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8 Big Questions About De Blasio's Presidential Bid


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(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography)


Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced his campaign for President of the United States, hoping to win the Democratic nomination and face President Donald Trump in the 2020 general election. De Blasio's decision to run raises many questions. Here are eight big ones.

1. Can he run for president and run the city at the same time?
De Blasio of course says yes, he can run the city and run for president at the same time. First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan will be in charge of the day-to-day in his absence, and he will be in constant touch with his team when he’s traveling, as he says has been the case during his fairly frequent trips outside the city even before announcing a presidential bid.

Asked by WNYC radio’s Brian Lehrer on Friday, de Blasio called it “a very valid question” and said he has “thought about this a lot.”

He continued:

"I’m absolutely convinced that my administration and I can continue to serve this city very, very effectively. This is my sixth year in this job, I know exactly the agenda that I am implementing, it’s very, very developed at this point – pre-K for all now going to be 3-K for all and keeping the city safe, safest big city in America and continuing to get safer as you’ve seen from the recent news and everything we are doing to create and protect affordable housing. That’s all going to go – and I think it is going to intensify as we move forward because we have a great team. We have a very clear vision of where we are going to build up, you know, our city in the right way. And I am confident that I am going to be able to get the job done wherever I am. I’ve traveled before, I stay in touch with all the key folks in my administration constantly. We are going to keep things moving forward in New York City."

He went on to say that the problems facing the city and its people cannot only be solved by city government, and talked about the imperative of denying Trump another term, citing global warming, infrastructure, resiliency, and health care.

But it remains to be seen how much the campaign takes de Blasio out of the city, both physically and mentally. Being on the trail is grueling and requires significant time and energy, including prepping for visits to far-flung places where it’s important to know local issues and leaders. He’ll need to develop real domestic and foreign policy chops if he’s in this for the long haul. There’s also the fundraising time that is surely intensifying now that he’s a declared candidate.

Still, the mayor may ironically be determined enough to show that he can do both that he is in some ways more engaged with running the city than he has been. Many New Yorkers already see him as aloof enough that his presidential bid was met with half-jokes that it won’t make a difference if he’s traveling the country on a more frequent basis.

What’s interesting, though, is that de Blasio -- a leader of many contradictions -- is somehow known as both a micro-manager and disengaged. He’s noted the irony of these dual characterizations himself, pointing out that critics really should choose one -- preferably that he’s a micro-manager, though he doesn’t like the insinuation that he moves on decisions too slowly as a result. Yet, it is actually possible to be both, and he may be pulling it off as he is known to stall review and approval of decisions that members of his administration suggest and to hold few meetings with his agency commissioners, spend little time at City Hall, and focus significant energy on building a national profile, an effort that started during his second year in office.

The city has major crises to deal with (homelessness, crumbling public housing, measles, lack of affordability, hate crimes, failing schools, congested streets) and de Blasio has controversial plans that he must convince New Yorkers to support (NYCHA infill, homeless shelter openings, neighborhood rezonings), not to mention the day-to-day of running effective, efficient city services.

How will de Blasio, and his constituents, handle it when there’s an emergency and he’s out of town?

2. Can he raise money? And from whom?
De Blasio, the 23rd Democrat in the race, is getting a somewhat late start to the presidential campaign. Though no votes will be cast until February of next year, he has to ramp up fairly quickly to have a real shot at making waves, and this of course includes raising money.

He just opened his federal campaign account. Who is donating? Most likely he’ll get several thousand small donations from long-time supporters, New Yorkers who have backed him for years and believe he’s doing a good job as mayor (though de Blasio’s approval ratings are not strong, there’s still plenty of New Yorkers who believe in him, and even if many don’t think he should run for president, they may be willing to give him a few bucks to get it out of his system).

But the larger money, up to the $2,750 cap on individual donations to a presidential candidate, may likely come from the same types of folks -- individuals with or seeking favorable action from de Blasio’s city administration -- that have given to his other fundraising entities and landed him in some hot water, including several law enforcement investigations.

De Blasio has repeatedly declined to make his early fundraising numbers public, saying he doesn’t plan to release them until the first mandated filing, in July, which is indicative of a slow start. He needs 65,000 individual contributions (in combination with the 1% in three different qualifying polls that he has already received) to have a good shot at making the first Democratic primary debate in late June, for which there are 20 slots over the course of two nights.

That might be a tough haul.

Can de Blasio raise enough money to run even a skeletal campaign for a few months, build some momentum while not crossing ethical lines, and start to pick up financial support from voters across the country? Time will tell.

3. Does he have a “lane”?
With 22 other candidates in the field, it would seem virtually every “lane” is already filled with a Democratic presidential candidate of a certain combination of experience, political philosophy, and demography. But, de Blasio believes he has a lane as the candidate with the right mix of progressive vision, executive experience, toughness to take on Trump, and crossover appeal.

Even with Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren seemingly dominating the far left of the primary and its political territory, de Blasio thinks he can make inroads as someone who isn’t just talking about progressive ideas for “working people,” but has actually implemented a suite of those goals, from an expansion of early childhood education to benefits for workers like paid sick leave.

He’ll have a variety of similar talking points to Sanders and Warren, it seems, straight from his main campaign line that “there’s plenty of money in the country, it’s just in the wrong hands.”

Like others in the race, de Blasio is targeting the Obama coalition of white progressives and people of color, which actually happens to be the de Blasio coalition. But, he also seems intent on wooing white moderates, perhaps including some who voted for Trump or didn’t feel motivated to vote for Hillary Clinton.

Can de Blasio break Joe Biden’s grip on many of the Obama coalition voters, especially voters of color? And how strong is that grip anyway? But what about Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, the two black candidates in the race, not to mention the appeal that Warren and perhaps others may have simply based on their platform, personality, or both?

Asked about support among black voters, which is de Blasio’s strongest demographic group in New York City, he told WNYC’s Lehrer, “Look, one thing I’m proud of is I’ve always been able to build a very broad coalition. You know when I won in 2013 I ran against a very diverse field in the primary. There was obviously a woman candidate, a candidate from the LGBT community, an African-American candidate. I ended up winning all of those demographics in that primary.”

Pushed a little further, with Lehrer naming Harris and Booker, de Blasio said, “I’m not here to compare against my fellow candidates,” but that he’d “make a broader point – I have proven for people of all backgrounds that you can have a government that puts money back in the hands of working people.”

He said all communities across the city appreciate what he’s done, a claim that is not supported by polling data.

“But I’ll tell you something,” he added, “I think for African-American voters and all voters, they are not looking first at demographics, they are looking at who can produce for them and their families. And I have a track record of actually achieving progressive outcomes that help working people that I’ll put up against any candidate.”

4. What’s he running on?
First and foremost, de Blasio is running on his record of five-plus years as mayor of New York City, which he will, it seems, parlay into a policy vision for the country. He’s running on the fact that he is the “CEO” of the biggest city in the United States, with a larger population than most states and a bigger budget than all states but two (New York and California).

“Every goal we have is about fighting income inequality and helping working people secure an economic future they can believe in,” de Blasio wrote in a fundraising email this week, reminding supporters of his core 2013 campaign message. De Blasio has shied away from talking about the fight against “income inequality” in recent years, likely as an acknowledgement that without the power to alter most tax rates, he has not really been able to make a serious dent in the relevant numbers. Instead, he mostly talks about “opportunity” and “equity” and “fairness,” with a second term goal of making New York “the fairest big city in the country,” something he hasn’t really explained how to measure.

“I’m running because I’ve made big, substantial, progressive changes,” de Blasio told MSNBC host David Gura on Sunday morning from South Carolina, “pre-K for all, paid sick days, guaranteed health care for all New Yorkers, including mental health services. We’re now working this year to get done legislation that will be guaranteeing two weeks paid time off for every working person. These are fundamental changes that working Americans deserve. And the difference is there’s a lot of great candidates...but I’m talking about things that have actually been done, that I’ve achieved.”

So far, de Blasio has only really talked about his achievements in New York, with no early announcements about his policy plans for a de Blasio presidency, though he has seemed to indicate that he wants to extend several New York City initiatives, like pre-K, across the country.

“I am going to come out with position papers over time,” de Blasio told WNYC’s Lehrer on Friday, when Lehrer pressed him on if he had a federal affordable housing policy. “I’m giving you a flavor of what I’m thinking, and you’ll understand it’s going to take a little time to formulate the formal proposals. But I actually think a lot of what we have done has a lot of application elsewhere and for federal policy.”

Seemingly spitballing a bit, with reference to New York City and State policies, de Blasio had mentioned a few possible planks, saying, “we could use a national policy to help encourage the right kind of rent regulation...How do you get policies at the federal level that encourage things like stopping illegal eviction? I think it can be done, because we’ve seen it work in New York City. And clearly passing laws either locally or there’s some kind of national legislation to require the creation of affordable housing when developers are allowed to build, you know, in a bigger way than was previously allowed. That’s something I think is really good model that could be used anywhere.”

If de Blasio’s running on his record as a CEO, how much will his failures as mayor, both programmatically and ethically, hurt him? Will his campaign finance scandals travel? Will voters care that he has struggled greatly with reducing homelessness and that the public housing authority he oversees is not only falling apart, but has been home to a lead paint scandal? Though he's spearheaded progress in many areas, the mayor hasn't nearly been able to solve a variety of major challenges facing New York, leading some to wonder why he thinks he's ready to lead the country.

5. What’s his game plan?
De Blasio actually has the potential to perform above what are now very low expectations in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, where, respectively, he has worked on the caucuses before (Edwards 2008); his wife, Chirlane McCray has roots and he knows a bit as a Massachusetts native himself; and he could appeal to some of the core black voters.

However, it is hard at this point to see many voters in the early states shunning the top tier of candidates that includes Biden, Sanders, Warren, Harris, and, at least for now, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. There’s also Booker and Beto O’Rourke, and then others who would not at this point be considered in or near the top tier, though there’s a lot of time between now and the February Iowa caucuses.

It’s clear that de Blasio has decided attacking Trump, including by repeatedly using the nickname “Con Don” (because Trump is “a con artist”), is an important strategy for getting media and popular attention as well as early campaign donations, all seemingly helped by Trump’s must-punch-back mentality.

De Blasio is already using Trump’s taunts as alleged evidence that Trump sees him as a threat, which is of course a stretch, and as a fundraising tool. He does risk turning off some voters by eagerly mucking it up with Trump and coming across as less-than-presidential.

But the key for de Blasio now is attention and momentum. He'll want to make enough progress, slowly but steadily, that he starts to really register in polling, gets more media buzz, and catches a few people in the polls to consistenly make it into "the conversation," part of the second tier, let's say. There's a long way to go.

As de Blasio assesses the field, one important question he’s already beginning to face is how aggressive he’ll be not only with Trump but with his fellow Democrats, especially those who appear toward the top of the polls. Will he attack Biden as a centrist whose time has passed? Will he say Sanders and Warren haven’t really accomplished anything?

One factor that could come into play here is if de Blasio has secondary goals in mind, short of winning the Democratic nomination and becoming president. Does he want to be the next Democratic National Committee chair? Does he want a cabinet post in the administration of the Democrat who is able to knock off Trump, if the nominee can do so?

6. How’s Andrew Cuomo going to handle this?
Unless he’s excited to potentially watch de Blasio crash and burn as a presidential candidate, Governor Andrew Cuomo can’t be too happy seeing de Blasio pursue this campaign and all the attention, even if much of it is negative, that comes with it.

It will be interesting to see how Cuomo might make de Blasio pay for taking the leap that in some ways Cuomo surely wishes he was taking and for the mayor’s absences from the city. Cuomo, who has expressed full-throated support for Biden and may be interested in a position in a potential Biden administration, has rarely passed up an opportunity to leverage a de Blasio weakness into his own gain in what is, as Cuomo sees it, the zero sum game of politics.

On Thursday, the day de Blasio announced his campaign, Cuomo added two events to his public schedule, competing with de Blasio's first press conference as a presidential candidate. Cuomo declined to take reporters' questions, though, providing no public reaction to date to de Blasio's decision to run.

7. Who else will fill the city power vacuum?
The 2021 mayoral race is already underway, with the only known likely candidates -- Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., Comptroller Scott Stringer, and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, all Democrats -- each taking steps to prepare for a run, including their positioning relative to de Blasio, who is term-limited from running for mayor again.

