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5 Primary Races Worth Caring About


Not alluring enough to grab the attention of most voters, primary elections are often ignored by all but the most politically engaged.

But with financial scandals, rivalries and allegations of bribery in the background this year, the state’s legislative primaries, being held on Sept. 13, are definitely worth paying attention to.

We’ve picked the top five worth caring about — as much for their drama as for their political gravitas.

The Rivalry: 31st State Senate District

Sen. Adriano Espaillat wasn’t planning on running for his old state Senate seat, but his challenge to U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel didn’t go the way he wanted.

Now Espaillat faces his longtime political rival Assemblyman Guillermo Linares in a race for the 31st State Senate District. The history between the men dates back to the early 1990s, when Linares defeated Espaillat for a seat on the City Council. It’s likely that election reform will be on Espaillat’s mind should he be reelected; a number of irregularities took place at the Board of Election during his challenge to Rangel.

Both Linares and Espaillat take pride in their Dominican roots and have been active on workers’ rights. Espaillat enjoys the support of a number of Linares' Assembly colleagues and most of the Senate Democratic conference. Not every state Senate Democrat has lined up to back Espaillat — retiring Sen. Tom Duane served on the Council with Linares and has endorsed him. Meanwhile, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has gotten involved in fundraising for Linares.

The Missed Opportunity? 55th State Assembly District

William Boyland should be in the fight of his life for his 55th Dstrict Assembly seat.

The assemblyman beat bribery charges only to be quickly indicted again on federal bribery charges after prosecutors say he solicited cash from an undercover FBI agent. Boyland also managed to go a full year without sponsoring any legislation and has one of the highest absentee rates of any legislator. Boyland is the poster boy for machine politics and Albany dysfunction.

However, Boyland faces eight challengers in the primary. It’s unlikely all of them have mounted full campaigns, and having that many names on the ballot will likely split the vote.

The Boy-Toy Scandal: 80th State Assembly District

The Democratic incumbent in the 80th State Assembly District is Naomi Rivera, the daughter of a storied Bronx political family. Her main challenger is real estate agent Mark Gjonaj, a favored son of the borough’s Albanian community, as well as a commissioner of the Taxi & Limousine Commission.

What was supposed to be a lukewarm contest became a whole lot more interesting in recent weeks after a certain New York tabloid began detailing allegations of how Rivera had hired an ex-boyfriend to run her taxpayer-funded nonprofit.

More allegations of nepotism followed, which were then followed by reports that the state ethics commission was investigating Rivera’s actions and that the city’s Department of Investigation was also looking into her hiring practices. Rivera has denied the allegations, but the storyline has stuck.

In Office, In Handcuffs: 10th State Senate District

In conversations earlier this year, a number of those involved in the Senate Democrats' efforts to reclaim the senate majority made it clear that they expected a few “new faces” in the conference.

Although not made explicit by them, the fact that they accepted the idea that a number of their sitting colleagues would be defeated in the primary very easily could have come from concerns lingering over a number of their candidates.

The 16th State Senate District was very likely on their list of districts.

Reports about investigations into Huntley’s nonprofit popped up periodically for months until a few weeks ago, when Huntley held a weekend press conference to announce that she expected to be arrested. Huntley has been charged with aiding a conspiracy to defraud the state and forging documents sought in an investigation.

Huntley’s campaign seemed to already be in trouble as they announced a number of endorsements they had not actually won. Meanwhile, Councilman James Sanders is a strongly financed candidate. The state redistricting process actually made a good section of Sanders’ council district — where he is well known — a part of Huntley’s newly drawn district.

New District, New Legislator? 16th State Senate District

Sen. Toby Anne Stavisky has spent 13 years in the Senate representing Queens — and, if it's up to John Messer Stavisky, she won’t be there for one more year.

The pair are running for a new seat redrawn under the redistricting process to ensure strong representation for Asians. Stavisky’s family had controlled Stavisky’s old seat for decades but she would have had to primary against Sen. Tony Avella to keep it, thanks to redistricting.

