Gotham Gazette Thu, 01 Oct 2020 08:25:47 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Race to the Left in Western Queens Assembly Primary race left western

Assemblymember Simotas, right (photo: @AravellaSimotas)

Since Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s historic campaign to win her 2018 primary against incumbent Democrat Joe Crowley, many progressive challengers have tried to use her playbook: a grassroots campaign with an uber-progressive platform where a candidate makes up for what they lack in political experience with robust canvassing and a promise of change.

And in Queens’ 36th Assembly District, which includes most of Astoria and all of Ditmars Steinway and overlaps somewhat with Ocasio-Cortez’s 14th Congressional District, housing counselor Zohran Mamdani hopes to pull off an upset against incumbent Aravella Simotas in this month’s Democratic primary. But while Mamdani has some momentum, Simotas has key differences from Crowley: her many progressive bonafides and reputation as a present and engaged representative. Yet Mamdani, who is running with the support of the New York City branch of the Democratic Socialists of America (NYC DSA), says Simotas simply hasn’t been active enough to protect her constituents, especially with regard to housing and education.

For example, Mamdani has criticized Simotas’ vote in favor of a 2015 state budget package that tied teacher evaluations to state test scores. However, Simotas also co-sponsored legislation in 2019 to remove that very requirement. Simotas has similarly supported and sponsored other progressive legislation in line with Mamdani’s own platform, though he continues to argue the district needs a more aggressively progressive representative to push the envelope further on issues like housing costs and school segregation.

Simotas has appeared to take note of the challenge from her left, and has gotten more vocal on topics like ‘canceling rent’ amid the coronavirus crisis that has ravaged New York. She’s also touting her record from well before her challenger emerged.

“I’m proud that I introduced and passed in one year a bill to expand and strengthen worker rights and protect against harassment and discrimination in the workplace,” Simotas said in an interview of legislation from 2019. “And it’s unheard of to do such a monumental bill where there were vast business interests against in one year.”

Now in her fifth two-year term, Simotas has co-sponsored legislation like the Green Light Bill, which allowed undocumented New Yorkers to obtain a driver’s license, and the Reproductive Health Act, which codified Roe v. Wade abortion protections into state law. She also supports the legalization of recreational marijuana and single-payer health-care in New York, two pieces of progressive legislation that have been held up despite Democratic control of both state legislative houses and the governor’s office.

Simotas has been endorsed by many state officials, including Queens State Senator John Liu and Queens Assemblymember Catalina Cruz, as well as a large number of unions and clubs, such as a local chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, the United Federation of Teachers, the New York Nurses Association, and a local transportation workers union, among others. Notably, a number of Simotas' legislative colleagues from Queens, such as State Senators Michael Gianaris and Jessica Ramos, have not announced support for her campaign.

Mamdani, a 29-year-old Indian American who came to New York at the age of seven from Uganda, has been endorsed by former public defender and candidate for Queens District Attorney Tiffany Cabán, actor and former gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, and State Senator Julia Salazar of Brooklyn, all three of whom have been backed by the NYC DSA in recent election cycles. He also has the backing of the Muslim Democratic Club of New York, New York Communities for Change, and other groups.

Mamdani argues Simotas has underperformed, specifically, he says the incumbent hasn’t done enough for renters and homeowners in the district, which has rapidly gentrified in recent years. The area has continued to see major development and rising housing costs.

“Seeing my work in foreclosure prevention, I’ve seen how so many people, so many working-class New Yorkers...are having their homes and the ownership of their homes or their residency put in question by their landlords or big banks or servicers,” Mamdani said in an interview. “The reason that I’m running is in my work and in my life, I have seen how the State has abdicated its role in ensuring that every single New Yorker can not only feel at home in this state, but can also have a home.”

Nearly 40% of households in the district are rent-burdened, a high number that is still slightly lower than Queens and New York City averages. Demographically, the district is about 47% white, 27% Hispanic, 16% Asian, and 7% black, according to Department of City Planning data on Queens Community District 1, which largely overlaps with Assembly District 36. According to NYU’s Furman Center, Astoria has been among the city’s most gentrified neighborhoods of this century.

Mamdani, who is Muslim, has done outreach to Muslim communities within the district through a mutual aid initiative that provided over 12,750 meals during Ramadan, according to his campaign. Simotas, meanwhile, has a large amount of support from the Greek community, reflective of her ancestry — her parents immigrated from Greece.

