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Opponents of Democratic Senator Raise Questions About Past IDC Financial Support


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Senator Martin Dilan (Photo: Sen. Dilan's Office)


A campaign fundraising committee set up to bankroll the state Senators from the erstwhile Independent Democratic Conference was recently ruled to have been illegal by a state Supreme Court judge. Campaign finance records show that Brooklyn Senator Martin Dilan, who was never part of the IDC but is facing a tough primary challenge this year, was also a beneficiary of thousands of dollars spent by that committee for his last reelection campaign, a fact opponents are using as fodder to criticize his commitment to the Democratic base.

The Senate Independence Campaign Committee (SICC) was created in 2016 in an arrangement between the Republican-allied IDC, a conference but not political party led by Bronx Senator Jeff Klein, and the Independence Party. Klein chaired the SICC and funnelled about $1.4 million in total to his campaign and those of his fellow IDC members, allocating funds even after the IDC was dissolved in April, when its members rejoined the mainline Democratic conference. While there were questions about the legality of the SICC from its inception, there had been no legal rulings about it until recently.

A state Supreme Court judge ruled in June that the SICC arrangement was not compliant with state election law, and the state Board of Elections enforcement counsel, Risa Sugarman, subsequently called on the IDC members in a June 20 letter to return the contributions they had received from the SICC within 20 days. That deadline passed on Wednesday, and the senators have shown no indication that they intend to refund any of the donations. IDC members maintain that the issue identified by the court, which related to the party affiliation of the SICC leadership, has been resolved, and say that the judge did not order them to return any money. Sugarman declined to comment for this article.

Then or soon-to-be members of the IDC received various amounts of campaign money from the SICC last election cycle, two years ago, including about $540,000 that went to help Marisol Alcantara win a close, four-way Democratic primary, after which she joined the IDC. Like the other seven former members of the breakaway conference, Alcantara is facing a primary challenge this year.

In 2016, when Dilan was running for reelection and faced a primary challenge, the SICC spent about $8,000 in his favor. Dilan was the only member of the mainline Democratic conference to receive aid from the committee, a fact his primary opponent, Julia Salazar, a young democratic socialist, has highlighted. Dilan also got a $5,000 donation from Klein himself. “The fact that Senator Dilan accepted support from the IDC's illegal slush fund just two years ago raises troubling questions about where his loyalties lie,” said Michael Kinnucan, a Salazar campaign spokesperson, in an email. “The voters of District 18 deserve a senator who is accountable to his constituents, not to wealthy donors and Republican-linked special interests.”

[Read: Running for State Senate, Julia Salazar Attempts Progressive Primary Upset]

Salazar, a community organizer, is running as a progressive from Dilan’s left, focusing on issues such as affordable housing, healthcare, and immigration while refusing donations from the real estate industry, which has been generous to Dilan and, even more so, to Klein and the IDC. She has criticized Dilan’s record, particularly on housing and tenant protections, over his eight terms in office, highlighting the rampant gentrification that has hit the northern Brooklyn district, which includes Williamsburg and Bushwick, and taking aim at his vote for vacancy decontrol, which he has since disavowed.

Graham Parker, a spokesperson for Dilan’s campaign, issued a scathing response to his opponents’ criticism of the SICC expenditures, without mentioning Salazar’s name at all. He said Dilan “was not considering, and has not considered leaving the Senate Democratic Conference.”

“These attacks and accusations only serve to hide who the opponent really is and who really backs her candidacy,” Parker said in an email. “[Salazar] has nearly $50 thousand in unitemized contributions. She hosts lavish fundraisers with Wall Street executives. Most all of her money is from out of the district. She lives in luxury, and decries displacement. She's a republican one year, a socialist the next. She is the exact opposite of what’s been portrayed. It’s fitting the [Working Families Party] supports her; they haven’t been about workers or families in a decade. It’s why the laborers left, and now support the Senator.”

The funds behind the SICC came from donors who are more often linked with Republicans -- including the real estate and charter school sectors -- which is anathema to several progressive challengers who are taking on Democratic incumbents across statewide races. At a Thursday news conference on the steps of City Hall, four of the eight candidates challenging the former IDC senators excoriated them for refusing to give the SICC funds back. They were joined by Bill Lipton, political director of the New York Working Families Party, which has endorsed the challengers as well as Salazar.

“I think it’s a really important data point that defines a certain type of Democrat,” Lipton said of the SICC expenditure for Dilan, shortly after the news conference. “That you would be willing to take money from a party that openly supports Republicans for Congress, openly has supported Republicans for state Senate and the money itself...it comes from some of the wealthiest people in the world. These hedge fund and real estate barons are extremely powerful and they support the Independence Party and they support candidates like Dilan and the IDC because they want their interests protected.”

The SICC money “suggests that he’s IDC-friendly,” Lipton said. It’s not clear if there was ever anything further than the 2016 expenditure to indicate that the IDC was recruiting Dilan or if he was at any point considering joining the breakaway faction. Dilan has had harsh words about the IDC in the past, saying in 2014, “They’re not Democrats, no matter what they say. They should all be disenrolled by the Democratic Party.”

Barbara Brancaccio, a Klein spokesperson, did not address the Dilan expenditure but had caustic criticism for the IDC challengers and the WFP. “There is no legal basis for returning these funds and the account is fully compliant, unlike their Working Fraud Party, who continues to violate finance and election laws in campaigns throughout New York State,” she said in a statement, before identifying three challengers to former IDC senators by name and making apparently unsubstantiated allegations against them.

“The recent flood of endorsements for Julia Salazar and IDC challengers demonstrate how electeds and key institutional players are following the cues of progressive grassroots activists,” said Susan Kang, a spokesperson for No IDC NY, a group opposing the former IDC members which has its own multi-candidate campaign committee. “Incumbents like Dilan with deeper connections to the real estate interests than his own constituents are out of the step with the current political moment,” she added.

The primary is September 13.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

As Senator Faces Tough Primary, He’s Spending $1 Million in Public Funds from Brooklyn Borough President


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Senator Jesse Hamilton with Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, center (photo: @BPEricAdams)


Amid a heated Democratic primary race in central Brooklyn’s state Senate District 20, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams is making $1 million of government money available for spending in the district through a process run by Senator Jesse Hamilton, his handpicked, newly-embattled successor in the state Legislature.

Hamilton is a former member of the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of eight Democratic state senators who formed a coalition with the Senate Republican conference from 2011 to earlier this year, bolstering the Republicans’ slim legislative majority in the upper house of the state Legislature. After being elected to replace Adams in the Senate in 2014, just after Adams was elected borough president the year before, Hamilton announced he was joining the IDC in November 2016 right before being reelected.

