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Nixon Says 'Narrow Path' to Victory Paved with Newly-Registered Progressives Polls ‘Not Capturing’

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(photo: @CynthiaNixon)

As she attempts an insurgent challenge against a two-term Democratic governor with broad establishment support and deep campaign coffers, actor and activist Cynthia Nixon believes her path to victory, admittedly a “narrow” one, lies among new voters, the mostly progressive and informed New Yorkers who have registered with the Democratic Party in the last four years. The new pool of voters is massive, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, but the question is how many will come out to vote on September 13, a Thursday, and for Nixon at that.

“If you look at four years ago when Zephyr Teachout ran [in the Democratic primary for governor], she got 34 percent of the vote, despite the fact that a lot of people had never heard of her, a lot of people didn’t even know she was running, she couldn’t get on TV until the last two weeks,” Nixon said at a gubernatorial forum in Sunset Park last week, which her opponent, Governor Andrew Cuomo, declined to attend.

In certain ways, Nixon could’ve been talking about her own swing-for-the-fences run that parallels Teachout’s 2014 challenge to Cuomo. Both candidates ran with no prior government experience and from the governor’s left, pushing him to adopt more progressive positions. (Teachout was Nixon’s campaign treasurer earlier this year until she launched her own campaign for the Democratic nomination for attorney general. They have endorsed each other.)

[Read: At Brooklyn Forum, Nixon Pitches Policy, Criticizes Cuomo and Distances from De Blasio]

“The people who turn out in a Democratic primary in an off-presidential year are the most informed and the most left-leaning voters,” Nixon continued at the forum. “To be informed about Andrew Cuomo, I believe, is to want to change.”

New York is indeed a low turnout state, if not a low registration one, and in local and state elections participation is often anaemic. Only 574,350 Democratic voters cast a ballot in the 2014 primary for governor -- 192,210 for Teachout and 361,380 for Cuomo, and the rest for Randy Credico, a radio host, comedian, and perennial protest candidate -- even though, prior to the primary, there were 5,873,844 registered Democrats statewide (as of April 1, 2014). By the November general election, in fact, there were 34,585 fewer registered Democrats but Cuomo and his running mate, now-Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, would go on to win by more than 2 million votes.

Two years later, the presidential primary election between former former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders shook the Democratic base and also motivated independent voters to turnout -- though many were disappointed when they showed up to the polls and ran up against New York’s closed primary system which only allows a party’s registered voters to cast a ballot or were stymied by New York’s rules around changing party registration a year in advance of a primary.

As of April 1, 2016, barely three weeks before the Democratic presidential primary, there were 5,792,497 registered Democrats across the state, lower than in previous years. By November 1, that number jumped to 6,179,734, an increase of 387,237 Democratic voters in just seven months. By April of this year, the number of registered Democrats has increased again, to 6,201,033, of which 3,401,637 are in New York City alone (NY1’s Zack Fink first crunched some of these numbers).

Between April 2016 and April 2018, 330,478 new Democrats registered in the city. Some portion of them, it is believed, changed party registration from unaffiliated in an attempt to vote in the presidential primary, but did so too late for that election.

It’s on those new Democratic voters -- more than 408,000 of them since the last gubernatorial race -- that Nixon is pinning her hopes of victory. “I think what the polls are really not capturing is that, both inspired by Bernie Sanders and horrified by Donald Trump,” hundreds of thousands of Democrats have registered to vote in New York in the last two years, Nixon said. “And I would argue that the vast majority of those are progressive voters.”

But according to an actual pollster, public polling doesn’t back Nixon’s claim, though the election will likely depend on turnout, which is tough to predict, said Siena College’s Steven Greenberg in a phone interview. In a July 31 Siena College poll, the latest in the governor’s race, Cuomo received 60 percent of the vote from likely Democratic primary voters, compared to Nixon’s 29 percent, with the rest undecided.

“I don’t believe it’s true,” that polls aren’t capturing progressive voters, Greenberg said. He noted that eight out of nine registered Democrats didn’t vote in the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial primary, though he assumed turnout may be higher this year.

“We certainly talk to new voters,” he added, insisting that Siena had polled Democratic voters who had registered as recently as June. The polling methodology also accounts for voting history to determine who will be a likely primary voter, he said. “We think we’re talking to those new voters in an appropriate way.”

Though Nixon believes the progressive groundswell in the wake of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign will continue to show in this year’s election, Greenberg said that notion doesn’t match up with the past. “We have seen historically that a lot of new voters register to vote in the presidential primary but don’t continue to vote after that,” he said.

And perhaps most daunting for Nixon, Greenberg pointed out, was the fact that voters who identified as liberals in Siena’s July poll overwhelmingly chose Cuomo, who beat Nixon 57-35 in that category (Nixon’s campaign has said that far left voters now identify as “progressive,” which was not an option in the poll, not liberal). Even among younger voters, below the age of 35, Cuomo won by double digits. “Andrew Cuomo has a problem with liberal and progressive leadership,” Greenberg said. “He doesn’t have a problem with rank and file liberals and progressives. They like him and they support him.”

The Cuomo campaign did not provide comment for this article.

“Nixon can make an argument, and it’s a legitimate argument, that Cuomo’s been dragged kicking and screaming to take liberal positions,” he continued. “But the voters don’t know that.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Opponents Target Teachout as Democratic Attorney General Candidates Debate Role and Resumes

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James, Maloney, Eve, Teachout (l-r)

The four Democrats vying for the party’s nomination for attorney general faced each other in their second televised debate of the race on Tuesday at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan.

The debate became a 90-minute brawl as the four candidates -- New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, Congressional Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, former Verizon executive Leecia Eve, and Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout -- sought to set themselves apart from each other. But few differences emerged in their ideologies or campaign platforms as all four were largely in agreement in answering the questions posed to them by debate moderators Errol Louis, host of NY1’s Inside City Hall, and Liz Benjamin, host of Capital Tonight on Spectrum News.

What did emerge more clearly, though, was the sense that Teachout’s competitors see her as the frontrunner in the race, despite the fact that Maloney is a sitting member of Congress and James a citywide elected official who has the backing of Governor Andrew Cuomo -- whom Teachout challenged four years ago -- and the state Democratic Party.

In opening statements, all the candidates emphasized their willingness and ability to take on legal and political challenges faced by the state under the presidency of Donald Trump. James said Trump’s abuses are “fueling this campaign, fueling my soul,” as she said the country’s democracy is at risk. “I’ve been tested,” said Maloney as he said he’s thrice won a congressional district that Trump won in 2016. Eve said she is the “most qualified, most prepared” candidate, without mentioning the president. And Teachout, a scholar who wrote a book on political corruption, said she is “uniquely qualified” to tackle Trump’s alleged misdeeds.

Early on, the candidates stressed the importance of an attorney general’s office independent of the governor. James repeatedly said, “I don’t believe people can question my independence,” though she did not fully explain her ties to Cuomo and the state party he controls, which have led to recent criticism of her candidacy. Over the course of the debate, she also insisted that the next attorney general needs to pursue her or his agenda by having and developing relationships with the state Legislature and the governor.

James’ opponents seemed to disagree, though each said they would in a professional capacity work with the Legislature to achieve necessary ethics and campaign finance reforms.

“It is unprecedented for a governor of New York to try to handpick the attorney general or to fundraise for the attorney general’s campaign...You gotta tell the governor to butt out,” Maloney said in his typical candor, in a broadside directed at James, though he did not mention her by name.

Eve, a former economic development aide to Cuomo, was similarly forthright. “The governor needs to focus on doing his job and let me as the next attorney general do mine,” she said. Teachout is claiming the most independence from the political establishment of the four, having challenged Cuomo in the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial primary. “I really see independence as essential to the job description,” she said.

There were, throughout, quite a few moments of broad agreement. All the candidates except Eve called for the resignation of Seth Agata, a former Cuomo aide who is now executive director of the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), and pushed for greater jurisdiction in the attorney general’s office to investigate corruption. Eve did not explicitly say Agata should resign but insisted that JCOPE should be scrapped and "We need to start from scratch."

However, James refused to paint all state legislators with the broad brush of corruption, saying she would work with them to create stronger anti-corruption laws. But Maloney, Eve, and Teachout called for either a complete overhaul of JCOPE or the creation of an entirely new independent watchdog entity under the attorney general’s purview, while also acknowledging they would need state legislative action to do so.

“We need to erase JCOPE like a blackboard and start over...I don’t wanna change deckchairs around on the Titanic. I wanna start over and rebuild it correctly,” said Maloney.

In that vein of independence, the moderators pressed the candidates on whether someone seeking the attorney general position should accept corporate contributions, particularly from Wall Street donors, given the position’s oversight of the financial services industry. All of them said they support public financing of elections but Teachout repeatedly pointed out that she is the only one who has refused all corporate and LLC donations (made through the much-reviled LLC loophole, which allows donors to circumvent contribution limits). “This is poisoning our politics...The idea that the next AG...would be going to get LLC, corporate money from Wall Street, puts a question mark next to the entire job,” she said.

But James and Maloney seemed to pounce on Teachout’s pledge, pointing out that she had in the past accepted corporate and LLC contributions (about $21,000 worth, she said, of 2014 campaign in-kind donations) and outside independent expenditure spending on her behalf in her 2016 congressional race, for a district next to Maloney’s that he tried to help her win. “Money is poison in our politics, so is being holier-than-thou and hypocrisy,” Maloney said, going on to use the same line of attack against Teachout repeatedly even while praising her personally.

James also took to calling Teachout “professor” as she over and over stressed that running to be the top legal officer in the state is not an “academic” exercise.

All the candidates called for the state Legislature to hold hearings on sexual harassment, an issue advocated by the Sexual Harassment Working Group, several women who have been subject to harassment while working in the state Legislature. Maloney said he would push for criminal prosecutions and give local district attorneys the resources to pursue them. Teachout and Eve insisted the attorney general already has the authority to pursue such cases as ethics violations under Cuomo’s executive order establishing a Moreland Commission in 2013, which they say was never officially rescinded even though the commission was disbanded.

James, again, spoke of her relationships with state legislators, and her record as a “proven leader” (which happens to be Cuomo’s own reelection slogan) as she said she would push for stronger anti-harassment measures. She said the executive order is “for all intents and purposes” defunct and that the next attorney general would need original jurisdiction to carry out criminal prosecutions -- something that in most cases must come through a referral from another entity, such as the governor, the comptroller, or a district attorney.

James’ comments prompted a polite rebuttal from Teachout. “I think we genuinely have different visions for the office here...My belief is that Albany fixing itself hasn’t worked,” she said.

In a cross-examination round, James, Maloney and Eve all directed their questions to Teachout, putting her on the defensive and indicating that she may be seen as the candidate with the most momentum after she was recently endorsed by both the New York Times and Daily News editorial boards, among other new supporters.

