photo via The Governor's Office
There was great cause for celebration during the annual winter weekend gathering of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Legislative Caucus. After a number of years of feeling pushed aside by Gov. Andrew Cuomo there is a strong sense among caucus members that they finally have the governor's ear. Much to the gratification of state legislators of color - who largely represent parts of New York City - Cuomo has made a number of the caucus' priorities regarding criminal, social, and economic justice part of his platform and is campaigning for them publicly.
"Here we are a year later and so many good things have happened in a positive way just because they now have somebody who looks like us to sit at the table and negotiate," Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, the first African-American elevated to that position, told a gathering at the Wilborn Temple First Church in Albany on Sunday.
"They're now talking about raising the minimum wage, they're now talking about paid family leave, the highest investment and opportunity programs for our young people to go to college, the largest investment in education and aid increase in the history of the state of New York, and that was last year," Heastie told the excited group of attendees, referring to the governor and other legislators.
Caucus weekend is an annual tradition where members of the BPHA Caucus gather in Albany for speeches, workshops, networking, and celebrations.
For many legislators in the nearly 60-member caucus, Heastie's rise to leadership is icing on the cake - a cake baked over years of pushing to the fore issues of importance to their constituents. A great number of caucus members chalk up Cuomo's priority shifts to caucus members' lobbying, strategizing, and joint efforts with labor and activist groups. They take pride in the governor's focus on things like a minimum wage increase and paid family leave, "Raise the Age," and a bill to appoint a special prosecutor in the event of a police killing of an unarmed civilian. In many ways, they say, the priorities of their districts have become mainstream, and rightfully so.
On Sunday of caucus weekend last year, Cuomo held a brunch in Heastie's honor at the Executive Mansion where, according to Politico New York, Cuomo called Heastie a leader "for the entire state." Senate Republicans have tried to characterize Heastie and the Assembly's agenda as New York City-centric.
This past week, Cuomo was in Harlem for a rally in support of his paid family leave proposal. He used some of his speaking time to focus on racial equality. "The economic inequality is actually compounded by something else and that is the racial inequality. It is bad to be poor and white, but on the numbers it is worse to be poor and a minority. That is the truth," Cuomo told the crowd made up largely of people of color, including a number of state lawmakers.
Still, caucus members are not necessarily kicking their feet up. They now see their main objective as not only making sure Cuomo delivers on these issues during budget negotiations, but that he does so in a way they favor. There is debate in the caucus about how far to push Cuomo, and what is actually reasonable to expect from him.
A number of members see Cuomo's proposals relating to criminal and economic justice as not going far enough, while some see other proposals as misleading or damaging despite having been designed to address an issue important to the caucus. Other members are concerned with making sure their requests of Cuomo are reasonable, pragmatic, and sacrifice the unattainable for the attainable.
"I believe that some of what we see is due to the consistency in the messaging of our caucus members," said Assembly Member Nick Perry of Brooklyn, who chairs the caucus. "Our members have continued to push certain issues while a number of them hold important legislative positions. We are also more united and organized than we have been and we have become more realistic in how the body engages on issues."
Perry's pragmatic approach jibes with the governor's, but has also alienated some newer members who are less interested in playing politics and want to see immediate results.
"We have advocated very effectively with the governor," said Perry. "I have said that I admire the governor's approach because my observation is he is mostly realistic in what he rolls out. That approach is one that I support and that I adopt for myself. I don't want to go to the governor with things that look good, sound good, but are not doable. I am focused like a lazer on doing things, not on soundbites."
The DREAM Act
One major issue that could cause consternation within the caucus is The DREAM Act. Assembly Member Francisco Moya of Queens, who sponsors the bill in the Assembly, said he believes that the legislature is closer than ever to becoming law.
"I think our priorities showing up in the governor's budget is absolutely a testament to our strength, unity, and ability to push the issues that matter most to our communities," said Moya of the DREAM Act, which would allow state financial aid to go to undocumented immigrants. "Three years ago we were told the DREAM Act was dead and now it's been in the executive budget for two years. It's because our issues don't just resonate in our communities anymore, but in communities across the state."
Moya criticized Cuomo earlier this year for not mentioning the DREAM Act in his State of the State and budget address, though he was pleased to see the act included in the budget.
He now says that discussions are ongoing with the Cuomo administration and that a number of options are on the table. It seems unlikely to many that the act has any chance to pass in an election year when Senate Republicans, who control that chamber, have campaigned against it in the past. But some legislators believe Cuomo could take executive action to show his commitment to the issue. That possibility was in play last year after Cuomo removed the DREAM Act from budget negotiations but advocates were torn about whether executive action would help or hurt the cause.
Perry however, doubts that current political realities will allow much movement on the bill. "We know there are some things that are just never gonna happen," said Perry. "Things that act like a poison pill in the pot. We are cognisant that no one is going to cut their head off just to make a deal."
Perry said he believes it could be politically impossible for Senate Republicans to support the measure. "The Dream Act is a significantly tough one," said Perry. "The Republicans have made it out to be more of a monster than it could ever be. They have backed themselves into a position that makes it impossible to do unless something changes. They've used the issue to bring out votes."
Cuomo's legislation to name a special prosecutor in the event of a police shooting of an unarmed civilian is a main concern to caucus members who are happy to see Cuomo address the issue but see the legislation he included in his budget bills as weaker than his standing executive order that allows Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to look into such cases.
"While I applaud the governor for putting it in his budget, I think we would be better served if the role of special prosecutor wasn't taken out of the hands of the attorney general," said Moya.
Cuomo's bill would create an office to advise the governor whether to call for a special prosecutor in the case of a police killing of a civilian. Caucus members generally see Cuomo's bill as creating an unfunded office to do the job the attorney general is currently tasked with.
