Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/401 Tue, 12 Dec 2017 16:22:43 +0000 en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Progressive Activist Registers Campaign Committee for Latimer’s Senate Seat http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7118:progressive-activist-starts-campaign-committee-for-latimer-s-senate-seat http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7118:progressive-activist-starts-campaign-committee-for-latimer-s-senate-seat brezler 2

Katherine Brezler (photo via Facebook)


A teacher and grassroots organizer is scoping out the Westchester Democratic Party nod in a potential special election for state Senator George Latimer’s seat, which would be triggered if the Democratic senator wins the race for Westchester county executive this fall.

On July 24, Katherine Brezler, a 35-year-old from White Plains who campaigned for Senator Bernie Sanders' presidential bid, became the first to register a campaign committee for the 37th Senate District seat currently held by Latimer, according to the New York State Board of Elections.

Latimer is challenging Republican incumbent Rob Astorino for the county executive position with the blessing of his fellow Democrats in the Senate minority conference. At least four mainline Democrats contributed to Latimer’s county executive campaign. The largest donation, of $2,500, came from Senator Michael Gianaris, deputy leader of the mainline Democratic conference and head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee (DSCC). Latimer has received endorsements from the Independence, Working Families, and Women’s Equality parties and will first face county legislator Ken Jenkins, from Yonkers, in the September 12 primary. 

Brezler is also rooting for Latimer, whom she describes as “a mentor,” and has been making phone calls on his behalf. “I have good feelings about the future of Westchester and the voters making [Senator] George Latimer county executive,” she said. “I wouldn’t be out here this early if I didn’t believe that. But there is still a lot of work to do. We have a lot of doors to knock on.”

If Latimer does unseat Astorino, the Senate seat he would vacate is likely to be highly contested. Since 2012, the last time the seat was empty, both the Republican and Democratic campaign committees have collectively poured nearly $2 million into district races. Governor Andrew Cuomo also threw his support behind Latimer last year to ensure that the seat remained Democratic.

By all accounts, Latimer has been an exceptional Democratic candidate. Despite a 2012 redistricting of the 37th Senate District, which the League of Women Voters of Westchester criticized for cutting out minority voters and favoring Republicans, Latimer won the seat that year, and retained his popularity in the district for three consecutive terms. In 2014, Latimer kept the seat with 49.9 percent of the vote, barely beating out Republican Joe Dillon, who drew 45.8 percent of the vote. Latimer’s office did not respond to a message seeking comment for this article.

Brezler, who previously was a Sanders delegate and founding member of the People For Bernie, a national network that rallied support for the former presidential candidate, boasts a slew of progressive accomplishments. She was part of a national organizing campaign for the movement to “opt-out” of state school testing, is an advocate for affordable housing and, citing her background as the daughter of a doctor and nurse, she has made the passage of universal, single-payer health care a central part of her platform. She noted that there is a 2-1 ratio of registered Democrats over Republicans in the district, and that Democratic engagement in Westchester is on the rise since the 2016 election of President Donald Trump.

Brezler, who has also worked as a delegate for the Westchester/Putnam chapter of the AFL-CIO union, said she was inspired to run, in part, because of the stagnant state of progressive legislation in the New York State Senate, despite Democrats holding a narrow majority in the body. The Senate GOP maintains the legislative majority with the help of Senator Simcha Felder, of Brooklyn, who caucuses with the conference, and through an alliance with eight rogue Democrats who make up the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC).

“Two-thirds of this country supports universal healthcare and it’s unconscionable that it’s popped three years in a row, and the state Senate thinks it’s acceptable not to bring it to the floor,” Brezler said in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

Brezler said she spoke to a number of local elected officials who told her they were not interested in the seat, although she did not specify whom, and saw an opportunity to ensure that the district remained in Democratic hands.

Assemblyman Steven Otis, a Democrat whose district encompasses much of Latimer’s and who previously worked as chief of staff to Latimer’s predecessor, is one name likely to be floated for the post, according to people familiar with the district. Otis told Gotham Gazette he intends to remain in the Assembly where he is “excelling” and “can deliver the best results” for the communities he represents.

If Latimer wins the county executive primary election and then the general this fall, he will vacate his current seat by January, and it will be up to Governor Cuomo’s discretion to call a special election. In a special election, a competitive primary is bypassed, and the Democratic and Republican nominees are picked by the party boss and county executive committee, which comprised of district leaders. In Westchester, the nominee may also be selected by party chair persons of city, towns and villages, Brezler said.

A former Yonkers district leader herself, Brezler says she has had productive conversations with Westchester County Democratic Party chairman Reginald LaFayette and believes she has the name recognition required to drum up county committee support.

"I've been working in local politics for a very long time,” Brezler said. “They know me by name, face, and work; it’s not a surprise to anyone that I’m running.” 

Brezler has also voiced opposition to Cuomo on a number of issues in the past, but noted the second-term governor’s evolution since his re-election in 2014. “The governor is trying his best to put his progressive foot forward and I’m interested in seeing what this year looks like," she said.

Brezler said the supposed fissure between the progressive, grassroots Sanders faction of the Democratic Party and the Democratic establishment has been overstated in the media and is not as pronounced on the state level, where she believes Democrats are coming together to resist the policies of the Trump administration.

Veteran Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said Brezler’s past criticisms of Cuomo could be a liability for her candidacy. “It’s unlikely that someone who has attacked the governor will be picked as the nominee,” he said, noting that, “Cuomo got the 2 percent property tax cap for the people of Westchester,” which is plagued by some of the highest rates in the nation.

However, getting a headstart on fundraising and the potential to tap into support from a national Sanders coalition could help Brezler, because it may “scare off other candidates,” he said.

As an educator, Brezler has been a proponent of the state meeting its school aid obligations under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity court decision -- the results of a lawsuit seeking to ensure “the constitutional right to a sound basic education” for all public school students -- which she says would infuse struggling schools in Yonkers and elsewhere with millions of dollars needed to ease the county’s notorious property tax burden.

Brezler said her next objective is to win over the DSCC, chaired by Senator Gianaris of Queens, who she said will likely have a conversation with LaFayette about what is best for the party.

“If the DSCC isn’t super excited about me then I think they will find that the network behind me is able to raise a considerable amount, and that I have more name recognition than they think,” said Brezler.

Brezler, who is a first-generation Argentine immigrant on her father’s side, noted that she would be a diverse choice for the Senate Democrats as the first openly queer woman in the legislative body.

A spokesperson for the Senate Democratic conference declined to weigh in on “hypothetical” candidates and Gianaris’ office did not return a request for comment.

It may still be too early for Democrats to vet potential replacements for Latimer not knowing the outcome of the election, said Sheinkopf. “She’s just out front faster than anyone else,” he said of Brezler. “First order of business, is to know whether Latimer will beat Astorino. For that you would have to hire a magician and get the divine inspiration. Is it possible? Yes. Is it highly likely? 50-50.”

Julie Killian, a Council member from the city of Rye in Westchester who challenged Latimer for the Senate seat in 2016 and received 44.3 percent of the vote, is rumored to be running again on the Republican party line, but she has not announced an interest in the race and her Senate fundraising account has been cleared out, according to her most recent BOE filings.

Regardless of whether Latimer wins the county executive race, Brezler said she intends to continue to shake things up on the state and local level.

“I'm not going anywhere,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Latimer's 2014 Republican challenger.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Progressive Activist Registers Campaign Committee for Latimer’s Senate Seat Wed, 09 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
How The Mayoral Control ‘Special Session’ Works http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7037:how-the-mayoral-control-special-session-works http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7037:how-the-mayoral-control-special-session-works de Blasio desk Albany

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)


To prevent the lapse of mayoral control over New York City schools, Governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday called an “extraordinary session” of the state Legislature to convene on Wednesday at 1p.m. in Albany. Often referred to as a “special session,” details of how the day will unfold -- especially what legislation will pass -- are still unclear.

Currently, the session has been called for just one day, with the only named purpose the extension of authority granted to the New York City Mayor, currently Bill de Blasio, to run the city schools. But, as of Tuesday evening, there is no specific bill on the table and Cuomo’s proclamation leaves the discussion open to “such other subjects” he “may recommend.”

"The Governor is calling an extraordinary legislative session for Wednesday, June 28 to take up the issue of Mayoral Control. The Governor has discussed the extraordinary session with the legislative leaders,” said Melissa DeRosa, secretary to the governor, in a statement.

The failure to reach a deal by the end of the week would lurch the educational system for 1.1 million city schoolchildren into uncertainty, and the process would commence to revert school governance back to the Board of Education and local school boards -- which, while in power, were frequently charged with inefficiency and corruption.

Like most educational experts, Governor Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie have all expressed support for mayoral control and believe that the old school board system was worse. But, the GOP-controlled Senate want to tie an extension to an increase in the cap on charter schools in New York City. The Assembly wants a clean extender of mayoral control, but did tie it to other local extenders in the form of expiring tax rates that also have widespread support.

On Wednesday, the three men will meet again try to break the impasse over the issue, and perhaps negotiate other policies, while reporters try to glean some insight into the negotiations. After breaking last Wednesday night at the end of the scheduled legislative year without deals on mayoral control, local tax extenders, or several other high-profile items, legislators, some of them on vacation, are being called back to the capital to handle unfinished business.

A majority is needed in both houses for the session to commence, and it is the responsibility of the legislative leaders to compel their members to return to the Capitol, according to Cuomo’s office.

According to Albany lore, the executive can call in state troopers to force lawmakers back to the Capitol for a special session. This myth, cited by several legislative staffers, does not appear in the state constitution. Senate rules do require a quorum, or 60 percent of members to be present for any motions or resolutions, and empower those present to send the Sergeant at Arms to bring absent senators back from their districts if necessary. In post-session remarks this past Thursday, Cuomo did jokingly reference constituents using force to send their local legislators back to Albany to finish their business.

While special sessions are sometimes intended to tackle a single topic, The New York Times reported that the governor may be offering the Senate GOP approval of a bill to increase accidental disability pensions for firefighters, police officers, and other city employees in exchange for a sign-off on one year of mayoral control without charter school provisions attached. This has opened the door to lawmakers and interest groups who want to see other bills considered in renewed negotiations.