Maloney and James pushed Teachout to explain her apparently shifting stances on the NY SAFE Act, the state’s signature gun control legislation passed in the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook mass shooting. Teachout said she merely opposed the process by which it was passed, with little debate and time for public input. Eve then asked how Teachout could continue to call herself an outside after having unsuccessfully run for office multiple times and trying again. James also went after Teachout for having been reprimanded by the North Carolina Bar, over what appears to have been a minor infraction related to not filing a notice of address change while she was still listed as an attorney on a case in the state where she practiced law for a number of years. Teachout just joined the New York Bar last week after going through the requesite process.

On a range of issues, there was relative conformity among the four Democrats, and much of it showed during a lightning round of questions. Each of them said they would fight for criminal justice reform, particularly ending cash bail; each supported stronger tenant protections and investigations of illegality in the real estate sector (though all but Teachout have received donations from the industry); all agreed that pharmaceutical companies should be held criminally responsible for the opioid epidemic; they all said the attorney general’s office should play a role in investigating the crisis at the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA); and all of them said the Rikers Island prison complex should be closed in less than ten years and that the state should pass Kalief’s Law, a speedy trial reform bill named for Bronx teenager Kalief Browder, who spent three years on Rikers on charges of stealing a backpack that were eventually dropped. Browder later died by suicide months after being released.

On two questions, their answers did vary. Teachout and James both called for abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal agency that has come to epitomize the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies. Eve did not support doing away with it, but rather said she would prosecute its officers for wrongdoing. Maloney said calling for abolition of the agency was “glib,” and rather pushed for ending Trump’s biased policies and stopping the use of ICE as a “mass deportation force.” He said anti-terrorism work is essential and spoke in support of members of law enforcement generally.

The four also diverged when asked if they would drink the water in Hoosick Falls, the upstate village where the drinking water supply was contaminated by toxic chemicals more than two years ago. The candidates seemed not to know the current state of affairs (state officials have insisted the problem is solved). Maloney, Eve, and James said they would drink the water and fight to ensure that all New Yorkers have access to clean drinking water. Teachout, who struggled to respond, said, “I don’t want anybody to ever have to answer that question.”

The primary is on September 13, a Thursday.

[Read: Democratic Attorney General Candidates Seek to Set Themselves Apart in First Televised Debate]

[Watch: First Televised Debate Among Democratic Attorney General Candidates]

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to clarify Leecia Eve's comments on JCOPE.

How Ronald Reagan’s 1966 Run for Governor Prefaced Cynthia Nixon’s Today

Ronald Reagan Cynthia Nixon

Ronald Reagan and Cynthia Nixon

In the summer of 1966, on the other side of the country from where Cynthia Nixon is now battling it out to become the Governor of New York, and on the opposite end of the political spectrum to Nixon’s position as a far-left Democrat, another actor-come-political-activist, Ronald Reagan, arguably wrote the script for a relative newcomer to unseat a long-standing incumbent in a governor’s race.

Reagan, who died in 2004 at age 93, went on to become the 40th President of the United States from 1981 to 1989, after serving as Governor of California from 1967 until 1975. His introduction to public office came after an at-the-time revolutionary campaign against two-term Democratic incumbent Governor Pat Brown. Similar to how Nixon’s campaign aims to harness the power of a grassroots, volunteer-driven effort, Reagan’s, too, called upon an army of volunteers and depended upon the public perception of the candidate as an “outsider” and “citizen politician” to eventually secure the win.

“There was a longer tradition of entertainment inclusion in Californian politics than there is New York,” political analyst Bruce Gyory, a professor of political science at the University of Albany, told Gotham Gazette in discussing whether Reagan’s gubernatorial victory says anything about Nixon’s chances this year. New York doesn’t have that tradition, Gyory continued, but he said there’s a history of electing relative newcomers, such as in the 1982 gubernatorial election wherein Ed Koch, who’d been mayor of New York City for five years, lost the Democratic primary to Mario Cuomo (the father of the state’s current governor, Andrew Cuomo, who Nixon’s trying to unseat in the primary).

Gyory also noted that the trend of personality politics that saw Donald Trump, a businessman with no prior political experience, elected in the 2016 presidential race could work to Nixon’s advantage, while others have called Trump’s election, and low standing among Democrats, a disadvantage to Nixon as she seeks to downplay any comparisons.

And though Trump’s winning, celebrity-driven campaign is repeatedly a reference point for those analyzing Nixon’s candidacy, despite her many years of policy advocacy in New York, the case of Reagan may be a better historical precedent to consider. (It’s worth noting, of course, that Reagan defeated the father of the current California governor, Jerry Brown, as Nixon attempts to unseat New York’s second generation Governor Cuomo in part by further inflaming an anti-establishment fever.)

Reagan, like Nixon, had enjoyed some success as an actor in Hollywood before entering politics. He appeared in films such as the 1937 movie Love Is on the Air and 1942's Kings Row. More than this, he was known for his work as the president of the Screen Actors Guild between 1947 and 1952, and then again in the first half of 1960 when he was successful in organizing an industry-wide strike to convince production houses to grant compensation to actors when their scenes were re-aired or reproduced by new media (something still in place today, called residuals). He was also known for his work between 1954 and 1962 as the host of national television show General Electric Theater.

His run for governor came two years after his first major foray into the political scene. Having identified as a Democrat throughout his youth and during his first tenure as president of the Screen Actors Guild, Reagan switched parties in 1962 and publicly repositioned himself as the voice of Republican conservatism in 1964 with a televised speech for presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. During the 30-minute address, Reagan spoke about minimizing the role of government and affording freedom to Americans. He spoke about the need for welfare reform and to reduce taxes, as well as the threat of communism to the world.

"A government can't control the economy without controlling people. And...when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose,” Reagan said during that address, just a few years before he would become governor. “So we have come to a time for choosing...You and I are told we must choose between a left or right, but I suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down. Up to man's age-old dream — the maximum of individual freedom consistent with order — or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism.”

Reagan’s speech raised $1 million for Goldwater’s campaign and, though the Republican candidate lost the general election to Democrat Lyndon Johnson by the largest margin at that point in history (38.5 percent to 61.1 percent), Reagan’s performance stuck with the American people. It laid the foundation for ‘Reagan the politician’ in the eyes of the public, and made it that much easier, two years on, for Reagan to enter the California gubernatorial race as an apparent underdog.

“When Reagan started campaigning, there were few people who actually took him seriously aside form Californian voters,” Jaime Regalado, professor of political Science at California State University, told Gotham Gazette in May. “Reagan was dismissed by the party establishment among Democrats and even many Republican strategists felt that he wasn’t the ideal candidate. That changed quickly.”

Unlike what Nixon is attempting in taking on a sitting governor of her own party, Reagan was a Republican who succeeded in unseating a two-term Democratic incumbent. However, Nixon, in saying that Cuomo has “governed like a Republican,” has almost painted herself and Cuomo as from two different parties.

Reagan was up against former San Francisco Mayor George Christopher in the 1966 Republican primary election, which he won with almost 65 percent of the vote, and went on to defeat Brown in the November general election with 58 percent. “Brown underestimated Reagan and it was easy to do considering he was a celebrity candidate who had no experience in elected office,” Regalado said.

Andrew Cuomo initially attempted to dismiss Nixon’s candidacy when she first announced her plans to run for governor in March of this year, but he has shown in the subsequent months that he is concerned enough about her challenge to raise and spend well more than $8 million this year as of a month before the September 13 primary, not to mention several policy and other moves apparently aimed at neutralizing Nixon’s appeal.

“We’re in a democracy, anybody can run, anybody can say whatever they want to say,” Cuomo said during a March 21 news conference in Manhattan, when asked about the Sex and the City star’s candidacy. “This is the political silly season at an especially bizarre time in politics. But we have some real work to do.”

In one quip, Cuomo criticized both Nixon’s success as an actor and questioned her ability to do the job of governor: “Normally name recognition is relevant when it has some connection to the endeavor,” he said during a conference call with reporters. “If it’s just about name recognition, then I’m hoping Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and Billy Joel don’t get into the race.”

Over the course of the campaign that has unfolded, Cuomo has in some ways shown he is taking the Nixon challenge seriously, while his surrogates have repeatedly used her acting career as a point of attack, with campaign spokespeople regularly saying that she is only able to read a script.

According to Reagan biographer and presidential historian Craig Shirley, who is based in New York, the tendency for incumbent politicians to underestimate candidates such as Reagan and Nixon can very easily backfire. “That could be Nixon’s greatest asset; there’s nothing better in politics than to be underestimated,” Shirley said. Since Cuomo’s early remarks and Shirley’s assessment, one seismic event occurred, even if polls have shown Cuomo with very comfortable margins: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez roundly defeated ten-term incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in June’s congressional primary, sending shockwaves through New York and national politics. Cuomo said that outcome means nothing for his race, but reason dictates every incumbent is at least a little more uneasy since June 26.

Other Democrats, including some loyal to Cuomo such as former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, were also quick to denounce Nixon’s gubernatorial bid. “She isn’t qualified to be the governor,” Quinn told the New York Post following Nixon’s announcement, and referred to Nixon as an “unqualified lesbian” in recalling that Nixon had not supported Quinn, a “qualified lesbian,” for mayor in 2013, when Nixon strongly backed eventual winner Bill de Blasio.

Yet Nixon quickly turned “unqualified lesbian” into a rallying cry for her campaign, a move indicative of her strategy to use her lack of government experience -- framed as “outsider” status -- in the only way she can: to position herself as someone attractive to voters who want change; as a candidate unencumbered by the traditional trappings of politics and free to take on the establishment; and someone who also understands the problems of everyday New Yorkers.

“Cuomo has been in office eight years, hardly anything has changed," she told the Associated Press in March. “If we want change, people like me, who have never run for office before, have to get involved.”

More than 50 years ago, in 1966, almost those exact words were spoken Reagan, as he first campaigned to become governor of California.

"It's true I've never held public office," Reagan told TIME for a October 1966 cover story. "But if we're going to base the election off that, consider that Brown's been in office eight years and he hasn't done much about our problems!”

Positioning himself as a “citizen politician,” Reagan blamed Brown for many of the state’s issues, including the uprising of protesting students at Berkeley University -- a part of the Free Speech Movement and largely in opposition to the Vietnam War -- as well as the racially-charged Watts Riots in the summer of 1965 in Los Angeles that started amid rumors police had roughed up two African-American men and a pregnant woman during a traffic stop.

He leveraged the fear of Californians to position himself as a ‘law and order’ politician, telling the students of Berkeley, “Obey the rules or get out." According to reports at the time, many voters in the lower middle class, who were members of unions and typically Democratic voters, switched their allegiance in response to the seemingly extremist socialism flourishing across the state. Reagan won after painting Brown, and the entire state’s political system, as inadequate in delivering fairness and order to ‘everyday people.’

