Q&A: Jay Jacobs, State Democratic Leader, On A ‘Red Wave’ Election Year In A Solidly Blue State

Chairman of the New York Democratic Committee, Jay Jacobs. COURTESY JAY JACOBS

Jay Jacobs, the chairman of the New York State Democratic Committee, doesn’t live on the East End — he’s a resident of Laurel Hollow, just over the line into Nassau County — but he’s the owner of day camps in both North Sea and East Hampton, which brings him frequently to the South Fork.

But whether from his home on the North Shore, from Albany or from the East End, a “red wave” was visible on November 2. The state’s top Democratic official saw it, and acknowledges it.

In a recent Zoom conversation, he discussed the takeaways for his party as it looks to 2022 — and, in particular, a race for the 1st District in the U.S. House of Representatives, which includes the East End and, depending on where its borders are redrawn, could be prime to swing Democratic. Or not.

Q: I noticed The New York Times had spoken to you, and you talked about the fact that there was a “red wave,” and you said you think that Democratic voters are “disheartened and unenthusiastic.” Why do you think that is?

Well, I think it’s cyclical. I don’t think it’s unique. If you take a look at 1997, the year after Bill Clinton came into office, you saw the same thing in that election. You saw it again after Barack Obama came into office in 2009. Donald Trump didn’t have much fun in 2017 — the Republicans saw it in the other direction. And then here again, we had Joe Biden come in.

What happens is, particularly in this election, Democrats are politically exhausted. So they achieved what was their main goal last year in getting rid of Donald Trump. That was the achievement. So a lot of air came out the motivation balloon, if you will, to voting.

All of your elections are very tough to begin with. They’re always low-turnout events. So you really have to have people supercharged up. And, unfortunately, typically, it’s either people are scared or they’re angry that gets them to the polls.

Well, this year, it’s the Republicans. They’re angry, because they’re convinced that Donald Trump was robbed in the election — a lot of nonsense, but they believe it, so that motivates them.

On the other end of it, you come into the beginning of the Biden administration, you’re hit with high gas prices, inflation. … You’ve still got COVID out there, the job situation is a little unsettled, and Afghanistan wasn’t a smooth exit. Now there’s a lot of negative talk.

A week before our election, you remember that we had that poll result that came out that said 71 percent of Americans across the country believe the country’s going in the wrong direction. Well, that’s not ever a really good environment to be running an election in when you’re of the party of the incoming president. That’s I think what happened.

Q: Do you think there were any other factors that came into play on Long Island specifically? Because Long Island, of course, had a lot of big races go Republican, too?

Yeah. Look, Long Island is a microcosm, in many respects, of the country as a whole, if you take a look at the demographics of Long Island. And even if you look at Suffolk, there are areas of Suffolk that are very much akin to rural America in certain areas.

So, look, there are always going to be local issues that impact. But, as I like to point out, when you’re in a tidal wave, yes, you could do this and you can do that, but you’re going to be swept along a bit. And it’s only going to be the really strong that are going to hold on. I think that’s what you see.

And by the way, it goes the other way. So, there are times … I’m complaining about it now. In one sense, I wasn’t complaining too much when Donald Trump was in office, and Democrats had a great amount of enthusiasm, and Republicans had their head in their hands.

Q: Is enthusiasm another way of saying turnout?

Well, enthusiasm drives turnout, understand that. In elections, you have to make your electorate enthusiastic, and different things do that. The candidate does it, the local issues do it at times, but also the political environment has a very large amount to say about whether people are enthusiastic or not.

Q: In New York, in particular, there were a couple of issues that were cited as potentially having played a role in the results of this past election, one of them being bail reform. Do you think there are specific issues in New York State that are bogging down Democratic candidates?

Well, I think Democrats, that’s me included, need to do a better job communicating with voters before the election. I think that a big problem about bail reform is … Well, it could use a couple of minor corrections here and there, but essentially, bail reform is a good idea. And bail reform is good and fair in a social justice sense.

