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The City Council Definition of Women's Issues


Council Member Cumbo at a Women's History Month celebration (photo: Ben Max)

On Monday, March 30, the New York City Council will host a Women's History Month celebration at City Hall. Council members will likely celebrate women heroes of city government, past and present, and acknowledge the history-making leadership of both Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the first Latina to hold the position, and Public Advocate Letitia James, a former council member who is the first woman of color elected to city-wide office.

At a different Women's History Month celebration last Friday evening in Brooklyn, Mark-Viverito lamented the fact that there are currently only 15 women among the Council's 51 members. She also said that with six, including herself, term-limited out of office after 2017, there is a need to recruit a new wave of women to run for local office. There's a good chance this message will be echoed Monday night in Council Chambers.

Monday's event will come on the heels of a month of City Council preliminary budget hearings held in those very chambers. One such hearing, on Tuesday, March 17, featured the Council's Committee on Women's Issues, which is chaired by Council Member Laurie Cumbo. Without one clearly defined city agency to call in for budget oversight on its own - like, for example, the Education Committee has the city's Department of Education - the women's issues committee is matched with other committees for budget proceedings. Groupings are not uncommon, as there are 38 council issue committees. But, Women's Issues is one of only a handful of council committees dedicated to a specific demographic group and where it fits for its budget hearings defines its focus narrowly.

Because it has jurisdiction over child development, for budget hearings the Committee on Women's Issues joins the Committee on General Welfare and the Committee on Juvenile Justice to analyze the budget of the city's Administration for Children's Services (ACS). For budget purposes, it means a definition of "women's issues" as those related to children, poverty, and families in crisis.

On the City Council website, the women's issues committee has the following description: "Issues relating to public policy concerns of women, domestic violence, Office to Combat Domestic Violence and Agency for Child Development."

As Mark-Viverito, Cumbo, and many others readily note, the "public policy concerns of women" are unlimited. Asked by Gotham Gazette for more clarity on the budget hearing grouping, council sources pressed that the Council has been extremely active in addressing a wide variety of issues important to women and that female council members are at the forefront in many ways - points that are true, of course, especially considering that both the speaker and the powerful finance committee chair (Julissa Ferreras) are women.

When asked to further explain the budget hearing grouping, Council Member Cumbo said in a statement, "Through our collaboration with the Committees on General Welfare and Juvenile Justice, we have worked to assess the operations of the City agencies most frequently used by women and families."

This set-up is not new: since 2009 the Committee on Women's Issues has been partnered with the Committee on General Welfare for preliminary and executive budget hearings. The Committee on Juvenile Justice has been part of this group for three years. These trends span multiple council speakers and mayors, of course, as well as chairs of each of the three committees. The Women's Issues Committee is one of the smallest in the Council, with just five members.

Getting at her committee's much broader focus than what its budget hearings indicate, Cumbo also said that Women's Issues "is uniquely positioned to address the challenges faced by the millions of women who make up more than half of our city's population. We have a broad responsibility to ensure that women from all walks of life have access to critical programs and services to meet their personal, familial, and professional obligations." She points to wage equity, education, entrepreneurship, and affordable housing among key issues she is focused on as chair.

Since the start of 2014, when Cumbo became chair, Women's Issues has held joint hearings with the a variety of other committees including education, finance, civil rights, public safety, and health, among others. These groupings, unlike that for the budget, suggest the reality, that all issues are "women's issues."

To that end, women members of the City Council meet as a Women's Caucus - as do the Council's Jewish members, LGBT members, and Black, Latino and Asian members - and evaluates how to best influence public policy of all kinds. Of these four caucuses, the only one with a parallel council committee is women's. Perhaps the Women's Issues chair should be at most, if not all, council budget hearings.

On the subject, Democratic political consultant and City & State columnist Alexis Grenell said, "We have a tremendous amount of female leadership right now in New York City, a feminist Mayor, and receptive male colleagues in government. It's a very interesting time to expand the conversation about so called "women's issues" beyond traditional categories and think about what a gender mainstreaming agenda might look like."

Council Member Stephen Levin is the chair of the General Welfare Committee. On the subject of why his committee is partnered with Women's Issues for budget hearings, he emphasized that it should not be read into too heavily.

"There's a significant amount of overlap in the issues that we work on with the women's committee," said Levin. "So when you're talking about child care, child welfare issues, there's certainly an area when we've done joint hearings." He concluded, "I wouldn't read too much into it other than there are a lot of times that we do work closely together."

At the preliminary budget hearing, Cumbo gave opening remarks, acknowledging that it is Women's History Month - calling it "herstory" month - and recognizing the great strides that women have made and will continue to make. She singled out Speaker Mark-Viverito and Public Advocate James for their remarkable achievements. She also spoke about the work that the Administration for Children's Services (ACS) must do to "positively impact the women and girls of New York, including women and girls of color that face even greater economic disparities."

With Mark-Viverito and James, Cumbo will co-host the event at City Hall Monday evening, as she did a Women's History Month event in Brooklyn on March 20 with colleague Jumaane Williams.

Pointing to the overarching mission of her committee, Cumbo said at the budget hearing that it is essential the City supports children and families, "while also empowering the women across our city."

She told Gotham Gazette that she is continuing to explore "future opportunities to work with multiple Committees year-round to identify effective ways to cultivate a more inclusive society where any woman can reach her full potential."

by Shannon Ho and Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Debate Over Evaluations Leaves Teachers Frustrated


Governor Cuomo (photo: Governor's Office via flickr)

A room full of high school students was answering questions on an excerpt from Stephen Hawking's "The (Elusive) Theory of Everything." The result of the exam could significantly affect their academic future. Also hanging in the balance: the evaluation their English teacher would receive - as well as those to be received by their art, Spanish and music teachers.

"The test is designed to fail both us and the students," said English teacher Jennifer Onopa. In January, her 10th graders were among students across New York who took a Common Core-aligned English Regents exam consisting mostly of science-based reading passages. And, because of a twist in the law, teachers of subjects not tested by the State would also see a portion of their fates decided by the students' scores.

New York's teachers and students are caught in the middle of a political battle. As the April 1 deadline for the state budget approaches, Governor Andrew Cuomo does not seem ready to compromise on his education reform demands, which include shifts to teacher evaluations and tenure rules. On the other side, teachers unions and their political allies are also holding their ground, rebuking the governor's agenda.

The ongoing and contentious debate around overhauling the system of teacher evaluations is likely to extend beyond budget negotiations and into the legislative session to follow.

Changes to the evaluation system would affect how New York's public school teachers are measured, when they earn tenure, and whether they are fired. To pressure state legislators to accept the changes he wants, Cuomo is using education funding as a bargaining chip. The governor is making a $1.1 billion increase in education spending in the state budget contingent on his reforms, which include raising the significance of test scores in teacher evaluations and extending the probationary period before tenure is granted. If the state Legislature rejects his changes, funding for schools would increase by markedly less: $337 million. If an evaluation system overhaul is pushed post-budget, it is unclear what the funding level might be.

In his January State of the State Address, Cuomo called the current evaluation system "baloney." He highlighted the discrepancy between only 38 percent of New York high school students being college ready while 96 percent of teachers were rated "effective" or "highly effective."

Under the current system, 60 percent of teachers' evaluations are based on classroom observations by internal evaluators. These observations are usually done by the school's principal, taking into account the many qualitative aspects of teaching. Based on the Danielson Framework, evaluators look at factors such as a teacher's knowledge of their subject, effective communication with students, and creating a classroom environment of respect.

State standardized tests currently count for 20 percent of the evaluation. The remaining 20 percent is based on local measures, such as school or district-based exams. Under the revisions Cuomo proposed in January, 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation would be based on state standardized tests. The weight of internal observations would decrease to 15 percent and 35 percent would depend on external observers, though it is not clear who those observers would be. Use of local measures would be eliminated.

On tenure reform, Cuomo is calling for a system whereby a teacher would have to be rated "qualified" for five consecutive years, instead of three, to obtain tenure status. An "unqualified" rating for two consecutive years could get a teacher fired.

Teachers' unions oppose the governor's proposed reforms. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, and Democrats in the state Legislature, especially the Democratically-dominated Assembly, are also against the changes. During a February budget hearing in Albany, Fariña explained her opposition, saying, "I was a teacher for more than 20 years and if I was only measured in test scores, that would have only been a little bit of my work."

As Fariña pointed out, Cuomo's reforms risk making teachers' evaluations even less representative of the actual quality of the teaching. With 50 percent of their evaluation on the line, teachers may increasingly focus their teaching on students' performance on standardized tests. An added emphasis on teaching to the test would, many argue, greatly compromise the qualitative aspects of teaching.