“His celebrity put him in touch with Californians unlike perhaps any other candidate and he also listened to what people had to say,” Regalado said. “It was part of his strategy to be in touch with common Californians. He was a citizen-politician unencumbered by the restraints of having been in office too long. It was the perfect message. “

When asked if he believes this message is applicable to Nixon’s case, and if it could be employed to achieve success in the New York gubernatorial primaries, Regalado said: “I do, I do.”

Nixon is indeed making similar thematic points in New York, as Reagan once did in California. And though she is positioning herself as a liberal criminal justice reformer, not a law and order candidate, she is likely hoping for a backlash (albeit in the other direction) comparable to what Reagan inspired in 1966. She has aligned herself with communities and advocacy groups that feel left behind by Cuomo, whom they attack for being a centrist and empowering Republicans. Nixon and her supporters argue the governor has sidelined many progressive goals in order to triangulate, retain the moderate fiscal policies he favors, support charter schools, and cater to real estate interests.

During a campaign conference call with supporters several months ago, Nixon criticized Cuomo for “paying lip service” to condemning Trump and creating a sanctuary state, without actually doing anything to deliver change. Referencing criminal justice reform and protecting undocumented immigrants with access to driver’s licenses, Nixon asked simply: Why hasn’t he done it?

Nixon has been endorsed by the Working Families Party (WFP) - a progressive political party that backed Cuomo in his previous two gubernatorial victories but parted ways with him over what party members deemed a failure to deliver on a truly progressive agenda.

“If I was giving advice to Cynthia Nixon it would be that when you have the spotlight on you - and she will - you have to do something with it,” Shirley said earlier this year, in what is now a prelude to the lone Nixon-Cuomo debate, scheduled for Wednesday night on CBS-2 television. “Reagan gave a highly successful speech in 1964 on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater and emerged as the national conservative leader after Goldwater lost the election. After that, he was no longer Ronald Reagan the actor, he was Ronald Reagan the conservative.”

While the debate will not offer Nixon that kind of spotlight, it will provide her with a significant opportunity she has not had to date.

Earlier in the campaign season, Regalado agreed that, like Reagan had to in the late ‘60s, Nixon needs to show she has the “substance” it takes to be governor, and that it’s important she talks policy, programs, and what she will do for voters. “She needs to get out her agenda and highlight her experience working with different communities,” he said. “She needs to outline five points, or three points, that will appeal to a broad voter base. This is important for the visualization of electorate voters.”

Since the launch of her campaign, Nixon has announced a mix of policy positions including "fully funded schools"; campaign finance reform; criminal justice reform; and single-payer healthcare. She’s tapping into the anger and fear of many New Yorkers in campaigning on a platform that includes strengthening rent regulations and fixing the subway. She has also pushed for marijuana legalization, one of several moves she has made that have appeared to elicit action from Cuomo, who has recently moved the state toward legalization.

Nixon has also promised to invest more money to improve living conditions at public housing and to pass the New York Dream Act, which would allow undocumented college students access to state financial aid. Another pillar of her campaign is the issue she spent nearly two decades doing unpaid advocacy work on: education funding, with a focus on more resources for the neediest school districts across the state.

“The question is, will she avoid, not only verbal gaffes, but policy gaffes,” Regalado added, referencing Nixon’s misstep when she said communities of color should be home to legalized marijuana distribution opportunities as a form of “reparations,” a comment she sought to clarify and apologize for in subsequent days. “There is a lot to learn for a new candidate who is running for office,” Regalado said.

Nixon’s ‘newness’ holds a benefit, however, that proved in Reagan’s case to overshadow any mistakes he might have made in discussing policy: He could present himself as a ‘clean’ alternative - gaffes or not -- to the career politician and regularly highlighted his position as untouched by corruption.

“Being an outsider, and not being part of the established elite, can be a real asset,” Shirley said. “Reagan made it clear to them; ‘I’m not part of the corruption of Sacramento, that’s Pat Brown’s doing, I’m just offering myself to go in there and clean it up.’”

According to reports at the time, property taxes had doubled under Brown’s leadership and the Californian people believed their money was being used to grease the hands of the political elite. Reagan was critical of the state’s budget problems and, as Brown told The Harvard Crimson in April of 1967: “I erroneously thought that people were proud of the things we had done. All they were really concerned with was taxes.” Brown continued that Reagan rarely offered any constructive solutions to the state’s budget problems but, because the newcomer fuelled the public’s fear of corruption, it meant any blunders he might have made didn’t matter so much when it came to voters making decisions at the polls.

Some of that spirit of 1966 may apply today, though the fact that Nixon is challenging Cuomo in a party primary where turnout will be low may drastically diminish her chances. From the earliest days of her campaign, Nixon has called Cuomo corrupt, saying he caters to his donors, and blaming him for rampant corruption in state government, which he had vowed to clean up when he was first elected in 2010. She promised to on day one to appoint a commission to investigate corruption in state government if she’s elected governor, and has repeatedly noted that a 2013 commission launched by Cuomo was shut down when “it got too close to him” and his donors.

One of the cornerstones of Nixon’s campaign is her refusal to take contributions from corporations and limited liability companies, or LLCs. Both have been the source of major donations to Cuomo, who has failed to close the notorious “LLC loophole,” which effectively negates the state’s already high contribution limits.

“Under Andrew Cuomo, public corruption in our state capital has become a national embarrassment, and robbed New Yorkers of the honest, trustworthy government they deserve,” Nixon said in a statement. Nixon and her supporters regularly reference the recent federal corruption conviction on multiple counts of Joseph Percoco, a former top government aide, campaign manager, and friend to Cuomo. Still, it is unclear how much that and other corruption is resonating with voters, especially Democratic primary voters. Cuomo has had commanding leads in the polls, though Nixon has questioned whether they are capturing the progressive, anti-establishment, and new-voter energy that she believes is rampant.

Nixon’s campaign strategy, like Reagan’s in 1966, is largely a grassroots effort. With the WFP, Nixon is working with a growing network of volunteers across the state. She has raised a very small fraction of the nearly $40 million Cuomo has brought in. Reagan -- in a strategy unheard of at the time in the way it utilized media, volunteers, advertisers and behavioral scientists -- leveraged his skill as a public speaker to generate volunteer support and activate voters.

But Regalado believes Nixon will have to lock down a larger, weightier support base, and can’t solely rely on grassroots efforts to win. “Cynthia is going to have to find her base within the party -- not just from the LGBTIQ groups and the Working Families Party.” He said labor unions would be key, but Nixon has not won support from unions.

At this point, it is unlikely any major labor unions will get behind Nixon in the Democratic primary, but she has shown a focus on trying to break into Cuomo’s hold on New York City Democrats, especially people of color. Polls have shown that these efforts have not been successful, but Nixon has appeared undeterred, acknowledging a “narrow path” to victory, but a path nonetheless.

Gyory agrees there are “superficial similarities” between Nixon’s and Reagan’s campaigns, but points out by the time he ran for governor, Reagan “had become the leading national spokesperson and the voice of a rising conservative movement.” Though she has received significant national media attention, Nixon has not risen to the level of becoming a symbol of a movement. While Nixon’s campaign is getting national attention, she is still aiming to unseat one of her own party’s sitting governors, and though many in the progressive movement are embracing her candidacy, it has been part of Democratic infighting, not a unifying force to unseat a member of Trump’s party.

For some voters, Nixon will have to overcome skepticism about whether she is ready to govern the state. “Democrats almost universally counter-positioned themselves to Trump’s lack of knowledge,” Gyory said. “[Nixon] will have to confront this and handle the articulation of issues well.”

Regalado says Nixon can learn from Reagan in the way he used perfect timing and a recognizable voice to endear himself to voters and gain the admiration of his party. It’s a method that’s been followed by other actors, too. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, was Governor of California between 2003 and 2011, and encouraged followers to call him “Governator,” in reference to The Terminator movies he starred in, and used one-liners from his movies, such as “hasta la vista” and "I'll be back,” to punctuate his press conferences and meetings.

“Reagan used humor,” Regalado said. “He was not only a great script reader, he was a practiced actor, and that on the campaign trail can be very, very powerful. He was self-deprecating, and I think Cynthia’s kind of doing that herself. She uses humor from what I can see. She’s a good speaker. She’s engaging and she has a comfortable message. All of that is very Reagan-esque.”

Asked whether Nixon or her campaign has studied Reagan’s, a campaign spokesperson put Nixon’s acting career into context. "She started acting when she was 12 because she couldn't afford college otherwise,” wrote Lauren Hitt. “Cynthia was raised by a single mom in a four floor walk up. The Governor likes to mock Cynthia's career and to say it proves she's out of touch. But in reality, while Governor Cuomo was given a huge leg up into politics by his father, Cynthia had to earn every single professional success she's had. Succeeding in such a brutal, tough industry is no small feat, and it shows just how tough, and smart Cynthia is. Cynthia has also used her acting platform for the last twenty years to give back. She's fought tirelessly to close the funding gap between low-income and high income school districts, she organized against anti-marriage equality senators, and fought in support of women's reproductive rights."

Shirley uses Reagan’s own words to illustrate Nixon’s threat, and as a reminder not to underestimate an actor-turned-candidate.

“Reagan once said, ‘I don’t know how you can do this job and not be an actor’,” Shirley said. “And I think there’s great wisdom in that. When you’re on stage, do something with it. The better leaders understand they are also performers."

by Caitlin Bishop, Gotham Gazette
@caitybishop  @GothamGazette

Read more by this writer.

Pressed on SAFE Act, Teachout Downplays Past Opposition

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Zephyr Teachout, right, greets New Yorkers (photo: @ZephyrTeachout)

Zephyr Teachout has throughout her attorney general campaign made the case that she is the most progressive candidate in the race, but her shifted position on major New York gun control legislation counters the impression she is attempting to offer Democratic voters ahead of the September primary, and became a flashpoint last week during the first televised debate of the race.

Teachout, whose candidacy has in recent weeks gained momentum, picking up endorsements from the Daily News and New York Times editorial boards, was questioned at the debate by fellow candidates Public Advocate Letitia James and Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney for waffling on the NY SAFE Act. The former congressional candidate has over the years shifted her stated concerns about the SAFE Act — signature gun control legislation quickly pushed through the Legislature and signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo in the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Specifically, Teachout, a Fordham Law professor and nationally recognized expert on political corruption, during the debate insisted that she had been a “consistent supporter” of the the SAFE Act, but was and remains troubled by the process with which it was passed.

“I support background checks. I support closing the gun show loophole. I support assault weapons ban, and I've been consistent about my criticisms of legislation that is passed without a chance for public hearing,” Teachout said after James, the race’s presumed front-runner at its outset, asked why Teachout had flipped on the issue, during the cross-examination portion of the debate.

Asked by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette editor and moderator of the debate, if process was her sole concern about the bill, Teachout said, “That was my criticism of the SAFE Act, and that has been my consistent criticism of the SAFE Act.”

“[M]y objections had to do with the process,” she said when pressed on the issue by Maloney, shortly after, as he turned her question to him around on her to challenge her progressive bona fides. “That is totally clear.”

