Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/75 Wed, 17 Jul 2019 07:03:40 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) 'We're Moving Now': City Pursues School Desegregation Measures, with Major Looming Test https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8644-we-re-moving-now-city-pursues-school-desegregation-measures-with-major-looming-test https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8644-we-re-moving-now-city-pursues-school-desegregation-measures-with-major-looming-test Carranza De Blasio education

Chancellor Carranza & Mayor de Blasio (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York City schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced on June 10 that the city will adopt 62 recommendations focused on diversity and integration in public schools, focusing on middle and elementary schools, from the Department of Education’s School Diversity Advisory Group, a new step toward school desegregation as many students, families, educators, and others have waited years for the city to make progress.

A 2014 UCLA report said New York public schools were the most segregated in the country, but stressed that they didn’t have to be. The report said a combination of demographic transformations and a lack of diversity-focused policies led to “problematic segregation patterns.” 

Adding metrics to an annual report to track numbers related to diversity and integration, defining a city goal to aim to have “all schools to look like the city,” and investing in programs to provide more opportunities in high poverty schools are some of the recommendations that some say are the most significant. Also part of the picture is city grants to school districts that want to design their own integration plans, as a few districts have already done.

The adoption of the recommendations come after “a long period of frustration,” according to City Council Member Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat who has been one of the leaders in pushing school desegregation efforts in the city. Lander added that Carranza’s leadership has been significant in moving the advisory group and broader conversation along. The city accepted all but five of the group’s 67 recommendations, with two rejected and three are still under review.

While many say the initial slate of recommendations is a positive step, some have criticized the plan for lack of timelines for implementation and not being aggressive enough to make fast progress on school integration. Members of the group have said this report is just a start, and a second set of recommendations in July will address some of those concerns, including taking on the tough subject of high school admissions. 

Some have also said the two recommendations the de Blasio administration did not select — the creation of a Chief Integration Officer position and analyzing the possibility of moving the supervision of School Safety Agents from the NYPD to the Department of Education — could have spurred more progress. 

The three of the 67 from the first report that are still under review would make resources available to any district making diversity plans if the DOE receives more applications than the $2 million it already set aside can support and establish a separate set of funds for districts that have not started integration discussions yet. The third suggests developing and investing in enrichment programs in elementary schools.

Since Carranza took over as chancellor in April 2018, he has taken a much more aggressive approach to school desegregation than his predecessors, the apparent result of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new willingness to address an area of significant criticism during his first five years in office, though the mayor is still facing heat for his tepid approach to what is a civil rights and education issue with major socioeconomic and racial implications.

Carranza has implemented mandatory implicit bias trainings for all teachers, lobbied state lawmakers to drop the single entrance exam for the city’s specialized high schools where few black and Hispanic students are enrolled, and eliminated the use of “limited unscreened” enrollment policies in high schools, which gave priority to applicants who attended admissions fairs to show interest and were thought to favor students with more engaged and wealthier parents. 

Mayor de Blasio in 2017 had created a modest diversity plan and established the School Diversity Advisory Group, which came up with the recently-released recommendations. But, de Blasio’s agenda had lacked plans on school integration until recent years. Council members as well as student and teacher advocates increasingly pressured the mayor in the years after the UCLA report. Then he appointed Carranza, who has been outspoken, at times ruffling feathers de Blasio had been loathe to disrupt, to push conversation and action around school integration.

“The chancellor’s coming and embracing that advocacy and working together to build it...has been essential,” said Lander, who co-sponsored a package of legislation passed in 2015 that intended to bring attention to segregation in public schools, “because we had all that organizing going on, but we did not yet have much progress.” 

Preliminary Movement: 62 Recommendations
The 2014 UCLA report found that of the city’s 32 school districts, 19 included 10 percent or fewer white students. Additionally, it said the combination of “double segregation” by both race and socioeconomic status created more inequalities. 

An updated 2019 report found that while some progress had been made, the city’s schools remained largely segregated. From 2001 to 2015, the number of “intensely segregated” elementary schools in gentrifying areas declined by about 10 percent (from 91 percent in 2001 to 83 percent in 2015), those in non-gentrifying areas increased by 15 percent. Intensely segregated schools are defined as 90 to 100 percent non-white. 

Maya Wiley, former counsel to Mayor de Blasio and now senior vice president for social justice at the New School and a co-chair of the School Diversity Advisory Group, said in an interview on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC that school integration benefits all students. She said dropout rates go down while graduate rates go up, and students do better in college.

Wiley said that the recommendation adding diversity metrics is a “game changer.” She said having numbers on diversity and providing the public with the reports will help keep the city accountable. 

She added that one of the recommendations, creating diversity targets in middle school admissions, is an expansion on the mayor’s 2017 Diversity in Admissions program that planned for 50,000 more students to attend racially representative schools. Because some researchers noted that the goal could be met by demographic shifts alone, Wiley said the SDAG wanted to be more aggressive. 

“In the short term we said schools, meaning zero to three years, schools should look like their districts. Then over five years they should look like the borough. In 10 years they should look like the city,” Wiley said on WNYC. “The link to the metrics is how do you know if you’re getting that done if you’re not reporting?”

Two-thirds of the students in the city’s school system are black and Hispanic, 15 percent are white, and 16 percent are Asian, according to DOE data. In the city overall, 33 percent are white, 26 percent are black, 24 percent are Hispanic, and 13 percent are Asian.

Clara Hemphill, the director of education policy and editor at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs’ project InsideSchools, said the recommendations serve as a guide for how the city can move forward with integration on the district level.

The recommendations encourage districts to develop their own diversity plans similar to the one in Brooklyn’s District 15, part of Lander’s Council district, which eliminated the use of screens in middle school admissions and committed 52 percent of seats to students who are low-income, learning English as a new language, or are homeless.

The city announced that five districts will receive $200,000 in grants to increase their schools’ diversity, and one recommendation from the advisory group encourages nine more districts to develop integration plans. Another recommendation outlines that the DOE will “support and encourage” districts to examine new middle school admissions policies, while another urges districts to be transparent about their integration processes to ensure progress.

However, Hemphill said for a borough like the Bronx, whose population is largely black and Latino, there is not going to be integration of different races and income levels at most schools in those districts. She added, though, that the recommendations do layout an answer to help those schools: providing more and encouraging the recruitment of diverse faculty create ways to improve the schools’ quality.

“At neighborhoods where you can’t have racial integration of students, you can still make schools that have plenty of resources and represent the kids,” Hemphill said.

The mayor’s approach to school desegregation so far has been to encourage districts to pursue their own integration plans with assistance from the DOE, which has happened with success through parent-led efforts in Districts 15 and 3. De Blasio regularly says he believes it must be a bottom-up, not top-down effort to integrate city schools.

