Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/299 Thu, 13 Dec 2018 22:44:00 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Close Ties Among Bronx Electeds, Campaign Consultants, Lobbyists and Donors http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7993-close-ties-among-bronx-electeds-campaign-consultants-lobbyists-and-donors http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7993-close-ties-among-bronx-electeds-campaign-consultants-lobbyists-and-donors klein gjonaj office share shot

Klein-Gjonaj offices (photo via Google Maps)


Bronx City Council Member Mark Gjonaj already has a 2021 campaign office, and an officemate. The “Gjonaj 2021” re-election campaign account pays rent for a headquarters in Morris Park that is shared with State Senator Jeff Klein, a longtime Gjonaj ally and founder of the now-defunct Independent Democratic Conference who recently lost in the Democratic primary to challenger Alessandra Biaggi. The two have shared the office space since Gjonaj’s days as a member of the state Assembly.

The two Bronx politicians share a lot. Gjonaj’s City Council district and Klein’s State Senate district overlap significantly. In 2017, Klein endorsed Gjonaj for City Council, and Gjonaj then campaigned for Klein’s re-election this year, going viral in August for yelling “Shame!” through a megaphone at Biaggi as she entered a campaign event.

The two also share connections to a campaign consultancy, lobbyist, and the Squitieri family, large donors to both officials. ProPublica recently exposed Sanitation Salvage, the Squitieri family-run business, for its problematic and deadly business practices in the private waste carting industry. The reporting caused its license to be suspended by the Business Integrity Commission (BIC), punishment both Klein and Gjonaj have fought against.

Klein made major headlines losing his re-election bid last month. He is the largest figure from the IDC, which he started and led, and that previously had a power-sharing agreement with Senate Republicans. Six of the eight former IDC members lost in their Democratic primaries, though some, including Klein, may continue into the general election on other ballot lines. Klein also made news for dropping an unheard-of $3 million in the race as a whole, spending around eleven times more per vote than his opponent.

The Hamilton Campaign Network received about a third of Klein’s spending, though it in turn paid other vendors for campaign work. The political consultancy received $1,014,197 from Klein’s committee in 2018 for mailers and TV and online ads, among other services, according to state campaign finance records. Gjonaj’s 2017 campaign for City Council, which itself set records for spending, paid $212,034 to the group, according to city records.

The head of the Hamilton Campaign Network is John Emrick, former chief of staff to Jeff Klein. Emrick left the IDC fold in 2016 to work in campaigns, returning to work for Klein in a different way this year.

Emrick also lobbies government on behalf of the company that owns the Hamilton Campaign Network, MirRam LLC. During the recent primary election, MirRam’s campaign consultancy company has been a client to most of the former members of the IDC, including Marisol Alcantara, Tony Avella, and David Carlucci along with Attorney General hopeful Letitia James, who has paid MirRam for consultancy since she successfully ran for Public Advocate in 2013.

After Emrick left Klein’s office to campaign and lobby at MirRam, state law places a two-year wait period for former public officials to lobby where they once worked. However, Emrick was still allowed to lobby New York City officials, which would include Gjonaj, and city records show he lobbied on behalf of prominent donors to both Klein and Gjonaj.

Emrick worked as a lobbyist on behalf of the Squitieri brothers in the Bronx since 2016, according to city lobbying records. Sanitation Salvage, run by the Squitieri family, is one of the largest private trash companies in New York City. ProPublica reported that Sanitation Salvage skirted regulation for years, even after worker deaths, through lobbying and a strong foothold in the Bronx political machine.

Since 2016, Steven Squitieri has paid MirRam Group LLC, where Emrick is listed as an employee and as involved in these lobbying efforts, $122,500 to lobby the City Council for Sanitation Salvage.

A spokesman for MirRam said Emrick was not available for comment on this story.

"Hamilton Campaign Network appreciates the trust so many candidates have placed with the firm since its creation in 2016,” said a spokesperson for the Hamilton Campaign Network in a statement. “All required disclosures for Hamilton Campaign Network and its employees are filed regularly and are in order.”

Gjonaj’s connections to the Squitieris go beyond Emrick. Gjonaj’s political club, the North Bronx Democratic Club, has had little activity in the last few years, but Gjonaj has said it was formed to seek out “disenfranchised voters.” More notable is the club’s president, John Squitieri, one of the owners of Sanitation Salvage. The location of the political clubhouse is 2018 Williamsbridge Road, or the campaign headquarters of Gjonaj 2021 and Klein 2018.

Through a number of LLCs and corporations, the Squitieri family has given $120,000 to Klein and $40,000 to Gjonaj since 2007, according to ProPublica.

After criticism that the BIC had softened its oversight of the private trash industry, in August the regulatory agency suspended Sanitation Salvage’s license for unsafe business practices. Salvage quickly filed a lawsuit in Manhattan Supreme Court to fight the suspension.

Klein and Gjonaj then joined in to submit a letter of support for Sanitation Salvage to restore the company’s license. They called the suspension “troubling.”

“Sanitation Salvage has been an exemplary example of a good corporate citizen. Each of our offices have worked directly with Sanitation Salvage in different capacities and have had very positive experiences,” reads the letter.

Gjonaj’s office did not respond to several requests for comment for this story. Sen. Klein could not be reached for comment and has not appeared in public since primary day a month ago.

Good government groups argue that the problem is much larger than Gjonaj and Klein’s close relationship with donors. Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor for Reinvent Albany, contends that problems arise when campaign consultants with established relationships to candidates can also lobby on behalf of other parties, including donors.

"There ought to be a cooling off period before political consultants can lobby the very elected officials whose campaigns they ran," said Camarda. "There is a great deal of public cynicism about government these days, and arrangements like these undermine people's confidence that government officials are making decisions in the public interest."

MirRam Group, run by one of its founders, Luis Manuel Miranda, is not the only group that dabbles in both campaign management and lobbying. The Parkside Group is one of the largest similar groups. This year, it worked on the campaigns of Rep. Joe Crowley and State Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins along with lobbying for state interest groups like developers and unions.

State Senator Avella, another former member of the IDC, actually proposed legislation in January of last year to prohibit “certain lobbyists and political consultants from being affiliated with each other, or engaging in the other's profession.” The other two sponsors were then-IDC member Senators Diane Savino and David Carlucci (Savino and Carlucci were the only two of the eight IDC members to win their Democratic primaries in September).

A similar version of Avella’s bill was introduced in 2013 by Senator David Valesky, then of the IDC, but the legislation went nowhere. Avella also sponsored a bill in 2015 as a response to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s close relationship with Jonathan Rosen, co-founder of BerlinRosen, who was a very involved outside advisor to the mayor but also lobbied for a number of special interest groups. BerlinRosen helped de Blasio get elected and re-elected as mayor, and Rosen has remained a close confidante throughout, often attending government-related meetings hosted by the mayor.

Avella’s legislation this year, which has not gone to the floor for a vote, details some of the issues that arise when campaign consultants are able to lobby their former employers:

“The relationship forged between a candidate and his or her political consultant during a campaign is tight, often unassailable. Political consultants who also lobby have a unique opportunity to trade on this personal capital when pushing the interests of their other clients for new laws, government approvals or funding,” it reads.

Emrick has not directly lobbied the State Senate since leaving his former office, according to filings with the New York Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE). He has lobbied the State Assembly, the City Council, and Council Member Gjonaj after working to help him win his election.

***
by Jake Shore for Gotham Gazette
@Jake4Shore
@GothamGazette

]]>
Close Ties Among Bronx Electeds, Campaign Consultants, Lobbyists and Donors Mon, 15 Oct 2018 01:14:02 +0000
Klein, Filing Late Post-Primary, Shows Over $3 Million in Senate Campaign Spending http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7973-klein-filing-late-post-primary-shows-over-3-million-in-senate-campaign-spending http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7973-klein-filing-late-post-primary-shows-over-3-million-in-senate-campaign-spending shakinghands

Sen. Jeff Klein meets voters (Photo: jeffkleinny.com)


Already spending at what is likely a record pace, with two weeks until the September 13 primary, New York State Senator Jeff Klein kept spending his campaign cash at a rapid clip to try to beat back a Democratic primary challenge from Alessandra Biaggi, a lawyer and first-time candidate, Klein’s late post-primary campaign finance filing shows. In sum, Klein spent nearly ten times more than Biaggi, but was still unsuccessful as Biaggi claimed the nomination, likely unseating one of the state’s major powerbrokers of the past decade, in the district that covers parts of the Bronx and Westchester.

Klein spent nearly $700,000 in September, out of more than $3 million -- an astronomical sum for a state legislative race -- that he depleted in trying to retain his seat in this two-year election cycle. He also raised another $246,000 in those final weeks of the primary -- he has brought in $1.8 million since January 2017 -- including $103,000 from the Senate Independence Campaign Committee, which he and partners originally set up jointly between the Independence Party and the erstwhile Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group of eight senators led by Klein that formed a power-sharing agreement with Republicans in the Senate. The SICC was ruled by a state supreme court judge to be illegal, though it apparently moved into compliance thereafter, and the state BOE had ordered that IDC members refund its contributions, but they refused. In total, the SICC directed $403,000 to Klein’s reelection coffers.

The SICC also moved hundreds of thousands of dollars, largely from major donors in real estate and education reform, to other members of the IDC, with Klein and five other former IDC members losing their primaries.

In the days leading up to September 13, Klein received $90,500 in donations from limited liability companies and from political action committees, including some associated with law enforcement unions and the nursing and beverage industries. Klein has benefited greatly from the largesse of corporations, PACs and LLCs, the last of which are not required to name their owners and can therefore circumvent contribution limits. In total, those types of contributors gave him about $1.16 million for his reelection.

There were a few notable individual donations in the most recent filing as well. On primary day itself, Carl Icahn, the billionaire investor with close ties to President Donald Trump, gave Klein $11,000; two days before that, hedge fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones gave him $15,000; and in the week before, Larry Robbins, also a billionaire and of the KIPP charter school network, donated $10,000.

Of the latest spending spree, about $390,000 went to the Hamilton Campaign Network, a Democratic campaign consulting firm, which organized campaign mailers, phone and text banking efforts, and produced videos for Klein’s campaign.

After all his spending, Klein still had $510,000 sitting in his campaign account as of this filing, which was sent to the Board of Elections a week late. He could retain that cash or potentially transfer it to another campaign account, should he decide to run in any upcoming elections, or he can donate to other candidates running in the general. He may decide to use it for his own continued campaign, given that he has the Independence Party ballot line to run on in November after losing the Democratic nomination, and Klein has not formally conceded his race or endorsed Biaggi.

In the Democratic primary, Klein received 14,754 votes, about 44.5 percent, losing to Biaggi’s 17,618 votes, or 53.1 percent. All told, Klein spent roughly $207 for each vote while Biaggi only disbursed $18.90 per vote.

Independent expenditure groups also showed their support for Klein. Those include Laborers Building a Better New York, a group associated with the Construction and General Building Laborers Local 79 union, which spent $109,360 to favor several candidates, including Klein. New Yorkers for Quality Healthcare, affiliated with the Greater New York Hospital Association, spent a whopping $447,450 on digital ads, direct mailers, web design, and tv production to support Klein and State Senator David Valesky, another former IDC member who lost to his own primary challenger, Rachel May. The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association’s independent expenditure committee also spent $65,338 on direct mailers boosting Klein.

In total, Biaggi spent $332,000 on her campaign and raised about $534,000. While Klein was attempting a well-funded last ditch effort to sway voters, Biaggi only dropped about $160,000 in that final three week period, raising only $62,500 in the same time. She has another $133,000 as she heads into the general election, where she would be unopposed unless Klein continues to run.

A spokesperson for Klein’s campaign did not return a request for comment for this article. He has not appeared in public since primary day, and did not address supporters on primary night.

Biaggi also received outside help in the primary. The Empire State 32BJ SEIU PAC spent $97,285 to support her election, through mailers, canvassing efforts and social media ads. They also spent $11,540 on a mailer opposing Klein. The union, 32BJ, dedicated significant resources, including financial and human, to Biaggi’s successful bid.

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Klein, Filing Late Post-Primary, Shows Over $3 Million in Senate Campaign Spending Wed, 03 Oct 2018 04:00:00 +0000
How Insurgent Forces Activated, Educated and Brought the IDC Down http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7939-how-insurgent-forces-activated-educated-and-brought-the-idc-down http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7939-how-insurgent-forces-activated-educated-and-brought-the-idc-down biaggi victory first pump

Alessandra Biaggi celebrates (photo: @Biaggi4NY)


Hit the ground early. Educate the electorate. Reach new voters. Go viral.

Those are a few of the strategies that propelled insurgent candidates to victory in last week’s primary elections, wherein six challengers prevailed over sitting Democratic state senators who were once members of the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway faction that caucused with Republicans for seven years, creating or padding the GOP majority in the chamber.