But it has in fact not been evident from Teachout’s comments on the SAFE Act since its passage that her reservations about the legislation have been purely regarding the legislation’s path to fruition, as she claimed. While in recent years Teachout has several times expressed process complaints about the way the legislation was passed, she also said during her 2016 congressional bid for a Hudson Valley seat that she did not support the legislation due to shortcomings she argued came as a result of the hasty process.  

“I’ve been a critic of the SAFE Act,” Teachout offered proactively in January 2016 during an appearance on The Capitol Pressroom radio show with host Susan Arbetter, citing her position on the landmark gun control legislation on a list of stances that set her apart from “radical” left-wingers, as eventual winner Republican Rep. John Faso had labeled the Democrats in the race, which also included her belief in federal government “overreach” on Common Core education standards.   

Asked by Arbetter to further explain her position on gun control, she said the way the SAFE Act was developed was “more focused on making a public message than really dealing with issues of gun safety.” Further, Teachout said the this “led to some features that just didn’t make that much sense.” (Teachout was not alone in finding holes in the law. After the legislation’s passage, it needed to be amended in part because it failed to exempt law enforcement from some provisions.)

“I support background checks, but I am not a supporter of the SAFE Act,” she added.

Teachout also said the process by which it was passed was “rushed,” “shut people out,” and was “deeply disrespectful,” though she did not during that interview specify who was kept from the discussion nor who was disrespected.   

This was not the first time she criticized the legislative procedure for the SAFE Act. In 2014, Teachout also lamented the manner in which the legislation got to Cuomo’s desk, and was more specific about who she felt had been left out.

“It was done in a deeply disrespectful way. We should have held hearings, listened to gun owners,” she told the Watertown Daily Times, as she campaigned against Cuomo in that year's gubernatorial primary.

More broadly, Teachout in the past posited herself as a middle-of-the-road, voice of reason on gun control, who favored incorporating gun owners’ voices into the debate, calling upon her own upbringing in Vermont, where she was part of a family of recreational hunters. “I’ve always been around guns,” she said during the 2016 radio appearance.

Along with her public comments, Teachout shifted her posture on guns on her campaign website. Teachout’s 2016 congressional campaign site during the primary noted on its “Public Safety” page that the United States “has a gun violence problem” and “far too many guns wind up in the hands of those who should not have them.” It also included headers such as “Holding Gun Manufacturers Liable” and “Strengthening Universal Background Checks/Closing the Gun Show Loophole.”

Yet as the general election neared, Teachout de-emphasized her gun control stance on the website, shortening the description of her position on guns by several hundred words, and replaced bolder gun control advocacy with softer language.

“Zephyr grew up in in a gun-owning household, and understands that the vast majority of gun owners are law-abiding citizens who use and store their firearms responsibly” was added to the same page of her campaign website, while the “Gun Industry Money Flowing to the NRA” section was deleted.

She added that if elected, she would would serve as a “voice for cooperation and common sense on gun safety,” in part by “[c]reating an open dialogue about gun safety with constituents in the Hudson Valley and the Catskills.” A Teachout campaign representative told Gotham Gazette that after the primary there was a site-wide edit for clarity that included many pages. 

Tacking toward the center in anticipation for a general election — or altering a platform while seeking to represent a different constituency — are hardly rarities in politics, but Teachout disputes the notion any such evolution took place on the SAFE Act.

Teachout, in a statement, repeated what she said during the debate about the SAFE Act, denying she took issue with the legislation itself, but did not address questions on the campaign site changes.

"I've consistently supported the SAFE act and consistently critiqued the process by which it was passed without a single public hearing,” she said Monday. “That should be the baseline expectation in a democracy, for any legislation whether it's gun safety laws or sexual harassment laws.”

“If we don't have a process that people trust they're less likely to accept the outcome," she continued, touching on a theme that has been a consistent refrain from her about a broken state government, and a critique of it that is shared by many other good government advocates.

Teachout’s prior skepticism of some gun regulation appears not to have deterred at least one gun control advocacy group from supporting her. Both she and James are Moms Demand Action “Gun Sense Candidates.”

The four candidates, a group that also includes Leecia Eve, running in the Democratic primary for attorney general will on Tuesday again face off for another televised debate, this time on NY1, just over two weeks before the September 13 vote.

[WATCH the first televised debate of the Democratic Primary for Attorney General, aired by MNN]

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, August 27

New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

This Thursday will mark just two weeks until primary election day, and this week will be full of dramatic debates, including the second of two scheduled televised debates in the Democratic primary for Attorney General, and the lone televised debates in the Democratic primaries for Governor and Lieutenant Governor. See below for details.

Along with the debates, we're watching this week for further endorsement news, such as whether Mayor Bill de Blasio will back Cynthia Nixon or not, and much more. We're also nearing the final campaign finance disclosures of the primary, and we're awaiting any new public polls of the statewide primaries.

Needless to say, between now and the September 13 primaries, there will be little beyond campaign activity in New York politics, though some government is still happening, especially on the city level (including around speed cameras near schools as the school year is close to starting). And even candidates who are not involved in primaries are on the trail, of course, such as gubernatorial candidates Marc Molinaro, Howie Hawkins, Stephanie Miner, and Larry Sharpe.

And there are a few 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?
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:

Mayor de Blasio will appear on NY1's Inside City Hall on Monday in the 7 and 11 p.m. hours, for his usual weekly segment.

At 1 p.m. Monday, "Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams will be joined by local elected officials, representatives from Brooklyn Community Boards (CBs) 6 and 7, and former New York University Wagner Graduate School of Public Service (NYU Wagner) students to announce the results of a year-long study to reimagine the Prospect Expressway corridor, in an effort to repair the mistakes of Robert Moses-era planning. They will publicly release a joint letter they sent last month to the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) calling on them to consider recommendations released in a report by students at NYU Wagner’s Capstone program as well as to issue a design competition to build off the vision outlined in the report. The report, entitled “PX Forward,” detailed proposed reforms for implementing greater community connectivity, increased green space, as well as cyclist and pedestrian safety improvements along the Prospect Expressway, which bifurcates the communities of South Slope and Windsor Terrace and impacts the quality of life of nearly 45,000 residents in the surrounding neighborhoods, as well as approximately 85,000 motorists who use the roadway daily. Borough President Adams and others, while gathered at Thomas J. Cuite Park in Windsor Terrace — an open space overlooking the Prospect Expressway, will liken this challenge to similar visionary urban redevelopment models across the country."

At 6 p.m. Monday, the Assembly Standing Committee on Environmental Conservation and the Assembly Long Island Task Force will meet jointly at the Manhasset Public Library for a public hearing discussing the water quality of the Long Island Sound.

"Candidates for the Democratic nomination for New York Attorney General will attend a forum hosted by the Democratic Rural Conference of New York State (DRC) at 7 pm on Monday, August 27, at Genesee Community College in Batavia. Leecia Eve, Tish James, Sean Patrick Maloney, and Zephyr Teachout have all confirmed their attendance at the event." The forum will be streamed on Facebook. "The DRC represents Democrats from New York counties with populations less than 250,000. Democrats from 47 of the 62 counties in the state belong to the organization, which has been a force in New York Democratic politics for over 20 years."

At 7 p.m. Monday, U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries will join Indivisible Nation BK at Brooklyn Commons to discuss the future of the Democratic Party.

Comptroller Scott Stringer will speak at two events in Queens Monday night: at 7:30 p.m. he'll speak at the Rockaway Point Association meeting and at 8:15 p.m. at the Point Breeze Association meeting.

At 9 a.m. Tuesday, Democratic Attorney General candidate Letitia James 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 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, the New York City Board of Elections will hold a commissioners’ meeting.

On Tuesday at 6:30 p.m., "A group of young women, Latina candidates running for office in New York will speak at a community forum about diversity, political participation of communities of color and LGBTQ issues...at the LGBT Center, in Manhattan. The event, organized by LGBT group Queeramisú, will be moderated by former Speaker of the City, Melissa Mark-Viverito, first Puerto Rican and Latina to hold a citywide office and a staunch LGBTQ advocate and currently Vice President at Latino Victory Fund. Among the panelists figure Jessica Ramos, candidate for NY Senate District 13; Genesis Aquino, candidate for District Leader, 51st AD; Assemblywomen Nathalia Fernandez, running for reelection in the 80th District, and Carmen de la Rosa running for reelection in the 72nd District. Josi Robinson’s campaign will also be present."

At 7 p.m. Tuesday, the Democratic candidates for Attorney General will take part in a debate on NY1, moderated by NY1’s Errol Louis and Spectrum’s Liz Benjamin, at John Jay College in Manhattan. The participating candidates will be Letitia James, Zephyr Teachout, Sean Patrick Maloney, and Leecia Eve. [Watch the first televised debate in the Democratic primary for AG here.]

On Tuesday, Democratic candidates for Senate District 22 will participate in a debate at the United Chinese Association of Brooklyn. The participating candidates will be Ross Barkan and Andrew Gounardes.

On Wednesday morning, the Manhattan Neighborhood Network will host a debate between Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul and her Democratic primary challenger, City Council Member Jumaane Williams, which will be moderated by Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max. The taping, at MNN’s 59th street studios, will be open to members of the media. The debate will first air on MNN and live-stream online at 6 p.m. Thursday evening, re-air at 9 p.m. Thursday, and will be available on YouTube thereafter.

At 5 p.m. Wednesday, the Max & Murphy show on WBAI radio (99.5FM or wbai.org) -- later posted as a podcast -- will feature appearances by State Senator Jose Peralta and his Democratic primary challenger, Jessica Ramos. Ramos will appear from roughly 5:05 p.m. to 5:25 p.m., Peralta will appear from roughly 5:30 p.m. to 5:50 p.m.

On Wednesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo and his Democratic primary challenger, Cynthia Nixon, will take part in a debate at Hofstra University, moderated by CBS-NY anchor Maurice DuBois and CBS-NY Chief Political Correspondent Marcia Kramer. The debate, the only face-to-face meeting between Cuomo and Nixon of the campaign, will tape at 5 p.m. and air at 7 p.m. on CBS TV (Channel 2), stream on CBSNewYork.com and Facebook, and be simulcast in Spanish on WLNY (Channel 55), and air on radio on 1010 WINS.

On Wednesday evening during NY1’s Inside City Hall, there will be a Democratic primary debate between state Senator Jeff Klein and his challenger, Alessandra Biaggi.

A new episode of the What’s The [Data] Point? podcast from Gotham Gazette and Citizens Budget Commission, typically hosted by Ben Max and Maria Doulis, will tape and publish on Thursday, and will feature Liz Glazer, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

At 6 p.m. Thursday, the debate between Kathy Hochul and Jumaane Williams will air on the Manhattan Neighborhood Network. The debate will air again at 9 p.m. Thursday.

On Thursday evening during NY1’s Inside City Hall, there will be a Democratic primary debate between state Senator Jesse Hamilton and his challenger, Zellnor Myrie.