As the mayor is absent more from the city, it will be worth watching how each of the four, and perhaps others eyeing a mayoral run or just looking to take some of the mayor’s unused political capital, responds. The likely 2021 candidates would be ramping up anyway, but de Blasio’s presidential campaign offers more opportunity for them to snatch headlines and appear more engaged with the city they hope to lead and de Blasio appears bored with.

To an extent, Johnson is initially in the driver’s seat given he is currently negotiating the city budget, due by July 1, with de Blasio. The City Council may be able to extract additional concessions from de Blasio who will not want conflict at home as he talks up voters across the country. And, virtually anything the mayor may agree to from Council demands will only create additional talking points he can use on the campaign trail.

8. What will this do to his legacy?
In terms of the potential downside of a presidential run for de Blasio, perhaps the most glaring questions are: One, how might this hurt the city he was elected to lead and claims to love? And two, what might this campaign do to his long-term legacy as New York’s 109th mayor?

On the latter, de Blasio is already slogging through year six of his mayoralty with low but not disastrous approval numbers and a too-strong sense among many New Yorkers that he doesn’t work that hard at his job or care enough about leading the city. This presidential run may only cement that image for many New Yorkers and push others into that category of skeptics, critics, and naysayers. De Blasio appears to fail to realize that he has a chance to push things in the other direction by putting his head down and executing, something he should have done in his first term, and if he had, perhaps more New Yorkers would look at him here in term two and think of him as presidential material, ready to step outside the five boroughs and lead.

But when de Blasio is remembered years from now, will the first thing people say be that he ran a ridiculous campaign for president that went nowhere but angered many New Yorkers, further undermining his accomplishments?

Will he be remembered as a mayor who had incredible luck in terms of a booming economy, the ability to spend billions on his priorities, and low crime, but was always so focused on growing a national profile, including a misguided presidential campaign, that he never came close to realizing his full potential as leader of the greatest city in the world?

Then again, it's unlikely, but he could win.

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Mayor/Presidential Candidate, MTA Board Meets, State Sexual Harassment Hearing, & More: The Week Ahead in New York Politics, May 20


New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

Mayor Bill de Blasio is back after his first weekend on the campaign trail as a candidate for president. The mayor was in early caucus/primary states Iowa and South Carolina over the weekend. On Monday he’ll be in Connecticut for his son Dante’s graduation from Yale, then back to the city and his weekly appearance on NY1 in the evening.

It will be interesting to see if de Blasio has any public campaign events during the week this week, or if he saves that for next weekend. There’s a chance New Yorkers will see a somewhat more active and engaged mayor during the time de Blasio is in the city as he runs for president, he seems set on trying to prove he can both campaign and govern well at the same time. Ironically, this could lead to the mayor showing New Yorkers’ a less aloof version of himself than his reputation affords.

One of many matters of importance happening in New York City, along with the day-to-day of city life and governance, as de Blasio begins his presidential campaign, is that NYPD administrative trial of Officer Daniel Pantaleo, whose chokehold led to the 2014 death of Eric Garner on Staten Island. The trial began this past week and continues this coming week. De Blasio has been criticized for not firing Pantaleo immediately after Garner’s death, which occurred as Pantaleo and other officers were attempting to arrest him for allegedly selling loose cigarettes.

It’s also budget season in the city and the City Council will continue its hearings this week on the mayor’s $92.5 billion expense budget plan for next fiscal year. A budget agreement between the two sides is due by the July 1 start of the new fiscal year.

And state legislative session in Albany is in full swing and nearing its final days. This week the Legislature is in session three days, which will leave just 13 more on the calendar until its scheduled June 19 end. Many issues are being pushed and debated, both within each legislative house, between the two majorities, and with Governor Cuomo’s office. The top issues include rent regulations and marijuana legalization, but there are a host of others.

There’s an MTA Board meeting this week and a whole lot more -- 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:

Monday
The New York State Legislature is in session on Monday in Albany.

Mayor Bill de Blasio will be in Connecticut for his son Dante’s college graduation on Monday, then he’ll make his weekly appearance on NY1’s Inside City Hall in the 7 and 11 p.m. hours.

At 11 a.m. Monday, Governor Cuomo will make an announcement on Lake Ontario flooding.

At 10:30 a.m. Monday, "Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul Addresses Middle and High School Students at New York Sun Works Youth Conference" in Manhattan. At 12:30 p.m., "Hochul Delivers Remarks at Foreign Policy Association Luncheon with Quebec Premier Francois Legault" in Manhattan. And at 2 p.m., "Hochul Highlights $175 Million Workforce Development Investment During Tour of State Supported Program" at Per Scholas Inc. in Brooklyn.

At 11 a.m. Monday, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson will host a press conference with other City Council members and Jewish leaders on the “alarming rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes” in the city, at The United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn.

At 10 a.m. Monday, the Assembly Standing Committee on Banks and the Assembly Standing Committee on Local Governments will hold a joint hearing to determine the impact of allowing credit unions to take State and municipal deposits. The committees will hear oral testimony by invitation only.

The following City Council committees will hold executive budget hearings on Monday:
--Education at 10 a.m., regarding the Department of Education and School Construction Authority.
--Economic Development at 2 p.m., regarding the Economic Development Corporation.

The NYPD administrative trial of Officer Daniel Pantaleo, whose chokehold led to the 2014 death of Eric Garner on Staten Island, will continue on Monday morning.

Monday is this month’s MTA Board committee meetings.

On Monday at 5:30 p.m. at Queens Borough Hall, Borough President Melinda Katz will chair the monthly meeting of the Queens Borough Board.

Tuesday
The New York State Legislature is in session on Tuesday in Albany.

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics will meet Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. in Albany.

At 7:30 a.m. Tuesday, Comptroller Stringer will appear on “Good Day New York” on FOX5. At 5:30 p.m., Stringer will deliver remarks "at Planned Parenthood of New York City Stop the Bans Rally" in Foley Square.

At 9 a.m. Tuesday, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli will give remarks at the Police Conference of New York Convention in Lake Placid.

At 9:30 a.m. Tuesday outside City Hall, "Elected officials, advocates and the city’s three library systems will gather on the steps of City Hall on Tuesday before the budget hearing to urge the City to reconsider proposed cuts this year to libraries, and warn of potential loss of weekend service & smaller collections should funding be reduced. Library leaders and advocates will also decry the lack of inclusion of the city’s libraries in the ten-year capital plan. The three library systems are asking for $150 million to compensate for the lack of inclusion in the plan, and to help with ongoing maintenance of branches across the city that are in need of new roofs, boilers, air conditioners and more." Participants will include the presidents of the three city library systems: Tony Marx (New York Public Library), Dennis Walcott (Queens Public Library), Linda Johnson (Brooklyn Public Library) and City Council Members Jimmy Van Bramer, Carlos Menchaca, Alan Maisel, and Brad Lander.

At 10 a.m. Tuesday the City Council Committee on Veterans will hold a hearing on a bill in relation to making public the mayor's office of operations' report on veterans receiving certain city services. Also on the agenda are 2 resolutions related to naming a hospital in Manhattan after American Revolutionary War heroine Margaret Corbin, and recognizing the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

The following City Council committees will hold executive budget hearings on Tuesday:
--Cultural Affairs, Libraries & International Intergroup Relations at 10 a.m., regarding Libraries and by Department of Cultural Affairs.
--Sanitation & Solid Waste Management at 1 p.m., regarding the Department of Sanitation.
--Transportation at 3 p.m., regarding the Metropolitan Transportation Authority

On Tuesday at 10 a.m. at the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building in Harlem, there will be a rally held by the Fair Futures campaign, which is aimed at improving services for foster youth.

At 11 a.m. Tuesday in Brooklyn, "Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez and Department of Investigation Commissioner Margaret Garnett will announce the results of a long-term investigation."

At noon Tuesday in Albany, bill sponsors Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal and Senator Jessica Ramos, other legislators, the SWEAT Coalition, and people victimized by wage theft will rally to support: “SWEAT legislation (A0486/S2844) will level the playing field for law abiding businesses, and will increase revenue for New York State by hundreds of millions of dollars.”

At 1 p.m. Tuesday in Albany, Assemblymember Aravella Simotas and other legislators, including Senators Alessandra Biaggi and Jessica Ramos, and advocates will hold a press conference “to discuss legislation to expand protections for employees experiencing harassment and discrimination” specifically “bill A7083A, a bill that would enact comprehensive reforms including eliminating the “severe or pervasive” standard and the Faragher/Ellerth defense.” Those participating will include representatives of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, National Employment Lawyers Association, National Women’s Law Center, A Better Balance, and Girls for Gender Equity.

The Sexual Harassment Working Group is pushing “a 10-bill agenda for passage this legislative session; includes ending the "severe or pervasive" standard and amending the state constitution.” Tuesday’s press conference comes ahead of a Friday hearing on sexual harassment that the state Legislature will hold in Manhattan (see below).

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, in Foley Square in Manhattan, "Mayor de Blasio will deliver remarks at the Planned Parenthood NYC Rally to Stop The Bans."

At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, "Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. will host the borough’s annual Dominican Heritage Celebration, in partnership with the Dominican Day Parade, at The Bronx County Building’s Veterans’ Memorial Hall. The event will honor the 2019 Dominican Day Parade leadership and will present a special “Adopted Dominican Award” to Gus Tyras."

Tuesday evening in Albany is the annual Legislative Correspondents’ Association Show.

Wednesday
The New York State Legislature is in session on Wednesday in Albany.

Wednesday beginning at 9 a.m. is this month’s MTA Board meeting.

Wednesday is “Bike to Work Day” in the city, with a variety of efforts to encourage biking and many groups and elected officials organizing and participating in group biking. That list includes Transportation Alternatives, StreetsPAC, the City Council’s Progressive Caucus, and others.

From 1 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, the Senate Standing Committee on Housing, Construction and Community Development will hold a hearing on rent regulation and tenant protection legislation.

The following City Council committees will hold executive budget hearings on Wednesday:
--General Welfare from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., regarding Human Resources Administration and Homeless Services.
--General Welfare, and Justice System from 12:15 to 1 p.m., regarding the Office of Civil Justice.
--General Welfare, and Juvenile Justice from 1 to 2 p.m., regarding Administration for Children’s Services
--Parks and Recreation, and the Finance Subcommittee on Capital Budget at 2:30 p.m., regarding Parks and Recreation

At 1 p.m. Wednesday, the City Council Committee on Justice System, jointly with the Committees on Finance and General Welfare will hold an oversight hearing regarding preparation for the Implementation of Bail, Speedy Trial, and Discovery Reform.

At 5 p.m. Wednesday, this week’s Max & Murphy show will air on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org. This week’s show will focus on climate change and the city’s efforts to de-carbonize, fight global warming, and prepare for future extreme weather. Mayor de Blasio’s lead climate advisor, Dan Zarrilli, will be a guest.

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, Citizens Union will host its annual Spring for Reform event. This year’s, titled “Can we count on you?,” is Citizens Union’s “look at the 2020 Census,” and will include remarks by city Census Director Julie Menin, City Council Member Carlos Menchaca, who co-chairs the Council’s Census Task Force, and Melva Miller, who is leading Census efforts for the Association for a Better New York. NY1’s Pat Kiernan will moderate the discussion. Citizens Union Executive Director Betsy Gotbaum will speak at the event as well.

Thursday
Beginning at 9 a.m. Thursday, City & State will host its 2019 Digital New York Summit, which will include a variety of speakers and panel discussions “on the innovative ideas being used to improve the delivery of services to both citizens and government agencies.” Discussions will include “How New York Can Remain a Global Leader in Tech,” “Data Security in New York: Where We Stand,” “Transportation and Smart Cities Technology,” and “How Technology is Transforming Daily Life for All New Yorkers.”

At 9:30 a.m. Thursday, the Senate Standing Committee on Investigations and Government Operations and Senate Standing Committee on Housing, Construction and Community Development will hold a joint hearing to examine how code enforcement across New York State can be enhanced or assisted.

From 2:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday, the Senate Standing Committee on Housing, Construction and Community Development will hold a hearing on rent regulation and tenant protection legislation.

The City Council will hold its final executive budget hearing on Thursday, with testimony from the Department of Finance, Comptroller Scott Stringer, the Independent Budget Office, and the Office of Management and Budget.

On Thursday at 5 p.m., Comptroller Tom DiNapoli will speak at John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s MPA Program, Security Management, Emergency Protection Hooding Ceremony.

