Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/508 Tue, 13 Nov 2018 18:54:06 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Assembly Race Poses Another Test for Queens Machine http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7805-assembly-race-poses-another-test-for-queens-machine http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7805-assembly-race-poses-another-test-for-queens-machine catalina cruz parade Queens

Catalina Cruz (photo: @CatalinaCruzNY)


Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Democratic primary victory over Rep. Joe Crowley last month in New York’s 14th congressional district sent shockwaves throughout the country and signalled a monumental shift in Queens politics, where the Crowley-led county party has held significant sway in local elections for many years. The effects of Ocasio-Cortez’s win and Crowley’s loss, both nationally and locally, are still developing, but reverberations are certainly being felt in the already-competitive Democratic primary for New York Assembly District 39, where a county-backed incumbent is facing an independent challenger.

The district -- part of the 150-seat lower house of the state Legislature, all of which are on the ballot this fall, first in September 13 primaries -- covers the immigrant-heavy neighborhoods of Corona, Elmhurst, and Jackson Heights, and large parts of those fall within Crowley’s congressional district. It is currently represented by Assembly Member Ari Espinal, who was elected in a low-turnout special election barely three months ago, with fewer than 800 votes. Espinal was previously an aide to Francisco Moya, who held the Assembly seat before being elected to the New York City Council last year.

Espinal’s challenger in the primary is Catalina Cruz, an attorney with government experience who most recently served as chief of staff to former City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland.

Espinal, whose cousin is Brooklyn City Council Member Rafael Epsinal, ran unopposed for the Assembly seat, having been endorsed by the Queens Democratic Party, which is chaired by Crowley and has played an influential role in not just Queens, but city and state elections for decades, as well as the selection of the powerful City Council speaker and a variety of other appointed positions. For a special election to the state Legislature, there are no party primaries, instead the party county committee selects its candidate for what is a singular public vote. In a heavily Democratic district like most in New York City, the party’s nominee is virtually  assured victory in a special election, and therefore gains at least some of the benefits of incumbency ahead of any subsequent intra-party challenges.

But the power of the Queens County Democrats’ endorsement is under question following Crowley’s landslide defeat to Ocasio-Cortez as he finishes his tenth term in the House. Queens Democratic insiders say Cruz is in important ways a stronger candidate than Espinal and that the Queens county machine -- a descriptor some take issue with -- is playing a minimal role in the race and has a far less threatening presence in the immediate aftermath of last month’s election. Some also point to the fact that the Queens county party has been defeated in a number of elections over the years by strong insurgent candidates, such as the victories of current City Council Members Daniel Dromm and Jimmy Van Bramer, as well as Ferreras-Copeland’s first win. Moya, meanwhile, helped orchestrate Espinal’s ascension and is actively campaigning on her behalf in an area where he has won several recent elections.

For her part, Espinal is confident about the race. “I welcome any challenge,” she said in a phone interview. “I’m from Corona, Queens. I was raised in this neighborhood. I welcome any challenge and it’s exciting. I feel like it’s the Democratic process, too. Why wouldn’t you want a challenge? You would want your voters to get engaged. This is how they get engaged more when they have to pick, to choose and say, ‘Who’s going to represent me the way I want to be represented?’”

Having been in office just under three months, Espinal has been prime sponsor on one bill that was passed by both legislative chambers, to extend a labor law relating to unemployment insurance proceedings, and another, called Carlos’ Law, which enacts punishments for developers that put workers at risk of injury or death, which passed only the Assembly. Espinal has also allocated hundreds of thousands of dollars to her community, she said. She signed on to the Dream Act, which aims to provide state financial aid to undocumented immigrants seeking higher education. She’s received support for her reelection bid from Moya, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, Bronx Rep. Jose Serrano, and the Working Families Party.

Espinal is relying on her experience as a longtime community organizer and former Democratic district leader, promising voters that she will bring resources back to her community. She has pledged to fight for immigrant protections, affordable housing, school funding, small businesses, and workers rights, and other locally-important issues. And she pushed back against the notion that she is the establishment candidate in the race. “Quite so often you have politicians who are not from the area and just want to run for office because they just want the power. I’m not looking for the power,” she said. “What I’m looking for is to actually engage my community and tell them, ‘I’m here. I’m here for you because I’ve lived here and I know the issues...because I’m your neighbor.’”

Cruz, Espinal’s opponent, strikes a similar chord with her campaign pitch. “My entire life is a spectrum of the people of Jackson Heights, Corona and Elmhurst,” she said in a phone interview. But one thing that sets her far apart from Espinal is that Cruz herself is a “Dreamer,” a child of undocumented immigrants who came to New York at the age of nine and who only recently gained permanent resident status in 2009. “I went from being an undocumented child who picked cans in the street with her mom to survive, to being a Dreamer who was going to undergrad and paying for school for herself to a working poor lawyer...to being a middle-class New Yorker, which is basically the spectrum of the people who are here in our community,” she said.

After graduating law school and working as a housing attorney, Cruz joined the Attorney General’s office, then headed by Andrew Cuomo, before he was elected governor. Cruz served afterwards in the Department of Labor as counsel in the division of immigrant affairs. She worked with former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito -- who has endorsed her -- to write the legislation that kicked ICE agents off Rikers Island. She also returned to working for Cuomo, heading up his Exploited Workers Task Force, after which she joined Council Member Ferreras-Copeland’s staff. Her former boss has endorsed her, as have Council Members Dromm and Van Bramer, Helen Rosenthal, and Margaret Chin.

“We’re a people-driven campaign,” Cruz said of her approach to the race. “We start with people and we end with people. We start with the idea that all of our policies should be informed by people.” Though her policy platform largely resembles Espinal’s, Cruz says she sets herself apart by virtue of her independence, experience, her focus on the residents of the district who cannot vote, and her pledge to refuse corporate and luxury developer money (the latter a promise like one made by Ocasio-Cortez, who attacked Crowley for the large corporate donations he received).

“We are running a campaign that’s very much driven by people that live in the district and we’re independent from any ties to a political organization,” Cruz said.

Those ties or the lack thereof may not be determinative in the Assembly race that does again put the power of the Queens County Democrats in the spotlight, observers who spoke with Gotham Gazette said. One former Assembly candidate from Queens said the path to victory lies in a robust ground game and organization. “You knock on enough doors, you meet enough people, and you raise enough money, and the barriers to entry are very low,” the former candidate said. “How many people are gonna vote in an Assembly race? A few thousand? How much money do you need to raise for an assembly race? $100,000? How many doors are you gonna knock on?...You put your walking shoes on and you can do it. So I think party power is very limited and Ari and Catalina will win or lose on the strengths of their own organic, local operation.”

Democratic insiders pointed out that the Queens Democratic Party’s endorsement comes with political validation but not necessarily the resources to bolster a campaign, such as funding or boots on the ground. It’s why they disputed the characterization of the county party as a machine that can determine the course of campaigns. The party does, however, pressure potential contenders against considering a challenge to an incumbent and often brings with its endorsement a slew of loyal elected officials who coalesce around the county’s candidate and use their own resources and networks to boost them. The party also has connections at the Board of Elections and often attempts to knock challengers off the ballot and at times activates a network of district leaders and county committee members to help with ballot petition signature-gathering, door-knocking, and flyering.

“It seems like [Cruz] has real momentum and...everyone’s going to attest the strength of her campaign to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez but I think the reality of it is the dynamics of that race were shaped well before the congressional race,” said a Queens Democratic operative who asked to remain anonymous to discuss things freely.

“I think people have an impression of the Queens county organization as a faulty machine,” the operative said, insisting that a loss by a county-backed candidate did not mean the so-called machine is faltering. “I think the reality is that’s not what the organization is...In my experience, they support somebody and their support will provide the significant assistance of validation from other elected officials. That’s very helpful...but it was never designed to overcome bad campaigns or great opposing candidates.”

If the incumbent candidate backed by the Queens Democrats loses to an independent challenger, the optics are far from ideal coming so close on the heels of Crowley’s loss. But the county has invested little in the race, said another Democratic insider from Queens who knows both Espinal and Cruz and who decried the term “machine” as a “loaded expression” for a county party that simply tries to elect its own members to office.

But the Queens county organization is undoubtedly powerful. The “machine” moniker stems from the fact that the party holds sway over more than just candidate endorsements -- its backing often also means a candidate will not receive a primary challenger. The county organization selects judicial nominees, and allies of Crowley have made hefty profits from being appointed as guardians in Surrogate’s Court. The party’s executive secretary is Michael Reich, whose partner Gerard Sweeney in the law firm Sweeney, Reich and Bolz, has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of Surrogate’s Court business. The county also selects one of the ten commissioners on the New York City Board of Elections, who decide which candidates qualify to appear on the ballot.

The City Council speaker’s race has more often than not also been decided by the influence of the Queens and Bronx county parties; Council central staffers are frequently picked from the county’s ranks; and Council committee chairs are influenced by county allegiances. And though Crowley may no longer represent the House next year, City & State reported that he’s expected to be reelected county chair by district leaders for another two-year term in September. The county organization did not return a request for comment for this article about its support for Espinal.

“I don’t think it would be a fair characterization to say this is a test of the county organization because I’m not sure they have all hands on deck for this one,” the insider said. The insider insisted that neither candidate needs the county party’s help to win the race, which would be won on the merits of their candidacies, and that Crowley’s fall is more likely to have an effect on the state Senate District 13 race, where Jessica Ramos is challenging Senator Jose Peralta, formerly of the rogue Independent Democratic Conference, which empowered Republicans. “I don’t think the Catalina-Ari race is affected by the Crowley result as much,” the insider said. “I just don’t get the sense that that changed everything...They weren’t dependent on Crowley for the win. Peralta was kinda depending on the county guys propping him up, keeping him strong and I feel like that has turned and now Ramos, if I had to bet, will win that race.”

Cruz herself drew a parallel with Ocasio-Cortez’s win, noting that voters turned out in higher numbers for the progressive challenger than Crowley in his own backyard, which encompasses large parts of the Assembly district, to vote out the incumbent. “[Ocasio-Cortez] believed in the everyday person and the everyday person believed in her so much that they went out and overwhelmingly voted for her,” she said. “And that’s where we find ourselves, in the exact same situation.”