And it isn’t bad in a safety and crime sense, because we’re talking about minor crimes and nonviolent criminals for the most part. We’re not talking about violent criminals that we’re not going to have bail for.

So we didn’t message it right, in the sense that we didn’t sell it before we did it. And then the Republicans are really always very good at weaponizing good ideas that Democrats have and making them sound like really bad ideas. That, we go against all the time, and so I think we face that again.

The unfortunate thing is the voters completely misunderstood what bail reform was, and their misunderstanding, frankly, was caused by misinformation from the Republicans.

Q: Were you surprised voters voted down the efforts to expand voter registration, the two measures that were on the ballot?

Yeah, I was surprised. I had no indication that was in trouble. That was not something we were polling. That is typically not something that a state party chair, that’s not something that … We don’t get involved in state ballot initiatives. It’s just not something that we take the lead on, so we didn’t know it.

But, looking back on it in retrospect, we should have known it, because, again, talking to voters, Republican voters, you find that they were really incensed, downright angry, over the election being “stolen,” according to them, from Donald Trump. So, given that, for Republicans, it didn’t take very much to argue, “Here we go again. The Democrats are now looking to institutionalize the permanent rigging of elections by doing all of these things.” Then you’re going to motivate the Republican base.

If you take a look at the numbers in this election, while Democratic turnout was somewhat suppressed — self-suppressed, I would say — what really is apparent is that the Republican vote was chinned up. That was really something that they were enthusiastic about. They were angry and they wanted to send a message.

So, I think that the folks on the far right, the Republican leadership, use the ballot initiatives to their advantage, and we should have done a better job in a coordinated way to anticipate that, and maybe counter it.

Frankly, I don’t know if this was the year. Off-year elections are not the year to put things like ballot initiatives on the mound. They just don’t belong there then.

Q: The timing was curious.

Yeah, I’d say.

Q: I think it probably just turned out that way? This was just the year.

Probably. This is when they voted for it, so then it goes on the ballot. I don’t think they were looking at it in that context. Sometimes, things don’t go right.

Q: Let me ask you about the governor’s race, which we’re particularly interested in, because U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin appears to be the front runner for the Republican nomination. Let me ask you first: Do you expect Lee Zeldin to be the Republican nominee for governor?

Well, it looks that way right now, but as I’ve learned in primaries — and it seems like he’s going to have a primary — things can always happen. So you don’t know. I would make it indefinite, but it certainly looks that way.

The Republicans are very much more disciplined in how they choose their nominees than Democrats tend to be, so I give them the edge.

Q: And how do you feel about facing Lee Zeldin in the governor’s race? What kind of an opponent will he be for a Democratic candidate?

Well, look, I always take the Republican candidate seriously. I don’t want to be so arrogant to say they can’t win. I think they can win under the right circumstances. If we end up nominating a candidate who’s weaker, electorally weaker, than we may have a real problem. But I’m assuming we have a strong candidate running on our side.

I think we can point to some of the things that Lee Zeldin has said, has done. Lee Zeldin voted against certifying the election of Joe Biden. That was after … That was the day of the January 6 insurrection, where this was an act of sedition.

So, he has done so many things and said so many things that are outrageous and way too far to the right that no matter what …

I think New York voters would possibly accept a moderate Republican. Take a look at George Pataki when he ran. A moderate Republican, that’s something that can possibly win here under the right circumstances — which I hope we don’t give them this year.

But somebody from the far right? That’s just not got the appetite of New York voters. I think he’d do swell in Alabama, Mississippi, those areas. I think he could really have a good chance. I just don’t see it in New York.

Q: You would characterize Lee Zeldin as being from the far right?

Absolutely. Now, listen, I characterize it based on his votes in Congress and what he says. Other than that, he doesn’t look far right, if there’s a look to it, but that’s who he is, according to what he says and what he does.

Q: It’s interesting that you point out that the Republicans tend to be a little more disciplined in coming up with candidates. I wonder if the Democrats have hurt themselves in recent years in New York with primaries, and whether that’s shaping up to be a possibility with the governor’s race next year.

