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Opinion

No Path for Cuomo 2020


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


Governor Andrew Cuomo’s unconventional whirlwind State of The State tour has, once again, gotten political pundits pondering the depths of his national ambition, three years out from the next Presidential election.

Much like his father Mario’s legendary Danish Prince act in 1988, as well as his encore performance of 1992, Cuomo the Younger has openly flirted with a White House bid of his own in the past, and with the Democratic bench now resembling an intramural volleyball team, you’d think the chances of Cuomo securing his party’s nomination would be looking pretty good.

Assuming his ever-expanding campaign coffers, currently $21.9 million fat, buy him a third term as governor in 2018, Cuomo would then enter 2020 an automatic top-tier presidential candidate. But what’s his constituency?

Cuomo will likely have to compete with charismatic rock star candidates Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren, maybe even Kamala Harris, in addition to Amy Klobuchar, Chris Murphy, Martin O’Malley, and possibly his own home state’s junior Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, though she says her primary focus is running for re-election next year. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper might also join the fray, among others.

After accepting $18 million in campaign contributions from the financial, real estate, lobbying, and insurance industries, it is doubtful Cuomo’s candidacy would resonate very deeply amongst the fiercely populist, anti-corporate liberal grassroots millennials and other left wing special interest groups that are a natural fit for Senators Warren and Booker.

Meanwhile, others, like O’Malley and Gillibrand, might find common cause with the more centrist New Democrats of the Clinton era – a group that ought to be a key Cuomo demographic.

But why would Iowa caucus-goers cast their vote for a career politician and successor to a nearly 40-year-old political dynasty rather than a fresh face? What does New Hampshire get with Cuomo that they don’t get with someone like Warren? Will African-Americans in South Carolina pull the lever for a 63-year-old Italian-American from Queens if Cory Booker or Kamala Harris is on the ballot?

Since being sworn in six years ago, Andrew Cuomo has largely toed the yellow middle line of caution, displeasing hardcore Democrats enough to draw two primary challengers in 2014, who went on to garner 40% of the vote. Cuomo’s infamous Working Families Party “hostage video” is a stark reminder that Cuomo has struggled to consolidate or inspire the base of his party. “Progressive” efforts since have smacked of desperation as he apparently eyes 2018 and 2020. Most Democrats in New York still don’t trust Cuomo.

And if he can’t inspire the base then how can he expect to emerge triumphant from a Presidential primary rife with younger, more appealing progressive leaders?

On Cuomo’s watch, New York has become a state with the second highest debt in the nation, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data (2014); second highest Medicaid costs, based on a 2015 Kaiser Family Foundation analysis; seventh highest income tax rate; eleventh highest property tax rate; a shrinking population; crumbling infrastructure; habitual spending increases; and 3 million residents receiving food stamps.

Also, lest we forget, the governor’s second term has so far seen the convictions of both former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos on charges of corruption, as well as the arrests of top Cuomo advisor Joe Percoco, former aide Todd Howe, SUNY Polytechnic Institute President Alain Kaloyeros, and seven others amidst a massive bid-rigging and corruption scandal.

Were he to run for President, it seems unlikely Cuomo would be able to escape the ubiquitous scrutiny of his administration’s failed ethics as well as its failure to provide substantive ethics reform to New York government and politics.

Cuomo has made a career out of being a pragmatist. Despite all the buzz from talking heads trying to fill out their round-the-clock coverage, even he would begrudgingly admit that a third term in Albany might very well prove to be the apex of his decades long political career.

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John William Schiffbauer was the Deputy Communications Director for the New York Republican State Committee 2014-16. Last fall, he served as campaign manager for Republican Melinda Crump’s State Senate campaign in New York’s 31st District.

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Broken Windows Policing Will Fuel the Trump Deportation Machine


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City Council Member Rory Lancman, the author (photo: @RoryLancman)


We’re now more than 30 days into Donald Trump’s presidency, and it is already crystal clear that the hostile and offensive rhetoric he used toward immigrants on the campaign trail will be put into practice by his administration.

It was just this week that Trump’s Department of Homeland Security issued new rules that make clear Trump’s plan to deport millions of immigrants from our country, while tearing apart families and communities in the process.

With thousands, if not tens of thousands, of immigrant New Yorkers now at risk of deportation, it is urgent that Mayor Bill de Blasio take real action to protect immigrant New Yorkers from possible deportation under Trump.

The mayor has had no problem in recent weeks talking about opposing Trump and his policies, but when it comes down to it, talk is cheap. Real leadership requires bold action, and immigrant New Yorkers deserve action.

But, here is the reality facing New York City today: Mayor de Blasio’s broken windows policing will now be the fuel for Donald Trump’s deportation machine.

Without important and necessary action from the mayor, New Yorkers who are arrested for minor, nonviolent offenses could now be subject to deportation. That is inhumane and completely contrary to our values.