Doug Forand, a political consultant who runs Red Horse Strategies, which is working on other races this cycle, said Mamdani would need support from younger, newer residents of the neighborhood if he were to pull off an upset. But those residents, Forand said, seem to be just as likely to support Simotas.

“I don’t think [Simotas’] opponent has made a strong case for why she should not be in office,” Forand said. “That’s another district where you’ve seen a fair amount of gentrification and economic turnover, but at the same time I think it’s one of those places where the local legislators have sort-of recognized that the nature of their constituency is changing and they have responded appropriately.”

Even longer-time residents of the district, some who might consider themselves “victims of gentrification,” as Forand put it, elected Simotas in the first place and don’t appear ready to abandon “electeds they know and have worked with for years.”

Still, Mamdani has tried to make the argument that Simotas has not done enough to fight gentrification and overdevelopment in the area. Real estate interests and their influence in politics through campaign donations exacerbate these issues, Mamdani said, while pointing to Simotas’ coffers. He cited donations she’s received such as roughly $10,000 from George Tsunis, a developer and head of Chartwell Hotels, and his wife. Mamdani also cited an additional $1,000 donation from Irene Feggoudakis, whose family owns over a dozen residential buildings, all of which are in neighboring Queens districts. Both Tsunis and Feggoudakis are of Greek heritage like Simotas, who has organized in the Greek community.

Overall, Simotas has raised about $220,000 during the two-year election cycle through about 260 donations, including more than $64,000 from labor union political action committees and other PACs (facing pressure amid recent scrutiny of police brutality, she recently said she would give away donations from law enforcement unions). Mamdani has raised about $120,000 through over 3,500 individual transactions, a very large number for an Assembly campaign, according to State Board of Elections records.

“I certainly raised small amounts of money from homeowners who rent out an apartment in their house in order to afford Astoria and I will do my best to help them, just like I fight as hard as I can to help tenants,” Simotas said, before going on to restate then qualify her pledge about real estate donations. “I pledged not to take real estate money and I have kept that pledge. I have not raised a single cent from developers or landlords who are building luxury housing and make the city unlivable for so many.”

In a statement, Mamdani argued the donations mean Simotas broke her Homes Guarantee pledge to reject developer and real estate money.

“Assemblymember Simotas signed a pledge to ‘reject any developer and real estate contributions,’” Mamdani said in the statement. “Now, she claims that commercial real estate developers don't count — and neither do residential real estate developers if she knows them personally. This is exactly the type of double-talk that makes ordinary people hate politicians.”

Simotas does have a history of supporting pro-tenant legislation and policy. She supported the sweeping tenant protection laws passed last year dealing with roughly 1 million rent stabilized apartments. She also was against the Amazon ‘HQ2’ deal, which would have brought a massive new Amazon campus and thousands of jobs to Long Island City (just outside her district), but several groups opposed due to fears of rising prices and more long-time residents being pushed out of the nearby communities.

More recently, Simotas said she fought to “cancel rent” in recent legislative conference discussions as many New Yorkers who are newly unemployed, facing medical bills, or otherwise struggling financially, have had a hard time paying rent due to the coronavirus pandemic and its fallout. The legislation would apply to renters impacted by the financial impact of the coronavirus recession, and also provide for landlords who would lose rental income.

“Affordable housing was what allowed my family to claw their way up to the middle-class, so I am very sensitive to people who are now concerned about paying rent,” said Simotas, who said she grew up in the living room of her parents’ rent-stabilized apartment. “I’m fighting very hard, as hard as I can, to cancel rent.”

But the Legislature has not passed the rent cancellation bill, the charge for which has been led in the State Senate by Gianaris. Instead a bill was approved that would provide $100 million in relief to renters through vouchers. To qualify for a voucher, a person will have to be at a certain income level, rent-burdened, and be able to prove loss of income since March 7. Simotas voted against the bill.

“I’m very passionate about making sure that renters in my community, and throughout the state, don’t have to deal with additional anxiety, we’re already dealing with a massive, unprecedented in our lifetime, health crisis. People shouldn’t have to worry about paying rent, so I was disappointed,” Simotas said. “I didn’t think we went far enough.”

Like other policy areas, Mamdani’s views seem to be in line with Simotas’.

“This legislation isn't about protecting tenants, it's about bailing out landlords. It locks millions of tenants out of real relief with a preposterous means-testing formula, putting New Yorkers across the state at risk of eviction,” Mamdani said in a statement. “New Yorkers need a universal rent and mortgage holiday for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis, with no back payments due later.”

