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Manhattan GOP Sees Hope on Upper East Side

Harary AD73

Rebecca Harary with supporters (photo via @TeamHarary)

When it comes to the New York State Legislature, most electoral attention is paid to the Senate, which Republicans control by a thin majority and only because an elected Democrat caucuses with them and they have a power-sharing agreement with a five-member faction of breakaway “independent” Democrats. This November’s elections will determine control of the chamber.

In the State Assembly, however, the balance of power is not close. Republicans have been at a massive disadvantage. The Democrats have a stranglehold on the house, which is unlikely to drastically shift come November - Democrats currently hold 104 seats to the Republicans’ 44 (one seat is held by a Working Families Party member and there is one vacancy in the 150-seat chamber). This holds particularly true for seats in New York City, a liberal bastion that helps make New York an overwhelmingly blue state. There are currently only two Republican Assembly members, both from Staten Island, representing New York City’s 66 Assembly districts.

But come November, the Manhattan GOP believes it can make inroads and put not one, but two of their own in Assembly seats on the Upper East Side where Republicans believe that registered Democrats won’t necessarily vote along the party line.

Manhattan Republicans are banking on voting trends from 2013, when Mayor Bill de Blasio’s landslide victory wasn’t reflected on the Upper East Side and he lost the neighborhood to his GOP opponent, Joe Lhota, by double digits.

“The Upper East Side is very Bloomberg-centric,” said Adele Malpass, chair of the Manhattan Republican Party, insisting that the neighborhood tends to vote along more conservative lines. “The Upper East Side is not a progressive spot,” she said. The neighborhood is predominantly white and relatively affluent, and has historically supported Republican mayoral candidates. Malpass hopes her party can tap this sentiment in the upcoming election, and win the 73rd and 76th Assembly districts by defeating Democratic incumbents.

The two districts run side by side on the East Side: District 73 extends from 34th Street to 94th Street, bounded by 5th avenue on it’s west side. On the east, it reaches the river in certain sections but mostly stops at 3rd Avenue where District 76 begins. District 76 stretches from 61st to 92nd Street, and includes Roosevelt Island.

While it may be an uphill battle - incumbents are exceedingly difficult to beat - Republicans see some reason for optimism. "The Upper East Side is where we have the best odds of winning a seat this election, but it can't be done without your support and involvement," Malpass recently wrote in an e-newsletter to Manhattan GOP subscribers.

The 73rd district is represented by Assemblymember Dan Quart, who has held the seat since winning it in a special election in 2011. He’s being challenged by Rebecca Harary, a community activist with a long history of nonprofit work. She founded a school for children with autism and a high school for teenagers with mild learning disorders. She is currently the  founding executive director of the Propel Network, an organization that helps Jewish women enter the workforce. She is a mother of six and grandmother of seven, she said in an interview.

In the 76th district, first-term Assemblymember Rebecca Seawright, elected in 2014, will face off against Jon Kostakopoulos, a writer for financial news website The Street and former director of field operations for John Catsimatidis’ 2013 mayoral campaign. Kostakopoulos is also Catsimatidis’ godson and the supermarket magnate is set to host a fundraiser for Kostakopoulos in late September.

The two challengers believe they have a solid chance to make these races competitive by focusing on a few core issues -- quality of life, public safety, transportation and education -- and they aren’t worried that the Democrats have an enrollment advantage over Republicans in Manhattan. Active registered Democrats in the borough outnumber Republicans 8 to 1, but that ratio in the 76th district is only about 3.3 to 1, and in the 73rd district it's even closer at 2.5 to 1. 

“We have an absentee Assemblyman,” said Rebecca Harary about Quart, in a phone interview with Gotham Gazette. “His silence is deafening, and that speaks volumes about the leadership in this district.” Democrats, she said, and particularly Mayor Bill de Blasio, are responsible for rising homelessness and worsening quality of life in the district and across the city. Her opponent, she said, is a company man like most incumbent Democrats. “They’re just going to vote the company line and make no waves,” she said, insisting that there’s a need for an independent voice in the district. “It’s time to ask the real questions,” she said.

Her top priority, besides public safety, is education. She supports charter schools and believes the state should offer tuition tax credits, with increased income thresholds, to parents who choose to send their children to private and parochial schools.  

Assemblymember Quart doesn’t seem worried about the challenge from Harary. “I look forward to November,” he said. His plan is to run on the successes of the last five years, he said, pointing to improvement of air quality in the district, sponsoring and passing legislation on criminal justice issues and helping secure $1 billion in additional funding to the MTA Capital Plan for the Second Avenue subway line. “By any objective measure, I’ve been successful in helping my constituents,” he said.

“I run on my record,” he added. “The politics will work itself out.” Quart has a significant fundraising advantage over his opponent. He has raised more than $335,000 for the race compared to Harary’s $59,000. (Quart also has a city campaign account with $104,375 in it for a possible future race, but he said he does not intend to run for any city office in 2017.)

Fellow Democrat Rebecca Seawright is also confident about her prospects, although she’s not being complacent about the race. “I’m a full-time legislator, I take this job very seriously,” she told Gotham Gazette, alluding to the fact that state legislators are technically part-time and allowed to earn outside money, which has gotten some into trouble.

Seawright said she’s had a successful first term in the Assembly majority. “I’ve passed 10 pieces of legislation and seven have been signed into law by the governor,” she said, also touting her 100 percent attendance record.

Refutes Republicans’ assertion that quality of life is decreasing in the district, Seawright said, “I’m extremely proud of the progress that’s been made. We’re constantly picking up the phone and reaching out to city agencies about getting the homeless into shelters, picking up garbage.”

Seawright is also confident that with Hillary Clinton on the top of the Democratic ticket, voter turnout will be robust on the Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island, which falls in her district. One aspect strongly in Seawright’s favor is her opponent’s late entry into the fray. Kostakopoulos started his campaign only a few weeks ago - he’s holding a campaign launch event September 8 - and has yet to raise any money. Seawright has just short of $100,000 in the bank.

Kostakopoulos told Gotham Gazette he got into the race because Seawright would otherwise have been uncontested, and that during her tenure, quality of life, particularly the issue of homelessness, has become abysmal in District 76. “I’ve been there my entire life and I’ve never seen it so bad,” he said in a phone interview, mentioning homelessness specifically.

He doesn’t intend to make an ideological appeal to voters, however. “I’m not running as a Republican or a Democrat even though I’m on the Republican line,” he said. “I’m running as a resident of the 76th district.” Calling himself a “New York Republican” like former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, he said he appeals to voters on the Upper East Side who are socially liberal and fiscally conservative.

If elected, he intends to advocate for quicker completion of the Second Avenue subway, which he said has been perennially delayed under Assembly Democrats. “These career politicians have had enough time,” he said. “Someone’s got to be held accountable.”

Republicans are hoping to see a repeat of the results of the 2013 mayoral race and Manhattan party Chair Malpass is rallying the troops on that message. In an email blast to subscribers, she laid out the strategy and outlined five upcoming events for the candidates, including Kostakopoulos’ campaign launch and fundraiser.

“What we accomplish between now and Election Day will lay the groundwork for winning the Mayor's race in 2017 and making Bill deBlasio [sic] a one-term Mayor,” the email reads. They intend to reach out to independents and moderate Democrats and will use “cutting edge campaign technology” to do so, including merging their voter rolls with internet services and online publications for targeted ads and narrowing down specific buildings and districts to directly reach voters online. It is important that they are funded to do the work, the party wrote.

