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The Week Ahead in New York Politics, September 26


New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

The week starts with all eyes on the Presidential race and the first presidential debate Monday night. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will debate at 9 p.m. Monday from Long Island. Mayor Bill de Blasio made a trip to Wisconsin over the weekend to campaign for Hillary Clinton and he'll attend the debate Monday evening at Hofstra. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Gov. Andrew Cuomo will also attend the debate.

De Blasio will first hold a press conference at 11 a.m. Monday at FDR High School in Brooklyn to make "an education announcement." According to his public schedule he will limit press questions to "on-topic" only. Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and Public Advocate Letitia James will be at the press conference.

There will also continue to be attention this week on the fallout from last week's federal corruption charges brought against nine people involved with Governor Cuomo's economic development programs, including a close former aide and friend to the governor, Joseph Percoco, multiple developers who received major state contracts and have been big donors to Cuomo's campaigns, and the powerful head of many state projects, Alain Kaloyeros. Cuomo said on Friday that he had no idea about any of what was detailed in U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's 80-page complaint against those alleged to have committed the crimes involved. While no charges were brought against Cuomo, Bharara said the investigation is ongoing and questions have been raised about how Cuomo could not have known what was alleged to have happened under hs watch.

On Tuesday, Cuomo is set to give a speech in New York City in front of the Association for a Better New York, and he is likely to take questions from members of the media afterward.

Another highlight of the week ahead is that on Thursday the City Council is scheduled to hold an oversight hearing on what happened in the lifting of deed restrictions on Rivington House, the Lower East Side property that was a nursing home for AIDS patients and is becoming high-end condos after the city agreed to lift restrictions on the property and it was flipped in a series of now-controversial transactions. The city's Department of Investigations and city Comptroller Scott Stringer have each already released reports on what happened in the Rivington mess (the DOI said after receiving more information from City Hall that its investigation was "ongoing"). While Mayor Bill de Blasio said that things went very poorly with the process and announced a new process for deed restrictions, City Council members andn others are proposing legislation to change how the lifting of deed restrictions are handled, adding them to a City Council-involved process known as ULURP, which includes several checks outside of the mayoral administration.

And, speaking of the presidential election, there are just a couple weeks left to register to vote for those not registered and wishing to cast a ballot November 8 -- in the presidential election and/or others. Brooklyn Boulders and Rock the Vote are hosting two events this week in New York City, Tuesday in Queens and Thursday in Brooklyn, to register voters. Tuesday is also National Voter Registration Day.

As always, there's a great deal happening all over the city, with many events to be aware of - 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:

Monday
Mayor Bill de Blasio starts his week with the aforementioned press conference and, with his wife Chirlane McCray, attending the presidential debate.

  • At the City Council on Monday:
    The Committee on Courts and Legal Services will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss “a Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to providing legal counsel for low-income eligible tenants who are subject to eviction, ejectment or foreclosure proceedings.”
  • The Committees on Consumer Affairs and Transportation will hold a joint meeting at 1 p.m. for the oversight of and on legislation regulating the Sightseeing Bus Industry.
  • The Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services will meet at 1 p.m. to discuss numerous proposed laws.
  • The Committee on Housing and Buildings will meet at 1 p.m. to discuss two local laws which would amend administrative codes.

Regarding and prior to the 10 a.m. hearing, “There will be a press conference and public hearing on Int. 214A-2014, a local law that will provide legal representation for low-income tenants who are subject to eviction, ejectment or foreclosure proceedings. This bill is sponsored by Council Members Levine and Gibson, and signed by 40 additional City Council Members.” The press conference will include “Council Members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson, NYC Public Advocate Letitia James, NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer, former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, Manhattan BP Gale Brewer, Bronx BP Ruben Diaz Jr., Brooklyn BP Eric Adams, several other city and state elected officials, legal services providers, tenant advocacy groups, faith leaders, unions, and the NYC Bar Association.”

At 11 a.m. Monday City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito will speak at the Supportive Alternatives to Violent Encounters (SAVE) grand opening in her East Harlem district. At 1 p.m., she'll deliver remarks at the Council Fire and Criminal Justice Committee hearing on her bills related to the Department of Corrections. And at 3:30, Mark-Viverito will speak at the 16th Annual Gladys Ricart and Victims of Domestic Violence Brides March.

At 11:30 a.m. Monday, City Council Member Andy King, officials from the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), NYCHA tenant presidents, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Sanitation will hold a joint press conference to announce upgrades to NYCHA buildings in King’s City Council District; entrance of the Gun Hill House in The Bronx.

On Monday evening in Manhattan, City Limits News will hold its 40th anniversary gala, at which the news organization will honor journalist Wayne Barrett and union leader Henry Garrido.

The first of three Presidential debates will be held at 9 p.m. on Monday. This debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will be hosted by Hofstra University and moderated by NBC Nightly News Anchor Lester Holt. (There is also one Vice Presidential debate scheduled for early October.)

Tuesday
At the City Council on Tuesday:

  • At 1 p.m., the Committees on Economic Development and Civil Service and Labor will hold a joint oversight hearing on the city’s Employees’ Paid Parental Leave Program.
  • At 1 p.m. the Committee on Environmental Protection will meet for oversight of and on legislation regarding idling restrictions.

September 27 is National Voter Registration Day.

The New York State Joint Commission on Ethics will meet on Tuesday morning in Albany.

At 8 a.m. Tuesday, the New York City Economic Development Corporation will begin its two-day conference, “REV Future 2016.” This conference “will bring together key stakeholders, technology providers, and utilities and state policy makers to discuss actionable business strategies to operationalize the ongoing initiative for a clean, resilient, and affordable energy system in New York City.”

At 11 a.m. Tuesday, Maria Torres-Springer, president and CEO of the city Economic Development Corporation, will be speaking at SoBRO’s South Bronx Leadership Forum.

At 11 a.m. Tuesday, the Assembly Standing Committee on Agriculture will hold a public hearing to discuss “Oversight of the SFY 2016-2017 State Budget for the New York State
Department of Agriculture and Markets.”

At 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, the Association for a Better New York will have a luncheon with Governor Andrew Cuomo.

"This Tuesday, Sept. 27, from 4:00 pm to 6:00 pm, Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer will sponsor a public forum on “driverless” vehicles in New York City, featuring a display of of Audi’s prototype piloted vehicle, an adapted A7 named “Jack.” The panel will address the questions facing dense urban areas such as New York City as driverless cars and trucks begin to roll on the nation’s roads, on the heels of this week’s announcement by the Obama Administration of guidelines for automated vehicles, and of Uber’s pilot of driverless vehicles on the streets of Pittsburgh this month." Moderated by Recode journalist Johana Bhuiyan, panelists will include: Sarah M. Kaufman, Assistant Director for Technology Programming at the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation; Jeff Garber, Director of Technology and Innovation at the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission; William Carry, Senior Director for Special Projects at the NYC Department of Transportation; and Brad Stertz, Director of Government Affairs at Audi.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, City & State will hold its 10th Anniversary Gala. In conjunction with the gala, City & State will celebrate prominent and influential figures in New York City politics who have made their mark on the city over the last ten years with a special print edition entitled “The Newsmakers of the Decade.” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara will be keynote speaker. New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and former Governor David Paterson will also be speakers at the event.

At 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Day One will hold its 2016 Benefit to End Dating Violence Among Youth. Tamron Hall of NBC News and New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito will make remarks at the event.

Wednesday
At the City Council on Wednesday:

  • The Committee on Finance will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss two resolutions.
  • A Stated Meeting of the City Council will be held at 1:30 p.m. This will be prefaced, as usual, by a press conference led by Speaker Mark-Viverito.

On Wednesday, Families for Excellent Schools will hold its “Path to Possible March” in Prospect Park. Congressional Rep. Hakeem Jeffries will headline the pro-charter schools march and deliver the keynote speech.

At 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, the Citizens Budget Commission and Tech:NYC “will co-host a panel discussion on...New York City's Competitiveness in Attracting and Retaining Talent.” CBC will release its “2016 Competitiveness Scorecard,” which evaluates how the 15 largest metropolitan areas in the United States compare “in their capacity to attract the young, highly talented workforce essential to retaining strength in core industries and successfully cultivating emerging ones.” Edward Skyler, chair of the Citizens Budget Commission, and Maria Torres-Springer, president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, will be among the participants in this discussion.

On Wednesday at noon, the Manhattan Institute will hold a symposium on whether America’s education-accountability movement has progressed or regressed in recent years. This symposium will feature former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

On Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the CUNY Graduate Center, "Paying the Price," an event focused on "College Costs, Financial Aid, & The Betrayal of the American Dream," with Prof. Sara Goldrick-Rab as featured speaker and Nicholas Freudenberg (CUNY Public Health) & Mark Zuckerman (The Century Foundation, moderated by Prof. Anna O. Law (Brooklyn College).

Thursday
At the City Council on Thursday:

  • At 9:30 a.m, the Committees on Governmental Operations and Oversight and Investigations will hold a joint meeting to discuss the oversight of “The Lifting of the Rivington House Deed Restrictions,” and discuss a law which would change deed restriction protocols.
  • At 1 p.m. the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management will meet to discuss “in relation to regulation of the heating oil supply industry by the business integrity commission.”

At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, the Brooklyn Historical Society will hold “Wild New York.” At this event, Jarrett Murphy, publisher of City Limits, will talk with “a panel of experts about the effects of the changing urban environment on nature and its creatures, and how the city is working to understand, manage, and mitigate the issues that result.”

Friday and the weekend
At the City Council on Friday:

  • At 10 a.m., the Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises will hold a joint meeting with the Committee on Small Business to discuss the oversight of “zoning and incentives for promoting retail diversity and preserving neighborhood character.”
  • At 1 p.m., the Committee on Veterans will meet to discuss “a Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to the creation of a veterans resource guide.”

At 8 a.m. Friday, there will be a New York Building Congress Breakfast Forum which will focus on the Midtown East rezoning. City Council Member Dan Garodnick and City Planning Commission Chair Carl Weisbrod will speak. 

***
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 Brendan Birth and Ben Max
@GothamGazette

Federal Corruption Charges Confirm Systemic Flaws in State Economic Development System


cuomo topping off buffalo

Cuomo in Buffalo (photo via The Governor's Office on Flickr)


After laying out multiple corruption and bribery charges against nine players involved with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature economic development program, including his former aide and close friend Joe Percoco, family friend and confidante Todd Howe, and a number of major developers and Cuomo donors, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara refused to say whether the governor is a target in the probe or if it is reasonable to hold him accountable for the conduct of the people he empowered. The prosecutor noted the case remains open as a “general matter.”

Alluding to things possibly to come, though, Bharara said, "I really do hope that there is a trial in this case, so that all New Yorkers can see, in gory detail, what their state government has been up to.”

Whether or not Cuomo is indeed being investigated, or will see charges, those brought by Bharara on Thursday are an indictment of a system that the governor has presided over, and one that other leaders in state government have done little to oppose.

Cuomo issued a statement lamenting the charges and promising justice will be served: “If the allegations are true, I am saddened and profoundly disappointed. I hold my administration to the highest level of integrity. I have zero tolerance for abuse of the public trust from anyone. If anything, a friend should be held to an even higher standard. Like my father before me, I believe public integrity is paramount. This sort of breach, if true, should be and will be punished.”

Cuomo and his administration have continuously responded to reports about corruption in his economic development programs as though they are surprising and have caught them off guard, but the administration has been receiving warnings for years that the system was being abused.

