Joe Biden, with Andrew Cuomo (photo: governor's office)
The country will be watching, and voting, with bated breath on Tuesday as the most consequential presidential election in decades nears conclusion. More than 84 million Americans have already cast their ballots in early voting and turnout is expected to break records despite the lingering coronavirus pandemic.
There’s much at stake for New York City in this election and it’s an understatement to say that the future of the city and state will vary widely depending on the next president and the next Congress. All signs and polls point to a victory for the Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, and if that should happen, the state and city will have an ally in the White House. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- his critics on the left, including, at least during the primary, many prominent New York politicians, Biden has the most progressive agenda of any Democratic nominee ever.
Many planks of Biden’s platform match up well with what Governor Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and other New York Democrats (as well as many Republicans and independents) hope to get from Washington beginning in 2021. That alignment would have a much better chance of bearing fruit if Democrats keep control of the House of Representatives and swing the Senate, with the former likely and the latter possible but less assured.
Should President Donald Trump be reelected, however, the federal government’s hostility to New York and other blue states may continue unabated. This is especially true if the Senate also remains under the leadership of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, though one or the other could make things especially challenging for New York in its quest for more aid from Washington.
New York City is facing multiple crises. The city worst-hit by COVID-19 is seeing cases creep back up. The pandemic decimated the economy, leading to massive governmental budget deficits that have yet to be resolved. Unemployment skyrocketed; more than a million New Yorkers lost jobs. The impact on tourism, arts, and culture -- all essential to the city’s economy and vitality -- has been devastating. Small businesses are closing. Immense office buildings sit empty. An eviction epidemic is looming. Students, especially the most vulnerable, are falling further and further behind. The mass transit system, in need of billions in upgrades before the pandemic, is going broke. Public housing, home to half-a-million New Yorkers, is still in a state of severe disrepair. The city’s vulnerability to climate change continues virtually unabated. The gap between law enforcement and communities of color appears wider. Hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who live in the five boroughs, left out of federal and state relief efforts, are more unsure of their futures than ever.
Even as the economy begins to pick up again, there are fears of a K-shaped recovery, with the most vulnerable Americans with lower paying jobs suffering higher rates of sustained unemployment than those with higher paying jobs. New York, already a city with gaping wealth, income, and quality of life disparities between the haves and have-nots is only becoming more unequal. Even before the pandemic more than 1 million New Yorkers lived in poverty and roughly 1 million were food insecure -- both numbers have only grown.
“It’s hard, if not impossible, to overstate the stakes for the City,” said Bill Neidhardt, press secretary to Mayor Bill de Blasio, in an email. “There is the immediate legislative impact – we’re in desperate need of a stimulus, which Biden has championed and Trump has been an obstacle to. And there are the longer term, big picture issues that touch on the lives of all New Yorkers, from the security of immigrant communities to whether or not our federal government will fight against climate change or continue to fuel it and doom us all. It’s hard to fathom the entire scope of the impact this has on New York City.”
The immediate concern for the city is a dire need for federal aid. New York City has faced billions of dollars in lost revenue and is headed into the next fiscal year with a massive budget gap. There is broad agreement that no matter who wins, Congress will approve another round of federal stimulus. Democrats are likely to be friendlier to states and municipalities and have recommended a larger stimulus package than Republicans are willing to accept, in part to plug those government budget gaps left by severe drops in tax revenue and threatening services for constituents and the livelihoods of many thousands of workers who rely on government jobs and contracts.
Cuomo has pegged the overall New York number -- to aid state government, local governments, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and other governmental entities -- at $59 billion to cover the current and next fiscal years.
“The big issue that we continue to sound the alarm on, both in New York State and for New York City, is the need for additional federal stimulus and relief,” said State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, in an interview.
But Republicans would stymie a broader Biden agenda, he said. “I think the most complicated scenario would be Biden wins, but the Senate is controlled by the Republicans, because I think it's pretty clear how they've handled things in the past that they will just be obstructionist.”
Both Governor Cuomo and Mayor Blasio have pushed off hard budget decisions until after the election, but the state must soon establish its plans for, among other things, aid to localities and the city must determine the extent of municipal employee layoffs or other major budget-balancing measures, perhaps including long-term borrowing that needs state approval.
