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Democrats’ Empire State Split
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Democrats’ Empire State Split

New York’s progressives launch a salvo against centrists over the future of the state party.

Reps. Mondaire Jones and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez talk with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Capitol Hill in August 2021. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

State GOP chairmen in a number of battleground states are facing ire from within their own party after aligning with MAGA candidates in the midterm and failing to fulfill their most basic responsibility: win elections. 

But a mirror-image struggle for the future of a state political party is happening in traditionally deep-blue New York: Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs is batting away calls for his ouster in the wake of a red wave in the Empire State, despite Democrats outpacing expectations nationally.

It’s the progressive wing of the party that’s targeted Jacobs, who was appointed to the post in 2019 by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo and who prides himself as an “outspoken voice of the moderate wing of our party.” A letter published Nov. 14 and signed by more than 1,100 local Democratic leaders and party organizers in New York urged Gov. Kathy Hochul to move to oust Jacobs, blaming him for what they describe as the party’s failure “to commit the time, energy, and resources necessary to maintain our deep-blue status.” 

But Hochul has made clear she has no plans to replace him, and Jacobs has brushed aside calls to move aside as nothing more than progressive saber-rattling due to his yearslong refusal to endorse democratic socialists in key New York congressional and mayoral races. 

Jacobs instead maintains House Republicans’ clean sweep in New York this year is further proof that Democrats ought to move further to the center to appeal to moderate voters in swing districts. In his view, that starts with rethinking the party’s campaign approach to crime.

“This was an issue-driven election. And I think that the issue was crime,” Jacobs said in an interview.

Centrist Democrats like Jacobs say crime is one issue that helped Republicans unseat Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Sean Patrick Maloney in a Hudson Valley seat. Also this cycle, GOP gubernatorial nominee Lee Zeldin lost his challenge to Hochul by only six points—the most respectable Republican showing in a New York gubernatorial race in roughly two decades.

New York progressives like Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman, meanwhile, lay those Democratic disappointments at the feet of the state party apparatus. “We need to look at Democratic chairs across the state and figure out how there could’ve been more collaboration, how there could’ve been more grassroots organizing, how there could’ve been more fundraising, and more support for our candidates across the board,” Bowman said in an interview. “So everyone has a little blame, but the party chair obviously gets most of it. That’s the seat he occupies.”

Even more critical of the state Democratic chair is Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who described Jacobs in an interview as a “holdover from the Cuomo administration” more preoccupied with “defeating a progressive left” than beating Republicans. It’s not just Jacobs, she says, but an “entrenched” state Democratic apparatus dedicated to “squashing the grassroots in the state.”

Jacobs’ counterargument: The party spent $6 million on ground game, sent out 2 million absentee ballot applications to Democratic voters, and had more than 6,000 unique volunteers this cycle. “If that’s not grassroots, I don’t know what grassroots is,” he said.

“So I think without knowing what you’re talking about—which is something that AOC does an awful lot—I would say to you that the fact of the matter is that the problem wasn’t that Democrats didn’t bring out their vote,” Jacobs added. “The problem was that the Republican message about crime was the message that voters chose to listen to.”

Progressives also insist that much of this year’s party infighting goes back to this year’s redistricting debacle. In the spring, a New York judge tossed out the Democratic-controlled state legislature’s redistricting map as an unconstitutional gerrymander and appointed an independent special master to draw a new one far less favorable to the party.

“One of the challenges here is that no one’s taking responsibility,” said one House Democrat from New York, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss post-midterm intra-party disputes. “What about the state legislature that very obviously enacted an illegal gerrymander, and just thought that because they were mostly Democrats on the Court of Appeals, they would just hold this thing?”

The newly drawn districts forced House Democrats to jockey among themselves in primaries. In one closely watched New York City primary, Democratic Reps. Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney—both of whom chair high-profile committees on Capitol Hill and have served there for decades—were locked into an hotly contested race that Nadler won handily.

Far more infuriating to the progressive wing of the party was five-term Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney’s decision to run in New York’s newly drawn 17th District that closely resembled freshman progressive Rep. Mondaire Jones’ seat—a race Maloney ultimately lost to his Republican opponent. 

Ocasio-Cortez, who has long bickered with Maloney and endorsed his progressive primary challenger, cast the DCCC chairman’s decision to run in the district—where Maloney currently lives—as an affront to the progressive movement, especially since it prompted Jones to run in a New York City primary he ultimately lost. 

“The ousting of Mondaire Jones was very demoralizing for a lot of folks,” Ocasio-Cortez said of the freshman Democrat, who also called for Jacob’s removal in the wake of this year’s results.

Even Bowman, who beat Jones in the 10th District Democratic primary, believes Jones could have won the 17th District—keeping it in Democrats’ hands—had Maloney not run there.

Centrist Democrats say progressive candidates wouldn’t have stood a chance against any of the four Republican House candidates who flipped Democrat-held seats this cycle, which was marked by inflation, crime, and an unpopular president in the White House.

Local party leaders like Suzanne Berger, chair of the Westchester County Democratic Committee, see Maloney’s general election loss as proof of that.

“Mondaire Jones was my congressman. I thought he was a really good congressman,” Berger said. “But Mondaire made a choice not to run in that district. He’s an adult. He decided not to do it, he wasn’t the victim.”

Meantime, New York progressives should expect Jacobs to continue supporting centrist Democratic candidates into the 2024 cycle and urging the party to recalibrate its approach to crime, as he did Thursday: “This was a law enforcement year.”

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.