De Leon vs Feinstein, Cuomo vs Nixon Highlight a Crossroads for Labor and Progressives

Big primary races in California and New York are telling an interesting and underreported story about labor, the Democratic Party and how the balance of power is changing on the left.

It hasn’t yet made big news outside of California, but Dianne Feinstein’s Senate challenger Kevin De Leon has been racking up an impressive slew of endorsements from labor groups. Not least of these was the powerful California Labor Federation, boasting over 2 million members statewide. That reinforces earlier endorsements from SEIU and the California Nurses Association, as well as the Southern California Teamsters 42, LIUNA and a host of other unions across the spectrum.

That’s quite a rebuke to a sitting Democratic Senator seeking re-election. It partly reflects appreciation for former California Senate President Pro Tem De Leon’s longstanding efforts on behalf of a $15 minimum wage and protections for undocumented workers and environmental sustainability. But it also reflects severe discontent with the brand of moderate politics espoused by Feinstein. Like most institutional players, labor tends to be protective of incumbent legislators and disinclined to wage internal primary wars. But it is also evident that in the nation’s most progressive big state, labor leaders are confident in their ability not just to help Democrats defeat Republicans, but to push the Democratic Party in a more progressive direction–and they would prefer a Senator who can be counted on to lead the progressive charge from the front, rather than have to be constantly lobbied to do the right thing behind the scenes.

In New York, however, the story is moving in the opposite direction. After the largely labor-financed Working Families Party backed progressive Cynthia Nixon over incumbent moderate Andrew Cuomo for governor, the leadership of several large unions is staging a walkout from the organization. The Working Families Party has long been the progressive conscience of the Democratic Party in the state of New York, providing a worker-friendly counterbalance to often Wall Street-friendly and socially conservative Democrats in the Empire State.

The left in New York has many reasons for fury with Cuomo, from his feud with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio over New York City subway funding to his coddling and enabling of the IDC, a group of conservative Democrats who keep the New York Senate in Republican hands, thus shielding the governor from the need to make difficult decisions on progressive priorities like single-payer healthcare. That’s part of why in a recent poll 54 percent of voters, including 39 percent of Democrats, would like to see Cuomo replaced.

To be fair, the structural situations in New York and California are quite different. In California, the top-two primary means that both Democrats Feinstein and De Leon will almost certainly advance past the June primary to face off again in the general election, rendering null the risk of a Republican taking the seat–whereas in New York if Cynthia Nixon were to stay on the ballot as a Working Families candidate past June, it could end up splitting the coalition (New York allows candidates to appear on more than one party line in the primary.) Perhaps more importantly, as governor Cuomo has more power to recriminate against labor than Feinstein does as a Senator from California: Cuomo is certainly vindictive enough to deny, say, the teachers any future raises should they back Nixon. Finally, it’s certainly true that as a relative political newcomer Nixon has less institutional loyalty built up around her in New York than De Leon does in California: it is one of the hallmarks of the California race that Feinstein has been largely absent from internal California state politics and its activists while De Leon is a familiar and largely beloved stalwart.

Nonetheless, the differences in New York and California aren’t just about campaign structure and candidates. They also reflect a cultural and ideological divide about progressive organizations and their relationship to powerful incumbent centrist politicians: should organizations back progressive challengers to disliked Democratic incumbents even at the risk of retribution and recrimination from the old guard and its loyalists, or should they support the entrenched power structure to ensure that they won’t suffer vindictive retaliation, even at the risk of alienating their increasingly agitated membership?

In California the answer seems overwhelmingly to be the former: even in the state Democratic Party endorsement itself, Feinstein failed to clear 38% of the endorsement vote compared to De Leon’s 54%. In New York the answer seems to tend toward the latter.

But these sorts of conflicts will become increasingly common. This year, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s heavyhanded tactics in backing candidates with more self-funding capability regardless of ideology has been alienating not just the the usual leftist complainants, but rank-and-file longtime party stalwarts and new resistance activists as well.

In California, De Leon’s campaign will receive a gigantic boost from labor, environmental, and other affiliated progressive groups, in addition to core Democratic activists. In New York, the Working Families Party may be hampered by some of its defections, but it has also been heavily energized by a healthy and courageous new wave of progressive activists eager to flex their muscle. And all around the country, the effort to hold the Democratic Party accountable to its values will only gain more salience as Democrats look to sweep in a blue wave in 2018 and 2020. Because it’s not just about whether Democrats will retake power from Trump and his enablers. It’s also about what kind of governing coalition they will be, and on whose behalf they will wield power.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.