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Citizens Union



Vetoing FOIL Bills, Cuomo Points Finger at Legislature, Issues Executive Order

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Gov. Cuomo (photo via The Governor's Office on flickr)

In response to the conviction of former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos on multiple federal corruption charges, Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared on Friday that the legislature "must stop standing in the way of needed reforms." Only a few hours later he vetoed two bills designed to speed and reform Freedom of Information Law response and require the state to pay court costs incurred by FOIL users whose requests a judge finds have been improperly denied.

Facing searing backlash from good government groups and accusations of hypocrisy, the governor partially reversed himself the next morning by issuing an executive order "to expedite the freedom of information law appeals process," requiring agencies to handle FOIL appeals within 90 days.

In a statement accompanying announcement of the executive order, Cuomo said, "My administration is proud to lead by example in making government more open and transparent." Pointing to the essence of his approach to the bills he vetoed, the executive order, and controversy around FOIL, Cuomo added, "and we will introduce a bill early next year to bring the same, necessary high standards of transparency to the legislature."

The legislature is currently exempt from FOIL.

The governor's weekend moves, appearing somewhat contradictory, garnered mixed reactions, including much criticism Friday evening, then some support on Saturday.

"The governor was given a clear choice between being part of the problem in Albany or part of the solution," wrote a coalition of good government groups in a statement released in response to the vetoes. "These vetoes call into question the governor's commitment to transparency and Freedom of Information."

Cuomo framed his vetoes as part of a concerted effort to make the legislature subject to the stricter FOIL rules. He called the reimbursement bill, sponsored by Assembly Member Amy Paulin, "myopic" and said he was concerned for "judicial discretion in FOIL cases."

On Saturday, a Cuomo spokesperson, Rich Azzopardi, continued pressing the idea that the veto was designed to force the legislature into action, telling various outlets: "The governor will not let the legislature off the hook for not being subject to FOIL."

Some advocates are pleased with the temporary compromise while others say Cuomo is not "leading by example" and is instead deflecting attention to the legislature to prevent the executive from having to comply with measures that will ensure greater transparency.

John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany and New York representative of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, pointed out that the FOIL bills were written by the state's own director of open government, Robert Freeman of the Committee on Open Government. Kaehny characterized Cuomo's executive order as "so weak it is close to meaningless."

"It takes Incredible chutzpah for a governor who just vetoed two important FOIL bills to say he 'won't the legislature off the hook,'" Kaehny told Gotham Gazette. "The governor's 'comprehensive FOIL reform' is another way of saying that the governor has no intention of strengthening FOIL. Skelos and Silver just got convicted, and it's the same old games in Albany."

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, characterized Cuomo's vetoes as "unfortunate" but welcomed the executive order and said he believes the governor plans to move forward with FOIL reform in good faith.

"What the executive order represents is common ground between the governor and the legislature," said Dadey. "The governor had concerns about judicial discretion and putting an unfair burden on executive agencies over others. I take the governor's concerns as legitimate and not a smoke screen because otherwise he wouldn't have issued an executive order."

Cuomo is due to give his State of the State address in combination with his budget presentation on January 13 in Albany. At that time, or near it, the governor is expected to unveil his FOIL reform proposals, including to make the legislature subject to FOIL.

Assembly Member David Buchwald, sponsor of the bill designed to speed state agencies' FOIL appeals, told the New York Times the executive order was "A step in the right direction."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

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

Cuomo Urged to Sign Executive Transparency Bills Before Looming Deadline

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Gov. Cuomo (photo via The Governor's Office on flickr)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has until midnight Friday to sign or veto two bills that would strengthen the state's Freedom of Information Act, often known as FOIL. "In a nutshell, these two bills are the difference between FOIL working and not working," said John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany, a good government group that has been instrumental on the issue and is urging the governor to sign the bills.

Cuomo's decision comes with the backdrop of the conviction of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on corruption charges and the ongoing trial of former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos--both cases have focused on what happens behind the scenes in Albany, far from public view. Calls for drastic measures around ethics and transparency reform have heightened, with many looking to the governor for leadership.

The two bills are designed to make state government respond faster to FOIL requests and to reduce the prohibitive impact of legal costs on pursuing FOIL requests. Cuomo spokesperson Dani Lever told Gotham Gazette both bills are still "under review."

Assembly bill 114 would reduce the time a government agency has to appeal a judge's decision to grant a FOIL request from nine months to two. The other, Assembly bill 1438B would amend a single word in state FOIL law: instead of saying a judge "may" award legal fees if an agency is found to have inappropriately denied a FOIL request, the new law would say a judge "shall" award legal fees. Both bills passed the Legislature unanimously and The State Committee on Open Government recommended their passage.

Assembly Member Amy Paulin, sponsor of the latter bill, A.1438B, told Gotham Gazette that she spoke to the governor's counsel this week and explained the motives for the bill. "We're hoping for the best," she said.

States including California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey have FOIL laws that require the courts reimburse those who file FOIL requests and are wrongly denied by the state.

On Dec. 4 a host of groups that regularly utilize FOIL, including the New York Civil Liberties Union, The Brennan Center, Consumer Union, Sunlight Foundation, Citizens Union, and Common Cause, wrote Cuomo asking him to sign the bills.

"The Freedom of Information Law is the single most important tool for open and transparent government in New York State. Journalists and government watchdog groups depend on FOIL to help hold government accountable," reads the letter. "Businesses rely on FOIL to ensure the government procurement process is fair. Unfortunately, state agencies often deliberately delay the FOIL process, or simply do not provide the requested records. Agencies know that it is very expensive for the public to appeal a FOIL request to the courts. Because of this, agencies are often able to effectively ignore FOIL without being challenged."

While there is unified support from legislators and good government groups for the legislation, there is still concern among advocates that Cuomo will decide to veto the bills.

Despite having run on the promise of "the most transparent administration in history," Cuomo's government is known for withholding information, moving at a snail's pace on FOIL requests, using Blackberry messaging to avoid leaving records of communications, and even implementing a policy where state agency employees were directed to purge their emails. That email policy was rescinded only after major outcry from good government groups, legislators, and journalists, and only after an initial email purge was complete.

"The criticisms of Albany we've heard from both the Silver and Skelos trials are that Albany is too opaque, so signing these bills could go a long way to sending a message that things are changing," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. However, Horner noted that both Silver and Skelos have been members of the legislature and the legislature is basically exempt from FOIL - something advocates have been looking to change.

Kaheny told Gotham Gazette that he expects the bills could be "challenging" for the Cuomo administration because they would "immediately produce transparency demands on the administration."

At least six newspapers have editorialized in favor of the legislation this month. FOIL is a particularly significant issue for journalists who find that pursuing information requests regularly fall to costly legal battles due to government resistance. The costs are so prohibitive for many outlets that any government resistance effectively defeats the quest for transparency. Groups like the NYCLU and the Empire Center, which routinely use FOIL, are used to absorbing those costs that can reach tens of thousands of dollars because judges have the tendency not to force agencies to reimburse FOILers' legal fees.

Kaehny, of Reinvent Albany, said he finds it unlikely that any state agency would encourage the governor to sign the legislation as they are the ones who would end up paying for fighting FOIL requests and on top of what, Kaehny asks, "Who wants to be more transparent? No one."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Note: this article has been updated to reflect that a "pocket veto" is not applicable in this instance.

Cuomo Increasingly Uses State Power to Undermine De Blasio

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

The feud between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio escalated yet again last Friday when a spokesperson for the governor said that "the mayor can't manage the homeless crisis" and that the governor's State of the State address will feature the administration's intervention plans.

Finger-pointing continues from both sides, with Cuomo questioning de Blasio's competence and intelligence. This, after de Blasio called out Cuomo, though not by name, when making his own supportive housing announcement, signaling that negotiations on a joint city-state plan had stalled. Advocates and legislators heaped praise on the mayor and called on the governor to match his commitment to the homelessness-fighting program.

Cuomo, however, appears ready to go it alone himself, eyeing his January 6 speech, which will include an untold number of plans to outflank, undermine, and frustrate de Blasio. With nearly two years of evidence, at this point it appears to insiders in Albany and around the state that a significant part of Cuomo's policy making has become infused with his animus toward de Blasio and that it could be hurting the city.

As seen on a variety of issues from housing to policing to minimum wage, Ebola to Legionnaires' Disease, Cuomo has decided to deny the mayor's requests, co-opt an issue, or act unilaterally, while being sure to weaken de Blasio's standing.

