Gotham Gazette

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Expansion Of Voting Rights To Immigrants May Not Hold Up Under Legal Scrutiny


NEW YORK — What would likely be the nation's largest expansion of voting rights to immigrants under a proposed city law may not hold up under an expected deluge of legal scrutiny.

Hundreds of thousands of immigrant New Yorkers could be added to the voter rolls if city lawmakers approve the bill that would extend to them the same right to cast ballots in local elections as citizens.

The bill, which has been re-introduced into the City Council amid a national debate on immigration policy, got its first official hearing yesterday.

"Voting rights legislation is American legislation," said Queens Councilman Daniel Dromm, who first sponsored the bill in 2010 and is backing it once again.

He called the bill an opportunity to enfranchise an estimated 850,000 documented and tax-paying immigrants in the city that otherwise have little say in how the city operates.

"We should be the leader on this," Dromm said in an interview before the hearing. "We should set the tone for the rest of the nation."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is largely seen as immigrant-friendly and has backed other Council immigration reforms even when they strained relations with federal authorities, has questioned the bill's legality and has said he would veto it.

"Mayor Bloomberg believes voting is the most important right we are granted as citizens and you should have to go through the process of becoming a citizen and declaring allegiance to this country before being given that right," Bloomberg spokeswoman Evelyn Erskine wrote. "That being said, this bill violates the State constitution and the administration does not support it."

Dromm has secured 34 sponsors for the non-citizen voting bill — more than enough to beat a mayoral veto.

But Bloomberg is not alone in his skepticism over the legality of the bill. Scholars, too, are taking a hard look at the proposal, and some don't think it can survive court challenge.

Political science professor Stanley Renshon, of the City University of New York, has written extensively on the movement for non-citizen voting, including proposals for New York City. But he said the bill before the Council is "questionable."

Every state in the U.S. has laws on the book that prohibits documented immigrants from voting in state and national elections, Renshon argued. As such, he said that the legal precedent allows for the reasonable conclusion that voting rights are intrinsically tied to citizenship.

He said, however, that the courts haven't had many opportunities to explicitly rule on non-citizen voting rights on a local level. In his writings for the Center for Immigration Studies, Renshon cited judicial precedent that "states have the power to impose reasonable citizenship, age and residency requirements on the availability of the ballot," at least according to the U.S. Supreme's Court take on the 1969 case Kramer v. Union Free School District No. 15.

Morris Kramer of Nassau County filed suit against his local school district for barring him from voting in local school district elections. Kramer had no children and did not own or rent property because he lived with his parents.

Regardless, the Supreme Court found at the time that New York State and its education law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The majority said that Kramer met what it considered to be prerequisites for voting rights, including citizenship.

The president of the city's Board of Election, Frederic Umane, also questioned whether such a law would be constitutional during a hearing of the commissioners on April 30, as well as the costs that would have to be borne by the BOE to create new voter registration forms, institute new training for poll workers and printing of new materials. However, Umane said at the meeting of the board's commissioners that they should "take no position on the law," except to underscore the costs associated with expanding voter rolls.

Non-citizen voting isn't foreign to the United States. From its founding up until the 1920s when citizenship requirements became widespread, nearly two dozen states and federal territories and local jurisdictions granted immigrants the right to vote. A 1996 federal law prohibits non-citizens from voting in federal elections. 

However, as recently as 2002, the city allowed documented immigrants with children in the city's public schools could vote in their community school board elections. Chicago still offers the same right to non-citizen parents, and have since the late 1980s.

And a number of small towns in Maryland and some jurisdictions in Massachusetts already offer non-citizen voting rights, and various countries offer the same albeit with range of restrictions and requirements.

Dromm and supporters of the bill couch their argument for the legislation on the same grounds that other groups do when it comes to voting rights: those who pay taxes deserve proper representation.

The bill is primarily aimed at those documented immigrants who intend to stay in New York for the long term, Dromm said, and is limited to local elections. Even if City Council Speaker Christine Quinn lets the bill go to a vote this year, the bill wouldn't be implemented in time for the 2013 elections.