But, Mamdani still sees Simotas as complicit in legislation passed by Albany, like the rent voucher bill, which he says are  failures. Simotas, meanwhile, believes she’s done what her constituents sent her to Albany to do.

“I’ve worked very hard in Albany to write and pass progressive legislation that makes a difference in people’s lives,” Simotas said. “That’s who I am.”

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated to note that Simotas has not been endorsed by Senators Gianaris and Ramos.

Race to the Left in Western Queens Assembly Primary Mon, 08 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Front-Line Workers Must Prove They Contracted Coronavirus on the Job to Receive Workers' Comp nurses hospital

Nurses at the frontlines of the coronavirus battle (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Nine weeks after Governor Andrew Cuomo closed all but essential businesses and services, many of the state’s essential workers are now finding themselves struggling with their employers and insurance companies for injury benefits related to COVID-19, and for those who die, their survivors are left to pick up the mantle.

Infected front-line staff, from health-care workers to grocery store clerks, are being asked to prove they contracted the virus on the job in order to receive workers' compensation and death benefits, union leaders and elected officials say. In some cases, insurance companies are asking nurses to identify which patient may have exposed them to the virus or when they had a breach of personal protective equipment, the officials said.

"There was an assumption that the employers were doing the right thing, that they were considering this a workplace illness because it was pretty obvious that all essential workers, to have to be out there while we were all sheltered in place, of course were exposed," Pat Kane, executive director of the New York State Nurses Association, said in an interview. "Certainly in the nurses' case, there is a sign on the door that says, 'This patient has COVID,' and you know you are going to be doing procedures that put you at risk. That's your job."

According to labor and elected officials, under the state's workers' compensation law, the burden falls on the employee to show they contracted the virus at work and not elsewhere, leaving first responders to pinpoint the specific circumstances in which they might have been exposed -- a monumental task in a pandemic, they say, and harder still for survivors of the deceased.

Labor unions, including NYSNA and the New York State AFL-CIO, have called unsuccessfully on the New York State Workers' Compensation Board to acknowledge COVID-19 as an "occupational disease" for front-line workers, which they say would create the presumption that they contracted it as part of the hazards of the workplace. The unions are now eying a bill in the State Legislature that would add the virus directly to the law, removing a significant administrative hurdle to workers receiving benefits.

The provision would mean employees in workplaces with a documented outbreak would be eligible to receive salary, healthcare, and survivors' benefits for COVID-related illness unless it could be proven that they contracted the virus in the community.

"Insurance companies have been denying claims from workers who have gotten sick with COVID-19,” said Assemblymember Aravella Simotas, who sponsors the bill with State Senator Jessica Ramos, both Queens Democrats. “They are requiring the worker to establish that they contracted COVID-19 on the job. What Senator Ramos and I want to do is we want to eliminate the administrative and legal burden of having to prove that they contracted COVID-19 at work."

"This is the number one issue for essential workers right now, aside from of course needing regular PPE," said Ramos, who chairs the Senate’s labor committee and represents some of the hardest hit zip codes in the country, in an interview.

The State Legislature will be in session Tuesday and Wednesday this week for the first time since the state budget was passed in April, but it is unclear whether the bill will be taken up. Simotas and Ramos say they have not been notified about what bills will be voted on as of Saturday, but are hopeful theirs will be included.

"We are discussing the session agenda with our members," wrote Mike Whyland, spokesperson for the Assembly Democratic majority and Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx, in an email Monday. The Senate Democratic Majority did not respond to requests for comment.

The price-tag of insuring over a million workers who may have been exposed to the virus leaves the legislation's future uncertain as the state forecasts a $10 to $15 billion budget gap this year alone due to the coronavirus-induced economic crisis.

At his daily coronavirus briefing on Monday, Cuomo announced the state would work with localities to provide death benefits to "public heroes" who died during the emergency. The governor did not yet provide a full list of who he intends to cover, but mentioned nurses and doctors, police officers, firefighters, EMS, and grocery store workers. The governor was later asked about the Legislature returning to session and said it should only be advancing “revenue-neutral” bills given the state’s severe financial distress.

The New York Workers' Compensation Insurance Rating Board, an association of insurance carriers that sets workers' comp rates in the state, estimated the price of the legislation to be a total of $31 billion, more than triple the $8.7 billion paid annually through the system. The estimate assumes that "much, if not all" of the state's workforce as of 2019, both public and private, would be eligible for benefits, and that every one who is eligible will apply for benefits.

