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Former Informant, Out; Candidate Indicted on Voter Fraud, In

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Hector Ramirez petitioning in the Bronx (photo via Facebook)

Bronx Assemblymember Victor Pichardo will no longer be facing former Assemblymember Nelson Castro, a onetime federal informant who helped dig up dirt on fellow electeds in an attempt to reduce charges he was facing for election-related perjury, in the upcoming Democratic primary.

Instead, Pichardo will again be opposed by Bronx activist Hector Ramirez, who is facing a 242-count indictment for voter fraud in relation to his activities in his last race against Pichardo.

According to the Bronx District Attorney’s office Ramirez has a date in court before Bronx Supreme Court Justice Steven Barrett on September 13, the day of the Democratic primary.

While Castro has dropped his plans to run, Ramirez presents a stiffer challenge to the incumbent as the former districts leader’s name has appeared on ballots in the Bronx for over 20 years and he recently challenged Pichardo in the special election to replace Castro in 2013 and during the Democratic primary in 2014.

Ramirez’s entrance into the race is another chapter for the 86th Assembly District, which has been rocked by scandal and infighting for years. Castro served two terms in the Assembly while also working as an informant before abruptly resigning in April 2013. Ramirez announced his candidacy in a press release on Tuesday night touting that he had filed three times the required signatures to get on the ballot.

Pichardo’s camp is expected to challenge Ramirez’s petitions, with the possibility of knocking him off the ballot.

Castro told Gotham Gazette that he decided to bow out of the race after collecting 2,300 signatures petitioning because it was difficult to raise money. He said he now expects to back Ramirez. “I decided to stay out, but I think I will be endorsing Hector Ramirez,” Castro said. Asked if the indictment against Ramirez concerns him at all, Castro replied: “I haven’t endorsed yet. He’s not guilty until proven guilty in a court of law.”

Ramirez, who has clashed with county Democrats, is positioning himself as a man of the people running against Pichardo, who he has labeled the establishment candidate and an outsider. "[T]he first step in having our voice and concerns heard in Albany is allowing the people of the district to exercise their constitutional right of electing whomever they want fighting for them in Albany, not a poppet [sic] imposed by politicians," Ramirez said in the statement.

Pichardo reacted to Ramirez’s announcement by requesting the Department of Justice monitor the contest. "This announcement is yet another example of both Hector Ramirez’s contempt for the law and his lack of respect for the voters of the 86th Assembly district,” Pichardo said in a statement.

In 2014, dozens of witnesses told the Bronx DA office that Ramirez and his staffers duped them into handing over their absentee ballots - some of which Ramirez’s staff then filed as votes for their candidate. After the first tally Ramirez led Pichardo by 11 votes out of over 3,500 ballots cast. A hand recount put Pichardo ahead by only two votes.

At the time, Ramirez accused Pichardo of election fraud because Pichardo’s mother was active as a poll worker in the district. Further, Ramirez and other candidates complained that levers were missing on voting machines making it impossible to cast a ballot for Ramirez. The Board of Elections said that anyone who encountered a problem was offered a paper ballot.

Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, chair of the Bronx County Democrats, said he believes Pichardo will defeat any challenge because “Victor brings integrity to the job.” He said, “The Bronx deserves better than this continual parade of candidates with clouds around them.”

Crespo added that he thinks candidates should wait to run until “their legal issues are behind them.”

Ramirez was not immediately made available for an interview for this story.

Castro said he feels Pichardo and Ramirez have something to settle. “It’s a matter of principle. Hector won those elections but apparently after they counted paper ballots Pichardo won by two votes. I decided to stay out to let them duke it out. They have something there to work out.”

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

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Cuomo is Keeping New York from Emulating California, De Blasio Says

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De Blasio & Cuomo in 2014 (photo: Rob Bennett, Mayor's Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio has repeatedly voiced his frustration with his fellow Democrat, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who he says has worked with Senate Republicans in the state Legislature to stymie his agenda and major progressive legislation. In an interview with Harry Siegel of the Daily News late last month, the mayor said Cuomo could have “done a lot more to avert” the “divided government in Albany,” where Democrats control the Assembly and Republicans the Senate.

De Blasio said that New York could be more like California “where Democrats have consolidated power and have done some remarkable things with it.”

The mayor’s comments come as his allies face two investigations for improper fundraising in efforts to win the Senate for Democrats in 2014 and after a legislative session during which Cuomo worked with Senate Republicans to pass a budget containing a $15 minimum wage phase-in and a comprehensive paid family leave program. Cuomo and the Legislature also allocate hundreds of millions of dollars each year to fund de Blasio’s signature pre-kindergarten program.

And yet, de Blasio’s sentiments are not unique, many Democrats feel Cuomo has empowered Senate Republicans in order to prevent the passage of a full slate of progressive legislation that could in theory alienate his moderate and conservative backers, including those upstate, on Long Island, and in New York City. The mayor and Assembly Democrats have a fairly long list of specific policy and funding grievances.

By pointing to California, de Blasio offered up a measuring stick. At first glance it would appear that California and New York are neck-and-neck on progressive issues. Both states have passed marriage equality, a $15 minimum wage plan, and paid family leave.

But progressive critics of the governor say he has failed to fully go to bat on reforms that would actually change how state government works, modernize voting and elections, and advance immigration and criminal justice policies opposed by conservatives. California has implemented a variety of these policies since 2010.

Cuomo allies say criticism the governor faces on these issues is unfair and comes mainly from the sharp edge of success - that critics say because he achieved some major policy victories he should achieve them all, while also winning the Senate for Democrats.

“I have my real disagreements with the governor and then there's individual achievements that are absolutely progressive and very meaningful,” de Blasio told Siegel. “But on the question of ‘Have we created a unified Democratic Party to have the maximum Democratic leadership and the maximum progressive policy of state?’ Of course not. Not even close.”

The de Blasio administration failed to respond to multiple inquiries about which specific policies California has enacted that he feels New York should emulate, but a number of his allies and political experts say California is in fact far ahead of New York on a number of progressive issues. These include immigration reforms like the DREAM Act and drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants; criminal justice reform measures like providing college education for inmates and laws to address holding police accountable for the deaths of civilians; and election reforms like independent redistricting and open primaries.

Meanwhile, in New York, Cuomo has enacted what many progressive analysts see as austerity measures, such as strictly limiting agency spending and instituting a property tax cap for municipalities, something California Governor Jerry Brown has moved away from. The Cuomo administration declined to comment for this article without the de Blasio administration listing which policies from California the mayor wants to see in New York.

Even beyond de Blasio, Cuomo’s relationship with progressive Democrats remains complicated. He’s had well-publicized roller coaster relationships with the Working Families Party and with the Legislature’s Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus. Administration officials point out that the governor has backed the DREAM Act and various criminal justice measures that are in place in California only to have Senate Republicans reject them. But de Blasio’s point to Siegel and that of many other Democrats is that Cuomo has ensured Senate Republicans are in the position to block those bills.

“I think a lot of the governor’s proposals are holograms so that he can come downstate and say ‘I suggested college for inmates,’ but he can also go upstate and say ‘I listened to your concerns and the bill didn’t pass,’” said Dr. Christina Greer, professor of political science at Fordham University.

Bill Samuels, head of EffectiveNY, longtime Democratic fundraiser and Cuomo critic, said that the governor has repeatedly failed to help Democrats win the state Senate and by doing so is responsible for failed progressive policies.

“We are way behind states like California and Oregon,” said Samuels. “It’s pathetic, if we had elected a Democratic Senate and had a different governor we would at least be considered a progressive state.There are exceptions, the governor came on strong with marriage equality, guns, and the minimum wage. So we aren’t like Mississippi, he’s done good things.”

But Samuels says one of Cuomo’s first major moves - deciding to abandon a push to take the 2010 electoral redistricting out of the hands of the Legislature - ensured he would have Senate Republicans as governing partners for the foreseeable future. Samuels notes that the plan Cuomo signed off on allowed Republicans to gerrymander Senate districts to dilute Democratic centers upstate and in the city while creating a 63rd Senate seat that they could easily win. “It was the most backward, bizarre redistricting in the United States,” said Samuels.”California took the redistricting process away from the Legislature and now they have an un-gerrymandered process.”

Cuomo’s deal with the Legislature also included a promise that the Legislature would vote to amend the constitution to allow an independent commission to draw districts starting in 2020.

California put redistricting of state-level seats in the hands of a citizens redistricting commission after a proposition vote in 2008. In 2010, Californians approved a proposition tasking the commission with drawing congressional districts.

Greer noted that when evaluating de Blasio’s and Cuomo’s governing approaches it is important to recognize they have distinctly different constituencies. Cuomo works within the bounds created by his and is aided in doing so by having a Republican Senate, she said. “The governor has a conservative base across the state. If you look at the electoral map the city may be progressive, but the rest of the map is still very red.”

Samuels said that de Blasio is right to focus on putting Democrats in charge of the Senate and that he has done more to champion progressive ideas in the state than Cuomo. “De Blasio may have been naive and been too transparent in his [2014] bid to win a Democratic Senate,” said Samuels. “He should have used burner phones and emails like the Cuomo administration does, but regardless I applaud him for doing it and he was right to do it.”