But relying on the 2013 mayoral voting numbers may be problematic. Steve Romalewski, director of the CUNY Mapping Service at the Center for Urban Research/The Graduate Center, pointed out that just the next year (2014), in both the 73rd and 76th districts, the Democratic candidates won with overwhelming majorities. “I don’t see how the mayoral results have anything to do with the likelihood of a Republican winning either seat,” he said of the Assembly races, pointing out that Democrats have won these districts all the way back to 2000. “That’s just a reality of the New York City electoral patterns,” he said. “There tends to be a vast difference between municipal elections and state elections, and executive branch results and legislative branch results.”

“If the Republican candidates are trying to pin their hopes on the results of the 2013 mayoral election,” he said, “they’ll be sadly mistaken and they should rethink their strategy.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated.

In Race to Replace Espaillat, Ramifications for Senate Control, His Power, and More

Espaillat Alcantara

Espaillat, center, & Alcantara, right of center (photo: @Espaillat4NY)

Marisol Alcantara, a labor organizer who ran a successful insurgent campaign for district leader in 2010, is seen by many in her Uptown district as a liberal firebrand. As Alcantara now pursues election to the New York State Senate, she is also fighting a proxy war for Senator Adriano Espaillat, who is about to be elected to Congress and Alcantara hopes to replace. The hotly contested Democratic primary for Espaillat’s Senate seat is becoming a test of his power and that of his top allies.

Alcantara’s candidacy is also backed by the Senate Independent Democratic Conference, or IDC, which she has pledged to join if elected, a scenario that may enable Senate Republicans to keep control of the chamber in a year when mainline Democrats believe they have the best chance to take power and see all major parts of state government run by the party.

In other words, the race to replace Espaillat, along with several Senate races around the state, could have significant implication for billions of dollars in state budget money and major policies of all kinds - these decisions are currently made among Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, the Democratic leader of the state Assembly, and the Republican leader of the state Senate, with some input from the IDC.

On Tuesday, Alcantara was endorsed by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. who is an ally of IDC head Jeff Klein, senator from the Bronx, and of Cuomo, who has encouraged the IDC’s ruling coalition arrangement with Senate Republicans in the past.

“From organizing voter registration drives, to helping tenants facing eviction navigate city bureaucracy, to standing with workers on the picket line, to passionately advocating for education funding, Marisol Alcantara has spent her career fighting for the issues that New Yorkers care about,” Diaz Jr. said in a press release.

According to five sources involved in the race, Espaillat is flexing his new-found muscle after his Democratic primary win to replace retiring Rep. Charles Rangel in Congress. Espaillat, set to become the first Dominican-American elected to Congress during a formality of a November general election, has called in favors and is lobbying other electeds to back Alcantara. In the state Senate primary set for September 13, she is facing former City Council Member Robert Jackson and Micah Lasher, former chief of staff to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

The 31st Senate District runs from the Upper Manhattan neighborhoods of Inwood and Washington Heights, down the West Side to Hell’s Kitchen.

“This is a lady who stands on her own two feet,” Espaillat said of Alcantara last week as she received the endorsement of the Transit Workers Union Local 100. “I listen to her and I know that we will not always agree, because she is her own person, as she should be, because leadership is about that.”

Jackson, who has been running since February, is allied with Assembly Member Keith Wright, who Espaillat defeated in the Congressional primary. Jackson challenged Espaillat for his Senate seat two years ago, winning about 43 percent of the vote, when Espaillat was losing to Rangel for the second cycle in a row.

Lasher, who has been running since April, is a first-time candidate but is known as an expert political strategist and has deep political connections to many top city and state politicians, such as Schneiderman and city Comptroller Scott Stringer.

There is concern in Espaillat’s camp that a Jackson or Lasher victory could create a ready-made primary challenger for Espaillat two years from now, when it is assumed he’ll be seeking re-election to Congress. Neither Lasher’s nor Jackson’s campaign returned requests for comment.

In efforts to elect Alcantara, the candidate, Espaillat, and others also hope to tap into enthusiasm in the Dominican and larger Hispanic communities over Espaillat’s congressional victory. Meanwhile, Alcantara has received the financial backing of the IDC which is looking to expand its membership before negotiating a deal to control the Senate with either the Democrats or Republicans.

City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez switched his endorsement from Lasher to Alcantara when Alcantara declared her candidacy on July 20. It also appears Alcantara has picked up labor endorsements that were expected by Jackson and Lasher, one of which is that of Transit Workers Union Local 100.

Espaillat is featured heavily in Alcantara mailers that are funded by the IDC. Espaillat also recorded a robocall for Alcantara. “As an immigrant to our country just like me, Marisol Alcantara knows the importance of standing up for those without a voice,” Espaillat says on the call before asking voters to “make history” with him again by electing Alcantara. Alcantara immigrated from the Dominican Republic when she was a child.

While in the Senate, Espaillat has been a member of the mainline Democrat conference, not the IDC.

"Marisol is a longtime labor and community activist who's worked closely with elected officials, faith leaders, and non-profits across the district to fight for tenants, seniors, immigrants and working families,” said Jonathan Davis, a spokesperson for Alcantara, in a statement. “Voters know how hard she'll fight to strengthen tenant protection laws, increase education funding, pass the DREAM Act, fix New York's broken campaign finance system, and protect our environment and parks. It's no surprise she's built such a diverse and impressive coalition in a short amount of time, and she's only getting started."

Both Lasher and Jackson have criticized Alcantara for aligning herself with the IDC. Mainline Senate Democrats worry that Alcantara will simply serve to strengthen Klein’s hand when it comes time to negotiate a governing deal. They note that while some major liberal issues have passed the Senate under Republican and IDC control, like a minimum wage increase and paid family leave, other major issues like criminal justice reform, the DREAM Act and ethics reform have foundered.

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

Alcantara defended her alliance with the IDC in a statement released last week: “I witnessed an increase in the minimum wage twice, paid family leave, and Universal Pre-K for NYC–all possible because of the IDC’s influence. When I am elected I look forward to going to Albany to continue to push for progressive legislation critical to the people of the 31st district.” She added that she will remain an independent voice for “tenants and families” throughout her district, where rent regulation and affordable housing are top concerns.

Sources within Alcantara’s camp insist she will be a vocal proponent of liberal issues and likely clash with Senate Republicans regardless of which conference she sits with, while noting it is likely that the IDC will caucus with Democrats as Republicans are facing the potential negative impact a Trump candidacy may have on turnout.

Alcantara and her allies dismiss criticism from Lasher and Jackson and point to their histories as evidence that they have worked across party lines. Jackson voted in favor of extending term limits in 2008 when then Mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted to run for a third term. Lasher worked as a top state government lobbyist for Bloomberg and also served as executive director of pro-charter school group StudentsFirstNY, a group that has worked to defeat Democrats.

Jackson’s major endorsements include powerful unions the United Federation of Teachers and DC37, and former Mayor David Dinkins. Lasher is backed by Attorney General Schneiderman, Reps. Hakeem Jeffries and Jerry Nadler, Comptroller Stringer and State Sens. Jose Peralta and Jose Serrano.