Also caught in the crossfire, is a standard two-year extension dozens of local and county taxes. If it lapses, counties could face a $1.8 billion collective hole in their budgets, according to the New York State Association of Counties. Like with mayoral control, virtually all the major stakeholders believe in an extension, but disagree on the details of a deal.

Now NYSAC is calling for the Legislature to tackle legislation that would permanently allow county governments to extend their sales tax rates every two years.

Senator Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat, wants the special session to include action on New York City’s rapidly deteriorating subway system, following a particularly dramatic derailment incident Tuesday morning, which left dozens of straphangers injured. Just before the end of the scheduled session Gianaris had put forth a new proposal for a temporary dedicated revenue stream to infuse cash into the MTA.

“With the state legislature likely to return to Albany soon to address outstanding issues, fixing the MTA should be a top priority. When they return, the Governor and members of the legislature should not leave the Capitol until a solution to the MTA crisis is enacted,” wrote Gianaris in a petition for lawmakers to consider his bill to establish a dedicated funding stream for emergency maintenance and repairs.

While only the governor sets the agenda for a special session, his power is limited.
Technically, the Legislature never gavels out of session. According to the state constitution, if the Assembly goes dark for four days consecutively, lawmakers cannot reconvene until the following calendar year.

So, for more than two decades, every third day, an Assembly member has entered the chamber, and triple-banged the gavel on the podium -- a ritual that keeps the Legislature endlessly in session. This practice is intended to prevent recess appointments by the Governor and also allows any new legislation to age the requisite three days before becoming law.

Since the legislative session never really ends, when a special session is called, the Legislature must return to Albany, but can immediately gavel out and go home. Its members can also stay and reconvene to consider legislation of their choosing.

The Legislature first turned over control of city schools to the Mayor in 2002.
Previously, they were governed a seven-member Board of Education and 32 elected community school boards. The Board of Education, which had two mayoral appointees and one each from the borough presidents, selected the chancellor. The mayor could also influence the school system through the city budget.

Authority to appoint superintendents in elementary and middle schools was stripped from the Board in 1996 due to evidence of corruption and patronage in some school districts. Since this shift test performance and graduation rates dramatically improved at city schools, reports The New York Times.

Without clear direction, the session can get expensive.
Compensation, per diem allowances and travel expenses for members can add up, not to mention the cost of additional legislative staff. There are 150 seats in the Assembly and 63 in the Senate. It’s not clear how many legislators will be back to Albany for Wednesday’s session.

Legislators are paid a per diem rate of $175, which is to cover hotel and food, plus they are compensated for travel expenses at 55 cents per mile, not including tolls. For a lawmaker from Buffalo, which is approximately 300 miles from Albany, the travel bill tallies up to around $150 each way, for example. There is also a partial per diem rate of $59 when lawmakers do not spend the night.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note: This article has been updated to clarify how lawmakers are gathered back to the Capitol during a special session.

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How The Mayoral Control ‘Special Session’ Works Tue, 27 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Albany on the Penultimate Day of Legislative Session http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7014:albany-on-the-penultimate-day-of-legislative-session http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7014:albany-on-the-penultimate-day-of-legislative-session albany capitol

The Capitol (photo: Ben Max)


The lobby was packed with lobbyists. The Dunkin Donuts was humming. Food trucks lined the sunny street and appeared to be doing better than average business. Reporters were hungry for any tidbit of news.

Assembly members and Senators bounced in and out of their respective chambers, where dozens of bills were voted through with astonishing speed. Negotiations on major pieces of more contentious legislation were held behind closed doors by the four most powerful people in state government, all men.

The state Capitol building on the penultimate day of the 2017 legislative session was full of energy and exasperation.

“My bill just passed!” one Assembly member exclaimed when she recognized a friendly face. “I have to get back in to vote, my bill is coming up soon,” said a senator optimistic that her legislation was about to move through the chamber. It did.

“I haven’t seen the bill,” legislator after legislator told waiting lobbyists looking to bend their ears and garner additional support in last-ditch efforts to see their clients’ legislation pass.

“Speed cameras just passed through committee,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio’s transportation commissioner, in the capital to help shepherd through two administration priorities.

“I’m just ready to be done,” said another Assembly member. And another. And another.

“Yes,” said the Senate majority leader when asked if session would end Wednesday night as scheduled.

But, even with somewhere around 36 hours left on the clock, there was a great deal of unresolved business. When Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan told reporters that he was set on session ending Wednesday, he had just emerged from a meeting with other legislative leaders -- Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein -- and Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, at which some of the outstanding, big ticket items were discussed.

After that meeting, Klein said he was hopeful the sides would all agree on a two-year extension of mayoral control of New York City schools. When Flanagan came out he declined to put a duration on any extension, saying that negotiations are ongoing. (Mayoral control is set to expire at the end of the month. De Blasio has activated the usual suspects for a push similar to each of the last two years, when he was granted just a one-year extension. City schools Chancellor Carmen Farina was in the Capitol to help the effort, ready to talk to any legislator who wanted to chat, she told reporters.)

Flanagan put another major issue off the table completely, though, when he said that the Senate would not be voting on the Child Victims Act, which would allow sexual abuse victims more leeway to bring suits against their abusers and is supported by the Assembly majority and Cuomo.

Speaking of the governor, he held a closed-door bill-signing to celebrate passage of legislation raising the age at which one can consent to marriage in New York, in an effort to modernize those regulations and outlaw “child marriage.” Opting to sign the bill without members of the media, Cuomo took no questions on Tuesday.

He did, however, announce through press release a new bill to grant the Governor more control over the MTA, an end-of-session move aimed at showing he is thinking about the subway crisis that has earned Cuomo increasing scorn. The governor currently appoints six of the 14 MTA board members and the Chair, giving him de facto control. His proposal would have the Governor nominate eight of 16 board members plus the chair, who would be given a vote, giving the governor a majority of the votes, with nine.

The governor’s proposal, which may very well pass with almost no public review, came the day after state Senator Michael Gianaris announced his own MTA rescue plan, a bill that would, in part, institute a three-year “millionaire’s tax” on “those in the MTA region” to fund emergency repairs -- “a temporary surge of dedicated revenue” -- and create an emergency manager position at the MTA.

“Somebody had to do something,” Gianaris told Gotham Gazette on Tuesday at the Capitol. “Someone had to get a real conversation going.”

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Albany on the Penultimate Day of Legislative Session Tue, 20 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Activists, Lawmakers Rally for Voting Reform at Capitol http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6908:activists-lawmakers-rally-for-voting-reform-at-capitol http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6908:activists-lawmakers-rally-for-voting-reform-at-capitol vote better ny capitol

Tuesday's rally (photo: @NYCVotes)


A coalition of electoral reform activists were joined by Democratic state lawmakers during their annual pilgrimage to the New York State Capitol Tuesday to call for legislation that would remove barriers to the ballot and ensure that eligible New Yorkers are provided more opportunity to vote.

“Vote Better NY” seeks common sense changes to New York's voting laws to ensure that more eligible New Yorkers make it to the polls. This year, the organization is advocating for a slew of bills, including early voting, the Voter Empowerment Act, which would streamline the registration process, the New York Votes Act, which refers to automatic registration, as well as new preclearance measures before any additional requirements are added to the current voter registration process.

Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Senator Michael Gianaris, Assemblymember Latrice Walker, and Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh attended the rally, which was organized in large part by NYC Votes, the voter engagement arm of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, and key member of the Vote Better NY coalition. More than 100 organizers and activists boarded three coach buses from the city early Tuesday morning to rally at the Capitol and then meet in small groups with individual legislators to lobby them toward supporting the voting reform agenda. There has been little movement on such reform in Albany despite a good deal of support and New York’s decidedly antiquated laws.

“Elections have consequences. New York has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the nation and that should embarrass us,” said Stewart-Cousins, in a statement put out by Vote Better NY. “We should be making it easier to vote and not be putting up roadblocks. That is why I have advanced legislation to enable early voting, and why the Senate Democratic Conference has rolled out multiple pro-voter bills.”

New York has some of the most arcane voter access guidelines in the nation. In 2014, the state ranked 49 of the country’s 50 states in terms of voter turnout. While other states have improved their voting laws to increase ballot access, New York’s abysmal turnout has grown worse for presidential, gubernatorial, and New York City mayoral elections.

Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Group (NYPIRG), who participated the rally, said, “New York ranks consistently as one of the nation's worst states in terms of voter participation, driven by our archaic voter registration and election administration systems. Still, young people want to participate in democracy. NYPIRG sees that every day on college campuses across the state.”

In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, a new movement to overhaul New York’s voting laws gained support from several high-profile city and state officials, including Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

During his 2017 State of the State speaking tour and in his executive budget, Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a trio of significant reforms: automatic registration, same-day registration, and early voting. Though the governor vowed to “try like heck” to have the reforms included in the state budget, they did not make it into the final policy and spending plan that was announced last month. In an April appearance at the governor’s mansion, Cuomo blamed the Legislature, which he said lacked the appetite for such reforms.

"My point is: There is more to do; there is no political will to do it. Otherwise we would have done it in the budget," Cuomo told reporters during an annual Easter open house.

While increasing voter access should be a bipartisan issue, Republicans in the State Senate have historically blocked electoral reform measures, for fear that the conference would lose its razor-thin majority. After appearing at a rally for the corrections officers’ union Monday, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, suggested he may be open to discussing the idea, but couple that sentiment with skepticism about the cost and implementation of any real voting reform.

“It depends how you define voter access; it’s a conversation we should be having regardless,” Flanagan told reporters, citing enlarging the font on the ballot as a sensible reform measure.

When asked about early voting, he told reporters, “Early voting is defined so many ways, is it just one day? I was just joking around that I’m supportive of early voting, just start 5 o’clock instead of 6. It is a serious subject and something we should be talking about, but how do you do that without costing astronomical amounts of money? Our county boards of election are strapped right now.”

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Activists, Lawmakers Rally for Voting Reform at Capitol Tue, 02 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000
As Con Con Debate Heats Up, Heastie Declares Opposition http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6769:as-con-con-debate-heats-up-heastie-declares-opposition http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6769:as-con-con-debate-heats-up-heastie-declares-opposition Heastie Cuomo

Speaker Heastie, right, & Gov. Cuomo (photo: The Governor's Office)


While it will be several months before the airwaves are flooded with special interest-backed ad campaigns warning of the potential “dangers” of a constitutional convention, in Albany, legislative leaders are beginning to speak out on the issue.

