Meet the insurgents: so far, six progressive challengers have toppled long-time Democratic incumbents
by Rebecca C. Lewis / July 22, 2020

“Two years after the 2018 left-wing reckoning for many Democratic incumbents in the state Senate, this year is the Assembly’s turn. Across New York City, progressive insurgents have unseated longtime members of the Assembly in hotly contested races.

Unlike the state Senate, which flipped from Republican to Democratic control in the 2018 blue wave, the Assembly has long been a Democratic stronghold. The party holds a supermajority in the chamber, but progressive activists were frustrated by reluctance in the chamber to back some ambitious reforms in the last legislative session, including public campaign financing. More conservative incumbents were warned to expect progressive primaries.

As serious challenges to incumbents have become increasingly common, and the state Senate becoming the progressive trendsetter in the Legislature, several mainstream Democrats have now lost their primaries to upstarts demanding fresh voices and new representation in the people’s chamber.  Each is expected to win their November elections in their overwhelming Democratic districts.

Marcela Mitaynes defeated Assembly Member Félix Ortiz in the 51st District, which includes most of Sunset Park and Red Hook, Brooklyn. Not only has Ortiz served in the Assembly for over two decades, he is a member of leadership and effectively serves as Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s right hand as assistant to the speaker. Ortiz garnered criticism in 2019 when one of his staffers was arrested for embezzling $80,000 in campaign cash over seven years, with some calling for the Assembly member’s resignation.

Mitaynes is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America’s New York City chapter and received the group’s endorsement. She also had the support of the Working Families Party, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and New York Communities for Change. A tenant organizer and immigrant from Peru, housing reform is at the top of Mitaynes’ agenda, including the passage of the so-called “good cause” eviction bill considered the cornerstone of universal rent control. She also supports DSA criminal justice reforms like defunding the police, not building new jails, eliminating cash bail and taxing the rich.

Jessica González-Rojas bested Assembly Member Michael DenDekker in the 34th Assembly District in Western Queens. Although DenDekker is white, he has represented the largely Hispanic, Asian American and Black neighborhoods of Jackson Heights and East Elmhurst for over a decade. González-Rojas is a DSA member, although she didn’t receive the group’s endorsement, but she did run to the left of DenDekker and was backed by several notable progressives, including Tiffany Cabán and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and organizations such as the Working Families Party and Make the Road Action. She ran on a platform of LGBTQ rights and passing the New York Health Act to create a single-payer system. She also supports the cancellation of rent in light of the coronavirus pandemic, no rollbacks for bail reform and taxing the rich.

Jenifer Rajkumar defeated Assembly Member Michael Miller in the 38th Assembly District in southwest Queens. A win in November would make her the first South Asian lawmaker in the Assembly, and only the second in the state Legislature. (State Sen. Kevin Thomas is the first.) Unlike most other insurgents this cycle, Rajkumar is not a DSA member and did not receive endorsements from prominent left-wing and progressive groups. She presented herself as a progressive, but did not campaign mainly on issues like single-payer health care or universal rent control, though she has stated on a candidate questionnaire that she supports both. The district has become more progressive, although not as much so other parts of Western Queens, as it has grown more racially diverse. It has a significant Asian American population. Miller, a white man, also has a more conservative record than many other insurgents, so Rajkumar didn’t have to heavily campaign on the far left to still be considered a progressive alternative.

Emily Gallagher bested Assembly Member Joseph Lentol, who has been serving in the Assembly for nearly 50 years, in the 50th District in Brooklyn. Like Mitaynes, Gallagher’s victory was an upset. On election night, Gallagher was about 1,700 votes behind Lentol, but as absentee ballots were counted, the gap closed until her vote total had comfortably surpassed his. Gallagher did not get the support of the DSA, despite initially seeking it.

Interestingly, the WFP also did not endorse Gallagher, and in fact backed Lentol in the race, based in part on his longtime record of supporting criminal justice reform. However, Gallagher had support from progressive groups like New York Communities for Change and Our Progressive Future. An environmental activist and tenant rights organizer, she campaigned on issues like investing in public, low-income and supportive housing, and opposing any new fossil fuel pipelines.

In another victory for the NYC-DSA, Phara Souffrant Forrest declared victory over Assembly Member Walter Mosley in the race for the 57th District in Central Brooklyn. On election night, she trailed him by about 600 votes, but according to Souffrant Forrest’s campaign, she led him by more than 2,500 after most absentee ballots had been counted. She was backed by the DSA and also had endorsements from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Our Progressive Future and New York Communities for Change.

