In the 2014 New York Democratic primary for governor, an unknown progressive academic with an odd name staged an implausible challenge to the powerful sitting governor, Andrew Cuomo. Armed with an anti-fracking, anti-corruption screed, Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout managed to capture an impressive one-third of the vote — and even won by some regions by large margins.
Now, in advance of the New York’s April 19 presidential primary, operatives for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are closely studying Teachout’s longshot campaign. “They’re very worried about a Zephyr Teachout situation,” said one Clinton ally close to the campaign. “The left is very mobilized. In New York [for Clinton] it’s not just about winning. They have to win 65 to 35.”
Sanders’ plan is to target the congressional districts where Teachout won – including some Upstate and across New York’s Southern Tier — thanks in large part to activists opposed to fracking, an oil and natural gas extraction technique that involves injecting chemicals deep below the surface. Clinton, meanwhile, is looking at the 2014 gubernatorial primary map as a roadmap for how to maximize her delegate haul in a state where they are largely allocated proportionally by congressional district.
Competitive presidential primary fights in New York are as rare as spacious and affordable apartments on the Upper West Side — there hasn’t been one in decades.
But this year, the stakes are high — it’s the state where Sanders was born, and where Clinton served two terms in the Senate before choosing Brooklyn last year as the hip and urban site for her national campaign headquarters.
Clinton needs to win her home state decisively to demonstrate there is enthusiasm boosting her campaign ahead of a bruising general election. The most recent statewide poll, conducted by Emerson College, showed her leading Sanders 71 percent to 23 percent in New York. Sanders’ allies said the goal for the primary is to eat into Clinton’s delegate take by winning at least 40 percent of the vote — a percentage they cite as a “credibility threshold.” And they shrug off the daunting poll numbers, arguing that they have begun every primary contest trailing Clinton by seemingly insurmountable margins.
“The other day we sent out an email inviting people to a launch in Brooklyn,” said Bill Lipton, state director of the powerful Working Families Party, which is backing Sanders. “With 48 hours notice, we had 1,500 people. They all left with walk lists and went out door-knocking. We’ve been doing events like that all around the state over the last month. People are coming out of the woodwork.”
The time and attention spent on New York this year will more closely resemble the early state operations of both campaigns, where the candidates put in real time meeting voters, and their operatives could organize on the ground — there are no other primary contests in the ten days leading up to New York, where 247 delegates are on the line.
“You’ll see all three Clintons, as well as surrogates, aggressively campaigning throughout the state,” said Clinton spokeswoman Karen Finney. Clinton is beginning the push on Wednesday, with an organizing event at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Sanders operatives said they were trying to get him to town as early as Thursday. The Clinton campaign has held more than a dozen organizing events across the state over the past week to sign up volunteers, and created a dozen “campus teams” at colleges and universities, a campaign aide said.
Clinton also plans to stage a greatest hits tour of her work here as senator. “You’re going to hear from the wives and husbands of firefighters and police officers who know what she did around Zadroga,” said former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who sits on Clinton’s New York leadership council, referring to legislation passed in Congress that provides aid to sick 9/11 first responders and their families.
In recent weeks, Clinton has been shifting to a general election message with hefty speeches on the Supreme Court and foreign policy. But the competitive race in New York will thrust her right back into the domestic issues that have dominated the primary. Clinton operatives said the campaign plans to make a big push on gun safety issues in the city. Meanwhile, Sanders operatives said they will highlight his blanket opposition to fracking, which New York banned in 2015; continue his anti-Wall Street crusade; and play up his fight for a $15 minimum wage, which Clinton has not backed nationally.
Sanders aides said they also plan to dispatch high profile African-American surrogates like Harry Belafonte, Cornel West, Spike Lee and Erica Garner — the daughter of Eric Garner, who was killed in an illegal police chokehold while selling loose cigarettes in Staten Island in 2014 — to campaign for them. And they said they have been focusing on Latino outreach in New York City.
Sanders, the son of Jewish immigrants who grew up in a tenement in Brooklyn, is also hoping to undercut Clinton’s New York ties — his staffers casually point out that New York is technically Clinton’s third and adopted home state, and there is a grassroots movement here ready to support him. But the days of Clinton being accused of carpetbagging and donning a Yankees cap for political convenience have been replaced with memories of her standing up for her New York in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, local Democrats said.
“New York is Clinton country,” said Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf, who is unaffiliated with either campaign. “But if she slips in New York by not winning big, Secretary Clinton will have lots to explain to Democrats and Republicans will have a great day.”
To avoid that embarrassing outcome, Clinton has tapped longtime donor Jay Jacobs, chairman of the Nassau County Democrats, to oversee 27 coordinators across the state, one stationed in each congressional district. Another former aide, Resi Cooper, Clinton’s former statewide political director during her Senate campaign, is running the New York state operation. And elected officials like New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Public Advocate Letitia James, who have been campaigning for Clinton, are expected to help her move Latino and African-American women voters in New York City, respectively.
Sanders is also putting his A-list team on the ground here — but despite being a son of Brooklyn, he has fewer local ties to the state. He has dispatched Robert Becker, a Washington, D.C. native who served as Sanders’ Iowa state director and oversaw his upset victory in Michigan, to run the state from an office in Gowanus that the campaign opened over the weekend. Campaign aides said they have five offices across the state, and plan to increase that number to 11 over the next few weeks.
For Clinton, one of the biggest challenges is generating enthusiasm among her supporters and reminding them the race isn’t over yet. “It’s unusual but it’s exciting,” said Quinn of a contested primary in New York. “New Yorkers are voters, but they’re not used to being important presidential primary voters. That’s going to be a big part of this effort.”
Clinton is pulling in all her old allies to help win the local fight. American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, a former president of New York’s local teachers union branch, spent the past week talking to her own members and leaders in Albany and the Hudson Valley about the stakes of the election. The UFT is planning to open nine offices across the state for phone banking and canvassing.
“The issue in New York is that people just assume because they know her they assume that she’ll be fine,” said Weingarten. “The New York campaign is a reminder that the person who was our senator is the person who’s running for president. It’s a reminder of that person who had great compassion and for the first responders on 9/11; the person who did whatever she could to rebuild infrastructure in Buffalo; the person who fought to lower class size and fought to not have testing be front and center in education. That is the person who is running.”
To counter the powerful UFT and all of the state’s elected officials who will be backing Clinton, Sanders is counting on the Amalgamated Transit Unions and the Communication Workers to help him mobilize voters.
But there’s one high-profile wild card: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose Johnny-come-lately surrogacy for Team Clinton has produced some exasperating moments throughout the campaign.
On Monday, de Blasio appeared to scoff at a comment made by Clinton senior strategist Joel Benenson, who told reporters on a conference call that he expected Sanders to campaign “like a Brooklynite,” in contrast to Clinton, who would campaign in New York like a senator. “I assume the phrase campaigning like a Brooklynite is a compliment,” de Blasio said at a press conference, the latest in a series of off-message moments from the mayor whose personal beliefs seem to mirror Sanders more than the candidate he ultimately endorsed.
Clinton allies said de Blasio further enraged Clinton world when his wife, Chirlane McCray, hinted in an interview with the website Jezebel.com that her daughter, Chiara, may be leaning toward supporting Sanders. “It looked like they were hedging,” said one Clinton ally.
De Blasio also left Clinton operatives scratching their heads after he flew himself to Iowa to door knock for Clinton after they told him he was not needed there, and could be put to better use in New Hampshire or another state. “He looked like the caboose in Iowa,” said a prominent New York Democrat supporting Clinton, “and he’ll look like the last car of the subway here.”