Senate Republicans continue to use de Blasio as a boogeyman in their quest to hold their control of the Senate. “Allowing these New York City radicals to have unchecked power over our entire state, especially in light of the U.S. Attorney and Manhattan D.A.'s investigations into the fundraising scandal they hatched two years ago, would be a disaster for the hardworking taxpayers and families who call New York home,” Senate Republican spokesman Scott Reif told Politico New York for a Tuesday article about de Blasio’s distance from this year’s Senate contests. Democrats are hoping to swing the chamber by riding Hillary Clinton’s voter turnout coattails and many are eager to see how involved Cuomo gets.

Karthick Ramakrishnan, professor and associate dean at University of California Riverside, told Gotham Gazette that Gov. Brown spent his early years in office playing a fiscal conservative and threatening and delivering vetoes of bills he felt weren’t fiscally responsible. But as the economy has flourished Brown has welcomed more progressive legislation.

Ramakrishnan said there is no doubt that a host of progressive legislation has passed California’s Legislature since Democrats won a supermajority in both houses in 2012 - major immigration and electoral reforms put the state far ahead of New York in those areas from a progressive standpoint - but he notes that there were other factors at play besides party control.

Gov. Brown has made it clear that he has no higher political ambitions, he will be term-limited out of office when his current term ends, Ramakrishnan said. Cuomo, however, has no term limits and announced he plans to run for a third term; is active in national politics; and believed by many close to him to still have ambitions for the White House. “Brown has declared he has no further political ambition so there is not much tension between him and other Democrats,” Ramakrishnan said, noting that de Blasio might also hold broader political ambitions that may have irked Cuomo.

Another quirk in California politics that Ramakrishnan points to as allowing for more progressive legislation is a ballot provision that passed in 2010 that did away with a previous requirement that the state budget be passed with a two-thirds majority. The ballot provision now requires a majority of legislators to support the budget. “Removing the supermajority rule really opened things up,” Ramakrishnan said. In the past, he said, “The legislature had to come up with carefully crafted compromises to even pass a budget and those deals prevented other [more progressive] legislation from passing.”

The situation sounds similar to Albany’s budget process where leaders trade on a host of issues and in some cases give away the chance to vote on major legislation to make sure they achieve top priorities in the budget. Having Senate Republicans on his side on certain issues during negotiations has helped Cuomo stop the Assembly’s push for progressive legislation that he does not support.

Another major factor Ramakrishnan points to in California’s progressive surge is changing demographics across the state. Ramakrishnan said a number of safe Republican districts saw an influx of immigrants and Democratic voters over the last decade.

“We’ve had the DREAM Act in since 2011, but most of the major immigration laws were passed in the last four years,” said Ramakrishnan. “It took a long time to build coalitions outside of the big cities like Los Angeles and it took demographic change in counties that used to be safe for Republicans.”

Senate Democrats have long touted demographic changes on Long Island as the key to what they see as their inevitable takeover of the chamber. Democrats recently won the Long Island seat formerly held by Republican Sen. Dean Skelos for two decades. Although Skelos’ corruption conviction likely played a major role in swaying voters, Democrats say a victory there might not have been possible if the demographics there hadn’t been trending Democratic for years.

Finally, Californians have the ability to put major issues before voters through ballot propositions, thereby bypassing the Legislature, which can take much longer to process an issue.

Sen. Jose Peralta, a Democrat from Queens, said he hopes Cuomo will be involved in campaigning for Senate Democrats this year. “I feel the governor is our leader and as a Democrat he should step up to the plate and help us gain the majority,” said Peralta. “It's in his best interest to move progressive issues like immigration and affordable housing. I hope the governor will take a lead role in helping Democrats win the Senate this year just as he is making sure Hillary [Clinton] becomes President.”

Asked if he supported a full Democratic takeover of the Senate on Tuesday, Cuomo told reporters that it is “too early for any political conversation about that," instead indicating he is focused on Clinton and the upcoming Democratic National Convention that he is attending, and may be speaking at. Elections determining control of the state Senate are four months away - the same day as Clinton’s likely face-off with Republican Donald Trump.

A look at major progressive issues and where they stand in New York and California:

Paid Family Leave
This year New York passed a 12-month paid family leave program that has been praised as the most “generous” in the nation. The program won’t be fully phased in until 2021.

California passed its six-week paid family leave program in 2002 and it went into operation in 2004.

Cuomo touted his support for the DREAM Act, a program that would give undocumented students access to college tuition aid, during campaign stops in the city and made it part of his State of the State agenda, but he has said very little about it when the Legislature is in session and made no dramatic public push for the bill. Senate Republicans have made blocking the DREAM Act a major part of their reelection campaigns.

Brown signed California’s Dream Act into law in October of 2011. Since then he has signed a series of major immigration reform bills. In 2013 Brown signed a bill that allowed undocumented immigrants to apply for drivers’ licenses. The last time a New York Governor pushed for drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants was in 2007, under former Gov. Eliot Spitzer. The backlash against the proposal from conservatives and even Democrats was so strong that Spitzer dropped the plan.

This year Brown signed a bill that allows undocumented immigrants to buy health care on the state exchange created under the Affordable Care Act - making California the first state to offer that kind of coverage. New York offers undocumented immigrants emergency Medicaid and coverage for end-stage cancer and renal disease.

“I think it's very hard for the Governor to go into these economically depressed areas upstate and tell them he supports a bill to help immigrants that they see as undermining their already very tenuous way of life,” said Dr. Greer, of Fordham.

Sen. Gustavo Rivera, a Bronx Democrat, said that the first step for New York to achieve what California has on immigration reform would be for Democrats to take control of the Senate. But it wouldn’t end there. “We would also have to move conservative Democrats on these issues, we’d have to move the needle,” Rivera said, adding that he thinks Senate Democrats could move the DREAM Act during a first year in the majority, but acknowledged it isn’t a sure thing.

Peralta agreed, saying, “A Democratic majority gets the ball rolling in New York State.” But he warned, “We won’t be able to move everything at once. There are some issues that don’t play well in marginal districts upstate. We will have to tackle them in bite-size pieces - The DREAM Act one year, then drivers’ licenses the next.”

Minimum Wage
The two states appeared to be locked in a race to get to $15 per hour this year as both Brown and Cuomo pushed for a minimum wage increase - the governors signed their bills on the same day, April 4. But the bills are not equal: both call for incremental increases to the wage until finally reaching $15 - in California it will be 2022 before the wage is fully implemented; in New York it depends on where you live. Residents of New York City will have a $15 minimum wage by the end of 2018; Long Island and Westchester reach $15 to start 2022; while the rest of the state will reach $12.50 by the last day of 2020, with a 2019 panel to review the economic impact and able to halt the increase.

Election Reform
California adopted a new primary system in 2012 that allows the top two vote getters in primary races to move on the general election regardless of party affiliation. That move in combination with California’s citizen redistricting commission has opened up seats once kept in a stranglehold by incumbents.

Good government groups have pushed New York City to adopt nonpartisan primaries but there has yet to be significant movement. The idea is a nonstarter at the state level.

In October of last year, Brown signed an automatic voter registration bill that would have citizens registered to vote during visits to the DMV for drivers’ licenses or ID cards. Cuomo proposed a similar initiative in February during his State of the State speech, but met with opposition from Democratic lawmakers who worried registration would favor suburban and rural areas of the state where there are move drivers. Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, a Manhattan Democrat, suggested empowering other agencies to also register voters to create parity.

Criminal Justice Reform
Cuomo called for a review of the criminal justice system in the wake of the July 2014 death of Eric Garner during an NYPD stop. That review did not come about in the Legislature. Instead of passing legislation to create a special prosecutor to review police killings of unarmed civilians Cuomo issued an executive order empowering Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to take such cases out of the hands of the local district attorney.

Cuomo’s move was hailed by advocates who say local DAs are biased and unwilling to prosecute members of their local police force. But many advocates are still pushing for a similar system to be made law as executive orders can be undone. Senate Republicans have refused to consider any number of criminal justice initiatives Cuomo has proposed, including raising the age of adult criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 (New York is one of only two states where it is 16, with North Carolina).

California does not have a special prosecutor system in place for police killings of civilians but last year Brown signed a law banning the use of grand juries in such cases. The move came in response to outcry that a grand jury refused to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo for Garner’s death. "The use of the criminal grand jury process, and the refusal to indict as occurred in Ferguson and other communities of color, has fostered an atmosphere of suspicion that threatens to compromise our justice system," state Sen. Holly Mitchell, a Democrat from Los Angeles who sponsored the bill, said in a statement at the time.

Cuomo has tried and failed to get the Republican state Senate to act on college for inmates, something California expanded in 2015 in a partnership with a number of community colleges. Cuomo instead put forward a privately financed plan this year.

Brown currently supports a ballot initiative that will come before voters this fall that is designed to reduce recidivism and revise how it is decided if youth are tried as adults.

