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Major Cuomo Supporters Don’t Want a Democratic State Senate

Cuomo ABNY speech

Cuomo at ABNY (photo: Don Pollard/Governor's Office)

With the specter of a competitive Democratic primary squarely in front of him, Governor Andrew Cuomo, the two-term incumbent, announced on Wednesday, April 4 that he had brokered a unity deal between two groups of Democrats in the state Senate, setting the stage for the possibility of capturing the majority in the chamber, which is the only Republican stronghold in state government. Cuomo brought together the mainline Senate Democrats and the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference, a group of eight senators elected as Democrats but who have formed a ruling coalition with Republicans.

While Cuomo and Democratic leaders celebrated the unity plan, casting an optimist eye toward two key special elections happening April 24 and the fall elections wherein every seat in the state Legislature is on the ballot. The governor listed off policy priorities that he said were stymied by Senate Republicans and said Democrats must take the chamber in order to enact more progress.

The next day, Thursday, April 5, Cuomo gave a speech at a gathering hosted the Association for a Better New York (ABNY), a business advocacy group. In it, Cuomo highlighted aspects of the recently-passed state budget -- including attempts to mitigate any pain soon to be felt by middle and upper-income New Yorkers due to the new federal tax code -- and ongoing state infrastructure investments. The governor made no mention of the Senate Democratic unity deal he had celebrated the day before, nor did he repeat the list of policies, like campaign finance reform, that he said he intends to pass when Democrats control the Senate.

The choices appear deliberate, give that many in the ABNY crowd, where Cuomo routinely receives a hero’s welcome, may not favor a Democratic Senate. A number of the governor’s most prominent financial backers, including business and real estate entities, are also big donors to Senate Republicans and may not be pleased with the Democratic unity deal. While Cuomo has been roundly criticized by left-wing Democrats for accepting, if not propping up, the IDC and Senate GOP control, and therefore not passing enough progressive legislation, the governor has often been supported by the New York City business community, many members of which see him as like-minded: progressive on social issues but moderate on taxes and spending, friendly toward real estate developers and charter schools, and invested in major infrastructure improvements.

Indeed, in introducing Cuomo at the ABNY event, the Chairman of the ABNY board, Steven Rubenstein, praised Cuomo for passing marriage equality and gun control, as well as raising the minimum wage, undertaking major infrastructure projects, and passing timely budgets every year.

One of the most prominent members of ABNY is the Real Estate Board of New York, or REBNY, whose political action committee, The Real Estate Board PAC, has donated over $112,000 to Cuomo’s gubernatorial campaign committees. Meanwhile, it has donated $507,000 to the Senate Republicans’ campaign committee since 2009, which does not include donations to individual Senate candidate campaigns or independent expenditures.

The governor has also received large sums of campaign cash from other frequent supporters of a Republican Senate, such as charter school organizations, including Eva Moskowitz’s Great Public Schools PAC, which has given the governor $115,000 for his campaigns. Great Public Schools has given the Senate Republicans $60,000 since 2009, and $25,000 to the IDC.

Republicans argue that a fully Democratic state government would spell doom.

“An entire state government made up of extreme, tax-and-spend politicians racing each other to the far left would be an unmitigated disaster for hardworking taxpayers Upstate, in the Hudson Valley and on Long Island,” said Scott Reif, a Senate GOP spokesperson, in a statement reacting to the unity deal. “It would lead to higher taxes, more corruption and thousands of families fleeing our state. More than ever before, we need checks and balances to prevent the radical New York City politicians from doing whatever the hell they want.”

At the April 4 press conference at his Manhattan office, Cuomo framed the unity deal as an opportunity to enact progressive reforms that have been blocked by the IDC and Senate Republicans throughout his governorship, such as bail reform, voting reform, the DREAM Act, campaign finance and voting reforms, and the Child Victims Act, to name a few.

“These are all progressive principles that were not passed in the budget and which we will not pass until we have a Democratic Senate,” the governor said.

Though Cuomo’s governance has moved leftward throughout his initial reelection bid and second term, the governor typically appears most comfortable in a position of moderate compromise and triangulation, happy to broker deals between the Democratic Assembly and Republican Senate, often at his own pace and with progressive accomplishments he has decided to own.

Cuomo’s style has alienated many on the left, leading the liberal Working Families Party to endorse the governor’s primary challenger, actor and activist Cynthia Nixon.

As labor unions left the WFP to side with Cuomo, he explicitly rebuked community advocates in the party, and reportedly threatened their existence.

With two special elections for vacated Senate seats taking place on April 24, the split between Cuomo and some of his most prominent backers who would prefer a Republican-led Senate is more clear. One election, for Senate District 32 in the Bronx, is a seat vacated by now-City Council Member Ruben Diaz, Sr. and is expected to remain safely Democratic. The other, District 37 in Westchester, is not so clear cut, and as a result has garnered significant attention and spending.

The governor has come out in full force to campaign for Shelley Mayer, an Assembly member and the Democratic candidate for Senate in District 37; meanwhile, the Real Estate Board PAC has financially supported Republican nominee Julie Killian, donating $11,000 to her campaign committee. Killian is also receiving significant support through the Senate Republican campaign committee, where the REBNY PAC has given generously.

According to NY State of Politics, REBNY’s independent expenditure arm, Jobs for New York, had spent at least $92,000 on Killian’s behalf as of late March.

Retaining the seat, vacated by now Westchester County Executive George Latimer, is crucial for Senate Democrats if they wish to take control of the chamber in the near future. As such, the seat has attracted not just high profile campaigners and direct campaign contributions, but hundreds of thousands of dollars in independent spending.

The largest spender in the race is New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany, a political action committee backed by StudentsFirst NY, an education reform entity that pushes for tougher teacher evaluations tied to standardized tests and expansion of charter schools. New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany has spent more than $800,000 on television and radio ads in the Westchester special election, according to campaign finance filings.

Notably, the Real Estate Board had donated $11,050 to Latimer’s campaigns for Senate, and $1,000 to his campaign for County Executive, according to the State Board of Elections.

Still, many in the business community have concerns about a Democratic state Senate. The Partnership for New York City, a business group, believes bluntly that it would be bad for business.

“The business community typically relies on Senate Republicans to step on the brakes when Democrats want to pass a bill that would damage the state economy,” said Kathryn Wylde, President and CEO of the Partnership. “If this were not an option, we would have to rely on good sense prevailing when a bad bill is introduced. Not always a safe bet in Albany!”

Many of the Partnership’s members are prominent donors to Cuomo’s campaigns, as well as to Senate Republicans. Overlap among the three can be seen in real estate donors, such as SL Green, Vornado, and Tishman Speyer, as well as donors in the finance and banking sector, such as Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, and HSBC.

Whatever issues might or might not arise, Cuomo’s relationship with business doesn’t seem to have taken an enormous hit yet; the day after he announced the unity deal with Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and IDC Leader Jeff Klein, Cuomo and MTA Chair Joe Lhota spoke to ABNY.

The MTA was a key focus of the program, with Cuomo touting new measures in the state budget to fund the system, and Lhota presenting on the next phase of his Subway Action Plan, which Cuomo had insisted the city fund half of, forcing the city’s hand through a budget mechanism. Cuomo, who did not mention his plans for a Democratic Senate, received several ovations.

A spokesperson for ABNY declined to comment for this story.

Gerald Benjamin, a political scientist and the Director of the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz, doesn’t believe that the relationship between Cuomo and business will be significantly affected, because the relationship is more grounded in influence than ideology. Instead, special interests will try to influence whoever is in power, whether they be Democrats or Republicans in the Senate, Assembly, or Governor’s Mansion, he said.

“We have a long history of New York interest groups giving money to whomever is in power,” Benjamin said, “so that they can get influence over the decisions they would like to influence. So it’s common for New York interest groups, labor unions for example, to give money to Republicans in the Senate and the Democrats in the Assembly. And then give money to Republican governors and Democrat governors. They’re trying to influence decision-making going forward.”

The Working Families Party and Cynthia Nixon, among others, have accused Cuomo of wanting Senate Republicans to hold sway in that chamber.

“Why did he keep Senate Republicans in power,” said Bill Lipton, the director of the New York WFP, at the party's meeting endorsing Nixon. “To keep taxes low for his donors so he could continue to take in contributions from real estate and hedge fund millionaires and billionaires: $31 million to be exact.”

The governor’s campaign did not return a request for comment.

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

Cuomo Touts Political Ad Transparency Law as Other Reforms Languish

Cuomo bill signing democracy

Cuomo at Wednesday's bill-signing (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

Governor Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday held a ceremonial bill-signing, one of several since the state budget was approved, to tout the passage of new restrictions and disclosure requirements for political advertisements on social media. But the bill was a component of Cuomo’s larger Democracy Agenda, measures including voting and campaign finance reform that otherwise fell by the wayside during budget negotiations and seem unlikely to pass in the remaining months of the legislative session in Albany.    

“We have a crisis in our election system,” Cuomo told a room full of people at the Cardozo School of Law in Manhattan on Wednesday. “We now know that our election system was influenced and tampered with by foreign entities. And it’s not partisan rhetoric, it’s not a science fiction novel. We know it. Russia was involved.”

Prompted by the widespread Russian influence campaign that targeted nearly two dozen states during the 2016 presidential election and the proliferation of secretive political advertising on social media platforms like Facebook, Cuomo proposed and the state Legislature successfully passed the “Democracy Protection Act,” which prohibits foreign entities from creating independent expenditure committees or buying political ads, requires anyone who purchases an online political ad to register as an independent expenditure committee, and also requires online ads to include information about who paid for them, as is currently required of traditional media platforms.

The state Board of Elections will also now create an public archive of those online ads and retain them for five years.

“We right now have a toxic cocktail that has brewed,” Cuomo said of the “explosion of social media” and the “anonymity” and “targeting ability” of social media platforms. “They know your preferences, they know who you are, what you look like, what you buy, where you shop. They know your shoe size and they can target a message just to you,” he said, “and we then have the access by the foreign entities to these online platforms.”

Cuomo loftily insisted that the legislation will “fundamentally change” elections in the state and predicted, “This law is going to force national change.” Several progressive movements -- for women’s rights, environmental rights, worker safety rules, gay rights, civil rights -- he exclaimed, started in New York and that inaction in Washington, D.C. necessitates that states forge ahead on tackling the issues accompanying elections in the digital age.

But New York leading the way on election and campaign-related reforms appears to be an imperfect message from New York and a messenger like Cuomo. The state has been a laggard on improving voter participation and access, and its outdated laws fall far behind most other states. Cuomo himself has railed against weaknesses in state campaign finance laws while exploiting them for his own campaigns.

In 2017, Cuomo released a 10-point government ethics and voting reform agenda, which included early voting, automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration, and campaign finance changes such as closing the LLC loophole, which allows anonymous donors to flood candidates’ campaign coffers in New York. Cuomo has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of that loophole and has done little to actually push for its closure. None of those reforms passed last year.

