The state and Nassau Democratic chairman is under fire within the party after the November election. Albany bureau chief Yancey Roy explains in this conversation with Newsday's Ken Buffa. Credit: Newsday

The rift between moderate and progressive New York Democrats, which triggered battles over legislation and candidates over the last four years, now is turning to leadership of the party apparatus.

Though the immediate fight is about progressives’ push to oust Democratic state chairman Jay Jacobs, it’s more broadly about direction of the party after two tumultuous election cycles.

The last four years have been a roller coaster for Democrats, marked by huge electoral and policy wins, followed by a backlash and, in this year’s elections, some setbacks and closer-than-expected victories.

It has triggered postelection finger pointing and a very public spat — especially about who’s responsible for Democrats’ loss of four congressional seats in New York.

Almost lost in the rhetoric is the fact that Democrats won every statewide race this year and about two-thirds of state legislative contests. Instead, friction dominated the postelection talk.

“This could create future divisions that are harder to bridge and that will only weaken the party in the short run,” said Doug Muzzio, a Baruch College political scientist.

Progressives want to replace Jacobs, who has advocated for moderate candidates and positions.

They blame him for the congressional losses and public intraparty squabbling. In a letter signed by more than 1,000 party members, they say they want a new leader who can unify the sides.

“The writing is on the wall and has been for some time: Jay Jacobs is not fit to serve as chair of the State Democratic Party,” the letter read.

Jacobs, who has been state chairman since 2019, wants to stay — and has the backing of Gov. Kathy Hochul, who has the ultimate say on the matter.

More than 40 Democratic county chairs have circulated their own letter supporting Jacobs, who also is the Nassau County Democratic chairman.

Jacobs said complaints about congressional losses are misdirected at him and, anyway, are just a launching point for what’s really going on.

“It’s bigger than that. This is an effort, that’s been brewing for some time from the left, to take over the state party and it’s not going to work,” Jacobs told Newsday. He added: “The press is not hearing from the moderate wing — but I am.”

It’s quite a turn from four years ago, when even then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo veered left to catch the progressive headwinds and defeat a liberal challenger in a Democratic primary.

Democrats made historic gains in the 2018 legislative elections, consolidating power in Albany and following through by enacting a series of progressive overhauls on minimum wage, voting rights and bail laws.

This year, the election climate was different.

A backlash, especially over criminal justice, cost Democrats some legislative seats — though probably no more than eight in the Senate and Assembly combined, once some close contests are finalized.

Jacobs has angered some on the left by arguing that legislators went too far in limiting the use of bail, that judges should have more discretion and that the issue cost Democrats in elections last year and this year.

The issue of crime also fueled Republican Lee Zeldin’s bid to unseat Hochul; with 47% of the vote, he had the strongest showing of any GOP statewide candidate in 20 years.

Some Democrats have complained that Hochul’s campaign was lackluster until the final weeks, contending there was little coordination in key areas and insufficient get-out-the-vote efforts.

“Why the disastrous results here? Simply put, the Governor's campaign was completely absent,” Sen. Elijah Reichlin-Melnick (D-Nyack), who narrowly lost reelection, wrote on Twitter. “No public visit to Rockland County from the Gov. or LG. No high-profile surrogates in the county. No organizers on the ground. No field team knocking doors.”

Jacobs said the state committee is responsible for the statewide candidates (besides Hochul, Attorney General Letitia James and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, both of whom won), not the other down-ballot campaigns. He said some don’t understand the state party’s role.

“The state party is not the lead agency for State Assembly races, not the lead agency for State Senate races, not the lead agency for congressional races,” Jacobs said. “I don’t do the strategy for congressional races. That’s not what the state party does.”

Jacobs said he personally spent more than $400,000 on candidates, including a contribution to Reichlin-Melnick. He said some who are complaining about congressional losses did little to help Democrats in competitive battles.

“Then, after the election, they stand up and say we didn’t do anything,” Jacobs said. “They’ve got some nerve.”

One veteran Democratic strategist, who works on campaigns and asked not to be named, said the left is trying to flex its muscle by aiming at Jacobs, overlooking his efforts for Hochul, especially in the homestretch when Zeldin had momentum. Also, the strategist said progressives should recognize the state committee historically “never functions as anything more than an apparatus for whoever is governor.”

But another consultant, who worked on down-ballot races, said coordination was lacking and if the “state party can’t recognize that things need to be better, then there’s a problem.” Publicly bickering with Democrats isn’t a good look for a state chairman either, the consultant said.

That touches a subtle point some Democrats have tried to make, postelection: The fighting, from either side, needs to stop.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) told Spectrum News that Democrats and others should recognize the party did “extraordinarily well” considering predictions of a “red wave” for Republicans earlier in the campaign season, and move forward from there.

“Certainly for leadership of the party, we should stop the recriminations, stop the blaming,” the senator said, “and try to move forward as a winning team.”