The WFP did not back her, instead supporting Mosley. Souffrant Forrest is a nurse and supports safe staffing ratios in hospitals and passing the New York Health Act. She also organized tenants in her own building in the past and campaigned strongly on housing issues like universal rent control. Like many other progressive insurgents and DSA candidates, she supports redirecting state funds away from police and into social services.

In Western Queens, Zohran Mamdani emerged victorious over incumbent Assembly Member Aravella Simotas. He had a tight lead in the election night results, one that held as the counting of absentee ballots concluded. In a tweet declaring victory, Mamdani said that he held a 300-vote lead over Simotas, enough not to trigger a recount. Mamdani was backed by the NCY-DSA, although he was the only candidate from the slate not to have the endorsement of Ocasio-Cortez. He also did not get the WFP’s backing, which stayed out of the race entirely, despite having supported Simotas in the past. Mamdani campaigned strongly on housing rights and affordability, inspired by his work helping immigrant homeowners avoid foreclosure. If he wins in November, he would be only the second South Asian ever elected to the state Senate and the third Muslim in the state Legislature as a whole.”

By Eliot Engel’s Standards, He Would Have Been Congressman-for-Life
by Ed Kilgore / July 20, 2020

“It’s understandable that 16-term New York congressman Eliot Engel is sore about losing the seat he’s held since 1989 to first-time candidate Jamaal Bowman in a Democratic primary, and perhaps offended that some of his colleagues in Washington endorsed his opponent. But his argument against any breach of caucus solidarity is ridiculous once you break it down. CNN has the story: “House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel, a 16-term veteran who was vanquished in his New York primary by a progressive insurgent, bluntly warned his fellow Democrats against backing challengers against sitting lawmakers from the same party. “I think that it’s a very dangerous thing for party unity if members are going to start putting up primary challenges to other members in the same caucus,” Engel, 73, who has served in the House for nearly 32 years, told CNN on Monday. “I think it’s not something that should be done.”

The idea that House members “put up” Bowman to challenge Engel is a little insulting. He was a well-known middle-school principal and activist in the Bronx who announced his candidacy over a year ago. He didn’t receive his endorsements from House members (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley) until June of 2020, well after he had shown himself to be a viable contender. Yes, he was supported by the progressive group Justice Democrats, but the group hardly had the clout and fundraising capacity of some of the groups in Engel’s corner, notably AIPAC.

For that matter, Engel had a lot more backing from House members and their organizational arms than Bowman received from anyone in Washington, as the American Prospect reported: “Among Engel’s endorsers in the past few weeks are the most powerful players in the Democratic party: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff, third-ranking House Democrat [Jim] Clyburn, caucus chair Hakeem Jeffries, New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand (the state’s senior senator, Chuck Schumer, was listed on Engel’s website as an endorser, but recently claimed to be sitting the race out). Hillary Clinton came off the sidelines to make Engel her first House race endorsement this cycle, joining the CBC [Congressional Black Caucus] and End Citizens United, a PAC largely seen as an outgrowth of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.”

Since the 16th congressional district of New York is very safely Democratic (it has a Partisan Voting Index of D+24, which means it is 24 points more Democratic than the country as a whole), Engel is basically arguing that his colleagues should help him maintain a life tenure on a U.S. House seat. If primaries are ever to be acceptable, shouldn’t it be in this sort of district, as opposed to a marginal district where intraparty divisions might let the Republican wolf at the door come in? And why should an incumbent automatically enjoy the combined clout of her or his colleagues and all the powerful and well-heeled interest and advocacy groups they attract?

Here’s the rationale Engel gave CNN: “Who is going to (be able to serve) in a caucus if there are people sitting right in there who want to get you defeated?” Engel said in the Capitol. “I would be reluctant and other people would be reluctant to say what they feel. I just think it’s not something I would do.” I don’t know what exactly Engel might have wanted to share with colleagues that he didn’t want divulged to his constituents, but perhaps he was thinking of this deadly incident from his own campaign, as reported by Politico:

“Rep. Eliot Engel became engulfed in yet another controversy on Tuesday after he was overheard on a “hot mic” saying he only sought press attention at a local event on the unrest over police brutality because of his upcoming primary threat. “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care,” the New York Democrat told Ruben Diaz Jr., the Bronx borough president, as he asked for time to speak at a news conference on local vandalism.” The gaffe sure made Engel sound like an entitled incumbent who needed a good primary challenge every decade or so (his last was actually in 2000) in order to be reminded that the U.S. House of Representatives is not some group of landed aristocrats bound to protect each other against the commoners pounding on their gates.”

