Now, everyone’s happy to be a New York Democrat

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Jay Jacobs. (Jimmy Vielkind)
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ALBANY—At a recent state Democratic Party event, Representative Paul Tonko, a stalwart partisan in a safe Congressional seat stretching from the capital west through the Mohawk Valley, stepped up to the mic and said, “Democrats are you ready? Labor, are you in the house? Labor and Democrats, is that a powerful team? Is it an energized team? Are Democrats and labor the winning team? Let’s go get ‘em this November!”

There were affirming refrains from the crowd, which gathered the rainy morning of October 6 in an assembling room in Fort Purple, the Albany building owned by SEIU 1199, the behemoth, king-making, Andrew Cuomo-allied union representing health care workers around the state.

It was the kickoff of the coordinated Democratic campaign, in which the party apparatus would put out signs, knock on doors and bring the base out to vote in November, not just for Cuomo at the top of the ticket but for less-automatically electable Democrats right down the line. And after a campaign season that began with Cuomo showing no particular signs of interest in providing help to or receiving help from the state party—he originally styled himself as a New Democrat with no ties to the existing party apparatus, then became notably more receptive to their help during the momentary panic that followed Carl Paladino's unexpected blowout win in the Republican primary—it also marked the official transformation of this year's election into a more traditional-looking Democratic affair. Since then, things have stablized, as Cuomo and his party alike have profited from standing together in opposition to Paladino's kamikaze routine, which has resulted in lopsided, national-trend-defying lead for the Democratic standard-bearer and an insurmountable level of disapproval for the Republican.

Things looked very different just a few weeks ago. There wasn't really a discernable coordinated effort from the state party. Cuomo's recurring theme was a post-partisan critique of "Albany," which happens to be controlled by Democrats, and, for weeks after arriving for the last day of the party’s convention in Westchester, Cuomo didn’t appear alongside an elected Democrat. He was counting on a low-turnout election whose most motivated participants would be anti-incumbent Republicans and independents, and his expectation was that he (if not his Democratic colleagues) could win by running on his attorney-general record and away from his bumbling party.

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Paladino changed that. The Buffalo developer trounced Rick Lazio in a Republican primary, and spooked Cuomo with his aggressive, borderline violent rhetoric and a quick post-primary spike of support. Cuomo was caught off guard,only slowly bringing himself to respond to Paladino while feeding, as quietly as possible, the Paladino-is-a-crazy-train-wreck narrative.

Then he rejoined the New York State Democratic Party.

Cuomo endorsed State Senator Eric Schneiderman, an attorney general candidate who he had hoped would lose a five-way Democratic primary, in an event that helped pacify some of the more progressive members of the party base. He facilitated the party hiring Neil Kwatra from the Hotel Trades Council to run the coordinated campaign. And underscoring all of this, he dumped $1 million into the state party’s coffers.

At the Oct. 6 event, 100 people—legislative staffers, union reps, members of the Albany Common Council and County Legislature—listened to state party chair Jay Jacobs speak about how they were going to make the difference.

“I think this is a new Democratic Party,” Jacobs said after the event. “What [Cuomo] was saying was, some of the things that people had associated the Democrats with, we needed to change that because it wasn’t current anymore. What we stand for are the same things that we continue to stand for. It’s how we deliver them, how we work them into the context of what the resources and the times are.”

Jacobs, who had to spend the early part of the year stamping out premature expressions of support for Cuomo on behalf of David Paterson, said that the coordinated campaign has been in the works “since the summer,” saying “Andrew Cuomo called me first in mid-July.”

The local party chairs present told me they had only heard about it a few weeks prior.

All that is academic now, though. Thanks to Cuomo, the party has money and, apparently, some energy.

The first call for coordinated volunteers in the Capital Region is for next weekend. The Albany County Democratic Committee has used the base at Fort Purple for some of its own efforts—party officials mustered there this weekend before going door to door—and it is the source of the Cuomo-Duffy signs that have slowly made their way to lawns and windows around the capital and its suburbs.

The Cuomo camp argues that his recently stepped-up activity on behalf of the party can be attributed to his sense that blood was in the water, and that Democrats could win at all levels.

The more likely explanation is that Paladino illustrated the need for a real campaign, or at least provided the excuse for one, by demonstrating the presence of an energized conservative base.

Charlie King, the Cuomo-installed executive director of the state party, spoke to me right after Jacobs.

“Paladino is the best thing that’s happened to us, because he will make a New York that a lot of people in the Democratic base would not feel comfortable living in,” he said.