Photo Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
The long-open secret among New York politicians is that there is no serious, functioning statewide democratic organization. This was true under Andrew Cuomo as well as newly elected governor Kathy Hochul. Indeed, few times in modern history has the party of state played a role at all as a means of organization, a place for recruiting candidates, or a means of voting.
All of this is suddenly relevant because the failure of the Democrats in New York is likely to cost the party its majority in the House of Representatives. After years of operating under the radar – his name known only to political obsessives – Jay Jacobs, the leader of the state party, is now the target of the wrath of both progressive and moderate Democrats. Several prominent politicians, including City Comptroller Brad Lander and Liz Krueger, one of the states’ senior senators, have called for his ouster. All ideological factions crave competence, and Jacobs has failed to deliver even on that most basic of fronts.
Hochul said last week she was staying with Jacobs, who was a holdover from the Cuomo years and had a close relationship with the disgraced former governor. Political observers in the state don’t expect Jacobs to last well into 2023 — the holiday season or just after might be the preferred time to drop him — but the ailing party leader is also a symptom of New Yorkers’ debacle Democrats like him is his cause. It’s easy enough to understand the anger at Jacobs: He’s also chairman of the Nassau County Democratic Party, which oversaw huge losses to the House, State Senate and county levels. All Trump-era democratic gains have been wiped out, and the east Queens suburb is now a deep red. Republicans haven’t been this dominant on Long Island in decades.
Other states have strong, centralized Democratic Party organizations that work with local clubs and county committees to achieve voting. Party organizing cannot overcome every national current and medium-term effect, but it can help mitigate the worst outcomes. In states like Nevada, New Hampshire, and Michigan, state Democratic organizations oversaw aggressive doorknocks, mail, and digital efforts to influence voters, constantly coordinating with vulnerable candidates and their campaigns. In Nevada, the machine of the late Harry Reid lives on. In New Hampshire, Ray Buckley, the respected New Hampshire Democratic leader, has served for 15 years and offers a level of stability and leadership unmatched in New York.
The easiest way to understand Jacobs is to explain what the party does Not do. He himself is not a full-time employee of the New York Democratic Party. He earns his living by owning and running summer camps. The state senate and chambers of parliament each have their own well-funded campaign arms, but they receive no meaningful support or coordination from the state party. Cuomo, who was governor for more than a decade, maintained a firm grip on the party, which served as a sort of second campaign fund for his own efforts. Mailers and TV ads from the state party’s campaign fund were for Cuomo and no one else. This changed to some extent under Hochul – mailers from state parties arrived for a number of vulnerable parliamentary candidates – but an overall strategy was lacking. Democratic congressional candidates on Long Island and elsewhere were often left to their own devices. The state party does little to recruit candidates or raise money for them.
The organization of the infrastructure is practically non-existent. In 2020, Biden delegates were frustrated to find that Jacobs’ state party, which was supposed to oversee the petitioning effort to get him elected in New York, offered little support, leaving the job to individual politicians and activists. Jacobs has spent much of his time as party leader — he has now held the job on two separate occasions — blaming progressives for Democrat losses. He once compared India Walton, the black Democratic Socialist who won the Buffalo mayoral primary, to David Duke. Even establishment-affiliated agents have become tired of Jacobs’ act. In part, that’s simply because the state party offers very little organization or support, and there’s a growing consensus in Democratic circles that Hochul needs to get rid of Jacobs. The left-wing Working Families Party has excelled in this did undertake a visible campaign to strengthen his own party and re-elect Hochul. The contrast between the WFP and Jacobs’ dying apparatus was telling.
Beyond Jacobs, county-level Democratic machines have atrophied, particularly in New York City. The infighting-torn Brooklyn Democratic Party was barely able to mobilize as Republicans swept much of south Brooklyn. The Queens Democratic Party is hardly more active or better placed to fend off Republicans. Individual political clubs in both districts are lively enough, but the best attended and most effective are usually estranged from party bosses. Long gone are the days of the district chairman in the smoky back room, who could summon hundreds of volunteers on election day.
And that’s the challenge if Jacobs eventually moves on — the next Democratic Party leader has to try to meet and inspire real people. There are no significant state political associations, no party organizations trying to employ volunteers year-round. It might at least help to have a party leader who isn’t engaged in a lucrative business that takes up much of his time. Hochul can be the governor building a full-fledged Democratic Party. It will begin with jettisoning Jacobs and finding a person dedicated to the actual party-building project. If it can be done in New Hampshire or Nevada, it can certainly be done in New York.