Fiscal Policy
While Brown has been considered more fiscally conservative than some of his allies in the Legislature, he did sponsor a 2012 ballot proposition that raised taxes on high-income earners. His initiative merged two other ballot initiatives - including one from the California teachers union branded a “millionaire’s tax” that would have increased the personal income tax on those earning $1 million and more. Brown’s plan created four new upper-income brackets for those making $250,000, $300,000, $500,000 and $1,000,000. The new tax rates are supposed to last seven years. The plan also increased the state sales tax. A group of unions recently introduced a new proposition that would make the tax increases of Brown’s proposition permanent.

New York adopted a millionaire’s tax under Democratic Gov. David Paterson in 2009 that Cuomo partially renewed in 2011. It is now set to expire in 2017. Many unions have pushed to extend the tax as has the state Assembly.

Cuomo has fought back against any tax increases. De Blasio insisted his universal pre-k plan be funded by a New York City income tax hike on households earning more than a million dollars a year. Cuomo delivered the cash for the plan and not the tax - something de Blasio publicly lamented.

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

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Public Outcry Leads to Hearings On Hoosick Falls Water Contamination

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Cuomo tours Hoosick Falls water filtration system with Senator Marchione (Photo: The Governor's Office)

Earlier this week Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie announced that the Assembly will hold public hearings on water quality in early September. The hearings are considered a long-overdue victory for environmental advocates and victims of water contamination emergencies across the state, such as in Suffolk County, Petersburgh, Newburgh, and most notably, in the village of Hoosick Falls. It was also seen as a potentially embarrassing development for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration, which has fought off the perception that it failed to act quickly enough to address contamination in Hoosick Falls.

On Friday afternoon Senate Republicans announced they will also hold hearings into water contamination in Hoosick Falls.

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan wrote in a statement that the "New York State Senate will hold public hearings in an effort to explore the sources of water contamination, examine state and federal oversight issues, and determine how we can prevent this from happening in the future. The first of those hearings will take place in Hoosick Falls. It goes without saying that we welcome the opportunity to partner with the Assembly to maximize the focus on this important issue."

Shortly after the Assembly hearings were announced this week, Politico NY reported that a congressional oversight committee has sought records from the Cuomo administration detailing its response to the water crisis in Hoosick Falls. Meanwhile, major New York electeds such as Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and Republican Rep. Chris Gibson have called for hearings on the federal level. Gillibrand met with Hoosick Falls residents on Friday for a roundtable on PFOA, the chemical that has contaminated the drinking water there.

“There's been a lot of work. A lot of moms in Hoosick Falls, we've been working together for weeks on this, taken to social media, holding news conferences, talking to local media,” Michele Baker, a local Hoosick Falls resident and staunch advocate for government action on this issue, told Gotham Gazette. “All to get our message out that for eighteen months, the Cuomo administration knew that our water was unsafe to drink, but they continued to allow us to drink it. We want the truth, and the truth is coming hopefully in the form of hearings.”

Hoosick Falls, a small village of 4,000 people in Rensselaer County, has been crippled by a water contamination crisis lasting almost two years to date. Concerns about the village’s water supply arose in 2014. Resident Michael Hickey asked to have the village’s water supply tested as early as August of 2014 for the manufacturing chemical perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), after his father died of kidney cancer. In November, water sampling results indicated PFOA levels of 180 parts per trillion to 540 parts per trillion; far greater than a provisional health advisory established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2009 of 400 parts per trillion, according to Hoosick Falls’ website. Yet, the EPA did not issue an official warning to the village against drinking the water until one year later, at the end of November 2015. The Cuomo administration delayed even longer, failing to classify PFOA as a hazardous substance and unlock State Superfund Site dollars to address the contamination until late January of this year. The governor pointed the finger at federal authorities and has said he doesn't think there is anything else the state could have done - a response that has intensified the calls for public legislative hearings.

In February, a bipartisan group of Assembly members announced that hearings on the Hoosick Falls water crisis would be held in April to examine the causes of water contamination issues statewide, as well as the government’s slow response to them. As April approached, however, support for the hearings essentially vanished. This sudden elimination of support may have been a product of private budget negotiations between the governor, the Assembly speaker, and the Senate majority leader, according to Politico NY.

On May 19, the EPA announced a new lifetime health advisory for PFOA, set at 70 parts per trillion. With the new advisory level, several other localities and communities across the country also suddenly found themselves with toxic drinking water, though the EPA still considers PFOA an unregulated chemical. This makes the advisory non-enforceable, and government response far from guaranteed.

“It's kind of surreal,” Baker said, of the daily challenges faced by residents who lack a safe source of water. “You totally take for granted going to the faucet in the morning to brush your teeth, to fill up the dog's bowl with water. So many times you go to the sink, and have to stop yourself, even six months into this year.”

Baker’s water comes not from the municipal water supply, but a private well, like thousands of other Hoosick Falls residents. In order to decontaminate her water supply, Baker had to have a private filter installed in her home, a process she said “was a mess. They weren't really sure what parts they needed, how to install them, how to get them to work.”

Amidst filters that continue to malfunction, long waits for PFOA test results of private wells, and ongoing bottled water rationing to residents from the local grocery store, the long-overdue hearings are apparently back on. They will be held by the state Assembly in Albany and Suffolk County in early September. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie appears to fully support the hearings, stating in the announcement, "Recent reports of water contamination in municipalities across the state have highlighted the need for a thorough review of measures to ensure clean and healthy water in our communities.”

For Liz Moran of Environmental Advocates of New York, the hearings are an important first step in the prevention of future contamination issues. “We think it's important that what went wrong in Hoosick Falls, in Petersburgh, in Newburgh, is uncovered, to make sure that those mistakes don't happen again,” Moran told Gotham Gazette. “And to make sure that we learn from that experience, and we learn what to do going forward to make sure that we don't see any more water contamination in the state.”

Moran and others, however, agree that an important piece of the effort was previously missing without the state Senate’s support for the hearings. Moran recalls, “Senator Marchione earlier called for hearings, but since then she's been backtracking. And it's odd because she represents Hoosick Falls, and the residents in that community have been calling for hearings for as long as this has been going on. So we really hope the Senate heeds their call and joins the Assembly on this.”

Before the Senate committed to holding hearings, Baker also echoed this sentiment, saying, “No one knows, except Senator Kathy Marchione and Senate Leader John Flanagan, why they will not call for Senate hearings. It's unfortunate, but I think everything else has fallen into place under public pressure." Senator Marchione’s office did not respond to Gotham Gazette’s request for comment.

Perhaps in response to this "public pressure" the Senate finally stepped in on July 8, when Majority Leader Flanagan announced they would also be holding hearings, the first of which will take place in Hoosick Falls. The hearings are scheduled in August, prior to the Assembly's September hearings, most likely to make up for the Senate's delayed response to address residents' concerns. Senate Republicans enjoy a close relationship with Cuomo and many believe they had been working to shield the Governor from potentially embarrassing hearings.

While the August and September hearings appear to be focused on the prevention of future water contamination issues in the state, the federal government is also initiating a probe into the response of the EPA and state and county health departments to the Hoosick Falls contamination issue. According to the Times Union, the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform sent letters to both Cuomo and the EPA on Wednesday, calling for information about their responses to the crisis. According to ABC News, the Committee wrote to Cuomo that it will be “looking into whether residents received misleading information that indicated the water posed no health risks, which exacerbated the crisis."

On Thursday, Cuomo spokesperson James Allen responded to the House Committee’s letter with the Governor’s willingness to cooperate with the investigation, albeit attempting to take some of the blame for the situation off the state level. “We will gladly share our experience in New York to clarify the facts and the steps we have taken to address these challenges,” Allen said in a statement. “We hope the end result is that Congress and the federal government act swiftly to prioritize and to implement uniform, nationwide regulations of PFOA and similar, currently unregulated contaminants. No town, city, or state should have to fear the water they are drinking. With clear federal regulations, we can achieve that goal.”

Moran praised the federal probe, saying “The residents in Hoosick Falls have been very dismayed, and really don't trust the government right now. They are frustrated that the pollution was supposedly known by the state for well over a year before they learned anything about it. So hopefully this probe will give them some answers and solace.”

Even if residents get the answers they desire, Baker feels it unlikely that relations will ever go back to normal between Hoosick Falls and the government, especially regarding the water supply, saying “many, many, residents will never trust it.”

Current and former residents in Hoosick Falls and other communities continue to struggle with the health effects of water contamination, many of which, like the cancers PFOA has been linked too, are irreversible. Baker stressed that water contamination is an issue that affects everyone at a personal level; “This didn't need to happen to my family and friends,” she said. “Every resident in Hoosick Falls now carries some measure of PFOA in their blood; and not by choice.”

by Amanda Sherwin, Gotham Gazette

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Note: this article has been updated with news of the Senate hearings.