A win by Alcantara wouldn’t just give the IDC more leverage during negotiations this fall, it would also add diversity to its ranks as the conference is currently made up of only white members, four men and one woman. They’ve come under heavy criticism for taking a seat at the negotiating table with Gov. Andrew Cuomo while mainline Senate Democrats - who are represented by Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a black woman, and represent the majority of city residents - are excluded.

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

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The Week Ahead in New York Politics, August 22

New York City Hall

New York City Hall

At the onset, it appears to be a relatively quiet week ahead in New York politics, at least in terms of hearings and events scheduled. Mayor Bill de Blasio is out of town for the week, heading to "family engagements" with his wife, son, and daughter in several New England states. And, the City Council has no committee or full-body hearings this week - it doesn't have any scheduled until after Labor Day.

Governor Andrew Cuomo does have an active public schedule Monday. After releasing a schedule with no events on Sunday evening, the Governor's Office sent out an updated schedule Monday morning that has Cuomo in New York City and Suffolk County. At 11 a.m. the governor will deliver remarks at the NYS AFL-CIO 33rd Constitutional Convention in Manhattan. At 1:35 p.m. Cuomo will make an announcement at IBEW Local 25 in Hauppauge.

Neither Comptroller Scott Stringer nor Public Advocate Letitia James has any public events scheduled for Monday. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito did not release a public schedule for Monday as of 7:30 a.m. Monday.

Topics to watch this week that heated up last week have a housing focus: debate over the resuscitation of the 421-a affordable housing tax incentive program per state law and questions about specific rezonings that fall within city parameters. Gov. Cuomo is reportedly working through a new 421-a deal with real estate developers and the building trades unions - the expiration of 421-a was one key aspect of the dissolution of Cuomo and de Blasio's relationship. Meanwhile, de Blasio and specific City Council members were involved in some conentious back-and-forth this past week as two Council members are opposing rezonings that de Blasio favors - each would allow greater density through a specific housing development, but would come with new guarantees of affordable units therein.

Like the City Council, the state Legislature is quiet this week, but the Assembly and Senate are gearing up for water quality oversight hearings that will take place toward the end of the month and into September. The town of Hoosick Falls has been at the center of controversy due to poisoned water there and the state's slow response in warning and helping local residents. But, there are other places where the health of the water is being questioned and after a long delay, both houses of the Legislature decided to hold hearings.  

As for this week, there are a few events on the calendar - see our day-by-day rundown below.

***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:

At 10 a.m. on Monday, the Department of Consumer Affairs will hold a public hearing on a new proposed rule. The DCA is proposing a change to the “Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act,” which would mandate “certain companies that receive at least one million dollars of financial assistance from the City of New York to pay their employees no less than a living wage.”

On Monday at 11:30 a.m., “Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, Council Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer, Queens Borough Parks Commissioner Dorothy Lewandowski and Community Board 2 will announce $3 million in funding for renovations at Hart Playground in Woodside. This money will provide upgrades to the play structures, benches, grass, restrooms, and other facilities at the popular playground.”

On Tuesday at noon in Long Island City, City Council "Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer, Building Trades Council President Gary LaBarbera, and workers from the Building Trades Unions will rally outside of the G&M Realty site to protest a broken promise by G&M Realty, the site owner, to build using union workers. During the ULURP process, in exchange for the ability to build 400 additional units, G&M Realty agreed to several major community givebacks, including a commitment to build and staff the site with one hundred percent union labor. G&M Realty has since reneged on the agreement."

On Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. the New York City Department of Education will hold a meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy Contracts Committee.

Wednesday is the deadline for change of address requests for those planning to vote in the New York state and local primaries on September 13. 

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, the New York City Planning Commission will hold its biweekly public meeting.

On Wednesday at 5 p.m. outside the A-train station in Far Rockaway, "State Senator James Sanders Jr. will host a press conference (D-Rochdale Village, Far Rockaway) [to] announce that $12.94 million in state funding has been allocated for transportation improvements to Far Rockaway. This money was set aside in the 2016 budget for a multi-year state transportation plan agreed upon by Senator Sanders along with his colleagues in the legislature and Governor Cuomo."

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, the New York City Department of Education will hold a meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy at Prospect Heights High School.

From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday, State Senator James Sanders Jr. is hosting a "Foreclosure Forum" at Calvary Baptist Church in Jamaica, Queens, to educate homeowners about issues related to foreclosures.

Nothing on our radar for Friday as of Monday evening.

"Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson today announced that his office, together with the New York City Police Department, is hosting a Gun Buyback event this coming Saturday to help people dispose of unwanted guns that they possess in exchange for cash. No questions will be asked and no ID required from those who turn in their guns." Clarendon Road Church in Flatbush, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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 Libby Wetzler and Ben Max

Cuomo Seeks to Undermine Comptroller’s Check on His Power

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Cuomo, left, and DiNapoli, middle, in 2012 (photo: The Governor's Office)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent assertion that Comptroller Tom DiNapoli should “educate himself” and that the comptroller’s audits on state economic development projects are “dead wrong” and “opinion” drew a lot of attention. Many Albany observers took it as a sign of Cuomo’s growing sensitivity to criticism about his signature projects.

Those projects, like the Buffalo Billion, are the subject of a federal investigation headed by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. The state Legislature remained fairly removed from oversight of the projects until very recently. However, several government watchdogs say that Cuomo’s attacks on DiNapoli are part of a long-running pattern of Cuomo trying to weaken the comptroller’s oversight of the executive branch.

“The governor hates oversight and the governor actively works to undermine and weaken anyone who is keeping an eye on him,” said John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany, a group that has closely followed the Buffalo Billion economic development project. Kaehny noted that Cuomo and the Legislature approved a measure in 2011 that prevented DiNapoli from reviewing contracts at SUNY and CUNY ahead of time. “The governor has been undermining the comptroller from his first budget,” said Kaehny of Cuomo, who took office in January 2011.

A recent DiNapoli audit of the Empire State Development Corporation’s Excelsior Jobs Program, which gives businesses refundable tax credits for creating jobs in certain areas of the state, found that there wasn’t proper oversight to make sure companies were providing the jobs they pledged to create and that they weren’t simply relocating jobs from elsewhere in the state. Further, the audit found ESDC didn’t obtain the proper paperwork to justify handing out tax breaks to some organizations. Cuomo told reporters that DiNapoli’s audits on his economic development programs are invalid partly because DiNapoli is a former member of the state Assembly.

“The comptroller is not just the comptroller. The comptroller was an Assemblyman for many, many years. And that New York State Assembly, first of all, passed numerous economic development plans for many, many years,” Cuomo explained. “For an Assemblyman to now critique economic development programs in upstate New York - what did you do? What bills did you vote on? And how did you allow this situation to develop?”

When asked by a reporter from The Observer why he then put DiNapoli in charge of auditing New York’s homeless shelters, Cuomo responded: “You get in some audits the person’s opinion, right? ‘I think this about economic development.’ Some audits are pure quantifications: count how many people are in a homeless shelter. Go ‘one, two, three.’”

The combination of comments appeared aimed at undermining DiNapoli’s work and authority, and fit the Cuomo mold of punching back at critics, whether they are advocates, local elected officials, or the elected chief fiscal officer of the state, DiNapoli.