This year, Cuomo proposed many of the reforms again, adding $7 million in proposed funding to implement early voting and banning outside income for legislators. But yet again, all but the online ads bill fell through. Cuomo made no mention of the other planks of his Democracy Agenda at Wednesday’s celebratory event, where he positioned New York as a national leader. He also took no questions from reporters at the two events where he made appearances Wednesday.

Most of the reforms are opposed by Republicans in the state Senate who continue to control the chamber with the help of a rogue Democratic Senator, Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, who caucuses with the GOP to give them a one-vote majority. But Cuomo, when he wants to, has been able to convince Republicans to vote through bills that they might traditionally oppose including marriage equality, gun control measures, and a major hike in the minimum wage.

Cuomo has repeatedly laid the blame for the failure of his proposals on the Republicans, who for seven years were allied with a breakaway group of eight Democratic Senators called the Independent Democratic Conference. In a deal recently brokered by Cuomo, the IDC rejoined the mainline Democratic conference. The Democrats are now counting on victories in special elections for two state Senate races on April 24 to be on par with Republicans in the Senate. Felder’s loyalty in that situation remains an open question. Cuomo has said the goal is to then pick up additional seats in the fall’s regularly-scheduled elections for all seats in the Legislature.

Earlier on Wednesday, Cuomo restored voting rights to individuals on parole through an executive order, arguing that the order was necessary since the measure wouldn’t have passed the Senate. (Cuomo’s primary opponent Cynthia Nixon, and others have said, however, that Cuomo is increasingly pursuing popular progressive measures by any means necessary because of the threat of a strong primary challenge.)

Similarly, Cuomo justified the unification deal by insisting it was necessary to pass progressive reforms that have failed for years. “We finished the budget. We did a lot of good things in the budget, but there are also things that we didn’t pass that we need to pass...The Child Victims Act, more gun safety, bail reform, the DREAM Act, banning outside income, campaign finance reform, early voting,” he said at a news conference announcing the deal at his executive offices in Manhattan.

He went on, “These are all core, essential progressive principles that were not passed in the budget and which we will not pass until we have a Democratic Senate.” It’s unclear, however, if a Democratic Senate itself will come to pass any time soon, or if the appetite would be there for the types of voting, campaign finance, and government ethics reforms that Cuomo has said he supports.

[Read: Cuomo Turns Budget Failures Into Justification for Democratic Unity]

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Republican Governors Association ‘Keeping Close Eye’ on New York

Cuomo Christie

Gov. Cuomo (photo: Governor's Office)

In the 2014 race for governor, when Governor Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic incumbent, was leading by 37 points over his Republican rival Rob Astorino with nearly four months till Election Day, the Republican Governors Association wrote off the loss.

Then-RGA chair Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey at the time, publicly refused to come to Astorino’s aid. “I will spend time in places where we have a chance to win — I said that right from the beginning,” Christie said in late-July 2014, according to NJ.com. When asked if he’d campaign in New York, he added, “We don’t pay for landslides and we don’t invest in lost causes.” Astorino went on to lose by about 14 points, receiving 40.6 percent of the vote to Cuomo’s 54 percent, with some saying that though he faced steep odds, he had virtually no chance without support from the RGA and other forces that sat it out. Cuomo and Christie had a good relationship, and appeared to have something of a non-aggression pact.

This time around, with resentment against Cuomo intensifying among Democrats on the left, the incumbent’s vulnerabilities showing on issues like the state-run New York City subway system and government corruption, and with Republicans eager to build on victories from 2016, the RGA is watching New York closely while state party leaders prepare to pitch the RGA for help in electing the party’s first statewide official in New York since 2002.     

“We are keeping a close eye on the New York governor’s race,” said Jon Thompson, RGA communications director, in an email to Gotham Gazette. “The RGA does not get involved in GOP primaries, but once voters choose a nominee, we will take a hard look at how we can make an impact. If Governor Cuomo’s approval ratings continue to drop, or he loses the primary to Cynthia Nixon, it could create an environment that is competitive for Republicans.”

The winds have changed since 2014 and a third-term for Cuomo no longer seems an absolute certainty. An enraged and engaged activist base is seeking to push the centrist governor further to his left, boosting the unlikely possibility that actor and activist Cynthia Nixon could prevail in her longshot Democratic primary challenge. The stink of corruption continues to linger over Cuomo’s administration, with one former top aide to the governor recently convicted of fraud and accepting bribes, and another headed to trial on corruption charges in June. And then there’s a degree of Cuomo fatigue, evident from recent polling that shows the governor’s favorability at one of the lowest points in the seven years he has held his seat and voters more interested in “someone else” than reelecting Cuomo.

For Republicans, the time seems ripe for a strong challenge, embodied most likely by Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, the Republican candidate who has already locked up enough endorsements to secure the party’s nomination at its convention in late May. His main opponent, state Senator John DeFrancisco of Syracuse, even acknowledged that Molinaro has the leg up after the state Conservative Party chose last week to back Molinaro’s bid, (“It’s obvious that Molinaro has the momentum,” he said, according to The Buffalo News) but has not dropped out of the race. Both candidates have pledged that they will not contest a primary beyond the convention, keeping in line with the party’s plan of unifying behind a single candidate after the nomination is formally decided, giving that candidate from June until November to run with full GOP support.

But even though Cuomo may stand bloodied and bruised, whether from his own failings or after what is expected to be a scorched earth primary, he has a campaign warchest of $30 million and counting, far surpassing any candidate in the field on either side. That makes the intervention of the RGA a potentially game-changing factor for a Republican candidate’s campaign.

“They can’t coordinate but they certainly can have a huge impact,” said New York State Republican Committee Chair Ed Cox, in a phone interview. “And they know how to win gubernatorial elections.”

As opposed to 2014, Cox sees a clear path for a Republican victory this year -- with the governor’s mounting scandals, his second-term swing to the left that has created resentment upstate, and his use of the race as a springboard for a presidential bid, which Cox said would rub voters the wrong way. There’s also the possibility, he noted, that Cuomo will lose votes in the general to third party candidates -- Nixon won the endorsement of the Working Families Party, which would allow her to be on the general election ballot even if she loses the Democratic primary; and Howie Hawkins is running for governor for a third time on the Green Party line, on which he came in third with more than 180,000 votes in 2014.

In a race between a “governor who is a political thug” like Cuomo, and a “very impressive” candidate like Molinaro, Republicans stand a chance, Cox said. “New York may be a blue state, but it’s a blue-collar state, not a West Side Manhattan blue state,” Cox said.

“The money that the RGA could bring to any given gubernatorial race is massive,” said Heath Brown, associate professor of public policy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, and an expert in campaign finance. “The millions of dollars that they could bring into a race, specially on the advertising side, has in the past been very significant in many states...Where they spend that money is I think very debated, but it’s not debatable at all that if they decide to get involved in a race, that they, at the state level, can be one of the biggest players in any gubernatorial race.”

Just on Tuesday, the RGA announced that it had raised $87 million so far in the 2018 cycle, $23.6 millon of which was in the first quarter of this year alone.

With 36 governor seats on the ballot this year, those resources will be put to use in competitive races. The RGA has already booked $34 million in television ads in the closing weeks of the general election in ten states: Florida, Nevada, Ohio, Arizona, Alaska, Connecticut, Kansas, Minnesota, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. Some of that funding may be employed by RGA Right Direction PAC, an independent expenditure group entirely funded by the RGA, which had just under $1 million at its disposal at the end of March.

Brown noted, however, that New York may be far down the list of RGA priorities. The national politics around President Trump, which may in some ways boost Republican enthusiasm, have also by-and-large riled up Democrats, and observers widely believe a blue wave is going to crash across the country. “I think everyone expects New York to be solidly Democratic and if there weren’t so many other close races, I think the RGA might look at New York more seriously,” Brown said. “But I think they’ve got bigger fish to fry and many more pressing concerns about Republican-held seats losing, which would be much much more serious.”

According to The Cook Political Report, five Republican-held and three Democrat-held gubernatorial seats are toss-ups in this year’s election, and New York is in the “Solid D” column.

A Siena College poll out Tuesday showed Cuomo with his lowest favorability rating as governor, but also showed him ahead of Molinaro in a head-to-head 57-31 percent, though many voters don’t know Molinaro yet and Republicans are disputing the polling methodology.

Brown said that even if Christie had not publicly shot down the Astorino campaign in 2014, there was little chance of the RGA investing in that race. “I think that a competitive race among the Democrats is going to be something that national Republicans will enjoy. But the actual investment of resources is something that is too precious for national organizations to do anything other than place where they need to get wins...there is a question about the nationalization of gubernatorial races in 2018 and whether the national politics related to the president are going to be something that every governor running is going to have to confront. So I think that the nationalization that we’ve seen in other parts of the country is also likely to play out in New York.”

That hasn’t stopped the New York Republican Party from trying to woo the RGA. Next month, the Republican State Committee will honor RGA Chair Bill Haslam, governor of Tennessee, at its annual gala. The RGA is also expected to meet in New York around the same time.

DeFrancisco has already made his case before the RGA at a meeting in February. Michael Lawler, a spokesperson for DeFrancisco’s campaign, said in an email, “I think the Republican Governors Association is definitely interested in the race. Fortunately, they are in a position of defending a majority of seats, and so like with any race, they will evaluate it on the merits, but I would expect they would look to be more helpful than they were four years ago, not just financially, but publicly offering support.”

Molinaro campaign spokesperson Katherine Delgado said, “We remain in regular contact with the RGA and other outside groups that are encouraged by Marc's candidacy.”

Cox predicted of Molinaro, “I can see him getting together with them and really impressing the RGA people.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Reforming Special Elections & More in Albany

Jarrett Murphy, left, of City Limits, and Ben Max, right, of Gotham Gazette

April 17, 2018 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Reforming Special Elections & More in Albany

susan lerner cc ny

Susan Lerner of Common Cause/NY is one of the leading government reform advocates and activists in New York. With a recently-passed state budget largely missing any ethics, campaign finance or voting reforms, and a slate of special elections scheduled for next week, Lerner joined the podcast to discuss what is broken and how it should be fixed.

Lerner explains that the political parties have a "stranglehold" on elections in New York, that the state Legislature is clearly not doing the will of the people on key issues like voting and bail reform, and that state government is being "unresponsive" to the plague of corruption.

Lerner also weighs in on issues in New York City around the recently-called charter revision commissions, one by the mayor and one by the City Council, calling it "absurd" that there will be two and expressing hope for a merger. Beyond criticism, though, Lerner provides many thoughts on what should be happening in New York. 

Listen to the full conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the episode through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, April 16

New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

The week begins with the New York political world fixated on the race for Governor after the Working Families Party endorsed Cynthia Nixon on Saturday. The WFP also endorsed City Council Member Jumaane Williams for Lieutenant Governor. Both Nixon and Williams are also running in their respective Democratic primaries, hoping to unseat Governor Andrew Cuomo and Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul.

The WFP endorsements came as the party itself was further fracturing, with Cuomo pulling labor unions from the party and the remaining progressive activists and advocacy groups sticking with the relatively small but influential group, and backing Nixon over Cuomo as she runs to the governor’s left on virtually every issue. Nixon and Williams will now have the WFP ballot line for the general election, but the backing of the party and its members and member organizations are certain to boost their candidacies in the Democratic primary. It is unclear what further steps Cuomo and his allies will take to weaken the WFP and its chosen candidates, but the intra-Democratic party war is escalating.