The new district is made up of 53 percent Asians and does not include the Bay Terrace Area — a section of Queens that has traditionally been Stavisky’s stronghold. Messer has touted his connection to the Asian community and accused Stavisky of ignoring the concerns of the Asian population in Queens. Messer has also donated hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own cash to his campaign.

Stavisky, however, has the backing of the establishment, including Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten GIllibrand, as well as the majority of the city’s Asian politicians. Messer ran against Stavisky in 2010 and finished third.



How the State's Political Scandals are Reshaping the Primaries


ALBANY, N.Y. — On Sept. 13, 2012, when voters go to the polls to pick candidates in the state’s legislative primaries, it is possible that the status quo will prevail.

Incumbents who rely on the support of the system they control, buttressed by the largesse of major businesses and wealthy donors and the general apathy of a disengaged electorate, may find themselves coasting to an easy victory against upstart challengers. Or not.

A series of sordid scandals gripping the New York State Legislature over the past few weeks could lead to a surprisingly different outcome.

Just over a week ago, it was revealed that the Assembly cut an over $100,000 publicly-funded deal with two women who claim to have been sexually harassed by one of their most influential colleagues, Brooklyn power broker Vito Lopez. The 71-year-old Democrat was stripped of his seniority in the Assembly, his committee chairmanships, his staff funding, and is not allowed to employ anyone in his staff under the age of 21. The fallout continues everyday and is now likely to lead to an investigation of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s handling of the case.

Also enmeshed in her own scandal is Queens Democratic state Sen. Shirley Huntley, who was arrested on federal fraud, forgery and conspiracy charges last Monday in connection with a scheme that bilked the state of $30,000 in cash directed to the nonprofit she founded.

Huntley’s opponent in the Democratic primary, City Councilman James Sanders Jr., says people have told him he should be celebrating.

“People were saying how I should be happy in her declining fortunes. I think it is actually sad to see an elder in handcuffs," he said. "Little kids really look up to us. We should never do anything to break the hearts of children.”

Two other Assembly members up for re-election have been caught up in political drama: In the Bronx, Assemblywoman Naomi Rivera stands accused of giving cushy political jobs to her lovers; and, in Brooklyn, Assemblyman William Boyland, got off one set of bribery charges only to find himself indicted again after prosecutors say they caught him seeking bribes to pay off his legal bills.

None of the political office holders involved in the scandals responded to requests for comment for this article. A call to Huntley’s number was greeted by the echoing sound of a dial tone after introductions were made.

Challengers See Hope in Incumbents' Scandals

While Huntley’s arrest was dramatic and the accusations against Rivera arousing, Brooklyn boss Lopez was such a powerful figure in New York politics that the scandal could carry over to his allies.

That is certainly what Jason Otaño hopes. Otaño, who served as general counsel to Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, entered the race against Sen. Martin Dilan knowing that the incumbent was backed by the Lopez political machine. Now that the Lopez scandal has blown up, Otaño hasn't been shy about underscoring the connection between Dilan and Lopez.

He called the Dilan political clan which includes the senator and his son Councilman Erik Dilan "a wholly owned subsidiary of Vito Lopez."

"When Vito says 'jump,' the Dilans say: 'How high?'" Otaño claimed.

Otaño is an ally of U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez — a political opponent to Lopez and Dilan. “I looked at the entirety of the political structure in North Brooklyn and planned [on] running for City Council," he said. "But I felt we weren’t doing enough for the reform movement."
Erik Dilan challenged Velazquez in a primary earlier this year and she is backing just about all the candidates running against Lopez’s favorites.

Dilan’s office did not return calls requesting an interview.

Dilan faces the same trouble most of his Senate allies do — their record of legislative achievement. Democrats squandered a chance to enact major pieces of their agenda when they held the majority and, since they lost it in 2010, they have been pushed into irrelevancy by the Senate Republicans, the Independent Democratic Caucus and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who avoids them like the plague. Cuomo’s avoidance of them could have to do with the taint of scandal. But Otaño sees himself as part of the solution to the Senate Democrats' problems.

“I believe it is no secret to anybody that Albany is a mess," he said. "The Legislative process is really at issue. My opponent refused to work toward legislation that really benefits constituents who are priced out of their homes, Latinos who have been displaced. That has all been enabled by loopholes in legislation.”