On Saturday, February 18, at Black and Latino Caucus weekend, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, had one message for labor union leaders: make sure your members vote “no” on the upcoming ballot question. This November, New Yorkers will vote on a referendum whether to call a constitutional convention -- an opportunity for the public to “take back state government” and update the antiquated state constitution that occurs once every 20 years.

While a Con Con, as it is often called, would provide a chance for enacting reforms on things like government ethics, term limits for elected officials, modernized voting and voter registration rules, and more, it would open up the entire state constitution to change. To some, including government reform groups and Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, this promises an incredible opportunity. To others, like Heastie, it appears too risky.

Like many state and city elected officials who spoke at Saturday’s labor luncheon, Heastie cited threats to progressive institutions posed by President Donald Trump’s administration as he urged union leaders to oppose the convention.

“We are going to need you to remind people that dangerous things can happen,” said Heastie in his remarks. “There are some very wealthy people who want to open up the constitution and really undo some of the protections for labor. We need your help and cooperation to make sure that doesn't happen.”

If voters approve the convention this November, each of the New York’s 63 state Senate districts will elect three delegates in 2018, triggering a convention for the following year. Any constitutional amendments proposed by a convention would need to be approved by voters before they would take effect.

Heastie’s fear that the convention would be coopted by certain interests has been raised by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. But while Democrats say a convention could lead to the dismantling of labor and environmental protections by conservative interests, Republicans say they are concerned that New York City’s progressive interest groups would dominate the convention.

Scott Reif, a spokesperson for Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, said, “The convention could be dominated by New York City special interests, which would be disastrous for Upstate, the Hudson Valley and Long Island.”

Like other lawmakers, Flanagan, of Long Island, has also argued that a constitutional convention would cost millions of dollars at a time when New York has other, more pressing needs, and it is unlikely to produce much change.

Flanagan’s position stands in sharp contrast to that of Assembly Minority Leader Kolb, an Upstate Republican who has been on the front lines advocating for a Con Con, and the reforms it might bring, since 2011. In a column earlier this month, Kolb once again laid out the case for a convention, and urged voters to consider a “yes” vote.

“Voter empowerment is part of the very fabric of who we are as a nation,” he wrote. “There is no more effective way to engage the public than a Constitutional Convention, and there is no place that needs it more than Albany.”

The Assembly member -- who said he is interested in seeing the elimination of backdoor borrowing and term limits enacted in both houses, among other changes --- has spent the last five years campaigning with Con Con advocates like SUNY New Paltz professor Gerald Benjamin and government reform activist Bill Samuels, participating in countless town halls and panel discussions to help get the word out.

“Those who like the way things are, whether it’s the legislature or special interest groups, they’re going to be adamantly opposed to this and that’s just the nature of the beast,” said Kolb. “But people work on fear and people say ‘the sky is falling!’ But it’s all predicated on establishing doubt that it could be worse than what they already have.”

Former State Assembly Ways & Means Chair Arthur “Jerry” Kremer, in a new book analyzing the potential costs and benefits of a convention, writes that in 100 years, only six amendments have been made through the convention and 200 have resulted from individual constitutional amendments. A constitutional amendment requires passage by two consecutive classes of the state Legislature, followed by voter ballot approval the following Election Day.

The last time a constitutional convention was called, in 1967, few changes were made and all those that were introduced were ultimately rejected by the voters. This occurred, at least in part, because many of the Con Con delegates were also elected officials, Kolb says.

While it is against the constitution to prohibit anyone from running as a delegate, Kolb has introduced a bill that would require any elected convention delegate holding political office or certified as a lobbyist to step down from the other positions to serve in that role. “I think that really strengthens a grassroots approach with the delegate selection process,” said Kolb.

Kolb’s concern about the makeup of the delegates is shared by many, including some prominent Democrats, like Governor Andrew Cuomo, as well as government reform groups.

Since his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, Gov. Cuomo has continued to express support for a convention, but, unlike last year, the issue was notably absent from his 2017 State of the State policy book and his executive budget. However, the governor did propose several reforms, including the codification of Roe v. Wade, same-day voter registration, and limitations on legislators’ outside income, which he says could be done through constitutional amendment. Cuomo has also indicated that a Con Con may be the only way to enact comprehensive campaign finance reform while Republicans continue to control the state Senate.

During a recent meeting with The Daily News editorial board, the governor waffled slightly on his previous position, saying that he conceptually supports the idea of a constitutional convention, but “you have to find a way where the delegates do not wind up being the same legislators who you are trying to change the rules on. I have not heard a plan that does that."

Even Democratic legislators that are focused on government reform, such as Assemblymember Robert Carroll, newly elected from Brooklyn, and Manhattan Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, have said they are concerned with the delegate selection process, which allows the representatives to be determined based on heavily gerrymandered Senate districts. As a result, reformers fear that that some Republicans might dominate the convention and do away with labor and environmental protections.

Not all Democrats are opposed to the constitutional convention. Senator Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat and longtime advocate for government ethics reform, pushed for a “yes” vote in a June 2016 interview with Effective New York, the think tank founded by Samuels.

“We are in such need of dramatic change in the state that a convention would be a great way to kind of turn the whole thing over and start fresh,” said Gianaris, who also leads the Senate Democrats’ campaign efforts. “It would involve real redistricting reform as opposed to the thing we enacted that won’t achieve the goals we all wanted of a truly independent process. Ethics reforms, including a full-time legislature, pension forfeiture for those convicted of crimes. The list is not short of the things we can do.

Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins has hesitated to take a formal position on the issue, and did not respond to a request for comment.

The Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) -- a breakaway group of Senate Democrats that has formed a ruling coalition with Senate Republicans -- came out against the convention earlier this month, citing concerns for labor protections.

Kolb says he’s not worried about how a convention might play out. Regardless of which amendments the delegates propose, the decision would ultimately return to the voters.

“In the end, when I talk to people about it I say, ‘Is New York State working for you?’ And if your hand is up, then you probably won’t vote for the convention,” said Kolb. “But if you think New York State could be better, run more efficiently, run more cost effectively, answer to the people it represents, then here’s an opportunity to see it change.”

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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As Con Con Debate Heats Up, Heastie Declares Opposition Tue, 21 Feb 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Cuomo Embraces Voting Reform Agenda, But Implementation Poses Challenges http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6724:cuomo-embraces-voting-reform-agenda-but-implementation-poses-challenges http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6724:cuomo-embraces-voting-reform-agenda-but-implementation-poses-challenges Cuomo voting 2015

Gov. Cuomo voting (photo: The Governor's Office on flickr)


During his State of the State tour early this month, Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a trio of major reforms hailed as important steps toward modernizing New York’s antiquated electoral system and increasing the state’s paltry voter turnout. While they are long-called for proposals that many are pleased to see Cuomo promote, implementing these goals could be more complicated than it may seem.

Two of the three reforms, early voting and automatic voter registration, were outlined in Cuomo’s 2016 agenda, but the initiatives failed to move through the Legislature last year due to opposition from Senate Republicans, who control that chamber. It is a power structure that continues into the 2017 session, meaning the road to passage is uphill, and steeply so.

New York is one of only about a dozen states without some semblance of early voting. While the state already has a form of automatic voter registration through the Department of Motor Vehicles, Cuomo’s proposal is to streamline and expand the practice. If passed, it would amount to more widespread automatic registration, but not universal.

The third electoral proposal from Cuomo, same-day registration, will likely require a constitutional amendment -- meaning approval from two consecutive classes of the state Legislature, then voters via ballot referendum -- a process that would take at least three years. There is some debate among constitutional law experts over whether such an amendment is required for any form of same-day registration, which would allow voters to show up at the polls to both register and vote on the same day.

The three reforms are almost universally seen as long overdue in New York. Voter turnout in New York is especially poor: in 2014, the state ranked 49th of the country’s 50 states. While New York has watched many other states change voting laws to increase access to the ballot, the voter turnout deficit here is growing progressively worse, with just 19.7 percent of eligible voters casting their ballots in the 2016 presidential primaries. Turnout numbers have also consistently declined during gubernatorial elections and, in New York City, during mayoral election years.

“New York is so far behind the curve on election administration that almost anything is an improvement,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of government reform group Common Cause New York. “I think the governor has picked issues that are very good places to start.”

Those with high praise for Cuomo’s 2017 electoral agenda include Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who, after monitoring the state’s four election days of 2016, issued an exhaustive report with areas for reform at the end of the year.

"I commend Governor Cuomo for proposing common sense reforms to our voting system. I look forward to working with Governor Cuomo, the legislature, and everyday New Yorkers across our state to address the systemic problems in New York's voting laws,” Schneiderman said in a statement. “New York must become a national leader in voting rights by expanding and protecting the rights of all New Yorkers to cast their vote.”

In the statement, Schneiderman also recommended consolidating New York's exhausting voting schedule into a single primary. In 2016, there were three: in April for the presidential race; in June for congressional races; and in September for state legislative races.

While it is still early to speculate exactly how the Legislature will respond to Cuomo’s electoral reform agenda, there are key early markers, process details, and implementation questions ahead of whatever policy debate may occur.

One thing is certain: Democrats in the Assembly, where they have the majority, and in the Senate, where they do not, will be behind the election and voting modernization efforts -- including and beyond Cuomo’s three main proposals. What is less clear is whether the governor will fully push for early voting, automatic voter registration, and same-day registration in budget negotiations, which are just beginning; and whether there is any room for passage in the Republican-controlled Senate, perhaps with the help of the Independent Democratic Conference -- the seven-member body that has formed a ruling coalition with the Senate GOP.

Early Voting
When it comes to early voting, New York is one of just 13 states without some window wherein voters can cast ballots before Election Day.

For several years running, an early voting bill has passed the Assembly, only to be blocked in the Senate.

According to Gov. Cuomo’s 2017 proposal, every county would offer residents access to at least one early voting poll site for every 50,000 residents during the 12 days leading up to Election Day. Voters would be guaranteed eight hours on weekdays and five hours on weekends to cast early ballots, and bipartisan county boards of elections would determine locations of the early poll sites.

