CAN KATHY HOCHUL DUNK ON JUMAANE WILLIAMS?…
In the wake of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s startling upset of the Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th Congressional District primary last month, speculation by pundits has literally exploded with the postulate that insurgent campaigns from the progressive left will become the key to unlocking victory in New York’s remaining Democratic primaries.
That speculation has reinvigorated interest both in Cynthia Nixon’s campaign against Governor Cuomo (overtaking the perception emanating from Cuomo’s growing lead in this Summer’s public polling and Diane Feinstein’s wipeout of Dennis DeLeon in the first round of California’s Senate Election) and the Jumaane Williams challenge to Kathy Hochul in the Lieutenant Governor’s primary.
Back on July 8th, in a New York Post story on the Hochul-Williams race, my old friend Richard Brodsky said, “Either one of them could win, I haven’t heard anyone say this is a slam dunk for Hochul.”
Well, with two caveats, I think that while it is not a slam dunk today, Hochul should be in a position to dunk the ball on Williams by the September 13th primary day. Simply put, Jumaane Williams is a terribly weak candidate in a statewide Democratic primary.
The two caveats are this: first, if statewide turnout in this primary hits or surpasses 850,000 votes and second, if Hochul runs a vibrant compare and contrast campaign exposing Williams weakness (not attacking Williams by hammer and tong, but with a clear and crisp narrative).
I see four factors which I believe will loom large in this primary contest. If Hochul’s campaign aggressively targets those factors, she will win the primary, though it is far too early to project the margin with any precision.
First, Jumaane Williams does not have a lock on the minority vote and therefore is not likely to carry the 52 percent of the statewide primary vote likely to come from NYC. The aggregate minority vote (Black, Hispanic, Asian and multi-racial), has been 55-58 percent of NYC’s primary vote; 25-30 percent of the downstate Suburban primary vote; and 20-25 percent of Upstate’s primary vote (centered in upstate’s urban cores). In sum, the minority share of the statewide Democratic primary will be between 35-40 percent of the total vote (the greater the overall turnout, the higher the minority share is likely to be).
Consequently, if a minority candidate swept all sides of that minority vote (e.g., Dinkins for Mayor in 1989, John Liu for NYC Comptroller in 2009 and Tish James for Public Advocate in 2013 and 2017), the old conventional wisdom that a minority candidate cannot win a statewide primary would collapse.
The question becomes does Jumaane Williams have the wing span across the full length and breadth of the minority vote and can he expand that to minority voters outside of New York City? The probable answer to that question is no.
Jumaane Williams ran for City Council Speaker last year and he was unable to generate clear support from his minority colleagues even in Brooklyn. Moreover, the real impact of his candidacy was to divide Black unity, undercutting Robert Cornegy’s chances to become the Council’s first Black Speaker. Many prominent Black leaders from Hakeem Jeffries, Al Sharpton and Al Vann, to name just a few, were not happy that Williams had undercut the best chance of electing a Black speaker of the City Council in NYC.
It no doubt galls many Black leaders who hold sway in the burgeoning Black communities of Northern Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx and the North Shore of Staten Island, as well as central Brooklyn, that Williams immediately turned right around after undercutting Cornegy and ran for LG. In addition, Williams is not allied with Tish James’ breakthrough candidacy for Attorney General (to become the first woman of color to be elected statewide), instead he is functionally allied with Zephyr Teachout’s campaign against Tish James.
Anyone who has seen Tish campaign among Black women knows that she has a special way of connecting with and channeling the aspirations of those voters. So Williams isolation from James, could cost him dearly in this primary among Black voters outside of his Council district.
Add to the James factor, the labor based pull with Black voters in NYC, channeled to re-electing Cuomo and Hochul, remembering that Cuomo carried 77 percent of Black voters against Teachout in the 2014 primary according to exit polls. Therefore, one does not see Williams with the clear ability to sweep 70 percent of Black voters from NYC, much less the 80 percent level required to position him for victory statewide. Even if Williams won the Black vote in NYC by 60-40 percent, that would not be enough to carry NYC, much less the state, in this two person primary.
Moreover, Black leaders outside of NYC will probably be inclined to support the de facto Cuomo-Hochul-James ticket, which together with labor pull, could well thwart Williams outreach to Black voters outside NYC.
