YONKERS, NEW YORK—“We don’t know why he’s here,” said Elliott and Bella, 21, and Christian, 19, in a kind of cascading unison. “It’s a little odd,” Christian added. They were talking about the president of the United States, who had come to New York two days before a gubernatorial election to try to keep a Democrat in the job. The event Joe Biden headlined for Gov. Kathy Hochul was billed to take place in Yonkers, a middle- and working-class suburb just north of the Bronx. But what the three college kids meant was that it was actually on their campus at Sarah Lawrence College, a private liberal arts outfit where the Tudor-ish façades match the architectural themes of nearby Bronxville, an altogether wealthier enclave of Westchester County than Yonkers. The narrative of Democratic malaise quickly presented itself: a party moving away from its working-class roots towards college-educated and professional-class coastal dwellers was whipping votes on a campus where combined tuition and room-and-board comes in at upwards of $75,000 a year. The cheers when any speaker here mentioned Biden’s student debt relief were loud indeed.
Later, when he took the stage after night had fallen all at once, Biden seemed to answer the question of “why here.” He said he knew this was such a great school because he was always getting an earful about it from his ambassador to Japan. (The reach of Rahm Emmanuel, Sarah Lawrence ‘81, is long indeed, despite his track record as mayor of Chicago and President Barack Obama’s chief of staff.) There was a decipherable calculus here, though: for all the talk of swing voters elsewhere, New York Democrats seem focused on turning out the base, and Hochul had brought President Bill Clinton to Brooklyn the night before with the same thing in mind. Biden has gone to Pennsylvania, but he and his approval rating aren’t much welcome in many swing states at the moment. Better that he come to friendlier precincts to make the case to listening ears that democracy is on the line.
“You can’t only love the country when you win,” he said.
He was talking about Congressman Lee Zeldin, Hochul’s Republican opponent who lashed himself to Donald Trump over the last half decade and nonetheless finds himself highly competitive in the New York governor’s race. The state went for Biden by 23% two years ago, but some polls in recent weeks have Zeldin within the margin of error. As a New York resident, I can attest that he has blanketed the airwaves—and the YouTube pre-roll slots—with ominous messaging on crime. While inflation has been the steady drumbeat of this cycle, and understandably so, it’s crime that has taken over in the closing weeks. Republican candidates across the country have, to various extents, channeled the dark wisdom of Lee Atwater, and Zeldin’s black-and-white footage of crimes in progress have been no exception. (Well, you can’t always call them Zeldin’s ads, at least according to the wisdom of Citizens United: $11 million in backing comes from a cosmetics heir funneled through outside groups.) New York might be one of the safest big cities in America, but in the world according to Super PACs, it’s just another urban hellhole.
Still, like inflation, crime is a problem. The NYPD says major felony offenses are up 30% year over year, though murders are down 32% and shootings are down 33% after a pandemic spike last year. A report from City & State suggests felonies are around 2010 levels, and half what they were in the 1990s. But political battles are fought on the field of perception, and the perception is that New York is a lot less safe than it was a few years ago.
“First off, I would very much be skeptical that [Zeldin] would have a solution,” says Jon Ungar, 61, a securities trading firm manager from Westchester County who came to the rally with his wife, Nicki, and a friend. “And number two, I think it’s, again, the media. There’s a couple of very high-profile, horrific, spectacular crimes, and it gets a million people’s attention. You’re safer in New York than you are in Oklahoma.”
“The media wants it to be a horse race,” agreed his friend, Gretta Heaney, 62, also a financial services executive from Westchester. It was one of many complaints I heard about the political press from card-carrying liberals in attendance, complaints we hear far less often—and at a far lower volume—than the calls of “Bias!” from the right. They mostly took some form of Jon Stewart’s old adage that “the bias of the mainstream media is towards sensationalism, conflict and laziness.”