While high voter participation would ideally be a bipartisan issue, New York Republicans -- who cling to control of the state Senate by a tiny margin -- have calculated that better ballot access and more participation is likely to turn out Democratic voters, according Senator Michael Gianaris, a Democrat from Queens and outspoken proponent of voting reform.

“These reforms are more necessary than ever and I’m glad they were included in the governor’s presentation, but the problem is Senate Republicans seem to have a personal interest in keeping people from voting,” said Gianaris, a co-sponsor of several packages of electoral legislation. “That's been the biggest hurdle to overcome, because voter restrictions tend to benefit them.”

A spokesperson for Senate Republicans did not return multiple requests for comment.

A natural partner of early voting is absentee voting. In his State of the State policy book, Gov. Cuomo, a second term Democrat, also cited the requirement for absentee ballot voters to provide an excuse, which is written into the state constitution and its removal would require a constitutional amendment.

A bill to remove this requirement from the constitution has passed the Assembly and is, like other voting reforms, awaiting Senate approval.

Senator Joseph Addabbo, who co-sponsored the bill and served as chair of the Senate Election Committee in 2009, said his staff has not looked closely at the governor’s plan yet but expressed hopeful optimism about the governor’s electoral reform agenda.

“I’ll say I can embrace a lot of what he’s proposing and now our legal counsel might look at whether and how it can be implemented,” said Addabbo, a Democrat from Queens. “This is a lot of what we’ve worked on and proposed in 2009. We really go through painstaking measures to determine what is going to get voters to vote.”

In addition to persuading the Senate majority, Cuomo and Assembly Democrats will have to hash out the details with counties, which, while supportive of early voting, want the governor to include a provision for who would foot the bill -- approximately $3 million per year, according to one estimate -- for the additional polling options.

"Despite principled visions on the issue, on the fiscal nature of the cost shift it's unconscionable for the state to be shifting and enacting policies these days in the property-tax-cap era. It should be dead on arrival." Stephen Acquario, executive director of the state Association of Counties, told the USA Today Network.

Automatic Voter Registration
Automatically registering voters when they become eligible or when they come into contact with government agencies is a fairly new concept. Since 2015, automatic voter registration -- which can have different forms and meanings short of universal automatic registration of voters once they become eligible -- has been approved in six states with strong bipartisan support and is taking off across the country, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

The idea is to shift the onus of registering from the individual to the government. In addition to increasing voter registration in other states, automatic voter registration has been shown to have significant benefits for administrators, reduce costs, and improve the accuracy of electronic poll books.

Cuomo’s proposal, recycled from last year, would automatically register anyone who comes into contact with a state Department of Motor Vehicles, unless the person chooses to opt out. Currently, eligible voters can register through the DMV, but they must provide additional voting information as they apply for DMV services.

Cuomo’s proposed version of automatic registration is preferable to similar bills passed in Oregon and California, which only registers eligible citizens who apply for or renew a driver’s license. However, Cuomo’s plan is not as inclusive as say, that which is outlined in New York’s Voter Empowerment Act, sponsored by Senator Gianaris and Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, which would enable a variety government agencies to automatically register voters.

The Brennan Center outlines four ways that states can modernize their electoral systems with automatic registration. The first, of course, is by automatically registering anyone who interacts with government offices, unless the person declines registration. The second is portability, which ensures that registered voters remain on the voter rolls even after they move within the state. The third, online access, allows voters to register, check, and update their registration records through a web portal. And fourth, the state should provide a “safety net,” that allows citizens to correct errors on the voter rolls or register before and on Election Day.

Ideally, automatic registration would occur through many different state-run agencies, reaching well beyond the DMV to the the widest possible segment of eligible voters. There is a sizeable population, especially in urban centers like New York City, that does not drive or interact with the DMV. Broader automatic registration would include:

DMVs; Medicaid and public assistance offices; colleges and high schools; military recruiters and other military offices; unemployment and other public benefit offices; firearm licensing agencies; immigration offices; government-funded job-training centers; law enforcement and corrections agencies that interact with people who regain their voting rights after a criminal conviction.

Some community groups have raised concerns that tying automatic voter registration to the DMV alone may skew registration number in favor of areas with high rates of car ownership, disproportionality impacting upstate voters over New York City, for example.

Researchers at the Brennan Center are exploring whether data can shed light on the concern that automatic registration through the DMV advantages some groups over others.

“We recognize that this is a serious concern for some important groups and we want to take a close look at this question,” said Chisun Lee, senior counsel at the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “We are hopeful that the net benefits for increasing the franchise, and reaching voters who otherwise wouldn't be enrolled, will be positive for all.”

Same-Day Voter Registration
Same-day voter registration, perhaps the boldest of Cuomo’s proposals, would allow New Yorkers to register and vote on the same day.

Currently, New Yorkers must register to vote 25 days prior to an election, though the state constitution's requirement is only ten days. Depending on how it would be implemented, same-day registration may require a constitutional amendment. However, if early voting is passed, there are legal experts who argue that the constitution would allow same-day registration for those who vote prior to ten days before Election Day.

Again, a constitutional amendment is typically at minimum a three-year process which would require two “yes” votes from consecutive Legislatures and the passage of referendum on the following year’s general election ballot.

Alternately, a “yes” vote on the constitutional convention referendum, which will be on the ballot this November, could provide another avenue to remove restrictions and institute reforms like same-day registration.

At this point, 13 states and the District of Columbia have same-day voter registration, and California, Vermont, and Hawaii have approved the provision, though it has not yet been implemented, according to Cuomo’s office.

The upcoming opportunity to amend the state constitution via constitutional convention, which, for New Yorkers, appears as a ballot referendum every 20 years will be November 7, 2017. A constitutional convention is a four-year public process that could result significant changes to the entire document and laws of the state. If New Yorkers say “yes” to a convention on this year’s ballot, a year later, voters will select delegates to participate in the convention; the following year, in 2019, the convention will convene; and voters will be able to vote on any proposed changes the following Election Day.

Like with the electoral and voting reforms Gov. Cuomo has proposed, he has expressed varying degrees of support for a "yes" vote on a constitutional convention, but whether the governor takes significant action will go a long way toward determining the outcome.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Cuomo Embraces Voting Reform Agenda, But Implementation Poses Challenges Sun, 22 Jan 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Largely Inactive Senate Ethics Committee Restructures http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6718:largely-inactive-senate-ethics-committee-restructures http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6718:largely-inactive-senate-ethics-committee-restructures gianaris state senate site

Sen. Gianaris (photo: State Senate)


New York state government has had no shortage of ethics scandals, but has had a deficiency in active, effective bodies to prevent, punish, and root out bad behavior among elected and appointed officials.

When the new legislative session began in Albany earlier this month, there was an immediate shake-up of the long-dormant state Senate ethics committee, throwing the always-simmering chamber to a quick boil.

The Senate ethics committee, as well as a parallel committee in the New York State Assembly, in theory, are places where lawmakers review and make recommendations on Senate policies, including travel expenses, time and attendance, sexual harassment, and other aspects of workplace ethics. Like other issue committees, the ethics committee should consider ways within its purview to improve governance, such as limiting legislators’ outside income or requiring greater disclosure of potential conflicts of interest.

Yet, even with much to do, the committees’ actual function is unclear: despite the fact that committee chairs in both chambers earn an additional $12,500 stipend per year, legislative ethics committees have rarely met over the last two decades, allowing misdeeds to go unaddressed in-house.

As the rules were being adopted for the new Senate class that will govern for 2017 and 2018, the majority coalition of Republicans and the Independent Democratic Conference -- a seven-member group of breakaway Democrats -- included changes to the ethics committee.

After a brouhaha over how the committee would be structured, how the political parties and conferences would be represented on it, and, essentially, what it means to be a Democrat in the New York State Senate, the committee’s new shape was established. It will grow by one member, to nine, and will give the IDC significant power to determine what business, if any, the committee takes up.

Initially, Senator Thomas Croci, a Long Island Republican and the previous ethics committee chair, proposed that, at eight members, the committee be split evenly by representatives of the two major political parties, rather than by majority and minority conference, as was previously the case. Ostensibly, this would have meant that the committee could feature four Republicans and four IDC members.

The motion was challenged by Democratic Senator Michael Gianaris of Queens, who, on the first day of the session, January 4, pushed for the body’s continued split between the two major conferences, or three ways among mainline Democrats, Republicans, and the IDC.

Croci argued that an equal split by political party would create parity with a similar body in the New York State Assembly, while Gianaris questioned how committee members would be selected and whether such a makeup would equate to a GOP/IDC power-grab.

“Ethics committees have always been treated differently, regardless of makeup of bodies, because of their very sensitive nature and the possibility of using an ethics overview committee for political reasons,” Gianaris said on the Senate floor.

Though Croci’s resolution passed at that January 4 session, last week Senate Republicans agreed to revisit the issue. They hammered out an agreement with Democrats that satisfied members of all three conferences. The new committee will include nine members — three Republicans, three mainline Democrats, and three IDC members.

Committee members are to be appointed by leaders of the three conferences. While the new structure disproportionately represents members of the Republican-IDC coalition, any investigation proposed by the body must have the approval of one member from each conference to move forward, according to the new rules. Effectively, it remains easy for a conference to kill an internal ethics investigation into one of its members.

The full list of ethics committee members were revealed during legislative session on Tuesday, with Elaine Phillips, a freshman Republican from Long Island, replacing Croci as chair, while former chairs Croci and Andrew Lanza, of Staten Island, remained on the body as Republican committee members. Senators David Valesky, Staten Island’s Diane Savino, and David Carlucci of the IDC also joined the committee, and three mainline Democratic seats will be filled by Gianaris, Brooklyn’s Roxanne Persaud, and Gustavo Rivera of the Bronx.

An aide to Croci said the senator never intended to politicize the committee’s structure, but that he believed strongly that the body should mirror the Assembly’s structure. A spokesperson for Senate Democrats said that Republicans were eager to find a solution at this Tuesday’s session that is satisfactory to all parties.

“We are pleased with the final composition of the Senate Ethics Committee and thank the Senate Republicans for working with us to achieve equal representation for all Senate Conferences,” said Mike Murphy, communications director for Senate Democrats, who are led by Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

IDC Leader Jeff Klein, who has been mostly silent on the issue so far, issued a statement through spokesperson Candice Giove: "The original intention of the Ethics Committee makeup was never to be unfair to any Senate conference, but in its new configuration I expect all appointees from each of the Senate's three conferences will carry out their work just the same -- in a fair and ethical manner."