Mayor de Blasio has the authority to take action immediately to protect immigrant New Yorkers -- without having to wait for the City Council, the State Legislature, or Congress. On his own, the mayor can direct the NYPD to stop arresting people, including immigrant New Yorkers, for low-level, nonviolent, quality-of-life crimes where a civil alternative is already readily available.

Take fare evasion, for example. In 2015, more than 100,000 New Yorkers were stopped by the NYPD for fare evasion. Nearly 30,000 New Yorkers were arrested for “theft of services,” a misdemeanor under the state penal law. The remaining individuals were issued a civil summons for violating the MTA rule against fare evasion, which is not subject to any kind of criminal sanction.

The difference between an arrest and a civil violation for fare evasion is monumental. A conviction for fare evasion could result in jail time, appear on an individual’s criminal record, and staggeringly enough, result in deportation for even documented immigrants like legal permanent residents of New York.

On the other hand, a civil violation is heard by the MTA’s Transit Adjudication Bureau, not a criminal court, and cannot result in jail time or deportation.

As Mayor de Blasio’s broken windows policing continues in this city, it is clear who is being targeted -- 92% of the arrests for fare evasion in 2015 were people of color. Oftentimes, too, if an individual cannot immediately produce an ID, the NYPD will choose to make an arrest, instead of issuing a civil violation.

All told the risk of arrest for immigrant New Yorkers for fare evasion is all too real. And for undocumented immigrants, any interaction with the criminal justice system, even for a minor offense like fare evasion, can result in deportation.

With the stakes so high for so many in our city, it is up to the mayor to determine if he is going to use his authority to protect people, or silently feed into Trump’s deportation machine. Talking about standing up to Donald Trump is one thing, but actually taking action is far more important.

New Yorkers are counting on the mayor to do what’s right and take a real, actionable stand for our values against Trump.

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City Council Member Rory Lancman represents parts of Queens and chairs the Council's Committee on Courts and Legal Services. On Twitter @RoryLancman.

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Building a New Future for Low-Income New Yorkers


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Mayor de Blasio at a ground-breaking (photo: The Mayor's Office on Flickr)


Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced that he will allocate much-needed additional funds to increase housing opportunities for 10,000 low-income families and seniors citywide. The New York State Association for Affordable Housing (NYSAFAH) commends the mayor on providing nearly $2 billion in new housing subsidy for low-income families, which will further alleviate New York City’s housing crisis by maximizing low-income housing production.

Now it is time to put those resources to work by moving past anti-development attitudes that have distorted the conversation around affordable housing for too long.

Affordable housing builders have – with limited resources – already made important strides to house low-income New Yorkers under Mayor de Blasio’s leadership, with more than 13,000 homes built and preserved for households at or below 50 percent of area median income (AMI).

NYSAFAH and its members have long made it clear that we are prepared to do more for New York’s lowest income families and so have continually advocated for the additional resources necessary to build this housing. Every New Yorker deserves access to safe, quality affordable housing and we will not stop until that mission is accomplished.

To understand the real value of this announcement, we must recognize the previous lack of financial assistance available to build housing for very-low and low-income New Yorkers.

The efforts of affordable housing developers have been hindered by federal, state, and local program provisions under which NYSAFAH’s members can build. Additionally, due to the rising cost of land and construction in New York, it has been nearly impossible to build new housing for the lowest income families without the offset of units for higher-earning households in the low- and middle-income brackets. The mayor’s new subsidy will allow developers to specifically address the needs of those making less than $40,000 per year.

Too often critics of smart development have distorted reality by falsely claiming that developers have purposely not paid enough attention to low-income housing. These critics, backed by politically motivated construction unions, have tried to convince New Yorkers and elected officials that the problem lies with developers rather than to acknowledge the obvious lack of resources required to build much-needed homes. The attacks on affordable housing builders have for a long time ignored the fiscal reality of what is required to support low-income families and maintain their homes with a fixed rental income stream.

Another lesser known fact is that affordable housing developments remain under long-term affordability agreements for 25 years or more, despite the reality of costly changes to market conditions and utilities. With the recognition by Mayor de Blasio that there is need for more subsidy, we can continue to take steps to unlock the full potential of low-income housing development.

We must move beyond the political posturing and rhetoric, and every single stakeholder must work in partnership to positively transform the lives of low-income families across the five boroughs. NYSAFAH members are ready to do just that – and we hope that others will join us in building a better future for every New Yorker.

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Jolie Milstein is president and CEO of the New York State Association for Affordable Housing (NYSAFAH).

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Jobs of the Future Come From The Right Education


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Mayor Bill de Blasio (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


In his State of the City speech last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke of the need to create 100,000 good jobs for New Yorkers in the coming decade. He defined “good jobs” as those which pay more than $50,000 a year and talked about encouraging various sectors of the economy, like technology, that have average salaries that pay even more. To his credit, the mayor talked about creating good jobs that don’t necessarily require a college degree, like construction, but he also recognized the important role advanced education plays in attaining many well-paying technology-based jobs that are at the core of our globalized economy.