"It's clear that the mayor can't manage the homeless crisis and the state does intend to step in with both management expertise and resources," a Cuomo spokesperson, Dani Lever, said Nov. 27. On Nov. 24, Cuomo told reporters about combatting homelessness, "To me, it's not just the money. It's more managing the city properly, efficiently, effectively, smartly, especially on this issue that causes so much pain to people."

De Blasio dismissed the criticism as "political posturing," but advocates and observers are having a hard time dismissing the latest developments in the feud. It appears now more than ever that Cuomo is deciding policy based on exacting a price from his former friend. Cuomo hasn't missed many opportunities to needle de Blasio, thwart his priorities, or use state resources to highlight the mayor's vulnerabilities.

"An outsider has got to look at this and say, 'What's with the governor?' You don't want to get into armchair psychoanalysis here, but I think you've got to get into armchair psychoanalysis," said Douglas Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch. "And beyond that you have to ask: is this good for the city and state?"

What was once more clearly defined as policy disagreement over taxes and charter schools has morphed into something different. As the state legislative session wound down last spring, Cuomo appeared determined not to allow de Blasio any wins, even seeming to welcome only a one year extension of mayoral control of city schools - a major factor leading to de Blasio's June 30 tirade against the governor, which may have moved Cuomo to his current approach to the mayor.

"As the Mayor has said, we work with the Governor to ensure New York City's interests are protected. When they are in jeopardy, we communicate that to Albany and to city residents," de Blasio press secretary Karen Hinton told Gotham Gazette.

It appears clear that de Blasio is not particularly interested in mending fences. While he has resolved to refer more to "the state" or "Albany" than "the governor," de Blasio has shown he continues to feel disappointed with Cuomo and has not walked back his shockingly frank summer criticisms of the governor.

Some advocates fear Cuomo, offended beyond repair, is willing to throw out proven policy just to spite de Blasio, as in the case of supportive housing.

Cuomo teamed with charter school advocates against de Blasio, stood against de Blasio's plan for the 421-a real estate tax break, undermined the mayor's push for stronger housing laws, and, more recently, has threatened to cancel funding for bonds that would allow de Blasio to go forward with part of his affordable housing plan.

At other times Cuomo has sought to outflank de Blasio, or seize on perceived weaknesses. While de Blasio urged calm on Ebola and counseled that the threat was under control, Cuomo held a press conference with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and announced they would quarantine travelers returning from West Africa.

Cuomo gave de Blasio short notice when he shuttered the subway for the first time in 111 years due to a January snowstorm. The governor criticized the mayor's response to a Legionnaires' Disease outbreak in the Bronx and sent in state officials; he inflamed tensions between de Blasio and the police union, seized on fears the city is getting less safe, and sent more state troopers to the city. The governor has taken ownership on minimum wage, something that could have easily been a joint effort.

"The governor hasn't missed any opportunity to kneecap the mayor and the only rational explanation is the Machiavellian one, that one has to kill off any potential rival," said Muzzio.

However, Muzzio and many other observers say that in most cases it isn't clear that the governor's focus on the mayor is doing any harm to the city. "It might help to have more troopers in the city. It might help for the governor to send assistance on Legionnaires'. His actions on Sunnyside Yards and charter schools could be both positive and negative. You'd have to tally the costs and benefits along a wide swath of issues," Muzzio said.

As the governor spent the summer and fall swinging back to the left, it became increasingly difficult to distinguish legitimate policy disagreements between Cuomo and de Blasio.

However, with the recent clash over supportive housing, there is now a growing unease with and distaste for how Cuomo is carrying out his political maneuvering against de Blasio. The grotesque impact the beef appears to be having on the governor's policy-making decisions is raising more and more eyebrows. Insiders say that the feud with de Blasio has even influenced recent Cuomo administration hiring decisions.

"We're really hoping they can both rise above it. We hope they are going to come together because this isn't about them, this is about the homeless," said Laura Masuch, executive director of The Supportive Housing Network of New York.

"The [hoped for New York/New York IV] agreement will last beyond these two gentlemen and it enables nonprofits and the private sector to keep doing it the same way they have for years. It would be a shame to walk away from years of commitment," said Masuch. "We are basically ready to go, there is construction just waiting on the agreement."

Assembly Member Andrew Hevesi, his chamber's chief proponent of supportive housing, echoed Masuch's concerns. "What we saw last week from the governor was spin," Hevesi told Gotham Gazette. "It was someone trying to avoid their commitment. The state has contributed to [New York/New York] for the last 20 years, every governor has been part of this including Mario Cuomo, and now it is Andrew's turn."

Hevesi said although he is used to strife between Cuomo and de Blasio this particular issue should not have been allowed to fall into the feud quagmire.

"There are 20,000 people who need help," said Hevesi of those eligible for supportive housing, adding, "Find something else to fight about."

For some insiders the current situation is reminiscent of former Gov. Eliot Spitzer's feud with then-Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno. Spitzer was so enraged that Bruno stood in the way of his policy initiatives that he assigned state troopers to track Bruno's use of state airplanes and then used his press office to leak the findings. It led to the "Troopergate" scandal and an investigation by then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo's office found that Spitzer had misused the state police for political purposes. Spitzer was roundly criticized for being so aggressive and vindictive that it actually prevented competent governing.

"We know the man has a streak, he has thin skin and tends to be very vindictive," said Barbara Bartoletti, of the League of Women Voters, about Gov. Cuomo. "It's unclear to me whether this is about turf or something personal but he certainly does seem to have a problem with the mayor. He just constantly keeps him off balance, co-opts his policy and cuts him off at the knees every chance he gets."

Cuomo hasn't been accused of misusing state assets to undo de Blasio. Instead, Muzzio said the governor is deftly using the power he has as governor to systematically weaken the mayor. That style of utilizing policy decisions to dispatch or handicap potential rivals has become part of the Cuomo brand.

"This is looking like a one-of-a-kind feud," said Muzzio with a historical perspective on mayor-governor relationships. "Just looking at the kind of range of issues over which this is being waged is unprecedented. This is hardball politics with Roger Clemens throwing at your head."

[Read: Did De Blasio's Tirade Help Cuomo Get His Groove Back?]

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Pressure Shifts to Cuomo as De Blasio Announces Supportive Housing Plan

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Sen. Golden, de Blasio, McCray on Wednesday (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is in an unusual position this week as Mayor Bill de Blasio and his allies, including large bipartisan groups from both the Senate and Assembly, attempt to pressure him into matching the city's investment in supportive housing for the homeless.

On Wednesday de Blasio was joined by advocates and legislators for a fairly raucous, celebratory announcement that his administration plans to create 15,000 supportive housing units over 15 years at a cost of $3 billion. Some of the units will become available as soon as next year, the mayor said, also noting that there are other units being created from a previous deal with the state, which has run its course.

De Blasio, service providers, those concerned with city expenditures, and many others say supportive housing is the best way to address rising homelessness in the city and want the state to devote significant resources to add to the number of units being created. Stakeholders have been awaiting word of a new "New York/New York" deal, as the previous three city-state supportive housing plans have been called, but with negotiations at an impasse, de Blasio said the city couldn't wait for Albany any longer.

"Let's be clear, the city of New York is acting, we're acting decisively, we are not waiting on Albany," de Blasio said. He quickly added that a number of state legislators were leading on the issue and standing on the stage with him.

De Blasio wouldn't call on the governor by name, but others did on Wednesday, saying that Cuomo must step up as de Blasio was doing.

Mary Brosnahan, the head of Coalition for the Homeless and "a voice of conscience," according to de Blasio, said, "It's really hard to overstate the significance of this tremendous announcement" and called it "a victory for all New Yorkers."

"Today's announcement needs to be part of a fourth New York/New York agreement," Brosnahan added. "We need Governor Cuomo to step up and match this tremendous, unprecedented commitment that Mayor de Blasio has made today."

Next, on Thursday, advocates plan to march in solidarity just before the City Council is to pass a resolution calling on the city and the state to commit to creating 35,000 supportive housing units statewide. Supportive housing is permanent residence and services offered to homeless individuals dealing with addiction, mental illness, domestic violence, and other acute challenges.

De Blasio's announcement came after insiders say the mayor walked away from the negotiating table with Cuomo after the governor made it clear he was only willing to commit a fraction of the funds the city thought necessary to provide 30,000 city-based units of supportive housing that advocates and some city officials say are necessary to truly impact the city's homelessness crisis - which stands at about 60,000 individuals, 57,000 of whom sleep in shelters.

