That was a notably unimpressive victory that Andrew Cuomo secured in Tuesday’s Democratic primary election in New York, receiving his party’s nod for a second term as governor. Cuomo defeated Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout, a largely unknown and almost totally unfunded political novice, 62 percent to 34 percent — “the strongest challenge to an incumbent governor,” the New York Times noted, since the advent of gubernatorial primaries in the state. Teachout’s total, the Times continued, was “a signal of the potent dissatisfaction with Mr. Cuomo in his party’s left wing.”
Cuomo’s estrangement of Democratic liberals wasn’t due to any social conservatism on his part. In his first term as governor, Cuomo pushed through a same-sex marriage bill and tighter gun-control legislation. But his resistance to some key economic imperatives, allowing New York City to set a minimum-wage rate higher than the state’s and keeping a heightened tax rate on the income of the state’s wealthiest residents (that is, Wall Street bankers), and his unwillingness to campaign for Democratic control of the state Senate, which would boost the prospects for such legislation, angered many of his fellow Democrats. They believed Cuomo was cultivating Wall Street support for a possible presidential bid, an ambition that stood athwart their efforts to mitigate New York’s skyscraper-high inequality.
Cuomo’s vulnerability on economic issues was compounded by his vulnerability on ethical ones. Confronted with the spectacle of a steady stream of legislators moving from Albany to prison after convictions for corrupt practices, Cuomo convened an ethics commission to investigate and reform New York’s business of politics. Earlier this year, however, he disbanded it with its mission unaccomplished — a decision that prompted a federal prosecutor to announce that he was looking into Cuomo’s abrupt change of heart.
As liberal dismay with the governor rose, Teachout, who’d written widely on how to diminish money’s stranglehold on politics, announced that she would challenge Cuomo for the endorsement of New York’s Working Families Party, which, under the state’s electoral fusion law, is home to progressive unions and community organizations striving to move the Democrats to the left. To secure the party’s endorsement over Teachout, Cuomo agreed to reverse his opposition to New York City setting its own minimum wage standard and to back efforts to restore the state Senate to Democratic control. Teachout used her appearance before the Working Families Party convention to establish herself as a compelling critic of big money’s hold on politics, in the mode of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). It provided a springboard for her entry into the Democratic primary. But because Cuomo had acceded to some key liberal demands to win the Working Families Party’s backing, and because he was all but certain to win reelection in any case, most progressive organizations ended up backing Cuomo. Teachout was compelled to campaign with no significant organizational or financial support. Despite all that, she still won more than a third of the Democrats’ votes.
Cuomo’s travails reflect a growing trend in Democratic politics: In blue cities and states, being a social liberal will no longer suffice. No politician illustrates this new rule more clearly than Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who during his term has never deviated from the party’s standard-issue liberalism on cultural issues, but who, like Cuomo, has received major support from the financial community, even as he shuttered inner-city schools and went to war with his city’s teachers union. Gearing up for a reelection campaign next year, Emanuel faces the prospect of a challenge from Karen Lewis, the president of that union — and actually trailed her in an August Chicago Tribune poll. That the president of a teachers union — perhaps the most maligned position in U.S. media coverage today — could be leading Emanuel tells us a good deal about the growing revulsion of an increasing number of Democrats at Democratic politicians they see as more in tune with financial elites than the economically stagnating (or descending) middle and lower classes.
Democratic mayors and governors are beginning to get this message. That’s one reason why legislation raising municipal and state minimum wages is beginning to move through city halls and statehouses. Creating an economy that again benefits the many rather than the few will require more than minimum-wage hikes, however. The Democrats — long the world’s most cross-class party, friend of both Wall Street and Main Street — will have to embrace more far-reaching egalitarian reforms if they are to create again the kind of broad prosperity that was their calling card to the U.S. electorate. A thriving Democratic Party will require more Zephyr Teachouts.