City Council Member Daneek Miller said at a June 19 press conference that there is a consensus from the members of the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus as well as the Progressive Caucus that the recommendations are necessary to address school segregation problems. He added, though, that “these 62 points don’t necessarily address everything.”

Perceived Shortcomings
Critics have said the recommendations lack specific timelines for implementation and fail to address greater issues of enrollment screens and district segregation.

David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center, said because the recommendations focus on district plans rather than a city-wide plan, not much progress can be made on desegregating schools. The district lines are ethnically and racially drawn, so desegregation efforts need to happen across districts rather than within districts, he said.

Bloomfield added that one of the rejected recommendations, the creation of a Chief Integration Officer, was a “major mistake” because someone in that position could have focused on the city as a whole rather than the individual districts.

“[A city-wide plan] does require imagination and professional staff,” Bloomfield said. “That seems to be lacking in how the mayor sees desegregation efforts. In some ways it’s a plan for a plan, and it’s too late to be going so slow.”

Carranza has said that in his role as chancellor, he is the Chief Integration Officer.

Of the other of two recommendations the city did not adopt, that of moving the supervision of the School Safety Agents to the DOE from the NYPD, would have been beneficial in decreasing police presence in schools and students getting caught up in the criminal justice system as opposed to having more issues handled at their schools. Not long after the de Blasio administration announced it was accepting the 62 of 67 recommendations from the advisory group, it announced a new school discipline code and new agreement between the NYPD and DOE to lighten how students are policed in schools — the first update to that memorandum of understanding in about 20 years.

Given the lack of timelines for implementation, the advisory group recommendations form a “roadmap” for what the city wants to do rather than a plan with deadlines, Hemphill said. 

The recommendations also did not take on high schools and screened admissions policies.

Lander said while some of the recommendations are significant and are an overall positive step, they tackle the “lower hanging fruit.” He said there is room for the city to make changes in the admissions processes of high schools that use academic screens, which does not require changes in state law and is a “more thoughtful” approach to integration. 

The student advocacy group Teens Take Charge, which held a rally at the steps of the Tweed Courthouse, home to the DOE, calling for a high school integration plan four days before de Blasio announced the adoption of the recommendations, echoed Lander’s sentiment.

Soknadiarra Ndiaye, the chief operations officer of Teens Take Charge, said the group hopes the next set of recommendations due next month will deal with enrollment processes and high schools. The group set a June 26 deadline, the last day of school, for de Blasio to announce a comprehensive high school integration plan, and held a sit-in at City Hall when no such plan was announced. 

The Teens Take Charge campaign calls for the city to promote academic, racial, and socioeconomic integration at high schools by setting diversity thresholds in the admissions process that all high schools would have to meet. 

“When it comes to high school, one of the reasons why our high school system is so segregated is because of enrollment,” Ndiaye said. “So we’re hoping that [the city] will either adopt our policy or something similar to it.” 

City Council Member Mark Treyger, the chair of the Council’s education committee, said making changes to admissions processes is one way for the Department of Education to take steps forward on school integration without needing state lawmakers to change state law, which is necessary for tackling issues related to the three (of the eight) marquee specialized high schools and the SHSAT used for admissions (the state legislative session just ended with no movement on reforming the specialized schools’ admissions).

De Blasio has said he does not think it is wise to change the process at the five specialized high schools the city controls, pushing for state law changes to scrap the test in favor of multiple measures and criteria that would diversify the schools, home to high percentages of white and Asian students.

Treyger said he is “pleased” that the recommendations signal the city is moving forward on the issue, but added that “time is of the essence.”

“Every school year delayed is justice delayed and these are precious years that our students can never get back,” Treyger said. “There needs to be a real effort underway, not just to simply form another working group or have another study, but to really find ways to implement strategies right now that we know work.” 

Matt Gonzales, school diversity director at the nonprofit New York Appleseed and also a member of the city’s SDAG, said SDAG is writing the second report, which he said will take on high school policy and enrollment issues. He added that the group did not design the first set of recommendations to be the only plan they propose.

“I guess there’s a distrust that the advisory group isn’t going to follow through,” Gonzales said. “There was never an intention just to lay out this first report and wipe our hands.” 

The City’s Slow Progression
School integration was not on de Blasio’s platform when he ran for mayor in 2013, nor was it included in his “Equity and Excellence” education speech in 2015, though he discussed a number of education initiatives. Those programs, like Algebra for All and Computer Science for All and AP for All, are virtually all aimed at enhancing schools as they are currently constituted, while ignoring racial segregation, an approach some have called de Blasio’s version of ‘separate but equal.’

Pushed on not moving to desegregate city schools, de Blasio repeatedly said he had put a great deal in motion to improve schools. He also pointed to the historical constructs and sources of segregated schools and neighborhoods, and to the fact that many New Yorkers had made major life decisions, like buying homes, with the current school districts in mind. Those comments received significant criticism. 

Bloomfield said de Blaiso started to tackle the issue after years of increasing pressure from the public, advocates, and other city leaders. He added that the timing of the city moving forward also coincides with the arrival of Carranza, who prioritized the issue, as well as de Blasio’s reelection.

“He felt that he could risk some political capital on this initiative,” Bloomfield said of the Democratic mayor, now in his second and final term (and running for president).

The City Council, however, began to address school segregation issues in 2014, just after the UCLA report. In October of that year, Council Members Lander, Ritchie Torres, and Inez Barron introduced a package of legislation to draw attention to the lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity in schools. The Council has no power to change admissions processes or school district lines, policies that are set by the mayoral-controlled Department of Education, technically a state entity, local parent education councils, and the city’s Panel for Educational Policy, which is mostly run by mayoral appointees.

Lander’s portion of the legislation included requiring the Department of Education to publicly report diversity metrics. Torres and Barron both introduced nonbinding resolutions that sought to officially declare diversity one of the Department of Education’s goals and to rewrite the law requiring the city’s specialized high schools to admit students based on an entrance exam. 

The Council passed the legislation, and in 2015 passed the School Diversity Accountability Act, which requires the Department of Education to annually report on steps they are taking to address school segregation. The Council has also held several hearings on the issue, including one in May. 

“We have been pushing for integration efforts for quite some time,” Treyger said. “And the City Council is limited in terms of its legislative authority in terms of DOE policies, but we do have oversight power. We’ve used it and we’ll use it again to hold the DOE accountable.”

Districts themselves have also implemented their own integration plans, with District 15 in Brooklyn and District 3 in Manhattan both enacting more inclusive admissions practices in their middle schools. 

No action was taken to further school integration by either the Department of Education or the mayor’s office until 2017, when de Blasio established the SDAG and set goals for more diverse schools. 