Political affiliations aside, the ethics committees in both legislative chambers have been repeatedly criticized for failing to police their own houses or put forward any ethics reforms. Instead, critics say, they have been focused on protecting lawmakers from scrutiny, despite pervasive corruption and major ethical lapses. There has been a long parade of state legislators who have left office due to corruption scandal, including, recently, the two legislative leaders, Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos.

Blair Horner, executive director at NYPIRG, a government reform group, said this move sets an unusual precedent for legislative standing committees, but said ultimately internal ethics committees are no substitute for meaningful independent oversight.

“It’s understandable where they are going, if that’s how they want to enforce their own rules, but what New York needs is independent oversight, and no one -- except [United State Attorney] Preet Bharara -- is talking about that,” he said.

The Senate ethics committee has not met since 2009, when Senator John Sampson was chair, according to the Senate website. Sampson, ironically, was convicted in 2016 on charges of obstructing justice and lying in relation to a federal investigation into whether he had embezzled state funds, and is expected to be sentenced shortly.

U. S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who has overseen the convictions of more than a dozen state lawmakers, including former Senate Majority Leader Skelos and former Assembly Speaker Silver, told the New York Times that the ethics committee’s blank calendar reveals how ineffectual these bodies are.

“The idea that the chair of the ethics committee has never had the opportunity to mark up a bill, has never had the opportunity to hold a hearing tells you everything you need to know about the enabling nature of all the people in the State Legislature who may not have been convicted of crimes, but seem not to care that they’re going on,” he said.

Senator Tony Avella, a Queens Democrat and former committee chair, testified at Skelos’ 2015 corruption trial, that he was surprised to learn that Senate had never referred a bill to the committee and no bill has ever been produced by the committee for a vote.

“You’d think the standing committee would have the ability to have bills referred to it,” Avella told the Times last year. “I think it would be important, for anything that has to do with ethics reform, that it should go to the Ethics Committee.”

But when Avella tried to call a meeting to try to address some ethical issues plaguing the legislature, he told outlets the meeting was canceled over budget negotiations and was never recalled.

Whether this latest restructuring indicates a sign of life from the defunct committee, or results in yet another year of inaction -- one absent of hearings, bills, or proposed reforms  -- remains to be seen.

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

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Largely Inactive Senate Ethics Committee Restructures Wed, 18 Jan 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Much Agreement on Need for Bail Reform, But Little Movement http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6658:much-agreement-on-need-for-bail-reform-but-little-movement http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6658:much-agreement-on-need-for-bail-reform-but-little-movement de Blasio rikers ponte officers

On Rikers Island (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


There is an ongoing conversation in New York about how to fix the bail system that many agree is broken, keeping too many poor people in jail after they are arrested for low-level nonviolent offenses but cannot afford to post bond and, at times, allowing individuals back onto the street who are prone to violence but able to pay bail. Efforts at reform have been full of fits and starts.

About a month ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced measures to make it easier for people to pay bail through an online payment system, as opposed to the insistence that bail is paid in person. More recently, City Council Member Rory Lancman introduced legislation that would require a city service provider to furnish judges setting bail with details of a defendant’s financial situation.

These latest incremental local reform ideas and others are aimed at chipping away at the problems with the system, but many advocates, legal experts, and elected officials agree that there is a need for an expanded statewide conversation around the culture of bail and actual statutory reform, chiefly to ensure that those with limited material resources are not punished simply for their economic status.

Reforming the bail system in New York has been something of a priority at both the city and state levels, though tangible progress has been limited.

In January, Governor Andrew Cuomo included the issue in his policy agenda for this year, although there has been little follow-up through legislation. Cuomo proposed requiring judges to assess risk to public safety when making a bail decision -- something de Blasio and others are in agreement with -- and stronger regulations of bail bondsman practices.

In New York City, the de Blasio administration has implemented a number of initiatives this year to make bail payments less complicated and to provide alternatives to bail that keep people from being incarcerated. There have also been concerted efforts both in policing practice and through legislation to reduce arrests for low-level offenses in the first place, and arrests are down significantly while the city has become safer in terms of major crimes.

The population at Rikers Island jails, where about three-quarters of the city’s jail population is housed, hovers around 7,500 daily, down significantly from peak years over recent decades.

In April, the mayor committed nearly $18 million for a citywide expansion of a supervised release program that will allow as many as 3,000 low-level offenders each year to remain out of jail and work while they await trial. The program cuts down on the use of monetary bail, ensuring that people who are of low risk to public safety but cannot afford bail do not languish in prison.

Last month, the mayor announced the creation of a system that allows cash bail to be paid online, by a phone, or through a courthouse kiosk by family members and friends of defendants. The system, due to be launched citywide by the spring, aims at alleviating the difficulty of having to physically visit a corrections facility to pay bail. “Nobody with the ability to pay bail should sit in jail just because the bail process is an inconvenience,” de Blasio said at the announcement.

The City Council has also been inching closer to establishing a public bail fund, which was first announced by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito in her February 2015 State of the City speech. The fund received a license from the state Department of Financial Services in August but cannot begin operations until a pending license application for a bail bond agent is approved. If it becomes operational, the fund will provide bail money for qualifying participants so that they can leave jail between arrest and court appearance.

Bail reform is a key consideration for the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, a body that was set up at the speaker’s behest earlier this year to recommend broad criminal justice reforms, with an eye toward creating a plan for closing the Rikers Island prison complex. The body is being headed by former New York State chief judge Jonathan Lippman, who, when he filled that role, argued vehemently for bail reform.

Lippman believes that bail reform is moving ahead slowly in the city, but he stressed in a phone interview that there needs to be statutory change in law to effect broad change. “The city is doing really good things but they’re nibbling around the edges, not able to get at the heart of it,” he said. “My belief is that we need cooperation from Albany and we need a new bail statute.”

Lippman suggested a two-fold approach to bail: giving judges the authority to assess risk to public safety and the need to “flip the assumption” that someone should be incarcerated instead of being released while waiting for a court date. “Bail doesn’t assure the person coming back and it’s an anachronism,” he said, promising that the commission will directly address the issue when it releases its recommendations sometime in spring 2017.

Last year, when Lippman was serving as chief judge (he was forced to retire due to age restrictions and is now “of counsel” at Latham & Watkins), he announced administrative measures to reform the bail system in the absence of legislative action by the state. His own proposals from 2013 to essentially do away with cash bail have not been taken up by legislators in Albany, where Republicans control the state Senate and are often opposed to what is seen as progressive criminal justice reform.

“I think we got a lot of attention when I proposed the legislation,” Lippman said, rueing that “getting a lot of attention and getting things done are two different things.”

The challenge to changing the bail statute, he said, is the same that creeps up in any issue of criminal justice reform. “Legislators are elected and get into this soft-on-crime/tough-on-crime syndrome,” he said. “I think we need to be smart on crime.”

A major impetus to the conversation around bail reform was the tragic death of Kalief Browder, a young Bronx resident who spent three years on Rikers Island awaiting trial on charges of stealing a backpack. Browder couldn’t pay bail but was eventually released when the case was dismissed. In jail, he faced physical and mental abuse and was placed in solitary confinement for nearly two years. In June 2015, Browder committed suicide.

The case prompted widespread outrage and besides putting a spotlight on the culture of violence at Rikers, it highlighted the problems in the bail system. Advocates use Browder’s experience as a rallying cry in their push for change.

While there’s a lot of agreement that an update of the legal statutes is necessary, there’s a greater need, many say, for reexamining the purpose of the bail mechanism and reeducation in how it is practiced.

“Bail, by definition, discriminates against the poor,” said State Senator Michael Gianaris, deputy Democratic Conference leader, who proposed a bill last year to scrap cash bail. “There’s no rational basis for continuing this process.”

Gianaris, of Queens, believes that reform is being slowed by a misunderstanding of the issue. “Bail was never intended to keep dangerous people off the street,” he said, pointing out that defendants have a constitutional presumption of innocence and cannot be considered dangerous for the purposes of bail if they haven’t been convicted yet.”

Ezra Ritchin, project director of the Bronx Freedom Fund, one of two charitable bail funds already operating in New York City, commends the mayor and the City Council for the steps they’ve taken and says there is an urgency around bail reform at the state level.

“We’re in an important moment right now where there’s a lot of change happening,” he said. “Since Kalief Browder...there has been momentum for reform.”

But Ritchin warned, “There are things that we are missing in all of this.” The root of the issue, he said, is the high volume of arrests in New York City, and the consideration that a defendant is likely to miss their court date. “It’s often labeled as flight-risk,” he said. “That’s a massive misunderstanding of what’s going on. No one is fleeing.”

“It’s a question of the way that we frame risk,” Ritchin said, referring to the chances that a person might flee or even be a risk to public safety, which is a consideration that both Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo have proposed as an addition to the bail statute. “What we don’t talk about,” Ritchin said, “is the risk of a person’s life falling apart from being wrenched into the system.”

Therein lies the biggest issue for Ritchin, the way the bail statute is put into practice. The current statute allows nine different forms of bail, including cash bail, that a judge can impose, some of which are less onerous.

“I think the statute, if used correctly, could result in a very different system than the one we see now,” Ritchin said. This “golden question” of how to change the culture of imposing bail, among prosecutors and judges, is one for which Ritchin said he has no clear answer.

City Council Member Lancman echoed that sentiment. As the chair of the Council’s Committee on Courts and Legal Services, Lancman is at the frontline of this issue. “The major obstacle is the unwillingness of judges and prosecutors to accept other forms of assurances for a defendant...than cash bail or bond, as well as the unwillingness to look at each defendant’s financial circumstances,” Lancman told Gotham Gazette in a phone interview. “The system in every way possible -- from the city side, the judiciary side, the district attorney’s side, and, to a lesser extent, from the defense’s side -- is not focused on eliminating this reality of people being sent to Rikers Island because they’re poor.”

Under the bill Lancman introduced November 29, an arraignment screening organization contracted by the city to provide details about a defendant, including a recommendation on their risk of flight, would also have to include information on a defendant’s ability to pay bail. This is just one of the few ways the city can change how the bail system works, Lancman said, stressing the need for action at multiple levels. “The effort to reform bail requires many stakeholders adopting the new procedures and policies and outlook, which cumulatively would have an effect of greatly reducing the number of people on Rikers Island because they’re poor,” he said. 

