My Last Column: Goodbye and Good Luck
I am retiring as of the end of this year. So this will be my last column. All is well, just the time for me to focus on family and to attack that bucket list for travel that my wife and I have been scrivening for years. Many of my friends think I will tire of retirement and come right back to writing and punditry, but this a real retirement.
First, I want to thank Empire Report for giving me the opportunity to have a regular column. I am proud that I wrote the first column just for ER readers and kicked off a robust tradition of original content commentary on their platform. The ER forum has enabled me to move beyond the length restrictions of newspaper op-eds. I needed that extra length not just because I am wordy (though I am verbose), but because of the topic my columns covered — the applied arithmetic of NYS politics. To fully explore that hard math required depth and context. I strove to shed political light rather than partisan heat. I hope I succeeded at that in these columns. Most of all I want to thank those of you who read these columns.
Before writing for ER on NYS politics, and before that City & State, going back four decades to 1982, I wrote long private memos that I shared with friends and political insiders. I liked to think that those long private memos were akin to playing a hidden hand role in the wholesale market. But my columns for ER allowed me to take my study of the state’s political math to the readers of this page, directly to the retail market.
As an aside I was never a Nostradamus, though I got a lot of credit for predicting with some precision, Mario Cuomo’s upset victory over Ed Koch in the 1982 gubernatorial race, David Dinkins ability to win the 1989 primary without a run-off and the closeness of Mayor Bloomberg’s victory over Bill Thompson in 2009. In truth, all I did was put a spotlight on how polling data often obscures the reality on the ground given the true turnout patterns driving voters to the polls. These electoral numbers were never my numbers, the numbers were the numbers. Here are the trendlines I am most proud of putting a spotlight on.
1. From 1978-2014 there was an Upstate Ascendancy in NYS politics. That ascendancy was predicated on a much higher turnout rate among Upstate voters in mid-term elections and a much lower rate of voting among younger NYC voters, which set up the Downstate Suburbs (LI, Westchester and Rockland) to become the balance wheel of NYS politics whose vote became the balance of power determining who won and lost close elections. Democrats could win statewide but they had to account for that Upstate Ascendancy, by some combination of shaving the Republican edges Upstate, while building up their atrophied turnout muscles in NYC and/or doing well in the Suburbs.
2. Operating underneath that Upstate Ascendancy was the sleeping tiger of minority turnout. When the minority vote came out in robust numbers for Democratic primaries like 1982 or 2018, or NYC mayoral elections in 1989 and 2021, as well as the 2008, 2012 and 2018 general elections this surging minority vote proved determinative. When that minority vote receded the Republicans won as in 1994, 1998 and 2002, or the contests got tight as in 2022. For Democrats the key challenge has therefore become could they generate enough enthusiasm among minority voters, especially in mid-term elections. A strong minority turnout proved to be neither easy nor automatic. One of the things I am proudest of was working with Sam Roberts of the Times to report in the paper of record, that in 2009 the NYC electorate became a minority majority. Over time I believe the increasing turnout percentages from the minority vote from NYC (but increasingly from the Suburbs and the metro counties Upstate as well) will alter the framework of New York’s politics bringing an end to the Upstate Ascendancy, moving towards an age of Regional Parity where the gap between the share of the total vote coming from Upstate versus NYC will shrink markedly. Derivatively, that will leave the Suburban vote as an even more decisive balance wheel in the politics of the Empire State.
3. Consequently, there is no one path to victory in NYS politics. Creativity guides the turning of the Rubik’s Cube for strategists putting together winning campaign tactics for NYS. The iron triangle for Democrats remains forming a coalition predicated upon minority voters at the base, with the side angles formed by highly educated professional women at one angle and white ethnics along the other angle. I take pride in drafting some of the early blueprints for forming this iron triangle, but truth be told Andrew Cuomo was the architect and engineer of this iron triangle, while Eliot Spitzer maximized its potential in 2006. Meanwhile, the Pataki coalition of maximizing Republican strength Upstate and in the Suburbs, while raiding Democrats among Hispanic and Asian voters as well as Jewish and White Catholic voters, provided the GOP does not get buried along a gender gap which becomes a gender gulch, also works (in effect disconnecting the bonds of that iron triangle). Nevertheless, to win in New York statewide, candidates need a three region strategy which simultaneously masters the algebraic equations linking Upstate, NYC and its Suburbs.