Watchdogs have been setting off alarms that the state’s economic development system is ripe for corruption, while the press has consistently reported what appeared to be instances of bid-rigging related to the Buffalo Billion and government favors for donors to Cuomo’s electoral campaigns.

All the while, the Cuomo administration has taken the criticism and spun it as attacks on the effectiveness of the investments and on the needy communities they benefit, especially Buffalo. And while the governor did hire an “independent” investigator, Bart Schwartz, to examine and oversee the system last Spring, it was only after the administration was rocked by a storm of subpoenas. Schwartz and his firm can earn up to $450,000 for their work examining the system, a job watchdogs say should have been carried out by the state Legislature, Comptroller, and Attorney General.

Schwartz’s office declined to comment on the charges or what his role will be going forward now that the charges have been unveiled.

“The real story here is the system is broken. Everything we thought was going on, was going on, and is actually worse than we thought,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a group that has been pushing for major reforms to the state’s economic development systems and greater budget transparency.

Kaehny noted that the scandals related to bid-rigging in Buffalo, Syracuse, and Albany involve over $1.5 billion in taxpayer funds. “These indictments shine a light on a broken and corrupt system -- not a few bad apples,” said Kaehny.

Hundreds of millions of dollars in state funds flow through opaque non-profits that the state established, a practice that predates Gov. Cuomo but he has expanded. Large sums of cash are approved in the state budget with little debate and the money is given little scrutiny by the Legislature thereafter.

The major beneficiary of the alleged malfeasance, besides those charged with unfairly winning contracts and those accused of taking bribes, appears to be the Cuomo campaign. Developers involved in the scandal gave generously to Cuomo around the times they won state economic development contracts.

According to Reinvent Albany, three of the executives now charged in bid-rigging schemes are some of Cuomo’s biggest donors. Louis Ciminelli of LP Ciminelli has given Cuomo’s campaign $143,550 in contributions and received over $600 million worth of contracts through state-controlled non-profits. Joe Nicolla of Columbia Development has given Cuomo $320,000 while receiving $190 million in contracts through state-controlled non-profits and Steven Aiello of COR Development has given $338,500 to the Cuomo campaign while receiving $105 million through state-controlled non-profits.

Among those charged is Percoco, a childhood friend of Cuomo’s who has followed the governor throughout his various political positions. Percoco was known as the governor’s enforcer when he worked under him in the Capitol and later as a high-pressure fundraiser when he worked for Cuomo’s campaign. He is accused of using his position to take state action on behalf of contractors in exchange for bribes.

Alain Kaloyeros, now the former head of SUNY Polytechnic, which has awarded contracts to Buffalo Billion developers, was also charged Thursday. Kaloyeros is charged with bid-rigging.

Also charged were developers including Aiello, Ciminelli, and Joseph Gerardi.

Bharara’s office also unsealed a guilty plea by Todd Howe, a lobbyist and Cuomo family friend who has faced financial trouble over the years and was advocating for contractors while also overseeing and working with Kaloyeros.

Up until very recently the system allowed the state to funnel money to two non-profit entities overseen by SUNY Polytechnic. Those entities issued requests for proposal that in several instances were written specifically to only fit developers that had donated generously to Cuomo’s campaign. Bharara charges that Kaloyeros actually tipped his favorite contractors far in advance of issuing an RFP to give them a leg up.

The nonprofits have resisted transparency, only recently opening board meetings to the press. Additionally, the state appears to have been extremely lax in holding recipients of economic development funds to their promises, like how many jobs they plan to deliver or how much a project will cost.

Legislative leaders, the comptroller, and attorney general have raised little fuss about an economic development system that appeared to evade standard state contracting procedures by using a complicated system of nonprofits controlled by the State University to award bids and dole out funding.

Even with the spectre of Bharara’s investigation hanging overhead, the Legislature made no broad attempts to reform the system, instead mostly deferring to the Cuomo administration.

Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office raised concerns this year about its ability to audit economic development projects, but DiNapoli has a reputation as being non-confrontational. When an audit of his challenged the effectiveness and oversight of Cuomo’s Excelsior Jobs Program, the administration hit back hard, attacking the competence of DiNapoli’s staff. Cuomo said DiNapoli should “educate” himself and called his audits of economic development's “opinion.” DiNapoli has said he’s not intimidated and that he does his mandated job.

Cuomo and the Legislature actually stripped DiNapoli of the ability to review contracts issued by SUNY and CUNY ahead of time, part of creating a secretive system without clear checks and accountability.

On Thursday afternoon, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman unveiled bid-rigging charges of his own, these having to do with the construction of dorms near SUNY Albany, against Kaloyeros and Nicolla, of Columbia Development. Kaloyeros has spearheaded economic development programs under Cuomo and routinely appeared by Cuomo’s side for years.

According to Schneiderman’s office the investigation took a year and was performed in partnership with the probe by federal agents led by Bharara’s office. Schneiderman accused Kaloyeros, who was the state’s highest paid employee until being suspended without pay on Thursday, of rigging bids to go to developers who in turn directed grants and other benefits to SUNY Polytechnic. Kaloyeros’ compensation package was directly tied to the activity he oversaw at SUNY Polytechnic, therefore he benefited from the bid-rigging.

Last year Kaloyeros contacted this reporter by Facebook messenger after reading and apparently being upset by a story about the role he played in the Buffalo Billion. When asked if he would like to set up an interview to correct any misunderstandings or inaccuracies, he replied that he would like to give a tour of the nano facilities he oversees, but any discussion of federal investigations would be off limits. "The issue we have is confidentiality. We were instructed in no uncertain terms not to comment on the inquiry from down South with the threat of jail which is being interpreted as we are the target of an investigation,” Kaloyeros wrote. “So that part we cannot comment on beyond what we were authorized to say publicly. The rest is not a problem.”

The article attracted attention to Kaloyeros and he later deleted his Facebook profile.

Now with the “gory” details of the charges out for all to see, Reinvent Albany is calling on the state to take quick action to fix the system. It wants the state to freeze any new economic development activity by SUNY Poly and its subsidiaries; a phase out of using state-controlled non-profits to oversee economic development funds; a uniform contract process by the state, public authorities, and SUNY; new pay-to-play controls limiting contributions from those doing business with state entities; the creation of a database that reports the details of state subsidies and contracts given to businesses; and restoration of the Comptroller’s ability to review contracts issued by all state entities before they are signed.

Asked for a comment on Reinvent Albany's reform suggestions in light of Thursday's charges brought by Bharara, a spokesperson for Gov. Cuomo did not respond.

Jennifer Rodgers, executive director of The Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia Law School and a former prosecutor who served in Bharara’s office, said that the charges give proof that the state’s economic development system failed.

"As shown by the allegations in the indictment, there was a clear failure here in the oversight of the bidding procedures related to these Buffalo Billion projects,” Rodgers said in a statement. “We need greater transparency in these processes and stronger oversight; hopefully this will prevent recurrences of a situation where public funds made their way into the defendant's' pockets instead of being used for the benefit of the people of New York."

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

IDC Housekeeping Account Raises Questions, May Not Be Challenged


Klein at Cuomo event w Biden

IDC leader Sen. Jeff Klein (photo via The Governor's Office on Flickr)


As the Independent Democratic Conference of the State Senate prepares to cut a power-sharing deal, its hand has been bolstered by two new accounts, one of which has already paid dividends. The IDC, led by Senator Jeff Klein of the Bronx, has a new campaign committee that allows spending in races of interest and a party housekeeping account allows the IDC to raise unlimited cash to spend on party building, headquarters, and staffing expenses.

Currently five members including Klein, the conference, which has aligned with Republicans and may do so again after November’s elections, is set to add a sixth member. Thanks in part to the spending of its new campaign committee, the IDC bolstered the candidacy of Marisol Alcantara, who won a crowded September 13 primary to replace Senator Adriano Espaillat, who is headed to Congress. Alcantara has pledged to sit with the IDC when she takes office in January. Recent filings show the IDC spent over $97,000 on ads and other support for Alcantara.

While the New York political world has focused on Alcantara readying to join the IDC’s ranks and the spending of the new campaign committee, it is the party housekeeping account that could allow the IDC to establish itself as a more permanent fixture in state politics.

The rules governing housekeeping accounts have been criticized by a host of reform-minded politicians, good government groups, and even the defunct Moreland Commission on Public Corruption, set up and prematurely disbanded by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Housekeeping accounts tend to take in massive amounts of cash from limited liability corporations, or LLCs, allowing corporations and the wealthy outsize influence on the party apparatus. And, groups like Common Cause/NY have found that housekeeping accounts routinely violate restrictions that forbid them from spending on individual races.

Senator Klein himself has vowed that he wants to enact major reforms - he has called for banning outside income for legislators and instituting campaign finance reform. Klein has repeatedly touted that the IDC is the only conference to have signed on to “The Clean Conscience Pledge” pushed by good government groups that calls for closing the LLC loophole, limiting outside income, and making budget spending more transparent. The IDC has also repeatedly introduced “The Integrity in Elections Act” that establishes public financing of campaigns while limiting certain kinds of transfers between political committees and puts limits on independent expenditure campaigns.

Yet, the IDC has had a power-sharing agreement with Senate Republicans, who are steadfastly against campaign finance reform, closing the LLC loophole, and other reform measures. With the establishment of the campaign committee and housekeeping account, the IDC appears set to advance itself through the existing system.

Questions remain whether the creation of the committee and account are actually legal and those questions won’t likely be answered unless someone challenges them in court. Two parties that could do that - mainline Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans - don’t want to anger the IDC before it chooses who to caucus with and may not even want to anger the IDC afterwards, with future alliances in mind. Balance of power in the 63-seat state Senate is almost evenly split and there are a handful of swing districts around the state being decided upon in November. The IDC could provide a definitive bloc in chamber control.

Both the Senate Independent Campaign Committee and the housekeeping account were created in cooperation with the Independence Party, which has a limited electoral profile but does maintain a ballot line and its endorsement is sought after in many races. As of April 1, there were 475,566 New Yorkers registered to vote with the Independence Party, according to the state Board of Elections, many of whom have likely mistaken it for registering as an “independent,” or party-unaffiliated voter.

Campaign committees can take over $100,000 from single donors and distribute unlimited amounts to their candidates’ campaigns. This has allowed donors to skirt lower limits on direct contributions to candidate campaigns (and has landed Mayor Bill de Blasio and his associates under investigation from their 2014 efforts to swing the state Senate to Democrats).

“I really want to use this campaign committee as a vehicle for change,” Klein told Gotham Gazette during an interview in July, noting that he wanted to “elect new IDC members.” The IDC has positioned itself as a conference with appeal to the middle class and homeowners, backing a number of tax cuts and initiatives while also supporting charter schools. Short of Alcantara, its members are from more suburban communities. The IDC has also championed some progressive causes like paid family leave and tends to seize on headline-grabbing, hot-button issues, recently backing, for example, legislation designed to protect young Pokemon players from sex offenders.

Richard Fife, the campaign manager for Robert Jackson, who came in third place in the race to replace Espaillat, questioned the legality of the IDC’s spending on behalf of Alcantara. “We have these laws that we abide by and they found tricks,” Fife told The Daily News.

While the benefits of the IDC campaign committee is glaringly obvious, it has yet to be revealed what kind of role the housekeeping account will have.

According to state law, a party housekeeping account can be used for party building, paying staff, and promoting the party and its issues. It can’t spend on individual candidates or races.

