New York Democrats are in disarray. Over the past few weeks, state progressives shot down Democratic governor Kathy Hochul’s nominee for chief judge, while their counterparts in the New York City Council shed nearly half their formerly veto-proof caucus after obliging members to sign on to left-wing causes. Though these fissures are primed to create contentious primary races this spring (happening again in 2023 because of last year’s redistricting), elections likely won’t stop the infighting. By forcing together disparate, and sometimes unworkable, factions into a single party, the state’s electoral system inflames these divides. Electoral reform would allow voters to resolve political differences by delivering clearer, more representational mandates on Election Day.
Following the narrowest gubernatorial win in 28 years and a loss of four congressional seats, Democratic factions interpreted last November’s elections in different ways. Progressives, including those aligned with the Democratic Socialists of America, charge that Hochul didn’t do enough to revive state party leadership or dispute Republican narratives on crime. But moderates, such as Mayor Eric Adams and embattled state Democratic Party chairman Jay Jacobs, blamed progressives for ignoring voters’ concerns about rising crime and disorder.
In December, state-level leftists saw an opening to press their case. Despite warnings from progressive activist groups and unions, Hochul nominated Justice Hector LaSalle to lead the state high court, pitting her squarely at odds with senators to her left. After stacking the Senate’s Judiciary Committee with enough LaSalle opponents to ensure his rejection, Democratic leadership initially refused to submit his nomination to the full floor for an up-or-down vote. With Hochul’s tacit blessing, Senate Republicans sued their Democratic counterparts to force a vote, but before trial, on February 15, Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins called up LaSalle’s nomination for a floor vote, resulting in a decisive 39–20 rejection. The governor has asked the state’s Commission on Judicial Nomination to submit a new list of seven candidates for her consideration, which will occur before mid-June.
At the same time, the city council’s progressive caucus was splitting apart. Ahead of the June 27 Democratic primary, caucus leaders requested that members sign a manifesto in support of various left-wing positions. These included promises to support “progressive tax increases when necessary to meet these goals” and to “do everything we can to reduce the size and scope of the NYPD and the Department of Correction.” The litmus test proved too much for 15 members—nearly half the Democrats’ veto-proof, 35-member council majority—who refused to sign, including those from reliably left-of-center constituencies. They were rejected from the caucus. Many will now triangulate a position between a hardened caucus and party moderates like Adams, seeking to attract support from the party establishment and unions, while garnering enough votes from affluent liberals to carry the day.
Nine months ago, during a podcast interview, caucus leaders Shahana Hanif and Lincoln Restler hailed the caucus’s supermajority: “The size of the caucus is our strength, it is our power,” Hanif said. Now, however, they’re celebrating a “more cohesive caucus.”
What changed? For one thing, Representative Lee Zeldin’s “savagely effective” campaign proved too close for comfort for those seeking reelection in June. State senators don’t face an election until 2024, giving progressives room to deliver a win for their base by thwarting their party’s governor, despite her improving poll numbers.
In arguably the bluest constituency in the U.S., then, elected officials still respond to electoral opportunities and risks. The caucus’s ranks have waxed and waned in response to the perceived appeal of progressive messaging in council races: at its inception in 2010, it stood at 12 members, but grew to 21 after the 2017 election, peaked at 35 after 2021’s election, and now has shrunk to 20.
November’s electoral competition not only exposed party divisions but also demonstrated the flaws of the state’s electoral system. Closed primaries promote a one-party hegemony that combines factions with divergent political beliefs together in a forced marriage. Low-turnout, low-information Democratic primary elections almost always crown winners in city districts, not uncompetitive general elections. And as independents, Republicans, and unaffiliated voters can’t participate in these all-important races, Democratic primary candidates have little incentive to appeal to the broader electorate. In short, New York’s electoral system isn’t designed to produce representative outcomes.
Progressives’ strength in the city council doesn’t necessarily represent their strength among the general population. Lumping together socialists, progressives, moderates, and establishment loyalists invites infighting over the Democratic party’s meaning and direction. When the political winds blow leftward, leftist factions can tug the party toward positions like diverting police resources to social services. Otherwise, they lack sufficient power to keep up the partywide momentum, especially on fundamental matters like public safety.
Such intra-party sectarianism distracts from governing. A better approach would let voters hash out these differences through higher-turnout elections that deliver clearer, more representative mandates. For example, Alaska’s top-four primary allows all qualifying candidates, regardless of party, to run in the same primary, open to all registered voters. The top four vote-getters advance to the general election, which uses ranked-choice voting to select a single winner with a majority. A recent report by Ryan Williamson at the R Street Institute finds that top-four voting “boosted candidates who represented the unique views of voters in Alaska.” An effort is currently underway to implement a similar system for local elections in New York City (I participated in the launch committee). In such a system, factions might choose to form new parties and coalitions, giving voters greater choice.
With Democratic divisions exposed, New Yorkers are in for a bruising city council primary season. But if the infighting persists after June 27, it’s up to voters to call for reforms that could untangle Democrats’ political knots.
Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images