Why the Biggest Story of Last Night’s Election Wasn’t Andrew Cuomo

One of the nation’s biggest blue states might finally start acting like it.

Jessica Ramos

Jessica Ramos, one of seven progressive primary challengers who defeated incumbent state senatorsAndy Katz/AP

It turns out Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was only the beginning.

If you were only paying attention to the top of the ticket during Thursday’s New York Democratic primary, you might have been mistaken for thinking the party’s progressive flank went out with a whimper. After months of tabloid fodder, Twitter owns, and an uncountable number of subway photo-ops, actress-turned-activist Cynthia Nixon only notched 34.4 percent of the vote in her bid to unseat two-term Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The race for attorney general was a lot closer, but Cuomo’s preferred candidate, New York City Public Advocate Tish James, still eased past insurgent Zephyr Teachout. And Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul held off Jumaane Williams, a Brooklyn city councilman, in her own reelection bid.

But the real story was down the ballot. In the final primary before November’s midterm elections, pissed-off Democratic voters toppled seven incumbent state senators—they’d targeted nine—all but wiping out a breakaway faction of corporate-backed Democrats who had helped block the left’s Albany agenda for half a decade. Twenty percent of the Democratic caucus was fired in one night, marking a revolution in the state’s politics without recent precedent and the culmination of an organizing campaign that began almost as soon as the dust had settled on 2016.

Those winning candidates, for the most part, fit a very particular mold. Backed by the Working Families Party, they were furious at their elected officials’ failure to pass progressive legislation, including a state-level single-payer health care plan, codification of Roe v. Wade, rent regulations, subway repairs, public school funding, and protections (including driver’s licenses) for undocumented residents. Now, with the party just one Senate seat away from full control of Albany, a state long maligned for its gridlock and corruption is facing the prospect of a new reality.

“You’re going to have vegetarians running the sausage factory,” quipped NY1 anchor Errol Louis.

Sure, plenty of people don’t like Cuomo. Losing a third of the vote to an underfunded primary challenger—the governor outspent Nixon 10 to 1—for the second time is evidence of that. But the most specific gripe progressives had with Albany was the existence of a group of senators known as the Independent Democratic Caucus.

As I explained in July, the IDC’s members’ maneuvers were the latest in a series of cross-partisan power-sharing agreements in Albany. IDC senators were all elected as Democrats, and many of them boasted lefty-pleasing platforms—one member who lost Thursday was the sponsor of the state’s DREAM Act—but they agreed to support a Republican leader of the chamber, putting it in GOP hands. What they got in return was subject to debate, but the most tangible result was money. Members received well-paying committee chairmanships, extra funding for their districts, and boatloads of campaign cash, especially from real estate interests. Meanwhile, a Republican-controlled Senate was a lot less likely to actually pass any of the progressive reforms they purported to champion.

The IDC was confusing. Most people can’t identify their state senator, let alone any backdoor scheming they may be involved in. But after the 2016 election, Democrats across the country started taking a closer look at politics in their own backyards. In New York, grassroots groups targeting the IDC popped up. Explainer-style videos started to circulate. And angry residents packed town halls. At one community forum in Queens in early 2017, not long after Sen. Jose Peralta announced he was joining the IDC, voters who couldn’t get in pounded on the windows to make themselves heard.

Previous rogue coalitions in Albany have ended in corruption indictments. The IDC at least dodged that; the caucus dissolved in the spring under political pressure and in the expectation that Democrats would win enough seats this fall to make their arguments for defecting moot. But by that point, all eight members faced serious challengers. Anti-IDC messaging and energy helped fuel Ocasio-Cortez’s victory over incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley earlier this summer in a district that includes parts of three IDC senators’ districts. The same volunteers that helped her win turned out in force in the state-level primary three months later.

Like insurgents across the country, Thursday’s winners were young, female, and diverse. In the Bronx, Alessandra Biaggi, a 32-year-old former Hillary Clinton staffer who spent winter 2016 writing a Google Doc on getting involved in politics—the “Take Action Guide for Political Activism”—toppled the former chairman of the IDC, Sen. Jeffrey Klein. Biaggi had campaigned not just against the IDC, but on an allegation that Klein had forcibly kissed a staffer in 2015. In typical Albany fashion, Klein was nonetheless tasked with helping draft the chamber’s sexual harassment guidelines. (He has denied the allegation.) The granddaughter of a former congressman, Biaggi was a beneficiary of Ocasio-Cortez’s first post-primary email blast to her volunteers, but also had the backing of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

Another incumbent, in a Hispanic and hipster patch of north Brooklyn loathed by progressives as a shill for real estate developers, lost to—stop me if that one sounds familiar—Julia Salazar, a 27-year-old Latina who’s a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Salazar was dogged by questions over whether she had misrepresented her background (yes) and stolen from Mets legend Keith Hernandez (no), but the argument, in the end, was about Medicare-for-all, abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and housing.

