National News

Contest may stir up state politics

ALBANY, N.Y. _ When Democratic voters go to the polls Thursday, the main event will be the primary between incumbent Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and actress Cynthia Nixon. But a lesser-watched race just down the ballot has a much greater chance to shake up New York's politics.

Posted Updated

, Albany Times

ALBANY, N.Y. _ When Democratic voters go to the polls Thursday, the main event will be the primary between incumbent Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and actress Cynthia Nixon. But a lesser-watched race just down the ballot has a much greater chance to shake up New York's politics.

Incumbent Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul _ a former congresswoman from western New York who had been Cuomo's running mate in 2014 _ is facing a fierce challenge from Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn, who is serving his third term as a New York City councilman.

Williams, who previously was a tenants-rights organizer, is a well-known liberal activist and has often been arrested at protests. As a lawmaker, he is credited with helping pass a number of laws, from protecting tenants in New York City to reforming the New York Police Department's controversial stop-and-frisk practices.

Running as a team with Nixon, Williams has the support of the liberal Working Families Party and received a major endorsement last week when The New York Times endorsed him for the job, calling him "an independent-minded New York City Council member, (who) has shown that he can be a real leader and is the right choice for lieutenant governor in the Democratic primary ..."

In that same endorsement, the Times' editorial board characterized Hochul as "little more than an echo for Gov. Andrew Cuomo," noting that during a debate with Williams she could not recall a single instance where she had opposed one of Cuomo's policies or "changed the governor's mind on an issue."

Hochul has spent heavily from her ample campaign fund and is clearly taking her poorly funded challenger seriously. In recent months, she has been a fixture in New York City, where Williams is better-known and has garnered significant support in the state's Democratic epicenter.

If Williams pulled off the upset, he could use the office to challenge the governor _ and Albany's status quo _ and also use it as a sounding board to press his positions on affordable housing, health care, eduction, criminal justice reform and voting rights.

The outcome of the race could also have a substantial impact on the race for governor in November because of the way that ballots are counted in New York elections. While the governor and lieutenant governor run separately in the primary, in the general election, they run as a ticket.

If Cuomo wins as expected, while Williams scores an upset, they would appear together on the Democratic ticket in the November general election.

But Cuomo and Hochul are the nominees of the Independence and Womens' Equality parties, and votes for Cuomo-Hochul on those ballot lines would count separately _ and not be added together with the Cuomo-Williams votes.

If that scenario plays out, it could help provide a path to victory for Republican nominee Marc Molinaro, the Dutchess County executive.

It is possible, but not guaranteed, that legal maneuvering by Democrats to get the losing Democratic primary candidates off ballot lines could occur. For instance, candidates could be nominated for judgeships or other offices that would allow their removal from those lines.

If Williams is elected as lieutenant governor, he has promised to provide a check-and-balance in the mold of the more adversarial role the New York City Public Advocate has played to the New York City mayor. He's declared he will be the "people's' lieutenant governor, not the governor's lieutenant governor," and has characterized Hochul as a Cuomo cheerleader who mostly attends ribbon-cuttings.

Hochul and Williams have had only one televised debate, which took place on a weekday morning and aired on a small, public-access television station in Manhattan. It also took place the same day as the only debate between Cuomo and Nixon, almost ensuring it would get little coverage.

Hochul in July had promised NY1 host Errol Louis that she would debate on his much larger television network, but later pulled back. Questioned repeatedly about the matter in a radio interview last week with WNYC host Brian Lehrer, Hochul would only say that an unspecified "scheduling conflict" had submarined the debate.

Williams quickly responded on Twitter that he was willing to work around Hochul's schedule to make the debate happen.

In her interview with Lehrer, Hochul said her partnership with Cuomo has been positive, contrasting it with toxic political divides in Washington, D.C., and the turmoil in Albany before Cuomo took office. She said state politics should not turn into "two men in a fistfight every day" and compared her relationship with Cuomo to that between President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.

"Working as a partnership, we have been able to accomplish so much more," Hochul said, noting the $15 minimum wage and her leadership in cracking down on sexual assaults on college campuses.

Nixon supporters argue that Cuomo has only shifted to the left on many issues due to her primary challenge. Williams said he would be able to press Cuomo from the left, as well.

Hochul said that is not necessary. She noted the first-in-the nation, same-sex marriage law pushed through by Cuomo in 2011, and the nation's toughest gun-safety law, the SAFE Act, that passed in 2013.

"I reject the notion that Governor Cuomo needs someone else to tell him to do what's right," Hochul said.

Hochul has also noted her broad experience in government, saying that the most important attribute of a lieutenant governor _ as second in line to the governor _ is readiness to assume that office if necessary. That took place as recently as 2008, when then-Lt. Gov. David Paterson took over Eliot Spitzer's office after he abruptly resigned in the wake of a prostitution scandal. Paterson served the rest of Spitzer's term through 2010.

One mark on Hochul's liberal record, which has been exploited by Williams, is the 'A' rating she earned from the National Rifle Association for her voting record while a member of Congress.

Hochul has said that she regretted the votes, and noted that at the time she was representing a more conservative, gun-owning western New York district, not the more liberal statewide electorate she now represents. Hochul also said that she lost her seat in Congress, in 2012, to Republican Chris Collins because she had voted to pass Obama's signature law, the Affordable Care Act.

Williams also has a blemish in his progressive record. Originally hailing from the socially conservative Caribbean community in Brooklyn, Williams has evolved over the years on social issues to recently personally support both same-sex marriage and abortion rights. Williams notes that as an elected official, he has always supported those rights in his public positions and votes.

Hochul noted in a recent interview that abortion rights may be under threat nationally as conservative U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is on a path to confirmation. She said that could swing the court against Roe v. Wade.

"The sky will have fallen," Hochul told WNYC. "And we need people that are personally committed."

In his own interview with Lehrer last week, Williams noted he has long embraced labels _ "agitator" and "troublemaker" _ that are now only politically en vogue with the left's ascent in recent Democratic primaries. Williams also noted that he has been rated as the most productive member of the New York City Council after the speaker.

Cuomo and Hochul only recently moved to the left during election season on issues like legalizing marijuana and bail reform, Williams said, while he has been championing them for years.

"It's funny to see them fumbling around with concepts that they haven't been used to speaking about," Williams said.

Williams noted that in 2007, Hochul, as Erie County clerk, had vowed to have undocumented immigrants arrested if they applied for drivers' licenses. A spokeswoman now says she supports licenses for undocumented immigrants.

If Cuomo continues his leftward shift, Williams said, they could work well together. But regardless, he also promised to be an independent voice who would try to stem major problems before they metastasized, such as the Cuomo administration's major corruption scandals that resulted in convictions of multiple people at two high-profile federal criminal trials this year.

"You should not equate partnership," Williams said, "with rubber stamp."

cbragg(at) - 518-454-5619

Copyright 2023 Albany Times Union. All rights reserved