The fallout from and analysis of these latest developments will headline at least the start of the week, also adding pressure on Democratic elected officials to choose between Cuomo and Nixon, as many have been hesitant to do so far. Added attention will come as state legislators return to Albany for three session days this week after the annual post-budget break. There are under two months until the end of the legislative session, and exactly 30 scheduled session days for legislative business in the capital. The return to session will also see the latest developments in the return of the Senate Independent Democratic Conference to the mainline Democratic fold.

That session will also be influenced by the outcomes of the special elections set to take place on Tuesday, April 24 -- one week from this Tuesday. There are 11 Assembly and Senate vacancies being filled, but the key race to watch is the state Senate race in Westchester.

There’s clearly a great deal of intrigue in Albany and state government and politics more broadly. There will also of course be action in New York City, where there are several City Council hearings to be aware of this week, even as Speaker Corey Johnson and a delegation of Council members continues a trip to Israel -- they return this coming weekend.

As always, there are a variety of events to be aware of - see our day-by-day rundown below.

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The run of the week in detail:

At the City Council on Monday:
--The Committees on Health and Parks & Recreation will meet jointly at 10 a.m. to discuss a proposed law “requiring defibrillators at softball fields where youth leagues play.”
--The Committee on Justice System will meet at 1 p.m. for an oversight hearing regarding “investigations and prosecutions of low wage theft.”

The New York State Legislature will be in session on Monday in Albany, returning from the post-budget recess.

At 8:30 a.m. Monday, "NYIT, the University Transportation Research Center, NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, Windels Marx, The City College of New York, and the New York City Council will host a symposium to discuss "Steps and Strides Towards A Sustainable Future", and the policies and evidence-based planning needed to use greener transportation. The event kicks off the week of Car Free Day which will take place on Saturday, April 21st."

At 10:30 a.m. Monday, city schools "Chancellor Richard A. Carranza will visit a STEAM lab and a dance class at P.S. 376 in Brooklyn." In the afternoon, he will meet with students and parents at town hall events: at 4 p.m. and at 5:30 p.m. at Brooklyn Technical High School.

At noon Monday, advocates and elected officials will gather on the steps of City Hall to “speak out against very bad and concerning practices of the Board of Elections,” particularly regarding voter suppression. The rally is being led by The Black Institute.

At 12:30 p.m. Monday at the state Capitol in Albany, ""Seven prominent watchdog groups call for action on corruption in state government." Participants include: Citizens Budget Commission, Citizens Union, Common Cause NY, Fiscal Policy Institute, League of Women Voters NY State, New York Public Interest Group, and Reinvent Albany.

At 6 p.m. Monday Public Advocate Letitia James will deliver remarks at the Brooklyn Women's Bar Association and Brooklyn Law School Panel Discussion on Women's Suffrage, at Brooklyn Law School. At 7:45 p.m., James will deliver remarks at the 77th Precinct Community Council Gala, Milk River Restaurant in Brooklyn.

At 6:30 p.m. Monday, City Council Member Carlos Menchaca and the Consulate General of Mexico will host a welcome ceremony for new Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza at Sunset Park High School in Brooklyn.

On Monday, Mayor de Blasio will make his weekly appearance on NY1’s Inside City Hall in the 7 and 11 p.m. hours.

On Monday “at 7:00 PM, Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams will join the family and friends of 26-year-old Brandy Odom in marking a week since her body was discovered in Canarsie Park, having been the victim of a brutal murder. In remembrance of her life, and to keep attention on her still-unsolved slaughter, they will drape a memorial ribbon over several blocks of the park's fence, while urging the New York City Police Department (NYPD) to step up their efforts in apprehending her at-large killer.”

A"Governor Cuomo is in Suffolk County, Westchester County, and Albany" on Tuesday. At 10 a.m. he'll make an announcement at Sunken Meadow State Park in Kings Park. At noon, he'll make an announcement at Teamsters Local 456 in Elmsford.

At 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Mayor "de Blasio will visit Bushwick Houses. Immediately after, the Mayor will make an announcement concerning rat abatement. This event is open press. There will be Q-and-A."

At the City Council on Tuesday:
--The Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises will meet at 9:30 a.m.
--The Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting, and Maritime Uses will meet at noon to discuss proposed laws relating to “approval of cemetery uses on land acquired in Queens before 1973” and to “authorizing the Landmarks Preservation Commission to administer a historic preservation grant program.”
--The Committee on Cultural Affairs will meet at 1 p.m. for an oversight hearing regarding “#MeToo and culture & the arts.”
--The Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions, and Concessions will meet at 2 p.m.

The New York State Legislature will be in session on Tuesday in Albany.

At 8 a.m. Tuesday, "By order of Mayor Bill de Blasio, NYC Parks will remove the monument to Dr. James Marion Sims. This order was given following the recommendations of the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers. Plans are being developed to commission a new work at this site. A temporary sign will be placed at the site tomorrow following removal."

The State Supreme Court will hold a hearing Monday on NYCHA tenants’ demands for a preliminary injunction enforcing NYCHA to conduct new lead paint inspections. At 8:45 a.m., Danny Barber, the Chair of the Citywide Council of Presidents, Elie Hecht of At-Risk Community Services, and attorney Jim Walden will hold a press conference preceding the hearing. [Listen to Barber and Hecht explain their lawsuit and discuss issues with NYCHA on a recent episode of the Max & Murphy podcast]

"On Tuesday, April 17, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) will hold a public hearing on the proposed designation of the Coney Island (Riegelman) Boardwalk as a scenic landmark, and the proposed Central Harlem West 130-132nd Street Historic District."

At 9 a.m. Tuesday, the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy will host “New York State Single-Payer Healthcare? Economics, Politics, and Prospects” at the CUNY School of Public Health, discussing the prospects of single payer healthcare in New York State. Panelists will include City Council Health Committee Chair Mark Levine, economist Gerald Friedman, Marissa Martin of Young Invincibles, and registered nurses Marva Wade and Kim Behrens.

At 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, the New York City Coalition for Adult Literacy will rally at Bronx Borough Hall to protest Mayor de Blasio's “proposed cuts to English and other adult literacy programs in the City Budget.”

At 10:30 a.m. Tuesday in Albany, "tenants and legislators will rally "to demand stronger rent laws." Participants will include Senator Jose Serrano, Senator Liz Kruger, Senator Gustavo Rivera, Senator Brian Benjamin, and Senator Brad Hoylman; The Real Rent Reform Campaign including Met Council on Housing, Woodside on the Move, Catholic Migration Services, Neighbors Helping Neighbors, Fifth Ave Committee, Northwest Bronx Community Clergy Coalition, Chhaya CDC. They want the senate to pass three bills: End the Preferential Rent Scam (S.6527); Repeal the Vacancy Bonus (S.1593); Repeal Vacancy Destabilization (S.3482).

At 11 a.m. Tuesday, outside New York State Supreme Court, "Public Advocate James will make an announcement related to the legalization of marijuana in New York. She will be joined by elected officials and advocates" including City Council Members Antonio Reynoso and Donovan Richards; Brooklyn Defenders; Drug Policy Alliance; Latino Justice; Law Enforcement Action Partnership; Legal Aid Society; National Action Network; New York Cannabis Bar Association.

On Tuesday at noon, "New York elected officials and three of CUNYs [email protected] Studies institutes, along with other partners, will release the "Latinos United in Action - New York [email protected]" Report and announce the second annual Summit on Latinos to be held on June 1st, 2018."

At the City Council on Wednesday:
--The Committees on Land Use, Finance, and Education will meet jointly at 10 a.m. for an oversight hearing reviewing the recent Council report “Planning to Learn: The School Building Challenge,” to discuss several proposed laws relating to school sitings and land use for education, and to discuss two resolutions: the first one calling on the state to confer the city with broad design-build authority for all capital projects, and the second calling upon the School Construction Authority “to more clearly communicate to the general public how city residents can submit potential school sites and the guidelines used by the School Construction Authority in considering whether a suggested school site meets the evaluation standards used by the authority.”
--The Committee on Economic Development will meet at 10 a.m. for an oversight hearing regarding “modifying helicopter routes to reduce noise over residential neighborhoods,” to discuss a proposed law relating to “an annual helicopter sightseeing plan,” and to discuss a resolution “calling on the Federal Aviation Administration to amend the North Shore helicopter route to extend further west to cover Northeast Queens.”
--The Committee on Technology will meet at 1 p.m. for an oversight hearing regarding LinkNYC.
--The Committees on Justice System and Juvenile Justice will meet jointly at 1 p.m. for an oversight hearing regarding “NYC’s preparedness to Raise the Age.”

The New York State Legislature will be in session on Wednesday in Albany.

Between Wednesday and Sunday, the National Action Network and the Rev. Al Sharpton will be hosting its annual National Convention at the Sheraton Hotel in Times Square. Speakers will include numerous “influencers” from all walks of civic life. Speakers include U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren; U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other representatives; numerous advocacy leaders; local politicians such as First Lady Chirlane McCray, State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, and City Comptroller Scott Stringer; and many others. See event website for specific days and times of appearances.

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Mayor de Blasio will hold a town hall meeting at the Bronx School of Law, Government & Justice in Concourse Village. He will be joined by Council Member Vanessa Gibson, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr, and Assemblymembers Michael Blake and Latoya Joyner.

At the City Council on Thursday:
--The Committee on Land Use will meet at 11 a.m.

At 9 a.m. Thursday, City & State will host the “Healthy New York Summit” at the National Geographic Encounter in Midtown. The event will bring “insights and perspectives from all sectors of New York’s health care decision-making together to identify challenges and discuss solutions to improve our system.” Speakers will include politicians, government officials, academics, advocates, and business leaders.

On Thursday at 10 a.m. at City Hall, "Noting the devastating death of Saheed Vassell last week in Brooklyn, the Progressive Caucus of the New York City Council, Community Access, and Communities for Crisis Intervention Teams in NYC (CCITNYC) coalition will call on the Administration revive the Mayoral Task Force on Behavioral Health and Criminal Justice, which will be empowered to help create a sustained city-wide approach to emotionally distressed persons and the ongoing mental health crisis New York City faces. The Caucus and its allies are also calling for the City to create a new system where social workers or well-trained 911 call operators divert 911 calls to social workers or therapists or trained peers instead of police response; greatly expand mobile crisis teams who can respond within 30 minutes of a call; build a large system of co-response teams who can respond to 911 calls; and build a system where trained peers or therapist can meet police at the scene of 911 calls."

At 10:30 a.m. Thursday, "The City’s Charter Revision Commission will hold its first public meeting on Thursday, April 19 – the first step in the Commission’s process of reviewing the City Charter. This is an organizational meeting and does not include public testimony."

Friday and the weekend
At 9 a.m. Friday, the New York City Board of Correction will meet at 125 Worth Street in Manhattan.

Mayor de Blasio may make his weekly appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show at 10 a.m. on Friday.

Saturday will be the annual "car free" day in New York City.

