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Bob McCarthy: Returning party boss faces a new dynamic

Robert J. McCarthy

Imagine you are Jay Jacobs, minding your own business as chairman of the Nassau County Democratic Party, and the phone rings.

It’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo and he asks you to return for a second stint as state Democratic chairman. Unexpected. Unanticipated. Hey – been there; done that.

But because the governor has a way with people close to him, you accept.

That’s pretty much how Jacobs describes his “interview” with Cuomo when asked in January to replace Mayor Byron Brown as leader of New York Democrats.

“It really came out of the blue,” the new chairman said during a phone interview a few days ago. “I did not seek it.”

Indeed, few political observers predicted such a move. Brown had just presided over Cuomo’s victory for a third term and – significantly – the Democratic takeover of the State Senate. After years of trying, Democrats had finally ousted Republicans from their last bastion of state power and now ruled Albany.

But for his own reasons, Cuomo made the move. Jacobs, who led the party under Gov. David Paterson and part of Cuomo’s first term, is now back at the helm as his Democrats ride higher than ever. The governor recognized “disharmony” mainly over “process” between emerging far left groups and other factions, he says.

“Something needed to be done and the governor thought I would be helpful,” Jacobs says. “I know what it entails. I know where the land mines are.”

So now Jacobs inherits an organization clearly pledged to Cuomo, even if the governor has never even hinted at running for president. In the meantime, few New York Dems are gravitating toward Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who is very much running for president.

“She’s just getting started,” Jacobs says, noting the 2020 presidential scenario differs greatly from 2016 and Hillary Clinton’s coronation in New York. Now a key state like New York appears wide open, despite Gillibrand, and a primary donnybrook may loom.

Does he have a favorite?

“I’m keeping an open mind,” he says. “The governor and I have not discussed it at any length at all. It will be smart for me to be a little more cautious.”
Will Cuomo enter, as some still predict?

“I may see such a scenario, but I don’t know,” he said. “If Joe Biden does not run and the progressive center and the pragmatic progressives are not represented ... I certainly would go knock on his door.”

In the meantime, his Democrats may rule the Capitol, but face challenges upstate. Sure, the big upstate counties voted for Cuomo in November, but by nowhere near the margin of New York City and its suburbs.

“There are two New Yorks; people in many places are despondent,” he said, noting an upstate economy still lagging behind New York City and all the resulting problems.

Jacobs has seen the map with dark blue dominating downstate, light blue around the big upstate counties, and vast swaths of red everywhere else. Hailing from suburban Long Island, he thinks, helps “mediate” the upstate-downstate differences.

Still, life is good right now for a New York State Democratic chairman. Just in the first months of Democrats running Albany, he notes, new legislation previously stymied in the GOP Senate has passed. The Senate shows signs of going its own way and defying Cuomo here and there, but at least they are Democrats and not Republicans.

“It’s just getting started,” he said of the Senate. “They’ve waited a long time, and they are good people with good intentions.”

It may be good to be a Democratic chairman in New York, but Jacobs recognizes his challenges: continue developing a local “bench;” understand the mission of defeating Donald Trump; and above all, prevent success from becoming “arrogance.”

“In my office I have a small replica of the Titanic. It reminds me of the greatest example of arrogance in humankind,” he said. “We can’t overplay our hand or it will come back to bite us. We have to remember that every voter is important.”

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