"Donald Trump is an existential threat to the health of this city,” said City Comptroller Scott Stringer, in a statement. “His mismanagement has wrecked the economy, his cruelty has decimated immigrant families, and his incompetence has cost over 200,000 lives. New York City's future depends on resoundingly defeating him -- and then getting to work to rebuild and repair. That means fighting for a robust federal aid package for small businesses, transit, schools, and our coastal resiliency. The work to build a better future for New York City isn't over on Tuesday -- it's just beginning."
"Everything is on the line for New York City this election. In dollars and cents, we need the federal government to make us whole and to bail out the MTA for the good of the entire national economy,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, in a statement. “In broader terms though, I agree with Joe Biden that the soul of our nation is on the ballot. Will we be a nation that is proud of places like New York City, a city where hundreds of languages are spoken and diversity is celebrated, or will our nation go deeper down the path of hate and nativism. Donald Trump represents the absolute worst of America."
Fiscal and urban experts point to the major differences between what a Biden or Trump administration would mean for the city, particularly its budget, mass transit system, taxes and infrastructure, among other things.
“We know if Trump wins, we'll just get more of the same, which is a very unconstructive and antagonistic relationship on both sides,” said Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “The designation of the ‘anarchist jurisdiction’ is a good example of that. Under no definition is New York City any more violent or lawless than any other place in the country.”
Andrew Rein, president of Citizens Budget Commission, questioned whether Trump winning a second term will “embolden the kind of ‘anarchist jurisdiction’ punishment policy, whether we'll see more of that, legal or not, types of actions and that battle between the two, New York and Washington, DC, which has been amped up.”
“The consequences are more clear cut than usual,” said E.J. McMahon, founder and research director of the Empire Center for Public Policy. “They are fiscal and economic and the differences between the two results are definitely pretty extreme.”
Getting the Virus Under Control and the Economy Humming
“If you think of the New York City economy as having run off the road into a ditch in a storm, Biden winning is like the tow truck backing up, ready to pull you out of the ditch,” said James Parrott, an economist at the New School. “Your car's not going to be the same as it was before, but at least you're on the road, and you'll have a chance. Whereas if Trump gets reelected, it's like he's whizzing by and going out of his way to hit a puddle to splash more water in your face.”
As Parrott and others have pointed out, there is no feasible chance of a recovery if the country does not get the coronavirus under control. Even now, nearing nine months since the pandemic hit, the daily number of cases across the country continues to rise. Though New York has come far from the early days when it was the epicenter of the outbreak, there are worrying localized spikes and an expected second wave in the winter. “The first thing you have to do is get the virus under control...and Trump shows no ability or even an interest in doing that,” Parrott said, referring to the president’s lack of a national strategy. While Trump has all but given up on controlling the virus but for the arrival of a vaccine, New York leaders have also questioned his plans for distributing the potential medicine through private carriers.
As the recovery in New York continues, Parrott said Biden recognizes the need for more equitable growth as opposed to Trump. “Trump has never recognized, never admitted that the kind of growth we had before was not ideal,” he said. “He doesn't recognize any racial disparities or the need to provide a path out of poverty for low-income people.”
“The better we control the pandemic, the more we can grow our economy,” said Rein. “New York City is especially challenged by this type of health and economic crisis because what makes New York so strong and so wonderful is that people can socialize together, you have a great tourist economy, you have a great arts economy.”
Aid Package and Tough Potential Choices
“Even if we got another national rescue package, if Trump were still in charge, he would use his executive powers to put as many obstacles in our way to accessing that as possible,” said Gelinas, referring to the president’s repeated insistence that he does not want to “bail out” Democrat-led states and cities.
Most observers expect that there will be a stimulus package of some sort that will be approved after the election, though there were also high hopes of something coming together during the summer months. Comptroller DiNapoli pointed out that even Republicans will be willing to provide aid to states and municipalities as their own states are suffering deeply. “I do think there will be some more stimulus and relief. But if the Republicans are in charge, it will clearly be a lot less than if the Democrats were in charge,” he said.
Without an effective stimulus package, New York State will have to drastically cut funding, particularly to localities, which would especially and directly hurt health care and education in New York City. Though state lawmakers, as DiNapoli noted, have mostly insisted that budget shortfalls should be filled by increasing taxes on the wealthy and finding more revenue rather than cutting programs, it’s unclear what such measures may look like given the need to compromise among the two legislative majorities and Cuomo.
“It could be some combination of budget cuts, tax increases, and increased debt which, none of that frankly, would be helpful to New York's economic recovery,” DiNapoli said.
A robust federal package could help make New York whole. The lack of one, or a very limited one, will force the city and state to make tough decisions that have been put off for months.
