ALBANY, N.Y. — They’re trying to run themselves out of town.
Nearly a dozen state legislators are looking to exit Albany by getting themselves elected to City Council or city wide office.
Political observers say it is striking that so many state legislators who have major say over city issues — at times more so than the City Council — are ready to risk their elected positions for a bid to become a borough president, public advocate or Council member. State legislators get to vote on mayoral control of schools and public housing and have substantial say over public transit through direct oversight of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Legislators who are running for city seats include Sens. Eric Adams, Daniel Squadron, Assembly members Micah Kellner, Vanessa Gibson, Inez Barron, Rafael Espinal and former Assemblyman Vito Lopez. Sens. Tony Avella and Jose Peralta dropped their bids for Queens Borough President.
So why would a state legislator want to abandon their seat? There are more reasons than you might realize.
“There are a number of factors that have been building over the years that have contributed to what some might see as a move backwards from state government to the city government,” said William Eimicke, a former deputy secretary under Mario Cuomo and a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
Eimicke cites the implementation of term limits in the city as a major factor that is drawing legislators to the city as well as at least the perception that the Council has grown in power.
“The Council has become a more visible force since the elimination of the board of estimate,” Eimicke said. “Meanwhile, the environment for state legislators has become very difficult because of corruption and bad press. They think, ‘Why should I be part of a body with such a bad rep when I can be closer to home and part of a body with a reputation that is not as bad?’”
Gerald Benjamin, a professor of political science at SUNY New Paltz, said in an email that officials tend to prefer state to local offices. "But it hasn't been uncommon for people to leave the Assembly or the Senate to seek local office," he said. "The key issue is the individual's reason for seeking office in the first place. Status? Power? Paycheck? Stepping stone? There is little real power in NYC office outside the mayoralty or the comptrollership, while there is real power in the state Legislature."
Scandal, Scandal, Scandal
Albany has become a dirty word to some voters who can’t help but associate legislators with corruption. And, this year, things seemed to get worse.
Former Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith and Councilman Dan Halloran were indicted in a scheme to buy Smith a spot on the Republican mayoral ticket.
And former Bronx Assemblyman Nelson Castro made a deal with the Bronx District Attorney to become a mole after he was caught lying under oath. Castro claimed his work led to the bribery case against Bronx Assemblyman Eric Stevenson. But that wasn’t the end of it.
Legislators now nervously joke they aren’t sure who is wearing a wire.
Beneath the jokes is a current of fear that no one can be trusted and that law enforcement is deeply focused on finding corruption in Albany — especially amongst city-based legislators.
“It makes people really nervous,” said one legislator who requested anonymity. “People would rather work with a thief than with a snitch.”
Then there was the case of former Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez.
Lopez was planning a bid for the City Council when it was announced that he would be voted out of office by his peers back in May. Lopez faced mounting pressure as more and more details about allegations of sexual harassment of a number of his young female staffers became public. Lopez resigned his Assembly office before he was officially voted out. He quickly refocused on the Council seat in the 34th district of Brooklyn despite criticism from the political establishment and women’s groups.
“I expect to run a vigorous campaign on the issues facing the citizens of my community and hope to continue to serve them as a member of the City Council,” Lopez wrote in a letter announcing his resignation from the Assembly in June. “I believe that the voters of the community should decide who should represent them.”
Lopez’s long-standing influence over local elections and a gigantic campaign chest mean he has the advantage over his opponents despite the scandal that saw him stripped of his seniority, fined over $300,000 and driven from state office.
More Power or More People
For candidates like Sens. Eric Adams and Daniel Squadron, running for larger city offices gives them the chance at a greater constituency, an increased platform to discuss constituent issues and a base to build a political future.
Squadron, who is running for public advocate in the Democratic primary, touts his legacy in Albany. “I'm really proud of the work I've done as a legislator, getting real results,” he said. “Securing over $1 billion in federal funds for New York City public housing, writing landmark gun laws, passing ethics reform into law, and more.”
But he says he is running for public advocate “because I believe I can make a real difference for communities around the city who are too often left out and left behind. In a city that often feels like a large state or a small nation rather than our local government, that role is key. I've released a detailed plan to make the Public Advocate's office essential and get results for children, seniors, and families who need a voice in City Hall."
Squadron won his senate seat with the backing of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and enjoys a close friendship with mentor Congressman Chuck Schumer. The public advocate’s office would allow Squadron to build a name for himself for a future run for mayor while insulating himself from the chaos in Albany.
Adams said that the position of Brooklyn Borough President, “presents an enormous opportunity for me to improve the lives of New Yorkers in a new and exciting way. As the advocate for more than 2.5 million people.”
Bill Mahoney of the New York Public Interest Group says many legislators find themselves unable to actually make any sort of impact once they get to Albany. Squadron has carried bills on protecting New Yorkers from gender discrimination, fought to save Brooklyn hospitals and introduced anti-gun legislation that he fiercely campaigned for but the power structure in Albany saw some of the legislation sit in committee because it isn’t of interest to the senate majority.
