Gotham Gazette Sun, 29 Nov 2020 10:50:17 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) ‘The Electorate Has a Bias for Youth and Energy’: Younger Candidates Take New York Politics by Storm 2 youth wave

Queens Assembly candidate Khaleel Anderson (photo: @KhaleelAnderson)

A younger generation of Democratic political candidates — which has grown up amid the Great Recession, growing inequality, rising costs of higher education and massive student loan debt, the ticking time-bomb that is climate change, and other crises including, now, the coronavirus pandemic and its fallout — has been offering ambitious policy goals and great urgency around achieving them, resonating with voters and finding success in their runs for office.

In recent election cycles, New York has seen many younger candidates win their bids for state legislative and congressional seats, one facet of the Democratic Party’s internal reckoning that shows an ascendant left wing in part led by a new generation of activists and candidates.

Some, but not all, of these candidates are democratic socialists, a far left brand of politics with a young base, as shown by support for U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, the septuagenarian figurehead of the progressive movement in America, who won 65% of New York voters aged 18-29 in his 2016 Democratic primary contest against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who won every other age group, according to CNN exit polling data. And although the movement has not found victory through either of Sanders’ two presidential bids, down-ballot races have told a different story.

And that story is of a generational shift underway in New York politics, with major potential implications for public policy coming out of the state capital in Albany, not to mention other power centers like New York City Hall and borough-based Democratic Party organizations. It is also already manifesting itself in the state’s and city’s representation in Congress and impact on the national stage.

The recent trend of New York electing both younger and further left candidates kicked off with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s June 2018 primary victory over then-Rep. Joe Crowley, with the then-28-year-old democratic socialist shocking the world and immediately becoming a national standard-bearer for those of her generation and politics.

Then came September 2018 victories of now-State Senators Alessandra Biaggi, Jessica Ramos, Zellnor Myrie, and Julia Salazar, all in their twenties or thirties when elected as progressive insurgents against more moderate, older incumbent Democrats. All went on to easily win their general elections, as is the norm in almost every New York City electoral district given Democrats’ heavy voter enrollment advantage. In a Brooklyn swing district, Democrat Andrew Gounardes, then-33, beat Republican Martin Golden, then-68, helping the Democrats win back a State Senate majority and advance a long list of priorities.

Then came 2020, and a combined state and congressional (and presidential) June primary day amid a pandemic and massive resultant socio-economic crisis.

Younger, left-leaning candidates, often supported by many progressive groups and individuals, won a long list of Democratic primary victories. They ran on policies that, in sum, included single-payer health care, more urgent efforts to combat climate change and foster a “just transition” to a green economy, free public college, greater tenant protections, higher taxes on the wealthy, homes and jobs guarantees, more education funding, marijuana legalization, decriminalization of sex work, and, during the pandemic, rent cancellation.

The winning candidates included Khaleel Anderson, 24 years old; Zohran Mamdani, 28; Phara Souffrant Forrest, 31; Emily Gallagher, 36; and Jenifer Rajkumar, 38, all of whom won primaries for the State Assembly, along with Jabari Brisport, 33, who won a State Senate primary; and Ritchie Torres, 32, and Mondaire Jones, 33, who won Congressional races. Jamaal Bowman, 44, also won offering generational change and far-left ideology in his challenge to 73-year-old incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel, and other Assembly candidates in their forties, Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas and Marcela Mitaynes, beat incumbent Democrats while offering a far-left message.

Souffrant Forrest, Mamdani, and Brisport were all endorsed by New York City’s branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, an organization that also backed Salazar and Ocasio-Cortez in 2018 and 2020, and had six of its seven endorsed candidates win this election cycle (DSA-backed Samelys Lopez lost to Torres in the 15th Congressional District primary).

Growing dissatisfaction with government and social conditions is something Torres, one of the youngest people elected to the City Council in modern times and likely to soon be one of the youngest elected to Congress, says has contributed to the success of younger elected officials, who are often those challenging incumbents.

“We’re living in an anti-establishment moment. When the electorate has a bias for youth and energy. I think if you have a young insurgent running against an established politician who’s been entrenched in office for decades, the young insurgent has a greater advantage now more than ever,” Torres said. “At a time of peak suffering, the argument for insurgents might be helped because if you have been entrenched in office for decades, and your district is in the same position that it was when you first entered public office, does your tons of experience really matter?”

Brisport, who is further to the left of Torres, nonetheless voiced a similar sentiment and said the reason for more young people challenging incumbents is their want for bigger changes.

“It is predominantly younger people that are unseating incumbents, are making up this new guard and I think that speaks to a hunger and a thirst for much bolder progressive policies throughout New York,” said Brisport, currently a middle-school teacher and of central Brooklyn, in an interview. “My generation, millennials and below us, Gen-Z, we are seeing firsthand capitalism really unfurling on itself, runaway income inequality, a world where we don’t see ourselves as eventual homeowners in the way our parents did, our American dream is no longer to get a house and 2.5 kids the dream is just to survive this nightmare, this hellscape of capitalism that we live in where rents are spiraling out of control, health care — you’re lucky if you have it and if you don’t you’re confined to a lifetime of medical debt — and if you’re Black, indigenous, person of color, you might just get shot by police for the crime of existing. It’s a confluence of factors that is extremely terrifying for people in my generation and revolutionary politics is much more alluring in a scenario like that.”

Some of those more progressive policies have seen more support from young people: a 2019 Quinnipiac University poll found that New York State residents aged 18-34 were the biggest supporters of congestion pricing (at 62% in favor), stricter gun laws (70%), legalizing marijuana (84%), and protecting abortion rights (80%).

And, although only 36% approved of single-payer health-care generally, if it were to decrease health care costs (even at the cost of raising taxes), they were the biggest supporters of single-payer health-care, too, at 57%. Younger people are more open than older generations to raising taxes if it means reducing individual health-care costs. Nationally, a poll conducted last year by the Institute of Politics (IOP) at Harvard Kennedy School found that 51% of those aged 18-29 support free public college for those from families making $125,000 a year or less and free community college for all — even if it costs $47 billion a year.

“I’ve seen multiple recessions, I’ve seen, in many ways, the failures of capitalism again and again and again kind of replayed ad nauseum,” said Mamdani, currently a housing counselor and of western Queens, in an interview. “There is a real fear with regards to health-care and with regards to debt, specifically student loan debt. We have seen, in many ways, much of capitalism’s promises, we have seen the terms and conditions of those promises in our lifetime. And generations older than us, there have been more of the promises delivered to them, while for us that promise has been extinguished and now it’s all of the fine print.”

Attaining higher education and employment are two interwoven issues for young people: higher education costs are rising (by over 25% in the last decade, according to a CNBC analysis of The College Board data), while a college degree is becoming more and more essential to find employment (as a 2014 report from Burning Glass, a labor market analytics company, shows). And most recently, during the coronavirus pandemic, young New Yorkers were most affected when it comes to losing employment — unemployment of those aged 16-24 skyrocketed from 6.6% to 35.2% from February to May, according to a report by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer. For the city writ large, it had gone from 3.5% to 19.9%.

Anderson, currently a supplemental instructor at his alma mater, Queens College, and likely to be the youngest member of the state Legislature next year, noted that many struggles young people face — from affording higher education to getting a job to paying for rent — contribute to one another.

“Young people, we’ve got to focus on ensuring that we can have a future,” Anderson, of southeast Queens, said in an interview. “Whether it was succumbing to gun violence, whether it was succumbing to student debt, whether it was not being able to afford health-care, whether it’s living in the Rockaways in the Rosedale section of the district and facing constant flooding, these are the things that young people are genuinely concerned about and that’s how my politics will be guided.”

Anderson, who got started in politics as an organizer with the Rockaway Youth Task Force, went on to explain that he believes young people are at the center of many different issues, from being the most common perpetrators and victims of gun violence, to being those disserved by failing school systems, to being unable to afford housing, sometimes due to student debt.

“We’re at the epicenter of everything and until someone comes in like myself and other young leaders who will come behind me, comes in and understands the youth perspective and how we need to continue to invest in youth so that all of that trickles down and translates to everyone else, you will continue to see these problems perpetuate,” Anderson said.

Tenants’ rights, specifically, have been a cause many younger people are rallying around, according to Cea Weaver, a longtime housing activist who helped push stronger rent regulations through the Legislature last year and is the campaign coordinator of the Housing Justice for All coalition.

“New York’s a majority-renter city and it always has been,” said Weaver, who is 31. “So, I think, when you’re talking about New York City, I think it’s been a little bit surprising just how few elected officials have really centered renters’ rights. But I think as people become more active and as the housing market is more and more out of control, I think we’re just seeing a whole generation of younger electeds who are responding to a younger tenants movement.”

Many of the younger state candidates elected in 2018 — particularly Myrie, Biaggi, Ramos, and Salazar — ran on platforms centering tenants’ rights and in opposition to big real estate interests, including promises not to accept donations from developers. Housing was a key issue they had to distinguish themselves from their incumbent opponents, who were generously supported by the real estate industry.

Since then, many more candidates — incumbents and insurgents alike — have taken pledges not to accept real estate donations, and in 2019 historic legislation was passed by the State Legislature and signed by Governor Cuomo to increase protections for millions of rent-regulated tenants.

And it’s an issue that was at the center of many of the recent primaries, such as in Gallagher’s race against incumbent Joe Lentol, where her support of canceling rent contrasted with Lentol’s work in passing a more moderate rent voucher bill, and in Mamdani’s, where he highlighted his opponent breaking her pledge not to accept real estate donations.

Canceling rent is one policy challengers like Gallagher, who sometimes shared similar platforms with their also-progressive opponents, distinguished themselves. While many current Assembly members, like Lentol, dismissed the policy as unrealistic and having the potential to hurt small landlords, Gallagher argued it was essential to help those facing extreme financial insecurity due to the pandemic and who could not pay their rent (the bill in the Legislature would not cancel rent for those who could afford to pay and would provide relief for smaller landlords).

“A lot of these voters, they identify with someone who has student debt, or hasn’t lived in the community as long or hasn’t been paying rent themselves as long in the community and therefore are paying a higher part of their income to live on,” said Jerry Skurnik, a long-time political consultant at Prime New York and former aide to Mayor Ed Koch, in an interview. “I can’t prove it but I’m assuming Joe Lentol, because he lived in his community for 70 years, probably was paying less rent per square foot than Emily Gallagher did, not that he did anything unfair by doing that.”

Like other challengers discussing their own challenges with bills and burdens, Gallagher used her experiences struggling to afford rent to connect to voters during her campaign, and had previously said that, were she not in a rent-stabilized apartment, she likely would not have been able to live in the northern Brooklyn district, which has been home to massive development and accelerated gentrification over the past decade-plus.

“For something of this magnitude, for the times we’re living in,” said Brisport, an extreme measure like canceling rent “is fine, and it should be expected to think completely outside of the box. What’s the alternative, you’re just going to evict a million people? How is that not worse? From a moral standpoint, yes. From a public health standpoint, for the economy, everything, it would actually be more disruptive to have hundreds of thousands, over a million evictions happen in New York than to cancel rent and then have a small fund for landlords.”

Gallagher and Briport, among other younger progressive candidates, held out their personal experiences as renters in New York City in connecting with voters and activists who are passionate about tenants’ rights, according to Weaver.

“A lot of the people who are the young folks in elected office right now are also rent-stabilized tenants,” Weaver said. “Every single candidate is taking the housing crisis much more seriously than their predecessors…We have younger folks who are willing to think creatively about what a solution would look like in this movement and who don’t have decades of housing policy telling them that the most important thing is to bail out the real estate industry.”

But some see defeating older, experienced Assembly members, like Joe Lentol, as a huge loss to the community. Bob Liff, Senior Vice President of George Arzt Communications, said although he has nothing against newcomers like Gallagher, Lentol and others provide a lot of value due to their experience and the connections they build over time.

“What you’re losing is an awful lot of institutional memory,” Liff said in an interview. “And when you’re at a certain age and you think that you are inherently soiled by your experience, well that’s all well and good, until you realize you don’t know where the bodies are buried. These people do because they buried them.”

Liff — who through his firm is a spokesperson for the Brooklyn Democratic Party but was speaking only for himself, he stressed — criticized some younger candidates, especially those in the Democratic Socialists of America, for being seemingly unwilling to acknowledge valid points against them or their policies, such as the fact that the organization does tend to perform best in gentrified areas, and that some of their candidates come from wealthy backgrounds while offering their working-class messaging.

“I’m hopeful, I just think that as you mature hopefully you understand that you need more allies, and that the way that you get more allies is not to trim your sails but to respect the idea that other people might have different views and you might have to work with them. I mean, God forbid, settle for half a loaf,” Liff said, referencing his belief in the necessity to find compromise to achieve meaningful legislation. “It’s an argument for the idea that this country changes in an evolutionary rather than in a revolutionary way. But you can’t tell me that we’re not better off than we were in the 1950s.”

Liff mentioned Ocasio-Cortez as someone he believes has done a great job fighting for her policy goals while also working with her colleagues in Congress.

Brooke Smith, 39, is student body president at CUNY’s Medgar Evers College and a supporter of Anderson. When living in the Rockaways years ago, she saw Anderson volunteering in front of the supermarket, getting signatures for the state senator at the time. Two years later they met again on a bus for a CUNY advocacy trip, and by the end of the day he had shared with her his plan to run for office, and moved her and her husband to donate to him. That donation allowed Anderson to reach the minimum required for him to open his campaign account.

As someone who is not technically a millennial but has worked with many young people pushing for a tuition freeze and free CUNY education, among other things, as a student representative, Smith has a unique perspective on the younger generation, and said she sees a sense of entitlement Liff described as a negative in a more positive light.

“What I’ve noticed is that the younger generation, they’re a lot more radical than the two generations above them,” said Smith, who has also been an advocate for families who have stillbirths after losing her daughter in 2014. After the more radical civil rights era, subsequent generations were more hesitant to seek significant change and reform, she said, until now. “They’re kind of experiencing all the privilege that they should. Not really feeling different. They feel entitled to certain things because they do feel worthy, that they belong here, that they deserve the same treatment, things of that nature. So now, as they start to actually see some of the things that some of these other generations were talking about, they have become more radical because they feel more empowered because of the entitlement that was given to them from several generations down. So, I actually think it’s a beautiful thing because it’s causing a whole different level of change.”