However, one prominent New York election lawyer and a Democratic Party insider told Gotham Gazette they believe the IDC’s housekeeping account can’t spend to promote itself because the IDC is not actually a registered party -- its members all run on the Democratic ballot line.

The attorney also told Gotham Gazette that he believes the creation of the committee and the account could be easily challenged in court by anyone who takes issue with their creation. “No one has pushed back,” the lawyer said, “it will stand until someone challenges it in court.”

Both the lawyer and the Democrat, who requested anonymity to avoid getting personally involved in the complicated politics at play, framed the creation of the housekeeping account as being “creative” with the law. Klein has promised that he supports reforming the state’s campaign finance laws.

It will remain unclear for months what the housekeeping account is spending on because state law only requires housekeeping accounts to file their spending with the state Board of Elections in January and July. Gotham Gazette asked IDC spokesperson Candice Giove to disclose what the party has spent on and would be spending on, but she declined.

"The SICC housekeeping account will be used for housekeeping expenses in accordance with New York State election law,” said a spokesperson for the Senate Independence Campaign Committee.

Lawrence Mandelker, a lawyer representing the SICC, told Gotham Gazette that he felt legal concern with the creation of the committee is “Totally just noise-making,” and that he didn’t expect the committee and housekeeping account to be challenged in court. “Everything we did was totally researched, and complies with the letter of the law,” Mandelker said.

Pushed further for information on what the housekeeping account could be used for, Mandelker replied, “The Independence Party did this. We didn't create it, the Independence Party did it, you should talk to them.”

The only disclosed contributor to the SICC housekeeping account at this point is the IDC’s political action committee, The IDC Initiative, which gave two donations totaling $699,424 on August 16.

Independence Party Chair Frank MacKay did not respond to requests for comment.

Democratic Board of Elections Co-Chair Douglas Kellner told Gotham Gazette that although the BOE has yet to issue a formal opinion of the IDC’s use of a campaign committee and a housekeeping account, he personally sees nothing wrong with it. “If the Independence Party is saying it is their party, then I’m not aware how it would violate state statute.”

It is unlikely Democrats or Republicans will challenge the creation of the SICC and the SICC housekeeping account until after the IDC concludes its bi-annual negotiations and announces which conference it will empower. Even then, there may be no challenge.

Klein has spent this summer improving his negotiating position by electing Alcantara, spending at least $97,000 through the SICC on ads and polling in the process, according to the SICC’s 11-day pre-primary filing.

In aiding Alcantara, Klein has also cemented his alliance with Espaillat, who is himself building a powerful coalition and could prove a useful ally to the IDC in the future.

The SICC’s spending and addition of Alcantara may also go a ways toward quieting critics who have charged that the currently all-white conference has been effectively nullifying the votes of hundreds of thousands of diverse Democratic voters.

In the end, the housekeeping account may prove just as vital of a role but short of voluntary early disclosure by the IDC, voters won’t know until January.

A Common Cause/NY report from 2013, “Life of The Party,” detailed how housekeeping accounts have historically been used to benefit candidates, in direct conflict with state law. ""Non-campaign" soft money housekeeping expenditures regularly peak in the months prior to an election indicating that much of the spending is campaign related,” the report reads. “The election season spikes in housekeeping expenses are correlated to sharp increases in spending on advertising and mass-mailings, as well as hiring of political consultants.”

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

2016 Again Highlights New York ‘Incumbency Protection Machine’


NYC BOE photo voting machines cropped

(photo via NYC Board of Elections)


New York City residents are represented in the state Legislature by a total of 91 seats, 26 in the state Senate and 65 in the state Assembly. Among them, 60 are held by incumbents who were uncontested in their party primary elections that took place Tuesday, September 13.

In these just-completed primaries, 66 percent -- or about two-thirds -- of the city’s state legislative seats saw no intra-party competition. Twenty-four New York City-based legislators did face primary challengers this month, three of whom lost.

Additionally, there were seven already-vacant seats or seats where the current officeholder is not seeking re-election -- most of these seats saw competitive primaries, but City Council Member Inez Dickens ran unopposed for the Assembly seat being vacated by Keith Wright in Harlem.

In total, there are 150 Assembly seats and 63 Senate seats in the state Legislature. There are no term limits for state legislators in New York.

Of the 60 New York City-based incumbents who were uncontested from within their parties this cycle, 58 are Democrats, including State Senator Simcha Felder, who caucuses with Republicans in Albany and has both the Democrat and Republican lines on the ballot this year. In most, if not all, of these districts, Board of Elections voter enrollment data show registered Democrats outnumbering registered Republican voters 4-to-1, or more in some cases.

The single party dominance in many districts renders general election competition virtually meaningless and allows incumbents to be re-elected without lifting a finger. In some districts, the opposing party isn’t running a general election candidate at all. As many as 23 state legislators across the city will face neither a primary nor general election opponent this election cycle.

For example, Queens Democratic Assemblymember Michael DenDekker is running unopposed in the general election after facing no challenger in the primary. Elected into office in 2008, DenDekker has never faced a primary or general election challenger, according to Ballotpedia. Like with many other legislative races, especially so for uncontested votes, a small percentage of registered voters cast ballots for DenDekker and other uncontested incumbents, though numbers do rise when there is a presidential contest the same day.

In the 2010 general election, not a presidential year, just 10,117 people -- 1-in-5 registered voters in Assembly District 34 -- selected DenDekker’s name at the polls. New York State Assembly members each represent an average of 129,089 district residents, while state Senators have larger districts and represent roughly 307,356 residents, according to the New York State Legislative Task Force on Demographics and Reapportionment.

Senator Felder of Brooklyn, who has been instrumental in maintaining a narrow Republican majority in the state Senate, will appear on the Democratic, Republican and Conservative ballot lines in District 17 for the general election. Felder won his first state Senate election in 2012. In that first general election he defeated incumbent Republican David Storobin. He hasn’t faced a primary or general election challenger since.

Repeatedly uncontested primaries and general elections has become the norm for many seats across New York City and at least partially explains dismally low voter turnout in legislative elections around the city and state.

In the 2016 primary elections, 115,819 New Yorkers cast a ballot for state Senator out of nearly 1.1 million active voters within the districts where elections were held -- just 11 percent of the active voting population in those districts.

With so few New Yorkers casting ballots and so little competition, state legislators are more likely to listen less to their constituents and more to the people and interest groups who fund their campaigns, political consultants, and lobbyists. Elected officials become indebted to these power brokers for maintaining their office as big donors could just as easily funnel their money to a primary challenger should their interests go unheard.

“That’s not good enough, people should be made aware of that,” said Olateju “Remi” Ogunremi, 54, a civil servant who has lived in Brooklyn for ten years, when told that his local Assembly member is running unopposed and fits a larger pattern. Residing in Crown Heights, Remi is represented in the state Assembly by Walter Mosley, a Democrat who is uncontested in his primary and general election this year. “There should be a competitor to make it more democratic,” Remi said.

Without a public campaign finance system that matches private donations and encourages small-dollar contributions, outsider legislative candidates have little to no chance of raising enough cash to stage a significant challenge without strong name recognition or support of established organizations, unions, and local political figures. Once elected, incumbents have helped redraw their own districts to their and their party’s advantage and regularly pass legislation benefiting the people and interest groups that help them stay in office (redistricting will be done differently in New York next time thanks to a constitutional amendment passed at the ballot by voters in 2014).

Without term limits in place, state legislators get comfortable. The average tenure in Albany is over a decade long, according to a 2015 report by Politico New York. State lawmakers have also been at the center of a rash of corruption schemes and convictions, including recent leaders of each house.

As discontent and disapproval of state government grows, so does a lack of interest and involvement in the political system - less voting by those who are eligible; fewer aspirants willing to run for office. With loyal incumbents securely in office and fewer competitive races for which to distribute resources, campaign donors are free to hone their attention on strategic districts where they seek to broaden their influence and push their agenda.

“It’s very difficult for newcomers to unseat incumbents,” said Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University. “Once you’re in office it’s much easier to stay in and protect that office, so a lot of people see it as a David versus Goliath situation and choose not to engage in trying to break into the political system.”

Greer paints a striking picture of the situation: “If you are from a very Democratic district and won your primary, then you’re probably not going to have a credible Republican challenger when you’re on the ballot in November. You’re going to Albany with 4,000 votes. You’re going to be in charge of a budget that’s larger than most countries on the planet. You’re going to be able to control children’s education, what happens to a woman’s body, prisons, drug use, punishment, marriage equality-- and you’re being sent there with 4,000 votes.”

Representing District 57, Assemblymember Mosley has no electoral competition this year. He was first elected to an open seat in 2012 when he faced challengers in both the primary and general election.

District 57 -- representing large portions of Brooklyn neighborhoods like Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant -- is one of many districts that is overwhelmingly dominated by the Democratic Party to the point that general election contests are virtually meaningless. Any serious candidate, liberal or conservative, would be smart to run as a Democrat in the district if they expect to stand a chance.

In 2012, 47,844 votes were cast in District 57 for the Assembly general election, which Mosley handily won with 98 percent of the vote. Occurring at the same time as the Presidential vote with Barack Obama seeking re-election against Mitt Romney, over half of the registered voters in AD57 went to the polls for the general. But, many missed the actual Assembly race that took place months before.

In the AD57 Democratic primary that year, out of 72,380 registered Democrats in the district, just 7,268 cast a ballot -- about 10 percent. Mosley won with 4,565 votes, or 1-in-16 registered Democrats in a district representing over 129,000 residents.

“People are not enthusiastic, they are not willing to come out and vote,” said Remi in a conversation with Gotham Gazette outside of the Franklin Avenue subway station on Eastern Parkway. “People need to be aware of which contestant they need to fight for.”

AD57 fits a pattern.

Multiple forces produce the current system of so many uncontested elections. On one hand, there are the natural incumbency advantages of name recognition and access to financial means, but there is more to it than that.

“One, is the gerrymandering that occurs allowing lawmakers to draw their own district lines…[two is] a disgraceful campaign finance system that allows them to hit up special interests for ridiculous amounts of money,” said Blair Horner, executive director at the New York Public Interest Research Group, referring to a lack of “pay-to-play” restrictions on campaign donors with government business. “You overlay that with the lousy system of running elections in general -- which is, voter registration laws are cumbersome, we have a closed primary system, getting on the ballot is difficult -- and as a result New York has anemic voter turnout, one of the worst in the country.”

“I think the voting public increasingly believes that they will not see competitive elections by and large, and it’s a reflection of a system that is designed to be an incumbency protection machine,” said Horner. This is a self-perpetuating problem Horner calls a “democracy death spiral.”

“One of the reasons I think the public is so unhappy with Albany is to some extent a reflection of policies that have emerged that are also not in the public’s interest,” said Horner. “As the public gets more turned off you can see it in the voter turnout numbers, interest groups wield more clout, which further alienates the voting public.”

This lack of competition has a negative impact on voter turnout, and as Greer also points out, it’s not limited to New York City. “Think about places in the deep south that are very red where we’re seeing a dismal turnout among Republicans,” said Greer. “It’s not just a Democratic problem, it’s an elected official problem.”

Horner agrees that incumbent dominance to the point of mass uncontested elections is not unique to the Democratic Party’s control in New York City. “What you’ve found in New York City sadly is the case across the state,” said Horner. “New York has always had a twisted system like this…and as the stakes get higher, more and more money comes in, it too often crowds out the public’s interest.”