The upsets in the state Senate races instantly shook up New York politics and painted a picture of a more engaged Democratic electorate that would no longer tolerate party officials who don’t pass a particular purity test imposed by a progressive base angered by the election of Donald Trump and a lack of action on favored legislation in Albany.

The eight-member IDC, which dissolved in April amid mounting criticism of its role in keeping the state Senate in Republican hands, saw six of their own defeated on Thursday despite outspending their opponents and leveraging broad institutional support. Their conventional campaign tactics failed to overcome a coordinated crop of candidates backed by a vast network of grassroots activists who employed guerilla tactics to get their message heard and were, in several instances, bolstered by key established players.

In early 2017, in the aftermath of Trump’s election, a disparate movement focused on the IDC had begun to take shape. Under a Trump presidency, the IDC members and their power-sharing agreement with Republicans became unacceptable to these activists, who insisted on being represented by “true blue” Democrats. After a raucous townhall in early February 2017 where IDC Senator Jose Peralta met the fury of some, one grassroots group, Rise and Resist, began to hold regular protests against IDC members. Then, in May 2017, the incipient anti-IDC movement held simultaneous rallies across New York City, protesting outside the offices of the senators. By then, only one candidate had emerged, Robert Jackson, who beat Senator Marisol Alcantara in Manhattan’s 31st District by a wide margin. “The beginning of the real grassroots energy behind getting rid of the IDC started then,” said Lisa DellAquila, an anti-IDC activist turned campaign manager for John Liu, the last of the challengers to declare and who handily defeated IDC Senator Tony Avella in the primary.

It was the first volley in a broader, longer game that crescendoed to a fever pitch ahead of primary day. In interviews, the organizers, activists, and strategists behind the effort portrayed a campaign that laid the groundwork long before other candidates had even emerged. “Our strategy from day one was run nine challengers against nine traitors,” said Gus Christensen, chief strategist for No IDC NY, a grassroots group, referring to the IDC senators and Senator Simcha Felder, a rogue Brooklyn Democrat who was not part of the IDC but votes with Republicans. The activists eventually coalesced into the True Blue coalition, made up of about 60 groups, many local ones based in the districts represented by IDC senators, where organizing and education efforts increased awareness of the IDC over the course of 2017 and into this year. The coalition marshalled its resources, encouraging candidates to run while informing voters more broadly about the existence of the IDC.

“What the IDC did violated the public trust in a visceral, almost biblical way,” Christensen said. “The cynics of the political establishment could never see that, because caucusing with the other party isn't illegal, while Albany is full of actual illegal activities about which voters don't seem to care. But once enough voters understood that the IDC really did caucus with the GOP, that it wasn't ‘fake news,’ they were revolted, and they voted that way.”

Hitting the ground running
“One really important piece of this was just good old-fashioned organizing,” said Heather Stewart, co-founder of Empire State Indivisible, who later went on to work for Liu’s campaign doing communications. Stewart said the coalition began educating voters about the IDC last year through town halls, leafleting, phone banks, and on-the-ground outreach. “So there was a good deal of tracks laid through the education piece. This was over a year ago...it was a coalescence of great candidates, good organizing, people who wanted more than anything from the bottom of their heart to oust the IDC.”

The groups gathered every month to discuss strategy, and began to circle possible candidates who had expressed interest while actively recruiting others such as Liu, who entered the fray at the eleventh hour after having lost to Avella four years ago but with stronger name recognition in his district than most of the other challengers had in theirs at the start of their campaigns.

The groups also partnered with The Creative Resistance, a volunteer collective of documentary filmmakers, and released a video, titled “Lulu Land” and narrated by actor Edie Falco, about the IDC and its highly scrutinized arrangement for its members to inappropriately receive extra stipends. The video raised much-needed awareness for their effort. “By and large, people were enraged about the IDC,” said Stewart, who has acknowledged she only learned of the IDC in recent years, spurring her to action. “They were mad that they had voted for a Democrat who wasn’t upholding Democratic values.”

Different groups were assigned to different districts under one umbrella. “We borrowed a strategy from Virginia activists who flipped the House of Delegates,” Stewart said, “which was basically that each group adopted a campaign and a candidate. So then, each group could begin to engage their members in one consistent campaign...It worked very well...There was essentially a captain who captained the grassroots efforts in each campaign that talked with other captains of the grassroots effort.”

The overall effort was bolstered by the likes of the Working Families Party, Make the Road Action, and Citizen Action of New York, some of the organized left’s longer-standing infrastructure, groups that share similar progressive goals and sent hundreds of volunteers into the nine districts, relying on a robust ground game to activate voters.

“We started working as far back as spring of 2017, way before there even were candidates running, to start organizing in the districts of the IDC members, doing really aggressive voter contact and community organizing to help people understand what was actually going on,” said Joe Dinkin, WFP’s campaign director. “That helped till the soil, build a grassroots base of anger and energy and a volunteer base from which it was a lot more appealing for candidates who would think about running to be able to get into the race.”

Dinkin said the WFP, which endorsed all the candidates, provided campaign expertise, helping them strategize, hire staff and consultants, and dispatch volunteers. By February and into March of this year, the WFP had endorsed the full slate of challengers to the IDC senators, establishing clear battle lines within the Democratic Party and setting the stage for the essential stretch of the primary campaign well in advance.

The WFP was also behind the two insurgent statewide candidates who failed in the primary -- Cynthia Nixon lost to Cuomo by a wide margin and City Council Member Jumaane Williams failed to unseat Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul in a closer race. Zephyr Teachout, who the WFP said it was supporting along with eventual winner Letitia James in the attorney general Democratic primary, was unsuccessful in her race but amplified anti-IDC sentiment. Nixon was vocal about the IDC and when Cuomo moved to reunite the faction with the mainline Senate Democratic Conference, she claimed credit.

“Cynthia Nixon was able to broadcast in a way that the entire media and the political class and voters noticed about the problems with the IDC and how they were roadblocking progressive legislation,” Dinkin said.

The candidates themselves had also been beating the anti-IDC drum in their districts. “Typically campaigns run a eight-week, sometimes 12-week field operation,” said Andre Richardson, campaign manager for Zellnor Myrie, who defeated former IDC Senator Jesse Hamilton in Brooklyn. “We’ve been canvassing, paid and volunteer, and candidate canvassing for eight months. In politics, folks have these archaic strategies of ‘this is too soon, this is too early.’ We proved all of that to be inaccurate and we proved that if you run a consistent and aggressive ground game, you can win.”

Each of the candidates managed fairly robust fundraising operations, and focused mostly on individual small donors throughout their campaigns as they critiqued their opponents for receiving funds from corporate donors. There was, of course, a fair share of spending by the coalition groups to augment each campaign’s own operations. No IDC NY formed its own multi-candidate campaign committee and tapped hundreds of small donors as well, and spent nearly $150,000, across the Senate races.

Depending on digital
In order to build name recognition against the IDC members, some of whom have been incumbents for several terms, the broader coordinated campaign, individual candidates, and activist groups decided to focus their efforts on digital and social media, hyper-targeted to specific populations within each district.

All the campaigns and their allies outspent the IDC senators on Facebook, said Jim Casteleiro, digital director for No IDC NY, who coordinated efforts with The Creative Resistance to craft ads across all the campaigns.

“We started early in the summer conceiving of a plan to run digital ads in all the districts that we were targeting,” Casteleiro said. “Our sort-of guiding principle in this whole process was, ‘Yes, people are outraged about what’s happening with Trump. Yes, people are outraged about the IDC. But if we don’t talk to them about what this actually means for their lives, then no one’s gonna care’...All of the content that we created, it was all issue-focused.”

The ads focused on everything from the state’s housing crisis, immigrant protections, and health care to education funding and abortion rights, while introducing the slate of progressive challengers as individual people. Another round of more negative ads portrayed each of the IDC senators as a gas station tube man, full of hot air. All told, the 38 videos they created received more than a million views.

“Obviously, digital isn’t new necessarily,” Casteleiro said. “But what I say is kinda unprecedented is this: you have an all-volunteer organization that raises $250,000, we partner with an all-volunteer group of creative professionals who create agency-level content, and we deploy that across the state in a coordinated fashion…That has to be absolutely unprecedented in New York State.”

Activist Sean McElwee, writing in HuffPost, noted that grassroots group Vote Tripling got 474 volunteers to convince three friends each to vote for the IDC challengers, and national group Postcards to Voters sent 283,857 handwritten notes to get out the vote in those districts.

Eric Rockey, co-founder of The Creative Resistance and director of the “Hot Air” ads, said they were inspired by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s viral campaign ad when she beat Democratic giant Joe Crowley in a June congressional primary that shocked the city, state, and country. The ad was like a “short documentary film about a candidate and less like a slick political ad,” he said, noting that his group skyped with the makers of that ad and also consulted with the team behind Cynthia Nixon’s campaign launch video.

“The strategy was really to find those unique issues that would be wedge issues between our candidates and IDC members and really hammer on those,” Rockey said. “It was really burnishing the progressive bonafides of these candidates. But also trying to show them as people.”

Convincing Candidates
No message is complete without its messenger and the anti-IDC movement was no different. The candidates they backed, most of them young progressives running for the first time, presented an alternative to the calcified establishment to a Democratic primary electorate that showed it was hungry for change.

By and large, the candidates were charismatic, energetic, and able to talk policy -- some with youthful exuberance, some with seasoned perspective.

Some were also backed by prominent elected officials, including City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Comptroller Scott Stringer, both of whom brought organizing and fundraising with them. Myrie, in particular, received tremendous support from city, state, and federal elected officials, including many in Brooklyn. The powerful labor union 32BJ also played a prominent role in a few races, especially where Alessandra Biaggi defeated Klein, who once led the IDC and was, until Thursday, one of the state's most powerful elected officials. Stringer and Johnson and their teams were also all-in for Biaggi.

“We proved through heart and hustle and just organizing that it was possible,” she said in a phone interview. “I worked tirelessly and I’m unrelenting, and also a fighter and I’ve always been that way. And every time that somebody told me ‘no’ I worked double as hard and every time somebody told me ‘yes’ I worked triple as hard.”

Klein spent more to try to push back Biaggi’s challenge than Nixon did in her statewide race against the governor. “This race proved that the political currency is people, not dollars,” Biaggi said.

“They were all really great. They were easy to work for and easy to get people excited about. And that’s where the magic was if you ask me,” said Empire Indivisible’s Stewart about the IDC challengers.

In July, once Liu declared he would challenge Avella, the district was ready to hear from him. “A lot of work had already been done in his district. We already had boots on the ground there who were really fiercely committed to the IDC resistance and so it was essentially bringing in a great candidate,” Stewart said.

While Liu, Jackson, Biaggi, Myrie, Jessica Ramos, and Rachel May were successful in defeating former IDC members, other former IDC Senators Diane Savino and David Carlucci held onto their seats. Felder defeated Blake Morris. (Another insurgent leftist, Julia Salazar, unseated Senator Martin Dilan, though that race was not a focus of the same progressive, anti-IDC coalition.)

The primary winners are all-but-certain to win their general elections, if they have an opponent. The main remaining question is whether the anti-IDC efforts that toppled rogue Democrats can now help flip Republican-held seats and give the next Senate Democratic Conference, infused with new blood, an elusive majority. That answer will be known on November 6.

Again in the general, candidates and campaigns will both matter greatly.

Richardson, from Myrie’s campaign, explained some of the energy behind his candidate’s success. “Zellnor is in the top five of the most fearless candidates I’ve ever worked for,” he said. “In terms of his aggressiveness to talk to a voter, to hear a problem, his ability to immediately respond or to follow through, is pretty phenomenal…We had a pool of over 400 volunteers. And some of that was outreach. A lot of that was just organic because Zellnor was such a great candidate. Folks would just walk in the door or read an article about him and just wanna help.”

“We were really inspired by these candidates,” said Rockey. “It wasn’t a stretch for us. We were genuinely inspired by them. It felt like something new in New York politics...It was really about these personal connections with these candidates and our passion for these candidates.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note- This article has been updated to note the correct name of the True Blue coalition, which is distinct from True Blue NY, a grassroots group that is part of the coalition. 

Note- This article has been updated to reflect the early role of Rise and Resist, a grassroots groups, in the anti-IDC movement.

]]>
How Insurgent Forces Activated, Educated and Brought the IDC Down Mon, 17 Sep 2018 04:00:00 +0000
One of the State's Most Powerful Unions Tries to Take Down One of Its Most Powerful Politicians http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7923-one-of-the-state-s-most-powerful-unions-tries-to-take-down-one-of-its-most-powerful-politicians http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7923-one-of-the-state-s-most-powerful-unions-tries-to-take-down-one-of-its-most-powerful-politicians 32BJ for Biaggi

photo: @32BJSEIU


As Alessandra Biaggi, a first-time candidate for office, attempts to unseat Democratic state Senator Jeff Klein, once the powerful leader of a rogue faction of Democratic senators, a prominent labor union is pulling no punches to ensure that her insurgent campaign prevails in the September 13 primary.

