deployed similar tactics in a statewide race to no avail.
“Personal outreach is much more important on a local level,” Professor Newton said.
And on that local level on Thursday, it was potent. Ms. Biaggi, in an interview, gestured to the sneakers on her feet, calling the previous hours “the most exhausting day in my life.”
For Mr. Klein, she had a simple message: “It was a tough fight. And, I should also say, we should thank him for his service,” she said. “But his time is up.”