National News

Black Voters Have More Leverage in This Governor’s Race. They Mean to Use It.

Posted June 13, 2018 8:13 p.m. EDT

The group of African-American gun control advocates arrived at a gun safety news conference last week, invited by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s aides.

Participation quickly morphed into protest.

“We showed up, only to find out we were going to be window dressing,” said Kirsten John Foy, the northeast regional director of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.

One of the group’s members was asked to move from a seat in the front row. Another was handed a sheet of talking points and then, shortly after, told she would not be allowed to speak at all.

“Black and brown people are the No. 1 people doing the work around gun violence in New York,” said Erica Ford, another of the activists, who gave an impassioned speech outside the event. “To invite us to the press conference and want us to just be decoration, and make it look like we’re part of something that’s going on — it’s just not right.”

For many black voters across New York, election season brings familiar markers: a sudden flurry of outreach from candidates, vows of friendship and petitions for support. This year’s Democratic primary for governor has been no exception. Cuomo’s Democratic rival, actress and activist Cynthia Nixon, faces an uphill climb to a primary victory in September.

To better her odds, Nixon would need to winnow Cuomo’s strong support among black voters, who turned out in disproportionately large numbers in the 2014 primary, according to exit polls. But her challenge is significant: A Siena College poll released Wednesday showed that among African-Americans likely to vote in November, the governor leads Nixon, 74 percent to 17 percent.

This dynamic has given New York’s black voters a heightened sense of empowerment this year, especially amid a nationwide reckoning in the Democratic Party around race and identity. And, aware that campaign promises can evaporate after election time, they are trying to leverage their coveted voting power into concrete action on issues ranging from criminal justice to minority contracting, and to reject what they see as flimsy appeals for their support.

“A lot of black voters recognize their worth right now,” said Christina Greer, a Fordham University professor who is African-American and studies the role of race in politics. “We will not just be given whatever an elected official thinks is best for us.”

Many community leaders trace black voters’ new awareness of their influence to the Senate election in Alabama of Doug Jones, whom black women helped propel to victory last year. Blacks constituted 30 percent of voters in that race, according to CNN exit polling, with an overwhelming 98 percent of black women supporting Jones — even though, in the preceding year’s presidential election, black turnout had fallen for the first time in 20 years.

Jewel Williams, president of the Westchester Black Women’s Political Caucus, said she had never seen black voters’ priorities spark more conversation or receive more recognition.

Cuomo has made appearances at black churches and restored voting rights to parolees via executive order. Nixon launched her campaign in a black neighborhood of Brooklyn and called legalizing recreational marijuana a criminal-justice imperative. (Marijuana arrests disproportionately target black New Yorkers.)

Both campaigns have also hired senior advisers with deep connections to Brooklyn’s black community. In April, Nixon hired L. Joy Williams, a consultant and president of the Brooklyn NAACP. Last week, Cuomo’s campaign hired Lupe Todd-Medina and Wayne K. Williams, who have both worked for Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn and Kenneth P. Thompson, Brooklyn’s first black district attorney.

But a spate of recent flubs have marred the efforts of both candidates, with some voters saying the outreach reads as pandering and only reminds them of how their votes are taken for granted.

In May, after Nixon suggested that profits from legalizing recreational marijuana could serve as “reparations” for black communities, Mobilizing Preachers and Communities, a statewide group of religious leaders, called the remark a “disservice to black people.” Hazel Dukes, head of the New York NAACP, said Nixon should apologize.

Sharpton, who also criticized the comments on Twitter, said he spoke with Nixon, who said that she misspoke. She has also said she will stop using the term.

The Rev. William Gillison, the pastor of a 500-member black church in Buffalo, blamed some of the candidates’ missteps on a lack of consistent engagement with the black electorate.

“When you’re dealing with any community, and you have no relationship with the community, then you’re subject to say things that are offensive to that community,” he said.

Cuomo has been bedeviled by accusations of pandering as well. In addition to the protest at his gun safety announcement, rumors have swirled that he has sought to ward off Nixon’s challenge by replacing Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who is white, with an African-American running mate, or by pressing Letitia James, a black woman and candidate for attorney general, to align her campaign with his. Cuomo has denied both claims. James has also denied being pressured. Those denials did not stop Bertha Lewis, president of the Black Institute and a longtime community activist, from writing an op-ed in the Amsterdam News, one of the oldest black-owned newspapers in the country, titled “Black Voters: Don’t Trust Andrew Cuomo.”

In an interview, Lewis, who has endorsed Nixon, said she wrote the piece because she did not want people to think that the governor had “the whole black establishment in his pocket.”

Some former allies of the governor have distanced themselves. Akeem Browder — the brother of Kalief Browder, who committed suicide in 2015 after being held at Rikers for three years for allegedly stealing a backpack — has often appeared alongside Cuomo on criminal justice issues, including to support the governor’s initiatives on raising the age of criminal responsibility. But he declined a request from Cuomo’s campaign to appear in a promotional video at last month’s state Democratic convention, because he said the governor had not pushed hard enough for bail reform.

“When you say you are an advocate for the people, it’s not enough to just say; you have to do,” Browder said.

Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for Cuomo, said the governor shared Browder’s frustration with the lack of reform and blamed Senate Republicans for blocking the measures.

Browder said he has spoken with Nixon and her staff but said he had no plans to immediately endorse her.

“Whether it’s her or Cuomo, I can’t rely on words,” Browder said. Hawk Newsome, the president of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, said black voters should be more aggressive in seizing upon the current moment to push for legislative commitments. And if other factors, like political feuds or gamesmanship, were at play, so be it.

“I’m past the point of considering people’s motives when it comes to politics,” Newsome said. “As long as they’re serving communities of color, that’s all I care about.”

Iesha Sekou, chief executive and founder of Street Corner Resources, a Harlem group that works to prevent gun violence, said that another reason Cuomo’s news conference on gun control devolved into protest was his decision to frame the event around school shootings.

“If you want the votes of black and brown people, show what you are doing about urban gun violence,” she said. Sekou said the governor’s office agreed to a June 27 meeting with the activists about their priorities.

Supporters of both candidates acknowledged the reinvigorated calls for accountability, even as they defended their records.

“I believe the governor’s record is strong, and he has delivered, but patience is short with every candidate,” Charlie King, an adviser to Cuomo, said.

Williams, the senior adviser for Nixon’s campaign, said that Nixon’s marijuana remarks actually showed Nixon's commitment to black voters’ concerns.

“The reason some of the most progressive candidates didn’t succeed is there was no engagement and prioritization of people of color,” Williams said of recent Democratic primaries. “If you are not prioritizing black voters and running as a progressive, you will lose.”

Williams said she was impressed by the resolve she had seen from black leaders as well as black voters in pressing both Nixon and Cuomo.

“We are making sure the insurgent candidate is addressing our issues while holding the incumbent accountable,” she said. “That’s how you flex political muscle.”