Smith also feels the lack of government experience candidates like Anderson have can also be a plus, as it means they are not as invested in the status quo, echoing a similar sentiment Weaver made regarding old guard politicians’ approach to housing policy.

“That sense of entitlement is going to push them to not really fall into the culture that much,” Smith said. “They’re so radical that I feel like there’s a fearlessness, so I expect to see [Anderson] be able to stand up and bring up to the table that most people are afraid to mention because of their colleagues, because of the things that they have to go back-and-forth with each other, because he’s not coming from that culture.”

Torres similarly said that insurgents' lack of political experience and work on the outside of government is becoming more and more of an advantage, and less of a disadvantage, in these races. A liberal who does not identify as a democratic socialist and has in fact been very critical of the DSA while agreeing on several issues, Torres’ primary win in the Bronx resulted in the DSA’s only local loss of this election cycle. He sees the recent success of younger candidates generally as a sign that people want change, and as many of them are activists, that they want someone used to challenging those in government.

“Young elected officials tend to function as advocates rather than as insiders,” Torres said in an interview. “I think the greatest change is that politics is going to become as much about the outside game as it is about the inside game.”

He said he is part of a generation that “has been failed by the government,” and referenced the rising costs of housing, healthcare, and higher education. Growing up in public housing himself, he said he felt abandoned by the federal government — one of the reasons he recently ran for Congress, which historically has played a greater role in the funding of public housing. After beating the Bronx Democrtic Party’s chosen candidate in his 2013 primary win, Torres has had an independent streak during his Council tenure, and been one of the most vocal critics of Mayor Bill de Blasio, a fellow Democrat.

Torres noted that the only wholly consistent characteristic of the successful insurgents mentioned is their younger ages, suggesting that voters are looking at more than just the policies candidates support.

“Voters are not so much voting for a particular ideology, they’re largely voting for change,” Torres said. “For a new generation of leadership. Because even among the elected officials there are considerable ideological differences.”

Liff and Skurnik both mentioned that, similarly, discontent during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and 1970s led to a movement of young insurgents running against the establishment and for change. Skurnik said Democratic Congressional Rep. Eliot Engel, who recently lost his seat after being outflanked from the left and outworked by Bowman, the democratic socialist former middle school principal, got his start in politics during this time as an anti-war politician. Engel was first elected to the State Assembly in 1977, when he was 30 years old. Lentol also entered office at the age of 30, in 1973, and was often seen as one of the major progressive leaders in the state, especially when it came to criminal justice reform.

“That would be unfair to the incumbents who do grow and do embrace these issues,” Liff said, mentioning how although Lentol was originally for the death penalty, he ended up playing a pivotal role in ending it in New York State. “And the reason there’s been progress on these issues is because they have, in fact, understood the political forces, the fairness, the justice, the inequality issues.”

Similar to those who were motivated to join politics during the Vietnam War, or after Watergate, Skurnik said the election of President Donald Trump in 2016 had a similar effect.

“I would say more Trump than anything else. Trump energized people, generally progressive people, to get more involved and pay more attention,” Skurnik said.

One policy area Trump has motivated movement on is climate change, as he has denied it is happening, called it a “hoax,” took America out of the Paris Climate Agreement, and appointed officials to top posts who have rolled back environmental regulations.

The New York City Sunrise Movement, a youth-led advocacy group focused on electing politicians who recognize the dangers of climate change and support legislation such as The Green New Deal, has had significant success in New York, including by putting major resources to help elect Bowman.

“Trump is a caricature of what was already wrong with American politics, and so I think that he has kind of exaggerated everything that was already going wrong and made it painfully obvious to everyone so that you could no longer possible ignore it,” said Grace Cuddihy, a 16-year-old member of the group.

The NYC Sunrise Movement itself was founded in 2018 and has made substantial efforts to support politicians that oppose Trump’s policies. In New York, they have helped to get many of their endorsed candidates into office, including Mamdani, Brisport, Souffrant Forrest, and other insurgents who won in 2020, as well as some in 2018, including Ocasio-Cortez, Biaggi, and Myrie. Fourteen of their 16 endorsed candidates won this year, many of them younger progressives.

Cuddihy said the organization made 60,000 calls for its endorsed candidates, and its national branch — which she is also a part of — made hundreds of thousands of calls just for Bowman.

“It really is my future and my life and because I am so young — they say we have nine years left, I’m going to be 25,” Cuddihy said, referencing some of the most disastrous projected impending consequences of climate change. “As someone who can’t vote…watching democracy deteriorate before my eyes and not being able to go to the voting booth and do something about it has motivated me to be more active in terms of phone-banking and volunteering for candidates and organizing for political leaders.”

And although the Green New Deal championed by Ocasio-Cortez and many other but not all New York representatives has not gained as much traction in Congress as activists would like, New York has passed significant climate change and green economy legislation that included investments in renewable energy and enacted goals to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and 100% clean power by 2040.

But candidates such as Brisport and Mamdani want more ambitious climate policies, such as making energy a public utility and having New York divest pension funds from fossil fuels (something being pursued to an extent at the city level but not at the state level).

“The threat is right here, it’s already here, it’s happening and the urgency is so right there for my generation that the notion of strong redistributive policies, shifting billions of dollars from the wealthiest people into fighting climate change isn’t some laughable idea, it’s a necessary thing to do,” said Brisport.

While younger and more progressive voters recently helped elect candidates with ambitious left-wing agendas, such as Brisport, it is yet to be seen what the impact will be on the legislative bodies they are entering. When a wave of progressives like Myrie, Biaggi, Ramos, Salazar, and Gounardes helped Democrats to win back the State Senate in 2018, it resulted in sweeping legislation at the state level — although some of the most ambitious far left policy goals were left on the back burner, forming the platforms of some of this year’s insurgent left-wing candidates.

Skurnik thinks a similar thing will happen in 2021, as incoming members will push the state farther left, but not all the way, with policies such as those focused on tenants’ rights.

“They will move more incumbents, the establishment people, to a more progressive position. Maybe not as far as they say they want to go,” Skurnik said. “I don’t think they’re gonna cancel rent, but I think they will do other things for tenants that, three or four years ago, weren’t even on the horizon.”

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been corrected to note that NYC Sunrise did endorse Ocasio-Cortez in the 2018 Democratic primary.

‘The Electorate Has a Bias for Youth and Energy’: Younger Candidates Take New York Politics by Storm Tue, 15 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
'We're in a State of Transition': Bronx Democrats Wrestle with Changing of the Guard Bronx Democrats Heastie Diaz Jr Crespo

Bronx political leaders Heastie, Diaz Jr., Crespo (photo: Bronx Borough President's Office)

To say the Bronx political landscape is changing is simultaneously both a trite observation and a vast understatement. The once-vaunted Democratic machine in the borough is currently leaderless and has lost many of its longtime fixtures in recent years, with more on their way off the political stage. This comes at a time when progressive and anti-establishment forces are gaining momentum across the city, though in some ways less so in the Bronx than other boroughs. But, there have been signs that such shifts are underway in the Bronx, and it’s unclear how much power what’s left of the older guard can hang onto.

What’s at stake is power, representation, and reform, as well as the public policy outcomes that can come from all three. Many of those challenging longtime power brokers are offering more inclusive democracy, more attention to people of color in districts that have been represented by white elected officials, a louder voice for younger Bronxites, and a fight for more progressive policies. 

Several electoral newcomers embodying major change in New York City politics shot to victory in June’s primaries, some by defeating longtime, party-backed incumbents or the political establishment’s chosen candidate. From Khaleel Anderson and Zohran Mamdani in Queens to Jabari Brisport, Phara Souffrant Forrest, Emily Gallagher, and Marcela Mitaynes in Brooklyn, there were a series of Democratic primaries for state legislative seats that made for a youthful, leftist wave.

It also extended to the Bronx, where Jamaal Bowman defeated longtime incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel in their congressional primary (the district also includes part of Westchester), and Amanda Septimo is set to replace 26-year incumbent Assemblymember Carmen Arroyo, who lost her primary ballot spot due to campaign errors. Septimo will join other young progressives, such as Assemblymember Karines Reyes and State Senators Alessandra Biaggi and Gustavo Rivera, in the Bronx’s state legislative delegation.

Along with Engel and Arroyo, many other longtime pillars of Bronx politics have bowed out, or been kicked out by challengers and voters, in recent years -- and others won’t be around soon given announced plans to leave politics. Meanwhile, still others are in the sights of progressives who see blood in the water and an electorate interested in change, with voters apparently more open to giving pink slips to incumbents and welcoming to candidates who both better represent them demographically and champion policies meant to meet their acute needs, which include challenges due to poverty, poor health, crumbling public housing, and more.

Between 2018 and this year, Joe Crowley (whose former district covered parts of the Bronx, in addition to Queens), Jeff Klein, and Engel were all felled by young primary challengers from their left. Jose Serrano, who’s been in Congress for three decades, is retiring. Their replacements -- Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Biaggi, Bowman, and Ritchie Torres, respectively -- represent generational, racial, ethnic, gender, ideological, and LGBTQ-status shifts.

Controversial City Council Member Ruben Diaz Sr. announced that he would be retiring from politics after coming in third in the race to replace Serrano, which was won by his current Council colleague, Torres, and is also pushing out of elected office Assemblymember Michael Blake, who forewent a reelection bid to pursue the seat in Congress and came in second.

Ruben Diaz Jr., who’s been the Borough President for over a decade, surprisingly dropped out of the 2021 mayoral race earlier this year (term limits prevent him from running again for his current post) and said he is leaving politics altogether. A few months later, Marcos Crespo, a longtime ally of both Diaz Jr. and Sr., resigned as both an Assembly member and as chair of the county party.

Chantel Jackson will replace Blake in the Assembly. Amanda Farias, who lost in the 2017 primary as Diaz Sr. moved from the State Senate to the City Council, had already announced her intention to run again in 2021 before Diaz Sr. said he wouldn’t seek another term. Another young progressive who ran in 2017, Michael Beltzer, is also considering running for the seat again. Marjorie Velázquez, also a young progressive, has announced her intention to challenge Council Member Mark Gjonaj, whom she narrowly lost to in 2017 as Gjonaj moved from the Assembly to the Council.

The field to replace Diaz Jr. as Borough President is still developing, with City Council Members Vanessa Gibson and Fernando Carbera and Assemblymember Nathalia Fernandez in the race already.

The Bronx political machine, which has perhaps been the strongest Democratic county party in the five boroughs in recent years, still has power. Before being elected Assembly Speaker, Carl Heastie reigned as Bronx county party leader for over seven years, then passed the baton to Crespo, an ally, and still wields tremendous influence over the party, as well as the entire city and state given his perch in Albany.

Many current elected officials in the borough have ties to the party apparatus, as do candidates for City Council running in the 2021 elections that will see all of city government on the ballot. The party was influential in selecting and electing Darcel Clarke to become Bronx District Attorney as her predecessor left the post for a judgeship in a move orchestrated by county leaders, who continue to have strong influence over judicial appointments and patronage jobs at various government offices, like the Board of Elections.

But given recent losses, departures, and planned departures, the future of the county party’s power is very much unknown. A lot depends on Heastie, as well as the next county party chair, and the machinations and outcomes of the 2021 election cycle, which will then be followed by a state and federal election year in 2022.

Other examples of change in Bronx politics -- dominated by Democrats who enjoy an overwhelming voter registration advantage in the borough, which currently has not one Republican elected official (other than President Trump, whom Bronx voters opposed but for 9.5% of the 2016 vote) -- are developing.

State Senator Biaggi recently left the Benjamin Franklin Reform Democratic Club (BFRDC), a local powerbroker, to form her own political club in the area. She told the Riverdale Press that “My values are not aligned with what the club's leadership is representing.” 

Longtime Assemblymember Jeffrey Dinowitz, a member of the BFRDC, received only 63.5% of the vote in his 81st Assembly District (Riverdale, Kingsbridge) primary against what one person familiar with Bronx politics described as “token opposition.” Dinowitz’s district partially overlaps with Biaggi’s 34th Senate District. He could face difficult reelection prospects in 2022 if a well-resourced candidate emerges. The Assemblymember’s son, Eric Dinowitz, is currently running in City Council District 11, which will likely have a special election early next year after incumbent Council Member Andrew Cohen was nominated for a Supreme Court judgeship at last month’s judicial convention, a process heavily controlled by county party leadership.

“I am elated about what’s happening in the Bronx right now and I’m looking forward to working with whoever the City Council brings us next year, because it will be a better batch than before,” said State Senator Rivera, who won his seat in 2010 as an independent reformer without county party support.

“We’re in a state of transition and it gives new people the opportunity to be tried out and step into the void,” said Bronx Assemblymember Victor Pichardo, who told Gotham Gazette he is considering a run for county party chair.

Although Heastie wields tremendous political power as Assembly Speaker, the county party’s ability to run candidates for open seats (with no incumbent) and win or to protect incumbents appears significantly diminished. Given the city is on the eve of the 2021 municipal elections, those many races are likely to be more wide open and competitive than in past cycles.

“The county organization’s purpose for the last decade has really been, how do we best organize ourselves so we provide the best base so that Ruben [Diaz Jr.] can run for mayor,” said Rivera. “As you saw, as soon as Diaz Jr. dropped out, then all of a sudden the county chair [Marcos Crespo] said ‘alright, then I’m out, deuces.’ He didn’t even wait until the year was done!”

With Diaz Jr. out of the mayoral race, the Bronx county party’s support is up for grabs among the remaining candidates, as will potentially be the backing of the Bronx’s new delegation of Council members in the race to succeed Corey Johnson as speaker, which will unfold in late 2021 and January 2022. But as shifts in borough politics indicate, it’s unclear how much weight a county party endorsement for mayor will carry, and whether there will be a cohesive block of county votes for the next Council speaker.