At 6 p.m. Thursday in Manhattan, a panel discussion hosted by City Limits: "Mapping the Future: Can a comprehensive plan work?" It will be moderated by City Limits' Executive Editor Jarrett Murphy and include City Council Member Brad Lander; Emily Goldstein, Director of Organizing and Advocacy at the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development; Sandra Lobo, Executive Director of Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition; Stephen Smith, Member of Open New York; and Zachary Bernstein, Member of the Real Estate Board of New York's Zoning Committee.

Friday
At 10 a.m. Friday, the Senate Standing Committee on Investigations and Government Operations, the Senate Standing Committee on Ethics and Internal Governance, the Senate Standing Committee on Women's Issues, the Assembly Standing Committee on Governmental Operations, the Assembly Standing Committee on Labor, and the Task Force on Women's Issues will hold a joint hearing on sexual harassment in the workplace.

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

On Friday at 10 a.m. at Bronx Borough Hall, there will be a rally held by the Fair Futures campaign, which is aimed at improving services for foster youth.

***
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
@GothamGazette

10 Things to Know About Presidential Candidate Bill De Blasio's Policy Record


mayor bdb chirlane

De Blasio & McCray on ABC (photo: Good Morning America)


Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday officially launched his campaign for president, declaring a progressive vision that would put “working people first” while taking on President Donald Trump’s policies that have benefited corporations and the wealthy.

“There's plenty of money in this world. There's plenty of money in this country -- it's just in the wrong hands," de Blasio said in a video announcing the launch of his campaign. The Democrat, joining a primary field of 22 other candidates, is pitching himself as the progressive leader and chief executive of the largest city in the United States. But now in his second term, having been in office for five-and-a-half years, the mayor’s record has been far from ideal.

Though he can definitively boast of several accomplishments that have improved the lot of working New Yorkers, his administration has fallen behind on many fronts. Crime may be down and the economy on a solid foundation, but the city remains unaffordable for many and the mayor has failed to control major crises in public housing and homelessness that have lingered from previous administrations.   

[De Blasio Launches Underdog Campaign for the Presidency with Pitch as Progressive Executive and Mixed Record]

As he explored a presidential bid, visiting four early primary states, and in declaring his candidacy, de Blasio pledged that he could effectively run the city while also campaigning for president, a tall order for anyone, much less a mayor who has had both his focus and management chops repeatedly questioned.

After making two campaign appearances in New York City on Thursday, de Blasio set off for Iowa and South Carolina, where he will begin making the pitch that his blend of experience and vision is the right one for the country. Here are 10 things voters should know about the mayor’s record as he campaigns on it:

1. Early Childhood Education
One of the mayor’s earliest and biggest accomplishments was a push to implement free full-day universal pre-kindergarten. Though he initially called for a millionaire’s tax to fund it -- setting off an ongoing feud with Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is backing former Vice President Joe Biden in the presidential primary -- the state stepped in to provide much of the budget for it without the surcharge on high earners de Blasio asked for.

Now, roughly 70,000 children are enrolled in the program each year, compared with 19,000 in 2014. The program has also been a financial boost to parents, who have saved thousands of dollars on childcare and had more time to work or pursue their other goals.

In 2017, the mayor announced that the city would expand public school to all three-year-olds by 2022. The program has been rolled out more slowly by design -- 20,000 children will be enrolled by this fall -- and is expected to be implemented in 14 of 32 school districts by September 2020.

While de Blasio’s early childhood education agenda formed his top 2013 campaign promise and has been a rousing success overall, forming one key plank of his presidential bid, it has not been without challenges: teachers from community-based organizations where most children attend UPK make significantly less in pay than their counterparts at Department of Education schools, the source of tension, protests, and a near-strike.

2. Jobs and The Economy
De Blasio’s administration has benefitted from the longest economic expansion in the country since World War II, and jobs have continued to grow and diversify. As of March 2019, there were just over 4 million private sector jobs in the city, with the unemployment rate at about 4.3%, down from 8% when de Blasio took office.

De Blasio has not had signature programs that appear to have directly contributed to that job growth, but crime in the city has continued to drop under his watch, which many say is essential to economic growth, and de Blasio has put a variety of other programs in place, such as pre-K, that he argues help create a hospitable overall climate.

3. Fiscal Management
The mayor’s most recent budget proposal includes a $92.5 billion spending plan for the fiscal year set to begin July 1, an increase of about $20 billion from the last budget that was modified under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The spending stems largely from a massive uptick in hiring -- the city workforce has increased from about 297,000 to about 332,000.

Budget watchdogs have questioned the speed of budget and personnel growth under de Blasio, cautioning that the city may not be prepared for an inevitable recession and calling on the mayor to find more efficiencies rather than spend so much of the tax revenue available given the economic boom times.

While city reserves are high -- about $5.72 billion each year -- they are below optimal levels. Despite praise from monitors and ratings agencies about the city’s fiscal management, budget watchdogs including City Comptroller Scott Stringer have repeatedly urged the mayor to invest more in rainy day funds and to find more savings through tighter agency management.

[Read: De Blasio's Budget Savings Plan Contains Few Real Efficiencies, Experts Say]

4. Poverty and Inequality
The mayor has touted his vision of, first, ending the “tale of two cities,” then, of making New York City the “fairest big city in America,” aiming to bring 800,000 New Yorkers out of poverty or near poverty. But progress on that front has been slow, despite a major focus on equity. New York City’s poverty rate in 2016 (the most recent data available) was 19.5 percent, down from 20.6 percent in 2013.

The near poverty rate (which measures those under 150 percent of the poverty rate) fell to 43.5 percent in 2016, from 45.9 percent in 2013. It should be noted that these numbers reflect the fact that New York City uses its own poverty metric which takes into account cost of living for a more accurate representation of city life. The federal poverty measure tends to be a few points lower.

De Blasio has championed various policies to fight poverty and reduce income inequality, only some of which have moved, given powers that reside at the state and federal levels. His pivot from income inequality to fairness was a telling one, given he has more effective control over running a fair city than he does on incomes.

5. Housing Affordability
In 2014, de Blasio launched an ambitious plan to create and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing across the city in ten years. The mayor announced an expansion of the plan in November 2017, with a new target of 300,000 affordable homes by 2026. 

The city says the plan is ahead of schedule. To date, 123,466 “affordable” units have been preserved and created -- including 39,949 units of new construction and 83,497 preserved through subsidies and other forms of financing.

But the administration continues to face criticism for failing to create enough deeply affordable housing while pursuing several neighborhood rezonings in low-income communities that residents say has exacerbated gentrification and displacement pressures.

The plan also has not created enough units dedicated to the homeless or seniors, critics have said. In total, 10,261 units have been set aside for homeless New Yorkers and 7,677 for seniors.

De Blasio has repeatedly argued that he believes in a more stratified housing plan that creates units with rent caps for middle-class New Yorkers, not only those in the lower fifth of the socioeconomic scale. The mayor has been criticized for his coziness with real estate developers and unwillingness to push for more housing density in wealthier, whiter communities.

6. Homelessness
The number of homeless New Yorkers has grown significantly under de Blasio, who was slow to implement more aggressive measures to stem the crisis he inherited. But, the trend has stabilized more recently, and the shelter population is even down several thousand from its all-time high.

Just breaking the trajectory has required billions of dollars in additional spending that critics say has not shown the requisite results and has been too wasteful. In March, there were 63,029 individuals in homeless shelters, according to the city’s Department of Homeless Services, compared with 53,173 in December 2013. On Tuesday, according to the DHS daily shelter census, there were 58,673 individuals in shelters.

7. Public Housing
The New York City Housing Authority, with 326 public housing developments across the city, is home to more than 400,000 New Yorkers, and has been perhaps the most challenging aspect of the mayor’s tenure. The authority has an estimated $32 billion in physical needs for maintenance and repair and has received little in federal or state funds.

Like on homelessness, de Blasio came into office pledging major improvements for NYCHA residents and devoted significant resources to the crisis. But, his attention was nowhere near the scale required, and episodes of scandal have plagued efforts to make progress, though there are signs of improvement.

Under de Blasio, the housing authority’s operating costs have been brought under control but capital needs remain an issue. Late last year, the mayor announced new measures that are expected to cover up to $24 billion in repairs over ten years, if he is assertive enough in pushing ahead with the plans therein that call for building new, private housing (some of it affordable, some market-rate) on underutilized NYCHA land, revenue from which is to go toward the housing authority.

But routine repairs and maintenance aside, the authority and the mayor have faced years of bad headlines for failure to mitigate lead exposure in NYCHA apartments. Attempts by NYCHA leadership to falsify lead inspection reports led to an investigation by federal prosecutors and eventually a lawsuit that was settled last year. Currently, the city is in negotiation with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has named a monitor to oversee NYCHA efforts, to appoint a new CEO, though the parties have already missed deadlines to do so.

8. Crime
De Blasio has had a successful overall record on keeping the city safe, with crime rates dropping to historic lows year after year. Major index crimes (a category that includes murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny and grand larceny of a vehicle) fell to 95,883 in 2018, down from 111,335 in 2013.

De Blasio has credited this drop to a new policing paradigm focused on neighborhood beats and precision policing, with targeted takedown of gangs and increased enforcement at hotspots around the city. Of note, however, are the facts that major felony crimes have been dropping for decades in the city and across the country and that rape reports have increased significantly in recent years, perhaps owing to a changed culture with regard to reporting sexual violence. De Blasio and the NYPD have been criticized for mismanagement of the department’s special victims division, which has recently undergone significant changes.

The mayor frequently highlights the fact that while major crimes are down, arrests have also dropped precipitously, owing in no small part to criminal justice reforms passed by the New York City Council which were initially opposed by the NYPD and the mayor. There were 205,556 arrests for all felonies and misdemeanors in 2018, down from 313,513 in 2013.

Still, de Blasio has faced criticism about his support for so-called Broken Windows policing and for racial disparities in arrest and summons data, not to mention broken promises around police accountability.

9. Police Reform and Accountability
De Blasio rode into power promising to overhaul the NYPD and provide true accountability for abuses of power by officers. In particular, he railed against the controversial practice of stop-and-frisk policing, which disproportionately targeted people of color, mostly young men, and that a judge ruled had been used in an unconstitutional manner under Mayor Bloomberg.

The de Blasio administration has repeatedly taken credit for a massive slide in the number of stops though they started falling dramatically in the last years of the Bloomberg administration amid the aforementioned court case and a fever pitch of public protest, which de Blasio participated in as public advocate and a mayoral candidate.

The practice does continue. In 2018, there were 11,008 stops, according to an analysis by the New York Civil Liberties Union, compared to 191,851 in 2013 (stops reached a record high of 685,724 in 2011).

Complaints of officer misconduct have also dropped over the years, according to Civilian Complaint Review Board data. There were 4,744 complaints in 2018, compared to 5,388 in 2013. Yet, de Blasio has shown virtually no appetite for taking on NYPD misconduct, regularly striking a deferential tone in almost all matters where police are involved. Many point to incidents early in his tenure, including the murder of two police officers and its aftermath, when hundreds of NYPD members publicly turned their backs on the mayor, in explaining the mayor’s approach to the department.

Among activists to supported de Blasio’s initial rise to the mayoralty, police reformers are among the most disillusioned.

10. Transportation
Though de Blasio gets erroneously criticized for the sorry state of the city’s subway system -- which is run by the MTA, a state authority controlled by Governor Andrew Cuomo -- he does bear more responsibility for the city’s street surfaces including bus and bike lanes and pedestrian infrastructure.

He also does bear some responsibility for the subways given his appointees to the MTA Board, leverage in negotiating funding for the authority, and bully pulpit as mayor. But, de Blasio has shown almost no interest in mass transit throughout his tenure.

Through his Vision Zero program, de Blasio has taken successful steps to reduce traffic fatalities through road safety investments, street redesigns, and enforcement. In 2013, there were 299 fatalities and 55,123 injuries from traffic collisions on city streets. Though fatalities fell to 203 in 2018, injuries were up to 60,801.

Transit advocates have had mixed things to say about the mayor, on one hand celebrating his commitment to Vision Zero, but on the other noting he not moving as quickly as he could to implement its tenets and that he is a proponent of car culture. Fatalities could be more quickly minimized through concerted efforts by the Department of Transportation.

They have also criticized the mayor and NYPD for a punitive crackdown on cyclists and particularly those using e-bikes, some of which are technically illegal but are often used by immigrant delivery workers and have not been involved in traffic fatalities.