The 2017 diversity plan outlined diversity as a priority for the Department of Education and included short-term goals such as decreasing the number of economically stratified schools by 10 percent and increasing the number of schools that serve English Language Learners and students with disabilities. 

“It was very weak tea,” Lander said. “I mean, it was better than nothing, but the goals were very modest. And there was no reason to believe that the School Diversity Advisory Group would be real, would be meaningful would be independent with recommendations.” 

Lander said Carranza was key in giving the SDAG confidence to be bolder and move forward with proposing the recommendations in February 2019. 

Treyger said after some months had passed, he wanted to hold a hearing to find out where the administration stood on the recommendations. He said he, Speaker Corey Johnson, and other Council members were “frustrated” that the city was not ready to publicly weigh in yet. 

At the hearing held in May, Carranza testified that he needed to further discuss the recommendations with the SDAG before making a public announcement on which ones the DOE would adopt. A month later, the city announced the adoption of most of the recommendations.

Lander emphasized that this action comes after years of waiting, but the recommendations signal an intention that there will be more progress on the issue. 

“I’m glad we’re moving now,” Lander said. “I wish we started earlier.” 

Bloomfield said after the second report comes out in July, there could be months of waiting for the mayor to decide which portions of the proposal he wants to adopt. Though he said the progress that has been made now will make it more difficult for the city to stop the movement. 

“The significance is that it’s now squarely part of the city’s agenda,” Bloomfield said. “A new mayor will have a harder time putting the genie back in the bottle.”

‘A Witch Hunt’
Carranza has come under fire from some parents and City Council members following a lawsuit filed by three white veteran Department of Education administrators who claimed they were demoted because of their race, as well as anti-bias trainings that have become the subject of ire from some officials, the New York Post, and others.

A Post columnist, Bob McManus, wrote that Carranza’s agenda is all about “racial division” and that the anti-bias trainings are “white-bashing” sessions that have inflamed rather than eased race relations.” The Post editorial board has written several pieces critical of Carranza in recent months.

In a letter dated June 15, seven City Council members and two state Assembly members sent a letter to de Blasio saying if Carranza continues to “divide the city” then the mayor should replace him. Eight of the nine signers were white, and Council Member Robert Holden of Queens spearheaded the action. The other signator, Council Member Peter Koo, is Asian, and representative of a community that has taken issue with Carranza and de Blasio seeking to overhaul admissions to the specialized high schools, where Asian students are far overrepresented compared to their population in the city or larger school system.

For Council Member Daniel Dromm, a former teacher and former chair of the Council’s education committee, the situation was “almost predictable.”

“As soon as you start to talk about implicit bias or culturally responsive education, you could’ve put money on it that you’re going to get this kind of backlash,” Dromm said during a June 19 press conference held by both the Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus and its Progressive Caucus. “Which is why no other chancellor would go near the issue to begin with.” 

In response to the letter, the Mayor de Blasio has said the chancellor is not going anywhere. He said on NY1’s Inside City Hall that the Council members “should have known better.” 

“[Carranza] is doing a great job,” de Blasio said. “I think a lot of people in this city really look up to him and are depending on him.” 

Several other Council members also released statements of support for Carranza. Lander said the New York Post is leading a “witch hunt” against the chancellor. 

Others have echoed Dromm’s sentiment that much of the backlash Carranza has received is a nature of his progressive agenda. Gonzales said the New York Post is trying to “discredit” the chancellor as he pushes a progressive agenda.

“Everything that’s been happening in response, I don’t think now that any of this was a response to any particular one thing,” Gonzales said. ‘It’s just a response to who he is, and how bold he has been about identity, how that informs the work he does, and the prioritization of a racial justice agenda.” 

Carranza, who is of Mexican descent, said on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show on June 11 that the letter is “just a distraction.” He said he will continue to work on making sure all students have access to the same opportunities, a goal outlined in the 62 recommendations the city accepted.

“It’s always often kind of rich when there are inequities happening in a system and the minute you start pointing out those inequities and actually working to change those inequities it becomes divisive,” Carranza said on the show. “I’ve never seen how you can improve a system without identifying what the issues are in the system, and you can’t fix the inequities without talking about them.”

***
bySamantha Handler, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
'We're Moving Now': City Pursues School Desegregation Measures, with Major Looming Test Thu, 27 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Two Years After New York City Expanded Protections for Freelancers, State Yet to Act https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8499-two-years-after-new-york-city-expanded-protections-for-freelancers-state-yet-to-act https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8499-two-years-after-new-york-city-expanded-protections-for-freelancers-state-yet-to-act freelancers rally

Council Members Rafael Espinal, left, & Brad Lander (photo: City Council)


Two years ago, the New York City Council’s Freelance Isn’t Free Act went into effect, giving freelance workers legal protections against wage theft, delayed payments, employer retaliation, and lack of contracts for their work. The first-of-its-kind law has since allowed the city to recoup thousands of dollars in wages for hundreds of freelancers and was broadly praised as a laudable and necessary step in a changed and still-changing economy.

But as the City Council, with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s support, has taken additional steps to help independent contractors and freelance workers in the booming ‘gig economy,’ similar action has been glaringly lacking at the state level.

In December, when Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled his “first 100 days agenda” for the start of his third term in 2019, with a speech at the Roosevelt Institute in Manhattan, he spoke of New York’s changing economy and the challenges that freelance workers face, seemingly putting down a marker that the state would pursue action on the topic.

“The so-called gig economy is a growing economic engine. Freelancers, independent contractors, consultants are replacing traditional employees,” he said. “And while many welcome the freedom and the flexibility of these arrangements, there are also pitfalls that go along with the positive. Gig jobs do not come with paid sick leave, they do not come with vacation days, or parental rights, or workers' compensation, or protection against work related discrimination, or protections against wage and hour violations. We want an economy that moves forward. We want an economy of tomorrow. But we want an economy that moves everyone forward, not just some forward.”

But Cuomo did not follow suit with any proposals either in his January State of the State speech or executive budget presentation. The final budget agreement reached with the Legislature at the end of March did not include new protections for gig economy workers. It appears to be the only issue Cuomo mentioned in his December speech where he did not then follow up with concrete proposals.

In January, Hazel Crampton-Hays, then a spokesperson for the governor, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette that the administration was “exploring whether we need new rules to help protect impacted workers or whether the Department of Labor can issue regulations.”

In a statement on Thursday, Cuomo spokesperson Caitlin Girouard said, “We are engaging with the legislature, interested stakeholders and relevant state agencies on ways to address this issue and come up with meaningful solutions.”

New York City, meanwhile, has been attempting to bring a semblance of order and accountability to the gig economy through local laws. Last year, the City Council passed a living wage requirement for drivers who work for app-based ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. The bill was challenged in court by Lyft and upheld by a state Supreme Court judge just this Wednesday.