Advocates and legislators hope to pressure Cuomo into a new and significant commitment before the start of the next legislative session when he returns to negotiate with the legislature over the budget.

A spokesperson for the governor said on Wednesday, "Everyone understands the City has had a very real homeless problem and we're glad the city is starting to act on it," according to the Wall Street Journal. "Given the severity of the situation the State will be providing management assistance to the City and additional resources."

Cuomo has repeatedly jabbed at de Blasio recently by commenting on the city's homelessness problem. "We have a major homeless problem all across the country," Cuomo said in September, "and I think the mayor is now acknowledging that we have a very serious homeless problem." Cuomo also indicated that he thought the homelessness issue in the city had been alleviated but had come back under de Blasio.

The city and advocates for the homeless say the state shoulders significant blame for rising homelessness because of 2011 cuts to the Advantage rent-subsidy program. Advocates and legislators favor supportive housing programs because they appear to save money and have a success rate of 85 percent in keeping formerly homeless housed.

De Blasio has battled the perception that quality of life has deteriorated under him as tabloids have focused on shootings and regularly printed pictures of homeless people.

What is unique about this policy battle in the ongoing Cuomo/de Blasio feud is that it appears the mayor has a great deal of the legislature on his side. A bipartisan group of 133 Assembly members signed a letter to Cuomo asking him to support the creation of 35,000 units of supportive housing over the next ten years. Assembly Member Andrew Hevesi, who chairs his house's social services committee and led the letter campaign, praised de Blasio's plan and said that Cuomo, "Now has a chance to rise to the occasion." He added that he hopes the governor, "Acts quickly."

A bipartisan group of 26 state senators sent a separate letter to Cuomo asking the same. It was sent on the letterhead of Republican Sen. Martin Golden and has the signatures of a number of upstate Republicans. Golden was front and center during de Blasio's announcement on Wednesday. "Supportive housing has bipartisan support because it has a proven track record," Golden said. He added that he looks forward to working with the mayor, the governor, and his colleagues on a larger city-state deal.

Cuomo now faces de Blasio, a surprisingly united legislature, and a swath of advocacy groups that want him to commit to funding more supportive housing before the end of the year.

"As the governor has said many times, the state stands ready to help the city address the homelessness crisis," a spokeswoman for Cuomo told the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday as the news of de Blasio's pending announcement broke.

"We applaud the mayor's extraordinary commitment to – and investment in – supportive housing, the solution to homelessness among our most vulnerable," said Laura Mascuch, Executive Director of the Supportive Housing Network of New York, in a statement. "In the past, Governors and Mayors have stood shoulder to shoulder in their commitment to supportive housing; now we look to Governor Cuomo to come to the table as well. Only in working together can we meet the true need for 30,000 homes in New York City for our neediest citizens."

Advocates and legislators want to force Cuomo's hand before legislative session starts in January because at that point budget negotiations start and Cuomo will have a plethora of issues to hold over the legislature's head. Cuomo is due to give his State of the State address on January 6 in Albany.

Doug Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch, acknowledges that it is unique to see a New York City mayor, let alone de Blasio, with bipartisan support from the legislature on any issue. De Blasio rankled Senate Republicans by trying to unseat them in 2014.

Still, Muzzio wonders if the support will hold up if Cuomo digs in his heels - Cuomo has only publicly offered to fund 5,000 supportive housing units. "If in fact the commitments are real and the mayor's got majorities from both houses and then the governor ignores it, it could get messy," said Muzzio. "This does seem like a game of chicken and the legislature likes to avoid conflict. The governor has more carrots and sticks than the mayor. So maybe there is enough legitimate feeling on this issue to make it happen but if the governor holds out, I'm betting on the governor."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Warnings Cuomo Must Not Declare Premature Victory on Women's Equality

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Gov. Cuomo at a bill-signing (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)


Late last month Gov. Andrew Cuomo sat at a desk at Hunter College surrounded by applauding women, including advocates and elected officials led by Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul. At that desk, Cuomo signed eight bills that were part of his Women's Equality Agenda. It was declared a historic occasion as new protections against discrimination versus women were made law. But, the bills the governor signed were an incomplete version of the ten-point WEA Cuomo had debuted with great fanfare during his 2012 State of the State address and insisted for quite some time must be passed as a package.

Recognizing that they could not get state Senate Republicans to concede on a bill to codify abortion protections into New York law, Democrats including Cuomo decided to pass the WEA bills for which they did have bicameral support (nine points became eight bills). Despite Cuomo's triumphant tone last month, many women's rights advocates and legislators feel the governor is declaring victory too early. They say that New York is not leading on women's issues nationally, notwithstanding the governor's claims, and that there must be a renewed push for further action - on the final pieces of the WEA and other measures, such as paid family leave.

In 2012, Cuomo announced the legislative agenda addressing pay equity, abortion, and human trafficking, among other key issues related to gender equity and women's rights, such as protecting domestic violence survivors.

"This State has a legacy of leading the way in advancing equal rights and today we are making New York a model of equality for women," Cuomo stated at the time of the October bill-signing. "This comprehensive set of laws will help to ensure that women are supported, protected, and given all of the opportunities they deserve in life. Today, New York stands once again as a monument for progress, and a sign of what can be achieved when we come together to do the right thing for women everywhere."

Many saw Cuomo's involvement in women's equality issues as a way to ensure greater equity and finally pass a controversial measure that supporters and detractors say encodes abortion protections into state law. "The belief was that if we packaged all these important bills together anti-choice Republicans would have to come to the table," said state Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat.

Asked if she expected movement on the abortion measure in the coming 2016 legislative session, Krueger responded: "I will never take reproductive rights off my priority list and despite what opponents say a bunch of states have better laws than New York and that is a shame."

The decision to pass the other measures of the WEA without the abortion bill was a difficult one for many who were pushing the entire package. A number of advocates and analysts see other moves by the Cuomo administration as designed to pander to women without actually achieving anything substantive. One major example is the Cuomo-created Women's Equality Party, which has been mismanaged and largely seen as an attack on the liberal Working Families Party, with which Cuomo has had a contentious relationship.

Prior to the WEA bill-signing, Cuomo spent significant time enacting and promoting his new campus sexual assault policies, which he described as essential to protecting women in New York and an example of the state as a national leader.

Some legislators and advocates say that while the governor likes to lead on progressive issues and point to partisan gridlock in Washington, the abortion plank of the WEA is one area where the governor was either unable, or unwilling, to deliver truly progressive leadership.

Sonia Ossorio, president of the National Organization of Women (NOW) NYC, said that she doesn't consider the fight for the abortion plank of the WEA over. "It is full-steam ahead as far as we are concerned," she told Gotham Gazette. "Everyone involved did not start with the WEA. The legislation has been around for some time. We will keep beating the drum."

Further, Ossorio said that a full press on the measure from Cuomo ending with passage of the abortion plank could serve as a message to the rest of the nation that New York rejects the recent onslaught against Planned Parenthood that was sparked by videos that have now been discredited.

"It would send a very positive message in a time when we are seeing so many states passing laws designed to restrict access to reproductive health and abortion," said Ossorio.

The Cuomo administration did not return requests for comment about whether the governor will pursue passage of the final plank of the WEA, or what other legislative priorities he might have that involve what might be called women's issues.

Karen Scharff of The Working Families Party and Citizen Action New York issued a statement following Cuomo's October bill-signing. The first half of the statement praised his action on the eight bills. The second half was less celebratory: "Glaringly absent from today's announcement were two pieces of legislation that should be priorities for the Governor and legislature in 2016: protecting a woman's reproductive rights, and guaranteeing paid family leave. Full equality for all women in New York requires both. Women need to be confident that we will be safe from national Republican attacks on reproductive rights and know that we will no longer be forced to choose between caring for our families and making ends meet. We urge the legislature and the Governor to make passing the 10th plank of the Women's Equality Act and paid family leave a priority next year."

State Senator Jeff Klein, the leader of the Independent Democratic Conference who has been supportive of paid family leave, said he simply doesn't see how the final WEA measure makes it through the Senate, despite his support.

"I support it, I don't believe it is a controversial measure. We need it it if the Supreme Court goes wrong way so that New York still has the protections but I don't believe we have 32 Senators who are pro choice," Klein said, referring to a majority in the Republican-controlled 63-seat Senate. Klein's IDC does have a ruling partnership with the Republicans that helps the latter keep hold of the chamber.