“Overall, there’s a sentiment where people have felt like they’ve been excluded politically and now they want a voice,” said Assemblymember Reyes, noting that this is a phenomena citywide, not just in the Bronx. Combined with many incumbent officeholders leaving public life, “it’s made the Bronx a hotbed for progressive change. People just want change and history has shown us that happens all the time. We’re in the middle of that right now.”

“The problem I have [with the county party],” Rivera said, using a Game of Thrones reference, “is that I don’t ‘bend the knee.’ Ultimately, for me, there are so many people that are more about the intrigue than the policy.” Rivera and others Gotham Gazette spoke with for this article believe that the county party has been slow to adapt to the contemporary reality in the Bronx and slow to include newer demographic groups and progressives in its processes.

These changes come at a time of acute pressure for the Bronx, on top of longstanding systemic problems. The Bronx is home to the highest poverty rates in the city and the country, is where a disproportionate share of the city’s “essential workers” live, and is the borough hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, both in terms of fatalities and economic consequences.

Since Ruben Diaz Jr. assumed the borough presidency, the borough’s unemployment rate fell from 14.1% in January 2010 to 4.6% in February 2020, an all-time low for the Bronx. But amid the coronavirus fallout, the unemployment rate in the Bronx jumped to 19.8% as of July. At the same time, the Bronx has languished as the unhealthiest county in the state, while also placing last in several other quality-of-life metrics.

“We’re the unhealthiest borough, we’re the poorest borough, and there’s a lot of scrutiny now,” John Doyle, a former City Council candidate and Bronx political reformer, told Gotham Gazette. “The Bronx machine was caught resting on its laurels, because until Trump got elected, people were never really opening the hood and kicking the tires on their Democratic incumbents.”

Several elected officials and others interviewed by Gotham Gazette pointed to the 2016 presidential election as the spark for many Bronxites to get involved in local politics for the first time. Groups like Bronx Progressives and the Bronx/Upper Manhattan Democratic Socialists of America branch were created in the wake of Trump’s election. That helped encourage several insurgent candidates like Farias, Beltzer, Velázquez, and Doyle to run in 2017, and led to two of the most consequential and stunning upsets in modern New York political history in Ocasio-Cortez’s and Biaggi’s 2018 wins. Now, Bowman followed suit in 2020. 

County Party Chair Race
While there is little overt campaigning going on for Bronx Democratic Party chair, there are several candidates maneuvering largely behind the scenes to replace Crespo in the top job in the borough’s political apparatus. The party convention, where the next party chair will be elected, will likely take place in September, although this is not definite due to the pandemic.

The county chair is elected by a simple majority of the district leaders. The executive committee (which includes Assemblymembers Latoya Joyner, Jeffrey Dinowitz, and Michael Bendetto, among others) can exercise a role in the process, but act like “super-delegates” and traditionally within the Bronx county committee, the executive committee would not overturn the decision of the district leaders.

As Gothamist reported last month, nine of the 24 district leaders in the Bronx were elected without county party support. However, according to Beltzer, a cofounder of the group Local Democrats, the nine aren’t necessarily anti-establishment progressives. “It’s a good sign, but I’m not sure if it’s necessarily a progressive sign. I don’t know that the nine people who ran would call themselves progressive. They could just be community- and politically-minded folks who just work outside the machine.”

Assemblymembers Victor Pichardo, Latoya Joyner, and Karines Reyes, among others, have all been touted as potential next county party bosses. Pichardo and Reyes would both be the first Dominican to hold the position; Joyner and Reyes would be the first woman in the position.

“I see myself as a bridge-builder,” said Pichardo, who has made public his intention to run for county party chair, in an interview with Gotham Gazette, highlighting a desire to focus on “solutions that benefit the people we serve” over “political wrangling and bickering.”

As county party chair, Pichardo says he would “bring all the stakeholders together and try to hash out the differences among members and community leaders. People really need to understand what the Bronx Democratic Party is about and we need to define it for ourselves. The new Democratic Party is a big tent party. We can harness all that energy for the greater good.”

Pichardo sees the recent success of progressive organizations and candidates in the Bronx as “nothing new. The left-wing movement has existed in the Bronx since at least the 1960s,” with the growth of the Puerto Rican community in the borough at the time. “It’s a cyclical thing that happens and now there’s a new wave with change that’s hopefully for the better.”

“For me, it’s about bringing everybody together because the more that we fight internally and politically, the less focus we have on the real issues here in the borough,” Pichardo said.

While Reyes told Gotham Gazette she’s “not actively campaigning” for the post, she does have ideas on what the next county party chair should do once elected and said she’d consider vying for the position if the support is there.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty within the body of the party to determine how this will go,” Reyes said in an interview. “The person who is going to take this seat is not just going to have to campaign in the old sense of getting people in line, but whoever’s vying for this seat needs to talk to these new district leaders about how to make the party different and more inclusive.”

Reyes wants to make the county party’s endorsement process more transparent, saying “the purpose of the party is to inform and educate the electorate and that requires a lot of organizing and getting people involved, which hasn’t been the case. The party has been good at engaging those folks who’ve always been engaged, but they haven’t been good at the new base of the Democratic electorate.”

“The next chair of the party is in for a big headache,” Reyes continued.“I anticipate that elected officials in the Bronx will always have primaries going forward.” Reyes said this is a positive change.

Generational & Demographic Shifts
“We’re seeing a generational shift,” said Eli Valentin, a political analyst, professor, and Democratic consultant. “The electorate is tending to be more in line with the progressive values of the younger generation, because we’re also seeing a generational shift with the voting population.”

The Bronx has the youngest median age of any of the city’s boroughs at 34, compared to the citywide median of 36.6.

In 2016, the average age of the four members of the House of Representatives representing at least part of the Bronx was 70.5 years, but come next year the average age of the Bronx’s four House representatives will be 43.3, a shift catalyzed by the ascension of City Council Member Torres to replace retiring Rep. Serrano, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez defeating Crowley, and Bowman defeating Engel. Rep. Adriano Espaillat also represents parts of the borough, taking the post after Charles Rangel’s retirement.

Additionally, out of those four, two -- Ocasio-Cortez and Bowman -- are members of the Democratic Socialists of America.

The Bronx’s 15-person state legislative delegation had an average age of 54.4 in 2016, but the average age will be 42.8 in the new year, with younger legislators like Septimo, Reyes, Biaggi, and Jamaal Bailey replacing older predecessors in recent years.

“The Bronx is changing in a way I haven’t seen in my lifetime,” said J.C. Polanco, a Republican consultant from the Bronx and former Board of Elections commissioner. “Politicians used to get elected with only a couple thousand votes, so a well-oiled insurgent campaign can end up winning.” Polanco said he doesn’t always think that’s a good thing.

The borough also has more women as a share of the population than any other borough (89.2 men for every 100 women, compared to 91.2 for every 100 citywide). In 2014, three of the 15 members of the Bronx’s state legislative delegation were women, but that number will increase to five of 15 in the new year.

In the City Council, only two of the nine districts that cover at least part of the Bronx are represented by women (Diana Ayala and Vanessa Gibson). As the 2021 city election cycle heats up, there is currently at least one woman running in all nine districts. Meanwhile, Gibson and Fernandez are seeking the borough presidency.

“We’re no longer waiting for permission to run,” Reyes said, when asked about the recent surge in women candidates seeking office in the borough.

The Bronx has long been the least-white borough in New York City, but the white population has declined by more than a third in recent decades, making up 14.5% of residents in 2000 but only 9% as of 2019. There are only two white state Assemblymembers left from the Bronx (longtime Assemblymembers Jeffrey Dinowitz and Michael Benedetto), while there were three earlier this decade.

The decline in the borough’s white population, which has traditionally been predominant in northern Bronx neighborhoods such as Riverdale, can be attributed to older white residents moving or dying, and an increase in the number of immigrants and Bronxites of color throughout the borough. So far at least, a recent influx of new white residents in the South Bronx, enticed by relatively cheaper rent than nearby Manhattan, has not offset this change. Additionally, many Dominican New Yorkers have been priced out of Upper Manhattan and many have moved to the Bronx.

“I don’t think gentrification will be as pronounced [in the South Bronx] as it is in other parts of the city,” Valentin said. He attributes this to one key difference between the South Bronx and areas of the city that are currently experiencing gentrification, such as western Queens and northwest Brooklyn, which is that there is a higher concentration of public housing developments in the South Bronx than those places, which will make gentrification of the South Bronx a slower process than what has taken place elsewhere.

While Bronx politics has been dominated for decades by the Puerto Rican community (including Serrano, Diaz Jr., Diaz Sr., Crespo, Torres, and others now and in the past), several newer elected officials, such as Reyes and Pichardo, hail from the growing Dominican community in the borough (Espaillat is also Dominican). While the two communities share some similarities and common issues (such as language access), immigration is a key concern for Dominican Americans in a way that it is not for Puerto Rican Americans, who are American citizens from birth.

“We as a Dominican community, as an immigrant community, can no longer be ignored,” said Reyes. “People want representation that looks like them, understands their culture, and speaks to them, because there are nuances.”

This is just one nuance that differentiates this ascendant community from the entrenched political powers in the borough. Furthermore, the Dominican diaspora is often politically divided internally along party lines in the Dominican Republic. Last month, the Dominican Republic held its presidential election and, in the period leading up to it, Bronxites in some neighborhoods were more likely to see posters for Dominican presidential candidates than New York primary candidates.

“In the primaries, when I was out campaigning, there were folks campaigning for an election in another country. It seems like they were even more active for those campaigns than the campaigns here. There’s a bit of apathy for American politics,” Reyes told Gotham Gazette.

Dominican Americans “are very much entrenched in Dominican politics and that divides them even here in the Bronx. That makes it very hard to organize them as a Dominican community, because they’re fragmented within themselves,” said Reyes.

Rise of Progressive Groups in the Bronx
“The Bronx is definitely changing for the better, politically. We have more people engaged, more people holding electeds accountable, and electing people that represent their values,” said Amanda Farias, who is running again in City Council District 18 in 2021 after competing against Diaz Sr. in 2017. “I can only see it getting more progressive and democracy moving more left in the Bronx.”

“Progressive organizations are getting better and better at identifying and working with young, progressive people of color in those districts who relate to their communities” said Camille Rivera, a consultant at New Deal Strategies. “It’s not the same-old, same-old lefty, DSA brand. They’ve created a space where energetic community organizers can run and make a difference.”

“The Bronx Democratic Party feels less invincible than it did a year ago, but we still have hints of their power,” said Jazz Hooks, of the Bronx/Uptown Manhattan branch of the New York City branch of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). “We have a lot of potential. Our message can reach far beyond who the conventional wisdom says it can reach.”

“The racial dynamics [within the DSA] are something that we need to address and we are seeing progress,” said Hooks, who co-founded the NYC-DSA’s Afro-Socialist Caucus, noting the better-than-expected performance of Samelys López in the Democratic Primary for the 15th Congressional District, in the South Bronx, shows that the DSA’s message appeals to communities of color.

While not a citywide group, the Bronx Progressives are a new group with similar objectives (López is a co-founder). According to Beltzer, the Bronx Progressives “came out of the Bernie Sanders movement in 2016 and we wanted to make sure that we continued to organize the community. We wanted to make sure that people had a political home that might not exist in the county organization.”

Beltzer says “a lot of progressives in the Bronx are still in their own silos, but it’s definitely something that’s building.”

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

Note - this article has been updated.

'We're in a State of Transition': Bronx Democrats Wrestle with Changing of the Guard Sun, 23 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Returning Power to the People by Rebalancing the State Budget Process Cuomo budget presentation bowl guests

Gov. Cuomo presents a budget plan (photo: Darren McGee/Governor's Office)

The job of state legislators is to craft laws that protect New Yorkers and advance equal opportunity and justice. A significant part of that job is shaping our state budget, which funds our schools, our health care, our transportation systems, and a long list of vital other public services. During a global pandemic, this already crucial responsibility has reached a new level of importance. But, over the years, in the strange world of Albany, the role and power of the New York Legislature during the budget process has been stripped away.

It’s time to re-balance the power between the Legislative and Executive branches of state government, and take back the people’s seat at the table, by amending the State Constitution and passing the Budget Equity Act.

Government works best when the checks and balances inherent to our democratic process remain unobstructed, we honor the bulwarks of our democracy, and empower co-equal branches of government. This is true at the federal level, and also at the state and local levels.

Our democracy was built on the idea that no person or branch of government should accrue too much power. But this democratic principle is not upheld in New York State. This is because a long line of governors have increasingly used a state constitutional provision from 1927 to minimize the role of legislators and grow their own centralized power in the budget process. In addition to seizing dominant control over how to fund or cut critical services, they have used their power to further their own policy agendas by putting consequential legislation directly into the state budget.

When the executive branch puts policy directly into the budget, the language cannot be amended by the Legislature. Unless the governor chooses to change their own budget bill, the Legislature’s only option is to go along with what the governor demands or reject the budget entirely. There is no debate, no room for change, no room for anyone else’s opinions – most importantly the public’s. And for years now, governors have been pushing the bounds of their executive power far beyond the purely budgetary matters for which it was intended.

This end-run around the legislative process has been used to create laws without allowing for the open and public process that new policies deserve. For example, just this year, policies like whether nursing homes should be shielded from liability if they are negligent in their treatment of COVID-19 patients (which we both opposed) and expanding New York’s prevailing wage laws to include publicly-subsidized construction (which we both supported), have become law via this undemocratic process. There was no opportunity for debate or modification without rejecting the entire state budget. A difficult vote we were forced to take.

Surely our system can’t be so far from what our founders spelled out. But unfortunately, this is what our state constitution says, as interpreted by the courts.

As legislators, we are elected to represent our constituents, but their voices are silenced when we are not allowed to fully exercise our rightful role in making laws. Our founders recognized that the process of vigorous debate and discussion, with the full engagement of legislators from very disparate communities to be able to perfect the budget into the best possible piece of legislation, was the best way to ensure that all voices and viewpoints are considered before an idea becomes law.

