Before the pandemic emptied out New York City’s bars and restaurants, Luke Hayes walked into the Upper West Side’s Café du Soleil at the same time I did: 15 minutes early. He’d spent the day making calls and sending e-mails on behalf of Jamaal Bowman, the Justice Democrats–backed challenger to Eliot Engel in New York’s 16th Congressional District for whom Hayes serves as campaign manager. It’s just the latest in a series of key, behind-the-scenes roles he has played in building New York City’s progressive wave.
“We just had a flurry of endorsements,” he explained: New York Communities for Change, Community Voices Heard Power!, and Make the Road Action had all recently endorsed Bowman. A week later, so would NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and the Working Families Party. The June 23 primary was still months away, but Hayes was laying the groundwork for what could become another AOC-level upset.
It was after 4 pm, and Hayes said he usually tried to stop drinking coffee before noon. Nonetheless, he ordered a cappuccino. He’d later assure me that this wasn’t yet the lack-of-sleep phase of the Bowman campaign, though he admitted he was still working 60-hour weeks. The circles under his eyes matched mine, and I had an infant at home.
Hayes, 36, has spent more than a decade and a half in politics, including several long years of campaigning across the country for candidates like Tim Kaine and Barack Obama. But he has now moved home, shifted to the left, and found a way to win. He’d worked on the city’s new municipal ID program, the adoption of ranked-choice voting, the ousting of a conservative bloc of “Democrats” who’d long obstructed progress in Albany, and a devastatingly close campaign for a progressive upstart in the Queens district attorney race. But Eliot Engel was his biggest target yet.
Hayes grew up in Engel’s district in the Bronx. He even flyered for the congressman back in 2000. But he had run out of patience. “It’s like, OK, you’ve now been here 32 years,” Hayes said, as if addressing Engel, “and you’re not that good a representative.”
In Bowman, Hayes has found a leftist candidate willing to attack Engel’s Bidenesque record, including his support for Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, the deregulation of Wall Street, and the Iraq War. Hayes was cautiously optimistic that Bowman could win—after all, he told me, there’s room for more people on the Squad.
Hayes first became seriously interested in politics while at Vassar. Then, as now, Democrats dominated New York. To the degree that change was possible, it seemed, it was only possible elsewhere—not just because of the Democratic machine’s corporate money but also because incumbents like Engel projected an air of invincibility.
After graduating in 2005, Hayes moved to Virginia to work on Tim Kaine’s successful gubernatorial campaign, then on Phil Kellam’s failed attempt at a congressional seat a year later. He went on to work on Obama’s first presidential campaign, then at Organizing for America in Texas, then as Obama’s Nevada director for the 2012 reelection fight. (Shortly after Romney conceded, Hayes’s brother Chris, an MSNBC host and editor-at-large at The Nation, tweeted his admiration for Hayes’s five-plus years working “60-90 hours a week, w/o cease to make tonight happen.”) But after that, Hayes was exhausted, tired of Taco Bell drive-thrus, and ready to come back to New York.
Hayes and I both ordered soup: French onion for him, leek and potato bisque for me. We also received a small pail of baguette slices and some oil and vinegar. This was a clear step up from the Doritos Locos Tacos Hayes ate on the road.
Hayes talked a bit about the next few years, during which he’d worked as an advocate for various causes, including education and immigration. In 2015, he was the field director for IDNYC, a successful municipal photo identification initiative. Then, he said, came the “Trump apocalypse.” He was haunted by the thousand-yard stares he saw the next morning on the subway, the city’s “palpable depression.”
He also couldn’t stop thinking about what he’d seen while campaigning across America. Some of it had been eye-opening for a city kid, like his first encounters with high school football and homecoming dances. But a lot of what he saw had been dispiriting, like the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis, whose costs had been borne by the most vulnerable—people he had met while knocking on doors, people who had never gotten relief. “You had Wall Street executives basically bring the country and global economy to the brink, and none of them went to jail,” he said, still angry.
When he was younger, he’d been open-minded about the power of the free market. But, he said, “I’ve now just become very firm: When it comes to societal goods—health care, education, prisons, housing—the free market in America has been shown to be incapable of meeting those needs.” In 2017, he joined the Democratic Socialists of America.
Hayes’s evolution was cemented by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary win over Joe Crowley. Her victory made him want to campaign again. For so long, New York City had succumbed to the curse of the one-party town, whereby, as Hayes put it, “you get institutionalized and ossified.” Establishment figures like Crowley had seemed untouchable. But when Ocasio-Cortez won, Hayes’s thinking changed. The question became, “How can we take this one-party town and push it?”
Hayes signed on with Alessandra Biaggi’s primary campaign for state Senate, first as get-out-the-vote director, then as campaign manager. Biaggi ran for the New York State Senate in the 34th district, which, like Engel’s ongressional district, was Hayes’s home turf growing up. Her victory was especially important because she unseated Jeff Klein, leader of the Independent Democratic Caucus (IDC), which for years had aligned itself with Republican interests in the state.
Hayes then signed on as campaign manager for Tiffany Cabán, who eventually lost her race for Queens district attorney by just 55 votes. In the process, Hayes watched her embody what he called “the appeal of the New Left”; she unapologetically argued that sex work is work and called for an end to cash bail. Cabán wasn’t equivocal or conditional. Like Bernie Sanders’s advocacy of Medicare for All, these were the kinds of things Hayes used to see as third rails. Not anymore.
He was reluctant to boast about his own contributions to these campaigns, but he acknowledged that he was able to bring a veteran’s focus and calm to the work—especially necessary because of the relative youth and inexperience that characterized many of those drawn to work for the insurgent candidates. But he also found his staff and volunteers to be more optimistic, with fresher ideas and a strong desire to engage as many voters as possible.
Between his work on the Cabán and Bowman campaigns, Hayes also worked on the successful effort to institute ranked-choice voting in New York City. He seemed thrilled, and a little stunned, at how much progressives had accomplished in so short a time. After the IDC was defeated, he watched “the State Senate in Albany have the most productive session in… possibly ever? At least since the New Deal.” (Off the top of his head, he cited victories on tenant protections, criminal justice reform, environmental protections, immigrant rights, reproductive rights, and LGBT rights.) “And I hope that’s a lesson to national Democrats: Good policy is good politics.”
“It’s really a victory of the activists,” he added, “for learning the inside-out game pretty effectively.”
He now thought Bowman had a good chance against Engel, though, once May rolled around, it was going to require the sort of nights where he takes his candidate to four events in three hours. Still, “it’s almost like a little bit of an open primary,” Hayes said, “because we encounter so many people who don’t know who Engel is.” This, he said, was another way in which Bowman’s challenge echoed Ocasio-Cortez’s two years earlier.
Hayes had little patience for the classic incumbent argument that now was not the time for an intraparty battle. He actually considered the challenge a strategic use of resources: If Bowman, a former school principal, wins the primary, he will likely win again in November without spending much extra money, because the district is so blue.
Before Hayes donned his backpack and red beanie and headed off to an evening meeting with his candidate, I asked him, hypothetically, if he’d follow a Representative-Elect Bowman to DC. He said he wasn’t sure. Now, he said, was “a moment to shake up New York politics and fundamentally change what the party’s about, who electeds engage, and bring this new energy in.” He wasn’t sure when the wave would crash, but he didn’t seem ready to stop riding it until it did.