I see several trends worth keeping an eye on over the next decade or so:
First, as the share of the total vote cast by Hispanic and Asian voters grows, not just in NYC but in the suburbs of Upstate as well as Downstate, how will that affect our politics? Will Hispanics and Asians, whose profound demographic growth could explode in electoral terms over the next 10-15 years, remain solidly Democratic or will working class voters with immigrant roots shift from early support for Democrats, into becoming true swing voters or even bedrock Republican voters, as Italian Catholics did in the 1950’s and Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish voters have done more recently? The very diversity by dint of nationality, religious practices, and ideology are vast within both the Hispanic and Asian communities. I don’t know the answer to how these voters will break short term or long term, but figuring out how they vote and why will be worth everyone’s time, attention and study.
The other thing to note is that while Hispanic and Asian voters tend to march toward or away from candidates along separate paths, they often arrive at the same destination. Today the combined size of the Hispanic and Asian voters comes to just under 30% of the total vote in NYC and just under 15% in the Suburbs. By 2030 and certainly 2035, those shares will grow towards 40% in NYC and approach the 20% level in the Suburbs. So I would caution Democrats never to write off Asian voters and certainly not to take Hispanic voters for granted. Alternatively, New York’s Republicans are already showing signs of realizing that they need to shed Trumpism and to begin wooing working class minority voters, vulnerable to being victims of crime and pinched by the affordability gap.
History has a way of recurring in rhymes, and history shows that in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, Italian American Democrats felt politically snubbed by both the Irish Catholic dominated Democratic machines and the reformers of that era who were heavily Jewish. The Italian American migration to becoming supporters of the GOP driven suburban machines, Upstate as well as on LI, became the engine of both the Rockefeller and Pataki era GOP success. If the Hispanics followed that same path away from the Democrats in coming decades, just as their share of the statewide vote is set to explode, that could become an inflection point. Not to mention that if Asian voters follow that same path, the functional Democratic registration edge would become severely eroded.
Second, Democrats need to not cede working class voters of all racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds to the Republicans. There is a continuing irony that stretches back to the Depression, whereby the American Left presumes to speak for working class voters. Yet, working class voters reject that leadership finding that presumed advocacy from the left rather condescending. Focus groups long ago gleaned that the anti-corporate rhetoric of today’s progressives, tends to leave working class voters at best cold and alienated at worst. The reason is clear, working class voters are private sector workers and they are alert to wanting a healthy business climate. That does not mean these working class voters support the GOP’s trickledown economics, but they also mistrust attacks on the private sector. Both Republicans and Democrats would be wise to spend a lot of time learning how to connect with New York State’s working class voters across all regional, racial, ethnic and gender divides.
With that said, it is time to sign off, with real thanks for those of you have encouraged my study of these trends in my writing. I truly hope someone else takes up this ongoing quest of chronicling the passing parade of NYS politics. As I ride off into the proverbial sunset I think warmly about those I worked with to advance the lessons emerging from these numbers. They are too numerous to mention, but they know who you are. There is only one person I want to thank, my mentor the late Alex Rose, the leader of the old Liberal Party. Mr. Rose, taught me how to study voting returns and how to interpret polling data. I strove to always follow the two enduring lessons he taught me. The first was that in politics the truth lies beneath the surface and you have to be analytical to get at that truth. The second was that bad government would always try to drive out good government, so support those who fought for good government. I hope I followed both precepts in my writing and in my work for and with candidates for elective office.
With that I sign off and say thanks to all I worked with or shared friendships with over the years in both parties and across the philosophical divides. I am old school and respect the good work of both parties. I still yearn for a return to the New York brand of GOP politics— at once more moderate and inclusive, even if that proves politically effective to the detriment of Democrats. Precisely because, that serves to find common ground on behalf of the common good. Thanks to my readers for only warm memories. So long and good luck!
Bruce N. Gyory has been a Democratic strategist who is retiring, after serving as a Senior Advisor at Manatt Phelps & Phillips LLP.