Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/622 Wed, 18 Oct 2017 05:56:39 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Mass Mailer Loophole Gives State Legislators Advantage in City Council Races http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7163:mass-mailer-loophole-gives-state-legislators-advantage-in-city-council-races http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7163:mass-mailer-loophole-gives-state-legislators-advantage-in-city-council-races ortiz mailer crop

The top of Assemblymember Felix Ortiz's recent constituent mailer


Members of the New York State Legislature have a key resource at their disposal to communicate with their constituents: mass mailers. Both the Senate and Assembly allow lawmakers to send public communications through different media -- chiefly employed in the form of direct printed newsletters and mailers -- to inform residents of their districts about recent legislation or special events, or to alert them of emergencies, and more. While these mailers are subject to certain restrictions in the run up to an election, differences between state rules and city regulations mean that state legislators running for City Council have a distinct advantage over their opponents at the local level.

In at least three City Council races where sitting state Assemblymembers are candidates, separate complaints have been filed with the city Campaign Finance Board alleging that each of them has violated prohibitions against using government-funded mass mailers within a mandated 90-day communication blackout period before the September 12 primary. Copies of the complaints were provided to Gotham Gazette.

The rules governing mass mailers are adopted by each legislative chamber, but they differ from the rules and guidelines established by the New York City Campaign Finance Board, which oversees expenditure by campaigns in the city. Each set of rules establishes ‘blackout’ periods ahead of an election, during which communications funded through government resources are prohibited unless they meet certain exceptions.

The New York City Charter states that “public servants” may not use government funds or resources for mass mailers within 90 days of a primary or general election. (The law also prohibits officials from appearing in government-funded advertisements in an election year.)

There are certain exceptions, for instance allowing one mailer to be sent out within 21 days of the passage of the city’s budget, and permitting communications required by law or those necessary for public safety or health emergencies, among others.

For City Council candidates currently working for New York City -- including incumbent Council members and even community board members -- the CFB blackout period began June 15, roughly three months before the September 12 primary.

But since the City Charter only applies to “all officials, officers and employees of the city,” state officials and legislators are out of reach of those provisions and prohibitions. The state Assembly’s blackout period, in comparison, is only 30 days before a local, special or primary election and 60 days before the general. This effectively allows state legislators to use their offices to promote their image and build greater name recognition, enhancing the already-significant power of incumbency and giving them an additional leg up over their opponents who would have to rely on campaign funds to communicate with voters.

“It’s a clear loophole,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a government reform organization. “The problem is that city law is always subordinate to state law. So the CFB cannot tell a state legislator what they can or cannot do.”

ortiz mailer cropIn District 38, incumbent Democratic City Council Member Carlos Menchaca is facing a slew of challengers, including sitting Assemblymember Felix Ortiz. A complaint filed with the CFB earlier this month alleged that Ortiz had violated the CFB’s blackout provisions by sending out four mailers from his government office over the summer. But these mailers, a regular function of state legislative offices, are exempt from the CFB’s purview.

“Part of Felix’s job as an Assemblyman is to inform his constituents, whether he’s running for office or not,” said Robinson Iglesias, Ortiz’s campaign treasurer. “He has been in full compliance with the CFB and he will continue to do so.”

“For sure, it’s unfair. For sure, it’s an advantage,” said Kaehny of the loophole. “It hasn’t been effectively exploited until now. The reality is, an incumbent already has an advantage in name identity. Using their mail privileges helps reinforce that name identity...This is a real unfairness under the law.”

Assemblymember Mark Gjonaj, the frontrunner for the District 13 seat being vacated by Council Member James Vacca, similarly sent out a legislative update to his constituents at the end of June.

Of Gjonaj’s four opponents in the Democratic primary, John Doyle has been his most vociferous critic and lodged objections with the CFB over potential violations regarding mass mailers and government-sponsored communications. When informed that the communications were largely permitted under the Assembly’s rules, Doyle directed his ire at both the state Legislature and Gjonaj. “We have a culture of corruption in Albany that allows this,” Doyle said in a phone interview. “This is the state Legislature that can’t seem to pass comprehensive campaign finance reform.”

gjonaj mailer cropDoyle also insisted that Gjonaj has ample campaign resources at his disposal to get his message out and should have eschewed the Legislature’s mass mailing resources. “He’s against public funds to augment the voice of ordinary citizens,” Doyle said, referring to Gjonaj’s decision to not participate in the CFB’s public matching funds program, “but he has no problem using public funds when it supports his interests.”

Gjonaj’s campaign spokesperson Jennifer Blatus pushed back against Doyle’s complaint. “Let's be clear, there was no unfair advantage in the District 13 council race,” Blatus said in an email. “This is another ridiculous attempt by John Doyle to distract voters and continue his negative and divisive campaign.” Insisting that the CFB allows elected officials to conduct ordinary communications with constituents, she added, “In the final days of this election, while Mr. Doyle continues to complain over the experience Mark Gjonaj brings to this race, our campaign remains focused on the issues at hand, which is quality of life, public safety, education and transportation.”

In District 21, where Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland is stepping down at the end of her current term, two Democrats are facing off in the primary: Assemblymember Francisco Moya and Hiram Monserrate, a disgraced former state Senator and Council member who is attempting a comeback after a checkered recent past that includes separate criminal convictions on fraud and assault charges.

Monserrate claims that Moya misused government resources to send mass email blasts within the 90-day period, including references to events Moya attended outside his district. Moya’s Assembly district overlaps with parts of Council District 21 but excludes large sections. “Moya is a liar and a fraud,” Monserrate said in a statement. “He lies about where he lives. And now we know he's committing fraud by using tax-dollars illegally to campaign.”

moya mailer cropIn a written response to the CFB on Monserrate’s complaint, Moya noted, correctly, that “as an Assemblymember my mail cut off deadline is different than sitting City electeds.” In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Moya had harsher words for his opponent. “My opponent is a convicted felon who has zero credibility on this or any other issue in the campaign,” he said. “He is using these baseless claims to attack my record of public service, and direct attention away from his corrupt, violent history. These charges have been easily refuted by my campaign, and simply bear no resemblance to the facts.”

Moya went on to criticize Monserrate for his own misuse of taxpayer funds. “The questions voters are asking are, ‘Hiram, where is our money that you stole and how can we ever trust you again?’”

The CFB and the City are mostly powerless to bridge the gap in the law. “Obviously we provide extensive guidance on how candidates should handle constituent communications in the days leading up to an election, It’s certainly something we monitor,” said Matt Sollars, a CFB spokesperson.

Reinvent Albany’s Kaehny says closing the loophole would require the state Legislature to take action, “which it seems very unlikely to do.” In the absence of legislation, he said, “The best thing CFB could do is keep track and include as much information in their post-election report to note how much of a problem it is and bring attention to that.”

The CFB issues a comprehensive report after each city election that includes numerous recommendations on improving the campaign finance and election system. Many of the recommendations from their 2013 report were passed into law by the City Council.

Two other state Legislators are also running for “open” City Council seats, though no apparent complaints have been lodged against either. Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez, who has also sent out mass mailers from his office, is running for the District 8 seat currently held by term-limited Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito; and in District 18, state Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., famous for his constituent e-blasts, which have continued apace, is vying for the seat being vacated by term-limited Council Member Annabel Palma.

Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, another good government group, conceded that the CFB has no authority over the state and insisted that the Legislature should increase its own communication blackout periods to undo the advantage that accrues to lawmakers.

“Legislators wouldn’t send [mailers] out if they didn’t think it will bolster public good will,” Horner said, adding that perhaps it will fall to voters to ensure a level standard. “I think it’s fair for the public to urge state elected officials running for City Council to follow the same rules,” he said.

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Mass Mailer Loophole Gives State Legislators Advantage in City Council Races Tue, 29 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
As Session Nears End, Electoral Reforms Mostly Stalled & Cuomo Quiet http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6972:as-session-nears-end-electoral-reforms-mostly-stalled-cuomo-quiet http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6972:as-session-nears-end-electoral-reforms-mostly-stalled-cuomo-quiet Cuomo voting 2015

Gov. Cuomo votes (photo: The Governor's Office)


Governor Andrew Cuomo’s prediction that there is insufficient political will at the New York State Legislature to pass any significant voting reform measures this year may be coming to fruition.

During the final weeks before the end of the legislative session, this year June 21 -- when lawmakers leave the Capitol and return to their districts for the remainder of the year -- there is typically a final thrust for policy measures that did not make it into the budget, which this year was passed in early April.

On the electoral front, there has been a growing push from voting reform activists, civil rights organizations, and some Democratic elected officials to modernize New York’s arcane system, but, given the reluctance of Senate Republicans and, at least in part, Cuomo’s lack of prioritization of electoral reform despite saying in January he backs an ambitious agenda, major reforms appear to be elusive.

Citing numerous barriers faced by voters during the 2016 elections, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and New York City Bill de Blasio have joined the call for Albany to pass meaningful electoral reform, a cause that has been championed by other Democrats in the state Assembly majority and Senate minority.

Democrats in both legislative houses have introduced a slew of voting reform bills -- including legislation on early voting, automatic voter registration, electronic poll books, and “no excuse” absentee ballots, among other measures -- as they do each year. While most passed the Democrat-controlled Assembly, as usual, the efforts are stalled in the Senate, where Republicans control the chamber by a slim majority given the help of Senator Simcha Felder, a nominal Democrat who conferences with Republicans, and bolstered by the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) in a coalition agreement.

The Senate has passed a significantly slimmer electoral package, most of which would do little to increase voter access or enhance voter registration.

So far, the only electoral legislation passed in both houses would allow polling place inspectors to work eight-hour half-shifts, when previously they were made to work 16-hour days. It is a move intended to help Boards of Elections recruit staff and improve efficiency on election days.

Another piece of legislation, sponsored by IDC Senator Diane Savino and Assemblymember Amy Paulin in their respective chambers, would require special ballots to be mailed to domestic violence victims and has passed each house’s election committee and is calendared for floor votes.

The Assembly election committee is meeting on Tuesday, June 6, to consider a dozen more electoral law changes.

Other relatively minor pieces of electoral legislation close to being passed in both houses relate to the way candidates are listed on the ballot, the creation of an inventory of official campaign websites, and protecting the ballot information of domestic violence victims.

One sign of the lack of agreement on major electoral reforms, though, relates to consolidating New York’s repetitive primary election days, a cause that has bipartisan support -- in theory. Both the Senate and Assembly have passed bills to consolidate federal and state primary elections -- a move projected to save the state $25 million and help increase voter turnout -- however the houses cannot disagree on which month to hold the joint election.

The congressional primaries were split from state level primaries in 2012, when the federal MOVE Act mandated that federal elections allow sufficient time for absentee ballots from those in the army and overseas to be collected. The Assembly bill requires the joint primary to happen in June, in order to allow more absentee ballots to trickle in, while the Senate suggests an August date, which would still meet federal regulations. Democrats argue that the August date would suppress voter turnout given peoples’ summer vacations.