The understanding that cash bail is a misguided concept has taken hold in an unprecedented way at the city and state level, according to Insha Rahman, senior planner at the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice. Less than a decade ago, “it wasn’t a part of the rhetoric and conversation around bail as it is now,” Rahman said. 

She insisted that any legislative proposal, such as one that would consider adding public safety as a consideration, should be informed by data obtained through a statewide survey. “The push needs to be to understand the problems with the use of bail statewide to avoid unintended consequences in places where it’s being used effectively as opposed to ineffectively,” she added, pointing out that different counties employ different practices and that the system is far from a monolith even within New York City’s five boroughs.

There is no cash bail in Washington D.C., where defendants are only detained if they are considered a risk to public safety. It’s considered a model by many advocates of bail reform in New York. But, as Rahman argued, adding risk as a consideration in setting bail could create problems if not studied carefully. “Any change to that is basically change in the sorting mechanism of who stays in and who is released,” she said.

Judge Lippman supports the idea of factoring public risk. So do Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio, and they have been criticized for it. The proposal has also held up reform at the state level as different stakeholders struggle to find middle ground. Advocates and legal experts fear that it could deprive defendants of their rights and further institutionalize racism in the judicial system.

Cuomo has not changed his stance since he first included it in his 2016 agenda, according to his office. “The Governor continues to champion comprehensive criminal justice reform, including changes to the state’s antiquated bail system,” said Abbey Fashouer, a spokesperson for the governor, in a statement. “New York is one of only four states in the nation that does not currently take into account public safety risks when making bail and release decisions – and it’s past time to develop a new approach.”

The mayor recently doubled down on his support for the proposal. During a November 7 appearance on NY1’s Inside City Hall, de Blasio spoke of the need for bail reform in the context of the fatal shooting of NYPD Sergeant Paul Tuozzolo in the Bronx just three days prior. Tuozzolo was shot and killed by a man who was out on bail and suffered from mental health problems. It was reminiscent of the October 2015 killing of NYPD Officer Randolph Holder, which the mayor referenced in the interview as well. Holder was killed in East Harlem while pursuing an armed suspect who had earlier been sentenced to a treatment program by a drug court rather than being sent to jail.

“This is a reminder that we need bail reform in the State of New York,” de Blasio told NY1 anchor Errol Louis of Tuozzolo’s murder. “We need to include the question of how dangerous a criminal is in the bail decision because there are times when someone is not – a criminal is not a flight risk, but they are a threat to the community, or they have a profound mental health challenge that needs to be addressed. These issues have to be taken into account and we need a state law that recognizes that bail – judges should have the opportunity to consider the dangerousness of the individual when making a bail decision.”

Peter Goldberg, executive director of the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, said, as others did, that, “The fundamental problem with how bail operates is that it cages presumptively innocent people for their inability to come up with a certain amount of money.” He warns that replacing it with a system that assesses public safety might ignore that presumption as well.

“There’s a risk that  a system that replaces it will exacerbate existing racial and socioeconomic inequalities,” Goldberg said. “And in any system that looks to judge a person’s dangerousness merely based on the accusation of a crime, the data being used to create that system needs to be made available to the public, to be vigorously validated, but the bedrock principle needs to be the presumption of release.”

As 2017 approaches and with it the next budget and legislative agendas for state legislators and the governor, there’s widespread optimism that bail reform will be a priority. Judge Lippman believes the issue has gestated long enough. “That digestive process has already taken place and it’s time to pick it up and run with it,” he said, confident that his commission’s recommendations will be bold and “out of the box” and will not be politically constrained. “Because of the credibility of the commission, because of the depth of the research...no public official is going to be able to fuzz around these issues,” he said. “That releases some of the political pressure.”

Senator Gianaris is bullish on bail reform as well. “We’ve seen enough injustice,” he said, “that the time has come to take a comprehensive look at this and get rid of bail once and for all.”

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

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Much Agreement on Need for Bail Reform, But Little Movement Thu, 08 Dec 2016 05:00:00 +0000
How Jeff Klein Became New York’s New Power Broker http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6552:how-jeff-klein-became-new-york-s-new-power-broker http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6552:how-jeff-klein-became-new-york-s-new-power-broker Klein and co

State Sen. Jeff Klein, center-right & other Bronx electeds (@RepEliotEngle)


In January 2011, State Senator Jeff Klein declared himself leader of a group of four breakaway Democrats who were united in their dissatisfaction with the recent dysfunction of their conference’s leadership. They created the Independent Democratic Conference, or IDC, despite the fact that Klein had been deputy leader of the Senate Democrats and was in control of the New York State Democratic Senate Campaign Committee during the 2010 elections, all through the now legendary strife and controversy that was part of Democrats’ brief control of the Senate.

Since then, Klein has allied IDC with Senate Republicans, thereby winning himself a seat at the budget negotiating table, larger offices and increased staff funding for his members, and a political forcefield that protects him and his allies from criticism hurled by Republicans or Democrats, lest he side decide to ally with the other side.

This year, Klein has increased the IDC’s power with new fundraising and campaign spending tools and an incoming member, Marisol Alcantara, who won a crowded Uptown primary in some part thanks to the financial support of the IDC. When the dust settles after November’s elections, Klein is likely to be in prime bargaining position as mainline Democrats and Senate Republicans seek a ruling coalition deal with the IDC.

Lost in the shuffle of these power dynamics, which can have immense consequence for the people of New York, is the story of how Klein managed to turn a disastrous run at the top of the Senate Democrats’ power structure into a position that has allowed him to play kingmaker every two years and become, after overcoming a serious primary challenger in 2014, virtually untouchable politically.

“Breaking away from this dysfunctional conference gave him a voice,” said Douglas Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College, who added that the move appears to have indefinitely altered power dynamics in state government. “He can use corruption and dysfunction as much as he likes but it doesn’t mask the fact that it was a bald face power move. He can couch it in principle, but it was still about power,” said Muzzio.

In 2009, after winning a majority for the first time in decades, a number of Democrats including Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. and then Sens. Carl Kruger and Pedro Espada agreed only to vote for then Sen. Malcolm Smith as leader in exchange for certain perks and leadership positions. Only a few months after the year’s legislative session started, the fragile agreement was destroyed as Espada and then Sen. Hiram Monserrate bolted to join Senate Republicans, launching a hostile coup on the Senate floor.

The Senate was paralyzed for months until Espada and Monserrate were lured back to the Democratic fold. After the incident, then Sen. John Sampson took over as Senate leader. (Most of the players involved - Krueger, Espada, Smith, Monserrate, and Sampson - are no longer in the Senate, having been removed from office on corruption charges unrelated to the Senate coup.)

Republicans won back the majority through the 2010 elections. In 2012 their fortunes took a turn with Democrats picking up seats, but Klein struck a deal alternating the title of temporary President of the Senate with Skelos. In 2014, Senate Republicans won a number of seats and Klein again pledged to work with them. He did so after undercutting his Democratic primary opponent by pledging to work with Democrats if they picked up enough seats to form a governing coalition.

To many, Klein looked like a voice of reason when he created and fortified the IDC. “Who would want to go back to chaotic Democratic control?” asked his supporters. This is a line of reasoning Klein and his allies have used repeatedly as they have continued to ally themselves with Republicans. This year Klein is set to determine who controls the Senate again.

“Jeff was so above it all,” laughed one Democratic Senator. “No, Jeff was one of the guys calling the shots at the time. In fact he was the guy in charge of calling all the shots for the DSCC.”

Candice GIove, spokesperson for Klein and the IDC, declined to make Klein available for an interview. She also refused to take questions from Gotham Gazette about the history of the IDC.

Klein, from the Bronx, was first elected to the Senate in 2005 after serving nearly nine years in the Assembly. He maintains the IDC’s power thanks to years of legislative redistricting that has helped Senate Republicans draw lines that favor their incumbents. The 2010 redistricting process saw the creation of a 63rd Senate seat that benefited Republicans and further concentrated Democratic voters in urban districts.

The Senate is now nearly split down the middle in terms of party control. Republicans currently hold 31 seats - one shy of an outright majority - and Sen. Simcha Felder, a Democrat from Brooklyn, conferences with them. Republicans also have a deal with the IDC, which currently holds five seats. Alcantara is expected to join them in the fall, making six in the IDC and taking one seat away from mainline Democrats, who currently have 26 members (there is one vacant seat, likely to be filled by a Democrat). Democrats are expected to pick up seats this year, as they have in every modern presidential election year - though the questions are if they do and how many.

The Assembly is made up of a Democratic super-majority. The Governorship has been controlled by Democrats since former Gov. Eliot Spitzer won in a landslide in 2006, replacing Republican Gov. George Pataki, who had served three terms. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has sought to strike a balance between progressive social policy and conservative fiscal ideas. Many believe Cuomo has blessed the IDC’s alliance with Senate Republicans.

After the 2008 elections Klein became a major figure in the Senate Democratic Conference, serving as deputy majority leader and head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. Klein not only had say in policy-making, but was responsible for deciding which candidates and races to back with Democratic cash.

Klein certainly wasn’t above jockeying for power and influence during the 2009 coup. He met with various Democrats and Republicans in an attempt to create an alternate governing structure in the Senate; one that would do away with the need for Espada and put Klein at the helm. Those negotiations failed. Klein floated the idea of a new bipartisan governing coalition in a press release at the time and has previously discussed those attempts with members of the media.

In 2010 Klein faced an uphill battle in maintaining his power and influence with the Democratic Conference - his ties with many members were frayed. Things were so bad during the coup that at more than one point conference meetings nearly broke into physical altercations. On top of the distrust and dislike Klein faced from fellow Democrats, as head of the DSCC, he was also entrusted with building the Democratic majority.

Many Democrats and political observers believe Klein used his position as head of the DSCC to try to marshal enough supporters to make himself Democratic Leader. The DSCC spent heavily on a number of races in 2010, far more than many Democrats thought was reasonable. Money poured into districts held by entrenched Republican incumbents many believed unwinnable for Democrats. In perhaps the most extreme example, the DSCC spent over $500,000 supporting Sue Savage’s unsuccessful attempt to unseat Sen. Hugh Farley.