Now, this election year, every former IDC member faces a progressive primary challenger, with the votes set for September 13. Hamilton’s challenger, Zellnor Myrie, is receiving widespread institutional support, including the recent endorsements of four Brooklyn members of Congress—Yvette Clarke, Nydia Velázquez, Jerry Nadler, and Hakeem Jeffries—and Mayor Bill de Blasio, among others. Adams, though, seems firmly in support of Hamilton: campaign finance records show that he donated $5,000 on January 12, 2018, to Friends of Jesse Hamilton, the senator’s election committee, though Adams has not yet offered a formal endorsement of his protege.

The two have a long-lasting and well-documented relationship. Adams represented District 20, which includes parts of Brownsville, Crown Heights, Park Slope, and East Flatbush, in the state Senate for four terms, from 2006 until just after his election to the borough presidency in late 2013. After Adams vacated his seat, Hamilton, then an attorney and elected district leader, competed against Department of Education administrator Rubain Dorancy in a 2014 race widely seen at the time as a proxy battle between Adams, supporting Hamilton, and Hakeem Jeffries, who’d backed Dorancy.

After Hamilton won the nomination to the seat by a wide margin, Adams reportedly shouted at a victory party, “We showed them who the real kingmaker in Brooklyn is.”

The two have partnered frequently since Hamilton’s election, the senator’s director of communications Ean Fullerton told Gotham Gazette in an email, pointing to past immigration forums, health fairs, and cultural events in Brooklyn.

Two terms and four years after his succession of Adams, Hamilton is again battling for his party’s nomination in Senate District 20, after no Democrat contested his renomination in 2016. Concurrently, he is asking his constituents how they’d like to spend the $1 million that Adams recently funded for participatory budgeting in Senate District 20. The borough president made no such allocation available in any other senate district.

Participatory budgeting is a process that allows constituents to decide how to spend a portion of the public budget. Community members submit proposals for capital projects, like school and park improvements, which are then put to a vote among residents in the relevant geographic area. In New York, this typically occurs in a City Council district—this year, 31 of 51 City Council members participated, using a portion of the capital funding they receive each year through the larger Council budget process—though Adams has taken up participatory budgeting using the funds at his disposal as borough president.

In New York City, representatives who opt to participate in participatory budgeting must allocate at least $1 million of their district’s budget to the process. Senate District 20 is the site of the first participatory budgeting conducted by a New York state legislator, a landmark made especially noteworthy by the fact that the funds arrived from a borough president. The timing is also exceptional, given its alignment with the election calendar. The senator’s spokesperson said Hamilton and Adams had discussed a participatory budgeting proposal “some time ago” and have been working to launch it “as soon as we were ready.”

“Sen. Hamilton believes this initiative can serve as an example for more state leaders to pursue [participatory budgeting] on the state level,” he added.

ddvioltvaaaad9mThe process began this past May 22 with an announcement from Senator Hamilton’s office that framed the participatory budgeting as “in partnership with Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams.” Proposals were due, atypically, only 12 days later, on June 4, though on that day Hamilton extended the deadline to June 8. The proposed PB projects in District 20 would upgrade school facilities, repave streets and sidewalks, install security cameras, and improve green space in the district. Residents aged 11 and up could vote on the proposals between August 6 and August 12, and Hamilton’s office, in partnership with the Bridge Street Development Corporation, launched a get-out-the-vote effort replete with "mailers to the district, email blasts, robocalls, text messages, flyering at subway stations, and community meetings," according to a handout from a May 23 neighborhood assembly on the topic in Crown Heights.

All proposed projects must be located within Senate District 20, and flyers and mailers publicizing the initiative prominently feature Hamilton’s face and name. (They also come alongside a series of other mailers that Hamilton has sent to constituents using state funds allocated to his office for communications with district residents, a perk state legislators have long taken advantage of during election years.)

The New York City Charter allows the five borough presidents to allocate funds towards capital projects in their boroughs, and Adams was the first elected official in New York City beyond the City Council to fund participatory budgeting, said Stefan Ringel, Adams’ communications director. Adams has funded projects in various Brooklyn Council districts to the tune of $1 million a year for the past three years.

Hamilton approached Adams in March 2016 about setting up participatory budgeting in his Senate district, Ringel told Gotham Gazette. Adams obliged, doubling his annual allocation of PB funds in the borough to $2 million, setting aside half of that sum for Hamilton’s district, one of nine Senate districts that include at least parts of the borough.

Through his communications director, Adams emphasized that the district includes Brownsville, Brooklyn’s poorest neighborhood, where he was born and where he “has committed to reverse decades of underinvestment.”

The borough president “would welcome other legislators and agencies who wish to partner on any further expansions,” said Ringel. But, for now, he’s allocated $1 million only to District 20, as insurgency threatens his hand-picked successor there.

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by Daniel Yadin for Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated to clarify that Sen. Hamilton is running the participatory budgeting process, not spending the money himself, and that he approached Borough President Adams about participatory budgeting in March 2016, not March 2017.   

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, August 13


New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

A fundraising deadline for candidates for state office passed last week and the latest campaign finance filings are due Monday, August 13, with the state Board of Elections. With just one month till the September 13, and with several competitive primary races for statewide and legislative seats, candidates have been trying to muster all the resources they can to reach voters. Many insurgent challengers in Democratic primaries this year have been more focused on reaching small donors in large numbers as they face off against well-funded incumbents.    

As always, there's a great deal happening all over the city, with many events to be aware of - see our day-by-day rundown below.

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

The run of the week in detail:

Monday
President Donald Trump will headline fundraisers for US Representatives Claudia Tenney and Elise Stefanik on Monday.

From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday, WeWork and New York Immigration Coalition will host a voter registration day open to the public at WeWork's 110 Wall Street location.

At 1 p.m. Monday, the state Senate Standing Committees on Labor and Economic Development will hold a public hearing at Binghamton University’s Symposium Hall, to discuss the state’s Minority-and-Women-Owned Business Enterprises (MWBE) program.

Tuesday
At the City Council on Tuesday
-- The Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises will meet at 9:30 a.m.
-- The Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting, and Maritime Uses will meet at noon.
-- The Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions, and Concessions will meet at 2 p.m.

At 1 p.m. Tuesday, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams will launch the Platinum Edition of his "BK Sings" karaoke competition, for Brooklyn residents over the age of 60, at the United Senior Citizens Center in Sunset Park.

At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, City & State will host its 2018 “Albany 40 Under 40” reception at Battery Gardens in Battery Park City, honoring 40 individuals under the age of 40 who work in state government and politics. Keynote speakers will include U.S. Representative Grace Meng and Republican gubernatorial nominee Marc Molinaro.

Wednesday
At the City Council on Wednesday
-- The Committee on Land Use will meet at 11 a.m.
-- The Committee on Transportation will meet at 1 p.m. for an oversight hearing regarding speed cameras, to call on the legislature and governor to reauthorize the city’s school speed camera program, and to discuss proposed laws relating to street design, to “requiring a study of dangerous driving,” and to “installing radar speed display signs in school zones.”