But even she denied that she was poking the bear through her candidacy. “I wouldn’t call it testing their power because I never said I’m running against the machine,” Cruz said. “I’ve always said I’m running for the people. We have an organization that was just shown what people powered campaigns can do and we’re about to show them a second time.”

If anything, the race may show that the Queens party’s once-coveted support has turned sour, seen by some as a signal of establishment politics that has been too out of touch with regular voters. “I think it definitely suffered,” said the Democratic insider of the county party’s endorsement. “It’s very raw and very recent, the whole Joe thing...I don’t know if this is a permanent problem or just a temporary one. But the timing right now is bad for those people.”

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by Samar Khurshid, Senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Assembly Race Poses Another Test for Queens Machine Mon, 16 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Passed by Senate, Bill Would Allow Public to Call State Agency Hearings http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7750-passed-by-senate-bill-would-allow-public-to-call-state-agency-hearings http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7750-passed-by-senate-bill-would-allow-public-to-call-state-agency-hearings sengianaris press

Senator Gianaris (photo: @sengianaris)


New Yorkers may soon have a new tool to influence their government. A bill in the state Legislature would allow members of the public, given enough support, to compel state agencies to hold public hearings on proposed rules.

The bill (S2397), sponsored in the state Senate by Senator Michael Gianaris of Queens, would establish a three-year pilot program ordering seven regulatory agencies — the Workers' Compensation Board and the Departments of Education, Environmental Conservation, Health, Financial Services, Labor, and Family Assistance — to hold public hearings if at least 125 New Yorkers petition them to do so.

Senator Gianaris told Gotham Gazette that these agencies were selected for being those that “the public would benefit the most from opening up.” The agencies listed craft rules that directly impact ordinary New Yorkers.

The legislation, which passed the Senate unanimously on June 11 and now awaits action in the Assembly, where it has been stuck in committee since early February, also authorizes agencies to use “innovative means” of enhancing public participation in the rulemaking process, including establishing a designated time for public questioning of agency officials, organizing roundtable discussions, and using teleconference technology.

New York could join several other states that require public rulemaking hearings upon petition. California, Arizona, Idaho, New Hampshire, Illinois, and Utah all have similar rules, though none require as many petitioners as New York might. In California, for instance, state agencies are required to host public hearings upon “request of any interested person.”

Similar legislation passed both houses of the State Legislature in 2008, but then-Governor David Paterson, citing “technical flaws,” vetoed the bill. In response to this previous legislative failure, this bill included the Workers’ Compensation Board within its ambit and established a timeliness clause. If a petition is received later than the twentieth day before the last date for public comment, the public hearing becomes optional.

Senator Gianaris told Gotham Gazette that “agencies come out with regulations that have the force of law and [New Yorkers] don’t know anything about it or how the process happened.”

He expressed hope that the legislation would “force agencies to opine on issues that they’d like to ignore and sweep under the rug.” When asked to specify such issues, he named transportation and healthcare, but added that there’s “no limit to the type of thing that people can now have open up to public discussion.”

Anticipating that “one of the main things that will come out of this [legislation] is related to housing issues,” Gianaris called the state’s Housing and Community Renewal agency “completely inaccessible.”

The Senate bill and its companion in the state Assembly, A9737, appear to be identical. The Assembly bill, however, has not progressed beyond its February 5 introduction and referral to the Assembly’s Standing Committee on Governmental Operations. Until it is passed by committee, approved by the full Assembly, merged with S2397, and approved by Governor Cuomo, the aforementioned measures will have no bearing on the functionings of New York state agencies. It’s unclear if Cuomo supports the bill, which would place the burden of implementation upon executive branch agencies under his purview.

Through a spokesperson, Assistant Assembly Speaker Felix W. Ortiz, of Brooklyn, said the bill should be considered next year. The legislative session is scheduled to end for the year on Wednesday.

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by Daniel Yadin for Gotham Gazette

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Passed by Senate, Bill Would Allow Public to Call State Agency Hearings Tue, 19 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
After Hacking Revelations, Assembly Examines New York Election Security http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7340-in-aftermath-of-2016-assembly-examines-new-york-election-security http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7340-in-aftermath-of-2016-assembly-examines-new-york-election-security Cuomo voting election integrity

Gov. Cuomo votes (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


Is New York ready for an election cyber-attack? Are the state’s voting systems vulnerable to hacking?

The New York State Assembly’s Election Law Committee heard testimony on Tuesday from state and local election board officials and cybersecurity experts on the systems in place to protect the state’s election processes from the types of coordinated cyberattacks that were carried out by Russian actors who sought to influence the 2016 presidential election.

The hearing was prompted by developments in September, when the Department of Homeland Security informed officials from 21 states that their election systems, including their registration databases, were targets of the coordinated Russian hacking effort that also attacked the Democratic National Committee and members of Hillary Clinton’s campaign last year. Although New York was not among them, the news raised concerns among state officials that similar incursions could be levelled against New York election infrastructure.

With the local elections of this year over and a state-level election cycle coming up in 2018, when all of the state Legislature and the four statewide positions will be on the ballot, Assembly members spent four hours Tuesday seeking clarity on how election data is managed, results are counted and recounted, and how the state works with federal and local authorities to detect and prevent cyber attacks like the ones seen last year.

“These attacks were not aberrations, they were not isolated incidents and only the most naive and or the most corrupt would believe that they will not continue into the future,” said Assembly Member Charles Lavine, a Democrat from Nassau County and chair of the committee, in his opening remarks.

Officials from the New York State Board of Elections seemed to put fears at rest almost immediately, even as they acknowledged that certain changes are required and that existing regulations need to be implemented more stringently.

“New York actually has one of the most secure systems in the country,” said Douglas Kellner, co-chair of the state BOE. He noted that the Help America Vote Act passed by the United States Congress in 2002, which enacted reforms to voting systems and provided federal funds for new voting equipment, did not first establish standards for that equipment. New York was one of the last states to comply, but in doing so years later implemented it correctly, he said, “in a manner that provides voters with secure and verifiable elections.”

The state has strict laws requiring certification and testing of both election software and hardware, Kellner said, as well as independent outside reviews of software. Wireless connections and networking capabilities are prohibited in voting equipment and even the computers used to program ballot scanners must be standalone devices without internet connectivity. “That isolation of the system used to set up the voting machines is something relatively unique to New York and it substantially reduces the possibility for the introduction of malware into our voting machines,” Kellner said.

The state also prohibits county boards of elections from contracting with outside vendors to program voting machines, which Kellner did concede could be cumbersome for smaller county boards with limited staff.

Finally, the state requires an audit of three percent of the voting machines used in each county after every election. The audit requirements were a particular focus of the hearing, with good government advocates and cybersecurity experts advocating for a new, more efficient method, called risk-limiting audits, developed in recent years.

Risk-limiting audits randomly choose which ballots to audit for comparison with the paper record, and determine the statistical level at which one can be confident that election results are correct. It results in a changing standard for the number of ballots that have to be audited, depending on the closeness of election results. The closer the race, the more ballots would be examined, for instance. Kellner generally endorsed the idea and recommended that the committee explore legislation to enact the improved system.

Kellner did have his own points to make during his testimony, noting that the law dealing with extremely close contests is “flawed” since escalating from a three percent audit to a full audit requires consensus from election commissioners representing opposing political parties, which is not easy to come by.

As an aside, Kellner, a Democrat, noted that New York would not be able to implement online voting any time soon since “the best technical minds around the world have not solved the problem of maintaining the secret ballot while at the same time ensuring that the ballot is cast and counted in the manner intended by the voter.”

Robert Brehm, co-executive director of the state BOE, said though the board is unaware if New York was directly targeted during the 2016 election, hackers consistently attempt intrusions into their systems and none have significantly affected election administration. The BOE takes a three-pronged approach to cyber-preparedness, he said, which involves developing a comprehensive risk assessment strategy, a strategy for county cyber-readiness, and bolstering plans to respond to individual incidents of cyber-intrusion.

Brehm said state officials cooperate with a slew of federal authorities and are striving to ensure that the information shared between them is also given to county election boards, which lack a strong cybersecurity apparatus and are more vulnerable.

The Assembly members present for the hearing at 250 Broadway in Manhattan, seven Democrats and two Republicans, had a broad range of inquiries. They asked about the board’s experiences with cyber attacks in the past, conclusions on trusted vendors who can work with county boards, and the mechanisms for keeping the legislative and executive branches of government in the loop. They asked about recommendations on electronic poll books (BOE’s Kellner said they had yet to thoroughly examine the proposal, though legislation to implement e-poll books has appeared close to passage in the Legislature), plans to update equipment, and cyber-readiness training for county BOE staff.

At the county level, Brehm conceded, “there’s much more work that’s needed to be done....The voting machines are isolated and very much the voter registration systems are not. They’re part of county infrastructure.” The BOE has full authority, he said, “to promulgate regulations that we are considering with regards to improving our security posture and requirements at the county level, but implementing them is going to be very difficult.”

Assembly Member Robert Carroll of Brooklyn raised the prospect of hackers attempting to purge voters from the rolls, asking the BOE officials how they monitor county BOE rolls. Brehm insisted the board conducts real-time monitoring of voter rolls and is working on updating its system. Carroll also mentioned the infamous purge of nearly 120,000 voters in Brooklyn ahead of the 2016 presidential primary, which Brehm said was due to a procedure being inaccurately followed rather than a failure in the system. He later emphasized the need for greater resources for county boards, and said the BOE would make a more substantial funding request in the upcoming state budget session.

Michael Ryan, executive director of the New York City BOE, also insisted during his testimony that “money is always a critical thing,” although he did praise the cooperative attitude of the state BOE and federal officials.

Ryan said there were initial missteps in communication with federal authorities following the 2016 election cyberattack but the city was prepared for the eventuality. “The good thing is it was the type of circumstances that were built into the protections that were already in place,” he said. He insisted that the board had administered the 2016 and 2017 elections “without an issue of consequence,” but would need to be more vigilant for next year, when there will be congressional, state legislative, and statewide elections in New York. “We’re in pretty good shape...but we’re only in good shape until October of 2018,” he said. “So we really need to take a look at that critically and say, ‘how are we going to plan this out?’”