Still, as a regular subway rider, I can attest to the feeling that there’s a bit more disorder in the air, more frequent reasons to switch cars than I remember for most of my 26 years living here. Crime is up in the subway system 40% year over year, City & State reports, though that is correlated to a big increase in ridership as the city emerges fully from the pandemic. Kathy Hochul clearly has not made the case that she’s on top of the issue, and it isn’t just Zeldin enthusiasts who’ve taken notice. Her support in the city, including among the working- and middle-class people of color in Queens and Brooklyn who form the core of the Democratic base, has been running under where it needs to be to overcome Zeldin’s strength in Long Island and upstate. These are the voters who made Eric Adams the 110th mayor of New York City on a crime-fighting platform that has teetered since his inauguration.
When she spoke at Sarah Lawrence, Hochul mostly followed the advice of Democratic strategist Stanley Greenberg to avoid talking about crime at all at this point. His reasoning is that the party has lost credibility on the issue, though Biden took it on while pitching his American Rescue Plan. Zeldin “talks a good game on crime, but it’s all talk,” the president quipped, citing Zeldin’s vote against the ARP’s funding for state and local governments, which many economists say wasn’t necessary—but was inflationary—by the time it passed. It’s worth noting that Republicans have been vindicated in saying that the ARP was too big, although it’s also unlikely they would have cooperated on any kind of stimulus in March 2021. It’s also worth noting that Zeldin’s crime plan has some shortcomings. Democrats have been slammed for bail reform measures—and not just by Republicans—and Zeldin has pledged to end cashless bail. But evidence for the connection between bail and crime has been in short supply, and the New York City Comptroller’s Office found pretrial arrests—people arrested for another crime while out on bail—are actually down to 4% from 5% in 2019. Zeldin also opposes a proposed congestion pricing measure that would help shore up the MTA’s budget, and it’s hard to see how the subways will feel safer and more orderly if the agency is running them out of a $15 billion hole.
Another problem with Lee Zeldin is that you can’t believe a god-damned word he says. If he was willing to lie that the 2020 elections in Pennsylvania and Arizona were somehow fraudulent to keep his pal Donald Trump in power, and voted against certifying the results based on insane nonsense, what wouldn’t he say to get himself into the governor’s mansion? The possibility that he’s lying about preserving a woman’s right to choose in New York if he’s elected seems almost quotidian by comparison. Zeldin was still lying about the election after the mob stormed the Capitol. Even after seeing what the lies for power had done, he still voted to throw out the votes of millions of American citizens in two states. But sure, maybe he’ll come good on that promise to fix the subways in a city that by and large won’t vote for him.
The crowd around me on the quad began to fidget and chat amongst themselves by the crime section anyway, a reflection of what issues the collegiates had told me were top of their agendas before night fell, when the sun still played on the orange and red of the trees overhead: climate, agriculture(!), women’s rights, gay rights, trans rights. “Education rights,” added Camila Parra, 21, referencing the classroom battles back in her home state of Georgia and across the American South. “Obviously gun safety laws–I don’t want to say I’ve given up on those, but right now, I think the most pressing issue for me personally is women’s rights.”
She gestured toward a dynamic that Democrats have been counting on ever since the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in June: “It’s becoming a little bit more personal, so I think people are a little more involved. Even men think that one of the most pressing issues is what women get to do with their bodies.” It was anecdotal evidence for the thesis for this event and so much of this midterm year’s campaign strategy: drag out the base, particularly younger people, with calls to defend your rights. That includes the right to choose your political leaders, increasingly in peril in states like Wisconsin, and these refrains made an appearance in the speeches here from a murderer’s row of New York Democrats: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, his colleague Kirsten Gillibrand, Congressman Jamaal Bowman, and New York Attorney General Laetitia James.