"The cost estimates are just inaccurate," Simotas said. "They are overestimating how many people they think this is going to affect. Every time I've gone against the insurance companies that is always the issue: 'we can't cover, there will be too many claims.'"

According to an analysis from New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer in March, there are just over 1 million front-line workers citywide, staffing emergency rooms, driving buses, cleaning buildings, providing childcare, and running shelters and soup kitchens. Guidance issued by Cuomo along with his “pause” order listed a huge litany of workers considered essential, including dozens of positions that interact directly with the public.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, with backing from the City Council and a smattering of state legislators from New York City, had called for the state to provide line-of-duty death benefits for municipal employees who have died of the novel coronavirus, but he has not pushed for broader workers' compensation. As of de Blasio’s May 19 call, there had been 270 city employees who had died from COVID-19. On May 10, the city extended health insurance coverage to surviving family members of city employees for 45 days.

In March, the state passed legislation making employees eligible for up to two weeks of paid sick leave for isolation due to the coronavirus. The law provides between five days of unpaid leave for employees of small businesses and 14 days of paid leave for workers at large employers. The law also made workers eligible for paid family leave and temporary disability insurance due to COVID-19.

The nurses union says that measure is just a start, because many front-line workers, especially nurses who see infected patients, have high viral loads and are often out sick for much longer than 14 days.

"A thing to emphasize here is they weren't looking for a new benefit," said Kane of NYSNA. Nearly 3,600 nurses in downstate New York (9.2 percent of NYSNA membership south of Kingston) notified their employers of COVID-19 exposure, according to the union. "They are looking for something that everyone should be entitled to in this situation and there was a lot of pushback."

"We are not creating a new benefit,” Simotas said, “we are just ensuring that essential workers who become ill or disabled from COVID-19 can receive the benefits that they are entitled to."

"We are reviewing the legislation, although the workers compensation system already provides that employees who contract COVID-19 from their work will already receive the full benefits available under the Workers’ Compensation Law," wrote Caitlin Giourard, a spokesperson for Cuomo.

But where the burden of proof lies is the crux of the matter for workers struggling with the pressures of a job on the front lines while getting sick or dying of COVID-19.

The Greater New York Hospital Association, a network of over 160 hospitals in the region, did not respond to inquiries about claims that nurses are being asked to prove they contracted the virus at work in order to receive benefits.

"Workers Compensation claims are not evaluated by the employer but by state regulated insurance companies and the state worker’s compensation board," wrote a spokesperson for Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, in an email to Gotham Gazette. But NYSNA leaders say many hospitals have a culture that discourages workers from filing claims.

Melissa Stewart, a spokesperson for the Workers' Compensation Board, which is appointed by the governor, wrote in an emailed statement: "The law will protect these essential workers impacted by COVID in the workplace and provides for medical care, wage replacement or even death and funeral benefits regardless of the occupational disease designation."

She continued: "A worker who develops COVID-19 should provide details about where he or she works, how often they work, and the type of job duties they perform, especially those involving contact with the public. A claimant needs to have a medical report from an authorized workers’ compensation medical provider stating that work caused the illness."

According to the New York Compensation Insurance Rating Board (NYCIRB), the average temporary disability claim in New York is $600 per week, and the average indemnity for death is $575,000.

"It's kind of a joke to put the additional burden on a nurse to have to prove that she contracted COVID at a hospital,” Simotas said. “It defies logic. It's unfair."

Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, an emergency room nurse at Montefiore Hospital and president of NYSNA, said that workers' comp is "a bigger thing than us because it involves all the essential workers. The heroes...The heroes that they don't want to give workers' comp to. Why are we heroes? What did we do that's heroic? We took care of people and risked our lives. So can you give us workers' comp when we get sick?"

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Front-Line Workers Must Prove They Contracted Coronavirus on the Job to Receive Workers' Comp Mon, 25 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
‘Not a Budget Anybody Should Be Celebrating’: Democratic Legislators Displeased with Albany Compromise 3 maj leader asc

A nearly-empty State Senate Chamber as business is conducted amid coronavirus outbreak (photo: NY Senate)

If New Yorkers take Governor Andrew Cuomo’s word for it, the new $177 billion budget approved last week will “deliver results” for the people of the state and was a far cry from a “bare minimum” spending plan at a time when the state’s finances are racked by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. But within his own Democratic Party, which controls both houses of the Legislature where the plan was passed, the budget is a highly unpopular document that to many legislators fails to live up to the needs and priorities of New Yorkers.