Assembly to Begin Implementation of Technology-Based Reforms

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photo via The Governor's Office

Earlier this year, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie announced he would implement a series of recommendations -- proposed by the Assembly Workgroup on Legislative Process, Operations and Public Participation -- designed to increase transparency, efficiency and participation in the chamber. Some of those changes were voted on as rules reforms, others were made as pledges. But many of them that deal with technology, like a revamp of the Assembly’s website, posting more information about bills and committee hearings online and broadcasting hearings, were not implemented during the legislative session.

Assembly Democrats say staffers will begin implementing those technological improvements between now and the next session that begins in January. “It was difficult for the staff to work on these things while in session but now that legislative work is wrapped up they will begin to put many of these things in place,” Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh a Manhattan Democrat and co-chair of the 12-member workgroup that came up with the recommendations, told Gotham Gazette. “Now that we are in the off session we will be looking to get as many of these things in place as soon as possible.”

He stressed, however, that there is no “item-by-item deadline” to implement the reforms. Heastie’s office did not return requests for comment.

Assembly Republicans have criticized Kavanagh and his taskforce for taking nearly a year to recommend a series of “common sense” changes that don’t actually reform the power structure of the Assembly. They say the Assembly Democrats didn’t seek input on rules changes and have not kept them updated on implementation.

“They worked a whole year supposedly and came up with things that aren't particularly brave, that don’t change the power dynamic and (don’t) give members the ability to move their own legislation,” said Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, a Republican from Canandaigua, to Gotham Gazette.

Some of the technology-focused changes the Assembly pledged to implement include making the functionality of the legislature’s bill-tracking system available to the public; creating a web portal that includes all information related to bills, including committee actions and evaluations by outside groups; the creation of a C-Span like legislative television channel; making the content of the legislative library searchable online and modernizing the Assembly’s phone system to include digital voicemail boxes.

"The recommendations put forth by the work group are thoughtful and comprehensive," Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle said in a statement in March when the reforms were released. "These measures build on the steps that we have taken recently to introduce technology into our operations. While these new changes will take some time to put into operation, this investment will increase efficiencies as well as provide greater transparency and accountability."

The workgroup came together in the wake of the indictment of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on multiple federal corruption charges last year. Heastie, in his bid to replace Silver, promised to appoint a group that would look at changing how the Assembly operates.

Many good government groups had the expectation that the workgroup's proposals would help empower individual members while decreasing the speaker’s ability to control all legislation, something they saw as playing into the charges against Silver, who had long resisted calls for basic technological changes to increase transparency. The Senate Republican Majority made these changes long ago.

Those advocacy groups welcomed the workgroup’s eventual recommendations but saw them as failing to deal with the issues that lead to Silver’s indictment. “Watching this process is like watching paint dry,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “They’ve done some good things but they haven't tackled anything to do with reforming the flaws in the system. It fits in with the overall Albany reaction to recent scandals, which has been to do nothing. Little has happened in the Assembly or in the Senate since Silver’s indictment that would really change anything. The name of the game has been public relations.”

John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, said he has faith that the Assembly will make good on promised changes in a timely fashion. “Speaker Heastie has every reason to get this right to show he is a good manager and sincere leader,” Kaehny said. “He is under intense scrutiny by the press and watchdog groups and will lose a great deal of credibility if he can't manage to get these fairly modest improvements done on-time."

As much as Assemblymember Kavanagh would like things implemented quickly, he also wants to make sure any changes are worthwhile. “We need to do it right,” he said, “and make sure we create a high functioning system.”

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

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Rangel’s Replacement Decided, Other Uptown Races Take Shape

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Espaillat & co at unity press conference (photo via @EspaillatNY)

After 46 years and 23 terms, voters in the 13th Congressional District in Harlem have chosen someone other than Rep. Charles Rangel to represent them. The retiring 86-year-old, a legendary figure in Harlem’s political scene, appeared to want to extend his legacy by keeping the seat he had held for decades in the hands of an experienced politician of his choosing, but changing community demographics, a 2012 redistricting, and a crowded 2016 Democratic primary field seem to have thwarted his efforts.

State Senator Adriano Espaillat, who lost to Rangel in the 2012 and 2014 Democratic primaries, appears to have edged out a 1,200-vote win over his closest challenger and Rangel’s prefered successor, Assemblymember Keith Wright. After initially refusing to concede, calling for every vote to be counted, and demanding a federal investigation into voter suppression, Wright declared Espaillat the winner on Thursday. Rangel, Espaillat, and Wright held a unity meeting and press conference, with Espaillat saying he expected to have Rangel as a mentor.

Espaillat would be the first Dominican and the first formerly undocumented member of Congress. His win gives a boon to Hispanic political power, in New York City and elsewhere, while also showing a decline the strength of black political power in Harlem and nearby. In this heavily Democratic district, the winner of the party primary is a lock to win the November general.

The outcome has other implications, too, especially around the state Legislature, with a game of musical chairs appearing to commence.

While every vote in the NY-13 race is indeed counted, Espaillat’s apparent congressional victory lends clarity to the race for his state Senate seat and raises questions about Wright’s political future.

Wright, who chairs the powerful Assembly housing committee, pledged in early June not to seek reelection to his Assembly seat should he lose and challenged Espaillat to promise not to run for his Senate seat should his bid fall short. Espaillat’s camp dismissed the pledge as “desperate.” State legislative primaries are in September.

Contenders have lined up for both seats. Micah Lasher, a former chief of staff to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, launched a campaign last month with the caveat that he would drop out if Espaillat lost his congressional bid and sought reelection to the Senate. With Espaillat’s victory Lasher now seems locked in for a primary battle against former City Council Member Robert Jackson, who challenged Espaillat in 2014. Jackson endorsed Wright in the congressional primary and attended Thursday’s press conference.

So far that race has featured Jackson attacking Lasher for his previous work for education reform group StudentsFirstNY, a pro-charter school group that has campaigned against Senate Democrats. Lasher’s camp has in turn pointed out that Lasher has personally supported Democratic candidates. Lasher has been consolidating support among many elected Democrats, though the race will gain even more clarity now that Espaillat's future is clear.

Less clear is the future of Wright’s Assembly seat. Wright endorsed City Council Member Inez Dickens to replace him (she was also at Thursday’s press conference), but with his loss many Harlem insiders wonder if Wright could renege on his promise. Wright may decide, though, to run for the Council seat Dickens is said to be leaving. There is plenty of chatter about Wright positioning himself to challenge Espaillat in two years, especially if he can work to ensure that there are fewer other black candidates in the running.

On Wednesday, Wright’s campaign invited reporters to an event featuring Wright and Rev. Al Sharpton, who had held a fiery rally condemning Wright’s opponents last weekend. Wright didn’t appear at the event and Sharpton struck a conciliatory tone, asking the district to come together to support Espaillat - which is what happened on Thursday.

“We need to have a climate of coming together, and not of acrimony and rancor that pits communities against communities inside the district,” Sharpton told reporters. Espaillat’s statement on Wednesday echoed Sharpton’s pleas for unity. “To those who voted for one of my worthy opponents - I pledge to work my heart out to represent you, knowing that our district is not a Latino or black or Asian district. It's a district that belongs to all of us, and we simply cannot succeed unless all of us are moving forward together," Espaillat said.

According to The Observer, Charlie King, Wright’s top advisor, who did attend the event on Wednesday, appeared to dismiss the possibility of Wright positioning himself for a future congressional run. “I either see him in Congress, or I see him hanging out with me in the private sector, having fun and going to the beach,” he said. “I would anticipate that whoever wins this race will likely hold the seat for years to come.”

What Wright does about his Assembly seat is the next shoe to drop as the Lasher-Jackson Senate race heats up. Dickens was an active supporter of Wright’s congressional campaign and appears keen to move to the Assembly. She will be term-limited out of the Council at the end of 2017. There are no term limits for state legislators, Wright has served in the Assembly since 1992. Neither Wright’s nor Dickens’ representatives responded to requests for comment for this story.

The practice of trading City Council and state legislative seats is fairly common and easily achievable due to the facts that almost all races in New York City are decided during the Democratic primary and city and state elections do not occur in the same years. Current Council Member Inez Barron ran for her husband Charles Barron’s Council seat after he was term-limited out of office - he then successfully ran for her Assembly seat the following year.

The practice has an extremely high success rate because the Democratic County Committees have major sway in who runs and gets political and financial backing. Wright is the head of the Manhattan Democrats and would likely be able to maneuver himself into an easily winnable race should he choose to do so.

If he does indeed decline to seek re-election, his replacement will be chosen in September’s primary (agian, by virtue of the fact that there is virtually no Republican presence in Upper Manhattan). If Dickens were to win the seat, she would leave the Council and Wright could then run in the special election to replace her.

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

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Assessing the Aftermath: Top Takeaways for NYC from 2016 Albany Session

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De Blasio and Cuomo in 2014; photo via The Governor's Office

Mayor Bill de Blasio has made it clear that he feels like he’s often fighting for New York City’s interests against both Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state Senate Republicans, with Assembly Democrats as his key allies. In his initial statement reacting to the recent end of the 2016 legislative session in Albany, de Blasio put a thank you to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and company at the forefront, never mentioned Cuomo, and gave his take on what he assessed as a mixed bag for the city.