At 9 a.m. Wednesday, Democratic Attorney General candidate Leecia Eve will join the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce to discuss her candidacy, as part of the Chamber’s “Attorney General Roundtable” series, open to Chamber members.

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Indivisible Harlem will host a forum for Democratic candidates for Attorney General at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side. Attending candidates will be Leecia Eve, Letitia James, and Zephyr Teachout.

Thursday
There are no events scheduled on the calendar as of the start of the week. 

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

***
Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

***
by Ben Brachfeld and Ben Max
@GothamGazette

How Much Does Brooklyn Congressional Primary Result Show Path in Overlapping State Senate Race?


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Zellnor Myrie receives the endorsement of Rep. Clarke, among others (photo: @BKIndivisible)


A wide swath of central Brooklyn is hosting its second contentious Democratic primary race this year. After a surprisingly close congressional primary in June, voters in a largely overlapping state Senate district will vote in September in another race where an incumbent is facing an upstart challenger.

Brooklyn Congressional District 9An array of neighborhoods in the borough, including Brownsville, Crown Heights, Park Slope, Flatbush, and Prospect Heights, make up New York’s Ninth Congressional District (map left), where Democratic voters narrowly voted to nominate Yvette Clarke for re-election over her challenger, Adem Bunkeddeko, in a race that drew national attention for its closeness, especially alongside the defeat of Rep. Joe Crowley by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The Brooklyn neighborhoods of Clarke’s district, with the exception of a few, like Sheepshead Bay and Marine Park, also make up State Senate District 20 (map below), which adds Gowanus, South Slope, and Sunset Park, and is represented by incumbent Senator Jesse Hamilton, who is facing a primary challenge from Zellnor Myrie.

Brooklyn State Senate District 20The two primaries bear some similar contours: a youthful progressive candidate goes for the left flank of a Democratic incumbent amid an anti-establishment milieu, hoping to motivate voters upset by Donald Trump and looking for something different from their elected officials. Bunkedekko’s success as a previously little-known activist and lawyer in the district—he lost by just 1,075 votes—may help provide a roadmap for Myrie, especially in terms of where in the district to go for those anti-establishment votes.

But there are key differences between the Clarke-Bunkedekko and Hamilton-Myrie races, including Hamilton’s prior membership in the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference and the flood of endorsements behind Myrie, but a key question for the challenger, incumbent, and all those watching, is: How much can we apply from the results of the race in Congressional District Nine to the race in State Senate District 20?

NY9 resultsThough ultimately unsuccessful in his bid to unseat Representative Clarke, daughter of legendary former City Council Member Una Clarke, Bunkeddeko certainly came close, losing by four points to a politician who won her previous primary challenge, in 2012, by 77%. Results of the June 26 vote show Bunkeddeko’s strongholds were in wealthier, whiter, gentrified areas of the district like Park Slope and Prospect Heights, while Clarke excelled in poorer, predominantly black neighborhoods in the eastern part of NY-9 like East Flatbush and Brownsville (map left, via CUNY Mapping Service).

It remains to be seen whether this dynamic will be replicated in the race between Hamilton and Myrie. Hamilton is a former member of the Independent Democratic Conference, a coalition of eight Democrats in the New York State Senate that formed a years-long coalition agreement with Republicans to bolster GOP control of the chamber. The IDC formally disbanded this April amid criticism and the declaration of primary challenges by Myrie and a cohort of other candidates.

Myrie spokesman André M. Richardson told Gotham Gazette that the campaign was surprised by Central Brooklynites’ widespread knowledge of the IDC.

“More people knew about it than we thought would,” he said. “A lot of the conversation is in the Park Slope and Prospect Heights area, but folks in Flatbush recognize it, as well.”

Hamilton’s participation in the IDC is a useful cudgel for the Myrie campaign, providing a unifying talking point about propping up Republican control of the state Senate and blocking progressive legislation in a racially and economically diverse district.

In predominantly-black neighborhoods like Brownsville, Richardson said, the IDC ties Hamilton to the prevention of Andrea Stewart-Cousins from becoming the State Senate’s first black female majority leader; in heavily-Hispanic Sunset Park, the Myrie campaign tells voters that the IDC is why the Dream Act was blocked. Through this, and with an intense focus on the ever-relevant housing crisis, the challenger hopes to avoid the polarization of the district seen in the results from June and appeal to voters in every neighborhood. That effort is likely to be helped by the fact that Myrie has been endorsed by a wide swathe of elected officials and clubs, including Rep. Clarke and other elected officials from the area, such as Assemblymember Diana Richardson.

The IDC is one of several factors that complicate attempts to use the results of the Clarke-Bunkeddeko race to predict the Hamilton-Myrie contest, despite the two races taking place in, more or less, the same territory. Also, noted Steven Romalewski, director of the CUNY Mapping Service, to Gotham Gazette, “different groups of voters turn out for different races.” Only about 8.2% of eligible Democratic voters voted in the primary between Clarke and Bunkeddeko, making it difficult to generalize characteristics of the voter pool.

Voter turnout is expected to increase in September, when the Democratic nominees for the statewide positions of governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general will also be decided. Two of those races feature black candidates from Central Brooklyn: Jumaane Williams, running for lieutenant governor, and Letitia James, for attorney general. Governor Andrew Cuomo and his primary opponent, Cynthia Nixon, have also focused campaign efforts in the area, aware that black voters are essential to winning Democratic primaries.

In last year’s September primaries for city elections, Senate District 20 was home to 21,000 voters, while only around 10,000 residents of the Senate district cast votes in June’s contest when the congressional primary was the only race on the ballot.

Though it’s nearly impossible to accurately predict whether increased turnout will help or harm Hamilton, who was first elected to the Senate in 2014, political consultant Jerry Skurnik told Gotham Gazette that “the gentrifiers” constitute a larger proportion of Senate District 20 than they do Congressional District Nine.

By Skurnik’s admittedly “not 100% accurate” demographic calculations, 82% of the Senate district lies within the Congressional district, and the overlapping area is about 72% black. But the overall Senate district is just slightly over 60% black, since it includes smaller portions of near-exclusively African-American neighborhoods like Brownsville and East Flatbush and extends farther out of Central Brooklyn, into neighborhoods like Gowanus and Sunset Park that have relatively few black residents. This could spell an advantage for Myrie, if Bunkeddeko’s strength in Park Slope is any indication, and if he is able to move the same voters to the polls while motivating others. But, there are many complicating factors, and neither Romalewski nor Skurnik felt comfortable prognosticating with any certainty.

In line with Romalewski’s cautioning that different races motivate different voters, Skurnik emphasized to Gotham Gazette that a race for the New York State Senate necessarily involves issues different from those in a contest for the U.S. House of Representatives. For instance, rent regulations are a marquee issue for state legislators, who will renegotiate current rent laws next year, while the issue is less central to Congressional races like Clarke and Bunkeddeko’s, though candidates for all offices must discuss housing affordability in New York City. Myrie may have an easier time mobilizing residents around his housing-focused campaign than Bunkeddeko, who devoted extensive time to attacking Clarke’s Congressional record (or lack thereof, as he framed it). But, Myrie is also focused on Hamilton’s record in the Senate, especially around progressive bills that have not passed because Republicans, supported by the IDC, did not favor them.