The property services workers union, 32BJ SEIU, which boasts more than 160,000 members and is a regular political heavyweight, has been aggressively courting voters and spending money to help Biaggi defeat Klein, a Democrat the union once backed. A force in state politics with allies at the highest reaches of government, 32BJ could put Biaggi over the top in what is increasingly being viewed, despite Klein’s significant advantages, as an unpredictable race given broader trends and recent upsets, Biaggi’s strengths as a campaigner, and the activism behind her bid.

Klein represents Senate District 34, which covers parts of the Bronx and Westchester, and has been in office since 2005. Along the way, he acquired power and prestige, forming the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), an alliance that grew to eight senators who broke from the chamber’s mainline Democratic conference and formed a coalition majority with Senate Republicans, at times ensuring GOP leadership of the only Republican stronghold in state government. In turn, IDC members received leadership positions, additional stipends, more discretionary funding for their districts, and other benefits. The infamous “three men in a room” of state government decision-making -- the governor, Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader -- became four, with Klein joining to influence the fate of key legislation and the state budget.

The IDC rejoined the mainline Democrats in April, after another state budget agreement and no shortage of criticism from progressive activists, unions, and elected Democrats who viewed their power-sharing agreement with visceral hatred and outright derision. A slate of challengers, including Biaggi, had already launched their campaigns to unseat the IDC members in the primary, promising “real” as opposed to “Trump Democrats.”

The Democratic unity deal had its beginnings in a letter sent in November 2017 by leaders of the state Democratic Party, Congressional Rep. Joe Crowley and, notably, Hector Figueroa, an at-large member of the Democratic National Committee, the president of 32BJ, and an active and powerful voice in New York politics. They appealed to Klein and Democratic conference leader Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins to reunite the disparate factions of the same party. In April this year, the two sides finally came together, with Governor Andrew Cuomo literally in the middle at a press conference, expressing a newfound bonhomie that tried to erase years of bad blood. Both sides promised mutual support in the upcoming elections. Klein was appointed deputy conference leader under Stewart-Cousins and pledged that the IDC was dead forever as a conference.

But, damage was already done. Following Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, a wave of grassroots activists had vowed to oppose the IDC Senators and, one by one, challengers emerged to take on each senator in the primary. They shared similar policy platforms, pledging to support causes near and dear to progressives -- such as single-payer health care, criminal justice reform, enhanced rent regulations, voting, ethics and campaign finance reform, and increased education funding -- which they blamed IDC members for blocking. Among them was Biaggi, who formerly worked in Cuomo’s counsel’s office and was deputy national operations director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

In late June, two months after the unity compact, 32BJ announced its endorsement of Biaggi, which shocked the New York political world and many saw as the crumbling of the facade of a unified effort to keep Democratic incumbents, including Cuomo and Klein, in power. Figueroa, who remains a staunch Cuomo supporter, was accused by some of reneging on a commitment to not oppose the former IDC members, a charge he has repeatedly dismissed.

“I think that Democratic unity was already broken,” Figueroa said in a phone interview on Thursday. “The efforts to fix it were not really sincerely driven, or even embraced when others were driving it, by the IDC.” He emphasized that the IDC had ample opportunity to return to the fold, and should have done so when the need for unity became clear. First was after the 2014 elections, when 32BJ had endorsed Klein after he promised to end the IDC alliance with Republicans. Klein subsequently broke that promise. Then came Trump’s election, after which Democrats saw a dire need to regain complete control of state government. Again, the IDC stuck with Republicans.

“So the effort that we undertook throughout 2017, showing them the reality of where the country was and what it meant to be sharing power with Republicans, finally caught up with them when they were primaried,” Figueroa said, “When they experienced rejection in their own districts, then they decided that it was time to try to figure out how to come back.”

The terms of the deal were also unacceptable, he said, noting that the former IDC members insisted on funding their campaigns with money raised with the Independence Party through the Senate Independence Campaign Committee (SICC), which received contributions from donors more friendly to Republican causes, such as real estate and charter school interests. (The committee was recently ruled by a judge to be illegal and the IDC members were directed by a Board of Elections official to return millions in campaign funds they had received, though they have refused to do so, while they took steps to get the SICC into compliance.)

“Even when they accepted the offer, they kept the [SICC] money and they demanded what cannot be demanded, which is that everybody bow to their leadership and ignore their opponents,” Figueroa said. “So to me, this was already set to fail, unfortunately,...because of the attitude and arrogance of the head of the IDC and his minions in the conference.”

He continued, “The roots of division were very, very deep and had they behaved in a different way, had they refunded the money, had they taken the attitude that they have to talk to voters, they have to talk to people in the district like we asked Klein to do with our members, had they been more humble, maybe they could have avoided the ferocity of the opposition. But they didn’t do that. They felt that institutional politics protects them and now they’re paying the price.”

Endorsing Biaggi was an easy calculation for the union. Klein refused to be interviewed by its screening committee, which then unanimously voted for Biaggi, Figueroa said.

Biaggi said the union’s support was “incredibly massive,” touting shared values and the union’s organizing efforts around progressive legislation in the state. “They were also the first union to come out and support me before any other union, and that’s something that I will absolutely never forget. It is incredibly politically courageous,” she said.

The union had already committed to hitting the ground for Biaggi, traversing the district to knock on doors and canvass for votes. Then, just over a month after their endorsement of Biaggi, Klein pulled a stunt that left Figueroa “perplexed.”

The senator hosted about a dozen rank-and-file members of Figueroa’s union and posted a video to Twitter in which they held up signs for his campaign and chanted, “32BJ!” In a subsequent tweet, Klein wrote, “These are the doormen, the superintendents, maintenance staff and security companies in our building and our public schools, who provide clean and safe environments for our families. This is a testament to loyalty, and I am truly honored by the rank and file support of @32BJSEIU.”

“[It] doesn’t mean anything except that it revealed one of the personality flaws that we find in Klein - the vanity, the arrogance of doing that is really innovative and unique,” Figueroa said, having never experienced a candidate attempting to project support that he does not have from the union’s majority and endorsement vote. “And it’s that style of politics that we have to reject at this time. The politics of confusion and the politics of divisiveness and the politics of deceiving the electorate, which is what has been the trademark of Jeff Klein and the IDC. That only energized us more to support Biaggi.”

The move also annoyed many union members and the next day, Figueroa said, 109 members volunteered to assist the effort behind Biaggi’s candidacy. They went to the Bronx in a show of force.

Biaggi said the move was of a piece with Klein’s career, that he was attempting to fool voters just as he had done for years as part of the IDC, misleading “all of the voters of District 34 into thinking that they were voting for a Democrat when they were really voting for someone who was empowering Republicans. And now he’s trying to pretend that he has a union that did not endorse him...I would never in my wildest dreams do that. It kind of reduces his credibility as a leader.” (City & State reported that, in late August, Klein’s campaign also sent a letter to constituents that made a few misleading claims about his record.)

A spokesperson did not respond to a request for an interview with Klein for this article, and he has declined multiple Gotham Gazette invitations to make radio show appearances, though he has participated in at least two debates with Biaggi and other candidate forums.

In one of the debates, hosted by BronxTalk, Klein downplayed the IDC’s role in empowering Republicans while touting its record passing progressive legislation including raising the age of criminal responsibility and a phased $15 minimum wage program. Klein said his opponent was playing “fast and loose” with the facts and he insisted that the IDC couldn’t have given Democrats a majority since the 32nd vote that gave Republicans control over the 63-member chamber came from Simcha Felder, a conservative Democrat from Brooklyn. That continues to be the case, which is why Democrats are hoping to notch victories in several swing districts outside New York City in November, while some eye unseating Brooklyn Republican Senator Marty Golden and others, including 32BJ, support Blake Morris in his primary challenge to Felder.

Klein insisted the IDC was a creation of necessity, pointing to the last time the Democrats won a majority in 2008. “The minute we won that majority, it was all downhill -- corruption, dysfunction,” he said, pointing to four Democratic state Senators who had attempted their own independent faction that year which plunged the chamber into chaos. “I originally decided to run for the state Senate to make sure we had a Democratic majority. And over the years, even though there wasn’t a Democratic majority, I was able to get a lot of things done,” Klein said in his closing statement.

A Democratic consultant who lives in the district and requested anonymity to speak freely said Klein’s move to court union members made sense. “I can see it as a viable tactic by an elected official like Jeff Klein to have public meetings with union members even if he didn’t get support from their leadership,” the consultant said.

Klein may not have 32BJ’s backing, but he does have a whole host of unions, some very powerful ones, that want to see him reelected including 1199 SEIU, DC37, the Hotel Trades Council, TWU Local 100, RWDSU, and several law enforcement unions. Klein has also raised and spent much more money than his challenger.

“I am still the underdog in this race,” Biaggi acknowledged, “which means that I have double the amount of work that I have to do to make sure that people know who I am, that people understand what this race is about and what's at stake for really everyone in New York and why it’s so important for our community to actually have a real Democrat representing them.”

Besides the hundreds of volunteers that 32BJ has put into the ground game week after week, the union has also put money behind Biaggi. It donated $7,000 to her campaign and its independent expenditure committee, Empire State 32BJ SEIU PAC, had spent $75,938 to support her campaign through mailers and social media through the most recent filing. Figueroa also signalled that more outside spending was on the way, and the PAC’s latest financial disclosure to the Board of Elections shows $43,861 in outstanding liabilities for expenditures both in favor of Biaggi and opposing Klein.

Biaggi herself has raised more than $504,000 over the course of the race, and has, so far, spent $184,000, which pales in comparison to Klein’s campaign finances, but left her a solid chunk, with more surely coming in, to spend in the final 10 days of the race. In just this two-year cycle, however, the incumbent senator has raised $1.66 million and spent almost $2.4 million, dropping $836,000 in just three weeks in August. While Biaggi had about $263,000 in cash on hand, Klein had nearly $960,000 in the bank for the final stretch.

The Democratic consultant said there has been an “insane amount of mail” going out from both campaigns and their surrogates. “At least one piece a week,” the consultant said. On the ground, the campaigns seem to have split the district in their approach, the consultant said. Klein’s campaign seems focused on holding his home turf in the east, in Morris Park and Wakefield, while Biaggi campaign workers have been hitting the ground hard in the west side of the district, in Riverdale, Van Cortlandt and Kingsbridge. “The farther west you go, prime voters are not getting door-knocked at all by Klein’s people,” the consultant said.

[Read: Candidates in Contested State Senate Primaries File Final Pre-Primary Financials]

Biaggi said Klein’s outsize spending on the race is a clear signal of weakness. “It says that he is not certain that he’s going to win and that sends a signal to everybody who has supported him previously to say, am I on the right side of this?”

stringer biaggiSeveral Democratic elected officials have also declared for Biaggi, including U.S. Senator from New York Kirsten Gillibrand, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Comptroller Scott Stringer (pictured with Biaggi), Congressional candidate and progressive rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (whom 32BJ did not endorse in her primary win), former Mayor David Dinkins, Congressional Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn Maloney, and City Council Members Brad Lander, Ben Kallos and Carlina Rivera, Mt. Vernon City Council President Lisa Copeland, Catherine Parker, the majority leader of the Westchester County Board of Legislators, among others. The Working Families Party has also endorsed her and is providing similar on-ground support like 32BJ. 

Biaggi was also among four Senate candidates to receive the coveted endorsement of the New York Times editorial board, which wrote, “Alessandra Biaggi, who describes herself pointedly as ‘a real Democrat,’ is the kind of smart, dedicated reformer so desperately needed in Albany.” Biaggi was subsequently endorsed by the New York Daily News editorial board.

A side effect of 32BJ’s mobilization in the district, which is home to 6,000 of its members, said Figueroa, is a new awakening about the local issues and community that is unlikely to fade even if Klein retains his seat. “This is a district where we’re gonna be setting roots for years to come,” he said.

“We have seen the process be hijacked year after year to put a break on what could effectively be the most progressive legislature in the country,” he added. “That is really what is behind the dynamics of this race. And that is only growing. If people feel that somehow if Klein wins, the opposition will go away, they are making a big mistake.”

The next challenge is getting people to turn out to vote on a Thursday. “I am feeling great, I am feeling excited, I’m feeling motivated,” Biaggi said exactly one week before the September 13 primary. “I’m feeling that this next week is going to be incredibly critical to making sure that everybody gets out to vote, that is my number one goal for the next seven days.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to note that Alessandra Biaggi has also been endorsed by the Working Families Party. 