For his part, Cuomo argues that the city made out quite well and, in harshly worded statements to the media, his aides say that the governor, raised in Queens, very much looks out for the city, but has little respect for the mayor. It can often be hard to separate the mayor from his agenda and the interests of the city, and in assessing the outcomes of the legislative session for New York City, it’s clear that de Blasio’s rivalries with Cuomo and Senate Republicans affected policy decisions.

Still, while de Blasio did see several disappointing results out of Albany this year, like another one-year extension of mayoral control of city schools, there was a lot for the city to celebrate, including wage and benefit legislation that the mayor and his fellow Democrats had wanted. The city appears to have made out much better in the state budget than in the post-budget portion of the session and final deals reached in mid-June.

There are long lists of outcomes that de Blasio and his allies are pleased with and not; but what the six-month session made abundantly clear is that state lawmakers, including the governor, are nowhere near ready to relinquish the substantial powers they wield over the city. The session was marked by important policy debates; political rivalries; and the news of an investigation into de Blasio, his aides and allies, that originated with the state Board of Elections’ enforcement counsel. That counsel, Risa Sugarman, is a former Cuomo aide, leading to finger pointing and conspiracy theories from de Blasio - drama added to the already-fraught dynamics.

As de Blasio regroups over the summer and state legislators prepare for fall elections, a look back at the 2016 legislative session in Albany shows the following top ten takeaways for New York City:

1. Gov. Cuomo is still able to bend Senate Republicans to pass progressive legislation. Mayor de Blasio and his progressive allies may have been somewhat shocked when the state budget, passed at the beginning of April, included a staggered minimum wage increase that could eventually reach $15 throughout the state and a paid family leave program. Both policies won Cuomo national accolades and appeared to many to be his attempt to coopt de Blasio’s position as the top progressive in the state. To get both things done Cuomo had to convince and cajole Senate Republicans to go along with two policies opposed by many in their base (he’d done this before, of course, with marriage equality and the SAFE Act). The minimum wage and paid family leave policies will have a major impact on New York City workers, especially those de Blasio has sought to lift up.

2. De Blasio is Cuomo’s enemy and Senate Republicans’ boogeyman. It was clear early in session that Senate Republicans saw de Blasio as a perfect foil, but it wasn’t clear how much ammo they would actually have or far they would go to deny him success in Albany. Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan held fast in his stance on mayoral control of schools and in the end de Blasio was only granted a second straight one-year extension. After de Blasio’s complaints on the subject, Cuomo shot back that the mayor was “lucky” to get one year. De Blasio had harsh words toward the governor at a recent press conference and Cuomo’s press office has been highly critical of the mayor.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans are outraged by revelations around de Blasio’s 2014 efforts to flip the Senate to Democrats and plan to tie 2016 Democratic opponents to the mayor in most contested Senate races this summer and fall. Voters in contested districts are likely to hear a lot about the “corrupt, liberal” mayor who is looking to control the Senate and all of state government, to make the whole state like New York City. It’s unlikely Cuomo will do much to help Senate Democrats, something de Blasio has been critical of in the past and in recent comments. Senate control has major implications for New York policy-making, of course, as de Blasio recently discussed in an interview with Harry Siegel of the Daily News, where he said that New York could be like California, if Cuomo was to push for that.

3. Mayoral control of schools will be an election-year issue for de Blasio. Winning a one-year extension of mayoral control means de Blasio will have to look to Albany for another extension next year - as he faces reelection. With his poll numbers dropping and corruption investigations swirling it becomes more likely he will face a primary challenge. Expect de Blasio’s handling of schools to be a hot topic in Albany and in the mayoral race. De Blasio’s critics continue to point to his opposition to charter schools and raise questions about his handling of the city’s most troubled schools.

4. De Blasio owes Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. The Democratic Assembly Speaker from the Bronx went to bat for de Blasio in the chamber’s budget proposal - pushing a six-year extension of mayoral control of schools - and later appeared to hold up budget negotiations while fighting for renewal, until de Blasio relented to the compromise that was reached. In 2009 Heastie was the lead Assembly sponsor of a bill that would have crippled mayoral control, so it doesn’t appear he was fighting for the renewal on principle. De Blasio will have to continue to nurture his relationship with Heastie as many other Democrat legislators express a similar refrain: “it isn’t easy being the mayor’s friend.”

On a variety of issues it is clear that Heastie and his fellow Assembly Democrats from the city are the city’s biggest advocates and the mayor’s top allies. In reacting to the end of session, de Blasio released a statement saying, “With the leadership and commitment of Speaker Heastie and his Assembly colleagues, New York City secured a series of important State commitments that will improve lives across our five boroughs.”

5. State leaders appear increasingly interested in curtailing the city’s autonomy. In reaction to the city’s plan to impose a five cent fee on paper and plastic bag shopping bags, the Senate moved legislation that would have banned any locality from instituting such a law. The Assembly was headed in that direction but Heastie cut a deal with City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to delay implementation of the plan so that the Council could amend it to the Assembly’s liking and explore other changes.

Cuomo has moved to limit the city’s ability to implement its affordable housing plans; instituted greater oversight of city homeless shelters; decided to open new state police barracks near City Hall; and created a new agency in the budget that could allow him to take over major capital projects. Critics see the new agency as an end run around the MTA board.

6. The feud between Cuomo and de Blasio leaves affordable and supportive housing in an unpredictable state. Cuomo won $1.9 billion in funding for supportive and affordable housing in the state budget, but only $150 million of those funds were released in an agreement with legislative leaders by the end of session. Affordable and supportive housing advocates and providers say that without a long-term plan that details how the cash will be allocated in years to come it will be hard for builders to get funding for new construction.

Additionally, the 421-a tax abatement program meant to spur developers to build rental housing with mandated affordable housing included was not renewed. De Blasio continues to insist that a proposal he put forth should be adopted, while Cuomo says the building trades unions must be included in negotiating a deal. The mayor’s affordable housing plans are at risk without a new 421-a program.

7. The Assembly went to bat for the MTA. The governor’s executive budget proposal would have put off funding the MTA’s capital plan until the MTA ran out of current funding streams. The Assembly fought and won $2.9 billion in funding for the capital plan this year. It will be the first of four annual appropriations that will end up totalling $7.3 billion.

8. Major New York City-based infrastructure projects are on the move. It appears that major infrastructure projects, both inside and outside of New York City, will be key to Gov. Cuomo’s legacy. In the city, the state is moving ahead with improving JFK Airport, redeveloping LaGuardia Airport and Penn Station, expanding the Javits Convention Center, and building new MetroNorth stations in the Bronx.

9. Education funding debates continue, with more money headed to New York City. While many in New York City, including de Blasio, continue to call on the state to meet its obligations under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity court ruling, according to Gov. Cuomo’s office, “The FY 2017 Budget provides $24.8 billion in School Aid, the highest amount in history and a 6.5 percent increase over last year.” Much of it is headed to New York City, home to more than 40 percent of the state’s population. As part of the mayoral control extension deal, though, the city is now required to make its individual school funding formulas more available publicly.

10. Top city priorities left out. Less on de Blasio’s agenda, but more on those of city-based state legislators, who are overwhelmingly Democratic, are issues like criminal justice reform and the DREAM Act, which saw no movement this year.

Criminal justice issues were not a priority for Cuomo or Senate Republicans. While Cuomo's January State of the State address included mentions of the campaign to raise the age of adult criminal responsibility and efforts to encode into state law a special prosecutor in the case of police shootings of unarmed civilians, neither appeared to ever become a major priority for Cuomo, who focused on minimum wage and paid family leave at the start of session and a variety of other issues after the budget, while also dealing with the developing federal investigation into his economic development programs. Both criminal justice reform initiatives, among others, are largely popular in the Assembly and New York City, but not in the Senate.

The DREAM Act, another priority of New York City Democrats, won’t pass as long as Senate Republicans hold the chamber - or until Cuomo forces it through: Advocates for legislation to give undocumented students access to tuition assistance haven’t given up their fight but they know Senate Republicans have touted their opposition to the bill successfully during the last few election cycles. They also know that Cuomo can move mountains when he wants to - the governor had included the DREAM Act in his budget bills, but has not campaigned on the issue since his 2014 reelection bid.

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

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Ben Max contributed writing.

With Controversy Brewing, State Pay Commission Moves Toward Recommendations

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The state pay commission (photo by Meg O'Connor)

A commission tasked with examining the compensation of state lawmakers and executive branch officials met for the fifth time Tuesday, and all seven commissioners agreed that heads of state agencies deserve a significant raise. However, the meeting was adjourned without the commissioners examining the salaries of statewide elected officials, and nothing was agreed upon during the brief and heated discussion of pay for Assembly members and state Senators.

The commission's recommendations are due in a little over four months, on Nov. 15, and Tuesday’s meeting was nearly called to an end without addressing legislators' pay at all, save for a remark by one commissioner. The commission agreed to discuss the controversial issue of Assembly member and Senator pay, which has gone unchanged since 1999, during the next meeting, on July 26. Tuesday's public meeting was an open discussion among commissioners that did not allow for any public testimony, and there will be no additional public hearings before the deadline.

