BROOKLYN — Cynthia Nixon built her campaign in part on how badly the subway sucks, which is why there was something almost satisfying about the 2 train going out of service one stop away from her election night watch party at Cafe Omar, a mid-sized bar and lounge in Flatbush. “This train is no longer in service, please exit the train,” the conductor announced without explanation as riders spilled onto Nostrand Avenue, walking the rest of the way to wherever it was they were going. It was 8:40 p.m. on Thursday; within the hour, the Associated Press would call the gubernatorial primary for Democratic incumbent Andrew Cuomo.
“Before a single vote was cast, we have already won; we have fundamentally changed the political landscape in this state,” Nixon said in her concession speech, while a room full of campaign staff and supporters sipped Haitian beer and eyed the other returns on one of several television screens. “This campaign changed expectations about what is possible in New York state.”
While the other two candidates rounding out what had become Nixon’s unofficial ticket—City Council member and candidate for lieutenant governor Jumaane Williams and constitutional law professor and attorney general candidate Zephyr Teachout—also lost their primaries, the night, taken as a whole, seemed to affirm Nixon’s optimism about what this election meant.
Elsewhere across the city, Democrats in the state Senate who legislate like Republicans were ousted by progressive challengers running campaigns on affordable housing, a strengthened labor movement, police accountability, criminal justice reform, and reinvestment in public education. The city’s current public advocate beat out a centrist in the attorney general’s race. A record number of voters turned out despite the state’s arcane and intentionally restrictive election laws. Actual socialists are poised, come November, to head to Albany.
As the returns came in, and people at the venue realized that everyone they had come out to see was going to lose their race, the room stayed upbeat. “Oh my god, I really need this,” a woman in a bright blue Teachout t-shirt told her friend, in what sounded like a joyful sob, as the local news announced that another member of the Independent Democratic Conference—the breakaway Democratic sect that caucuses with Republicans in the state Senate—was close to losing his race.
Cuomo had won a third term, but he also inherited a state that had changed profoundly in the span of two years, both at the level of public consciousness and basic expectations around what a progressive state could actually look like.
As someone who has lived in New York for my entire life, I have come to understand that there are the stories we tell ourselves about the place we live and then there is the place we live. Cuomo, like so many politicians in the state and city, mostly conducts himself in the space of progressive narrative: New York is the resistance; he is undocumented, a Muslim and a Jew. A woman. Gay.
But the truth of New York is a state of rising inequality, crumbling infrastructure, abortion laws that predate Roe v. Wade, deeply segregated public schools, and precarity for undocumented immigrants facing threats at work, at courthouses, and at home. All of this, despite a Democratic governor and a reputation as a joke about the excesses of coastal liberalism.
The people out on Thursday said the election, mixed as it was, was a way to bridge the gap between those two things. Or to at least get somewhere closer to bridging the gap.
“Politics, while they are important, aren’t everything,” Gina, a 29-year-old from Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, said while waiting for a friend outside the venue. She had been excited about the campaigns, but saw tomorrow as pretty much the same, with or without a Nixon win. “The work is still on the ground. The projects I want to get involved in and am involved in are more longterm things.”
Jose, 24 and from Crown Heights, said a version of the same thing. The election had confirmed something for him that he kind of already knew: “There’s enough people, if you look at all the other races, out there who are open to democratic socialism,” he said. “Elections matter, sure. But in between, those voters need to kick their landlord’s ass, to kick their boss’ ass. We need to convert that electoral energy into community base-building stuff.”
By 11:00 p.m., the lieutenant governor’s race had been called for the incumbent and Cuomo-ally Kathy Hochul. The trays of meatballs and plantains were emptying. It was as good of a reason as any to go home. Attendance at the event had been mostly campaign staff, organizers, longtime community activists, and other people who had been part of the effort to turn out voters. The same people who have been staging these same fights in New York for decades—through different administrations and challengers—and may now be inching a little closer to winning. It had been a long day for them. Tomorrow would be, too.