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13 September 2018

Whatever happens in today’s New York primaries, the progressive wave is winning

The Democratic Party is being pulled towards policies like marijuana legalisation and universal healthcare.

By Sophie McBain

Today’s New York Democratic primaries see the culmination of several tense and hard-fought races, but the headline is actor and activist Cynthia Nixon, who is running to unseat the incumbent Democratic governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo. At the end of August, the two finally met in a fractious debate.

On Wednesday night, at New York’s PUBLIC Arts venue, Nixon and a slate of other candidates running for the nomination to be candidates for statewide office for the Democratic party (which, in New York, means almost certain victory), including professor Zephyr Teachout, who is running for state attorney-general, and Jumaane Williams, who is running for lieutenant-governor, appeared at a raucous election-eve rally organised by the progressive Working Families Party.

Nixon, the headline act, is unlikely to win her primary today: she is behind by almost 40 points, according to the most recent RealClearPolitics polling average. But in a pretty meaningful way she has already had a dramatic effect on the race, dragging Cuomo, and the party in general, towards progressive policy positions including the legalisation of marijuana.

“This has been a long, hard-fought campaign,” Nixon told the crowd. “But the most important part comes tomorrow.” Her voice was hoarse. “We can win, and I would not be running if I didn’t know that we could win. How do I know that we can win? Because this is a moment in our country’s history, a terrible moment with Donald Trump in the White House, and if we approach it the right way in a progressive place like New York, this is an opportunity to enact real foundational change – not just to fight against the Trump agenda, but to combat the inequality that is swallowing our state whole.”

Teachout, who appeared beside Nixon at the party, to equally rapturous cheers from the crowd, first made waves on the New York political scene in 2014 when she mounted a progressive challenge to Governor Cuomo’s re-election bid in the Democratic primary. It was a long-shot campaign and she said she hoped to get 15 per cent of the vote. Instead she got 35 per cent – a remarkable achievement and one that also forced Cuomo to move further left, by introducing policies such as the $15-an-hour minimum wage.

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The Fordham Law School professor, anti-corruption expert and left-wing activist is running for the vacancy left by Eric Schneiderman, who resigned after several woman he dated accused him of sexual violence. Within days of Donald Trump’s inauguration she had filed a lawsuit accusing the president of breaking the emoluments clause of the constitution through his foreign business interests, and she is likely to emerge as a key figure among the Democratic (and on occasion Republican) attorney-generals, who have been collaborating to sue the Trump administration on issues from environment deregulation to immigrant and minority rights.

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“We have a bigot and a racist holding the presidency,” she told the crowd. “Somebody that is assaulting our families, tearing them apart, and assaulting the rule of law in this country, trying to tear it apart and our most basic constitutional principles, and we do not have to accept that.”

She signalled what may be to come: the mentality that the Trump era has finally awakened in American progressives. “Here in New York we can do more than resist, we can fight back. We can investigate Donald Trump’s businesses, because they are here in New York. We can investigate possible crimes by his associates, because so much happened here in New York. We can be ready for a federal pardon with a state law investigation, because so much happened here in New York.”

Teachout, who was endorsed by the New York Times, is part of a new wave of female candidates who have been energised by the Trump era and are changing not just the substance but also the tone of modern politics. She is expecting a baby in October, and recently released a campaign ad featuring her ultrasound scan. A Siena poll on 10 September showed her trailing third after Representative Sean Patrick Maloney and public advocate Leticia James in a close primary.

Julia Salazar, the 27-year-old Latina Democratic Socialist running for senate witnessed a surge of attention and donations following the shock election of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, also a 27-year-old Latina Democratic Socialist, and is running on a similar platform. She supports the abolition of ICE, the expansion of Medicare for all, free college tuition, and extensive criminal justice reform.

In recent weeks, however, her campaign has been mired by controversy after critics accused Salazar of lying about being from a working-class Jewish background, of formerly being a Republican and anti-abortion and of having an affair with the baseball legend Keith Hernandez. (The Cut has an excellent round-up of these controversies). She is running against Martin Dilan, who has represented the 18th district in North Brooklyn for 16 years.

At the Nixon-Williams-Teachout rally, however, the crowd was ebullient. They were a group of people safe in their knowledge that, whatever shoals may lie ahead of them, they were riding on a cresting wave.