No matter how you feel about nursing home liability or prevailing wage policies, we can all agree that they deserve as full a public airing, consideration, and opportunity for amendment as other laws. Indeed, preserving each legislator’s role in addressing bills like those is not only critical for ensuring the best process for public involvement, it is also vital for the electoral accountability on which our democracy is founded.

Our proposed amendment to the New York State Constitution would correct this imbalance of power. It simply requires that the Governor clearly indicate any non-budgetary policy changes contained within their proposed budget, and ensure that the Legislature has the authority to amend those policy changes through the normal amendment process.

We live in a time when more and more of the residents we serve feel disenfranchised by their government and worry about the concentration of power in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals. By passing the Budget Equity Act – which then would be voted on in a statewide referendum – we can give the people the more representative government they are rightfully owed.

State Senator Alessandra Biaggi represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester. Assemblymember Richard Gottfried represents parts of Manhattan. On Twitter @SenatorBiaggi & @DickGottfried.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Returning Power to the People by Rebalancing the State Budget Process Tue, 21 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Voter Turnout in New York City Was Cratering; Then Came 2018 biaggi voters

Alessandra Biaggi on the 2018 campaign trail (photo: @Biaggi4NY)

This story, and the series it is a part of, has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.


On the night of September 13, 2018, a wave crashed through New York state politics.

For years, pressure had been mounting on the members of the Independent Democratic Conference, or the IDC, a small group of high-profile and controversial Democrats who caucused with Republicans in the New York State Senate. At times, the IDC effectively barred the mainline Democratic conference from holding a majority in the chamber, hobbling party-backed legislation and affording its members major leverage in Albany.

The presence of the IDC also appeared to hamper Democratic efforts every two-year cycle to swing certain State Senate districts from Republican to Democratic hands, meaning a split Legislature with Democrats in control of the Assembly. After the election of President Donald Trump in November of 2016, significant additional pressure grew on the members of the IDC and their Democratic allies, which included Governor Andrew Cuomo.

By April of 2018 and facing his own reelection campaign with a primary challenge from his left, Cuomo brokered a deal with the IDC to dissolve and rejoin the mainstream Democrats, with an eye toward capturing the majority together as Cuomo sought to quell a progressive uprising and secure a third term. But the damage was already done, at least for IDC members who provoked such backlash in their districts that activists were set on removing them from office.

A group of largely young, progressive challengers rose up in the districts, recruited and bolstered by the Working Families Party, grassroots groups, community activists, and a smattering of elected officials. By the end of primary night in September 2018, six of the eight former IDC members had been knocked out (while Cuomo secured victory by a wide margin). 

Those Senate challengers would go on to win their general elections and, along with newly elected colleagues that gave Democrats the majority, become massive forces in Albany, championing landmark rent, criminal justice, gun control, environmental, and voting reforms — among others — that were centerpieces of a historic 2019 legislative session.

Though some of the most striking images of that September 2018 primary election night come from the victors — pictures of the Bronx’s Alessandra Biaggi with her fist raised in the air, or Queens’ Jessica Ramos surrounded by cheering supporters — images only tell part of this story. 

The other part isn’t as flashy, but speaks to something more powerful: voter turnout. Voters across New York went to the polls in record numbers for the 2018 state primary elections — the gubernatorial primary more than doubled the votes cast four years prior, and some districts surpassed turnout during the 2016 presidential primary. Still, New York City voter turnout numbers have a long way to go, never in recent years hitting 40 percent in a primary other than when there is a presidential election, a trend that helped lead to the sweeping electoral and voting reforms, like early voting, passed in 2019.

The map below shows where turnout increased the most and the least in the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary compared to the 2014 primary.

1 govturnout withoutlines 061120

Overall, the Senate districts represented by IDC members saw voter turnout spikes in line with the overall trend, but within those districts, much of the increases came in geographic areas where the challengers did especially well, a new Gotham Gazette analysis shows. 

The reasons for the voter spike are far more complex than a single night, or even the months of anger among Democrats who finally learned about their rogue state senators. And while in 2018 many New York Democrats were still reeling from Donald Trump’s election as president, it wasn’t that simple either — individual campaigns, newly-formed grassroots groups, and long-standing labor unions and other organizations all played a role in bringing many more voters to the polls. Some relied on tried and true tactics, while others got more creative.

The groups that rose or grew in 2018, and the tactics they developed that year, were ready for a big 2020 — until the pandemic hit. But many of the same activists are again doing all they can, albeit under very different circumstances, to see their favored candidates win in this month’s primaries for congressional and state legislative races. Even as New York City could see a major drop in voter participation, those 2018 successes are still reverberating throughout the state as lawmakers pass bills dealing with public health and police accountability. 

‘Trump Democrats’
Donald Trump’s divisive presidential victory in 2016 sparked a wave of renewed political activism across the United States. Huge demonstrations marked the early days of Trump’s administration, such as the 2017 Women’s March or the protests over a travel ban on countries in the Middle East and Africa.

In New York, grassroots organizations began to coalesce around electing progressives to local and state political positions. Though over half of eligible voters had turned out for the November general election in 2016, the state primary turnout rate that September was abysmal: only 10 percent of voters had come out. 

 For many, the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) of the State Senate was the first on their list for change. 

“People were angry,” said Mia Pearlman, a co-founder of True Blue NY. The idea for True Blue was born soon after Trump’s election, at a Park Slope meeting where people were gathering to politically organize. 

 “A lot of people who were at the meeting lived in [State Senator] Jesse Hamilton’s district at the time and were really upset to find out the morning after Election Day that not only was Donald Trump president, but that their own Democratic state senator was empowering Republicans,” she said of Hamilton, an IDC member. 

True Blue began on the idea that even though New York was seen as a Democratic bastion by others around the country, on the state government level, it struggled to pass meaningful progressive legislation. This was in part due to the IDC, and how complacent so many Democrats were about its presence and a Republican-controlled State Senate. In the months after Trump’s election, grassroots groups like True Blue and a network of Indivisible groups sprung up and tapped into the outrage people felt to get them more involved in local politics.

In part, they pointed people angry over Trump’s election to the State Senate, with its Republican control bolstered by rogue Democrats.

True Blue began to reach out to other grassroots groups in districts represented by IDC members, building a coalition of over 45 organizations. The main strategy was voter education — whether that meant protests, phone-banking, tabling at events, handing out informational palm cards, and sending handwritten postcards to voters to convince them to turn out against the IDC.

“The biggest issue with the IDC was that most people didn’t know that their own state senator was in the IDC, or they didn’t know what that was,” Pearlman said. The groups utilized one of their biggest assets — time — to educate voters in the months between early 2017 and the September 2018 primary election.

This initial campaign against the IDC began before the districts even had candidates to put up against IDC members, which was key, according to Pearlman.

“By the time we started to recruit candidates, along with No IDC New York and other groups, we sort of created an opening for them to have the opportunity to win,” she said. 

“The way that the 2018 election went was that it really started 18 months prior, with the notion of, ‘We need to go out and do constituent and voter outreach and engagement on the issues,” said Ricky Silver, the co-lead organizer with Empire State Indivisible, a grassroots political activist group formed following the 2016 presidential election and part of the True Blue NY coalition. 

Silver said that the races against IDC members were powered largely by enthusiastic volunteers. Empire State Indivisible was able to draw volunteers in by hosting forums across the city about particular issues, like education funding or the climate crisis, and educating residents about how the IDC slowed progress on those issues, the importance of electing “real Democrats” and of flipping control of the State Senate (the November elections, with a focus on one Republican-held Brooklyn State Senate seat and others in the city’s suburbs, were always on activists’ minds, even as they focused on the primaries first).

“People showed up because they cared about the issues, and then we were able to get them involved because they understood the pathway to a new vision was electoral. And that’s how we were able to grow the movement,” he said. 

Meanwhile, a slate of statewide races was about to rocket progressive politics, the debate over what it means to be a “real Democrat” (AKA “True Blue”), and the need to control the State Senate, to the forefront of New York political consciousness. 

Backed by the Working Families Party and other progressives, actor and activist Cynthia Nixon ran for governor against Cuomo. The WFP bet big on Nixon, despite upsetting some longtime political allies, and endangering its financial support from labor unions afraid of incurring Cuomo’s wrath. Nixon’s race was accompanied by competitive primary campaigns for lieutenant governor, between incumbent Kathy Hochul and challenger Jumaane Williams, then a City Council member, as well as for the “open” state attorney general seat.

The WFP credited the threat Nixon and Williams posed to Cuomo as the reason the governor brokered the deal to dissolve the IDC, following long-standing accusations that Cuomo backed and benefited from the IDC-GOP arrangement, which Nixon made central to her campaign.

The WFP also took on the IDC, launching a campaign against what they called the “Trump Democrats” in May 2017. The campaign organized thousands of voters against the IDC, giving insurgent candidates a head start before even officially entering their races. WFP ran nightly texting and phone banking activities with over 1000 shifts, and by the end of the campaign, had identified 10,000 voters who would vote against their IDC member in the Senate.

Thanks to the shock of Trump’s victory and these organizing efforts, well over a year before the September 2018 primaries, many New York Democrats were engaged in local politics for the first time.

Central Brooklyn
In Brooklyn, trouble was brewing for Jesse Hamilton, a two-term legislator who had joined the IDC shortly before the 2016 general election

Despite the IDC’s dissolution, many prominent borough Democrats continued to denounce Hamilton’s actions as self-serving well into the primary season, though Hamilton continued to have the support of Borough President Eric Adams. 

Members of the Brooklyn Congressional delegation, state legislators, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, chose to back Zellnor Myrie, a young lawyer trying to unseat Hamilton in Central Brooklyn’s 20th State Senate District.

The campaign got a boost from the WFP, which provided Myrie with media training and campaign support, and from grassroots activists and local political clubs who wanted a bluer district. 

“There was a lot of energy in the air for a real Democrat, and not a law and order Trump Democrat,” according to Myrie’s senior campaign advisor André Richardson. 

Myrie’s supporters took to the streets to drum up buzz for their candidate. For the Brooklyn Young Democrats, a club that endorsed Myrie that spring, that meant extensive canvassing, door-knocking, and days of action. 

“We all went out there in a storm for him, not only because [he was] against the IDC, but because he was speaking to issues in the community,” BYD President Christina Das said. Das estimates that the club knocked around 2,000 doors for Myrie, and held three or four days of actions either in conjunction with other organizations, or on its own. 

A native Brooklynite, Myrie had strong roots in the district, which spans through parts of Sunset Park, Park Slope, Crown Heights, Prospect Lefferts Gardens, and Brownsville. The district is diverse, but predominantly black — of the nearly 310,000 people living in District 20 in 2018, 50 percent were black, 19 percent were white, and another 19 were Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. 

One of Myrie’s main focuses in his campaign was affordable housing and tenant protections, goals that spoke to a district that is home to an overwhelming majority of renters, who faced challenges with rising costs.

“It was a great race because everyone was kind of in it together in the neighborhood,” BYD Executive Vice President Julia Elmaleh-Sachs said. 

In 2014, the year Hamilton was first elected, there were roughly 129,000 active registered Democrats in the district, but only around 15,000 voted in the primary, which was quite competitive as Hamilton edged out Rubain Dorancy, who had backing from de Blasio, among others. Hamilton won with almost 10,000 of those votes. Then in 2016, Hamilton went through primary season uncontested. In the heavily-Democratic district the Democratic primary is tantamount to full electoral victory.

2018 was going to be a very different year as those frustrated by the IDC, including many educated and activated after Trump’s election, went from not fielding a primary challenger to Hamilton to immense organizing behind Myrie.

On primary day in 2018, Myrie defeated Hamilton by almost 4,000 votes. Voter enrollment and participation in the district saw significant spikes, with 44,000 of the roughly 141,000 eligible Democrats casting a ballot. The increase from 15,000 votes in Hamilton’s contested 2014 primary to the 44,000 votes in Myrie’s victory over the incumbent made for almost a 300 percent increase in raw turnout, and the district was in line with the overall turnout jump seen in the gubernatorial race from 2014 to 2018. 

Part of Myrie’s success stemmed from his ability to garner support from different facets of Brooklyn’s Democrats, from longtime black voters to newcomers and progressives, Richardson said. 

“I think Zellnor’s case was a very unique case because he was able to bridge that divide,” Richardson said of longtime black voters, newcomers to the district, and white progressives. Myrie’s campaign attracted hundreds of volunteers, Richardson added, attributing part of Myrie’s success to his authenticity and speaking to the needs of the district across demographic and other divides.

Myrie nabbed the greatest share of votes in Gowanus, Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Prospect Lefferts Gardens and parts of Crown Heights and Sunset Park. In several of these areas, turnout jumped enormously from. The map below, from the CUNY Mapping Service at the Center for Urban Research, CUNY Graduate Center, shows where Myrie and Hamilton each did well: 

2 nysenate20 primary results 2018

The Bronx and Westchester
When Alessandra Biaggi, a lawyer in the Cuomo administration and former staffer on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, began her campaign to unseat State Senator Jeff Klein — a founder and the leader of the IDC — from Senate District 34 in the Bronx and Westchester, she understood the stakes. 

“I didn’t go into it thinking to myself, ‘I’m going to absolutely win,’ Biaggi said in a recent interview. “I went in thinking to myself, ‘We probably won’t win. But what we will do is have a win in the loss.’ Because we’re going to raise awareness about an issue that is so devastating to the state. And people are finally going to be excited about their state government and want to fight for it.”

As the head of the IDC, Klein held immense power in state government, and was a major target for progressives. With millions of dollars in Klein’s war chest and his strong web of political connections made over decades, however, most pundits considered a challenge to Klein almost unwinnable. 

In 2014, Klein faced a challenge from former New York Attorney General Oliver Koppell and kept his seat fairly easily, winning with over 9,000 votes compared to Koppell’s roughly 5,000. According to voter enrollment data from that November, about 101,000 active Democrats were registered to vote in the district, which encompasses parts of the Bronx and southern Westchester County, including Riverdale, Hunts Point, Throggs Neck, Pelham Parkway, City Island, and Pelham. 