Empire State Development issued a detailed rebuttal to DiNapoli’s Excelsior audit that challenged some of its more damning assertions. ESD claimed DiNapoli’s staff failed to grasp how the program actually works and the mandate of certain statutes. DiNapoli’s office responded that ESD staff had not been cooperative.

Jason Conwall, spokesperson for ESD, issued a statement to media outlets after the report was released, stating: "Any truly objective review would show this program is cost-effective, performance-based, and incentivizes business growth by only providing tax credits to those that have achieved their job commitments and investments. The reporting requirements to this agency, as well as to the Department of Labor, are rigorous and companies have to demonstrate to ESD that they met their job commitments before any credits are issued."

The comptroller also recently released audits of Cuomo’s Charge NY program and of Medicaid. DiNapoli’s Medicaid audit found dead people were still receiving benefits.

Cuomo’s dismissal of the comptroller’s audits seems to discount the fact that the comptroller oversees an army of professional auditors that base their reports on figures and facts.

E.J.McMahon of The Empire Center, a conservative think tank, said that it is generally expected that there will be tension between a Comptroller and Governor and that it is unsurprising that Cuomo, who has a reputation for “ad hominem denunciation” over “the substantive argument,” is feuding with someone charged with monitoring him. Yet accounting for those points, McMahon said there is still something surprising about Cuomo’s animosity toward DiNapoli.

“Cuomo has exhibited a peculiar mix of antipathy and disrespect for Tom DiNapoli. It's hard to explain. After all, DiNapoli generally has been cautious and measured in his criticisms of administration policies, which reflects an institutional tradition in the comptroller’s office. He’s not exactly a confrontational kind of guy. If anything, DiNapoli seems to go out of his way to avoid taking potshots or unduly juicing up the wording of criticisms he does make..”

Representatives from Cuomo’s office repeatedly pointed to press releases of critical audits by DiNapoli’s office as salacious, saying they do not jibe with what is contained in the reports. During legislative hearings on economic development programs held earlier this month, administration officials quizzed on DiNapoli’s audit failed to provide detailed rebuttals, only indicating they did not agree with the audits.

Cuomo spokesperson Dani Lever said in a statement, “When someone makes false or misleading attacks, our administration aggressively defends and corrects the record and we make no apologies for doing so.” She did not offer comment to the assertion that Cuomo has worked to undermine the comptroller’s office. She also did not respond to a request to elaborate on what might have been “false” in DiNapoli’s audits.

In a statement, DiNapoli reiterated his role: "As state Comptroller, my office provides checks & balances and oversight to ensure that the state is working efficiently for our taxpayers. Government should always be working to improve itself. We have a job to do, and we will continue to do it.”

Cuomo and DiNapoli are both Democrats.

In October, as news about Bharara’s investigation broke, DiNapoli faced questions about why his office wasn’t more involved in providing oversight into how two SUNY nonprofits were awarding million-dollar contracts. He told Susan Arbetter of The Capitol Pressroom that Cuomo and the Legislature had taken away his ability to review contracts before they were issued by SUNY and CUNY.

Kaehny of Reinvent Albany said that it is important to note that these powers were stripped from DiNapoli as the Buffalo Billion program began to take off. “The governor has worked methodically to undermine and resist the comptroller’s oversight. His first budget stripped the comptroller’s oversight over SUNY Research Foundation, which has been essential in the unfolding scandals in what appears to be pay-to-play for millions of dollars of contracts,” said Kaehny.

Just as McMahon said, many watchdogs see Cuomo’s reaction to DiNapoli’s audits as concerning because they don’t believe DiNapoli has been as critical as he could be and has not hit some of the more sensitive areas of Cuomo's economic development programs.

At the same time they see DiNapoli as standing mostly alone as a check on Cuomo’s economic development spending given the Legislature has been relatively absent. “There is no question Tom DiNapoli has been standing alone on this,” said Ron Deutsch of the Fiscal Policy Institute, a liberal think tank. “The comptroller should be praised for doing his constitutionally-mandated job and the governor shouldn't begrudge him for doing it. The governor needs to learn to take the criticism along with the praise.”

Kenneth Giardin of The Empire Center agreed, “The comptroller has been picking up the slack that has been all but abandoned by the Legislature. The responsibility for oversight has fallen exclusively to the comptroller.”

In New York City, Comptroller Scott Stringer has released a series of troublesome audits of city government, which have painted different levels of waste, dysfunction, and ineffectiveness by the administrations of Mayor Bill de Blasio and his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg. While de Blasio has contested different points and looked to downplay the findings, he and his administration have not dismissed the office as one that simply delivers ‘opinion.’ Nor has de Blasio called Stringer’s work politically motivated, even though Stringer is thought to be a potential 2017 challenger to de Blasio.

Asked about the conflict between Cuomo and DiNapoli on Thursday, de Blasio said that he wasn’t familiar with all the specifics, but that the comptroller was asking “valid” questions about the efficacy of economic development programs and that he’s known DiNapoli to be a “a very serious public servant.” “And obviously the state Comptroller should be respected,” de Blasio added.

“The city comptroller does much, much broader audits,” said Kaehny. “When the state comptroller does an audit that looks at how the executive branch spends money they don’t pull back and ask questions about the bigger picture of nonprofits cutting million-dollar checks to campaign donors.”

Former Gov. George Pataki had a relatively cordial relationship with Comptroller Carl McCall despite the fact that McCall was a political rival. Former Gov. Mario Cuomo’s dislike for Republican Comptroller Edward Regan was not much of a secret - Regan was considered a possible serious challenger, though he never ran for Governor.

The New York Post recently reported rumors that DiNapoli could challenge Cuomo in a 2018 primary and capitalize on Cuomo’s weakness with liberal voters. DiNapoli dismissed the notion in an interview with Politico New York and said he plans to run for re-election as Comptroller.

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated to include ESD rebuttal to the Comptroller's Excelsior audit.

New Study is Latest Salvo in Airbnb Lobbying Fight as Governor Weighs Bill

apartment bronx airbnb story

photo: Sofie Hecht for Gotham Gazette

As Governor Andrew Cuomo weighs whether to sign it, a high-stakes fight continues over legislation to regulate Airbnb, the popular home-sharing service. Before and since the state Legislature passed the bill this Spring, the related lobbying battle has touched on various socioeconomic factors including tech entrepreneurship, the sharing economy, affordable housing, organized labor, and more.

Airbnb is now entering into the fray a new study, previewed by Gotham Gazette and to be released Friday, called “How Airbnb Can Support Low-Income Communities in NYC,” which indicates that New Yorkers in low-income neighborhoods are able to supplement their earnings in important ways as Airbnb hosts.

The report finds that Airbnb listings from low-income neighborhoods in the South Bronx, Harlem, and North-Central Brooklyn are growing at a faster rate than in the city as a whole, and that Airbnb income in these areas equates to nearly half the amount of aggregate public assistance cash directed to residents (not including non-cash support like food stamps). Company data shows “significant demand for accommodation in these neighborhoods and that home sharing is already a critical lifeline” for many residents.

The report comes as some city and state elected officials, aligned with affordable housing advocates and the major hotel workers union, organize in efforts to convince Gov. Cuomo to sign the bill that would greatly limit advertising of Airbnb rentals in New York City and argue that Airbnb rentals harm low-income New Yorkers by contributing to housing scarcity.

