The New York State Democratic Party Really Is a Joke

Jay Jacobs should go, but that's only the beginning

This week, Jay Jacobs said that the New York State Democratic Party, which he chairs, should not always endorse the winners of Democratic primaries because sometimes bad people can win them. The example he used to underscore this point was the hypothetical victory of a noted white supremacist. “Let’s take a scenario, very different, where David Duke, you remember him, the grand wizard of the KKK, he moves to New York, he becomes a Democrat, he runs for mayor in the city of Rochester, which is a low primary turnout and he wins the Democratic line. I have to endorse David Duke? I don’t think so,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs was responding to a question about the odd decision of the State Democratic Party to not endorse India Walton, who in June defeated Byron Brown in the Democratic primary. Brown is currently running a write-in campaign, with the assistance of Trump-backing Republicans, and could very well win. The scale of the effort—and the chutzpah involved—is unprecedented in New York. “Now, of course, India Walton is not in the same category, but it just leads you to that question, is it a must? It’s not a must,” Jacobs added. “It’s something you choose to do. That’s why it's an endorsement. Otherwise, they call it something else, like a requirement.”

If technically true—Democratic Party organizations are allowed to spurn their own nominees—the comparison was unhinged, and Jacobs was rightly condemned by a wide range of elected officials. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, among others, called for his resignation. Both Brown and Walton are Black, which made the invoking of Duke even more disturbing. Jacobs should be dumped immediately and it’s unclear why Governor Kathy Hochul, who also refuses to endorse Walton, hasn’t called for his ouster already.

Jacobs, who is in his second tour of duty as chair of the statewide party, has mostly distinguished himself as an ineffectual Andrew Cuomo loyalist over the course of his career in politics. He has been wrong about plenty. In 2019, he did Cuomo’s bidding and tried to stop State Senate Democrats from passing legislation that would grant driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. Jacobs fearmongered, warning that any votes to support the bill would cost Democrats seats in the suburbs, where he is from. Instead, the legislation passed and Democrats added enough seats to form a supermajority following the 2020 elections. Nassau and Suffolk Counties did not revolt. After Cuomo was accused of sexual harassment in 2021, Jacobs was a steadfast ally until it became politically untenable, in the late summer, to support Cuomo any longer. This probably allowed him to cling onto his unpaid party post under Hochul.

But Jacobs, who runs expensive day camps in his working life, is more symptom than cause here. He is not the first lousy, useless leader of the State Democratic Party and he probably won’t be the last. Unlike a lot of other states, New York does not have a functioning, centralized Democratic Party apparatus that recruits and trains candidates, funding them against Republican opponents. It has its various fiefdoms, along with elected officials who cultivate their own followings; the actual Democratic Party of the state doesn’t really exist at all. This has been mostly by design. For decades, the Democratic Party in New York has been a self-dealing, incompetent mess, often propping up Republicans to damage the progressive left.

Cuomo, of course, was the exemplar of this. As perhaps, at one time, the most powerful Democrat in the country outside of the president, he presided over a party that was little more than a second gubernatorial campaign account and slush fund. In tough election cycles, he refused to allow the State Democratic Party to aid State Senate Democrats trying to retake the majority from Republicans. Jacobs and other Democratic leaders blessed the Republican Party’s power-sharing agreement with the conservative, breakaway Democrats known as the Independent Democratic Conference. Like Jacobs, past Democratic Party leaders have been apologists for whatever scheme Cuomo had cooked up to undercut Democrats. David Paterson, the former governor who later served as party chair, would attack Senate Democrats too and defend the IDC when speaking publicly. Before Andrew Cuomo, before Paterson, there was Mario Cuomo, the popular liberal governor who, like his son in later years, made almost no attempt to build the Democratic Party in his own state.

New York could’ve used an organized, active, and decent Democratic Party in the last 50 years. Such a machine could’ve sped up the passage of many bills that only made it through the legislature in 2019, when Democrats, with no assistance from Cuomo, rode the blue wave to a clear majority. But the truth is Democrats are dominant enough now in New York that the atrophied infrastructure of the party means relatively little. There are NGO machines like the Working Families Party, the socialist DSA machine, and enough candidates who fundraise to build their own functioning operations. Congressional candidates who are serious can raise millions with no assistance from Jay Jacobs. This is not better or worse; it’s simply the world we live in now. The Republican Party in New York is, in large parts of the state, unable to compete. Jacobs should be gone, but his successor will preside over an entity that has outlived its usefulness.

Yet we should take a moment to contemplate what has been lost. Local organizations used to matter a lot. The old municipal Democratic machines, so faded from their 20th century heyday, were both hotbeds of corruption and genuine organizers of working-class votes. With control of patronage, these machines could deliver the goods for voters. There was a tangible feel to democracy that no longer exists. The consultant class was also a minor feature of the process in this period. Parties themselves did the messaging, the organizing, and strategized around voter contact. Today, they are dominant, forming a layer of the permanent government. Consultants often lobby or advise the candidates they help elect on behalf of wealthy clients and corporations. Under Bill de Blasio, it was BerlinRosen that grew immensely influential, becoming one of his “agents of the city.” Consultants, like the old party bosses, become power brokers. In all the recent races for City Council speaker, consultants and lobbyists were almost as pivotal as the party leaders themselves.

If New York is now deep-blue, with Republicans in terminal decline, it’s worth considering what role a healthy State Democratic Party should have. If there aren’t as many Republicans to defeat, there is talent to incubate. A strong party would be seeking out new candidates, bringing them into the political fold, and offering the guidance and fundraising contacts that can be hard to come by in other contexts. Party leaders could do what consultants are supposed to do, and do it free of charge. Rather than needlessly and toxically opine, like Jacobs, they would actually seek to engage volunteers, politicians, and the electorate writ large to figure out where the party should be going. Jacobs must go, but that will only fix so much.