The only bill designed to expand voter access that has advanced in the Senate is an early voting bill, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, which would allow eligible New Yorkers an additional seven-day window prior to election day to cast their ballots, but it too appears unlikely to reach the Senate floor.

Stewart-Cousins’ bill, which mirrors legislation by Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh that has passed the Assembly, would open poll sites for seven days ahead of election day, allowing one day in between the early voting period and elections. Each county, depending on its size, would be required to make at least one and up to seven polling sites available during that period.

In March, when Stewart-Cousins forced the Senate election committee to vote on the measure, Democratic members of the committee voted to advance the bill to the Senate floor, only to have it diverted to the local government committee by GOP members. As Politico wrote, the majority conference is able to kill legislation without explicitly voting against it by pawning it off to another committee, which is unlikely to meet more than once or twice before the end of session and does not have to calendar a vote.

A bill for automatic voter registration, sponsored by Senator Michael Gianaris, a Democrat from Queens, was defeated after a vote was compelled in the same manner.

While Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, unveiled a sweeping electoral reform agenda during his 2017 State of the State, by April, following the passage of the budget, he appeared to have lost any can-do, telling reporters, “There is more to do; there is no political will to do it. Otherwise we would have done it in the budget."

This lack of enthusiasm on voting reform is echoed by Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, Republican of Long Island, who, when asked recently by a reporter, noted the fiscal component of early voting. “Early voting is defined so many ways, is it just one day?” he asked rhetorically. “I was just joking around that I’m supportive of early voting, just start 5 o’clock instead of 6. It is a serious subject and something we should be talking about, but how do you do that without costing astronomical amounts of money? Our county boards of election are strapped right now.”

While there is still time left in the legislative session, without Cuomo using his influence, movement on the issue in unlikely, according the Blair Horner, executive director of New York Public Interest Group, one of the advocacy organizations lobbying for electoral reform.

“Lawmakers don't have to face voters until next year so they are more likely to do popular things on even number years than odd number years. The governor has not shown a lot of leadership on this, so they haven't felt a lot of pressure,” Horner said.

De Blasio, no ally of Cuomo, told Gotham Gazette last week that he and unnamed partners intend “to launch a major effort” to see voting and election reforms passed in Albany by the end of the session.

Cuomo’s office told Gotham Gazette that the governor continues to support modernizing the state’s electoral laws and will keep pushing for measures to do so despite their lack of movement through the Legislature. A spokesperson did not answer whether the governor would make any public push to see his desired electoral reforms passed.

***
by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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As Session Nears End, Electoral Reforms Mostly Stalled & Cuomo Quiet Sun, 04 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
As Legislative Leaders Warn of Con Con Dangers, Good Government Groups Come Out in Favor http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6935:as-legislative-leaders-warn-of-con-con-dangers-good-government-groups-come-out-in-favor http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6935:as-legislative-leaders-warn-of-con-con-dangers-good-government-groups-come-out-in-favor assembly chamber via wikicommons

The Assembly (photo: wikicommons)


While legislative leaders are declaring opposition to a New York State constitutional convention, government reform organizations are trending in the other direction, with some who were wary of the idea in previous years coming out in support or considering doing so.

Leading up to the November 7 vote on whether to hold a convention, the debate is shaping up around fear of what could be taken away versus hope that the public can take a shot at democratic reform.

Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan and Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, in a joint appearance in Albany on May 9, both warned of dangers posed by deep-pocketed interests from outside the state, who could potentially derail a “people’s convention.”

“I understand people’s desire to put it in the hands of the people to decide. But people are also subjected to campaigns,” Heastie said at the event at the Albany Times Union’s Hearst Media Center. “I think we should be very, very careful in exposing the constitution to the whims of someone from outside of the state who can decide to spend millions of dollars to put forward their position.”

Heastie and Flanagan, of the Bronx and Long Island, respectively, suggested that the state instead continue using piecemeal constitutional amendments to update the lengthy, outdated document. Such amendments must be passed by two consecutive legislative classes, then the public via singular ballot amendment.

Similar sentiments have been expressed by Senator Jeff Klein, leader of the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group of Senate Democrats that forms a ruling coalition with the GOP, and, most recently, by Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in an interview with The Daily News. On the other hand, Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, an upstate Republican, has for years been an outspoken proponent of holding a convention and is the only legislative conference leader in support of a “yes” vote on this year’s November ballot question as to whether New York should hold a convention to edit or rewrite its constitution.

The authors of the New York State Constitution included a provision that once every 20 years, the public would have the opportunity to completely overhaul and modernize the document. So, this Election Day, voters will vote on whether to hold a constitutional convention -- or a “con con,” as it is sometimes called -- and if the referendum passes, the people will then elect delegates, who would convene to potentially rewrite, or significantly propose modifications to the state constitution. Those proposals would then go before voters as a slate of changes to be voted up or down.

While legislative leaders are expressing their fear of a con con, a growing number of government reform advocates say it’s an opportunity to enact long-sought reforms that have been stagnant in the Legislature.

In March, for the first time in half a century, the League of Women Voters’ New York chapter endorsed a “yes” vote for the once-in-a-generation referendum, citing electoral reforms, campaign finance reform, fair legislative redistricting, and the modernization of New York’s court system as motivating factors. The League had been instrumental in the last convention, which took place in 1967, but did not produce the sweeping reforms many had hoped for, and ultimately all the proposed amendments, which were controversially presented to voters as a package deal, were voted down.

In the 1990s, the group’s board had a policy that the League would not endorse another constitutional convention unless the essential changes were made to the delegate selection and convention process. Five years ago, LWV board members agreed to modify that policy; rather than automatically opposing a convention that did not meet those requirements, the board would reconvene and consider whether to support a convention while thoroughly weighing delegate election and transparency concerns.

In 1997, the last time a con con was on the ballot, most good government groups chose to remain neutral on the ballot question, focussing instead on launching educational campaigns about the pros and cons of holding a convention, and potential issues to be addressed. Only Citizens Union, one of New York’s leading government reform organizations (and sister organization to Gotham Gazette’s publisher, Citizens Union Foundation), has consistently backed a constitutional convention, despite what was to many a disappointing outcome from the 1967 convention.

Twenty years ago, as was the case during previous con con votes, there was some momentum to back a convention prior to the vote, and public opinion polls showed significant interest. But a last-minute ad campaign by labor unions and other interest groups ultimately dissuaded voters for voting “yes” on the ballot question.

“The campaign to defeat the convention referendum has created some of the oddest political bedfellows in recent memory. The A.F.L.-C.I.O., the Conservative Party, the Sierra Club, the National Abortion Rights Action League, legislators of both parties and Change New York, the anti-tax group, were united against the measure,” wrote Richard Perez-Pena, for the New York Times, on November 5, 1997, just before the con con vote that year.

This year -- which follows a two-decade stretch that has seen dozens of elected officials leave office due to ethical or legal scandal -- there appears to be a marked shift and legislative leaders are finding themselves at odds with government reform organizations who view the convention more favorably, even those who sat out the vote in 1997.

Citizens Union is again in suppor and the League of Women Voters is not the only government reform organization reevaluating its stance. The New York State Bar Association (NYSBA), which as part of its mission seeks to raise judicial standards and reform the legal system, will discuss the issue at its upcoming House of Delegates meeting on June 17, and consider voting on whether to take a position on the ballot measure, a spokesperson has confirmed.

In February, NYSBA issued a report highlighting how a constitutional convention could streamline all aspects of New York’s bafflingly complex legal system, from traffic ticket processing to child support orders.

The League of Women Voters does still hold concerns about how a convention would be implemented, but decided the potential benefits outweigh the risks.

“We’re not saying this is the end-all and be-all, but we are going to try get all we want out of it. And there are risks, but it’s a balancing act. We asked the question: Is it worth it that we could gain more than people think might be lost? And the state League has decided yes, that it’s worth opening it up and trying to get the changes that we can’t get through the Legislature now,” said Laura Ladd Bierman, executive director of League of Women Voters New York.

Ladd Bierman noted that some state lawmakers recently told members of the League they would be more amenable to pushing for voting reform if the public voted in favor of a convention.

SUNY New Paltz professor Gerald Benjamin, who has been on the front lines pushing for constitutional reform for decades, said he is not surprised government reform organizations are coming around on the issue.

“Twenty years ago they made a set of decisions, so they have 20 years of experience in observing whether they have been able to achieve the reforms necessary -- they have not -- so they rightfully understand that this is the only way they are going to make progress,” said Benjamin. “Twenty years have reinforced the observation that the Legislature will not make fundamental structural changes, and the reputation in New York governance has steadily declined.”

Representatives from other government watchdog organizations -- including New York Public Interest Group (NYPIRG), Reinvent Albany, Common Cause, and Citizens Budget Commission -- told Gotham Gazette that they have not taken a position on the ballot question, but that the issue is being debated vigorously internally.

“I'm not sure what we will do. Twenty years ago we thought we could play the most useful role by staying neutral and offering a balanced look at the pros and cons of a convention,” said NYPIRG’s executive director Blair Horner. “It's possible we'll be in the same place this year.”

Bill Samuels, a businessman, con con advocate, and chair of the board of EffectiveNY, a think tank, believes the chaos surrounding President Donald Trump’s administration will also help fuel a “yes” vote in November.

“The same activists who were around in 1967 during the civil rights-anti war movement are still around today,” he said. “When you combine that with what’s happening in Washington -- if I had to sum it up: we still have a system in Albany that’s still not reaching its goal. New York and California have emerged as the great stand-up states to Trump. We want to be excited, we want to have the best Legislature in the country, and we think we can! The best way to fight Trump is to move New York forward.”

In the past, Governor Andrew Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, has repeatedly expressed support for a convention, suggesting a con con may be the only way to enact comprehensive campaign finance reform while Republicans who oppose a public matching system and donation limits continue to control the state Senate. While Cuomo came out in vocal support last year and attempted to insert money into the state budget for a preparatory committee, the issue was not included in his 2017 State of the State policy book nor his executive budget proposal. Cuomo’s office told Gotham Gazette the governor still favors a con con, but Cuomo has not been vocal about the issue. This governor has not set aside funds to plot out a potential convention like his father, former Governor Mario Cuomo, did ahead of the 1997 vote.

During a recent meeting with The Daily News editorial board, Cuomo said he supports the idea of a convention, but “you have to find a way where the delegates do not wind up being the same legislators who you are trying to change the rules on. I have not heard a plan that does that." In this point, Cuomo echoed what a variety of other elected officials, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, have said about concerns regarding the delegate process.

Meanwhile, a 40-member coalition of con con supporters called the Committee for a Constitutional Convention has launched. The group includes many prominent public figures including former chief judge Jonathan Lippman, former lieutenant governor Stan Lundine, and former state senator Seymour Lachman. They are joined by constitutional experts like Professor Benjamin and Touro Law Center dean Patty Salkin and slew of well-known attorneys like the Brennan Center’s Fritz Schwarz. Bill Samuels is a member as well.