Dromm said the bill would largely benefit green card and student visa holders, but its language only requires that qualified immigrant voters spend at least six months in the country before they can vote.

In May 2011, Baruch Survey Research conducted a survey about immigrants and immigration issues, during which pollsters found that a plurality of respondents had no issue with non-citizen voting.

The study found that half of the more than 1,200 adults asked would favor a law that granted voting rights to non-citizens who have lived in the city for five or more years. Of those responses, Baruch found that 67 percent of New Yorkers aged between 18 and 29 supported non-citizen voting rights, compared to 31 percent of support from New Yorkers older than 65.

The numbers are indicative of a larger debate happening on a national level, a discourse that Dromm said he thinks helped bring about the attention and support that his bill began to receive lately. He has been able to capitalize on Congress mulling over a bipartisan effort for immigration reform and the show of force from immigrant and minority communities for President Barack Obama's reelection campaign.

"All those things combined helped make it possible to bring the bill back to City Council," admitted Dromm, who as chair of the Council's immigration committee has championed many immigration-friendly bills. They have included legislation that brought a citywide halt to deportations resulting from cooperation from the city's Department of Corrections and Police Department.

Advocates who are backing Dromm seem unsurprisingly unfazed by the legal argument against the bill.

Among the groups standing up for the bill's legitimacy are the New York Civil Liberties Union, Make the Road NY, the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrants' Rights and the Working Family's Party.

Attorney Jerry Vattamala of the the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund said he is confident that the Council's bill is on firm legal ground.

Vattamala said the state constitution gives authority to local governments to pass laws that best suit their own needs by way of the home rule, including granting non-citizens voting rights in local elections.

"Generally speaking, the New York State constitution gives wide authority to local jurisdictions to determine how they elect their representatives," Vattamala said.

He added that the state doesn't expressly limit voting rights to non-citizens. If the city were to adopt the bill into its charter, he said, the home rule would force the state to cede to city law.

More to the point, Vatamalla said he sees the bill as a way to incorporate immigrant communities that factor into government operations without legitimate representation in the immigrant-heavy neighborhoods.

"Our experience is that elected officials salivate at these areas," Valamatta said, calling neighborhoods with high non-citizen residents political fillers. "They pump up the numbers in your district and yet you don't have to be responsive to them."

Valamatta also said that this bill can politically legitimize immigrant communities, including Queens' growing Asian community. "We'd like to have all leaders on board, because New York City really is a city of immigrants," he said.

It's the same message being circulated by the New York Coalition to Expand Voting Rights, of which Queens College professor Ron Hayduk is a co-founder. Author of the 2006 book "Democracy For All: Restoring Immigrant Voting Rights in the United States," Hayduk said he is confident that documented immigrants would exercise a newfound ability to vote.

But he acknowledged that non-citizen voting right is not a panacea to low voter turnouts, adding that the bill's goal is larger than increasing overall voter engagement. New candidates and new voters will bring about new debates and lines of conflict that all New Yorkers should welcome, Hayduk said.

"It could really invigorate the city's political dynamic in ways that we've never seen," he said.

Superstorm Sandy Shapes Discussion At Mayoral Forum

Several candidates for mayor in 2013

NEW YORK — The hard-earned lessons of Superstorm Sandy shaped a mayoral forum yesterday where candidates fielded questions on waterfront development, expanding ferry service and creating a new agency to oversee the city's vast coastline.

While there was little consensus on a range of topics, most of the candidates agreed that ferry service and renewed infrastructure investments were critical to the future of a working, sustainable waterfront.

The forum was held on a boat moored off of Pier 40 in lower Manhattan for a conference organized by the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance. Six candidates were asked to respond to a policy proposals put forward by the alliance that touches on everything from docks to land use, as well as questions that were submitted by the public. Chris Ward, the former executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, hosted the forum.

Unsurprisingly, the discussion kept turning back to Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath.

"Make no mistake," said Democratic candidate and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, "you get to say once, 'It was an unprecedented storm.' You don't get to do that again."