The legislation passed by the Legislature in June (A8704-C/S6340-A) would make it illegal to advertise entire home or entire apartmentment rentals for fewer than 30 days—a type of rental that comprises the majority of Airbnb listings in the city.

Airbnb representatives and supporters, including some elected officials, have called the bill an overreach, crippling to an essential element of the modern “sharing economy,” and the product of undue influence by special interests, like the hotel workers union.

Such short-term renting arrangements have been illegal under New York City’s multiple dwelling law since 2010, but advertising them remains legal. If the proposed bill is signed by Cuomo, posting an entire home renting arrangement for under 30 days on Airbnb could warrant a $1,000 fine for first-time offenders and up to $7,500 by the third violation. The governor has said he’s reviewing the legislation, but he has not taken a definitive position, so lobbying from both sides continues.

Anti-Airbnb efforts are being led by the “Share Better” coalition - the group has received funding from the New York Hotel and Trades Council, which represents hospitality workers who stand to gain from a more favorable climate for hotels. Efforts are being run by executives from Metropolitan Public Strategies who have connections to HTC.

One key issue for the anti-Airbnb effort and the bill before the governor is how much public pressure to put on Cuomo to sign the bill.

Those in favor of the bill argue that commercial operators abuse Airbnb to make millions from illegal short-term listings, citing a 2014 report by State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman that identified 72 percent of Airbnb listings in the city as being in violation of the city’s multiple dwelling law. In essence, the argument is that New Yorkers have been running illegal hotels.

While the AG’s report uses data from 2010 through 2014, which Airbnb calls significantly outdated, proponents of greater regulation say the illegal listings have grown since and have a negative impact on the city housing market, including much-needed affordable housing.

In an email to Gotham Gazette, Airbnb spokesperson Peter Schottenfels responded to those calling for the governor to sign the bill by pointing out that 96 percent of Airbnb hosts in New York only rent out one home, and that 78 percent earn “low, moderate, or middle incomes.”

“By failing to truly distinguish between commercial operators running illegal hotels and average New Yorkers who occasionally share their own homes, the 2010 law has failed to root out truly problematic actors,” Schottenfels wrote. “In fact, an estimated 9,000 New Yorkers avoided foreclosure or eviction last year because of the money [they] earned sharing their home.”

In July, 15 members of the New York City Council’s Progressive Caucus sent a letter to Cuomo, calling for “stopping the proliferation of illegal hotels that currently puts affordable housing at risk.” A spokesperson for the Caucus told Gotham Gazette that “a similar cohort” of Caucus members are involved in additional organizing efforts, which are said to include a broader group of officials.

Council Member Helen Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat who is part of the Progressive Caucus and has been a leading voice calling for further regulation of Airbnb, told Gotham Gazette that she wants Cuomo to sign the bill primarily to stop Airbnb from skirting the existing regulations.

“Airbnb knows that hosts break the law on their website, and yet Airbnb won’t take them off the website, and they could take them off very easily,” Rosenthal said. “They could ask, you know, ‘Are you renting your whole home or a room in your apartment?’ If the answer’s a room in your apartment, then, fine. If it’s your whole home, that’s not fine, that’s illegal.”

Rosenthal added that she and other legislators have worked with housing advocates and Share Better, who all say entire-home renting is contributing to a citywide housing shortage, citing 8,000 units that would otherwise be on the rental market.

Share Better and Metropolitan Public Strategies, a consulting and communications firm, have coordinated to publicize hotel and housing special-interest groups’ opposition to Airbnb, with the firm's Executive VP Austin Shafran acting as a spokesperson for Share Better. In the past, Metropolitan Public Strategies' CEO Neal Kwatra has served as a director for the Hotel Trades Council and as Chief of Staff to Attorney General Schneiderman before founding the firm in 2014.

In recent months both organizations have written talking points for City Council members. Rosenthal has drawn on Share Better points and worked with the coalition on an op-ed against Airbnb. "Share Better and I work together because we align on protecting affordable housing. I appreciate depth of data analysis and research they bring to the table," Rosenthal told Gotham Gazette.

Share Better also organized a campaign at the Democratic National Convention, trying to influence the public debate around regulating Airbnb, which, like other aspects the "new" economy and disruptive "innovations" like charter schools, has divided Democrats.

Airbnb warns further regulation will do more to harm homeowners than protect them, according to Schottenfels, who added that the company has already removed over 2,200 listings that it believes could affect the permanent housing market.

“They rushed to enact legislation that would fine middle class people thousands of dollars for sharing their homes occasionally,” Schottenfels of Airbnb wrote. “The new law threatens everyday New Yorkers with draconian fines, even for renting out their own home. Meanwhile, it does nothing to target commercial actors by distinguishing their activity from that of responsible home sharers.”

Now, the new report from Airbnb seems to echo a key argument that was made by Uber in its fight to fend off New York City regulations of its car-hailing service: that low-income New Yorkers, especially people of color, are benefiting from its existence. The report focuses on certain low-income communities in Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Bronx referred to as “revitalization areas”—which generate about 10 percent of total Airbnb income in the city—and highlights that revitalization area residents can increase their household income by renting out their home for three nights per month, on average.

For his part, Gov. Cuomo has not yet indicated whether he intends to sign the bill. When reached for comment, a spokesperson for the governor told Gotham Gazette that the bill “remains under review by Counsel's office."

The bill has not yet been sent to Cuomo’s desk. The Governor has until January to sign all bills passed in this year’s legislative session, but once he requests a bill from the Legislature, he has 30 days to sign it, veto it, or let it die by pocket veto.

by Aaron Holmes, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

with reporting by Ben Max

Note: this article has been updated with additional comment from Council Member Rosenthal and clarification on her collaboration with Share Better.

Trump Could Tip Key Races for State Senate Control

Trump NY GOP

photo: @NewYorkGOP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

For Cuomo, Passing Ethics Bill was Urgent, Signing It is Not

cuomo state of the state ethics podium

Gov. Cuomo during his 2016 State of the State (via The Governor's Office)

After nearly two months, Governor Andrew Cuomo requested on Friday that the Legislature send him an ethics reform package he personally designed and pushed the Legislature to pass in June with the assistance of a message of necessity he issued to speed the process. The governor now has 10 days to sign it, which he is expected to do.

Announced by Cuomo late in the legislative session, the actual bill was then a mystery for days before being introduced in the wee hours of the morning on the final day of the session. Thanks to the governor’s message, the bill was not required to age the otherwise-mandatory three days and legislators passed it within hours despite mostly not being familiar with it.

The legislation deals with putting more scrutiny and regulations on independent expenditure campaigns and non-profit advocacy groups, known at times as 501(c)(4)s (for their tax classification) and Super PACs, which can support or oppose candidates for office, but not coordinate with them. The legislation requires greater disclosure of donors and donations, and gives stricter guidelines of who can work for the groups and what constitutes coordination between a group and a candidate.

“For the first time, independent expenditure groups and PACs will be required to adhere to unprecedented disclosure requirements, and New York will have the nation’s strongest rules defining and governing coordination and independence,” Cuomo said in a statement announcing an agreement on the legislation in June.