For Citizens Union, support for a convention has only been reinforced over the last two decades. “Twenty years ago, we felt like money in politics was a problem, that effective strong oversight of public ethics was a problem, that our court system was a problem, and the balance of power between the governor and the Legislature were a problem,” said Citizen Union executive director Dick Dadey. “Those problems have not gone away. In fact, they’ve gotten worse. Our state government is broken. Budget bills are passed in the dark of night with little time to scrutinize them, pay to play culture is thriving, and voter apathy is rising.”

Opponents of a convention fear opening up the constitution could put at risk hard-won labor and environmental protections, among others. Those concerned about outside interests swaying the outcome of a convention also note that delegates are frequently people who are well-known in public life, often those who hold or previously held a public office, and point to a skewed delegate election process, which they say undermines the point of a “people’s convention.”

The current system allows major political parties to influence the delegate election, by grouping together a “slate” of candidates on the ballot. Further, of 204 elected delegates, 189 would be chosen from New York’s 63 state Senate districts, three from each, which Democrats note are heavily gerrymandered in favor of Republican interests.

While opposition forces, led by labor unions, have already begun to spend sizeable sums of money to encourage a “no” vote, it is unclear how rising populist sentiments indicated in last year’s presidential election -- especially through the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump -- may factor in.

If the ballot measure does pass, Ladd Bierman of LWV noted, there are many questions that must be addressed in the following legislative session. Will voters be presented with a preselected slate of delegates? Will the convention be made subject to Freedom of Information Law? Where will the convention take place? The constitution says it must take place at the Capitol on April 2, but if the convention overlaps with the legislative session, there may not be sufficient office space to host the event.

Regardless of where they stand on the ballot measure, she said, if it passes good government groups will be on the front lines pushing for a process that is as fair, transparent, and as democratic as possible.

***
by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
As Legislative Leaders Warn of Con Con Dangers, Good Government Groups Come Out in Favor Tue, 16 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Will Latest Indictment Give New Life to Ethics Reform in Albany? Don’t Bet On It http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6829:will-latest-indictment-give-new-life-to-ethics-reform-in-albany-don-t-bet-on-it http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6829:will-latest-indictment-give-new-life-to-ethics-reform-in-albany-don-t-bet-on-it rob ortt

State Sen. Rob Ortt (photo: @SenatorOrtt)


Corruption charges brought against a member of the state Senate Republican majority Wednesday have provided an opportunity for Democrats to jumpstart the seemingly dormant conversation on government ethics as state budget negotiations enter their final week.

Senator Rob Ortt, of Niagara County, pleaded not guilty in Albany County Court Thursday morning, following his indictment on three felony counts of filing a false instrument, according to reports. For state government, this is just the latest scandal in an unrelenting stream of misconduct cases brought against members of both legislative houses on both sides of the political aisle, as well as individuals from and associated with the executive branch.

More than 30 current or former New York state lawmakers have been convicted of crimes or accused of wrongdoing over the last decade, according to a New York Times tally.

The charges against Ortt, who maintains his innocence, come as legislative leaders and Governor Andrew Cuomo face an April 1 deadline for a new budget. They also add a new dynamic to the miniscule difference that accounts for party control in the state Senate, where Republicans hold a bare majority and Democrats are divided among themselves.

The Senate’s mainline Democrats, eager to regain control of the house, quickly jumped on this latest scandal as an opportunity to once again push for ethics reform, something that leaders of the majority conferences and the governor have shown reluctance in addressing this year. Cuomo laid out an ambitious reform agenda in January, but has done nothing to promote it publicly since.

“Once again this highlights the need for real ethics reforms, something the Senate Democrats have been calling on for years, and really shows the absurdity that there has been no talk in this budget process of cleaning up Albany and passing the strong ethics reforms,” said Senate Democratic Conference communications director Mike Murphy in a statement.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s probe of election fraud in Niagara County found that Ortt’s wife held a no-show job, allegedly in order to offset a $5,000 salary reduction in Ortt’s previous capacity as Mayor of North Tonawanda, according to the charges.

A defiant Ortt denied the allegations to reporters after a court appearance Thursday with his lawyer Steve Coffey. “I am not guilty. I am not resigning. I believe I will be exonerated and vindicated,” said Ortt.

Ortt and his attorney both maintain that the indictment brought by the attorney general’s office is politically motivated, a charge denied by Schneiderman.

The Niagara County case was referred to Schneiderman by the state Board of Elections, a bipartisan agency. Schneiderman, a Democrat and former state senator, has prosecuted cases involving Democrats like former Senator Shirley Huntley of Queens, New York City Council Member Ruben Wills, and Democratic political operative Steve Pigeon, as well as Republicans.

Additional charges related to the probe were brought against Ortt’s predecessor, former Senator George Maziarz, also a Republican, who is alleged to have “orchestrated a multilayered pass-through scheme that enabled him to use money from his own campaign committee” as well as the from the Niagara County Republican Committee, “to funnel secret campaign payments to a former senate staffer who had left government service amid charges of sexual harassment,” according to the Attorney General’s Office.

“No-show jobs and secret payments are the lifeblood of public corruption,” Schneiderman said in a statement. “New Yorkers deserve full and honest disclosures by their elected officials — not the graft and shadowy payments uncovered by our investigation. These allegations represent a shameful breach of the public trust — and we will hold those responsible to account.”

Maziarz, who also pleaded not guilty Thursday, was charged with five felony counts of offering a false instrument for filing. If convicted, both Ortt and Maziarz face maximum sentences of one and a third to four years on each count.

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, in an appearance with reporters, stood behind Ortt, saying he was confident in the judicial system and that he would not expect his colleague to resign.

“I’m going to continue to work with Rob, I’m sure he’s going to be back here tomorrow. The primary thing that he’s concerned about and I am concerned with is getting the budget done in a timely fashion,” said Flanagan.

Typically, leaders of majority legislative conferences are resistant to increased oversight and transparency measures, as well as limitations on outside income or campaign contributions, while members of the minority conferences are for more reform. In the Legislature’s one-house budget resolutions, voted through last week, the Senate and Assembly presented ethics reform plans that were not particularly aligned. Notably, the Assembly’s resolution included more support for reform, including provisions for early and automatic voting, restrictions on use of campaign housekeeping accounts, and closure of the LLC loophole, which allows lawmakers to benefit from nearly unlimited and opaque campaign contributions.

The resolutions are meant to serve as guiding documents during budget negotiations, which occur among the “three men in a room” -- in this case, Governor Cuomo, Flanagan, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and, this year, a fourth man, Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein.

Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, has been mostly silent on ethics since introducing his wide-ranging plan for reform during his State of the State, which touched on campaign finance reform, increased contract oversight, and electoral reform. At a press conference earlier this week, Cuomo, who wields significant leverage over priorities addressed in budget talks, said policy matters, such as voting and ethics reforms, would likely be tackled after the budget was delivered.

“The budget is primarily about finances,” Cuomo said in response to a question from a WNYC reporter. “If there’s a policy matter that is related to the finances then I try to include it, because the budget is a good vehicle to reconcile as much as you can. Many of the democracy issues that you talk about, we are going to take up after the budget.”

"[I]t’s hard to believe that charges against one senator and one former senator will move the needle when convictions against the former leader of the Senate and the former speaker of the Assembly didn’t,” said Blair Horner of NYPIRG about the prospects of the latest indictments leading to reform. "It does remind everybody about how bad things are in Albany, that they have not really solved the problem," Horner said.

Senate Republicans have opposed closure of the LLC loophole, which good government groups argue makes lawmakers particularly susceptible to pay-to-play politics. Earlier this week, when asked about calls from good government to include significant ethics reform in the state budget, Flanagan pointed to the Legislature’s moves to increase transparency.

“I would say that the good government advocates have not been looking at what we’ve done in the past six years,” Flanagan said. “We have more transparency and more disclosure measures for elected officials than any other state in the country.”

John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, said that the increased transparency measures are good, but only meaningful campaign finance reform will stem the flow of corruption in Albany.

“Transparency is the first step you take in the long road towards clean government,” said Kaehny. “The crucial steps that have to happen are restrictions on unlimited political giving, in particular, closing the LLC loophole and housekeeping accounts. Otherwise there’s just a gusher of money pouring in.”

But will the latest indictment drive the Legislature to overhaul its laws? “I think that’s pretty unlikely,” said Kaehny.

***
by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Will Latest Indictment Give New Life to Ethics Reform in Albany? Don’t Bet On It Thu, 23 Mar 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Now a Lobbyist, Democratic Power Broker Faces Restrictions in New Job http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6702:now-a-lobbyist-democratic-power-broker-faces-restrictions-in-new-job http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6702:now-a-lobbyist-democratic-power-broker-faces-restrictions-in-new-job Keith Wright Governor Cuomo

Keith Wright, left, & Gov. Cuomo photo: (Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


A Democratic power broker from Harlem has been hired by a prominent lobbying firm to join its efforts to influence city and state government. Formerly state Democratic Party chair and a member of the state Assembly, Keith Wright is joining Davidoff Hutcher & Citron LLP, but under state law he must avoid matters before both chambers of the state Legislature for two years after leaving office.

Wright, who has been involved in New York politics for several decades, is currently chair of the Manhattan Democratic Party. He had been rumored as a City Council or state Senate candidate after he lost in a June Congressional primary and subsequently vacated his Assembly seat after declining to seek reelection. Wright’s move to Davidoff Hutcher & Citron LLP was first reported by Politico New York on Wednesday morning.

The former legislator will “immediately take on a leadership role” in the firm’s lobbying at the state and city levels, according to a press release posted on the DHC website. A partner told Gotham Gazette that Wright's exact role is still being defined.

Under New York State’s Public Officers Law, however, Wright would be barred from lobbying before the state Legislature for two years. Without commenting specifically on Wright’s case, Walter McClure, director of communications for the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics, said in an email that restrictions under Section 8(a)(iii) apply to former legislators. That section of the law prohibits a former member of the Senate or Assembly from receiving compensation for “any services on behalf of any person, firm, corporation or association to promote or oppose, directly or indirectly, the passage of bills or resolutions by either house of the legislature.”

McClure clarified though that a former legislator “could appear before other local, state (such as agencies and/or the Executive Chamber), or federal bodies.”   

Wright has been figuring out his next step since his unsuccessful attempt for retiring Congressional Rep. Charles Rangel’s seat. Wright lost to fellow Democrat Adriano Espaillat in that June primary.

“Keith Wright’s only career has been in government and he’s a valuable commodity because of his public service as an elected official,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government reform group. “He needs to do what he knows and he knows how government functions very well so he is doing what I think anyone would do in his position.”

Dadey said Wright is “an honorable guy” and he should be careful not to come in contact with the state Legislature, but, “everything else is fair game” if he follows the law.

Wright’s move comes as budget negotiations will soon begin in Albany. The former Assembly member and Democratic leader has a close relationship with Governor Andrew Cuomo -- as chair of the state party, Wright strongly advocated for the governor’s reelection in 2014. He’s also held crucial positions in the Assembly majority, chairing key committees like housing, and heads the New York County Democratic Party Committee.