At 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Mayor de Blasio will appear at the 2018 Inner Circle Show at the New York Hilton Midtown. Inner Circle is a charity fundraiser comedy show hosted by the New York City press corps.

Sunday is Earth Day.

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: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

by Ben Brachfeld and Ben Max

Cuomo's Progressive Promises, Reminiscent of Four Years Ago, Received Differently

Cuomo Klein IDC Stewart-Cousins

Stewart-Cousins, Cuomo, and Klein at unity event (photo: Govenor's Office)

In May 2014, Governor Andrew Cuomo attempted to earn the last-minute endorsement of The Working Families Party with a video address at its nominating convention. As Cuomo sought a second term that year, he made a series of promises demanded by WFP members and received the party’s backing and ballot line. The deal with frustrated progressive activists and labor union leaders, who make up the WFP, was in part brokered by Mayor Bill de Blasio after the WFP threatened to run Zephyr Teachout to Cuomo’s left.

Cuomo, a Democrat, promised to back a series of progressive policies and a Democratic takeover of the state Senate -- including the reunification of mainline Democrats and the Independent Democratic Conference -- where he acknowledged that many of those policies had been blocked.

Nearly four years later and with little he had promised the WFP accomplished, Cuomo made similar pronouncements, this time weeks ahead of the planned WFP convention, while he is facing a challenge from the left by actor and activist Cynthia Nixon. Nixon won the endorsement of the WFP on Saturday, however, with the party losing union members loyal to Cuomo and being driven by activists disillusioned by the governor, though he has made attempts to win them over. Those activists pushed for an early endorsement vote and got one, with the progressive, activist wing of the party ready to move beyond past support for Cuomo.

Last week, Cuomo announced from his Manhattan government office the end of the IDC, a group of eight breakaway Democrats that has often voted with and empowered Senate Republicans, as a legislative conference. Part of the motivation for his work brokering a deal between the IDC and mainline Democrats, Cuomo said, was to pass a progressive agenda that had not made it through the Legislature, including the Dream Act and campaign finance reform.

The 2014 and 2018 announcements both served as olive branches to the left, where trust of Cuomo has been thin for many years. In 2014, there was much skepticism of his commitment to the WFP agenda and to flipping Republican-held Senate seats, and in 2018, many do not believe in his commitment to fully dissolving the IDC or fighting for a unified Democratic Senate that pushes a sufficiently progressive agenda. Without acknowledging he did not keep any prior promises, Cuomo, again seeking the WFP endorsement until it became clear he would not get it, has said this time will be different.

But the relationship between Cuomo and progressive activists appears beyond repair, and with the WFP nearing a Nixon endorsement, two major unions and Cuomo allies -- 32BJ SEIU and CWA -- announced on Friday they are leaving the WFP, as first reported by The New York Times.

During his second term, even as he has tacked left on a number of issues, Cuomo has continuously been pilloried by many progressives for not enacting certain components of the Democratic agenda. This disappointment has been channeled by Nixon, who last month announced her gubernatorial bid and has repeatedly and forcefully criticized the governor from the left, outflanking him on issues from taxing the wealthy to marijuana legalization.

Brokering the IDC deal, Cuomo insisted, is not a result of Nixon’s run. Instead, it was with the aim of unifying Democrats in the Senate and pursuing other seats to form a majority, which would allow unpassed parts of his agenda to move through the Legislature, he said. Nixon has organized her run around the idea that Cuomo is not a “real Democrat,” empowering Republicans and failing to fulfill key policy promises.

The announcement came on the heels of the completion of the 2019 fiscal year budget, which omitted many of those progressive policy items the governor has said he backs, also including early voting and bail reform. Acknowledging some of those failures, Cuomo has pointed to the Senate Republican majority, a group holding onto power by a thin margin, bolstered by the IDC, and, many on the left believe, Cuomo’s tacit consent. The governor also waited to call special elections for two vacant Senate seats previously held by Democrats until after the budget, angering many on the left.

“We finished the budget. We did a lot of good things in the budget, but there are also things that we didn't pass that we need to pass,” he said at the unity press conference last week. “Child Victims Act, more gun safety, bail reform, the Dream Act, banning outside income, campaign finance reform, early voting - these are all progressive principles that were not passed in the budget and which we will not pass until we have a Democratic Senate.”   

Speaking to the advantages of a Democratic Senate was among the several parallels between the WFP convention address and last week’s IDC announcement. “We must pass the DREAM Act, because we believe in immigration, and we are not threatened by differences, we are excited by diversity,” he said in 2014. “I told the Senate leadership coalition, the IDCs and the Republicans, that we needed a success in passing the DREAM Act, public finance, Women’s Equality Act this session, or they would’ve failed the people.“

More broadly, the message of unity at last week’s announcement echoed what he said to the WFP convention attendees. “If we are unified, and if we are mobilized, and if we come together, we can take control of our government and we can make our agenda a reality,” he said in 2014. “But we have to do it together. We can seize this opportunity for historic change. I hope we can do it, I hope we can do it together.”

“We have two goals,” Cuomo said at his Democratic unity announcement last week. “Number one, elect a Democratic Congress so we can stop the Washington agenda and stop the Washington agenda from further damaging our state. And secondly, to elect a Democratic Senate so we can protect ourselves with our own state laws here in New York.”

He added, “Now in many elections, Democrats divide and they splinter their efforts and divide resources, time and energy.”

There are key differences between the contexts surrounding the two sets of Cuomo promises.

Teachout launched her 2014 challenge against Cuomo months later in the cycle than Nixon has this year, deciding to stick with a Democratic primary run after she did not get the WFP nomination. With little money or name recognition, she won 34 percent in what has roundly been regarded as an embarrassment for Cuomo that showed his unpopularity with the left.

In recent years, the relationship between the governor and mayor has frayed, as the two have sparred over many issues. And while de Blasio worked to help Cuomo secure the WFP endorsement during the last election cycle, it appears almost impossible he’ll do so in the coming month. Asked by a reporter from The Observer in March if he would help Cuomo receive the WFP endorsement, he laughed and said, “You are a creative thinker.”

De Blasio has repeatedly said he is not ready to weigh in on the 2018 elections yet, but will at some point.

Furthermore, the national political landscape has shifted a good deal since 2014. With a Trump administration hostile to Democratic legislative aims and values, Cuomo has used the president as a way to unite New York’s left behind him. “The State of New York, I don't think it's over dramatic to say, it is under attack,” the governor said last week. “It is under attack by the Trump Administration, working with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, which are trying to bring an extreme conservative ideology to this country and to this state.”

But the Trump presidency has also energized an activist left, much of which does not like Cuomo, either. So four years after his WFP video address, which many have likened to a hostage tape, will Cuomo earn the Democratic nomination again? And if he does and subsequently wins reelection, will he fulfill his promises he’s made to New York’s left?

Teachout, now Nixon’s campaign treasurer, does not believe that Cuomo can be trusted to do so. On Twitter Thursday, she reminded her supporters of what she regards as the governor’s shortcomings. “Andrew Cuomo has used his power to serve hedge fund and real estate donors and betray kids, working men and women, basic infrastructure, and the promise of New York State,” she wrote. “So, for all the WFP members out there who voted for me four years ago, AND all of you who didn't: vote for Nixon. Remember Cuomo's 2014 promises to you. His word isn't good. His budgets, his tax priorities, and his donors tell you everything you need to know.”

Gerald Benjamin, a longtime SUNY New Paltz political science professor, told Gotham Gazette that the tide would soon turn in the Democrats’ favor. It’s a question of when, not if, the Democrats take control of the Senate, he said. “In my view, a Democratic Senate is inevitable. It’s a question of timing,” he said. “The demographics are what they are.”

When Democrats take the Senate, Benjamin predicted that Cuomo would be maneuvering under different political realities. “The priorities are going to be made different. The balance of outcomes will change, that's for sure," he said.

Still, he cautioned against expecting sweeping changes coming in Albany should Cuomo be re-elected, labeling Cuomo a “mainstream New York liberal Democrat.”  “He's a centrist politician. He's not a left politician,” Benjamin said. “Having said that, he holds many of the values Democrats hold in New York."

Benjamin added that this dynamic is also due to the responsibilities the governor has that advocates, activists, and other interest groups do not, such as tending to the state’s fiscal health. "Governors can't responsibly do all those things,” he said, referring to ambitious and often expensive initiatives. “They have considerations the advocates don't have, and they should.”

In a brief phone interview on Thursday, WFP New York State Director Bill Lipton would not comment directly on what he expected from Cuomo moving forward, but told Gotham Gazette that he was optimistic about accomplishing the goal of a progressive Senate, which he said was “long overdue.”

“I think with the strong WFP-backed candidates challenging IDC incumbents, and the resistance mobilized for November, we feel confident that we’re going to win the progressive majority this fall,” said Lipton.

“We are committed to electing a truly Democratic state Senate that puts New York’s working families first,” said Dom Leon-Davis, WFP’s communications director. With the departure of the two unions, the WFP appears on the verge of endorsing Nixon on Saturday, Lipton told Gotham Gazette on Friday afternoon.

Though its convention is not scheduled to take place for another month, WFP committee members are gathering in Albany Saturday -- WFP leadership has repeatedly stated that its state committee members will vote this time around without the influences of 2014.

“The 233 members of the WFP state committee have an important decision to make tomorrow, things are certainly heating up," Lipton said on Friday. On Saturday Nixon received over 90 percent of the WFP vote at its meeting -- a previously scheduled party get-together that became an endorsement meeting when members of the party were itching to get behind Nixon and start campaigning on her behalf.

Heather Stewart, an organizer for Empire State Indivisible, a progressive activist group, said among the many developments that have occured in the last four years is that frustration among activists with the IDC has grown. “I think things are different now. I think that the public’s opinion on the IDC has changed,” she said. “More people know what it is now.”

The frustration with Cuomo has grown, too, Stewart said. “The activists who are doing the work on the state level are extremely tuned in to what’s happening. So they see the little nuances in how things don’t look right. Even by political standards it doesn’t look like what Cuomo is doing makes any sense,” she explained.  “I don’t think people are buying what he’s saying.”

“I think that Cuomo is very good at saying ‘Hey, look at what I’m doing right now.’ And then things don’t actually follow through,” Stewart continued. “He doesn't follow through.”

Despite Cuomo’s past broken promises or inability or unwillingness to move elements of a progressive agenda, some on the left do see hope for 2018 and beyond, given the circumstances and clear pressure being put on the governor and IDC members. While Cuomo has pointed to policy failures and the Senate Republicans, he has also been far more boastful about what he has accomplished over the past seven-plus years as governor, including marriage equality, gun control, a significant minimum wage increase, paid family leave, and more. He has also increased his standing with organized labor, key in any Democratic primary in New York.

Stewart said activists in New York “want to fortify something legally that are our deepest-held values. We don’t want them threatened by what’s happening on a federal level.” Perhaps nothing signifies this sentiment more than the fact that Roe v. Wade abortion protections have not been enacted into state law, despite Cuomo calling it a priority.