The polarized, racially and economically divided results of the NY-9 primary will not necessarily reproduce as such in Senate District 20, Skurnik said, because both Hamilton and Myrie have seen them. “Senator Hamilton knows what happened,” Skurnik said. “He knows where the Congresswoman did badly...He’s not going to be surprised.” The same holds true for Myrie, he added. If the results of the June primary can teach the candidates of District 20 anything, it seems, it’s what to avoid.

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by Daniel Yadin for Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Independence from Cuomo, or Lack Thereof, Becomes Flashpoint in Attorney General Race


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Cuomo & James (photo: The Governor's Office)


New York City Public Advocate Letitia James is performing a balancing act as she runs for state Attorney General, at once cross-endorsing with Governor Andrew Cuomo, a fellow Democrat seeking a third term, and accepting his fundraising support, while also attempting to convince skeptical voters that she would be sufficiently independent if both are victorious this fall.

After the shocking resignation of Eric Schneiderman amid domestic abuse allegations and James’ decision to run for attorney general, Cuomo quickly backed her, and she embraced his support and that of the State Democratic Party that he controls.

Given several other key facts -- the attorney general’s role as a popularly elected statewide official responsible for upholding the law and rooting out certain violations of the public trust, the rampant corruption in New York state government, including among former Cuomo aides, Cuomo’s efforts to raise funds and other support for James, and the governor’s reputation for overpowering other elected officials -- James has repeatedly faced questions about independence.

“I stand before you in the spirit of Shirley Chisholm: I’m unbought and unbossed,” James recently told Gotham Gazette, after a press conference at which she was endorsed by most of the women elected to the City Council. “And all throughout my career I’ve been independent and despite the innate, the sheer nature of who I am, and just based on my background, coming from Brooklyn, a humble woman, a woman of color, I’m someone who has been counted out but consistently has overperformed. I’m not beholden to anyone. All I’m beholden to is a simple concept and that’s called justice.”

James’ competitors in the Democratic primary for attorney general -- Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, Zephyr Teachout, and Leecia Eve -- have each made a concerted effort to highlight the fact that they are not the state party- and Cuomo-backed candidate, while promising to pursue corruption in state government and be an independent voice if elected attorney general. They all also acknowledge that the attorney general must work closely with the governor on a lot of the office’s work, given that the attorney general defends the state against lawsuits and also files litigation on behalf of the state, often in conjunction with the governor. The winner of the Democratic primary will face Republican Keith Wofford and minor party candidates in the general election.

Though she has been careful not to criticize Cuomo, James is also promising to pursue bad actors in state government if elected attorney general, even if they are in the executive branch.

“If state officials step over the line, I will not hesitate to prosecute,” James said on a recent episode of the Max & Murphy podcast. “If I disagree with a state action, I will make that abundantly clear. I’ll make sure that the laws of the state of New York are enforced.”

And James has not shied away from Cuomo’s backing. “He is of the opinion that I am in a position to get things done and I have gotten things done,” she said when asked about their mutual support. “So, there is no quid-pro-quo, and there is no allegiance or loyalty to anyone. The only loyalty that I have is to the rule of law.” When asked to explain her endorsement of Cuomo, she first cited his leadership in helping Puerto Rico recover from Hurricane Maria (James recently joined Cuomo on a relief trip to the island), and mentioned his work in regards to marriage equality, economic development, women’s advocacy, and workers’ rights.

Meanwhile, corruption scandals have plagued Cuomo’s economic development programs, including two trials this year that ended with convictions of officials Cuomo had empowered. There has also been a series of corruption convictions of other state officials, including many state legislators, before and during Cuomo’s tenure. Cuomo ran for governor in 2010 promising to clean up state government, but has not accomplished that lofty goal.

When asked if Cuomo bears any responsibility for the recent malpractice that’s been exposed among his aides and donors, James stopped short of blaming him. “It really speaks to a larger issue and that is reform,” she said on Max & Murphy. She recommended reforming the state’s procurement process and creating checks and balance on mega agencies, both public and private. In a different interview, James recently said Cuomo should not have shut down the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption that he ended prematurely in 2015.

Maloney, who represents a Hudson Valley congressional district, has also endorsed Cuomo for reelection, while Teachout has endorsed Cuomo’s primary challenger, Cynthia Nixon, and Eve has said she is staying out of the gubernatorial primary.

Maloney’s campaign declined to provide comment for this article about his support for the governor, but in March, Maloney released a statement that urged Nixon not to run against Cuomo, citing his support for Cuomo’s work on LGBT rights in the state of New York, including passage of marriage equality, which led to Maloney and his husband’s vows.

“We must remember that Governor Cuomo took on the marriage equality issue when few politicians dared broach the subject,” Maloney said in the statement. “He was full-throated in his support and unabashed in his efforts, often to his political detriment. That’s called leadership.”

“We should not have intramural contests that only aid Republicans,” Maloney also said in the statement, urging a unified Democratic front in the Trump era.

But even given his support for Cuomo’s re-election, Maloney insists he would be an independent attorney general whether or not Cuomo is given another term. He’s also said James is “running a campaign that is propped up by insiders and the political machine,” as he told City & State NY. “That’s her race. My race is not to rely on the governor’s fundraising or the endorsements of Albany insiders or political bosses,” Maloney added.

“I think that is a losing strategy, and it is a terrible message right now when the Democratic Party voters I talk to want the Democratic Party blown up and rebuilt,” he continued, eventually saying that voters “don’t want somebody picked because of somebody else’s political agenda or some inside deal,” in apparent reference to Cuomo.

Acknowledging his endorsement of Cuomo and saying he’s been "a good governor,” Maloney said, “But I don’t think he should pick the attorney general. Let me ask you this: How is an attorney general going to look at the Buffalo Billion if you’re in Andrew Cuomo’s back pocket? So I think what this state deserves is someone with real independence and an independent ability to get elected and do the job.”

Meanwhile, Teachout’s bid for the attorney general’s seat comes after she stepped down as Nixon’s campaign treasurer this past May in order to run.

During her own appearance on Max & Murphy, Teachout said that, if elected attorney general, she would treat whoever wins the gubernatorial race the same. “You need to also have that independence because the attorney general’s office can’t be either perceived as or be an arm of the executive branch,” she said. “So, I’m not concerned about a smooth operation.”

Teachout has additionally centered her run for attorney general by eyeing both the Trump administration in Washington and Cuomo’s conduct in Albany, which she has criticized since she ran against him in the 2014 gubernatorial primary. “I think that’s very important not to be alleging crimes, but there’s no question that there’s a culture of corruption in Albany and that Andrew Cuomo has both promised to do something about it in 2010 and not only not done something about it, but encouraged instead a culture of secrecy.”

