White House plan for no NY primaries is unraveling

Primary campaigns were put in place in America in order to provide voters with real choices. This is especially true in states like New York, where you can only vote in the primary of the party in which you are registered. In a number of states like Massachusetts, if you follow the rules and stay “unregistered,” you can vote in whatever primary you choose. The Massachusetts way is much better because it is more democratic. To be blunt, primaries in a state like New York are often tantamount to winning the general election. That’s why President Barack Obama’s move to send the word down that there should be no New York primary election against appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand turns out to have been a very, very bad and counterproductive idea.

People don’t like bullies. They get angry when you take choices away from them. This is especially true in a case like Gillibrand’s. Let’s remember, she was never elected. She was selected by Gov. David Paterson. That’s fine. He had every right to do that. One can argue with his choice, which many people believe was made at the behest of Sen. Charles Schumer. I have written that Gillibrand’s selection as senator made Schumer the only senator with two votes. Others have likened her to a parakeet on Schumer’s hand. Gillibrand is a very ambitious politician and has every right to run. Her problem is that she is an upstater and the Democratic primary votes are in New York City and its suburbs. Polls show that Gillibrand could well be beaten in a primary, which is why the word came down from the White House, and probably through Schumer, that such a primary might be divisive.

Now things are unraveling. In the first place, the voters do not like being bullied. Even Schumer’s polling numbers are falling. In the second place, it looks like we are going to have a primary, White House or not. That’s because in order to fulfill his manifest destiny dream, Andrew Cuomo will have to fight it out with David Paterson in a gubernatorial primary. Paterson says that he is staying in and for the reasons enumerated above, I think that’s a good thing. Cuomo won’t like that because he risks alienating some African-American voters who will resent his running against the first black governor in New York history. The White House has told Paterson to get out. The question then is how they will square their earlier “no primary” request of those who could have easily beaten Gillibrand with their support of a primary that would pit Cuomo against the incumbent. In what looks like a big Republican year, things could be too close for comfort should Cuomo beat Paterson in the primary. So once the primary flood gates are opened it will be a call for other primary contests, including one by Harold Ford against Gillibrand.

Harold Ford will have his own problems in taking on Gillibrand. Yes, he is a conservative Democrat, which will surely help him in upstate New York. Yes, he has a lot of big New York money behind him and even though Gillibrand has been raising a lot of money for her own run, she’ll need a lot more to win. But once Ford announces that he is in, and it sure looks like that will be the case, other more progressive Democrats may well jump into the fray. One of the rules of primaries is that the people who come out to vote are the true believers in the party and in New York, the true believers are of the more liberal persuasion. Once a popular progressive gets into the race, Ford and Gillibrand, the two conservative Democrats who are changing their tunes to a more liberal rhetoric, will split the vote. This scenario would have to be very tempting to someone who had always dreamed of being a United States senator. You don’t get that choice too many times in your life.

Mario Cuomo once told me that the great politicians are those who can think about things six steps in the future. In this case, Obama and his political genius, Rahm Emanuel, clearly did not do that. The people may get very angry about their choices being taken away. They should.

Originally Published in the Legislative Gazette, 2/1/10

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