“The federal action won't solve all of [the city’s] problems,” said CBC’s Rein. “We still need to right-size our government, deal with the revenue risks, deal with spending risks. These are real and no one should sit back and rest based on any outcome of this election and say, ‘Oh, see, now we don't have to do anything.’”
As Empire Center’s McMahon noted, “The city and the state have pointedly postponed and pushed off making any decisive spending choices...They will then be forced to make some very hard decisions and choices on the revenue and spending and capital end that they have put off because they were literally banking on Biden and a blue wave.”
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a state entity that runs the city’s buses and subways, and its boosters and dependents are hoping for Democrats to win so the transit agency has a good chance to receive a bailout as it faces the prospect of bankruptcy given ridership has plummeted. MTA leadership has said it requires at least $12 billion in federal aid, without which it has warned that it may have to reduce subway and bus service by 40% next year while also increasing fares by 1% above the scheduled increase for 2021. Both moves could serve to further depress ridership, particularly harming low-income commuters, and therefore revenue, also stunting the city’s and state’s -- and nation’s -- larger economic recovery.
The MTA is also awaiting federal Department of Transportation permission to institute a congestion pricing system in Manhattan, whereby new fees for cars and trucks entering the central business district would go toward repairs and upgrades of the authority’s subways, buses, and commuter rails.
Eli Dvorkin, editorial and policy director at the Center for an Urban Future, noted that the previous stimulus package only included a “tiny fraction” of the funds for workforce development, education and training compared to the stimulus provided during the Great Recession. “I think, potentially the single biggest need, especially when it comes to rebuilding the city's economy more inclusively, is going to be funding to support retraining and reskilling for the jobs that are going to come back and they're not going to be all the same jobs that we've lost since February,” Dvorkin said. “I think that's maybe the single biggest question mark about what any further stimulus looks like.”
Biden has been campaigning on raising taxes on people who earn more than $400,000 annually, repealing most of the Trump tax cuts, and creating a more progressive taxation system while Trump has floated the idea of further tax cuts. One of the key pieces of the equation for New York is the cap placed on state and local tax deductibility from federal taxes as part of the Republican tax plan enacted under Trump and that most impacts higher earners in states and localities with high local taxes.
McMahon said higher federal taxes are a major variable under a possible Biden administration. It may not directly drive wealthier New Yorkers to other states but it would certainly nudge them in that direction, he said. “There are incentives and incentives have an effect. It doesn't mean that you raise the tax rate a smidge and moving vans have backed up the Holland Tunnel full of Park Avenue householders, but it does mean you've nudged them further,” he said.
Comptroller DiNapoli, however, said those effects could be mitigated. “The higher taxes on wealthier [people, if it's done at the federal level, and then we would benefit from increased federal spending coming to the state, that doesn't put us at a competitive disadvantage with other states,” he said.
CBC’s Rein pointed to the possibility of a Biden administration and Democratic Congress eliminating the cap on the state and local tax deductions, where higher earners in blue states are now helping to supplement tax cuts given to many people and corporations across the country. “The SALT cap has hurt New York,” Rein said. “It has made New York a more expensive jurisdiction to live in, especially for the very wealthy. Reversing that SALT cap would help. Now, there might be federal tax policy and tax increases at the top end, as candidate Biden has talked about. Those will not hurt our competitiveness with other jurisdictions, which is really what the SALT cap has stuck a dagger in.”
Infrastructure, Housing and Climate Change
Trump promised a major infrastructure plan when he first ran for office and in the four years of his presidency, he has yet to produce one. Biden and the Democratic Party have themselves expressed support for a massive infusion of funds into the country’s infrastructure, one that is also likely to help bolster economic recovery efforts and job growth amid the covid recession.
New York City’s massive infrastructure needs extend to everything from transit to housing to climate resiliency projects, and Biden and Trump are poles apart on all of those issues.
Trump has derailed funding for the Gateway Tunnel, one of the most important infrastructure projects not just for the city but the northeast region and thus the country. He has questioned the settled science behind climate change and pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement that set goals for reducing carbon emissions.
On the other hand, Biden has promised to rejoin the Paris Agreement and proposed a $2 trillion plan that includes significant investments in green infrastructure from energy to housing as well as changes to zoning and insurance regulations to protect coastal communities. He regularly talks about climate change as a crisis whereby the planet must be saved but also a great opportunity to create jobs.