Council Member Brad Lander, who spearheaded the Freelance Isn’t Free Act, says his legislation should be enacted statewide, rather than through regulation by the Labor Department, as just the first step in addressing the woes of a growing sector of workers.

“The vote was 51 to nothing here, the Republicans voted for it. Everyone agrees you should not be cheated out of getting paid for work you did and I would think it would be a no-brainer to pass it,” he said in an interview outside City Hall earlier this year.

The law has clearly been working. According to data from the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs, the agency tasked with enforcing the law, to date, the department has received 561 inquiries about the law and fielded 764 complaints from freelancers, and has helped them recover just under $1 million ($978,928.66) in lost wages.

The department is also set to hold a Freelance Isn’t Free Day on May 15, exactly two years since the law took effect, at the Freelancers Hub in Brooklyn.

“New York City knows the value of its many freelancer workers and the challenges they face, and we are proud to have implemented the Freelance Isn’t Free Act—the first and only law of its kind in the country,” DCA spokesperson Abigail Lootens said in a statement.

“Albany has just not gotten started yet,” said Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat. “I’m glad the governor spoke to it in his 100 day agenda, I’m sorry they haven’t yet moved forward with proposals. The Freelance Isn’t Free Act, taking it statewide, that’s a great place to start.”

Among the major challenges of creating new legislation, Lander said, is the lack of uniformity in who is considered a freelancer or independent contractor, and the myriad sectors where lax enforcement means workers are exploited. Day laborers and domestic workers, for instance, are viewed as independent workers but not officially considered so. (As an aside, Lander even said recently-passed laws to provide predictable schedules to fast food workers were necessary since they were increasingly being treated like independent workers.)

“As freelance and independent work have grown, a set of problems have grown in the economy because it wasn’t designed to provide protections and supports for those workers and there’s really some gaping holes,” Lander said. “Some of them are hard to fix. It’s not easy to figure out how to do portable benefits and retirement security. We should solve those problems and we’re gonna keep pushing forward here at the Council.”

At the state level, Assemblymember Harry Bronson, a Monroe County Democrat, has introduced a bill to ensure independent contractors are paid on time. In a statement, Bronson emphasized that the state’s workforce has dramatically changed but labor laws have not kept pace. “The modern economy has led to the rise of individual workers being classified - or intentionally misclassified - as “independent contractors” or “freelancers.” Many of these independent contractors do the same work as traditional employees, and in some cases participate in work alongside traditional employees, yet they are not afforded the same wage, hour, and benefit protections under the law as their traditionally employed counterparts,” he said. “This increases their vulnerability to wage theft and creates barriers to health, retirement and other benefits traditional employees receive.” Bronson also said he is working on similar legislation to protect workers in the gig economy.

New York City had more than half a million independent workers last year, according to a May 2018 report by freelance online platform Fiverr, which partnered with Rockbridge Associates to analyze Census Bureau statistics. The report found that independent workers brought in $103 billion in revenue for the state between 2011-2015.

“Governor Cuomo was absolutely right to mention the issues facing freelance and independent workers in his 2019 agenda but it’s really disappointing that the issues seem to have fallen off the radar since then,” said Eli Dvorkin, policy director of the Center for an Urban Future, a nonprofit think tank.

Dvorkin said the state’s social security net hasn’t kept up with the changing economy and that the state can’t “regulate our way out of this challenge” by solely focusing on issues such as protections against worker discrimination or how to classify an independent contractor. The state needs to take a proactive approach, he said, and could become “the leading state pioneering portable benefits, which would be a system of flexible benefits that are accessible to independent workers and that travel with workers as they move from job to job.”

No state across the country has passed legislation to establish portable benefits for independent workers, though a bill has twice been introduced in the Washington State legislature and Dvorkin speculated that it could soon pass. In New York, former Assemblymember Joe Morelle, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives last year, floated the idea of legislation on portable benefits but it seemed to fizzle away.

For legislators looking for inspiration, Dvorkin said a portable benefits program could feasibly be modelled after the Black Car Fund, which was created by the state Legislature in 1999 to provide workers compensation to livery car drivers.

“We developed this system 20 years ago. We just haven’t really updated it or done anything really focused on these issues since then,” Dvorkin said. The fund’s recently-exposed fiscal management issues notwithstanding, he said it provides the basic framework for mandating a surcharge, either in one sector or across different sectors, that would feed a fund for workers, giving them access to health insurance and workers compensation, among other benefits.

“Without being able to pool your needs with others in your situation, your costs are much higher,” Dvorkin said. “On a pretty basic level, we think the right approach would be one in which the clients, customers, are paying at least part of the cost of the benefits. That would make the system fair.”

He also urged the state to push the burgeoning tech sector to innovate solutions to providing benefits. He cited, for example, startups like Propel, which created an app to provide access to SNAP benefits, and Alia, designed by NDWA Labs, an arm of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, to give house cleaners access to benefits.

“Building out an architecture for the evolving economy that provides better worker supports and protection is a big task,” Council Member Lander said. “We’ve gotten started on it at the city level but we have a long way to go.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Two Years After New York City Expanded Protections for Freelancers, State Yet to Act Thu, 02 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City’s Flawed Capital Project Process the Subject of Renewed Scrutiny, and Some Reform https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8381-city-s-flawed-capital-project-process-the-subject-of-renewed-scrutiny-and-some-reform https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8381-city-s-flawed-capital-project-process-the-subject-of-renewed-scrutiny-and-some-reform mayor bdb 200

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office)


Many New Yorkers know the city has trouble completing construction projects on time and under budget. Projects like school renovations and the build-out of park facilities are capital projects, the subject of increasing scrutiny and some reform, with more promised, as frustrations persist and residents, watchdogs, lawmakers, and other city leaders seek answers.

Top officials from the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson to Comptroller Scott Stringer have taken a fresh interest in improving the capital projects budgeting and delivery processes. The mayor’s office has released several plans promising to do just that. After forming a new subcommittee on the capital budget last year, the City Council has proposed reforms and Council members have been critical of the city’s handling of capital spending during this month’s annual budget hearings.

Stringer has proposed three city charter revisions to improve accountability, recommendations to a charter revision commission that will soon propose changes to the city’s central governing document.

There are some areas of agreement among the parties involved, but it is currently unclear if there will be any major substantive changes to the current system, wherein the city’s long-term capital budget planning is lacking in transparency and widely seen as unrealistic, and projects are consistently falling behind schedule and over budget.

Much of the recent attention has come through this year’s city budget process. As part of the reviewing the preliminary expense budget put forward by Mayor de Blasio, the City Council also assesses the preliminary capital budget for next fiscal year as well as the ten-year capital strategy.