"This is a moment in history unlike any other, and government needs to function and deliver results for the people of this state now more than ever — and that's exactly what we did with this budget," Cuomo, now in his third term, said in a statement last Thursday, after announcing the highlights of the budget agreement with the Legislature, which included a wide variety of policy and fiscal decisions.

Cuomo cited a number of policies that were passed, including a paid sick leave bill, legalizing gestational surrogacy, creating a new felony for hate crimes considered acts of ‘domestic terrorism,” banning gender-pricing disparities known as the “pink tax,” creating new regulations on vaping and e-cigarettes, establishing a $3 billion bond act for environmental restoration and climate mitigation projects, among others.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins similarly touted some of the same and other accomplishments, such as new controls of prescription drug prices, easing access to public assistance, bolstering unemployment insurance by $1 billion, and preventing huge cuts to education spending, and more -- but she also sounded a bittersweet note.

“This is not the budget we had hoped to pass at the beginning of Session, or even the budget we had envisioned just a month ago,” she said in a statement after the budget passed. “Our state’s financial situation has been thrust into a true economic crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic. Yet even in this crisis we managed to achieve a balanced budget that includes victories for the people of New York.”

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie boasted about environmental protection legislation, new gun control measures, the expansion of paid sick leave and particularly investments in higher education. “In these challenging and uncertain times, education and upward mobility have never been more important. That is why we fought relentlessly to ensure the preservation of critical funding for the programs New Yorkers count on to climb the economic ladder,” he said in a statement.

But the vote totals on the various budget bills and some of the floor speeches by Democratic legislators told a different story than the three people in ‘the room.’ An usually large number of Democratic lawmakers showed their displeasure with the fact that several progressive priorities were left out or modified, and chafed at some of the spending and tax decisions.

Recreational marijuana was not legalized. Bail reforms implemented just three months ago were rolled back. Renters suffering from the economic devastation of the coronavirus were not given any relief. Hospital funding was cut. A plan to reduce homelessness was again shelved. No new taxes on the wealthy were approved. Funding for public housing was not bolstered. School aid remained flat.

[Read: 10 Major Proposals Not Included in New State Budget]

This is the only the second year in Cuomo’s long tenure that Democrats have controlled both chambers of the state Legislature, after a decade of a Republican-led Senate and Democrat-dominated Assembly. Last year saw a raft of progressive bills across a range of issues: criminal justice reform, tenant protections, voting reform, women’s reproductive health, gun control, LGBTQ rights, environmental preservation, to name a few. So it wasn’t surprising that many Democrats, particularly in the 150-seat Assembly where they hold an overwhelming majority, were frustrated by the budget. What was unusual, though, was the number of "no" votes.

There isn’t one singular budget vote, but rather several appropriation bills that lawmakers vote on separately related to state operations, aid to localities, the legislature and judiciary, debt service, and capital projects. Then there are the Article VII Bills, grouped under four categories:  Public Protection and General Government (PPGG); Education, Labor and Family Assistance (ELFA); Transportation, Economic Development and Environmental Conservation (TED); and Revenue. They often include major policy decisions.

The votes varied but it was clear that a sizable number of Democrats were displeased. The ELFA bill, which contained the bail reform changes and included Medicaid overhaul provisions, barely squeaked through the Assembly, where it received 76 “yes” votes to 66 “no” votes, meaning it received the bare minimum number of votes to pass the chamber. It passed the 63-seat Senate 35-26. The TED bill was also a somewhat close vote in the Assembly, where it was approved 81-60, while the Senate passed it 39-22. There are 105 Democrats in the Assembly, and 40 members of the Senate Democratic conference.

In past years, Assembly Democrats voted in lock-step and near-unanimity to pass budgets agreed upon by the governor and legislative leaders, who typically conference major aspects of the compromises as they develop to ensure that most if not all members are on board. This year, however, a number of Democrats voted against key portions of the deal reached among Democratic leaders and didn’t hold back how they feel about the budget, even as some admitted that they voted for it despite the flaws they saw in it.