In addition, Hispanic leaders are all set to push for Tish James, not Jumaane Williams, for several reasons. First, more than a few Hispanic leaders want to run for Public Advocate, and that vacancy only opens up if James is elected AG. Second, most of these Hispanic leaders are angling to generate a serious mayoral candidacy behind Ruben Diaz Jr., the Borough President of the Bronx. That coupling of factors will probably lead Hispanic leaders to push hard for James, but also Hochul, since those Hispanic leaders will want to perception to be that Hispanic voters are ready to step forward as their own vital electoral bloc in NYC. Consequently, support for the Cuomo-Hochul ticket along with Tish James, will advance the multiple interests of Hispanic leaders. Here again Hispanic leaders in NYC, will be buttressed by the vote pulling power of organized labor.
One might think that Hochul’s strident opposition to Spitzer’s driver’s license proposal for undocumented immigrants would weaken her with Hispanic voters. Meanwhile, Hochul has walked the same redemptive path of growth in terms immigration issues that Gillibrand paved. For Williams to expose Hochul’s weakness over driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, he would need significant resources to craft a resonating message to Hispanic voters. Does Williams’ campaign have that capacity? Apparently not, as Williams finally released his quarterly campaign finance report. It revealed that he had raised only $183,469, leaving him with a paltry $45,502 in cash-on-hand to finish his campaign.
Complicating that mission for Williams among Hispanics, Governor Cuomo has been aggressive, adept and timely on handling issues of concern to Hispanic voters: from the outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease several years back in the Bronx, to the devastation from Hurricane Maria and most recently to Trump’s cruel policy ripping immigrant children from their parents. So being aligned with the Cuomo administration will be of great value to the Hochul campaign in terms of Hispanic outreach.
Not only will Williams likely fall flat with Hispanic voters, but given the controversy surrounding the specialized high schools, Asian voters are not likely to gravitate to Williams’ candidacy. Before John Liu crafted a Black-Asian coalition electing him Comptroller in 2009 and strong Asian support for Obama over the immigration issue in 2012, the Asian vote in New York had been carried by Giuliani (Asian voters, in a backlash to the Korean store boycott were 40 percent of Giuliani’s victory margin against Dinkins in 1993), Bloomberg (in 2001 and 2005) and Pataki (2002). In 1993, the Asian vote was about 2-3 percent of the city’s total vote, whereas today it is 6-8 percent of vote in a NYC Democratic primary (it surged to a 10 percent share behind John Liu in 2009).
It all comes down to basic arithmetic. In NYC, the Democratic primary vote breaks down into 3 equal pools of voters with a cross beam serving as a bridge to victory: Blacks cast a 26-28 percent share, Outer Borough Jewish (17-19 percent) and White Catholics (10-11 percent) cast an aggregate 27-29 percent share, Hispanics (18-21 percent) and Asians (6-8 percent) forming a 24-26 percent share, (who do not march together but usually wind up supporting the same candidate) with New Class voters casting a 16-20 percent share (higher share in lower turnouts) of the total primary vote.
New Class voters are the highly educated, professional, mostly white, overwhelmingly secular, often affluent voters: an amalgam of old reformers, gentrified young voters and LGBTQ voters who are key in Manhattan, the Brownstone Belt and the gentrifying neighborhoods of Queens and West Harlem.
When you boil all that down, if Hochul ran a smart campaign, she could carry NYC with a better than expected showing among Blacks (although Williams is likely to carry NYC’s Black voters), while sweeping Hispanics, Asians, Jewish and White Catholic voters by a wide margin.
Second, Williams has taken some policy stands that could cut him off at the knees with New Class voters in NYC and the 48 percent of the statewide primary vote which hails from outside NYC (30 percent comes from Upstate and 18 from the downstate Suburbs: Suffolk, Nassau, Westchester and Rockland).
Take note that the arithmetic of statewide Democratic primaries has long proven that you can no longer win a statewide primary just by carrying New York City. The outside of NYC share of the Democrats’ primary vote has grown, since the early 1970’s, from just about a third, to just under half of the total primary vote.
Also keep in mind the demographic differences between Upstate, Suburban and NYC primary voters. White Catholics who are barely a tenth of the NYC primary vote, cast in the low 40’s percentage wise Upstate and are almost half the downstate Suburban vote, while Jewish voters are just shy of a full quarter of the Suburban primary vote. The higher the overall turnout the greater the share cast by White Catholic voters. In the Suburbs traditional liberals and moderates not pure progressives, drive the outcome (e.g., Bernie Sanders did not carry the Suburban vote from major metropolitan counties in the 2016 presidential primaries).