There were numerous recommendations made to the Assembly committee, some of which involved administrative solutions while yet others require legislative fixes.

Dustin Czarny, commissioner from the Onondaga County BOE said the current voting and election system leaves little time to identify and remedy issues with ballots. He encouraged the Assembly members to pursue electoral reforms such as early voting and no-excuse absentee voting. The two are among a slate of election reforms that have stalled in the Republican-controlled state Senate, with minimal objection from Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo or the Democratic-led Assembly.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, a good government group, and Susan Greenhalgh, vice president of programs at Verified Voting, a nonprofit focused on voting system technology, both argued for risk-limiting audits of voting machines.

Lerner pointed out that the current election auditing method looks at the process rather than results -- by testing vote totals from machines instead of directly examining ballots. She insisted that the state must constantly inspect paper ballots for accuracy, must never allow online voting, and must do away with the current system of election audits. “A flat three percent audit really, we feel, doesn’t hit the mark,” she said, agreeing to help legislators and election administrators in crafting legislation on risk-limiting audits.

“We have to look at ways to protect [the election system] as a national security asset,” Greenhalgh said, “and this is something that’s being run at county levels by people who are not in the federal national security space typically.”

Greenhalgh said the focus in computer security was increasingly on “resilience,” allowing a system to function even after it has been hacked. “If we’re looking at resilience in election systems, we want a system that would ensure that voters can vote,” she said, “that their votes get counted correctly...and that the proper outcome is realized.” She also supported the continued use of paper ballots as the simplest means of maintaining physical records, and reiterated the need for risk-limited audits.

“There is a limit to what our security practices, as good as they are in New York, can do,” she said.

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by Samar Khurshid, Senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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After Hacking Revelations, Assembly Examines New York Election Security Tue, 28 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Assembly Takes Stock of State Economic Development Programs Ahead of Next Negotiations http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7321-assembly-takes-stock-of-state-economic-development-programs-ahead-of-next-negotiations http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7321-assembly-takes-stock-of-state-economic-development-programs-ahead-of-next-negotiations 34868772685 4a41dee04d z

Howard Zemsky in Buffalo (via Governor's Office)


Ahead of the 2018 legislative session, the New York State Assembly’s Economic Development Committee held a hearing Monday in Albany to evaluate the progress of the state’s multitude of economic development programs and hear testimony from companies and organizations that have benefited from state grants.

Taking center stage was Howard Zemsky, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s economic development czar as president and CEO of Empire State Development, who defended the state’s jobs programs and was grilled for nearly an hour by members of the committee. Committee members, led by chair Robin Schimminger, a Democrat from Erie County, raised concerns about the effectiveness of Buffalo’s annual 43North competition and Regional Economic Development Council grants; lower-than-expected job production; and increased regulatory burdens on small businesses.

Cuomo has staked much of his legacy and devoted billions of state dollars to revitalizing the upstate economy. The state has infused $8 billion a year into economic projects since he took office in 2011, according to a Gannett Albany review. But as Cuomo’s economic development programs have multiplied each year, the Legislature has failed to pass any meaningful oversight measures to ensure transparency, that beneficiaries are meeting job creation goals, or that grants and incentives are going to well-vetted recipients. While some efforts, such as those aimed at farms and breweries, have been successful, others, like Cuomo’s Start-Up New York program, have fallen short of job creation goals.

At Monday’s hearing, Zemsky noted that upstate cities have seen a boom in tech sector jobs, which on average pay more than non-tech sector jobs, and touted a dramatic increase in venture capital investment throughout the state. The Empire State Development head said that ESD takes a “holistic” approach, pointing to the success of its downtown and waterfront revitalization efforts, which aim to attract a younger, more vibrant talent base, and investing in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.

He briefly defended the Regional Economic Development Councils, which have been accused of favoritism and conflicts of interests, and touted Buffalo as a success story -- a city that has been a major focus for Gov. Cuomo and transformed from a financially depressed post-industrial town to a vibrant hub of entrepreneurship.

“A lot of what we have done in Buffalo we have used as a template in many other parts of the state and I’m proud that we took some risks and took some chance,” said Zemsky. “Every year we improve and make adjustments.”

Schimminger cited an article noting that three-quarters of companies that are attracted to Buffalo by the 43North program have since left the city and inquired about whether the residency requirements, currently a year, could be extended.

“We’re only a few years into the program, but after every year the 43North board reassesses and reevaluates what went right, what didn’t go right, just like we do in government. Is it possible that we might change the regulations, that we might change the time frame? That’s under active discussion,” said Zemsky, noting that many companies retain active connections to Buffalo even after they leave.

Zemsky’s presentation rang hollow for at least one committee member, Assemblymember Raymond Walter, a Republican from Amherst, who told Zemsky to provide hard data about the returns delivered by the state’s Buffalo investments rather than “offering platitudes.”

“Our job here is to draw a direct connection between what we are doing with taxpayer dollars to that renaissance and I’m not convinced you can do that,” said Walter. “If we could focus on that, rather than the platitudes, that would be great.”

Zemsky pointed Walter to ESD’s progress report, insisting the number of new firms has grown and jobs have dramatically accelerated in Buffalo, by “almost any metric,” particularly when compared to other struggling cities.

The conversation quickly turned personal, with Zemsky, who is a Buffalo businessman, accusing the Assembly member of opposing the state’s efforts to spur Buffalo’s economy, and demanding, “Do you go to any of the REDC meetings, do you know anything that is actually going on?”

At one point during the heated exchange about interpreting Buffalo’s jobs data, which Walter said mostly highlights low-skill jobs growth, Zemsky snapped, “You don’t know anything about the innovation economy.”

The biggest indicator of Buffalo’s growth, Zemsky pointed to the rise of the area’s millennial population over the last decade. “Turning the corner on that is the most important thing we can do,” he said.

After Zemsky, the Assembly panel was addressed by various industry leaders and experts, who described how programs like the Start-Up New York jobs program and the Southern Tier Startup Alliance (NYSTAR) have created or retained thousands of jobs and spurred both investment and innovation.

A representative of watchdog group ReInvent Albany then presented the positions of good government organizations, calling for the passage of a number of bills introduced in the Legislature last year, which would increase oversight of and transparency in the state’s economic development programs.

Among the legislative fixes proposed by Reinvent Albany and others is the creation of a “database of deals,” which would digitally list every entity receiving funds from the state along with where each dollar is going; a bill to restore the powers of the state Comptroller to review procurement contracts for SUNY, CUNY, and Office of General Services; and campaign finance restrictions to curb the appearance or reality of pay-to-play politics.

At least two bills, including the database of deals and one requiring nonprofit organizations affiliated with government entities to be subject to the freedom of information law and the open meetings law, are sponsored by Schimminger, but did not make it to the Assembly floor. Legislation related to procurement reform appeared to gain steam early this year in light of a major bid-rigging scandal that will see close associates of and donors to Cuomo on trial for corruption in 2018, but nothing was passed as the Legislature acquiesced to the governor’s objections.

“The only thing the Legislature did do is write a check for $1.8 billion in the extender budget passed in April, a blank check granted by the Legislature to Governor Cuomo for economic development projects with no additional oversight,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor for Reinvent Albany.

Schimminger welcomed Camarda’s comments, saying that  good government groups are “preaching to the choir” when they call for increased accountability and oversight.

“Not a single one of those bills that you mentioned have been blocked by the committee, in fact, many of them -- the database of deals, the Start-Up fix -- have come out of the committee but are delayed elsewhere,” said the Assembly member, referring to the fact that the legislation had been held up in other legislative committees.

The wisdom behind Start-Up New York, which creates tax-free zones for new businesses, local development corporations and other economic development programs is the finding that startups create significantly more jobs than companies that have matured 10 to 30 years and drive economic development. But critics say these programs continue to fall short of the job creation goals and many beneficiaries of these state incentives have failed to report on sufficient or any progress made through their grants.

Despite the fact that several members of Cuomo’s circle are set to appear in court next year for their roles in the bid-rigging scandal involving the state’s Buffalo Billion program, a second round of cash investment to the project was approved in this year’s budget, with no new accountability measures.

While Schimminger acknowledged these problems in his opening remarks, the hearing was primarily an information-gathering session, and those outstanding issues will be addressed during the next legislative session, he told Camarda. The governor will unveil his next executive budget in January, leading to months of negotiations and hearings.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Assembly Takes Stock of State Economic Development Programs Ahead of Next Negotiations Tue, 14 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Departure of Assembly Ethics Official Prompts Calls for Broader Reforms http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7294-departure-of-assembly-ethics-official-prompts-calls-for-broader-reforms http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7294-departure-of-assembly-ethics-official-prompts-calls-for-broader-reforms Carl Heastie Assembly

Carl Heastie (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


When ethics expert Jane Feldman’s departure from the New York State Assembly, and her appraisal of the experience as “as waste of money,” was first reported by the Times Union last week, many saw it as another blow to reform efforts in Albany.

Feldman told the outlet she she “didn’t do anything” and called her hiring as executive director of the Office of Ethics and Compliance in September 2015 a “P.R. move.” The office itself, according to Feldman, was a windowless space on the ninth floor of the Legislative Office Building with airflow problems that had been carved out of a larger conference room.

Two years ago, the office was created by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie as part of the newly-selected speaker’s larger commitment to introduce more ethics and transparency measures to the 150-seat chamber. Promises were made, in part, to appease critics frustrated by the backroom speakership appointment process, and to signal a new era after that of infamous former Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Heastie, a representative of the Bronx, created a working group on rules reform, led by Assemblymembers Brian Kavanagh, of Manhattan, and Gary Pretlow, of Mount Vernon, and vowed to choose an “independent” advisor who could offer guidance to members and offer suggestions for improving Assembly processes. Feldman, who previously headed the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission for six years, was chosen by a six-person team following a nationwide search, and was seen as a fresh and independent perspective, someone from outside Albany’s long-standing and secretive power structures.