The Compensation Commission set a tentative window for the top-earning agency commissioners’ annual salaries at somewhere between $175,000 and $200,000. These salaries have gone unchanged for the past 18 years - top-earning commissioners, like the head of the Department of Transportation, currently earn about $136,000 annually.

There was no vote on the matter, though, as the commission still needs to determine the exact number they will recommend, which they are likely to do when they meet at the end of July. Conversations about whether or not to phase in the salary increase are also ongoing.

As newly required by law, every four years - beginning June 2015 - the New York State Commission on Legislative, Judicial, and Executive Compensation is established to examine the compensation of state judges, legislators, statewide elected officials, and certain state officers. The commission is made up of seven commissioners - three appointed by the Governor, one by the Senate Majority Leader, one by the Assembly Speaker, and two by the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals. The commission must make its recommendations before November 15, 2016. The commission’s recommendations will automatically become law and go into effect on January 1, 2017, unless the Legislature specifically votes against the increases.

Tuesday’s meeting mainly examined compensation for members of the executive branch. Yet the salaries of the Governor and other statewide elected officials (which also have not been raised since 1999) went unaddressed during this meeting, and has not been thoroughly examined during past meetings or hearings. The commissioners seem generally confused as to whether they have the authority to recommend salary changes for the Governor and other statewide elected officials, like the Comptroller and the Attorney General, and questioned that while speaking amongst themselves before the meeting began.

The commission released its recommendations for the judiciary in December 2015, which included salary increases for judges phased in over a four-year period.

The compensation of state legislators, members of the Assembly and the Senate, who have not received a raise to their base salary of $79,500 since 1999, will be addressed at the next meeting. The subject was briefly raised, but the conversation turned tense and the meeting was adjourned shortly thereafter with little, if any, progress made on the issue.

The salaries in the executive branch dominated Tuesday’s discussion, with commissioners agreeing to set a “tentative window” for the salary of the so-called “A-level” commissioners (meaning those who currently have the highest compensation). The commission eventually landed on the $175,000-$200,000 window, and agreed to adjust the compensation of the lower-earning top agency officials proportional to the adjustment for top-earning commissioners.

“This shouldn’t simply be an inflation adjustment,” said commissioner Roman B. Hedges, former professor of political science and former deputy secretary of the state Assembly Committee on Ways and Means. The inflation adjustment for top-earning commissioners would be an increase of about 43 percent (to about $193,000) as their salaries have not been adjusted for almost two decades. “We should be thinking about how we can make this a compensation” that the commissioners deserve and that can attract the best people to public service, Hedges added.

Sheila Birnbaum, chair of the pay commission and co-head of the Global Products Liability and Mass Torts practice at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, suggested that the increase should raise the salaries of top-earning commissioners to somewhere “not as high as [comparable] New York City commissioners, but maybe at least somewhere between” that and the inflation adjustment. Many top-earning New York City commissioners earn about $220,000 annually.

“There’s a certain symbol in the $200,000 number,” Hedges said, “It’s still below what the judges are making, it’s still below what the city commissioners are making, and it’s more than inflation…we want to make sure that our executive agencies are staffed with people who can handle the breadth” of managing complex agencies.

“I understand the spirit of Hedge’s suggestion…but by my calculation that would be something like 47 percent,” said commissioner Gary Johnson, executive legal counsel at Medgar Evers College and former director of the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations. Johnson added that that sort of an increase might be politically unsavory.

“That will be incredibly difficult to sell,” said commissioner Fran Reiter, a former executive deputy director for State Operations under Governor Andrew Cuomo.

“I don’t have problem with the 200 number,” said commissioner Barry Cozier, senior counsel in the litigation practice of LeClairRyan, “but I think, because we do have political considerations involved, and yes as pure percentage it’s a substantial increase,” perhaps “as with the judges, we should consider whether it should be a phase in over the years.”

“I personally feel that we should not be looking at a number under $195 for the A group,” Cozier added.

Reiter said she was “not comfortable” with that number, and called on the commission to be “realistic,” suggesting a range of $175,000-$180,000. “What we do here is ultimately going to be judged by the Legislature, who can negate what we do…and since we haven’t even begun to talk about what will be the most controversial issues that we face…we may very well come up with a number [for commissioners] that the Legislature is not going to be acceptive of if we don’t do the same for them,” Reiter cautioned.

The commissioners then agreed to “come up with a number for the A-level commissioners that would then be proportionally applied to the other commissioners,” in Johnson’s words, and decided to address whether the pay increase should be phased in over time or given all at once at the next meeting.

In the few minutes the “most controversial” issue of legislative compensation was discussed, the conversation quickly became heated. Legislators earn $79,500 and haven’t had a raise in 17 years, but can earn unlimited outside income because the position is considered part-time. State lawmakers’ outside jobs have been the subject of heightened controversy in recent years, especially as former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was convicted on several federal corruption charges last year after trading official favors to pocket nearly $4 million in legal fees. Government reform advocates and Governor Cuomo have proposed significant limits on legislators’ outside pay while calling for their base salaries to increase dramatically in an attempt to limit corruption in state government.

On Tuesday, two commissioners (Reiter, appointed by Cuomo, and James Lack, a former state Senator appointed to the Commission by Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan) repeatedly cut each other off to shout at one another over the relevance of state lawmakers being classified as part-time or full-time.

The argument broke out when Reiter criticized lawmakers for not making the case to the commission that their work should be considered full-time: “No one, among the three [lawmakers] we’ve heard from, came here and said to us, ‘You know, the work we do is not just when we’re in Albany, we go back to our districts and here are the kinds of things we do, and that would have been a valid argument-“

“Oh, Fran, cut it out!” Lack interrupted, describing the work he and his colleagues did for their constituents when the Legislature was not in session and lawmakers returned to their districts. “Who cares” that three “junior” state legislators “didn’t bother to distinguish between full- and part-time,” Lack said, adding that while he was a legislator, “no one went around distinguishing between part-time and full-time.”

Reiter responded that the “reluctance of the state Legislature to make its own case pisses me off.” (Government reform advocates have repeatedly expressed that the commission should be as independent as possible and should not allow those whose salaries they are tasked with determining sway their opinion). “Sorry if you don’t get that,” Reiter added.

“Oh, I get it,” Lack responded. “I certainly get why they don’t want to come and see you.”

Tensions will likely remain high when the commission returns to discuss legislative pay on July 26. The meeting was adjourned almost immediately after the heated disagreement between Reiter and Lack. “We all knew that when we got to talking about the Legislature it’d get a little more heated - but we don’t have to get the heat this high!” said Birnbaum.

Leaders from government reform groups have testified at two of the commission’s prior public hearings, and agreed that the current salaries for state legislators are insufficient, but urged the commission to take into account the “stunning series of seemingly unending scandals” coming out of Albany, as Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, put it.

Both the commission and advocates agree that, having not received a salary increase since 1999, legislators ought to receive one, and that doing so could help attract strong candidates to public service. Yet, advocates also warned that the actual amount that legislators earn is more than their base salary, since lawmakers can also earn leadership stipends, per diems, and outside income given the “part-time” nature of the job.

“The Commission's recommendation should look at the base salary of legislators as part of a complete review of legislative compensation, including outside income and leadership stipends,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a government reform group, during a March 10 hearing. The Commission should also consider “the additional and often outrageous presence of money within New York's political system, such as elected officials' personal use of campaign funds, loopholes in campaign finance law, and the power and secrecy surrounding discretionary funding.”

Speaking amongst themselves before the meeting began, the commissioners seemed unclear as to whether or not they had the authority to recommend reforms to the way legislators are compensated.

“I’m not sure if lulus are part of the conversation,” said Hedges, referring to leadership stipends.

“I think that’s an important thing to confirm,” Reiter responded.

This is supposed to be a “basic salary change…that’s what the senators told me - now that’s just their interpretation of what it is that they passed,” Lack said of legislators and their legislation creating the commission.

The law passed last year did not grant the commission authority to make changes on reforms like limiting outside employment of elected officials, according to Horner. If the Legislature does not convene and specifically vote against the commission’s recommendations, the new salary levels will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2017. This will be for the new class of legislators chosen through November’s elections, many of whom will be the same individuals who currently hold the posts. There are no term limits in the state Legislature.

During next November’s general election, in 2017, voters will decide whether to call a Constitutional Convention. If called, the convention would convene in April, 2019, and could address whether the job of a state lawmaker should be changed to full-time, among many other issues that may be on the table.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has previously said that the compensation commission was not called to decide whether the Legislature should be full time. “I think what the commission in our minds was set up was, ‘what is the requisite pay and what is the pay scale?,’” Heastie said. “Those are the definitions. Other considerations around income are not what they’re charged to do.”

by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette

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New York Congressional Primary Results; Espaillat, Teachout Among Winners

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Adriano Espaillat (photo: @EspaillatNY)

New York voters chose congressional candidates in 13 primaries across the state on Tuesday, with seven of those contests taking place within New York City—all of which were Democratic. New York has 27 seats in the House of Representatives.