Cuomo sent a mixed message during his State of the State address, telling legislators they could back Assembly Member Keith Wright's bill that would create a permanent special prosecutor's office within the AG's office, while including his own bill in the budget.
"Assemblyman Keith Wright has advocated for such a law for over a decade," Cuomo said at the time. "It is an historic achievement and it should not be left to my executive order. Make it yours, make it permanent, pass the bill," Cuomo said.
Perry said he believes the governor's heart is in the right place and his support of the measure means there is room to negotiate. "The governor's proposal is not perfect but it moves things forward in a very big way. We know it has to be tweaked and fixed in some ways but that's a part of process."
Cuomo spokesman Frank Sobrino said in a statement that the onus is on the Legislature to act on the special prosecutor bill they prefer. "The Governor has taken bold action to address significant public concerns and ensure that there is an independent entity tasked with addressing police fatality cases. We believe the Legislature needs to act to create—in law—an independent office to review these cases, ensuring that all New Yorkers, regardless of race or ethnicity, have trust in our criminal justice system."
Legislators and advocates will be ready to push Cuomo to issue another executive order appointing Schneiderman as special prosecutor should Senate Republicans block legislative action, said Sen. Gustavo Rivera, the Senate sponsor of Wright's bill.
Raise the Age & Bail Reform
Assembly Member Gary Pretlow, a caucus member who represents part of Westchester, said that "Raise the Age," a campaign to increase the age of criminal responsibility and prevent New York from treating 16- and 17-year-olds as adults upon arrest, is what he most wants to see Cuomo deliver on. "Raise the Age is so important because so many lives have been ruined by the records that have been created--it's an employment thing, you can't get a job when you've got a record, it's not so much about prison."
Cuomo took executive action last year to move the state's relatively small teenage prison population to a separate facility after the Legislature failed to act on his legislation. However, teenagers are still arrested and processed as adults, leaving them to be interviewed by police without their parents present and eventually subject to the stigma of a criminal record that juvenile offenders don't have. Some caucus members took issue with how the governor proposed to change the process last year, worrying that Cuomo's bill wouldn't do enough to protect teens. The bill would allow courts to consider adjudicated youthful offender cases to be considered in future cases. Advocates and some Democratic legislators felt the stipulation undermines the purpose of classifying someone as a youthful offender. Negotiations on the details will likely take place later this year, but it is unclear that Senate Republicans have any interest in taking up the issue.
Meanwhile, caucus members are also concerned that Cuomo's bail reform proposal could actually fill prisons rather than reduce the number of people waiting in jail for their day in court.
There is a feeling among a number of younger caucus members that some of Cuomo's criminal justice proposals are superficial. Legislators who have been pushing Cuomo to enact legislation mandating certain prisoners be kept in facilities within a reasonable traveling distance of their families were heartened to see a proposal in Cuomo's policy book titled "Increase Opportunities for Families to Stay Close During Incarceration," but upon closer inspection they found that the program is not designed to keep prisoners physically closer to their families. "To help maintain these incarcerated individuals ties with family, the Governor will invest $300,000 to expand a successful video visitation program between incarcerated parents and their children," reads the policy book. "The state will also explore the use of secure e-mail communication tools for use by incarcerated individuals and their families."
Proof in the Pudding
Many caucus members are going to judge Cuomo's commitment to their issues on his follow through when budget negotiations hit the wire. Cuomo dropped the DREAM Act from his budget early in negotiations last year. Cuomo later tried to tie passage of the DREAM Act to an education tax credit favored by Senate Republicans. Cuomo publicly campaigned for the tax credit but not the DREAM Act, irking the latter's supporters. Cuomo has not linked the two this year and he has rarely mentioned the Dream Act.
Moya said he is still waiting to see Cuomo apply the same sort of force he has on the fight for a $15 minimum wage, marriage equality, and the SAFE Act to the DREAM Act. "I think it is incumbent on the governor to fight for the DREAM Act as hard as he is fighting and has fought on other issues," said Moya. "It's time for him to really show his leadership. We've seen when the governor wants a controversial bill he can get the other side to go along with it."
Perry said that he believes the caucus is in a new place with the governor--instead of making great demands of him, they are now at the table negotiating details. "I don't want to be in a situation where the only reason we get something is because we flex our muscle. I want folks to look at our proposals and say 'this is reasonable, it's not going overboard.' There are some tough tasks that need getting done but we want to make sure that we don't mess up a good session by putting the impossible in the way of the possible."
Rivera said that he agrees that the caucus has made strides by being more pragmatic. "There are some folks who are certainly more vocal and critical, but I'm not going to tell them to be quiet," he told Gotham Gazette. "The experiences they've had and the pain they have is real. Our job is to actually get things passed. We have to get things moving and you may want ten steps but can only move four. Some people may only settle for 10 and I don't ask them to be quiet about it."
Despite some criticism and concerns, caucus members are extremely invigorated to have Cuomo pushing some of the concepts they hold most dear, like a higher minimum wage and paid family leave, as well as "Raise the Age" and more. Members attribute that to the work they have done in concert with labor and advocacy groups to push economic issues as "common sense" to New Yorkers across the state to the point that it didn't make political sense for Cuomo to ignore them.
The Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Caucus will be focused on the details during budget negotiations in the coming months. And while members are happy to see Cuomo backing their issues in theory, many of them say they know who they must rely on to do the heavy lifting. "Our real champion at the negotiating table is Speaker Heastie," Moya told Gotham Gazette. "Just look at this, it is the first time in the history of New York state that we have an African-American speaker and he has been doing a tremendous job championing the issues the governor has now brought up."