“We have a harmful person in the White House right now and activism has engaged citizens on a local, state, and national level,” Stewart said. “People are watching. The threat of primary challenges is more present than it was even in 2014. It’s not just for the governor now; it’s for the slate of IDC senators.”

“In the wake of the Trump election,” Leon-Davis of the WFP said, “people are looking in their own backyards to see how to make progressive change and people are paying attention now more than ever to what’s happening and have been dissatisfied with the actions of the IDC and are looking for real Democratic leadership.”

Note: this story has been updated to reflect the WFP endorsement decision.

Molinaro Outlines Initial Ethics and Campaign Finance Reform Agenda

marc molinaro speaking

Marc Molinaro (photo: @marcmolinaro)

When he formally launched his run for governor earlier this month, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro said that “all New Yorkers are paying a corruption tax.” It is a tax, Molinaro explained, that is the result of both legal and illegal malfeasance, of wasteful, ineffective, and corrupt government. In his initial remarks that day, at events in Tivoli and Albany, and during multiple exchanges with journalists, Molinaro has outlined elements of a reform agenda that, he says, will help restore faith in government that has been squandered under Governor Andrew Cuomo.

As Cuomo, a Democrat, seeks a third term this year, his former top aide was recently convicted on multiple federal corruption charges and a trial is set to begin in June that includes charges against a former top state economic development official who Cuomo empowered, as well as Cuomo campaign donors. The charges against members of Cuomo’s inner circle came amid a long-running parade of other ethical and legal violations by members of state government, including dozens of state legislators. Critics across the political spectrum attack the governor for not better cleaning up state government, as he promised to do when running for governor in 2010 and every year since.

Molinaro, a Republican, is positioning himself as an expert in clean, effective government who will be more inclusive and accessible, and will work across the aisle, while in some instances not easily falling into typical issue stances based on party. Notably, Molinaro has indicated an interest in government ethics and campaign finance reforms that have not been popular among many Republicans in state government. There is also limited appetite among many Democrats for additional ethics reforms and some elements of campaign finance reform.

Molinaro has said he wants to lead an overhaul of campaign finance laws, including possible closure of the LLC loophole, which allows virtually unlimited donations from entities that set up multiple limited liability corporations, and indicated he believes that only people should be able to make campaign donations, not companies, unions, or other organizations.

A former member of the state Assembly, Molinaro has said he wants to institute term limits -- there are currently none for statewide officials or members of the state Legislature -- and has pledged to serve no more than two terms if victorious this fall and again in four years. He’s promised to “end four men in a room” decision-making, referring to the secretive closed-door negotiations that take place among the governor and legislative leaders wherein a hodgepodge of compromises are typically worked out twice a year in Albany, followed by legislators voting through major legislation without having read the bills and without any broader public review.

And, Molinaro has said he wants tougher oversight of elected officials and new methods of allowing the public to participate in government. “We must pass tougher ethics law and enforce them by establishing a truly independent oversight ethics commission. We must implement new procurement rules and provide third party auditing.” Along with term limits, he said New York should adopt “initiative and referendum” measures, which allow the public to put items on the ballot. “Together we must redefine democracy in New York,” he said, “and make this government work for the people.”

During an interview before his official campaign launch, Molinaro told Gotham Gazette, “I'd like to engage in a comprehensive reform of campaign finance.” He indicated he wants to look at “limits on contributions, where they can come from, who they can come from, plus you need to look at the reporting requirements and the need for ultimate transparency there. Then what and how campaign dollars can be spent.”

“I m one of the people that only thinks people should be able to contribute money...those are individual rights, those rights extend to individuals.” He added that “unions have a great deal of influence, corporations have a great deal of influence, the state contribution limits are astronomically out of line to other states, independent expenditure opportunities are pretty broad in the state. There are a lot of those reforms that I think should go hand in hand.”

He stopped short of supporting public financing of campaigns, but indicated some openness depending on strict rules for how money can be spent.

During a recent appearance on The Capitol Pressroom with host Susan Arbetter, Molinaro talked about accountability and transparency, and “establishing procurement rules that keep elected officials from sending contracts to political donors.” He energetically attempted to convince a skeptical Arbetter, who said she’s heard these types of promises from candidates, including Cuomo, before. Molinaro criticized Cuomo’s closure of The Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption and said he agreed with watchdogs calling for a “database of deals” to chronicle economic development spending and its effectiveness and renewed contract-review powers to the state Comptroller.

He went on to say that the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, JCOPE, “needs to be independent” and “I would also empower the Committee and Open Government” and its head, Bob Freeman. Saying “I love Bob Freeman,” Molinaro added that “if you don’t have a watchdog to open up the doors of government for taxpayers, then there will continue to be the secrecy that has corrupted and corroded albany.” He said he wants to make Freeman’s non-binding opinions “enforceable.”

Talking with reporters after his launch event in Tivoli, a village where he grew up and was mayor for twelve years, starting at age 19, Molinaro said, “I had great hope, like many people, that when this governor came into office he would sweep in a new day, but what we seen over the course of the past seven years is of course the new normal. With corruption at the highest levels of state government, in fact so high it’s in the office next to his.”

He went on to say that his campaign will include a focus on telling New Yorkers “that they deserve a government that strives to be honest, that works hard to confront the fact that we have a corrosive, invasive culture of corruption that needs to be confronted at all levels, and it starts really by example.”

[Read: In Run for Governor, Marc Molinaro Will Make a Character Argument]

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

After Forcing City to Fund Subway Plan, Cuomo Forecasts Next MTA Budget Battle


(Don Pollard/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)

Following completion of the fiscal year 2019 state budget late last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio was forced into a decision whereby the city will pay half the $836 million MTA Subway Action Plan. De Blasio had for months refused to match the state’s $418 million pledge, put forth immediately by Governor Andrew Cuomo upon MTA Chair Joe Lhota’s release of the plan.

Now, the mayor says, the ball is even more clearly in Cuomo’s court to get the subways running reliably. But just a week after the budget passed, Cuomo said that the Subway Action Plan could move ahead given the city money and that it was time to also start at the long-term plans to improve the subways.

With a modernization plan due soon from the new head of the MTA’s New York City Transit division and another five-year MTA capital plan looming, all signs point to the governor asking the city to yet again allocate additional funds toward the state-controlled MTA. Any funds put forth from city coffers are in addition to the significant portion of MTA revenue that comes from city residents who pay fares and tolls.

But just how much will Cuomo try to get the city to pay? After de Blasio increased the city’s contribution to the current MTA capital plan to record levels last time around, how many billions will the governor ask of the city for the full-scale modernization plan being readied by Andy Byford of NYC Transit?

In an interview on NY1 on April 2, de Blasio insisted the governor must now work with the money he has. “I was willing to put in the money,” he said of the Subway Action Plan funds, which he either had to put up or the state would have taken from city funding. “But let’s be clear: That’s one-time only. Now, the governor’s got everything that he’s asked for. Great. Take responsibility. Fix the subways. There’s no more excuses. There’s no more delays. Just go do it.”

This came before the governor appeared on April 5 at an event hosted by the Association for a Better New York (ABNY). After detailing highlights of the new state budget for the crowd of business and political elite, including the city funding for the Action Plan, Cuomo said that while there are various ways to raise the funds needed for a long-term MTA plan -- such as congestion pricing -- simply asking the city and state to directly allocate funds is the fastest and easiest way of doing so.

“We have to put in a new system, new signals and new cars and make up for the 50, 60 years that we have ignored this system. Where does the money come from? You can either raise fares and tolls and expand congestion pricing -- but that could take three years, if you expedite it,” he said. “Or government is going to have to ante up and put more money in the pot, which is the simplest and cleanest option.”  

Cuomo was looking ahead to the next MTA capital plan, which will include tens of billions of dollars over 2020 through 2024, and be adopted in 2019. Notably, the presentation slide displayed behind him read “NYC must step up,” implying the governor plans to request the city pays additional funds on top of its $2.5 billion committed contribution to the current capital plan, for 2015-2019, which also includes $8.6 billion from the state, much of which comes from the city, and other MTA revenue.

In addition, the flush city has more money to spare than the state, making it a more ideal source of funds than Albany, the governor and Lhota, a Cuomo appointee, have argued, despite the reality of where most MTA funding already comes from. And, they say, the city technically owns the subways.

“I know people don’t like it when I say this, but New York City does own the subway system. They lease it to us and we operate it,” Lhota said at the ABNY event, giving a presentation after Cuomo’s remarks. “The reality is it’s a commitment, they owe it, and they should be paying their fare share when it comes to the capital program.”  

Cuomo also ascribed blame to the city for the MTA’s lack of progress given de Blasio’s initial refusal to fund the emergency subway investment. “The state pledged 50 percent of the funding as soon it was announced by Chairman Lhota last year. The city refused to fund half the plan, we lost eight months before the plan could become fully operational, which was a terrible loss and waste of time,” he said.

Following the ABNY event, Lhota told reporters that if the MTA had had all of the $836 million pledged right away, it could have paid for more workers and repairs, performing its triage to the buckling system more quickly.

Last week’s back and forth is the latest episode in an ongoing dispute between the mayor and the governor over MTA funding. For the governor, if de Blasio would like to see improvements to the beleaguered MTA, the city needs to pay its fare share, which means more than it currently does. Its unwillingness to do so has thwarted progress on improving the subway, Cuomo maintains, and could stand in the way of long-term fixes.

For the mayor, the governor controls the MTA and the city already pays more than it should, and Cuomo is likely to only squander additional funds on initiatives that do not improve subway service. He doesn’t want the governor wasting city money on frills like WiFi and shiny new stations without investing in the subway’s outdated signal systems, for example. De Blasio wants a dedicated MTA funding stream through an added tax on top earners--the millionaires tax-- a call Cuomo has resisted, and has been open to some form of congestion pricing to produce revenue, though the governor only pushed through a first phase in the recently-adopted budget.

“The City of New York committed a record $2.5 billion to the last MTA capital plan, and just last week pledged to help fund a state effort to fix subways the state runs,” said de Blasio spokesperson Eric Phillips in a statement. “Instead of constantly asking New Yorkers for more money, the state and MTA should learn to do their jobs within their budget and finally seek a sustainable revenue source so riders aren’t continually victimized by their blame game.”

And regarding Cuomo’s argument that progress in recent months has been stalled by the city’s reticence to oblige Cuomo’s request for city money, Phillips said the funds would have “gone into the same hole of mismanagement that caused the subway crisis.”

“The Mayor’s advocacy ensured that riders' money couldn’t be diverted and would actually go toward a real plan for their subways rather than station facelifts and light shows,” he continued, of an apparent budget provision clarifying where the money must go. “We wish the Governor were even half as obsessed with fixing his subways as he is with Mayor de Blasio.”

In the debate over funding the Subway Action Plan, de Blasio repeatedly pointed to $456 million he said the state had diverted from MTA funds over the last several years. He said the state should put that money back into the MTA to fully fund the rescue plan.