The mayor’s priorities on public transit also seem skewed. He has pledged hundreds of millions to create the new NYC Ferry system, with $10.73 in subsidies going to each passenger ride and with marginal ridership compared to the city’s bus system, which has the slowest buses in the nation. Only recently did the mayor announce a plan to increase bus speeds by 25% in a year.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

De Blasio Launches Underdog Campaign for the Presidency with Pitch as Progressive Executive and Mixed Record


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(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat serving his second and final term, officially announced on Thursday morning that he is running for President of the United States.

De Blasio made the announcement with a YouTube video followed by a television interview on ABC’s Good Morning America. He's scheduled to speak to reporters Thursday afternoon in Manhattan before flying to Iowa then South Carolina over the weekend.

"There's plenty of money in this world. There's plenty of money in this country -- it's just in the wrong hands," de Blasio said in his launch video, using a line that he has repeatedly employed over the last few months. He touted several accomplishments, including a $15 minimum wage in the city and paid family leave, and declared his campaign theme, “Working People First,” as he promised to oppose President Donald Trump, whom he called a bully. "As president, I will take on the wealthy, I will take on the big corporations," de Blasio said. "I will not rest until this government serves working people."

The mayor has been toying with the decision for months, taking several trips to early presidential primary states including Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, announcing city policies -- like the New York City Green New Deal -- with national themes and in national news publications, and holding big-dollar fundraisers for his federal political action committee, Fairness PAC, which paid for the trips out of state.

De Blasio, who pledged when running for reelection in 2017 to serve his full second term, created the PAC in July last year, just seven months into that new term as mayor and quickly raised another round of questions about his fundraising from entities seeking city business after fundraising scandals had plagued roughly two years of his first term.

The mayor’s quest for the highest elected office in the land seems especially long-shot, though he does appear to have already hit the low polling threshold needed to qualify for the first Democratic primary debate at the end of June.

He enters a crowded field of 22 other Democrats already seeking the party’s nomination, several of whom have more years of experience at the national level, led by former Vice President Joe Biden and several sitting U.S. senators, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker. His own close advisors and staff have ridiculed or at least questioned the idea of a presidential run, and a Quinnipiac University poll released April 3 found that 75% of New Yorkers say he shouldn’t run for president.

While de Blasio hits just 1% in the early polling, if he registers with voters at all, Biden has been the frontrunner with 30% and higher. De Blasio, who oversees a municipal workforce of more than 330,000 workers in a city of 8.5 million people, appears to have his work cut out for him to even catch Mayor Pete Buttigieg, of South Bend, Indiana, who runs a city of barely over 102,000 residents, fewer than a New York City Council district, but has made a big early splash in the race.

But, it is still early in the process and de Blasio has never lost an election. In fact, he comes to the race widely seen as a stronger political operative than chief executive, though he plans to run on his record as the leader of the country’s largest city, where he will say he has implemented a long list of progressive priorities that most others in the race have only talked about. That list will start with universal pre-kindergarten, but also go into health care, the environment, rights for workers, and issues like police-community relations (while also driving crime down to record lows) and protecting immigrant communities.

On the flip side, critics -- as well as members of the local media who have followed the mayor closely -- will point to his shortcomings in battling the city’s homelessness and public housing crises that he inherited and promised to address, as well as his limited efforts in addressing the city’s traffic congestion and public transit failures, though on some fronts more responsibility lies with the state government and Governor Andrew Cuomo.

But mention of Cuomo, who has expressed support for Biden for president, also gets to a problem for de Blasio: even aside from the notoriously difficult governor, the mayor does not have strong relationships with fellow Democratic officials in New York. There will be few, if any, local officials jumping on board with his campaign early on.

In combination with clear ethical failings and the welcoming of what many have deemed a “pay to play” culture, de Blasio has also appeared more concerned with his own image and personal preferences than showing New Yorkers that he is a dedicated servant to what is best for the city.

De Blasio began his political career as an aide in former Mayor David Dinkins’ administration. He went on to serve a stint at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development as regional director for New York and New Jersey under President Bill Clinton and HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo. He was later elected to two terms in the New York City Council, representing District 39 in Brooklyn, and won the race for public advocate, a citywide position, in 2009.

In what de Blasio will surely argue as a harbinger for this presidential primary, he came from behind to win a crowded mayoral race in 2013, defeating several Democrats far more favored early on to secure the nomination and cruise to victory in the general election where Democrats were hungry to take power after 20 years of Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg.

In some ways, the mayor’s announcement mirrors his actions leading up to the 2016 presidential race, when he hemmed and hawed for months before endorsing former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who would go on to become the first woman nominee for president from a major party in history. The mayor paid the political price, with the Clinton team rebuffing his offers to campaign for her in Iowa and then at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, where de Blasio received a far-from-ideal speaking slot.

Following Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump, de Blasio more closely embraced Sanders, the progressive, socialist, independent U.S. Senator from Vermont who had been Clinton’s biggest rival for the nomination. On the scale between Clintonian centrism and Sanders’ progressivism, de Blasio lies somewhere in the middle. He was elected mayor promising to shake up city governance and address the “tale of two cities” he said was plaguing the five boroughs. He pledged a long agenda of policies to create more equity.

But de Blasio’s time in office has fallen short of his lofty campaign rhetoric. He has alienated progressive allies on key issues like affordable housing and police reform, and failed to convince many close watchers of his management abilities, especially with regard to homelessness. Once considered a shrewd political operative who successfully ran Clinton’s first campaign for U.S. Senate in New York and tapped into the city zeitgeist in his upset mayoral win, he has since garnered a reputation as a feckless executive, with a paternalistic and condescending attitude towards critics, members of the media, and even everyday New Yorkers.

If de Blasio felt that his own personal progressive politics had left the Democratic Party behind in 2016, this year has proved somewhat the opposite, with several of the top contenders rushing to take positions on the left that even de Blasio has been careful to adopt, raising questions about what lane the mayor has in the crowded primary.

For instance, de Blasio long opposed legalizing recreational marijuana use, only to reverse course once it seemed to become politically infeasible to maintain that stance. Having been elected on a platform of police reform, he has disappointed criminal justice advocates who say his policies and positions defer to the NYPD rather than implement true accountability for abuse of power by officers.

De Blasio will, however, likely espouse positions on many issues that come closer to those of economic populists Warren and Sanders, with calls for higher taxes on upper earners and corporations. The mayor's recent coziness with Amazon may throw a wrinkle into that equation, however. De Blasio has also expressed support for Medicare for All and the Green New Deal on the federal level.

Where the mayor will try to separate himself is as a chief executive, selling his blend of government leadership with progressive vision, and a long list of policy accomplishments in New York.

De Blasio has a mixed bag of accomplishments and failures in his five-and-a-half years in office. By several measures, New Yorkers are better off than they were before he came to power. Crime has continued to drop to historical lows and the city’s economy continues to diversify, jobs have continued to grow, and unemployment is at an all-time low.

Early on in his administration, the mayor championed a universal pre-kindergarten program that has been broadly successful and widely praised. He has launched an ambitious housing program to create and maintain hundreds of thousands of units of affordable housing by 2026 -- the plan has been modified and expanded and the city says it is ahead of schedule in meeting its target. He’s implemented a programs to provide free lawyers to poor tenants facing eviction, municipal identification cards to all, including undocumented immigrants, free school lunches to all students, and more.

But several crises remain unresolved. Homelessness has grown significantly under his watch, though with a variety of programs in place and many billions being spent the shelter population has finally leveled off and even dropped some from its record high earlier this year. Affordable housing remains out of reach for many low- and middle-income New Yorkers as the mayor’s plan, many say, is not working fast enough or creating a sufficient number of deeply affordable units while exacerbating gentrification. De Blasio has been exceedinly hesitant to tackle the city's deeply segregated schools and though he has put the city on a path to close the Rikers Island jails, he has overseen a persistent pattern of violence at the current facilities.

Though the subways are run by the MTA, a state authority under Cuomo’s control, de Blasio has been criticized for failing to advocate more strongly for the public transit system and for prioritizing car culture, including over the buses where he can have more impact.

One of the biggest blots on his administration has been his handling of a lead exposure crisis at the New York City Housing Authority, public housing to more than 400,000 residents.

De Blasio has overseen a massive increase in the city budget, from about $72.5 billion when he took office in 2014, to a proposed $92.5 billion for the fiscal year due to start July 1. Though city coffers have been overflowing, budget watchdogs have been raising red flags about the mayor's spending and lack of attention to programmatic and departmental efficiencies.

Besides his perceived weaknesses as a chief executive, de Blasio is also bound to face questions about his ethical behavior, or lack thereof. In his first term, he created two outside nonprofit groups to push for policy priorities, as well as to aide Democrats in flipping the State Senate that was then controlled by Republicans. But his fundraising tactics for the nonprofits and Senate campaigns -- which relied on big money donors who had business before the city -- caught the attention of the Manhattan District Attorney and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Both offices probed the mayor and his associates, but filed no charges and eventually closed their investigations. But the Manhattan D.A., Cy Vance, castigated the mayor for violating the “spirit and intent” of laws preventing conflicts of interest by seeking donations from individuals and then taking favorable actions for those donors. The city’s Department of Investigation, an independent watchdog, found that the mayor violated conflicts of interest law as well, and the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics continues to look into the state campaign matter.

As public advocate, de Blasio graded city agencies on their degree of transparency, based on their responses to Freedom of Information law requests. As mayor, his administration has been slow to fulfill FOIL inquiries and fought a long legal battle with NY1 and the New York Post to prevent disclosure of his emails with outside personal advisors termed “agents of the city” in a tenuous legal argument that was eventually rejected by a state appeals court judge.

While for his first mayoral race de Blasio talked about ending the “tale of two cities” by reducing income inequality, he altered the lens in recent years, perhaps due to the fact that income inequality has been difficult to budge, especially given his lack of control over most tax rates in the city. De Blasio has moved to discussing his efforts to foster “the fairest big city in the country,” a notion that may be put to the test as he seeks to win the Democratic nomination for President.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

Relatively Quiet Local Political Year Includes a Number of Judicial Elections


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(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


While it is a relatively quiet year for elections in New York City, there are several significant races underway that will be decided in the June primary and November general elections, not to mention proposals to change city governance from the 2019 Charter Revision Commission that will be on the fall ballot. The election slate this year includes often-overlooked judicial races, mostly for Civil Court.

New York City voters will go to the polls this year, including for the June 25 party primaries where they exist, for races including Public Advocate and the District Attorneys of Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx. As of April, the only competitive primary race among those four 2019 elections appears to be the crowded Democratic one for Queens District Attorney, where the long-time officeholder, Richard Brown, recently passed, though he had already announced his retirement, creating a race with no incumbent, unlike the others.

Additionally, voters will select nominees for 17 Civil Court judgeships and one Surrogate’s Court judgeship.

Of the 17 Civil Court positions, four are in the Bronx, two in Brooklyn, five in Manhattan, four in Queens, and two on Staten Island. The Surrogate’s Court position is one of two Surrogate judgeships in Brooklyn. There are also 15 Supreme Court vacancies in Manhattan (3), Brooklyn (5), Queens (5), and the Bronx (2). However, in Supreme Court elections, voters elect delegates to send to judicial nomination conventions, where the nominees are then selected for the general election ballot.

Some Civil Court judges are elected by a whole county and others are elected from a district within a county. Nine of the judgeships on the ballot this year are countywide positions, while eight are for district-level positions.

The Civil Court is responsible for civil cases of up to $25,000 in claims and judges elected to this court serve ten-year terms, earning an annual salary of $193,500. Civil Court judges can continue serving, if they are re-elected every ten years, until the end of the year that they turn 70.

Twelve of the 17 vacancies for the Civil Court this year have occured because the incumbents were elected to the Surrogate’s Court or the Supreme Court, both of which are considered to be steps up in the judicial system. Further steps up in the state judicial system require a gubernatorial appointment.

Surrogate’s Court judges are countywide elected positions, with one or two Surrogate’s judges in each of New York City’s five boroughs. These judges have jurisdiction over cases involving estates of the deceased and affairs of their descendants. They serve 14-year terms and earn an annual salary of $208,000. Like Civil Court judges, Surrogate’s Court judges must retire at the end of the year in which they turn 70.