“We’ve known Keith for a lot of years,” said Charles Capetanakis, partner at DHC and member of the firm’s management committee. Capetanakis said Wright would be part of the government relations team but could not specify in what capacity. “His role and involvement is yet to be determined,” he said, noting the prohibitions that Wright will face under state law. Wright was not made available for comment.

In the announcement of his hire, Wright said, “While I will always cherish my time as a New York State Assemblyman, I am ready for a new challenge."

DHC's "team of lobbyists" is "led by Sid Davidoff in New York City and Steve Malito in Albany," according to the firm, and "DHC Government Relations clients have included Fortune 500 companies, major cultural institutions, land developers, government contractors, educational institutions, municipalities, public authorities, community interest groups, labor and professional organizations, non-profit corporations, and charities. We have seen success in local, state, and federal advocacy efforts in all of these areas."

Government watchdogs do warn that Wright must tread carefully in his new role on the other side of the fence. “[Wright] has to be very careful in the ethically charged political environment in Albany,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “My advice to the assemblyman is to follow the spirit, not just the letter of the law in terms of how he deals with government.”

Although Horner acknowledged that Wright’s new employment opportunity is “perfectly allowed” under state law and is “a well-tried path” for many lawmakers, he said his organization would instead like to see a more comprehensive ban on lobbying across the state Legislature and the Executive.

Citizens Union’s Dadey said, “There is a bright line there that can be followed and [Wright] needs to make sure he follows it, between the Executive and the Legislature. He can influence what the Executive branch presents and decides on the budget but he can’t come anywhere near any legislative activity. There are two halves to this budget process and he needs to make sure he stays in only one half.”

[Read: Special Election for Harlem City Council Seat Kicks Off]

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Now a Lobbyist, Democratic Power Broker Faces Restrictions in New Job Thu, 05 Jan 2017 05:00:00 +0000
2016 Again Highlights New York ‘Incumbency Protection Machine’ http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6536:2016-again-highlights-new-york-incumbency-protection-machine http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6536:2016-again-highlights-new-york-incumbency-protection-machine NYC BOE photo voting machines cropped

(photo via NYC Board of Elections)


New York City residents are represented in the state Legislature by a total of 91 seats, 26 in the state Senate and 65 in the state Assembly. Among them, 60 are held by incumbents who were uncontested in their party primary elections that took place Tuesday, September 13.

In these just-completed primaries, 66 percent -- or about two-thirds -- of the city’s state legislative seats saw no intra-party competition. Twenty-four New York City-based legislators did face primary challengers this month, three of whom lost.

Additionally, there were seven already-vacant seats or seats where the current officeholder is not seeking re-election -- most of these seats saw competitive primaries, but City Council Member Inez Dickens ran unopposed for the Assembly seat being vacated by Keith Wright in Harlem.

In total, there are 150 Assembly seats and 63 Senate seats in the state Legislature. There are no term limits for state legislators in New York.

Of the 60 New York City-based incumbents who were uncontested from within their parties this cycle, 58 are Democrats, including State Senator Simcha Felder, who caucuses with Republicans in Albany and has both the Democrat and Republican lines on the ballot this year. In most, if not all, of these districts, Board of Elections voter enrollment data show registered Democrats outnumbering registered Republican voters 4-to-1, or more in some cases.

The single party dominance in many districts renders general election competition virtually meaningless and allows incumbents to be re-elected without lifting a finger. In some districts, the opposing party isn’t running a general election candidate at all. As many as 23 state legislators across the city will face neither a primary nor general election opponent this election cycle.

For example, Queens Democratic Assemblymember Michael DenDekker is running unopposed in the general election after facing no challenger in the primary. Elected into office in 2008, DenDekker has never faced a primary or general election challenger, according to Ballotpedia. Like with many other legislative races, especially so for uncontested votes, a small percentage of registered voters cast ballots for DenDekker and other uncontested incumbents, though numbers do rise when there is a presidential contest the same day.

In the 2010 general election, not a presidential year, just 10,117 people -- 1-in-5 registered voters in Assembly District 34 -- selected DenDekker’s name at the polls. New York State Assembly members each represent an average of 129,089 district residents, while state Senators have larger districts and represent roughly 307,356 residents, according to the New York State Legislative Task Force on Demographics and Reapportionment.

Senator Felder of Brooklyn, who has been instrumental in maintaining a narrow Republican majority in the state Senate, will appear on the Democratic, Republican and Conservative ballot lines in District 17 for the general election. Felder won his first state Senate election in 2012. In that first general election he defeated incumbent Republican David Storobin. He hasn’t faced a primary or general election challenger since.

Repeatedly uncontested primaries and general elections has become the norm for many seats across New York City and at least partially explains dismally low voter turnout in legislative elections around the city and state.

In the 2016 primary elections, 115,819 New Yorkers cast a ballot for state Senator out of nearly 1.1 million active voters within the districts where elections were held -- just 11 percent of the active voting population in those districts.

With so few New Yorkers casting ballots and so little competition, state legislators are more likely to listen less to their constituents and more to the people and interest groups who fund their campaigns, political consultants, and lobbyists. Elected officials become indebted to these power brokers for maintaining their office as big donors could just as easily funnel their money to a primary challenger should their interests go unheard.

“That’s not good enough, people should be made aware of that,” said Olateju “Remi” Ogunremi, 54, a civil servant who has lived in Brooklyn for ten years, when told that his local Assembly member is running unopposed and fits a larger pattern. Residing in Crown Heights, Remi is represented in the state Assembly by Walter Mosley, a Democrat who is uncontested in his primary and general election this year. “There should be a competitor to make it more democratic,” Remi said.

Without a public campaign finance system that matches private donations and encourages small-dollar contributions, outsider legislative candidates have little to no chance of raising enough cash to stage a significant challenge without strong name recognition or support of established organizations, unions, and local political figures. Once elected, incumbents have helped redraw their own districts to their and their party’s advantage and regularly pass legislation benefiting the people and interest groups that help them stay in office (redistricting will be done differently in New York next time thanks to a constitutional amendment passed at the ballot by voters in 2014).

Without term limits in place, state legislators get comfortable. The average tenure in Albany is over a decade long, according to a 2015 report by Politico New York. State lawmakers have also been at the center of a rash of corruption schemes and convictions, including recent leaders of each house.

As discontent and disapproval of state government grows, so does a lack of interest and involvement in the political system - less voting by those who are eligible; fewer aspirants willing to run for office. With loyal incumbents securely in office and fewer competitive races for which to distribute resources, campaign donors are free to hone their attention on strategic districts where they seek to broaden their influence and push their agenda.

“It’s very difficult for newcomers to unseat incumbents,” said Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University. “Once you’re in office it’s much easier to stay in and protect that office, so a lot of people see it as a David versus Goliath situation and choose not to engage in trying to break into the political system.”

Greer paints a striking picture of the situation: “If you are from a very Democratic district and won your primary, then you’re probably not going to have a credible Republican challenger when you’re on the ballot in November. You’re going to Albany with 4,000 votes. You’re going to be in charge of a budget that’s larger than most countries on the planet. You’re going to be able to control children’s education, what happens to a woman’s body, prisons, drug use, punishment, marriage equality-- and you’re being sent there with 4,000 votes.”

Representing District 57, Assemblymember Mosley has no electoral competition this year. He was first elected to an open seat in 2012 when he faced challengers in both the primary and general election.

District 57 -- representing large portions of Brooklyn neighborhoods like Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant -- is one of many districts that is overwhelmingly dominated by the Democratic Party to the point that general election contests are virtually meaningless. Any serious candidate, liberal or conservative, would be smart to run as a Democrat in the district if they expect to stand a chance.

In 2012, 47,844 votes were cast in District 57 for the Assembly general election, which Mosley handily won with 98 percent of the vote. Occurring at the same time as the Presidential vote with Barack Obama seeking re-election against Mitt Romney, over half of the registered voters in AD57 went to the polls for the general. But, many missed the actual Assembly race that took place months before.

In the AD57 Democratic primary that year, out of 72,380 registered Democrats in the district, just 7,268 cast a ballot -- about 10 percent. Mosley won with 4,565 votes, or 1-in-16 registered Democrats in a district representing over 129,000 residents.

“People are not enthusiastic, they are not willing to come out and vote,” said Remi in a conversation with Gotham Gazette outside of the Franklin Avenue subway station on Eastern Parkway. “People need to be aware of which contestant they need to fight for.”

AD57 fits a pattern.

Multiple forces produce the current system of so many uncontested elections. On one hand, there are the natural incumbency advantages of name recognition and access to financial means, but there is more to it than that.

“One, is the gerrymandering that occurs allowing lawmakers to draw their own district lines…[two is] a disgraceful campaign finance system that allows them to hit up special interests for ridiculous amounts of money,” said Blair Horner, executive director at the New York Public Interest Research Group, referring to a lack of “pay-to-play” restrictions on campaign donors with government business. “You overlay that with the lousy system of running elections in general -- which is, voter registration laws are cumbersome, we have a closed primary system, getting on the ballot is difficult -- and as a result New York has anemic voter turnout, one of the worst in the country.”

“I think the voting public increasingly believes that they will not see competitive elections by and large, and it’s a reflection of a system that is designed to be an incumbency protection machine,” said Horner. This is a self-perpetuating problem Horner calls a “democracy death spiral.”

“One of the reasons I think the public is so unhappy with Albany is to some extent a reflection of policies that have emerged that are also not in the public’s interest,” said Horner. “As the public gets more turned off you can see it in the voter turnout numbers, interest groups wield more clout, which further alienates the voting public.”

This lack of competition has a negative impact on voter turnout, and as Greer also points out, it’s not limited to New York City. “Think about places in the deep south that are very red where we’re seeing a dismal turnout among Republicans,” said Greer. “It’s not just a Democratic problem, it’s an elected official problem.”

Horner agrees that incumbent dominance to the point of mass uncontested elections is not unique to the Democratic Party’s control in New York City. “What you’ve found in New York City sadly is the case across the state,” said Horner. “New York has always had a twisted system like this…and as the stakes get higher, more and more money comes in, it too often crowds out the public’s interest.”

With such a history of one party dominance in New York City and decades of policies that have favored incumbents, mitigating this problem is a daunting task.

One place to look for possible solutions is New York City itself. With one of the most highly regarded public campaign financing systems and term limits, City Council elections have been opened up for candidates of modest means to run, and sometimes win.

“A system of public financing allows individuals who are not beholden to any groups to actually run significant campaigns for public office,” said Horner. “You see that in New York and you don’t see it at the state level because you have the highest campaign contribution limits of any state that has limits in the country, coupled with a rigged system of redistricting and the normal powers of incumbency.”