Cuomo has already received hundreds of bills from the Legislature since session ended in June and it has not been clear why he took weeks to request one of his own signature bills. Just before Cuomo asked the Legislature for the bill, spokesperson Dani Lever told Gotham Gazette, “We plan to call the bill down and sign it in the coming weeks.” 

The matter of prioritization for the bill-signing also underscores questions about the bill being necessary in the first place, but also issue that many took with Cuomo’s abandonment of other, more pressing government ethics and campaign finance reform proposals, many of which he had previously claimed to champion.

Many legislators and advocates disagreed with Cuomo’s assessment that the new bill required emergency action, saying that super PACs were not an issue in the major corruption convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, and other recently disgraced legislators. It was a distraction, critics say, from the real issues facing Albany like closing the LLC loophole, eliminating current and potential conflicts of interest, and more. Some say the bill seeks to stifle contributions to issue advocacy groups that campaign for changes to environmental, education, criminal justice, government ethics, and other policies.

Discussing the legislation, Robert Perry, legislative director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) said, "This is a complex regulatory scheme that requires nonprofits to report not only the donations they make but that they receive, as well as their communications on issues that are important to the public. This should be of grave concern to the public as it reaches out to groups that do not engage in lobbying or campaigns but work on issues that impact us all. The lobbying law is not a place to insert reporting requirements and restrictions. They are running headlong into constitutionally protected activities."

Cuomo put the bill on the table late in the legislative session after it had become clear that the majority of the ethics reforms he proposed in his State of the State address would not pass in the Legislature, especially the Republican-controlled Senate. Many have questioned Cuomo’s commitment to his reform agenda, which he held no events to promote. When announcing the new bill June 8, Cuomo gave a booming speech about money in politics at Fordham Law School, decrying the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and calling his proposal a national model.

Before Cuomo even called the legislation to his desk, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) passed a series of emergency regulations prompted by the bill that will go into effect 30 days after the governor does sign it. Observers see JCOPE moving at an unprecedented pace.

JCOPE regulations would change the donor disclosure limits that currently require groups spending more than $50,000 in a year on an issue or on behalf of a candidate for office disclose their donors of more than $5,000. Under the new law, groups that spend more than $15,000 would have to disclose donors of more than $2,500.

Even more irksome to many lobbyists and nonprofits is the fact that the regulations are set to be retroactive for five months before the bill was actually introduced, going back to the beginning of the year.

“I am mystified at how an agency can push through regulations that are retroactive for a bill that hasn't even become law,” said Blair Horner of The New York Public Interest Research Group. “I’m not sure why it matters so much right now as [Albany] lobbyists won’t be at work until January and the Legislature is not in session right now.”

Seth Agata, executive director of JCOPE, responded to concerns raised by Horner and others in a statement:

“The timetable in the emergency regulations the Joint Commission on Public Ethics has begun promulgating was set by the Governor and Legislature in the bill that was passed near-unanimously. The regulations only become effective 30 days after the Governor signs the legislation which is when the law becomes effective – there is no retroactive application. By acting now, JCOPE has released these emergency regulations for extended public comment before they become effective, and indeed, before they even become permanent. The Legislature and Governor have clearly spoken and enacted a law that expands the disclosure of sources of funding, and imposes those new disclosure requirements as soon as the law becomes effective, regardless of when contributions were made. JCOPE must effectuate that mandate. ”

Issues of speed and timing are at play for other portions of the bill. As Politico NY reported on Thursday, 11 sections of the bill go into effect 30 days after it is signed. One of those includes language detailing what kind of interaction is forbidden between a candidate campaign and a Super PAC. Since the bill was not signed by Sunday, the rules will not be in effect for the September primaries, when all 213 seats in the Legislature are on the ballot. Some Super PACS have been spending in city races already.

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan embraced Cuomo’s push, introducing the bill himself in the Senate. Both Flanagan and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat, appeared behind Cuomo’s use of a message of necessity to rush the bill through. Such messages are supposed to only be used in the case of emergency as the three-day aging period is designed to give the public and legislators a chance to review a measure before it comes to a vote.

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated to reflect the fact that Gov. Cuomo called the bill from the Legislature.

Cuomo Cabinet Boat Trip Highlights Campaign Finance Law Concerns

Cuomo Hochul Hudson

Lt. Gov. Hochul, left, and Gov. Cuomo, right, on the Hudson (@NYGovCuomo)

On Monday, the highest ranking members of the Cuomo administration boarded a boat in the city of Hudson in Columbia County and embarked for New York City. The trip, according to Cuomo administration officials, was strictly work-related. There was a cabinet meeting; strategy sessions for the Governor’s 2017 State of the State address, and inspections of infrastructure projects like the “New New York Bridge,” which is replacing the Tappan Zee.

It was formally called a cabinet retreat, and all of the administration’s stated purposes for the journey were government related, separate from any strategizing for Cuomo’s 2018 re-election bid. And yet the administration says the cost of the boat trip was paid from Cuomo’s campaign funds.

The use of campaign funds to pay for government staff to take a working field trip appears to be completely legal under New York State campaign finance law, but critics of the system say the law is too loose, including around blurred lines like the cabinet retreat. Those who want to see campaign finance reform say the current system allows elected officials to take in significant donations, including from entities with government business, and enhance their lifestyles by paying for extravagant meals, cars, and trips; and even legal defense in criminal cases as former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, and several others have done.

Critics say Gov. Cuomo should set an example and use campaign funds strictly for campaign-related activities. “We are old fashioned in that we think campaign funds should be used for campaigns,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “If the governor believes such a trip is useful then taxpayers should pay for it; if he doesn't think taxpayers want pay for it then he shouldn’t do it.”

group shot on hudsonThe Cuomo administration did not respond to inquiries about why campaign funds were used to pay for the trip and whether any campaign-related activities took place. State of Politics first reported the use of the campaign money for the excursion.

Administration officials did note that attendees included Cuomo; Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul; the governor’s secretary, Bill Murrow; Director of State Operations Jim Malatras; Cuomo’s counsel, Alphonso David; Chief of Staff Melissa DeRosa; and Budget Director Robert Mujica; among others.

Cuomo’s official Twitter account was updated with pictures of the event but photos were not archived on the governor’s Flickr account, where almost all events Cuomo participates in are chronicled.

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, said that he finds Cuomo’s use of campaign funds to make meetings “more pleasurable” for staff preferable to some of what others have spent campaign money on, like making car payments and pool improvements.

“I think it is an allowable expense, even though I haven't seen it before,” said Dadey. “Our position is that campaign funds should be used for conducting campaigns. But there are exceptions where there is a clear furtherance of governmental activities; where it serves a clear public interest, and what the governor did would fit into that rubric.”

While Cuomo’s use of campaign funds for a boat trip for his staff is permissible under state law; New York City campaign finance law - seen by some as a model for what the state should adopt - sets out strict restrictions for those who participate in the public matching system. The boat trip would likely not be permissible under city law, according to experts.

The city campaign finance law states: “Expenditures for non-campaign related travel, food, drink or entertainment; if a candidate uses campaign funds to pay expenses associated with travel that involves both personal activities and campaign activities, the incremental expenses that result from the personal activities shall be considered for personal use unless the candidate benefiting from the use reimburses the campaign account within thirty days for the full amount of the incremental expenses.”

Horner of NYPIRG said one of his concerns about using campaign funds in the way the governor did for the boat trip is that it can lead to staff seeing donors as having influence on their day-to-day work.