She said Cuomo has concentrated too much power.

Eve, meanwhile, has said she is not endorsing in the gubernatorial primary between Cuomo and Nixon.

“I am running, not as an endorsed candidate, not as the party candidate, but as an independent voice for New Yorkers,” said Eve on a recent episode of Max & Murphy. “And without question, [I] would prosecute corruption wherever I would find it, regardless of what administration or what person engaged in it.”

Eve, most recently a Verizon executive before taking a leave to run for attorney general, previously worked for Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Cuomo, including overseeing the governor’s economic development programs, some of which became embroiled in the aforementioned corruption scandals (Eve was not at all implicated).

“I’m focused solely on my race and not engaging in others,” Eve said on Max & Murphy, “and I’m very proud, frankly, that I am not the endorsed candidate.”

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by Chelsey Sanchez & Ben Max

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: Attorney General Candidate Sean Patrick Maloney


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


August 8, 2018 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Attorney General Candidate Sean Patrick Maloney

sean patrick maloney wbai podcast 277U.S. Representative Sean Patrick Maloney is running in the Democratic primary for Attorney General of New York. Maloney, who has a long government and private sector resume and represents a mid-Hudson Valley congressional district, unsuccessfully ran for AG in 2006, before eventually being elected to Congress in 2012. He joined Max & Murphy to discuss his work in Congress, his candidacy for Attorney General, and what might happen to his congressional seat if he is successful in the Democratic primary and leaves the congressional race to another Democrat.

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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Running for Attorney General, James Outlines Initial Policy Platform


tish james tishjames

Letitia James (photo: @TishJames)


While initial polls show that many voters are too unfamiliar with their choices in the Democratic primary for Attorney General to have a preference, Public Advocate Letitia James has led the polling among those who do make a choice. The latest poll from Siena College, of Democratic voters likely to cast a ballot on September 13, has James at 25 percent, with U.S. Representative Sean Patrick Maloney at 16 percent, Zephyr Teachout at 13 percent, Leecia Eve at 4 percent, and undecided at 42 percent.

Though there are questions about the reliability of polls, especially a small number of them and in the current political environment with many newly-engaged potential voters, James does appear to be the frontrunner in the race, in part due to her support from the State Democratic Party and its leader, Governor Andrew Cuomo, as well as many other elected officials, labor unions, and Democratic clubs.

But James says she is running like it is anybody’s race, as it just might be, and in doing so she has expressed her views on wide range of topics, often when asked by journalists during interviews or press conferences, but she has also proactively released several campaign policy platforms, the most recent on criminal justice reform. James has also put forth detailed plans on reproductive rights, gun safety, workers’ rights, sexual harassment, and gender equity.

“As you know, we’ve stretched the boundaries of the office of the Public Advocate, and we’re gonna do the same in our role as Attorney General,” James said on an episode of the Max & Murphy radio show on WBAI last month, saying that she would use the office as a check against corrupt public officials and to protect the rights of marginalized individuals threatened by the Trump administration.

While the powers of Attorney General are largely upholding the laws of the state and defending the state in lawsuits, officeholders set many their own priorities and often pursue changes to state law through legislation.

On criminal justice, James said that she would seek to “expand and codify” the Attorney’s General’s status as special prosecutor responsible for instances of police killings of civilians. The current power was granted by Cuomo through executive order.

In addition, James’ platform calls for the governor to sign a bill creating a prosecutor misconduct commission, which has passed through the Legislature; repeal of the 50-a statute that allows the NYPD to hide the outcomes of officer disciplinary hearings; passage of discovery reform, and plans to push a statewide police body camera program -- James was a leading advocate for such a program in New York City, which is now being rolled out. Bail reform, a popular criminal justice reform plank that has been embraced by many Democrats, including Cuomo, was not listed in the announcement from James’ campaign, but a spokesperson for James said that she supports eliminating cash bail.

The platform has won James the support of former New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and the National Action Network.

Lippman said in a statement that James’ package “is exactly what all candidates for Attorney General should be doing to ensure equal justice in our State.”

James would not be able to implement any of these top-line proposals unilaterally, but rather would have to use her bully pulpit as attorney general to push them through the state Legislature and gubernatorial approval. One item of her criminal justice reform platform that she could implement unilaterally is a promise to have the Office of Attorney General abide by strict discovery rules, even if the Legislature doesn’t pass such requirements into law as James is advocating.

“When too many feel the scales of justice are tilted against them, we must change the system,” James said in a statement accompanying the policy release. “As the State’s top law enforcement official, I will bring accountability and transparency to outdated systems in dire need of reform.”

Criminal justice reform is also at the center of Teachout’s campaign -- the two candidates have said the most about policy thus far, and most clearly outlined their visions for the office. Eve has also talked about criminal justice reform, while Maloney is just beginning to campaign in earnest.

James’ workers’ rights platform is one where she would have a great deal of power to act unilaterally as attorney general. It includes the creation of an “arbitration review team” to litigate on behalf of workers barred from suing their employers due to forced arbitration agreements. James also says in the platform that she would target companies using contracts that include non-disclosure agreements and non-compete clauses, and would also use the office of Attorney General to combat sexual harassment, enforce equal pay laws, combat “gender wage discrimination,” and defend immigrant workers.

She would also sue companies that engage in wage theft, “aggressively” police “wage violations on public contracts,” and investigate “worker misclassification.”

James has also pledged to take legal action against individuals or groups who block access to abortion clinics or other reproductive health care facilities. She also said she would investigate “pregnancy crisis centers engaged in fraud,” employers who commit “workplace pregnancy discrimination,” and employers who attempt to skirt the Affordable Care Act’s birth control mandate.

“I will use every tool at my disposal as Attorney General to protect the right to reproductive healthcare, taking legal actions, launching investigations, and fighting for the right to choose,” James said in a statement. “Reproductive health care is a fundamental right, and as Attorney General, protecting this right will be one of my top priorities.”

James would investigate the National Rifle Association, she has said, claiming that its status as a charitable organization is dubious. She also says that she would investigate arms dealers and securities fraud among gun manufacturers, while creating a new interstate coalition to fight gun trafficking along the east coast.

James’ platform includes the creation of a “wage discrimination task force” to conduct audits and probes into companies committing wage discrimination, and using the “framework created by the Weinstein Company litigation” to sue companies with a “culture of abuse.”

Otherwise, the agenda would require James to work with the state Legislature. If the state Senate flips to the Democrats in November, this would likely be far easier, given certain Democratic control of the Assembly and likely Democratic control of the executive branch. But if the Republicans maintain control of the Senate, then much of James’ platform, which has passed the Democratic Assembly but failed in the Senate in the past, will likely gain little traction.

In keeping with a theme of the attorney general race that involves Donald Trump, James has said that she would push the Legislature to close New York’s “double jeopardy loophole,” which would allow the state Attorney General to prosecute individuals pardoned by the president at the federal level for crimes committed in New York State.