I think that’s great, but if the jobs to be created are to be held by New Yorkers – meaning children from every community who are educated in our city’s schools, whether they are native-born or immigrants – his administration must do more to prepare our city’s children for the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) jobs of the future.

Sadly, according to a report by the New York City Comptroller’s office, which relied on Department of Education statistics, “only about one-fifth of the City’s new college-degreed entrants to its workforce...are products of the City’s school system.”

Critics of the mayor’s speech suggest that he can do little to actually promote the creation of such jobs for New Yorkers. I disagree. The city needs to spend more money where it will do the most good to prepare our children for the high tech jobs of the future, and that means spending more on STEM education in our public schools.

A dramatic example of the underfunding of STEM education in our city is Brooklyn Technical High School, where I head the Alumni Foundation. Brooklyn Tech receives only 87.6 percent of the annual funding required under the city’s fair funding formula. That means it is shortchanged about $1 million a year. While Tech ranks consistently in the top schools in our nation and our state, this chronic underfunding is short changing six thousand of the best and brightest students of our city. The school simply cannot offer the number and variety of advanced placement courses that the students could and should be taking.

Even more troubling is the city’s failure to keep the school’s physical infrastructure - its elevators, boilers, plumbing, and electrical systems - up to date. Some of it is simply too old to be reliable and some, like the electrical, is not distributed properly throughout the school to service the needs of modern classroom computerization. The alumni recently commissioned a professional study of the building, which occupies a square city block. It showed that it would cost about $300 million to recapitalize the 80-year-old building and make it into a modern vertical campus. To replace the building would likely cost three times as much.

Brooklyn Tech has a long history of educating the children of the city’s working families – whether New York-born or from other countries – and preparing them for the world of work. Admittedly in my day, nearly 50 years ago, we learned how to operate metal lathes and pour molten lead in the foundry. Today’s modern curriculum allows students to major in many engineering fields as well as quantitative finance, law and medicine (That’s right, Brooklyn Tech has majors like a college.) Brooklyn Tech accounts for a large percentage of all the AP courses taken in the city, but at the same time, it also graduates hundreds of students each year who have industry-recognized certifications needed to get a job.

If the city wants to prepare New Yorkers for the good jobs that exist today, and in the future, it should increase funding for STEM education to 100 percent of the fair funding formula, not only at Brooklyn Tech but at other city high schools – and not only the eight test-in schools like Tech, Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, but others across the city committed to educating our children in the critical STEM curriculum.

For Brooklyn Tech, that also means the city should embark on a ten-year program to rehabilitate its building. Not only would this properly prepare today’s students for the jobs of the future, it would also create high-paying construction jobs for thousands of our city’s workers.

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Larry Cary is a Manhattan lawyer and president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation.

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The Role New York's Nonprofits Play in Construction Safety


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Construction safety rally at City Hall (photo: @Local79NYC) 


If it seems like there has been more attention on construction safety in the city recently, it’s for good reason. According to the New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health, between 2011 and 2015 the number of construction incidents that resulted in injury or death more than tripled. In the last four months, five workers have been killed on job sites, including one last weekend. It goes without saying that each of these preventable deaths is a tragedy that should push us into action.

A solution many have proposed is better job training for our city’s construction workforce. The City Council is currently debating construction safety legislation that would require anyone working on a large job site to first complete an apprenticeship program. The specifics of whether this legislation will pass and how it would be implemented in New York are unclear, particularly since the de Blasio administration does not support it.

But one thing that is clear – and has largely been ignored – is the important role that nonprofits have always played in training our city’s workforce, with a heavy focus on New York’s lowest income neighborhoods.

Along these lines, NYCHA leaders are right to speak out for expanding training opportunities for tenants looking to start careers in construction. Speaking from my own personal experience leading a workforce training program that has graduated nearly 100 low-income New Yorkers from all across the city, I can say that when it comes to job training, a modest investment can go a long way.

We spend seven weeks teaching students the basic skills necessary to start careers in construction – everything from the very basics of working on a job site to handling electric wiring and operating power tools. The majority of our trainees, who mostly come from NYCHA and other subsidized housing, are able to secure employment shortly upon graduating, in part because of our direct entry agreement with some of the city’s biggest trade unions.

What’s more, the trainees hone their skills on the types of projects that are often neglected, such as long-overdue Sandy recovery efforts in Staten Island and accessibility modifications on homes in Brooklyn and Queens occupied by low-income seniors who can’t afford to install ramps and lifts on their own. It’s a win-win for communities all across the city.

We are far from the only nonprofit with a holistic approach to job training and an emphasis on uplifting low-income communities. Other nonprofits, like Green City Force, Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW), and Pathways 2 Apprenticeship, have developed programs specifically tailored for low-income New Yorkers seeking jobs. In fact, nonprofits have always played a leading role in creating a more diverse workforce, supporting communities often overlooked when it comes to hiring.

So while City Council debates legislation to curb construction accidents, I urge them to consider supporting and partnering with nonprofits that are already pursuing this work nimbly and effectively.

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Kimberly George is Executive Director of Rebuilding Together NYC.