The state Legislature could pass a variety of measures that would make elections more democratic. There are advocates for the general idea of more open and fair elections throughout both the state Senate and Assembly, though most of the relevant legislation has failed to come up in each passing session, often in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Another avenue of reform could be through improved civics education programs. “I worry that we’re just creating more and more generations of people who are disaffected and non-participatory,” said Greer. “I wish we could figure out a way in which we could better educate the public about these offices, but I don’t really know how to solve that. Obviously the literature that we’re sending out to voters isn’t resonating in a way, [and] it’s not being taught in schools where students are actually retaining the information.”

Voters can be among those who see it as a shared responsibility. “Everyone has their own role to play; Republicans, Democrats, and the Board of Elections needs to generate more awareness, they need to distribute more information into the grassroots,” said Remi. “I mean, a grassroots election is the most important election, but having nobody to contest with, that means we’re going to be getting the same ideas and nothing is going to change.”

Others Unchallenged

Queens
Democratic Assemblymember Aravella Simotas (AD36) has held her seat in Queens since winning an open seat election in 2010. She ran uncontested in both the Democratic primary and general election that year despite there being no incumbent in the race. In 2012, Simontas handily defeated Republican Julia Haich in the general election. She has run unopposed since, all according to Ballotpedia.

Queens Assemblymember Michael Simanowitz, an elected Democrat who also appears on the Republican and Conservative ballot lines, is running unopposed in both the Democratic primary and the general election for Assembly District 27. In 2011, Simanowitz won a special election against Republican Marco Desena. He’s been unchallenged in the primaries and general elections since, all according to Ballotpedia.

Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi is a Democrat representing Assembly District 28 in Queens since he was first elected in 2005. The last general election fight Hevesi faced was in 2010. He was also challenged in the Democratic primary that year. He’s run unopposed in all primaries and general elections since, all according to Ballotpedia.

Assemblymember Michelle Titus represents District 31 in Queens and is facing neither a Democratic primary opponent or any general election competition. Titus, who was first elected 2002, ran unchallenged in the primary even that year, and has never faced a primary opponent. She faced a general eleciton opponent in 2002, 2004, and 2006; while in 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014, Titus faced no opponents whatsoever, al according to Ballotpedia.

Queens Assemblymember Jeffrion Aubry has served in the state Assembly since he was first elected in a 1992 special election for District 35. The veteran Democrat has run unopposed in at least five straight election cycles including the current one, all according to Ballotpedia.

Veteran Assemblymember Catherine Nolan of Queens, a Democrat, has served residents of District 37 since 1984. She has not faced a primary competitor in the last five election cycles. John Kevin Wilson challenged Nolan as a Republican in 2012 and as a Libertarian in the 2014 general elections, which Nolan easily won. In the 2014 general election, Nolan defeated Wilson with just 10,336 votes, or one-in-six register voters, all according to Ballotpedia.

Assemblymember Francisco Moya is a Democrat representing District 39 in Queens since he was first elected in 2010. He is running uncontested in the general election this November after running uncontested in the Democratic primary. The 2008 election cycle was the last time Moya faced a primary or general election opponent, all according to Ballotpedia.

Queens incumbents in addition who did not face primary competitors include:

SD11 - Democratic State Senator Tony Avella;
SD12 - Democratic State Senator Michael Gianaris;
SD13 - Democratic State Senator Jose Peralta;
SD14 - Democratic State Senator Leroy Comrie; and
SD15 - Democratic State Senator Joe Addabbo;

AD24 - Democratic State Assemblymember David Weprin;
AD25 - Democratic State Assemblymember Nily Rozic;
AD26 - Democratic State Assemblymember Edward Braunstein;
AD38 - Democratic State Assemblymember Michael Miller; and
AD40 - Democratic State Assemblymember Ron Kim

Brooklyn
Republican State Senator Martin Golden has held the District 22 seat since he was first elected in 2002. He was uncontested for the Republican nomination this year and will not face a challenger in November either, despite Democrats outnumbering Republicans 2-to-1 in the district, which largely covers Southern Brooklyn. Registered voters with no party affiliation also outnumber Republicans in the 22nd District. Golden faced a serious challenger each of the past two general elections, though Democrats are not putting up a fight this cycle, all according to Ballotpedia.

In Brooklyn’s District 43, State Assemblymember Diana Richardson has held office since winning a 2015 special election in which she won 49% of the vote as a Working Families and Green Party candidate. Now an incumbent Democrat, Richardson was unchallenged in 2016 party primary, nor will she face a general election opponent, all according to Ballotpedia.

Assemblymember Dov Hikind, a Democrat, has served Brooklyn’s District 48 since 1983. There is no one challenging Hikind this election cycle. In 2012, Mitchell Tischler challenged Hikind for his seat in both the Democratic primary and in the general election as a School Choice Party candidate. In 2014, Hikind ran unopposed in the Democratic primary and defeated Nachman Caller in the general election. In a solidly Democratic district, Caller was able to achieve over 20 percent of the total vote count. Hikind won his re-election against a serious Republican challenger with just 12,317 votes, or one-in-four registered voters in the district, all according to Ballotpedia.

Democrat Joseph Lentol has served in the State Assembly representing Brooklyn’s District 50 since he was first elected in 1972. He is running unopposed in both the Democratic primary and general election this election cycle. In 2014, Lentol faced Republican challenger William Davidson and won with 9,789 votes -- one-in-eight registered voters cast a ballot for their Assembly member in a District representing over 129,000 residents, all according to Ballotpedia.

In Assembly District 53, Assemblymember Maritza Davila has represented Brooklyn since winning a special election in 2013. She ran uncontested in the Democratic primary this year and will run unchallenged in the general election, as was the case in the 2014 election cycle, all according to Ballotpedia.

Nick Perry has served as the Assemblymember for District 58 in Brooklyn since he was first elected in 1992. He will be running unopposed in the general election this year after facing no challenger in the Democratic primary either. In the last five election cycles, Perry has only faced one primary opponent, all according to Ballotpedia.

Brooklyn incumbents in addition who did not face primary competitors include:

SD20 - Democratic State Senator Jesse Hamilton; and
SD21 - Democratic State Senator Kevin Parker;

AD41 - Democratic State Assemblymember Helene Weinstein;
AD45 - Democratic State Assemblymember Steven Cymbrowitz;
AD47 - Democratic State Assemblymember William Colton;
AD49 - Democratic State Assemblymember Peter Abbate;
AD51 - Democratic State Assemblymember Felix Ortiz;
AD52 - Democratic State Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon;
AD54 - Democratic State Assemblymember Erik Dilan;
AD59 - Democratic State Assemblymember Jaime Williams; and
AD60 - Democratic State Assemblymember Charles Barron

Staten Island
Democratic State Senator Diane Savino is part of the five-member Independent Democratic Conference and incumbent for District 23 on Staten Island and in parts of Brooklyn. She has held her seat since she was first elected in 2004. The IDC has helped Republicans maintain a majority in the State Senate. In 2014 multiple IDC members were challenged in the Democratic primary, though not Savino, who was again unopposed in the Democratic primary this year (other IDC members were not challenged this year either.) Savino is also running unopposed in the general election. She has never faced a primary challenger; she faced a general election opponent two cycles ago, in 2012, in Lisa Grey, who Savino handily defeated. One-in-three registered voters in District 23 cast a vote in that general election, all according to Ballotpedia.

In Senate District 24, also on Staten Island, Republican State Senator Andrew Lanza has held his seat since winning in 2006. The district is home to many more Republicans than most New York City districts, though they are still outnumbered by registered Democrats in the district. Lanza has never faced a Republican primary challenger. He handily defeated Democrat Gary Carsel in the 2012 and 2014 general elections. Carsel nor any other Democrat has staged a campaign against Lanza this election cycle, all according to Ballotpedia.

Assemblymember Matthew Titone of Staten Island ran unopposed in the District 61 Democratic Primary and will not face a challenger in the general election either. Titone won a special election in 2007 that gained him the seat. He has never faced a primary opponent though he has handily defeated several general election contestants. He ran totally unopposed in the previous election cycle of 2014, all according to Ballotpedia.

Michael Cusick is a Staten Island Democratic Assemblymember who won his first District 63 election in 2002. Cusick has run unopposed in the past five Democratic primaries, though he has faced a general election contestant every year up until now. He’s running unopposed in the general election, all according to Ballotpedia.

Republican Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis has represented the people of District 64 on Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn since first winning the seat in 2010. Previously she represented District 60 in the State Assembly. The Democrats have ran campaigns against Malliotakis in the last three general elections, while she has ran unopposed in the Republican Primaries. This election cycle Malliotakis will not face an opponent in the general election in addition to the primary, all according to Ballotpedia.

Manhattan
In Senate District 27 of Manhattan, Democrat State Senator Brad Hoylman has held office since he was first elected in 2012. This election cycle he faces no Republican opposition in winning back his seat. During the 2012 open seat election, Hoylman came through the Democratic primary, then won an uncontested general election in which 93,469 registered voters cast a ballot for him. In the primary of that year, Hoylman split the vote with two other Democratic contenders, with only 13,051 Democrats voting, all according to Ballotpedia.

State Senator Daniel Squadron, a Democrat who represents District 26, which encompasses downtown Manhattan and part of downtown Brooklyn, is running unoppposed in the general after facing no primary opponent either. Squadron was elected in 2008, but did not face a primary opponent then and has not faced one since.

There are nine other Manhattan legislators listed below who did not face a primary challenger this year. On the other hand, Sheldon Silver’s replacement Alice Cancel (AD65) and Guillermo Linares (AD72) lost their seats, while Sen. Adriano Espaillat’s chosen successor Marisol Alcantara (SD31) won her election.

On the Upper East Side, Republicans are seeing hope in gaining more support for general elections in the Assembly.

Manhattan incumbents in addition who did not face primary competitors include:

SD28 - Democratic State Senator Liz Krueger;
SD29 - Democratic State Senator Jose Serrano;
SD30 - Democratic State Senator Bill Perkins;

AD68 - Democratic State Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez;
AD71 - Democratic State Assemblymember Herman Farrell;
AD73 - Democratic State Assemblymember Dan Quart;
AD74 - Democratic State Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh;
AD75 - Democratic State Assemblymember Richard Gottfried; and
AD76 - Democratic State Assemblymember Rebecca Seawright

The Bronx
Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (SD35) has represented residents north of the Bronx in Westchester County since 2006. She has never faced a Democratic primary challenger as she previously served as the vice-chair of the Westchester County Democratic Party and in the Westchester County Legislature from 1996 and until she was elected to the state Senate. Stewart-Cousins will not face a challenger in the general election this year, as was the case in the 2012 election cycle, all according to Ballotpedia.

Bronx State Senator Jeff Klein, a Democrat who leads the five-member Independent Democratic Conference, had to primary opponent, unlike in 2014 when mainline Democrats tried to unseat him. He is also facing no Republican challenger in November. Klein's IDC has formed a ruling coalition with Republicans in the Senate for the past two sessions. Klein represents the 34th Senate District.