But during her two years in Albany, Feldman says she rarely spoke to Heastie and found even members who were interested in reforming the Albany process rebuffed her suggestions.

"There are so many things that are so entrenched,” said Feldman, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “There are a lot of good members who I think want to see ethics reforms, but when I would tell them how other states do things, the attitude was, 'well, that would never work here.'"

Heastie’s office chalked up her experience to a misunderstanding about the job description, saying in a statement, “there was a disconnect between our expectations for the office and this individual’s view of her responsibilities.”

But good government watchdogs say the larger problem is that no in-house advisor could make much of a dent in Albany’s ways, including how the legislative houses operate, the loophole-riddled campaign finance system, an opaque budget negotiation process, and flawed oversight structures.

“Internal oversight is sort of an oxymoron,” said New York Public Interest Group’s Blair Horner. “The fundamental problem is you can’t really self-regulate when it comes to ethics. It’s like self-policing. An honor system only works for the honorable.”

While it might have been helpful to have a person for members to go to for advice, Feldman’s described duties essentially duplicated the role of the Legislative Ethic Commission (LEC), a bi-partisan entity comprised of senators, Assembly members, and outside experts that provides advice to lawmakers on outside income, fundraising, and other conflict of interest queries. In at least one instance, this created a conflict, when the LEC offered one lawmaker different advice than Feldman did about whether the lawmaker could accept a speaking engagement, Feldman told the Times Union.

It would be difficult to reconcile the two interpretations of the law given that opinions produced by the LEC are not made available to the public, and even Feldman said she could not access them. Legislative ethics advisory bodies in other states all make their opinions available to the public, and some of them even tweet out their opinions, she noted.

Even the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), which acts in an advisory role for the executive branch, and its predecessor agencies have made opinions public and publishes a bulk of information online.

By many accounts, the Assembly has become more democratic under Heastie. The majority Democratic conference is consulted more frequently during budget negotiations, leadership opportunities are created for new members, and more hearings for legislation are held. Silver’s extremely intense grip on power has been loosened by his successor. But these strides are “infinitesimally small compared to the needs of the state, which is for radical overhaul of ethics oversight in New York,” according to Horner. “To have an office in the Assembly -- even if it doesn’t have any windows -- to sort of generate recommendations and answers to people’s questions is sort of in the chicken soup category. It doesn’t deal with the cancer of corruption that has plagued the Capitol.”

John Kaehny, executive director of ReInvent Albany, said that the biggest problem plaguing state government is its rampant pay-to-play culture. But while the overwhelmingly Democratic Assembly has repeatedly passed legislation that would curb the notorious LLC loophole, which allows wealthy interests to attempt to influence lawmakers with virtually unlimited campaign donations, the bill has been blocked from consideration in the Republican-controlled Senate. Other efforts at campaign finance reform, including instituting lower caps on individual donations and a public-matching system, have also stalled.

“If it were up to the Assembly, they would probably pass a New York City-style small donor matching campaign finance system, but that’s not the law, and they have to exist within a system that is really corrupt and just a complete swamp of money,” said Kaehny. “So the question of what exactly Jane Feldman was supposed to do is a little elusive.”

When Heastie announced a 2016 ethics reform package -- which included a bill limiting outside income for lawmakers and closure of the LLC loophole -- Feldman said she learned about it viewing the roll-out on T.V., and it became obvious that the job was not as she felt it had been described to her during interviews with the search committee and with the Speaker.

In a statement, Heastie spokesperson Mike Whyland said, “the office was created as a training and expertise resource for members and staff and independent of the Speaker’s office. It was never meant as a position that would craft policy and take part in negotiations, something that would obviously compromise the independent nature of the office. This is an independent, bipartisan office that serves both the majority and the minority and thus has no responsibilities to negotiate laws.”

According to Heastie's own press release, the Feldman was supposed to be involved in "reviewing best practices in legislative ethics to make recommendations for improvements." 

But Feldman said the Assembly was resistant to changes as small as publicizing on its website the times that it would go into legislative session. She said she was told that the parties go into conference so it was impossible to predict. “To me this is kind of archaic, but the way members learned what time session would be, is they would get a phone call that said ‘session is going to be at 11.’”

“I was told many times by people that I saw my job as much more important than it was intended to be,” said Feldman.

In 2015, good government groups sent a series of proposals to Kavanaugh and Pretlow for how the Assembly rules could be improved. The letter, signed by Common Cause, Citizens Union, NYPIRG, ReInvent Albany, and the Brennan Center for Justice, recommended that rank-and-file members be able to independently bring legislation with majority support to the floor -- even over objection of leadership -- that allocation of resources be more equitably distributed among members, as well as other transparency and efficiency measures.

“There was resistance to our recommendations, because they didn’t like anything that encroaches on the power of the speaker,” said Horner. “They did make some changes, but I still think there’s a long way to go.”

The working group was criticized for not holding any public hearings and for failing to include input from members of the minority conference, but it did produce a lengthy list of recommendations. The fixes were technological and procedural, with an eye on more transparency and communication, such as ensuring wi-fi service throughout the Assembly chamber, increased use of text alerts for staff and members, improvements to the Assembly legislation database, and livestreaming more committee meetings. There were a handful of notable changes to the committee process, such as one that would allow all members five opportunities to force a bill to be voted on in committee.

“I think there were 90 suggestions that we made, some of them take a longer time than others to be addressed, and most of them were accepted by the speaker,” said Pretlow.

But helping to craft the Assembly’s internal rules reform also, apparently, did not fall under Feldman’s purview. Pretlow said Feldman was not at all involved, adding that he did not interact with her during her time in Albany. Feldman, in an email, clarified that the working group met and had decided on recommendations shortly before she arrived in Albany.

Whyland did not respond to a request for comment on whether any candidates have emerged to replace Feldman or whether the role would be redefined, but he told the Times Union that the Assembly is looking to fill her former post with "someone who understands New York law, truly grasps the serious responsibilities of the office and its independent and bipartisan nature, and is willing to carry out its mission in full."

Clarification: The article has been updated to indicate that decisions about rules reform in the Assembly were made prior to Feldman's arrival.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Departure of Assembly Ethics Official Prompts Calls for Broader Reforms Thu, 02 Nov 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Amid Larger Moment, Will Albany Face Another Sexual Misconduct Reckoning? http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7286-amid-larger-moment-will-albany-face-another-sexual-misconduct-reckoning http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7286-amid-larger-moment-will-albany-face-another-sexual-misconduct-reckoning Cuomo Sheldon Silver Skelos Albany

Gov. Cuomo, Sheldon Silver & Dean Skelos in 2012 (photo via The Governor's Office)


As allegations of sexual harassment and assault against disgraced movie producer and major Democratic political donor Harvey Weinstein piled up earlier this month, women around the world took to social media to share stories of abusive behavior using the hashtag #MeToo.

The light being shone on the predatory behavior of Weinstein and many others resonated at statehouses across the United States, from California to Rhode Island, where women in politics have been speaking out about sexual misconduct they experienced first-hand or witnessed, with victims including legislators, young staffers and interns, lobbyists, and others.

In New York’s capital, the response has been more muted, in part because the Legislature is not currently in session, but also because Albany was recently forced to face its own mishandling of sexual misconduct scandals. As recently as 2014, the aftermath of a debacle around sexual harassment by Assemblymember Vito Lopez, which led to his forced resignation from the Assembly, produced a number of significant reforms to how harassment, misconduct, and discriminatory behavior are addressed in the state Assembly.

Now, three years later and amid a national reckoning with issues related to sexual misconduct, women in state government who spoke to Gotham Gazette noted an improvement in the Albany culture since these reforms, but say that sexist attitudes and behavior continue to plague New York state government.

While several female legislators were hesitant to speak on the record about their own experiences with sexual harassment, Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa spoke frankly about her own experiences with sexism in the political sphere at a recent forum organized by Berkeley College in Manhattan. She described one incident, a decade ago, when on a conference call, it was announced that she would take the lead on a project. A man on the line, who is now a national leader in progressive politics, according to DeRosa, joked, “She can take the lead right up to my hotel room,” apparently unaware that DeRosa was on the line.

“These instances have stuck with me, but I'm not kidding myself and neither should you — many women have and still do experience far worse every day, and it's not just actresses you're reading about in the news this week,” she said, according to a transcript distributed by the governor’s office.

Calling for “societal course correction,” DeRosa encouraged young women in all industries to speak out.

The statement was a powerful one coming from DeRosa, who at 34 became the youngest person and first woman to be named Secretary to the Governor, the top aide to the state’s most powerful government official, when she was appointed to the post by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Days after DeRosa’s remarks, a former top official in Cuomo’s administration came forward with allegations that her former boss sexually harassed staffers, saying she was inspired by DeRosa’s remarks, according to The New York Post.

Patricia Gunning, who had recently resigned as the special prosecutor/inspector general of the Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs, told The Post that she faced retaliatory violence for calling out her boss for his behavior.

“My hope is that this conversation will be the beginning of a new era in [how] these issues are addressed by employers,” Gunning told The Post.

On Monday, it was revealed that Sam Hoyt, a former assemblyman and Cuomo ally who ran Buffalo area projects for the state's Empire State Development Corporation, had abruptly resigned to take a job in the private sector. By Tuesday afternoon, Hoyt, who was disciplined by the Assembly in 2009 for an affair with 19-year-old intern, was accused by a former state employee of pressuring her into a romantic relationship. She told The Buffalo News that she was paid $50,000 for her silence.

In a statementCuomo spokesperson Dani Lever acknowledged that allegations of misconduct had emerged against Hoyt and that an investigation was underway.

"All state employees must act with integrity and respect," the statement read. "When the complainant made these allegations, they were immediately refered to the  Governor's Office of Employee Relations (GOER) for an investigation."

After GOER determined there were grounds for further review, the matter was referred to the Inspector General's Office, and later, the Joint Commission of Public Ethics (JCOPE), according to the statement. Hoyt maintains that the relationship was consentual, according to The Buffalo News.

But while to this point there has not been a new public outcry at the New York Legislature, female lawmakers say that the Weinstein scandal and its fallout have struck a chord and sparked private conversations about their early experiences in Albany and how they can best aid young female staff aides and legislators.