Congress Is a Hostile Workplace
by David A. Graham / July 2020

“You think your job sucks? Imagine going to work every day at an office where about half of your colleagues think you’re not just bad at what you do, but that you’re trying to destroy the whole enterprise. In fact, they spend much of their time at work denigrating you to other colleagues, tweeting nasty things about you, and trash-talking you to the media. They even publicly try to get you fired.By the way, you have to reapply every other year just to keep your job, which means that when you’re not dealing with your antagonistic colleagues, you’re calling everyone you know and many people you don’t, asking them to send you money.

Even though that’s effectively part of your job, you’re not allowed to do it at the office—you’ve got to go somewhere else and do it on your own time. That might make you complain that you’re being made to take your work home with you. But, conversely, you also have colleagues who literally sleep in their office. Arrive at work too early, and you might see them shambling down the hall in their boxer shorts. If someone is rude or uncooperative or cruel or harasses you, good luck finding someone to deal with that. There’s no HR department, and there aren’t even really bosses—at least not in the traditional sense of managers. Other than in the two-year reapplication process, practically no one can be fired, unless their behavior is once-in-a-century egregious.

But hey, you do get a nice lapel pin and the privilege of riding in a special elevator. Welcome to Congress! Yesterday, a reporter for The Hill witnessed a tense exchange between Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the rising star of an insurgent progressive movement in the House, and Representative Ted Yoho, a departing star of an insurgent conservative one. Yoho reportedly accosted Ocasio-Cortez over comments she had made, saying that a spike in crime in New York was related to economic desperation.Yoho told Ocasio-Cortez that she was “disgusting” and “out of [her] freaking mind.” Ocasio-Cortez replied that Yoho was “rude.” (Fact-check: True.)

She later tweeted that another GOP congressman present snapped at her as well. As he walked away, Yoho muttered, “Fucking bitch.” This wasn’t just a flare-up of a long-running tiff between two colleagues either: Ocasio-Cortez said she’d never met the Floridian before. (In a statement to The Daily Caller, Yoho’s office disputed The Hill’s account, saying that “he made a brief comment to himself as he walked away summarizing what he believes her polices to be: bullshit.”) There’s an obsolete but persistent idea that when members of Congress aren’t on the House or Senate floor, they’re rubbing elbows at clubby parties in Georgetown. Even before COVID-19, that wasn’t true. Mostly, they spend their time trying to destroy people they work with.

Yoho’s misogynistic outburst is particularly egregious, from a particularly outlandish member, but examples of tense encounters and obnoxious behavior in Congress are common. Just last month, the Texan and asparagus enthusiast Louie Gohmert started banging on a desk like a petulant child to try to drown out a witness with whom he disagreed. A week before that, Florida’s Matt Gaetz screamed at Louisiana’s Cedric Richmond. In 2019, the late Elijah Cummings had to mediate a dispute between Rashida Tlaib and Mark Meadows, whom she had called a racist. Lest anyone believe this is merely standard Democrat-versus-Republican stuff, Gaetz tweeted (while I was writing this article) his demand that Liz Cheney be ousted from the Republican leadership, following a tense caucus meeting this morning.

I’m surely omitting some glaring recent cases, because there are so many, which is exactly the point. Underneath the formal, protocol-required honorific addresses—“the gentlelady from Alaska,” “the gentleman from Wyoming,” and so on, often delivered with a facetious tone—Congress is a hostile workplace. Many of the behaviors that our elected representatives display regularly on Capitol Hill would get them scolded at best and marched out by security at worst if they held the same kinds of jobs as most of their constituents. Most jobs aren’t like being in the House or the Senate, though. Most people work in essentially bureaucratic institutions: You’re hired to do a job, there’s a hierarchy in place, and you can get promoted or fired or transferred based on your performance and interactions. But Congress is democratic, with members elected by the popular vote. For governing purposes, that’s a good thing. Few of us want to be ruled by bureaucrats (though many Americans already feel that we are).

For working-environment purposes, that’s less salubrious. Members have a boss, in the sense that they’re accountable to voters, but no one is supervising them on a day-to-day basis. Leaders in each party can set priorities and steer legislation, but their power over individual members is limited. (Just ask the past two Republican speakers of the House, John Boehner and Paul Ryan, who both retired after being hounded by caucus insurrectionists.) Members really only have to face accountability every two years, and even then voters don’t necessarily grade them on their performance in Washington: Maybe the other guy is worse. Maybe the other guy disagrees with voters on policy. Maybe voters are just as happy with some cussed old bastard haranguing his colleagues. And while no serious person would suggest jettisoning democratic accountability for members, a miserable environment in Congress risks scaring off good leaders and producing a kakistocracy.

