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Alleging Lies, Molinaro Seeks to Have Cuomo Attack Ad Pulled

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Screenshot of Cuomo campaign ad

In two advertisements issued this week, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s campaign went after Republican gubernatorial nominee Marc Molinaro, comparing the Dutchess county executive to President Donald Trump and alleging that he has participated in pay-to-play politics, with both ads full of accusations that Molinaro and his campaign vehemently denied.

Molinaro’s campaign aimed to disprove Cuomo’s accusations, which came just a few weeks before the state primary election, in which Cuomo is being challenged by Cynthia Nixon, and hardly a week after Molinaro released his own TV ad disparaging the governor for corruption scandals shrouding his administration. Nixon and Molinaro have been levying some of the same attacks against Cuomo.

In an email to members of the media, the Molinaro campaign confronted Cuomo’s allegations, comparing the “fabricated” nature of the first advertisement, which ran on Facebook and New York television networks, to being “as egregious as Russian disinformation campaigns.”

The first ad, which ran last week, juxtaposes pictures of Molinaro to those of Trump while a voice narrates, “Donald Trump is attacking New York, our values and rights. And now his puppet Marc Molinaro is running for Governor.” As the video ticks off Molinaro’s alleged opposition to women’s reproductive rights and marriage equality, his “A” rating from the NRA, his support of Trump’s new tax plan, and his refusal to release his own tax returns, it also checks off boxes for both Trump and Molinaro on being, among other things, “Anti-Choice” and “Anti-LGBTQ Rights.”

But, Molinaro’s campaign holds that this information is largely inaccurate, and well beyond the norms of forgivable political messaging that may bend the truth.

Molinaro argues he is no “Trump mini-me” as he has repeatedly said he did not vote for him in the 2016 presidential election, as Gotham Gazette and other news outlets have previously reported (Molinaro says he wrote in former Rep. Chris Gibson). On the other hand, the Molinaro campaign raised the point that Cuomo has accepted over $60,000 in past donations from Trump while Molinaro has received no donations from the president in this campaign. Yet, Molinaro does appear to share a number of broader principles with the president of his own party, and when asked he has provided few specifics in terms of differences with Trump or reasons why he did not vote for him.

On the issues of reproductive rights and marriage equality, Molinaro has repeatedly said that he sees both as settled law and he would not be looking to overturn or repeal anything. For example, in a prior interview with Gotham Gazette, Molinaro said on abortion that he believes in “preserving life [...] but I accept that there are certain situations where individuals need to be able to make that decision, but I also accept that this is settled law in the state.” And, although he voted against same-sex marriage during his time in the state Assembly, Molinaro has said that his position “evolved,” as did the positions of heralded Democratic politicians such as President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and even Andrew Cuomo.

“If the language in the ad were accurate,” the Molinaro campaign email states, “Andrew Cuomo opposes marriage equality.” Additionally, while Molinaro has previously received “A” ratings from the NRA, his campaign alleges that he doesn’t have a current rating and that he also refuses to take NRA campaign contributions. At the same time, Molinaro has continued to criticize Cuomo’s gun-control SAFE Act, and appears open to tweaking it if elected. He does not regularly bring it up as a campaign issue, however.

When it comes to the accusations of acting as a “Trump mini-me” and supporting Trump’s tax overhaul that Cuomo has vehemently opposed, Molinaro’s campaign cited reports in which he criticized the recent federal tax changes and that recognize his own tax returns release. “I for one won’t support a tax plan that finances a tax cut for Roy Moore’s Alabama on the back of middle class New Yorkers,” wrote Molinaro in Hudson Valley Press. Although Cuomo’s ad accuses Molinaro of refusing to release his tax returns, the ad itself references a WXXI story that acknowledges that Molinaro and his wife released their tax returns for 2017, although Cuomo challenged Molinaro to release his tax returns for the past 10 years, a gesture the governor called “basic transparency” and that Molinaro seemingly eschewed.

“Andrew Cuomo’s ad is every bit as dishonest as what the Russians ran on Facebook’s networks in 2016 and beyond,” said Katherine Delgado, a spokesperson for Molinaro’s campaign, in an emailed statement. “Facebook’s credibility is on the line here; it needs to check the false Cuomo smear ad against the actual facts of Mr. Molinaro’s record and make a determination on whether to keep Mr. Cuomo’s misinformation on its platform.”

The Molinaro campaign officially filed a complaint with Facebook on the Cuomo ad, citing it as a false news story, according to Delgado. Facebook did not respond to Gotham Gazette for comment on any review of the ad that might be underway.