]]>
One of the State's Most Powerful Unions Tries to Take Down One of Its Most Powerful Politicians Sun, 09 Sep 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Cuomo Brought Rogue Democrats Back, But Hasn't Offered or Accepted Endorsements http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7846-cuomo-brought-rogue-democrats-back-but-hasn-t-offered-or-accepted-endorsements-idc http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7846-cuomo-brought-rogue-democrats-back-but-hasn-t-offered-or-accepted-endorsements-idc Cuomo Klein Stewart-Cousins

Gov. Cuomo, center, with Sens. Stewart-Cousins, left, & Klein (photo: The Governor's Office)


Governor Andrew Cuomo says he wants Democrats to take control of the state Senate and, in reunifying two factions to be able to focus on flipping Republican seats, he publicly offered support for senators who once made up the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of breakaway Democrats that until April held a years-long power-sharing agreement with Republicans.

Cuomo and the leaders of the two Senate groups -- mainline conference leader Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins and IDC leader Senator Jeff Klein -- said at their “unity” news conference at the governor’s Manhattan office that none of the parties would support primary challengers to the other.

Yet with only five weeks till the September 13 primary, Cuomo has not formally endorsed, or been endorsed by, any of the eight senators that made up the IDC. Stewart-Cousins, by contrast, has offered her endorsement of Klein and the other seven members of what was the IDC, each of whom faces a primary challenge.

The now-defunct conference led by Klein agreed last November to disband his breakaway group that had caucused with Republican senators for seven years and to rejoin the mainline Democrats, pending certain developments. Cuomo brokered the deal, which was announced in April (just after a new state budget was announced), after years of saying he was helpless to force the IDC back into the fold. His critics, including his Democratic primary challenger, Cynthia Nixon, say he enabled and benefited from the odd arrangement and that the reunification came too little too late.

Four years ago while also facing primary challenges, Cuomo and Klein endorsed each other for reelection, but this year, amid heightened awareness and criticism of the IDC’s role in the Senate, the two have thus far decided to forego a mutual endorsement that could potentially give their opponents ammunition to criticize them. The same goes with the other seven former IDC members, all of whom face primary challengers that are backed to varying degrees by a number of liberal activist groups -- including some that sprung up in direct opposition to the existence of the IDC and a local senator’s membership in the group -- and elected officials, like city Comptroller Scott Stringer and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

At the April news conference, in a show of bonhomie, Cuomo sat at a table between Klein and Stewart-Cousins, where they announced the reunification deal and Klein’s new position as deputy conference leader. Cuomo sounded the alarm about “the Washington agenda” under a Republican-led Congress and President Donald Trump as he emphasized in lofty terms the need for Democrats to take the state Senate and the House of Representatives. “We’re all going to, within legal limits, pool our resources, pool our strategy because it’s a different type of election this year. It’s about getting Democrats energized and getting Democrats out. So I’m all in,” Cuomo said.

He later added, “All the Senators agree to support each other. So there will be no primaries supported by one senator against another senator and we agree that we’re all gonna work in a coordinated way.”

As part of the deal, the State Democratic Party, elected officials and several prominent labor unions vowed to support the former IDC Senators while refusing aid to their challengers. “Together under Governor Cuomo’s leadership, we’re on the right path, the necessary path to demonstrate to our nation what New Yorkers are made of and the values that we all stand for,” Klein said at the news conference.

But that camaraderie doesn’t seem to extend to the campaign trail. Asked if the governor planned on endorsing Klein or the other former IDC members, a Cuomo campaign spokesperson, Abbey Collins, did not answer directly but instead emphasized that the governor is more focused on protecting Democrat-held seats.

“For over a decade the Senate Democratic Conference has been dysfunctional and fractured,” Collins said in a statement. “The governor supports democratic unity and is focused on growing the Democratic majority in the senate by picking up seats on Long Island and across Upstate to fight Donald Trump and his destructive, ultra-conservative agenda. We stand alongside Andrea Stewart Cousins in supporting all members of the senate Democratic conference.”

A Klein spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Stewart-Cousins has indeed formally announced her endorsement of Klein and the other former IDC members, in individual news releases to the press. She has not campaigned alongside Klein or any of the other senators: Sens. Tony Avella, Diane Savino, Marisol Alcantara, Jesse Hamilton, David Carlucci, and David Valesky.

They face challenges from, respectively, Alessandra Biaggi, John Liu, Jasmine Robinson, Robert Jackson, Zellnor Myrie, Julie Goldberg, and Rachel May.

As election season unfolds ahead of the September 13 primary vote, Cuomo, Klein, and many other candidates continue to announce endorsements of their candidacies by groups and leaders. The lists put forth by Cuomo and Klein, both heavy on labor unions and elected officials, continue to grow, but with the glaring absence of one another. Some elected officials, like Johnson, the Council speaker, have endorsed Cuomo and IDC challengers, including Biaggi, who is taking on Klein and used to work in the Cuomo administration, in the governor’s counsel’s office. Some, like Stewart-Cousins and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., are backing Cuomo and Klein.

Over the course of the last few months, Nixon has repeatedly criticized Cuomo for allowing the IDC to exist unchecked for years and more specifically for his direct support of Klein in this year’s election. Lauren Hitt, a spokesperson for Nixon, pointed to Nixon’s comments last month after a New York Times report noted that Klein was sending out campaign mailers that included a photo of him aside Cuomo.

“The Governor cannot be both a feminist and a supporter of Senator Klein,” Nixon said in a statement at the time, pointing to allegations that Klein forcibly kissed a former staffer outside a bar in Albany in April 2015. “Klein has not only been accused of sexual misconduct by his own staff, but he led the coalition that repeatedly blocked critical protections for New Yorkers’ reproductive rights. Several other New York Democrats have already appreciated what’s at stake for New Yorkers and endorsed against Senator Klein. The Governor can either stand with New York’s women or against us,” Nixon said.

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Cuomo Brought Rogue Democrats Back, But Hasn't Offered or Accepted Endorsements Tue, 07 Aug 2018 04:00:00 +0000
The July Financial Picture for Former Breakaway Democrats and Their Primary Challengers http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7813-the-july-financial-picture-for-former-breakaway-democrats-and-their-primary-challengers http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7813-the-july-financial-picture-for-former-breakaway-democrats-and-their-primary-challengers liu and ramos via jessicaramos

John Liu and Jessica Ramos (photo: @JessicaRamos)


The deadline for candidates for state office to file their latest campaign finance disclosures with the state Board of Elections was Monday, July 16. The disclosures show candidate fundraising and expenditures from the last six months, from January to July.

All 213 seats in the state Legislature -- 150 Assembly and 63 Senate -- are on the ballot this year, but few incumbents face competitive races. The state Assembly is overwhelmingly composed of Democrats, most of whom do not have a primary challenger. The state Senate, however, has become a battleground for control between Democrats and Republicans, with Democratic conference members holding 31 seats and Republican conference members 32 seats. After a Democratic unity deal in April, bringing a rogue group of eight “independent” Democrats back into the mainline conference, Republicans continued to hold power over the chamber with the help of Senator Simcha Felder, a conservative Democrat from Brooklyn who professes no loyalty to political parties and only votes on policies that he believes suit his district’s interests.

In eight races, incumbent Democratic Senators who were once part of the Independent Democratic Conference -- a breakaway group that caucused with Republicans and helped them hold the majority -- face primary contests from progressive challengers. Those challengers are buoyed by an increasingly aware, angry, and active Democratic base that is set on removing the former IDC members from office.

Those former IDC members, led by Senator Jeff Klein of the Bronx, continue to face criticism over their alliance with Republicans and the progressive legislation and budgeting that it may have held up. The challengers and those supporting them have gained momentum following the recent victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated ten-term U.S. Representative Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary for New York’s 14th congressional district. Notably, Crowley had helped brokered the reunification of the Senate Democrats, along with Governor Andrew Cuomo and other top party officials. Cuomo is himself facing a spirited primary challenge from actor and activist Cynthia Nixon.

The former IDC Senators include six representing parts of New York City: Tony Avella of District 11 in Queens, Jose Peralta of District 13 in Queens, Jesse Hamilton of District 20 in Brooklyn, Diane Savino of District 23 in Staten Island and Brooklyn, Marisol Alcantara of District 31 in Manhattan, and Klein of District 34 the Bronx and Westchester, as well as David Carlucci of District 38 and David Valesky of District 53, both north of the five boroughs.

While fundraising numbers only tell a portion of the story of a campaign or a race, campaign finance filings help indicate where candidate support comes from and what resources a candidate has to help get his or her message out to voters. Challengers to the IDC veterans were eager to tout their number of low-dollar donations as indicative of grassroots support, while the incumbents often posted healthy coffers, though possibly tainted by money transferred from a party account ruled in violation of election law.

District 11
Former New York City Comptroller John Liu launched a late-stage challenge against Sen. Avella, jumping into the race earlier this month in time to petition his way onto the ballot. Liu has yet to raise funds for the race but he has an open campaign account, likely from his previous attempt to unseat Avella in 2014, with a little more than $3,000 in cash on hand as of January. Liu won 47 percent of the vote that year, just after he had lost in the Democratic primary for mayor of New York City in 2013.

Avella, whose district covers who represents northeastern Queens, raised nearly $147,000 in the last six months, of which $68,000 was transferred from the Senate Independence Campaign Committee fund set up by the then-IDC and the Independence Party. A state court ruled last month that the joint fundraising arrangement was illegal, and the transfers could possibly even violate contribution limits established in election law. Avella spent about $80,000 over the filing period and has a balance of about $170,000 in his campaign account.

District 13
One of the Democrats likely most affected by Crowley’s loss is Sen. Peralta, who is relying on the support of the Queens Democratic Party -- chaired by Crowley -- to help him retain his seat in northern Queens. With the party having lost the sheen of immense power, some Queens Democratic insiders say it could affect the candidates who have received its endorsement.

Peralta has raised $322,000 and spent $297,000 of it since January. The SICC was more generous with him, transferring $113,500 to his campaign, with the most recent check having been sent just last week. He has about $182,000 remaining in his campaign account.

Peralta is being challenged by Jessica Ramos, a former aide to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Ramos raised $171,000 over the last six months and has spent $102,000 of it. She has just about $99,000 in cash on hand. In publicizing her haul, Ramos promoted the fact that she had raised most of the funds, about $129,000, from more than 1,400 individual donors, contrasting it with Peralta’s 238 individual donors who gave him about $69,000.

District 20
Sen. Hamilton, who represents parts of central Brooklyn, pulled in about $295,000 for his reelection bid and spent $202,000. As with the other IDC senators, the SICC gave him a major boost with $109,700 transferred to his account. He has about $212,000 left to spend.

Hamilton’s challenger is Zellnor Myrie, an attorney from Brooklyn. Myrie raised $163,000 in this filing period and spent about $96,000. He has just under $156,000 left in cash on hand. Myrie had more than 4,400 individual donors accounting for 98 percent of his fundraising haul, a fact he highlighted while pointing out that Hamilton had only 243 individual donors.

District 23
The district covers Staten Island’s northern shore and parts of southern Brooklyn and is represented by Sen. Savino. The senator hauled in $451,000, of which $270,000 was transferred from an earlier campaign account to a new one. She spent $193,000 in the same period and has $259,000 left in her campaign account.

Savino’s primary challenger, community activist Jasmine Robinson, has not yet filed her disclosure with the BOE. She said in an email that her campaign received an extension and will file the report next week.

District 31
Sen. Alcantara, who is running for a second term, represents a district that covers long stretches of the west side of Manhattan. The incumbent, who narrowly won a tight three-way race in 2016, raised $116,000, which was outpaced by her $130,000 in expenditures. She also had the benefit of receiving $66,000 from the SICC. She has about $132,000 in cash on hand.

Alcantara is facing Robert Jackson, a former City Council member who unsuccessfully challenged her in the 2016 primary for District 31. Jackson raised more than $156,000 and spent about $103,000. He has $157,000 remaining in his account.

District 34
District 34 spans across Westchester and parts of the Bronx, and is currently held by Sen. Klein. As the former leader of the IDC, Klein played a powerful role in the state Legislature for more than seven years and was one of the proverbial ‘four men in a room’ who decide the state budget, along with the governor, Senate majority leader, and Assembly speaker. As part of the Democratic reunification deal, Klein assumed the position of deputy to the Democratic conference leader Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

jeff klein campaign kickoff

Klein raised nearly $740,000 -- $200,000 from the SICC -- between January and July and spent $613,000. He has a whopping balance of $2.1 million, having built up his campaign warchest over the last several years.

Alessandra Biaggi is the upstart candidate taking on Klein in the primary. Biaggi’s latest filings were not available on the BOE website but her campaign said she had raised $260,000 and had about $50,000 in expenditures.

District 38
Sen. Carlucci, who represents Rockland County and parts of Westchester, raised $114,000 for reelection and spent only $32,000. He received $26,000 from the SICC. He has a balance of more than $440,000.

Carlucci’s opponent is Julie Goldberg, whose disclosures were not available with the BOE. Goldberg’s campaign manager, Susanne Kernan, pointed to technical issues with the submission and provided the filings to Gotham Gazette. They showed nearly $17,000 in contributions and and about $4,000 in expenditures, leaving her a balance of under $13,000.