The power structure in the Legislature prevents members of the minority parties from passing much of anything and even rank-and-file members of the Assembly Democratic majority find themselves used by Silver simply as votes — not as legislators with ideas to bring to the table.
“These members can grow disgruntled with having to sit through all-night sessions with trajectories they cannot alter, and often seek to further their careers in local offices,” Mahoney said. Legislators across the state have grown frustrated with the minimum impact they make in the Legislature and seek local seats where they will have more power," he continued.
He gave the examples of two top-ranking officials in Erie County who are former Senate Democrats; and a former Republican Assembly member who ran for Town Highway Superintendent on Long Island.
“Albany’s dysfunctional power imbalance could have played a role in motivating several of this year’s New York City candidates to run for an office closer to home,” Mahoney said.
Eimicke agrees and says he thinks it will take a shift in the balance of power in Albany to make a job as a state legislator a more attractive opportunity.
“I think it has literally been decades that the same regimes held control at least for most of the last 40 years in the Assembly and Senate,” said Eimicke. “If you see yourself as a leader, Albany doesn’t have a lot of options. You think to yourself I can’t have an impact here and I probably never will.”
Location, Location, Location
Doug Muzzio, professor of public affairs at Baruch College, points to former Mayor Ed Koch’s description of Albany as “a city without a good Chinese restaurant” as an example of why legislators may want a new gig. Albany may have gotten a few more decent Chinese restaurants since Koch’s heyday but his overall point remains salient. For those used to living the big-city lifestyle, Albany remains a backwater town where legislators remain rather tight knit, gathering at the same few steak joints and Italian eateries, meeting at the same bars, or hiding in their hotel rooms until it is time to get back to their districts.
“It’s difficult to imagine why anybody would want to spend less time in upstate New York, but some politicians do appear to tire of weekly Amtrak journeys,” said Bill Mahoney, Albany resident and research coordinator for The New York Public Interest Research Group, with a tinge of sarcasm.
And Muzzio agrees that travel is an issue — two and a half hours on an Amtrak train to and from Albany, or an even longer car ride with the ever-present specter of traffic jams on the Tappan Zee, or inclement weather on the Taconic.
Eimicke notes that there has been more scrutiny over travel reimbursement in Albany which might hamper some legislators’ style. And he adds, “Albany is nowhere to legislators from the city. Even if you are doing a great job in Albany; nobody knows and nobody cares.”
City Issues Ignored
The power structure in Albany also impacts city legislator’s abilities to press the issues that matter most to their constituents. DREAM Act legislation, reducing penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act and other major issues have failed to come for a vote before both houses of the legislature.
Sen. Kevin Parker has repeatedly questioned the current power structure in Albany. “Why should I vote for the governor’s agenda if he won’t listen to what is important to me?”
The power-sharing deal in the Senate between the Independent Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans has seen a number of these major issues bottled up.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not pressed on these issues since it became clear the Senate was not going to act. Meanwhile, the Senate has also prevented major reform on campaign finance and ethics. Some city legislators say it is hard to come home to their district and explain to their constituents why the Legislature has not acted on some of their signature legislation.
Eimicke said being closer to home can mean a lot to a politician. “ There is more media coverage in New York with NY1 and other Internet sources,” Eimicke said. “I think it leads legislators to think, ‘It is probably better to be in the neighborhood more, maybe it is a better use of my time.’”
Two Assembly members are abandoning their seats to replace their term-limited allies in the City Council who hope to win a place in the Assembly — in other words, they are trying to swap seats.
Assemblywoman Inez Barron, the wife of City Councilman Charles Barron, is running to replace her term-limited husband. If she wins, her husband will enter the special election for his wife’s Assembly seat.
“I'm not just pushing my wife 'cause she's my wife,” Charles Barron told Brooklyn Bureau in July. “We had joint staff meetings with our offices for all of this stuff. She would be excellent to continue the vision of rebuilding East New York.”
A similar situation could play out in the 37th State Assembly District where Councilman Erik Martin Dilan is term limited from running again.
Assemblyman Rafael Espinal, who was a long-time Dilan staffer before he ran for state office, is now seeking to replace his former boss. Espinal was accused of being a placeholder for Dilan when he ran for the Assembly seat in 2011. At the time, Espinal dodged interviews with the Gazette and evaded others questions about his loyalties to Councilman Dilan and his father, state Sen. Martin Dilan.
At one point after a scheduled interview had been rescheduled a number of times, Espinal’s spokesman Michael Olmeida said he would finally arrange an interview if The Gazette didn’t ask the questions “everyone else is asking.” The interview was not arranged.
Olmeida was also a longtime Dilan employee and faced questions about whether he was working on the campaign while getting paid for doing his other gig. Eimicke says he expects to see more place holder candidates now that we are starting to see the council members term limited out of office.
Working in the city also pays more. State legislators make around $80,000 a year and have the chance to earn a little more if they get named to a committee compared to Council members’ $112,000-a-year salary; borough presidents who make $160,000 a year; and the public advocate who earns a $165,000 annual salary.