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The Best Way to Ensure New York Election Integrity? Modernize!


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Governor Andrew Cuomo votes (photo: The Governor's Office on Flickr)


The Trump administration has made a series of unsupported claims about voter fraud that strike at the heart and integrity of our democracy. Beyond potentially undermining voters’ faith in our electoral system, these claims distract from a very real issue: New York’s voter registration system is badly in need of modernization.

Last month, President Trump repeated his unsubstantiated claim (originally tweeted in November) that as many as 5 million votes were illegally cast in the 2016 election and that an investigation would be forthcoming. Later, the White House press secretary suggested the investigation could focus on states where the Trump campaign did not invest significant resources, like California and New York (which Hillary Clinton won by a margin of 1.74 million votes). Then on Feb. 5, the administration announced that Vice President Mike Pence would head an investigative commission into 2016 voter fraud.

Let’s look at the basic evidence about these explosive claims.

First, election administrators from around the country say there is no evidence to support White House claims about the 2016 elections. Here in New York City, the executive director of the Board of Elections recently told the City Council that he was not aware of any voter fraud in the city.

The reality is that in-person voter fraud is virtually nonexistent. Numerous studies of the issue have shown only a handful of instances where fraudulent ballots were cast. One such study of more than 1 billion votes cast found exactly 31 incidents of voter fraud, a rate of less than 0.00001 percent.

Under former President George W. Bush, the attorney general instructed the Department of Justice to investigate voter fraud. After five years, U.S. Attorneys did not uncover any organized voter fraud effort and brought only about 100 successful prosecutions, many stemming from individuals who “mistakenly filled out registration forms or misunderstood eligibility rules.” Even states that have attempted noncitizen voter purges or aggressively pursued criminal investigations have been unsuccessful at uncovering anything more than isolated instances of unlawful voting. (It is worth noting that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has indicated he will not support funding an investigative commission because he has not seen sufficient evidence that fraud occurred.)

Despite this absence of evidence, lawmakers in some states have used voter fraud claims as a pretext to restrict voting access.

Another key element of the administration’s claims is the phenomenon of “double registration,” which occurs when a voter is registered in two (or more) states. Though it is illegal to cast multiple ballots, being registered to vote in two states is not illegal. In fact, double registration is fairly common: a 2008 Pew study found that one in eight voter registrations are inaccurate or invalid. This is because people often move or buy property in different states, such as when college students register in the state where their school is located.

The 1993 National Voter Registration Act requires states to maintain current and accurate lists and includes important safeguards to protect voters from erroneous removal. To maintain up-to-date lists, election administrators compare the voter rolls to other government data maintained by the Social Security Administration and the Post Office. More recently, states have begun comparing their rolls against lists in other states through exchanges like the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a practice endorsed by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration.

Some states are making strides to update their technology to get more eligible citizens onto the voter rolls and to keep the rolls accurate, but New York’s system is woefully out-of-date. Our paper-based system leads to typos, names missing from the poll books, and other errors which prevent eligible voters from casting a ballot that counts. Even worse, hundreds of thousands of voters have been illegally purged from the rolls, stripping those New Yorkers of their voting rights.

This is a moment for New York to take leadership on voting rights and use technology to increase access to the ballot. Common-sense reforms like the Voter Empowerment Act, or the New York Votes Act that was introduced by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman last week, would ensure that every voter can easily register and participate in our elections. Modernizing our voter registration system is the best way to ensure the integrity of our elections – not another search for voter fraud that experts and experience tell us does not exist.

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Amy Loprest is executive director of the New York City Campaign Finance Board and the city’s NYC Votes voter engagement campaign.

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Beware of 'Common Sense' Arguments Against the Millionaire's Tax


Speaker Carl Heastie

 Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (photo: The Governor's Office)


Higher taxes on New York’s wealthy are on the table in three places for this year’s budget negotiations. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Budget for 2018 includes an extension of the so-called "millionaire’s tax”. The state Assembly has decided to see the governor and raise him with their proposed “gazillionaire’s tax”, while Mayor de Blasio has proposed a “mansion tax”.

The Democratic-controlled Assembly favors them all. The Republicans, who control the state Senate, are against all three. But the governor exerts a great deal of control over the New York State budget process and holds most of the cards. And while the governor is the one proposing the extension of the millionaire’s tax, he doesn’t appear to support the others. So is there any reason for progressives to believe that the mansion tax, let alone the gazillionaire’s tax, might pass now?

For starters, taxes on the wealthy are broadly popular with voters. Just like raising the minimum wage, even Republican voters tend to favor these types of taxes, as do the wealthy themselves irrespective of party affiliation. A recent Siena Poll showed New Yorkers in favor of extending the millionaire’s tax by a margin of 74 percent to 23 percent, with 61 percent of Republicans on board along with 81 percent of Democrats.

On the other hand, Republicans are offering arguments that have worked before. They say that New York is already over-taxed, and that taxes on the high earners will just drive them to leave the state and take their job-creating business with them. Corporate-backed “non-partisan” groups take the same position, as Governor Cuomo often does as well.