On Thursday a a debate will be taped between the Democrats in State Senate District 38, State Senator David Carlucci and challenger Julie Goldberg, for FIOS1’s “NewsBreakers" moderated by Andrew Whitman. It will air over the weekend.

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

On Friday evening during NY1's Inside City Hall, there will be a debate among three Democrats running in the primary for state Assembly District 39 in Queens, including incumbent Aridia Espinal and challengers Catalina Cruz and Yonel Letellier Sosa.

Note: the upcoming weekend is Labor Day weekend, the next Week Ahead will publish on Monday evening, September 3.

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

Manhattan Senate Debate Offers Another Round of IDC Argument, Few Ideas to Fix NYCHA or the MTA

alcantara jackson leon

Sen. Alcántara, Jackson, & Leon (l-r) during the MNN debate

Roughly three weeks before the September 13 primary elections, three candidates running for the Democratic nomination in state Senate District 31 – an area that spans the west coast of Midtown and the Upper West Side before encompassing most of Northern Manhattan – debated the incumbent’s involvement with the now defunct Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) and discussed some of the district’s most pressing issues, including those regarding transit, public and affordable housing, and the recently-passed rezoning of a portion of Inwood by city officials.

The debate hosted by Manhattan Neighborhood Network -- which taped Wednesday, aired Thursday, and was moderated by Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max -- saw first-term Senator Marisol Alcántara continue to defend her IDC membership, reiterating that her break from the mainline Democratic conference did not affect her voting record while in Albany and resulted in benefits for her constituents. Meanwhile, Robert Jackson, a Democrat making his third straight bid for the seat, continued to criticize the senator, questioning her Democratic credibility given the IDC’s alignment with the Republican conference and that majority’s blockage of a multitude of progressive legislation, much of which both Alcántara and Jackson say they support.

Another Democratic challenger, Thomas Leon, struggled to answer questions during the debate and a fourth candidate, Tirso Pina, was absent from the event altogether. What Leon did make clear was his negative view of all the sniping back and forth between Alcántara and Jackson, but he largely did not provide concrete policy positions.

While Alcántara and Jackson seemed to agree on major policy problems and solutions, such as the crises facing the MTA and NYCHA, neither offered detailed proposals or radical new approaches to resolve the existential threats facing the two public authorities, even as the candidates were pressed for more information.

Alcántara was first elected in 2016 after a four-way race between her, Jackson, Micah Lasher, and Luis Tejada. She, Jackson, and Lasher each garnered about a third of the votes cast, with Alcántara, of course, coming in first, followed by Lasher, then Jackson. Lasher is not running again, he has endorsed Jackson’s candidacy, but there are questions about who will actually come out to vote this year, including the number of new voters, some possibly spurred by the extensive anti-IDC movement that has sprung up.

“So, the expectation [is] that all of the votes that he received are coming to me, give or take a few,” Jackson said of Lasher’s 2016 supporters during the debate, when the two candidates were asked about how they are reaching out to voters that did not vote for them last cycle. Jackson additionally has the support of many activist organizations, almost all of the district’s Democratic clubs, and many elected officials. Alcántara has much a great deal of support from organized labor, including several of the city’s most politically active unions.

When asked how she has been targeting new voters in her campaign, Alcántara said, “We send out mailers like every campaign to everybody...We have tried to reach out to everyone in our district and work with everybody in our district regardless of where they’re from, because we feel that’s the best way to represent.” Alcántara also repeatedly stressed that she has the advantage with labor, including the United Federation of Teachers, the New York State Nurses Association, and 1199SEIU, the health care workers.

The state of the MTA and NYCHA have been flashpoints in this year’s election cycle. Both authorities are badly in need of repairs, with rampant delays plaguing the subways and NYCHA developments falling apart and riddled with mold, lead paint, and heating issues. Both authorities need better management and tens of billions of dollars in funding for repairs and upgrades.

During the debate, both Alcántara and Jackson expressed support for congestion pricing, both to reduce traffic and raise revenue for the MTA.

“We need to get more cars off the streets,” Alcántara said. “We have a high asthma rate in the district. We can do two things by congestion pricing: we can fix our asthma and our environmental issues and we can bring in funding for our subway system.” Alcántara additionally suggested that legalizing recreational marijuana may aid the subway crisis if its tax revenue can be funneled into funding public transit.

While the senator avoided blaming anyone for the MTA crisis, Jackson placed the weight of the problem on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s shoulders. The governor has frequently come under fire for the deterioration of the city’s subway system, especially from his gubernatorial primary challenger, Cynthia Nixon, who has cross-endorsed with Jackson. The governor appoints a plurality of members to the MTA board and the leader of the authority, while also playing the largest role in determining how the MTA is funded and its top priorities. “The governor needs to be able to deal with that because he’s the primary one responsible for the MTA,” Jackson said. While he agrees with the importance of congestion pricing, Jackson also believes that “there needs to be a better working relationship between the governor and the mayor to work together to address the issues” and that “the primary responsibility is for the state of New York to provide the resources.”

As for Leon, his answer to repeated MTA questions including that there must be “a team” in place, but he did not discuss any details when given the opportunity.

Somewhat like with the MTA, it is estimated that around $30 billion is needed over the next five years in order to address the NYCHA crisis.

Asked about solutions for NYCHA, especially around new revenue, Alcántara discussed her work for NYCHA residents, which she said includes funding for tenant organizations, calling for an independent monitor for NYCHA, surveying over a thousand NYCHA residents, touring all NYCHA buildings in her district, and fighting to include $200 million for NYCHA in the state budget.

“I have a seniors building that is NYCHA that has six apartments that are vacant. Why are they vacant?,” the senator said. “Because the roof is not working and it leaks into the apartment.” When confronted with such building damages, Alcántara said the first thing she does is snap a picture send it to NYCHA. “I say, ‘Look, you have six apartments empty. We have a homeless crisis in the city. We could house six different families in these apartments,’” she said.

In terms of funding NYCHA’s repairs, Alcántara suggested the possibility of renting out NYCHA-owned parking spaces and appeared somewhat open to new development on NYCHA land that includes some market-rate housing.

Jackson expressed more clear and full opposition to market-rate housing on NYCHA land, though he provided few ideas about how to bring in new revenue for NYCHA, mostly referencing the idea of winning more federal funding, though he acknowledged that is unlikely given current federal leadership.

While they did not articulate clear ideas for addressing NYCHA funding requirements, both candidates emphasized the need to include NYCHA residents in the conversations that may precipitate new programs.

“We need to get together with the residents of NYCHA and come up with a plan that works for everybody,” Alcántara said.

“I wanna hold hearings in order to get the input from the government officials and from advocates in the field and from the public,” Jackson said. “And, I’m open to considering everything. But, the end result should be where the residents are involved.”

Leon, who didn’t speak of specific policy details to resolve the NYCHA funding crisis, suggested that the funds were not being allocated properly. “We don’t have the funds and the state has the money,” he said.

None of the candidates mentioned raising taxes on high earners to fund the MTA, as Mayor Bill de Blasio has called for, or to add dedicated revenue for NYCHA.

Affordable Housing and Rezoning Inwood
All three candidates agreed that affordable housing is a major issue afflicting the 31st Senate District. The three additionally oppose the Inwood Neighborhood Rezoning, a plan of new neighborhood land use rules developed by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration and local City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, which was officially approved by the City Council earlier this month.

“To have the opportunity to get an apartment for rezoning, we need to have a very high salary,” Leon said of the plan. “More than 40,000 [dollars]. And our workers, they hardly make 20,000 a year.”

“I remember when my neighborhood [West Harlem] was rezoned in 2014,” Alcántara said, recalling “the number of people that have moved out of our neighborhood because of rezoning and what that means for real estate. So, seeing the Inwood rezoning is like playing the same movie again.”

The rezoning is aimed at allowing more housing to be built in the area, with certain affordability guidelines on some units, and will provide a variety of new city investments into the community.

The senator, who has been endorsed again by Rodriguez, criticized the city for not properly addressing infrastructure and labor issues. “What does that mean when you’re gonna have an additional 20,000 people taking the A and 1 train in Upper Manhattan without building any additional space?” she said. “There’s no labor agreement, so we are seeing the number of construction workers that have died in the city over 30, most of them immigrants from Latin America, and I am afraid that if we’re gonna start construction on Inwood, how come we didn’t address any of the labor issues?”

Jobs should go to people within the community, the community must have access to all of the new services, and small businesses need the opportunity to move into any new real estate space, Alcántara said.

Jackson’s opposition to the plan stems from the notion that rezoning Inwood will expel those already living within the neighborhood due to higher costs of living. “It’s gonna have a negative impact on the people that lived there and it’s gonna accelerate gentrification,” said Jackson. “It should’ve been voted down, but, in fact, it’s moving forward. And people are looking at what the options [are].”

The IDC Debate
The debate over Alcántara’s membership in the IDC – the conference of eight breakaway Democrats that caucused with Republicans in the state Senate, and was dissolved in April whereby its members joined the mainline Democratic conference – is a well-worn one, especially as all the former IDC members continue to defend their defection as they face-off against challengers of their own this primary season. In her own defense, Alcántara argued that a unified Democratic minority conference in the Senate still brought no progress on key Democratic legislation, that joining the IDC did not sway her voting record away from progressivism, and that she has accomplished a lot for her district.

“I believe my record speaks for itself,” the senator said. “I brought in a record of investment in our community. That’s why I have been endorsed by the teachers union, because of the work that I have done in education.” She cited three teacher centers built within the district and funding she allocated for a CUNY campus.

When asked if she justified her IDC membership by the potential to obtain greater resources for her district, Alcántara offered a different rationale. “When I ran for office [in 2016], I reached out to all the Democratic establishment in the city of New York...No one from the entire establishment supported or were interested in bringing some label of diversity to the state Senate. I had a prior relationship with Diane Savino [a co-founder of the IDC], who came out of the labor movement like I did, and thus how I came in contact and thus how I joined the IDC.”

The IDC was well-established and growing when Alcántara joined after taking office in early 2017, after he narrow 2016 primary was funded by more than $500,000 through IDC accounts.

Jackson, whose campaign is centered on Alcántara’s IDC membership and what he calls betrayal of her constituents, countered that the 2016 election “was an open seat. The establishment really does not support an open seat.”

Alcántara said that despite major donations from real estate and charter school and education reform interests, her votes in Albany still aligned with her own moral compass as a long-time progressive.

“For example, I voted for charter schools to be cut. I have voted for transparency in the way charter schools operate,” Alcántara said, responding to a question of how she reconciles her involvement with IDC and those sources of money that she says she is opposed to. “Just because they gave money, it has not stopped my vote or how I feel and what I think is the best for students of my district.”

Still, Jackson distinguishes himself from Alcántara based on her alliance with Republicans on the Senate floor. “I will always be a Democrat, a true blue Democrat, and never swim across the river in order to sleep with the Republicans,” he said.