“Campaign laws do allow them to use cash to further governmental duties,” said Dadey. “So making work more pleasurable by holding a meeting on a boat rather than a stuffy room in Albany is far better than what others have used campaign cash on, like legal defenses for criminal activities.”

To that point, the Cuomo administration has also been spending significant sums of campaign money on legal services as United States Attorney Preet Bharara has opened investigations into several former and current administration officials and the governor’s major economic development programs. A July campaign finance filing shows the Cuomo campaign spent $230,000 in efforts to defend administration officials and Joe Percoco, a former top governmental aide to Cuomo, from an investigation into the premature closing of The Moreland Commission on Public Corruption.

The Cuomo campaign paid $150,000 to the firm Morvillo Abramowitz Grand Iason & Anello, which represented the administration in the Moreland investigation, which eventually resulted in Bharara announcing no charges would be brought. The campaign paid $80,000 to Schulte, Roth & Zabel, the firm that represented Percoco in the matter.

Percoco is now one focus of Bharara’s investigation into possible corruption and bid rigging in the state’s economic development initiatives. He also carries a reputation for pressuring Cuomo donors for more campaign donations.

“That is a much-less desirable use of campaign funds,” said Dadey of legal bills that relate to government work, “because it is unclear what greater government purpose is being served.”

New York City law, by comparison, does allow for the use of campaign funds for legal defense in non-criminal matters that arise during the conduct of a campaign. But, city elected officials who’ve used public matching funds are not allowed to use campaign cash for legal defense in criminal matters. These lines are being tested as Mayor Bill de Blasio faces investigations into his administration as well as campaign related activities.

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

inset photo via @melissadderosa

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, August 8

New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

August is hitting its stride and this week looks somewhat quiet on the surface, at least by New York politics standards. After a couple of weeks with no hearings, the City Council gets back into action, but only with a few committee hearings on Tuesday. The Council will have its lone full-body Stated Meeting of the month on August 18, Thursday of next week.

Mayor Bill de Blasio starts the week coming off a rather busy one - this past week the mayor celebrated students' gains on state tests, the planned building of a new YMCA in the Bronx, and continued positive trends in city crime numbers. He also announced the impending retirement of NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton and the promotion Chief of Department Jimmy O'Neill to the role. De Blasio also discussed policing during his weekly appearance on WNYC radio's The Brian Lehrer Show.

On Sunday, de Blasio and O'Neill marched in the Ecuadorian Parade in Queens. Then the mayor and O'Neill walked the Orchard Beach boardwalk and neighborhood and met with local residents and small business owners in the Bronx.

De Blasio starts this week with no public events Monday.

Governor Andrew Cuomo made several announcements last week in various parts of the state, including on expanding broadband internet service. He also defended his economic development programs when asked by reporters, just as his state economic development leader did so in front of an Assembly committee at a rare August hearing in Albany. Cuomo also has no public events Monday.

As always, there are several events to be aware of this week - see our day-by-day rundown below.

***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:

At 10 a.m. on Monday, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs is holding a public hearing on the “proposal to repeal and replace Chapter 6 of Title 6 of the Rules of the City of New York,” which will allow for the transfer of DCA adjudications to the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings as required by Executive Order No. 18.

At 11 a.m. at City Hall on Monday, there wil be a "where's our park?" rally, at which Public Advocate Letitia James will be among the speakers.

At 1 p.m. on Monday, the New York City Planning Commission will hold its bi-weekly review session.

At 5 p.m. Monday, Urban Youth Collaborative will hold a press conference on school discipline at High School for Fashion Industries in Manhattan. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer is among those who will participate.

At 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday the New York Community Trust and Muslim-American leaders will host a breakfast briefing for journalists on a new effort to combat Islamophobia in New York City and throughout the country. The discussion at the briefing will be focused on counteracting negative images and rhetoric about Muslims and Islam in the media. Speakers include Shawn Morehead and Kerry McCarthy, Program Officers for the New York Community Trust; Linda Sarsour, Executive Director of the Arab American Association of New York; Tazmin Uddin, Youth Coordinator at Turning Point for Women and Families; Josh Seftel, film director at Seftel Productions; and Jaclyn Bishop, associate producer at Seftel Productions.

At 10 a.m. on Tuesday, the New York City Campaign Finance Board will hold a public meeting.

At 10:30 a.m on Tuesday the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics will hold a meeting. The meeting will be made available to those who cannot attend in person over live webstream.

At the City Council Tuesday:

  • At 9:30 a.m. the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises will meet to consider several land use applications.
  • At 11:00 a.m. the Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting and Maritime Uses will meet to consider three land use applications.
  • At 11:30 a.m. the Committee on Land Use will meet to address applications and business considered by the the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises and the Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting and Maritime Uses in their meetings earlier in the day.

At 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. on Tuesday the Department of Consumer Affairs will continue its Open House Training Series with sessions on New York City’s Paid Sick Leave Law and New York City’s Commuter Benefits Law.

At 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña will visit a STEM Summer in the City program at P.S. 166 in Manhattan.

On Tuesday at 6 p.m., Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer will host a Dominican Day Parade Launch Reception at United Palace Theater Lobby.

On Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Gracie Mansion, "Mayor de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray will attend and deliver remarks at the Annual ADA Sapolin Awards in honor of the 26th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act."

At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, the New York City Planning Commission will hold its bi-weekly public meeting.

At 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, the Brooklyn Historical Society will host Crown Heights Encounters: Listening Back, Moving Forward, an evening of discussion, performance, and reflection on the Crown Heights riot of August 1991 and Crown Heights’ past, present, and future. Topics of discussion include racial justice and urban renewal, and panelists include Errol Louis, host of Inside City Hall; Mark Winston Griffith, Executive Director of the Brooklyn Movement Center; Rabbi Eli Cohen, Executive Director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council; Natherlene Bolden, a Crown Heights Tenants Union member; and artist, Kameelah Rasheed.

At 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, the New York Urban League and the New York Urban League Young Professionals will host Black & Blue: A Struggle for Justice at John Jay College for Criminal Justice, a town hall meeting in which various New York City stakeholders will discuss plans for law enforcement reform. Speakers will include President and CEO of the New York Urban Justice League, Arva R. Rice; New York Urban League Young Professional, Stanley Fritz; Senior Campaign Director for the MomsRising.org Food Justice and Children’s Nutritution Campaign, Monifa Bandele; Senior Community Organizer at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., Lumumba Bandele; founder of NoEqualityNoEconomy.com, Tamika Malloy; New York State Senator, Kevin Parker; President of Brooklyn NAACP, L. Joy Williams; and New York City Council Member, Jumaane Williams.

On Thursday at John Jay College, from 9:30 a.m. to 10:15 a.m., "Alphonso B. David, counsel to Governor Andrew Cuomo, New York State Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte, chair of the State Assembly’s subcommittee on the oversight of minority and women owned businesses, and CUNY Chancellor James B. Milliken speak to more than 700 MWBE (Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprise) and SDVOB (Service Disabled Veteran Owned Business) owners from New York State and the Tri-State region at the eighth annual MWBE and SDVOB Conference on Contract Opportunities with the City University of New York (CUNY) and with the City University Construction Fund (CUCF)." The panel is part of a one-day conference, 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., which "includes workshops, boot camp sessions and – for those who have certification - exclusive meet-ups with procurement decision makers in various market sectors."