In 2016, Klein was unopposed in the primary. 

Biaggi’s campaign was assisted by anti-IDC groups that started educating voters in the district about the IDC before Biaggi even started running, according to her 2018 campaign manager Luke Hayes. 

The campaign tapped into community members in the district, generating support in key neighborhoods through word-of-mouth. Together with Biaggi and other organized forces, they started to knock on doors.

“It was a scrappy campaign. We knew we weren’t going to outraise Klein,” Hayes said of the assumed fundraising disadvantage. By the end of the race, Klein would spend more than $3 million on his campaign, an unusually high total for a state legislative race, and 10 times more than Biaggi spent. 

Biaggi said that fundraising became less integral to her campaign than canvassing and meeting with voters.

“I was going to win this thing on the doors. I laced up my sneakers every single day and I was knocking on doors,” she said. She and her supporters engaged with many thousands of voters up to and including primary election day. 

She also credits young, politically active students, some high school-aged, with helping to activate the community around her campaign. About 324,000 people lived in the district in 2018. Of that number, 43 percent were Hispanic, 34 percent were white, 14 percent were black and 6 percent were Asian, according to American Community Survey data. 

“When you have a dynamic candidate like Alessandra, when you can engage with a candidate one-on-one, that can counteract a lot of ads,” Hayes said. 

Support from groups and officials were also key. 

“Endorsements are a big deal,” Biaggi said. “If you are going to be endorsed by, for example, the Working Families Party, which was my first endorsement, it gives you legitimacy.” 

The powerful union 32BJ SEIU backed Biaggi in a big way, mobilizing thousands of members to conduct phone-banking and door-knocking from six weeks before the primary. The move surprised some in the state political scene, as 32BJ’s president at the time, the late Hector Figueroa, had initially helped to kick off attempted IDC reunification with Democrats in 2017. In a 2018 interview with Gotham Gazette, Figueroa said that he thought that the IDC was not sincere in its efforts to fix Democratic unity and explained the 32BJ decision to buck the deal orchestrated by Cuomo. 

Silver, of Empire State Indivisible, points to the cooperation of a litany of organizations, such as the WFP, unions like 32BJ, and grassroots organizations, as one of the keys to Biaggi’s success in appealing to a diverse district. 

“It was that sort of coalescing of organizations that made it powerful,” he said. 

City Comptroller Scott Stringer and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson voiced their support for Biaggi in June 2018, giving the campaign more legitimacy, adding media buzz, and bringing their networks of volunteers to campaign for her. The New York Times endorsed her later that summer. 

When the results rolled in that September, it was a shocking upset: Biaggi had nabbed 19,000 votes to Klein’s 16,000. There were a total of 107,000 Democrats eligible to vote in the district that November. The jump in voter turnout from Klein’s last challenge in 2014 was significant, moving from around 14,000 voters to around 35,000 voters, or increasing by 250 percent. The parts of the district where Biaggi did best also saw the biggest jumps in voter turnout from 2014 to 2018.

The precincts Klein did best in had lower jumps in voter turnout compared to Biaggi’s best precincts. In the Bronx, Biaggi had the greatest share of votes in Riverdale, Fieldston, Kingsbridge and City Island.

“For Senate District 34, the green precincts match up well with Klein's best precincts, especially around Castle Hill and the Throgs Neck area, while most of the orange precincts match up perfectly with Biaggi's best precincts, centered around Van Cortlandt Park,” said Benjamin Rosenblatt, president of Tidal Wave Strategies, who performed data analysis and mapping for Gotham Gazette for this piece. The first map below, created by Rosenblatt, shows where turnout jumped the most and least in 2018, from 2014, for Senate District 34. The second map below, from the CUNY Mapping Service, shows where Biaggi and Klein each did well.

3 sd34 withlines


3 nysenate34 primary results 2018

Western Queens
In Queens, Jessica Ramos, a former mayoral aide, was challenging State Senator Jose Peralta for his seat in Senate District 13. 

Peralta joined the IDC in early 2017, claiming that it was a pragmatic choice to best serve the district during the new era of Trumpian policy. At a packed town hall soon after the decision was announced, some residents protested, calling Peralta a “traitor.” 

A legislator with almost two decades of experience, Peralta had no competition in the district’s Democratic primary for the entire time he held the seat, running unopposed in the primary in 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016. 

The district’s neighborhoods, including Jackson Heights, Corona, and East Elmhurst, are home to large immigrant communities. Of its population of 302,000 in 2018, over half were born outside of the United States, according to American Community Survey data. Of the district residents, 62 percent were Hispanic, 17 percent were Asian, 14 percent were white and 6 percent were black. 

Trump’s rhetoric and policies against immigrants, such as the ‘public charge’ rule or travel bans to certain countries, directly impact residents in those communities, and led many to question how Peralta could align himself with the IDC, which bolstered Republican leadership of the State Senate, preventing major immigrant-friendly legislation from passing. That included the Dream Act that Peralta championed and he apparently saw as possible to get passed with added leverage as part of the IDC.

Make the Road Action, a leading immigrant rights group that is very active in the district, endorsed Ramos for the Senate seat in July 2018, and set out to have thousands of its members phone-banking, canvassing, and engaging voters for Ramos.

Progressives in the district were energized by the stunning upset political unknown Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had in June against then-U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley, the Queens County Democratic Party boss and one of the highest ranking Democrats in Congress. New York’s 14th Congressional District overlaps with Senate District 13. There was a renewed sense of what was possible after Ocasio-Cortez’s win as Ramos and her supporters eyed the sprint from the June congressional primaries to the September state primaries (those primaries were merged to June starting this year).

“Most of all, I think her win has created a lot of enthusiasm for the small “d” democratic process in the district and that enthusiasm is what we’re hoping to maintain our momentum,” Ramos told City & State in the summer of 2018. 

Other political powerhouses and grassroots organizations coalesced around Ramos. The WFP helped her hire key staff, consulted on her campaign, and identified thousands of voters for her. Stringer backed Ramos in March. In the summer after Crowley fell, de Blasio, for whom Ramos had previously worked, and Johnson backed her, and Ramos and gubernatorial candidate Nixon cross-endorsed each other. 

On primary day, Ramos defeated Peralta by over 2,000 votes, with almost 23,000 votes cast in total. In November of that year, 90,000 Democrats were eligible to vote in the district.  Ramos did far better in parts of the district like Steinway, Astoria Heights, and Jackson Heights. The map below, from the CUNY Mapping Service, shows where Ramos and Peralta each did well.

5 nysenate13 primary results 2018

Other Races in Manhattan and Brooklyn
Other districts around the city saw increased voter turnout in the same neighborhoods where insurgent candidates nabbed the largest share of votes. 

In Manhattan’s Senate District 31, former City Council Member Robert Jackson emerged victorious on primary night over former IDC member and State Senator Marisol Alcantara. Jackson had run for the seat before in 2014 and 2016, losing narrowly to Alcantara in 2016 in a three-way race. Alcantara only served one term in office before Jackson overtook her in 2018. 

The largest increases in voter turnout in the district from 2014 to 2018 were in the Upper West Side, Manhattanville, Washington Heights, and parts of Inwood, all where Jackson performed the best, indicating how well the insurgent’s supporters did at turning out the vote. The map below, created by Rosenblatt, shows where turnout jumped most and least in 2018, compared to 2014, in Senate District 31.

6 sd31 withlines

In Brooklyn’s Senate District 18, progressive upstart Julia Salazar triumphed against Martin Malavé Dilan, who had represented Brooklyn in the State Senate since 2003. Dilan was not a member of the IDC, but the progressive push in 2018 helped fuel Salazar’s campaign, including backing from the Working Families Party and the New York City branch of the Democratic Socialists of America. 

Salazar picked up votes in neighborhoods with some of the highest changes in turnout from 2014 to 2018, including East Williamsburg, Bushwick and Greenpoint. 

“While the Senate primaries saw dramatic increases in turnout throughout each district from 2014 to 2018, even compared to the gubernatorial primaries, the relative turnout increase was absolutely massive in the areas where progressive primary challengers did best,” said Rosenblatt, of Tidal Wave Strategies, referring to his data and mapping analysis. The map below, created by Rosenblatt, shows where turnout increased the most and least in 2018, compared to 2014, in Senate District 18.

7 sd18 withlines7

The fight continues
According to Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College, campaigns need three things to succeed: money, organization, and message. 

“The opponents of the IDC had more of the three than the members of the IDC,” he said, looking back at 2018’s primary upsets. 

The odds piled up for dramatically increased voter turnout, and for a turnout against the IDC: the national Democratic movement in response to Trump and for a “blue wave” in the 2018 midterms, accelerated progressive conversations and efforts launched by grassroots organizers, strong upstart candidates, and a concerted plot to educate voters ahead of the election cycle. 

“The wind was at the back of Democrats and progressives nationally. And certainly the state was part of that,” Muzzio said. “[The IDC] were out of step with the zeitgeist of the time.”

And while pundits and political analysts were surprised by the unprecedented spike in voter turnout in New York, that didn’t mean that turnout in the 2018 primaries was overwhelming. Although turnout in races with former IDC members garnered more attention, the average turnout in those districts and other Senate districts was almost the same — around 29 percent — according to a report from the New York City Campaign Finance Board. 

“This shows that the perceived competitiveness of an election does not necessarily lead to increased turnout in that district, and that in this high-profile election, voters turned out regardless of whether they were voting in a competitive election,” the report reads.

But the key for the IDC challengers appears to have been where some of the increased turnout occurred, in areas of the districts they were running in that were most enthusiastic about their candidacies, and about defeating the incumbents.

To get there, activists as well as candidates and their campaigns, endorsers, and other supporters utilized a variety of tactics, including an unprecedented organizing and voter education effort done over an especially long period of time before any votes were cast. Dynamic and diverse candidates were recruited and backed, and they were just as willing as their volunteers and staff to knock doors and pass out flyers.

These strategies and others mixed with Democratic reaction to Trump’s election, growing frustration with a lack of movement on progressive priorities in Albany, and a robust left-wing challenge to Cuomo, which both further galvanized progressives and pushed the governor to spend tens of millions of dollars getting out his vote.

The energy that led to defeat for six of the eight IDC members then helped flip several state Senate seats in November 2018, giving Democrats a solid, “True Blue” majority for the 2019 session to combine with the Assembly Democratic majority and third-term Democratic governor reelected by a wide margin on a slate of progressive promises.

With those 2018 electoral wins and the legislative victories that followed in 2019 and into this year, the WFP, True Blue NY, and other progressive organizations began preparing for a new slate of races in 2020, hoping to use a similar organizing playbook to net more wins. However, the coronavirus pandemic changed everything.

With campaigns scrambling to adjust to a world without rallies, door-knocking, or tabling, key questions loom. Can upstart campaigns and supporters reach voters to the same extent? Can they drive voter turnout in the 2020 primaries to anywhere near the same level of 2018?

This story, and the series it is a part of, has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

by Victoria Merlino, Gotham Gazette

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Voter Turnout in New York City Was Cratering; Then Came 2018 Fri, 19 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Democratic State Senators Call for Raising Taxes on Wealthy, Passing Coronavirus Relief Measures state senators

Senators Ramos and Gounardes (photo: NY Senate)

A group of Democratic state senators, mostly from New York City, gathered in a digital forum Wednesday night to discuss the government’s COVID-19 response. The virtual event, held in partnership with the Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI), a nonprofit liberal think tank, covered topics including the state budget, impending cuts and proposals to raise revenue, and legislation to address ramifications of the virus.

Eight senators, or a fifth of the Democratic majority in the 63-seat chamber, participated in the online discussion.

New York’s new state budget, passed in early April by the Legislature in partnership with Governor Andrew Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, was a main topic of conversation, including critical comments from the senators about the governor. Many state legislators, mostly in the Assembly, voted against budget bills this year, despite the fact that they were representative of compromise among two Democratic majorities and the Democratic governor. Some senators voted against certain pieces of the budget, while others criticized the deal but voted for it anyway.

The budget included significant cuts to planned spending as the state faces a massive drop in tax revenue -- estimated at roughly $10 billion to $15 billion - due to the coronavirus fallout, which comes on top of a roughly $6 billion budget gap that the state had to close leading up to adoption of the spending plan.

The budget agreement included no significant new revenue-raising measures, such as tax increases on higher earners, nor did it include as grave cuts as some feared. But it also gave the governor significant leeway to make budget changes throughout the year, depending on the tax revenue picture (the Legislature retained the right to overrule the governor, but it would have to come up with its own plan to slash spending).

And on April 25, the Cuomo administration announced an additional $10 billion in cuts, mostly -- at $8.2 billion -- in aid to localities, a category that covers education and much more, as well as a $1.6 billion cut to state agency operations and $293 million to debt service, according to information provided during the senators’ event.

“It’s very bleak, it’s very difficult,” Queens Senator John Liu said of the budget situation.

“The Cuomo cuts are fake austerity, and we’ve been living with this fake austerity for a while,” said Queens Senator Jessica Ramos. “Before the pandemic, we were already in a deficit. There’s nothing worse than saying we don’t have the money when we’re not proactively wanting money.”

Brooklyn Senator Andrew Gounardes agreed, saying that now is “not a time to practice and preach austerity politics, this is not a time to be cutting budgets, this is a time to be investing in people.”

Ron Deutsch, the executive director of FPI, blamed the “austerity” on Cuomo’s “arbitrary” 2% cap on annual state spending increases.

“We’re still maintaining this austerity mindset, this scarcity mindset that we can’t possibly spend more than 2%,” Deutsch said. “This 2% is an arbitrary figure, it has no basis in reality. It’s just something the governor wants and pushes for. And what has it resulted in. It has decimated human services programs across this state. We’ve seen a significant reduction in human services.”

The participants moved from the state budget to federal stimulus money with senators discussing why they believe New York didn’t get more aid from the $2 trillion package, and if New York could receive more aid going forward.

