New York

Democratic insurgents topple many New York Senate incumbents

Years of anger at a group of Democratic state senators who had collaborated with Republicans boiled over on Thursday
Alessandra Biaggi, a lawyer and former aide to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, at her victory party.
Alessandra Biaggi, a lawyer and former aide to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, at her victory party.

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 not only were 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 Sen. Jeffrey D. Klein of the Bronx, the former head of the IDC. 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.

But Thursday, he was defeated by Alessandra Biaggi, a lawyer and former aide to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, after a campaign in which Biaggi cornered Klein into spending more than $2 million, an astonishing sum for a state legislative race. (Cynthia Nixon, in her unsuccessful bid against Cuomo, spent less.)

“If this doesn’t prove that political currency is people over money, I do not know what does,” Biaggi, who spent 10 times less than Klein, said at her victory party. “We have now cut the head of the IDC snake.”

Klein did not appear at his watch party.

Also defeated were five other former IDC members: Sens. Tony Avella and Jose Peralta in Queens, Jesse Hamilton in Brooklyn, Marisol Alcántara in Manhattan and David Valesky in Syracuse. They fell to John Liu, Jessica Ramos, Zellnor Myrie, Robert Jackson and Rachel May, respectively.

The only former IDC members to survive the primary were Sens. Diane Savino of Staten Island and David Carlucci of Rockland County.

In another high-profile race, Sen. Martin Dilan, who was not part of the IDC, 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,” Salazar told supporters at a party in the Bushwick section.

The IDC’s challengers had offered themselves as “true blue” alternatives to a cast of “fake Democrats.” Though the IDC 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 proved 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 IDC challengers, as well as Salazar, had aligned themselves with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old first-time politician who, in a June congressional primary, upset Rep. Joseph Crowley, the No. 4 Democrat in the House. Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Biaggi and Ramos. Ramos’s district overlaps with Ocasio-Cortez’s.

Salazar in particular drew comparisons to Ocasio-Cortez, who campaigned vigorously for 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,” Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview at Biaggi’s party. “And voters get that.”

The IDC challengers also allied themselves with Nixon’s opposition to 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 WFP, cast the IDC losses as a major triumph, even in the face of 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 Nixon and Teachout, suggested that the IDC upsets spoke more to the strength of anti-Republican antipathy across the Democratic Party, than anti-establishment sentiment in its far-left flank.

At a polling site in the Bronx, several voters who said they had chosen Biaggi also picked Cuomo over Nixon, citing the governor’s experience.

That was also true of many of the establishment figures who endorsed the challengers while backing Cuomo, such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Rep. Carolyn Maloney and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

Indeed, for allies of the insurgent slate that had challenged the Democratic Party machine, the anti-IDC candidates emerged as the only electoral victors of the night.

Klein and his fellow former IDC members, by contrast, campaigned as virtual islands. While they nominally won the support of Cuomo and their Democratic colleagues in the Senate after announcing their dissolution, Cuomo — who himself has been accused of tacitly supporting the IDC — said little if anything about them on the campaign trail.

The IDC 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.

Activists began calling the IDC 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 IDC NY, a volunteer group.

Nearly all the voters at the Bronx poll site who backed Biaggi cited Klein’s role in the IDC 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 Klein.

Also potentially harmful to 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.

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