Teachers like Onopo, as well as parents, are also questioning the content and difficulty level of the state exams, particularly under the new Common Core standards. These factors are leading more and more parents to have their children "opt out" of standardized tests. Cuomo's proposal seems inconsistent with the public mood of increasing opposition to Common Core standardized tests. This is reflected in the latest Quinnipiac University poll, which shows that only 28 percent of voters approve of the governor's handling of education. The poll also showed that voters trust the teachers unions more than Cuomo to improve education.

The new evaluation criteria could potentially put the most pressure on teachers of English Language Learners. Around 14 percent of students in New York City are categorized as ELLs. As non-native English speakers routinely score lower on English standardized tests, the evaluations of those teaching ELLs across the state would suffer for reasons unconnected to their teaching. This would be a huge disincentive for those considering teaching in schools with high proportions of ELLs.

A further complication is that state standardized tests are not administered for all subjects and grades. While there are exams for English, Science, Mathematics, and Social Studies, there are no standardized tests for art, music, drama, physical education or foreign languages. Presently, 20 percent of the evaluation of teachers of these classes is based on exams for subjects that they do not teach. With the weight for standardized tests increasing to 50 percent, their job could largely depend on someone else's work. "If this were any other profession, there would be rebellion," says English and Drama teacher Jason Zanitsch. "If you took the word 'education' out of the equation and proposed this in any business in the country, people would dismiss it out of hand."

Along the lines of what Zanitsch envisions, teachers and their allies have been repeatedly protesting Cuomo's policies in Albany and elsewhere.

The governor's plan is not clear on how teachers of non-tested subjects would be evaluated. Teachers fear a situation where half of an art teacher's evaluation would hinge on student performance on a science exam. "This thing that I know, that I've dedicated my career to, can make a huge difference in people's lives...They're saying that what matters is the math score," says music teacher Eric Dalio.

The current evaluation system certainly has flaws. Principals are often overburdened and unable to properly conduct classroom observations. And few objective observers would believe that only 1 percent of the state's teachers are "ineffective." Teachers unions have become extremely powerful, making it difficult to remove even the least competent teachers. Instead of acknowledging flaws in the system, unions are adopting a largely combative approach.

Cuomo has called public education "the great discriminator," with separate systems for the rich and poor. However, the governor's financial ultimatum is putting already disadvantaged students in a lose-lose situation. If school funding is not increased in the budget, these students would be the most affected. While some schools can draw on donations from parents, schools with students from lower income families often rely entirely on public funding.

Zanitsch says his school, where most students are from low-income families, is owed $1.3 million in funding from federal Race to the Top programming and the New York Campaign for Fiscal Equity court ruling. "$1.3 million would mean five teachers, all our after-school funding, iPads for every student. That much money is transformational," he explains. On the other hand, if the evaluation reforms are passed, struggling schools could lose good teachers who would be reluctant to teach where students do not perform well on standardized tests.

With negotiations ongoing, there is uncertainty and unease among educators. It already appears to be taking a toll. As Dalio explains, "It makes it frustrating to come to work and do what I love."

Zehra Rehman is pursuing a graduate degree in Journalism and International Relations at NYU.

Democrats Frustrated by Governor Backing Off Party's Issues

Cuomo Heastie ethics

Cuomo and Heastie agree on ethics reforms (photo: Governor's Office via flickr)

On Tuesday Gov. Andrew Cuomo told reporters that the DREAM Act and the Education Investment Tax Credit (EITC) he had paired were no longer part of budget negotiations. For many Black and Latino legislators the news was painful - they had pushed Cuomo to include the DREAM Act as part of his budget after he and Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul campaigned on the issue across the city this summer. But there was also a sinking sense of deja vu.

"DREAM Act, ETC are very important. Two different reasons, two different constituencies, but both get to the same point, which is access to education," Cuomo told reporters during a visit to the state Senate chambers Tuesday. "We have no agreement. We are nowhere close to an agreement."

A number of city-based legislators, especially from the Senate, say they have been repeatedly burned by a governor who is willing to talk about their issues on the stump to earn votes from their constituents but not willing to actually expend political capital to move their issues when the opportunity presents itself. They are increasingly concerned that Cuomo is willing to cede any number of policy points in budget talks, including further raising the minimum wage, in an effort to win the support of Senate Republicans on other issues.

Sen. Jose Peralta, who has worn a "Pass the DREAM Act!" t-shirt under his jacket during session, has been very active in supporting the act as part of the budget. The $27 million program Cuomo had included would provide tuition assistance to undocumented immigrants. Peralta said he was let down by Cuomo's decision to drop the bill and will work with advocates to push Cuomo and Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos on the issue. The DREAM Act has more than enough support in the overwhelmingly Democratic Assembly.

Senate Republicans believe their opposition to the DREAM Act actually bolstered them in a number of races across the state this past fall.

In a new op-ed on Thursday, Cuomo explains that he wants to see votes on both the DREAM Act and EITC, and that while they may not be in the budget deal, he will continue to push each of them in the legislative session to follow, which lasts into mid June.

However, legislators are frustrated more generally. What is particularly irksome to Democrats this year is that Cuomo appears to be jettisoning contentious issues to get an on-time budget when he claimed earlier in the year that he would sacrifice budget timeliness for ethics reform (which the governor and Assembly Democrats have come to an agreement on).

"The governor should be equally committed to items in appropriations as he is on ethics," said Sen. Martin Dilan. "If DREAM comes out it should all come out. The budget is where we have leverage. Outside of the budget [The DREAM Act] is dead. This was a campaign promise of the governor, and I believe he and the lieutenant governor ran very hard on it."

Sen. Kevin Parker said he still has hope for the DREAM Act despite what Cuomo might have said. "There is still time for anything to happen," he said of ongoing budget negotiations. The budget is due by Wednesday, April 1.

Another item Democratic legislators point out Cuomo ran on was women's equality. And while Cuomo was supposed to help elect a Democratic Senate, he appeared to put little effort into doing so. Now the two converge as a Republican Senate blocks several key pieces of Democratic legislation, such as the DREAM Act and the abortion plank of the Women's Equality Act, and Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a woman, is left out of budget negotiations.

Meanwhile, Cuomo has allowed his ally Jeff Klein, who heads the five-member Independent Democratic Conference, to join in leadership meetings around the budget. Mainline Democrats have cried foul over Klein being included and not Stewart-Cousins. At the first meeting of the budget conference committees, nicknamed "the mothership," Stewart-Cousins used her brief opportunity to speak to protest her exclusion. "Apparently the mothership is the only place this mother will appear negotiating the budget," she said.

Democrats appear to now have most of their eggs in the debate over increasing the minimum wage but a number of them fear Cuomo has already caved to Senate Republicans on the issue - something Skelos said was the case on Thursday, declaring an increase out of budget negotiations.

"This guy should be with us on $15," said one legislator who requested to remain anonymous of Cuomo, "but instead we have to beg and scrape to get him to push for $11.50 [for New York City]."

Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh called the minimum wage increase "the Assembly's top priority" when speaking with Gotham Gazette, but added that negotiations were centered around Cuomo's proposal for an eventual $10.50 for the state and $11.50 for the city. Parker said that the minimum wage needed to be done in this budget. "We don't want this to be another thing that comes up each year."

There has been underlying concern among Democrats that Cuomo would dump minimum wage in an effort to appease Skelos, who appears to back him on a number of education and financial issues. Skelos has pushed to remove a number of issues from budget discussions including how to use the State's massive bank settlement windfall and the renewal of mayoral control of schools. "I would guess that the independent monitor [for grand juries] is not going to be there," Skelos said after meeting with Cuomo on Tuesday. "Raising the age is not going to be there. DREAM Act is not going to be there. Other than that things are up for negotiation," he said, seemingly taking a victory lap for having nixed these items, which he and his conference oppose, from the budget.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie told reporters on Wednesday that a minimum wage increase is his top priority. "It absolutely has to be on the table as far as we're concerned in this conference," Heastie said.

During last year's Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus Weekend, Cuomo, joined by Mayor Bill de Blasio, made a grand announcement that he would support a program to provide prison inmates with access to college degrees. A great majority of the lawmakers there would rather have heard Cuomo pledge to deliver the DREAM Act, but they praised and supported his plan. However, Republicans mocked and derided the idea as a waste of taxpayer money that rewarded criminals and Cuomo quietly let the initiative die.