Now, many advocates and legislators appear to have their sights set on Cuomo's minimum wage campaign and a push for paid family leave as they say women are deeply impacted by both issues. While Cuomo is getting a lot of credit for his wage push, supporters of paid family leave want to see real action from the governor on that issue.

Ossorio said that both the campaign for a $15 minimum hourly wage for all New Yorkers and for paid family leave in New York would be overwhelmingly positive for women across the state. "Forty percent of single mothers in New York City live in poverty," said Ossorio. "So raising the minimum wage in New York is undoubtedly massively important to women as is the movement for paid family leave. These are issues that are really significant for working families and when we are talking working families we are often talking about mothers."

Krueger said 2016 could be a year to tackle a number of issues that help improve the lives of working women.

"It does seem this is a ripe year for having a discussion about the economic issues women face. When we talk about the minimum wage we are talking about a women's issue because it disproportionately impacts women," Krueger told Gotham Gazette.

Cuomo's push for a $15 minimum wage is already facing pushback from some Senate Republicans and a number of business groups that say that type of increase will force companies to downsize their workforce. Cuomo took another big step toward putting enough pressure on Republicans to back a $15 phase-in by announcing he was implementing a timeline for raising state workers to an eventual $15 per hour minimum.

The issue of paid family leave was a surprisingly live topic toward the end of this year's legislative session. Assembly Democrats and the Independent Senate Democrats each had their own proposals on paid family leave. Senate Republicans included a measure in their budget proposal, surprising many observers.

Debate over the bills did not end harmoniously, with each conference blaming the other for failed talks. Cuomo initially told reporters that the legislature had no "appetite" to negotiate paid family leave, but as it became clear both houses of the legislature supported some version of a program, a spokesperson clarified the governor's position. "This administration strongly supports the notion of providing paid family leave in New York State," Melissa DeRosa told Politico New York in March. "Unfortunately, the Senate and Assembly have advanced differing versions of this policy that do not see eye to eye and that fail to form the comprehensive solution that the issue requires."

Klein said he is optimistic there can be some kind of compromise on the issue this year and believes the governor was simply looking for both houses to reach an agreement at the end of last session. "That didn't happen," Klein told Gotham Gazette. "This an extremely important issue that resonates with residents across the state."

In the Cuomo administration press release celebrating the WEA bills being signed, a statement from Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, captured the lens of many: "By closing loopholes in many existing protections for women and demonstrating a commitment to equality, the bills signed today set the stage for further, future reforms, such as protecting women's fundamental right to choose, ensuring access to reproductive health care and allowing new mothers paid family leave to care for their children without facing debt or bankruptcy."

Ossorio says there are a number of other issues that have mostly flown under the radar that she hopes the legislature will address. They include making childcare more affordable, funding sex education and "consent education" in schools, and making sure the state enforces an existing law that bans pregnant prisoners from being shackled during delivery, as well as expanding the law to banning shackling throughout a prisoner's pregnancy.

"This is a basic human rights issue that New York lags behind on," said Ossorio. "It's an issue that this state should lead on."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Citing 'A Violence Problem,' Cuomo Calls on New Yorkers to 'Respect the Police'

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Gov. Cuomo with graduates of the state police academy (photo: Governor's Office via flickr) 

Governor Andrew Cuomo is concerned that New York City is sliding backwards when it comes to order, citing disrespect for law enforcement as a key example and decrying a lack of leadership in allowing what he sees as an unacceptable atmosphere to permeate.

In comments to reporters after the recent killing of NYPD Officer Randolph Holder, Cuomo took veiled shots at Mayor Bill de Blasio and lamented the state of society when it comes to respect for the police. Calling violent incidents against police officers "troubling signs," Cuomo said, "I believe we've had more police officers assaulted in New York than any city in the country."

In the past ten months, four NYPD officers have been shot and killed while on duty. The most recent, Holder, was posthumously promoted to detective, and his death appears to have led Cuomo to conclude there is "no doubt that we have a violence problem against police officers."

Saying that he understands police officers feeling unsupported and repeatedly stressing in a frustrated tone that New Yorkers must "respect the police," Cuomo not only intimated that he believes de Blasio has allowed an anti-police environment to take root, but raised eyebrows among some who see the governor's comments as vilifying the police reform movement.

Further, critics say Cuomo's feud with de Blasio is getting in the way of a real discussion of how to improve relations between the police and communities and that the two leaders should be working together on the issue.

On the other hand, Cuomo's comments were met with applause from some who believe that there is not enough regard for the job police officers do in New York City and their role in making the city much safer than it was a generation ago.

"The police are not the enemy," Cuomo said last week, "and we've let the dialogue shift."

"They're public servants of the highest order and leadership has to communicate that message. I'm gonna do my part because the police are right," Cuomo said, referring to what he says are police officers feeling like targets and not feeling supported.

Norman Siegel, famed civil rights attorney and police reform movement leader, told Gotham Gazette that Cuomo should hold a summit with de Blasio that brings together law enforcement officials and reform advocates.

"His fight with de Blasio isn't necessary," Siegel said of Cuomo. "We need grownups in the room. The governor could bring us together instead of pandering. It might score political points in some communities but it won't change anything. He could be in the middle of this providing the leadership that is needed."

Cuomo had given his own explanation of what type of leadership is needed at this time. "As leadership, we have to send a different signal. And the signal is 'respect law enforcement.' I understand your civil rights, I understand freedom of speech, but I also understand the role of the police."

The governor continued, "The police are right when they say there's now an atmosphere, now an attitude that the police are fair game. They're not."

When asked if City Hall was not properly leading on the issue, Cuomo declined to say which officials have not been sending the right message, only that he was going to do his part.

Douglas Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College, told Gotham Gazette that Cuomo's latest comments achieved two things. "The bottom line is this is another shot at de Blasio. [Cuomo] does not miss a chance to take a shot at the mayor. It is both him using the mayor as his perpetual punching bag and at the same time making strategic calculations to appeal to certain constituencies. He is making a cost-benefit analysis with the dual purpose of taking a jab at de Blasio and appealing to certain communities."

As it turns out, de Blasio's message is not one that conservatives or many law enforcement officials want to hear, while Cuomo's is.

"Police need to have the upper hand in the street," Eugene O'Donnell, professor at John Jay Rockefeller School of Criminal Justice and former NYPD officer, told Gotham Gazette. "Our leaders are perpetuating this lie that police are like everyone else. And they aren't. They volunteer to put themselves in harm's way to enforce our laws and they need our support and respect to do their jobs."

O'Donnell actually blames Cuomo for some of that anti-police sentiment because of his executive order allowing the Attorney General to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate police killings of unarmed civilians.

"The governor is trying to have it both ways." said O'Donnell. "The special prosecutor order is basically feeding into the notion that police are out there killing people indiscriminately, that this is a 1950s throwback force, with "In the Heat of the Night" kind of stuff."

Cuomo has faced stiff backlash from law enforcement and district attorneys for his executive order, which he said was part of his efforts to reduce both real and perceived problems with the criminal justice system, and he has sought to put the burden of mending hurt feelings on Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Advocates who fought for the order say they felt they had to drag Cuomo to the signing "kicking and screaming" and were only successful because of immense political pressure.

Cuomo had promised he would sign such an order if the legislature didn't act on reforms. It became clear early in this year's session that Senate Republicans wanted nothing to do with Cuomo's proposals. The governor is expected to look for legislative action on the matter again next year, but those same Republicans appear fairly dug in and advocates note that Cuomo's rhetoric against criticizing the police is starting to more closely match those more strident supporters of law enforcement.

Republican Brooklyn state Senator Martin Golden, also a former NYPD officer, released a statement following Holder's death that called for the return of stop-and-frisk and condemned recent attempts to reform the criminal justice system.

"We must restore the practice of stop, question and frisk so to allow our police the opportunity to better secure our neighborhoods. There is no doubt that the suspension of this policy has resulted in the uptick in crime and shootings in our City, which for many years has been the safest large City in America," Golden said, referring to de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton overseeing a continued drop in the controversial tactic.

"At a time when we should be looking to keep criminals in jail and off our streets, the New York City Council is looking to create a publicly funded taxpayer bail program. I urge the City Council to immediately suspend these efforts and instead, focus on legislation that will make New York safer, not more dangerous," Golden said.

Both the de Blasio administration and the City Council have begun efforts to provide bail assistance to those arrested for low-level, nonviolent crimes who cannot afford bail.

Golden called for state lawmakers to soon propose and pass new, "meaningful legislation to make our streets safer." 

