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Tense New York Convention A "Gut Check" For Democrats

"We have to regain the confidence of the electorate that we don't just say we stand for something different, but we really can effectively deliver," says Schneiderman.

Posted on June 1, 2014, at 9:48 p.m. ET

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

ALBANY, N.Y. — Forced to choose between passion and pragmatism, New York's leading progressive party made a deal with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, handing its ballot line to a moderate in whom many of its members have completely lost faith.

When the final votes were tallied and it was announced late Saturday night that Cuomo would once again be on the Working Families Party ballot line come November, an audible eruption of boos, hisses, and profanities could be heard from the crowd.

But Cuomo had gone around the grassroots. Instead, he struck a deal with the party's core leadership, comprised primarily of activists and top union leaders, giving him nearly 59% of the weighted party vote. Despite a video message in which he promised to champion some progressive causes and commit to reinstalling a Democrat-controlled state Senate, Cuomo's victory was reviled by a large part of convention's attendees, a New York left for whom his name is now a dirty word — but many of whom didn't have a nominating vote.

The choice represented an ideological crossroads for progressives in New York, and a national test for a rising left, aides to one of whose leading figures, Mayor Bill de Blasio, played a role in brokering the deal.

"I think the Democratic Party nationally is going through a period where people all over the country are seeing this and people are getting a little more of a gut check," said Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a progressive stalwart who helped win votes for Cuomo in the final hours of Saturday's convention. "We have to regain the confidence of the electorate that we don't just say we stand for something different, but we really can effectively deliver."

Cuomo has governed on the left on social issues like marriage equality, but as a moderate on taxes and education policy. He has also made little effort to end Republican control the state Senate. Saturday's convention marked a clear, dramatic break with elements of the left that had been a long time in coming.

The relatively close vote showed "the deep dissatisfaction with the Cuomo administration, and the raw hunger for deep change," the left's candidate, law professor Zephyr Teachout, said in a statement Sunday night. "We need a whole different argument about what kind of America we want to live in."

One progressive strategist, Mike Lux, described the frenzy at the convention as a microcosm of national Democratic politics, in which an increasingly confident left is struggling to find an identity and a central issue on which to confront mainstream Democrats; he pointed to the split over the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which Obama supports but the progressive wing is bitterly against.

"The two sides of the party, they have to work together at times because the Republicans are nuts and nobody wants the Republicans to take control of the national government," Lux said. But "on a lot of policy issues they are going to part ways and they are going to push and shove each other. And that's the way it is."

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