It appears the governor may be having a similar moment this year - except that the program at stake faces criticism from both Democrats and Republicans. Cuomo's "Raise the Age" initiative that would raise the age youths can be tried as adults to 18 from 16 was initially greeted warmly by Democratic legislators. But after analyzing the complex program, which is spread out in different sections of the budget, a majority of Democrats now think Cuomo's proposal is deeply flawed. The Assembly presented a reworked version in their budget and Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, wrote to Cuomo on Tuesday saying they favor the Assembly version because they believe some of the provisions in Cuomo's plan will actually lead to juvenile offenders spending more time in jail.

"Raise the Age is not likely to be done in the budget," Cuomo told reporters outside of the Senate Republican conference room on Tuesday. "It's very complex. It connects with other issues..."

Melissa DeRosa, Cuomo's spokesperson, quickly contradicted her boss, on Twitter and in a statement, saying, "Raise the age is still part of budget negotiations; we believe we will successfully secure the necessary funding to implement the program."

It appears, though, that the policy will be decided outside of the budget while funding to implement it will be included in anticipation of legislation.

Cuomo defended his decision to remove issues from the negotiating table after he met with Senate Republicans on Tuesday: "The budget is my statement of saying, these are the priority issues, right? And now, people will say, 'If he didn't put it in the budget, he doesn't really care about it. That's what's happened over the years, and if it's not in the budget, then he doesn't mean it.' So the budget has become expansive from that point of view."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Hurting Homeowners Say Bank Settlement Funds Belong with Them

build it back home

A home rebuilt after Sandy (photo: @NYCBuilditBack)

More than two years on and David Velez's battle with Hurricane Sandy is far from over. But, thanks to some help from the Attorney General's office, Velez's fight with his mortgage lender may soon be coming to an end.

The first floor of the retired NYPD officer's home in Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn was destroyed by flooding during the hurricane, and without help from insurance he and his wife used their savings to rebuild.

Unfortunately, after the construction was complete an architect from the City's Build it Back program deemed the residence structurally unsafe. Velez and his family moved out of the home this past October and were told that demolition would begin in November. Now March, Velez is still waiting for Department of Housing Preservation and Development contractors to begin construction of his home. While the program has gotten a shot in the arm under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the pace is still too slow for many.

Even living out of his home there is another reminder of the damage Sandy has done: Velez gets regular calls from Citibank representatives asking when he will catch up on his mortgage. "They even called me the day I had cancer surgery to remove a tumor," said Velez who was advised like other Sandy victims that he could stop mortgage payments while his home was being rebuilt, only for his lender to demand missed payments immediately after the forbearance was over.

It is a call increasingly familiar to homeowners across the state who are behind on their mortgages, whether from unexpected disasters like Hurricane Sandy or thanks to the economic downturn of 2008 and subsequent recession. Even in 2014, New York City saw a 33 percent increase in first-time foreclosures compared to the year before, according to one recent study.

Many homeowners have watched as Attorney General Eric Schniederman won the state multi-million dollar settlements from major lenders like Bank of America, Citibank, and JPMorgan. Like Velez, many struggling homeowners expected that those settlements would go directly to help New Yorkers who are underwater with their mortgage.

In Velez's case the AG's office did offer help, through an initiative called the Mortgage Assistance Program, which makes up to a $40,000 loan for homeowners who face foreclosure to pay off mortgage debt, second or third mortgages, or tax liens. Eligible families must be able to keep up with their mortgage to qualify for the program. Thousands of New Yorkers face foreclosure and don't qualify for the AG's program - some New Yorkers are simply far too behind on their mortgages to qualify.

Groups like The Fair Share for Housing Coalition and New York Communities for Change say the State needs to commit all of the funds from settlements with major lenders over mortgage fraud to go to helping homeowners.

In 2013 Schneiderman won a $615 million settlement for "mortgage misconduct" and according to the settlement 85 percent of that money had to go to programs to help homeowners. Schneiderman announced he was going to parse the cash out to nonprofits across the state that help homeowners avoid foreclosures, but Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature cut a deal in the 2014 budget that swept the cash into their coffers. According to Crain's New York, Schneiderman only ended up with $85 million of settlement funds.

Many advocates say they expected a number of "innovative" programs from Schneiderman's office given his national prominence on the issue. They feel those programs were kneecapped by Cuomo, who has a searing rivalry with the attorney general.

The AG's office currently works with nonprofits around the state to help homeowners avoid mortgage fraud through a program called the Homeowner Protection Program. A network of over 85 groups gets about $60 million in funding from the AG's office. Homeowners are directed through that program to the Mortgage Assistance Program (MAP). The AG's office expects to be able to give out "several hundred" loans through MAP. The program began last October and has given out 100 loans of up to $40,000.

The Fair Share for Housing Coalition lists a total of $492 million in settlements with Bank of America, Ocwen Financial Corporation, and Citigroup as directly related to mortgage fraud and it advocates that the State utilize, at the minimum, those funds to help homeowners. But the State actually has over $5 billion in settlements with banks and corporations that advocates would also like to go to homeowners' cause.

Charles Pollydore, a homeowner from Long Island and member of New York Communities for Change, has been circulating a petition demanding Cuomo use settlement funds to help homeowners who are underwater or face foreclosure.

Pollydore lost his consultant job on Wall Street in 2008 and, while on unemployment, began trying to negotiate a loan modification with Bank of America. He said he was repeatedly rebuffed or ignored. He reached out to a slew of state and federal representatives only to be directed to a different office each time. Also in 2008, Pollydore became disabled due to a diabetes-related amputation and he fears he will never be able to come to terms with his bank for an affordable mortgage payment.

"It is great the State is getting all this money back from the banks, but I feel like they need to give the money back to the homeowners - especially the money that came from these predatory lenders," Pollydore said.

He adds that his Long Island neighborhood has been ravaged by foreclosures. "You drive through the neighborhood and the houses are boarded up, there are squatters, we have increased crime, school taxes have increased." Pollydore says he is now surviving on government assistance and still owes back taxes.

"The money the attorney general is using for his program is a drop in the bucket compared to the settlements they have reached," said Pollydore. "We need the money back to stop so many people walking away from their homes."

Cuomo's budget proposal combines the State's pot into $5.8 billion in settlement cash and proposes to put it largely toward one-time expenditures. The plan would use $1.5 billion for upstate revitalization, $3 billion for infrastructure including the Tappan Zee bridge, $500 million to increase broadband infrastructure across the state, and $850 million for a rainy-day fund.

The Assembly budget is largely in line with Cuomo's proposal, but adds $200 million in increased spending on housing issues, including $100 million for homeowners "at risk of foreclosure or who are underwater on their mortgage." The Assembly budget plan only offers this about the program: "The Assembly provides $100 million for a mortgage modification program." Calls to the Assembly for more details were not returned.

While The Fair Share for Housing Coalition praises Cuomo for including more funding for affordable housng and has tried to avoid ruffling feathers in its push for more help for homeowners, New York Communities for Change (NYCC) has used a more confrontational style. It issued a report earlier this year called "Wall St. On The 2nd Floor" that details the connections between Cuomo's new chief of staff, William Mulrow, and his former employer, Blackstone. Blackstone is the largest private equity company in the world and NYCC worries Murrow, and by extension Cuomo, has a conflict of interest.

The NYCC report reads: "Private equity companies "snapped up properties after prices fell as much as 35 percent from the 2006 peak and rental demand rose from the almost 5 million owners who went through foreclosure since 2008." The company that bought the most foreclosed properties during this time was Blackstone."

NYCC members plan to deliver Pollydore's petition to the governor soon.

"I think the governor has made his priorities pretty clear," said Peter Nagy of NYCC. " Helping people hurt by the banking crisis doesn't seem to be as important as helping those who caused the banking crisis. I think the governor's friends believe it is in their best interest not to help homeowners."

As they do during budget season, deals will materialize and implode, and it appears that the use of settlement funds may be decided in negotiations between the Legislature and Cuomo outside of the budget, which is due by April 1. Legislative session continues through mid June.

"The windfall money is something that I believe should be settled outside of the budget and done in a very deliberate way rather than rushing it in the next three days," Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos said after meeting with Cuomo on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the Cuomo administration was pushing back.

Velez said he is happy with the AG's program but wished there was more help out their for other homeowners, "This was a hurricane, no one asked for this," he said.

Pollydore, meanwhile, plans to keep advocating for Cuomo and the Legislature to dedicate all of the mortgage-related settlement funds to helping homeowners who are facing foreclosure. "This is why I'm appealing to the governor to help us. The banks got a bailout from the government and we didn't - so the State got that money from us. They got it from us."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Albany Sunshine Week Looked Like an Eclipse to Advocates

Cuomo Heastie ethics

Cuomo and Heastie embrace over ethics deal (photo: Governor's Office via flickr)

The Cuomo administration and the state Legislature are doing battle on a variety of fronts, perhaps none more intense than that over ethics reform. Last week, the administration launched a two-pronged attack in response to criticism of its 90-day email deletion policy and over a push for increased financial disclosure by administration employees and their significant others.