With such a history of one party dominance in New York City and decades of policies that have favored incumbents, mitigating this problem is a daunting task.

One place to look for possible solutions is New York City itself. With one of the most highly regarded public campaign financing systems and term limits, City Council elections have been opened up for candidates of modest means to run, and sometimes win.

“A system of public financing allows individuals who are not beholden to any groups to actually run significant campaigns for public office,” said Horner. “You see that in New York and you don’t see it at the state level because you have the highest campaign contribution limits of any state that has limits in the country, coupled with a rigged system of redistricting and the normal powers of incumbency.”

The state Legislature could pass a variety of measures that would make elections more democratic. There are advocates for the general idea of more open and fair elections throughout both the state Senate and Assembly, though most of the relevant legislation has failed to come up in each passing session, often in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Another avenue of reform could be through improved civics education programs. “I worry that we’re just creating more and more generations of people who are disaffected and non-participatory,” said Greer. “I wish we could figure out a way in which we could better educate the public about these offices, but I don’t really know how to solve that. Obviously the literature that we’re sending out to voters isn’t resonating in a way, [and] it’s not being taught in schools where students are actually retaining the information.”

Voters can be among those who see it as a shared responsibility. “Everyone has their own role to play; Republicans, Democrats, and the Board of Elections needs to generate more awareness, they need to distribute more information into the grassroots,” said Remi. “I mean, a grassroots election is the most important election, but having nobody to contest with, that means we’re going to be getting the same ideas and nothing is going to change.”

Others Unchallenged

Queens
Democratic Assemblymember Aravella Simotas (AD36) has held her seat in Queens since winning an open seat election in 2010. She ran uncontested in both the Democratic primary and general election that year despite there being no incumbent in the race. In 2012, Simontas handily defeated Republican Julia Haich in the general election. She has run unopposed since, all according to Ballotpedia.

Queens Assemblymember Michael Simanowitz, an elected Democrat who also appears on the Republican and Conservative ballot lines, is running unopposed in both the Democratic primary and the general election for Assembly District 27. In 2011, Simanowitz won a special election against Republican Marco Desena. He’s been unchallenged in the primaries and general elections since, all according to Ballotpedia.

Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi is a Democrat representing Assembly District 28 in Queens since he was first elected in 2005. The last general election fight Hevesi faced was in 2010. He was also challenged in the Democratic primary that year. He’s run unopposed in all primaries and general elections since, all according to Ballotpedia.

Assemblymember Michelle Titus represents District 31 in Queens and is facing neither a Democratic primary opponent or any general election competition. Titus, who was first elected 2002, ran unchallenged in the primary even that year, and has never faced a primary opponent. She faced a general eleciton opponent in 2002, 2004, and 2006; while in 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014, Titus faced no opponents whatsoever, al according to Ballotpedia.

Queens Assemblymember Jeffrion Aubry has served in the state Assembly since he was first elected in a 1992 special election for District 35. The veteran Democrat has run unopposed in at least five straight election cycles including the current one, all according to Ballotpedia.

Veteran Assemblymember Catherine Nolan of Queens, a Democrat, has served residents of District 37 since 1984. She has not faced a primary competitor in the last five election cycles. John Kevin Wilson challenged Nolan as a Republican in 2012 and as a Libertarian in the 2014 general elections, which Nolan easily won. In the 2014 general election, Nolan defeated Wilson with just 10,336 votes, or one-in-six register voters, all according to Ballotpedia.

Assemblymember Francisco Moya is a Democrat representing District 39 in Queens since he was first elected in 2010. He is running uncontested in the general election this November after running uncontested in the Democratic primary. The 2008 election cycle was the last time Moya faced a primary or general election opponent, all according to Ballotpedia.

Queens incumbents in addition who did not face primary competitors include:

SD11 - Democratic State Senator Tony Avella;
SD12 - Democratic State Senator Michael Gianaris;
SD13 - Democratic State Senator Jose Peralta;
SD14 - Democratic State Senator Leroy Comrie; and
SD15 - Democratic State Senator Joe Addabbo;

AD24 - Democratic State Assemblymember David Weprin;
AD25 - Democratic State Assemblymember Nily Rozic;
AD26 - Democratic State Assemblymember Edward Braunstein;
AD38 - Democratic State Assemblymember Michael Miller; and
AD40 - Democratic State Assemblymember Ron Kim

Brooklyn
Republican State Senator Martin Golden has held the District 22 seat since he was first elected in 2002. He was uncontested for the Republican nomination this year and will not face a challenger in November either, despite Democrats outnumbering Republicans 2-to-1 in the district, which largely covers Southern Brooklyn. Registered voters with no party affiliation also outnumber Republicans in the 22nd District. Golden faced a serious challenger each of the past two general elections, though Democrats are not putting up a fight this cycle, all according to Ballotpedia.

In Brooklyn’s District 43, State Assemblymember Diana Richardson has held office since winning a 2015 special election in which she won 49% of the vote as a Working Families and Green Party candidate. Now an incumbent Democrat, Richardson was unchallenged in 2016 party primary, nor will she face a general election opponent, all according to Ballotpedia.

Assemblymember Dov Hikind, a Democrat, has served Brooklyn’s District 48 since 1983. There is no one challenging Hikind this election cycle. In 2012, Mitchell Tischler challenged Hikind for his seat in both the Democratic primary and in the general election as a School Choice Party candidate. In 2014, Hikind ran unopposed in the Democratic primary and defeated Nachman Caller in the general election. In a solidly Democratic district, Caller was able to achieve over 20 percent of the total vote count. Hikind won his re-election against a serious Republican challenger with just 12,317 votes, or one-in-four registered voters in the district, all according to Ballotpedia.

Democrat Joseph Lentol has served in the State Assembly representing Brooklyn’s District 50 since he was first elected in 1972. He is running unopposed in both the Democratic primary and general election this election cycle. In 2014, Lentol faced Republican challenger William Davidson and won with 9,789 votes -- one-in-eight registered voters cast a ballot for their Assembly member in a District representing over 129,000 residents, all according to Ballotpedia.

In Assembly District 53, Assemblymember Maritza Davila has represented Brooklyn since winning a special election in 2013. She ran uncontested in the Democratic primary this year and will run unchallenged in the general election, as was the case in the 2014 election cycle, all according to Ballotpedia.

Nick Perry has served as the Assemblymember for District 58 in Brooklyn since he was first elected in 1992. He will be running unopposed in the general election this year after facing no challenger in the Democratic primary either. In the last five election cycles, Perry has only faced one primary opponent, all according to Ballotpedia.

Brooklyn incumbents in addition who did not face primary competitors include:

SD20 - Democratic State Senator Jesse Hamilton; and
SD21 - Democratic State Senator Kevin Parker;

AD41 - Democratic State Assemblymember Helene Weinstein;
AD45 - Democratic State Assemblymember Steven Cymbrowitz;
AD47 - Democratic State Assemblymember William Colton;
AD49 - Democratic State Assemblymember Peter Abbate;
AD51 - Democratic State Assemblymember Felix Ortiz;
AD52 - Democratic State Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon;
AD54 - Democratic State Assemblymember Erik Dilan;
AD59 - Democratic State Assemblymember Jaime Williams; and
AD60 - Democratic State Assemblymember Charles Barron

Staten Island
Democratic State Senator Diane Savino is part of the five-member Independent Democratic Conference and incumbent for District 23 on Staten Island and in parts of Brooklyn. She has held her seat since she was first elected in 2004. The IDC has helped Republicans maintain a majority in the State Senate. In 2014 multiple IDC members were challenged in the Democratic primary, though not Savino, who was again unopposed in the Democratic primary this year (other IDC members were not challenged this year either.) Savino is also running unopposed in the general election. She has never faced a primary challenger; she faced a general election opponent two cycles ago, in 2012, in Lisa Grey, who Savino handily defeated. One-in-three registered voters in District 23 cast a vote in that general election, all according to Ballotpedia.

In Senate District 24, also on Staten Island, Republican State Senator Andrew Lanza has held his seat since winning in 2006. The district is home to many more Republicans than most New York City districts, though they are still outnumbered by registered Democrats in the district. Lanza has never faced a Republican primary challenger. He handily defeated Democrat Gary Carsel in the 2012 and 2014 general elections. Carsel nor any other Democrat has staged a campaign against Lanza this election cycle, all according to Ballotpedia.

Assemblymember Matthew Titone of Staten Island ran unopposed in the District 61 Democratic Primary and will not face a challenger in the general election either. Titone won a special election in 2007 that gained him the seat. He has never faced a primary opponent though he has handily defeated several general election contestants. He ran totally unopposed in the previous election cycle of 2014, all according to Ballotpedia.

Michael Cusick is a Staten Island Democratic Assemblymember who won his first District 63 election in 2002. Cusick has run unopposed in the past five Democratic primaries, though he has faced a general election contestant every year up until now. He’s running unopposed in the general election, all according to Ballotpedia.

Republican Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis has represented the people of District 64 on Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn since first winning the seat in 2010. Previously she represented District 60 in the State Assembly. The Democrats have ran campaigns against Malliotakis in the last three general elections, while she has ran unopposed in the Republican Primaries. This election cycle Malliotakis will not face an opponent in the general election in addition to the primary, all according to Ballotpedia.

Manhattan
In Senate District 27 of Manhattan, Democrat State Senator Brad Hoylman has held office since he was first elected in 2012. This election cycle he faces no Republican opposition in winning back his seat. During the 2012 open seat election, Hoylman came through the Democratic primary, then won an uncontested general election in which 93,469 registered voters cast a ballot for him. In the primary of that year, Hoylman split the vote with two other Democratic contenders, with only 13,051 Democrats voting, all according to Ballotpedia.

State Senator Daniel Squadron, a Democrat who represents District 26, which encompasses downtown Manhattan and part of downtown Brooklyn, is running unoppposed in the general after facing no primary opponent either. Squadron was elected in 2008, but did not face a primary opponent then and has not faced one since.

There are nine other Manhattan legislators listed below who did not face a primary challenger this year. On the other hand, Sheldon Silver’s replacement Alice Cancel (AD65) and Guillermo Linares (AD72) lost their seats, while Sen. Adriano Espaillat’s chosen successor Marisol Alcantara (SD31) won her election.

On the Upper East Side, Republicans are seeing hope in gaining more support for general elections in the Assembly.

Manhattan incumbents in addition who did not face primary competitors include:

SD28 - Democratic State Senator Liz Krueger;
SD29 - Democratic State Senator Jose Serrano;
SD30 - Democratic State Senator Bill Perkins;

AD68 - Democratic State Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez;
AD71 - Democratic State Assemblymember Herman Farrell;
AD73 - Democratic State Assemblymember Dan Quart;
AD74 - Democratic State Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh;
AD75 - Democratic State Assemblymember Richard Gottfried; and
AD76 - Democratic State Assemblymember Rebecca Seawright

The Bronx
Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (SD35) has represented residents north of the Bronx in Westchester County since 2006. She has never faced a Democratic primary challenger as she previously served as the vice-chair of the Westchester County Democratic Party and in the Westchester County Legislature from 1996 and until she was elected to the state Senate. Stewart-Cousins will not face a challenger in the general election this year, as was the case in the 2012 election cycle, all according to Ballotpedia.