Asked about other areas where James plans to release detailed policy proposals, a campaign spokesperson declined to provide any examples.

James and her three primary opponents appear to a agree on many things, though just five weeks from primary day it is becoming more clear what each says she or he would focus on if elected. Zephyr Teachout has placed greater emphasis in her campaign on using the attorney general’s office to pursue litigation against Trump, while James has increased some of her rhetoric around going after the president -- likely a popular stance to take in a Democratic primary -- and placed somewhat more emphasis on intra-state concerns. Teachout has also said that she would target corporate monopolies, the real estate industry and financial institutions, and Albany corruption.

On the latter topic, corruption in state government, Teachout also appears to be the most aggressive candidate in the race, frequently citing her expertise on government corruption and past calls for reform, including when she ran against Cuomo in the 2014 primary. James has pledged to be an independent attorney general if elected, but she has been reticent to criticize Cuomo, especially related to corruption in his economic development programs, which has been at the center of two recent corruption trials that ended in guilty verdicts. She did recently tell WAMC’s Karen DeWitt that Cuomo should not have prematurely shuttered his Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, and she has called for reforms to JCOPE, the state’s much-maligned ethics watchdog.

Teachout, who has cross-endorsed with Cynthia Nixon, has faced some of her own questions about independence in the event of wins by the pair, and will face many more if she and Nixon are victorious in their Democratic primaries.

The other Democratic candidates, Rep. Maloney and Eve, do not have official policy documents on their websites, though both have discussed policy areas on social media and in media interviews. Eve, for example, has talked about the need to uphold and enhance voting rights, while Maloney has thus far focused on combating Trump.

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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State Board of Elections Curtails Power of Enforcement Counsel


gov and cuomo coughlin votes

(Photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)


The State Board of Elections voted on Wednesday to hobble the subpoena powers of Chief Enforcement Counsel Risa Sugarman, dealing a significant blow to one of the state’s only election law watchdogs.

The new rules, which were voted on by the board at a commissioners’ meeting in Albany, would require Sugarman to obtain permission from the board members (two Democrats, two Republicans) for each subpoena she plans to issue in a probe, and for the “circumstances of the investigation” to be divulged to the members. Previously, the board approved Sugarman’s ability to make subpoenas in probes, but she was given latitude to make individual subpoenas within a probe.

The new rule also requires that Sugarman provide regular reports to the board members detailing metrics related to her investigations, and for investigations to be limited to six-month timeframes. Sugarman is the first and only person to hold the relatively new position at the board.

She has, in the past, criticized the proposed rule changes as being designed to hobble the powers given to her in 2014, after Governor Andrew Cuomo and Legislature passed a law designed to depoliticize the BOE’s enforcement process.

"These amendments would allow the politically partisan commissioners of the SBOE to impose their own political will on the independent chief enforcement counsel's investigations," Sugarman said in a June letter to the board, obtained by the Albany Times-Union.

The final vote on the measure was 3-1 in favor, with Democratic appointee Andrew Spano dissenting. Before the vote, Sugarman provided sharply critical testimony wherein she accused the board members of attempting to hobble a crucial state watchdog.

“By your vote today, you will send a message,” she said, saying that a “yes” vote would stand for partisan intervention into independent oversight, while a “no” vote would stand for “fair and complete investigations.” Sugarman said that the rescission of unmitigated subpoena power, as well as reporting requirements and a six-month timeframe for investigations, would hobble the enforcement counsel’s ability to fairly investigate campaign finance violations.

Sugarman claimed that the regulations would slow the pace of investigations by requiring approval of subpoenas by the BOE, and would hinder the independence of the investigation by needing approval from partisan appointees. In effect, the commissioners, not the enforcement counsel, would “control the course and content of an investigation,” she said.

Sugarman brought up supporters of her fight against the new regulations: seven state residents who submitted public comment, gubernatorial candidate and former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, the Office of the New York Attorney General, good government groups Reinvent Albany and Rochester for All, five members of the former Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, three District Attorneys, and attorney Milton Williams.

“Gutting the Enforcement Counsel’s authority and independence will only serve to encourage more corruption in New York,” Attorney General Barbara Underwood said in a statement. “Our partnership with a strong, independent Enforcement Counsel has allowed us to hold public officials to account for breaking campaign finance laws and cheating New Yorkers. With today’s vote, that work is jeopardized by potential political interference in law enforcement investigations.”

Governor Cuomo, too, opposed the new regulations, expressing his opinion just before the board meeting, though it had been sought for weeks.

“‎We reviewed these draft regulations and believe they are unnecessary and ‎could harm the operations and the independence of the enforcement counsel's office,” Cuomo spokesperson Tyrone Stevens said in a statement on Wednesday morning. “We don't support their adoption and, believe that today's vote should be delayed and members should go back to the drawing board to address these concerns. The Democratic members of the Board of Elections have been informed of our stance."

Spokespeople for Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan did not respond to requests for comment.

The enforcement counsel was created to independently deliberate election law violations, instead of leaving the job to the partisan board of elections. After Cuomo faced intense controversy for his shuttering of the Moreland Commission, interpreted by many as a reaction to investigations into his administration or people close to him, he and legislative leaders Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos (both now convicted of public corruption) fostered the creation of the enforcement counsel as a compromise.

Regardless, the members of the board criticized Sugarman, saying that her office was inadequately enforcing campaign finance law. Douglas Kellner, the Democratic co-chair of the board, said that enforcement had “effectively stopped” since 2014, the year the enforcement counsel was created, in the areas of deficiencies and non-filings of campaign finance disclosures.

Kellner and other board members said that despite thousands of referrals to Sugarman, only a few dozen hearings had been commenced.

“It’s beyond me why there has not been public outrage at the fact that this has happened,” Kellner said, singling out good government groups for a lack of criticism. Kellner said that he had spoken to good government groups who were in support of the new rule, but did not say which ones.

"I think it's pretty clear that I'm fed up with the current process of the enforcement unit,” Kellner said. “I call upon people in the good government groups...to look at the numbers. Look at the numbers of non-filers, and to how enforcement counsel has handled those non-filers."

One of those government reform groups, Reinvent Albany, issued a statement Wednesday expressing opposition to “the sections of the proposed rules which create new procedures for the chief enforcement counsel to issue subpoenas to persons and committees being investigated for violations of Election or other laws.”

“We believe these procedures will slow or terminate important investigations of alleged violations of Election Law,” the statement continues. “The Board should not seek to undercut the independence of the chief enforcement counsel, who has investigated types of cases not previously taken on by the Election Law enforcement unit of the Board.”

Reinvent Albany supports, however, “the sections related to reporting enforcement activity but believe reporting should be made public and expanded to include all aspects of compliance and

enforcement by the State and county boards of election. The Board currently does not report much, if any, compliance and enforcement activity to the general public, and it should do so as is done by other state agencies while respecting the rights of the accused.”