But from Hochul and Biden in particular, the predominant message was bread-and-butter economics. For all we hear about how Democrats are caught up in identity politics and defunding police, the two executive branchers in attendance were pitching IBM’s $20 billion semiconductor investment in Poughkeepsie and Micron’s $100 billion for Syracuse, part of Biden’s push through the CHIPS and Science Act to reshore American manufacturing and protect our vital semiconductor supply chains from whatever China might get up to in the years to come. It’s the message of a party that learned something useful from the Trump years, that has admitted—to itself, if not the public—that he hit on something real.
Still, 19-year-old Sarah Lawrence student Ruby Rose Amezcua, a California native, got at the challenges of today’s Democratic Party: “Unfortunately, many conservatives, and I mean Trump supporters, have found a way of organizing that is currently seeming a lot more efficient than what we’re trying to achieve,” she said. “There’s not a whole lot of effective planning being done, and organization, creating change that will actually stay.” She sensed, maybe, the breakdown of connective tissue in the post-Obama Democratic coalition, where weakened labor unions and a fairly dramatic shift away from voters without a college degree have dampened the prospects of a grassroots movement that exists for something outside opposition to the other party.
In her speech, Hochul cast herself as a New Deal Democrat, name-checking Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s roots in the Hudson Valley. But it’s surely an issue that no one I spoke to cast themselves as a Hochul fan, or really knew much about her at all. She hasn’t been in the state’s top job long, in fairness, having gotten a promotion from lieutenant governor at Andrew Cuomo’s expense, and Biden himself remains a long way off FDR. But most students I spoke to said they were there to witness the historic event of a president coming to visit. And among the older members of the crowd, there was a strong undercurrent of 2024.
“Part of my motivation for coming out today is, I’m assuming Biden is running in ‘24,” Jon Unger said. “And I just want to get a look, you know?” Later, I asked what he hoped to see from the speakers. “I’d like for Biden not to stumble,” he laughed. The president had his mumbles and 90-degree mid-sentence turns, but it seemed he’d emerge mostly unscathed until after his speech was over, when he’d made one last plea to get out and preserve democracy as Kygo’s “Higher Love” was blasting out of the speakers. Then, suddenly, anxiety shot through the departing crowd of partisans: Biden’s voice had come barging into the sound system, battling the bass drum and Whitney Houston’s vocals for real estate. Was he having A Moment?
“There is no more drilling,” Biden half-shouted into the mic, fixated on someone in the crowd. “That was before I was president. We're trying to work on that and get that done.” A student had yelled a question about his promise to stop new oil and gas drilling on federal lands. In fairness, his “pause” on leases was blocked by a federal court, but by the time the worldwide energy crunch hit this year, he was probably thanking his lucky stars the promise was unfulfilled. Back in June or July, especially, Biden would have taken gasoline from Lucifer himself. It wasn’t the first time Biden had faced hecklers in the crowd—“Let 'em holler!” he’d hollered earlier—and in a way, it all seemed a sign that nature was healing, even if it was 75 degrees outside in November: lefty college kids were holding a centrist Democrat’s feet to the fire.
Will they come out to keep Kathy Hochul as governor? It’s a test of the Base Theory of partisan politics, and it will probably come down to a coalition that organizes itself against her opponent. Zeldin “has a nice looking face. He doesn’t look like a demon. He looks like a nice guy,” Gretta Heaney told me earlier in the day. “But you know, he’s an election denier. He’s someone who, God knows—if he had the ability—what he would do with women’s right to choose. He really is an extremist. But he doesn’t look like one.”
Personally, I consider him the final nail in the coffin for the “candidate you’d like to have a beer with” theory of political science. The thought of having to listen to this twerp for four years is almost beyond comprehension. It is undeniably malpractice that Hochul allowed things to get this close as summer turned to fall. It’s also not unheard of for true-blue liberal states like New York or Massachusetts to find themselves with a Republican governor. But Zeldin is no George Pataki or Charlie Baker, no post-Rockefeller. His vote to throw out the 2020 election alone should disqualify him from holding any public office in this country. His viability here is proof of Biden’s claim that our democratic republic is in grave peril, because many Americans really don’t care much either way.
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