The Supreme Court has jurisdiction over all crimes prosecuted by indictment, although it shares some jurisdiction with the Criminal Court and Family Court, and over civil cases with claims over $25,000. Supreme Court justices are elected by judicial districts that are coterminous with counties. Justices serve 14-year terms and have annual salaries of $208,000.

Judicial vacancies can occur because of the expiration of a term, a judge being elected or appointed to another office, or a judge reaching the mandatory retirement age (70). Supreme Court justices can obtain up to three two-year waivers to continue serving until they reach the age of 76, but lower court judges do not have this opportunity. When a vacancy occurs before a term is completed, the mayor appoints someone to serve until the end of the year.

The process for electing judges in New York is heavily reliant on the political parties.

The New York City Bar Association even tells prospective judges that “political party nomination (especially the Democratic Party nomination, in all counties except Richmond) is very important for election.” In every borough except Staten Island (Richmond County), the Democratic Party nominees for judgeships are almost always elected in the November general elections.

These judicial primaries are usually low-turnout and low-information contests. At times, there are only enough candidates on the ballot for the number of seats available, essentially giving voters no options and guaranteeing victory to those whose names do appear. That's not always the case, however, and there are some competitive races this year.

New York Courts & Judicial Elections
The New York judiciary is complex and often confusing.

The lowest levels of the judiciary are Family, Criminal, and Civil Courts. Family and Criminal Court judges in New York City are appointed by the mayor and serve ten-year terms. Civil Court judges are popularly elected, either countywide or in local election districts.

There are 120 Civil Court judge positions in New York City, but only about 50 actually sit in the Civil Court. The others sit in the two other lower courts and some sit as acting Supreme Court justices. The Criminal Court has 105 judges. Surrogate’s Courts usually have one judge per county, as is the case in the Bronx, Staten Island, and Queens, but Manhattan and Brooklyn each have two Surrogate judges.

The only Surrogate’s Court race this year will be for one of the two seats in Brooklyn and the winner of that race will serve for a term that would run until 2033. Two Surrogate’s Court judges were recently elected in Brooklyn and Staten Island and both positions would next come up for reelection in 2032. Matthew Titone, Staten Island’s Surrogate judge, will have to resign at the end of 2031, the year that he reaches the age limit.

The next elections for the two Manhattan Surrogate judgeships will take place in 2022 and 2026. The Bronx will next have an election for its Surrogate judgeship in 2026 and Queens will have its next election in 2024. All four current incumbents would be unable to serve full terms if they seek reelection.

Schedules for Civil Court elections are more difficult to project because Civil Court judges often run for Supreme Court or Surrogate’s Court judgeships, which are higher-paying and have a wider jurisdiction. When an election is held to fill a Civil Court vacancy, the winner will then serve a full ten-year term. In the rest of New York State outside of the city, Family Court judges are elected rather than appointed.

The Supreme Court (the main trial court, not the court of last resort in the state) has another method of selection. During primaries, voters choose delegates by state Assembly district to a party’s state judicial nominating convention where the candidates for the general election are chosen. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, these delegates “almost always” run unopposed and are “handpicked” by party leaders. In 2015, for example, the Bronx only had one competitive delegate election out of 11 Assembly districts.

For higher-level courts, such as the Court of Claims, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, and the Court of Appeals, the governor appoints the justices. Appellate Division justices must be selected from Supreme Court justices and Court of Claims and Court of Appeals nominations need to be confirmed by the State Senate.

Family Courts deal with domestic cases such as juvenile delinquency, parental rights, adoption, and certain cases involving minors. Criminal Courts handle misdemeanors and lesser crimes as well as arraignment for felonies.

Civil Courts hear civil lawsuits for less than $25,000, and can also be designated to work in the Family and Criminal Courts as well.

There is also a “housing part” of Civil Court, but these judges are appointed by the administrative judge of the Civil Court in the respective borough. Additionally, there are Surrogate’s Courts. Surrogate judgeships are countywide elected positions. Most counties in the state have one surrogate, but New York County (Manhattan) and Kings County (Brooklyn) each have two. Surrogates in the five New York City counties serve for 14-year terms, while surrogates outside of the city serve ten-year terms.

The next level of the state judiciary is the Supreme Court, which is a misleading term. In most states and the federal judiciary, the Supreme Court is the highest-level court, but in New York the Supreme Court handles all cases for crimes prosecuted by indictment and civil cases in excess of a $25,000 claim. Supreme Court justices are elected in countywide judicial districts and serve for 14-year terms.

The most recent Supreme Court elections were in 2018 and the next elections will take place in 2020, when at least 26 judgeships will be on the ballot.

The Court of Appeals is the highest court in the New York judiciary, analogous to the Supreme Court in the federal judiciary. This court has final review of any case in the state judicial system. Court of Appeals justices are appointed by the governor from a list of nominees from the Commission on Judicial Nominations, and approved by the State Senate. These justices serve 14-year terms. There is not expected to be a vacancy at the Court of Appeals until 2022 and all current justices have been appointed by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Janet DiFiore, the former Westchester District Attorney, is the current Chief Judge of New York State. The Chief Judge can be appointed either from incumbent Court of Appeals justices or from outside the court, as DiFiore was in 2016 when Cuomo named her chief judge.

The 2019 Local Judicial Elections
Generally, New York City voters choose judges for the Civil Court and Surrogate’s Court at the ballot box, while the mayor appoints judges to the Criminal Court and Family Court.

County parties play an especially outsized role in judicial elections.

Each county Democratic Party has some form of a judicial screening committee that reviews applications submitted by potential judges. These screening committees are comprised of designees from both the county party and local bar associations or other legal organizations, such as the Metropolitan Black Bar Association and the Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation. The committees assess which applicants are most qualified and submit those names to the county party.

Ballot access is another major step for judicial candidates; in most races there is only one candidate. As the New York City Bar Association explains in its publication “How to Become a Judge,” “support from political clubs can ease a candidate’s burden in collecting [ballot] signatures, as club members will frequently provide labor to collect signatures.”

Of the 17 Civil Court judgeships up for election across the five boroughs this year, nine are countywide, including two in the Bronx, one in Brooklyn, two in Manhattan, three in Queens, and one in Staten Island. When two or more judgeships are on the ballot for a single jurisdiction, voters are asked to vote for multiple candidates.

There are also eight judgeships elected by districts within counties. The Bronx has two district-level judicial elections this year, in both of its Municipal Districts, the 1st (Wakefield, Williamsbridge, Parkchester, Soundview, Hunts Point, Castle Hill, City Island, and Throggs Neck) and 2nd (Riverdale, Kingsbridge, West Bronx, Morrisania, and Mott Haven). In Brooklyn, Kings County’s 4th Municipal District covers Brownsville, Canarsie, and East Flatbush.

Manhattan has three district-level judicial elections this year, the 3rd Municipal District (Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen), the 4th (Murray Hill, Kips Bay, Peter Cooper Village, and Stuyvesant Town), and the 9th (Midtown and part of the Upper East Side).

In Queens, the 5th Municipal District comprises Breezy Point, Roxbury, Belle Harbor, Rockaway Park, Seaside, Hammels, Edgemere, and Far Rockaway. Staten Island’s 1st Municipal District includes Elm Park, West Brighton, St. George, Mariners Harbor, Graniteville, Bulls Head, and New Springville.

Few judicial elections in New York are competitive.

In 2016, just five out of 46 judicial elections were contested races.

There will be five competitive primaries this year: four Civil Court contests (Manhattan’s 4th municipal district, Brooklyn’s 1st and 6th, and a Queens county-wide seat) and one Surrogate’s Court race (Brooklyn).

Manhattan’s 4th district has two candidates running, Lynne M. Fischman Uniman and E. Grace Park. Uniman has received the endorsements of Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Assemblymember Dan Quart, and the Lexington Democratic Club, among others. Park is being backed by Assemblymembers Harvey Epstein, Richard Gottfried, and Yuh-Line Niou, City Council Members Carlina Rivera and Mark Levine, and other officials and clubs.

The Queens countywide race is between Wyatt N. Gibbons and Lumarie Maldonado-Cruz. The Queens Democratic Party endorsed Gibbons in February. Maldonado-Cruz is currently a staff attorney to the Character and Fitness Committee of the Appellate Division, First Department.

In Brooklyn’s 1st district, there is a two-way race between D. Bernadette Neckles and Edward King. Neckles is a Court Attorney Referee in the Brooklyn Supreme Court and has been endorsed by the Brooklyn Young Democrats. Edward King says he has been a practicing attorney for 35 years.

The race for Brooklyn’s 6th district features four candidates: Alice Nicholson, Caroline Cohen, Chinyelu Udoh, and Tehilah Berman. Nicholson specializes in foreclosure prevention law and previously worked at Bedford-Stuyvesant Legal Services. Cohen’s practice focuses on gender and pregnancy discrimination and she has received endorsements from three Brooklyn Assembly members and the Brooklyn Young Democrats. Udoh is currently a law clerk at the Manhattan Supreme Court. Berman is a law clerk at the Brooklyn Supreme Court and has been endorsed by Alan Dershowitz, whom she worked for as a pro bono attorney.

In Brooklyn, Margarita Lopez Torres, one of two Surrogate’s Court judges in the borough, is running for reelection. Meredith Jones, one of Torres’ two challengers, says that she “is the only candidate found qualified [by the Kings County Democrats] who can serve the complete term of office.” Lopez Torres would have to leave office in 2021, two years into a new 14-year term, because of the mandatory retirement age. Jones would be able to serve the complete term. If Lopez Torres wins and must then retire at the end of 2021, another election would take place in 2022. The third candidates in the race, Elena Baron, is a Civil Court judge who was first elected to that position in 2017 from Brooklyn’s 6th district.

Notably, in the early 2000s, Lopez Torres challenged New York’s system of judicial elections in New York State Board of Elections v. Lopez Torres, a case that was ultimately decided in the state’s favor at the Supreme Court.

Lopez Torres had specifically claimed that New York’s process of selecting Supreme Court judges, in which voters elect delegates who select party nominees, was unconstitutional because it made candidates too reliant on political parties. While a Civil Court judge, Lopez Torres made three unsuccessful attempts to be selected as a Democratic Party nominee for a Supreme Court judgeship. She alleged that that she was unsuccessful because she had a falling out with party leaders over her refusal to make patronage hires. Two lower courts sided with Lopez Torres, but the Supreme Court decided in favor of the Board of Elections.

Lopez Torres was initially elected to the Surrogate’s Court in 2005, without support from the county Democratic Party. For her reelection bid, she has received endorsements from most of Brooklyn’s elected officials, including Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, Rep. Nydia Velázquez, Borough President Eric Adams, ten Assembly members, three State Senators, and three City Council members. The Brooklyn Democratic Party “no longer harbors [an] animus towards me,” according to Lopez Torres, which she attributes to County Party Chair Frank Seddio not making similar requests for patronage hires as previous party leaders had made that sparked her legal challenge. Lopez Torres also pointed to their brief overlapping tenures on the Surrogate’s Court bench, before Seddio resigned over allegations of misusing campaign funds.

As with direct judicial elections, judicial nominating convention delegates run mostly unopposed in New York City. As there are often a dozen or more delegates elected in each Assembly district, delegate candidates run as slates or groups together. There are nine districts out of 65 in the city in which two or more slates are competing.

In Manhattan, the 71st (Hamilton Heights, Washington Heights, Harlem), 72nd (Hamilton Heights, Washington Heights, Inwood, Harlem) and 75th districts (Murray Hill, Chelsea, Clinton, Midtown, Upper West Side) are competitive. The 72nd district contest even has four slates running against each other.

Brooklyn’s 50th (Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Fort Greene) and 60th Assembly districts (East New York) each have two slates running against each other. In Staten Island, all four of its Assembly districts are competitive, including the 61st (Elm Park, West Brighton, St. George), 62nd (Pleasant Plains, Annadale), 63rd (Old Place, Bulls Head, New Springville), and 64th (Bay Terrace, Midland Beach, Dongan Hills) districts, with two slates running against each other in which.

Parties still hold delegate elections during the primaries in counties that do not have any current Supreme Court vacancies, as is currently the case for Staten Island. If a vacancy arises before June, the election would be held in November of the same year. “While it’s unlikely to happen, parties can’t take a chance,” according to Jerry Skurnik, a political consultant and co-founder of Prime New York.

Primary day is June 25. The general election will be November 5.