And finally, Democratic Speaker of the Assembly Carl Heastie -- of the Bronx’s 83rd Assembly District -- was first elected to the chamber in 2000. He is not facing a competition in his general election contest after running uncontested in the Democratic primary. Heastie ran unopposed in the last five Democratic primaries, while he defeated general election challengers in those election cycles with upwards of 95 percent of the vote, all according to Ballotpedia.

Bronx incumbents in addition who did not face primary competitors include:

AD77 - Democratic State Assemblymember Latoya Joyner;
AD79 - Democratic State Assemblymember Michael Blake;
AD80 - Democratic State Assemblymember Mark Gjonaj;
AD81 - Democratic State Assemblymember Jeffrey Dinowitz; and
AD82 - Democratic State Assemblymember Michael Benedetto

Many of the incumbents without a primary challenge will see an opponent from another party in the general election. That said, given that New York City voters are overwhelmingly Democrats, general election competition is often symbolic.

“Oftentimes for so many districts across the country, the primary is the election for all intents and purposes,” said Greer. “In either strong Republican or Democratic districts, if you win your primary you essentially don’t even face anyone in November, and if you do it’s almost a joke.”

***
by William Fowler for Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

*note: as stated, many of the references to past elections are based on aggregation done by Ballotpedia.

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2016 Again Highlights New York ‘Incumbency Protection Machine’ Mon, 19 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Board of Elections to Consider Emergency Regulations for Independent Expenditures http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6527:board-of-elections-set-to-consider-emergency-regulations-for-independent-expenditures http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6527:board-of-elections-set-to-consider-emergency-regulations-for-independent-expenditures cuomo podium state of the state

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Governor's Office on Flickr)


The State Board of Elections is set to consider a set of emergency regulations governing independent expenditure campaigns at its board meeting on Thursday morning in Albany. The regulations will come just two days after state legislative primary elections and two months before the general election. Political action committees (PACs) and Super Pacs, or independent expenditure committees, have already had a significant presence in this year’s primary contests.

The BOE is responding to new legislation championed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who signed his controversial reform bill on August 24 after passing it through the Legislature by message of necessity in late June. The bill goes into effect 30 days after Cuomo signs it, thus putting pressure on the BOE to respond.

The law enacts restrictions on how independent expenditure campaigns operate; expands what constitutes illegal coordination with a candidate and limits who can work for Super PACs. The legislation also sets new disclosure requirements for nonprofit lobbying groups and issue advocacy groups - for this piece, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics moved on emergency regulations earlier this year.

On Thursday, the BOE will consider emergency regulations in the middle of an election season that has already seen major spending by Super PACs, especially in New York City where New Yorkers For Independent Action, a pro-charter school group, pumped millions of dollars into Democratic primary contests.

Board members have expressed concern at previous meetings that the law could be disruptive and counterintuitive given that election season is already well underway.

Democratic BOE Chair Douglas Kellner told Gotham Gazette that he isn’t convinced the board needs to act on emergency regulations. “From my point of view I’m not exactly sure why we need emergency regulations that just track the bill, but we will discuss that on Thursday,” Kellner said.

Republican BOE Chair Peter Kosinski said that the emergency regulations are necessary to keep interested parties informed of the changes to the laws relating to independent expenditures and to put the information in one place.

Once the emergency regulations are adopted the public will have 45 days to comment on them.

”The reality is that the emergency regulation idea is related to the fact that we are headed into the November election and people need information about the changes,” said Kosinski. “This does not preclude the normal regulation process or any future changes. We will go through the normal process in a couple of months.” In other words, any emergency regulations will be temporary and then re-evaluated after the election cycle.

Kellner said he also shares concerns about the timing of the bill’s enactment given that election season is already in full swing.

“The board is really between a rock and a hard place,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “If the Governor wanted the law to be in effect for the election he should have signed it in June.” It is unclear why Cuomo waited until August to sign the bill. After unveiling the plan for the legislation during a speech in New York City toward the end of the legislative session, the governor held no public ceremony to sign and promote the bill.

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, said the BOE is being “responsible in providing necessary guidance on the law even if it is poorly written and flawed.” Dadey added that “we shouldn’t be changing the rules in the fourth quarter of the game.”

Speaking with reporters in August, Cuomo touted the new regulations. Of not getting everything he wants done on government ethics reform, he also said, “Ethics in many ways is like other activities in life. It's an ongoing pursuit.”

Kosinski, the Republican BOE chair, said that the time for fretting over the implementation timeline is over. “People have to deal with that best they can. These emergency regulations are our effort to inform people of the law so that when people look for guidance on the new laws we give them accurate information,” he said.

Advocates had decried the process by which the bill was passed. Cuomo introduced the measure late in session claiming that it was designed to beat back the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates for outside money in candidate campaigns. But the bill also included a section forcing non-profit advocacy groups to disclose more of their donors, and to report to the state, through JCOPE, their various communications about legislation, government officials, regulations, and government-related matters.

Like other times he has used them, Cuomo was criticized for his issuance of a message of necessity that preempts the required three-day aging process designed to encourage public review. Legislators received the bill after midnight and voted on it only a few hours later.

Cuomo, who generally controls when passed bills come to his desk for signature or veto, didn’t call the bill up from the Legislature until mid-August after facing public pressure.

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which is headed by former Cuomo staffer Seth Agata and is controlled by appointees of Cuomo and legislative leaders, moved on emergency regulations in early August. The part of the bill that deals with sources of funding for nonprofits goes into effect 30 days after the bill is signed.

The new law sets a definition of what is coordination between independent expenditure campaigns and candidates, and according to Kosinski the law could catch some off guard. “There were significant changes going where the state hasn’t gone before in detailing coordination, it was really fleshed out and I think people need to be aware of that going forward.”

Dadey said that he hopes there will be time for the kind of careful and nuanced discussion of the implementation of the law that was denied to the public before the bill was passed.

“I hope whatever is adopted on Thursday does not lead to greater confusion or conflict with existing law,” said Dadey. “We had no time to talk about this piece of legislation as a public, I hope more time is taken to discuss it now that it is law.”

Brandon Muir, executive director of Reclaim New York, an organization focused on government transparency, said that Albany lawmakers waited until the last minute to formulate the bill and then wasted more time signing it. “Because they dodged having a timely, open process, we’re in for another last-second “emergency” push that serves political interests and an agenda that New Yorkers didn’t ask for,” Muir said.

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

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Board of Elections to Consider Emergency Regulations for Independent Expenditures Wed, 14 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Cuomo’s Minimum Wage Nonprofit Through the Lens of His New Regulatory Scheme http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6498:cuomo-s-minimum-wage-nonprofit-through-the-lens-of-his-new-regulatory-scheme http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6498:cuomo-s-minimum-wage-nonprofit-through-the-lens-of-his-new-regulatory-scheme mario cuomo campaign for economic justice bus capitol

photos via The Governor's Office on Flickr


Earlier this year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo successfully advocated for the passage of a $15 minimum wage plan with the help of major labor unions and a nonprofit they created called The Mario Cuomo Campaign for Economic Justice. Teaming with 1199-SEIU, the health care workers union, and 32BJ-SEIU, the buildings workers union, Cuomo made campaign stops in an RV paid for by the nonprofit, which was funded largely by unions.

In a complicated confluence of relationships, Cuomo’s government office notified the press about the events and streamed the governor’s appearances at rallies organized by the group; while his reelection campaign spokesperson served in that role for MCCEJ. Cuomo’s office and the MCCEJ at times appeared to be one.

After the state budget agreement reached at the start of April included the $15 wage phase-in, the campaign celebrated success and closed up shop.

Later in the legislative session, in June, Cuomo created and won passage of a package of reforms that define new restrictions on coordination among candidate campaigns, former government employees, and Super PACs; and stricter reporting requirements of donors to Super PACs. Another aspect of the legislation, which Cuomo signed into law on Wednesday, requires more reporting of donors to nonprofit advocacy groups and reporting of some of their previously private communications.

Cuomo calls the bill an historic stand against dark money, the influence of Super PACs, and the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that opened up the floodgates for major, secretive political donations.

“New York is taking aggressive action to restore the people’s faith in government and increase accountability and transparency in the electoral process,” Cuomo said in a statement announcing his signing of the bill. “These actions roll back the disastrous influence of Citizens United and prohibit coordination between candidates and independent expenditure committees. Through enhanced enforcement and increased penalties for political consultants who flout the law, this new legislation will root out bad actors and shine a spotlight on the sordid influence of dark money in politics. With this legislation, New York is raising the bar once again – and now it’s time for the rest of the nation to follow suit.”

On the other hand, many reform advocates believe the bill is both a strange mix of regulations and ones that do very little to address areas where there has been real corruption in New York, namely among state legislators.

Robert Perry, legislative director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, says Cuomo has pushed through a confusing bag of proposals and that the way it was presented belies the ways in which the bill will impact small issue-based nonprofits.

“This legislation was touted and marketed as an attempt to address corruption in campaign expenditures - secretly collaborating with candidates in violation of the law - but the bill goes far beyond campaign and coordination,” said Perry. “Context is important. Look at the bill, it is full of broad sweeping provisions and disclosure requirements that have nothing to do with campaign expenditures that include organizations that aren’t even involved in lobbying, but pure issue advocacy. This bill will have a chilling impact on their donors.”

Perry points out that the bill is further confusing because the areas of law regarding political spending by groups like Super PACs and nonprofit advocacy groups are completely separate and yet the bill puts them side by side.

In Cuomo’s not-too-distant past, he aligned himself with a nonprofit formed by business interests to advocate for his agenda, the Committee to Save New York. Like Mayor Bill de Blasio’s more recent Campaign for One New York, Cuomo’s group was shut down amid criticism and controversy. The new regulations would apply to these types of groups in terms of donor disclosure. Cuomo’s group did not disclose its donors; de Blasio’s group did so voluntarily. The Committee to Save New York was not the subject of federal investigation whereas the Campaign for One New York is as authorities probe whether government favors were promised or delivered in exchange for donations to the nonprofit.

Critics have said that the Mario Cuomo Campaign for Economic Justice, like de Blasio’s Campaign for One New York, created a shadow government apparatus, in this case where government employees did work for lobbying groups and consultants were paid for their efforts by the MCCEJ while also representing Cuomo’s campaign.

“Clearly the governor is coordinating with this outside entity, and the governor's political operatives seem to have basically been set up and guiding it,” Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, told Politico New York in February. “This is setting up a shadow government and it blurs the line between private campaigning and public policy. The goal is an admirable one, but the way it is being done gives us pause.”

Cuomo appeared to criticize de Blasio’s relationship with the Campaign for One New York while unveiling his reform plan in June. “The collusion, the coordination, the subterfuge, the fraud in the current political system is rampant,” Cuomo said, according to The Observer, without naming de Blasio’s group. When speaking with reporters after the event, Gotham Gazette twice asked the governor for examples of the types of groups he was targeting, but Cuomo declined to name any, saying that he did not want to accuse anyone of illegality at that time.

The new restrictions on coordination would have no impact on the MCCEJ or even the Campaign for One New York - both are nonprofit 501(c)(4) advocacy groups and thus only subject to the additional donor transparency requirements.