Quinn has long described Sandy reconstruction efforts as the single "most important infrastructure project of our time," also telling the audience that she has worked to be a waterfront speaker and would be a waterfront mayor.

She said that the first mass transit service to come back after Hurricane Sandy hit in October was the East River Ferry, which came about during her time as speaker. Quinn, like many of the other candidates, said that her long-term vision is to incorporate cross-borough ferries into the existing mass transit system that includes subways and buses, partially funded by city subsidies not unlike the East River Ferry.

"That's how mass transit works," she said. "It's about the greater good of the city."

field mayoralforum04092013 crowdabove

Most of the candidates also said that they saw expanded ferry service as an answer to the city's growing population, a problem that Comptroller John Liu said most cities would love to have. He, along with fellow Democrats Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and former Comptroller Bill Thompson praised Mayor Michael Bloomberg's work on a blueprint for the city’s long-term sustainability, PlaNYC 2030, and recognized the future mayor's role in further sustainable development.

Thompson also repeated his call for the creation of a deputy mayor for infrastructure, who he said would focus on overseeing a comprehensive plan and timetable for development projects, including those related to Sandy recovery and others that may be in the path of future storms.

"The challenges of Lower Manhattan aren't the same challenges in Staten Island, aren't the same challenges in the Rockaways," he said. "That deputy mayor for infrastructure has to coordinate that, has to work in conjunction with the mayor to assume that leadership role."

Thompson was the only Democratic candidate to plainly advocate the creation of a new seat at the new mayor's table. Liu and Quinn both dismissed the idea of a new city agency devoted specifically to the city's waterfronts. Both said such an agency would duplicate responsibilities already given existing agencies affected by Sandy, such as the city's Housing, Education or Homeless Services departments.

Supermarket mogul John Catsimatidis, a Republican, called the idea of either a waterfront department or czar a great idea in unspecific terms. But only former Bronx Borough President and Independence Party nominee Adolfo Carrión declared a waterfront-devoted agency to be a smart solution.

"I know that bureaucracy is a bad word," he said, referring to such a department as a “sledgehammer” to be use for waterfront development.

A former regional director for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under the Barack Obama administration, Carrión said that the next mayor needs to works across the various levels of government to secure investment in the city's transportation infrastructure.

"I think, without risk of offending too many people, we're kind of dysfunctional in this region," Carrión said, adding that the job of the mayor is to educate the State Legislature about the city's economic force as it doles out federal money for development.

De Blasio also emphasized the idea of a stronger relationship between levels of government, specifically pointing to the mayor's relationship with Washington D.C., and calling the current dynamic unsustainable.

De Blasio, who served as a regional director for HUD under President Bill Clinton, said that the next mayor needs to use his or her bully pulpit to spotlight infrastructure issues on a national stage, not unlike how Bloomberg has dealt with gun control and climate change.

"If you can do Mayors for Gun Control,” he said, referring to Bloomberg’s effort to organize mayors across the country to fight for more limits on guns, “you can do mayors for infrastructure investment."

Part of the public advocate's argument for responsible development, he said, is economic realism. He invoked said pragmatism in response to a question about the ongoing Brooklyn Bridge Park project. The proposed development plan for the park's expansion received criticism from a number of elected representatives and residents who opposed the inclusion of private housing development as a means to pay for the park.

"The purists who were concerned about private investment," de Blasio said, "their concern could have led to no park for all those people who needed it."

The balance between public need and private investment came up again when Liu promoted the idea of mandatory inclusionary zoning for waterfront properties. The comptroller disagreed with de Blasio on the development of luxury housing at the park. However, Liu said he sees great value in public projects subsidized by private investments.

Those types of projects, Liu said, should require that any new construction offer affordable housing for residents with low to moderate incomes.

"I want to emphasize that we're talking about public-private partnerships," Liu said, with a heavy emphasis on the former. “Not,” he continued, “where the privates get all the increase in the economic value."