Well, yeah. There’s always a potential for that, and that’s what I worry about. But I think if you run a generally positive campaign, at the end of the day, Democrats will … This group of Democrats, I think, will all come together, and we’ll be able to mount the winning campaign.

So, I think that we have to be careful about how we conduct that primary, meaning the candidates have to be careful. My job as chair — although I have a horse in that race, somebody that I have voiced support for — I’m going to make sure that it’s a fair process. I’m going to make sure our Democratic State Convention is a fair process.

Everybody deserves a fair shot at the nomination. And I’m going to make sure, to the best that I can, that all the candidates in their efforts to persuade voters do so using positive messaging, rather than bashing each other.

Q: Tell us about your candidate in the race, and why you think she’s the best candidate.

Yeah, well, listen, I’m a friend of Tish James, and I like Tish James. I support her. I was in the lead supporting her for attorney general, and I was hoping she would run for that again. And I have only good feelings and good things to say about Tish.

Nonetheless, Kathy Hochul is the governor now. I’ve known Kathy since she was the county clerk in Erie County, way back in 2009, when I first became state chair, in my first go-around in this job. I liked her then. I was with her when she ran for Congress in a special election that she won. She was in a very tough seat, so she lost the reelection [bid], because it was a Republican seat. There was no getting around it when she ran the next year.

I was with her when she became lieutenant governor. I’ve been a friend of hers ever since. She’s earned it in a party sense.

Number one, I’m big on loyalty. I don’t have a short memory, I have a long memory. Anywhere you needed Kathy Hochul to go to help Democratic candidates, to help county committees, raise money or stand on street corners getting out literature. She lives in Buffalo. She was always down on Long Island. She was always in every other county, and she did the hard work.

Other people, and I don’t fault anybody else, but nobody else has come out and done the work for the party like she’s done. So, first and foremost, she’s earned it, and it’s simple as that.

Secondly, as governor, she just took over. She’s done a great job leading. She’s from the moderate part of our party. She is a moderate progressive. I think that’s where most Democratic voters are. Frankly, I think that’s where most voters in the state are.

I think she’s done a great job leading the state. She’s made hard choices, she’s not afraid to do that, and she’s a hard worker, and she’s doing it well. So, I don’t see the argument to replace her.

Q: And, having a year on the job will certainly benefit her in that regard, too.

Absolutely. The power of the incumbency when it comes to governors is not to be taken lightly. But, again, as they know her and see what she stands for, listen to her, learn what her vision is for the state, I think they’re going to like her a lot. And I think challengers are going to have a hard time in the center trying to push her out.

Then, you’ll have one or two candidates, maybe three, who knows, from the far left. That’s never an area that is able to build a coalition that wins against the Democratic Party statewide. In pockets, yes. Not statewide.

Q: This has been the biggest part of the difficulty of your job lately: the disparate elements in the Democratic Party. You ran into trouble recently with comments regarding the progressive candidate up in Buffalo. And you acknowledged later that you, by invoking David Duke — that was a misspeak, right?

Well, again, let me just say this: I apologize for using it, because it unintentionally — and it was unintentionally — offended some people. I think that’s because of the environment we’re in right now, where I have to be more careful, in that I’m speaking in an environment that’s not what I would call an open environment for discourse.

There was nothing that I said, not even invoking the name, that in any way, when you read my statement, would have, in a normal circumstance, offended or implied anything other than what I was trying to say, which was that the folks on the far left were pushing me, as Democratic chair, to endorse India Walton, who was the candidate running for mayor up in Buffalo, who won the Democratic primary. And she’s a Democratic Socialist. I have opposed the [Democratic Socialists of America] in our party.

I chose not to endorse her, and my argument was that there was no Republican running in the race. And the candidate that was running in the election was the current incumbent Democratic mayor, Byron Brown. Both are African American candidates, both were running and have every right to run in that race.