District 53
The district spans Madison County and parts of Onondaga and Oneida, and is represented by Sen. Valesky. He raised $126,000 and spent about $74,000 in the last six months. The SICC gave him $36,000. He has $665,000 remaining in his campaign account.

Valesky’s opponent, Rachel May, raised $84,000 and had expenses worth about $38,000. She has $81,000 in cash on hand.

[Read: New York Democrats’ Season of Choosing]

Other Senate Primaries To Watch
District 22
Democrats see an opportunity this year to unseat Brooklyn Sen. Marty Golden, one of the few Republican elected officials in New York City. His district is situated in southern Brooklyn covering the neighborhoods of Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, Marine Park, and Gerritsen Beach. Golden raised about $32,000 and has spent more than $125,000 since January. But he maintains a healthy campaign account, with $485,000 in cash on hand.

Two Democrats are competing in the September 13 primary -- Andrew Gounardes, who was an aide to former City Council Member Vincent Gentile, and Ross Barkan, a journalist-turned-candidate. The winner will take on Golden in the general election.

Gounardes raised $124,000 and spent $47,000, and had a closing balance of $181,000. Barkan raised about $71,000 and spent $66,000. He has about $59,000 remaining.

District 17
Felder’s role in propping up the Senate Republicans has prompted a primary challenge from attorney Blake Morris.

Felder represents the neighborhoods of Borough Park, Midwood, and parts of Flatbush, Kensington, Sunset Park, and Sheepshead Bay. The senator is well resourced, having raised more than $430,000 since January and having spent about $110,000. He has a balance of $637,000, far surpassing his opponent.

Morris had raised $41,000 by the Monday deadline and had spent $31,000 of it. He has a little over $10,000 in his campaign account with under two months till the primary.

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to more accurately reflect Sen. Jeff Klein's fundraising and expenditure over the last six months. The numbers previously included were from his latest disclosure report which only showed his campaign finance activity since May. 

]]>
The July Financial Picture for Former Breakaway Democrats and Their Primary Challengers Wed, 18 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
New York Democrats’ Season of Choosing http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7798-new-york-democrats-season-of-choosing http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7798-new-york-democrats-season-of-choosing corey johnson jessica ramos robert jackson cityhall

Corey Johnson endorses IDC challengers (photo: Gotham Gazette)


As progressives aggressively attempt to wrest control of the Democratic Party from the hands of those they call centrists and establishment politicians, elected Democrats across New York find themselves in an unenviable position. Abiding by their self-professed progressive values to support insurgent Democratic primary challengers could mean bucking the state party establishment and its leader, Governor Andrew Cuomo, while, on the other hand, toeing the party line risks opening them up to accusations of hypocrisy and betrayal -- and perhaps even a future primary challenge -- levelled by an enraged and engaged base.

A battle that played out during the 2016 presidential primary between Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State and New York Senator Hillary Clinton has only intensified since Donald Trump’s victory. The 2018 election cycle is offering many opportunities across the country for Democrats, elected officials and otherwise, to decide between what is essentially two wings of the party. The Democrats’ season of choosing is easier for some than others, but many prominent party figures find themselves in uncomfortable situations. At stake is nothing short of political careers, the fate of activist organizations, the policy agenda and future of the Democratic Party, the outcomes of current and prospective elections, and their aftermaths in terms of government policies that affect millions.

At the center in New York is Cuomo, his lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, and the state Senate’s erstwhile Independent Democratic Conference, eight senators who chose power over party for as many as seven years by empowering Republican control of the legislative chamber, what has been the GOP’s only stronghold in state government. In April, the renegades returned to the fold with assurances from Cuomo, who long tolerated and allegedly enabled their infidelity, that their seats were secure, at least from other Democrats. Under the accord brokered by the governor just after a new state budget was passed, the state Democratic Party machinery, fellow state-level electeds, and prominent labor unions would support these former IDC members -- who were time and again blamed for obstructing the passage of progressive legislation -- and would refuse to aid their challengers.

Though Cuomo and the former IDC members have professed support for progressive priorities -- voting, elections and campaign finance reform, criminal justice reform, women’s reproductive rights, stronger rent regulations, immigrant protections, to name a few -- they have failed to pass legislation along those lines, blaming staunch opposition by Senate Republicans. Their progressive challengers instead say they have been the obstacles to progressive bills by empowering Republicans.

Cuomo, at the top of the Democratic ticket, faces an aggressive challenge from actress and activist Cynthia Nixon in the primary. Nixon’s candidacy, from the left of Cuomo, parallels Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout’s unsuccessful gubernatorial bid four years ago, except it comes in a more heightened atmosphere of displeasure on the left following Trump’s election, amid disappointment with Cuomo’s relatively centrist record, and with increased awareness of the IDC. Nixon also has other advantages Teachout lacked, like name recognition and fundraising prowess, though Cuomo has worked over the past four years to make amends with some of his past critics, such as those in certain labor unions.

A similar fight is being replicated in the race for lieutenant governor, between incumbent Democrat Hochul and her progressive challenger, Jumaane Williams, a City Council member from Brooklyn.   

All eight former IDC members face primary challenges ahead of the September 13 vote. Five of those districts fall squarely in New York City while another is split between the Bronx and Westchester, with two others upstate.

In District 13, in Queens, Jessica Ramos is taking on Sen. Jose Peralta; in Brooklyn’s District 20, Zellnor Myrie is challenging Sen. Jesse Hamilton; on Manhattan’s west side, Robert Jackson is going up against Sen. Marisol Alcantara; in District 23, which spans Staten Island’s north shore and parts of Brooklyn, Jasmine Robinson is confronting Sen. Diane Savino; in District 11 in Queens, Sen. Tony Avella will again face former city Comptroller John Liu, who earned 47 percent in a losing 2014 bid to unseat Avella; and in District 34 that covers Westchester and the Bronx, Alessandra Biaggi is attempting to unseat the leader of the what was the IDC, Sen. Jeff Klein, who now serves as the deputy leader in the unified Senate Democratic Conference.

Outside the city, in District 38 that spreads across Rockland and Westchester, Sen. David Carlucci faces a challenge from Julie Goldberg; and in District 53 covering Madison County and parts of Onondaga and Oneida, Sen. David Valesky faces Rachel May in the primary.

For Cuomo and the state party, maintaining what Democratic seats they have in the Senate is paramount as they seek to flip the chamber by picking up more. Republicans have recently held control of the 63-seat chamber by a one-seat margin thanks to their own ranks and a single rogue conservative Senator from Brooklyn, Simcha Felder, a registered Democrat who won his most recent reelection on the Democratic, Republican, and Conservative Party lines -- Felder is also facing a Democratic primary this year, from Blake Morris.

But while they also want to see Republican seats flipped in November, many progressive activists insist that the party needs to elect better, “bluer Democrats” than Cuomo, Hochul, and the former IDC members. Nixon has explained that it is her motivation to run for governor, saying that in the age of Trump not any Democrat will do. Cuomo and his supporters argue that not only has the governor been a progressive powerhouse, but that Democratic energy of all kinds would be better spent working in concert to flip red seats to blue.

That argument has largely fallen on deaf ears among those displeased with Cuomo, Klein, and other Democratic incumbents.

The shiny veneer of the Senate Democrat reunification deal and its accompanying pact of nonaggression has seemed to be wearing off as challengers to the IDC senators pick up endorsements from top Democratic incumbents and, in one candidate’s case, from an influential labor union that helped broker the merger of the Senate Democrats. Meanwhile, Nixon and Williams have picked up far more support from elected officials and organizations than Teachout and her lieutenant governor running mate, Tim Wu, achieved in 2014.

Democrats across the spectrum are taking sides, and others will be expected to do so over the next few months, in decisions that could be determinative for those they endorse, for their own political trajectories, and for the larger map of New York’s Democratic world currently dominated by one set of elected and appointed officials, consultants, labor leaders, and the networks of power they control.

Mayoral Hopefuls
On June 28, New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced his endorsement of Biaggi, Jackson, Ramos, and Myrie, providing them a boost at a time when progressives were already feeling emboldened by the congressional primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez earlier that week.

A declared democratic socialist with a deeply progressive campaign platform, Ocasio-Cortez defeated Democratic giant Rep. Joe Crowley, a ten-term incumbent and the powerful boss of the Queens Democratic Party who was among the chief drivers of the Senate Democratic reunification and a possible next speaker of the House of Representatives. The stunning upset shook the foundations of the Democratic Party and undercut the conventional wisdom of the primacy of incumbents and machine politics, and its ramifications will likely be dissected for years. In New York, it’s immediate effects were quickly felt. Johnson, who had endorsed Crowley in the race, insisted the result did not affect his decision to endorse the four IDC challengers, which he said was in the works for months, but that did not stop observers from drawing a connection.

“Whether it’s in Washington, D.C., or in Albany, the status quo isn’t working and that is why I’m here today in supporting four amazing candidates,” Johnson said at the steps of City Hall. “They are Democrats, they are progressive Democrats, they will caucus with the Democrats and they will support all the issues that Democrats support.” On Saturday, Johnson said on Twitter that he was ready to fully support Liu. At a Tuesday event in support of Biaggi, Johnson said, “It feels really good to be able to tell the truth and for too long, people were not telling the truth about the IDC and the damage that they’ve done to the state of New York. And that damage was all in their own self-interest, putting their own self-interest above the entire state of New York.”   

In a statement following Johnson’s endorsement, Barbara Brancaccio, a spokesperson for Klein, said, “Frankly we are surprised that our opponent would accept the endorsement of such a radioactive figure coming on the heels of his endorsement of Joe Crowley. We are sure that Johnson will do for this challenger, exactly what he did for Joe Crowley."

At the same time, Johnson has also endorsed Governor Cuomo for reelection over Nixon, who continues to criticize the governor for supporting the IDC and whose platform largely resembles those of the IDC opponents. She shares stark similarities with Ocasio-Cortez and others seeking to upend incumbent Democrats who insurgents believe are too close to big-money interests and not in touch with their constituents who most need them. Nixon has begun to align herself more closely with those IDC challengers, cross-endorsing with Ramos earlier this week, for example.

The same day as Johnson’s endorsement of the IDC challengers, 32BJ SEIU, the prominent building workers union, endorsed Biaggi, though their president Hector Figueroa had months ago been among those who proposed the Democratic reunification deal and the union is among several that have endorsed Cuomo and had also backed Crowley. “Jeff Klein and the IDC have empowered obstructionist Republicans set on blocking key reforms for too long,” Figueroa said in a statement announcing the endorsement. “Never again.”

And just one day prior, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer also endorsed Biaggi, a few months after he had already announced his support for Ramos and Jackson. The endorsements by Stringer, well before the Ocasio-Cortez win and its initial fallout, have won him much praise from liberal activists.

Since his union came out for Biaggi, Figueroa has also addressed the Democratic split in New York, writing on Twitter, “Dems upset about IDC folks being primaried ‘for it may lead to the GOP winning a majority of NY Senate’ do not blame the ‘left’. The ones to be blamed are IDC incumbents themselves & those STILL defending them. IDC betrayed voters creating a big political mess. Time to clean up.”

Along with the number and strength of the progressive primary challengers to established incumbents and Ocasio-Cortez’s win, these endorsements, headlining still others, are the clearest cracks in the Democratic foundation that Cuomo and other state leaders have tried to set.

“I think it’s fascinating because we do see a lack of cohesion as to whether or not people are going to support the IDC members or their challengers,” said Dr. Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University. “And I think this debate is sort of reflective of a larger debate that’s going on in the Democratic Party, for the soul of the Democratic party…‘Are we centrist, conservative-leaning Democrats or are we progressive?’”

To some, these moves may smack of political opportunism, particularly in the case of Johnson, who is supporting progressives on the one hand while propping up establishment centrists like Crowley and Cuomo on the other. But in the New York political landscape, Greer said these endorsements are equally driven by philosophical considerations as they are by pragmatic ones. “These are politicians…I think that they can genuinely care about an issue and I think that they can also be calculating and strategic about it,” she said.

For some, there is also a difference between backing a less experienced candidate for state Senate based on ideological reasons as opposed to the chief executive of the state.

Both Johnson and Stringer are widely expected to run for mayor in 2021, the next city election cycle, when Mayor Bill de Blasio will be term-limited out of office, and tapping the progressive energy that Ocasio-Cortez rode to power, and that is now propelling Nixon, Williams, the IDC challengers, and others, would likewise boost their own political fortunes.

“I think in the Democratic primary, the progressive energy in the city, that’s what you want to tap into if you’re running for mayor,” said Eric Koch, managing principal at Precision Strategies, a Democratic consulting firm, and former director of communications for City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. “So it makes sense to endorse the folks running against the IDC people because in terms of the activists and the people who are organizing against the IDC versus who is a Democratic primary voter in a mayoral election, there’s a pretty big overlap there.”