While the current New York City congressional delegation consists of 11 Democrats and one Republican, a makeup that is unlikely to change this year, results from key primaries in three swing districts outside the city have set the stage for races that could factor into which party controls the House after November’s elections.

In the most-watched and only competitive primary in New York City, nine candidates contended to be the Democratic nominee for New York’s 13th Congressional District, where longtime incumbent Charlie Rangel announced he will step down after 46 years in office. The district includes much of Upper Manhattan and some of the South Bronx. Because the district is overwhelmingly Democratic, the primary winner is a lock to become the next district representative in Congress.

State Senator Adriano Espaillat, who lost primary challenges to Rangel in 2012 and 2014, declared victory in NY-13, barely defeating Assemblymember Keith Wright. While Wright did not immediately concede, asserting that every vote must be counted and that efforts to suppress the vote of African-Americans must be investigated, NY1 projected Espaillat the winner just after 11 p.m., at which point 98% of precincts had reported their ballots and Espaillat held a lead of about 1,270 votes. The NY-13 vote was relatively high among expectedly low turnout affairs across the city and state, with about 43,000 votes cast -- Espaillat received about 15,700 (37%); Wright about 14,400 (34%).

Clyde Williams (11%) finished a somewhat distant third, followed by Adam Clayton Powell IV (6%), Guillermo Linares (5.5%), Suzan Johnson-Cook (5%), Michael Gallagher, Sam Sloan, and Yohanny Caceres.

Most New York City congressional primaries were marked by victories for incumbent candidates. Democrats Gregory Meeks of Queens; Nydia Velazquez of Brooklyn; Jerrod Nadler and Carolyn Maloney of Manhattan; and Jose Serrano of the Bronx kept their seats by wide margins in contested primaries. All are expected to win general election races in November, along with other Democrats, like Grace Meng and Hakeem Jeffries, who did not have primary challenges, and Republican Rep. Daniel Donovan, who was unopposed in the primary.

A key primary outside the city was the 19th Congressional District in the Hudson Valley and the Catskills, where current Republican Rep. Chris Gibson has announced he will retire this year. Zephyr Teachout defeated Will Yandik to clinch the Democratic nomination there, while John Faso won the Republican nomination over Andrew Heaney. Teachout and Faso are preparing for what could be a very competitive general election that may garner national attention and resources from the two major party apparatuses.

Democratic Rep. Steve Israel, who represents the state’s 3rd Congressional District on Long Island, will also retire at the end of this term. In the primaries, Thomas Suozzi defeated Jon Kaiman, Steve Stern, Jonathan Clarke, and Anna Kaplan to become the Democratic nominee. Suozzi will face Republican candidate Jack Martins in the general election.

Republican Rep. Richard Hanna of the 22nd Congressional District in Utica has also announced he will step down this year after three terms in office. In the district’s Republican primary, Claudia Tenney defeated George Philips and Steven Wells to become the nominee, and will run against Democratic candidate Kim Meyers in November.

As the November general election approaches, candidates on both sides of the aisle will be looking up the ticket at presidential nominees. The two major parties both have presumptive nominees from New York, Hillary Clinton for the Democrats and Donald Trump for the Republicans. The official nominating conventions are in July.

Come November, there will be one New York Senate race on the ballot, with incumbent Sen. Charles Schumer, a Democrat from Brooklyn, facing Republican challenger Wendy Long. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat who defeated Long in 2012, is not up for reelection this year.

The general election will take place November 8. Before the November election, New Yorkers will have a third primary election day, with state Assembly and Senate primaries on September 13. Few New York City-based races are expected to be competitive, but if Espaillat is indeed the winner in NY-13, his state Senate seat will be open and there are at least two Democrats, Micah Lasher and Robert Jackson, already in the running.

[See the details of New York primary voting results via WNYC here]

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Aaron Holmes contributed reporting.

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, June 27

New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

Tuesday is New York's second election day of 2016. In April, it was the presidential primaries; now, the congressional primaries. All of New York's 27 seats in the House of Representatives are up for election this year, though not all have competitive primaries since many incumbents are not being challenged from within their party. There are several long-time incumbents being challenged, though, and a few open seats with competitive primaries. In New York City, most of the focus is on the race in the thirteenth congressional district, where a long list of Democrats is attempting to replace retiring Rep. Charles Rangel. In a crowded field, anything can happen, but the two frontrunners are seen as being state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, who lost primary challenges to Rangel in 2012 and 2014, and Assemblymember Keith Wright, who has been endorsed by Rangel. Clyde Williams, a former aide to President Bill Clinton, received the endorsement of The New York Times. [Read more about the NY13 race and much more in our preview of Tuesday's primary day here.]

This week before the July 4 holiday weekend will also see continued efforts by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to highlight accomplishments of the recently-completed legislative session in Albany. On Monday Cuomo will lead the first of three legs of a motorcycle ride to raise awareness about the importance of breast cancer screenings - details below.

Mayor Bill de Blasio starts his week celebrating the recent Obama administration announcement of Stonewall Inn as the first LGBT national monument in the afternoon.

De Blasio spent Friday and Saturday in Indianapolis at the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors. He then participated in Sunday's Pride Parade back on the city. Cuomo also marched, and the two even spent some rare time in close proximity after presidential candidate Hillary Clinton joined the parade for a little while and all three could be seen marching near each other.

Meanwhile, it's another busy week at the City Council and there are several other 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?
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The run of the week in detail:

“On Monday, June 27, 2016, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo will launch the first-ever statewide breast cancer motorcycle ride to raise awareness of the disease across New York State. The ride supports Governor Cuomo’s comprehensive “Get Screened, No Excuses” campaign – the nation’s most aggressive effort to eliminate the barriers that often prevent women from getting screened, such as difficulty scheduling mammograms or burdensome insurance hurdles. Beginning in Kings Park on Long Island, Governor Cuomo, Sandra Lee, and hundreds of participants will ride motorcycles across the state to raise awareness about breast cancer and support families fighting against the disease. Legendary musician Billy Joel will also join the first leg of the ride on June 27. The second and third legs of the ride will take place on Friday, July 8 and Wednesday, July 13.”

At 11 a.m. Monday at City Hall, "Dozens of housing advocates and tenants will join with elected officials to announce a scathing new report that exposes statistical evidence of Airbnb’s negative impact on affordable housing in NYC." This, according to an advisory from the "Share Better" coalition. Public Advocate Letitia James is among those who will speak.

At noon on Monday at the Stonewall Inn, "Mayor de Blasio will join Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, and other elected leaders, advocates and New Yorkers in designating Stonewall Inn the first LGBT national monument."

Also at noon Monday at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism, Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment (MOME) Commissioner Julie Menin and J-School Dean Sarah Bartlett will hold a press event to announce a $1 million grant from MOME to the CUNY J-School.

At 12:30 p.m. Monday, City Council Members Carlos Menchaca, Stephen Levin, and Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, and others will hold a press conference on the steps of City Hall in response to the Supreme Court’s decision on President Obama’s immigration plan and rising anti-immigrant sentiment. The press conference is scheduled immediately before a hearing of the Committee on Immigration, which will focus on two resolutions that call for federal action for Syrian refugees and Ecuadorian earthquake survivors.

At the City Council on Monday:

  • At 1 p.m., the Committee on Environmental Protection will meet to discuss several bills.
  • Also at 1 p.m., the Committee on Juvenile Justice will hold an oversight hearing examining the Department of Investigation's report on the Administration for Children’s Services’ (ACS) Close to Home Initiative.
  • Also at 1 p.m., the Committee on Immigration will meet to discuss two recently introduced resolutions. The first calls on the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security “to designate Ecuador for Temporary Protected Status to provide temporary immigration relief.” Another resolution calls on the President and the State Department “to resettle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the USA by the end of 2016 and to increase such number to 65,000 by the end of 2017.”

At 6 p.m. Monday, the New York State Legislature will hold a meeting of the Senate Task Force on Lyme and Tick-Borne Diseases “to continue to focus on improved prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of these diseases to better protect the health of New York residents.”

At 6 p.m. Monday, Public Advocate Letitia James will host another in her screenings of of "Making a Killing: Guns, Greed and the NRA," this one at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

On Monday at 6:30 p.m., the Rent Guidelines Board will hold a public meeting to finalize and vote on proposed rent guidelines effective October 1, 2016 through September 30, 2017. The decision will determine rent changes, if any, for rent-stabilized tenants across New York City for one- and two-year leases. Last year, there was a first-ever “rent freeze” for one-year leases, with a small increase on two-year leases.

Congressional primary elections will take place Tuesday in New York. All seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are up for election this year, as are some U.S. Senate seats. To vote, you must be registered in a party holding a primary. Use the Board of Elections’ locator to find your poll site.

On Tuesday, Mayor de Blasio will appear live on 1010 WINS at 7:30 a.m. and WCBS Newsradio 880 at 7:50 a.m. to discuss the Rent Guidelines Board vote.

Later, at 12:30 p.m., "the Mayor will participate in a tele-town hall with seniors to discuss the Rent Guidelines Board vote."