Watch the full debate:

by Chelsey Sanchez, Gotham Gazette
@chelseynsanchez  @GothamGazette

Read more by this writer.

'Speaker Heastie PAC' Brings in Big Money from Special Interests, Starts Giving to Candidates

heastie morelle assembly

Carl Heastie, right, with Joe Morelle (photo: @JoeMorelle)

New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who rose to lead the chamber following the fall from grace of his predecessor, Sheldon Silver, on charges of corruption, has been in at least one way followed in Silver’s footsteps by establishing a political action committee, which he is using to support allies in this year’s state elections.  

Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, is in no danger of being unseated himself as he seeks another two-year term in the Assembly, but Democrats are hoping to flip enough seats to take control of the upper house of the state Legislature, the state Senate. Heastie’s political committee, titled “Speaker Heastie PAC,” was registered in January and has raised and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars. Thus far, those funds have gone to fellow Assembly members seeking reelection, two state Senators, and local Democratic clubs and county committees. A few of the contributions also suggest that Heastie hopes to influence the political sphere beyond the legislative branch and the State of New York.

Since January, the PAC has raised a total of $318,600 and spent about $254,000, leaving a balance of about $65,000, according to mid-August campaign finance filings with the state Board of Elections. The largest donors to Heastie’s PAC have significant dealings with the Assembly, broader Legislature, and state government in general.

The PAC received large donations from several prominent labor unions and PACs representing legal professionals, real estate, law enforcement, and other industries.

Three PACs -- 32BJ United ADF, affiliated with the property services workers union; Charter Communications PAC, which represents the communications company of the same name; and Law PAC of New York, affiliated with the New York State Trial Lawyers Association -- each gave $25,000 to Heastie’s PAC. The state teachers union, New York State United Teachers, donated $22,500. “Speaker Heastie is a true champion for public education,” said NYSUT spokesperson Carl Korn. “New York's public schools and colleges -- and the students who attend them -- are better off thanks to his steadfast leadership. We are proud to offer him our support.”

Among other donors were political committees associated with the Corrections Officers Benevolent Association, the Real Estate Board of New York, the Hotel Trades Council, the New York Gaming Association, the Transit Workers Union, the New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, Communications Workers of America, to name a few. Even billionaire supermarket magnate John Catsimatidis, a prominent Republican donor who has also given to many Democrats in the past, gave a $5,000 contribution to the PAC.

Heastie has been generous in distributing the money he has raised so far.

His PAC has contributed $21,000 to the Attorney General campaign of New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, whom Heastie endorsed soon after she announced her campaign in May. James has also been endorsed by Governor Andrew Cuomo and the State Democratic Party, leading to criticism from opponents that she is too connected to the party establishment to be a necessarily independent and effective attorney general, especially as it relates to investigated and rooting out public corruption.

“The Speaker supports candidates he believes in and who share his values,” a Heastie spokesperson told Gotham Gazette in a brief email.

A 32BJ union spokesperson said in an email that the union donated to Heastie to push for more Democratic seats in the state Senate. “We have always supported efforts to make New York a progressive state,” the spokesperson said. “This includes having a Democrat-led Senate. Heastie’s PAC is focused on flipping the Senate to the Democrats, so this effort is another step to ensure a truly blue New York.”

But so far Heastie’s PAC hasn’t spent much along those lines. Heastie did direct $11,000 to the state Senate campaign of Shelley Mayer, who successfully ran in an April special election to replace George Latimer, who stepped down after being elected Westchester county executive. But other than that and a $7,000 contribution to state Senator Jamaal Bailey, a close Heastie friend, the PAC has steered clear of state Senate races, particularly those in districts represented by members of the former Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group of eight Democrats who caucused with Republicans for more than seven years and recently returned to the mainline Democratic conference, or swing districts around the state.

Responding to this fact in a subsequent email, the 32BJ spokesperson said, “It’s early in the election cycle and we expect that the focus on many of the Senate races will happen after the primaries. Our contribution is intended to help in Senate races.”

Primary elections, including the challenges to the eight former IDC members, will take place September 13. Heastie signed on to the unity agreement brokered by Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is facing his own spirited primary from Cynthia Nixon but is not wanting for funds, whereby he pledged not to support primaries against sitting Democrats. The former leader of the IDC, Senator Jeff Klein, represents part of Heastie’s native Bronx.

As a representative from the Bronx, it isn’t necessarily surprising that Heastie also chose to contribute $10,000 from his PAC to Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark, even though she is not up for reelection until next year. Clark sailed through the election in 2015 after being nominated for the position in a controversial move by the Bronx Democratic County Committee -- which Heastie used to chair and is still influential with -- when her predecessor Robert Johnson dropped out after winning the Democratic primary to accept a nomination for a state judgeship offered by the county party leadership.

Heastie’s PAC also gave $40,000 to the Bronx Democratic County Committee (one of the four $10,000 donations seems to have been mislabelled as given to Bronx County PAC, which doesn’t exist but was listed with the same address.) Heastie’s PAC also directed $35,000 to the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee, of which Heastie is the honorary chair as speaker.  

All 150 seats in the overwhelmingly Democratic state Assembly are on the ballot this year and several members of the Democratic conference benefited from the speaker’s largesse. Chief among them was Ari Espinal, the first-term incumbent from Queens facing a competitive challenge from Catalina Cruz, a “dreamer” running on a progressive platform. Heastie’s PAC gave Espinal $5,400 for her reelection.

Additionally, Assemblymember James Skoufis got $4,750 from the PAC; Assemblymembers Carmen Arroyo, Carmen De La Rosa, Al Taylor, and Jeffrion Aubry each received $4,400; Assemblymember Latoya Joyner received $2,000; and Assemblymembers Nathalia Fernandez, Kimberly Jean-Pierre, and Harvey Epstein each got a $1,000 contribution.

An Bronx Assembly candidate, Karines Reyes, got a $2,000 contribution. Reyes is running for an open seat left vacant after Luis Sepulveda was elected to the state Senate in the April special election.

The PAC donated $1,000 to the congressional campaign of Anthony Brindisi, a Democrat attempting to unseat Republican Rep. Claudia Tenney in New York’s 22nd district upstate. Another $1,000 went to Assemblymember Joe Morelle, who is running for Congress in the 25th district against Republican Jim Maxwell. The seat has been vacant since the death of Rep. Louise Slaughter, a Democrat, in March. Morelle is a close friend of Heastie’s and is the Assembly majority leader.

Heastie also made another early donation to a candidate in New York City, doling out $4,784 to Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., the first candidate to officially declare he is running for mayor in 2021, when Mayor Bill de Blasio is term-limited out of office. Diaz Jr. has just over $600,000 in cash on hand already for the campaign.  

But Heastie’s contributions also leave the borders of the state. His PAC donated $1,000 to Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for Georgia governor. If elected, Abrams stands to be the first African-American woman elected governor of any state in the country.

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Brachfeld contributed to this story.

Rep. Jeffries Backs Gov. Cuomo for Reelection

governor cuomo delivers

Gov. Cuomo with Rep. Jeffries (photo via the Governor's office)

U.S. Representative Hakeem Jeffries, a rising Congressional star and Brooklyn political power-broker, is backing Governor Andrew Cuomo for reelection.

Jeffries, who represents the 8th Congressional District of New York, which includes parts of Brooklyn and Queens, sees Cuomo’s case as airtight, despite a fierce gubernatorial primary challenge being waged by actor and activist Cynthia Nixon.

“As the governor of the state of New York, he’s done a phenomenal job over the last eight years,” Jeffries told Gotham Gazette in a brief interview, just after endorsing fellow Brooklynite and New York City Public Advocate Letitia James in her run for state attorney general. “I’m looking forward to his leadership over the next four when he’s successful in November.”

Since even before Jeffries’ start in Congress, the former member of the state Assembly has enjoyed a close relationship with Cuomo. Jeffries joins a growing list of elected officials, including several members of the city’s congressional delegation, backing the incumbent governor for a third term. His support signifies additional reinforcement of the firewall Cuomo is relying on to beat Nixon in New York City, especially in communities of color, where Democratic primaries are often won, particularly in New York.

“Congressman Jeffries been a strong partner and advocate for New York, and the governor is proud to have his support,” said Abbey Collins, a spokesperson for the Cuomo campaign. “Together, we will continue to fight back against Donald Trump’s divisive, ultra-conservative agenda and move New York forward.”

Nixon has made Brooklyn – a large part of which is included in Jeffries’ district, which covers Coney Island, Canarsie, East New York, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Clinton Hill, and a chunk of southern Queens – the nexus of her own campaign trail. It was in Brownsville that Nixon first launched her gubernatorial campaign, the event taking place in a neighborhood partially encompassed by the Eighth Congressional District, although Nixon’s event occurred just outside its border. Then, in March, Nixon also accepted Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams’ invitation to visit NYCHA housing in Crown Heights and, in May, Nixon did a subway tour, where she made her way from Cobble Hill to Williamsburg.

While Adams has not endorsed in the gubernatorial primary, Nixon has won the backing of a number of the borough’s political clubs and advocacy groups, as well as a handful of election officials, including City Council Members Antonio Reynoso and Brad Lander. Cuomo, on the other hand, has the support of ten other Brooklyn City Council members.

Last month, Nixon formally announced a cross-endorsement with Brooklyn City Council Member Jumaane Williams, who is challenging Cuomo’s lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, in the primary, which will be held September 13. The Nixon-Williams press conference was held at an entrance of Prospect Park; Williams’ 45th City Council District slightly overlaps with Jeffries’ congressional district. Jeffries, however, is endorsing Hochul, a former member of Congress from Erie County, for reelection to her statewide post in what is an increasingly contentious primary.

“I think Democratic primaries are healthy at the end of the day as long as we respect the will of the people once they make a decision and we all come together afterward,” Jeffries said of Williams’ bid for lieutenant governor. “If Kathy Hochul is successful, I’m hopeful that Jumaane Williams will be supportive of the ticket moving forward. And if Jumaane Williams is successful, we have to find a way to stand behind our governor and our lieutenant governor nominee.”

Hochul and Cuomo have both made Brooklyn a major focus in recent months, with the governor announcing “Brooklyn women for Cuomo,” the endorsements of elected officials at various levels of government, and holding several government events that often have the feel of campaign rallies. Hochul spoke at four African-American churches in Brooklyn this past weekend while on the campaign trail, while Cuomo spoke at one, in Crown Heights, in what was listed as a government event.

Prior to Jeffries’ endorsement, Cuomo’s campaign has announced support from other members of Congress, including U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Reps. Nydia Velázquez, Jose E. Serrano, and Adriano Espaillat, with others expected. Cuomo’s campaign highlights that the governor’s new federal political action committee has given maximum $2,700 donations to each of 10 congressional candidates in competitive districts across the state, including Max Rose, who is trying to unseat the only Republican member of the New York City House delegation, Rep. Dan Donovan.