It’s important to note that the IDC incumbents themselves have powerful backers, including unions like 1199 SEIU, many of which are in Cuomo’s corner as well.

While Stringer and Johnson have decided to buck Cuomo and those involved in the unity deal, other likely 2021 mayoral candidates have not. Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. is a Cuomo ally and closely aligned with the Bronx Democratic Party apparatus, led by its chair, Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, and its former chair, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who signed onto the unity deal.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams has been critical of Cuomo over the course of years, but has not made endorsements yet. His approach is complicated given his alliance with Senator Hamilton, formerly of the IDC. Adams did invite Nixon early in her campaign to tour a Brooklyn NYCHA complex and the two went to Albany Houses together. The Brooklyn borough president has voiced strong criticism of Cuomo, but has not embraced Nixon beyond the NYCHA visit, nor has he weighed in on Williams’ challenge to Hochul or the IDC races.

“They’re looking at these challengers and their districts, I’m sure, to sort of see what kind of coalition they would need to put together,” Greer said. “When they run for mayor, Andrew Cuomo may or may not still be in office...but a great campaign marketing slogan is, ‘We fight Albany. We fight Albany to make sure that New York City gets the money and resources we need.’”

“Sure they care, but it’s also a very strategic move,” Greer said, “to make sure that they’re distancing themselves from the status quo to say that, ‘When tough decisions needed to be made, I didn’t just go along to get along.’”

Statewide Case
Public Advocate Letitia James, who is running in the Democratic primary for attorney general (and had been a likely 2021 mayoral candidate), is charting a course similar to Diaz, Jr., but with a much higher profile given her bid for statewide office. James quickly jumped at the opportunity when Eric Schneiderman resigned the post after facing allegations of physical and emotional abuse by several intimate partners. Seen as an early frontrunner, with the blessing of the state Democratic Party and the governor, James rejected the possible endorsement of the progressive Working Families Party that had helped launch her political career as a City Council member.

The WFP has been closely aligned with the IDC challengers, as well as Nixon and Williams, supporting their insurgent bids for office, while James has in the past supported at least one member of the IDC, Senator Alcantara, though she has come to criticize the IDC and called for reunification well before her attorney general bid.

“I would essentially argue, if I were in these progressive groups that used to support Tish very openly, well what now gives you progressive bonafides?,” said Greer. “So her messaging has to be very clear for her supporters. Because they have progressive choices.”

“Two days after Schneiderman resigned, it was essentially reported that Tish would be heir apparent and that’s the way much of the press is writing about the race...and I don’t necessarily see that to be the case anymore,” she added.

James faces three other primary contenders: former Cuomo aide Leecia Eve, congressional Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, and Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout, who challenged Cuomo in the 2014 Democratic primary and lost, but managed to get a significant share of the vote, at 34 percent. Teachout, like Nixon, has been severely critical of the IDC and endorsed five IDC challengers as part of the TrueBlueNY coalition months before the attorney general position became available and she decided to run. When Schneiderman resigned, Teachout was at the time Nixon’s campaign treasurer, a position she has since vacated to run for attorney general.

Among the four Democratic attorney general candidates, Teachout is undoubtedly furthest to the left. At the WFP nominating convention, delegates chose Nixon and Williams, and opted to install a placeholder for attorney general until, they hope, either James or Teachout emerges from the Democratic primary victorious and is offered the additional ballot line for the general election. James has expressed her love for the WFP despite initially shunning its endorsement and has said she believes everyone will coalesce again in the near future.

While James has aligned herself with Cuomo and his unity deal, Teachout, who endorsed Ocasio-Cortez in May, is staunchly behind IDC challengers and has recently campaigned alongside Williams.

Koch doesn’t believe her endorsements will give her a significant edge, however. “I do think that there might be some benefit in endorsing some of the folks against the IDC because that’s where the progressive energy is,” he said, “but at the end of the day, people who are voting for attorney general aren’t basing their votes on just the issue of the IDC, they’re coming at it from a much more holistic spectrum.”

The experts who spoke with Gotham Gazette noted the significance of the ‘Ocasio effect.’ Both Teachout and Nixon had endorsed Ocasio-Cortez in the run up to the congressional primary and seized on her victory to emphasize that progressive challengers can defeat machine-backed incumbents. “There’s very much a movement that’s energizing the left and politicians who ignore it or who fall too far behind are really doing so at their own peril,” said a Democratic consultant who wished to remain unnamed so he could speak freely.

“There’s certainly a lot of parallels between Cuomo and Crowley, you know, representing the old guard, like white-working class Democrats,” said the Democratic consultant. “But that being said, I wouldn’t read too much into the Ocasio win as portending a loss for Cuomo because Cuomo’s still extraordinarily popular among African-Americans, particularly African-American women, and Cynthia Nixon hasn’t to this point been able to show the ability to break into that base of support, which is really what you’re seeing here. It’s a combination of minority voters and very young, progressive voters.”

For their part, top Nixon campaign aides cite Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in expressing their belief that public opinion polls can no longer be trusted to capture the progressive energy that has largely emerged since the 2016 election of Donald Trump.

Koch said activist pressure against the IDC and its supporters has been building but “at the state level, people are gonna hedge their bets a little bit more because, one way or another, they’re gonna have to work with some of these folks.”

Greer seemed more bullish about how far the momentum behind Ocasio-Cortez would carry into state elections. She conceded that Democrats across New York are not as progressive as they are in New York City, but that the win gave a much-needed confidence boost to IDC challengers as well as Nixon and Teachout, not to mention obvious opportunities to add volunteers and donors. “It’ll be fascinating to see if, all of a sudden, Cynthia and Zephyr can ride the coattails of Alexandria,” she said, a notion that, before the congressional primary, “would’ve sounded like crazy talk.”

“But the reality here is...Alexandria’s getting national attention for the message that Cynthia and Zephyr have been championing,” she said.

Other Democrats Choose
Virtually every elected Democrat in New York is expected to pick sides: Cuomo or Nixon; Hochul or Williams; James or Teachout or Eve or Maloney; Klein or Biaggi; and so on.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, one of the most powerful Democratic officials in the state by virtue of his position, has so far stayed on the sidelines, regularly declining to comment on the 2018 New York elections, but promising to weigh in at some point. Given that Nixon was a fervent supporter during his winning 2013 campaign for mayor and again supported him for reelection in 2017, and his ongoing feud with Cuomo, de Blasio’s decision in the gubernatorial race is especially interesting. In 2014, before their feud had really escalated, de Blasio backed Cuomo for reelection, even helping broker him the Working Families Party nomination. He has indicated it did not work out as planned.

Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, not facing a primary challenge himself, has backed Cuomo and Hochul, but says he’s likely staying out of the attorney general primary, even though the state party is behind James.

While many Democratic officials have already or are expected to back Cuomo, there are local electeds who, beholden neither to the governor nor their respective Democratic machines, have chosen to break from the pack. New York City Council Member Carlos Menchaca was the first of his colleagues to endorse Nixon’s bid for governor, and Council Members Jimmy Van Bramer and Antonio Reynoso later followed suit. Williams, running for lieutenant governor, is also an apparent Nixon backer, but the two have not formally linked up as a ticket, so to speak (the two positions are elected separately in party primaries, but together in the general election).

Reynoso and Menchaca, and Council Members Brad Lander, Adrienne Adams, and I. Daneek Miller have also backed Williams for lieutenant governor. Williams has also announced the backing of state Senator Kevin Parker, and across the state he has picked up endorsements from legislators in Albany and Syracuse, while Nixon was recently endorsed by more than a dozen Hudson Valley elected officials.

Nixon’s most prominent recent endorsement came from the former City Council Speaker, Mark-Viverito, a progressive in the same vein who drew parallels between Nixon and Ocasio-Cortez. “These two boldly progressive women share the same values and priorities,” Mark-Viverito wrote in the New York Daily News. Nixon also cross-endorsed with Ocasio-Cortez the day before the congressional primary, and in the last week, has done so with Ramos, who is seeking to unseat Senator Peralta, formerly of the IDC, and Julia Salazar, a democratic socialist challenging Democratic state Senator Martin Dilan in northern Brooklyn.

On Wednesday, Senator Hamilton's challenger, Myrie, announced four new endorsements from Assembly Members Walter Mosley, Diana Richardson, Jo Anne Simon and Robert Carroll, who represent Central Brooklyn.    

Democratic Unity?
“It goes back to the basic tenet: a house divided against itself can’t stand,” said Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Senate Democratic leader, in a recent appearance on the Max & Murphy podcast hosted by Gotham Gazette and City Limits. The senator was addressing the Senate unity deal and whether Klein would be loyal to it. “How are we gonna do this?...I’m not gonna be sitting there having people somehow undermine the efforts that we have to be a team. That’s always been the case.”

Sen. Michael Gianaris, the chair of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, has ruled out endorsing the former IDC members, according to the Daily News -- Gianaris has had a long running feud with Klein, the IDC head -- and has been noncommittal on whether he may support their opponents. “Everyone seems to be on their best behavior on both sides and there seems to be genuine effort to work cooperatively and get to where we’re trying to go, so hopefully that continues,” Gianaris said in a separate Max & Murphy interview.

Lieutenant Governor Hochul, in her own appearance on the podcast, said Democrats attacking each other only serve to polarize voters and that the party would be better off expending that energy against Republicans. “We can all be purists about everything when we have a Democrat in the White House, when we have the House and the Senate, and when we have New York State Legislature,” she said. “Then we can fight each other on the nuances.”

Along with the decisions facing them now about who to back in the primaries, one major question for New York Democrats is what happens after September 13, and whether party members can coalesce for the general election. Republicans have completely avoided primaries for all four state-level statewide races of governor, lieutenant governor, comptroller, and attorney general, and in virtually every state Senate district held by an incumbent.

“I don’t think [the Democratic Party] fractures,” said the Democratic consultant who didn’t want to be named. “I think that’s the evolution of the party. That’s the direction that you’re seeing the party, and it’s largely driven by a local reaction to federal issues. It’s very largely a reaction to Trump on a number of things, on immigration, on labor, on health care, on taxes, on women’s rights.”  

The frustration with Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress, the consultant said, means that Democrats want “a much more aggressive stance and debate” from their own leaders.

Koch from Precision Strategies said the party will likely come together in the face of a larger enemy to sweep the major statewide races -- governor and lieutenant governor, attorney general, and comptroller. “The Democratic Party has always been a very big tent party, it’s always run the ideological spectrum from the progressive wing through to a more centrist wing,” he said, “and that’s why the party has been successful…After these primaries are done, Democrats will come together and unite because there are bigger threats and what unites us is definitely stronger than what divides us.”

“I think the relationships will by and large repair themselves,” Koch added, “I suspect that after the primary, folks will get together and hash out whatever needs to be hashed out.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This story has been updated to include mention of endorsements received by Zellnor Myrie from four state Assembly members.

]]>
New York Democrats’ Season of Choosing Wed, 11 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Pointing to Deficiencies, Victims Call for Changes to State’s New Sexual Harassment Policies http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7764-pointing-to-deficiencies-victims-call-for-changes-to-state-s-new-sexual-harassment-policies http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7764-pointing-to-deficiencies-victims-call-for-changes-to-state-s-new-sexual-harassment-policies gov cuomo bill clinton electoral

(photo via the Governor's Office)


The problem of sexual harassment in New York state politics is systemic and plaguing young women beginning their careers, according to a group fighting to change the culture and the laws around the issue. And, they argue that recently adopted state measures to fight the scourge are insufficient, despite being touted by Governor Andrew Cuomo as “the best in the nation.”

The seven women of The Sexual Harassment Working Group -- all of whom have been personally affected by sexual harassment while working for lawmakers in the New York State Legislature -- have consulted a handful of advocacy and legal groups, and called upon their own experiences and expertise, to put together a detailed report with recommendations for ways to better protect women working in government.

“We wonder why there aren’t women in higher office, we wonder why women are so underrepesented in our legislature and in all levels of our government. And this is a big part of why: It does not feel safe to work in government if you’re a woman,” co-author Eliyanna Kaiser, a one-time chief of staff to former Assemblymember Micah Kellner, said during an event in Manhattan on June 19. Kaiser was not herself directly a victim of sexual harassment, but instead reported to Bill Collins in the Assembly Counsel's office, under former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, that Kellner had been sending inappropriate messages to one of his staffers, which led to initial inaction, attacks against Kaiser, and, eventually, Kellner’s ouster from the state Legislature.

Also on the panel were working group members and co-authors Danielle Bennett, former administrative assistant to Kellner who reported his harassment to Kaiser; Leah Hebert, former chief of staff to the late, disgraced Assemblymember Vito Lopez; Tori Burhans Kelly, former legislative aide to Lopez; Rita Pasarell, former legislative counsel and deputy chief of staff to Lopez; Erica Vladimer, former education policy analyst and counsel for the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC); and Elizabeth Crothers, former legislative aide in the New York State Assembly who publicly accused Assembly lawyer Michael Boxley of rape in 2003, two years after the alleged incident and when another victim of Boxley’s came forward. The discussion was moderated by political consultant and columnist Alexis Grenell, who has helped bring to light victims’ experiences as well as the insufficient responses from government officials.