“The state cannot pull us out of the hole that we are in, we’re not allowed to run a deficit, we have to balance the budget,” said upstate Senator Rachel May. “And when we’re talking about $13 billion that we’re in the hole, even with the great ideas people have mentioned about raising revenue, we need help from the federal government.”

The recent $2 trillion federal aid package provided $150 billion for state aid, which was distributed based on population. This, many of the senators agreed, was the inherent issue with it.

“We got anywhere from $6-7 billion out of the $150 billion, and that’s the problem, we didn’t get treated fairly,” said Liu. “How do you allocate state aid based on population when at the time we had between one-third and one-half of the [coronavirus] cases. If we had gotten one-third of the $150 billion, we would have gotten $50 billion. And that right there would have solved many of our problems. Not only to provide enough aid to our state government and to localities, for schools, for firefighters, for teachers, for police officers, for ambulances. It also would have helped us in our programs to cancel rents, and with mortgage payments. That is the kind of assistance, real assistance, we need in a federal stimulus package. We are a very rich state, that’s for sure, but even the richest state can't get out of this humongous disaster by ourselves.”

Manhattan Senator Robert Jackson agreed, saying, “when you talk about fair share, you can talk about population, but when you talk about that, New York City and New York State as the epicenter of this pandemic, that’s where the resources should have come to.”

“We need assistance from Washington,” said Liu. “I don’t want to take away from that argument, I don’t want to be negotiating against ourselves. We absolutely need the aid from Washington in the form of unrestricted state aid. But we also need our own proposals, because [the federal government] might not give us enough to fill the $13 billion hole we’re in. Rather than suffer ridiculous cuts to schools and healthcare and other vital state services, we need to think of these proposals as quickly as possible and keep them on the front burner.”

The conversation then turned to ways in which the state could raise revenue to help plug its deficit and avoid making huge cuts to education, health care, and more. The most heavily discussed revenue raising policy was an ‘ultra-millionaire tax.’

“The wealthiest 1% pay a smaller percentage of their income in taxes than do the poorest 20% of New Yorkers,” said Deutsch. “How do we justify that in a state with so much wealth. Our tax system is completely upside-down and we need to reverse that. We are behind numerous other states when it comes to the progressivity of our income tax structure.”

Such an action would be far from unprecedented, it was noted. After September 11, 2001 the Republican leader of the Senate and the Democratic leader of the Assembly came together to propose higher taxes on the wealthy, overriding Governor George Pataki’s veto, according to Deutsch.

Similarly, after the financial collapse in 2008, the state was facing a huge budget gap. Governor David Paterson led the institution of higher taxes on millionaires, which became known as the first “millionaires tax” surcharge, which has been in place since, renewed several times despite the original notion that it would be temporary.

Ramos added that she introduced, and is working with partners on a soft rollout of, a worker bailout that would tax billionaires’ asset growth. “It could generate $5 billion for us every year,” Ramos said. “So this year we would want to use it to help those who don’t have any safety net,” and give $3,300 per month during the pandemic to those who aren’t eligible for or don’t qualify for a wage assistance program, she said. Liu called it a good proposal on top of the revenue raising proposals that have already been put forward.

He added that taxing millionaires more in New York is not out of the question, reiterating what Deutsch had said previously, that New Yorkers are not taxed as high as top earners in other states. In California for example, top earners are taxed 5% more than top earners here, he said.

Cuomo and the Senate Democratic conference have been against raising taxes on higher earners, and as the coronavirus recession set in just before the budget was negotiated, there appeared to be little discussion of it as a possibility.

Liu also emphasized what he sees as the importance of a pied-a-terre tax and that it should be “at the very top of the list,” imposing a tax on non-primary luxury homes, which Liu pointed out are owned by wealthy people and are often not lived in. He says it could raise many millions of dollars per year. Brooklyn Senator Julia Salazar and Bronx and Wechester Senator Alessandra Biaggi agreed with Liu.

Biaggi also made a push for two policies that would bring in state revenue and have been discussed in Albany for quite a while -- legalizing adult use of marajuana and legalizing mobile sports betting. She said both would be good opportunities to use well-considered legislation to raise revenue in a time when it is necessary.

Salazar said there are more than a dozen serious proposals to raise revenue and it’s a “shame that in the budget these revenue sources were not considered.” During this crisis, she said, the Legislature has an “ethical obligation” to help New Yorkers make ends meet.

Biaggi mentioned her push for a bill that is a constitutional amendment that would allow the Legislature more power to amend the budget before its adoption. New York’s budget law and process is notoriously governor-dominated, what Biaggi called “an inordinate amount of power over the budget.”

She said her bill seeks to equalize the power between the executive and legislative branches of government, and rebalance the power. Before it can be put into the constitution, the amendment needs to pass through two consecutive legislative sessions and go to a public vote.

Gounardes agreed with the importance of Biaggi’s bill and said that in the current system “we don’t have the ability to submit our own budget document” and it “ties our hands when it comes to the budget.” May added that “the other articles in the constitution say the Legislature shall provide for basic education or all our children, for roads and bridges, all kinds of things -- it’s our responsibility, but we don’t have the power to put together a budget that can allow us to carry out our responsibility.”

Jackson said he is putting forward a bill that would allow for tenants to use their security deposits to pay rent during the pandemic. “If your situation is such that you can’t afford to pay you rent, the first thing you should do is communicate with your owners,” said Jackson. “If the landlord says no, then it’s our job to pass the legislation.”

Salazar has also put forward a rent bill, the Emergency Coronavirus Affordable Housing Preservation Act, colloquially known as Relief for All.

“What this bill proposes is not only relief for residential tenants and also commercial tenants, making sure that for property owners whose tenants have been impacted they will also have relief,” she said during the digital forum. “Additionally, and this is to address the concerns of nonprofit affordable housing, we are also providing relief to them, looking out for them, because they are going to be experiencing long term effects from the economic crisis that we’re facing.”

Another senator, Queens’ Michael Gianaris, who the deputy majority leader and was not part of the event, has been leading a “cancel rent” push, with his own legislation to enact a rent moratorium for those significantly impacted financially by the coronavirus fallout, with the state stepping in to help make landlords whole. Gianaris has also said he wants to see the federal government step up so the state doesn’t have to shoulder the burden on top of its existing budget hole.

Brooklyn Senator Zellnor Myrie, who also participated in the forum, has put forward a bill, the Do No Harm Act, to “prevent disproportionately impacted populations from being further victimized in the wake of budget cuts resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to the bill text.

“This has not begun with COVID-19, this was a process decades in the making, particularly for black and brown communities where we refused to invest in preventative care, we refused to invest in affordable housing, education, nutrition,” Myrie said. “All of those comorbidities were brought into sharp relief at the advent of this crisis.”

His bill “requires that any budget cuts due to the COVID-19 pandemic that disproportionately affect certain populations identified by disparities in rates of infection and death due to race, age and zip code based on demographic data provided by state and local departments of health be accompanied by a remediation plan to offset the disproportionate impact of those cuts.”

Myrie also said he has a bill pending that would provide the New York Attorney General more investigatory power to look into nursing homes during this pandemic. Myrie explained that nursing homes “have been their own epicenter” and in need of more oversight.

Senators also mentioned a variety of worker protection bills. Jackson said he put forward in January an amendment to labor law, seeking to redefine employment. The bill seeks to “reclassify more workers as employees rather than independent contractors in order for them to receive benefits such as healthcare and retirement,” Jackson said, also connecting the definition to times of crisis with so many independent contractors also losing work but having a harder time with unemployment benefits.

Ramos mentioned her legislation to expand the whistleblower law. There have been cases in the news of healthcare workers saying they don’t have enough personal protective equipment (PPE) and getting fired. Ramos said she wants to ensure that these individuals don’t suffer consequences for speaking out.

“We have not been physically in Albany, but that does not mean we have not been at work,” Liu said. “Answering constituents’ requests everyday, talking amongst ourselves about the legislation that has been proposed.” Either virtually or physically in Albany, he said, “Either way we are going to get work done and pass bills that are needed.”

by Katie Kirker, Gotham Gazette

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Democratic State Senators Call for Raising Taxes on Wealthy, Passing Coronavirus Relief Measures Fri, 01 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Why is Governor Cuomo Attacking a Longtime Labor Ally? cuomo delivers

Gov. Cuomo speaks at a 32BJ rally (photo: Fred Pollard/Governor's Office)

Governor Andrew Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, has in recent weeks repeatedly lashed out at state legislators from his own party and a long-time labor ally, 32BJ SEIU, as he points to the role of independent expenditures in state politics amid questions about his own fundraising habits and commitment to campaign finance reform.

The prominent building services workers union was in Cuomo’s corner when he was running for reelection in 2018 and also supported his attempt to push through the deal that would have brought a new Amazon campus to Queens, among other initiatives. But Cuomo seems to have soured on that relationship because of the union’s push for public financing of state elections and its ties with State Senator Alessandra Biaggi, a young progressive who has been a vocal critic of the governor’s fundraising tactics after unseating a long-time ally of the governor, Jeff Klein, the former senator and leader of the Independent Democratic Conference.

Last month, Biaggi was among three state legislators who criticized Cuomo for holding a big-dollar fundraiser as the state budget for the new fiscal year was being negotiated. As reported by the New York Times, several attendees of the fundraiser were seeking favorable state action in the budget and Cuomo even invited his budget director, Robert Mujica, to the Manhattan event. To Biaggi and others, it reeked of impropriety or at least the appearance of it.

Cuomo, in turn, lambasted Biaggi and the others, as well as the Senate Democratic conference at large, for holding its own fundraisers during budget season. In the backdrop were negotiations around campaign finance reform, including creating a new system of public financing, which eventually was not included in the adopted budget though the Legislature and governor created a commission that would issue recommendations to create such a system. 32BJ was one of the leading voices in a large statewide coalition called Fair Elections for New York, which made a major push for public financing, including protests outside the governor’s office.

On April 9, appearing on WAMC’s Roundtable with Alan Chartock, Cuomo made his displeasure clear. “The hypocrisy is, the members who have stood up and criticized the fundraising, they themselves are doing fundraising,” he said, pointedly calling out the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. And taking a veiled shot at Biaggi, he continued, “Many of those members were funded with millions of dollars of dark money, from unions like 32BJ. Where is the public financing spirit, you know?”

He went on to repeatedly name 32BJ, and only 32BJ, as he talked of the corrosive effect of outside spending in elections.

There’s much more context behind Biaggi’s election, a former lawyer in the Cuomo administration who ascended by emerging victorious in a September 2018 primary election against then-Senator Klein, the powerful former leader of the breakaway Democrats who helped keep the Senate under Republican control for years. Klein’s conference reunited with the mainline Democrats in April last year, in a deal brokered by Cuomo, only for six of its eight members to be defeated in the primaries by challengers like Biaggi.

As part of the reunification deal, Cuomo and sitting Democratic senators agreed not to support primaries against fellow Democrats, meaning Cuomo and Klein supported each other’s reelection. Klein, running while under investigation for allegedly having forcibly kissed a former aide (he denies the accusation), used an image of himself and Cuomo on campaign literature, though the governor never offered a formal endorsement.

The IDC under Klein’s leadership played a moderating effect on legislation, which allowed Cuomo to pursue an agenda of compromise between Democrats and Republicans and push through many of his own priorities. Biaggi’s victory over Klein -- in which he spent nearly ten times the money her campaign did -- was boosted massively by 32BJ, whose endorsement was seen as a crack in the unity facade.

The union donated thousands of dollars to her campaign, sent volunteers to her district, and also supported her with a nearly $80,000 independent expenditure campaign through its Empire State 32BJ SEIU PAC. That political action committee, and its spending to help elect Biaggi, appears to have Cuomo perpetually bristling, especially given the union’s role in the Fair Elections campaign.

“Unions like 32BJ are fighting for fair wages and safe working conditions. Big businesses and real estate interests often act to protect profits over people,” Biaggi said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “We all know the true political currency of our time is people. I'll stand with the hard-working people of 32BJ every time.”

Cuomo doesn’t seem as willing. At an unrelated news conference last Wednesday, according to a New York Daily News report, Cuomo’s ire again seemed to have been provoked as he addressed recent tweets by State Senator James Skoufis, the new chair of the committee on Investigations and Government Operations, who said that state contracts were regularly being handed out to firms that made large campaign contributions to the governor. Cuomo, in turn, implied that independent expenditures to state legislators’ campaigns were directly linked to legislation being introduced in Albany, which seemed to be directed at Skoufis’ support for a bill regarding home-rental services like AirBnB, which spent half a million dollars to help Skoufis get elected.

Cuomo said, “I don’t think there’s any difference between Airbnb and 32BJ and charter schools or REBNY or the teachers unions, but this is where the money is coming from and it’s coming for a very specific purpose.”

The governor’s repeated sling at 32BJ, which has more than 160,000 members across the country, mostly in New York, was again an odd inclusion among multi-million dollar firms and business interests, not to mention the teachers unions that he has often warred with during his tenure, finding something of a ceasefire in recent years.

32BJ was one of Cuomo’s most prominent backers in his reelection race last year, crediting him with “a long and strong record of progressive policies” including the passage of a $15 minimum wage, paid family leave, and a $19 minimum wage for airport workers. The union donated the maximum $65,000 to his reelection race, and has contributed almost $150,000 to his campaigns since 2007.

A week after the union endorsed him in early April 2018, it also withdrew from the Working Families Party, which was backing Cuomo’s primary opponent at the time, education activist and actor Cynthia Nixon. That same week, Cuomo spoke at a 32BJ rally in Manhattan.

“32BJ is one of the best unions in the United States of America,” Cuomo proclaimed on stage, praising its leaders for helping pass the policies that earned him their endorsement. “You have to deal with the real estate industry, which is one of the toughest industries in this country, and 32BJ is up to the fight...and what I love about 32BJ...they don’t just talk, they deliver.”