Republican co-chair Peter Kosinski said that the six-month timetable was necessary in order for voters to know who they were voting for, and whether they had not committed election law violations; Sugarman had earlier said that the timeframe was “arbitrary.”

However, Rockland County District Attorney Thomas Zugibe, who submitted testimony against the new rule, said in an op-ed for loHud in July that board members had admitted in 2013 to only undertaking a single probe in the preceding four years. According to the 2015 Board of Elections annual report, Sugarman received board authorization to seek subpoenas in 19 probes in 2015, with nine cases being referred for possible prosecution. The 2017 report noted that Sugarman had received subpoena authorization in four cases and referred one for prosecution.

The 2013 annual report, before the enforcement counsel position was created, lists no subpoenas or prosecutions.

The board also voted on Wednesday to implement new regulations on political advertising on social media platforms, rules that follow the adoption of a new law passed in this year’s state budget. The new rules will ban foreign entities from purchasing digital ads on social media platforms, and will require ad buyers to register an independent expenditure committee; the board will require that IE’s name be displayed prominently on the ad, as having paid for it.

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Cuomo Brought Rogue Democrats Back, But Hasn't Offered or Accepted Endorsements


Cuomo Klein Stewart-Cousins

Gov. Cuomo, center, with Sens. Stewart-Cousins, left, & Klein (photo: The Governor's Office)


Governor Andrew Cuomo says he wants Democrats to take control of the state Senate and, in reunifying two factions to be able to focus on flipping Republican seats, he publicly offered support for senators who once made up the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of breakaway Democrats that until April held a years-long power-sharing agreement with Republicans.

Cuomo and the leaders of the two Senate groups -- mainline conference leader Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins and IDC leader Senator Jeff Klein -- said at their “unity” news conference at the governor’s Manhattan office that none of the parties would support primary challengers to the other.

Yet with only five weeks till the September 13 primary, Cuomo has not formally endorsed, or been endorsed by, any of the eight senators that made up the IDC. Stewart-Cousins, by contrast, has offered her endorsement of Klein and the other seven members of what was the IDC, each of whom faces a primary challenge.

The now-defunct conference led by Klein agreed last November to disband his breakaway group that had caucused with Republican senators for seven years and to rejoin the mainline Democrats, pending certain developments. Cuomo brokered the deal, which was announced in April (just after a new state budget was announced), after years of saying he was helpless to force the IDC back into the fold. His critics, including his Democratic primary challenger, Cynthia Nixon, say he enabled and benefited from the odd arrangement and that the reunification came too little too late.

Four years ago while also facing primary challenges, Cuomo and Klein endorsed each other for reelection, but this year, amid heightened awareness and criticism of the IDC’s role in the Senate, the two have thus far decided to forego a mutual endorsement that could potentially give their opponents ammunition to criticize them. The same goes with the other seven former IDC members, all of whom face primary challengers that are backed to varying degrees by a number of liberal activist groups -- including some that sprung up in direct opposition to the existence of the IDC and a local senator’s membership in the group -- and elected officials, like city Comptroller Scott Stringer and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

At the April news conference, in a show of bonhomie, Cuomo sat at a table between Klein and Stewart-Cousins, where they announced the reunification deal and Klein’s new position as deputy conference leader. Cuomo sounded the alarm about “the Washington agenda” under a Republican-led Congress and President Donald Trump as he emphasized in lofty terms the need for Democrats to take the state Senate and the House of Representatives. “We’re all going to, within legal limits, pool our resources, pool our strategy because it’s a different type of election this year. It’s about getting Democrats energized and getting Democrats out. So I’m all in,” Cuomo said.

He later added, “All the Senators agree to support each other. So there will be no primaries supported by one senator against another senator and we agree that we’re all gonna work in a coordinated way.”

As part of the deal, the State Democratic Party, elected officials and several prominent labor unions vowed to support the former IDC Senators while refusing aid to their challengers. “Together under Governor Cuomo’s leadership, we’re on the right path, the necessary path to demonstrate to our nation what New Yorkers are made of and the values that we all stand for,” Klein said at the news conference.

But that camaraderie doesn’t seem to extend to the campaign trail. Asked if the governor planned on endorsing Klein or the other former IDC members, a Cuomo campaign spokesperson, Abbey Collins, did not answer directly but instead emphasized that the governor is more focused on protecting Democrat-held seats.

“For over a decade the Senate Democratic Conference has been dysfunctional and fractured,” Collins said in a statement. “The governor supports democratic unity and is focused on growing the Democratic majority in the senate by picking up seats on Long Island and across Upstate to fight Donald Trump and his destructive, ultra-conservative agenda. We stand alongside Andrea Stewart Cousins in supporting all members of the senate Democratic conference.”

A Klein spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Stewart-Cousins has indeed formally announced her endorsement of Klein and the other former IDC members, in individual news releases to the press. She has not campaigned alongside Klein or any of the other senators: Sens. Tony Avella, Diane Savino, Marisol Alcantara, Jesse Hamilton, David Carlucci, and David Valesky.

They face challenges from, respectively, Alessandra Biaggi, John Liu, Jasmine Robinson, Robert Jackson, Zellnor Myrie, Julie Goldberg, and Rachel May.

As election season unfolds ahead of the September 13 primary vote, Cuomo, Klein, and many other candidates continue to announce endorsements of their candidacies by groups and leaders. The lists put forth by Cuomo and Klein, both heavy on labor unions and elected officials, continue to grow, but with the glaring absence of one another. Some elected officials, like Johnson, the Council speaker, have endorsed Cuomo and IDC challengers, including Biaggi, who is taking on Klein and used to work in the Cuomo administration, in the governor’s counsel’s office. Some, like Stewart-Cousins and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., are backing Cuomo and Klein.

Over the course of the last few months, Nixon has repeatedly criticized Cuomo for allowing the IDC to exist unchecked for years and more specifically for his direct support of Klein in this year’s election. Lauren Hitt, a spokesperson for Nixon, pointed to Nixon’s comments last month after a New York Times report noted that Klein was sending out campaign mailers that included a photo of him aside Cuomo.

“The Governor cannot be both a feminist and a supporter of Senator Klein,” Nixon said in a statement at the time, pointing to allegations that Klein forcibly kissed a former staffer outside a bar in Albany in April 2015. “Klein has not only been accused of sexual misconduct by his own staff, but he led the coalition that repeatedly blocked critical protections for New Yorkers’ reproductive rights. Several other New York Democrats have already appreciated what’s at stake for New Yorkers and endorsed against Senator Klein. The Governor can either stand with New York’s women or against us,” Nixon said.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Cuomo and Legislative Leaders Silent Amid Intensifying Calls for Sexual Harassment Hearings


Cuomo Women's Equality Act presser 2013

Gov. Cuomo in 2013 (photo: The Governor's Office)


As part of the #MeToo movement, a group of women who experienced sexual harassment or abuse while working in New York state government have for months been advocating for public hearings on the culture that enables that misconduct in government, especially the state capital, and in the private sector. Their calls have intensified -- and been echoed by prominent women running for state elected offices this year -- after Governor Andrew Cuomo and state legislative leaders passed new anti-harassment laws without any public hearings and without going far enough, according to the women.