O'Donnell said officials need to reiterate that the police need support. "Everyone is a reformer these days. The police force has been orphaned. There is now a gotcha culture in our society around the police," O'Donnell told Gotham Gazette, sounding much like Cuomo had last week.

"We want the bad guys to cross the street when they see the police instead of the police crossing the street when they see the bad guys," O'Donnell continued, "and right now there is an environment where police are being threatened, mocked on the streets - people are crossing the street to start altercations with them."

De Blasio ran on reforming the NYPD after what some advocates, elected officials, and law enforcement officials see as an era of "over policing" under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, highlighted by their abuse of stop-and-frisk. Police officials quickly went on the defensive saying that de Blasio didn't fully support them. Several months into de Blasio's term, law enforcement officials and others were incensed when they felt de Blasio put controversial Rev. Al Sharpton on equal footing as Police Commissioner Bill Bratton.

The situation was further exacerbated when, after the grand jury decision not to indict the police officer whose chokehold led to Eric Garner's death, de Blasio said he had advised his son Dante that he should be "very careful" when stopped by police.

Not long after, two members of the NYPD were ambushed and killed while on duty and hundreds of officers turned their backs on the mayor during the January funerals.

De Blasio has worked tirelessly since then to patch relations and has dialed back his rhetoric on police reform, but Cuomo has continually sought to open the wound with public comments that appear designed to exploit the rift between de Blasio and law enforcement, such as in September when Cuomo spoke after receiving the "Man of the Year" award from the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association.

Following Detective Holder's death, de Blasio struck a unifying tone. "This painful cycle we've been through reminds us, the people who serve us come from all our communities. They look like us, they are us," de Blasio said. "The police are us, they represent us."

Norman Siegel, the civil rights attorney, told Gotham Gazette that Cuomo's comments could inflame the situation between police and the community and that his feud with de Blasio is counterproductive.

"This type of rhetoric is not helpful in understanding the situation or in attempting to fix things," Siegel told Gotham Gazette. "We have to be careful nobody engages in unnecessary rhetoric or even panders on these issues because officers can be killed, citizens can be killed."

Siegel said that Cuomo should call a summit aimed at improving communication and police-community relations. He noted that Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, himself a former NYPD official with whom Siegel has worked on strengthening police-community relations, opened up Borough Hall for the first game of the World Series and that NYPD officers and community members enjoyed the game together. "I wish the governor could have been there," Siegel said. (Cuomo flew to Kansas City for the game on the Mets owner's private plane.)

O'Donnell said he would also like to see Cuomo take charge of the situation because he feels the police are forced to stand down in some neighborhoods because of the negative reaction they are getting from the community. He too said a summit would be a good idea, but said Cuomo should first hold a press conference to "tell the public that the police are here to enforce the laws."

Cuomo said as much when speaking to reporters last week: "[N]one of it works if you don't have the values underneath, and the fundamental value has to be this a city of law and order - yes, it's a city of civil rights - but it's a city of law and order, and one of the primary rules is 'no violence against a police officer,' period. And we need to send that message and we need to send that loud and clear - because the police are right when they say 'we're afraid to go out there because we feel that we may be a target and that whatever we do is going to be second-guessed,' that is a real problem and that's what we have to address."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

As Cuomo Pushes for Federal Action on Guns, New York Measures Await His Support

Cuomo Schumer Gillibrand

Cuomo and New York's Senators, in 2012 (photo via the Governor's Office on flickr)

The murder of NYPD officer Randolph Holder and the seemingly constant news of campus shootings has a number of prominent Democratic legislators calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to lend his support to state-level gun control bills.

Cuomo, who is responsible for passing what many believe are the strongest state-level gun laws in the nation in 2013, has been particularly outspoken of late saying the federal government should take significant action to restrict the sale and flow of guns in the United States. While touting his SAFE Act, passed in the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, Cuomo has said Democrats must make gun control a centerpiece of the 2016 election cycle.

While Cuomo has made a number of media appearances to centered on the point, going so far as to intimate Democrats should threaten shutdown of the federal government over passing new gun laws, some New Yorkers continue to look for additional regulations at home. A number of gun-control advocates and Democratic legislators say that the likelihood of action in Washington is negligible, but that with Cuomo's backing and political savvy New York could continue to lead the nation in moving to prevent gun violence.

New York, they say, can again set the example by passing gun safety legislation, bans on certain weapons, laws that would strip domestic abusers of their firearms, and stricter checks on gun sellers, including licensing of individual salespeople.

"The governor has the strongest political voice for change in this state," said Sen. Liz Krueger of Manhattan, "Having the governor on these issues could mean everything." Fellow Democratic Sens. Michael Gianaris, Jose Peralta and Daniel Squadron also told Gotham Gazette that despite opposition from Republican leadership, Cuomo's involvement could get the ball rolling on very basic gun safety legislation.

"The Senate Republicans have refused to move on these issues, but it is no reason to retreat," Squadron told Gotham Gazette of Albany dynamics. "We all need to work together to change it. The governor is right that we need national action to address the flow of illegal guns. He has been a national leader with The SAFE Act, but there is a lot more we can do in New York."

Cuomo had remained particularly quiet on gun control issues after facing backlash from gun-rights groups and seeing his poll numbers slump following implementation of the SAFE Act, but with the random shooting death of his aide Carey Gabay, this fall Cuomo returned to the issue with a vengeance, now with a focus on national action.

"[I]t's not enough for New York State to pass a gun law and close the front door when the guns are coming in the back door," Cuomo said in his late-September eulogy of Gabay. "When the guns can come up from Virginia or South Carolina for anyone willing to take a car ride. That this nation's leaders have to show the resolve to end this scourge once and for all and demand real gun control nationwide."

A number of New York politicos who were previously outspoken on gun control became uncharacteristically silent after the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other groups began organizing around the SAFE Act. The Act was seen as particularly damaging to Cuomo's support in Upstate New York during his 2014 reelection. When pushing for national regulations, Cuomo has repeatedly said that he has felt the backlash for what he was able to pass on guns; recently saying on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show, "I know the political price because I paid it."

Calling the SAFE Act "the safest, smartest gun law in the country," Cuomo appears now to be looking to others to act on guns. In fact, new Republican Senate Leader John Flanagan apparently negotiated a slowdown of the implementation of one measure of the SAFE Act that would track ammunition sales.

The Cuomo administration signed a memorandum of understanding with Republican legislators indicating that a database tracking ammunition sales wouldn't be implemented until the technology for such a system was ready. Gun activists saw it as a concession from Cuomo on one of his signature accomplishments. The Cuomo administration pushed back saying it didn't mean anything in particular. Other elements of the SAFE Act recently survived court challenges, outcomes Cuomo celebrated.

Leah Barrett, the head of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, said that it is time for Democrats and the governor, specifically, to push back on the state level against the NRA and support what she says are well-crafted, common-sense bills. "I know the governor said after the SAFE Act that he had paid a political price for it, but I hope his spine has stiffened a bit now," Barrett said. "We need to make sure background checks are full steam ahead, that the database is implemented," she added, saying that the governor should support new bills on the table. "He shouldn't be afraid of these gun groups who are really on the fringe, these bills have the support of most New Yorkers."

The governor's press office did not return a request for comment on whether Cuomo will pursue further gun-related regulations in New York.

Assemblymember Michelle Schimel of Great Neck, who has been a gun-control activist for years, said she feels some lawmakers have been woken up by recent events after hiding from gun issues for a time. "They went 'Oh no way!' because there was such a backlash" to the SAFE Act, said Schimel. "Well now reality has hit again and there is real focus again. This could be a real bellwether year for us.'

Schimel, who is bound for Washington this week for a national discussion on preventing gun violence, said she agrees with Cuomo that "it starts on the federal level with the gun show loophole." However, she said "there are a number of bills on that state level that have been vetted and are not just a kneejerk reaction to recent events."

Gun Dealer bill
Sponsored by Assemblymember Amy Paulin and Senator Jose Peralta, the legislation would require gun dealers to sell only in one specific location, install a security system, and provide all their employees with training. It would also have the State Police devise a plan to ensure gun dealers are complying with the new rules. Gun dealers have to be licensed in the state but their employees do not. "We have to hold gun dealers accountable," said Peralta.

Pro-gun groups say the law would have a chilling effect on small business owners by imposing more costs and mandates.

Schimel counters that plenty of other businesses in the state that sell more benign products and services are faced with regulation.

"The person who does my nails is licensed," said Schimel. "They've been trained. They've had their background checked and yet the person who works at a gun store hasn't."