If Republicans can be said to believe in just one thing, it is that progressive tax policies will drive the rich away and impoverish all who remain, bereft of “job creators”. From Ayn Rand and Galt’s Gulch, to Ronald Reagan and the Laffer Curve, to ALEC and Stephen Moore today, the argument that higher taxes will make the rich work less or move to some promised land of lower taxes is one of the most consistent pieces of Republican philosophy. But are any of their arguments actually grounded in observable reality? 

Republicans rarely cite any empirical research to back their claims. Why should they when it’s just “common sense”? But does reality back up the “common sense” of the GOP? The answer is definitively “no”.

Study after study after study has shown no significant pattern of wealthy people moving from high-tax to low-tax states, and no noticeable change in the net migration rates of high earners between US states in the wake of changes in their relative tax rates. And there is no evidence that either hours worked or income earned by high earners overall is reduced meaningfully by higher tax rates.

Republicans can always find anecdotal evidence that high taxes will drive or are driving the rich from high to low-tax states. But one rich person who moves from Manhattan to Miami proves nothing. All kinds of people, rich and poor, move from New York to Florida every year. And all kinds of people move from Florida to New York. The net effect is tiny, and made up for by people moving to New York from other states and other countries.

New York’s millionaire’s tax first passed in 2009. As you can see here, here, here and here, the primary argument used against it was that rich people were going to move. And when the millionaire’s tax was renewed in 2011, the same arguments were made, including by Governor Cuomo himself.

With the better part of a decade’s worth of data, were the “common sense” mongers of the Right actually correct? No, no and no. New York’s rich haven’t flown off to lower tax states. Property values at the upper end of the New York real estate market have risen unabated. All their warnings have come to naught.

So Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Assemblymember Herman Farrell, armed with observable fact and measurable experience, have introduced the gazillionaire’s tax. It extends the logic of the millionaire’s tax with a series of four additional tax brackets starting at $5,000,000 and adding at most 1.5 percentage points of incremental tax on incomes over $100,000,000 per year. That’s not a typo, and yes there are multiple households in New York with annual incomes above $100,000,000, and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s isn’t the only one.

The objections to the gazillionaire’s tax are no different than the objections to the millionaire’s tax, and they are just as certain to be completely wrong in the real world. Republican arguments against higher taxes are premised in deeply faulty views of both human nature and economics. The richest of the rich don’t wake up every morning and say, “Hmmm, I will work today if my tax rate is 47 percent, but I will go back to sleep or move to Florida if it’s 48.5 percent.” We are talking about people who could never spend all of the money they have already earned. They keep working as hard as they do for a variety of reasons, like relative success, prestige, and actual enjoyment in their work, with take-home pay being just one item on a long list.

Arguments against the mansion tax are essentially the same but even weaker. They don’t even have “common sense” to fall back on. Where’s the common sense in stating that a 2.5 percent tax surcharge on proceeds in excess of $2 million will have any effect on home sales? Are people not going to move when it’s time to move because of it? Of course not. It’s just a wealth tax applied on a transactional basis.

Massive, long-term, structural trends -- trends that many Trump voters are incidentally rebelling against -- have been and will continue to drive the relative success of America’s, and the world’s, largest and strongest cities. Clusters of like-minded people, of competitive college graduates from all over the country and the world, will continue to grow and prosper. “Trends” that major industries, like financial services, are going to move to low-tax states are perennially flogged by the Right. But they never actually happen.

So the next time you hear someone say, “You can’t raise taxes on the rich in New York, they already pay too much and they’ll just move to Texas or Florida; it’s just common sense”, you should say, “Yes we can raise taxes on the richest New Yorkers, all of the data over many years and many studies has shown definitively that they aren’t going anywhere, so you can stick your common sense in a hot, humid, boring low-tax state with low-wage jobs.” Now that’s just common sense.

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Gus Christensen is a financial consultant to non-profits and start-ups, as well as a former investment banker and political candidate.

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AG Schneiderman Should Improve Our Democracy by Supporting Open Primaries


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Attorney General Schneiderman (photo: @AGSchneiderman)


Last week, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman stood before a crowd of New Yorkers gathered at Federal Hall and announced the introduction of a comprehensive reform bill aimed at expanding voting rights in New York. I applaud his leadership on this issue but he misses a critical point.

New York has some of the worst elections laws in the country. Among other backwards anti-voting provisions, New York has no early voting (unlike 37 states), a partisan board of elections, excuse-only absentee balloting, antiquated voting systems and holds multiple primary elections on different dates. Voters had to change their party registrations more than a full six months before the April 2016 presidential primary, before all the candidates were even identified.

The massive impediment to voting in New York is not administrative and it is by no means passive; it’s the intentional denial of the voting rights of 3.2 million independent and third-party New Yorkers because of our system of closed primaries, in which only registered voters from the two main political parties can cast a ballot for their party’s candidate. To put that in perspective, that is half a million more voters than are registered with the Republican Party in New York. It's also more than the total number of registered voters in the entire states of Vermont, North Dakota, South Dakota, Delaware, and Montana combined. Why does New York State believe that it has the right to dictate its citizens’ conscience?

