Identity

To Know Mayor Pete, Look at His Top Adviser’s Underreported Past

Progressive New Yorkers say Lis Smith's work for the IDC colored their impressions of the Buttigieg campaign.
February 20, 2020, 5:27pm
pete buttigieg and lis smith at presser
Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Pete Buttigieg likes to portray himself as the candidate who can bring together the Democratic Party. At the debate in Nevada Wednesday night, Buttigieg made that case again, saying, “We shouldn't have to choose between one candidate who wants to burn this party down and another candidate who wants to buy this party out.” The night of the New Hampshire primary, he declared, “We are on the same team.”

The entire time Buttigieg has pitched himself as a unifier, Lis Smith has been right by his side. Smith, the campaign’s senior communications adviser, has proven to be a political star in her own right. Perhaps no press aide has gotten more attention during this election cycle. In intensive and glamorous national magazine profiles, Smith has been handed heaps of credit for the dark horse, small-town Indiana mayor’s surprisingly robust presidential bid.

But the coverage of Smith has largely failed to mention one chapter of her career that stands in contrast to Buttigieg’s message of unity: the period when she worked to advance one of the most divisive factions of the New York state’s Democratic party.

The conventional narrative of Smith is that she’s a “hard-charging” political operative who has worked on an impressive roster of high-profile campaigns, including those of Claire McCaskill, Terry McAuliffe, Barack Obama, Bill de Blasio, and Andrew Cuomo.

But as a veteran New York operative, Smith also worked on behalf of members of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a now-defunct group of breakaway New York Senate Democrats who caucused with Republicans from 2011 to 2018, and who were considered a major roadblock toward implementing progressive policies at that time.

For organizers in New York who had to work against the IDC, Smith’s move to the Buttigieg campaign did not go unnoticed. “I do think for a lot of people in the New York activist world, when they saw that she got hired on this campaign playing such a prominent role, it definitely skewed people’s impression of the campaign because of our experience with the IDC and that fight,” Liat Olenick, of grassroots group Indivisible Nation BK, which opposed the IDC, told VICE.

Susan Kang, communications manager of No IDC NY, a group that was founded to oppose the IDC, said, “It shows me that Buttigieg’s campaign is not one based on substance.”

Even for New York insiders, the IDC was a confusing political entity. Originally formed in 2011, the IDC consisted of a group of state senators who ran and were elected as Democrats, but who allied themselves with the Republican party in a power-sharing agreement. Led by former state Senator Jeff Klein and empowered by Governor Andrew Cuomo, the IDC allowed Republicans to control the senate despite being a technical minority in 2012 and 2016, which, in turn, stymied progressive legislation, such as the Reproductive Health Act. (Michael Bloomberg, another 2020 candidate, personally donated to both the New York GOP and the IDC, as Gothamist reported.)

Among many progessive New Yorkers, Smith’s work with the IDC has not been forgotten. One of them, State Senator Jessica Ramos, campaigned against and defeated an IDC member in the 2018 primary. “Essentially, she defended this group of senators conferencing with Republicans and empowered them,” Ramos, from Jackson Heights in Queens, told VICE.

As Jonathan Westin, director of the grassroots group New York Communities for Change, put it, Smith’s support of the breakaway Democrats “was deeply unhelpful.” It makes him skeptical of the message coming from Buttigieg’s campaign.

“Buttigieg trying to run as a unity candidate while Lis helped run the campaign to factionalize New York—it’s not very believable,” Westin said.

When VICE asked Smith whether her work with the IDC undermines Buttigieg’s unity message, Smith rejected the argument.

“I've worked with a lot of different factions of the Democratic Party all across the country throughout my career. It's an important part of my bio and it's why I'm proud to be working for a unifying voice like Pete in this race,” Smith wrote.

That bio included in 2016, when Smith worked as a spokesperson for Democrat Marisol Alcantara’s state senate campaign. After Alcantara won her election, Smith announced that the senator-elect would join the IDC, leading the left to criticize Alcantara’s decision. In response, Smith dismissed them as “white progressives” who were diminishing the “voices of New Americans” (Alcantara is an immigrant)—a curious argument considering the fact that, as many outlets have pointed out, the IDC had been all-white for the majority of its existence and blocked a black woman, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, from becoming leader of the state Senate. (In an email to VICE, Smith defended her time at Alcantara’s campaign, pointing out that Alcantara was a Bernie Sanders delegate who had numerous endorsements, including one from then-public advocate Tish James and the Hotel and Motel Trades Council.)

Smith then advised members of the IDC as a paid consultant. In 2017, she criticized potential primary challenges to IDC members, arguing that senate Democrats had “already tried the strategy of challenging progressive Democrats and failed.”

Under pressure, the IDC reunited with mainline Democrats in 2018, ending a years-long division. But it was too little too late—later that year, six of the eight IDC members lost their seats to progressive primary challengers. Smith herself had already gone on to work for Cuomo’s re-election campaign against actress and activist Cynthia Nixon. After Donald Trump’s election, many newly politically active New Yorkers who were looking to institute change at the state level were surprised and enraged to find that Democrats in their own backyard were working with Republicans, and the IDC swiftly came under fire. Since its demolition, a number of policies that senate Democrats had been pushing for years—including the Reproductive Health Act, tenant protections, and the Dream Act—finally passed.

Smith defended her time working for the IDC to VICE, writing, “After the GOP won a clear majority in the NY Senate in 2016, I consulted for members of the IDC for a few months giving them advice on how to message progressive legislation they enacted, like the first legal fund in the country for immigrants facing deportation under the Trump administration. Ironically, it's hard to think of a bigger progressive priority than fighting this administration on excessive deportations.”

When I pointed to the fact that the GOP did not have a clear majority—Democrats held 32 of a possible 63 seats in the state Senate in 2016—Smith clarified that she was referring to the fact that Simcha Felder, a rogue Democrat, caucuses with Republicans.

Ramos, the state Senator, said that Smith “helped block a slew of progressive policies that thousands upon thousands of New Yorkers had been waiting on for a very long time.” In many ways, it’s reminiscent of Buttigieg, who has embraced watered-down policies such as Medicare for All Who Want It, and often works as a force at odds with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. And Buttigieg, similar to Cuomo and the IDC, also receives funding from corporate donors, which some say may influence his more moderate stances, along with his willingness to concede certain policy points to win over Republicans, independents, and centrist Democrats.

Or, as Ramos put it, “She is used to defending the indefensible.”

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