Guns and Domestic Violence
"The Safe Homes Act," sponsored by Assemblymember Nily Rozic, would require police to ascertain whether there are guns present in a home where there has been a reported case of domestic violence. Officers would then remove those guns in the event of an arrest. The bill is in response to cases where victims of domestic violence have later been shot to death by their abuser after going to law enforcement.

"The Domestic Violence Firearm Prevention Bill" sponsored by Paulin would require police to strip firearms from anyone convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence incident.

Neither bill has a cosponsor in the Senate, but Barrett said she hopes both bills could win bipartisan support.

Sponsored by Schimel in the Assembly and Peralta in the Senate, the bill would require all semi-automatic pistols manufactured in, or delivered to licensed dealers in New York, to be equipped with a specific technology that automatically marks shell casings with a code which can identify the make, model, and serial number of the pistol. The legislation has support of a number of law enforcement entities because they see it as a tool that would make it easier to identify the owners of guns used in crimes.

Opponents say the technology is expensive and untested. Only California and Washington D.C. have similar laws.

Recently, California successfully defended itself against a lawsuit that sought to do away with its law. "We have technology to do so much to help law enforcement catch criminals," said Peralta. "We just celebrated "Back to the Future Day," we have the technology, we should use it. It isn't a matter of whether or not it works. It works. It is a matter of political will."

Nicholas' Law
Nicholas' Law, which requires safer storage of guns, is sponsored by Paulin in the Assembly and Sen. Jeff Klein, Independent Democrat of the Bronx, in the Senate.

The bill is named after 12-year-old Nicholas Naumkin, a resident of Saratoga Springs who was shot and killed by a friend who was playing with his father's pistol, which had been left loaded and unlocked.

"Nicholas' law is a gun safety bill that advocates from both sides can agree on. It's common sense," Paulin told Gotham Gazette earlier this year. The Assembly passed the bill this past session but it didn't get a vote in the Senate.

The bill requires gun owners to safely store their guns so they can't be accessed by children and others who should not be handling guns. Infractions against the law could be punished by a simple violation or a class E felony depending on previous history and severity of the violation.

High Caliber Ban
Sponsored by Squadron in the Senate and Brian Kavanagh in the Assembly, the bill would ban the ownership of .50 caliber rifles and require state police to seize the weapons from current owners and provide them with fair market value. Squadron and Kavanagh both say the firearms are designed to kill humans and disable vehicles, and have no value in hunting or home protection. Opponents say the bill would violate the Second Amendment. The bill is perhaps the least likely to see any bipartisan support given that it involves the actual surrender of property.

As hopeful as Shimel is for legislative action this year, many of her colleagues believe they will have to wait until after the 2016 elections to see real action and only then if Democrats win control of the state Senate. Gianaris told Gotham Gazette that he feels the same bipartisan gridlock Cuomo blames for stopping action on gun control in Congress is beginning to take over the state legislature. "A lot of the same stuff is happening here in New York. And we have to stand up to it," said Gianaris.

Short of Cuomo deciding to come out strongly in favor of additional New York gun control measures, they are likely to get minimal attention in the coming budget and legislative negotiations.

Asked what she thought it would take to get real action in the upcoming session Barrett was blunt. "Probably nothing short of another massacre in New York. We've seen that is what it takes to get our state government to act."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Note: this article has been updated to reflect the high caliber ban involving "surrender" of property, not "seizure" as originally stated

Progressive Critics Largely Convinced by Cuomo's Wage Push

Cuomo min wage labor parade

Gov. Cuomo (photo via The Governor's Office via flickr)

Many of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's staunchest progressive critics appear to be convinced by his new push for a statewide $15 an hour minimum wage. Cuomo has repeatedly angered the left wing of his Democratic Party by supporting Republican candidates, backing charter schools, and routinely making middle-of-the-road compromises on various issues. Only a few months ago Cuomo scoffed at the idea of a $13 minimum wage, but now advocates and legislators who have repeatedly felt betrayed by Cuomo say they believe firmly that he plans to see through the $15 hourly wage.

"I have been a harsh critic of the governor sometimes," said Michael Kink, executive director of Strong Economy For All, "But this is going to be a big deal in the lives of so many New Yorkers and it is worthy of straightforward applause."

Democratic state Senator Liz Krueger, who has has repeatedly clashed with the administration on policy issues, told Gotham Gazette: "The governor has gone through an evolution and he is now at a wage that is greater than my conference put forward. I think it is a good thing."

Two elements of Cuomo's approach appear to have convinced progressive critics of the sincerity of his push.

The first is that Cuomo has made himself the first major elected New York state official to advocate the $15 minimum wage and the plan he supports is comparable to those passed into law in Seattle and Los Angeles and proposed in ballot initiatives in Washington, D.C. and California.

Secondly, Cuomo has made the fight personal by naming his plan the "Mario Cuomo Campaign For Economic Justice," after his father, the late governor.

Kink, a frequent, vocal critic of the Cuomo administration, has nothing but praise for Cuomo's wage push. "This will absolutely make a difference in people's lives. The phase-in schedule he is talking about is comparable to what other places are talking about. If we could wave a wand and get it today it would be wonderful," said Kink, acknowledging there's no chance of immediately shifting the minimum wage to $15 an hour. As recommended by his fast food wage board, Cuomo is calling for a phased-in $15 hourly minimum wage by 2019 in New York City and in 2021 all across the state.

Noting that the governor has had "varying levels" of commitment on progressive issues in the past, Kink sees new life from Cuomo on the wage. Cuomo has "supported" efforts on the DREAM Act, campaign finance reform, and the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), but has not made powerful public or behind-the-scenes-efforts to enact them.

"He has made this so personal in naming it the 'Mario Cuomo Campaign,' I believe it puts this up there with marriage equality and guns," said Kink, referring to what are perhaps Cuomo's two crowning legislative achievements, marriage equality and the SAFE Act. "This is a different level of support than we've seen from the governor on other legislative initiatives."

The path to Cuomo's support for a statewide $15 wage took form earlier this year when he called on the state labor department to convene a wage board to examine compensation for fast-food workers. The board held hearings across the state, hearing from many workers, who also staged large rallies outside those hearings and elsewhere. James Parrott of the Fiscal Policy Institute said he believes the hearing testimony was extremely impactful for Cuomo.

"I can't help but think that incredibly compelling testimony of hundreds of fast-food workers from across the state moved the governor," said Parrott. "The testimony really got across how much worse the reality (of surviving on minimum wage) is to how many close observers like myself thought it to be."

In July, the wage board recommended that large fast-food chains pay their workers $15 an hour by 2019 in New York City and mid-way through 2021 in the rest of the state. Cuomo seized on the wage board's efforts, holding a celebratory rally just after its recommendations were made public. A $15 wage polls very well with Democrats in the state.

On September 10, Cuomo announced that he was advocating an eventual $15 minimum wage for all industries, to be implemented along the wage board's recommended timeline.

Krueger said that by using the wage board in the fight for an increased minimum wage, Cuomo spotlighted a power that past governors did not utilize.

"For decades we've know you could use a wage board in this manner, but the governor showed leadership in doing so," said Krueger. "I'd prefer legislative action, but we have been shown there are other ways to address wage issues."

In order to make the path to $15 an hour a reality in all industries, Cuomo will indeed need legislation.

Republicans have balked at the measure and criticized the wage board's recommendations as a fait accompli. They insist it will hurt businesses across the state.

"I don't agree with the wage board. I know it's a statute in the State of New York. I think that it's executive overreach," Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan said during a September event hosted by Crain's New York Business. "A lot of my colleagues feel very strongly about that, and as we come into next year. I think we have to be mindful of the fact that we actually have raised the minimum wage — we're one of the ten highest states in the country already."

The state's minimum wage is due to rise from $8.75 to $9 an hour at the end of this year, per the legislation Flanagan was referring to. The Senate leader insists that the governor must go through the legislature to take this kind of action, but he did not rule out another wage increase.

Many Democrats greeted Cuomo's plan with open arms, but skeptics still exist. A number of Democrats told Gotham Gazette they fear Cuomo has only championed the issue as a means to boost his sinking approval ratings and steal political thunder from Mayor Bill de Blasio, who fought with Albany early in his term to allow the city a say over raising its minimum wage.

Critics also note that Cuomo has begun talking about pairing a wage increase with tax cuts for businesses, indicating a willingness to cut a deal with Republicans. "I think linking the two is a mistake," Bill Lipton, director of the Working Families Party said recently on The Capitol Pressroom. "I think we should have a smart, progressive tax code policy. I think it should be discussed separately from the minimum wage. The minimum wage really stands on its own."