Like those 3.2 million other independently minded New Yorkers, I am denied my basic rights as a citizen in our democracy. I was shut out of the 2016 primary elections, one of the most consequential elections in my lifetime. Why? Because I chose not to join a political party in order to exercise my right to vote. That’s not right and the 2016 primary elections perfectly illustrate why. On October 9, 2015 (the date by which New Yorkers had to change their registrations in order to vote in the primaries), few had heard of Bernie Sanders and even fewer believed that Donald Trump would become the Republican party nominee. By April, both had gained popular support among their party's voters and energized the electorate, many of whom could not cast their ballots for them. These facts demonstrate that the ability to vote in a primary is far more significant than the ability to vote in a general election.

New York’s primary elections are not simply private party nominating contests, a deceit that is often used to justify voter disenfranchisement, and which intentionally obfuscates the fact that primaries are publicly run and paid for with millions of dollars of taxpayer money. New York’s primary elections are administered in public buildings and run by publicly paid for employees on publicly owned machines. They differ from the general election in one key respect only, that they exclude 3.2 million voters and prevent millions more major party voters from exercising real choice in voting.

It’s no wonder New York has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country. Only 19.7 percent of registered New Yorkers cast a ballot in last April’s presidential primary, the second-lowest voter turnout among primary states after Louisiana. I fully support the attorney general’s work to improve our system of voting in New York, but how can we have a serious conversation about voting rights in New York when we ignore the fact that currently in New York, 33 percent of millennial voters, 33 percent of Asian voters, 20 percent of Latino voters and 15 percent of African-American voters who don’t belong to one of the two major political parties are shut out of voting in primary elections.

Accordingly, I brought a lawsuit challenging New York’s failing system of primary elections. While my lawsuit does not directly challenge New York’s closed primary system (because I believe that discrete question is one for the legislature), it does specifically challenge the constitutionality of that provision of the election law requiring a change of party affiliation more than six months in advance of a primary election – likely at a point in time when a voter will not have had any meaningful opportunity to make up her mind. If the right to vote is to mean anything, that right must be meaningful. While the attorney general is my opponent in these proceedings, he fully supports jettisoning the provision of the election law that I challenged, and essentially recognizes its unconstitutionality. Ironically, AG Schneiderman’s first public announcement of his voting reforms took place on December 6, 2016 at the very same moment – literally – that his office was opposing my efforts to open the system up.

Nonetheless, in his remarks last week, the Attorney General said that more people voting is good for our political parties and that anything that expands voting rights is a good thing. I agree, and encourage him to embrace open primaries and further open our democracy in New York State.

It is not debatable that every eligible New Yorker should have the right to vote for who they want in every election.

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Mark Moody is a New York City-based attorney in private practice.

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The Time Is Now to Increase City Human Services Contracts


Urban Pathways rally outside city hall

Urban Pathways members rally outside City Hall (photo via Urban Pathways)


In May 2015, my fellow Urban Pathways Board Member Gary Belsky rightfully recognized Mayor Bill de Blasio’s fiscal year 2016 budget investment in the human services nonprofit workforce. The investment -- a 2.5 percent cost of living adjustment and an $11.50-per-hour wage floor, coupled with a subsequent City-funded $15 minimum wage -- rewarded a long neglected workforce instrumental to moving vulnerable New Yorkers and the City forward.

However, as we approach the fiscal year 2018 budget, the mayor has more to do. It is now time for him to follow these laudable staff investments with a 12 percent increase in the city’s human services contracts themselves. Contract increases will act in concert with the enacted workforce investments. They will ensure we have human services organizations to employ the workers now deservedly earning a higher wage. (In 2013, nearly one in five city human services providers operated in the red, an indicator of potential closure.)

Human services nonprofits serve the most vulnerable in our city, about 2.5 million New Yorkers each year. They provide early childhood education and after-school programs, run food pantries, provide mental health services, house persons experiencing homelessness, and care for the elderly, among many other community services. Urban Pathways, for example, assists homeless adults in the New York City metropolitan area through a continuum of services and supportive housing.

Increases will enable us to provide ample training and affordable benefits to our staff. Years of flat funding from the city amid the rising costs of health care have complicated our ability to remain fiscally sound. This year, Urban Pathways endured another double-digit increase in our health care costs for our over 300 employees. Flat funding forces us to split these double-digit increases with our employees, resulting in increased co-pays and obligating us to modify our health insurance carrier.