The pushback came during Sunshine Week, when state government is supposed to be focused on transparency and accountability. And while there were several announcements related to efforts to let more sunshine into government, the week was dominated by bickering. Cuomo's office was often focused on deflecting attention back onto the Legislature with surprisingly ugly attacks, even by Albany standards, rather than promoting transparency.

"Instead of sunshine we have an eclipse," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). "This is a Sunshine Week where the major players aren't even acknowledging the week with major initiatives. Instead we are fighting about whether the governor should automatically delete email after 90 days and disclosure for girlfriends."

Past Sunshine Weeks have seen the announcement of major open-data portals and other transparency initiatives. To be sure, the governor is pushing his ethics reform package, and even announced a two-way deal with the state Assembly on measures to require lawmakers disclose their outside income, verify their presence in the capital to collect per diems, and more. But, controversy over the email purge and the limited nature of the ethics reform plans have often kept the governor and other legislators on the defensive.

Cuomo responded to criticism of his email policy and new bills to require longer retention of government emails by insisting the Legislature must agree to be subject to FOIL for him to consider making changes. When pushed by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Cuomo did declare that he is ready to revisit the policy and said he will be convening a summit around email retention.

In response to the push for more financial disclosure from his administration and, specifically, his wealthy live-in girlfriend Sandra Lee - who Capital New York reported has business with a company that has business before the State - Cuomo spokesperson Rich Azzopardi tweeted, "The administration is glad to negotiate disclosure of all girlfriends," in a thinly-veiled insinuation that legislators have extra-marital relationships.

"This is not anything that is personal," Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos told reporters of his push for Lee to disclose her income. He went on to declare interest in more disclosure from Cuomo's "minions," of which Azzopardi clearly qualifies. "You can find out where any of our council staff people went, how much they paid for lodging, their gas expenses, whatever they chit," Skelos said. "The governor, his staff, when they move their minions for a press conference, other than for security purposes, they don't have to disclose."

"It is getting really nasty," Horner said of the debate over increased disclosure from legislators and the administration. "It is sort of embarrassing."

Bills have been introduced that would do away with the executive's controversial policy that sees all state emails deleted after 90 days unless they are specifically saved. Advocates say the policy interferes with transparency and the freedom of information law, and state employees say it complicates their work.

A bill introduced by State Senator Liz Krueger and Assembly Member Daniel O'Donnell would both drastically reform the email retention policy and make the Legislature subject to FOIL. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman ended his office's 90-day email deletion policy and said it would be formulating a new one, provoking Cuomo to act.

On March 12 Cuomo called for a state government summit on email and transparency, but a date has not yet been set. "We believe the policy should honor transparency while maintaining efficiency," Cuomo's head spokesperson Melissa DeRosa said in a statement. "To that end, as the Attorney General and the legislature appear open to revising their policies, the governor's office will convene a meeting with representatives from the Legislature, the attorney general and the comptroller to come up with one uniform email retention and [Freedom of Information Law] policy that applies to all state officials and agencies."

With no sign of a conference in sight Krueger and O'Donnell issued a statement on the 18th calling on Cuomo to end his policy regardless of a conference. "We don't need to hold a summit before we halt the current indefensible email deletion policy," said O'Donnell. "An immediate suspension and then a summit as soon as possible will enable us to have the intelligent conversation we need regarding a unified state policy." Krueger noted that Schneiderman did not wait for a summit to end his policy.

John Kaehny of good government group Reinvent Albany said that it is "unfortunate" that Sunshine Week was dominated by the email deletion policy, and calls the policy a "big step backwards" that could be adjusted quickly, thereby ending the public outcry against it.

Last Tuesday, perhaps looking to break up a newscycle dominated by his email policy, Cuomo made an impromptu announcement of an ethics package that he had agreed to with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie but not Skelos, who heads the Senate. The agreement would require tighter disclosure of legislators' outside income, take pensions away from officials convicted of corruption offenses, force lawmakers to check in with a swipe card to collect per diem reimbursements, and tighten rules pertaining to the personal use of campaign funds.

Skelos rejected the package for not holding the Executive to the same disclosure standards as the Legislature and good government groups criticized it for not going far enough, especially considering the indictment of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

The announcement also came on the heels of Schneiderman's unveiling of a drastic reform package that would create a full-time Legislature, among other sweeping reforms. Schneiderman explicitly stated that he was pushing the conversation further than the governor and that incremental steps at ethics reform would no longer suffice. His proposals are likely to go nowhere any time soon.

Sunshine Week did have its moments in the advancement of government transparency. Schneiderman's office announced that it will release an application programming interface, or API, that will allow app developers to use data from the Attorney General's NYopengovernment.com database. Kaehny and Schneiderman's office believe the API will make it easier for programmers to provide real-time data analysis of things like campaign finance, lobbying, and state contracts. "Giving the public direct access to this data will help shine a much-needed light on our state government," Schneiderman said in a statement.

The Senate passed a bill that would codify its practice of livecasting its proceedings and posting votes to the internet - the catch is that the Assembly would also have to pass the same bill. The Senate has passed the bill for years while the Assembly has refused to consider it.

The Assembly, meanwhile, passed a slew of one-house bills that work at strengthening response to freedom of information requests.

"This Sunshine Week was all about passing the buck," said Horner.

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

New York's Unique Campaign Finance Ecosystem

mmv speech

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (photo: Joyce Choi Li)

New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has been the subject of much speculation of late. She is the most powerful member of the Council and influential in politics beyond the city. As a woman of Puerto Rican descent she represents a voting bloc that is woefully underrepresented in New York elected offices. She also maintains a busy travel schedule and ties to a wide swath of progressive causes, and she has more than a few dollars in the bank. But on December 31, 2017, she will be term-limited out of a job and risks having her political momentum stalled.

Mark-Viverito will be forced to look for a new position in the city or venture, as many of her colleagues have, to the state or national political sphere. The current mayor, comptroller, and public advocate are all Democrats who plan to run for re-election, leaving her, likely, without a city-wide office to run for in 2017. And yet Viverito has raised $152,000 in campaign cash, which sits in her city account, and clearly plans to raise more.

Asked about her political future in a recent WNYC interview Mark-Viverito responded: "The door is open. I don't know what options will present themselves. But you can never be over-ready, and I'm trying to be as ready as I can in terms of figuring out what paths open up for me after I leave the City Council."

What Mark-Viverito can do with the money she accumulates in her city campaign account is limited due to complex campaign finance rules that govern separate city, state, and federal systems. Unlike some states where municipal and state systems are more aligned, New York is home to three distinct sets of city, state, and federal campaign finance rules.

"There aren't three more different systems out there," said Blair Horner, legislative director of The New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG).

In some sense, good government groups and reformers like Horner see New York City's - which allows candidates to opt in to a taxpayer-funded system that provides matching funds and requires candidates to raise small amounts of cash from a diverse number of donors - as a model for other locales to follow. The city's Campaign Finance Board (CFB) regularly conducts audits of campaign accounts, enforces donation and expenditure limits, and caps the amount of public funds each candidate is eligible for based on office sought.

In comparison, the state system is the wild west. It is well-known that the city system comes with a great deal of rules and reporting, while the state system is far less regulated - the latter continues to be the focus of reformers who want to see a public matching system and other changes in place.

As state lawmakers negotiate possible ethics reforms including several related to campaign financing and expenditures, there may be several politicians, like Mark-Viverito, especially interested in the new rules - or who even need to bone up on the current ones. It is not uncommon for state lawmakers to seek seats at the city-level and vice versa; there is also plenty of precedent whereby state-level officials seek congressional seats.

Candidates can move cash from the city system to the state system, but they can't take any matching funds provided by the CFB with them. "After we account for all public funds they received through our audit process they are free to transfer what they have left," said Matt Sollars of the New York City Campaign Finance Board.

Sollars notes that former Council Speaker Christine Quinn had a $5 million war chest left over from her failed 2013 mayoral bid. Quinn returned $3.5 in matching funds to the CFB and has $1.5 million in a city account that could theoretically be transferred to a state account without a hitch. Candidates can also use these funds to give to other campaigns.

Bronx Council Member Fernando Cabrera went about things the wrong way during his 2014 state Senate primary challenge against Sen. Gustavo Rivera. Cabrera transferred around $33,000 from his city account to his state account ignoring the fact that he owed the City $23,000 in matching funds.