An MTA spokesperson argued that the city’s criticism misrepresents the facts. “Of the $456M cited by the City, $235M went to pay debt service on MTA bonds, $169M was allocated for direct Capital Aid to the MTA (which freed up MTA operating resources), and $30M went to the MTA in additional operating aid. The final $22M was savings to the MTA by eliminating capital projects dictated by the legislature but paid for anyway in MTA State funding,” said Jon Weinstein, the MTA spokesperson, in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

In response, Jaclyn Rothenberg, a spokesperson for the mayor, said in a statement prior to the adoption of the state budget, “The State can try fudging the numbers all they want,” but to achieve “true progress,” the investment “must coincide with the Governor putting the $456 million the State has previously diverted toward upgrades that get trains moving on time.”

“And he can support a tax on millionaires rather than send his MTA bill to working class riders,” she added, echoing de Blasio’s repeated calls for a millionaire’s tax to fund the subway, a proposal that neither Cuomo nor the Republican-led state Senate has supported, though the Democrat-led Assembly is in favor of it.

While the dispute over the “diverted” funds gets into especially complicated territory of budget buckets and funding streams, there is a clear difference of opinion over whether paying off debt is a wise use of those MTA funds given the immediacy and severity of subway woes.

“Paying off debt with any extra money is certainly unobjectionable, but practically speaking, the MTA has such capital needs, and the federal government’s contribution is so uncertain, that I don’t think that will be a realistic option anytime soon,” Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said in an email on Friday.

Regional Planning Association (RPA) senior fellow Julia Vitullo-Martin said the MTA paying off its debts is a good use of its money. “If you borrow money you have to pay it back, and the MTA has borrowed big: $38 billion. It isn’t really a question of paying off debt versus making repairs. The MTA can pay back now or pay back later,” she said in an email. “But there are good reasons not to defer debt repayment, which has its own set of high costs. And even though investors basically know the MTA will repay the bonds, the combination of huge debt and huge ongoing operating deficits has been making Wall Street uneasy.”

“One result,” she explained, “has been the downgrade in bond ratings.”

On the conflict between the governor and mayor overall, Gelinas casted doubt on the idea the emergency plan was in fact what Cuomo portrayed it to be. “This is not so much a temporary emergency plan, but an open-ended effort for the MTA to do what it should have been doing all along: properly maintain the subways,” Gelinas said. “If it does not have adequate resources to do that, then the state and the city need to work together on a rational cost-control and revenue plan.”

The argument that New York City residents already provide a large portion of the MTA budget has been a favorite of transit experts and local officials as a way of refuting Cuomo’s insistence that the city should pay up. In an August 2017 Gotham Gazette op-ed, for example, former Assemblymember Jim Brennan argued the city already pays the lion’s share of the MTA capital plan, and the mayor should make that better known.

“Even when the State finally comes up with the money, it will likely come from the MTA region, either through some form of congestion pricing or a diversion of some current tax receipts from the region,” he wrote, while also outlining how the next MTA capital plan will need a major influx of funds. “If the Mayor wants the public to understand why the City won’t contribute further funds to the MTA, he needs to clearly explain that the City’s residents and businesses already cover the costs.” 

Richard Barone, RPA’s vice president for transportation, said Cuomo and de Blasio should find common ground wherein the city believes resources are used in a way that meets its interests. “The city is in better fiscal health. The city should probably try to bring some more [funding],” he said. “The state needs to understand what the city’s priorities are as well. And there needs to be some compromise there. It’s been a power struggle and neither side is willing to give.”

Barone cited the state’s emergency action plan as an area where the state would have been wise to seek the city’s consultation and cooperation rather than the MTA crafting it on its own.  

“Do I think the mayor should be willing to spend more on something that’s critical to the functioning of the city? Yes,” he said. “Do I think the state needs to learn the city’s priorities more and give it a seat at the table when it comes to determining the MTA’s priorities? Totally. There needs to be a better dialogue between the two. Right now that’s not the case, unfortunately.”

But according to Gelinas, it is understandable that de Blasio is instinctually reticent to comply with Cuomo’s calls for the city to pay more money to fund his initiatives. “These were deficiencies in the MTA just doing its job,” Gelinas said in an interview on Friday. “There was no exogenous disaster to cause this to happen. This is just the MTA missing obvious things -- that ridership was going up, and they were not able to handle a record number of riders because they were not invested in the system well enough. So I don’t know why this is the city’s job to fix.”

The governor not only appoints the MTA chair, but also a plurality of the agency’s board members, while a handful are mayoral appointees. The recent de Blasio-Cuomo dispute also comes on the heels of reports in The New York Times detailing the sky-high costs for MTA projects as well as rampant waste and corruption at the agency.  

However, since “the city is a creature of the state,” resisting bad spending practices in Albany would prove a difficult task, Gelinas said.

Still, she said, the MTA would be wise to improve its spending practices before asking others for more money. “The MTA needs to look at its costs and what it spends its money on before it starts hitting anybody up for more revenue,” Gelinas said, echoing her calls in a recent City & State op-ed to reduce the high construction costs in the city. “But when it does need more revenue, it should be on a rational, permanent basis, not just, ‘It’s an emergency, we need money. Let’s ask the city for more money. And let’s ask them for more money later.’”

“It’s like If someone is extorting you,” Gelinas explained. “You pay once and they’re going to come back and extort you again.”

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, April 9

New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

This week we’re continuing to digest and analyze both the recently-passed state budget and the recently-announced Democratic unity deal reached among Governor Andrew Cuomo, Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein, and others. According to Klein, he is on the verge of dissolving the IDC and becoming Stewart-Cousins’ deputy.

The unification deal comes after the new budget, which did not include many Democratic priorities, and Cuomo said was added motivation to broker the deal. It also comes just before the April 24 special elections for 11 Assembly and Senate seats, including the crucial Senate District 37 race in Westchester, which Democrats need to win to have a chance to form a 32-seat majority in the chamber before November. Even with wins in that race and the Senate race in the Bronx, which is a virtual lock, Democrats would have 31 seats and need to woo Senator Simcha Felder to their conference. Either way, Cuomo indicated at one point that the true goal is more Democratic victories come November, though he did indicate something different in an email blast through the State Democratic Party, wherein he said that a Westchester victory would give the party a 32-seat majority.

This is Republican Marc Molinaro’s second week as a fully-declared gubernatorial candidate, while Cynthia Nixon continues her campaign, starting Monday night with a birthday fundraiser. They’ll continue their attacks on Governor Cuomo from the right and the left, respectively, but also sounding some similar themes that are less ideological and more about character and ethics.

This week is also a very busy one at the City Council - see below for details on a variety of interesting and important hearings, as well as a full-body Stated Meeting, which is where new bills are introduced and bills that have been passed by committee are voted on by the full Council.

 As always, there are a variety of 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: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.***

The run of the week in detail:

"On Monday, Mayor de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Carranza will visit Pre-K and 3-K classrooms at P.S. 25, The Bilingual School. Immediately after, the Mayor and Chancellor will deliver remarks. This event is open press. There will be no Q-and-A. In the evening, the Mayor will appear live on NY1’s Inside City Hall."

Monday is the first school day since Richard Carranza took over as Chancellor of New York City Public Schools. "Carranza will visit schools and attend events in the Bronx, and meet with students, staff and families. In the morning, he will greet students and families at Concourse Village Elementary School and visit 3-K and pre-K classes...After, he will join 7th graders from PS/MS 279 on a tour of Bronx Community College as part of the College Access for All initiative...In the afternoon, he will join Mayor de Blasio on a visit to PS 25 The Bilingual School and visit 3-K and pre-K classes. He will deliver brief remarks. In the evening, he will throw the first pitch at the James Monroe Campus vs. George Washington Campus PSAL Varsity baseball game, and cheer with families."

Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul has several public events Monday: 8:30 am. she will present awards at the Museum Association of NY's Annual Meeting in Rochester; at 9:30 a.m. she will present highlights of the FY 2019 budget at Monroe Community College, Downtown Campus in Rochester; at 3:30 p.m. she will present highlights of the FY 2019 budget at the The Harvest Room in Queens; at 5:15 p.m. she'll deliver remarks at NY Building Congress new office opening in Manhattan; and at 6:45 p.m. she will keynote a gun safety panel discussion at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan.

At the City Council on Monday:
--The Committees on Women and Public Safety will meet jointly at 10 a.m. for an oversight hearing “examining the NYPD’s response to sex crimes,” as well as to discuss related proposed laws calling for officers to receive “sensitivity training” in responding to sex crimes, to use “evidence based staffing” for the Special Victims Division, for the department to adopt a “modern case management system,” and requiring the department “to provide training on investigating sexual crimes.”
--The Committee on Civil and Human Rights will meet at 2 p.m. to discuss several proposed laws relating to sexual harassment, as well as a resolution calling on Congress to pass and the President to sign the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Harassment Act of 2017.

The New York State Board of Regents will meet on Monday and Tuesday in Albany.

Monday "at 8:00 AM, Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams will hand out flyers to commuters at the Myrtle-Wyckoff Avenues subway station in Bushwick urging eligible Brooklynites to claim the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), kicking off the final week before the tax filing deadline on Tuesday, April 17th. Members of his team will also be reaching out to commuters at a number of highly-trafficked subway stations across the borough, including Broadway Junction in Cypress Hills, Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue in Coney Island, Crown Heights-Utica Avenue in Crown Heights, and Flatbush Avenue-Brooklyn College in Flatbush."

On Monday at 10 a.m. in Times Square, "Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, NYC DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, and Car Free Day partners announce the programming for Car Free Day NYC 2018." Other participants will include "Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer; Iyad Kheirbek, Executive Director, Air Quality Program, NYC DOH&MH; Harriet Taub, Executive Director of Materials for the Arts; Times Square Alliance President Tim Tompkins; Professor Elliott Sclar, Special Research Scholar & Director, Center for Sustainable Urban Development (CSUD) at the Earth Institute, Columbia University; Artists and Representatives from: Union Square Partnership, Garment District Alliance, 34th Street Partnership, Motivate, Terrain Work, Row NY, Citizens Climate Lobby, Hypothekids, GrowNYC, NYU Office of Sustainability, Bike NY, Appalachian Mountain Club, Van Alen Institute, Project for Public Space."

At 10 a.m. Monday in Jackson Heights, "City Council Member Daniel Dromm, "public school teachers, and Jackson Heights families will gather to call upon the NYC Department of Education to inform parents of their right to opt their children out of state exams." Participants include Dromm; Jackson Heights People for Public Schools Leader Organizer Amanda Vender; Class Size Matters Executive Director Leonie Haimson; Representatives from Change the Stakes; Representatives from NYC Opt Out; Jackson Heights parents and students. "New York State English Language Arts (ELA) exams are scheduled to take place in NYC public schools from April 11 to April 12, 2018. The Mathematics exam will be administered from May 1 to May 2, 2018. Last year over 225,000 New York State public school students opted out. Parents chose not to put their children through the pressure of testing because they disagree with policies that reduce education to a few test scores. They are concerned about the detrimental effects excessive testing has had on their children. Parents have the right to have their children opt out of these tests. In 2015, the NYC Council unanimously passed a resolution demanding that the DOE inform parents of their right to opt out. To this day, many have still not been informed of this right."