At the first preliminary budget hearing of this cycle, Melanie Hartzog, the city’s budget director, said that the top priorities for capital projects over the next decade would be education, environmental protection, housing, and transportation.

In two recent hearings and several recently-released plans, city officials have promised to address many of the long-standing issues associated with capital project delivery, including planning, process, and transparency.

“We have doubts,” said Council Speaker Corey Johnson, a Manhattan Democrat, at the Council’s initial budget hearing. Johnson and other Council members raised several issues about the capital budget and the ten-year plan. He said that the latter half of the ten-year plan “does not take into account the city’s needs,” including both its current commitments and new needs that will arise.

Multiple Council members brought up that the ten-year plan does not include any new school construction after fiscal year 2024. Council Member Vanessa Gibson, a Bronx Democrat and chair of the capital budget subcommittee, called this “unrealistic planning” and noted the city’s history of frontloading its ten-year capital plans.

Gibson specifically cited the budget planning for the NYPD’s capital needs. The current proposal allocates $850 million in capital spending for the first three years of the plan, and only $160 million in the next seven. Hartzog acknowledged the history and said that the city is working to improve. Council members did acknowledge some progress in clarity for what is outlined.

In addition to problems with planning, capital delivery from conception to completion has its own set of obstacles. Recognizing the past-due and over-budget trend, the city’s Department of Design and Construction earlier this year released a strategic blueprint that promises to “fundamentally reevaluate the status quo in City capital project delivery.”

As of the time of the report’s release, DDC was managing 834 active projects valued at $13.5 billion. Since 2004, the annual capital budget has grown by $1 billion to $3 billion each year to keep pace with a growing city, which has also added nearly a million jobs in the same period. DDC deals with most city capital projects outside of the School Construction Authority, which is its own entity dealing with its eponymous subject matter. SCA is known to be far more successful in its planning and delivery than DDC.

The blueprint identifies three internal and external impediments within the delivery process, including DDC’s own business practices, burdensome procurement process rules, and the engineering challenges that come with underground infrastructure that “all complicate efficient delivery of capital projects” in the city.

The report also identifies climate change as a necessary factor to consider in all future planning. Capital projects need to both protect the city from rising sea levels and natural disasters as well as minimize the city’s contributions to global warming, according to the report. The agency is under relatively new leadership as it embarks on this ambitious plan. Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed Lorraine Grillo, who has also continued leading the School Construction Authority, as the new DDC commissioner last July. Grillo has been widely praised for her leadership of SCA, including by City Council members, though the city continues to struggle with school space in many neighborhoods.

DDC is currently undergoing an agency-wide review of its practices and external challenges. Through this review, DDC promises to “modernize how we do business.” These modernizing reforms include standardizing project initiation, managing projects more effectively, enhancing management capacity, and updating internal systems and technology. The plan promises to better identify and prioritize needs, streamline procurement, and restructure contracts to promote meeting deadlines, among other improvements.

Contracts and contractor diversity are also a primary concern for the mayor’s office and the Council, they say. DDC wants to get more out of its contracts and diversify and expand the pool of applicants. Daniel Steinberg, the Senior Advisor to the Mayor’s Office of Operations, said that many minority- and women-owned business do not apply for contracts because of the city’s history of untimely payments. This can also dissuade newer and smaller businesses from participating in the bidding process. Timely payment of contracts is a larger issue that DDC is also seeking to address.

During a February joint hearing, the City Council’s finance committee and capital budget subcommittee considered two bills that aim to improve transparency in the capital projects process.

The City Charter mandates certain reporting on the process to the Council and the public, but Council Member Gibson said these reports “often do not relate to one another or the city’s real spending in a meaningful way.” The two bills, which had the support of the Council members present at the hearing, are intended to address these issues. Gibson said that the proposals would give the Council and public “a wholistic and detailed look at all capital projects that are in progress throughout the city.”

The first, Intro. 32, sponsored by Council Member Andrew Cohen, a Bronx Democrat, would require city agencies to provide electronic notification of any delays or cost changes for capital projects. This is very similar to one of the charter revisions that Comptroller Stringer is proposing. The second, Intro. 113, sponsored by Council Member Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat, would create a database to track citywide capital projects. Finance committee chair Daniel Dromm, a Queens Democrat, said that “transparency in the capital process is key to providing assurances to the public that city resources are being put into good use in an efficient and effective manner.”

While most of the hearing focused on these two bills, it was clear that the Council members had larger issues in mind and thought of the bills as first steps to larger-scale reform and improvements.

Steinberg, of the Mayor’s Office of Operations, said during the hearing that his office agreed with the two bills “in spirit,” but was concerned with components of each bill that he would consider to be “impractical.”

He voiced concern that Intro. 32 would require reporting for all capital projects, which includes everything from equipment acquisition (such as of paper shredders) to building or repairing massive water tunnels. In regards to Intro. 113, he said that it “would be incredibly burdensome to implement while providing little new information.”

Intro. 32 currently has ten Council sponsors, while Intro. 113 has 35 sponsors, well above the threshold required for passage in the 51-seat Council.

Nonprofit watchdog Citizens Budget Commission submitted testimony in support of Intro. 113 at the February hearing, saying that “the capital budget is just as important as the operating budget and should be subject to the same monitoring and scrutiny.” Gibson brought up the bills again at the initial preliminary budget hearing.

The two bills are focused on transparency in the capital projects process, but the sponsors and other Council members also contextualized the proposals as necessary for the eventual improvement of the entire system and not a distinct issue of bureaucratic transparency. During the hearing, Cohen said that “the inability of the city to deliver on capital projects is an epidemic.”

Council members frequently expressed their personal frustration with the process and the length it takes for many capital projects to be completed, some spanning multiple Council member terms. Cohen, who is in his second term, said that he “spends a significant amount of my time on projects that were funded by my predecessor.” Gibson similarly expressed frustration over parks projects commonly taking as long as eight years to complete, which presents an oversight challenge to Council members, who are term-limited to eight years in office over two terms.

A source of frustration for Council members was that only capital projects costing $25 million or more are required to be reported on the capital projects dashboard, a publicly-available transparency tool on the city’s website. Capital projects of that size account for only 300 of the over 10,000 ongoing projects for a year. Steinberg said that the Mayor’s Office of Operations would be open to expanding the scope of the dashboard’s reporting to be more inclusive than the current threshold. After learning that the city does not have an employee assigned specifically to data entry for the dashboard, Gibson said that it was evidence that capital projects transparency “is not a priority in this city.”

Another area of agreement between the Council and Comptroller is the need for individual budget line items for each capital project. This proposal was one of Stringer’s suggested charter revisions and Gibson brought it up at both recent Council hearings pertaining to the capital budget. Stringer is also proposing that the city regularly report on the condition of capital assets, a requirement he wants added to the charter.