Political action committees, or PACs, are tied to candidates, while independent expenditure campaigns, commonly referred to as Super PACs, are not allowed to coordinate with candidate campaigns. Both operate during elections to influence their outcomes - those groups register and report their fundraising to the Board of Elections. New restrictions on coordination and additional reporting requirements will apply to Super PACs.

“The members of 1199SEIU have been proud to be a part of raising the minimum wage to $15 for nearly three million working New Yorkers, and passing the strongest paid family leave law in the nation. We hope that similar efforts are successful throughout the country, so that working people can provide a better future for their families and we can rebuild the middle-class.” said Mark Riley, press secretary for 1199SEIU, in a statement. The union declined to make its president, George Gresham, who served as chair of the MCCEJ, available to discuss how the campaign was coordinated.

Cuomo mario cuomo campaign economic justice speechSources close to the Mario Cuomo Campaign for Economic Justice told Gotham Gazette that the new rules on nonprofit donor disclosure would have had no impact on the MCCEJ as they lower the thresholds for nonprofits to report donors, but donations to the MCCEJ were already covered by the old lobbying law.

Now, more disclosure is required of smaller donors after nonprofits spend smaller amounts of total money on lobbying. The MCCEJ’s donations appear to mostly have come in large sums. But, it will be impossible to know until the MCCEJ’s final disclosure documents are made public by the state regulatory agency they must report to: JCOPE, the Joint Committee on Public Ethics.

So far, all of the reported donations to MCCEJ far exceed the new reporting requirements and therefore were covered by the old law. The SEIU Labor Management Initiative donated $637,781 in February and then gave the same amount again in April; Service Employees International gave $212,594 in January; in March, RWDSU Realty Group donated $63,778 in March; The New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council gave $85,038; and the SEIU1199 New York State Political Action Fund gave $85,038.

New York’s previous lobbying act requires nonprofits that fit under the 501(C)(4) designation of the IRS tax code to disclose donations of over $5,000 and the personal information of those who make such donations if the group has spent more than $50,000 on lobbying in a calendar year. The new bill sets the total lobbying disclosure threshold at $15,000, while requiring disclosure of donations of more than $2,500, as well as those donors’ personal information. The MCCEJ is expected to have spent around $2 million from January to July.

Sources told Gotham Gazette that MCCEJ disclosed its donors to JCOPE in July but the filing has yet to be made public. Most MCCEJ activity occurred in the early months of 2016 when Cuomo and company traveled the state on the $15 minimum wage campaign. The group’s final filing should be available in September.

The new law also requires 501(C)(4) groups to disclose to the Attorney General any communications, whether written, broadcast or otherwise, having to do with legislation, votes on legislation, pending legislation, government action on rules, regulations or the decisions of any legislative or executive administrative body.

A number of issue-focused nonprofits, some that lobby and some that do not, are opposed to the new rules because, unlike the MCCEJ, they do not enjoy a close relationship with the Cuomo administration or other parts of state government.

The MCCEJ would likely have been subject to and impacted by this communication disclosure rule, but the group existed in that fairly unique position - its communications were already likely privy to the Cuomo administration and its donors were not likely to ever fear political reprisal for their support of the group’s lobbying efforts.

“The problem becomes when the law applies to groups that are not sponsored and created by the chief executive of the state,” said Perry.

The NYCLU urged Cuomo to veto the bill, saying that it violates freedom of speech and will temper donations to small issue-advocacy groups because donors will fear being exposed and possible reprisals. “This will have a chilling effect,” said Perry. “This intrusive, burdensome, regulatory scheme where you have to provide a donor's name and address will intimidate donors and reduce their willingness to engage due to the prospect of retaliation from the government, or someone else who disagrees with them.”

Mike Durant, New York State director of the National Federation of Independent Business, a group that lobbied against the minimum wage hike said he found it quite challenging to go up against the combination of Cuomo and well-funded labor groups. Durant’s organization, a national nonprofit, is still reviewing what, if any, impact the new regulations will have on it.

Durant said he is concerned about the new laws and how they might affect dissent and perhaps earn political retribution. “It’s always been a concern with any governor, but with this governor it’s a bit heightened,” he said. “You can't stifle opposition. Government is supposed to be an argument between various sides about an issue and you see where that argument goes. Stifling dissent is not doing the public any favors.”

Doug Kellogg of Reclaim New York, a group focused on government transparency that has been critical of Cuomo in general and this legislation specifically, said that it's almost impossible to gauge how groups will be impacted because it is still uncertain how JCOPE will administer the law.

Kellogg noted that JCOPE can set exemptions for certain groups. “They get to determine whether a donor has legitimate fear of retaliation, and thus does not have to have their name released,” he said. “It's completely twisted to have a government spinoff that's not fully subject to basic transparency law deciding which citizens that fear retaliation for their speech get to stay private, and which have their names published. Until we see it in practice, we can't be sure how awful the law will truly be, but it’s definitely going to be ugly.”

JCOPE approved a set of regulations having to do with the law earlier this month. Many groups are anxiously waiting to see how the new regulations are actually enforced.

Perry of NYCLU and a host of good government groups including Citizens Union, the New York Public Interest Research Group, and Common Cause New York say that the governor has given no evidence that these new disclosure rules for nonprofits will do anything to impact corruption.

They say unlike the convictions of Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver and the dozens of other legislators who have been removed from their seats, a trend that demonstrates a corruption epidemic in the Legislature, there is no indicator that nonprofits need more regulation.

“As you know, non-profit charities are already tightly regulated by the Internal Revenue Service,” the groups wrote Cuomo in a letter urging him to veto the bill. “These organizations, known as 501(c)(3)s have strict limits on their lobbying involvement – limitations that amount to a small fraction of their budgets. They are forbidden from intervening in political campaigns on penalty of being disqualified as a charity. Yet, with no demonstrated evidence of a problem and no evidence of any meaningful problems in New York State (evidence, which if it existed, you could have brought to light in a public debate) you assert that such a problem exists. As a result, these parts generally harm charitable organizations in the state through their lack of clarity and astoundingly broad reach. Rather than being targeted, the bill would impose onerous requirements on many nonprofits and inhibit contributions to nonprofits seeking to carry out charitable work, and could jeopardize the ability of many nonprofit organizations to operate in New York.”

Asked whether Cuomo had evidence there was corruption or malfeasance among these groups, Cuomo spokesperson Dani Lever forwarded a Times Union article titled “Who Funds New York’s Good Government Groups?” The article says that some groups are not always forthright about their donors, but that on the whole most are; while also noting that at times a group has released a report related to a donor with a particular interest.

Lever also provided a comment that the administration has widely circulated in response to criticism of the new legislation, which Cuomo spokesperson Rich Azzopardi has also tweeted in response to recent articles on the matter: “Everyone is all for transparency, except when it comes to them. We are just surprised to learn that applies to self-appointed good-government groups, too.”

A lawsuit challenging the bill is expected in the coming months - the suit will likely argue the law is an overreach and violates the First Amendment.

Lever did not respond to a question regarding whether Cuomo is concerned about the blurring of the lines between government and nonprofit lobbying as in the case of the Campaign for One New York and the Mario Cuomo Campaign for Economic Justice.

Asked about the new ethics laws on Thursday, Cuomo told reporters that it wasn’t everything he was hoping for, but still important. “The ethics bill is a major step forward,” Cuomo said, according to State of Politics. “Is it everything? No. Ethics in many ways is like other activities in life, right? That old line — you can never be too rich, you can never be too thin. Well, you can never be too ethical. So, you get everything done that you can get done. But you stay at it and you work at. More and more disclosure, more trust.”

Blair Horner, of the New York Public Interest Research Group, said that the law has served as a distraction in a year when Albany has been rocked by the conviction of two former legislative leaders and a federal investigation into Cuomo’s economic development projects. “This is classic Albany misdirection,” said Horner. “Here we are all talking about (C)(4)s and nonprofits and it's distracting us from discussing corruption in the Legislature and Executive. It is absolutely cynical, but it's effective.”

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization fo Citizens Union.

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Cuomo’s Minimum Wage Nonprofit Through the Lens of His New Regulatory Scheme Mon, 29 Aug 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Cuomo Cabinet Boat Trip Highlights Campaign Finance Law Concerns http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6474:cuomo-cabinet-boat-trip-highlights-campaign-finance-law-concerns http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6474:cuomo-cabinet-boat-trip-highlights-campaign-finance-law-concerns Cuomo Hochul Hudson

Lt. Gov. Hochul, left, and Gov. Cuomo, right, on the Hudson (@NYGovCuomo)


On Monday, the highest ranking members of the Cuomo administration boarded a boat in the city of Hudson in Columbia County and embarked for New York City. The trip, according to Cuomo administration officials, was strictly work-related. There was a cabinet meeting; strategy sessions for the Governor’s 2017 State of the State address, and inspections of infrastructure projects like the “New New York Bridge,” which is replacing the Tappan Zee.

It was formally called a cabinet retreat, and all of the administration’s stated purposes for the journey were government related, separate from any strategizing for Cuomo’s 2018 re-election bid. And yet the administration says the cost of the boat trip was paid from Cuomo’s campaign funds.

The use of campaign funds to pay for government staff to take a working field trip appears to be completely legal under New York State campaign finance law, but critics of the system say the law is too loose, including around blurred lines like the cabinet retreat. Those who want to see campaign finance reform say the current system allows elected officials to take in significant donations, including from entities with government business, and enhance their lifestyles by paying for extravagant meals, cars, and trips; and even legal defense in criminal cases as former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, and several others have done.

Critics say Gov. Cuomo should set an example and use campaign funds strictly for campaign-related activities. “We are old fashioned in that we think campaign funds should be used for campaigns,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “If the governor believes such a trip is useful then taxpayers should pay for it; if he doesn't think taxpayers want pay for it then he shouldn’t do it.”

group shot on hudsonThe Cuomo administration did not respond to inquiries about why campaign funds were used to pay for the trip and whether any campaign-related activities took place. State of Politics first reported the use of the campaign money for the excursion.

Administration officials did note that attendees included Cuomo; Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul; the governor’s secretary, Bill Murrow; Director of State Operations Jim Malatras; Cuomo’s counsel, Alphonso David; Chief of Staff Melissa DeRosa; and Budget Director Robert Mujica; among others.

Cuomo’s official Twitter account was updated with pictures of the event but photos were not archived on the governor’s Flickr account, where almost all events Cuomo participates in are chronicled.

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, said that he finds Cuomo’s use of campaign funds to make meetings “more pleasurable” for staff preferable to some of what others have spent campaign money on, like making car payments and pool improvements.

“I think it is an allowable expense, even though I haven't seen it before,” said Dadey. “Our position is that campaign funds should be used for conducting campaigns. But there are exceptions where there is a clear furtherance of governmental activities; where it serves a clear public interest, and what the governor did would fit into that rubric.”