At 10:30 a.m. Monday, City Council Member Mark Levine, State Senator Brian Benjamin, and Assemblymember Danny O’Donnell, all of whom represent the Upper West Side, will join Transit Center and disability advocates to call for the MTA to prioritize making three Upper West Side subway stations ADA accessible while they’re closed for repair this fall. The event willl be at the Northwest Corner of Frederick Douglass Circle on 110th Street.

At 3 p.m. Monday, Manhattan DA Cy Vance, Department of Health & Mental Hygiene Commissioner Mary Bassett, and others will announce a “major investment in New Yorkers reentering their communities after incarceration” at the Institute for Family Health in Harlem.

At 6 p.m. Monday, U.S. Representatives Yvette Clarke, Hakeem Jeffries, and Nydia Velazquez will host a town hall meeting “focused on organizing and the upcoming 2018 midterm elections.” The town hall will take place at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights.

At the City Council on Tuesday:
--The Committee on Veterans will tour “short-term transitional housing for military veterans” in Long Island City at 1 p.m.
--The Committee on Governmental Affairs will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss establishing a charter revision commission.
--The Committee on Finance will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss appropriations and funding for the Fiscal Year 2019 city budget.
--The Committee on Transportation will meet at 10 a.m. for an oversight hearing regarding the Mayor’s Congestion Action Plan, and to discuss a proposed law relating to “certain sidewalk repairs.”
--The Committee on Housing and Buildings will meet at 1 p.m. to discuss proposed laws relating to “requiring the development of a fair affordable housing plan,” “requiring that city affordable housing plans address historic patterns of racial segregation,” and “an audit of expiring affordable housing units.”
--The Committee on Consumer Affairs and Business Licensing will meet at 1 p.m. to discuss “adding members to the nightlife advisory board.”

At 8 a.m. Tuesday, Crain’s will host First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan for a “Business Breakfast” at the New York Athletic Club. Fuleihan will give remarks and take questions from Erik Engquist of Crain’s and Errol Louis of NY1 to discuss “his priorities in his new position, the next city budget and issues from homelessness to transit funding.”

At 8 a.m. Tuesday, the Albany Times Union’s Capitol Confidential will host Jesse McKinley of the New York Times, Adam Klasfeld of Courthouse News, and Robert Gavin of Times Union for a discussion on the Joe Percoco trial, including analysis of the trial and the precedent it could set for upcoming corruption cases. Times Union’s senior editor Casey Seiler will moderate. The event will take place at the Hearst Media Center in Loudonville, Albany County.

At 9 a.m. Tuesday, the Community Service Society and JobsFirstNYC will host “School & Work: Addressing Barriers in the Young Adult Labor Market” at the CSS’s HQ in Manhattan. City Limits publisher Jarrett Murphy will moderate a panel discussing the challenges faced by young people who are neither in school or working; the panel will consist of Monique Miles of the Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund, Marjorie Parker of JobsFirstNYC, Jen Mishory of the Century Foundation, and Andrea Vaghy Benyola of The Door.

On Tuesday at noon at City Hall, "the PowHerNY Network will be joined by elected officials, union leaders, and advocates on the steps of City Hall for the 12th Annual NYC Equal Pay Day Rally to say #TimesUp!...This rally is part of a multi-pronged campaign to achieving pay parity and economic equity in New York, and around the country. While New York has the smallest overall wage gap, women still only make an average of 89 cents for every dollar that men earn, and women of color continue to experience considerably larger pay disparities. Asian Women earn an average of 82 cents, African-American women earn 66 cents, and Hispanic women earn 56 cents for every dollar paid to full-time working white men. Wage inequality affects women across race, at all levels of the financial spectrum, in all fields, and at all levels of education." Participants will include Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul; Public Advocate Tish James; Jacqui Ebanks, NYC Mayor’s Commissioner on Gender Equity; PowHer New York, Beverly Neufeld; Gloria Middleton, President, Local CWA 1180; Catt Sadler, former E! News anchor; Members of the New York City Council; Child Care and Restaurant Worker Advocates.

At 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, the New York City Board of Elections will hold a commissioners’ meeting.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer will preside over a public hearing regarding the proposed rezoning of Inwood. The hearing will take place at IS 218.

At 7 p.m. Tuesday, lohud will host a “candidate conversation” between the candidates for the special election in the 37th State Senate district at the College of New Rochelle. The candidates in attendance will be Democratic nominee Shelley Mayer and Republican nominee Julie Killian. The election is April 24.

The City Council will hold a stated meeting at City Hall at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday. Council Speaker Corey Johnson is expected to host a pre-stated press conference at 12:30 p.m.

Also at the City Council on Wednesday: the Committee on Finance will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss a resolution “approving the new designation and changes in the designation of certain organizations to receive funding in the Expense Budget.”

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, Riders Alliance and the Community Service Society will hold a rally on the steps of City Hall calling upon the Mayor to fund discounted MetroCards for low-income transit riders.

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, the City Planning Commission will hold a public meeting at 120 Broadway.

At noon Wednesday, members of the Campaign for Children will rally on the steps of City Hall to call upon the city “to create salary parity for early childhood education teachers.”

At 4 p.m. Wednesday, the Civilian Complaint Review Board will hold a public board meeting at 100 Church Street.

At the City Council on Thursday:
--The Committee on Environmental Protection will meet at 1 p.m. for an oversight hearing regarding the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability and the Office of Recovery and Resiliency.
--The Committees on Higher Education and Civil Service & Labor will meet jointly at 1 p.m. for an oversight hearing regarding the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, as well as to discuss two resolutions: the first “calling on the United State Supreme Court to protect public sector collective bargaining in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees” and the second “acknowledging workers’ gains through the American labor movement.”

At 10 a.m. Thursday, the New York City Campaign Finance Board will hold a board meeting at 100 Church Street.

Friday and the weekend
At 8:15 a.m. Friday, the Center for New York City Law will host Taxi and Limousine Commissioner Meera Joshi for a “CityLaw Breakfast” at 185 West Broadway, discussing “What's Changed and What Hasn't in For-Hire Vehicles.”

Mayor de Blasio may make his weekly appearance on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show at 10 a.m. Friday.

At 9 a.m. Saturday, protesters will march nationwide as part of the “March for Science,” demanding policymakers in Washington and elsewhere enact “equitable, evidence-based policies that serve all communities.” In New York City, the march will take place in Washington Square Park.

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: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

by Ben Brachfeld and Ben Max

Nixon Candidacy Spotlights Education Advocacy Group

Cynthia Nixon AQE

Cynthia Nixon, right, with Assemblymember Felix Ortiz in 2014 (photo: Ortiz's office)

When actor and activist Cynthia Nixon held her first news conference as a gubernatorial candidate, at a Pentecostal church in Brownsville, Brooklyn, she was introduced by Zakiyah Ansari, an education activist and longtime ally.

In New York’s advocacy ecosystem, Ansari and her organization, the Alliance for Quality Education, have long held prominence in outspoken fashion. The group, a nonprofit advocacy organization formed in 2001 and historically funded by teachers unions, has long offered itself as a voice for parents and communities of color and, as such, has also been a thorn in the side of successive state and city governments, consistently pushing for more funding in the state budget to meet the needs of underserved schools and fighting against school closures and charter schools.

At its founding, AQE provided Nixon a fitting pathway into activism on a cause close to home for the parent of two children currently attending New York City public schools (her eldest child is now out of city schools). For many years, Nixon participated in AQE advocacy, often as a spokesperson, an ideal role for someone skilled in articulation and experienced in performing in front of crowds, not to mention famous for her acting career. Nixon thus provided AQE her celebrity, emerging as a headlining surrogate for its efforts, cutting ads for the group, appearing at its annual fundraisers and regular rallies in Albany and elsewhere.

That activism has now formed part of the basis for Nixon’s primary challenge to Governor Andrew Cuomo, a two-term Democrat running for reelection this year.

Cynthia Nixon AQE education awardsThe Nixon-AQE relationship not only served as her launching pad into education activism in New York, but also for her first run at elected office, with AQE’s main causes -- and the organization and its leaders -- front and center in Nixon’s nascent campaign. In the first week of her gubernatorial campaign, she appeared at two events with AQE.

Nixon’s association with AQE helps her burnish her credentials with voters of color, a constituency that is crucial for a victory in a Democratic gubernatorial primary and that Nixon, as a wealthy white woman, could struggle to attract. Her first official appearance in Brownsville is a testament to that dynamic. At the event, Ansari, who is black and lives in Brownsville herself, said of Nixon, “I’m standing here to say, as someone who is passionate about educational equity, that this woman has been standing side-by-side with us around that, has lent her voice and her celebrity to make sure that she elevates the voice of black and brown parents, because unfortunately often our voices are not enough to get this press out here…Everybody says, ‘I don’t know who she is.’ Well I do. On education, she has been there, a strong champion.”

In a recent interview, Ansari told Gotham Gazette, “I think it’s a statement...It’s a great start to center yourself in a space historically that has black and brown folks and still has black and brown folks.”

It is no coincidence that AQE is supportive of Nixon’s challenge to Cuomo. The organization and its leaders, especially Ansari, who is the advocacy director, and Executive Director Billy Easton, have been frequent and fervent Cuomo critics for many years.

AQE formed in 2001 with a singular purpose: to push the state to meet its obligation of funding a “sound basic education” for children in public schools, as per the New York State constitution. At the time, the state faced a lawsuit filed in 1993 by the nonprofit group Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which argued that the state’s education funding formula was unconstitutional. The case was eventually settled in 2006, resulting in the creation of “Foundation Aid,” a need-based formula for sending funding to school districts. To meet the standards of the settlement, AQE has argued, the state would have to increase school funding by billions.

“That is still our core mission,” said Easton, in a phone interview, “but over time, parents who...really provide the grassroots leadership for AQE have insisted that we broaden our agenda.”

The group is now a coalition pulling from several grassroots advocacy organizations, which together claim more than 150,000 members. They have offices in six cities across the state, and now regularly advocate for an agenda that includes ending the school-to-prison pipeline, increasing funding for community schools and pre-kindergarten programs, and railing against the expansion of privately-run charter school networks, what Easton calls the “privatization” of public education.

“And it includes the understanding that in order to invest in our children, the state needs to put students first, needs to protect kids not millionaires,” he said. “Because we have a governor who is in the pockets of millionaires and billionaires, or they’re in his campaign pocket, you know one way or the other you want to look at it. He has been carrying their water for many years.”

Indeed, Cuomo has regularly been criticized from the left for embracing the charter school and education reform movement, with its big-money donors often connected to Wall Street. It is a campaign Cuomo waged from the start of his tenure as governor in 2011, but eased off of in recent years due to significant backlash from teachers unions, suburban parents upset by high-stakes testing, and others, like AQE.

While Cuomo has somewhat made peace with the teachers unions he so often battled with, he has continued to back charter schools and has not met the school funding demands put forth by AQE, either in amount or district distribution. AQE therefore continues to take on the governor, and is unsurprisingly providing support to Nixon in her bid to unseat him.