Economic value of the city's waterfronts was just as important to Catsimatidis, who said he was the only candidate with actual investment in waterfront development, having recently purchased a petroleum terminal along Long Island's northern shore. He added that he’s the only candidate to create hundred of thousands of jobs.

The lone Republican to speak at the forum — organizers said former Metropolitan Transportation Authority chief Joe Lhota was unable to attend — Catsimatidis said that he sees waterfront development and ferry expansions as a means to bring about new jobs. In turn, he said they would be boosted by one of his main economic development proposals: bringing back the World's Fair.

Catsimatidis also suggested introducing a bond issue to for capital expenditures, especially for the waterfronts. He speculated that raising an extra $100 billion dollars — a concept that appeared to take moderator Ward by surprise.

"I remember when I built my first store, I said i'm going to raise $50,000 to remodel it," Catsimatidis said. "People thought it was fantasy. No; you have a vision and you do it."

The Democratic candidates also recognized the potential jobs that waterfront development could bring the city, both in term of tourism and port activity. For her part, Quinn recognized the city has historically counted on waterways for economic growth and should do so again.

"We owe the 21st century immigrants the same opportunities that my relatives had when they came here and worked on the docks on the Westside," Quinn said. "They'll be different jobs, but they can be waterfront jobs that are sustaining families and helping them move into the middle class."


Images by Emily Field. 

Party Politics At Nexus Of Bribery Plot In Mayoral Race


NEW YORK -- The arrest of state Sen. Malcolm Smith on allegations he orchestrated a scheme to bribe his way onto the ballot to run for mayor is bringing renewed attention to the role of party patronage in shaping elections.

The corruption allegations against Smith, detailed in a complaint unsealed in federal court yesterday after he was arrested, demonstrate the powerful if limited role that county party leaders continue to exercise in elections through their ability to reward access to their ballots.

“The road to elected local office in New York still often goes through county organizations,” said Doug Muzzio, a professor of political science at Baruch College.

This outsize role of parties even led Mayor Michael Bloomberg to weigh in on the Smith arrest by criticizing partisan elections.

“What happens is only people that can go through whatever the majority party is, whether it’s Democrats here or Republicans someplace else, they’re the only people that really can face the voters and have any meaningful chance of winning," he said at a press conference.

Each of New York City’s five counties has two party committees, one Republican and one Democratic. And each of those organizations has an executive committee led by a chairperson. During election years, candidates go to their parties’ respective county committees for an endorsement for the primaries, a move all the more important in a year with a crowded field of candidates.

That influence has played a role in New York City politics since the days of Tammany Hall, the infamous political organization that controlled Democratic politics in Manhattan for more than a century. Efforts to reform how elections are run by making them nonpartisan have failed in recent years.

Muzzio argued that today no one party leader has the same degree of city-wide influence as they did back in the days of Tammany Hall.

“Clearly, they are considerably weakened,” he said. “The bottom line, however, is that these county organizations still have juice.”

Among those remaining powers, Muzzio said, are a county party's ability to both nominate or prevent candidates from appearing on any number of ballot lines, as well as their political clout in local judicial races. Party bosses also lead the vote in nominating candidates in special elections.

Those vestigial powers are what attract candidates to jump political parties, especially whenever the field is particularly crowded — as it is this year. Bloomberg went this route in 2009, running on the Republican Party line when he was a registered independent. And Adolfo Carrion, and independent candidate running for mayor this year has also courted GOP leadership, hoping to secure access for a run on the Republican ticket.

Anyone running for a citywide office anyone running for a citywide office as a member of a party to which he or she does not belong is required to get consent from the party’s county committees by obtaining what are known as Wilson Pakula certificates, named for a 1947 law.

Federal prosecutors say Smith schemed to get Republican party officials to get him Wilson Pakula certificates in exchange for thousands of dollars in bribes. Prosecutors say two of the party officials who accepted money in the scheme, Joseph J. Savino, the Bronx Republican Party chairman, and Vincent Tabone, vice chairman of the Queens Republican Party, were arrested on charges they accepted $40,000 in exchange for agreeing to get their county committees to put Smith on the Republican ballot line.