Those calls have fallen on deaf ears from the men who control state government, however, with Cuomo touting the new laws as the “strongest in the nation” as he seeks a third term and leaders of the Assembly and Senate, including one accused of forcibly kissing an aide, largely remaining silent.

The Sexual Harassment Working Group, seven women who launched the #HarassmentFreeAlbany movement, have criticized the Democratic governor and bi-partisan Legislature for passing an inadequate package of anti-sexual harassment legislation in this year’s budget, agreed upon in late March. The policies were negotiated by Cuomo, Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, and Senator Jeff Klein, then-leader of the Independent Democratic Conference that has since rejoined the mainline Democrats.

The criticism that the “four men in a room” had for years epitomized the opacity of state budget negotiations was made all the more stark by the fact that they decided how to tackle sexual harassment without hearings, without significant consultation with female legislators -- including the lone woman to lead a legislative conference, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who had been promised a seat at the table -- and without those who had been subject to harassment or abuse, as well as the glaring inclusion of Klein, who was accused earlier this year of forcibly kissing a staffer in 2015 outside an Albany bar. Klein’s accuser, Erica Vladimer is among the members of The Sexual Harassment Working Group.   

In consultation with experts, the group has issued a set of recommendations for enacting stronger anti-harassment protections and have been joined in their cause by the likes of Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout, who is running for the Democratic nomination for attorney general, and actor and activist Cynthia Nixon, who is challenging Cuomo in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, along with rank-and-file state legislators and other advocates.

At a news conference in Manhattan on Wednesday, August 1, Vladimer, other members of the group, and Zenaida Mendez, former President of NOW New York, appeared with Nixon, urging Cuomo to take action.

“It’s time to stop putting politics over human rights,” Vladimer said, “and the first way we can do that is with public hearings...where workers from every industry -- government, retail, food service, hospitality -- can be heard by those we elect to legislatie on our behalf and those who are appointed to enforce those protections.”

Nixon, running to be the first woman elected governor of New York, issued scathing remarks against Cuomo. “New Yorkers deserve better than a governor who ignores victims and chooses instead to protect and sometimes even promote those accused of harassment and worse,” she said. The first-time candidate recently released a video ad that cut back-and-forth between footage of Cuomo and President Donald Trump using similar rhetoric that smacks of ‘toxic masculinity.’

In an editorial for the Albany Times Union on Friday, two members of the group, Leah Hebert and Rita Pasarell, who were subjected to harassment by former Assemblymember Vito Lopez when they worked in his office, criticized Cuomo for his “strongest in the nation” claim about New York’s new anti-sexual harassment laws.

“[E]ven after accounting for rhetorical hyperbole in an election year, the new measures fall far short of what's needed,” Hebert and Pasarell wrote. “They lack teeth for enforcement. They fail to address many obstacles that prevent victims from seeking redress in court. They do nothing to fix the pervasive abuse in Albany, highlighted by more than 100 current and former state employees in an open letter. These new measures were passed in the same way gender-based harassment and discrimination often happen: behind closed doors.” 

They noted how the New York City Council recently passed its own set of bills on sexual harassment after holding hearings to solicit testimony from those affected by it and from experts. The Stop Sexual Harassment in NYC Act included almost a dozen bills that were crafted after multiple hours-long hearings of the Council’s Committee on Women and the Committee on Civil and Human Rights. The bills, signed into law by the mayor, mandated, among other things, anti-sexual harassment trainings at city agencies and in private businesses, increased transparency from agencies on harassment complaints, stronger protections under the city’s human rights law, and added reporting requirements for city contractors.

Besides the open and very public process compared with how the new state policies were created, the city laws appear to be somewhat more expansive. The state policies require state contractors to provide anti-harassment training to all employees, prohibit mandatory arbitration for sexual harassment complaints, ban non-disclosure agreements unless a victim demands one, and extend harassment protections to non-traditional employees such as freelanders, contractors, and vendors. A broader model policy is still due from the state Division of Human Rights, which is meant to apply across the public and private sectors.

Cuomo, Heastie, and Flanagan, on the other hand, have shown no indication that they are listening. Spokespeople for all three officials did not respond to, or even acknowledge, requests for comment from Gotham Gazette about why there have been no public hearings, whether they are open to the idea, or if they had reviewed the recommendations put out by the Sexual Harassment Working Group. A Cuomo spokesperson told Gotham Gazette in late June that the administrations did “look forward to reviewing these recommendations,” but there’s no indication that has happened.

Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, the Republican nominee for governor, also backed the call for public hearings on Thursday. “I pledge to insist on such hearings in Albany next year, should I be honored to be elected governor in November,” he said. “Albany’s culture will change. The coverups we have seen under Andrew Cuomo’s tenure are inexcusable and wrong.”

Molinaro, Nixon, and other Cuomo opponents and critics have also been seizing on recent revelations reported by the Albany Times Union around how victims of sexual harassment have been treated within the broader executive branch.

In the attorney general race, Teachout has been vocal about using the office’s power, if she is elected, to investigate sexual harassment, even in the private sector if it happens under her jurisdiction. Teachout also joined the Sexual Harassment Working Group when they were in Albany last month pressing their demands.

“The idea that New York State — in the middle of a national #TimesUp movement, after the Harvey Weinstein scandal, after all these scandals — that New York has not fixed its own problem is a total shame and disaster and suggests that our old boys club isn’t only covering up corruption but also covering up sexual misconduct,” Teachout said at the news conference, Politico New York reported. She urged her three Democratic primary opponents to join the calls for hearings and improved laws.

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, also running for attorney general, has called for a “full-scale investigation” into harassment in state government. Leecia Eve, a former Cuomo and Hillary Clinton aide now running for attorney general, also supports holding hearings, according to a campaign spokesperson.

Delaney Kempner, a campaign spokesperson for Public Advocate Letitia James, who is the State Democratic Party’s preferred candidate for attorney general and has cross-endorsed with Cuomo, sent a statement to Gotham Gazette that touted work James has done co-sponsoring legislation on mandatory sexual harassment training and reporting, and advocating against forced arbitration clauses in employment contracts.

But the statement did not indicate whether James supports the call for hearings on sexual harassment in state government and beyond or believes that the new state laws passed are sufficient. “It is clear that our laws have not protected women in the workforce from harassment and abuse, both in Albany and across the state…,” Kempner said. “We must improve our laws and change our culture. As Attorney General, Tish will continue to stand up for the women of New York and investigate anyone who seeks to abuse or harass us. That is how we make lasting change.”

[Read: Pointing to Deficiencies, Victims Call for Changes to State’s New Sexual Harassment Policies]

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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