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Joe Biden is on the upswing in New York

Robert J. McCarthy

About four years ago, as news about Hillary Clinton’s emails and other concerns clouded her presidential candidacy, a Joe Biden boomlet began focusing on the outgoing vice president.

Could Barack Obama’s running mate save the day should Clinton falter? Might he even prove a better candidate?

So back then, the Politics Column checked in with Democrats in Auburn, the hometown of Biden’s late wife, the former Nelia Hunter. Hunter’s Dinerant, a downtown eatery perched for decades above the Owasco Outlet, was once owned by Nelia’s family (she died in a 1972 car accident).

So it seemed only natural that if one place in New York would reflect even a spark of Biden enthusiasm it would be among Cayuga County Democrats.

“Nope,” said Chairman Ian Phillips at the time. “We love Uncle Joe, but we’re with Hillary.”

We checked in again a few days ago with Phillips, an Elizabeth Warren supporter until her withdrawal from the race. He acknowledged that Biden’s new surge in the nation’s presidential primaries has reignited enthusiasm in the Finger Lakes city with strong family ties to the former vice president.

“We definitely have people who are still with Bernie [Sanders],” he said, “but there certainly is a lot of excitement for Joe Biden.”

We revisit Auburn this week to point out that unlike 2016, New York’s organization Democrats are not united behind any one candidate – even in Biden turf. Just a few weeks ago, support sprouted all over Erie County and New York State for Biden, Sanders, Warren, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and others.

Indeed, the mayors of Rochester, Yonkers, Albany and Schenectady were backing Bloomberg. And on the 16th floor of the Rath County Office Building, County Executive Mark Poloncarz supported Warren while down the hall his chief of staff – Jen Hibit – was organizing for Biden.

Mayor Byron Brown (the party’s former state chairman) and Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy Zellner, meanwhile, remain silent. That probably stems from the same silence of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Let’s cut our governor some slack – he’s been busy the past few weeks dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak and its ramifications. But it remains unlike him to avoid the politics of the day, especially after his early expressions of admiration for the former vice president.

Still, with or without Cuomo, New York is showing signs of coming together behind Biden. Rep. Max Rose of Staten Island, a major name once on the Bloomberg supporter list, is now with Biden after the former mayor’s withdrawal from the presidential race. And while a recent Siena College poll showed Biden in third place (behind Sanders and Bloomberg) among New York Dems, it will be interesting to see if new statewide surveys reflect his surge.

Hibit reports that the Biden campaign has established a new Western New York headquarters at 3896 Union Road in Cheektowaga, that staff could arrive at the facility before the April 28 primary, and that a visit at least by Biden surrogates can be expected as Primary Day draws nearer.

“The tide has turned,” she said. “People are paying attention.”

Biden’s new strength now raises major questions about the relevance of New York and its primary. Sanders said last week he will not withdraw, but will debate Biden Sunday night and keep it going. But he sounds resigned to finishing second again. It could be all over by April 28.

None of this ranks as good news for Nate McMurray, the Democrat preparing to face Republican Chris Jacobs in a 27th Congressional District special election slated for that same April 28 date. His main hope for an upset in the heavily Republican 27th had hinged on a surge of Democrats voting for president that day.

McMurray is running a strong campaign, but it’s possible that Dems may not feel much inspiration for a trek to the polls.

In the meantime, Democrats around New York look to their governor to clarify the situation. Maybe he’ll make a courageous pronouncement on April 27.

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