Lessons for Progressives From Yuh-Line Niou’s Loss

Lessons for Progressives From Yuh-Line Niou’s Loss

Lessons for Progressives From Yuh-Line Niou’s Loss

Could the outcome in the NY-10 congressional race—a centrist going to Washington—have been avoided?


Consider these numbers: 38,142 and 16,686. The first is the number of voters who chose self-described progressive candidates in the Democratic primary for New York’s 10th Congressional District in late August. The second is the number who chose Daniel Goldman. Nevertheless, Goldman, a centrist—for the district, anyway; he’d be regarded as a liberal in the rest of the country—walked away the winner. How did he come out ahead when he garnered only 26 percent of the vote in a field of 12 and when more than twice as many progressive votes were cast against him? Because three popular politicians split those votes—leaving the second-place finisher, Working Families Party–endorsed state Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, trailing Goldman by only about 1,300 votes.

Some of the blame goes to progressives themselves, who failed to get out of their own way and unite behind one candidate. Some goes to a system that allowed Goldman, a Levi Strauss heir, to put just under $4 million of his own money into the race. Some goes to the AIPAC-affiliated United Democracy Project, which funded a phantom PAC called New York Progressives that spent around $400,000 smearing Niou with mailings that distorted her progressive positions as well as slamming her, unfairly, as a foe of Israel and an anti-Semite for her stance on the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement.

But since Goldman was declared the winner—though Niou hasn’t conceded as of this writing, because there could be as many as 13,000 absentee ballots still uncounted—I’ve wondered how much progressives really could have done. Who, for instance, might have had the clout to pull together Congress member Mondaire Jones and City Council member Carlina Rivera to insist they back Niou, even after several polls, including one a week before the election, showed her running a strong second to Goldman? Jones is a sad story: Redistricting put Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Sean Patrick Maloney in the same district as Jones. Instead of challenging Maloney, Jones decamped to Brooklyn and the crowded 10th District race.

Who had the sway to tell him not to do that? Who could have persuaded him to stay and fight Maloney? House Speaker Nancy Pelosi endorsed Jones in his new district, rather than telling him to stay put and challenge Maloney or telling Maloney to run in the adjacent district. The Democratic establishment preferred to see one of the first gay Black members of Congress defeated than to have their fundraising titan lose his seat, an embarrassing signal nationally. So bye-bye, Mondaire.

One progressive organization did have clout with all three candidates: New York’s Working Families Party. It has endorsed Jones, Niou, and Rivera in the past; couldn’t it have had some sway? As Sochie Nnaemeka, the party’s New York director, told me before the election, “We should align as progressives behind the strongest candidate, to defeat a self-funded, self-avowed moderate, in one of the most progressive districts in the country.” But she ducked a question about whether the WFP was using its influence to make that happen. If it did, it wasn’t obvious—or effective.

How much influence would the WFP have had, anyway? The party has regained a lot of strength since former governor Andrew Cuomo tried to destroy it after the WFP encouraged the candidacy of challenger Zephyr Teachout in the 2014 gubernatorial primary. But it lost a lot of union support as a result of Cuomo’s political assault, and union endorsements were split among Jones, Niou, and Rivera in this race.

And we can’t take it for granted that Rivera’s and Jones’s support would have gone to Niou if those candidates had retreated. The three have different bases and a few different political stances. But the notion that Jones’s and Rivera’s respective 11,777 and 10,985 voters would not have gone disproportionately to Niou, especially if the pair endorsed her, is implausible to me.

Some supporters are urging Niou and the Working Families Party to run against Goldman in November on the WFP line. In one way, it’s a safe move, since there’s no chance the seat will be lost to a Republican. But there are risks. The Democratic power brokers will go all in for Goldman, and Pelosi would be thrilled to have a self-funding multimillionaire in her caucus. Bronx Representative Ritchie Torres, once a WFP endorsee but less progressive than he used to be, endorsed Goldman on Thursday, as if to send a message to Niou and the WFP. Pro-Israel groups, which are bringing down even Jewish progressives like Representative Andy Levin of Michigan, would savage Niou, no matter how much criticism they might come in for. The WFP would risk reanimating the tension with mainstream Democrats that has eased since the Cuomo grudge match.

Plus, post-election analysis shows that at a time when Americans are telling pollsters that “threats to democracy” represent the nation’s greatest challenge, Goldman had a political lane to himself in the primary. As the lead attorney for House Democrats in Trump’s first impeachment and a well-known Trump critic on MSNBC, he has a hold on so-called “resistance liberals” in NY10.

Despite his Wall Street and real estate support, there is a chunk of the 10th that sees him as progressive. A general election race between Goldman and Niou would be fascinating. It would also be a political bloodbath. I don’t think the country needs that heading into these crucial midterm elections.

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