Assemblymember Aravella Simotas, a Queens Democrat who voted against the ELFA, TED and revenue bills, criticized the lack of new revenue raisers in the budget, the watering down of bail reform, cuts to healthcare and the underfunding of school aid, among other issues. “Decades of underfunding our most vital human services so the wealthy could get by without paying their fair share brought us to this point,” she said in a public statement

Assemblymember Yuh-line Niou, a Manhattan Democrat, similarly voted against the ELFA and TED bills. “In the recovery that must come after this crisis, what we need is not the cuts proposed by our governor but strong investments in our infrastructure and the public assets that could have mitigated this crisis had we only been willing to fund them previously,” she said as she explained her vote on the Assembly floor (the video of her remarks has been circulated widely on social media among progressives). “This budget, this values document, makes a terrible statement that we value big businesses and profits more than we value people, our people, the people of this state, and that is simply not who we are.”

Senator Brian Benjamin, also a Democrat from Manhattan, conceded that he was faced with impossible competing priorities. “I had 3 choices: a) vote yes for a negotiated budget where the Legislature has limited power; b) vote no and accept the Governor’s extender; or c) vote no on both and shut down the Govt. As a leader of the Senate, I took the hard vote and voted yes so others didn’t have to,” he tweeted on April 4.

If the government shut down, state employees would have gone unpaid during the outbreak, Benjamin noted. And he refused to cast a symbolic “no” vote to express his anger. “The ultimate lesson here is that the Senate and the Assembly have to work together and address our important nonbudgetary concerns BEFORE the budget process because if we don’t then the Governor has outsized power to address the issue and we will end up in this place again,” he added.

Senator Roxanne Persaud, a Brooklyn Democrat, professed a similar ambivalence in a statement to her constituents, noting that the final budget shows the “numerous tremendously difficult decisions” the Legislature had to make during the current crisis. “While I am not pleased with a number of final agreements contained in the thousands of pages of legislation, I am confident that my colleagues and I fought our hardest to deliver a balanced budget that mitigates some of the toughest possible outcomes,” she said.

In the days leading up to the budget deal, Assemblymember Robert Carroll, also a Brooklyn Democrat, wrote an op-ed asserting that negotiations were focused on the wrong priorities, calling for holding off on most policy decisions and passing a robust coronavirus relief agenda including a rent freeze and funded in part by higher taxes on top earners.

During a Wednesday interview on the Max & Murphy podcast, Queens State Senator Jessica Ramos criticized the bail rollbacks, hospital funding cuts, and other aspects of the budget deal in explaining her votes against pieces of it. She also lamented a lack of new revenue-generating measures, and connected what she sees as long-standing patterns of too-little investment in communities like she represents -- largely low-income and immigrant -- to the depth of the current coronavirus crisis.

"That’s why I’m so disappointed in the budget and why I voted 'no' on a few of the bills," Ramos said, "and I’m really hoping that we’re canceling rent soon, especially as May begins, and to figure out what the bailout looks like because every single New Yorker deserves the opportunity to be able to thrive after this calamity.”

“This is not a budget that anybody should be celebrating,” said Senator Andrew Gounardes, another Brooklyn Democrat, in his own public statement, though he did not vote against any bills. He pointed out that the budget was two days late, leading to delayed paychecks for state workers. If there had been any further delay, he said, New Yorkers waiting for unemployment checks from the state government would have continued to suffer.

Gounardes continued, “This is a budget that cut state spending by $5.7 billion, including more than $1 billion in healthcare at a time when our health network is working overtime to keep people alive. This is a budget that ignores the moral imperative to tax the ultrawealthy, raising the revenue we need to stave off cuts to critical services. This is a budget that failed to invest in our public higher education system, when it was needed most.”

Gounardes cited the same issue that Benjamin raised, as did Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat, that the state budget process places far too much power in the governor’s office.

Myrie, who outlined the good and bad in the budget, said in a public statement to his constituents, “You should know that the budget process is constitutionally flawed. The Executive has enormous control over the agenda and the Legislature is often left with a "take it or leave it" proposition. During a pandemic, this imbalance is magnified. Under these conditions, the Leadership was faced with the prospects of shutting down the government during a public health crisis, or, accepting a flawed budget. They made the excruciatingly difficult decision to accept a flawed budget.” He noted that he nonetheless voted “no” on bills that contained provisions he did not agree with, including the cuts to Medicaid spending for hospitals and the bail reform rollback.

In a fiery speech on the Assembly floor, Bronx Assemblymember Michael Blake invoked the history of slavery, emancipation and the civil rights movement as he critiqued the watering down of bail reform, urging his colleagues to join him in voting “no.”