Byron’s been a friend of mine for years. He was the former state chair. Yet, he lost the primary, and the far left is pushing the argument that, “Well, he lost the primary. He has no right to run.” Well, under state law, you do have the right to write-in. You can do that, but I decided to stay out of it. It’s not that I engaged him, not that I helped Byron Brown or did anything for him. I didn’t endorse him. I just didn’t want to endorse the socialist candidate — and they took big issue with that.

My argument was against theirs, that I had to endorse her, that under every circumstance, no matter who possibly can win in a primary, I, as a leader of the party, must endorse. And I don’t buy that. I don’t think that’s so.

That was the whole sum and substance of it. But, yeah, I got a lot of hot water using an example that just … It was incendiary, unintentionally so, because I was trying to pick someone that was as outrageous as possible. And somebody else suggested to me, “Well, you should have used Trump.” They would’ve said, “Well, Trump was not that much better either.”

Q: I saw an article that quoted someone from Long Island, the folks who called for your resignation, who said, summing up, as Democratic chair, you should support the Democratic candidate no matter who it is. Well, that’s kind of exactly the opposite message that Democrats are sending to Republicans and Trump, right?

Remember the world we live in today: It’s problematic in that it’s very hard for people to have intelligent conversation without running into some trouble. And what ends up happening, this is a tactic of both the far right and the far left, is that rather than discuss the merits of the argument to have a discussion, you go to destroy the person making the opposite argument.

… So I find that no matter what I do, and I have a lot of respect for not only the people on the far left who are running for AOC and the rest, I have nothing against her personally. [State] Senator [Alessandra] Biaggi has said some awful things about me — I don’t even know her. She doesn’t know me personally. And I have nothing against her, personally. I just disagree with their position on the issues.

And I believe that what they’re advancing is just giving ammunition to the Republicans to use against us in competitive areas, like Long Island, where we actually have Republicans that we have to fight off. In their districts, like AOC’s district, she couldn’t find a Republican with a magnifying glass.

So, it’s a different environment, and I ask them to be more mindful of the difficulties of different regions of the state, and yet what they look to do with people like me, we make that argument, is to destroy us personally. Well … not that easy. I don’t fall that easy.

Q: Back to Lee Zeldin. When you look at the 1st District race in 2022, is there a candidate in your mind that is ahead of the pack? Again, there’s going to be a primary , and it’s clearly going to be up to the voters, but is there one candidate who stands out to you as a challenger to Mr. Zeldin?

You mean if he runs again in 2022? Because I don’t know that he …

Q: Okay, well, that’s another question: Do you think that Democratic challenger will be facing Lee Zeldin in 2022 in that race?

I don’t, because I think he’s going to run a primary for governor, and then that will be that. His time will have been passed to petition to become a candidate for the congressional seat. So I think he gives up one for the other. So I don’t think we’ll see Lee Zeldin in that seat.

The other thing I’m going to tell you is: I don’t think the 1st Congressional District is going to look exactly as it looks today — because you’ve got redistricting, and the lines are going to shift dramatically. And I don’t see why a fair, and I mean fair, redistricting process wouldn’t create for Suffolk County the same two seats, but one done where it favors a Democrat, one done where it favors a Republican.

So that might be the outcome, and I don’t know which will be where. It’s too early to tell, but we’re working on that right now.

Q: Regardless of who the Republican candidate is, then, is there a Democratic candidate who stands out in your mind?

Well, I know that they are good Democratic candidates, and I don’t want to be endorsing or favoring at this point in time. I’ll be talking to everybody, keep an open mind on that. At the appropriate time, I have no hesitation to come out in favor of a candidate that I think would be the best one to carry the day.

Q: Are you confident about winning back that seat?

Certainly, depending upon the redistricting, I would be. I don’t see a reason why we can’t have one seat in Suffolk County that the Democrats can’t win. … There are really very strong communities that are Democratic that can be put together easily to make a district that favors a potential Democrat.

You’re never going to make an absolute. You’re going to have to make an argument. That’s the way it should be, frankly.

But I think it’ll be a lot better, the lines will be a lot better, more fairly drawn.