Special challenges for progressives in election of New York’s AG
Letitia James, Democratic candidate for attorney general of the state of New York. | AP

History was made when current New York City Public Advocate Letitia (“Tish”) James won the four-way Democratic Party primary election for New York State’s attorney general. James defeated Zephyr Teachout, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (NY CD 18) and Leecia Eve. An associate professor of law at Fordham University, Teachout lost her 2016 challenge against Rep. John Faso (NY CD 19). Two years prior to that, she lost the gubernatorial primary though she won a surprising 30 percent of the vote against a much better-funded incumbent, Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Maloney is a member of the New Democratic Coalition and the first openly gay member of Congress from New York. Eve, also African-American, is a lobbyist for Verizon who had previously been employed by both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Gov. Cuomo. James won about 40 percent to Teachout’s 31, Maloney’s 25 and Eve’s less-than-four percent.

Tish James, the first African American woman to hold a New York City-wide office, is nearly certain of victory in the Nov. 6 general election. At that point, she would become the first woman as well as the first Black woman to be the state’s attorney general. Furthermore, she would be the first woman of color to win a statewide election. All of these are major historic achievements. To paraphrase journalist Eugene Robinson on Pres. Barak Obama’s first victory, now Black parents can tell their children, “Yes, you can become the state’s leading attorney! It has been done; it’s no longer ‘impossible.’”

Funding and the Working Families Party

However, her victory was not without disagreements among progressive forces and constituencies. Particularly harmful, from the vantage of not-a-few liberal and progressive organizations and personalities, were Gov. Cuomo’s endorsement of James and the issue of corporate donations. A third issue was James’ decision to not seek the Working Families Party endorsement.

It is true that Gov. Cuomo’s endorsement has become unpalatable for many progressive activists. Cuomo has made an art of promising this, reneging on that, using the Independent Democratic Conference to blunt more progressive legislation, blaming New York City for matters in fact controlled by the state, and never seeming to accept responsibility for any shortcomings or failures. His achievements that he boasts about from the podium are always inflated above the reality of the actual gains. Teachout questioned how independent James could be of the governor who endorsed her, and the point was taken up by many progressives and some on the left.

Teachout did not accept corporate donations this election year, and it is also true that James was funded by some corporate and real estate interests. Of course, it is undeniable that a quid pro quo exists between contributions and candidates: capitalists and landlords fund campaigns, and victorious elected officials protect the interests of the donors.

When James was originally elected to the City Council, only the WFP endorsed her, not the Democratic Party—and this was a first for the WFP. Subsequently, she was endorsed by both parties prior to this September’s primary. (Third parties may endorse the candidacies of the two major parties in New York’s “fusion” system. Votes for a candidate on the WFP or any third party line are added to that person’s tally from the major party line.) This time, however, she did not seek its endorsement.


In James’ defense, some mainstream (or even “corporate”) Democratic officeholders endorsed various anti-IDC candidacies, but those actions didn’t disqualify those insurgents. While it is true that the governor, as well as all other elected officials, should not be linked in any way to the attorney general, the reality has always been different. Using Cuomo’s embrace this year as fundamentally different from gubernatorial endorsements of past years lets prior governors and attorneys general off the hook and denies authenticity to centrists rising through the ranks. Some of those centrists of yesterday are accepted progressives today. And regardless, centrists are also anti-right, by definition.

Besides, Gov. Cuomo’s maneuvering is covered extensively but is also “inside baseball,” and the number of voters reading and watching carefully is probably much lower than progressives and the left desire. Obviously, to many of the 27 percent of the voters who turned out—an awfully low figure, though more than double the participation from 2014—Cuomo’s endorsement was not the kiss of death. Progressives and the left must accept to a certain extent the fact that the governor is not seen by most voters as a horrible enemy. There is a progressive hue to Cuomo’s presiding over an increase in the state minimum wage, a program that enables some students to enjoy free tuition at state schools, limited medical marijuana laws, some protections to labor unions, his popularity among most Black and Latino voters, etc.

Teachout to a certain extent in the past accepted corporate funding, and Maloney was given by far the most from the real estate industry in the primary: over $430,000 from 30 donors, compared to James’ $280,000 from 80 donors and Eve’s $12,000. In the present era of practically unlimited spending, accepting contributions from capitalists for statewide and federal offices is nearly unavoidable, unless one is willing to run with little chance of being elected.

No doubt, higher spending usually brings about higher vote totals, but some candidates spent far more than others for the same result. James spent about $2.00 per vote (though with more up-to-date figures, that will increase). Teachout spent $2.14 per vote. (Maloney and Eve spent $8.33 and $9.05, respectively.) Gov. Cuomo, who spent $21.88 per vote, displayed how out-of-control this can be.

