The New Democrats’ New Line

Driving uphill to the Hilton Rye Brook last week, where the Democratic Party’s state convention was being held, the party die-hards were greeted with square blue signs, printed with bold white lettering, welcoming them to the “New Democratic Party.”

It’s inarguable that New York Democrats could use a makeover, between the incompetence of the State Legislature (a budget due April 1 has still not been passed) and a series of scandals in the past few years (see: Hevesi, Spitzer, Paterson, Espada). But that doesn’t mean that longtime party loyalists don’t feel a little betrayed.

“I walked into the executive committee, and many of the faces there have been there for decades,” said one convention attendee, unhappy with the re-branding.

Another attendee joked that the word “York” must have been cut off by the printer.

“The Democratic Party has to refocus-that’s what I’d call it-we’re focusing on average people’s needs,” Senator Chuck Schumer told the press after his acceptance speech. “And when we do that, we win, and we serve our people well, and our jobs well. I think that’s what it means.”

The concept behind the new slogan, incidentally or not, echoes the sentiments of the campaign of Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who is now officially running for governor and who holds a wide lead over all the other candidates.

“This is the New Democratic Party,” Mr. Cuomo said after he spoke to the convention on Thursday, May 27. “Every day it’s a new Democratic Party. It’s a party that evolves to meet the needs of today, that’s what I was trying to talk about in the speech.”

Mr. Cuomo has come out strong with this message, in part because he doesn’t want to be associated with the Albany establishment, and in part because he could easily be associated with it, having grown up around the Capitol, managed successful gubernatorial campaigns for his father, Mario, in the early 1980s and then acted as the enforcer for that administration.

To his credit, policy-wise, the new image is not just skin-deep.

With Governor David Paterson facing a $9.2 billion budget gap, leaving the next governor with a comparable hole to fill without the help of federal stimulus money, Mr. Cuomo is signaling he’s prepared to divorce the Democrats from organized labor-long a key and influential part of the party. He supports lifting the cap on charter schools, reducing state spending, avoiding tax hikes and reducing pension benefits for future state employees, among other initiatives. He has been noticeably slow in deciding whether to accept the support of the labor-backed Working Families Party, which proved in the latest round of elections that it wields enormous power when it comes to on-the-ground campaigning.

After Mr. Cuomo’s speech to delegates, Democratic consultant Bruce Gyory compared Mr. Cuomo’s positioning to other centrist Democrats in recent history.

“This speech was classic Third Way,” said Mr. Gyory. “What [Bill] Clinton and [Tony] Blair did at the national level, here and in Great Britain, is what Andrew Cuomo did today in the State of New York.”

Not surprisingly, some labor union members were not effusive. Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said flatly of Mr. Cuomo’s speech, “I liked it a lot.” He then promptly walked out of the convention hall.

Richard Ianuzzi, head of the UFT counterpart on the state level, made a point of telling The Observer that his union is not “doing any early endorsements.” Another labor leader, who asked not to be named, said he told a legislative leader that his group worked well with Republicans when they controlled the State Senate, and are willing to work with them again. That puts some pressure on Democrats, including Mr. Cuomo, to consider how much political capital to expend defending their two-seat majority in that house.

That said, some labor leaders say they appreciate Mr. Cuomo’s challenge.

Mr. Cuomo has to “run based on who he is, and not based on ‘let me kiss this one’s ass, and that one’s ass,’ just to try to get a vote,” said Norman Seabrook, head of the correction officers’ union. “I have to be conscious of the fact that there are individuals out here that are not part of labor that deserve to eat and pay rent as well as we do.”

After the speech, the elder Mr. Cuomo-a scion among liberals and a man known for his oratory skills-mingled with well-wishers at a luncheon at the Hilton. His son’s speech, he told The Observer, “w as the best I’ve ever heard from anyone.” His eyes were watery.

Asked if Andrew would carry on his progressive agenda, Mr. Cuomo said, “No. He’s way above the level I ever reached and he’ll keep getting higher.” Then he was shuttled out of the room as Andrew, a few steps away, held forth in an impromptu scrum.

“When you look at the Democratic Party, what it does best, I think, is it addresses the needs at that time,” the younger Mr. Cuomo told reporters. “So 20 years ago when my father was serving-and more, when he started-there was a different set of needs, so the Democratic Party was different.”


  The New Democrats’ New Line