Spending was also increased in districts where the DSCC was playing defense, futilely trying to protect vulnerable suburban Democrats from Republican challengers. They lost seats on Long Island held by more moderate Klein-minded Democrats and one belonging to former Sen. Darrel Aubertine in the North Country. The DSCC spent over $1 million on the Aubertine race.

Democrats lost control of the Senate and the DSCC was left nearly $3 million in debt. It took them until 2014 to pay it off.

“Jeff left us at the bottom of a pit of debt,” another Democratic Senator told Gotham Gazette, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “He was spending like crazy on races we had no chance of winning. All those expenditures were approved by Jeff.”

After Klein left the conference, Democrats put the erratic spending on his shoulders. However, it appears to many that Sampson was also able to authorize expenditures. Klein told The TImes Union in January 2011 that the Democratic caucus was distracting from the issues by focusing on who was to blame for the DSCC spending. “This is exactly why I formed an independent caucus," he said. "They continue to talk trash about me as an attempt to distract from the real issues."

Eventually, more than a dozen Democrats signed promissory notes, personally agreeing to make good on portions of the debt wracked up by the DSCC, in order to secure $2 million in loans to restore the organization’s solvency. Klein wasn’t one of them.

While 2010 was a generally terrible year for Klein and Senate Democrats, it had some silver linings. Espada was defeated in a primary by Sen. Gustavo Rivera, who ran on a reform platform (and did not have the support of the DSCC). Sen. Eric Schneiderman, now attorney general, successfully led a movement to oust Monserrate from the chamber after Monserrate was convicted of a misdemeanor for dragging his girlfriend down a hallway. Her face had been slashed in an earlier altercation.

Democrats had slowly begun to deal with their corruption and dysfunction problems, even as Sampson, who would later be be convicted on corruption charges, led the conference.

On December 20, 2010, Sampson appointed newly-elected Queens Sen. Mike Gianaris as head of the DSCC. Klein had lost his source of power in the conference to a younger rival.

Less than a month later Klein announced the creation of the IDC.

It began as Klein, Sens. Diane Savino, David Carlucci, and David Valesky.

In December 2012, the group celebrated the addition of a new member. In some ways Klein was putting the band back together when he invited Malcolm Smith to join the IDC. Smith was the first member of color for the conference. Then Queens Assemblymember Tony Avella told The Queens Chronicle at the time that the move was a “power grab” and “unfortunate because it defeats the will of the people who voted in favor of having the Democrats control the Senate.”

Avella joined the IDC in February 2014 - but not before Smith was charged with bribery and corruption for using state funds to buy his way onto the Republican ballot line in an attempt to run for Mayor of New York City. The IDC booted Smith after the charges became public in April 2013.

In the Summer of 2014 Klein and Avella faced tough primaries backed by left-leaning and abor advocates and, at least initially, by Senate Democrats. Behind the scenes Mayor Bill de Blasio negotiated with Klein on conditions of a deal where Klein would co-lead the Democrats, assuming the party won enough seats to make the deal plausible. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Klein announced that the IDC would create such a governing coalition.

“We are not rejoining the Democratic Conference because clearly the IDC will live on and the IDC will remain intact, but what we are saying is the IDC is going into the next legislative session six months from now ready to fight for the core Democratic policies that are left undone,” Klein told the Daily News on June 24, 2014.

Democrats and advocates pulled back their support for the challengers to Klein and Avella - former City Council Member Oliver Koppell and former City Comptroller John Liu, respectively. The coast was clear for the IDC.

In November, Republicans gained the backing of newly elected Sen. Felder, a nominal Democrat, while picking up Republican seats, and the IDC-Democratic alliance became a moot point.

There were major issues at play. For example, over the past few years Democrats unsuccessfully tried to pass through the Senate the entire 10-point Women’s Equality Agenda and a version of the DREAM Act. They blamed Klein for empowering Republicans who oppose codifying abortion rights and who have campaigned for years against the DREAM Act. Klein and his allies repeatedly pointed to members of the Democratic Conference who are not pro-choice and who don’t support the DREAM Act.

It is during issue fights like these when advocates have complained that the IDC is subverting the will of hundreds of thousands of Democratic voters from across New York City by empowering Republicans and stifling the influence of nearly 30 elected Democrats for the empowerment of five members, all of whom are white. Short of the impending addition of Alcantara, who is Hispanic and will represent Washington Heights and other Uptown neighborhoods, all IDC members have been from more suburban areas of the city or its outskirts.

“The IDC going with the Republicans counters the demography of the state, it nullifies the power of the Democrats in the Assembly, but Albany remains dysfunctional,” said Muzzio, summarizing results of the IDC and its power-sharing agreements.

In May 2015, then Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos, the man Klein repeatedly cut deals with to form a governing coalition, was indicted on multiple corruption counts. The trial that followed contained a series of wiretapped phone conversations between Skelos and his son, the contents of which were enough to make even the hardened denizens of the Capitol blush.

“I heard you left a handprint on somebody’s ass,” Adam Skelos said to his father over the phone on December 22, 2014, the same day the elder Skelos informed Klein that he wanted to continue their working relationship. Dean Skelos paused, seeming to process the comment. After realizing his son was talking about Klein and that Republicans had more leverage over him, the elder Skelos told his son that Klein would retain the title of co-leader despite Republican victories in 2014 that made the alliance technically unnecessary, and pointed to how useful the IDC could prove to be in 2016. The younger Skelos scoffed at the idea, but Dean assured him: “I’m going to control everything,” he said. “He’s going to get very little. Believe me. Very little. Everybody’s going to know.”

The elder Skelos then went on to explain how he would use Klein to “Keep them separate and fighting and hating each other. That’s what’s worked for the last six years.”

Despite the turmoil in both houses following the 2016 convictions of Skelos and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, on multiple corruption charges, it would prove to be the most important year in the IDC’s brief history.

The IDC continued to push Cuomo and Senate Republicans on paid family leave through 2015 and into 2016. This year, Cuomo picked up the issue despite having previously dismissed it while also suddenly championing a $15 minimum wage. By the end of session the IDC was able to claim they were instrumental in passing major progressive legislation. This summer, Klein paired with the Independence Party to create a campaign committee that allowed the IDC to pour nearly $100,000 into the Democratic primary to replace Sen. Adriano Espaillat.

That investment paid off as the IDC’s candidate, Alcantara, won a narrow victory over former City Council Member Robert Jackson and Micah Lasher, former chief of staff to Attorney General Schneiderman.

Alcantara told Politico New York that her main focus will be passing the DREAM Act. She’s also indicated that she didn’t review the politics involved in the creation of the IDC before she said she would join it. The IDC has faced significant blame for effectively blocking the DREAM Act by allying with Republicans. The bill was brought to a vote in the Senate in 2014 -- it failed by two votes. At the time, Klein had say over which bills came to the floor and many saw the move as a way to neutralize the issue for the year.

Meanwhile, many Senate Republicans have used the DREAM Act as a lightning rod against Democrats in their districts. It is unlikely the DREAM Act has a real chance of becoming law if Klein chooses to empower the Republican Conference next session. Alcantara, a former union organizer, has promised that she will continue to be progressive as a legislator.

Many insiders wonder how Klein can possibly work with Senate Democrats come 2017. Over the last six years, by most accounts, Senate Democrats have cleaned up their act. Members like Kruger, Sampson, Espada, Monserrate, and Smith have all left the chamber one way or another. Sen. Gianaris, who still runs the SDCC, has been talking a lot lately about negotiating with Klein in anticipation of Democratic successes in November. The mainline Democrats also posed no primary challenger to Klein or any IDC member.

Klein has toned down talk about Democrats being dysfunctional this past year, but he’s given no strong indication he favors a reunion with them.

In a July interview with Gotham Gazette, Klein gave an indication of his allegiances, speaking highly of Republican Senate President John Flanagan. “I worked extremely well this year with Senator John Flanagan and yes, this session we were able to work well with [Democratic Minority Leader] Andrea Stewart-Cousins - it is a much better relationship,” Klein said, “but I think the Republican Conference has been even better and a lot of credit has to go to the relationship with Senator Flanagan, again.”

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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How Jeff Klein Became New York’s New Power Broker Tue, 27 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Trump Could Tip Key Races for State Senate Control http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6482:trump-could-tip-key-races-for-state-senate-control http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6482:trump-could-tip-key-races-for-state-senate-control Trump NY GOP

photo: @NewYorkGOP


New York State Senate Democrats have picked up seats in every presidential year in the past two decades. They’ve been chomping at the bit for Hillary Clinton, a former New York Senator, to head the presidential ticket, telling anyone who would listen that she would bolster turnout for them and win them swing districts, thereby securing them control of the chamber, perhaps for good.

What the Senate minority didn’t count on was the Republican presidential candidate being toxic to black and Hispanic voters and alienating a significant portion of his own base, giving even greater hope to Democrats for a takeover of the only lasting Republican stronghold in New York State government.

According to recent polls, that is exactly the situation Senate Democrats are in, and their optimism is running high. With less than three months until Election Day a Siena University poll released Monday found that in a two-way race, New York voters prefer Clinton to Donald Trump 57-27 percent.

Worse for Senate Republicans who hope to hold off Democrats in key races on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley is that Trump trails Clinton in both the suburbs and upstate by 11 and 8 points, respectively. “The top of the ticket has always had a major impact for us,” Democratic State Senator Mike Gianaris of Queens told Gotham Gazette, referring to the fact that more Democrats vote in presidential years than non-presidential years. “I think the top of the ticket is going to be a real problem for Senate Republicans.”

Scott Reif, spokesperson for Senate Republicans, sent Gotham Gazette the following statement: "Rather than hope and change, the entire campaign strategy of the Senate Democrats this year seems to be hope and hope. They hope that the Republican presidential candidate is a drag on the bottom of the ticket. They hope that Hillary Clinton has long enough coattails to sweep them into office. The Senate Democrats don't stand for anything and they have no vision for where they want to lead this state. We're going to grow our majority because we have delivered for hard working New Yorkers, starting with a $4.2 billion income tax cut that will slash middle-class taxes by 20 percent and a record level of support for education, including complete elimination of the GEA."

