New York’s left-wing Democrats have cautiously eyed Kathy Hochul for months, watching and waiting to see how the state’s new governor — a moderate from Buffalo — dealt with fraught policy disputes over the economy, housing and the coronavirus pandemic.
On Tuesday, one of New York’s progressive pillars, the Working Families Party, finally rendered a verdict: It endorsed Jumaane D. Williams, New York City’s public advocate, in his long-shot primary challenge against Ms. Hochul.
The decision was not unexpected. Mr. Williams has been a longtime ally of the Working Families Party, which is backed by an influential coalition of activists and labor unions. In recent years, it has helped push Democrats to the left and topple moderate incumbents in Washington, D.C.; New York City; and Albany, N.Y.
But the endorsement offered early insight into how the left plans to approach Ms. Hochul, who has been far more open to collaborating than her predecessor, former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo — particularly at a moment when there are signs that party leaders may be retreating to more moderate positions in the face of rising gun violence and a flagging economic recovery.
Instead of endorsing Ms. Hochul and trying to lobby from the inside or denouncing her in a scorched-earth campaign, party activists appear to be betting that an empowered challenger on her left flank will help prevent the governor from drifting further to the center on issues like climate, affordable housing and taxes as New York emerges from a devastating pandemic.
“This is a serious crossroads moment in New York,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, the director of the New York Working Families Party, praising Mr. Williams as “the best choice to ensure that New York can actually be a place that working people could make ends meet.”
Ms. Nnaemeka said she was concerned that without a robust voice from the left, Democratic leaders were being swayed by other candidates — centrists in their own party like Representative Tom Suozzi and Republicans like Representative Lee Zeldin — who have sought to stir up public outrage over Ms. Hochul’s handling of the virus, the economy and public safety.
It is unclear how far the fresh push from progressives can get Mr. Williams, 45, a well-respected activist and former city councilman who first became public advocate in 2019. He came within a few points of defeating Ms. Hochul in 2018, when both ran for lieutenant governor, and the Working Families Party backed Cynthia Nixon over Mr. Cuomo.
But much has changed in the intervening years. Since Mr. Cuomo resigned in scandal in August, Ms. Hochul has become the dominant player in New York state politics. She has amassed $21 million in campaign cash and won the endorsements of key labor groups that were once a part of the Working Families Party, as well as left-leaning lawmakers.
At the same time, progressives have struggled in a series of high-profile races, losing the mayoralties of New York City and Buffalo to avowed centrists.
In the race for governor, they have been relatively slow to coalesce in opposition to Ms. Hochul, who has inspired good will by resetting relationships with left-leaning lawmakers and advocacy groups. She officially competed for the Working Families Party nomination, four years after Mr. Cuomo declared open warfare against the party.
Progressives had also been banking on Letitia James, the state’s left-leaning attorney general, to be their standard-bearer. Instead, Ms. James abruptly cut her campaign short in December, just six weeks after entering the race.
The most recent public opinion poll released by Siena College in mid-January showed Ms. Hochul leading Mr. Williams 46 percent to 11 percent among Democrats, with just 6 percent backing Mr. Suozzi.
A Guide to the New York Governor’s Race
A crowded field. Some of New York’s best-known political figures are running in the 2022 election to be governor of the state. Here are the key people to watch in the race:
Kathy Hochul. Ms. Hochul, the incumbent governor and a centrist Democrat, has been revving up an aggressive fund-raising apparatus and securing key endorsements, seeking to build an advantage.
Jumaane Williams. Mr. Williams, New York City’s public advocate, is the clearest left-leaning candidate in the race. In 2018, he electrified many progressive voters during his run for lieutenant governor.
Tom Suozzi. Mr. Suozzi, a Democratic congressman from Long Island who has positioned himself as a centrist, entered the race by taking direct aim at Gov. Kathy Hochul’s support among moderate suburban voters.
The Republicans. Lee Zeldin, a Republican congressman and avid supporter of former President Donald Trump, announced in April that he was entering the race. Andrew Giuliani, the son of Rudolph Giuliani, and Rob Astorino, a former Westchester County executive, have also launched long-shot bids.
Bruce N. Gyory, a veteran Democratic political strategist, said Tuesday’s endorsement would most likely help Mr. Williams consolidate support among left-leaning voters. But he predicted it would do little to expand Mr. Williams’s coalition to the extent that is needed to win a primary.
“This is likely to be too little too late, unless Jumaane can build bridges beyond his ideological base while consolidating the full range of the Black vote,” Mr. Gyory said.
For their part, progressives are betting Ms. Hochul’s post-swearing-in honeymoon is starting to fade, as the governor begins to develop a record on potentially contentious issues. In recent weeks, for example, she has let a statewide eviction moratorium lapse and pledged not to raise taxes on the rich — two positions that infuriated the left.
Several Working Families Party affiliates rolled out endorsements of Mr. Williams in advance of Tuesday. Our Revolution, the national advocacy group aligned with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, backed him on Monday.
The help is well timed. Mr. Williams’s campaign has limped along in recent weeks: He caught Covid-19 during the winter outbreak and all but grounded his campaign, which raised just $222,000 in the last six months of 2021.
In an interview on Tuesday, Mr. Williams acknowledged that some of his allies were concerned that the campaign had yet to gain widespread traction and that he faced an “uphill battle.”
While complimentary about some of the changes Ms. Hochul has made in Albany, Mr. Williams accused her of using “a Republican playbook” by promising not to raise taxes on the rich. He also criticized her practice of accepting large donations from special interests and said he believed her budget blueprint was not ambitious enough.
“I listened to the State of the State address, and I thought it was decent enough,” Mr. Williams said. “But it could have been done before the pandemic. We need a bold, big New Deal-style vision for New York. That really concerns me.”