The failure of Democrats to champion stronger pro-tenant legislation has haunted them since Sen. Pedro Espada chaired the housing committee and, in the view of most housing advocates, intentionally blocked pro-tenant legislation to cow tow to his major donors in the real estate industry. “Someone in this district should be a leader on these issues,” Otaño said. And Otaño has the backing of Tenants PAC, an organization that has mobilized a number of its members to knock on doors for the candidate.

Sanders also believes his opponent didn’t do enough as a member of the Democratic caucus to deal with housing issues and help her district. “The real issues are gun violence, the lack of jobs, the great recession caused havoc [in] our community and predatory lenders have focused on our community," he said. "The people of this district have been failed by government on all levels.”

Cleaning Up the Democratic Party

Sanders says the state Democrats need a makeover. “I am part of the clean team.” Otaño also thinks the next generation of politicos are ready to clean up the “mess.”

“I do believe we have a great young crop of individuals involved in public service who are ready to take the machine to task — people like Jesus Gonzales and Lincoln Restler,” Otaño said.

Restler has been challenging Lopez’s power on the county level, while Gonzalez ran for the Assembly seat vacated by Ed Towns last year.

Gonzalez, a community organizer, faced Ed Towns' daughter and Raphael Espinal, who worked in the Council office of Erik Dilan, and had a number of staffers working for him who were also on the payroll of Martin Dilan. Of course, given the Dilan family's association with Lopez, Espinal almost assuredly had the Brooklyn power broker's backing — and won the race soundly. But Gonzalez made such an impression that he was encouraged to run for Council in 2013.

“Young, insurgent, upstart” was a phrase used to describe now-incumbent Sen. Gustavo Rivera two years ago when he challenged and defeated scandal-ridden Sen. Pedro Espada — the man behind the 2009 Senate Coup.

While Espada was eventually convicted on federal charges for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the publicly-funded health clinic he ran, he lost his seat to Rivera long before those charges were brought.

This year, Rivera is facing a primary challenge from Manny Tavarez. The primary is largely seen in political circles as payback from the camp of Rep. Charlie Rangel for Rivera’s backing of Rangel’s primary opponent, Sen. Adriano Espaillat.

Tavarez didn’t return calls for an interview request. Rivera refuses to comment on his opponent’s motivations, but he says he is excited to have a challenger.

“I don't know why the gentlemen is running, but I welcome it as a chance to talk about what we’ve done and get out there in the community," he said. "I've been available, accessible, so I think people know me.”

Rivera says he is tired of hearing about what Democrats could have done when they were in the majority. “That is a tired argument," he said. "This is a completely different conference.”

It’s unclear how much damage the recent scandals will do to incumbents in the primary and Democrats in the general election.

“Everyone has seen that movie where the good guy is fighting the vampire and he knocks 'em down and turns his back and the audience is screaming ‘You gotta drive a stake through its heart!’ Well, I plan on driving a stake through this election,” says Sanders. “We are going to continue knocking on doors. The real threat is apathy. People say all politics is corrupt. If you think none of the above are worth voting for, then you should run.”

Groups Seek to Pressure Cuomo on Campaign Finance Reform


Photo by 401(K) 2012, used under Creative Commons license.

ALBANY, N.Y. — It was during his State of the State address earlier this year that Gov. Andrew Cuomo decried New York's campaign finance system as beholden to corporate interests.
“For most offices, New York State's contribution 'limits' are substantially higher than those of any other state that imposes limits,” Cuomo said.  "Further, existing contribution limits for corporations are riddled with loopholes. In short, the state's campaign finance laws fail to prevent the dominance of wealthy contributors and special interests.”
Cuomo went on to prioritize putting tighter limits on campaign contributions and gradually phasing in a New York City-style campaign finance system with publicly-funded campaigns.

But since January 2011, the governor has accepted $1.4 million in corporate donations, drawing from a small group of donors for the maximum amount of money, according to his most recent campaign filing for the period ending in July.