One such conversation occurred at a retreat for the Women’s Legislative Caucus in Saratoga two weeks ago, where women shared uncomfortable incidents they had experienced early in their careers and discussed how they could better unify when scandals occur, according to Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo area lawmaker who chairs the Women’s Caucus. One thing agreed upon, Peoples-Stokes said, was that the Assembly’s sexual harassment enforcement could be enhanced by a mentorship program for incoming members and their aides.

“We wanted to see if there is anything we can do in addition to ensure that we never need to have these experiences again,” said Peoples-Stokes. “It is something that we decided we are going to do as women of the Legislature, and you know, when women decide to do something, we get it done.”

While the Assembly reforms appear to have improved the culture in the 150-seat chamber, Albany’s sexual harassment problem has not disappeared. The Senate and the Assembly have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past two years on outside counsel to investigate sexual harassment complaints. The Assembly’s ethics committee -- which exists solely to enforce policy on sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation -- convened a meeting in executive session on October 12 and is expected to meet again on November 2. The matter at hand is not clear.

Currently reported to be under investigation by JCOPE and the Erie County District Attorney’s office is Senator Marc Panepinto, a Democrat from Buffalo, who announced he would not seek reelection last year amid rumors of sexual harassment. Also last year, the Senate paid out $121,000 for two contracts with Kraus & Zuchlewski LLP “for legal counsel related to U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission matters and investigation of sexual harassment claims.”

Assembly members who spoke with Gotham Gazette acknowledged the body’s embarrassing history of dismissing sexual misconduct claims internally, which has led to a slew of unflattering headlines in 2012 and 2013, but noted that an influx of female legislators to the Assembly in recent years has also helped to reshape the culture. At the Senate, such scandals and its culture of protecting those in power has not drawn the same scrutiny.

Last week, New York’s chapter of the National Organization of Women (NOW) made an effort to further jumpstart the conversation, calling on women and men who currently or previously work(ed) in government in Albany and throughout the state to speak out about their personal experiences with sexual harassment or assault while on the job, citing the Legislature’s history of quashing sexual harassment complaints.

“Government sets the standard and the policies and the laws that all other industries are asked to uphold,” said Sonia Ossorio, president of the National Organization for Women - New York, said in a statement. “Given that Albany is a place where lawmakers have abused their power and sexual harassment has gone unchecked in the past, we felt it was important to give women in politics a platform to speak up.”

The women’s advocacy organization has announced the creation of a new, dedicated hotline for individuals in government to report their experiences (people can call 518-362-7857 or submit a story online at nownys.org).

In an interview with Gotham Gazette, Ossorio said the goal is to build on the momentum of the #MeToo movement. The hotline will provide independent counsel and resources to victims while also assessing how effective recent policies have been, she said.

“We immediately thought about the culture that has existed in Albany and we wanted to be able to empower women who work in politics, particularly young women and interns who head to their internships idealistic and wanting to be part of American government and are disillusioned by it,” she said. “We really want to know to what degree the environment of sexual harassment has been uprooted.”

The personal stories tumbling out of statehouses around the nation are eerily familiar to anyone who has closely watched New York state government in recent years. In California, women leaders in government have formed a campaign called “We Said Enough,” sharing stories about how they have endured groping, inappropriate comments about their bodies and abilities, and insults and jokes that diminish them professionally. In some cases, “men have made promises, or threats, about our jobs in exchange for our compliance, or our silence. They have leveraged their power and positions to treat us however they would like,” wrote the group on a website created for women to submit their stories.

An open letter circulated by members of the Illinois Legislature drew a direct comparison between the Weinstein scandal and the coercive situations in which women in government find themselves and had drawn 130 signatures by Tuesday afternoon, the AP reported.

"Every industry has its own version of the casting couch," reads the letter. "Ask any woman who has lobbied the halls of the Capitol, staffed Council Chambers, or slogged through brutal hours on the campaign trail. Misogyny is alive and well in this industry."

Albany, which has historically been referred to as the New York’s own “sin city,” is no stranger to such scandals. Repeatedly, a series of particularly egregious complaints of sexual harassment or rape has led the Legislature to a watershed moment of sorts, producing much-needed reform in how accusers are treated and how their complaints are handled.

A major turning point for the Assembly occurred in 2004, when, roiling from a series of rape accusations against Assemblymember Adam Clayton Powell IV and Michael Boxley, chief counsel to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, its leadership decided to bar members of the Legislature from fraternizing with interns.

In the state Senate, a somewhat similar soul-searching happened, but at the time many of its members were strongly opposed to the idea of an intern-fraternization ban.

In comparison to the 150-seat Assembly, sex scandals in the 63-seat Senate have unfolded more discreetly -- hinted at through money spent on lawyers or a senator or a top aide leaving the job abruptly amid rumors -- and as a result the body’s leadership has not been forced to publicly reckon with its record in the same way, according to Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat who was instrumental in compelling the Senate to implement a mandatory sexual harassment training program.

A decade ago, Krueger said she was privy to two incidents involving interns who were molested by older male senators. One incident occurred in a packed elevator and Krueger famously threatened to kick the senator if he touched an intern again. The other time she learned of a sexual assault claim when she found a young staffer crying outside a senator’s office at the Capitol.

After the second incident, Krueger, who is known for her bluntness on the topic, said she urged then-Senate Leader Joe Bruno, a Republican from the Capital Region, to create mandatory sexual harassment training for all senators. When she threatened to hold a press conference naming and shaming the offending senators, Bruno, who later stepped down from the leadership role amid his own public corruption scandal, responded he would hold a competing press conference naming Democratic senators.

The way Krueger tells it, she said, “I didn't tell you [what] party this senator is in. I don't give a damn what party they are. We can do a joint press conference, and we all can name names. I don't give a [expletive].” To which Bruno responded, “OK, OK, we'll do mandatory sexual harassment training,” Krueger told The Albany Times Union.

The training became mandatory for senators and staff members and the regulations were clearly stated in a written document.

It was not the last time Krueger took her colleagues in the Legislature to task over crimes against women. In June 2003, when Boxley was led out of the Capitol in handcuffs, having been accused of rape for the second time, Krueger said she had a very public confrontation with Assemblymember Lopez, who a decade later would be toppled by his own slew of sexual harassment scandals. They were scheduled, coincidentally, to hold a joint press conference in front of the Legislative Correspondents Association office. According to Krueger, the Assembly member fumed, “How dare they come over here and arrest our counsel in our house?”

“I said ‘excuse me, he was tried with rape,’ pause, ‘for the second time,’ pause,” Krueger recalled to Gotham Gazette, “‘It seems to me that if you have anything to say publicly about this, it's let justice be fair and swift. Otherwise, I think you should keep your mouth shut.'”

Lopez’s Assembly colleagues later told her that she had made an enemy for life. “I said, ‘Good. Some enemies are worth having,’” said Krueger of the former Brooklyn Democratic boss, who lost a City Council race in 2013 and died in November 2015.

Still, Krueger acknowledges that the current sexual harassment policy in the Senate does not encourage women to come forward. “I’d like to believe the written policies the Senate came up with and mandatory training might have helped in some small way,” she told Gotham Gazette last week.

In 2014, following a series of sexual misconduct scandals involving Lopez, Assemblymember Micah Kellner, and Assemblymember Dennis Gabryszak, the Assembly officially changed its policy on sexual harassment, which had last been updated in 2009. In the past, sexual harassment complainants would typically report the incidents to the speaker’s office or the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), but it was up to the discretion of the speaker’s counsel whether to investigate the complaints.

When it was revealed that Speaker Silver did not follow protocol and report misconduct allegations by two staff members against Assemblymember Lopez to the ethics body, instead cutting a secret $103,000 settlement with the women, Silver publically apologized for the lapse and announced that the Assembly would review its practices.

To help restructure the chamber’s sexual harassment policy, the Assembly’s ethics committee enlisted CUNY Law School Professor Merrick Rossein, an attorney, law professor, and expert in discrimination litigation. Through interviews with women in the Assembly, Rossein made a series of recommendations to the bipartisan legislative task force that was convened to address deficiencies in the Assembly’s policy.

“There are a number of things in this policy that I’m very proud of that I’d like to see in every sexual harassment policy, including the private sector,” said Rossein, who has since been retained by the Assembly as an outside counsel to investigate complaints against members, in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

Recommendations made by Rossein include the appointment of an outside investigator to look into complaints; a guarantee of confidentiality for accusers; severe consequences for an employer that retaliates against a complainant; and more. Most importantly, a lawmaker accused of harassment is barred from talking to the accuser until a designated time. Additionally, lawmakers were made mandatory reporters, required to inform the ethics committee about sexual misconduct if they see it or hear about it -- a component women say has had a dramatic impact on the culture in Albany. A hotline has been set up for people to submit tips.

The Assembly policy outlines two types of harassment, hostile work environment harassment — which is directed at somebody based on their sex, would be considered offensive by a reasonable person, and is severe or pervasive enough to interfere with one’s work environment — and quid-pro-quo harassment, the type described by victims of Weinstein, in which professional opportunities are offered in exchange for sexual favors.

In response to the barrage of corruption and sexual harassment scandals over the last decade, the Legislature has also dramatically revamped the way it approaches its ethics and sexual harassment training, according to Assemblymember Charles Lavine, a Democrat from Nassau County and former chair of the Assembly’s ethics committee. Not only are class sizes smaller, according to Lavine, but they have gone from obligatory and dry, to dynamic, thought-provoking, and interactive.

“We have gone from the days when it was almost an obligation to provide -- or what seemed to be at the time -- ethics training that was done in large groups of people,” said Lavine in a January interview with Gotham Gazette. “And while it was content-specific and good, it was not nearly so effective as the modern approach, which is to work with smaller groups of individuals in an interactive environment.”

Still, there is undoubtedly more work to be done to rectify inequities for women and in Albany. It likely doesn’t help that those at the top of Albany’s power chain are all men. Many have pushed for Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester County legislator who has led Senate Democrats since 2012 and is the first woman or person of color to lead a legislative conference, to be included at the negotiating table during budget and other high-level talks. Currently, the state’s $150 billion-plus budget is largely hammered out by four men: Governor Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Senator Jeff Klein, leader of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), which forms a ruling coalition with the Republican conference. Democrats hope that the 2018 state-level elections and an agreement with the IDC will lead to Stewart-Cousins becoming the leader of a new Senate majority.