***
by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

]]>
City’s Flawed Capital Project Process the Subject of Renewed Scrutiny, and Some Reform Thu, 21 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City’s New Civic Engagement Commission, Set to Be Named in April, Is Accepting Applications https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8265-city-s-new-civic-engagement-commission-set-to-be-named-in-april-is-accepting-applications https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8265-city-s-new-civic-engagement-commission-set-to-be-named-in-april-is-accepting-applications city council torres lander levine barron pub

Council Members Lander, Torres, Barron & others (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


The Civic Engagement Commission that city voters approved in November is now accepting applications from New Yorkers interesting in serving on the panel that will help craft strategies for getting more residents of the five boroughs engaged in civic life. Though appointments to the commission will be made by top city elected officials, the open application process allows regular New Yorkers to throw their names and resumes into the pool of candidates for placement on the commission that will deal with things like citywide participatory budgeting and election poll-site translation services.

The commission, which is scheduled to be empaneled on April 1, will consist of 15 members: eight appointed by the mayor, two by the City Council speaker, and one by each of the borough presidents. The initial appointees will have either two- or four-year terms to stagger subsequent appointments; later members will serve four-year terms, with the exception of the chair, who would serve at the mayor’s discretion. The commission was created out of a proposal from a Charter Revision Commission empaneled last year by Mayor Bill de Blasio that put three questions on the November ballot, all of which were approved.

New Yorkers have until February 22 to apply through a fairly simple online form that asks several questions about the applicant’s interest in the commission and relevant experience, with a function for uploading a resume. Potential applicants are reminded that the purpose of the commission is “to enhance civic participation in order to enhance civic trust and strengthen democracy in New York City,” and that the commission will do its own work while also partnering with public and private entities to help foster civic engagement across the city.

Applicants are told to “please take note that an application submitted on this site may not be the only method by which candidates for appointment are identified by the appointing authorities, including the Mayor, and does not create a right to any further process or to appointment to the Commission or to any other City position.”

City Council Member Brad Lander, who had introduced legislation to create a similar entity, an office of civic engagement, and championed the Civic Engagement Commission put forward by the mayor's charter revision commission, sent out an e-mail blast to his constituents on Thursday celebrating the launch of the commission and application process, and encouraging people to apply.

"I’m pleased to report that it’s getting started in the right way, with openness and participation," Lander wrote, noting that "unlike any other citywide board or commission" the Civic Engagement Commission has an open application process. "The Civic Engagement Commission has the potential to breathe new life into our local democracy," Lander wrote. "If you know someone with great experience and relationships, who’d make a difference as a commissioner, please encourage them to apply. We are, of course, looking for a Commission that is as diverse as New York."

While many of the commission’s endeavors will be determined by its members, some are prescribed, chief among them a new citywide participatory budgeting program, expanding a program that currently exists in 34 of 51 City Council districts at the discretion of local Council members.

Participatory budgeting, first used in New York City in 2011 when four Council members used some of their discretionary funds for the program, allows residents to propose and vote for specific projects in their district to be financed via capital funds allocated to Council members. At least $1 million per district is budgeted via direct democracy, and residents have funded projects ranging from fixing school bathrooms to mobile showers for use by homeless people, among many other projects.

The commission would be required to develop the program by the start of Fiscal Year 2021 on July 1, 2020, when the mayor would implement it.

The commission’s other initially-delegated tasks include improving language access for New Yorkers at poll sites and in other city programs, assisting and training newly term-limited community boards, and partnering with community organizations in their own efforts at enhanced civic engagement. The commission will also develop new civic engagement initiatives in the years to come.

There are few restrictions on who can apply or be appointed to the commission. An applicant must be a resident of the city and a U.S. citizen, and cannot be an “officer of a political party” or a candidate for various elected offices, from mayor to borough president to City Council. The commission seeks candidates “who are representative of, or have experience working with” immigrants and those with limited English proficiency.

With the exception of the city’s non-citizen population, the commission is essentially open to anyone. The report by the mayor’s Charter Revision Commission last year said that, besides the immigrant and non-English-proficient communities, the panel would seek applicants representative of “people with disabilities, students, youth, seniors, veterans, community groups, good government groups, civil rights advocates, and categories of residents that are historically underrepresented in or underserved by City government.”

***
by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

]]>
City’s New Civic Engagement Commission, Set to Be Named in April, Is Accepting Applications Thu, 07 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
2021 Comptroller Race Now Features Two City Council Members https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8228-2021-comptroller-race-now-features-two-city-council-members https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8228-2021-comptroller-race-now-features-two-city-council-members lander rosenthal

(photos: Emil Cohen & John McCarten/City Council)


New York City Council Member Brad Lander, a Democrat from Brooklyn, has declared his intention to run for city Comptroller in the 2021 election, joining Council Member Helen Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat, as the only declared candidates in the race.

The 2021 municipal election will lead to a sea change in city government, with all three citywide positions on the ballot along with the five borough president posts and all 51 City Council seats, about three dozen of which will be “open” due to term limits. Among the citywide posts, both Mayor Bill de Blasio and Comptroller Scott Stringer will be closing out their second terms and unable to run for another term.

Lander and Rosenthal are among the Council members who are serving their final terms, many of whom will be seeking higher office through the 2021 elections. Several Council members facing term limits are currently running in the special election for Public Advocate, which will be held February 26 of this year. The winner of that race will have to run for the office again this fall and, if victorious, will serve the remainder of now-Attorney General Letitia James’ term. That candidate could potentially serve two full terms in that office from 2022 till the end of 2029.

Befitting a race for comptroller -- the city’s chief fiscal officer tasked with auditing city agencies and monitoring city finances, among other responsibilities -- both Lander and Rosenthal are among the wonkier members of city government, with clear devotion to crafting policy, examining budgets, and evaluating contracts. They also both represent especially politically-engaged areas of the city that are often home to high voter turnout -- for Lander, it’s parts of brownstone Brooklyn; for Rosenthal, the Upper West Side.

Lander currently serves as the Council’s deputy leader for policy. He has master’s degrees in social anthropology and city planning, and was elected as one of a younger crop of progressive candidates in 2009 after leading a neighborhood group focused on affordable housing and social services. He was co-chair of the Council’s progressive caucus, which he helped create, and previously chaired the Committee on Rules, Elections and Privileges in the last Council session, 2014-2017.

His district, previously represented by Mayor Bill de Blasio, covers Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Gowanus, Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Borough Park, and Kensington.

“I love serving this city, I love it,” Lander said outside City Hall on Thursday, when asked about the fact that he had recently filed with the city’s Campaign Finance Board to run for comptroller and his pursuit of the position. “I get up everyday thinking I get to work with my neighbors, with other New Yorkers to try to solve problems that make the city better and I love doing that and I would be really honored to keep serving the city.”