Progressive advocates are desperately hoping that Cuomo follows through on campaign finance reform this year in a way that he didn’t on his promise to support independent redistricting and to veto legislators' gerrymandered district lines.
The groups pushing the issue include a who's who of good government groups, labor coalitions and other factions -- Common Cause, Citizen Action, The New Roosevelt Initiative, The Working Families Party and The Brennan Center -- under the banner of Fair Elections For New York.  

But the coalition is moving cautiously, cognizant that the issue will be difficult to move through the Legislature and because of lasting doubts about Cuomo’s commitment to “progressive” or "politically contentious" issues.

 “The fact that Andrew knows how to work the old culture well is a relief to voters. But that era is about past and now we must judge him not by his progressive statements but by his progressive accomplishments," says Bill Samuels, of the New Roosevelt Institute.  

Last week, Samuels' reform group called on Cuomo to give up his corporate donations in a statement, citing the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizen United case that has opened the national elections to a flood of corporate donations.  “Such a step by the governor would be of national significance,” the group said.

Yet there has been no response from Cuomo so far.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers have stopped talking about campaign finance reform.  

Samuels says it doesn't look to him as if Cuomo even bothered to try to sell the Legislature on campaign finance reform.
“At some point it got pushed to the back burner and he never went out to sell it," Samuels says. "Having said that, the good news is there is a chance that it will be brought up for the 2013 session. He didn’t have to bring it up, in theory."

Cuomo's office didn't respond to an emailed request for comment.

During a July 10 Red Room news conference, Cuomo acknowledged the difficulty in pushing the issue in Albany.

"The challenge with campaign finance is it's not high enough on the priority list for the people," Cuomo said noting that legislators “aren’t hearing about it.”

The governor said he expected to have to get out and sell the issue to the public. “To get something done, for me, in this town, I need to leave this town, wage a whole education effort and get the issue up to the top of the list."

Cuomo told reporters that he imagined legislation could be ready after the elections — possibly even before legislators are scheduled to return to session in January.

But Cuomo has yet to launch a public education tour on campaign finance reform.
The state’s campaign finance system is notoriously lax: It allows individuals to give up to $60,800 to candidates running for statewide office. New York has the highest limits of any state that has limits. In California the limit is $26,000 to gubernatorial candidates per election year and in Ohio the limit is $11,543 for state wide candidate per year.

Most other states regulate how much individuals and corporations can give to a party but in New York a loophole allows basically unlimited donations to so-called "housekeeping accounts," which can then be useed to boost candidates.

New York State’s system is in stark contrast to that of New York City’s, where restrictions on donations are much tighter and candidates can qualify for public matching funds.

But before Cuomo pushes on campaign finance reform, he has to deal with his own credibility issues head-on, progressives say.

Earlier this year, it was revealed that Genting, a casino gaming group, gave $2 million to the Committee to Save New York — which has launched massive advertising and lobbying campaigns to support Cuomo’s agenda — during the time he was crafting and considering casino gambling legislation and proposed a gigantic gaming facility with Genting in Queens.

"I understand the general idea that there’s too much money in the political system," Cuomo said of the controversy with a Q&A with reporters at the National Puerto Rican Day Parade in Manhattan.

He then added: "I’ve worked with groups that represent the biggest companies in this state, the biggest labor unions in this state, distinguished citizens in this state, to create jobs, and that’s what it’s all about.”

Bill Mahoney, of the New York Public Interest Research Group, says that Cuomo is a master of taking advantage of the current system.

“He certainly has been exploiting the current system better than any other candidate,” he said. “He is getting the most money out of a small pool and he has exploited every possible loophole.”

Mahoney also notes that labor groups have been donating significantly less to Cuomo than they did to his predecessors.

That may be because of the governor’s support of new pension tiers and his hard bargaining at the contract table. Regardless, Mahoney says it has resulted in Cuomo squeezing even more money out of a smaller group of corporate donors.
Mahoney recently issued an analysis of Cuomo’s donors that shows one man and his companies gave Cuomo a total of $250,000 in the first 18 months of the election cycle. That man is Leonard Litwin, a New York City based luxury apartment developer who in 2006 ranked 374 on Forbes list of the top 400 richest people.

NYPIRG found that at least 102 donors gave Cuomo more than $40,000 a piece. Cuomo has $19.3 million on hand.

