The Empire State Democratic Party's convention on Long Island was a bizarre affair where everyone seemed terrified of the man they were celebrating.
Andrew Cuomo's ego is somewhat notorious at this point. Photo via Flickr user/journalist Azi Paybarah
The essence of this week’s re-nominating convention for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in Melville, Long Island, was perhaps best encapsulated by a senior campaign advisor, Hank Sheinkopf, who at one point over the course of the two-day affair averred, "I don't know why the fuck I'm here.”
All the formal procedural requirements for putting Cuomo on the November ballot went forth without incident, leaving precious little room for drama or intrigue. What was the point, then, of trekking out to some nondescript Long Island hotel—basically inaccessible by public transport—to stand around for two days?
“It’s good for business,” one former state assemblyman explained to me. Indeed, organizers would be well advised in the future to just go ahead and dump the term “convention” in favor of “networking event” or some more accurate descriptor. Because attendees hoping for, say, any kind of unique exposure to the governor they were celebrating would have been sorely disappointed. As expected, Cuomo forewent any press availability after his acceptance speech on Thursday. Local media are by now fully accustomed to this: 60-year-veteran New York City newsman Gabe Pressman has deemed Cuomo the most “resistant to giving answers to reporters” of any major NY politician he has ever observed.
Even the familiar convention signs that poke out into the air bearing the names of the various New York State counties were comically bogus. “They’re just decorations,” one Long Island delegate told me as he sat below a sign for Yates County in the Finger Lakes region.
Similarly, the speech delivered by lieutenant governor candidate Kathy Hochul—Cuomo’s new running mate, announced Wednesday—was less than noteworthy, with the exception of a spectacular moment of "lingual dissonance" (as Capital New York’s Jimmy Vielkind helpfully labeled it): “I humbly accept, with great pride and humility," she said of her nomination to be the second-highest-ranking official in the state. Since antiquity, “pride” and “humility” have been regarded as directly contradictory qualities, so this was a bit odd. “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom” (Proverbs 11:2). You can just imagine the forthcoming campaign ads from the desperate Republican minority in the state: “Kathy Hochul. She can’t even differentiate between age-old moral sentiments. How can she govern New York? I’m so-and-so and I approve this message.”
The inanity of the convention is brought more sharply into focus when one considers what Governor Cuomo touts as his main achievements over three and a half years in office. Many attendees hypothesized that the primary purpose of the event was to “fire up the base” in advance of the November election; after all, that is usually what political conventions are for. But it was hard to find the “red meat” in Cuomo’s acceptance speech. He rattled off a battery of achievements not ordinarily thought of as dear to progressives’ hearts, including the state’s new texting-while-driving law, expanded camera surveillance in New York City, and slashing corporate taxes “to the lowest level since 1968”—along with issuing a general condemnation of “big government.” (Another Cuomo-listed accomplishment, the end of "fingerprinting requirements for food stamps recipients,” might be of greater appeal to the left, as were his efforts to legalize same-sex marriage and enact a highly restrictive gun-control measure after the Sandy Hook massacre.)
Cuomo was not even present Wednesday night at an event billed as "Governor Andrew Cuomo's Evening on the Harbor.” Rumors abounded that the soiree was “closed press,” which is public-relations code for “journalists will get kicked out on their asses,” and most of the press corps dutifully took heed. I encountered no obstruction upon entry, however. Guests dined on hors d'oeuvre including “beef lollipops” and miniature crab cakes, plus a full sushi bar and so much more (the “Peking duck in a blanket” was a delight). Cuomo’s ability to win over the Wall Street cocktail circuit has been key to his political success; 60% of his record-breaking $30 million re-election campaign war chest has come from donors giving amounts of $10,000 or greater.
“Andrew takes names,” one mingling state official could be overheard confiding. “Oh, I know that,” the man next to him sighed in reply.
Delegates did not exactly go nuts for their guy. Photo courtesy the author
Back in the convention hall, volunteers resorted to wild hand gestures in their efforts to generate applause and enthusiasm among the crowd. A video was shown featuring well-known figures such as alleged comedian Billy Crystal endorsing Cuomo for re-election, but even Crystal appeared less than pumped. Indeed, conversations with attendees revealed that virtually no one, even among the state Democratic Party’s most connected and veteran big-shots, had much affection for Cuomo. And then of course there were the people who never liked Cuomo in the first place: “It’s all transactional,” shouted perennial NY gadfly candidate Randy Credico, who had infiltrated the place to hector consultants and journalists crowded around the hotel bar.
“We all understand that we’re far better off with a strong party and a strong leadership than we would be with the alternative,” Assemblyman Brian Kavanaugh (D-Manhattan) told me, shrugging off the notion that a total lack of organized opposition to Cuomo suggested dormancy within the party. (The Working Families Party—a progressive third-party vehicle in New York that endorsed Cuomo in 2010 but has soured on his neoliberal trickery since—holds its own convention May 31, and that might be another story.)
“Look, we’ve always had a big tent,” John Liu, the former NYC mayoral candidate now running for state senate in his old Queens stomping ground, explained to me while perusing the crowds. Well, yes, that’s the Democratic Party’s age-old old maxim. But as another axiom ought to go, if the tent is stretched too thin, it just might collapse.
Michael Tracey is a journalist based in Brooklyn, New York.