The governor, of course, is often one to lecture on how things get done in Albany, citing the necessity of compromise and touting his successes in making progress despite a split legislature.

Cuomo has also looked to boost his fundraising with the wage effort; his campaign sent out email solicitations earlier this month asking for a $15 donation "to help us fund the fight [for $15]."

Another point of contention for some is that they believe by putting himself at the head of the $15 per hour movement Cuomo now has an increased ability to set the timeline for phase-in. Given Cuomo's predilection for compromising with Senate Republicans, these critics fear the Governor may simply increase the deadlines for implementation of the wage hike. Cuomo himself described a $13 increase as a "nonstarter" with the legislature this past spring.

An economist analyst, Parrot said that concerns about the length of the phase-in at this point are unfounded. "It's hard to know exactly what the inflation is going to be like but it is pretty nominal," he said. "It will still be worth something that is more than $9 [is now] but it is not going to be $15 in 2015 terms." Parrot said that the state budget predicts two percent inflation per year, so judging by that, "it is not as if $15 in 2021 would be wiped out."

In other words, the move to a $15 minimum hourly wage by 2021 would be significant, even taking into account inflation.

Kink said that he isn't concerned by Cuomo's comments about a business tax cut, or that the governor might cave to pressure from Republicans. "The governor showed just how high of a priority he thinks this is for the state when he put his dad's name on it," Kink told Gotham Gazette. "He has decided that this is important to his legacy."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Cuomo Takes Additional Executive Action on Criminal Justice

Cuomo Schneiderman David Heastie

Gov. Cuomo, middle, with Alphonso David, to the governor's right (Kevin P. Coughlin)

The administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo has begun to implement a series of reforms designed to make it easier for former inmates to win employment, access health care systems, and find housing upon re-entering society.

The administration is moving on 12 recommendations put forward by the governor's Council on Community Re-Entry and Reintegration, a body made up of 28 criminal justice experts including Alphonso David, counsel to the governor; Elizabeth Glazer, director of the New York City Office of Criminal Justice; Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of Correctional Association of New York; and Glenn Martin, head of Just Leadership USA.

Gov. Cuomo has taken a series of executive actions to address criminal justice reform issues this summer; actions that include naming Attorney General Eric Schneiderman as special prosecutor to investigate police killings of unarmed individuals and calling for the removal of 16- and 17-year-olds from adult prisons.

Cuomo has said that he is battling the "perception" of bias in New York's criminal justice system. "When a community doesn't have trust for the fairness of the criminal justice system, it creates anarchy," Cuomo said in July before signing the executive order giving Schneiderman the special prosecutor role.

Speaking with Gotham Gazette, Alphonso David said that the administration is also trying to battle the view held by some former inmates that the state and society have written them off.

"This is a perception issue that we all have to deal with," said David. "If the men and women who have served their time in prison and are released believe there are no opportunities, and unfortunately have experiences that feed that perception - that employers are not interested in employing them; that there are no housing opportunities for shelter; that there are absolutely no services or resources for support - then what we are doing is saying the only option for them is crime. We have to change that perception. Creating opportunities benefits jobseekers, saves taxpayer dollars, and supports public safety."

Several of the actions taken by the administration are designed to lower the impact having a previous conviction has on securing state-funded housing, employment with the state, and occupational licenses.

Another already-enacted change makes it easier for inmates to obtain state identification from the Department of Motor Vehicles once they are released from prison. Advocates say state ID is critical to obtaining services and employment and yet, according to state officials, only 29 percent of people released from state facilities had obtained such ID six months after their release.

Another reform is designed to allow inmates to save money they are sent by relatives so they have some financial stability upon release. Prior to this reform money inmates received went primarily to paying off fines they had incurred. However, paying restitution will remain a priority for any money inmates receive.

The state has also made the formerly incarcerated a focus of supportive housing initiatives and issued guidelines for the construction and operation of new supportive housing for mentally ill inmates returning to New York City. The Cuomo administration has faced mounting criticism from advocates and elected officials, though, for not providing what they see as adequate funding for supportive housing in the city.

The Department of Health and Department of Corrections will team up to enroll departing inmates in Medicaid. Many inmates suffer from hypertension and diabetes and, upon release from prison, frequently seek treatment at emergency rooms rather than regularly seeing a doctor. State officials say enrolling former inmates in Medicaid will better their outcomes and save the state money.

Finally, the state has done away with red tape that has historically made it extremely difficult for returning inmates to live with their spouses and partners even when there was no history of domestic violence. Members of the re-entry council say that the odds of an inmate committing another crime are greatly reduced when they return to live close to their families.

State Senator Gustavo Rivera, a Bronx Democrat who has worked closely with a number of the council members, praised the administration's fast implementation of the recommendations. "These recommendations will tear down barriers that the formerly incarcerated face in finding employment and housing," Rivera told Gotham Gazette. "I'm glad to see these recommendations and to see the governor implement them so quickly."

Rivera said he hopes to see the re-entry council continue its work and noted that he is carrying two bills that could potentially be addressed by the council. One bill would require that the Department of Corrections considers the location of an inmate's family when deciding where they will serve their sentences, as a means to reduce recidivism by keeping inmates as close to home as possible. Rivera is also advocating the state provide college education for inmates, something the Cuomo administration went to bat for in 2014 only to abandon after facing intense political backlash.

"We need both of these things," said Rivera. "Not just because they are the morally correct things to do, but because both will reduce recidivism and save the state money."

Rivera said the council's work has sparked more conversations on the issues and has assisted the legislature in deciding what it should focus on in terms of criminal justice issues. "I hope they continue the conversation because it helps draw the line as far as what can be done by the executive and what needs to be done legislatively," Rivera said.

David, Cuomo's counsel, said that the council will be continuing its work with a focus on how to involve the federal government in the reentry conversation, and on improving access to education and housing. That does not mean, however, that the council will ignore issues like college for inmates, or sentencing issues. An administration official told Gotham Gazette that while the council's focus is on issues former inmates face they will not "ignore opportunities that exist within the prison system."

David said he is happy to hear that the council's work has had an impact on some members of the legislature as there will likely be more criminal justice issues that require legislative action next year. "I do hope these actions advance policies and incentivize the legislature to take actions to improve the lives of all New Yorkers and advance new legislation," David said.

Members of the council say they are ready to get back to work.

"We accomplished our goals this year but our work is far from over," said Council Chair Rossana Rosado in a statement. "As we look to address many more of the systemic barriers encountered in re-entry, we will not lose sight of New York's role as a leader in combating the devastating impact and stigma of second class citizenship that so many of our fellow New Yorkers face, especially men of color."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Guide for the Last Minute Voter


It is a testament to the corruption-as-usual air of the state capital that three or more current incumbents facing challenges in Thursday's primary election could very easily be reelected only to find themselves removed from office or jailed in the coming year.

Are voters paying attention? Will they be sending future jailbirds to Albany, or will they put their faith in people with unfamiliar names who promise change?

Better not to blame the voters — they are likely feeling nauseous from the stink of scandal emanating from Albany, where members of New York’s vaunted ethics panel spent Monday morning jousting with each other over transparency instead of talking openly about what everyone who pays attention to the news already knows.

The scandal they weren’t allowed to talk about in public involves not only the one-time overlord of Brooklyn politics, Assemblyman Vito Lopez, but no less than three of the most powerful men in the state: Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver who has ruled the Assembly with an iron grip for nearly two decades; the second-term comptroller, Thomas DiNpoli, who was appointed by his colleagues after his predecessor Alan Hevesi was jailed for corruption; and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who although up until now was scandal-free, served in the Senate Democratic conference with a number of ethically challenged colleagues.

None of those men face a vote by the electorate this year, but plenty of other scandal-clouded pols do.
Voters won’t just be deciding who to send to Albany. They'll also pick people to build out the structure of their county committees. Voters in Brooklyn will have the chance to strip some power away from Lopez. And a few countywide judicial races will let New Yorker’s decide who gets to dole out justice from the bench.

Here are a few highlights from the dozens of primaries playing out in the city.

State Legislative Contests 

Assemblyman William Boyland of the 55th State Assembly District is the poster boy for Albany corruption and dysfunction. He wrote no bills last year and made up for it by authoring three this year. He has had one of the highest absentee rates of any legislator — and saying he has had some legal trouble would be an understatement.

