The Democratic Party has failed its base
Democrats across the nation watched in horror earlier this month as the party lost its hard-won gains in Virginia to Republicans and came dangerously close to doing so in New Jersey.
On Long Island, the picture was even more bleak. The Democratic Nassau County executive and Suffolk County district attorney were defeated, as was the party's DA candidate in Nassau, and control of the legislature in Suffolk changed hands to the Republicans. Propositions expanding voter access in New York were voted down. This was an abject failure of Democratic leadership. There must be accountability, reflection, and an immediate course correction.
Republicans swamped Democrats in voter turnout on Long Island. Rather than Democratic leadership blaming voters, they should consider why their base stayed home, and what drove the turnout on the Republican side. It’s not a difficult question to answer. The answer is outrage. Republicans voted because of outrage at the 2020 election results, mask and vaccine mandates, the criminal justice and policing system being challenged, and our children learning history as it actually happened.
Outrage is a great motivator. It certainly fueled the left when Donald Trump was in office. Republicans have long understood that and embraced that in their messaging. It’s why we saw fully vaccinated officials like Rep. Lee Zeldin leading "Unmask Our Kids" rallies. It’s why Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin latched on to parental control of the schools. It’s why local politicians jumped on the bandwagon on these issues, rallying with extremist groups.
Democrats did not tap into the emotions of their base. It’s not because the left wasn’t explicitly making itself heard. We have been quite vocal in our dozens of peaceful protests after the murder of George Floyd, our presence before both the Nassau and Suffolk county legislatures advocating for police reform and against making law enforcement a protected class, and our speaking up at school board meetings, even as opposing groups intimidate and harass us. Almost no Democratic politician running for office addressed these issues. When people do not feel seen or heard, it depresses turnout. This is part of the course correction that Democrats must take up if they want to be more than a minority party on Long Island.
Another issue in our Long Island political landscape is the lack of competitive races, thanks to backroom deals and cross endorsements. When elections are not contested, it depresses voter turnout. When judges are on all ballot lines, it creates confusion and apathy. It is time to have viable candidates in every race, and for voters to be able to clearly decipher what the candidates stand for.
Our leadership must be held accountable for their role in this. County chairmen Rich Schaffer (Suffolk) and Jay Jacobs (Nassau) are tasked with the work of electing Democrats. They have failed to accomplish the mission. Jacobs spent more effort derailing India Walton, the Democratic nominee in the Buffalo mayoral race, than he did engaging Nassau Democratic voters. Schaffer publicly praised Republican district attorney candidate Ray Tierney, and refused to advocate for incumbent DA Tim Sini, who was at the top of the ticket in Suffolk County. Schaffer's actions helped to fuel Tierney’s victory, which cost Democratic candidates down ballot, contributing to losses in the Suffolk legislature and town boards. Schaffer himself was on the ballot, and he and his ticket in Babylon Town ran on both the Democratic and Conservative lines, a clear conflict of interest for the chairman of the Suffolk County Democratic Party. It is time for both Schaffer and Jacobs to step down. When a business fails, the CEO is held accountable by the board of directors. The same is true for Schaffer and Jacobs, who failed Long Island Democrats.
It should also be noted that Jacobs is chairman of the New York State Democratic Committee, and he did not spend any effort or money encouraging Democrats to support ballot propositions 1, 3, and 4. The Conservative Party spent $3 million to derail these initiative. We in New York had an opportunity to enshrine equity in our state constitution. It is shameful that Jacobs did not promote and advocate for this as the state party chair. He serves at the pleasure of Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul. She should remove him from this role.
How do Democrats move forward after this debacle? I believe it is by embracing their base, rather than trying to appeal to the so-called swing voter. The results from Nov. 2 make it clear that ticket splitters are a dying breed, and that we are in a hyper-polarized environment. While this is troubling, it is the reality. Democrats must adapt by addressing the thorny issues of race, criminal justice, and public health. Democrats can and must do this while continuing to speak to the economic and environmental issues that are important to all Long Islanders.
If Democratic candidates stand up for our shared values, we can rebuild and be a party that stands for the poor and working classes, for families of all races, religions, and nationalities. But we can only do so if we hold our party leaders accountable for their failures, engage in self-reflection, and move forward united.
This guest essay reflects the views of Shoshana Hershkowitz, founder of the advocacy group Suffolk Progressives.
Correction: An earlier version of this essay incorrectly said that Jay Jacobs' position as Nassau County Democratic chairman is a paid position. It is not.