***
by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

NYPD Trial in Garner Death, City Council Special Election, & More: The Week Ahead in New York Politics, May 13


New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

This might be the week Mayor Bill de Blasio announces whether he is running for President of the United States. He says he will make his decision and announcement in the month of May. De Blasio starts the week rallying outside Trump Tower on the city's puported version of a "Green New Deal."

[Listen: Max & Murphy Podcast: Should de Blasio run for President?]

[Watch: MetroFocus: Indecision 2020: Will Mayor de Blasio run for President?]

Much attention this week will be on the NYPD trial of Officer Daniel Pantaleo for his conduct in the 2014 arrest and death of Eric Garner.

There is a special City Council election this week, on Tuesday, where voters in some Brooklyn neighborhoods will select a replacement for Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.

At the City Council, hearings on the mayor's executive budget continue this week - see details below.

The state Legislature has just five weeks of its 2019 session left; there are three session days this week in Albany. Governor Cuomo kicked the week off on Sunday by signing legislation passed through the Legislature that greatly expands New York City's speed camera program to allow the city to install up to 750 cameras around schools. He was joined at his Manhattan office by street safety advocates, including those who have lost children to vehicle crashes, as well as lead bill sponsors Assemblymember Deborah Glick and Senator Andrew Gounardes.

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:

Monday
The New York State Legislature is in session on Monday in Albany.

At noon Monday outside Trump Tower, "Mayor de Blasio will hold a rally on NYC’s Green New Deal," and he'll take questions from the press. "Later, the Mayor will meet with members of the Student Diversity Advisory Group. This meeting is closed press. In the evening, the Mayor will appear live on NY1’s Inside City Hall with Errol Louis."

At the City Council on Monday:
--The Finance Committee will hold joint hearings with the Housing and Buildings Committee and the Immigration Committee on the Executive Budget, at 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., respectively.
--The Standards and Ethics Committee will hold a hearing regarding Council Member Barry Grodenchik.

The NYPD administrative trial of Officer Daniel Pantaleo, whose chokehold led to the 2014 death of Eric Garner on Staten Island, will begin on Monday morning. “On Monday morning, the CCRB’s Administrative Prosecution Unit will begin presenting its evidence. We are confident that, once all the evidence has been presented, the Police Commissioner will find Officer Pantaleo guilty of misconduct and ultimately terminate him from the Department,” Civilian Complaint Review Board Chair Fred Davie said in a Friday statement.

At 9 a.m. Monday city schools "Chancellor Carranza will deliver keynote remarks at NYU Langone Health’s Health And Childhood and Opportunity Conference."

Monday at 9:30 a.m.: The House Our Future NY Campaign will lead advocates and homeless New Yorkers on a march from 100 Gold Street to City Hall ahead of the Executive Budget heading for the City Council’s Housing and Buildings Committee.

At 10 a.m. Monday outside City Hall, "On Monday morning, Council Members Helen Rosenthal and Ritchie Torres will be joined by advocacy organizations and elected officials for a press conference and rally to announce the pending introduction of new City Council legislation concerning the reporting of incidents of sexual harassment. The new bills will require oversight by the Equal Employment Practices Commission to ensure that supervisors and elected officials are reporting (as they are required to do) all instances of sexual harassment. More details will be announced at the press conference. The organizations will call for full Council support of the bills and denounce Rev. Diaz Sr’s outrageous comments on reporting sexual harassment."

At 10:15 a.m. Monday on Delancey Street, ""New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) President James Patchett, City Officials, community stakeholders and over 35 vendors will celebrate the grand opening of the new Essex Market at Essex Crossing." It is "New York City’s first new public market since 1955." Patchett will be joined by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, City Council Member Margaret Chin, and others.

Monday at 6:00 p.m.: Urban Land Institute New York will hold a panel discussion “Does Amazon Signal the End of a Pro-Growth Political Climate in NYC?” The discussion will focus on the future of economic development in New York City after Amazon’s withdrawal of its plans for a second headquarters in Long Island City. It will be moderated by Kathryn S. Wylde, President and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, and include Vishaan Chakrabarti, Founder of Practice for Architecture and Urbanism; James Patchett, President and CEO of the New York City Economic Development Corporation; and Carl Weisbrod of HR&A Advisors.

Monday at 6:30 p.m.: Andy Byford speaks at TransitCenter event on accessibility. He will discuss the Fast Forward Plan, which promises to make all subway stations accessibility by 2034. There will also be accessibility experts from Chicago’s CTA and Boston’s MBTA speaking at this event as well.

Tuesday
The New York State Legislature is in session on Tuesday in Albany.

At the City Council on Tuesday:
--The Zoning and Franchises Subcommittee will consider eighteen land use applications sponsored by Council Member Rafael Salamanca, the Land Use Committee Chair. There are applications from all five boroughs scheduled to be considered at the hearing, which is set to start at 9:30 a.m.
--The Finance Committee with hold joint hearings with the Technology and Fire and Emergency Management Committees on the Executive Budget, at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., respectively.

There will be a special election on Tuesday to fill the vacant City Council seat in Brooklyn’s 45th District, most recently held by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.

Tuesday at 8:30 a.m.: Public Agenda will host a panel discussion with Vicki Been, the Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development; Alyssa Katz, the deputy editor of The CIty; Alejandra Nasser, the director of leadership development programs at the Flatbush Tenant Coalition; and, Kai Wright, host and managing editor of The Stakes. The discussion will focus on the housing challenges facing the city, including gentrification, homelessness, and affordable housing.

Tuesday at 10:30 a.m.: Compassion & Choices will lead a day of grassroots lobbying at the State Capitol to urge legislators to support the Medical Aid in Dying Act. The Education and Advocacy Program will feature supportive state legislators and over a dozen advocates who will tell personal stories.

On Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the College of Staten Island, the 2019 Charter Revision Commission will its final of five borough hearings to solicit feedback on the commission’s preliminary staff report, which showed narrowed focus areas for the commission to consider moving toward its proposals for changes to the city charter.

Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.: Federal Monitor Bart Schwartz will be visiting NYCHA residents at Ingersoll Community Center Gym. He will be discussing the necessary improvements of conditions and services with the new Community Advisory Committee, as well as residents, staff, community organizations and other relevant stakeholders.

Wednesday
The New York State Legislature is in session on Wednesday in Albany.

At the City Council on Wednesday:
--The Finance Committee will hold joint hearings with the Public Safety and Justice System Committees on the Executive Budget, starting at 10 a.m.
--The Consumer Affairs and Business Licensing Committee will hold a hearing on a proposal to ban the sale of fur apparel.

At 6 p.m. Wednesday: Hunter College’s Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute will host its annual Kheel Lecture on transportation policy, a “conversation with New York leaders on transit governance in the city and region” on the topic “Should We ‘Blow Up’ the MTA?” The panel, moderated by transit expert Charles Komanoff, will include Corey Johnson, New York City Council Speaker; Carol Kellermann, former president of the Citizens Budget Commission; and Veronica Vanterpool, a MTA board member and former director, Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

Thursday
Thursday at 1 p.m.: The State Senate’s Committee on Housing, Construction and Community Development will hold a public hearing on rent regulation and tenant protection legislation at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. State Senator Brian Kavanagh, a Democrat who represents parts of Lower Manhattan and western Brooklyn, is the chair of the committee.

At the City Council on Thursday:
--The Finance Committee will hold joint hearings with the Youth Services, Small Business, Health, and Mental Health, Disabilities and Addiction Committees on the Executive Budget at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., and 2 p,m., respectively.
--The Land Use Committee has a hearing scheduled for 11 a.m.

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

Friday at 11 a.m.: The State Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee will hold a public hearing on the impacts that climate change has on communities and the workforce. It will take place at Assembly Hearing Room at 250 Broadway. Assembly Member Steve Englebright, a Democrat who represents part of Suffolk County, is the chair of the committee.

At the City Council on Friday: The Finance Committee will hold joint hearings with the Governmental Operations and Education on the Executive Budget at 10 a.m.

On Sunday at 1 p.m. at The Intrepid museum, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson will host his annual "West Side Summit" at which he will be "delivering a State of the District update to the community and will be announcing the winning projects of Participatory Budgeting."

***
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
@GothamGazette

Max & Murphy Podcast: Should De Blasio Run for President?


mayor bdb gop tax ph

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


May 8, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Should De Blasio Run for President?

mayor bdb wbaiMax & Murphy discuss whether Mayor de Blasio should run for president, what his message will be if he does, what might hold him back, how he'd manage to run and lead the city at the same time, and more.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

There's Plenty of Money in the MTA Capital Plan, It's Just Not Being Spent


Cuomo subway MTA

Gov. Cuomo inspects track work (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


The subway (plan) is delayed again.

While subway service has improved since the nadir that led to the current (and controversial) “state of emergency,” it’s obvious to anyone who rides the system enough or just watches the New York City Transit Twitter feed that there’s still a ways to go before everything is at or near full strength.

But while the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) needs a funding stream that’s sustainable and long-term, the authority has been unable to spend many billions of dollars already appropriated to it by both the city and state, money that’s supposed to be spent on expansion projects, getting the trains to a state of good repair, and more.

In other words, there’s plenty of money in the MTA capital plan, it may just be in the wrong hands.

The MTA’s 2015-2019 plan for capital projects is in its final year, but as the months tick by, it looks increasingly likely that the plan won’t wind up anywhere close to completed, raising questions about what will make it into the next plan and what will happen to billions of dollars allocated to this one.

By the MTA’s own account, only about $11.3 billion of the $32 billion pledged to fund the plan in 2016 has actually been delivered to the agency. It’s a function of the MTA’s inability to efficiently and effectively complete projects as well as poor planning and delays that go into the design of the capital plan, which covers everything from major expansion and repair projects to track replacement and signal upgrades, and deals with the city’s subways and buses, as well as the commuter rails.

While both New York City and State pledged record amounts to the plan when funding was announced -- a joint agreement among the MTA, Governor Andrew Cuomo, who effectively controls the state authority, and Mayor Bill de Blasio -- neither entity has given the agency anything close to the full amount promised over the life of the plan.

And there’s a particularly large shortcoming when it comes to the state’s pledge of $8.3 billion given that among several key provisions of the funding deal, which Cuomo and de Blasio haggled over for months, is one that says the money from the state and city are to be the last dollars spent.

As transit watchers turn their attention to the upcoming 2020-2024 MTA capital plan, it looks increasingly likely that the $7.3 billion New York State hasn’t sent the MTA for the current five-year plan will not be delivered to the agency during the expected time frame, or possibly ever. Complicating the upcoming picture are new MTA revenue measures, including congestion pricing, passed in the new state budget April 1.

When the 2015-2019 capital plan was unveiled, Cuomo and de Blasio put out a press release in which both men hailed the “historic investment” the two levels of government were making in the authority that, among other things, runs the New York City subways and buses. And both men promised big money.

The mayor pledged that New York City would give $2.5 billion to the capital plan, and the governor said that the state’s contribution would be $8.3 billion. But at the moment, the MTA’s own numbers show that as of March 31 the authority has only received $805 million from the state and $668 million from the city. On the other hand, the authority has issued $4.1 billion worth of its own bonds to finance the plan.

This spending pattern was designed like this from the start. In the same press release where de Blasio and Cuomo hailed their respective historic investments, it was noted that the state and city contributions would come proportionally and at the same time. Outside the realm of press release promises, state law made clear that the majority of the money would be the last dollars in to the plan as the 2016 budget language laid out:

“The additional funds provided by the state pursuant to section one of this act shall be scheduled and made available to pay for the costs of the capital program after MTA capital resources planned for the capital program, not including additional city and state funds, have been exhausted, or when MTA capital resources planned for the capital program are not available.”

Where’s the Money
This too was by design, according to a Cuomo administration official, who said that the last-dollar-in formula was to ensure that the authority spent efficiently and quickly on the plan.

“The MTA was in a state of emergency at the time we did these capital funds,” the official told Gotham Gazette during a background call under the condition of anonymity, “and we wanted to make sure that not only were we sending a record capital program, but then those dollars were going to go out the door. But the MTA had a practice of doing was enacting the capital plan funded with its funds and then using a portion of the proceeds that were committed to fund the debt service on the capital plan, but actually for operating,” the official said.

While this 2015-2019 capital plan, like those that came before it, continues to lag, the Cuomo administration official told Gotham Gazette that no part of the plan was being held up due to a lack of funds, and defended the last-dollar-in policy as ensuring the plan gets done.