Bronx State Senator Jeff Klein, a Democrat who leads the five-member Independent Democratic Conference, had to primary opponent, unlike in 2014 when mainline Democrats tried to unseat him. He is also facing no Republican challenger in November. Klein's IDC has formed a ruling coalition with Republicans in the Senate for the past two sessions. Klein represents the 34th Senate District.

And finally, Democratic Speaker of the Assembly Carl Heastie -- of the Bronx’s 83rd Assembly District -- was first elected to the chamber in 2000. He is not facing a competition in his general election contest after running uncontested in the Democratic primary. Heastie ran unopposed in the last five Democratic primaries, while he defeated general election challengers in those election cycles with upwards of 95 percent of the vote, all according to Ballotpedia.

Bronx incumbents in addition who did not face primary competitors include:

AD77 - Democratic State Assemblymember Latoya Joyner;
AD79 - Democratic State Assemblymember Michael Blake;
AD80 - Democratic State Assemblymember Mark Gjonaj;
AD81 - Democratic State Assemblymember Jeffrey Dinowitz; and
AD82 - Democratic State Assemblymember Michael Benedetto

Many of the incumbents without a primary challenge will see an opponent from another party in the general election. That said, given that New York City voters are overwhelmingly Democrats, general election competition is often symbolic.

“Oftentimes for so many districts across the country, the primary is the election for all intents and purposes,” said Greer. “In either strong Republican or Democratic districts, if you win your primary you essentially don’t even face anyone in November, and if you do it’s almost a joke.”

***
by William Fowler for Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

*note: as stated, many of the references to past elections are based on aggregation done by Ballotpedia.

Keith Wright Weighs Options Amid Uptown Power Shifts


dickens wright

Keith Wright and Inez Dickens (photo via Wright's Assembly page)


Before Assemblymember Keith Wright had conceded to Sen. Adriano Espaillat in their congressional race, speculation had already begun about which seat Wright would seek next if not victorious. Wright eliminated one option when he pledged in the heat of the race to replace retiring Rep. Charles Rangel that he would not seek reelection to the Assembly seat he has held since 1992. Wright challenged Espaillat to do the same as the state senator had repeatedly run for Congress only to return to the state Senate. Espaillat ignored the challenge.

On congressional primary day in June, Espaillat claimed a narrow victory, leaving Wright calling for a recount, but soon community leaders brought pressure on Wright to move on and accept defeat, which he did. No political observer believed the pledge would keep Wright, a close ally of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and one of the state’s most powerful Democrats and most prolific fundraisers, from seeking public office again.

Now that state legislative primaries are over, another Wright ally, City Council Member Inez Dickens, appears set to replace him in the Assembly. She ran unopposed among Democrats for Wright’s seat, raising a few eyebrows given that seats being vacated often attract multiple candidates.

While initial rumors focused on Wright running for the State Senate or Dickens’ City Council seat, The New York Post recently reported that Wright associate Charlie King is trying to gauge reaction and garner support for a Wright mayoral bid. Wright’s office didn’t do much to downplay the possibility of a challenge to fellow Democrat Bill de Blasio, who is poised to run for re-election in 2017.

Although Wright wasn’t made available for an interview, spokesperson Emma Forbes sent a statement to Gotham Gazette implicitly confirming his interest in the mayoralty.

“Keith's always been an advocate for all New Yorkers, and especially for Communities of Color,” Forbes wrote. “I think that when you look around today and see many shared concerns and challenges left unaddressed, it makes you consider the role you have in fixing things in government, be it appointed or elected, city or state, big or small."

Dan Levitan, spokesperson for de Blasio’s campaign, responded with the same statement he gave to The Post: “Under Mayor de Blasio, Crime just hit another all-time low, jobs are at record highs, the City is building and preserving affordable housing at a record pace, while graduation rates and test scores continue to improve. We are happy to match that record against anyone.”

As chair of the Manhattan County Democrats, Wright wields significant power and influence, and many observers believe he could easily clear the Democratic field in a special election to replace Dickens in the City Council. And if he wasn’t able to intimidate or convince all other potential candidates from running, Wright has access to the forces he would need to quickly raise money and marshall overwhelming turnout for the special election, which would likely take place in March. Wright has brought his power to bear on past elections; in some cases he has been accused of unfairly influencing certain contests.

While a mayoral run is probably less likely than a City Council one, the speculation does not end there. Wright is also touted as a possible replacement to Sen. Bill Perkins, who in such a scenario would run for and win Dickens’ Council seat, leaving his seat open for Wright. Perkins did not return calls for comment.

Concerning speculation about Wright’s legislative ambitions, Forbes said in a statement, "All options remain on the table, and the Assemblyman is carefully considering the best way to continue positively impacting the community that he loves."

Council Member Dickens is on board if Wright decides to run to replace her. “I will support him if he decides to run,” Dickens told Gotham Gazette in an interview. “I have not publically stated that, but I would be very interested in supporting him. He has done a phenomenal job in the Assembly.”

Dickens said that she knows Wright is weighing his options and that he has not made a decision yet. She told Gotham Gazette that she had no deal in place with Wright to clear the field for either of their seats or to swap positions. “I did not in anyway have a deal with him other than to ask him if he was going to seek this seat and he said “no,” so I ran for it.”

Dickens noted that she will be term-limited out of the Council at the end of next year. She speculated that she faced no Democratic challengers for Wright’s seat - which is centered in Harlem and represents almost exclusively Democrats - because of a number of factors, including the trips Assembly members must make to Albany, the last-minute nature of the opening, and what she said was insufficient pay for state legislators.

“We’re asking young people to go to college, get degrees, have bills they have to pay for it after they come out of school, have a family, have children that they have to take care of properly, and then tell them they have to live on $79,000 a year. The idea of free public service is over,” Dickens told Gotham Gazette.

At this point in the process it appears there are a variety of contenders considering a run Dickens’ Council seat. As of July, four candidates had registered with the city Campaign Finance Board. One of those registered candidates, Charles Cooper, a businessman from Harlem, told Gotham Gazette that he expects a crowded field.

“This is a Democracy and I welcome everyone. I am going to focus on uniting the community,” Cooper said. Asked if he was concerned about the prospect of Wright entering the race, Cooper said he respects Wright, but that it wouldn’t impact his plans.

Other registered candidates include Marvin Holland, an organizer for the Transportation Workers United union; Donald Fields, a businessman and advocate; and Shanette M. Gray. Fields is the only registered candidate to report any fundraising, but he’d raised $165 as of July.

A number of other names are being bandied about as potential candidates. They include Clyde Williams, who also ran to replace Rangel this Spring; Afua Atta-Mensah, a lawyer and former district leader candidate; and Sen. Perkins’ chief of staff Cordell Cleare.

When Dickens officially wins the Assembly seat in November, she’ll be set to replace Wright come January, and the machinations for a special City Council election will begin.

Espaillat and his allies are paying close attention to Wright’s moves as they hope to curtail any major challenges to his newly-won seat before they happen. Espaillat will be up for re-election in 2018.

A number of Wright’s allies insist he is still weighing whether to enter the private sector and spending time with his family, They say there is no bigger master plan at this point. To launch a campaign for any of the seats being mentioned, Wright would need to kick his fundraising apparatus into high gear quickly, although it would likely be far easier for him to raise the funds needed for a Council or state Senate run than a mayoral bid.

Wright’s Assembly campaign committee filed “no activity” statements with the state Board of Elections in January and July. Wright raised a total of $934,138 for his congressional bid, compared to Espaillat’s $628,000. There is little doubt among political experts that Wright could secure the cash he needs to run a well-financed legislative campaign.

“I don't know really know what Keith’s plans are at this point,” Dickens told Gotham Gazette during the September 14 interview at City Hall. “He had very difficult race, outraised all of his challengers, and it was a was fight to the finish. Keith worked very hard and it's difficult for any of us when you lose, so he's needed time to think and space to be with his family, who suffered a lot.”

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Super PAC’s Big Primary Spending Mostly Comes Up Short


rivera crowd campaign site

Sen. Rivera (photo: Rivera's campaign website)


A Super PAC that spent more than a million dollars on state legislative primaries mostly came up short on Tuesday. New Yorkers for Independent Action supported candidates who back its main issue: a proposed education investment tax credit that would largely help charter and private schools, and used its deep resources to attack those candidates’ opponents. The tax credit legislation has stalled in Albany and NYIA is looking for more state legislators who favor it.

The only candidates officially backed by NYIA to claim victory on Tuesday were incumbents that NYIA spent significantly less on than other candidates. NYIA also appears to have decided to support those three incumbents later in the election season than the several challengers it backed.

The PAC was involved in seven primary contests: five Assembly and two Senate. It supported four challengers and three incumbents, all Democrats. All four of the challengers it backed lost. According to the group’s September 2 filing with the state Board of Elections, it had spent a total of $1,682,000. Future filings will likely reveal more spending in the final days of the primaries. New Yorkers for Independent Action is also expected to be heavily involved in the general election, which is November 8.

In a statement it put out after the primaries, NYIA touted the victories of the incumbents it supported while also claiming NYIA supporters played a major role in the victory of Marisol Alcantara, who won a tight four-way race to replace Sen. Adriano Espaillat, who is leaving the Senate to replace retiring Rep. Charles Rangel.

Alcantara was endorsed by Espaillat and many of his political allies and backed financially by the Independent Democratic Conference. Filings show that NYIA did not spend in Alcantara’s race, but at least one of its major donors did give to the IDC.

"[O]ur supporters played big in the biggest and most consequential race of the night and won, while the teachers union candidate finished 3rd out of four candidates,” a NYIA spokesperson, Bob Bellafiore, said in a statement referring to Alcantara’s victory and the performance of her opponent Robert Jackson.

Where NYIA did spend big, however, it did not win. It does claim to have influenced the public debate on its issue and to have made those who oppose the tax credit work for their seats.

According to the most recent filing, NYIA had spent $480,197 - the most it spent in any race - backing City Council Member Fernando Cabrera in his second primary challenge to Democratic Sen. Gustavo Rivera, in the Bronx. Rivera performed five points better this year than he did in his last contest with Cabrera, in 2014, winning 60 percent of the vote to Cabrera's 35 percent. NYIA paid for widely-targeted mailers in the district, some of which bashed Rivera for failing to deal with Albany corruption, while others praised Cabrera’s leadership.

Rivera would have likely been working to help other Democrats this summer had he not faced another challenge from Cabrera. Cabrera had limited institutional or financial support, leading Rivera to see his candidacy made possible exclusively by NYIA. Cabrera reported raising $72,000 from January to July; by his 11-day pre-primary filing he had $282 on hand.

NYIA backed Assemblymember Victor Pichardo, who significantly increased his margin of victory over his repeat opponent Hector Ramirez. Two years ago Pichardo won by two votes; this year by nearly 1,400. Ramirez still faces multiple charges of election fraud from their 2014 encounter.

NYIA reported spending $50,222 on the contest through its most recent filing. Meanwhile, Ramirez’s July filing with the BOE shows he only had $9,000 on hand. Ramirez’s 11-day pre-primary filing is not posted on the BOE website. Pichardo had balance of $51,000 in July and reported having $48,000 on hand in his 11-day filing.

NYIA spent just $15,000 supporting Assemblymember Vivian Cook, but $115,000 supporting Sen. Roxanne Persaud, both of whom won.

Asked about the impact NYIA had on her victory, Cook, a Democrat from Queens, was cautious. “It was a nice piece of literature about me and I had no idea where it came from. I think it helped,” Cook told Gotham Gazette. It is illegal for candidates to coordinate with Super PACs.