Though his campaign does not highlight the endorsement, the governor has also been backed by Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who is running for attorney general in the four-way primary that includes James, who has cross-endorsed with Cuomo and has her base of support in central Brooklyn, where she was a City Council member.

Polling continues to show Cuomo with a major advantage over Nixon in New York City, especially among black voters. Brooklyn has the most Democratic voters of any county in the state, with more than 1 million registered as of April, many of whom reside in Jeffries’ congressional district.

“Andrew Cuomo has consistently led in the polls by 30 or more points and I expect that the margin of victory at the end of the day will be extremely comfortable, both because of his track record and because of the inexperience of his opponent,” Jeffries told Gotham Gazette.

Of Nixon, Jeffries said, “The electorate in New York City, including very progressive individuals, seem disinclined to put another actor in a position of importance in the context of the governor’s mansion, having seen the disaster that Donald Trump has been as president.”

In response, Lauren Hitt, a spokesperson for the Nixon campaign, said, “Cynthia Nixon was raised by a single mom, and she started acting when she was 12 in order to pay for college. She has nothing in common with Donald Trump. Governor Cuomo, on the other hand, has accepted $64,000 from the Donald, which he refuses to return.”

[Read: Key to Victory, Black Voters Appear Solidly Behind Cuomo Over Nixon]

by Chelsey Sanchez, Gotham Gazette
@chelseynsanchez  @GothamGazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

Some New York Democrats are Backing Nixon for Governor and James for Attorney General

MMV Nixon

Mark-Viverito & Nixon (photo: @CynthiaNixon)

Two of the most compelling storylines of the contentious primaries playing out this election season in New York are which Democrats decide to back Cynthia Nixon in her challenge to two-term incumbent Governor Andrew Cuomo and to what extent an alliance with Cuomo is to the benefit of Letitia James as she seeks to win an open, four-way primary for Attorney General.

Loyalty and litmus tests are being taken daily by elected officials, political club members, labor leaders, and others as the September 13 primary vote approaches. As the party wages something of a civil war both here and nationally, Democrats are choosing sides. Sometimes those choices get complicated.

While Nixon offers many frustrated progressives an alternative to the more centrist Cuomo, the choice for attorney general has different dynamics. Crossing, or pleasing, the notoriously sensitive Cuomo is a factor in both races, as well as the contentious lieutenant governor primary, given his support for both James for attorney general and his running mate Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul for reelection. But James has a reputation as a progressive, with her bona fides questioned far less often than Cuomo's. Although she is outflanked on the left by Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout in the attorney general primary and some Democrats are raising questions about James’ acceptance of Cuomo’s support, James is holding her own in terms of winning endorsements from progressive groups and leaders. In fact, though Teachout has won the endorsements of many more left-leaning entities, there is a small but growing list of liberal individuals and groups that are endorsing Nixon for governor and James for attorney general.

Several Democratic clubs and current or former elected officials, and one political action committee, have backed both Nixon and James. Generally speaking, those on the list who Gotham Gazette spoke with cite Nixon’s history of activism for progressive issues, compared with Cuomo’s relative centrism over his two terms, and James’ long-time commitment to those same progressive values. Several have deep ties to James from her roots in Brooklyn, where she lives and was a City Council member, before being elected citywide.

Nixon and James’ overlapping endorsements come from the Brooklyn Young Democrats, Downtown Independent Democrats, Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, New Visions Democratic Club, Grand Street Democrats and the Village Independent Democrats. Elected officials supporting the two include City Council Members Brad Lander and Jimmy Van Bramer, Assembly Members Harvey Epstein, Andrew Hevesi, and Daniel O’Donnell, and former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito. Tenants PAC, which is funded by tenants, labor unions, and other affordable housing advocates, has also endorsed both candidates. The Working Families Party is, to a degree, on the list.

Mark-Viverito was an early backer of James, endorsing her former City Council colleague the day she announced her campaign for attorney general, just ten days after then-office holder Eric Schneiderman resigned following allegations of physical and emotional abuse by several intimate partners. James faces three other Democrats in the primary - Teachout, who unsuccessfully challenged Cuomo in the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial primary; Congressional Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney; and Leecia Eve, a former Verizon executive and former aide to Cuomo, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden.

The former City Council speaker’s support for James was no surprise, the two having been allies for years when they served together on the Council before James rose to public advocate and Mark-Viverito to speaker. The two are both progressive women of color who held top elected offices in a city where few have done so. Mark-Viverito was the first Latina speaker of the Council and James is the first African-American woman to be elected citywide. James will similarly make history if she wins the race for attorney general, making her the first African-American woman to hold a statewide post.

“I’ve known Tish a very long time...I value her heart and I value what she stands for,” Mark-Viverito said in a phone interview. “For me it was not a leap to be able to stand alongside her and to be able to support her for the position.”

Mark-Viverito said she had long conversations with Nixon’s camp before announcing her support for the insurgent first-time candidate and her progressive platform. “For me it was again someone that stands and consistently has stood on issues I care about and I believe that that level of thought, without hesitation, her progressive heart and the vision that she has for the state is one that is truly inclusive...So it definitely felt that it was the right place to be in regards to endorsing her.”

Mark-Viverito also brushed aside concerns raised about James’ alignment with Cuomo and the Democratic establishment. “I take each endorsement separately,” she said, praising the “passion” that James brought to the issues before her office as a Council member and public advocate. “To me, Cynthia Nixon’s gonna win the governor’s race, so that to me is irrelevant,” she said of the James-Cuomo connection, with a slight chuckle. “But I don’t agree with that. I know Tish, I know what she stands for, I know the issues she’s fought on...I see her independence.”

In a sense, Mark-Viverito said she wants to see drastic change in direction in the governor’s office but a level of continuity and stability in the office of attorney general. Cuomo, she said, has failed to pursue strong progressive legislation the likes of which defined the City Council’s own agenda under her leadership on issues such as criminal justice reform and immigrant protections. But the attorney general’s office, even under Schneiderman, she acknowledged, has been working on a slew of successful legal challenges in concert with other state attorneys general against a federal administration under President Donald Trump that “seeks to dehumanize us and strip us of rights that we’ve fought so hard to achieve.”

“Despite the horrific reality that we came to terms with with regards to Schneiderman, he was doing a good job. Separate that from the horrible news and what we know about him now,” she said. “I definitely think that we need to continue that, take up the baton. [Attorney General] Barbara Underwood is doing good work as well in terms of continuing on that line...I definitely believe that needs to continue and I believe Tish can do that.”

“I believe they each have their role to play and I see those roles as very distinct,” she added.

Mark-Viverito herself has been rumored as a potential successor to the public advocate’s office, should James win, and she said she hasn’t “closed the door” on that possibility.

“New Yorkers know Tish James as a fearless leader who has spent two decades fighting to protect and uplift our families. The support from these grassroots groups and elected officials speaks to Tish’s longstanding work for progressive causes and her experience and qualifications to defend our rights as our next Attorney General,” said Delaney Kempner, a James campaign spokesperson, in a statement.

For some who also threw their weight behind James, her increasing association with the governor and her apparent rejection of her roots in the progressive Working Families Party have hurt how they view their preferred candidate. The WFP endorsed Nixon, putting it in the governor’s crosshairs, and James, in seeking the governor’s support, decided against asking the prominent third party for its endorsement. The WFP eventually decided to hold off, reserving support for either James or Teachout, if one of the two candidates prevails in the September 13 primary.

Michael McKee, treasurer of Tenants PAC, said the optics were far from ideal but stood firmly behind Nixon and James. “It’s much less complicated in the case of Cynthia Nixon,” he said in a phone interview, “because [Cuomo] has been a disaster on everything to do with tenants. It’s not just that he has failed to push for stronger rent laws, he has refused to push for them.”

In 2011 and 2015, both years when rent regulations were expiring and would have to be renewed by the state Legislature, on concert with the governor, McKee said Cuomo “didn’t even mention ‘rent’ in his State of the State speech. Not one word. He didn’t even mention that the laws have to be renewed.”

The governor has only pushed minor amendments to rent laws, he said, leaving major loopholes intact that allow landlords to harass and force tenants out of rent-regulated apartments. He called Nixon’s housing platform “very bold, very expansive and very imaginative,” and said she had a “tremendous grasp” of rent issues when she interviewed with the group for its endorsement. “There’s no one in the tenant movement in New York City or in the suburbs who at this point would believe [Cuomo] when he says he’s pro-tenant,” he said.  Tenants PAC donated $5,000 to Nixon, a “very big check,” McKee said, for a group with limited resources.

“It’s a little more complicated for the attorney general’s office,” he conceded. “I love Tish, I think she’s one of the best of all elected officials but we were extremely unhappy with what she did in terms of tying herself to the governor and screwing the WFP.”

James has said she expects reconciliation with the WFP, perhaps after the primary, and attended its recent twentieth anniversary gala. James was first elected to the City Council solely on the WFP ballot line.

McKee’s group has endorsed James in her past races for elected office and has found her to be a true ally for tenants. As public advocate, James has continued to publish the annual “Worst Landlords” watchlist, and taken legal action and introduced bills in the City Council to protect tenants against harassment. McKee said attorney general is “an ideal job” for James and that she would in no way be beholden to the governor, despite the perception that has emerged in recent weeks.

McKee did say that he thought James could have told Cuomo she was taking the WFP nomination and still gone to the Democratic state convention and gotten the requisite support to automatically make the primary ballot. “Now, she’s sort of painted herself into a corner where she’s in effect the establishment candidate in a year where that’s not the optics of the Democratic Party,” McKee said.

Democratic organizers felt much the same, that Nixon is the change candidate they need in executive office while James is an accomplished elected official with a strong record who would do well as the state’s top legal officer. Jeanne Wilcke, treasurer of Downtown Independent Democrats, painted it as a tough decision to endorse James over Teachout, who they had endorsed in the 2014 governor’s race. Both candidates were familiar to the club but James had continued her association with them as Teachout seemed to fade after 2014. “A number of people voted for Teachout but James edged it out,” she said.

In broad terms, Wilcke said her club is fighting for the broader direction of the Democratic Party. “Our own party has to look its ownself and really grasp what they have to do and follow the grassroots sentiment,” she said. “They can’t be behind the times.” It’s an argument carried by Nixon as she paints Cuomo as a “fake Democrat” and pushes for a truly progressive Democratic polity in the state. “The Crowley race gave us a lot of heart,” Wilcke said, referring to ten-term Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley’s congressional primary loss to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a young, insurgent democratic socialist. “If it can happen once, it can happen again.”

She did admit that James relationship with the governor is “a little too close for comfort” and that she should keep an arms length from the establishment. But nonetheless, James’ record impressed DID’s members. “They’ve seen her on the ground for years. She stood up for people. That resonated,” Wilcke said.