“So why the agreement says that they should contribute first? Because we wanted to make sure that they did not not execute the plan,” the official said. And Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the governor’s budget office, insisted that the money is available to the MTA whenever it asks.

“The over $1.4 billion in the FY 2020 Enacted Budget is now available, as is the balance of the over $8.6 billion State contribution,” Klopott told Gotham Gazette by email, while also promising that whatever amount of funding is necessary for the plan beyond 2019 will still be available to the MTA.

But there’s also the question of where the money owed to the MTA in the current capital plan is going to come from. The latest report on the MTA’s finances from Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, released in October 2018, noted that “[t]he State has not yet identified the sources of $7.3 billion of its funding commitment, and the City has not identified the sources of $1.8 billion of its commitment.”

A spokesperson for Mayor de Blasio told Gotham Gazette that the city “will meet our statutory obligation which is explicit about how the monies flow” when asked about the status of the money pledged to the MTA.

The Cuomo official who spoke to Gotham Gazette disputed the comptroller’s report, said that the money is appropriated in the budget, and that it “will come out of the state’s general fund. The state’s general fund is over $100 billion, so it will come out of that, and it will come out as soon as they need the funds.”

Big Budget Questions
While the MTA finds itself in a position of facing down a capital plan costing perhaps $40-$60 billion, in large part to potentially fund MTA New York City Transit President Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan, which involves tremendous amounts of work to get the system to a modern state of good repair, transit experts say it’s difficult to parse whether or not the authority is actually making do without the state money.

“These are not basic questions, they’re actually kind of hard questions, because I'm not really sure how the MTA is making do without this money, or how they get it back from the state,” transit expert Ben Kabak, who writes the Second Avenue Sagas website, told Gotham Gazette.

Kabak said that when the money is slow to arrive, the agency first cuts back on “cosmetic upgrades or things that aren’t important to keep the system running” to focus on signals and tracks and train cars. But over time, he said, as the money continues to not arrive “you end up with this sort of maintenance gap, where something that might have happened a year and a half ago, is delayed because of budget negotiations, and they have two stations that they need to catch up on instead of just one.”

A recent report from watchdog organization Reinvent Albany that focused on a number of MTA reforms backs up Kabak’s point on the maintenance deficit. In a look at the agency’s capital spending, Reinvent Albany found that the agency had only committed to spending $2.3 billion on signal modernization in the most recent capital plan despite the MTA’s most recent 20-year needs assessment determining the authority needed $3 billion. In addition, while the MTA needed almost 6,000 new subway cars in the span of the 2010 to 2019 capital plans, the authority only purchased 863 new cars.

“The fact is, [the MTA] hasn’t spent what they've needed to on things like signals and buying more subway cars and buses,” Rachael Fauss, a senior researcher with Reinvent Albany and author of the massive new MTA report, told Gotham Gazette. “Those are the areas where they’ve really not invested the way they should have.”

One place where the governor’s office and Reinvent Albany agree is on the design of the majority of the state’s appropriation for the MTA. But where the governor’s office suggests it is a good way to make the MTA accountable, Fauss criticized the practice as a driver of extra debt for an agency whose operating budget is 16% debt service.

“The way that that money was set up from the very beginning was problematic, because it was never guaranteed to be given to the MTA until it is finished borrowing money,” Fauss said. “I think it was always set up in a way that it was a false promise of full state funding, and it's been simplified to the level where it's been explained as it is a direct contribution when it's when it was extremely conditional.”

Where the Cuomo administration official told Gotham Gazette that the MTA wasn’t borrowing any more money than the agency had agreed to when the current capital plan was agreed to, Kabak and Fauss criticized the mounting debt as something that contributed to slowing down the agency’s ability to finish the plan close to on time.

“I think the better approach would be for the state to just directly fund all of these projects, and not fund a bond issuance, or something along those lines. If you're building out a new subway, that is going to generate more passengers and more revenue, you can bond that out, that makes sense,” Kabak said. “But if you're just investing in state of good repair service, or state of good repair projects, and then you really just pour more debt into the existing system in the hopes that the ridership will either grow organically or not start declining to boost those revenues you end up in a situation where they're at now where they're just sort of paying out debt to continue to maintain the current system,” he said.

“We're in the fifth year of the plan,” Fauss said. “So is it always meant to be that five-year capital plans drag on for a decade, and that the money from the state comes in at the last minute? Borrowing at the MTA is reaching such an unsustainable level that if the deal all along was to have MTA borrow some money, maybe that deal was bad to begin with.”

She added that “16% of [MTA] operating expenses are eaten up by debt right now. And it's going to go up to even more than that in the future, to a higher percentage. So when you've got debt service eating up the operating budget, that means less crews to do cleaning, that means less maintenance, that means fewer workers trying to do the same work when morale at the agency isn't exactly at an all-time high right now.”

That political leaders and the MTA have just come to accept that the MTA capital plans will now stretch out well past five years is also something that hurts the transparency of the plans when the agency plays catch up to finish them. Per the new Reinvent Albany report, the MTA “provides the total spending on each plan over its entire lifetime at the end of each year” instead of showing how much the authority spends per year per plan.

Having done its own math to determine what spending was each year, Reinvent Albany found that in 2017 the MTA was still spending $212 million on the 2005-2009 capital plan and close to $3 billion on the 2010-2014 capital plan.

And as the current capital plan reaches what’s supposed to be the end of its life, advocates and watchdogs are concerned that the promised state money for the 2015-2019 plan will never actually be delivered.

Maria Doulis of the Citizens Budget Commission explained that the agency could continue with business as usual, dragging out this plan for years. Another scenario is that in Governor Cuomo’s many desired reforms for the agency, the current capital plan could be capped at the projects being worked on at the moment and then rejiggered for the 2020-2024 plan “that will incorporate some of the projects that were previously there, or maybe drop some of them out,” Doulis said. “And in that scenario, the state’s $8 billion doesn't get used, and then the state can sort of rededicate it if it would like, to the new capital plan.”

A rollover like this is also a concern for Fauss. “The real question is going to be what happens to those individual projects, what's going to roll over, and our fear is that that commitment is just going to get shoved over to the next plan. Because they're not fully funded for the 2020-2024 plan,” she told Gotham Gazette.

An analysis from Citizens Budget Commission showed that thanks to recently enacted legislation around congestion pricing, an internet sales tax, and a real estate transfer tax on expensive properties, there will be $25 billion for the MTA to put in a capital plan lockbox.

“But that does not equal the forty to fifty to sixty billion [dollars], depending on who you talk to, that they need. So, if that money rolls over, or if those projects roll over they basically weren't completed in time and we're still going to be behind on them,” said Fauss of Reinvent Albany.

***
by Dave Colon, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

De Blasio for President Watch, City Council Budget Hearings, & More: The Week Ahead in New York Politics, May 6


New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

Mayor de Blasio will announce a bid for President of the United States, possibly this week, according to a report by the New York Daily News published on Friday. De Blasio has been toying with the idea for months and promising a decision. He most recently admitted he was polling in Iowa and promised a decision one way or the other in the month of May.

As former Public Advocate de Blasio appears set to make that move, new Public Advocate Jumaane Williams is on Monday launching something else: a “one-day, five borough tour to discuss the need for the state legislature to pass the rent regulation and tenant protection package ahead of the expiration of existing protections in mid-June.” See details below.

Meanwhile, also on Monday the City Council kicks off hearings on the mayor’s recently-released executive budget, which includes a $92.5 billion plan for next fiscal year’s expense budget and a $117 billion 10-year capital budget plan. Council leadership expressed significant disappointment with the mayor’s plan; Monday’s initial budget hearing will likely be contentious. It’s a very busy week at the City Council, including several budget and non-budget hearings, plus a “Stated Meeting” where the full Council votes on bills that have passed committee and where new bills are introduced by members.

And the state Legislature is in session three days this week; including those three days there are just 22 days of session left before its scheduled June end.

There's a great deal happening this week, with many events to be aware of - see our day-by-day rundown below.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
e-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.***

The run of the week in detail:

Monday
The New York State Legislature will be in session on Monday in Albany. Governor Andrew Cuomo has no public events on his schedule.

Mayor de Blasio will appear on Monday evening’s Inside City Hall on NY1, in the 7 and 11 p.m. hours.

Monday is the first day of executive budget hearings at the City Council, starting with the Committee on Finance and Subcommittee on Capital Budget jointly at 10 a.m. regarding the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Design and Construction.

At 6:30 a.m. Monday, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams will appear on NY1’s 'Mornings on 1' to discuss the five-borough rent regulation tour he’s launching. At 10 a.m. Williams will join a rally outside Brooklyn Housing Court with Flatbush Tenants Coalition and the Right to Counsel Coalition “to kick off their Worst Evictor week of action.” At 11:45 a.m., Williams will be in Queens for a “tenant action against MCI abuse”...”against Zara Realty's Holding Company's use of fraudulent MCIs (Major Capital Improvements) to evict tenants.” At 1 p.m. Williams will go on a “building tour and discussion on preferential rent” at Concourse Village in the Bronx. At 2:30 p.m. Williams will join a “protest at A&E Real Estate” in Manhattan. And at 4 p.m., Williams will be on Staten Island to lead a “kitchen-table discussion on displacement and eviction in the area” with Pastor Janet Jones.

At 7:30 a.m. Monday, schools “Chancellor Carranza will appear live on NY1's Mornings on 1 and make an announcement.”

At 10 a.m. Monday “MTA New York City Transit will hold an event to “pass the torch” and make the final passenger service run of the last bus from its 1980s-era “Rapid Transit Series” (RTS) line of buses on Monday, May 6. The retirement of the RTS model — which was used in neighborhoods throughout the entire city including Midtown Manhattan — comes as NYC Transit updates its bus fleet with modern, state-of-the-art vehicles that include new all-electric buses, one of which will also be on display and demonstrated Monday.”

On Monday at 11 a.m., “Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. will host a media preview and celebration to kick-off Bronx Week 2019 at The Lit. Bar, 131 Alexander Ave., The Bronx. As a highlight of the event, Borough President Diaz and The Bronx Tourism Council will announce the three honorees of the Bronx Walk of Fame Class of 2019.”

At 1:30 p.m. Monday “Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul Delivers Remarks at Restore NY Funded Development of MicroTel Inn” in Warsaw. At 2:15 p.m. “Hochul Tours Main Street with Warsaw Mayor Joseph Robinson.” And at 5:45 p.m. “Hochul Addresses the 10th Annual Help Me Grow National Forum” in Buffalo (the speech is closed to the press but Hochul will hold a press availability at 6 p.m.).

On Monday at 7 p.m. at the Queens Library Central in Jamaica, “Public Safety Chair Donovan Richards and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill will host a Town Hall to participate in a discussion with local leaders and community members about public safety priorities in Southeast Queens and learn about NYPD practices and procedures.” Participants will include Council Member Richards; Commissioner O’Neill; Queens Borough President Melinda Katz; City Council Members Adrienne Adams and I. Daneek Miller; Assembly Member Alicia Hyndman; and a variety of other NYPD officials.

Tuesday
The funeral for former Queens District Attorney Richard Brown will be Tuesday in Queens. Mayor de Blasio will be among those who deliver remarks.

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, "the Mayor and First Lady McCray will make an announcement about guaranteed health care for New Yorkers," at NYC Health + Hospitals/Lincoln in the Bronx.

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

Beginning at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Rockefeller Institute in Albany, “the NYS Complete Count Commission will hold a public hearing on plans for the upcoming 2020 Census...The hearing is open to the public and media. The New York State Department of State will broadcast the hearing via Facebook Live.”

At 10 a.m. Tuesday in Queens, "NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams will join with the Independent Drivers Guild at a press conference to announce the launch of a first-of-its-kind mental health and wellness program for New York’s for-hire drivers."

The following City Council committees will hold executive budget hearings on Tuesday:
--Aging at 11 a.m., regarding the Department for the Aging.
--Public Housing at 1 p.m., regarding NYCHA.

Also at the City Council on Tuesday:
--The Committee on Immigration will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss a resolution calling on the state to pass the Protect Our Courts Act, which would require a judicial warrant for any civil arrests for individuals in state courts or individuals heading to or leaving state courts; the measure is intended to protect immigrants from ICE arrests at courthouses.
--The Committee on Land Use and Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises will meet jointly at 11 a.m. for an oversight hearing on whether the city’s environmental quality review process (CEQR) adequately measures the impacts of rezonings. The committees will also discuss several proposed laws requiring the city track mitigation strategies for neighborhood rezonings publicly as well as the impacts on housing and displacement, transportation, and school overcrowding resulting from rezonings. The committees will also discuss a resolution calling on the city to formally review CEQR procedures regarding adverse impacts of rezoning son neighborhoods.