The second Cuomo advertisement, which aired on Tuesday, paints the Dutchess county executive as a participant in pay-to-play politics by highlighting more than $5,000 in campaign contributions from county contractor Tinkelman Brothers Development Corporations, which subsequently received hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax breaks from the county and hired Molinaro’s wife, Corinne Adams, as the company’s director of marketing. The ad also reiterated that Molinaro has yet to release his tax returns for the time he was a state Assembly member.

“Return the dirty money and come clean. What are you really hiding?” the ad asks of Molinaro.

In response to the most recent advertisement, which has an ad buy in the six figures according to the Cuomo campaign, Molinaro called Cuomo “a classless buffoon who chooses to attack a woman who is six-months pregnant and no longer works at the company he is referring to,” in a phone interview with the Daily News. “I really suggest to Andrew that he stick with me, because my wife is way out of his league,” he said.

“Hello, kettle? It’s the pot,” Molinaro told the Daily News in response to the pay-to-play allegations, attempting to remind anyone interested that Cuomo has been the subject of a number of pay-to-play allegations.

“Like Donald Trump, Molinaro is the king of cheap shots — but when it comes to any scrutiny of his record, he has a full-blown meltdown,” said Cuomo campaign spokesperson Abbey Fashouer in an emailed statement. “These are the facts: Molinaro has been busy taking the nepotism page from Trump’s playbook and giving tax breaks to companies with county contracts. New Yorkers already rejected one Donald Trump – and they won’t be played for fools by his mini-me.”

Both of these advertisements come a week after the Molinaro campaign put out its own 30-second TV ad that framed the governor in the context of recent corruption scandals, which saw federal corruption convictions of Joseph Percoco and Alain Kaloyeros, two former top associates of Cuomo, as well as a guilty plea from former Cuomo ally Todd Howe and multiple Cuomo donors.  

“Andrew Cuomo’s top advisers are going to jail for stealing your tax dollars, and, now, he’s under investigation again in another pay-to-play scam,” a voice narrates in the ad, referencing an ongoing investigation of Crystal Run Healthcare, a healthcare company based in the Hudson Valley that donated $400,000 in campaign contributions to Cuomo and later received millions in state grants.

After its airing, the Cuomo campaign filed a cease-and-desist letter to the subsequent broadcast stations in an effort to have the ad, which the campaign reportedly called “false, cheap and nasty,” pulled from the air. The Cuomo campaign alleged that it is false because Cuomo himself is not said to be under investigation. However, the ad concluded its initial run on August 22, according to the Daily News.

by Chelsey Sanchez, Gotham Gazette
@chelseynsanchez  @GothamGazette

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Hochul Asserts Previously Unmentioned Role in Anti-Sexual Harassment Laws

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Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul (photo: The Governor's Office)

Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul on Wednesday said she was “very much involved” in the recently signed laws aimed at combating sexual harassment in the workplace — a claim that comes in stark contrast to all prior indications that the legislation had been determined exclusively by four elected men and no elected women.

“I was used as a resource, as someone who has lived this experience personally, which is why I’m so passionate about standing up for women,” Hochul said while debating her Democratic primary challenger, City Council Member Jumaane Williams.

“I was there helping chart the course that the state ended up adopting,” she added, responding to a question from Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max, who moderated the debate hosted by Manhattan Neighborhood Network.

Following the debate, Hochul told a group of reporters that her “views were taken into consideration” in the legislation, adding context to the apparent debate revelation, which came after months of criticism aimed at Governor Andrew Cuomo, Hochul’s running-mate, and legislative leaders, over a lack of public hearings and female input on the legislation.

Throughout the race and the debate, Hochul has fended off criticism from Williams — an insurgent running to the lieutenant governor’s left on most issues while promising to reinvent the position if elected — who argues her role has in practice been merely a ceremonial ribbon-cutting one. She said Wednesday that not only has she had a hand in a variety of policy work, but that ribbon-cuttings should not be denigrated, given that they show something positive happening that benefits constituents.

Although the state’s new anti-sexual harassment laws have been heavily touted by Cuomo, Hochul and their allies, there has been ongoing criticism that they were passed without the direct input of elected women or harassment victims. Instead, the behind-closed-doors negotiations involved four elected men: Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, and Senator Jeff Klein, then-leader of the now-defunct Senate Independent Democratic Conference, who has been accused by a former staffer of forcibly kissing her.