Williams has a potentially fatal flaw on two bedrock issues for Democratic primary voters: choice on abortion and LGBTQ rights, which if exposed for primary voters, will erode his ability to reach the holy grail of progressive politics: the formation of a minority-white progressive coalition. Support among Democrats, especially primary voters, for LGBTQ rights and a women’s right to choose on abortion, polls off the charts. This is true not just among women, but is especially high among the 56-58 percent of a statewide Democratic primary that is female.
Both issues, particularly women’s reproductive health, are seen as a litmus test by the highly educated, middle class, professional White Catholic and Jewish women who drive the primary vote not only in New York City’s upscale and gentrified communities (New Class voters), but the state’s suburbs, Upstate as well as well as Downstate.
Jumaane Williams has apparently changed his position several times on both women’s reproductive health and LGBTQ rights. His early positions on those issues clearly ended his chances to be a serious contender for the speakership of the City Council in New York City last year. What counts is not what I think, nor even what Jumaane Williams thinks, about his positions on these issues, instead what counts is the perception of rank and file primary voters.
Hochul, was a fervent opponent of the Republican efforts to shut down funding for Planned Parenthood clinics, appearing often at Planned Parenthood rallies and she enjoys warm relations with all the leading women’s organizations dedicated to choice. If Williams cannot persuade pro-choice and pro-LGBT voters that he truly supports their positions and Hochul’s campaign works hard to raise the salience factor among voters on these issues, he will literally be cut off at the pass in this primary. This issue is made to order for a robust TV ad campaign, which could resonate deeply with female voters (progressive as well as liberal and moderate women), especially those outside New York City.
This reminds me of the challenge Kathleen Rice faced on the Rockefeller Drug Law reforms when she ran for AG in 2010. Rice could never persuade minority and progressive voters that her position had evolved on those Rockefeller Drug laws and it cost her mightily in that 2010 primary. Whether Williams can avoid Rice’s fate along the choice-gay rights axis will be a seminal question in determining not just the outcome, but the margin in this primary contest.
Third, no candidate in the history of NYS Democratic primaries has pulled off an upset in a statewide Democratic primary, without significant labor support (e.g., Carey in 1974, Cuomo in 1982 and Schumer in 1998) and Williams has almost no labor support against Hochul. Hochul’s campaign will be fully integrated into the turnout engine that the Cuomo campaign and labor (AFL-CIO, NYSUT, UFT, 1199, CSEA, HTC, 32BJ and RWDSU) will field heading into the September 13th primary.
Fourth, as this primary develops, a certain synergy could form between Kathy Hochul in the LG’s race and Tish James in the AG primary. Each can become the ambassador the other needs to close out victory in their respective primaries. Hochul can become James’ ambassador to the highly educated White Catholic women who drive the primary vote in the suburbs, upstate and downstate, while James can do the same for Hochul with minority women, especially Black female voters, so key in the urban cores. So keep your eyes peeled for a fair amount of joint Hochul and James campaigning down the stretch in this primary campaign.
These are the four factors which I believe have the potential to prove determinative on the outcome of this LG primary and all decidedly favor Hochul. But if the campaign takes a different turn and the Hochul campaign does not take advantage of Williams’ weaknesses and turnout is at the abysmally low level of the 2014 primary (a turnout just under 600, 000 voters, which enhances the share cast by pure progressive voters and reduces the share cast by White Catholics, Hispanic and Asian voters), Richard Brodky’s contention that this is anybody’s race could prove accurate.
While I do not discount that a poor campaign by Hochul could open the door for Williams, I do not see a little known, underfunded candidate like Jumaane Williams being able to overcome these weaknesses. I also don’t see how or why Hochul would not craft a crisp clear and calm campaign around a compare and contrast narrative. It would be political malpractice not to do so.
In short, I do not see a candidate like Jumaane Williams, not known citywide much less outside of NYC, who does not enjoy across the board minority support, who is also suspect on both the choice and LGBT issues, convincing a statewide primary electorate, where Upstate and Suburban women are the swing vote, to dump Kathy Hochul in a Democratic primary (i.e., the only woman who holds statewide office).
While I doubt that Richard Brodsky, and certainly myself have ever dunked a basketball on a regulation hoop, many years of watching of basketball, has taught me that the slam dunk itself, is the easiest part of scoring. The real work is positioning yourself to get the ball, with a step on your opponent, in a position to make a move in the lane, for the jump completing the dunk.
So to answer Richard Brodsky, while a Hochul victory against Williams may not appear a slam dunk today, by primary day on September 13th, I think it is far more likely than not for Kathy Hochul to dunk on Jumaane Williams.
Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.