On Tuesday at 11 a.m. outside City Hall, “nonprofit human services providers and members of the New York City Council will gather on the steps of City Hall to call for investments in community-based organizations in the city budget.” Participants will include City Council Member Helen Rosenthal; Allison Sesso, Executive Director of the Human Services Council of New York; and a variety of other sector leaders.

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, "Councilman Chaim Deutsch will be holding a press conference on the steps of City Hall, along with community and faith leaders, to call on Mayor de Blasio to fund security for houses of worship in the FY20 budget. In light of recent attacks in churches, synagogues, and mosques, it is clear that New York City must be proactive in ensuring the safety of worshippers in their sacred spaces. At Tuesday’s presser, Councilman Deutsch will be joined by Eric Goldstein, CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York; Michael Miller, CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York; Monsignor Kieran Harrington, the Vicar of Communications for the Diocese of Brooklyn; Father Myles Murphy, pastor of the parish of Our Lady of Victory and St. Andrews in Lower Manhattan; and other New York City leaders and elected officials."

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, the 2019 Charter Revision Commission will hold its third of five borough hearings on the recently-released preliminary staff report, at Lehman College in the Bronx.

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

The City Council will hold a stated meeting at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at which bills that have been voted through committee are passed by the full Council and new bills are introduced.

Also at the City Council on Wednesday: the Committee on Rules, Privileges, and Elections will meet at 10:30 a.m. to discuss the nominations of Joseph Puma and Nathan Joseph to the Civilian Complaint Review Board.

On Wednesday morning at 9 a.m. at the New School, the Center for New York City Affairs will host a foruma forum on pay parity for early childhood educators. Opening remarks will be made by James Parrott, Director of Economic and Fiscal Policies at the Center. A panel discussion will follow, moderated by Natasha Lifton, Senior Program Officer, New York Community Trust, and including Andrea Anthony, Exec. Director, Day Care Council of New York; Louisa Chafee, Sr. VP for External Relations and Public Policy, UJA-Federation of New York; Michelle Paige, Associate Exec. Director, Early Childhood Programs, University Settlement; and Rosemarie Sinclair, 1st Vice President, Council of School Supervisors and Administrators. Closing remarks will be made by Jennifer March, Executive Director of Citizens’ Committee for Children.

At 11 a.m. Wednesday, the Senate Standing Committee on Racing, Gaming, and Wagering will meet in Albany for a public hearing regarding online mobile sports betting.

This week's Max & Murphy show on WBAI radio will air at 5 p.m. Wednesday and include a discussion of de Blasio's possible presidential bid and a conversation with City Council Member Carlos Menchaca about key city and state issues related to immigrant communities. Tune in at 99.5FM or wbai.org

At 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, the Community Resource Exchange will host “2020 Census and Nonprofits” as part of its ongoing CRE Spotlight Series at the offices of Schulte Roth & Zabel in Midtown. Panelists will discuss the role nonprofits can play in ensuring an accurate count in the census. Panelists will include DCP Population Division director Joseph Salvo, New York Women’s Foundation program officer Beatrice Lors-Rousseau, ACLU Voting Rights Project fellow Jonathan Topaz, and MinKwon Center for Community Action executive director John Park. Tanvi Misra of CityLab will moderate.

Thursday
On Thursday morning in Manhattan, State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli “releases Construction Industry Report and gives remarks at the New York Building Congress Breakfast” at the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen.

The following City Council committees will hold executive budget hearings on Thursday:
--Fire and Emergency Management at 10 a.m., regarding the FDNY and EMS.
--Criminal Justice at 11 a.m., regarding the Department of Correction.
--Hospitals at noon, regarding NYC Health + Hospitals.
--Environmental Protection at 1 p.m., regarding the Department of Environmental Protection.

At 9:30 a.m. Thursday, the Assembly Standing Committee on Housing will meet in Albany for a public hearing to discuss the state of New York’s rental housing and potential reforms to the state’s rent regulations.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, the 2019 Charter Revision Commission will hold its fourth of five borough hearings on its preliminary staff report, at City Hall in Manhattan.

Friday and the weekend
Mayor de Blasio may make his weekly appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show at 10 a.m. Friday, perhaps as a declared candidate for President of the United States.

At the City Council on Friday: an executive budget hearing will be held by the Committee on Transportation at 10 a.m., regarding New York City Transit, the Taxi and Limousine Commission, and the Department of Transportation.

At the state Legislature on Friday:
--At 10 a.m., the Assembly Standing Committee on Education will meet at 250 Broadway in Manhattan for a public hearing regarding the admissions process to New York City’s specialized high schools.
--At 11 a.m., the Assembly Standing Committee on Housing will meet at the Monroe County Legislative Building in Rochester for a public hearing to discuss the state of New York’s rental housing and potential reforms to the state’s rent regulations.

***
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).

Two Years After New York City Expanded Protections for Freelancers, State Yet to Act


freelancers rally

Council Members Rafael Espinal, left, & Brad Lander (photo: City Council)


Two years ago, the New York City Council’s Freelance Isn’t Free Act went into effect, giving freelance workers legal protections against wage theft, delayed payments, employer retaliation, and lack of contracts for their work. The first-of-its-kind law has since allowed the city to recoup thousands of dollars in wages for hundreds of freelancers and was broadly praised as a laudable and necessary step in a changed and still-changing economy.

But as the City Council, with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s support, has taken additional steps to help independent contractors and freelance workers in the booming ‘gig economy,’ similar action has been glaringly lacking at the state level.

In December, when Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled his “first 100 days agenda” for the start of his third term in 2019, with a speech at the Roosevelt Institute in Manhattan, he spoke of New York’s changing economy and the challenges that freelance workers face, seemingly putting down a marker that the state would pursue action on the topic.

“The so-called gig economy is a growing economic engine. Freelancers, independent contractors, consultants are replacing traditional employees,” he said. “And while many welcome the freedom and the flexibility of these arrangements, there are also pitfalls that go along with the positive. Gig jobs do not come with paid sick leave, they do not come with vacation days, or parental rights, or workers' compensation, or protection against work related discrimination, or protections against wage and hour violations. We want an economy that moves forward. We want an economy of tomorrow. But we want an economy that moves everyone forward, not just some forward.”

But Cuomo did not follow suit with any proposals either in his January State of the State speech or executive budget presentation. The final budget agreement reached with the Legislature at the end of March did not include new protections for gig economy workers. It appears to be the only issue Cuomo mentioned in his December speech where he did not then follow up with concrete proposals.

In January, Hazel Crampton-Hays, then a spokesperson for the governor, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette that the administration was “exploring whether we need new rules to help protect impacted workers or whether the Department of Labor can issue regulations.”

In a statement on Thursday, Cuomo spokesperson Caitlin Girouard said, “We are engaging with the legislature, interested stakeholders and relevant state agencies on ways to address this issue and come up with meaningful solutions.”

New York City, meanwhile, has been attempting to bring a semblance of order and accountability to the gig economy through local laws. Last year, the City Council passed a living wage requirement for drivers who work for app-based ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. The bill was challenged in court by Lyft and upheld by a state Supreme Court judge just this Wednesday.

Council Member Brad Lander, who spearheaded the Freelance Isn’t Free Act, says his legislation should be enacted statewide, rather than through regulation by the Labor Department, as just the first step in addressing the woes of a growing sector of workers.

“The vote was 51 to nothing here, the Republicans voted for it. Everyone agrees you should not be cheated out of getting paid for work you did and I would think it would be a no-brainer to pass it,” he said in an interview outside City Hall earlier this year.

The law has clearly been working. According to data from the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs, the agency tasked with enforcing the law, to date, the department has received 561 inquiries about the law and fielded 764 complaints from freelancers, and has helped them recover just under $1 million ($978,928.66) in lost wages.

The department is also set to hold a Freelance Isn’t Free Day on May 15, exactly two years since the law took effect, at the Freelancers Hub in Brooklyn.

“New York City knows the value of its many freelancer workers and the challenges they face, and we are proud to have implemented the Freelance Isn’t Free Act—the first and only law of its kind in the country,” DCA spokesperson Abigail Lootens said in a statement.

“Albany has just not gotten started yet,” said Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat. “I’m glad the governor spoke to it in his 100 day agenda, I’m sorry they haven’t yet moved forward with proposals. The Freelance Isn’t Free Act, taking it statewide, that’s a great place to start.”

Among the major challenges of creating new legislation, Lander said, is the lack of uniformity in who is considered a freelancer or independent contractor, and the myriad sectors where lax enforcement means workers are exploited. Day laborers and domestic workers, for instance, are viewed as independent workers but not officially considered so. (As an aside, Lander even said recently-passed laws to provide predictable schedules to fast food workers were necessary since they were increasingly being treated like independent workers.)

“As freelance and independent work have grown, a set of problems have grown in the economy because it wasn’t designed to provide protections and supports for those workers and there’s really some gaping holes,” Lander said. “Some of them are hard to fix. It’s not easy to figure out how to do portable benefits and retirement security. We should solve those problems and we’re gonna keep pushing forward here at the Council.”

At the state level, Assemblymember Harry Bronson, a Monroe County Democrat, has introduced a bill to ensure independent contractors are paid on time. In a statement, Bronson emphasized that the state’s workforce has dramatically changed but labor laws have not kept pace. “The modern economy has led to the rise of individual workers being classified - or intentionally misclassified - as “independent contractors” or “freelancers.” Many of these independent contractors do the same work as traditional employees, and in some cases participate in work alongside traditional employees, yet they are not afforded the same wage, hour, and benefit protections under the law as their traditionally employed counterparts,” he said. “This increases their vulnerability to wage theft and creates barriers to health, retirement and other benefits traditional employees receive.” Bronson also said he is working on similar legislation to protect workers in the gig economy.

New York City had more than half a million independent workers last year, according to a May 2018 report by freelance online platform Fiverr, which partnered with Rockbridge Associates to analyze Census Bureau statistics. The report found that independent workers brought in $103 billion in revenue for the state between 2011-2015.

“Governor Cuomo was absolutely right to mention the issues facing freelance and independent workers in his 2019 agenda but it’s really disappointing that the issues seem to have fallen off the radar since then,” said Eli Dvorkin, policy director of the Center for an Urban Future, a nonprofit think tank.

Dvorkin said the state’s social security net hasn’t kept up with the changing economy and that the state can’t “regulate our way out of this challenge” by solely focusing on issues such as protections against worker discrimination or how to classify an independent contractor. The state needs to take a proactive approach, he said, and could become “the leading state pioneering portable benefits, which would be a system of flexible benefits that are accessible to independent workers and that travel with workers as they move from job to job.”

No state across the country has passed legislation to establish portable benefits for independent workers, though a bill has twice been introduced in the Washington State legislature and Dvorkin speculated that it could soon pass. In New York, former Assemblymember Joe Morelle, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives last year, floated the idea of legislation on portable benefits but it seemed to fizzle away.

For legislators looking for inspiration, Dvorkin said a portable benefits program could feasibly be modelled after the Black Car Fund, which was created by the state Legislature in 1999 to provide workers compensation to livery car drivers.

“We developed this system 20 years ago. We just haven’t really updated it or done anything really focused on these issues since then,” Dvorkin said. The fund’s recently-exposed fiscal management issues notwithstanding, he said it provides the basic framework for mandating a surcharge, either in one sector or across different sectors, that would feed a fund for workers, giving them access to health insurance and workers compensation, among other benefits.

“Without being able to pool your needs with others in your situation, your costs are much higher,” Dvorkin said. “On a pretty basic level, we think the right approach would be one in which the clients, customers, are paying at least part of the cost of the benefits. That would make the system fair.”

He also urged the state to push the burgeoning tech sector to innovate solutions to providing benefits. He cited, for example, startups like Propel, which created an app to provide access to SNAP benefits, and Alia, designed by NDWA Labs, an arm of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, to give house cleaners access to benefits.

“Building out an architecture for the evolving economy that provides better worker supports and protection is a big task,” Council Member Lander said. “We’ve gotten started on it at the city level but we have a long way to go.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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