In February, Cuomo was championing New York’s winning bid to bring Amazon and its projected 25,000 jobs to the state by building a new campus in Long Island City. Despite the tech firm’s checkered history of opposing unionizing efforts by employees, 32BJ was behind him, seeing the promise of jobs for its union members through building service contracts and the potential for broader unionization gains. After Amazon cancelled its plans, 32BJ President Hector Figueroa called it “a missed opportunity to engage one of the largest companies in the world and to create a pathway to union representation for one of the largest groups of predominantly non-union workers in our country.”

The governor’s office denied any ulterior motives behind his more recent comments and declined to further explain the specific targeting of 32BJ. “I know you guys have trouble fathoming this, but not everything is some conspiracy. Sometimes the truth is the truth,” a Cuomo spokesperson said in an email, before not responding to additional inquiries.

Amity Paye, a 32BJ spokesperson, said the union was surprised by the governor’s remarks. “We weren’t clear what prompted him to do this,” she said in a phone interview. “We responded on social media to the comments but we haven’t had any direct conversations about this with the administration. We wouldn’t presume to guess why this happened.” She also pushed back against the union’s mention among groups like REBNY and AirBnB as independent spenders. “There’s not a comparison. We’re not a multimillion dollar corporation. The money we invest literally comes from thousands of members pooling their money. It’s entirely different,” she said.

As Paye noted, Alison Hirsh, political director of 32BJ, called the governor’s comments “perplexing” in a tweet on April 17, just after he railed against the union at the press conference, and Figueroa also responded that same day. “Any Dem leader should understand there’s a world of difference between worker organizations such as unions and corporations/employer associations & that it isn’t hypocritical to push for campaign finance reform while benefitting from IE. Both NY Senate Dems AND @NYGovCuomo have.”

Biaggi retweeted him.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Why is Governor Cuomo Attacking a Longtime Labor Ally? Wed, 24 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senator Alessandra Biaggi mxm logo

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

February 7, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senator Alessandra Biaggi

alessandra biaggi 150Alessandra Biaggi shocked the New York political world when she defeated then-State Senator Jeff Klein in last September's primary. After hitting the ground running upon taking office in January, State Senator Biaggi joined the show to discuss the work that has been done so far under unified Democratic governance at the state level and what's coming up next, including her work as the new chair of the Senate's ethics committee and where things may get choppy with regard to negotiations with Governor Andrew Cuomo.

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

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senator Alessandra Biaggi Wed, 06 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Klein, Filing Late Post-Primary, Shows Over $3 Million in Senate Campaign Spending shakinghands

Sen. Jeff Klein meets voters (Photo:

Already spending at what is likely a record pace, with two weeks until the September 13 primary, New York State Senator Jeff Klein kept spending his campaign cash at a rapid clip to try to beat back a Democratic primary challenge from Alessandra Biaggi, a lawyer and first-time candidate, Klein’s late post-primary campaign finance filing shows. In sum, Klein spent nearly ten times more than Biaggi, but was still unsuccessful as Biaggi claimed the nomination, likely unseating one of the state’s major powerbrokers of the past decade, in the district that covers parts of the Bronx and Westchester.

Klein spent nearly $700,000 in September, out of more than $3 million -- an astronomical sum for a state legislative race -- that he depleted in trying to retain his seat in this two-year election cycle. He also raised another $246,000 in those final weeks of the primary -- he has brought in $1.8 million since January 2017 -- including $103,000 from the Senate Independence Campaign Committee, which he and partners originally set up jointly between the Independence Party and the erstwhile Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group of eight senators led by Klein that formed a power-sharing agreement with Republicans in the Senate. The SICC was ruled by a state supreme court judge to be illegal, though it apparently moved into compliance thereafter, and the state BOE had ordered that IDC members refund its contributions, but they refused. In total, the SICC directed $403,000 to Klein’s reelection coffers.

The SICC also moved hundreds of thousands of dollars, largely from major donors in real estate and education reform, to other members of the IDC, with Klein and five other former IDC members losing their primaries.

In the days leading up to September 13, Klein received $90,500 in donations from limited liability companies and from political action committees, including some associated with law enforcement unions and the nursing and beverage industries. Klein has benefited greatly from the largesse of corporations, PACs and LLCs, the last of which are not required to name their owners and can therefore circumvent contribution limits. In total, those types of contributors gave him about $1.16 million for his reelection.

There were a few notable individual donations in the most recent filing as well. On primary day itself, Carl Icahn, the billionaire investor with close ties to President Donald Trump, gave Klein $11,000; two days before that, hedge fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones gave him $15,000; and in the week before, Larry Robbins, also a billionaire and of the KIPP charter school network, donated $10,000.

Of the latest spending spree, about $390,000 went to the Hamilton Campaign Network, a Democratic campaign consulting firm, which organized campaign mailers, phone and text banking efforts, and produced videos for Klein’s campaign.

After all his spending, Klein still had $510,000 sitting in his campaign account as of this filing, which was sent to the Board of Elections a week late. He could retain that cash or potentially transfer it to another campaign account, should he decide to run in any upcoming elections, or he can donate to other candidates running in the general. He may decide to use it for his own continued campaign, given that he has the Independence Party ballot line to run on in November after losing the Democratic nomination, and Klein has not formally conceded his race or endorsed Biaggi.

In the Democratic primary, Klein received 14,754 votes, about 44.5 percent, losing to Biaggi’s 17,618 votes, or 53.1 percent. All told, Klein spent roughly $207 for each vote while Biaggi only disbursed $18.90 per vote.

Independent expenditure groups also showed their support for Klein. Those include Laborers Building a Better New York, a group associated with the Construction and General Building Laborers Local 79 union, which spent $109,360 to favor several candidates, including Klein. New Yorkers for Quality Healthcare, affiliated with the Greater New York Hospital Association, spent a whopping $447,450 on digital ads, direct mailers, web design, and tv production to support Klein and State Senator David Valesky, another former IDC member who lost to his own primary challenger, Rachel May. The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association’s independent expenditure committee also spent $65,338 on direct mailers boosting Klein.

In total, Biaggi spent $332,000 on her campaign and raised about $534,000. While Klein was attempting a well-funded last ditch effort to sway voters, Biaggi only dropped about $160,000 in that final three week period, raising only $62,500 in the same time. She has another $133,000 as she heads into the general election, where she would be unopposed unless Klein continues to run.

A spokesperson for Klein’s campaign did not return a request for comment for this article. He has not appeared in public since primary day, and did not address supporters on primary night.

Biaggi also received outside help in the primary. The Empire State 32BJ SEIU PAC spent $97,285 to support her election, through mailers, canvassing efforts and social media ads. They also spent $11,540 on a mailer opposing Klein. The union, 32BJ, dedicated significant resources, including financial and human, to Biaggi’s successful bid.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Klein, Filing Late Post-Primary, Shows Over $3 Million in Senate Campaign Spending Wed, 03 Oct 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Cuomo and His Progressive Critics Face Moment of Truth cuomo smiling andrewcuomo

Gov. Cuomo (photo: @andrewcuomo)

Governor Andrew Cuomo, emboldened after a sizeable Democratic primary victory, and an invigorated progressive movement with recent wins of its own, are again forced to grapple with the rift between them, as the factions must decide what steps they are willing to take to unite in the aftermath of a contentious primary season.

Facing a handful of general election opponents led by Republican Marc Molinaro, Cuomo has given mixed signals to the 500,000-plus voters who chose Cynthia Nixon on September 13, many of whom likely helped lift a group of left-wing challengers over seven sitting state senators. Some of those challengers -- Molinaro, Green Party nominee Howie Hawkins, independent Stephanie Miner, and Libertarian Larry Sharpe -- have begun making direct appeals to Nixon voters, while Cuomo has not.

Before the end of next week, one of the governor’s chief progressive critics, the Working Families Party, is expected to have determined what to do with its ballot line after Cuomo defeated its first choice in round one. The WFP nominated Nixon for governor and Jumaane Williams for lieutenant governor, but saw them both lose in the Democratic primary, throwing into question whether the two will actually appear as WFP candidates on the November ballot. Party members will in the coming days decide via internal meetings who they are willing to support in November.

The party may offer its ballot line to Cuomo, who has downplayed the magnitude of his left-wing critics after he won two-thirds of the primary vote and openly warred with the WFP for years, including since just after it agreed to nominate him in 2014.

As NY1’s Zack Fink reported Monday, WFP leaders will meet privately on Wednesday to discuss the party’s next steps, and will the following Wednesday convene in a public meeting as a full WFP state committee, apparently to vote on a general election slate for governor and lieutenant governor, as well as an attorney general candidate. (The party had previously installed a placeholder, while expressing support for both Zephyr Teachout and primary winner Letitia James).

The impending decision will come after the WFP backed Nixon, who took up the cause of the state’s disgruntled progressives frustrated with Cuomo’s centrist triangulation on a host of issues, enabled in part by his support of a Republican state Senate bolstered by breakaway Democrats. With just six weeks until Election Day, November 6, the WFP is faced with the decision of backing a governor with whom it has had a deeply antagonistic relationship — and who has thus far declined to extend an olive branch to the WFP and more broadly those to the left of Cuomo — or a candidate who has little-to-no chance of becoming governor, possibly putting a dent in Cuomo’s vote total.

The WFP, notably, needs at least 50,000 votes on its ballot line for its gubernatorial candidate in order to keep that automatic line in elections for the next four years. If no alternative move is made, Nixon and Williams would remain on the line. (Governor and lieutenant governor are voted on separately in party primaries but as a ticket in the general). A back-up plan for removing Nixon from the gubernatorial ballot line — a somewhat tricky process — has been in place for months, with the WFP and Nixon acknowledging that her chances in the primary were slim and pledging not to play “spoiler” in the general election by peeling away votes from Cuomo.

The party will answer the looming question of whether to leave Nixon on its line, pick Cuomo, which would necessitate a deal with the notoriously score-keeping governor, or possibly someone else, based on what members believe is best for the causes it champons, the party’s political director, Bill Lipton, told Gotham Gazette on Monday.

“The WFP is having its own internal deliberations,” Lipton said by phone. “We’ll be having meetings, phone calls and other communications, where people are going to air their views, and, as has been oft-stated, the candidates, the leadership, the grassroots members of the WFP will be arriving at a decision together.”

Lipton declined to say if any discussions with Cuomo’s camp had occurred in recent weeks.

“We’re focused on our internal deliberations and doing what’s best for working families in New York State,” he said.

Additionally, Lipton said the WFP has, as expected, been communicating with Nixon and Williams, the Brooklyn City Council member who ran against incumbent Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul in the primary. “We’re going to talk a lot with Cynthia and Jumaane,” Lipton said. “We consider them part of our community.”

Nixon has made no public comments since her primary night concessive speech, which was celebratory and forward-looking. A top Nixon campaign operative was noncommittal when asked about the matter last week.

“I don’t want to divulge much,” Nixon campaign chief strategist Rebecca Katz said on the Max and Murphy podcast. “There will be some answers, and they will be coming soon.” Katz went on to acknowledge that Nixon had previously said she’d prefer Cuomo to Molinaro, and reiterated that Nixon has always been and will remain a Democrat.

Though Nixon came up well short of defeating Cuomo, all but two of the eight challengers to former members of the Independent Democratic Conference — a group of breakaway Democrats allied with Republicans in the State Senate — pulled off victories that shook up the New York political world. Additionally, left-wing insurgent Julia Salazar knocked off veteran state Senator Martin Dilan. All nine Senate challengers were backed by the WFP. But Cuomo said in his defiant post-primary press conference that their success did not serve as a rejection of his brand of progressivism.

Though Cuomo had given his tacit support and generic endorsement to his fellow Democratic incumbents as part of the April unity deal that brought the IDC back to the mainline Democratic fold, the governor downplayed the results and anything they might say about the extent to which his leadership was rebuked by voters.

Democrats clearly approved of his get-things-done, somewhat-tempered progressivism, the governor explained the day after the primary, pointing to his margin of victory — 65.6 percent to Nixon’s 34.4 percent — even with a major boom in turnout from four years ago, when he prevailed by a similar percentage over Zephyr Teachout. While the former IDC members struggled immensely, the two Cuomo-endorsed statewide candidates — Hochul and James — won their hotly-contested primaries.

What many deemed a progressive wave was “not even a ripple,” the two-term governor said the day after the primary, throwing cold water on the narrative that the primary was part of a surge in popularity of a Democratic vision in stark contrast to his.

“Where was that effect yesterday?” Cuomo said of a supposed progressive wave in the state, represented by the candidacies of Nixon and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “Where was it?”

“It was upstate. It was downstate, white, black, brown — it was across the board,” he said of the coalition that contributed to his decisive win.

He added the victory proved that he and New York Democrats “provided and achieved progress,” which was the “message” voters delivered in the election.

But what about those 500,000 Nixon voters and the disenchanted left they represent? Will they rally behind Cuomo, beaming with confidence and dismissiveness, as the Democratic nominee? Will WFP members swallow the indignity of offering him their ballot line?

At least two of the leaders of the successful primary purity push backed by the WFP are staying out of the fray.

André Richardson, a spokesperson for successful IDC challenger Zellnor Myrie, said in a statement that Myrie “respects” the WFP’s “internal process.”

“He looks forward to continuing to fight side by side with them on progressive issues,” Richardson said.

David Neustadt, a spokesperson for Alessandra Biaggi, who defeated former IDC leader Jeff Klein, said in a statement that Biaggi is “supporting the Democratic Party nominees for Governor, Lt. Governor and Attorney General.” He declined to say whether Biaggi has a preference on the WFP’s choice, but said the candidate “respects the internal democratic process of the WFP, which appropriately allows the members of the Party to determine whom that party endorses."

Rachel May, who prevailed over former IDC member David Valesky in her primary and like Myrie and Biaggi received Nixon’s support, said she believed Cuomo is the definitive leader of the Democratic Party, and is open to the WFP handing the ballot line to Cuomo.

“I’m not categorically opposed to it,” she explained. “I was running for Democratic unity all along. That’s what our whole campaign against the IDC was about. And so I feel like Democratic voters have spoken about who should be the standard-bearer moving forward.”