"Public funds left over from the 2013 council election are owed to the City and may not be used in a 2014 state election," Sollars told reporters at the time. "The law places clear restrictions on post-election spending and does not allow candidates to use public matching funds to build a war chest for future elections. The CFB will be notifying this campaign that these leftover funds must be returned."

Cabrera's campaign later issued a statement that the transfer was a "result of not fully understanding our City's Campaign Finance guidelines"; and it returned the funds.

"I imagine moving from city to state must feel liberating," said Horner, referring to the State's lax limits and nearly non-existent enforcement. The New York State system has donation limits far higher than most other states and last year the State Board of Elections said that the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision had rendered its $150,000 annual limit for campaign contributors "unenforceable."

Even with those lax limits state law includes a loophole that allows unlimited contributions through limited liability corporations, or LLCs. Governor Andrew Cuomo has been the greatest beneficiary of the situation. Donors can contribute the $60,800 maximum for gubernatorial candidates as many times they want through different LLCs. In fact the New York Times has reported that the Cuomo administration has encouraged the practice to ensure yearly multi-million dollar commitments from individual companies.

While speculation about Mark-Viverito's future persists - in part because she continues to raise money - it is unlikely she will seek a state-level office. There continue to be rumors about Mark-Viverito's ally, Mayor Bill de Blasio, having gubernatorial ambitions - he or any other city official who does try for a state-level run will need to know the rules. Others potentially in this category include Manhattan Council Member Dan Garodnick, who is also term-limited out of the Council at the end of 2017 and has continued to raise money - which could be used for a run for borough or city-wide office, or a state-level run. There are several other council members who are in their final terms and may be looking for new employment in the capital, of course.

"Moving from state to city where there are rules that they actually enforce must feel like a cold slap in the face," said Horner of the flip side of the equation. In 2013, several sitting members of the state Assembly ran for and won city council seats. Eric Adams went from the state Senate to Brooklyn Borough President.

Horner posits that the city system forces candidates to become better fundraisers and better representatives.

"In the city system you have to have the skills or political infrastructure to raise from a large amount of small donors in these relatively large districts. At the state level you just need to call the right few rich donors and if you know what you are doing you can get unlimited donations through the LLC loophole," said Horner.

A number of other candidates, including Domenic Recchia and Vincent Gentile, have made the move to the federal election system. Gentile, a former state senator who is a sitting city council member currently running for Congress, has now used all three systems. There are rumors that Mark-Viverito might make the move from the city to the federal system herself in attempting to replace retiring Rep. Charles Rangel come 2016. The federal system does not allow candidates to transfer funds from their city accounts, and according to Horner, the federal system has tighter restrictions than the state.

"The federal system is a mix of the other two," said Horner. "There is a move for deregulation, but there are substantive limits that are much tighter than the state system where you can basically get unlimited donations."

Some candidates have tried refunding donations from their city accounts in conjunction with asking supporters to donate the same amount to their federal accounts.

If rumors that Mark-Viverito is planning a 2016 run for Rangel's seat are true (she has denied any interest, saying she intends to stay her entire final term on the Council), Horner says anything she has stored in her city account won't help her, but that the experience she has in raising from a litany of small donors across her large district that covers parts of Manhattan and the Bronx will. "I can't imagine the experience of running in the city system will do anything but help," said Horner.

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Inaugural Student Voter Registration Day Kicks Off at 25 City Schools

CM Rosenthal SVRD

CM Rosenthal addresses students (photo: Cici Chen)

NEW YORK - The 2013 New York City mayoral election’s record low 24 percent voter turnout rate is largely reflective of and dragged down by 11 percent youth voter participation. This especially paltry turnout among voters 18- to 29-years-old has spurred advocates and policy-makers to act. Friday saw the city’s first Student Voter Registration Day (SVRD), during which programming occurred in 25 schools across the five boroughs.

City Council members; representatives from NYC Votes, the voter engagement arm of the city’s Campaign Finance Board; and advocates led workshops at the schools during which they sought to connect students to local government and encourage them to register to vote.

Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who initiated SVRD, led the session at Frank McCourt High School in her Upper West Side district. Rosenthal half-jokingly told the students in attendance, “If I suck, I want you to vote me out of office, but you have to register and vote [to do so].”

Rosenthal said that the first SVRD day was received with unbelievable enthusiasm. “I'm getting tweets from other council members who were at [schools], and also those who really wanted to participate but couldn’t. When you're at the school you can really see that it is so important to the students to have their voices heard.”

Rosenthal and those with her at Frank McCourt, which is one school located in the Brandeis High School Campus building, spoke to about 40 juniors during one class period and then about 100 seniors in another. She also spoke with students from two of the other schools in the Brandeis complex.

When Rosenthal learned that 80,000 voter registration cards go out to high schools each year and very few get sent back, she says she started thinking about how more could be done to ensure that 18-year-olds know their rights and the value of voting.

Rosenthal said that the Department of Education (DOE) would be the entity to really make SVRD a successful annual event in all high schools, but she is happy to lead the initiative and implement the pilot program. For the first SVRD, participants utilized a curriculum created by NYC Votes, which already leads other civic engagement workshops in city schools. If SVRD is to expand from the initial 25 schools to all of the hundreds of city high schools, NYC Votes will likely be integrally involved along with the DOE.

It is not immediately clear how many registration forms were collected at Friday’s workshops, but Rosenthal said that she cannot wait to find out.

Kaylah Bilal, a junior at one of the schools in Brandeis, had naturally never heard of the new SVRD, and she did not see a banner or poster in her school. Her enthusiasm was limited when she learned about it. “I’m just not into politics, the whole system,” said Bilal, who lives in Bronx.

SVRD is aimed at helping students like Bilal connect their everyday lives to issues and to voting. During a 45-minute workshop, volunteer facilitators at each school gave presentations and asked questions following the standard curriculum specifically designed for SVRD. The brain behind the programming is Chyann Sapp of NYC Votes and the Campaign Finance Board. Her full-time job for the past four years has been increasing youth voter engagement and turnout in New York City, a post that exists in few other cities in the country.

Sapp says that lack of education probably ranks higher than apathy as the top reason young voters are particularly inactive voters. Statistics show that eligible voters who do not cast ballots are mostly not registered to vote at all, and that being registered makes potential voters much more likely to go to the polls.

There are, of course, other barriers people point to in explaining low voter turnout, and efforts are underway to improve access to absentee ballots, among other changes.

The seminar style of SVRD is especially effective to educate students in comparison to simply handing out fliers and forms because students ask real-life questions face-to-face, Sapp says. She added that students “need to know why” voting matters, not just be given a piece of paper that allows them to register.

Beth Newcomer from Rosenthal’s office assisted Murad Awawdeh and Betsy Plum from the New York Immigration Coalition in facilitating the two workshops with McCourt students. Awawdeh and Plum started by asking students to rate how much power they perceive having in their circles of family, friends, school, community, and government. Students largely explained that they perceived themselves to have much more power in their family and friends circles than in their government circle, in which some cited zero percent influence.

As the workshop progressed, questions became more concrete; “Do you know what a community board is?” and “Do you know which elected official oversees the MTA?” among them. Few students raised their hands to indicate they did; one student wondered out loud about the meaning of the word “controller” when facilitators said, “Do you know who your city controller is?” (The answer, of course, is Scott Stringer, one of just three popularly-elected city-wide elected officials along with the mayor and public advocate.)

Students responded with an overwhelming “no” when asked if they had studied the Constitution and its amendments at school, but when Plum asked what was going on around 1976, a few students said the Vietnam War. She then explained the context of 1976’s 26th Amendment, which granted 18-year-olds the right to vote. “Young people were drafted, and they thought, ‘well if I can go fight and maybe die for my country, shouldn’t I be able to vote for my country?’”

Almost none of the students had heard of DACA, President Barack Obama’s immigration program that gives students who came to the U.S. as children protection from deportation and permission to work, though not the right to vote. Promoting awareness of DACA was a secondary aspect of the SVRD initiative. “If you have friends who are immigrants please spread the word and let them know” about DACA and access to the right to work, Plum told the students.

Near the end of the presentation voter registration forms were passed out to students, along with stickers, bracelets, and candies. One student told her friend, “I’m a voter” after turning in her completed registration form.

Micah Dicker, Drilona Bajrami, and Chelsea Solis, all graduating seniors at Frank McCourt High School, were among the few students in the workshop who knew of Rosenthal, the local city council member. The three teens were involved with participatory budgeting in the council district; Dicker and Bajrami interned for Rosenthal.

Dicker and Solis mentioned that their families’ financial situations make them want to do more to change the political system. “I think a lot of people don’t vote because they just think of what happens now rather than what would happen in the future if you can’t pay for something or you can’t find a job,” said Solis.