The good news is that it has not always been thus. The bad news is that it has been even worse. The story of the abolitionist Charles Sumner’s caning in the Senate chamber by his pro-slavery colleague Preston Brooks is relatively well known, but as the historian Joanne Freeman has written, it was only the most glaring of many violent episodes in the pre–Civil War Congress. The Ohio abolitionist Joshua Giddings was beaten at least seven times in barely two decades in the House, and had a pistol pulled on him during a floor speech. Duels were fought away from the Capitol, but the threat of violence inside increased too: “By the late 1850s, most congressmen were armed; as early as 1850, some congressmen guessed that roughly 30 percent of the House carried weapons, and those numbers increased over the course of that eventful decade.”

Over time, relations in Congress got better. Then they got worse again—though, thankfully, not that bad, at least not yet. Theories for why abound. Maybe cheap and speedy air travel means that members spend less time in Washington than they used to, which means that they socialize and know one another less, making them less collegial. Or maybe, as my colleague McKay Coppins wrote in 2018, it’s former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s fault, for poisoning how Congress works. Maybe it’s just a reflection of an angrier and more polarized country. Maybe it’s that new forms of media have made performative gestures—such as sleeping in your office to save taxpayer money, rather than renting an apartment—more appealing to members, just as the telegraph exacerbated antebellum tensions.

The idea that Congress is a hostile workplace isn’t entirely new. In a 2017 letter, members of the Congressional Black Caucus said that the specter of groggy members walking half-dressed in office buildings was “contributing to a hostile work environment.” In an ordinary workplace, partially dressed employees might be referred to the human-resources department of a company, but Congress doesn’t have that. Instead, it self-polices—at least in theory. The House, like the Senate, has its own ethics committee, which is where that letter was sent.

The House also has an independent office that investigates and makes referrals to the ethics committee. The ethics committee can recommend disciplinary actions such as censure and expulsion to the full chamber. Naturally, that means that, in practice, a disciplinary vote is a popularity contest or a partisan battle, and that it’s extremely hard for a member to get seriously punished. In fact, excluding cases related to Confederate secession, only three members have ever been expelled for misconduct, and one of those was in 1797. (Other members have resigned amid scandals.) This constitutes de facto near-immunity from firing.

The worst victims of this impunity are staffers. In addition to its other problems, Congress is an institution that runs on deference. (Remember the special elevator?) Young people arrive from around the country, eager to make their way in politics, which means finding favor from powerful people. They’re susceptible to overwork, verbal abuse, humiliation, and especially sexual harassment. As became clear during a fleeting 2017 reckoning over members harassing staffers, workers have little protection, since there’s no HR department; many victims are simply paid off, on the taxpayers’ dime, without any public knowledge—which only makes it harder for voters to hold their representatives accountable.

Just because the position of staffers is worse doesn’t mean that the situation is acceptable for members of Congress, though. Politics ain’t, as they say, beanbag, and an elected official has to be able to take a rhetorical punch, though hopefully not a literal one. The issues at stake in Washington are often of vital importance to the entire nation, and representatives should be passionate and engaged. But they are also just that: representatives, and there’s no reason they should engage in behavior that would get any of their constituents fired or reprimanded.”

The Cabinet was the easy part. Staffing (and steering) the bureaucracy takes much more work.
by Andrew Rudalevige  / Jan. 10, 2017

“With confirmation hearings starting, much of Washington’s focus will be on President-elect Donald Trump’s top-level appointments. But take note of reports that James Mattis, nominated to be the defense secretary, is feuding with Trump Tower over other jobs in the Pentagon. That’s a clue to the fact that Cabinet offices represent just the tip of the executive branch iceberg.

Brookings senior fellow Elaine Kamarck has broken down the astonishing 4,115 posts that need to be filled by the president. Many are on part-time commissions and the like. But about 800 are executive-level positions, some requiring Senate confirmation and some not. (These figures are from the Partnership for Public Service.)

These appointments are a potential — and valuable — presidential resource, given that 4 million people staff the bureaucracies Trump will soon inherit. As quoted in Thomas Weko’s book “The Politicizing Presidency,” John F. Kennedy’s personnel chief Larry O’Brien put it this way: “We approached this administration asking, ‘how do you get control over this massive bureaucracy — control in the sense that it is directed in its activities to the president’s interests?’”

This may be particularly important to the new administration, many of whose Cabinet members have little governmental experience. Finding the right people to fill the subcabinet jobs can be hard. Kennedy famously quipped, “I thought I knew everybody and it turned out I only knew a few politicians.” And the Trump counterpart to O’Brien — John DeStefano — was not named publicly until Wednesday, Jan. 4.