“The appearance in and of itself of a conflict of interest is very damaging to reform,” Samuels says.

Karen Scharff, of Citizen Action of New York, doesn’t agree with Samuels.

“In general, I think as long as the system is what it is you shouldn’t have to unilaterally disarm but you do owe the voters a strong determination to change  the system,” Scharff says.
Samuels says he hasn’t seen Cuomo expend any “political capital” on campaign finance reform with the same gusto as other issues, such as same-sex marriage.
Cuomo has the backing of the myriad groups aligned with Fair Elections New York, and of NY Lead — a group of very influential and wealthy New Yorkers including former Mayor Ed Koch, the son of George Soros, Barry Diller and Chris Hughes.

They are pushing Cuomo in the same way that Samuels is — by appealing to his ego and political instincts by telling the popular governor that acting on the issue especially in the light of all the national attention Citizens United is getting — will cast him as a reformer, not only in New York but nationally.
But Koch isn’t enthusiastic about the chances for reform on the state level.
“There isn’t as much interest as I hoped there would be,” he says. “It’s always hard to get the Legislature to support something that would give their opponents equal funding.”
As for Cuomo acting on the issue to get acclaim on a national stage, Koch says it sounds like a nice idea.

“That’s a very good thought, I hope it works but I’m not aware of any action,” he says. “To me the most important thing would be a constitutional amendment.”

Mahoney is equally as cautious as Koch. “For two years, the governor has said a lot of great things about campaign finance reform but he hasn’t done anything, but I don’t think he is the kind of politician who would say things just to score points. There hasn’t been a bill yet and that is the true indicator of how serious the effort will be," Mahoney says.
Mahoney warns that there is no half measure on campaign financing reform. “Public finance wouldn’t work without closing the loopholes,” he says Currently, corporations and individuals can donate unlimited amounts of money to party’s house keeping accounts.
Meanwhile, as advocates wait for Cuomo to take action, different plans are being touted in Albany designed to provide alternative funding for the public financing of elections so that the public wouldn’t reject the proposal out of hand because it uses taxpayer funds.

But Mahoney says it is too soon to talk about them. “I’ve heard proposals tossed around but without hearing the governor and other leaders’ positions it’s hard to gauge what is serious.”
Scharff says that the cost would likely be about “less than one percent of the state budget” and the gain would strongly justify the expense.

“Campaign finance is fundamentally necessary for us to get fair policy, to get a fair minimum wage to get a fair tax system, for us to own our elections,” she says.
She says she is unaware of the governor’s plans, but she thinks a special session, one that is rumored to be scheduled for December and will likely include a vote on raises for legislators, is a perfect opportunity to pressure legislators and to bring reform to a vote.

“They owe it to us pass something that gives us fair elections,” she says.
It seems unlikely that there be any pledges collected this year, that the issue of campaign finance will be used a political litmus test like during the election season of 2010 when Koch collected signatures of legislators who promised to support independent redistricting only to later oppose it.

The Republican Senate Campaign Committee issued a message to supporters blasting the push for public funding for elections, calling it a cash grab by the broke Senate Democrats.

Senate Democrats have presented campaign finance reform packages of their own and have been pushing Cuomo on the issue.

Democrat Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was the only one of Albany’s three leaders to have attached his name to a piece of campaign finance legislation, but it didn’t get support from Cuomo or Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who has openly opposed public financing of elections.

Sen. Liz Krueger, a Democrat who has supported the various campaign finance reform packages over the years, says that despite her hopes it is not apparent to her that a deal on a major reform package is imminent.

“You really need two of the three players to really want to do it, and they have to either embarrass the third guy or give him something that he wants in trade for it,” she says.

She also says a slow build of public education will be needed to get voters to pressure their legislators.
As for the election season, Krueger says she doesn’t think a presidential election year will lend itself to a major push on a statewide issue.

“There are no statewide elections for us, so the big policy issues remain with feds,” she says.
But she says the story of the 2012 Presidential campaign will be the money that was spent by PACS thanks to the Citizens United decision and that that will give someone — perhaps even a certain ambitious governor — the chance to make hay of the issue.  

“He could be there to be the hero,” she says.

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