Mike Murphy, spokesperson for Senate Democrats, responded: “The GOP are getting desperate. This year will be a historic year for Democrats. The people are sick and tired of the Republican Conference that has blocked women's health choices, stood up for special interests and elected corrupt leader after corrupt leader.”

There are currently 32 Democrats and 31 Republicans in the chamber but Republicans maintain control with the help of Brooklyn Democrat Simcha Felder, who caucuses with Republicans, and the five-member Independent Democratic Conference, which has a governing coalition agreement with Republicans. The IDC appears to be in the process of strengthening its position and attempting to expand its membership in anticipation of Democratic victories. Meanwhile, leading Senate Democrats met with Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this month to discuss efforts to win the chamber, as first reported by Politico New York.

Cuomo has historically allied himself with Senate Republicans, at times promising support to Senate Democrats that never appeared. Some insiders insist the meeting shows that Cuomo sees the writing on the wall and that he will look to keep his influence in the chamber by utilizing the IDC. Several Senate Democrats said that Cuomo has shown more interest in supporting Democrats this year than he has since he was elected in 2010. Still, Senate Democrats say as much as they would like his support, they aren’t counting on it.

According to Democrats, political experts, and polls, Trump is driving away parts of the Republican base. The GOP nominee’s rhetoric appears to be energizing pockets of new voters who want to see him defeated. Eighty-five percent of black voters surveyed said they would vote for Clinton if the contest was “held today,” with only 8 percent saying they would vote for Trump. Seventy-six percent of Latinos surveyed said they would vote for Clinton if the race was “held today,” while 10 percent said they would vote for Trump.

African-Americans and Hispanics are two voting blocs that will have major impact in races on Long Island. Senate Democrats have policies that appeal to many voters of color, including criminal justice reform measures and the DREAM Act, which provides financial aid to children of undocumented immigrants. Senate Republicans have blocked these reforms in Albany.

Republicans charge that Democrats have been bad for the economy, namely for small businesses and job creation, and point to an MTA tax put in place while the Democrats controlled the Senate from 2009 to 2010.

Senate Democrats have recent precedent on their side as their candidate, now Senator Todd Kaminsky, won the highly contested special election for the 9th Senate District in April to replace former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Skelos was forced from office after being convicted on multiple federal corruption charges.

“We had a test run where people thought Trump would be a draw and what we found is more Democrats turned out,” said Sen. Gianaris, who runs the Senate Democrats’ campaign efforts and noted the special election took place when Trump was riding high on primary victories and had yet to begin to self destruct.

Doug Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College, noted that Trump’s impact on down ballot races is hard to gauge at this point given his nontraditional candidacy. “The question is, ‘Can he motivate people to go to the polls who haven't voted before, who have not been polled?’ And then you have to factor in that the more people know about Trump, the less likely they are to vote for him”

However, Muzzio said that it is impossible for Republicans to ignore the results of the special election. “Kaminsky was still a test case and the results mean they are in trouble,” Muzzio told Gotham Gazette.

Evan Thies, founder of Brooklyn Strategies, a political consultancy used by Kaminsky, said that the trend he is fascinated by in current polls is the declining support of registered Republicans for their own party. “The biggest problem Trump created is not for himself but for the Republican Party. The favorability for the party itself has plummeted,” Thies told Gotham Gazette.

Thies said that since Trump won the nomination polls have shown more Republicans dissatisfied and disconnected from their party while Democrats’ favor for their own party has grown.

“If the election was held tomorrow, Trump could depress Republican turnout,” said Thies. “You could begin to see a concerted effort for down ballot Republicans to disassociate themselves with Trump and create a local brand.”

The Siena poll shows that in a head-to-head matchup 81 percent of Democrats surveyed said they would vote for Clinton, while only 55 percent of Republicans say they will vote for Trump. Meanwhile only 24 percent of voters surveyed saw Trump favorably with 72 percent saying they saw him unfavorably. Meanwhile, 52 percent of Republicans surveyed favored Trump with 46 percent saying they saw him unfavorably.

Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan gave a full-throated endorsement of Trump at the Republican National Convention in July. According to State of Politics he told the New York delegation: "I’m going to make this unequivocally clear: I’m supporting Donald Trump for President. I’m going to do so with grace, with diplomacy, with passion and with fervor, and I’m going to do it with New York style.”

KEY RACES
Like Flanagan and Kaminsky, Senator Jack Martins represents part of Long Island. Martins decided, however, to forgo attempting reelection to run for an open Congressional seat. He has not endorsed Trump, something many Democrats see as a significant indication of Republicans’ fear of Trump’s impact on important Long Island races. The race to replace Martins in the 7th Senate District is one of the top races in the battle for Senate control.

Martins discussed his decision on Effective Radio with Bill Samuels on Sunday, saying, “Thankfully, I’ve always run as an individual. I’ve had the opportunity through elective office to take stances on different things and people know who I am, so I’ve been able to use that and show through experience that I listen, I work across the aisle, I get things done,” Martins said.

Seeking to replace Martins are Democrat Adam Haber, a businessman, and Republican Elaine Phillips, who is the mayor of Flower Hill. Haber, who unsuccessfully challenged Martins in 2014, is leading in fundraising. Democrats have a 20,000 voter enrollment advantage in the district and held the seat from 2007 to 2010. As in other swing districts, turnout will be key, and that is where Clinton and Trump may factor in decisively.

Sen. Kaminsky will again face Republican opponent Chris McGrath. Running as an Assembly member, Kaminsky won the special election by about 1,000 votes. Democrats think Kaminsky will perform even better as the incumbent and with Republican turnout suppressed by Trump’s performance. Republicans hope independents, who couldn’t vote in the Republican presidential primary, may now vote for McGrath when they come out to vote in November. But the recent Siena poll shows independent New York voters favor Clinton by about 10 percentage points, though it is not clear how Long Island independents feel.

Longtime Republican incumbent Senator Kemp Hannon of Garden City, the 6th Senate District, is battle tested, having dispatched a number of strong Democratic challenges. But this year he again faces Democrat Ryan Cronin, who he narrowly defeated in 2012. Hannon’s district has seen steady growth in Democratic registration and he could be in danger if Trump depresses Republican turnout.

Republican Senator Bill Larkin of the Hudson Valley’s 39th Senate District also faces a rematch against his 2012 challenger, Chris Eachus, who he defeated by five points. Many observers wondered whether the 88-year-old Larkin would run for reelection as he has kept an extremely low profile in the district. Democratic registration has also grown in this district with registered Democrats now outnumbering Republicans 62,824 to 50,130 amongst active voters.

Thies said that one key trend to watch in Long Island races is whether Trump’s position moves the needle on black and Latino turnout. “African-American and Latino voter numbers should give Democrats a big advantage in key races on Long Island,” said Thies, “but in previous years turnout didn't match registration. Trump has now poked a very big bear. If we see even a marginal uptick amongst African-American and Latino voters Republicans could face a major challenge.”

Democrats are hoping to unseat Republican Senator George Amedore, of the 46th Senate District, who soundly defeated Democratic incumbent Cecilia Tkaczyk in 2014. But in this case, as in many others, Democrats are hopeful that their candidate’s performance in past presidential election years is a sign of things to come. Amedore’s district was tailor-made for him in the 2010 redistricting process, but Tkaczyk narrowly won it in 2012, when President Obama was re-elected. The district continues to grow more Democratic and the challenger, Sara Niccoli, has out fundraised him. Democrats outnumber active Republican voters in the district 61,976 to 51,850.

Some Democratic operatives expect that Trump’s cratering poll numbers and controversial positions could put dark horse races in play - races that Senate Democrats haven’t invested in as of yet.

One of those races is for Senator Kathy Marchione’s 43rd district seat, where Republicans lead Democrats 62,268 to 53,650 in voter registration. The district is home to about 15,000 registered voters unaffiliated with a party, known as independents. It may now be in play thanks to Marchione’s botched reaction to water poisoning in the small town of Hoosick Falls.

Marchione, a Republican, flip-flopped on whether it was necessary to hold legislative oversight hearings on the state response to the Hoosick Falls crisis, and at one point introduced an amendment to her own bill designed to help residents sue companies for water poisoning that would have basically killed any chance of it passing both houses. Marchione then reversed herself after major backlash from residents and environmentalists. The Senate is now scheduled to hold hearings into Hoosick Falls at the end of August.

Marchione’s Democratic opponent, Shaun Francis, said he isn’t concerned about how his race plays into the larger political picture, whether it be Senate control or the presidential race. “Having poisoned water isn’t a Democratic or Republican issue,” Francis said in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “The incumbent’s actions in session really opened a lot of eyes in the district of people who were concerned for their health. Regardless of whether they were Republican or Democrat people in the district saw that she is incapable of doing her job.” Marchione’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Republican Senator Hugh Farley, 83 years old, has represented the 49th district that is comprised of Schenectady, Fulton, Herkimer and Saratoga Counties since 1977 and will not seek reelection. Pundits see his hand-picked successor, Assemblymember Jim Tedisco, as a sinch for the seat, but Tedisco lost a 2009 Congressional bid to Democrat Scott Murphy despite running in a district with Republican registration advantage and having significantly better name recognition. Republicans currently hold a 67,924 to 53,012 active voter registration advantage in the district. Democratic challenger Chad Putman holds little name recognition in the district but depressed Republican turnout could make the race closer than expected.

Muzzio said he expects to see some Senate Republicans “disavow Trump” in the coming weeks if his current trajectory continues, but in Upstate districts Muzzio said he isn’t sure Trump will actually be a hinderance. “I expect in some Upstate districts we will see turnout for Trump higher than for Democrats,” said Muzzio. He also warned that the presidential race has already been so volatile that he wouldn’t be surprised to see the dynamics shifted by an outside force, like more damaging documents leaked about Clinton, or revelations from investigations into her use of the Clinton Foundation or of her home-made email system.

Thies said that despite the good news Democrats see in Trump’s recent poll numbers they are aware that there is more at play and more to do in the battle for Senate control. “Their position is looking good, but they still have to get their message out to voters,” he said of Democrats. “You will not see anyone taking their foot off the gas pedal because the stakes are too high and you could very well see down ballot Republicans utilizing an effective vote-local message.”

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Trump Could Tip Key Races for State Senate Control Tue, 16 Aug 2016 04:00:00 +0000