History suggests at least two issues he will need to quickly consider. One is the tradeoff between loyalty and competence. The other is related: Who chooses whom to hire? Will it be Trump (or his White House personnel office), or will the decisions be delegated to his Cabinet members? It’s worth comparing the experiences of two previous Republican presidents on these fronts. Martin Anderson, in his book “Revolution,” tells the contrasting stories of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. (Anderson worked in both administrations.)

Anderson describes Nixon’s 1968-1969 transition as a “personnel disaster.” After an extended false start under someone poorly suited to the task, the “immense amount of prior planning and staff work” needed was simply not complete. Nixon, therefore, decided to let Cabinet members select their own subordinates. The upshot, Anderson argues, was that: “the departments were primarily staffed with people with an agenda different from that of the White House . . . [and] the Nixon administration never recovered.” Nixon soon reached the same conclusion.

While his attempt to recalibrate was derailed by Watergate, his archives detail the lessons learned. By 1972, he was receiving regular reports on “Gaining Control of the Bureaucracy” from staffers dedicated to restocking his second term with Nixon loyalists. Consider White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman’s handwritten notes from one of his many meetings with Nixon at Camp David just after the 1972 election. Haldeman transcribes Nixon’s main takeaway: “Have understanding with all appointees: . . . President will name second spots and other key slots.”

“Excerpts of H.R. Haldeman’s notes from a Nov. 17, 1972, meeting with President Richard Nixon”

As you can see from the excerpt reproduced at the top of this post, some of Haldeman’s notes are laid out in a sort of free verse — proving you can govern in poetry after all, perhaps? They denote exactly which “key slots” were most key, as recommended by longtime Washingtonian Bryce Harlow. Translated into a more prosaic format, out of Haldeman’s shorthand, the notes read: “Loyalty up is the most important thing. As we dismantle offices use the loyal people out thru agencies. Follow Harlow rule — control the key posts: press, legal, personnel, Congressional, Deputy.” And in case appointers — or appointees — missed the point: “Loyalty much more important than competence.”

Finding the balance between those dimensions is a perpetually tricky one for presidents. Hiring on the basis of loyalty alone can undermine agency performance — and thus, presidential power, as Vanderbilt’s David Lewis has shown. Yet loyalty is more effective when it means commitment to the president’s program, rather than personal fealty to the president as person and politician.

Reagan’s first personnel czar, Pendleton James, who also worked for Nixon, later observed in a Miller Center oral history that Nixon wanted the latter type of loyalty, Reagan the former: “I don’t think I knew what Nixon’s policy was. With Reagan we all knew what his policy was. You didn’t have to read a book. You knew what it was.” This made a key difference as the Reagan transition approached in 1980-1981 — since, as Anderson says, “the people around Reagan in 1980 were determined not to repeat Nixon’s mistake.”

(Or Jimmy Carter’s, for that matter. Carter also had delegated hiring power in an effort to de-emphasize centralized White House authority in Watergate’s wake. Weko later interviewed rueful Carter aides who themselves also came to believe that “in order to countervail all that’s out there, you’ve got to build your own [staff] . . .”) As scholars like George Mason’s James Pfiffner have documented, transition teams led by James were at work well before the 1980 election.

“Index card guide to key attributes for incoming Reagan administration personnel in 1980-1981.” (Source: Annelise Anderson Papers)

With the credo “personnel is policy,” they wrote comprehensive job descriptions, prioritized positions – not unlike Harlow’s earlier list – and drew up exhaustive lists of potential candidates. The criteria for those personnel could be reduced to a single famous index card devised by Reagan counselor (later attorney general) Ed Meese, as you can see below. “Commitment” tops the list. As with Nixon, it is above “competence” — but on Reagan’s card, notably, “commitment” is to “philosophy, policies, objectives,” not his personal whims.

“Integrity” is not far behind. Anderson recounts that “all key subcabinet appointments were cleared by Reagan and/or his top personal aides,” vetted on the basis of the card’s characteristics. “They were treated as presidential appointments even when they were not.” As a result (if he does say so himself), “the transition personnel operation was superb, easily the best in the history of the United States.”

The Trump transition is probably not in the running for that title. Its slow start during the campaign itself — effectively re-starting the process under Vice President-elect Mike Pence after Election Day — seems closer to Nixon’s than to Reagan’s. So does Trump’s brand of personalized policymaking, which seems to transcend any discernible ideology.

But there is still time for the new administration to take a crash course in these lessons of presidential history. Loyalty will likely precede competence in most presidential hiring preferences. But controlling the bureaucracy requires that loyalty represent policy commitment — and combine with integrity and competence too. The result is less about poetry than pragmatism — and, as always, power.”



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