“It’s in this moment that we must truly ask ourselves what is more important, rushing to vote on a budget when many of us are afraid of being paid for a day or rushing to lock up more black or brown folk who get paid cents in a day?….For students, our seniors, our humans behind bars, this budget bill is not justice, it is the justification of continuing 401 years of injustice,” Blake said.

Other "no" votes by Democratic legislators on at least one budget bill included Senators Alessandra Biaggi, Gustavo Rivera, and Julia Salazar, as well as Assemblymembers Harvey Epstein, Jeff Aubry, Charles Barron, Catalina Cruz, Carmen De La Rosa, Mathylde Frontus, Nathalia Fernandez, Ron Kim, Joe Lentol, Walter Mosley, Danny O'Donnell, Felix Ortiz, Dan Quart, Jo Anne Simon, Latrice Walker, and Tremaine Wright. 

Republicans, meanwhile, still made up the vast majority of "no" votes in both houses. They were incensed that the budget was not a bare bones spending plan and that Democrats advanced a slew of non-revenue legislation. Most also wanted to see the changes to last year's bail reforms go further in the other direction.

“During unprecedented times that demand a concentrated focus, [the] state Majority rushed out a cluttered state budget that offered nothing of the kind,” said Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay, in a statement on the budget. “Concocted behind closed doors and advanced under the cover of darkness, the state’s final spending plan drifted too far from our current crisis and was entirely bogged down by misguided political policies.”

He added, “Assembly Majority rejected a Minority proposal to help small businesses and employees, but they extended tax credits to Hollywood studios. As restaurants everywhere are forced to close their doors, Majority politicians added more regulations that stifle growth and cut deeper into the industry’s bottom line. The appropriate time to discuss taxpayer-funded campaigns, gestational surrogacy or criminal justice reforms is in the light of day, with an open debate and transparent process.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

‘Not a Budget Anybody Should Be Celebrating’: Democratic Legislators Displeased with Albany Compromise Thu, 09 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
New York Must Pass the 'Rape is Rape' Bill gov andcuomo doc

(photo: the governor's office)

At the end of August, NBC New York ran a story about a young woman who was raped after going out to a Manhattan bar. Despite the fact that she came forward, wanting justice to be done, the Manhattan District Attorney refused to prosecute the case.

When a reporter questioned his decision not to pursue charges, DA Cyrus Vance’s staff shared a letter he wrote to Governor Andrew Cuomo insisting that he cannot bring forth rape charges in cases in which victims were voluntarily intoxicated. In other words, if you go out in Manhattan, get drunk, and end up being raped, there is nothing the Manhattan DA can do for you.

It’s a disingenuous claim.

The idea that “prosecutors cannot bring sex crime charges in cases where the victim becomes voluntarily intoxicated and was unable to consent” is simply untrue. We know it’s untrue because the Manhattan DA himself brought charges in a similar case: People v. Johnson.

In that case the Manhattan DA secured a Rape 1 indictment where the victim was voluntarily intoxicated. The Appellate Court ultimately vacated the conviction, but only because DA Vance’s office botched the plea deal. 

This is not the first time DA Vance has declined to press charges in a sexual assault investigation, and he’s not the only one with a follow-through problem. Time and time again, law enforcement fails survivors of sexual assault. It’s not a problem unique to DA Vance or New York City but a nationwide “epidemic of disbelief” as Atlantic writer Barbara Bradley Hagerty put it.

Survivors of rape are regularly met with skepticism. Though it’s the police who investigate and DAs who secure convictions, the state Legislature cannot be absolved of responsibility.

Currently, under New York state law, only forced vaginal penetration is considered rape while forced oral and anal contact are labeled criminal sexual acts. Not only is this definition restrictive, it is archaic. There are consequences to this omission: refusing to call rape by its name reduces the perceived severity of the crime.

The Rape is Rape bill (A00794C) would amend the penal code to redefine rape to include forced anal and oral contact, and eliminate the penetration element that is legally necessary to establish that a vaginal rape has occurred.

At first glance, the bill appears an easy sell. Who would disagree that forced anal or oral sex should be considered rape? Equally important is the underlying question. Who would argue that the law shouldn’t recognize that a man has been raped? Well, the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, for one. The lobbying arm of the state’s DA association has proved a major hindrance to any sort of progressive reform and in 2013, then-DAASNY President Cy Vance wrote to the Assembly opposing the bill on bogus claims that it would reduce penalties for sex crimes. 