The stories of these women run together in a horror plot that involves countless obstacles to reporting, near-dismissal, and a reluctance to investigate from those in charge, as well as forcibly implemented nondisclosure agreements that hinder the complainant's chances of reemployment and their ability to warn others.

“I agreed not to file a civil suit in exchange for [him to get] a HIV test,” Crothers said, adding the “loss of anonymity” after going public “follows you.”

“I really didn’t think there was another way out aside from suicide,” said Hebert, who was one of the first women to complain about Lopez groping and harassing female staffers, of her experience.

“These things that are happening are not the product of an individual harasser, they’re not mistakes,” Pasarell, another complainant against Lopez, added. “It’s massive, it’s systemic, and whenever I hear a new person coming out I say, ‘hey remember us, remember this happened to us in 2012?’”

It’s a cycle that exploits women and protects men who behave abhorrently and, as Grenell pointed out, it’s a reality yet unchanged by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s claims that New York has the “strongest and most comprehensive anti-sexual harassment protections in the nation” following the recent budget, wherein the anti-harassment legislation was passed. Grenell compared the governor’s statement to the “mission accomplished sign” former President George W. Bush stood in front of during 2003 remarks about the war in Iraq, only two months after the U.S. first invaded.

The Working Group is calling for Cuomo to hold public hearings to listen to victims of sexual harassment -- as its members demanded before the policies were decided by all-male leadership with little apparent regard for the opinions of victims. The group’s Harassment-Free Albany website states: “New York State has not held a state hearing on sexual harassment since Governor Mario Cuomo [Andrew Cuomo’s father] created a Sexual Harassment Task Force in 1992.”

The reporting system has no transparency for complainants, limited uniformity, and an obvious lack of objectivity, the panel urges. For example, when Vladimer, who this January publicly accused now-Deputy Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein of kissing her forcibly and against her will outside a bar in 2015, was asked where her case is at now, she said she has no idea.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Vladimer told event attendees on Tuesday. “[It’s with] the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics [JCOPE], which under some very vague executive law somehow has the authority to investigate sexual harassment claims. There are no experts on this commission and the commissioners who vote to decide whether or not there is wrongdoing are all appointed by elected officials.” They are also almost all men, with one woman in 14 commissioners.

“I don’t know where my investigation is and I think that’s one of the biggest things we’ve talked about is that there is no transparency and I know, and have been told, I don’t have a right to know where my investigation’s going,” Vladimer added.

When Vladimer went public, Klein immediately denied the allegations, and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan said the Senate would not investigate given no formal complaint had been lodged with its internal staff. Klein himself asked JCOPE to investigate, but other than Klein indicating an investigation had commenced, there is little information to go by.

In the lead-up to the new state budget, Cuomo had called for sweeping anti-sexual harassment policies, including greater resources for and transparency in JCOPE investigations. While Cuomo pushed through some measures, those JCOPE recommendations were not among what was passed into law.

The same Klein accused of sexually harassing Vladimer was one of the three other elected men, and no elected women, who assisted Cuomo in deciding the sexual harassment legislation this March, ahead of the annual budget. According to the budget, there are five measures designed to address sexual harassment in state politics -- as the governor’s office puts it, to “further build upon his 2018 Women’s Agenda for New York.”

In a press release announcing highlights of the new budget in March, Cuomo said, "We put into place the strongest and most comprehensive anti-sexual harassment protections in the nation, ending once and for all the secrecy and coercive practices that have enabled this unacceptable behavior for far too long.”

Under the new legislation, all employers working with the state, including vendors and contractors, must implement a written policy addressing sexual harassment prevention and provide prevention training to all employees. This is an extension of a previously-existing law to include contracted workers, and means that employers may now be held liable for the sexual harassment of non-employees if the employer knew, or should have known, of the harassment and failed to take action. It does not, however, address the ambiguity around employees of elected officials.

The Sexual Harassment Working Group is recommending the definition of “employee” be changed to clearly include employees of elected and appointed officials, and that the New York State Human Rights Law should stipulate elected officials are also considered “employers.”

“Our recommendation is to specify employees as everybody -- essentially someone for hire -- this is how the labor law defines it and we just want every worker to have the same protection, including staff of elected officials,” Pasarell told Tuesday night’s event.

In the new legislation, New York employers are prohibited from requiring mandatory arbitration of claims of workplace sexual harassment, except where inconsistent with federal law, and this will come into effect in July.

Any officers and employees of the state or any public entity who is subject to a final judgement of personal liability in cases of sexual harassment will have to reimburse the state for the award given to the complainant, however the Sexual Harassment Working Group points out this is only applicable for cases determined by a judge, not necessarily to those settled out of court.

Cuomo’s legislation also states no employer has the authority to include or agree to include in any settlement a nondisclosure agreement, unless the condition of confidentiality is the complainant’s preference. And, notably, a model sexual harassment guidance document and a sexual harassment prevention policy is to be created with the Division of Human Right by October -- meaning a key portion of the new policy is not yet written.

“This year, Governor Cuomo signed the strongest anti-sexual harassment policy in the country,” Dani Lever, press secretary for Cuomo, told Gotham Gazette in a statement. “It closed gaping loopholes that entrapped women in toxic workplaces, extended protections to contracted workers, and strengthened rules that prevent companies from shirking their responsibility to root out bad actors—instead of sweeping problems under-the-rug.”

On the surface, all measures included in the enacted budget appear to go a long way towards exactly what the governor is promising but, according to the panel of women who’ve experienced sexual harassment in state politics first-hand, there are some areas of ambiguity that impede the path to reporting and justice for potential victims.

First, the budget hasn’t defined “sexual harassment” and the way the issue is currently treated under state law leaves much room for interpretation. The Sexual Harassment Working Group recommends adding “sex and gender” to the list of classes protected from discrimination in the New York State Constitution, to offer another level of protection for all New Yorkers, including victims. And the authors suggest the current standard for behavior to qualify as sexual harassment in state law -- that it must be “severe or pervasive” -- be changed to mirror the recent changes to New York City law, where the standard for discrimination and harassment reads simply that the person is treated “less well.”

“When you’re talking about standards in law, the ‘litigative itch,’ as they call it, is all in these terms,” Kaiser said. “People are always going to bicker about the actual event that happened. We’d prefer that bickering to be asking, ‘didn’t he treat her less well?’ Rather than, ‘was it severe and pervasive?’”

The working group is also calling for an independent body to oversee all discrimination harassment policy enforcement. At the moment, JCOPE members are appointed by state elected officials. Of the 14 members, three are appointed by the Temporary President of the Senate, three are appointed by the Speaker of the Assembly, one is appointed by the Minority Leader of the Senate, one is appointed by the Minority Leader of the Assembly, and six are appointed by the Governor and the Lieutenant Governor.

Many of the stories from the women in The Sexual Harassment Working Group involve some level of disbelief from those charged with investigating their reports of sexual harassment. In Crothers’ case, it wasn’t only disbelief, it was outright protection of her alleged attacker.

“Before it came out in the press and when I met with the speaker [Sheldon Silver], I didn’t feel he didn’t believe me, he just said ‘well I won’t let him go out to bars anymore and my first priority is protecting the institution,’” Crothers said at the panel event. Silver resigned as speaker in 2015 after being arrested on federal corruption charges, and long after being accused of facilitating former Assemblymember Lopez’s harassment of eight women who were on his staff. The panelists believe this culture of cover-up and protection will continue unless there is an independent body appointed to investigate, and determine, reports of sexual misconduct in Albany.

It’s the Lopez example that best shows the need for further restrictions around the use of nondisclosure agreements, beyond what is outlined in the new legislation. Two of the women in the working group, who were on the panel, ultimately signed nondisclosure agreements after accusing the former Assembly member of sexual harassment and groping. They said they didn’t want a nondisclosure agreement -- it wasn’t implemented to protect their privacy -- but it was offered to them as a ‘take it or leave it’ measure.

“We wanted an investigation, we asked multiple times for an investigation,” Hebert said. Hebert’s name went public, despite her having signed a nondisclosure agreement, when reports from other victims were published by the media ahead of Lopez’s resignation in 2013. Instead of an investigation, Hebert said she, along with Pasarell, were made to sign nondisclosure agreements and were told Lopez would go through sexual harassment prevention training.

“The NDA, it wasn’t just that...we couldn’t speak to anyone,” Hebert said. “It was, at first, $10,000 in liquidated damages if we broke it for every occurence, and it would happen with a mediator behind closed doors so no one would know they were enforcing the agreement. And it also contained a provision that we could never apply to the Assembly again.” This last measure effectively limiting their opportunities to work in state government, and the fine making it impossible for the complainants to explain their circumstances to future employers, file for unemployment benefits, or warn others or the Human Rights Division of Lopez’s behavior.  

They pushed back on their exclusion from the Assembly and the response was, “we could never apply to Lopez’s office again, which was fine, but they increased our liquidated damages cost to $20,000,” Hebert said.

Pasarell, another of Lopez’s victims, said the anti-sexual harassment legislation in the budget regarding nondisclosure agreements -- that they can only be used in cases where the complainant consents -- can too easily be twisted to benefit the harasser.

“The way they phrased the new law is for the complainant to have a nondisclosure agreement, it’s got to be the complainant’s preference. In our case we saw repeatedly how the Assembly portrayed it as if it was our preference when it absolutely was not,” she said. “The nondisclosure agreement came to us very late in the game and it was ‘take it or leave it.’”

Women reporting sexual harassment will be better assisted, The Sexual Harassment Working Group argues, if the Legislature provides greater protection against victim coercion into signing nondisclosure agreements. The group also recommends the law allow for individual liability, so harassers can be targeted without taking the Legislature or State to arbitration or court. And, in cases where complainants do want a nondisclosure agreement for confidentiality reasons, there should be a “Sunshine in Litigation” law to prevent serial harassers (who’ve offended at least once prior) from re-offending. “Limited information would be shared but a pattern of harassment would be outed,” Pasarell said.

The way to change the culture of sexual harassment and exploitation is through changing the law, The Sexual Harassment Working Group maintains, and the way to do that is through consulting with victims, advocacy groups, and others, including lawmakers -- a process much more extensive than how Cuomo and legislative leaders, all men, went about it.

In response to The Sexual Harassment Working Group’s report, Cuomo’s team said it will review the recommendations but gave no indication of whether or not they will consider holding or pushing for a public hearing on the issue.

“No woman should ever be violated, let alone in the workplace—period. And that’s why Governor Cuomo has championed measures that hold employers accountable for ensuring a hospitable workplace,” Lever, Cuomo’s press secretary, told Gotham Gazette. “The ‘Me Too’ movement has caused an awakening in our society, and while we’ve taken positive concrete steps in New York, we need to continue to see progress in our state and across the country. We look forward to reviewing these recommendations and continuing this important work.”

***
by Caitlin Bishop, Gotham Gazette
@caitybishop  @GothamGazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been corrected to reflect that Lopez allegedly harassed eight women on 33 counts, not 33 women; that two, not three, of the women mentioned signed NDAs; and that Kaiser reported Kellner's behavior to the Assembly counsel's office, not Speaker Silver directly.

]]>
Pointing to Deficiencies, Victims Call for Changes to State’s New Sexual Harassment Policies Sun, 24 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Democratic Campaign Chief: Even a ‘Blue Trickle’ Will Flip State Senate http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7758-democratic-campaign-chief-even-a-blue-trickle-will-flip-state-senate http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7758-democratic-campaign-chief-even-a-blue-trickle-will-flip-state-senate gianaris via facebook

Senator Gianaris and colleagues (photo via Gianaris Facebook)


Predictions of a nationwide “blue wave” of anti-Trump sentiment resulting in major Democratic gains have been tempered as the president maintains strong support among Republicans and the economy, broadly speaking, is going strong.

But even if the blue wave ends up being more like a trickle, that would be good news to state Senator Michael Gianaris of Queens, who chairs the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee (DSCC) and needs to net just one seat this fall to take control of the chamber and thus the entire Legislature.

In an interview as the end of session and official start of campaign season approached, Gianaris said Republicans have been holding on to numerous seats by slim margins.

“By virtue of the gerrymandering that’s happened here in New York in the Senate, Republican districts are stretched so thin and their margins of victory are always so narrow that a trickle is enough for us to make a difference,” he told Gotham Gazette.

“It’s just a question of degrees. Any tip in our favor will lead to more seats in our hands, and we’re one seat shy. So, we’re very optimistic,” he said, echoing a sentiment shared by Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who could become the first woman and first woman of color to lead the Senate if the Democrats take control.