In the lead-up to those final negotiations before the larger state budget deal of which the anti-harassment bills were a part, Cuomo’s office had said that Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Democrat and the only woman leader of a legislative conference, would be included in the talks on harassment prevention. But she was not. Amid criticism, neither the governor nor anyone from his team publicly indicated that Hochul had been involved.

Chief among the critics of the process and product was the Sexual Harassment Working Group — a new coalition of seven women who have alleged facing sexual harassment or abuse while working in state government. One of the women, Rita Pasarell, told Gotham Gazette on Thursday that she had “not heard of Lieutenant Governor Hochul's involvement until her recent statements.” Pasarell said she “would like to hear more about what specific parts of the law she advocated for and how she believes these will help workers.”

“I would also like to know if she has spoken to any victims who have reported sexual harassment at work, including government workers,” she added. “While the 2018 laws make some progress, there is much room for improvement.”

She said, extent of Hochul’s role in the process aside, it would be no substitute for a “transparent public vetting for legislation.”

“We need to create victim-informed laws by listening to workers across industries, in public hearings,” Pasarell said.

For her part, Senator Stewart-Cousins, who was briefed on discussions but not included in them, said in June on the Max & Murphy podcast that it was “strange” to her that she did not have a seat at the table when the legislation was being drafted.

“As the only elected woman leader, and the only elected woman leader that has led a conference in the history of New York State, during this #MeToo moment, you would have thought you would have been able to get in a room and at least let her say something,” she continued. “Never happened.”

This line of criticism prompted pushback from some in the governor’s office, who noted that there were female aides who had a hand in crafting the sexual harassment legislation.

“Actually, I am in the room-along w other top female aides to the Senate & Assembly,” Melissa DeRosa, Cuomo’s top aide, tweeted in late March, attempting to throw cold water on the assertion that no women were involved in the legislative process. “It’s sad, though not entirely surprising, that even when a woman like me is in the room helping to lead the charge, some only see a room full of men.”

There was no mention of Hochul.

Asked for more explanation the day after the Hochul-Williams debate, Haley Viccaro, a spokesperson for Hochul, described the lieutenant governor’s role in informing the anti-sexual harassment legislation.

"The Lieutenant Governor often meets with women across New York and discusses issues important to them. Of course in the #MeToo era, sexual harassment is a topic that's unavoidable,” she said Thursday in a statement. “As she said, she was used as a resource as someone who has lived with this experience personally, which is why she is so passionate about standing up for women all across this country who have been silenced by men who have abused their power.”

Viccaro went on to say that Hochul was “most focused” on ensuring that the sexual harassment policy applied to both public and private employers.

“The Lieutenant Governor feels strongly that all New Yorkers deserve to have a safe and harassment-free workplace, and she has been very vocal that there must be a standard that reflects our seismic societal shift to a culture that treats men and women equally," she said.

In a statement, Dani Lever, a spokesperson for Governor Cuomo, echoed the sentiment expressed by the lieutenant governor during Wednesday’s debate.

“The Lieutenant Governor’s leadership and partnership in advocating for causes important to women across the state has been indispensable,” she said, “including her strong advocacy for extending the state’s sexual harassment model policies to private employers which will make workplaces safer for all New Yorkers.”

Max & Murphy Podcast: Intense Queens Senate Primary Centers on Delivering for Immigrant Communities

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

August 29, 2018 - Max & Murphy Podcast: An Intense Queens Senate Primary with Jessica Ramos and Senator Jose Peralta

podcast ramos perlata 277Jessica Ramos is challenging state Senator Jose Peralta in the Democratic primary, in a Queens district with a large immigrant population. Ramos, then Peralta joined the program to discuss their candidacies and to take questions from the hosts and listeners. At the center of the race are issues like the Dream Act, subway service, small business survival, and more. Also at play is Peralta's membership in the now-defunct Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group of eight senators that formed a ruling coalition with Republicans in the Senate.

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

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Promising Efficiency and Performance, Molinaro Releases MTA Turnaround Plan

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Marc Molinaro on the subway (photo: @marcmolinaro)

Republican gubernatorial candidate Marc Molinaro said that his plan to fix the state’s ailing subway system is “not sexy,” but argued Tuesday that he will fix the MTA by doing away with what he said is Governor Andrew Cuomo’s approach, marked by uncontrolled spending, prioritizing “vanity projects” over key improvements and frequent fighting with Mayor Bill de Blasio.