City contract increases will also reverse the tide of consistently underfunded contracts. In the past decade, the city has granted only one increase to its human services contracts. This has yielded barebones human services programs that should do more than merely subsist. Those whom we serve deserve that.
A consistent challenge Urban Pathways faces in operating our facilities for alternatives to shelter for homeless adults -- the Olivieri Drop-In Center, Hegeman Safe Haven and Travelers Safe Haven -- is inadequate city investment in the form of an underfunded Other Than Personal Services (OTPS) line. OTPS constitutes a significant line in the budgets of our Drop-In Center and Safe Havens. We draw on it to feed the 500 clients we annually serve at these programs so they have access to healthy food amid their paltry incomes. We use it to ensure our staff receives benefits and development to counter high turnover in our sector. We also rely on it to upgrade technology and make capital repairs so infrastructure remains sound. Our Safe Havens, like any other buildings, break and require maintenance.

As a board member, I with countless others, invest time, money and personal equity in human services organizations across the city. We proudly do so because we recognize the value of these organizations. They are vital to the individuals receiving the services, our communities and the city overall. We also take our fiduciary duty seriously, and recognize that the challenges are growing and threaten the sustainability of these organizations.

The time is now for the mayor to complete his work and enact a budget that includes a 12 percent increase in the city’s human services contracts. Let’s ensure human services organizations and their workforce can develop and run programs to their fullest capabilities.

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Kelley Gott has been an Executive Board Member of Urban Pathways since 2015.

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New York Reasserts Its Historic Leadership as a Haven for Immigrants


Governor Cuomo

Governor Andrew Cuomo (photo: Kevin Coughlin/The Governor's office)


New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has joined the chorus of criticism against President Trump’s ban on refugees and other immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim nations. “I never thought I’d see the day when refugees who have fled war-torn countries in search of a better life would be turned away at our doorstep," the governor said in a statement following the president’s executive order. "We are a nation of bridges, not walls, and a great many of us still believe in the words 'give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses...' This is not who we are, and not who we should be.”

Mario Cuomo strikes a resounding chord
Andrew Cuomo's support for immigration and diversity echoes the sentiments of his father, former Governor Mario Cuomo, who served from 1983 to 1995. The elder Cuomo was the first Italian American elected as governor of New York State. He had no tolerance for prejudice and worked tirelessly for human equality and dignity. A champion of recognizing merit regardless of sex or race, he appointed the first Black, the first Latino, and the first two women judges to the state's Court of Appeals.

In talking about immigration issues, Mario Cuomo often recalled the story of his parents, Andrea and Immaculata Cuomo. Penniless and unable to speak English, they had come to the United States from the Italian province of Salerno, south of Naples -- Andrea in 1926 and his wife a year later in 1927. After spending three years in Jersey City, they moved to the Queens neighborhood of South Jamaica, where they opened a grocery store and raised their family.

By that time, there were thousands of Italian Americans in New York. But across the nation, there was lots of prejudice against Italians for their religion (mostly Catholic), speech (most learned English, but often it was not perfect) and culture (they retained some old country ways but assimilated into their new land and were proud to be Americans). Congress enacted laws in 1921 and 1924 to cap total annual immigration and impose numerical quotas based on immigrant nationality that favored northern and western European countries. The laws were directed against Italians and others from southern Europe. “The old belief in America as a promised land for all who yearn for freedom had lost its operative significance," with the passage of these laws, wrote historian John Higham in his book “Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925.” It had been replaced by a "new equation between national loyalty and a large measure of political and social conformity." By the time Mario Cuomo's parents arrived, a few years after the restrictive legislation, the flow of southern and eastern European immigrants had been greatly reduced.

National immigration policy continued to change and became more open in later years. But Mario Cuomo, born in 1932, remembered the sort of prejudice his parents faced and fought it his entire career. For him, it was a personal matter as well as a matter of public policy.
In a 1992 speech at New York University, Cuomo decried "nativist sloganeering and parochial fear-mongering that's been aimed at every group of new immigrants throughout our history." He recalled his parents' lives. "I thank God the country didn't say to them 'we can't afford you right now; you might take someone else's jobs, or cost us too much,'”, he said. “I'm glad they didn't ask my father if he could speak English, because he couldn't. I'm glad they didn't ask my mother if she could count, because she couldn't...I'm glad they didn't ask my father what special skills he brought to this great and dynamic nation because there was no special expertise to the way he handled a shovel when he dug trenches for a sewer pipe. I'm glad they let him in anyway."

Cuomo worked to rally the Democratic party for the cause of immigrants. "We speak for the minorities who have not yet entered the mainstream," he said in his address to the 1984 Democratic convention. "We speak for ethnics who want to add their culture to the magnificent mosaic that is America."

Andrew Cuomo continues a New York tradition
Speaking at the 2016 Democratic National Convention last July, Andrew Cuomo sounded a similar note. "The Trump campaign is marketing a great distraction, using people’s fear and anxiety to drive his ratings," he told the delegates. "Their message comes down to this: be afraid of people who are different — be afraid of different religions and different colors and different languages. Stop immigration and they believe the nation will automatically rise. It’s not right, it’s divisive, it’s delusional, and we must expose the truth to the people of this nation. Unless Republicans are all Native Americans, then they are immigrants too."