Having more women in the Legislature would go a long way towards creating a safer space for female employees at all levels of government, according to Stewart-Cousins.

“The most disturbing thing is that almost every woman has a story regarding harassment or worse,” said Stewart-Cousins, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “This is true in every walk of life and unfortunately true in government. Only by confronting sexism and gender bias head-on will we be able to truly create a culture which respects everyone equally. We need to support women and pro-women candidates for office and energize pro-women New Yorkers to get out and vote.”

An increase in the number of women in Albany has helped reshape the culture from an old boys' club, in which women were largely relegated to secretarial positions, to a more egalitarian environment, where women are not only elected to office, but have risen to acquire key chair positions in both houses and led the passage of women-friendly legislation.

Assemblymember Nily Rozic, who became the youngest woman in the state Legislature and the first woman ever to represent Queens’ 25th District when she was elected in 2012, said she has watched the culture transform since she began her tenure in Albany as an aide to Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh.

“It’s certainly gotten better since I was a legislative staffer, but we have a long way to go. The underlying change that’s happening is that more women are getting elected to the Legislature and that really positively affects our work place,” said Rozic.

Aside from the most serious cases of sexual assault and rape, it’s often sexual comments and diminishing jokes -- such as the one described by DeRosa -- or an extra-long hug that makes the state Legislature a treacherous place for young women.

Alexis Grenell, a political strategist and commentator on feminist issues, said the comment described by DeRosa is a quintessential example of how women are verbally undermined in the workplace.

“The harassment that Melissa described is fundamentally dehumanizing,” said Grenell. “There is nothing benign about it. It’s meant to take away her worth as a thinking, contributing person in a professional environment and renders her the sum total of her physicality and sex appeal. That is dehumanizing. It’s not why she’s on the call.”

Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, in an interview with Gotham Gazette, recalled her first years as a legislative staffer in Washington, D.C. and as chief of staff to Assemblymember Ron Kim, of Queens. She said that when she first arrived in Albany, Kim warned her not to get into elevators with “the wrong people.” Later, she learned that she had been named on a “hot or not” list that had been circulating among male staffers at the Legislature.

“People would stop me in the hallway and say ‘you are just so exotic,’ but you know I’m not going to report them for it,” said Niou, who was elected to Silver’s old Assembly seat in 2016. “It’s just an ignorant and not very thoughtful comment.”

These types of incidents collectively create a hostile environment that women internalize and come to see as normal, she said.

“Over time, I’ve built this protective shell, like ‘oh these things are just going to bounce right off of me,’ but these things happen every day,” said Niou. “Somebody insists a kiss on the cheek -- like forces it -- but everyone kisses on the cheek, all over Albany people do the kiss-kiss thing.”

The cheek kiss, which is often reserved for women in political settings, falls into a bit of a grey area, but many women in government have observed the greeting often provides an opportunity for hands to roam. The Assembly’s newest sexual harassment policy warns that touching -- including brushing against the body, squeezing, hugging, massaging or patting -- may fall under the category of sexual harassment, but that has not ended the practice.

Grenell, who frequently holds press conferences at the Capitol, said to bypass the double kiss, she initiates a handshake by extending her arm as far away from her body as possible.

A similar strategy is deployed by one Pennsylvania lawmaker, who at a recent women-led panel in the state, explained how she avoids the cheek kiss -- by placing one hand on her colleague’s shoulder, and the other outstretched for a handshake, according to an account by a journalist covering the Harrisburg Capitol in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Albany veterans say they have grown accustomed to awkward and demeaning daily experiences.

"I've been saying for the last 15 years: Every week, I drive three hours north and 30 years back in history in regards to how we treat women," said Senator Krueger, of Manhattan.

With women across all industries, including government, empowered by the Weinstein blowup and its ripples to speak out about their experiences, Krueger said she would not be surprised if it led to another watershed moment in Albany.

“I would suspect in the New York State Legislature, like so many other places -- where you have men in powerful positions and young women who might not have a lot of worldly experience, who think these are very important men,” she said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if more stories come out.”

Update: The story has been updated with allegations about former EDC official Sam Hoyt that emerged Tuesday afternoon.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Amid Larger Moment, Will Albany Face Another Sexual Misconduct Reckoning? Tue, 31 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Powerful Assembly Post May Be Vacant Sooner Than Expected http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7046-powerful-assembly-chair-position-may-be-vacant-sooner-than-expected http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7046-powerful-assembly-chair-position-may-be-vacant-sooner-than-expected farrell assembly floor

Assemblymember Herman Farrell (photo: The Assembly)


When Assemblymember Herman “Denny” Farrell, who heads the chamber’s Ways and Means Committee, announced he would not seek reelection next year, it set off a murmur about who might succeed him in the powerful -- and lucrative -- committee post.

Farrell, a Democrat elected to the Assembly in 1974 and the third longest serving member of the body, is known for his diplomacy and good natured bantering with Republicans and Democrats alike during budget hearings and on the Assembly floor.

Well-liked among his peers and beloved in his community, Farrell -- who represents Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood -- was recognized by the Legislature last week, when it voted to rename Upper Manhattan’s Riverbank State Park after him as part of a special legislative session dealing with mayoral control over schools.

Governor Andrew Cuomo also honored the Assembly member at a breakfast at the Executive Mansion on June 20, speaking in eulogistic terms of Farrell’s time in the Assembly and as former chair to both the Manhattan and State Democratic Parties.

“Denny also taught me politics was the means to the end, and that was getting into government to achieve power…not power you would use personally, not power to take care of some donors, to take care of some unions, to take care of the political complex — power to do good things for your people and for your community,” Cuomo said, according to a recording of his remarks obtained by Politico New York. “Government is about accomplishing things for people and making their life better. Everything else is bull----.”

While Farrell’s current two-year term is set to officially end at the end of 2018, the grand farewell he received in Albany and other indicators have signalled to many in Harlem that he plans to resign before January, when the Legislature is next due back in the capital. The move would virtually ensure the party nomination of his chief of staff, Rev. Al Taylor, in a special election, according one Harlem insider who spoke to Gotham Gazette on the condition of anonymity. For special elections to the state Legislature, the borough party committees name the party representative on the ballot.

“His departure is something that a lot of people Uptown are talking about. Farrell is putting a lot of his energy and political assets into his chief of staff, Al Taylor. Wherever Denny is, Al is nearby,” the insider said, noting that the Assembly office’s most recent quarterly newsletter featured Taylor more than Farrell. “All the signs point to Farrell's resignation being imminent.”

In addition to Taylor, Juan Rosa, a former City Council staffer and community activist, is considering a run for the seat, according to multiple people familiar with the district.

Farrell, who did not return a request for comment, has not confirmed any plan to vacate his Assembly seat before January 2019, when his term would officially end.

If Farrell does indeed leave before the end of the year, not only would Taylor have the inside track to the Assembly, but Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie would name a new Ways and Means chair, the top Assembly budget post below the Speaker, before the next budget season in Albany -- a move that would likely prompt a series of new committee chair appointments throughout the Assembly for the 2018 session.

“When you make one change, you make 30 changes. That is always the part that outsiders don’t understand,” said former Assemblymember Richard Brodsky. “Part of the calculus that any Speaker makes is not just how to fill that position, but how it will affect the entire food chain.”

As capital watchers have noted Farrell’s imminent departure, it has also become apparent that several female legislators are in line for the committee leadership job -- a post no woman has ever held before.

While new leadership appointments are made every year by the Speaker, the Ways and Means chairship is arguably the most powerful and well-paid committee position in the Assembly. It is also arguably the most challenging, as the committee is tasked with budget hearing leadership and examining any legislation considered by the body that has a fiscal component.

The position comes with a significant stipend. On top of the standard $79,500 legislative salary, the Ways and Means chair earns $34,000, on par only with the $34,500 stipend received by the Assembly Majority Leader, currently Joseph Morelle, of Monroe County. Other committees, such as Codes and Education, may deliberate over a comparably high volume of bills, but come with a stipend of $18,000 each. The Ways and Means chair also has access to a significantly larger staff than any other chair in the Assembly.

Geography and seniority have long played a role in who is selected for both leading Ways and Means and other top committees. For Ways and Means, other factors typically considered include knowledge of the budget process, diplomacy, ability to get along with Republicans in both legislative houses, and the stamina to sit through many hours of annual budget hearings.

The longest serving member of the Assembly is Richard Gottfried, of Manhattan, who is followed by Assemblymember Joseph Lentol, of Brooklyn. Gottfried, who has headed the Assembly Health Committee for more than 30 years, told Gotham Gazette he has expressed to Heastie and previous speakers that he is not interested in leading Ways and Means.

“I almost can't imagine how lucky I am to have had this job; it is just about a dream position for me,” Gottfried said of leading the Health Committee. “I love being able to focus on health policy and consider myself enormously happy to have this job.”

He noted that the Speaker must ultimately assess the person’s ability to speak on behalf of the Assembly majority's view of the budget and be someone who can represent the diverse views of the Democratic Conference.

“The speaker has to be concerned with, among other things, maintaining the solidarity and cohesion of the Democratic Majority because there are always a lot of forces eager to pick us apart,” said Gottfried, who is currently focussed on trying to see single-payer health care passed in New York.

An obvious choice for Heastie might be Lentol, the second most senior member of the Assembly, who has held his seat since 1972 and has served as chair of the critical Committee on Codes since 1992. Lentol competed against Heastie in the race to replace former Speaker Sheldon Silver in 2015, as did Assemblymember Catherine Nolan, of Queens, the sixth longest serving Assembly member. Lentol did not return a request for comment on whether he was interested in the Ways and Means position.

Assemblymember Robin Schimminger, who represents a swing district encompassing Niagara and Erie Counties, follows Lentol and Farrell in seniority, but his district geography and more moderate place on the political spectrum could rule him out for such an influential position in the New York City-focussed conference.

