Democrats take sides as New York primary looms

Associated Press New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, hands the microphone to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders I-Vt., as his wife, Jane O'Meara Sanders, looks on at a campaign event in Carson City, Nevada, on Sunday.

ALBANY — With New York's presidential primary now 10 weeks away, state Democrats are grappling with internal bickering and sniping among supporters for the competing candidates seeking the party's nomination.

And New York, according to veteran political observers, could play an unusually large role in the nomination process should several White House hopefuls still have sufficient support to carry on their candidacies following the March 3 Super Tuesday primary. Some 40 percent of the national electorate will be eligible to vote that day.

High-profile New York Democrats now lined up behind Sanders include New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who made a brief run for the nomination himself, and two former gubernatorial candidates: law school professor Zephyr Teachout and actress Cynthia Nixon.

The state and national Working Families Party has thrown its support to Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, as has Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.

The New York Times, a newspaper with an influential voice in Democratic politics, endorsed two candidates even though only one can be the nominee: Warren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. Since then, however, Warren had a disappointing outing in the New Hampshire primary, while Klobuchar exceeded expectations in both Iowa and New Hampshire.

In a sign the 2020 primary season will be anything but a traditional one, Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire businessman and former New York City mayor, has surged in national polls in the past two weeks despite ignoring the early primary states.

Bloomberg's New York supporters include mayors Lovely Warren of Rochester, Kathy Sheehan of Albany and Mike Spano of Yonkers.

In an illustration of the strong passions that could challenge efforts to unify the party, Mayor Warren's endorsement of Bloomberg was quickly criticized by the Rochester Democratic Socialists of America. The group complained about the use of the controversial policing technique known as "stop and frisk" in New York City during Bloomberg's tenure. Warren stuck by her decision, arguing Bloomberg is best suited to win a national election.

Reached in Plattsburgh, Sarah Rowden, former Clinton County Democratic chairwoman, said she is troubled when Democrats bash a Democratic candidate at a time when she said the focus should be on the defeat of President Donald Trump.

Rowden said her ideal Democratic ticket would be topped by Klobuchar, with U.S. Sen. Corey Booker, D-N.J., who has ended his candidacy, as the running mate. She said she worries many Sanders supporters may stay on the sidelines rather than vote in November if their candidate fails to win the nomination.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the state's top Democrat, has voiced a preference for former Vice President Joe Biden, though he has not officially endorsed him. Biden found little support for his candidacy in Iowa and New Hampshire and admitted last weekend that winning the Feb. 29 primary in South Carolina is crucial for him.

Bloomberg's willingness to pour tens of millions of dollars of his personal wealth into television ads could help him with Super Tuesday voting, said Grant Reeher, director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University.

But if Sanders comes out on top that day, some contestants finishing near the bottom will likely drop out of the race and the Vermont lawmaker could acquire the aura of inevitability as the Democratic nominee, Reeher suggested.

Reeher likened the 2020 Democratic primary to the 2016 GOP primary when several rivals of then-candidate Donald Trump kept their campaigns alive for as long as possible in hopes of stopping the eventual nominee's rise.

Regarding speculation Cuomo could be enticed to be considered for nomination at a brokered Democratic convention, Reeher said the governor would be one who "could plausibly say he has a foot in both (progressive and moderate) camps and has a track record of taking the fight to Trump."

Niagara County Democratic Chairman Jason Zona said he is not overly concerned if his party's primary appears to be in disarray at the moment.

"Four years ago, the Republicans were in the same situation and then Trump went in and overpowered everyone," he recalled.

Zona said he had considered being a Klobuchar delegate but remains neutral at the moment. He also voiced displeasure with the backlash faced by Rochester Mayor Warren following her Bloomberg endorsement.

"At the end of the day, Sanders' people trying to bully people goes nowhere," Zona said. "I can tell you it won't work in Niagara County. Everyone should get a fair shake."

Zona acknowledged that Sanders, by the time of the April 28 primary in New York, will likely be viewed as the party's presumptive nominee should he put together a string of Super Tuesday victories.

In Oneonta, Otsego County Rep. Andrew Stammel, an officer in the local Democratic Party organization, spoke highly of Pete Buttigieg, the Indiana mayor, though he noted he remains undecided.

"He embodies generational change," Stammel said of Buttiegieg. "I like his military service, the fact he is from the middle class and that he is a very smart guy."

While some critics have hammered Bloomberg for using his personal wealth to boost his support, Stammel said he is not troubled by the candidate's financial success.

Bloomberg's late entry is expected to spell problems for Buttigieg, said veteran New York political observer Gerald Benjamin, a political science professor at SUNY New Paltz.

"Having Bloomberg in the race makes it hard for Buttigieg in New York," since both are moderates, Benjamin observed.

New York, he said, could very well emerge as a highly important state for the remaining candidates, given that all of them apparently see a strong possibility that Trump will be vulnerable come November.

"Things may be more fragmented now than in the past," Benjamin said. "Frequently, New York comes to the table after the decisions are made. That doesn't seem like it's going to happen this time."

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

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