In a speech this past November, Andrew Cuomo asserted that he and New York will fight against the spread of anti-immigrant fear. Like his father, he put it in personal terms. "If there is a move to deport immigrants then I say start with me,” he said. “I am a son of immigrants. Son of Mario Cuomo, who is the son of Andrea Cuomo, a poor, Italian immigrant who came to this country without a job, without money, or resources and he was here only for the promise of America."

Cuomo intends to make good on his promise to protect immigrant rights. He has ordered his counsel's office to explore legal options to help anyone detained at New York airports to ensure their rights are protected. Promising more action, on January 29 he said, “As New Yorkers who live in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, we welcome new immigrants as a source of energy and celebrate them as a source of revitalization for our state. We will ensure New York remains a beacon of hope and opportunity and will work to protect the rights of those seeking refuge in our state."

New York -- Land of promise
The fight over refugees and immigrants is likely to be a spirited one. The Trump administration promises to strengthen restrictions and ramp up stringent vetting of foreigners who want to enter the country. New York State seems likely to insist on continuing its historical tradition of welcoming newcomers. New York has led before and will again this time. It is a natural role for our state, particularly since New York City is where more immigrants have entered the nation over the years than at any other place.

Immigration policies varied over the years, but many of the immigrants have had one thing in common - aspirations for a better life. "More than anything else, the immigrants come with dreams -- dreams that hunger might become a thing of the past, dreams that restrictions and discrimination might be replaced by rights, and dreams that poverty might be traded for security and opportunity, if not for oneself, then at least for one's children or grandchildren," writes Andrew Anbinder in his new book “City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York.” He continues, "These dreams characterized the New York immigrant story from the arrival of the first Dutch settlers through the heyday of Five Points, the Lower East Side, and Little Italy. Those same dreams dominate the lives of New York's newest immigrants, whether they are Chinese or Guyanese, Jamaican or Dominican, Mexican or Ghanaian. The story of immigrant New York is truly a story of dreams."

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Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne's latest book is The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State's History, published in 2015 by SUNY Press.

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State Legislators from New York City Should Not Be Bagging the Bag Fee


plastic bag rally

Elected officials and advocates rally outside City Hall (photo: @bradlander)


New York City is trying to do something about plastic bags, but my state Assemblymember is attempting to undermine the city’s ability to do so. He, along with many of his NYC-based colleagues, are acting against their own constituents’ interests. This is a normal New York State versus City story, but in a moment where the stakes of politics are high because the federal government’s threats are real, this battle between city and state feels more offensive and disheartening than ever.

The story today is that New York City passed a law last year that requires most shops to charge a five cent fee for each carryout bag a person takes when shopping. However, in January, the state Senate passed a bill to say, “Sorry New York City, we don’t like that bill so we’re going to kill it.” The state Assembly, rather than deny the Senate outright, chose to punt and delay the implementation of the city’s law for one year. As of publication, Albany’s compromise would require a new City Council to vote on the carryout bag fee a second time, after different Council members are elected for a 2018 term.

The state Legislature's actions are a structural problem, a political problem, and a problem of spirit in these times.

Structural problem: The state constitution has a problem, because it does not stop the state Legislature from having so much influence over the way the city governs itself. Even though the state constitution provides us the right to make our own laws through the so-called home rule provision, the Legislature is very good at getting around it. Lawmakers often use the language, “In cities with a population of more than one million...” as the preamble to a law intended to impact one city. There is only one city in this state that falls into the category of more than a million people. Although this current block of the bag bill might not be constitutional, the state Legislature knows they have a lot of precedent telling them that they might be able to do this. We could change the state constitution to protect the city’s home rule powers, but not with the Legislature guarding this power so jealously.

Political problem: The state Senate is very confusing. There are more Democrats than Republicans, by one senator. That senator, a Democrat named Simcha Felder, spends his time with the Republicans and does not work with the Democrats. He is proud to be a Democrat in name only. There are also a group of eight Democrats called the Independent Democratic Caucus (IDC) who work with the Republicans, giving the Republicans an effective supermajority. They appear to hate this bag bill, and so they easily gave the Republicans in the Senate the power to undermine New York City’s desire to take another step toward a better environment. Most of the IDC is made of Senators who represent the city.

Spirit of resistance problem: We need to take every stand we can to resist the current White House. This means that our state should be standing proud and together to show the federal government that we care about better environmental law and policy. Seeing Assembly members from the city fighting with the City Council by effectively wagging their legislative finger is not the message we should send right now. I want to see my state legislators prioritizing their energy by improving our healthcare laws here, our worker protections here, and our environmental laws here. All of these policies are under threat or attack from the federal government.

This is why I can’t understand why my Brooklyn Assemblymember, Walter T. Mosley has not publicly stated his opposition to this bill. The state Legislature should support New York City and work together right now for the good of us all. Every environmental advocacy group in the city supports this bill. And most of the time, my Assemblymember supports the progressive legislation that his constituents expect of him. Every New York City-based state Legislator should be with their constituents on this right now and show their spirit of resistance in all forms.

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Richard Semegram is a tenant lawyer, his Twitter handle is @richagram

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