“I supported her in the primary but I think I would encourage her not to campaign actively against the governor in the general,” May said of Nixon.

May stopped short of saying it is her preference that the WFP give Cuomo its nomination. “I’m willing to only say ‘I will not object,’” she said.

May, who said the governor’s team was among the first to congratulate her after the primary, went on to speak to the need of uniting the warring factions of the party — something Cuomo and his team have been loathe to do following the primary. Cuomo, for example, made no mention of Nixon or her supporters during an event billed as a unity rally held the week after the election.

“I want to work together with whoever is elected governor. It’s looking more and more like Governor Cuomo,” said May, who may be facing a tough general election that could include Valesky on the Independence and Women’s Equality ballot lines, both of which Cuomo also has. “I think the less we divide the more progressive voters the better, at this point.”

Asked if Cuomo’s post-primary press conference — where he did more spiking the football than calling for party unity — worked toward that goal, May said Cuomo and his allies are “eager to work with Democrats moving forward.”

“I feel like we we’re going to all get on the same page,” she continued. “We still need reform in Albany. It’s not going to be a rubber stamp Senate for [Cuomo]. So I understand that, but I also understand that he wants to work with us.”

Cuomo and His Progressive Critics Face Moment of Truth Mon, 24 Sep 2018 04:00:00 +0000
How Insurgent Forces Activated, Educated and Brought the IDC Down biaggi victory first pump

Alessandra Biaggi celebrates (photo: @Biaggi4NY)

Hit the ground early. Educate the electorate. Reach new voters. Go viral.

Those are a few of the strategies that propelled insurgent candidates to victory in last week’s primary elections, wherein six challengers prevailed over sitting Democratic state senators who were once members of the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway faction that caucused with Republicans for seven years, creating or padding the GOP majority in the chamber.

The upsets in the state Senate races instantly shook up New York politics and painted a picture of a more engaged Democratic electorate that would no longer tolerate party officials who don’t pass a particular purity test imposed by a progressive base angered by the election of Donald Trump and a lack of action on favored legislation in Albany.

The eight-member IDC, which dissolved in April amid mounting criticism of its role in keeping the state Senate in Republican hands, saw six of their own defeated on Thursday despite outspending their opponents and leveraging broad institutional support. Their conventional campaign tactics failed to overcome a coordinated crop of candidates backed by a vast network of grassroots activists who employed guerilla tactics to get their message heard and were, in several instances, bolstered by key established players.

In early 2017, in the aftermath of Trump’s election, a disparate movement focused on the IDC had begun to take shape. Under a Trump presidency, the IDC members and their power-sharing agreement with Republicans became unacceptable to these activists, who insisted on being represented by “true blue” Democrats. After a raucous townhall in early February 2017 where IDC Senator Jose Peralta met the fury of some, one grassroots group, Rise and Resist, began to hold regular protests against IDC members. Then, in May 2017, the incipient anti-IDC movement held simultaneous rallies across New York City, protesting outside the offices of the senators. By then, only one candidate had emerged, Robert Jackson, who beat Senator Marisol Alcantara in Manhattan’s 31st District by a wide margin. “The beginning of the real grassroots energy behind getting rid of the IDC started then,” said Lisa DellAquila, an anti-IDC activist turned campaign manager for John Liu, the last of the challengers to declare and who handily defeated IDC Senator Tony Avella in the primary.

It was the first volley in a broader, longer game that crescendoed to a fever pitch ahead of primary day. In interviews, the organizers, activists, and strategists behind the effort portrayed a campaign that laid the groundwork long before other candidates had even emerged. “Our strategy from day one was run nine challengers against nine traitors,” said Gus Christensen, chief strategist for No IDC NY, a grassroots group, referring to the IDC senators and Senator Simcha Felder, a rogue Brooklyn Democrat who was not part of the IDC but votes with Republicans. The activists eventually coalesced into the True Blue coalition, made up of about 60 groups, many local ones based in the districts represented by IDC senators, where organizing and education efforts increased awareness of the IDC over the course of 2017 and into this year. The coalition marshalled its resources, encouraging candidates to run while informing voters more broadly about the existence of the IDC.

“What the IDC did violated the public trust in a visceral, almost biblical way,” Christensen said. “The cynics of the political establishment could never see that, because caucusing with the other party isn't illegal, while Albany is full of actual illegal activities about which voters don't seem to care. But once enough voters understood that the IDC really did caucus with the GOP, that it wasn't ‘fake news,’ they were revolted, and they voted that way.”

Hitting the ground running
“One really important piece of this was just good old-fashioned organizing,” said Heather Stewart, co-founder of Empire State Indivisible, who later went on to work for Liu’s campaign doing communications. Stewart said the coalition began educating voters about the IDC last year through town halls, leafleting, phone banks, and on-the-ground outreach. “So there was a good deal of tracks laid through the education piece. This was over a year was a coalescence of great candidates, good organizing, people who wanted more than anything from the bottom of their heart to oust the IDC.”

The groups gathered every month to discuss strategy, and began to circle possible candidates who had expressed interest while actively recruiting others such as Liu, who entered the fray at the eleventh hour after having lost to Avella four years ago but with stronger name recognition in his district than most of the other challengers had in theirs at the start of their campaigns.

The groups also partnered with The Creative Resistance, a volunteer collective of documentary filmmakers, and released a video, titled “Lulu Land” and narrated by actor Edie Falco, about the IDC and its highly scrutinized arrangement for its members to inappropriately receive extra stipends. The video raised much-needed awareness for their effort. “By and large, people were enraged about the IDC,” said Stewart, who has acknowledged she only learned of the IDC in recent years, spurring her to action. “They were mad that they had voted for a Democrat who wasn’t upholding Democratic values.”

Different groups were assigned to different districts under one umbrella. “We borrowed a strategy from Virginia activists who flipped the House of Delegates,” Stewart said, “which was basically that each group adopted a campaign and a candidate. So then, each group could begin to engage their members in one consistent campaign...It worked very well...There was essentially a captain who captained the grassroots efforts in each campaign that talked with other captains of the grassroots effort.”

The overall effort was bolstered by the likes of the Working Families Party, Make the Road Action, and Citizen Action of New York, some of the organized left’s longer-standing infrastructure, groups that share similar progressive goals and sent hundreds of volunteers into the nine districts, relying on a robust ground game to activate voters.

“We started working as far back as spring of 2017, way before there even were candidates running, to start organizing in the districts of the IDC members, doing really aggressive voter contact and community organizing to help people understand what was actually going on,” said Joe Dinkin, WFP’s campaign director. “That helped till the soil, build a grassroots base of anger and energy and a volunteer base from which it was a lot more appealing for candidates who would think about running to be able to get into the race.”

Dinkin said the WFP, which endorsed all the candidates, provided campaign expertise, helping them strategize, hire staff and consultants, and dispatch volunteers. By February and into March of this year, the WFP had endorsed the full slate of challengers to the IDC senators, establishing clear battle lines within the Democratic Party and setting the stage for the essential stretch of the primary campaign well in advance.

The WFP was also behind the two insurgent statewide candidates who failed in the primary -- Cynthia Nixon lost to Cuomo by a wide margin and City Council Member Jumaane Williams failed to unseat Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul in a closer race. Zephyr Teachout, who the WFP said it was supporting along with eventual winner Letitia James in the attorney general Democratic primary, was unsuccessful in her race but amplified anti-IDC sentiment. Nixon was vocal about the IDC and when Cuomo moved to reunite the faction with the mainline Senate Democratic Conference, she claimed credit.

“Cynthia Nixon was able to broadcast in a way that the entire media and the political class and voters noticed about the problems with the IDC and how they were roadblocking progressive legislation,” Dinkin said.

The candidates themselves had also been beating the anti-IDC drum in their districts. “Typically campaigns run a eight-week, sometimes 12-week field operation,” said Andre Richardson, campaign manager for Zellnor Myrie, who defeated former IDC Senator Jesse Hamilton in Brooklyn. “We’ve been canvassing, paid and volunteer, and candidate canvassing for eight months. In politics, folks have these archaic strategies of ‘this is too soon, this is too early.’ We proved all of that to be inaccurate and we proved that if you run a consistent and aggressive ground game, you can win.”

Each of the candidates managed fairly robust fundraising operations, and focused mostly on individual small donors throughout their campaigns as they critiqued their opponents for receiving funds from corporate donors. There was, of course, a fair share of spending by the coalition groups to augment each campaign’s own operations. No IDC NY formed its own multi-candidate campaign committee and tapped hundreds of small donors as well, and spent nearly $150,000, across the Senate races.

Depending on digital
In order to build name recognition against the IDC members, some of whom have been incumbents for several terms, the broader coordinated campaign, individual candidates, and activist groups decided to focus their efforts on digital and social media, hyper-targeted to specific populations within each district.

All the campaigns and their allies outspent the IDC senators on Facebook, said Jim Casteleiro, digital director for No IDC NY, who coordinated efforts with The Creative Resistance to craft ads across all the campaigns.

“We started early in the summer conceiving of a plan to run digital ads in all the districts that we were targeting,” Casteleiro said. “Our sort-of guiding principle in this whole process was, ‘Yes, people are outraged about what’s happening with Trump. Yes, people are outraged about the IDC. But if we don’t talk to them about what this actually means for their lives, then no one’s gonna care’...All of the content that we created, it was all issue-focused.”

The ads focused on everything from the state’s housing crisis, immigrant protections, and health care to education funding and abortion rights, while introducing the slate of progressive challengers as individual people. Another round of more negative ads portrayed each of the IDC senators as a gas station tube man, full of hot air. All told, the 38 videos they created received more than a million views.

“Obviously, digital isn’t new necessarily,” Casteleiro said. “But what I say is kinda unprecedented is this: you have an all-volunteer organization that raises $250,000, we partner with an all-volunteer group of creative professionals who create agency-level content, and we deploy that across the state in a coordinated fashion…That has to be absolutely unprecedented in New York State.”

Activist Sean McElwee, writing in HuffPost, noted that grassroots group Vote Tripling got 474 volunteers to convince three friends each to vote for the IDC challengers, and national group Postcards to Voters sent 283,857 handwritten notes to get out the vote in those districts.

Eric Rockey, co-founder of The Creative Resistance and director of the “Hot Air” ads, said they were inspired by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s viral campaign ad when she beat Democratic giant Joe Crowley in a June congressional primary that shocked the city, state, and country. The ad was like a “short documentary film about a candidate and less like a slick political ad,” he said, noting that his group skyped with the makers of that ad and also consulted with the team behind Cynthia Nixon’s campaign launch video.

“The strategy was really to find those unique issues that would be wedge issues between our candidates and IDC members and really hammer on those,” Rockey said. “It was really burnishing the progressive bonafides of these candidates. But also trying to show them as people.”

Convincing Candidates
No message is complete without its messenger and the anti-IDC movement was no different. The candidates they backed, most of them young progressives running for the first time, presented an alternative to the calcified establishment to a Democratic primary electorate that showed it was hungry for change.

By and large, the candidates were charismatic, energetic, and able to talk policy -- some with youthful exuberance, some with seasoned perspective.

Some were also backed by prominent elected officials, including City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Comptroller Scott Stringer, both of whom brought organizing and fundraising with them. Myrie, in particular, received tremendous support from city, state, and federal elected officials, including many in Brooklyn. The powerful labor union 32BJ also played a prominent role in a few races, especially where Alessandra Biaggi defeated Klein, who once led the IDC and was, until Thursday, one of the state's most powerful elected officials. Stringer and Johnson and their teams were also all-in for Biaggi.

“We proved through heart and hustle and just organizing that it was possible,” she said in a phone interview. “I worked tirelessly and I’m unrelenting, and also a fighter and I’ve always been that way. And every time that somebody told me ‘no’ I worked double as hard and every time somebody told me ‘yes’ I worked triple as hard.”

Klein spent more to try to push back Biaggi’s challenge than Nixon did in her statewide race against the governor. “This race proved that the political currency is people, not dollars,” Biaggi said.

“They were all really great. They were easy to work for and easy to get people excited about. And that’s where the magic was if you ask me,” said Empire Indivisible’s Stewart about the IDC challengers.

In July, once Liu declared he would challenge Avella, the district was ready to hear from him. “A lot of work had already been done in his district. We already had boots on the ground there who were really fiercely committed to the IDC resistance and so it was essentially bringing in a great candidate,” Stewart said.

While Liu, Jackson, Biaggi, Myrie, Jessica Ramos, and Rachel May were successful in defeating former IDC members, other former IDC Senators Diane Savino and David Carlucci held onto their seats. Felder defeated Blake Morris. (Another insurgent leftist, Julia Salazar, unseated Senator Martin Dilan, though that race was not a focus of the same progressive, anti-IDC coalition.)

The primary winners are all-but-certain to win their general elections, if they have an opponent. The main remaining question is whether the anti-IDC efforts that toppled rogue Democrats can now help flip Republican-held seats and give the next Senate Democratic Conference, infused with new blood, an elusive majority. That answer will be known on November 6.

Again in the general, candidates and campaigns will both matter greatly.

Richardson, from Myrie’s campaign, explained some of the energy behind his candidate’s success. “Zellnor is in the top five of the most fearless candidates I’ve ever worked for,” he said. “In terms of his aggressiveness to talk to a voter, to hear a problem, his ability to immediately respond or to follow through, is pretty phenomenal…We had a pool of over 400 volunteers. And some of that was outreach. A lot of that was just organic because Zellnor was such a great candidate. Folks would just walk in the door or read an article about him and just wanna help.”

“We were really inspired by these candidates,” said Rockey. “It wasn’t a stretch for us. We were genuinely inspired by them. It felt like something new in New York politics...It was really about these personal connections with these candidates and our passion for these candidates.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note- This article has been updated to note the correct name of the True Blue coalition, which is distinct from True Blue NY, a grassroots group that is part of the coalition. 

Note- This article has been updated to reflect the early role of Rise and Resist, a grassroots groups, in the anti-IDC movement.

How Insurgent Forces Activated, Educated and Brought the IDC Down Mon, 17 Sep 2018 04:00:00 +0000