“Given Cuomo's record, it's not a surprise at all that Democratic clubs are rejecting him,” said Lauren Hitt, a Nixon campaign spokesperson, in an email. “He empowered the IDC, refused to return Trump's $64k in donations, cut taxes for the wealthy, and governed like a Republican in so many other respects.”

Cuomo’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment. Nixon and Teachout have endorsed each other in their respective races (Teachout was Nixon’s campaign treasurer until Schneiderman’s resignation prompted her to run for attorney general).

There were a few other endorsements that have shown a similar pattern of embrace of establishment-aligned candidates on the one hand and their rejection on the other. NYC Kids PAC, for instance, endorsed James for attorney general and also New York City Council Member Jumaane Williams, who is running against Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul. Both Williams and James have also been endorsed by City Council Member Carlina Rivera.

This year was the first time that the Grand Street Democrats made endorsements in the races for governor and attorney general, said Caroline Laskow, a Democratic district leader from the club. “We evaluated all the candidates on their merits,” Laskow said of Nixon and James in a phone interview. “We feel that they’re both going to be excellent advocates for all of New York, for different reasons. But I don’t think one cancels out the other.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

Note - This article has been updated to clarify comments from Jeanne Wilcke of DID. It has also been updated to note that Wilcke is treasurer, not president of DID. 

Democratic Attorney General Candidates Seek to Set Themselves Apart During First Televised Debate

Democratic attorney general candidates

Democratic AG candidates debate (photo: MNN)

The four Democratic candidates for New York Attorney General met Tuesday for the first televised debate of their race, agreeing that the next chief legal officer of the state must continue to be a check on President Donald Trump, while also addressing corruption in state government and other areas of reform they would pursue in the role.

Each of the four candidates -- New York City Public Advocate Letitia James; U.S. Representative Sean Patrick Maloney; Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout; and Leecia Eve, a former aide to Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Governor Andrew Cuomo -- sought to set themselves apart in what appears to be a wide open race for the party nomination, with candidates repeatedly calling themselves the only one in the race with certain qualifications.

The debate aired Wednesday evening on Manhattan Neighborhood Network and was moderated by Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max. Democratic voters will choose an attorney general nominee, among other races, on Thursday September 13.

All four candidates promised to ratchet up the already fever pitch with which the New York attorney general’s office is fighting Trump administration policies. On more direct state and local matters, there was also agreed upon acknowledgement of certain problems, such as public corruption and an outdated criminal justice system, but the candidates offered some differences in perspective as they sought to make a winning pitch to voters.

Two candidates -- Teachout and Maloney -- made new pledges to release their tax returns in line with what James has done, while two candidates -- Maloney and James -- joined calls by Teachout and Eve for state hearings on sexual harassment. Eve continued to decline to make her tax returns public. All four candidates said that it may be appropriate for further legal investigation into the fact that Cuomo’s former top aide and campaign manager, Joseph Percoco, used his government office while on leave to run Cuomo’s 2014 re-election campaign, information that came to light during Percoco’s recent corruption trial, wherein he was found guilty on several charges.

Teachout, who has offered herself as the candidate most independent of Cuomo -- she did challenge him in the 2014 primary, of course -- and of special interests due to her refusal of corporate PAC or LLC funding, said that despite Cuomo’s shuttering of the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, the executive order creating it is still on the books, and promised to use its powers if elected Attorney General.

“Corruption is really holding us back as a state,” Teachout said. “It’s hurting us. And when the Moreland Commission was shut down four years ago, I spoke out loudly. I actually testified at the Moreland Commission. But actually, I don’t know that all people realize this, Andrew Cuomo shut the Moreland Commission down in a press call. He never formally rescinded Executive Order 106.”

James expressed support for the creation of a new Moreland Commission. James, Maloney, and Eve all said that they would push the Legislature to give power to the attorney general to more ably address public corruption without referrals from other entities.

“Existing law should be changed to give the attorney general primary criminal jurisdiction over public corruption, period, full stop,” Maloney said. “Shouldn’t be any referrals or anything else, you oughta just go get it and prosecute it. We need to change the law.”

Eve said that she would utilize an existing agreement with the state comptroller to refer more investigative matters regarding state funds to the attorney general.

“Any time we’re talking about the use of taxpayer funds, whether it is funds used to pay a legislator, whether it’s funds to fund different economic development programs, the authority, the existing authority because of this unprecedented relationship and agreement between the state comptroller and attorney general, gives the current attorney general, gives me as the next attorney general, significant powers to root out corruption,” Eve said.

James, who has faced questions about her independence from Cuomo in recent weeks given their cross-endorsement and his help with her fundraising, said that she would be the most diligent addressing public corruption, even if it led to “the second floor,” where the governor’s office is located in the state Capitol. She noted that, while serving in the City Council, she had taken a leading role in uncovering the City Time scandal, which she characterized as “the biggest scandal in the City of New York.” “We recovered $700 million for taxpayers, working with Juan Gonzalez from the Daily News” she said.

James also set her sights on what she characterized as unaccountable, opaque public benefit corporations and authorities, which are state run but operate like corporations; examples include the MTA, the Dormitory Authority, and Empire State Development.

“It is really critically important that we continue to focus on all of the authorities that continue to exist throughout the State of New York,” James said, “these public benefit corporations that need to be investigated, that focus really on alleged economic development in the State of New York, and that’s what’s critically important.”

With the exception of Teachout, each candidate has somewhat close ties to Cuomo: Maloney endorsed Cuomo for reelection and urged Cynthia Nixon not to run against him; Eve headed economic development programming under Cuomo; and James has been endorsed by Cuomo and the State Democratic Party that Cuomo leads. Independence from the governor, who saw two top aides convicted of bribery and bid-rigging this year related to millions of dollars in economic development money, has become a major campaign issue in the attorney general race.

Asked whether there should be an investigation into whether Percoco had used state resources for campaign purposes under Cuomo’s supervision, as some of the governor’s critics have called for, all of the candidates said a variation of yes, with Teachout the most affirmative.

The candidates were also asked how they would approach the job of attorney general with regard to investigating financial firms for fraud or other wrongdoing. James had courted controversy when she recently told The New York Times that she did not want to be known as “the Sheriff on Wall Street,” a statement which propelled criticism from her opponents, who embraced the moniker and did so again Tuesday. At the debate, James reiterated her point, however, even after Eve said that she would want to be known as “the Sheriff of Wall Street.”

“No I don’t want to be known as the Sheriff on Wall Street, that’s reserved for someone else,” James said, apparently referring to former Attorney General and Governor Eliot Spitzer. “I want to chart my own path. I want my own title, my own title has always been and will continue to be ‘fighter.’” She proposed strengthening the Martin Act, a 1921 state law that gives the attorney general broad power to investigate financial fraud that was revived by Spitzer. James said she would seek to expand, within her first 100 days in office, the act’s statute of limitations from three years to six years.

“You know I want to be called the Sheriff of Wall Street,” Teachout said, claiming that the role of the attorney general as “regulator of last resort” was important with a federal government uninterested in regulating big banks and financial firms.

“One of the things I really take from Spitzer’s use of the Martin Act is that was an example of an old tool that hadn’t been used,” Teachout said, “being dusted off and used in new and critical ways to hold Wall Street accountable. That’s the kind of creative lawyering, creative legal strategy, that I as the next sheriff will pursue.”

Maloney, too, was quick to rebuke James. “Of course you’re gonna be the sheriff of Wall Street, that’s literally the job,” he said. But like James had explained of her perspective, he made sure to say that he would also be the “sheriff” of such issues as Trump, environmental protection, LGBT equality, and criminal justice reform.

The representative from the upper Hudson Valley repeatedly noted that he has fought and beaten Republicans, referencing the fact that he has been elected several times in what is a swing district, and touted his government and management experience. James and Eve also highlighted their work in goverment and overseeing teams of employees, while Teachout focused on her expertise in corruption and law, and her work helping to craft litigation against President Trump for alleged violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution.

During a series of “lightning round” questions with quick answers, James and Maloney both stated for the first time that open, public state hearings should be held regarding sexual harassment in state government and beyond; Teachout and Eve had both said previously that hearings should be held.

While James answered that she had released five years of tax returns, and was the only candidate to release returns, Teachout and Maloney each said that they would release five years of tax returns by the end of this week. Eve demurred, saying that she had years of government-mandated financial disclosures publicly available.

And when asked which other candidate they would vote for if they couldn’t vote for themselves, Maloney and Teachout each said that they would vote for Eve, while Eve and James said only that they promise to vote for the winner of the Democratic primary. Eve, who has trailed significantly in public polling, may have been the safe choice for Maloney and Teachout, though when The New York Times editorial board endorsed Teachout earlier this week, it also noted Eve as its second choice.

When offered the opportunity to cross-examine one opponent, none of the candidates opted to ask a question of James, who has led in that public polling for the race despite a high undecided count; she has the support of most of the party “establishment,” including elected officials, clubs, and labor unions. Instead, two questions were leveled at Maloney, and two at Teachout.

Teachout was asked by James about opposition to the NY SAFE Act, a signature Cuomo gun control law, during her 2016 Congressional run, to which Teachout said her opposition was only to the secretive process to its passage, part of a pattern of how business is done in the state Capitol that she has consistently denounced. Teachout was asked by Maloney about a citation she had received from the North Carolina Bar, where she is licensed to practice law, which she said was due to not sharing a change in address during a case.

Maloney was asked by Eve about why he had chosen to run simultaneously for attorney general and for his congressional seat, a situation that led fellow member of Congress Kathleen Rice to not seek the nomination for attorney general. Maloney said that a judge had already decided in his favor.

Maloney was asked by Teachout about $150,000 he received in donations from eight LLCs connected to the Durst Organization, one of the largest real estate developers in New York City. Maloney first attempted to say that Durst felt he was the most qualified candidate and to deflect to in-kind and super PAC contributions Teachout had received in 2016, but when pressed for a more full response by the moderator, he said that the Durst contributions were a “small part of” his overall fundraising. Maloney had earlier concurred with his opponents that the “LLC loophole,” wherein corporations can give virtually unlimited amounts of money to candidates by forming various limited liability companies, should be closed.

Other targets for investigations, lawsuits, and prosecutions specifically named by the candidates included the fossil fuel industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the National Rifle Association, real estate developers, and “bad landlords.” The candidates also said that they would use the bully pulpit to advance civil rights causes, particularly in the realm of criminal justice reform: each candidate said that they believe cash bail should be abolished, and that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 10-year timeline for closing Rikers Island jails is too long. All four said they will not run for governor, which would separate them from recent attorneys general-turned-governors Spitzer and Cuomo.

The Democratic primary for attorney general, governor, lieutenant governor, and state legislative seats, among other races, will be held on Thursday, September 13; the winner of the Democratic primary for attorney general will face Republican Keith Wofford and other candidates in the general election. The Democratic attorney general candidates will meet again for a televised debate on NY1 on Tuesday August 28 at John Jay College. The Manhattan Neighborhood Network debat aired Wednesday and can be watched on YouTube.

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

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