“Joe Biden offered us hope tonight, and there are good reasons to be hopeful about the fight against climate change,” said Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of the NRDC (National Resource Defence Council) Action Fund, which has endorsed Biden, in a statement after the first presidential debate this year. “His plan to create millions of good-paying jobs and rebuild our country while tackling the climate crisis head-on is exactly the type of bold leadership we desperately need right now. Donald Trump keeps trying to convince us that we can’t do any of those things, and I bet most Americans are pretty tired of him letting us down.”
Though some climate change activists balked at Biden’s plans during the primaries, compared to the more ambitious ones put forward by other Democratic candidates, they have since pulled him to the left. The Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate change advocacy group, did not officially endorse Biden but has been urging people to vote for him. “The strength of the Green New Deal movement, and the weight we threw behind Bernie’s campaign, has compelled Biden to re-write his plans from top to bottom and placed climate at the top of the priority list for him and Congress,” reads a recent blog post on the organization’s website. “As it stands now, Biden’s plan is not everything we want. But, with Biden, we will actually have a window of opportunity to pass the largest federal climate justice policy in the history of the United States in time to make a difference. Because, remember: we’re running out of time.”
Biden’s housing plan includes a $100 billion affordable housing fund and a massive expansion of the Section 8 voucher program. He also plans on restoring the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule, which is aimed at ending housing discrimination and was recently eliminated by the Trump administration. He’s also proposed tax credits for low-income renters and supports funding legal assistance for tenants facing eviction. His plan also includes expanded funding for homeless services and he has promised a national plan to address homelessness in his first term.
Biden hasn’t, however, spoken about his plan for public housing. NYCHA needs tens of billions of dollars to upgrade to a state of good repair.
In a virtual discussion on housing hosted by City Limits, Barika Williams, executive director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD) critiqued Trump’s rollback of AFFH and his less-than-subtle narrative that low-income people of color are a threat to white suburbs. She said Biden’s plan to provide universal housing vouchers was “a promising thing to see a presidential candidate propose something new and different on housing.”
“Unfortunately, housing has been one of the issues that for most families’ lives is front and center but in the national political discourse, oftentimes gets glossed over and doesn’t take center stage,” Williams added.
Though she said Biden’s plan was “trying to be aspirational” on homelessness, she said it left “huge questions” unanswered. “There is no pathway right now to ending homelessness unless we address the immediate crisis of potentially having a sea of people sliding into homelessness,” she said.
Federal immmigration policy matters significantly for New York City, with its large immigrant communities, particularly undocumented immigrants, who have not only suffered punitive enforcement under the Trump administration but have also been left in the lurch during the pandemic.
Trump has used the bureaucratic and law enforcement arms of the federal immigration system to discourage immigration, both legal and illegal. His administration’s “zero tolerance” policy at the border separated children from their parents and housed them in inhumane conditions. He banned immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries. He rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children from deportation and allows them to hold jobs. He’s also revoked Temporary Protected Status for immigrants who would be unsafe returning to their home countries. Under Trump, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have threatened sanctuary cities like New York with large-scale raids and arrests.
Biden has promised to reverse all those actions while pursuing legislation to give 11 million undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. Facing questions about the large number of deportations during the Obama-Biden administration, Biden has pledged to pursue a less aggressive policy with regard to removing undocumented residents from the country.
Biden Seen as Savior
For Democrats in New York City, a Biden victory is seen as the beginning of the end of a collective nightmare that began four years ago.
“I think people are hungry for a positive vision,” said Mayor de Blasio, at a September 21 press briefing, with a placard next to him displaying the number of days until Election Day. “They're hungry for a sense that there can be unity. They're just fatigued by all the negativity and hatred coming from President Trump. And of course on top of that, something I think Joe Biden understands deeply, speak to working people about their lives and what they need, and people need to hear a vision of how they'll have health care for their families, how they will have jobs again, that they can live on. This is an area I think Joe Biden can be very, very strong on because everyone understands he empathizes with working people and I think that combination of hope and unity on the one hand and a vision of a nation that's actually devoted to working people again is a winning formula.”
Biden would, however, take over at a time of significant turmoil and with an immense wish list from states, localities, elected officials, activists, interest groups, and others. The right and left have never been more divided. And the coronavirus pandemic is far from over. After months of uncertainty, Americans are looking for solutions to both the disease and the effects it has had on their lives.
“Biden has a very, very short honeymoon to show that he can lead the country out of this,” Manhattan Institute’s Gelinas said of the former vice president’s potential victory. “And the bar is low, but goodwill toward him won't last very long.”