While women have historically been underrepresented in the Legislature, including in leadership positions, for the first time in history, several are in the mix for the Ways and Means post, including Nolan, who was first elected in 1984, Assemblymember Helene Weinstein, of Brooklyn, who is the fifth longest serving member of the Assembly, having been elected in 1980, and others.

Weinstein chairs the highly technical Judiciary Committee and Nolan heads the Education Committee.

Between Weinstein and Nolan on the seniority list are Brooklyn Assemblymember Dov Hikind and Assemblymember David Gantt, of Rochester.

Female Assemblymembers Vivian Cook, of Queens; Earlene Hooper, of Nassau County; and Deborah Glick, of Manhattan, also rank among the 15 longest serving lawmakers in the 150-seat chamber. Glick has the distinction of being New York's first openly gay person elected to the state Legislature. She has been outspoken on a range of progressive issues and chairs the important Higher Education Committee.

Seniority withstanding, Heastie has made an effort to provide leadership opportunities to newer members in a way his predecessors did not, according to members of the Assembly who spoke to Gotham Gazette.

“I think we have noticed that under this leadership [Speaker Heastie] has managed to bring a few new members, who have only been here a few months, to be chairmen of committees and subcommittees. It has never happened before. You know, it took me 20 years to get a chairmanship myself,” said Brooklyn Assemblymember Félix W. Ortiz, who chairs the Cities Committee and serves as Assistant Speaker.

He may also consider factors like gender, race, political beliefs, and other elements of diversity in making his decision.

“Geography used to matter, but once you open up that door of identity, lots of people walk in. The Assembly is blessed with about 15 people whose seniority and talent and experience is considerable, it’s going to be hard for [Speaker Heastie] to make a bad choice,” said former Assemblymember Brodsky, who chaired both the Committee on Environmental Conservation and the Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions during his nearly three decades in Albany.

A spokesperson for Heastie did not return a request for comment, nor did the offices of Assembly Members Nolan, Weinstein, Lentol, and Schimminger.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the location of Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle's district.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Powerful Assembly Post May Be Vacant Sooner Than Expected Tue, 04 Jul 2017 04:00:00 +0000
New York Must Lead on Civil Rights http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7040-new-york-must-lead-on-civil-rights http://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7040-new-york-must-lead-on-civil-rights ellia at a school nysednews

(photo via @NYSEDNews)


The silence from D.C. is deafening.

As The Washington Post recently reported, “the Trump administration is reducing the role of the federal government in fighting discrimination and protecting minorities by cutting budgets, dissolving programs and appointing officials unsympathetic to previous practices.”

Earlier this month, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testified that “this department is not going to be issuing decrees” on major civil rights issues – even though interpreting and enforcing civil rights law is, in fact, the role of the agency she leads.

And Secretary DeVos’ agency then announced major changes that will dramatically weaken civil rights enforcement.

This lack of national leadership is shameful. But if the federal government is going to devolve its historic role protecting civil rights to the states, New York is well-positioned to be a beacon for the nation at a time when our students need it the most.

Building on significant work already underway by state leaders, there are three additional steps that New York should take.

First, New York must modernize its laws to protect students who are the victims of discrimination. Due to a court decision in 2012, the state’s Division of Human Rights has only been allowed to enforce anti-discrimination protections in private schools – not in public K-12 schools or public colleges and universities. These anti-discrimination protections should be immediately extended to all students in all public schools.

In fact, legislation has already been endorsed by Governor Cuomo and passed the Assembly. All that’s standing in the way of protecting students is a vote by the State Senate. The federal government’s abrogation of its duty to protect students should give new impetus to legislators from both parties to vote. When the Legislature returns in January, this bill deserves an immediate vote.

But there’s more the state can do right now.

Government also has a broader responsibility to set standards, investigate systemic disparities and enforce civil rights protections. The U.S. Department of Education could previously be counted on to issue guidelines specifying how federal laws and regulations should be interpreted, and then monitor and report on whether they are being properly implemented. Under President Obama, for example, guidelines were used to protect transgender students and to demand that colleges prevent and address sexual violence.

Not anymore. The federal guidelines protecting transgender students have already been rescinded, and the Office of Civil Rights’ budget would be decimated under the current president’s proposal. Where the federal government is newly silent, New York should take up the mantle on behalf of students. The Attorney General’s Office and State Education Department have already shown clear leadership – for example, protecting immigrant students and transgender students and committing resources and staff to monitor school districts – as has the Governor’s Office on issues including college sexual assault.

These three state offices should now work together to take additional steps to fill the federal vacuum – issuing or strengthening guidelines, conducting investigations, and publicly reporting on their findings. For example, disparities in access to college-prep coursework and the disproportionate use of exclusionary discipline such as suspensions are two issues ripe for greater focus from a civil rights perspective. And LGBT students, immigrant students, students with disabilities, and victims of sexual violence are only a few of the groups that would benefit from a sustained civil rights presence.

In addition, individuals and advocates have counted on the ability to file civil rights complaints with sympathetic U.S. Departments of Education and Justice. Since those federal agencies now can’t be counted on to stand up for students, the state needs to bulk up its enforcement mechanisms.

These important functions will no doubt require additional resources – an important reason that the state should plan now.

Finally, data is often what makes it possible to identify patterns of systemic injustice. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights operates a rich source of data on educational inequities called the Civil Rights Data Collection. These data shine a light on critical issues like access to college-prep courses, student discipline measures, and school staffing.

The State Education Department should commit to maintain this data collection (regardless of whether the federal government continues to require it), validate New York’s data so that it is accurate and actionable, and put it to use through standardized reporting and public tools. Acting now will send an important signal to school districts and provide time to request any additional resources needed to carry out these data integrity and dissemination functions.

Because if the federal government is going to abandon the students most at risk, we should be able to count on New York stepping up in their defense.

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Ian Rosenblum is the executive director of The Education Trust—New York. On Twitter @ianrosenblum & @EdTrustNY.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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New York Must Lead on Civil Rights Wed, 28 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Adjusting to Albany: Assemblymember Brian Barnwell http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6928-adjusting-to-albany-assemblymember-brian-barnwell http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6928-adjusting-to-albany-assemblymember-brian-barnwell Brian Barnwell nyambb

Assemblymember Brian Barnwell (photo via NY State Assembly District 30)


If Queens voters were looking for fresh face to represent them in Albany, they found it in Assemblymember Brian Barnwell.

The 30-year-old attorney beat out nine-time incumbent Assemblymember Margaret Markey during the September Democratic primary with a shocking 63.8 percent of the vote, and easily swept the general election against Republican Tony Nunziato. While Barnwell did well districtwide, many in Maspeth, Queens disapproved of Markey’s response to the city’s proposed homeless shelter in the neighborhood, a hot button issue that drew weeks of heated protests.

Barnwell is not new to the Albany area. After graduating Arizona State University, he obtained a law degree from Albany Law School. After working as a lawyer for several years, he worked as an aide in Queens City Council Member Costa Constantinides’ office. Now a lawmaker himself, Barnwell said he aims to find solutions for strengthening the middle class and those struggling to enter the middle class, and he has already put forward legislation related to affordable housing, senior issues, and workers’ safety. He spoke with Gotham Gazette in early May about New York’s affordable housing crisis, his first state budget experience, why it’s good to have millennials in the Legislature, and more.

Gotham Gazette (GG): What were your first few months like? Orientation?

Assemblymember Brian Barnwell (BB): “I thought everyone was all very helpful, the speaker’s staff were great, they’re all very nice and very helpful. The members themselves are still always saying, if you have any questions about anything, don’t be afraid to ask.

Honestly, as an attorney, when you graduate law school and you go to court, you are kind of thrown to the wolves as well. So you get used to it. You ask questions, if you have them, and if you don’t, you figure it out.

There was an orientation process, I think it was three days -- it feels like 80 years ago already. You get up there and they go over the basics. ‘This is who you go to if you have this issue.’ You know, ‘this is how the procedure how the Assembly works if you want to submit a bill.’ They go over the basics of bill drafting and indexing.

Same thing, when you are in law school, you learn the law. Usually, there are a couple classes you can take here and there, but mostly, when you get to court, you don’t know the ins and outs of the everyday procedure.

Same thing, obviously, when you are legislator, you know the things you want to change, but you don’t know how to change it. So you learn the procedure, the inherent procedure of the Assembly, and that’s what they teach you at orientation.”

GG: How do you juggle the weekly commute? Any favorite restaurants yet?

BB: “I actually went to law school up in Albany, so it’s not too different for me. When I was in law school, I’d take the Amtrak up, but now I drive up. I’m single, I don’t have any kids, so it’s not as bad for me as it would be for other members.

Favorite restaurant? I don’t necessarily have any. There is actually a good barbecue place called Capital Q [Smokehouse] though, over on Ontario (Street). That’s a pretty good. Wings over Albany is another good place. The normal stuff out on Wolf Road, by the mall, you have Cheesecake Factory and Texas Roadhouse, all those places.”

GG: You are one of the younger members of the Assembly -- not the youngest, that’s Assemblymember James Skoufis -- but still among the younger members of the Assembly. How do you think it benefits government and the state to have younger lawmakers representing them?

BB: “Someone asked me this the other day, and what I say is it’s good to have a good mix. There are some members that have been there a long time and it’s good to have their voices and then there are some newer members. I think in the last 6-8 years, there’s been a lot of new members that have been in.

Obviously, as time changes, there are new issues, that I’ve lived with myself. Like loans, for example, student loans. I’ve lived it, so I know all about it. Members who have been there 20 years, they may have loans too, but they haven’t had the same experience that I’ve had. So, it’s always good to have a good mixture of good backgrounds and ages, and it definitely comes into play. It’s definitely helpful to represent “

GG: In your district it’s particularly stark. You beat out a nine-term incumbent, and the uproar over the Maspeth homeless shelter certainly played a role. Housing issues are important to you. What are your thoughts on addressing homelessness, and more broadly, the city’s affordable housing shortage?

BB: “Actually, one of the major bills that I have deals with affordable housing. When they say it’s affordable, it’s laughable, it’s a headline -- it’s not affordable. One of the big reasons why, in my opinion, things are not affordable, is because the formula that determines quote-unquote what’s affordable, is they take the AMI, the average median income.