After, at 2 p.m., "the Mayor will hold public hearings for and sign six pieces of legislation – Intro. 871-A, in relation to ensuring equal access to single-occupant bathrooms for transgender and gender non-conforming New Yorkers; Intro. 1149-A, in relation to requiring ticket sellers to be licensed by the Department of Consumer Affairs; Intro. 868-A, in relation to issuing an annual report on the implementation of Next Generation 911; Intro. 851-B, in relation to protecting against the harassment of tenants who lease space for a commercial rather than residential nature; Intro. 775-A, in relation to creating timeframes for the landmark designation process; and Intro. 1223, in relation to reducing the use of carryout bags. The Mayor also will hold public hearings for Intros. 1122-A, 1123-A and 1128-A, in relation to increasing access to feminine hygiene products."

At the City Council on Tuesday:

  • At 10 a.m., the Committee on Health will meet.
  • Also at 10 a.m., the Committee on Oversight and Investigations will meet regarding the collection and evaluation of civilian complaints alleging police misconduct, in order to improve monitoring and discipline practices.

At 11 a.m. Tuesday, the New York State Commission on Legislative, Judicial and Executive Compensation will hold a public meeting to “determine procedure for considering legislative and executive compensation.” At the New York City Bar, midtown.

At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, City & State NY will host a reception to launch the “Manhattan: Borough Series” special issue of its print publication. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer will attend and participate in a live interview. Lucille’s Bar & Grill.

Also Tuesday at 6:30 p.m., "Public Advocate James will host a “Talk to Tish” town hall about veterans issues in New York City. The town hall will feature a panel of experts and advocates, information and resources from service providers, and questions from the audience. Public Advocate James will be joined by Loree Sutton, Commissioner of the NYC Department of Veterans’ Services; Craig Newmark, Founder of craigslist and veterans advocate; IAVA; and other veterans groups." At the Intrepid Air and Space Museum.

At 8 a.m. Wednesday, the New York Building Congress will hold a Construction Industry breakfast forum featuring Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan; The Metropolitan Club in Manhattan.

At the City Council on Wednesday:

  • At 10 a.m., the Committee on Youth Services will meet to conduct an oversight hearing on the Summer in the City educational program.
  • At 1 p.m., the Committee on Land Use will meet.

At 3 p.m. Wednesday, the New York City Bar Association will host a panel discussion on “The Role of Foreign Policy in the 2016 Presidential Election.” Several speakers will participate, including Ed Cox, chair of the New York State Republican Committee, and David E. Sanger, Chief Washington Correspondent at The New York Times.

“The next public meeting of the New York City Voter Assistance Advisory Committee (VAAC) will be held at 5:30 PM on Wednesday, June 29, at the offices of the Campaign Finance Board.”

At 6 p.m., the Panel for Education Policy will meet in Long Island City.

At 2 p.m. Thursday, the Department of Consumer Affairs will host an Open House Training series on the city’s Commuter Benefits Law. The training will ensure employers understand their responsibilities under the new Law, which took effect on January 1, 2016.

Friday and the weeked
It's July 4th weekend, have a good and safe weekend. We won't be publishing a "Week Ahead" for the week of July 4, but we'll be back with one on Sunday evening July 10 for the week of July 11.

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 Amanda Sherwin and Ben Max

Cuomo Appears to Give Up on Legislature Closing LLC Loophole

cuomo budget mujica

Gov. Cuomo & his budget director, Robert Mujica (photo: The Governor's Office)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo appears to have given up on the state Legislature taking action to close the notorious LLC loophole, which allows wealthy donors to subvert campaign finance laws by creating multiple limited liability corporations that can each give more than $60,000 to a candidate’s campaign.

According to The New York Times, Cuomo said this weekend that it would be up to the public to close the loophole through a constitutional convention.

In January, the governor made closing the LLC loophole a key plank of his government ethics reform package. He and his representatives have said repeatedly that Cuomo wants the loophole closed. In late May, after months without mentioning the loophole unless prompted by reporters, the governor unveiled “a menu” of eight bills that would partially close the loophole for various combinations of campaigns for elected positions -- all of the bills would have impacted gubernatorial candidates, including the incumbent governor, who has been the biggest beneficiary of LLC giving.

“The people of New York are demanding change and it’s time we took action to restore the public trust by closing the LLC loophole and bringing fairness to our campaign finance system,” Cuomo said in the May 24 statement announcing his bill menu aimed at closing the loophole that has allowed tens of millions of dollars into campaign accounts. “For years, I have proposed closing the LLC loophole – one of the most egregious flaws in our campaign finance system – and every year the bill has stalled.”

According to Cuomo, Senate Republicans are unwilling to act on the loophole because they rely on corporate money. The legislative session ended with what many reform advocates see as minimal ethics reforms, highlighted by a move toward stripping pensions from officials convicted of corruption. In his first post-session remarks, the governor told The Times that there is no path to closing the LLC loophole through the Legislature and that it must be done through a constitutional convention.

“There has to be a dose of reality in the assessment,” Cuomo told The Times. “It is tantamount to political suicide for the Republican Party in this state because they believe it ends corporate money, and only union money would come into the system, which would help the Democrats.”

He added: “The people are going to have to do it,” referring, according to The Times, to a constitutional convention.

A number of reform advocates and legislators who support closing the loophole were taken aback by Cuomo’s comments and their meaning in terms of his pursuit of reform. Cuomo made little public effort to move the multi-faceted reform agenda he proposed in January and instead appeared to move the goalposts for reform toward the end of session when he announced he wanted to tackle independent expenditure campaigns, something Senate Republicans found much more appealing than restricting legislators’ outside income or closing the LLC loophole.

“It sounds like the governor is saying he can't get it done,” said Democratic Sen. Liz Krueger of Manhattan, who is party to a lawsuit brought by reform groups and current and former legislators against the State Board of Elections to close the loophole. “It sounds like the governor is saying ‘I'm incapable of reforming Albany and we have to leave it up to a constitutional convention,’ and I don't know that he is wrong.”

Dick Dadey, executive director of government reform group Citizens Union, said he is unwilling to wait for a convention to address the loophole. “His comments personify his frustration not being able close the loophole and point to a goal too far in the future to accept,” said Dadey. “We can’t rely on a convention that we don’t know will be called.”

Voters have the ability to approve a constitutional convention every 20 years. The next vote is scheduled for November 2017. If voters were to approve it, they would vote again the following November to select delegates to represent them at the convention, which would actually get underway in April 2019. Delegates would meet to debate reforms to the constitution that could focus on anything from money in politics to the state’s civil rights mandates. Voters wouldn’t get to vote on proposed changes from the convention until November 2019.

There is no guarantee that closing the LLC loophole would come up during a constitutional convention or make it to a final vote.

“The Board of Elections created this loophole and they can fix it,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group, referring to the state BOE’s 1996 ruling that opened the loophole. “These LLCs have been at the center of major corruption scandals so it isn't like this is an academic problem,” said Horner. “It’s a real problem.”

Not only does Cuomo’s suggestion that a constitutional convention is the only way to close the loophole discount the lawsuit Krueger is involved in and mean that change couldn’t possibly occur until November of 2019, but it also appears to fail to factor in the possibility of Democrats winning the Senate majority from Republicans this fall. Democrats in the Senate and Assembly both claim to support closing the LLC loophole. The Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, has voted a number of times to close the loophole while some Senate Democrats have tried to force a vote on closing the loophole in their chamber to no avail.

“I guess seeing the Senate Democrats take control of the Senate isn't a way he sees to get things done,” said Krueger. Cuomo, a Democrat, has been criticized over several years for not doing enough to help Democrats take the chamber and for being too close to Republicans. Cuomo has touted his ability to productively work across the aisle.

Mike Murphy, spokesperson for Senate Democrats, said closing the LLC loophole is at the top of their agenda. “Senate Democrats have been fighting to close this loophole for years only to be rebuffed by our Republican colleagues. When we take the majority this will be one of the first things we pass. The people of New York deserve a government that they can trust.”

John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany said at the most basic levels he sees Cuomo’s comments as the governor giving up on reform, but he also sees it as Cuomo letting Senate Republicans off the hook on an issue that could be used to help Senate Democrats win control of the chamber.

“It means the governor is not going to use the LLC loophole as a campaign issue against Senate Republicans. He could beat the Republicans over the head with the LLC loophole because the Democratic-controlled Assembly and Senate Democrats support closing the loophole, as do all of the watchdog groups and independent experts and editorial boards,” said Kaehny.

Cuomo’s office did not respond to requests for comment around whether Cuomo did indeed mean that closing the LLC loophole would require a constitutional convention and whether he was discounting the possibility of Democratic control of the Senate.

Many believe Cuomo prefers governing, as his father did, with a Democratic Assembly and Republican Senate, allowing him to pass more conservative fiscal measures when necessary.

Dadey agreed that Cuomo’s comments appear to ignore the possibility of change in the Legislature. “The Governor’s position does not take into account Senate control,” said Dadey. “This lets the Legislature off the hook.”

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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

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