While Cuomo’s use of campaign funds for a boat trip for his staff is permissible under state law; New York City campaign finance law - seen by some as a model for what the state should adopt - sets out strict restrictions for those who participate in the public matching system. The boat trip would likely not be permissible under city law, according to experts.

The city campaign finance law states: “Expenditures for non-campaign related travel, food, drink or entertainment; if a candidate uses campaign funds to pay expenses associated with travel that involves both personal activities and campaign activities, the incremental expenses that result from the personal activities shall be considered for personal use unless the candidate benefiting from the use reimburses the campaign account within thirty days for the full amount of the incremental expenses.”

Horner of NYPIRG said one of his concerns about using campaign funds in the way the governor did for the boat trip is that it can lead to staff seeing donors as having influence on their day-to-day work.

“Campaign laws do allow them to use cash to further governmental duties,” said Dadey. “So making work more pleasurable by holding a meeting on a boat rather than a stuffy room in Albany is far better than what others have used campaign cash on, like legal defenses for criminal activities.”

To that point, the Cuomo administration has also been spending significant sums of campaign money on legal services as United States Attorney Preet Bharara has opened investigations into several former and current administration officials and the governor’s major economic development programs. A July campaign finance filing shows the Cuomo campaign spent $230,000 in efforts to defend administration officials and Joe Percoco, a former top governmental aide to Cuomo, from an investigation into the premature closing of The Moreland Commission on Public Corruption.

The Cuomo campaign paid $150,000 to the firm Morvillo Abramowitz Grand Iason & Anello, which represented the administration in the Moreland investigation, which eventually resulted in Bharara announcing no charges would be brought. The campaign paid $80,000 to Schulte, Roth & Zabel, the firm that represented Percoco in the matter.

Percoco is now one focus of Bharara’s investigation into possible corruption and bid rigging in the state’s economic development initiatives. He also carries a reputation for pressuring Cuomo donors for more campaign donations.

“That is a much-less desirable use of campaign funds,” said Dadey of legal bills that relate to government work, “because it is unclear what greater government purpose is being served.”

New York City law, by comparison, does allow for the use of campaign funds for legal defense in non-criminal matters that arise during the conduct of a campaign. But, city elected officials who’ve used public matching funds are not allowed to use campaign cash for legal defense in criminal matters. These lines are being tested as Mayor Bill de Blasio faces investigations into his administration as well as campaign related activities.

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

inset photo via @melissadderosa

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

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Cuomo Cabinet Boat Trip Highlights Campaign Finance Law Concerns Wed, 10 Aug 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Senate Republicans Face Departures with Battle for Control Looming http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6447:senate-republicans-face-departures-with-battle-for-control-looming http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6447:senate-republicans-face-departures-with-battle-for-control-looming flanagan

Senate Majority Leader Flanagan, second from right (photo via Facebook)


New York State Senate Republicans are headed into a fight for their survival, dealing with the departure of veteran lawmakers, top staff, and one rising star.

The impending fall elections for all 63 Senate seats will test control of the chamber by Senate Republicans, the party’s only check on Democratic strongholds in the state Assembly and four statewide offices, including Governor. There are currently 32 Democrats and 31 Republicans in the chamber but Republicans maintain control with the help of Brooklyn Democrat Simcha Felder, who caucuses with Senate Republicans, and the five-member Independent Democratic Conference.

Senate Democrats have picked up seats in every presidential election year since 2000.

Sen. Hugh Farley, an 83-year-old Republican representing the 49th Senate District, announced earlier this year that he won’t seek another term. He’s served in the Senate since 1977.

Sen. Mike Nozzolio, a 65-year-old Republican representing the 54th Senate District, decided not to seek reelection this year citing a heart condition. He’s served in the Senate since 1992.

Sen. Jack Martins, a younger member of the Republican conference at 49, was only elected in 2010 and was seen as a future leader in the conference, but he has forgone reelection for a congressional bid. Senate Republicans reportedly pushed Martins to stay in the Senate to help them hold a majority.

And top Republican staffers Robert Mujica (budget) and Kelly Cummings (communications) departed for the Cuomo administration this year, resulting in something of a brain-drain. The conference faced a challenging year as divisions between upstate and downstate members appeared to boil over during budget negotiations, a rarity for the generally lockstep conference. Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan of Long Island, who defeated Sen. John DeFrancisco of Syracuse to replace former Majority Leader Dean Skelos, has kept up the friendly, mutually beneficial relationship with Cuomo that Skelos started, which has irked a number of upstate legislators.

To hear Democrats tell it, Senate Republicans are realizing that they won’t be able to keep the chamber during a presidential election year. “We’ve picked up multiple seats during each presidential election year in this millennium,” said Queens Sen. Mike Gianaris, who chairs the state Senate Democratic Campaign Committee. “I can't blame them,” Gianaris said, referring to senior Senate Republicans deciding not to seek reelection. “They see the writing on the wall.”

“When talented people see that their future isn't with the Senate Republicans it is telling,” he said of the departures of Cummings, who left recently, and Mujica, who became Cuomo’s budget director at the start of the year.

Senate Republican spokesperson Scott Reif said that recent departures are not a reaction to changing political tides. "Whether it's a long-serving Senator who chooses to retire or a staffer who decides to pursue another opportunity, these are personal decisions that were made at an appropriate time,” Reif said. “While the Senate Democrats want to make this out to be far more than it really is, the truth is that these changes will have no impact whatsoever on the state of the Senate Republican Conference or our prospects for the fall. We have strong incumbents who are running on a record of accomplishment, first-class challengers who are going to help us pick up seats, and an experienced and professional staff that is second to none. We are confident we're going to grow our majority in November."

Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group said that the departure of Mujica and Cummings to Cuomo’s office may not be indicative of anything more than the governor’s need for staff with high-level experience in state government and their desire to advance their careers. “They have the experience in the higher levels of government, so it makes their hiring unsurprising,” said Horner, who once left NYPIRG to work for the governor during Cuomo’s time as attorney general. “New York has tough revolving-door rules so in some cases it's hard for folks to leave government, so they are constantly looking for ways to move up to gain new experience.”

Senate Republicans lost control of the State Senate for the first time in decades in 2008, when Democrats rode the Barack Obama wave. In 2009 Senate Republican leadership and rogue Democrats launched a coup that paralyzed state government for weeks. Republicans won back control through the 2010 elections (seats in the state Legislature are voted on every two years), but after Democrats picked up seats in 2012, Republicans cut a deal with the Independent Democratic Conference and Democratic Sen. Simcha Felder that allowed them to keep control.

Republicans again won outright control of the chamber in 2014 and the IDC took on a lesser role while continuing a governing coalition. However, Republicans were unable to win the special election to replace Skelos, the former majority leader removed from office after a corruption conviction. That election sets the stage for this fall.

Sources from both the mainline Democratic conference and IDC say relationships between the two have improved and that there is room for discussion about a partnership after the November elections.

Republicans face the departure of three incumbents and increasing Democratic voter registration in key districts, but their campaign committee does have a fundraising advantage over the Democrats.

While Democrats see the decision of some Senior Republicans not to seek reelection as a sign of their impending victory, in most cases, the departing Republicans are not at all likely to be replaced by Democrats. Instead, Democrats expect to make big gains on Long Island while the open seats will prove a distraction where Republicans will have to invest some resources to establish their new candidates.

Sen. Farley anointed Assemblymember Jim Tedisco, a former Assembly minority leader, to replace him. Tedisco has served in the Assembly since 1983 and his Assembly district shares much of Farley’s Senate district in Schenectady and Saratoga counties. He is the favorite in the upcoming Republican primary in September. Democrat Chad Putman announced his campaign earlier this year before Farley had decided to retire. He said he is happy residents of his district will have new representation for the first time in 40 years, but he recognizes that Tedisco is equally well known as Farley and while he isn’t the incumbent, Tedisco enjoys many of the benefits of incumbency.

“I’m 41 years old and when I jumped into the race in January I was facing someone who has served for 40 years,” said Putman, referring to Farley. “So it is exciting that everyone in the district will have a new representative, but it speaks to the need for various reform measures so that more folks are able to get involved in the process. Farley’s departure means that I’m now facing an assemblyman who has served for 30 years and was able to roll over $100,000 from one campaign account to another. He already has the groundwork in place.”

Putman said he is trying to lead by example - refusing to take large donations from political action committees (PACs), corporations, and LLCs. “I’m implementing the changes I’d like to make to the system in my own campaign,” said Putman.

Tedisco’s campaign did not return requests for comment.

Democrats also have their eyes on the seat of 88-year-old Sen. Bill Larkin, who began his political career in the Assembly, where he served from 1979 to 1990 before being elected to the Senate. Many political operatives thought Senate Republicans might replace Larkin on the ballot as he’s recently come under attack for taking two state pensions; writing a letter of support for Skelos during his trial; and controversy over a criminal investigation into the treasurer of his campaign committee. But Larkin remains in the contest. The district has seen Democratic registration rise drastically and Larkin is now set to face former challenger Chris Eachus, a county legislator who came within two percent of defeating him in 2010.

The race to replace Nozzolio in the district that includes the area around Lake Ontario and the Finger Lakes, is expected to be settled in the Republican primary although a Democrat is running in the general.

Sen. Gianaris, of the Democratic conference, said that there is still a silver lining for Democrats in the races to replace Farley and Nozzolio despite the fact that Republicans are favored to win. “It’s not only the debate, but the ideas put forward by [a Democrat] who wins or comes close. It shows that those issues are something people care about and in a year where people are screaming for change, Democrats are the only ones who can give it to them because the Senate Republicans have been champions of the status quo.”

The seat held by Martin, the Republican Senator running for Congress on Long Island, will come down to a contest between Republican Elaine Phillips, mayor of Flower Hill, a small town in Nassau, and Adam Haber, a Democratic businessman who lost a challenge to Martins 56-43 percent during the last election. Democrats are bullish on Haber’s candidacy.

As bright as Senate Democrats think their future may be there always appears to be storm clouds on the horizon for them. Democrats have hoped to capture multiple seats on Long Island before only to see their candidates fall apart.

There is still the question of whether Gov. Andrew Cuomo will take any measurable action to boost Democratic Senate candidates - especially since Senate Republicans helped Cuomo deliver a $15 minimum wage and paid family leave this year, along with Cuomo’s general predilection to boost, or at least not target, Senate Republicans.

The Times Union recently reported that the powerful health care union 1199-SEIU plans to back Senate Republicans, although Gianaris said he had not heard that from the union. Politico NY reports that 1199 has actually donated more money to Senate Democrats than Republicans thus far in this cycle.

As they do every four years, Democrats are planning on a stronger turnout due to the race for President, and some think that having Donald Trump at the top of the ticket will hurt down-ballot Republicans. Both Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton have strong New York ties, though.

“Every bit matters,” admitted Gianaris, “but none of it compares to the tidal wave that accompanies the presidential elections. It is more pronounced every year.”

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Senate Republicans Face Departures with Battle for Control Looming Wed, 20 Jul 2016 04:00:00 +0000