Basically, it’s supposed to say these are the average incomes of people of the area where they’re building the project. However, New York City has a ridiculous formula that when they want to build in New York City, they want to build in the Bronx, they want to build in Woodside, they want to build in Harlem, they have to take the AMI of the entire city, plus Westchester, Putnam, and Rockland Counties. We’ll use Harlem. The average income in Harlem is significantly lower than Westchester. When they build in Harlem and they are using the average incomes of Westchester and Putnam and Rockland County and Staten Island. The average income in Harlem is significantly lower than the AMI in Westchester.

My bill, it’s sponsored by Senator [Michael] Gianaris in the Senate, and we have about 22 co-sponsors in the Assembly. When they want to build “affordable housing,” they have to use the AMI of only the zip code where the project is located. If they build in Harlem, only the average income levels of people in Harlem will be considered. Not Westchester, not Rockland County, not Putnam County -- that’s just stupidity. In my opinion, not only does it help people in the community, but it deals with the homeless issue. That’s another reason why I supported Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi’s home stability plan. Because it keeps people in their homes. It keeps people who are in danger of losing their homes -- it would give them a subsidy which would help keep them in their homes.

If anyone says, ‘We shouldn’t take care the homeless,’ that’s idiocy. No. You’ve got to take care of everyone. You’ve got to take care of people in the state. If you are worried about the money part of it, then even more you should support Andrew Hevesi’s plan. Because the plan would save the city and the state millions of dollars. Instead of paying market rate -- they are charging $200 a night, to put someone in a hotel, like a paying customer -- instead of that you could spend a little bit of money and keep people in their homes.

So, the ideas are there, but the laws are not passing.”

GG: That leads me to my next question. Have you found it challenging to make your voice heard as a freshman legislator with such a large conference?

BB: There’s a big conference, a lot of people who have been there for a long time. And everyone’s been great, everyone’s been very nice, but there are people who have been there longer and have more pull -- that’s just the way it goes -- or their bills have been out for a long time. Some of these bills have been out there for 10 years and they are still trying to pass them. What I’ve done is draft the bills myself -- it’s one of the benefits of being a lawyer, I draft my own bills -- and then I just go speak to the members. You talk to them. Obviously the affordable housing issue is all over...I go over and ask them if they’ll sign on to the bill and about 20 members have signed on so far -- to the affordable housing one -- you’ve just got to put the legwork in.”

GG: Any challenges? You just survived a very difficult budget process...

BB: “I think the biggest annoyance is when a constituent needs help and you want to help them but you have to go through the agencies. It’s always a traffic signal, or a stop sign, or a speed bump, where it’s needed, right? And the constituent wants it, but you can’t just snap your fingers and make it happen. You have to go through the agency and the agency has to approve it. That’s frustrating. Sometimes obviously it doesn’t work out because the agency says ‘No, you can’t have the traffic light here.’

In regards to Albany, honestly the budget process was certainly long, but I don’t have a problem with that. In my opinion, it’s better to negotiate and negotiate and negotiate, instead of just doing the deal for the sake of doing a deal. I understand that [Governor Andrew] Cuomo likes to have his budget on time. But the budget shouldn’t be on time just to be on time. The budget should be thought out and reasoned and debated, I mean that’s the reason we have government. While it does take a while, and this one was extra special with how long it took to get done, I don’t have a problem with that.”

GG: As a lawyer, negotiating is your forte?

BB: “Exactly. It’s a negotiation. You’re not always going to get what you want, you negotiate, you come to an agreement, and live to fight another day.”

[Read more from our series, Adjusting to Albany: Meet NYC's New Class of State Legislators]

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Adjusting to Albany: Assemblymember Brian Barnwell Thu, 11 May 2017 18:40:11 +0000
Adjusting to Albany: Assemblymember Carmen De La Rosa http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6907-adjusting-to-albany-assemblymember-carmen-de-la-rosa http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/6907-adjusting-to-albany-assemblymember-carmen-de-la-rosa cndelarosa 5

Assemblymember Carmen De La Rosa (photo via @CnDelarosa)


Born in the Dominican Republic, Carmen De La Rosa immigrated as a child to Inwood, in upper Manhattan, where she was raised and still lives, now with her fiance and daughter. She launched her legislative career in 2007, working for Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell on the Upper West Side. She later became Democratic female district leader for the 72nd Assembly District and chief of staff to City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez.

With the backing of her former boss and Rodriguez’s mentor, then-State Senator Adriano Espaillat, the 30-year-old De La Rosa took on incumbent Assemblyman Guillermo Linares, a longtime rival of Espaillat. During the campaign, she defined herself as a feminist who understands the struggles of working families and immigrants, someone who could break barriers for the upper Manhattan district, which has long been dominated by male leadership.

Now in office, De La Rosa told Gotham Gazette in February that she is looking forward to making a difference in the community she has lived in her whole life, especially given the ascendance of an anti-immigrant Trump administration in Washington, D.C.

Gotham Gazette (GG): What was your first few weeks as a state legislator like? How was the orientation?

Carmen De La Rosa (CDLR): It’s been obviously very interesting — and busy —  getting to know the budget process and all the components of the budget and how to navigate our communities within that process. Also, learning the basic 101 of the legislative process, in addition to also getting our offices up and running for constituent services. So it definitely feels like longer than a month. But I definitely feel like everyone here is very helpful. There are a lot of people who can assist you with technical issues.

The training was very interesting. We got to meet the incoming class of members on the Assembly side and majority side. It was wonderful because you are able to meet other members from all different part of the state who are coming in with different perspectives, but we have one thing in common, which is we are all new here. We’ve sort of created a bond of helping each other out, because we have similar questions about like where a particular hearing room is, or how to get over to chamber quickly. So it’s been really high pace. It’s definitely a great place to be, coming from the City Council, it’s sort of government on a larger scale, so it’s a welcome challenge for me.

GG: How is the commute? Where do you stay? Any favorite restaurants yet?

CDLR: I’ve been taking the train. I actually am taking the train from the Yonkers stop. So I often either have my husband drop me off and I’ll come up. It’s only two hours and 15 minutes depending on how the rail is going.

It’s really good to come on the train; you get a lot done, a lot of reading and catching up. I really like the train ride actually because you are able to disconnect and sort of just get your footing in before you even come up to Albany. So you do all the reading on what bills are coming up, on committees and all of that. And when I’m coming back into my district work, so what community events are happening and things like that.

I haven’t found a favorite restaurant yet. We’ve been really busy this session and we had a few late nights with some votes. So I haven’t had much time to go out and explore. I am usually eating in the members lounge or in the cafeteria or the concourse, so I definitely have goals for later on in the session to go out and find a good restaurant.

GG: As a mother of a 2-year-old, is it hard to juggle the demands of parenthood and the job?

CDLR: Definitely, I haven’t been away from her since she was born and I’ve been really spoiled by being able to work in the city and come home to her every night. But I have a really good support system. My parents have both been very helpful, and my husband. And my mom has seven sisters so they’re great aunts, they are always coming over, pitching in.

My daughter is at the age that she’s in daycare during the day, and then she comes home and we Facetime. Then she asks me all these questions and I ask her about her day. She’s now at a point where she doesn’t fully understand what mommy is doing. Actually, the other day I asked her, I said, ‘Bye, mommy’s going to Albany!’ She said, ‘You’re going to work mommy!’ and I said ‘Do you know what mommy does at work?’ and she says, ‘Talk to a lot of people!’ So she doesn’t really understand everything. But she understands that I’m up in Albany and I feel lucky because she’s been adjusting very well.

GG: You enter state government under such a strange climate with President Donald Trump’s administration moving forward with its anti-immigrant agenda. Has that shifted your priorities for the coming year?

CDLR: Absolutely. I think that actually contributed to the fact that in my brain, it feels longer than a month. Because very soon after I came to Albany, Trump was inaugurated and since then, especially in our district, it’s been protest after protest, demonstration after demonstration.

As a immigrant woman here at the state Legislature, we actually in the Assembly have been able to pass bills about protecting immigrant communities against registries....we did a ton of criminal justice reform bills. So for me, I feel like I’m in the front seat of something that is so important for the protection of immigrant communities and communities of color throughout the state. I just feel privileged and honored to have a seat at that table and be able to actually take these votes that are having significant impact in our communities and understanding the dynamics of the [Republican-controlled] Senate, and really pushing on this, so that some of those things can be adopted by the Legislature.

Being able to be in the [Democratic] Assembly Majority, and actually be able push for these things is really important. I think now for us to have a voice in what’s happening nationally and we show our constituents that on a state level there are some protections that can be put in place.

GG: As a freshman legislator, do you feel like you have gotten floor time where you really got to make your voice heard?

CDLR: Yes, I did! The first week we came in and voted on a ton of bills about contraception and women’s rights. They were health bills. So those bills were really important to me as a woman, as a woman who is pro-choice, and especially with what is happening on a national level with women and Planned Parenthood. In addition, I did have floor time last week -- which was my first time speaking on the floor -- about the Dream Act, and the Assembly was able to pass the Dream Act.

I spoke about my experiences being an immigrant woman, coming to the country as a child, and knowing that education -- and the opportunity to be educated -- has certainly made a difference in my life. And what we hope we could lead for our children and the children that are coming from other countries around the world and may not have that opportunity to follow the American dream.

I was very excited to be able to speak up on that. And yesterday I spoke up about the ‘Raise the Age’ conversation and the importance of doing that in New York State.

GG: Any surprises? Disappointments?

CDLR: No disappointments yet. I am still coming with a new person’s -- I’m not burnt out yet -- so I’m really coming with a fresh, hope perspective which I hope doesn’t die. But I have been very inspired with the passion that I see coming from all over the state on some of these issues. It doesn’t matter if you come from upstate or downstate.

A lot of the members of the chamber have really taken leadership roles when it comes to speaking out about women’s rights, immigrant rights, and that has really been a pleasant surprise for me here.

[Read more from our series, Adjusting to Albany: Meet NYC's New Class of State Legislators]

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Adjusting to Albany: Assemblymember Carmen De La Rosa Thu, 11 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000