There were also insinuations of a “betrayal” of the WFP by James, but not from WFP quarters. According to participants and some press write-ups, at the WFP state committee meeting that made the nominations, the vast majority saw both James and Teachout as very qualified candidates, and many spoke extremely favorably about James. Most blamed pressure from Gov. Cuomo as responsible for James’ “snub,” and few were strictly in favor of Teachout. In the end, the WFP voted overwhelmingly to name a placeholder for the attorney general spot on the ballot; after the primary, the placeholder would remove himself and be replaced by either James or Teachout, whoever won.

Political Representation of Nationally Oppressed Groups

Clearly, to progressives and the Left that supported Teachout, the Cuomo endorsement and corporate campaign contributions weigh greater than the factor of national representation. This argument—in essence, one of class versus race/nationality—has haunted the U.S. left for more than a hundred years.

In politics, besides the obvious cases of national/democratic organizations, generally only the Left has waged intensive efforts to resolve the issue of racism against and equality for African Americans. Historically, though some predominantly-white liberal, progressive and non-Marxist socialists have done admirable anti-racist and pro-equality work, they do not see the racism/equality sphere as central to the advance of democracy and (economic) equality. Some Marxist-rooted socialists likewise do not place the struggle against racism as pivotal to the demise of capitalism and the advance of socialism.

In the past, during the days of more radical working-class movements in the U.S., many socialists said that since only socialism could end racism, anti-racist efforts had to wait until the end of capitalism. A more current and common take is to urge unity around class issues and avoid race and national issues, for fear that the latter two may jeopardize the class unity.

A very different view is that racism has to be fought at every instance, because that is the correct thing to do and because it is necessary in order to build the movement for fundamental social change. A select number of majority-white parties and organizations have preached and practiced this, but most have not.

Outside the realm of economic struggles, there are many democratic struggles taking place all the time. These include fights for democratic rights, electoral democracy and political equality for groups facing racial and national discrimination. The aims of these democratic struggles must never be placed on the back burner.

Many social forces combine in these democratic struggles. Alliances and coalitions should always be considered as paramount in importance. A trade union that ignores African American equality is rightfully criticized. Shouldn’t the same be said about progressive and left positions on candidates?

Nationally and racially oppressed peoples, especially African Americans, are the most working class of all populations and the most dependable allies of trade unions and working class fights. Simultaneously, racism is by far the deadliest weapon used by the One Percent to divide and conquer. This is of particular importance given the recent appearance of social democratic candidacies poised for victory in November.

If the African American vote disappeared tomorrow, many more Republicans would be elected, for Black voters are almost unanimously opposed to the GOP and the right. Likewise, many of the nation’s most consistent liberal and progressive Black elected officials would vanish. For this reason, the electoral coalition must be delicately handled. White candidates who jeopardize the election of African Americans, or of representatives from other groups facing discrimination, are inadvertently not cultivating the alliance and alienating the most critical section of voters in the liberal/progressive coalition.

The above view is contained in the CPUSA’s program, one that places the fight against racism, for democratic representation, and for equality as front and center, always and from every angle. We could benefit from a widening of its acceptance.

Sometimes, the democratic struggle must be placed above the class struggle today in order to protect and expand that same class struggle tomorrow. When I was a teacher at a junior high school in East Harlem, a Communist led an effort to form a multi-racial, multi-national ad hoc group to reclaim control of the union shop. He did not run for chapter leader (the “shop steward” post), instead pushing for first a Puerto Rican woman, then an African American man, to do so. Despite being urged to run by many coworkers, he said it was more important to have the more politically moderate yet completely capable Puerto Rican and African American represent the school—the student body was nearly 100 percent Black and Latino. Moreover, this leadership choice would help the union, which was weak on Black and Latino leadership.

While this was going on, I learned of similar cases in other parts of the country. In southern California, Communists involved in a coalition pushed for the first Latino leadership of the cannery union local. That the man chosen to run was a centrist did not change the Communist view on the supreme importance of the local’s brothers and sisters to experience leadership from the majority group of workers. There are many more examples.

In the case of Tish James, I think we were on similar ground. She was progressive enough and had paid her dues through 17 years of support and involvement with the WFP and other organizations. She was far from the corporate lobbyist, as in the case of Leecia Eve. James, an African American woman, inevitably brings a much-needed perspective and experience into the office.

The African American vote was overwhelmingly for James, as Teachout made few inroads into the nationally oppressed populations. The interests of nationally oppressed groups and the overall progressive coalition must be viewed as more important than the interests of a given candidate, sometimes despite that candidate being the “better” choice.


Michael Arney
Michael Arney

Michael Arney is active in the Working Families Party. Before that, he helped lead the Bronx Progressives, a local affiliate of the New York Political Action Network (Our Revolution). For twenty years he volunteered at his children’s schools, and he is a regular platelet donor.