All three registered to vote during Friday’s workshop. “It’s our future that we need to take into account,” said Bajrami, adding that for those that don’t vote, “we shouldn’t be complaining if something doesn’t go our way.”

by Cici Chen, Gotham Gazette

26 Years Since the Board of Estimate's Demise

bdb and cms

The mayor, council members, & advocates (photo: William Alatriste)

New York City politics might seem convoluted now, but for nearly a century the city was governed by the Board of Estimate, an eight-member body as opaque and sinister as it sounds. On March 22, 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Board of Estimate unconstitutional. The subsequent revision to the City Charter created the political system we have today. Twenty-six years after the Court's decision, a few of the attorneys involved with this landmark case have mixed reviews of exactly how major a turning point it was for the city.

Richard Emery was driving in his car when the idea for a lawsuit hit him. It was 1982, and a federal court had just declared New York City's use of "at-large" Council members unconstitutional. At the time, New Yorkers were represented by 35 local Council members, along with ten at-large reps, two per borough. The court held that this violated the principle of "one person, one vote," which, despite sounding like a sacred democratic principle, had only been a requirement in local government for about twenty years - since the Supreme Court's decision in Reynolds v. Sims.

Emery, an ACLU attorney in his mid-30s, and his colleague, Art Eisenberg, debated whether the courts would apply a similar standard to the Board of Estimate, which had a far bigger impact on city life than the City Council.

The Board of Estimate had run New York City politics since the five-borough consolidation of 1898. Comprised of the mayor, comptroller, city council president - all of whom were elected citywide - and the five borough presidents, the Board of Estimate was responsible for land use, city contracts, and budgeting. Most citizens never saw the Board of Estimate in action, testifying in front of their proxies while the real power brokers cut backroom deals.

Emery's lawsuit charged that the Board of Estimate violated "one person, one vote," by granting the Staten Island Borough President, who represented fewer than 400,000 people, the same power as the Brooklyn Borough President, who represented more than two million.

For Emery and his plaintiffs ("friends from Brooklyn"), the lawsuit wasn't just a Constitutional Law exercise. "Services and funding for specific projects were very disproportionate," with Staten Island much more likely to receive city support than underfunded parts of Brooklyn, Emery claimed. In addition, "Virtually all corruption was focused at the Board of Estimate."

That charge was validated when U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani rained down a hailstorm of criminal indictments on elected officials across the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens, a tale of corruption told masterfully by investigative journalists Wayne Barrett and Jack Newfield in City for Sale. The corruption scandal wrecked Mayor Ed Koch's third term, but not before he set in motion two commissions that dramatically shaped New York City politics to the present day.

Frederick A.O Schwartz, Jr. (descendant of the toy retailer), whose brilliant legal career included uncovering CIA assassination plots, had been named by Koch as New York City's Corporation Counsel in 1982. The "Corp Counsel" represents the City in everything from sidewalk slip-and-falls to massive municipal contracts. By 1985, Schwartz was pretty sure that the Board of Estimate was losing in court, and advised Koch to plan for an alternative. Koch appointed legendary New York crisis-fixer Richard Ravitch to head a City Charter revision commission. That commission ultimately recommended the creation of the city's first public financing system for elections.

Meanwhile, Emery and his plaintiffs won a string of federal court decisions before the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the city's appeal. For oral arguments in 1988, Emery faced off against the city's new Corp Counsel, Peter Zimroth. Zimroth called the Board of Estimate "the glue which has kept the City of New York together" and argued that the Board of Estimate had been a compromise between the many boroughs, villages and towns that had voted to unify in the 1894 consolidation referendum. Though he made other legal arguments, Zimroth hung his hat on the city's longstanding political support for the Board of Estimate system.

On March 22, 1989, the Supreme Court delivered a resounding 9-0 vote against the Board of Estimate for violating "one person, one vote."

There's a lot more to this story:
visit Janos.NYC to continue reading

by Janos Marton for Gotham Gazette and Janos.NYC

After Making History, James Seeks Change

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Public Advocate James at a recent rally (photo: @PA_Outreach)

During Women's History Month, the New York City YWCA holds weekly discussion and networking events, leading to a celebration honoring a "YW Woman of the Year." This year's theme is Leadership and Generosity: A Call to Action and the honoree, to be recognized at the celebration Tuesday night in Manhttan, is Public Advocate Letitia James. According to a YWCA spokesperson, James is being honored for "her hard work towards gender and racial equity" and because she "is a shining example with her tireless efforts to advance the agency of women and girls in New York City."

No individual better epitomizes the progress made by women of color in New York City than Letitia "Tish" James. The first woman of color elected to city-wide office, James is a force. She is a powerful public speaker with a commanding physical presence, including a big, broad smile that she flashes judiciously. A labor-friendly attorney, James is also a proud Brooklynite and former City Council member whose 2013 election to the office of public advocate was met with widespread celebration due to its historic nature.

Since becoming one of New York City's three publicly-elected city-wide officials in January of 2014, she has shifted the focus of the office toward her legal background and identified new causes to champion in fulfilling the role's mandate - for example, she filed suit to unseal documents in the Eric Garner grand jury case and she has taken on the issue of sexual assault on college campuses. Her advocacy has at times brought her into direct conflict with her allies, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, though some say James has not been critical enough of her friend and fellow Brooklynite, the mayor. James has tended toward taking on the administration in court over calling out the mayor individually, a different tack that that taken by past public advocates. Among other areas of disagreement, the public advocate has sued the de Blasio administration over school co-locations and in an effort to open up school leadership meetings to the public.

As February rolled into March and Women's History Month follows Black History Month, the city has been celebrating the legacies of black leaders and women leaders. Like no other public figure in New York City, James is a symbol of this history, as well as the present, and the triumphs and struggles of specific constituencies and demographics.

But James hopes, and strives, she says, to be more than just a symbol. "Obviously its an honor and a privilege that New York elected me," she said in a recent phone interview with Gotham Gazette. "There's a historical sentiment to that victory. However, that means nothing. It won't be more than a historical footnote if I don't do anything as Public Advocate."

Since her election, which she won after a tough Democratic primary culminating in a run-off, James has worked to redefine the office of Public Advocate - held prior to her, for one term, by de Blasio. She's also been able to expand the staff of the office due to additional funds allocated by the mayor in his first budget.

Coming from limited resources herself, James' political path has been especially challenging, and she has called for campaign finance reform as a means to level a political playing field dominated by men with access to deep pockets. "For me, the challenge was raising funds, and that continues," she said. "That's unique to women. They are mostly involved in pink collar industries, not white collar ones that pay more. I would not be in this position but for campaign finance reform and the support of working class people." Even then, James says she was outspent three to one in the primary. "But it kept me in the game," she says of the City's system of public matching funds and spending caps.

An active proponent of the "Why She Ran" campaign launched last year by the Working Families Party (WFP) to provide a push to women considering running for public office, James seeks to contribute to a pipeline of those who decide to do so. The WFP has organized a host of events again this year and James will be joining forces with electeds, advocates, and activists to encourage more women to participate in the political arena. James was first elected to the City Council on the WFP ballot line and is a fixture at its rallies and other events - and it at hers, such as at a recent rally at City Hall calling for fair school funding from the State and decrying Governor Andrew Cuomo's education reform proposals, which are vehemently opposed by teachers unions.

james rallyJames at Sunday's rally (photo: @leoniehaimson)

Even while she's receiving awards, as she will Tuesday evening, James' attention in the next weeks and months, she said, will be on broad, sweeping issues that affect all New Yorkers and particularly women. "We're going to keep our heads down and raise issues on the ground," she said. In forums across the city, James has promised to discuss issues of pay equity, child care, student debt, sexual assault on college campuses, criminal justice reform, jobs, education, and the "feminization of poverty in New York. There are more women living in poverty now than ever," she said.

"I'll be going around college campuses and meeting young people so they can recognize that politics is the way to effect change in the system," James said. "As more women see elected officials who happen to be women, they'll be inspired by the advocacy of this office to join political office."

James has just finished a five-borough series of "Mayoral Control Forums," in which she's led community discussions about how New Yorkers want to see the power over the school system allocated. While that will ultimately be a decision made at the state level, James is doing what she often does, pushing a conversation forward - the community recommendations that her office aggregates will be presented to lawmakers.

Her tenacity and focus on her constituents has won her respect in many quarters. "I think it's great every time that we break a glass ceiling and somebody makes history," said new State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie when asked, given his own history-making, to discuss James'. Heastie is the first African-American to hold the post of Assembly Speaker, which he attained in early February. "But as I've said," Heastie continued, echoing James, "just making history is not the most important thing, it's what you do once you get elevated to that position."