Bellafiore, of NYIA, told Gotham Gazette that the Super PAC’s efforts were not just about winning. “It is very hard to beat incumbents. No legislator ever wakes up and thinks ‘I want a primary this year.’ It’s about making them work and telling them there is no free ride, that people are paying attention.”

Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action NY and member of The Hedge Clippers, a group that monitors billionaire spending in politics, said she thinks Bellafiore and NYIA are trying to find the silver lining in a terrible performance, “He is trying to find way to say it wasn't a total loss, but they totally lost and if all they wanted was a fight, it just wasn’t much of a fight.”

Bellafiore says NYIA is a single-issue PAC focused on passing a bill that would give tax credits to those who donate to private and charter schools. Labor groups see the PAC as another wing of the charter school lobby and have pointed out the group has close ties to many wealthy out-of-state charter school advocates, including Alice Walton, the Wal-Mart heiress.

Advocates involved with teachers unions do not agree with Bellafiore’s assessment of NYIA’s election night impact.

In a post-primary press release, the labor-backed Working Families Party touted what its leaders see as NYIA failure. ”In races in NYC and on Long Island, WFP candidates fended off primary challengers backed by the billionaire-funded "New Yorkers for Independent Action" SuperPAC seeking to privatize public schools. That included Senator Gustavo Rivera and Assemblymembers Latrice Walker and Pamela Harris in NYC and Assemblymember Phil Ramos on Long Island, all of whom won despite a massive, million-dollar independent expenditure from NYIA,” the release said.

Scharff said that voters “saw through” large spending of “NYC billionaires” who were pushing “an agenda that benefits them.” Critics of the education tax credit have often said that the wealthy would be able to take most advantage of the program while also supporting their favored schools outside the traditional public school system.

NYIA plans to support Republicans and Democrats in the general election, but Bellafiore declined to comment on which races NYIA will target.

Asked what he hopes the Legislature takes away from the Super PAC’s efforts, Bellafiore said, “The message I hope they hear is that there are communities across the state where parents want to opt their children out of public schools and don’t have the money. These are families that would benefit from the scholarship bill. If half of the people on the other side of this were as obsessed with helping parents as they are with our funders we could get something done to to fix education.”

Filings thus far show the group spent: $480,197 on Cabrera’s failed bid to replace Rivera; $378,481 on City Council Member Darlene Mealy’s failed challenge to Assemblymember Latrice Walker; $321,309 supporting Kate Cucco’s failed challenge to Assemblymember Pamela Harris; and $321,261 on Giovanni Mata’s failed challenge to Assemblymember Phil Ramos.

NYIA also reported having spent $115,252 on Persaud’s victory over Mercedes Narcisse; $50,222 on Pichardo’s victory over Ramirez; and $15,000 on Cook’s victory over Rodney Reid. The next filings will show final primary election expenditures.

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Board of Elections to Consider Emergency Regulations for Independent Expenditures


cuomo podium state of the state

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Governor's Office on Flickr)


The State Board of Elections is set to consider a set of emergency regulations governing independent expenditure campaigns at its board meeting on Thursday morning in Albany. The regulations will come just two days after state legislative primary elections and two months before the general election. Political action committees (PACs) and Super Pacs, or independent expenditure committees, have already had a significant presence in this year’s primary contests.

The BOE is responding to new legislation championed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who signed his controversial reform bill on August 24 after passing it through the Legislature by message of necessity in late June. The bill goes into effect 30 days after Cuomo signs it, thus putting pressure on the BOE to respond.

The law enacts restrictions on how independent expenditure campaigns operate; expands what constitutes illegal coordination with a candidate and limits who can work for Super PACs. The legislation also sets new disclosure requirements for nonprofit lobbying groups and issue advocacy groups - for this piece, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics moved on emergency regulations earlier this year.

On Thursday, the BOE will consider emergency regulations in the middle of an election season that has already seen major spending by Super PACs, especially in New York City where New Yorkers For Independent Action, a pro-charter school group, pumped millions of dollars into Democratic primary contests.

Board members have expressed concern at previous meetings that the law could be disruptive and counterintuitive given that election season is already well underway.

Democratic BOE Chair Douglas Kellner told Gotham Gazette that he isn’t convinced the board needs to act on emergency regulations. “From my point of view I’m not exactly sure why we need emergency regulations that just track the bill, but we will discuss that on Thursday,” Kellner said.

Republican BOE Chair Peter Kosinski said that the emergency regulations are necessary to keep interested parties informed of the changes to the laws relating to independent expenditures and to put the information in one place.

Once the emergency regulations are adopted the public will have 45 days to comment on them.

”The reality is that the emergency regulation idea is related to the fact that we are headed into the November election and people need information about the changes,” said Kosinski. “This does not preclude the normal regulation process or any future changes. We will go through the normal process in a couple of months.” In other words, any emergency regulations will be temporary and then re-evaluated after the election cycle.

Kellner said he also shares concerns about the timing of the bill’s enactment given that election season is already in full swing.

“The board is really between a rock and a hard place,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “If the Governor wanted the law to be in effect for the election he should have signed it in June.” It is unclear why Cuomo waited until August to sign the bill. After unveiling the plan for the legislation during a speech in New York City toward the end of the legislative session, the governor held no public ceremony to sign and promote the bill.

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, said the BOE is being “responsible in providing necessary guidance on the law even if it is poorly written and flawed.” Dadey added that “we shouldn’t be changing the rules in the fourth quarter of the game.”

Speaking with reporters in August, Cuomo touted the new regulations. Of not getting everything he wants done on government ethics reform, he also said, “Ethics in many ways is like other activities in life. It's an ongoing pursuit.”

Kosinski, the Republican BOE chair, said that the time for fretting over the implementation timeline is over. “People have to deal with that best they can. These emergency regulations are our effort to inform people of the law so that when people look for guidance on the new laws we give them accurate information,” he said.

Advocates had decried the process by which the bill was passed. Cuomo introduced the measure late in session claiming that it was designed to beat back the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates for outside money in candidate campaigns. But the bill also included a section forcing non-profit advocacy groups to disclose more of their donors, and to report to the state, through JCOPE, their various communications about legislation, government officials, regulations, and government-related matters.

Like other times he has used them, Cuomo was criticized for his issuance of a message of necessity that preempts the required three-day aging process designed to encourage public review. Legislators received the bill after midnight and voted on it only a few hours later.

Cuomo, who generally controls when passed bills come to his desk for signature or veto, didn’t call the bill up from the Legislature until mid-August after facing public pressure.

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which is headed by former Cuomo staffer Seth Agata and is controlled by appointees of Cuomo and legislative leaders, moved on emergency regulations in early August. The part of the bill that deals with sources of funding for nonprofits goes into effect 30 days after the bill is signed.

The new law sets a definition of what is coordination between independent expenditure campaigns and candidates, and according to Kosinski the law could catch some off guard. “There were significant changes going where the state hasn’t gone before in detailing coordination, it was really fleshed out and I think people need to be aware of that going forward.”

Dadey said that he hopes there will be time for the kind of careful and nuanced discussion of the implementation of the law that was denied to the public before the bill was passed.

“I hope whatever is adopted on Thursday does not lead to greater confusion or conflict with existing law,” said Dadey. “We had no time to talk about this piece of legislation as a public, I hope more time is taken to discuss it now that it is law.”

Brandon Muir, executive director of Reclaim New York, an organization focused on government transparency, said that Albany lawmakers waited until the last minute to formulate the bill and then wasted more time signing it. “Because they dodged having a timely, open process, we’re in for another last-second “emergency” push that serves political interests and an agenda that New Yorkers didn’t ask for,” Muir said.

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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

New York’s Other Water Crisis


Cuomo bridge water

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Governor's Office on Flickr)


In 2014, Gov. Andrew Cuomo was looking at how to fund the construction of a new Tappan Zee Bridge and in such a way that he could promise minimal toll hikes. Construction had actually already begun on the $4 billion project despite no clear funding plan in place and pressure to detail the spending was mounting.

On June 13, 2014 Cuomo announced that the state Environmental Facilities Corp. would loan the state up to $511 million for the multi-billion dollar project from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. The fund, which is actually backed by federal dollars, exists to dole out low-interest loans for projects like local sewer repairs and wastewater treatment plant upgrades. The state also has a similar Drinking Water Revolving Fund that gives out loans for water main repairs and upgrades.

The move was met with immediate backlash from environmental groups that insisted the funds were simply not meant for a transportation project and that the move could set a bad precedent - perhaps undermining the very purpose for the federal funding and killing funding for clean-water infrastructure in New York and elsewhere. Budget watchdogs also attacked the plan as a “gimmick” and “irresponsible.” After much hand-wringing, it did not go forward as the Cuomo administration had sought.

As the Cuomo administration struggles to divert blame for the debacle in Hoosick Falls, where the state resisted calls to notify residents of contaminated drinking water, environmentalists and others point to the Tappan Zee loan episode as evidence that the administration has repeatedly not fully recognized major clean water and water infrastructure issues facing the state, instead concentrating on costly transportation economic development projects that benefit developers while localities grapple with the costs and consequences of decaying water infrastructure. On the other hand, for some legislators and advocates say it represents the administration’s ability to recognize a problem and tackle it head on with an efficient solution.

Asked if the administration could do more to help localities struggling to pay for water-related infrastructure repairs, Cuomo told Gotham Gazette: “I think this is a national crisis when it comes to water quality. I think we are just starting to learn about chemicals in the water and just how dangerous they can be. I think as time goes on you are going to see more and more dangerous chemicals being disclosed in the water we’re drinking.”

Cuomo added that he was advocating for the EPA to update its regulations to force all municipalities to conduct water safety testing (there is currently a 10,000 person population threshold). If the federal government fails to act, Cuomo said he would introduced legislation to force localities of any size to do water quality testing and that the administration would pay for the testing of localities that are strapped for cash.

Environmental groups estimated at the time of the Tappan Zee loan controversy that localities across the state were contending with $36 billion in costs related to clean water infrastructure demands over the next 20 years.

“Clean-water funds have never been used for a transportation project before – and we shouldn’t start now,” said Marcia Bystryn, president of The New York League of Conservation voter, in a 2014 statement. “If approved, this would set a very bad precedent, especially considering the huge backlog of wastewater projects across the state. We urge the Environmental Facilities Corporation Board to reject this proposal.”

The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which provided the state with the billions of dollars for the fund over the last two decades, eventually rejected the proposal. But the state didn’t back down and appealed the decision. In the end a compromise allowed the state to use $1.3 million for oyster bed restoration and the replacement of a falcon box, with none of the money going toward the “New New York Bridge,” the funding of which is still not completely clear.

The ordeal leant new focus to clean water infrastructure demands faced by localities across the state. (As has the recent crisis in Hoosick Falls and questions about water contamination elsewhere in the state.) While Cuomo administration officials noted that millions of dollars were sitting in the revolving fund untouched as proof that they were unneeded, local leaders countered that they simply couldn’t afford to take on anymore debt, regardless of the interest rate, because they would never be able to repay it. Meanwhile, municipalities have grappled with decaying and dilapidated water infrastructure and seen overflowing sewer lines, exploding water mains, and sinkholes.

In 2015 the state Legislature pressed for a new program to help fund water infrastructure projects across the state. Cuomo signed the New York State Water Infrastructure Act to disperse $200 million in grants to localities for water infrastructure repairs and improvements. By December 2015, $75 million in grants had been awarded. This year the state Assembly successfully fought for a $200 million increase to the program.