Gianaris said the DSCC won’t start investing in individual Democrats’ campaigns until late summer or early fall. He mentioned numerous seats the committee might target throughout the state, though it is yet to make a decision about Senator Simcha Felder and his Brooklyn district.

Republicans are blocking Democrats from controlling the chamber thanks to Felder, who is a registered Democrat and has repeatedly run on the Democratic line, but caucuses with Republicans. Felder ran unopposed in 2016 and appeared on both major party ballot lines.

At their state nominating convention last month, Democrats passed resolutions to kick Felder out of the party and support a challenger to him. He is still running as a Democrat, though.

While Gianaris called Felder’s seat “a hostile district” -- and he faces a Democratic primary challenger, Blake Morris -- Gianaris said the DSCC was still waiting to determine if it would get involved in the race.

“What we’re evaluating is, is beating Felder in a primary more or less likely than winning some of these general election contests?” Gianaris said. “We have a lot of opportunities on our plate.”

Most of those opportunities appear to be outside the five boroughs -- there are just three members of the Senate Republican conference that represent New York City districts -- Senators Felder, Marty Golden, and Andrew Lanza.

Gianaris also shied away from committing to either of the Democrats in the other potentially intriguing New York City general election Senate race, for Golden’s Brooklyn seat (Lanza, of Staten Island, is not seen as beatable). The incumbent has provoked a streak of damaging headlines -- ranging from alleged threats against a bicyclist to parachuting while receiving disability payments -- providing Democratic challengers Ross Barkan and Andrew Gounardes plenty of fodder for attacks.

“There’s one blunder after another that will make that race even more possible than usual,” said Gianaris.

But he added, “I try to look at it coldly. As long as I pick up the seats I need, which right now is one...I’m agnostic as to where it comes from.”

Golden ran unopposed in 2016. He won easily in 2014 and 2012, when he beat Gounardes by a decisive margin.

As this year’s legislative session ended, the Senate -- Republicans’ only stronghold at the state level given Democratic control of the Assembly and all four statewide positions -- was deadlocked 31-31 between Republicans and Democrats since the GOP’s 32nd senator, Tom Croci of Long Island, was called to active duty with the Navy last month. Through the fall elections, Democrats must net just one seat to take the majority in the chamber for the first time in nearly a decade. Depending on the results of the gubernatorial race -- no Republican has been governor since 2006 -- Democratic control of the upper chamber could pave the way for passage of a slew of the party’s priorities.

Gianaris indicated Democrats are likely to focus on two Long Island seats where the incumbent won by razor-thin margins two years ago: Republican Senator Carl Marcellino, who won parts of Nassau and Suffolk Counties by less than 1 percent of the vote; and Democrat Senator John Brooks, who won by an even smaller margin.

Gianaris also pointed to the high number of Republicans who have announced they aren’t seeking reelection. In addition to Croci, they include John Bonacic of the Hudson Valley, John DeFrancisco of Syracuse, William Larkin of Orange County, and Kathy Marchione of Saratoga. Not all of the seats are in play for Democrats, but some appear to be.

Gianaris is also eyeing Republican seats that Democrats have won in the past - the 46th district outside Albany, currently held by George Amedore; and the 41st district in the Hudson Valley, where Sue Serino is the incumbent.

“Before you know it, you’re looking at 10 to 12 pockets of opportunity on offense and, effectively, the only seat we have to defend is John Brooks,’” he said.

Senate Democrats have crowed over Republicans’ resignation announcements, saying they show the GOP knows it’s doomed this year. A Senate Republican spokesperson did not answer a request for comment for this article.

Senator John Flanagan, the Senate majority leader, has tried to sound a confident note amid the flurry of resignations.

"New Yorkers know that our Majority is the only thing standing in the way of the New York City politicians implementing an agenda that will hurt our economy and make life more difficult for hardworking middle-class taxpayers," he told the New York Daily News. "We will succeed in November and maintain our majority so the true priorities of New Yorkers continue to be put first."

Senate Democrats increased their ranks in April, when the group of eight renegades known as the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) ended its coalition with Republicans and rejoined the mainstream Democratic fold, taking the conference from 23 to 31 members. The move came as nearly all of the IDC members faced primary challengers who decried them as “Trump Democrats” willing to empower Republicans in order to gain perks at the expense of progressive values.

Gianaris was one of the strongest critics of the IDC during its seven-year alliance with Republicans, and he was part of a long-term feud with Senator Jeff Klein, the leader of the IDC. But Gianaris said the DSCC has no intention of supporting challengers like Alessandra Biaggi, who is running against Klein, of the Bronx, as long as the ex-IDC members don’t break their promises.

Gianaris noted that Senator Stewart-Cousins, the Democratic leader, is supporting all members of her conference, including former IDC members, a point she recently stressed during a Gotham Gazette/City Limits podcast appearance.

“At this point, the former IDC members are members of our conference,” Gianaris said. “We’ve committed to not opposing them.”

Asked whether he would go so far as to discourage Democrats from challenging ex-IDC members, Gianaris declined to comment.

“Everyone seems to be on their best behavior on both sides and there seems to be genuine effort to work cooperatively and get to where we’re trying to go, so hopefully that continues,” he said of the Democratic conference since ex-IDC members rejoined it.

Asked whether he actually trusts the former IDC members -- who reneged on campaign promises to quit their alliance with Republicans in 2014 -- Gianaris said with a laugh, “I’ve come to trust very few people in politics.”

“But I can say…there’s been action behind the words. Hopefully that holds,” he added.

As in previous years’ elections, the Republican campaign committee has much more cash than the Democrats do -- $1,549,017.70 compared to $691,274.46, according to the latest disclosure reports.

However, Gianaris said trends are favoring Democrats this year.

“That gap is much smaller than it would normally be,” he said. “I think we’re about a half-million ahead of pace and they’re a million below pace, if you went back to 2016.”

Around this time in the 2016 election cycle, Republicans had more than $2 million and Democrats had a little over $225,000.

True to his role as Democratic cheerleader, Gianaris said he’s confident this year will bring a “blue wave” to the state.

“All around the country, Democrats are performing at a higher clip than would normally be expected,” he said. “I think it’s a legitimate wave.”

***
by Shant Shahrigianh, Gotham Gazette
      

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Democratic Campaign Chief: Even a ‘Blue Trickle’ Will Flip State Senate Thu, 21 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Andrea Stewart-Cousins on Democratic Unity and the ‘Value’ of Primaries http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7745-andrea-stewart-cousins-on-democratic-unity-and-the-value-of-primaries http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7745-andrea-stewart-cousins-on-democratic-unity-and-the-value-of-primaries andrea stewart cousins sk gg2

Andrea Stewart-Cousins at the state party convention (photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)


While policies to prevent and punish sexual harassment were being decided in Albany during state budget negotiations earlier this year, four men led the closed-door talks: Governor Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, and the leader of the now-defunct Independent Democratic Conference Jeff Klein. Even as female aides had some level of participation, there was a great deal of scrutiny of the absence of Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the leader of the Democratic minority in state Senate, especially given that Cuomo’s office had indicated she would be included.

“You would’ve thought you would’ve been able to get in a room and at least let her say something,” Stewart-Cousins said of her own situation during a recent episode of the Max & Murphy podcast from Gotham Gazette and City Limits. “Never happened.”

Stewart-Cousins called it a feature of “an institution that has institutionalized a lot of stuff,” and said that “breaking those norms are really, really difficult things to do.”

But breaking established ways of doing things is something of a pattern for Stewart-Cousins, who is both the first woman and the first African-American woman to be elected as the state Senate minority leader. Now, after post-budget reconciliation between the mainline Democrats she leads and Klein’s IDC, Stewart-Cousins is also in position to become the first woman and woman of color to be the majority leader of the Senate, depending on the results of the fall elections. They are elections she is becoming increasingly involved with, she indicated on the podcast, connecting the upcoming attempts to flip seats from Republican to Democrat as part of a “blue wave” sweeping the nation.

Stewart-Cousins’ frame for viewing the elections and potential Democratic majority in the Senate, and thus the Legislature given the party’s stranglehold on the Assembly, is the recent Senate reunification, pushing her, it seems, to be more forgiving, take the long-view, and look ahead, not back.

Exclusion from the anti-sexual harassment talks – and the state budget discussions in general – may be a thorny issue, but not one that poses a major point of contention between Stewart-Cousins and her colleagues.

“It goes back to the basic tenet: a house divided against itself can’t stand,” Stewart-Cousins said in response to a question of her possible frustrations with elements of the unity deal that was struck among her, Klein and Cuomo in April, and whether she trusts Klein. “How are we gonna do this?...I’m not gonna be sitting there having people somehow undermine the efforts that we have to be a team. That’s always been the case.”

There are still challenges to the notion of a unified Democratic front: each of the eight former members of the IDC is facing a primary challenge, and while the Democratic establishment has agreed to mutual support, a number of grassroots groups and a handful of elected officials are backing the challengers.

On the podcast, Stewart-Cousins emphasized that she has endorsed all incumbent Democratic senators, including those who were formerly part of the IDC, “so that people are very, very clear where I stand,” she said in response to a question of whether or not she would tell fellow party members to drop their support for the challengers. “I think that in and of itself sends a message.”

While she did not call primaries a bad thing, Stewart-Cousins further emphasized the importance of moving past former divisions in order for the party to function. “I think that’s over,” she said of the Senate Democratic division, “and it’s up to me...to give the kind of support and respect that I should be giving as the leader and as a colleague, and I believe that we set that tone,” she said. “There’s nobody coming in feeling less than, unworthy. There’s no recriminations.”

In response to a question of whether Cuomo – who has long been criticized for encouraging or at least tolerating the IDC’s existence – could have brokered such a unity deal earlier on, and thus possibly prevented the handicapped progress on key issues for the Democratic Party, Stewart-Cousins said, “Like I always say, he did make it happen....I don’t think he was terribly concerned about the situation because as far as we he was concerned, maybe it was manageable. I think it’s gotten to the point where it was looking unmanageable because of all the different factors, so he asserted himself.”

If the Democrats are able to obtain majority control of the state Senate in November, a policy agenda including action on immigration, climate change, voting and elections, campaign financing, reproductive rights, and more may move. Stewart-Cousins referenced pieces like the Child Victims Act and the Dream Act stagnating in the currently Republican-controlled state Senate. Additionally, Republican senators recently blocked Democrats’ attempts to see voting on the Reproductive Health Act and the Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Care Act – two pieces of legislation that would, respectively, enshrine in New York law the same reproductive rights under the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling and mandate accessibility to birth control medication – when Democrats attempted to push them through late last month.

“There’s so many things that we could do in addition to, obviously, the things that we’re bringing up today,” Stewart-Cousins said.

For their part, Senate Republicans often seek to ‘warn’ New Yorkers of what full Democratic control of state government could bring. “The New York City politicians who think it will be easy to flip the State Senate and impose their radical agenda on the people of New York should take heed,” said Senate spokesperson Scott Reif, in an April statement. “Our Majority represents the checks and balances, and the real accountability that hardworking taxpayers need and deserve.  Without us it’s one party rule, higher taxes, runaway spending and New Yorkers will be less safe.”

Democrats first need to contend with reconciling the different wings within their own party, a division apparent in the challengers to former IDC members and to Cuomo. Stewart-Cousins has unique perspective, representing Senate District 35, an area that includes towns like Yonkers, White Plains, and Scarsdale, with a wide variety of Democrats and plenty of Republicans and party unaffiliated voters.

Asked which wing of the party she identifies with, Stewart-Cousins deemphasized the ostensible differences in her party. “I’ve been able to, I think, gain a perspective that a lot of people don’t have as it relates to governing,” she said, referring to her unique position as the first Democratic leader representing a district outside New York City in a hundred years. “Everybody pretty much wants the same thing. It’s not different. It’s how you deliver these things or how you’re able to characterize these things or how you react is really where the differences lie.”

On the question of primaries, like that Governor Cuomo is facing, Stewart-Cousins took a different approach from some others, like Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul. “I certainly have no problem with the fact that there’s a primary going on,” she said, responding to a question of whether or not the gubernatorial candidacy of challenger Cynthia Nixon is emblematic of the Democratic Party being a ‘house divided.’ “The conversations about the vision for New York and who should lead it are valuable,” she added.

For now, at least, Stewart-Cousins maintains a face of smiling unity toward Klein, who serves as her deputy, and the rest of the Democratic Party.

Asked if there’s a chance that party members pull another IDC-esque ploy in the coming years, Stewart-Cousins said, “The environment has changed and that’s why I think this unity works, because we’ve been to the other side. We know what that looks like, and I don’t know if anybody needs or wants to go back there again.”

[Listen: Max & Murphy Podcast: Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins]

***
by Chelsey Sanchez, Gotham Gazette
@chelseynsanchez  @GothamGazette

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Andrea Stewart-Cousins on Democratic Unity and the ‘Value’ of Primaries Mon, 18 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000