For Molinaro, the chief problem facing the subway system is not lack of funding, but out-of-control costs allowed by bad management. His “Back on Track” plan, released late Monday, diagnoses the problems and puts forward solutions, emphasizing reducing costs and putting an end to what the campaign says are inefficient work rules that slow repairs.

“The MTA is falling victim to waste, fraud and abuse, and we as a state must confront the high cost of labor,” he said at a Tuesday news conference outside City Hall, citing among others the Manhattan Institute and the Regional Plan Association as sources for ideas in the 30-page plan, which also supports the recently-released “Fast Forward” plan put forth by New York City Transit Authority President Andy Byford. “If spending more money on the MTA was the answer, we'd have the best transit system in the world,” Molinaro said.

To cut costs, Molinaro is proposing lengthening work windows, which would mean longer subway service closures, with the aim of allowing for more efficient, less costly repairs.

And should Molinaro, a former New York Assembly member and currently the Dutchess county executive, be elected governor in November, the days of the state’s governor and its largest city’s mayor fighting over funding would be over, he said.

“I'm not going to argue with the mayor of New York, because the state's responsible for the MTA,” said Molinaro, adding that he would work “hand-in-hand” with de Blasio to do what it takes to fix the subway.

Asked by Gotham Gazette to break down how his plan would fill the over $30 billion in funding needs for subway system repairs, Molinaro declined to discuss specifics, instead pointing to the written plan. In it, Molinaro calls for using value capture — a mechanism that captures the increased tax revenue from rising property prices as a result of new government investment, such as a new nearby subway station.

Molinaro’s plan vaguely suggests improving the state’s economic development programs to raise revenue with “pro-growth” initiatives. Underscoring his attention to driving down costs, one of the planks under “potential revenue streams” is cutting costs of what he labels Cuomo’s “vanity projects.” At the news conference, as in his plan, Molinaro said he supports congestion pricing, though “certain boroughs need consideration” on costs of driving into the city, he said. In the plan, Molinaro says that while a version of congestion pricing, which would add a fee to cars entering the core of Manhattan, is “part of the future of the MTA,” it would need to be coupled with “major reform efforts to decrease operations and construction costs.”

Among those cost-cutting reforms are reining in health care costs, overtime pay and pensions for construction workers on MTA projects. On construction costs, Molinaro said he would welcome new technology and crack down on overstaffing on projects.

While he focused his attention during the news conference on what he views as mismanagement of MTA-related matters by Cuomo, he also embraced the fundamentals of the city’s newly passed effort to give discounted Metrocards to low-income New Yorkers. Specifically, Molinaro proposed using state funds to expand the city’s new “Fair Fares” policy to make eligible for the program individuals who earn incomes of less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line. The current policy will give half-price metrocards to the 800,000 New Yorkers below the federal poverty line — which is roughly $25,000 for a family of four.

He also proposed assessing transit desserts and expanding subway lines to underserved areas, though he did not specify which areas are most in need of service.

Molinaro on Tuesday took several shots at the governor, likening him to “some sort of deranged Wizard of Oz” due to what he said is the governor’s habit of misdirection from the core issues at hand facing the beleaguered subway system. The governor has continued to claim that the city is responsible for the MTA, even though he appoints most of the members on the MTA board — six of 14 — and its top leadership. And though the state typically contributes billions of dollars toward MTA capital plans, most of the funding that goes to the MTA comes from city residents who use its railways, subways and buses.

Abbey Collins, a spokesperson for Cuomo’s campaign, in a statement called Molinaro’s campaign a “joke,” said he lacked credibility, and conflated Molinaro’s criticism of the governor’s MTA management with attacks on its employees.

“While Trump mini-me Molinaro has been busy copying and pasting the MTA’s own plan into his policy book, it is Governor Cuomo who has appointed world-class senior leadership, secured a dedicated revenue stream, enacted the first phase of congestion pricing and charged the MTA to undertake the Fast Forward plan,” she said. “It’s clear Molinaro has exactly zero ideas of his own and instead is resorting to Trumpian assaults on the hardworking men and women who make the subways run.” The president of the state AFL-CIO, which has endorsed Cuomo for re-election, sent out a statement also criticizing Molinaro for “vilify[ing] working people and their unions.”

“He would rather blame workers for subway repair costs than recognize New York's highly trained and skilled workforce is the only thing that keeps our state moving forward,” said New York AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento of Molinaro.

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, Senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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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, Senior 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

zephyr teachout with voters

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

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