A few neighborhoods to the south, Zellnor Myrie, a 31-year-old lawyer, unseated another IDC incumbent in one of the nastiest races of the primary. Sen. Jesse Hamilton trashed Myrie as a front for gentrifiers, and when Myrie and other anti-IDC candidates were set to receive the Working Families Party endorsement this spring at an auditorium in Crown Heights, Hamilton’s office conveniently scheduled a counter-rally across the street—purportedly to focus on education. It was called “Black Minds Matter.” As a city council aide, Myrie helped draft the city’s Tenants Bill of Rights, and he talked intensely about protections for immigrants, as the son of two of them. In the end, voters chose the challenger, who ran on things like housing security, health care, and ending cash bail. 

The backlash wasn’t confined to the city. While a Hudson Valley IDC member managed to hang on in Western New York, another IDCer looks to have lost to Rachel May, a local Indivisible activist on the Working Families slate. Before she decided to run, her group held a mock funeral outside the incumbent’s Syracuse office for the legislation they believed the IDC had killed. (Some outlets have called the race, but with absentee ballots outstanding, May’s opponent has yet to concede.) 

“When I started this, I thought I had zero chance of getting the Democratic nomination,” she told me when we met this spring.

But the candidate who perhaps most typifies what happened in New York this year is Jessica Ramos. A former press aide to Mayor Bill de Blasio, the 33-year-old was running for a Queens seat in the heart of Ocasio-Cortez’s district, which was represented by Jose Peralta, the sponsor of the state’s DREAM Act.

Ramos called herself a “lifelong straphanger” and boasted of never having a driver’s license. “I’m running for office because I’m tired of getting stuck on the subway,” she told voters. Ramos relayed a particular anecdote, time and again, that felt like an origin story for the entire New York insurgency: About a year ago, she got stuck underneath the East River on a 7 train for two hours.

“People around me were increasingly furious, of course, but the woman who was sitting right next to me was actually sobbing—she was in tears,” she recalled. “So of course, not knowing whether it was an emergency—and it was the summer so I had a water bottle—I go, ‘Are you okay? Do you need anything?’ And she says, ‘No, I’m just upset, because today’s actually my first day at a new job.'”

At this point in the story, another woman sitting next to her on the train chimed in—she was running late for work too, and because she was getting paid by the hour, every passing minute was docking money she needed off her paycheck.

This was the progressive case in anecdote form: The failures of Albany were harming the state’s vulnerable residents. Cuomo and the IDC—blame whom you want—were making your commute worse, your schools poorer, and your rent higher. And only a political awakening among those same voters could do anything to change that. It’s a lesson in the politics of frustration, but also in what progressive candidates have been harping on for months—that disrupting a political status quo in places with generally low civic engagement requires connecting politics to people’s lives at the most intimate level.

Ocasio-Cortez’s win, in the same Queens neighborhood as Ramos’, was the first sign that such a movement was underfoot. By the end, Peralta knew the writing was on the wall. On Election Day, his campaign handed out flyers featuring Peralta shaking hands with Ocasio-Cortez on a sidewalk under the caption “working with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez” in English and Spanish. In response, the future congresswoman—whose preference for the challenger was clear but who had not publicly interfered in the race—tweeted she was “appalled” at the unauthorized use of her image, adding the hashtag “#VamosRamos.”

After a frantic Election Day push, Ramos’ supporters packed into Barilles, a Colombian restaurant in Jackson Heights just down the street from her apartment. When, shortly after 10 p.m., a supporter shouted that the race had been called, Ramos dropped to the floor, overwhelmed by the result. The crowd of supporters, halfway through a two-hour open bar, began a chant: “Sen-a-tor.”

It turned out to be premature—Peralta hung on for another hour, but the mood never quite returned to normal. In a victory speech, Ramos recounted once more her parents’ immigration stories—how her father was picked up in an immigration raid in New Jersey when she was a baby; how it took her mother three days to walk across the Mexican border.

Thursday’s upset will all be for nothing if Democrats can’t pick up an additional seat in the chamber this fall, and Ramos used much of her speech to steel her supporters for another two months of campaigning (next stop: south Brooklyn). But she took a moment to remind voters what they’d turned out for—criminal justice reform, reproductive rights, housing, and health care. “And it’s about damn time we fixed that subway.”

Afterward, a reporter asked Ramos if she had received a call from Peralta. “If he [called], I missed it,” she said. She pulled out her phone and scrolled through dozens of missed congratulatory calls. “Nope.”

“We need not only more Democrats, but better Democrats,” she told me. “People are largely disillusioned by state government, and it’s up to us to make sure there’s an engaged electorate.”

“We spoke to the issues that matter most to our neighbors,” she said. “And that comes from being from here—understanding what it’s like to be a parent, to be a renter, to depend on the subway system every day. Those are the things only Albany can fix, but because Albany has been such a swamp for so long, it’s been very easy for those things to go unaddressed. And that just can’t [happen] anymore.”

Now she’s headed to Albany where, for the first time in her life, she’ll be working in a city without a subway. She thought about it for a second. “I’ll probably bring a bike on Amtrak,” she said.