James Tierney, deputy commissioner for water at the state Department of Environmental Conservation, told Gotham Gazette that the grant program mixes and matches loans from the revolving fund and grants to kickstart projects proposed by municipalities. Tierney said his focus has been on helping “hardship” municipalities in both rural and urban areas. He noted that a lot of communities weren’t in a position to utilize the revolving loan funds. “A lot of communities were making the case after the Great Recession, saying ‘Hey we’ve got nothing here. We can’t afford these loans.’”

Tierney said that the pressure on municipalities and the state to fund water projects has increased as the federal government has altered the strategy behind the Clean Water Act. Early in the 1970s when the program was starting some water infrastructure projects would receive up to 75 percent funding with municipalities covering only 12 percent. “In the olden days it was much more about funding infrastructure and regulations. Then it turned into grants and then loans and then the pot for loans began to sink.” said Tierney.

He noted that the Congressional Budget Office reports that only 4 percent of water infrastructure projects are funded by the federal government.

A number localities, including Syracuse, are focused on advocating for more federal funds. But in the meantime many local officials and state legislators are pleased with the administration’s efforts with the grant program. Advocates have noted a positive trend.

“We have seen a total “180” on water infrastructure funding,” said Liz Moran of Environmental Advocates of New York. Moran said the Tappan Zee raid and the backlash that followed “was a wake up call” for the Cuomo administration about just how necessary water infrastructure funding is.

“After the raid ceased it became clear that the money was needed to go to these problems,” said Moran. “Maybe the governor didn’t know about the need in the first place, but we are very happy he's embraced the programs now.”

The notion that taking on loans from the revolving fund wasn’t the ideal solution to dire infrastructure needs faced by cash-strapped localities across the state wasn’t new in 2014 or 2015.

Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, a Democrat like Cuomo who has clashed with the governor, has been calling for state and federal assistance in dealing with her city’s water infrastructure needs for years. In 2014 Miner called for the state to create “The Syracuse Billion,” a take off of Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion program that invested in major economic development projects. But Miner wasn’t looking for deals to draw high-tech firms to the area. Instead she proposed using $750 million of the cash to replace and repair a 550-mile, 100-year-old water pipeline that is in constant disrepair.

Cuomo responded that Syracuse was going “bankrupt,” adding, "You are unsustainable. You need jobs, an economy, business. Show us how you become economically stronger and create jobs. Then you fix your own pipes." He later added he was saying the city was “metaphorically” bankrupt, according to The Post-Standard.

Miner told Gotham Gazette that she thinks the Tappan Zee Bridge funding battle “brought attention to the fund and the overwhelming need for water infrastructure funding throughout the state. Every municipality has water problems,” Miner said, “from Hoosick Falls to Long Island, Kingston and Buffalo.”

During a 2015 budget hearing Miner pressed the State to use bank settlement funds to help struggling localities across the state. She said municipalities are handicapped by the state’s property tax cap and increasing state mandates, and can’t afford to make major infrastructure repairs without drastic intervention.

Cuomo did not grant Miner’s wish, but the Assembly used discretionary funds to allocate $10 million to repair Syracuse’s water infrastructure through the 2015 budget. Cuomo used settlement funds for transportation projects like the Tappan Zee replacement and for economic development grants.

Assemblymember Steve Otis, a Democrat representing Rye who championed the state’s grant program, is intimately familiar with infrastructure funding challenges faced by localities around the state. Otis served as mayor of Rye for 12 years. “We knew there was a great need. But the loan fund does not receive applications for all the money that is available,” Otis said in an interview. “Why? Because these localities couldn't afford to incur 100 percent debt.”

Otis said the program was so successful and the need so great that the Legislature doubled funding for it in 2016. The first round of the program doled out $75 million in grants; the second $175 million; and the third round will come next year with the distribution of another $175 million.

Otis praised the Cuomo administration for expediting the grants. “These are simple projects that are helping communities maintain water quality and the Cuomo administration has done a fantastic job getting the grants out the door and recognizing the need.”

But Otis, as well as advocates and other government officials and workers charged with dealing with water infrastructure across the state, acknowledge the program can’t help everyone. “One or two municipalities could eat up all the funding in one shot,” Otis said, indicating the scale of the need around the state.

Miner said that in her experience the Environmental Facilities Corporation (EFC) grant programs have been targeted toward smaller communities and that some of them require extensive pre-design work even to apply. Syracuse was, however, awarded $679,444 for a water infrastructure project in August through the New York State Water Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2015.

Asked about the program, Miner initially responded that Syracuse was ineligible because of its large population, though the program does not have a population restriction. Miner later clarified through a spokesperson that she was talking about other grant programs offered by the EFC and that she believes the EFC needs to offer a wide array of water infrastructure grant programs for communities of all sizes.

Officials from the EFC, the agency tasked with overseeing both the revolving loan programs and the water grant initiative, confirmed that there are no population restraints on the grant program.

Joe Coffey, the water commissioner for the city of Albany, is all too familiar with just how costly it is to maintain an aging water system. Albany’s dates to the 19th century. The city’s water treatment plant was built in the 1930s, as was the transfer line. And as Coffey points out, age is the greatest indicator of the possibility of infrastructure failure.

This summer residents have had to contend with a number of water main breaks and sinkholes that have gnarled traffic on busy roads not far from the Capitol building while the city continues to remedy sewer system overflows into the Hudson River, which functions not only as a source of recreation and food for some locals but as a water source for those down river.

”You can't print enough money to replace our water and sewer system,” said Coffey. “You are looking at asset management and the probability of failure--if it fails what's the consequence of failure?”

Albany recently won an $837,500 grant from the State. Coffey said the cash will allow Albany’s water department to leverage other funds for more projects and to expedite urgent repairs.

“It’s a tough call on how to balance investment in aide for water infrastructure,” said Coffey. “But without water you have nothing. In this state we are were blessed with an abundant supply of safe, reliable drinking water and from that we can leverage economic development and all the things that come after that. If you don’t make repairs you don’t have that base and these issues become real quality-of-life problems.”

Miner, the Syracuse mayor, echoes Coffey’s concerns about infrastructure. “I don’t want to undercut the [grant] program, but nobody wants to cut a ribbon underground--but at least people are talking about it now,” said Miner, hitting on one of the key reasons for a lack of focus on essential, basic infrastructure repairs.

Miner estimates the total cost of replacing the city’s most troublesome water lines would be around $730 million. According to the Syracuse Post-Standard the city hit its 102nd water main break of this year in May--a lower total than the 171 water main breaks it had suffered by the same time last year.

Tierney, of the DEC, acknowledged that a number of cities across the state are facing problems so large that they can’t be addressed as a whole. “The first step is recognizing the problem. Some of this infrastructure is very old and they are dealing with combined problems and it is a lot. Our approach has been to phase things in in a reasonable way, to use grant programs and EFC loans and coach communities how to apply for funds.”

Miner said Syracuse is now focusing on utilizing data analysis to predict and pinpoint where fixes should be made to preempt major problems, rather than pushing for a comprehensive replacement project.

She remains concerned that the state’s economic development spending may be undermined if it does not provide more assistance to localities facing dire infrastructure needs. “You can’t build a high-tech center if people can’t make coffee or flush their toilets,” said Miner.

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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Assembly Candidates Turn Down Televised Debates


Errol No Debate

NY1 Anchor Errol Louis (NY1 screenshot)


New York City’s premiere political television news show, NY1’s Inside City Hall, has been hosting candidate debates in the weeks leading up to the September 13 state legislative primaries, as it has ahead of past elections.

NY1 has been home to many debates over the years, including earlier this year, when it hosted seven Democratic candidates seeking to replace retiring Rep. Charles Rangel and the NY1-CNN presidential primary debate between Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Moving toward the upcoming primaries for New York State Assembly and Senate, the network has, as of Thursday evening’s Inside City Hall program, hosted candidates from six primaries. Two of those, however, were solo candidate interviews when the second person running in each of two races declined NY1’s debate invitation.

On Thursday’s Inside City Hall, host Errol Louis moderated a four-candidate debate in the 31st state Senate District race. He also held two separate individual interviews with candidates: incumbent Assembly Member Latrice Walker spoke with Louis when her challenger, current City Council Member Darlene Mealy, declined to appear for a debate; and Tremaine Wright spoke with Louis when Karen Cherry, her competitor for the 56th Assembly District seat, which is being vacated by the long-term incumbent, opted not to appear.

When an Inside City Hall producer emailed the show’s press list to advise of Thursday night’s program line-up, it was noted that Mealy and Cherry had declined to accept debate invitations. Gotham Gazette attempted to reach Mealy through her City Council office, to no avail, despite talking with an aide. A spokesperson for Cherry indicated that the candidate had a scheduling conflict.

“Those were the only two candidates this cycle who declined to attend. We held four debates (Senate District 10, Senate District 33, Senate District 31 and Assembly District 46) in addition to these two,” said said Bob Hardt, NY1 political director, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “Generally, we try to give ample time before a debate but if space opens up at the last minute, we occasionally try to put together a debate within days in the interest of providing a service to our audience. In the case of the Mealy-Walker race, we reached out to both campaigns in the middle of August. In the case of the Cherry-Wright race, we reached out to both campaigns last week and Wright accepted but Cherry declined, indicating a desire to stay in the district.“

In local elections, an invitation to debate on NY1 is often candidates’ only opportunity to speak on television and reach a broader audience than typical campaigning allows. Inside City Hall is also watched by political insiders, the civic-minded public, and many New Yorkers interested in local political news. Debates offer candidates an opportunity for a performance to share by video afterward as well.

Cherry’s campaign communications director, Tony Herbert, told Gotham Gazette that the candidate was “meeting with seniors and other people in the community” at the time of the debate taping on Thursday. “The option that was given was a conflict with her schedule,” Herbert said. “There was no other option. We would’ve loved to have done it, but we couldn’t meet that timeframe.”

“We think she’s gonna do well,” he added. “But we can’t take anything for granted. We’ve gotta be out there with constituents.”

In Wright’s interview with Louis, the candidate discussed her pursuit of the Brooklyn Assembly seat, including her resume, which includes being a small business owner and chair of the local community board in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Wright said she wants to move to the Assembly in order to be a part of the budget process, provide legislative oversight, and bring resources back to her district. She did not mention the absence of her opponent, but Inside City Hall did have a graphic showing a map of the district with “No Debate” written above it.

AM WalkerAssembly Member Walker’s primary challenger in the 55th Assembly District, also in Brooklyn, City Council Member Darlene Mealy, is not known as an especially active Council member. Mealy, who is term-limited out of the Council at the end of 2017, is challenging Assembly Member Walker in an attempt to move to the state Legislature.

The Council member’s campaign committee has no clear contact information listed with the Board of Elections. An aide in her Council office did not make her available for an interview or send a statement explaining Mealy’s decision not to debate on NY1.

In Walker’s NY1 interview, the short-term incumbent (pictured) explained her roots in her district and what she described as the privilege of representing her community in Albany. She touted bringing millions of dollars back to the district for a hospital and NYCHA repairs and described introducing bills aimed at expanding voting rights and registration. The Assembly member also explained how she is attempting to restore her constituents’ trust in government after her predecessor wound up in prison on corruption charges.

While Louis, the Inside City Hall anchor, did lament the absence of Mealy, Walker did not discuss her opponent. The interview also featured a NY1 map of the district and the "No Debate" headline.

