In Deep Blue New York, Midterm Battle to Darken the Hue

The author (right) interviews Marti Gould Cummings (left) and Johnson, following their panel at DragCon. | Photo by Bob Krasner

BY CHARLES BATTERSBY | Republicans can point out that, under Trump, the economy has seen the longest bull market in history. Meanwhile, a “cultural bull market” of steady social progress has come to an end. With the executive branch in Republican hands for two to six more years, and a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, there is a fierce fight to flip one or both chambers of Congress in the coming midterm elections. Liberals boast of a “Blue Wave,” while conservatives predict a “Blue Bloodbath.” However, of the 35 senatorial seats up for grabs this year, only nine are not currently controlled by Democrats — and Democrats must flip two of them to take control of the Senate. This makes the House of Representatives a more likely path to victory for Democrats. In New York City, a deeply blue city in a deeply blue state, political groups are hard at work trying to influence both the national and local levels. We spoke to some politicians, organizers, and activists about their fight to swing the country, or at least more of New York, to the left.

The Swing Left organization is targeting 84 “Swing Districts” in the House of Representatives, with the goal of flipping 23 of them to the left, in this year’s election. We spoke to Jon Mallow, a senior adviser at Swing Left. He explained why he joined the group and took an active role. “I’m looking for ways to be engaged and hopeful,” he told us when we spoke to him at RuPaul’s DragCon — the massive summit of art, pop culture, and all things drag — whose New York City incarnation took place late last month at the Javits Center. “Swing Left did that for me, because it provides a very tangible goal: Take control of the House, in order to put a meaningful check the Republican agenda.”

Mallow also moderated “Swing Left Presents: The Resistance,” a panel at DragCon. On it was, among others, New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Marti Gould Cummings, the founding (and current) president of Hell’s Kitchen Democrats. Gould Cummings is known as a drag performer on the Fusion TV show “Shade: Queens of NYC.” After the 2016 election, he founded the Hell’s Kitchens Democrats. He is a current board member of Community Board 9, and also serves on the Mayor’s Advisory Council on Nightlife.

When we asked Gould Cummings if his work in drag is inherently political, he replied, “Drag is always political. Drag itself is a form of political resistance. We live in a patriarchal, overly-masculinized society. So drag is a resistance to that. It is an ‘F-U’ to the patriarchy. It is showcasing the beauty of femininity, and women. Drag kings on the opposite end of that is a ‘f**k you’ to the patriarchy, because they are reclaiming what it means to be masculine. I think drag in all forms is resistance, and it’s been resistance since the beginning of Drag Time. We saw that with Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, when they put themselves on the line for our rights in the ’60s.”

About his new, more direct role in politics, Gould Cummings explained to us that Hell’s Kitchen Democrats “came to be when Trump was running for office and subsequently elected. Like many people, I was very angry and scared, and didn’t know what to do… I noticed that [The McManus Midtown Democratic Club], which has been around forever and ever and ever, wasn’t really active. They didn’t really have a site, and there was no way of finding out how to get involved. So I was like, ‘Well, I’m just going to start my own.’ ”

Hell’s Kitchens Democrats began with a Facebook group and 15 people at the first meeting, but has grown substantially since. We asked Speaker Johnson, whose council district includes Chelsea and the Hell’s Kitchen area, about this upstart group. He told us, “I think Hell’s Kitchen Democrats have had a huge influence. Hell’s Kitchen didn’t really have a functioning Democratic club for a very long time. Now the neighborhood has this vibrant, grassroots club that has already enacted change and invigorated a lot of people. Hell’s Kitchen has new district leaders that represent what the neighborhood is now. County committee seats that have been empty for decades have now been filled. These are real changes that might not be on the front page of the New York Times, but they definitely will have an impact on the neighborhood and our democracy as a whole.”

Speaker Corey Johnson (right) and Marti Gould Cummings were among the panelists on a “Resistance”-themed panel at DragCon last month. | Photo by Bob Krasner

While these are subtle shifts in the national red/blue divide, Gould Cummings points out that even blue states can have internal political struggles. “We think, ‘We live in New York City, and New York State, we’re very progressive, everybody’s Democrat.’ But there is a congressperson in Staten Island who represents Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn, who’s Republican.”

Aside from the city’s often silent Republican minority, much of New York State has a significant Republican presence. While Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is leading her Republican opponent by up to 30 points in some polls, that still implies one third of New York’s 20 million people are leaning right. This often affects state politics outside New York City.

Both Gould Cummings and Johnson cited the Independent Democratic Conference in the State Senate, who voted along Republican lines. “People think that New York is such a blue state,” Johnson said, “but our state government has really been controlled for years now by these fake Democrats who caucus with Republicans. Most of them lost in their primaries to very blue Democrats, which is a huge win for New York. If we take back the state Senate as I predict we will in November, we are going to see a lot of positive changes all over New York.”

New York’s gubernatorial and senatorial elections pit Democrat incumbents against Republican candidates who are underdogs, to say the least, according to polls — and Johnson doesn’t see a “red shift” happening in the gubernatorial race. “I do not see a [Marc] Molinaro win. He has no message that people are responding to and the Republican Party right now is the party of Trump. New Yorkers don’t want Trump or one of his enablers.”

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