Republican City Councilman Dan Halloran, of Queens, was also arrested and accused of accepting bribes.

Savino and Tabone were both brought into the bribery scheme by Halloran, who an undercover FBI agent and a confidential informant worked on to connect with party leaders from the five boroughs, federal prosecutors said.

Smith's attorney has said his client would fight the charges, and a spokesman for the senator said Smith would be "vindicated."

Late Tuesday, the Queens Republican party sent out a statement that called the allegations against Tabone and Halloran “sad,” and that the chair has “asked Tabone to resign from his position on the committee pending the outcome of the proceedings.”

Halloran’s own office sent out a statement to reporters on Tuesday evening fighting back against the allegations, including that he was willing to direct Council money that would have normally gone to organizations in his community as part of another scheme.

In the complaint, Halloran is quoted as saying to a confidential witness that he had no problem redirecting the funding.

"That's politics, that's politics, it's all about how much. Not about whether or will, it's about how much, and that's our politicians in New York, they're all like that, all like that," the complaint quotes him as saying. "And they get like that because of the drive that the money does for everything else."

Halloran's office sent out a statement denying the allegations. “When the full story comes out, [Halloran] is confident that he will be vindicated," the statement said.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s office released a statement that called the allegations “a reprehensible abuse of the public's trust,” and that “if true, then the full weight of the legal system should be brought to bear on all parties implicated.” The Council will vote next week to strip Halloran of his committee assignments.

Smith, a member of the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference was also stripped of his chairmanship and committees. The leader of the IDC, state Sen. Jeff Klein, also sent out a statement implying that Smith might want to consider resigning from office. “Given the level of criminality alleged, I believe that Senator Smith should seriously consider whether or not he can continue to effectively serve his constituents,” he wrote.

The U.S. Attorney in Manhattan whose office is prosecuting the case, Preet Bharara, said the case was an example of how “a show-me-the-money culture seems to pervade every level of New York government.”

“Sen. Smith drew up the game plan and Republican Councilman Halloran essentially quarterbacked it by finding party chairmen who were wide open to receiving bribes,” he said at a press conference yesterday.

In the complaint against Smith and the other defendants, it appears that the senator was persisting with his goal of clinching a GOP ballot line even though party officials had already announced their support for or were working on behalf of other mayoral hopefuls.

Bronx chair Savino had announced his support for former Metropolitan Transportation Administration chief Joe Lhota. And Queens GOP chairman Phil Ragusa had already endorsed supermarket mogul John Catsimatidis, who had hired Tabone — Ragusa’s vice chair — as a campaign aide.

Catsimatidis told Politicker that the arrest of Tabone was "very, very sad."

Federal prosecutors say Smith worked with the undercover FBI officer posing as a real estate developer and a government informant to persuade party leaders to back his mayoral ambitions in spite of their endorsements. The leaders seemed ready and willing to commit for the right price.

“I run the Queens County Republican Party,” Tabone said to the agent after he was asked if he could secure a Wilson Pakula certificate as vice chair, according to the federal complaint. “Nobody else runs the party. I run the party.”

While Smith was prepared to spend thousands to get the Republican nomination, the apparent disarray and disorganization among the five county groups might inadvertently hurt the prospects of a Republican mayor and the party’s overall influence in City Hall.

Michael Krasner, a Queens College political science professor, predicted that the fallout from yesterday’s news could hamper citywide Republican campaigns for years to come. Krasner argued that New York Republicans have relied on Democrat scandals to portray themselves as an alternative to voters.

“This demonstrates that, despite all their protestations about being the party of virtue, the Republicans have demonstrated that they have all the same flaws and vices of the Democrats,” he said.

Muzzio also said that New York Republicans have ceded the moral high ground after yesterday's arrests, adding that it’s been a long-term decline.

“They are a rent-a-party,” Muzzio said. “So the fact that they’re caught in this web doesn’t surprise me, but at the same times it’s almost shocking in its hallucinatory qualities. I mean, what are they smoking?”

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