Praising James for "doing a wonderful job," Heastie said he hopes that one day "people say the same thing about me."

Other elected officials see James as a role model. Bronx City Council Member Vanessa Gibson, a woman of color herself, looks up to James' example. "[She made] history, but for us it's just an affirmation that women are changing the game and we are stepping up to leadership roles that were never planned nor designed for us," Gibson told Gotham Gazette. "When I look at Tish James and all that she stands for - fairness and equity, always fighting against inequities and fighting against the stigmas, the statistics that are used to define New Yorkers and Bronx residents - it's really an honor to work with her, to call her a friend, to call her my big sister."

PA JamesJames with young constituents (photo: @PA_Outreach)

James has emphasized that she is a representative for all New Yorkers, not just one or two demographic groups that she may fall into or certain neighborhoods. Council Member Julissa Ferreras believes that approach is requisite for the city's progress.

Ferreras is the first woman and person of color to chair the Council's powerful Finance Committee. "Having Tish James in city-wide office shows that we are making our way towards a more inclusive city government," Ferreras emailed. "I have also been welcomed into communities that previously were not open to women and people of color. Still, there is room for improvement and the most practical way I see of improving is by paying careful attention to hiring practices. Government officials appoint hundreds of individuals in their offices — making sure those individuals accurately represent their constituents is a first step."

It is here that James hopes she will leave her mark, in encouraging political participation not only of women and people of color, but all New Yorkers, as artificial ceilings eventually become remnants of the past. "I would hope that we get to the point in history that there are no longer any barriers to break, and qualifying an election as being 'the first' is no more," she said. "It's important that individuals, whether they are people of color or not, recognize their position to effect change. The power lies in their hands, to be the change that so many people are protesting for."

New York Representation, by the Numbers
It is an unfortunate fact that women and people of color are underrepresented in elected office in New York, which is but a microcosm of the representational imbalance in American politics.

At the state level, there are only 51 women legislators out of 213 members of the State Senate and State Assembly. New York's 23.9 percent representation of women falls marginally below the national average of 24.1 percent, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Although that is an increase in the state over 2014, when the number stood at 45, it is the same as five years ago.

The New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus has 53 members, of which 18 are women (meaning 8.4 percent of the Legislature is women of color).

More locally, the New York City Council has 15 women members, making up 29.4 percent of the 51-member body. The Council's Black, Latino and Asian Caucus makes up more than half the body, 26 of 51 members; and of course Melissa Mark-Viverito is the first woman of color to be elected Speaker - she is Puerto Rican.

City-wide History-makers
Tish James may be the first woman of color to hold the post of public advocate, but she is not the first person of color or the first woman to hold city-wide office. In all, there have only been four politicians of color to hold one of the three current city-wide elected offices in New York, and only four women - James holds each distinction.

Betsy Gotbaum was Public Advocate between 2002 and 2009, serving two terms. Before her, Carol Bellamy held the post when it was still termed President of the City Council, from 1978 to 1985. Besides them, Elizabeth Holtzman was Comptroller between 1990 and 1993, the only woman to ever hold that position.

David Dinkins is the only person of color to ever be elected Mayor - he is African-American. The only other politicians of color elected city-wide are Comptrollers William Thompson (2002-2009) and John Liu (2010-2013).

Could Letitia James become the first woman and first woman of color to be Mayor? Stay tuned.

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, March 23

New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

We're getting close to the state budget deadline of April 1. This week will be full of both private negotiations and public sessions in Albany, where lawmakers attempt to come to a budget deal while showing significantly divergent takes on key issues - as well as central mechanisms related to the budget and policy. Governor Andrew Cuomo has jammed quite a bit of policy into his budget, attaching initiatives to appropriations in an attempt to strong-arm the Legislature into agreeing to his policy demands. This is especially true around ethics and educaiton reforms, but Cuomo has also used creative tactics to push compromise, tying an education tax credit favored by Republicans to the DREAM Act, which is favored by Democrats, for example. The Legislature is in session Monday through Thursday again this week.

Meanwhile, New York City officials await decisions in Albany (while also trying to affect those decisions, of course) and carry on their own budget work. The City Council will wrap up its month of preliminary budget hearings this week and then formulate a formal response to the mayor, who will then issue his Executive Budget in April, leading to another round of council hearings and a final budget deal by July 1. The City is eagerly awaiting word from Albany on things like funding for schools, homelessness prevention, public housing, and much more.

De Blasio is in Boston on Sunday and Monday, participating in the U.S. Conference of Mayors Cities of Opportunity Task Force Summit; on Monday, "there will be a press conference on transportation issues at 12:30pm" at Faneuil Hall; he'll return to New York City on Monday evening. De Blasio was in Albany on Saturday for the Somos el Futuro Conference, where he reiterated his push for full education funding from the State and other top priorities, and received "the Champion for Latinos Award at the dinner gala."

And the whole week builds to the annual Inner Circle Show this Friday (dress rehearsal) and Saturday, at which the press will roast the mayor, and vice versa.

There's plenty happening this week. See our day-by-day rundown below for more.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
E-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com***

The run of the week in detail:

Monday morning, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña will visit a "CTE program to make an announcement" at the Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School in Queens.

Comptroller Scott Stringer's only public event scheduled for Monday is an 8:15 a.m. appearance on "Buen Día New York," WADO 1280 AM.

Also Monday morning, the Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association will host a breakfast with United States Senator Charles Schumer at Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association’s headquarters.

At 10:30 Monday morning, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer "will issue a report, Small Business, Big Impact: Expanding Opportunity for Manhattan's Storefronters, with case studies and policy recommendations to help small businesses grow and thrive in New York City." At The Halal Guys on the Upper West Side, Brewer will be joined by Robert Cornegy, Chair, New York City Council Small Business Committee; The Halal Guys co-founders Muhammed Abouelenein, Ahmed Elsaka, and Abdelbaset Elsayed; and Noel Hidalgo, Executive Director, BetaNYC. The report's recommendations include "Take the pressure off lease renewals"; "Overhaul regulations and city policies governing street vending" and "Help established, successful small businesses threatened by rent increases by encouraging "condo-ization" of storefront space." [Read our recent report on key issues facing small business in New York City and the City's new efforts to help ease regulatory burdens]

On Monday’s Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC, three of the five borough presidents will appear together: “Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams talk about borough and city-wide issues facing Queens, Brooklyn and Bronx residents.

Monday at 10 a.m. at City Hall, preceding the relevant City Council preliminary budget hearing, "hundreds of New York City seniors and service providers were invited to descend upon City Hall's Council Chambers and make their voices heard at the Department for the Aging budget hearing to advocate for $33 million in critical funding for senior services."

At 11 a.m. on Monday at City Hall, Rep. Nydia Velázquez and other local leaders will release a report on how the Republican congressional budget would impact New York City: “From transportation, to housing, to health and human services, New York would be acutely affected by proposed cuts,” says a media advisory on the event.

At noon at City Hall, there will be a "Rally for action by Earth Day on plastic bag reduction bill" hosted by Council Members Brad Lander and Margaret Chin, who sponsor the relevant bill, and Council Member and Sanitation Committee Chair Antonio Reynoso, as well as other elected officials: "The bill (Int. 209) will reduce disposable bag use by requiring retail and grocery stores to charge 10 cents per single-use plastic or paper bag. Supporters of the bill turned out in large numbers at a public hearing before the Council's Sanitation Committee last fall, and will rally again for its passage by Earth Day (April 22)."

Monday’s City Council schedule consists of two preliminary budget hearings: a meeting of the Committee on Aging jointly with the Subcommittee on Senior Centers; and a meeting of the Committee on Health.

CUNY Journalism School's brown bag lunch series continues on Monday with a conversation between Errol Louis and Tom Robbins, both journalists and CUNY J-school professors. "Tom Robbins, investigative journalist in residence at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, will discuss his recent piece on the brutal beatings of former Attica Prison inmate George Williams...Errol Louis, director of the Urban Reporting Program and host of NY1's Inside City Hall, will pick Robbins' brain on the work that went into the nine-month project, as well as the larger issues of prison violence that it illuminated."

At 2 p.m. Monday, outside FDNY headquarters at MetroTech Center, Brooklyn BP Adams "will announce a borough-wide fire safety education campaign, following a fatal fire Saturday in Midwood that claimed the lives of seven siblings, aged five to 16, from the Sassoon family. His effort will include multilingual outreach and the distribution of free smoke detectors...Adams will call for the creation of a burn center in Brooklyn...Adams will be joined by local elected officials and Jewish leaders."