A similar reluctance to evolve has pervaded the NYPD’s approach. Up until this year, the NYPD was undercounting rape in New York City by as much as 38%, excluding reports of forced oral and anal contact in its official reporting system despite a state mandate to include these crimes in its statistics. Following the Newsy report, we called on the NYPD to immediately bring its system up to federal standards, and the department did.

While the NYPD works to implement a “victim-centered” approach – a result of a scathing city Department of Investigation inquiry that found the Special Victims Division was undertrained and understaffed – the Legislature must do its part and pass the Rape is Rape bill in January, when the next legislative session begins.

And our work does not end there.

We must also elect District Attorneys who will be thoughtful in their prosecutions of sex crimes and take all rape cases seriously, not just the ones they think they can win.

It is especially important that we have DAs who understand that the Penal Code should not only be used to prosecute crimes, but to inform the public of what is acceptable behavior. When we call a rape—whether it is vaginal, oral, or anal—anything but rape, we delegitimize the crime and invalidate the survivor’s experience.

Perhaps the Me Too movement is the cultural awakening this country needs to take sexual violence seriously. That being said, these cultural changes will not happen overnight and in the meantime, we implore the NYPD, New York’s District Attorneys, and the state Legislature to do better.

Everywhere we look our institutions, designated to protect, serve, and deliver justice, are failing survivors. We must take responsibility for these failures and adopt survivor-centered policies while we work to change society.

Dan Quart & Aravella Simotas are members of the New York State Assembly representing parts of Manhattan and Queens, respectively. On Twitter @amdanquart & @AravellaSimotas. (Quart is also a candidate for Manhattan District Attorney.)

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New York Must Pass the 'Rape is Rape' Bill Mon, 09 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Establishing a Newborn Health and Safe Sleep Program in New York baby box

a "baby box"

As sponsors of legislation to establish a Newborn Health and Safe Sleep Pilot Program, we call on the Legislature to combat infant mortality in New York and pass the bill.

This measure is an important step forward in our state’s ongoing efforts to support new parents and provide all children with the best possible start to life.

According to the Department of Health, over 90 infants in New York die every year as a result of unsafe sleep practices and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). While there are many factors involved in improving infant health, research clearly demonstrates that promoting safe sleep is a key component in reducing preventable injury and death.

The Newborn Health and Safe Sleep Pilot Program would distribute “baby boxes” or other approved products, like play-yards or bassinets, to provide parents in the areas of greatest need or regions with high rates of infant mortality with a safe sleep option. In addition to providing a safe sleeping environment for newborns, the “baby box” or similar product distributed through the program would also include essential baby care items, educational materials, and provide an opportunity for new families and health care providers to discuss safe and healthy practices aimed at reducing SIDS.

“Baby boxes,” a concept originated in Finland, have been used across the world with proven success. In the United States, several states and a number of cities and health care systems have already implemented “baby box” programs as a persuasive way to reach new families. The statewide program would offer critical resources, educate new families and enable them to engage in safe practices.    

While distribution of “baby boxes” alone will not completely solve the problem of infant mortality, this program would be just one piece of a much larger puzzle in New York. Our state has already made great strides to improve health outcomes. In 2015, we worked together to pass legislation which made New York the first state in the nation to designate pregnancy as a qualifying life event for health insurance enrollment, guaranteeing all families the opportunity to access vital prenatal care to prevent pre-term births and pregnancy complications. New York has worked to establish paid family leave benefits for working parents and provide maternal, infant, and early childhood home-visiting services in our most vulnerable communities. The Newborn Health and Safe Sleep Program would further our efforts to reduce health disparities and ensure all parents receive the support they need to raise healthy children.

In an ideal world, every family would be aware of and adhere to the American Academy of Pediatrics Safe Sleep Recommendations and have a crib or bassinet meeting their guidelines. In reality, new families are often sleep deprived, exhausted, and struggling to adjust, or simply can’t afford a crib. The Newborn Health and Safe Sleep Program will help new parents avoid unsafe behavior and will encourage and increase healthy sleep practices.  

New York has demonstrated a long-standing commitment to enacting comprehensive policies to support healthy parenting, these measures will allow New York to continue to serve as a national leader in protecting the health and wellbeing of babies, children and families.

Aravella Simotas is a Democratic Assembly member representing AD 36, Astoria, Queens, and Kemp Hannon is a Republican representing SD6, in Nassau County. They sponsor bills S3867 and A/A6044-A.

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Establishing a Newborn Health and Safe Sleep Program in New York Mon, 19 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000