In the history of debates for public office, there is probably no image so enduring as the cast of characters at the 2010 debate for New York governor.
Of the seven participants, karate expert Jimmy McMillan of the “Rent is 2 Damn High” party no doubt proved the most absurd candidate of all time. But facing then–Attorney General Andrew Cuomo on that night at Hofstra University were five fringe candidates that made even Republican nominee Carl Paladino and his wacky antics by comparison seem tame.
For 90 minutes, Paladino was largely sidelined — and Cuomo sat there with a look on his face that suggested he knew: “This is going to be the easiest election ever.”
He won the 2010 election handily — and has been lacking for serious opposition ever since. It’s not necessarily the fault of this motley cast that Cuomo soft-shoed right into office. Rather, it’s the fault of high-profile progressives for mounting no challenge to him in either the primaries or general election. (Perhaps they saw the Cuomo name and anticipated that we were in store for a second Mario Cuomo administration?)
Whatever the reason, it’s quite clear: Gov. Andrew Cuomo is no true Democrat. That being said, he will be the Democratic nominee for governor of New York. And he will win re-election.
No doubt, this is bad for progressives. For a state as liberal-minded as ours to have such a conservative as governor for four years (or more) is truly unfortunate.
In this, however, progressives have an opportunity. Most of the time, running a third-party candidate is an atrocious idea. Our first-past-the-post elections system means that unviable third-party candidates (i.e., almost all of them) sap votes from the more viable candidate (i.e., the Democrat or Republican) on the same ideological “side.” Case in point: Bush’s Florida victory over Gore in 2000 with the help of Ralph Nader.
This danger of splitting the progressive vote would normally be relevant — except it’s doubtful as to whether or not Gov. Cuomo is really on the progressive side at all. Indeed — the only relevant role for him from a progressive’s perspective is that his being in office prevents archconservatives from running roughshod all over the capital.
Were Gov. Cuomo’s re-election in doubt, it would certainly behoove anyone who’s even moderately left-leaning to hold their noses and pull the lever, so to speak, for him.
But since the state’s Republican Party is in pitiful shape — only holding power by way of gerrymandered Senate seats and the shady deal-making of the turncoat “Independent Democrat Conference” — it is inevitable that Cuomo is going to utterly trounce Rob Astorino (or whomever the GOP chooses as a sacrificial lamb.)
So the outcome of the election is not in doubt. The perception of the election, on the other hand, most certainly is. An election where Gov. Cuomo wins a commanding victory will deflate whatever opposition remains on the left, give him a mojo boost and continue the rightward slide of our state politics.
Likewise, such a victory will signal to other Democrats across the country that the way to power is by using social issues as a shiny object to distract well-meaning progressives from a campaign of economic conservatism. It might even give Cuomo a boost in the 2016 presidential primaries, assuming he decides to run.
To prevent this, liberals should run a serious primary challenger to force him to explain himself on issues sacrosanct to the Democratic base that he supposedly represents.
Failing that, someone on the left needs to mount a serious general election campaign to change the conversation. Someone needs to remind New York state and the country that we are full of progressives, and that Andrew Cuomo does not represent the positions of the New York State Democratic Party — he just has a large war chest and a famous name.
This wouldn’t be a longshot candidacy either. A Siena College poll recently found that, in a three-way race that included a more liberal candidate on the Working Families line, Gov. Cuomo would score just 39 percent of the vote — instead of 58 percent in a two-way race. By contrast, both Astorino and the unnamed liberal would score 24 percent of the vote each in such a scenario.
This would be a serious challenge for the governor: an election in which he has to stand on a stage with someone who sounds more like a Democrat than he — that will, in turn, force him to sound (and behave) more like a Democrat himself. An election where a liberal takes a serious bite out of his margin of victory will make others think twice about running (and governing) as a moderate Republican on the “D” label — and maybe even make him think twice about the pulling the same stunt on a national level.
And hopefully, instead of a farce, the next gubernatorial debate will be instructive. Hopefully, it will include someone on stage who will ask him some tough questions: Why did you drag your feet on clean public financing for elections? Why do you stick it to education advocates instead of big banks? Why have you balanced the budget on the backs of the needy instead of the wealthy? Do you expect that your positions on marriage equality and assault weapons will overshadow your inequality-fueling conservative economic policies?
Should such a candidate exist, progressive Democrats should vote against Andrew Cuomo come November. He doesn’t need the left’s votes — he’s made that clear — so why give him what he doesn’t want? Progressives should put their energies into forcing him to defend his policies instead of just letting him tap dance right back into office.
Steve Keller lives in Averill Park and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.