At 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, the Civilian Complaint Review Board will hold a public board meeting.

Friday and the weekend
No events on the calendar as of now.

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 Libby Wetzler and Ben Max

Cuomo Makes Transit a ‘Personal Priority,’ Advocates Want More Funding Details

cuomo prendergast mta

Gov. Cuomo & MTA Chair Prendergast (photo: Philip Kamrass, Governor's Office)

Governor Andrew Cuomo has made mass transit a major focus of late, holding a series of events over the past year regarding airport redevelopment, railroad expansion, new transportation hubs and vehicles, and more. Early last month he described the Metropolitan Transit Administration (MTA) as a new “personal priority” and announced an effort to modernize the agency, beginning with the purchase of over 1,000 new subway cars.

This, with the accompanying significant funding allocation toward the MTA, is something of a change of course for Cuomo, who has a history of diverting money from the MTA. Now, the governor’s ambitious transit plan includes updating the MTA, repairing tunnels and bridges throughout the New York metropolitan area, building a new Tappan Zee bridge, rebuilding LaGuardia Airport and Penn Station, and creating a new tunnel under the Hudson river.

With federal corruption convictions having toppled two recent leaders in the state Legislature, among other former Albany lawmakers, and investigations into his own administration, Cuomo appears to have seized on a concrete, quality-of-life issue in mass transit that has also been brought into focus by the dire state of the state’s transportation infrastructure.

Cuomo’s commitment came after calls from transit advocates, business people, and lawmakers urging the governor to allocate funding to the MTA’s five-year Capital Program in the state’s budget to meet the staggering needs outlined by the authority. After spending $1 billion in the first year of the Capital Program last year, Cuomo agreed to provide an additional $7.3 billion last fall. New York City will provide $2.5 billion, and the MTA, a state body whose chair is appointed by the Governor, will itself provide $17 billion.

Cuomo did not finalize the spending plan for the Capital Program until late May, but has widely publicized his support of the program since. The state’s contribution to the Capital Program is included in the Fiscal Year 2017 budget, providing $2.9 billion in the coming year on top of the $1 billion provided in Fiscal Year 2016.

At a June event celebrating groundbreaking at “the new LaGuardia Airport,” Cuomo put the magnitude of his “$100 billion infrastructure program” on display, calling it “the largest reinvestment in New York’s infrastructure in modern history,” which, he said, was “long overdue.” A key part of it, the governor said, “is a $27 billion investment, largest capital investment in history in the MTA because that is going to be the future. Moving more and more people through mass transit rather than through cars and I am proud to be the governor who made the largest investment in the MTA’s history.”

While some transit advocates view the governor’s recent embrace of the MTA as a victory, not all are reassured by the promise of capital funding.

“It was a great win in many ways that the governor said he would allocate the necessary funding at least this year to the capital plan,” Masha Burina, an organizer for the advocacy group Riders Alliance, told Gotham Gazette. “But our major concern going forward that we still have and that we're going to be pushing for in our campaign is to get a sense of where this money is coming from.”

Burina said the push to secure budgetary funding for the Capital Program was aided by Assembly member James Brennan, a Democrat from Brooklyn, who penned a letter signed by 35 other Assembly members and sent to Cuomo in February. However, Burina added that Cuomo has not detailed how the state will pay for the capital program.

Without a new source of funding, the state—or the MTA—will have to borrow. The MTA is already over $35 billion in debt. Because one of the only revenue generators within the MTA’s control is passenger fares, Burina said she is worried going further in debt would make a looming fare hike to $3 even more likely (the current cost of a subway or bus ride is $2.75).

But the Fiscal Year 2017 budget stipulates that the state can only provide its share of the funding via a revenue stream or direct payments, which means no debt related to the state’s contribution to the Capital Program can be passed on to the fare-payer, according to Morris Peters, a spokesperson for the New York State Division of the Budget.

Peters also touted the $3.9 billion state contribution already signed into law as part of the past two years’ budget, pointing out that this places the state ahead of schedule in providing its $8.3 billion pledged contribution.

“Through the Enacted Budget, the state’s commitment of $8.3 billion in new funding for the MTA is now law. Anyone who thinks this isn't a priority clearly doesn't know what they're talking about,” Peters said in an email to Gotham Gazette.

Nonetheless, transportation advocates are likely to continue questioning where exactly the money is coming from and pressuring Cuomo as they have in the past, urging the governor to find ways to pay for the capital plan, according to Burina.

“It's great that he's come out and stepped up saying that these are his priorities, but we want to make sure that this doesn't translate into unsupported debt borrowing,” Burina said.

Several possible options for funding exist, but none have yet been embraced by the governor. One possibility is raising motor fuel taxes, which brought in $503 million for the state last year. But Nicole Gelinas, the Searle Freedom Trust Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said raising the gas tax is unlikely to provide enough funding for the Capital Program.

“I don't think we'll get much from a higher gas tax,” Gelinas said in an email to Gotham Gazette. “We could double it, and take in another half billion [dollars], but that doesn't solve the MTA's problems.”

Increasing motor fuel taxes has not been endorsed by Riders Alliance and has drawn skepticism from elected officials who support increased transportation spending, especially since motor fuel tax revenue is expected to decrease by $9 million in the coming year.

“All our public policy is, quite properly, aimed at saying ‘use fewer gallons of gasoline.’ We want to be more energy efficient, we want to have less fumes and we want to have more miles per gallon,” Jerrold Nadler, a Democratic congressman from Manhattan, said at “On Transportation,” a forum hosted by City & State NY at the New School on Tuesday. “So the amount of revenue in real terms from the gasoline tax is going down steadily, and we have to substitute for it.”

Riders Alliance has, however, endorsed the Move NY Fair Plan, which would increase tolls in areas of high transit availability like major East River bridges and decrease tolls in areas of low availability, including bridges over the Harlem River. But the plan would generate “only” one billion dollars per year for transit projects through 2019, as well as $375 million per year for road and bridge improvements during that time.

“The Move NY is a much better plan, except that even it is not a panacea,” Gelinas said by email. “It buys us the debt for one five-year capital plan, at most. But we're now two years into that five-year capital plan. So what do we do in three years' time?”

As advocates continue to push for a source of funding for the MTA, Riders Alliance hopes to use Cuomo’s “prioritization” of transit to gain momentum for more specific causes they’ve spearheaded in recent months, including compiling a plan to support commuters affected by the L Train’s upcoming closure, subsidizing fares for low-income New Yorkers, and updating the subway signaling system, which would allow for expanded countdown clocks and more trains per track.

And while some have been bolstered by Cuomo’s pledge to be an advocate for transportation, others are less satisfied. New York State Senator Leroy Comrie, a Democrat from Queens who serves on the Senate’s infrastructure committee, said that regardless of its sources of funding, the Capital Program neglects parts of his constituency.

“I represent Southeast Queens, which is a transportation desert. The MTA five-year capital plan addresses no solutions for Queens other than repair and maintenance of the existing bridges that are there,” Comrie said at the City & State forum on Tuesday. “The project for LaGuardia was necessary and important, there’s no access for our community to actually get to work.”

by Aaron Holmes, Gotham Gazette

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