While it's rhetoric is often particularly acerbic, AQE utilizes a typical array of tactics familiar in the advocacy world, including marches and rallies, op-eds, reports and press conferences, as well as political campaign efforts, both in mobilization of members and allies, and financial. The organization rousts its members to lobby state legislators, often at rallies held in the state Capitol and in New York City, at times on the steps of City Hall or Tweed Courthouse, home to the Department of Education, or in front of another government office or a school in the Success Academy charter network, a frequent target and foe. AQE educates parents about the state’s education system, launches social media campaigns, and hold news conferences to consistently push its message. It has found many allies in Democratic elected officials. But AQE doesn’t have especially deep pockets and expends relatively small resources on direct lobbying or in electoral campaigns, at least compared to the teachers unions themselves or the forces of the education reform movement.

Between 2011-2017, AQE spent $417,987 on lobbying efforts. It also directed funds to an independent expenditure committee called the People for Quality Education, which spent just under $86,000 in the 2014 election cycle (most of it on a political consulting firm) and then fizzled away. That same year, a pro-charter school group, Families for Excellent Schools, spent about $9.6 million on lobbying while the state and city teachers unions together spent $4.7 million.

AQE raises funds from members, nonprofit foundations, and prominent unions, particularly the New York City and statewide teachers unions, though that final funding stream has slowed to a trickle of late. Between 2010-2015, AQE raised about $3.7 million, of which $1.2 million was in 2010 alone, and has spent nearly all of it, according to tax records compiled by ProPublica. According to Easton, neither the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) or New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) has given AQE funding over the past two years.

It’s unclear why the teachers unions have pulled back support from AQE, but there are indications that daylight has emerged between the group’s priorities and those of the unions. In a New York Daily News op-ed in February, Ansari and Natasha Capers, coordinator of the Coalition for Educational Justice, an AQE-allied group, criticized the UFT for rejecting a resolution in support of Black Lives Matter in education. “The union's rejection of this resolution - which called for more black teachers in schools, an end to discriminatory discipline policies and more diversity in the curriculum — only impedes the school system's progress towards racial justice,” they wrote.

The teachers unions -- United Federation of Teachers, the New York State United Teacher and the American Federation of Teachers -- did not provide comment for this article despite requests.  

Past AQE fundraisers show the nexus of their ties with the teachers unions, other labor unions, and Democratic lawmakers.

In 2013, for instance, at their annual “Champions of Education” celebration, the group honored then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, UFT President Michael Mulgrew, and Ocynthia Williams, a parent, advocate and founding member of NYC Coalition for Educational Justice, another AQE-allied group. Co-chairs of the event included Cynthia Nixon and her wife, Christine Marinoni -- identified in an event invitation as AQE NYC Director Emeritus -- and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and former UFT president.

Other honorees from recent years include Capers; NYSUT Executive Vice President Andrew Pallotta; Hazel Dukes, president of the NAACP New York State Conference; The Leeds Family; and others, including individuals in philanthropy and advocacy.

Silver, who was later convicted of corruption charges that were then overturned and will be retried this year, was supported by the group for his efforts at pursuing and achieving increased education funding. Silver was also instrumental in securing state funds for universal pre-kindergarten in 2014, celebrated by Mayor Bill de Blasio, among others.

Many prominent Democratic elected officials have appeared alongside AQE, including Public Advocate Letitia James. Both Nixon and Ansari were named to de Blasio's transition team after he won the mayoralty in 2013.

Nixon joined AQE as a volunteer in its incipient years, as a public school parent concerned about the quality of her children’s education, she has said. (She has never been paid by AQE, Easton said, even as she became a prominent, headlining spokesperson for the organization.)

“She was coming with us to Albany when there were no cameras,” said Ansari, who runs the New York City office, “and using her celebrity to help elevate the voices and stories of parents and students that, like myself, have been coming up there for a number of years challenging New York State, to say, ‘When are black and brown kids gonna get their fair share of these dollars?’”

At the 2013 AQE awards, a video shows Nixon addressing the crowd, fired up about AQE’s mission at a time when the organization did not have a friend in the mayor’s office or the governor’s office. “The reason the AQE was founded was initially not to fight budget cutbacks right? It was founded to get CFE implemented,” Nixon said. “And so it is an exciting time to be in New York, to be in the public schools, to be with the AQE and it is a time for us to take our wish list out of the drawer and start going down that list and start going down the bullet points and saying, let’s focus on this one, let’s make this one happen, and then lets make this one happen, and then lets make this one, and this one and this one.”

In the lead up to the passage of the state budget last week, AQE organized a rally in Albany and Nixon, the newly-minted gubernatorial candidate, made an appearance, as she has for years. Showing up at the governor’s doorstep just days after her campaign launch meant the conference was packed with reporters perking up their ears for her next volley of criticism at Cuomo. Though many subsequent reports may have failed to mention AQE by name, and the headlines focused heavily on Nixon’s choice words for the governor, the message of education funding inequity was at part of the conversation and is a pillar of Nixon’s campaign.

“For those of you who don’t know, as Zakiyah said, I have been coming up to Albany for a long time,” Nixon said after being introduced. “I’ve come here with organizers and public school parents and students from across the state to demand public schools in every district get the resources they need regardless of the students’ zip code, regardless of the students’ skin color.”

In what seemed more of a campaign stump speech, Nixon went on to say she had come to Albany “mad as hell” at both Republicans and Democrats in the state Legislature. She criticized everything and everyone from President Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos to Governor Cuomo’s ethical record, the state’s lax campaign finance laws, and the budget negotiation process. “[W]e have gross inequities across the system...Will Governor Cuomo continue to punt on fully funding all of New York’s public schools while children still don’t have adequate resources?,” she wondered.

“Governor Cuomo, when he’s speaking about education funding, he always talks about the average spending per pupil in New York State being the highest of anywhere in the country. But he ignores the reality that...the wealthy white schools spend $30,000 per pupil, or $40,000 or $50,000 or even more. Our hundred wealthiest school districts spend almost $10,000 per pupil and they drive up the average, but our hundred poorest school districts are running a deficit of $10,000 per pupil.”

Three days later, AQE sent out a fundraising email blast titled, “Join Cynthia Nixon and AQE: Fight for Our Schools Right Now!”

nixon ansari aqe“It’s hard for us to get the true message out about the children most impacted by the lack of urgency from the governor and others,” Ansari said, noting that Nixon has lent AQE her voice for well over a decade and that her newfound prominence was also bleeding through. “I would hope that people are paying attention and noticing the people that are telling their stories, that make up AQE, that are the parents and young people that we bring up to Albany all the time, that it’s been 12 years, almost a generation of children have not had access, and I won’t say a generation of children, it’s our most marginalized communities,” Ansari said.

She added, “The goal for us is, and I think has been for her too from the very beginning is, how do I use my celebrity to help elevate the fact that...children have not got access to these dollars in funding and I’m gonna use that to help AQE however I can, and that’s what she’s been doing for 15 years.”

Despite the added attention, the state budget did not meet AQE’s goal of a $4.2 billion increase in school aid, 74 percent of which they say is owed to schools with predominantly black and brown students. In the end, the $168.3 billion state budget included about $1 billion in increased school funding from last year, for a total education budget of $26.7 billion, which Cuomo called “a record” level of funding. AQE called it “entrenching educational racism.”

No changes were made in the budget to how education aid is divvied up to school districts, something even fiscal watchdogs like Citizens Budget Commission have called for, so that state money is going where it is needed most, not to wealthy districts as much as poorer districts. The governor did push through a requirement whereby the state’s biggest school systems will have to report how much funding it is providing to each individual school.

“Governor Cuomo’s policies have caused the spending gap between rich and poor school districts to grow 24 percent to a record setting $9,923 per pupil,” said Jasmine Gripper, AQE’s legislative director, in a statement after the budget passed. “His budget will leave Black, Brown and low-income students in high need school districts further behind.”

Assemblymember Catherine Nolan, a Queens Democrat and chair of the Assembly education committee, praised AQE for moving the needle on education funding. “I’m a big supporter, I think the world of them,” said Nolan, who was an AQE honoree in 2014, in a phone interview. “I think they bring people to Albany and involve people that would never have been involved. They do great grassroots organizing and really if it wasn’t for them I do not believe that even the minimal successes that we’ve had about Campaign for Fiscal Equity compliance and money would have happened.”

AQE’s critics have argued, however, that no matter the increase in funding, it will never be enough for the group. The funding levels they deem appropriate would put a strain on the state’s finances, they say, and they have not enumerated how that funding should be spent.

“Their premise is that there was a quote-unquote settlement in that [CFE] case that the state has not lived up to,” said E.J. McMahon, founder and research director of the Empire Center for Public Policy. “The problem for them is that that’s not true.”

Making a similar point that Cuomo has made, McMahon said AQE’s argument is largely flawed because it insists on the “Foundation Aid” formula -- which provides need-based supplemental funding for local school districts -- put in place in 2006 by then-Governor Eliot Spitzer to meet the state’s CFE funding obligations. McMahon said Spitzer used the CFE decision as a “pretext for proposing an enormous multi-year state school aid increase, which was unsustainable on its face and proved to be even more unsustainable than that once the economy collapsed in the financial crisis.”

School aid, in fact, increased through the recession, McMahon pointed out, because of federal stimulus aid, which ran out by the time Cuomo took office. “And so Cuomo, in his first year and his first year only, cut school aid and ever since then has been increasing it at two-plus times the rate of inflation,” he said.

“They [AQE] kind of exist in a bubble of their own making,” he added. “AQE’s solution is to constantly demand more money and completely ignore the issue that New York spends well beyond the national norm and doesn’t get commensurate results.”

Another top rival of AQE is the charter school sector, backed by wealthy private donors who have been regular contributors to the governor and to legislators friendly to charter schools in the state Senate. Charter school supporters have often targeted AQE as being beholden to its benefactors in the teachers unions, a line of attack that AQE has repeatedly pushed back against, while AQE has decried any shift towards charter funding as a betrayal of the public education system.   

James Merriman, the chief executive officer of the New York City Charter School Center, called AQE a “front group” for the teachers unions, despite conceding that his organization has one same general goal as AQE: more funding for schools. “I’m never sure why the union doesn’t just advocate on behalf of itself,” he said. “Why are they embarrassed for asking for more money? Why do they need a front group for asking for more money?”

Echoing McMahon’s argument, Merriman said the group needs to articulate how any increases in funding would be distributed and utilized, as he said charters are required to do when they seek state funding. “With charter schools, that’s the entire premise,” he said.

“People are not paying attention if they think it’s just about the money,” said Ansari, who is, as she regularly mentions, a public school parent, mother of eight, and grandmother of three. “Money matters. We know it matters. It matters in rich districts, that’s why they’re willing to pay such high taxes. But they also understand that what needs to happen in their schools for their kids, it’s not about testing…they make sure they have tons of sports programs, art and music, they’re experimenting, they go on trips, they have high-quality this, that, and the other, they have libraries with librarians in them. Is that so much to ask for? Why is it that too much to ask for when it comes to black and brown kids, and it’s always time for them to wait? It’s just never the right time.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Pictured above: 1) Cynthia Nixon at an AQE event in 2013 and 2) Nixon at an AQE press conference in Albany after announcing her gubernatorial campaign, with Ansari directly behind her

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