Also Monday, in Albany, Citizen Action of New York will hold Moral Monday to Raise the Wage: “Nearly 3 million workers – 37% of New York’s workforce – earn less than $15 an hour. Thirty-six percent of adults earn less than $15 an hour; 41% women earn less than $15 an hour, and 28% of workers with at least some college education earn less than $15 an hour. A full-time worker earning $9 an hour will bring home just $18,720 per year – still below the federal poverty line for a family of three. Under the Self-Sufficiency Standard guidelines, a more accurate measure of the cost of living in New York, the hourly wage that 2 full-time workers must each earn to meet basic budget needs ranges from $13.40 in Schenectady County, to $16.15 in New York City, to $20.73 in Suffolk County.”

Monday at noon, there will be meeting of the New York State Gaming Commission at the New York State Department of Labor.

Monday afternoon in Albany, the Senate Standing Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions will hold a hearing to consider several pieces of legislation.

Monday evening, “The Middle Class Action Project will host a candidates forum with Republican District Attorney Daniel Donovan and Democratic Councilman Vincent Gentile to discuss economic issues facing the middle class,” according to the Staten Island Advance.

Tuesday morning, the New York Bar Association will host Campaign Finance: The Current State of Affairs and Where We Go From Here: “Since the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United, campaign finance law has moved at a rapid pace, leading the way for the creation of various entities that facilitate the injection of billions of dollars into elections. And Congress just increased the power of political party committees by significantly increasing applicable campaign finance limits. This program will consist of three panels composed of top-tier campaign finance law experts, regulators, reporters and political consultants.” Panelists will include Nicholas Confessore from The New York Times; Dave Levinthal from the Center for Public Integrity; Eric Friedman from NYC Campaign Finance Board; Bill Hyers from Hilltop Public Solutions; Fritz Schwarz, Jr. from the Brennan Center; Douglas Kellner from the NYS Board of Elections; and Jerry Goldfeder from Stroock & Stroock & Lavan.

Tuesday’s City Council schedule will include a meeting of the Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services for a preliminary budget hearing; a meeting of the Committee on Zoning and Franchises to review proposed Land Use Applications; and a meeting of the Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions and Concessions to review land use applications.

Tuesday morning in Albany, the Senate Standing Committee on Environmental Conservation will hold a hearing to consider a variety of bills to amend the environmental conservation law; the Senate Standing Committee on Transportation will meet to consider several bills amending the highway law and the vehicle and traffic law; the Senate Standing Committee on Judiciary will meet to discuss the reappointments of several judges at the New York Court of Claims; and in the afternoon, the Senate Standing Committee on Codes will meet to discuss a series of act to amend the civil rights law and the penal law.

Tuesday evening, the YWCA will host its Women's History Month Reception 2015. The theme of this year's series of events is Leadership and Generosity: A Call to Action; and as it culminates on Tuesday, the YWCA is honoring Public Advocate Letitia James as "YW Woman of the Year" for her hard work toward gender and racial equity for women and girls. [Read our new profile of PA James as a recent history-maker, the first woman of color elected to city-wide office]

Tuesday evening, City Council Member Andy King and his staff will be hosting one in a series of Constituent Services Nights in different NYCHA housing developments. The program will include resources and solutions for housing, food stamps, immigration, Access-A-Ride and more.

Tuesday evening, Parsons DESIS Lab and Lower Manhattan HQ will host Public Space: New Ideas for Civic Life: “New York City has an abundance of public spaces rich in culture and design, from Central Park to the New York Public Library. However, despite these places’ role as the physical center of civic life, digital platforms have emerged as the preferred way for government to engage the public. How can we revitalize public spaces as places to enhance civic life and public participation in government?” Speakers will include Mary Rowe of Municipal Arts Society and Victoria Milne of the city's Department of Design and Construction.

Also Tuesday evening, Columbia School of International and Public Affairs presents Public Policy Challenges: Women’s Empowerment in NYC: “Come learn from and engage with leading practitioners on New York law, policy, and services related to violence against women.” The panel will include Ana Oliveira, President and CEO of the New York Women's Foundation; Rose Pierre-Louis, Commissioner of the NYC Mayor's Office to Combat Domestic Violence; and Maria Torres-Springer, Commissioner of the NYC Department of Small Business Services.

Wednesday’s City Council schedule will include two preliminary budget hearings: a meeting of the Committee on Education and a meeting of the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management.

Wednesday morning in Albany, the Senate Standing Committee on Social Services will meet to discuss a variety of potential amendments to the social services law.

Wednesday at noon, the New York State Bar Association will host Human Trafficking in New York State: Legal Issues and Advocating for the Victim, “to educate attorneys across the country on how to identify potential victims of human trafficking.” [Read Manhattan DA Cy Vance's recent op-ed on the need to strengthen sex trafficking laws in New York]

Wednesday evening, the city's Panel on Educational Policy (PEP) will host a public meeting at Murry Bergtraum High School in Manhattan.

Also Wednesday, at 6:30 p.m., the Digital NYC Five Borough Tour will hit Queens. Panelists will include Kristin Hodgson, Communications Director at Meetup, and Jukay Hsu, Founder of Coalition for Queens.

Thursday morning at Fordham University Lincoln Center Campus, “All alumni are invited to join us for the inaugural interview session and breakfast for the new Oral Archive on Governance in New York City: The Bloomberg Years” featuring Howard Wolfson, former Deputy Mayor for Government Affairs and Communications.

Thursday’s City Council schedule will include a meeting of the Committee on Public Housing for a preliminary budget hearing; a joint meeting of the Committee on Small Business and the Committee on Economic Development for a preliminary budget hearing; and a meeting of the Committee on Land Use to review all items reported out of the Subcommittee hearings.

Thursday evening, “Join us at Civic Hall – the new beautiful co-working space for civic tech and VRL’s new NY home! – for an evening of workshops and an engaging panel of women leaders.” The event is hosted by VoteRunLead, Veracity Media, Civic Hall, Republican Majority for Choice, Women's Information Network NYC (WIN NYC), She Should Run, Emerge America, Rising Stars and Greater NYC for Change.

Thursday at 5:30 p.m., CUNY Institute for Educational Policy at Roosevelt House will host Challenging the Tenure Laws in New York State: Why or Why Not?: “Davids vs. New York, a highly publicized lawsuit challenging New York's teacher tenure and seniority laws, is underway. Plaintiffs contend that the current laws violate children's constitutional right to a sound, basic education by keeping ineffective teachers in classrooms; defendants claim the lawsuit is a spurious attempt to destroy hard-won protections for the state's teaching profession.”

Thursday evening, Council Speaker Mark-Viverito and members of the Council's Irish caucus - Council Members Danny Dromm, Corey Johnson, Liz Crowley, and Jimmy Van Bramer - along with other council members, will host the Council's Irish Heritage and Culture celebration at City Hall. 

Also Thursday evening, City Council Members Donovan Richards and Member Daneek Miller, and the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Affairs will host an IDNYC Community Meeting in Queens.

Thursday at 6 p.m., City and State will host Above and Beyond: Honoring Women of Public and Civic Mind: “Each year, City & State honors 25 women who exhibit exceptional leadership in their fields and have made important contributions to society."

Friday and the weekend
Friday at City Hall, the Committee on Contracts, the Committee on Courts and Legal Services, the Committee on Community Development and the Committee on Youth Services will all hold preliminary budget oversight hearings throughout the day.

Friday afternoon, in celebration of Women’s History Month, City Council Member Elizabeth Crowley will host a special film screening of a documentary on Geraldine Ferraro’s life titled “Geraldine Ferraro: Paving the Way,” the film about the life of the first female Vice Presidential nominee of a major political party.

Friday evening, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo, Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon, District Leader Shirley Patterson and Green Earth Poets Café will host Shirley Chisholm Women of Excellence Awards and Reception: “Brooklynite Shirley Chisholm was a catalyst of change who made history by becoming the first African-American woman elected to Congress. Because of her values Barack Obama became the first African-American President in 2008. Senator Hamilton will continue her legacy by recognizing the achievements of iconic Brooklyn women on Friday, March 27th at the historic First Baptist Church in Crown Heights.”

Friday evening, the Inner Circle Show will hold its rehearsal; with the main event on Saturday night, both at the New York Hilton Hotel.

On Saturday at noon, Zephyr Teachout and others are holding a rally: "Gov. Cuomo has turned his back on our students. Join us as we rally outside his Midtown Office to demand that he fully fund our public schools, support struggling schools, not raise the cap on charter schools, and limit high-stakes testing!"

Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: bmax@gothamgazette.com (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

by Rati Mukhuradze, Marco Poggio, and Ben Max

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