While he was reluctant to talk much about the next election, citing the nearly three years until the votes will be cast, Lander did say he believes his experience in the Council qualifies him for the position. “I think I have built a good track record here in the Council of working together with New Yorkers who are facing problems, helping come up with solutions and getting them implemented,” he said, citing his work on legislation ranging from freelancer protections, workplace scheduling for fast food workers to wages for for-hire vehicle drivers and anti-tenant harassment measures, among others. “Those are all examples of working with different kinds of New Yorkers facing different kinds of problems, many of them caused as a result of the ways our economy is shifting and changing, and coming up with policy solutions that we can implement here in New York that make people’s lives better.”

Rosenthal, who chaired her Upper West Side community board and worked in the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget for seven years between 1988 and 1995 before running for the City Council in 2013, filed her paperwork for comptroller last year. This term she chairs the Council’s Committee on Women, having previously headed up the contracts committee through which she conducted several probing oversight hearings, particularly with regard to contracting at the mammoth Department of Education and problems with how the city contracts with human services nonprofits.

“I’m really excited to be running for comptroller,” Rosenthal said in a phone interview. “I think that the city’s $90 billion budget needs to be kept a close eye on, and I think it’s critical that the money goes to the people who need and deserve it. And it’s been my experience on the City Council that that doesn’t always happen.”

Rosenthal cited her work leading the Council’s contracts committee, particularly the role she played in breaking up an over-inflated contract awarded by the Department of Education in 2015 -- after she raised the issue, it was reduced from $1.1 billion to $472 million. “When I raised a red flag, people listened...Can you imagine having a comptroller who’s qualified to do these types of audits going after our $90 billion budget and making sure it’s fiscally responsible?”

She also said the next comptroller must be independent of the mayoral administration, a quality she said she showed in the school desegregation battle in her district when she stood with elected parent representatives pushing a rezoning plan to desegregate schools.

Rosenthal did not address Lander’s candidacy, though she said she expected several people to run for the seat.

Asked about his potential opponents and the issues he may run on, Lander was reluctant to respond, saying he was focused on a slew of bills he wants passed. “It’s a long time from 2021 and there’ll be time to talk about that race in a way that’s more like it’s a present election which it’s not yet,” he said. “So I’m not gonna start talking about other people running or my policy platform…There will be a time to talk about policy issues in the 2021 race but it is not in January in 2019.”

Lander has just under $137,000 in his campaign account, and has opted in to the Campaign Finance Board’s public matching funds program that was recently approved by the City Council and will provide an 8-to-1 match for the first $250 of every contribution. Rosenthal has nearly $20,000 in campaign funds and is already abiding by the new rules of the public matching funds program. She said she has returned donations that are above the new limits.

Other potential candidates rumored to be mulling a run for comptroller include State Senator Kevin Parker of Brooklyn and Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez of Manhattan. Both are Democrats. No matter who runs, the 2021 race is unlikely to match the spectacle of the 2013 Democratic primary between the eventual winner, Stringer, who was Manhattan Borough President at the time, and former Governor Eliot Spitzer, who was attempting a political comeback after having resigned from office over a prostitution scandal. Stringer won 52-48 percent. Now in his second term, Stringer is all-but-certain to run for mayor in the coming election.

The comptroller’s office, with more than 800 employees, is a big step up from the City Council or state Legislature, where members have roughly ten staffers working under them. As the city’s top fiscal officer, the comptroller’s duties include auditing the work of city agencies, overseeing management of the city’s $160 billion-plus pension system, analyzing city spending and revenues, and reviewing and approving city contracts.

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

Note - This article stated earlier that Council Member Rosenthal had begun returning donations above the new CFB limits. It has been updated to clarify that she has already returned all such donations. 

]]>
2021 Comptroller Race Now Features Two City Council Members Thu, 24 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
No, Mayor de Blasio, We Can’t Rely on Amazon ‘To Put Moral Considerations Ahead of Profit’ https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8185-no-mayor-de-blasio-we-can-t-rely-on-amazon-to-put-moral-considerations-ahead-of-profit https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8185-no-mayor-de-blasio-we-can-t-rely-on-amazon-to-put-moral-considerations-ahead-of-profit mbdbgovanmcuomo lic

Mayor de Blasio at the Amazon announcement (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


“I’m concerned about [New York] City being a sanctuary city, and your stated concern for New York City’s immigrants, and the contradiction of inviting one of ICE’s largest tech providers into our city.” That’s how Amy from Queens asked Mayor de Blasio about Amazon’s relationship with ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show last Friday.  

Mayor de Blasio told Amy, “If it turns out that Amazon has a contractual relationship with ICE, I’m certainly going to call on them to end that.” But he claimed that he did not have enough information to know for sure.

If the Mayor had watched the New York City Council hearing with Amazon executives (and his own economic development appointee) in December -- where we both asked about this relationship -- he would have little doubt that Amazon sells technology services to ICE, and is a willing for-profit partner in Trump’s deportation machine.

Anyone listening objectively to what Amazon’s VP of Public Policy, Brian Huseman, said under oath at the Council hearing would acknowledge that Amazon effectively affirmed it is providing facial recognition technology and possibly other cloud computing services to ICE.

As was reported in the Daily Beast in October, documents obtained by the Project on Government Oversight show that Amazon pitched its controversial facial recognition technology to ICE last summer. In addition, a group of Amazon employees, troubled by the relationship, called on the company to sever its ties to ICE.

Nonetheless, when Council Speaker Corey Johnson asked what relationship Amazon had with ICE at the City Council hearing, Amazon’s Huseman responded, “We think the federal government should have access to the best technology.”

Later in the hearing, we questioned Huseman again directly on this point, making clear that we interpreted Huseman’s answer to be an affirmation that Amazon provides facial recognition software to ICE -- and giving him the opportunity to correct the record. Huseman did not correct the record or deny the relationship. In response to further questioning from BuzzFeed News, Amazon again did not say that it does not work with ICE.

This was more than a “non-denial.” This was a non-denial that anyone listening objectively should take as a confirmation.

Amazon has expressed that it wants to be a “good neighbor” in Queens, one of the most heavily immigrant places in the country. But a good neighbor does not help to facilitate the deportations of family members and neighbors by a xenophobic president for corporate profit.

We also asked Huseman about an ACLU analysis showing that Amazon’s technology falsely matched 28 members of Congress to mugshots in a database. Even worse: the errors disproportionately mismatched people of color. Huseman did not express the slightest concern or remorse, or any intention to make certain their technology does not discriminate. Instead, Husemen placidly said, “We have not been able to replicate the ACLU’s analysis.”