State legislative primaries are Tuesday, September 13.

***
by William Fowler and Ben Max, with reporting from Samar Khurshid
@GothamGazette

Crowded Assembly Field Looks to Quickly Unseat Silver Replacement


AD65 panel Li mic

AD65 candidates at a debate (photo: @FilAmDems)


In a world where U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara hadn’t turned his eye toward public corruption in state government, Sheldon Silver would likely be running for his 21st term in the Assembly and easily extending by another two years his 40-year reign over Manhattan’s 65th Assembly District.

In the real world, Silver, who had already resigned the powerful Assembly speakership he held for almost 20 years, was automatically stripped of his seat in November 2015 when he was convicted on multiple federal corruption charges.

Silver’s Assembly seat was filled during an April 19 special election - a process notorious for being easily controlled by local political parties - by Alice Cancel, the preferred choice of Silver’s still-active and -influential network.

Now, fewer than five months later, a Democratic primary contest between Cancel, the short-term incumbent, and five other local political and community activists will be far less malleable for the disgraced former speaker’s allies. In the heavily-Democratic district, the primary winner is all-but-certain to win November’s general election. Republican candidate Lester Chang is running again; Chang earned just under 19 percent of the vote in the April special election.

While Silver’s pall will hang over the district for decades to come, this election is its first chance at a fresh start, an argument being made by Cancel’s challengers.

The change from Silver has already come at a price for the district, given the immense power held by an Assembly Speaker. Cancel took Silver’s place as a rank-and-file legislator with little sway in the Assembly majority. Whoever wins this year, Cancel or another candidate, will head to Albany as a rookie legislator without major committee assignments; with little leverage to push for major initiatives’ and unable to deliver the millions of dollars in community funding Silver was so revered for in his district and derided for from outside it.

Cancel, a former district leader, won the seat with the backing of the Manhattan Democratic Party, Silver’s wife, and a number of his allies. Since winning the seat Cancel has made a number of gaffes and appeared to many as unprepared to hold the seat.

Normally, incumbency is seen as a major advantage, bringing with it name recognition, powerful endorsements, and a dedicated fundraising apparatus. But Cancel hasn’t demonstrated that to be the case. She drastically trails other candidates in fundraising and hasn’t had much time to establish constituent services that would allow her to ingratiate herself with her voter base. She has also underperformed in her few public appearances and primary debates. Cancel has been media shy and reluctant to campaign, though during the special election she explained that her public scarcity had to do with health concerns.

The incumbent’s perceived weakness appears to be part of why five challengers hope they can marshall a dedicated base of support in what is expected to be a low turnout affair. The September 13 vote is the third primary day in New York this year.

Challenging Cancel are Paul Newell, Yuh-Line Niou, Jenifer Rajkumar, Gigi Li, and Don Lee.

Newell is a community activist and district leader who was the first Democrat to challenge Silver in nearly two decades, when he ran against him in 2008. Newell, who was endorsed by The New York Times editorial board, won about 22 percent of the vote with Silver at 69 percent. The effort gained Newell experience and notoriety that he hopes to capitalize on during this year’s primary.

Niou also has experience running for office in the district - she challenged Cancel in the special election with the backing of the Working Families Party (WFP). Niou lost by 700 votes in an effort that won her the support of The Times’ editorial board and major elected officials. (While saying that any of the challengers would be better than Cancel, The Times is again supporting Niou this month.)

Rajkumar is a human rights lawyer and district leader who has been involved in advocacy initiatives on tenant rights, labor protections, and women in politics. She challenged City Council Member Margaret Chin in a 2013 primary and, like others running now, sought the Democratic nomination for the April special election.

Li is chair of Manhattan Community Board 3 and made history in 2012 when she became the first Asian-American to be elected to chair a city community board. Li has been involved in advocating for services for families and children.

Lee is a technology executive with a long history of community activism. He got his start in politics in the Koch Administration and is now running as an outsider candidate.

The void left by Silver is immense as he brought billions worth of pork to the district over the decades, used his power to micromanage almost all changes in the district, and stood as a champion for many liberal causes. At the same time, many in Albany saw Silver as a long-term impediment to state government ethics reform and to policy reforms that could have positively impacted his district, especially on affordable housing.

The federal corruption charges against Silver revealed his close financial ties to the real estate lobby that he swore he was fighting during Albany negotiations over rent control and other major housing issues.

While many expected Silver’s conviction to bring real change to Albany the special election to replace him was a sign to many across the state that there were still plenty of roadblocks in place. When Manhattan Democrats gathered to back a candidate for the empty seat, Silver’s allies maneuvered to ensure that Cancel got the nod. Special elections in New York remain largely controlled by local party committees.

Niou and her supporters protested the selection process and campaigned against Cancel with the backing of the WFP, which is supporting her again. Other candidates plotted for their current runs.

This crop of candidates for the 65th will be looking to tap into voting bases across a district that includes Chinatown, the Lower East Side. and most of Lower Manhattan. Political consultants expect that the district’s powerful Asian vote, which could have been tapped as a bloc by one candidate, to be splintered, making the race less easy to predict.

According to the state Board of Elections, as of April 1, 2016, there were 65,766 active registered voters in the 65th Assembly District, 43,094 of them Democrats. (There were 6,320 active registered Republicans and 14,100 active registered voters unaffiliated with a party.)

Top issues facing the district include affordability, especially in housing, as well as education, including school space, climate resiliency, senior services, and health care infrastructure. There is also, of course, a lot of discussion of government ethics and state government reform.

Gotham Gazette spoke to all of the challengers about the race, but attempts to secure an interview with Cancel were unsuccessful.

Candidates painted a picture of a district where elderly residents are finding it harder to afford to stay, where immigrant families can’t afford more than one bedroom, and where properties owned by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) are in constant disrepair. Meanwhile, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature managed to put aside $2 billion for affordable housing and supportive housing, but have yet to actually allocate spending for most of that sum.

Niou said it must be a priority to get the money out of the state’s coffers and into districts. Asked about Cuomo’s plan to revive the expired 421-a tax break for developers who agree to build a certain percentage of affordable housing, Niou was skeptical. “Affordability is a huge issue for our district and the thing is you can't lose money building apartments in Manhattan,” she said, noting the escalating cost of rent. Niou said that if 421-a is necessary checks must be in place.

“We need to make sure developers pay workers the proper wage and make sure we are actually getting affordable units,” Niou said. She also advocated reopening discussions over rent regulation laws to end practices that incentivize landlords to push tenants out.

Meanwhile, Li said the state needs a multi-pronged approach to affordable housing. “We can't just throw money at new development to solve the affordability issue,” she said. “We need preservation. Repairing NYCHA properties and dealing with sustainability must be a priority, but it is important we build new apartments.” She added that she believes it is time to alter the Urstadt Law that gives the State say over major city issues in order to give the City more power.

Rajkumar advocated for quickly funding supportive housing projects and reforming 421-a to “hold developers accountable.”

Newell said his district faces an “acute capital need” as far as housing goes, citing the disrepair of NYCHA properties. “We obviously need to continue building to meet our housing demands, but not I’m sure we need 421-a, with or without a wage subsidy.” He said that he would favor increased checks on the subsidy program to ensure developers are actually delivering the affordable units they receive breaks for.

Lee said that “special interests” must be removed from housing policy and that the State is “playing with funny money.”

Asked how she would preserve affordable housing at a recent debate, Cancel responded: “To be very honest with you, I don’t know the answer to that question, in terms of how do we stop what’s going on,” before suggesting rezoning might help, according to The New York Times. Rezoning is under purview of the City Council.

With education funding a major issue in the district and a proposed tax credit for donations to education institutions likely to be a major factor during the next legislative session in Albany, Gotham Gazette asked the candidates about their position on the controversial measure that is aimed at helping private and charter schools. The five challengers all appeared opposed to the measure, to varying degrees. Li said that while she generally supports “compromise,” she is “focused on funding public education first and foremost.”

Newell said flatly that he opposes the tax credit. Niou, who noted that Cuomo supports the credit said, “The Governor wants lots of things but he hasn't paid us for the CFE case yet,” referring to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit that resulted in a judge saying the state chronically underfunds the poorest schools. “So he owes public schools, so it is ridiculous to give breaks to people who support private schools when public schools are suffering,” Niou said.

Rajkumar said CFE funding is critical to make sure city schools can serve students from all districts equally. She also decried how legislators use funding for city schools as a political “football.”

Lee said he was concerned that people who make donations not be allowed to dictate how the money is spent.

The candidates also all came together on the need to save local health care providers given the closing of Beth-Israel Hospital. They were also concerned about resiliency issues the city was forced to confront during Superstorm Sandy.

Li said she discovered while campaigning that many residents of the district don’t realize they are eligible for health care and other benefits under the Federal Zagroda Act. Li and Niou said that they saw a desperate need in the district for constituent service efforts to connect residents with government programs.

All of the challengers to Cancel professed to support a list of government ethics reforms that include limiting or banning outside income for legislators, implementing a statewide system of public campaign financing similar to that employed in New York City; ending the LLC loophole; and adjusting the budget process to make it more open and inclusive.

They differed less on what they wanted done and more on how they would achieve it.

“I think we have a window of opportunity for real change that hasn’t existed for generations,” said Newell, who added that he expected Democrats to take control of the state Senate thereby ending a Republican blockade on most of the aforementioned reforms. “On the Assembly side, Carl Heastie did not expect to be Speaker, and he filled out last session without putting dramatic changes into action,” said Newell. “Next session I think we will see who Carl Heastie really is when he brings the Assembly into the 21st Century.”

Rajkumar said she believes individual Assembly members and committee chairs need more individual power. She also wants lobbying on legislation to be revealed in a database in real time.

Lee said voters are tired of waiting for the system to change. “These guys see problems and they say ‘let's kick it to the next election cycle.’ They have no sense of urgency. They are so out of touch and expectations have gotten to be so low. The bigger issue is that we need true reform - not fresh blood but a blood transfusion,” Lee said.

Asked about the differences between challenging Silver and 2008 and running in a crowded field in 2016, Newell first said the difference is “we are going to win,” but added having a crowded field of deeply invested community members means that the district will have the first “healthy debate process” it has had in decades.

As for campaign funds to support stretch-run efforts, Cancel reported having $11,581 on hand as of her 11-day pre-primary filing.

Other candidates have significantly more money for final flyering and other advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts. Endorsements from unions, elected officials, and other groups have also been divided, mostly among Cancel’s challengers.

Rajkumar reported having $182,826 on hand in her 32-day pre-primary filing; her 11-day pre-primary filing has not been posted by the BOE. Rajkumar has been endorsed by The Public Employees Federation and Citizens Union of New York, a government reform group.

Newell reported having $92,347 on hand as of his 32-day pre-primary filing. He has been endorsed by the United Federation of Teachers, New York State United Teachers, Citizen Action of New York, and City Council Members Rosie Mendez, Mark Levine, and Ben Kallos.

Niou reported having $76,635 on hand in her 11-day pre-primary filing. Along with her endorsements from The New York Times and The Working Families Party, Niou is supported by City Comptroller Scott Stringer, state Senator Daniel Squadron, and others.

Li reported having $36,404 on hand as of her 11-day pre-primary filing. She has been endorsed by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, City Council Members Margaret Chin and Helen Rosenthal, and state Senator Jesse Hamilton.

Lee reported having $31,856 on hand of his 11-day pre-primary filing.

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
     

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