Suffolk Closeup: Democrats sent a message in primary election

(Credit: Governor Andrew Cuomo's office)
(Credit: Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office)

On Shelter Island, Zephyr Teachout defeated Governor Andrew Cuomo for the Democratic nomination for governor. 

Shelter Island Town Democrats “are not far-left liberals by any means,” said Heather Reylek, long-time Shelter Island Democratic chairwoman. “Many are fiscal conservatives.”

Ms. Teachout beat Mr. Cuomo on the Island 55 to 46.

But it wasn’t just on the Island. Ms. Teachout did extraordinarily well in Suffolk County and statewide. 

“I hope it sends a good message,” said Betty Mazur, Democratic vice chairman of East Hampton Town, about Ms. Teachout’s strong showing in her primary challenge.

Indeed, she trounced Mr. Cuomo 307 to 207 in East Hampton. “There was some dissatisfaction with the governor in this community,” said Ms. Mazur. “It was about his dismissal of the Moreland [anti-corruption] commission and his refusal to take a definite stand on fracking and, of course, PSEG and the governor’s refusal to acknowledge there was a problem here and to be in touch with the community …”

Has Governor Cuomo gotten the message? It’s doubtful. He proclaimed after the primary: “I’m fine with 60 percent.”

For a challenger with little money and hardly known until the last weeks of the campaign, Ms. Teachout garnered 35 percent of the vote against a well-financed incumbent state official, something unprecedented in New York.

If Mr. Cuomo hasn’t gotten it, neither has one analyst allied with the GOP. Stanley Klein, professor of political science at LIU Post and a Suffolk Republican committeeman, was quoted by Newsday as saying that while Ms. Teachout received “some support on the East End from a small group of far-left liberals, the moderate Democrats, like Cuomo is, they didn’t leave him..”

“Far-left liberals” on the East End? Come on, Stanley. Just re-read Ms. Reylek’s quote about Island Dems.

“East End Democrats are as varied as Democrats are anywhere else,” said Ms. Mazur. “The Democratic Party is a big umbrella and we have all kinds of views and opinions.”

Indeed, the East End of Suffolk is not Berkeley, California-East as far as its Democrats are concerned. They have grown from a base, which, when I started as a reporter on Long Island 50 years ago, was then described by my editor as their being “Wilsonian Democrats.” In other words, Dems who rejected Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

And consider the Democratic primary results in Brookhaven, Suffolk’s largest town, bigger than all of Nassau County. I’ve not heard Brookhaven Town Democrats described as “far-left liberals.” In Brookhaven, Ms. Teachout received 2,113 votes against 2,307 for Mr. Cuomo — a near 50-50 split. Her running mate, Tim Wu, candidate for lieutenant governor, received 1,938 of the Brookhaven vote against 2,003 for Kathy Hochul.

The strong showing of Ms. Teachout and Mr. Wu in Suffolk and the state had much to do with the strength of these two candidates. She received 43 percent of the vote in Suffolk against 55 percent for Mr. Cuomo; Mr. Wu and Ms. Hochul were similarly split; and they won outright in half of the state’s counties.

Ms. Teachout, a professor of constitutional law at Fordham Law School is an expert on governmental corruption and author of the just-published book, “Corruption in America,” which has been receiving excellent reviews. Mr. Wu is a Columbia Law School professor and a leader in the important fight against the monopolization of American media.

The results have a lot to do with the weaknesses of Mr. Cuomo. “Eschewing the etiquette of internal party discourse, Teachout accused Cuomo of governing as a Republican, acting as a shill for the big banks and other campaign contributors, and being part of a ‘corrupt old boys’ club in Albany,” wrote John Cassidy in his analysis in the New Yorker. “She demonstrated that, even in this day and age, a candidate with a real message doesn’t necessarily need the support of the party apparatus, or the financial backing of big donors, to have an impact.”

There are lessons here for Suffolk, the state and nation. As Bernie Sanders, the Independent senator from Vermont just said announcing a possible presidential run: “I think anybody who speaks to the needs of the working class and middle class of this country and shows the courage to take on the billionaire class, I think that candidate will do pretty well.”