Boyland was arrested on federal bribery charges in November of last year, three weeks after being acquitted in a different case. He is accused of soliciting more than $250,000 in bribes, some of it which he planned to use to pay legal bills from the previous case.

Luckily for Boyland, he faces six challengers who could easily split the vote and allow him to keep his seat. Boyland will again likely be too busy dealing with legal issues to actually legislate.

Read the Gazette's coverage of the election: Assembly's Boyland Faces Tough Primary Challenge • Five Primary Races Worth Caring About • Family Values at Play in State Senate Race in the Bronx 

Another incumbent, Asssemblywoman Naomi Rivera, has been labeled an “absentee Assemblywoman” by BoroBeat writer Bob Kapstatter, but her record in the community over the past seven years isn’t likely to decide her race against three challengers for the 80th State Assembly District.

Rivera has been the focus of a scandal surrounding her appointment of her boyfriend to a political position despite the fact that he had no qualifications. The scandal keeps deepening and the Bronx district attorney is investigating. But with three other names on the ballot — Adam Bermudez, Estrada Rukaj and Mark Gjonaj — Rivera may just squeak through the primary.
The fallout of the Assemblyman Vito Lopez sexual harassment scandal may help shape the race in the 17th State Senate District, where challenger Jason Otaño hopes to further tie 10-year incumbent and Lopez ally Martin Dilan to Lopez’s sinking ship. Dilan and his councilman son, Erik, have helped Lopez keep a reign on political positions in Brooklyn. 

But Otaño has been accused of being interested in the race only out of political revenge. Rep. Nydia Velasquez faced a primary challenge from Erik Dilan earlier this year, and Otaño’s run is seen by many as retribution.

Otaño admits to initially considering a run for Council and speaks openly of his loyalty to Velasquez. He also had to move into the 17th district to challenge Dilan.
One-term Sen. Adriano Espaillat took a risk this year and challenged long term incumbent Rep. Charles Rangel for his Congressional seat. After a series of headline-grabbing mishaps at the city Board of Elections that saw the race grow tighter than initially reported, Espaillat decided to concede and run for his 31st State Senate District seat.

The man who wants to unseat him is Assemblyman Guillermo Linares — Espaillat’s long-time political rival. Espaillat has attacked Linares for being beholden to real estate interests and, in a recent flyer, charged that Linares “betrayed” Latinos by backing Rangel in the Congressional race. In spite of being criticized for the flyer, the message was tuned to voters in the largely Spanish-speaking district. 

Rangel has endorsed Linares and his daughter Mayra, who is running to fill her father’s Assembly seat. Espaillat seems to be winning the endorsement wars, however, enjoying the support of most of his legislative colleagues and a rare endorsement from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

More Gazette election coverage: Second-Longest Running Show Now on Broadway is Uptown • How the State’s Political Scandals are Reshaping the Primaries
Mike Miller faces a stiff challenge in Queens' 38th State Assembly District to his three-year incumbency from challenger David Adorno, a staffer for Councilman Robert Jackson. Miller has had to familiarize himself with new communities after redistricting reshaped the 38th district. Meanwhile, Adorno is trying to paint Miller as part of the old guard.
Also in Queens, seven-term Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky is battling John Messer, a former project manager for the Economic Development Corp., for the 16th State Senate District that was greatly redrawn during the redistricting process to better represent the Asian population.

Messer is trying to capitalize on the district’s Asian population with campaign material that spotlights his Asian wife. Stavisky has tried to paint Messer as a Republican, noting his  contributions to Republican candidates. Messer has contributed a great deal of his own money to bankroll his candidacy.

Stavisky enjoys a large base of labor support and, like Espaillat, was endorsed by the governor.

Sen. Shirley Huntley may have the worst time getting relected this year than any other scandal-plagued incumbent. Rumors of misdeeds surrounding her nonprofit have lingered for the past two years — giving a viable challenger a chance to prepare for the race in the 10th State Senate District seat in Queens. 

It didn’t hurt Councilman James Sanders chances that Huntley was indicted and arrested earlier this month for committing fraud in a conspiracy to defraud the state, or that The New York Post ran a picture of Huntley in handcuffs on its front page. Huntley should have had a major advantage going into the election, since she was first elected in 2006, has brought home major pork funding to her district and had seniority on a number of committees. 

But her arrest has upended all that, leaving her stripped of her committee positions and her reputation further tarnished. Redistricting also altered the district so that it now includes parts of Sanders’ council district. Sanders has called on Huntley to step down to deal with her legal troubles. She has pledged to fight the charges.
Rodneyse Bichotte has an uphill battle in her challenge for Assemblywoman Rhoda Jacobs' 42nd State Assembly District seat in Brooklyn. Jacobs was first elected to the Assembly in 1978 — that is a whole lot of incumbency and comes with a whole lot of perks: fundraising know-how, name recognition and the rest.

Bichotte has made inroads with the district's immigrant population, but many insiders are skeptical that the young electrical engineer will be able to topple someone with Jacobs’ legacy.

Judicial Contests

Among a handful of noteworthy Democratic primaries for countywide judicial elections, the standout race is in Manhattan for the job of Surrogate Court judge, overseeing sometimes bruising cases involving wills and estates.

The candidates, Barbara Jaffe and Rita Mella, are competing for a 14-year term on the bench. Jaffe is an acting New York State Supreme Court Justice, who has worked on the matrimonial bench. Mella is a county Civil Court judge, a position she won in a general election in 2006.

The New York City Bar Association, which evaluates candidates, has approved both. The Independent Judicial Election Qualification Commission, described as a "network of independent screening panels for judicial candidates," has rated both candidates as "highly qualified."

The New York Times also weighed in on the contest, picking Mella over Jaffe.

"Both contenders are thoughtful and hard-working, and both support court reforms. In a close call, our endorsement goes to Ms. Mella. We are impressed by her solid grasp of the office, excellent people skills and obvious passion for the court’s work," the newspaper wrote.

There are also a number of primary elections for 14-year term Civil Court judgeships in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan.

Party Positions

A group of reform-minded Brooklyn Democrats have mobilized to rival the power of the Kings County Democratic political machine personified only days ago by boss Lopez (until he resigned from the job amidst sexual harassment allegations) . 

The reformers are running candidates for unpaid positions within the party structure in a bid to change it from the inside.

District leaders — also known as state committee persons — are unpaid officials elected every two years to represent each state assembly district throughout the city. While the job is rarely talked about except by party insiders, many politicians start their careers as district leaders. Each district has a male and a female district leader.

One race to watch is in Brooklyn, where District Leader Lincoln Restler, 28, was elected by a slight margin two years ago, and has used his position to rival the Lopez-led establishment. Restler is running for re-election against a Lopez-backed candidate, 65-year-old Chris Olechowski, a Greenpoint activist.

Read the Gazette's coverage of the battle to defeat Brooklyn's political machine.

The position of county committee is sometimes considered a stepping stone for anyone wanting to get involved in the inner workings of local party politics. County committee members are supposed to attend meetings called by the county chair, debate issues on party stances and help to select candidates for higher office.

According to the Grassroots Initiative, a nonprofit that provides information for people considering a run for public office, each election district has two-to-four elected county committee positions. The county committee contains representatives in a county party for about 700-to-1,000 registered voters within an election district. But thousands of these positions are vacant.

The process for running for county committee requires petitioning within the election district. The New Kings Democrats, a Brooklyn political reform club that also backs Restler, has recruited 260 local Brooklynites this year to run for county committee positions, a few of whom will run in contested races.

The polls are open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursday. Don't know if you are registered? Call 1-888-VOTE-NYC

Additional Resources

The city's Board of Elections is the go-to spot for information on voter registration and poll sites. They recently updated their website, too. The city's Campaign Finance Board has a comprehensive list of all the races, plus links to a sample ballot and voter registration lookup.

Good government groups are working to inform voters, too. Citizens Union, the Gazette's sister organization, compiled a voter directory to competitive races. So did The League of Women Voters, which can be found here.

Who Can Vote

If you're a registered Republican, Democrat, Independent or Working Families party member, you can vote. If not, you'll have to wait until the general election. The goal of the primary election is to give party-affiliated voters the opportunity to pick their candidates.

Where to Vote

The polls are located throughout the city, and you can find yours using this handy locator offered by the city's Board of Elections.


David Howard King is Gotham Gazette's state government editor in Albany. Additional reporting contributed by Kamelia Kilawan and Cristian Salazar in New York City. Map links courtesy of the Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center, CUNY.

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