If Mayor de Blasio had listened to the Amazon VP wave so nonchalantly at a study that reveals that the company’s technology might be used by ICE to round up people, some mistakenly, for deportation, perhaps he might have said something stronger than this to Amy last Friday:  

“I think that Amazon should, to the maximum extent possible, explain to people what is going on with this. Tech companies should start questioning themselves what types of government activity they want to participate in. They have to put moral considerations ahead of profit.”

There is absolutely no reason to believe that Amazon has any intention to put moral considerations ahead of profit. Or to voluntarily explain to people what is going on.

But Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo don’t need to rely on their goodwill. If Amazon wants to build a major new campus in Queens, the company should immediately disclose its full relationship with ICE -- and then end it immediately.

If the mayor and the governor are truly committed to New York City being a sanctuary city, they should not proceed in negotiations with Amazon until it does.

***
Brad Lander and Carlos Menchaca are members of the New York City Council. Lander is the Council’s Deputy Leader for Policy; Menchaca chairs the Council’s Immigration Committee. On Twitter @bradlander & @cmenchaca.

***
Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

]]>
No, Mayor de Blasio, We Can’t Rely on Amazon ‘To Put Moral Considerations Ahead of Profit’ Tue, 08 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Next Steps for 3 City Charter Revisions Passed Election Day https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8073-next-steps-for-3-city-charter-revisions-passed-election-day https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8073-next-steps-for-3-city-charter-revisions-passed-election-day schools chancellor reg

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

Voters approved three ballot proposals on Election Day to amend the New York City charter, the city’s foundational governing document -- the local constitution. The proposals related to the city’s campaign finance system, civic engagement, and community boards. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who empaneled a charter revision commission last year that put the proposals on the ballot, argued that the proposals would strengthen democracy in the city.

“The question in front of voters was simple: Are we going to be a city that works for everyone,” de Blasio tweeted after the measures passed. “New Yorkers answered with a resounding ‘YES, YES, YES!’”

Now that all three proposals are to be added to the charter, they will have to be implemented within the next few years. At the same time, another charter revision commission created through City Council legislation is also holding public hearings and is expected issue its own recommendations for the 2019 general election ballot.

Each of the three proposals approved this year included language around implementation, though some aspects will be left to certain individual and group decision-makers.

Proposal 1 - campaign finance reform
Proposal 1, which lowers campaign contribution limits in city elections and enhances the city’s public-matching campaign finance program, passed with 80.3 percent approval.

New York City’s voluntary public matching funds program, often seen as a model for the country, currently matches the first $175 of each campaign contribution at a ratio of 6-to-1. Proposal 1 raises the public match to 8-to-1 for the first $250 of a donation, thus increasing the impact of smaller donations, and will lower individual contribution limits to citywide candidates from $5,100 to $2,000, with lower offices like borough presidents and City Council members also seeing public match increases and lower contribution limits.

The goal is to empower small-dollar donors, giving their contributions a greater impact and disincentivizing candidates from depending on larger, wealthier donors and PACs. In theory, it allows first-time candidates not backed by deep-pocketed donors to run more competitive races.

The percentage of a candidate’s overall spending limit that can be received in public funds will be increased from 55 percent to 75 percent, and candidates will be allowed to receive public funds earlier in their races -- a change that could help insurgent candidates or candidates without deep-pocketed allies, but also could help incumbents rack up higher totals earlier.

Under the text of the amendment, the new campaign finance regulations will take effect on January 12, 2019. But, candidates who choose to participate in the public funds program and run for office in the 2021 primary elections can choose to opt out of the new rules, thus sticking with the current limits and system. Candidates must declare their intentions by July 15, 2019.

For non-participating candidates, meaning those who opt not to participate in the matching program, the limits and thresholds remain the same as they were before January 12.

All candidates participating in the public matching program will be brought under the new regulations starting in 2022.

The language of the amendment also includes a clawback provision should any of the changes to contribution limits and matching fund ratios be struck down in court. In such an instance, all the changes would be nullified except for the expansion of the public matching funds cap from 55 percent to 75 percent.

In all, the charter commission estimated that the new system would increase the amount of public funds disbursed to candidates by roughly 47 percent relative to the very busy 2013 city election cycle, which will in many ways be mirrored for 2021. In the 2013 cycle, the Campaign Finance Board doled out $38 million in public funds. Under the new rules, disbursements would have been an additional $18 million, for a total of $56 million, according to the charter commission’s staff research.

In last year’s elections, when there were fewer competitive races, the CFB gave out about $18 million in public funds, which would have seen an additional $8.5 million in public funds under the amended charter.

City Council Member Ben Kallos, who unsuccessfully attempted to increase the public funds cap to 85 percent through legislation, was glad to see voters pass the improvements to the system. In a phone interview, he implied that concerns about the cost of the new system were overblown, and said that enhancing the system is key to eliminating real and perceived conflicts of interest.

“It’s far less than the city lost on Rivington, and whether it was a case of actual corruption or just appeared improper, it had significant cost to our city,” Kallos said, referring to the scandal around the city’s sale of Rivington House and related allegations of pay-to-play involving the mayor. “Just the defense of our city cost about $6 million,” he added in reference to the mayor’s legal bills accrued during law enforcement investigations of his fundraising that saw no charges filed. “So whether it is to save $100 million around Rivington or the $6 million in legal fees, it pays for itself.”

He continued, “When the next mayor’s going to have a budget in excess of $90 billion, [$18 million] to make sure that that elected official would only be accountable to the voters without the influence of big money is worth every penny.”

Gotham Gazette: Proposal 2 - civic engagement commission
Proposal 2, which creates a civic engagement commission tasked with implementing a citywide participatory budgeting program and other initiatives, passed with 65.5 percent approval.

The new citywide participatory budgeting program, expanding efforts undertaken annually in City Council districts (currently in 31 of the 51 CDs), would have to be implemented by the commission by July 1, 2020. Participatory budgeting allows residents to vote on projects to spend a certain amount of funds in their Council districts.

The commission will also be tasked with improving translation services at voting sites and providing resources to community boards, as well as more generalized partnerships with community organizations to increase civic engagement.

The commission would remain a fixture after implementing its designated programs, and would be required to report annually on its programs, many of which can be by its own design.

The commission will consist of 15 members: 8 appointed by the Mayor, 2 by the City Council Speaker, and 1 by each Borough President. The mayor’s majority of board picks worried some that it would be a power-grab of sorts, given the wide latitude afforded to the commission with its mission of “enhancing civic engagement and strengthening democracy.” But in that respect, it is actually something of an improvement from the proposed Office of Civic Engagement, which would be completely under the mayor, per a bill introduced by City Council Member Brad Lander, who supported proposal 2 and celebrated its passage.

The commission will be empaneled on April 1, 2019.

Proposal 3 - community board reform
Proposal 3, which establishes term limits for community board members and institutes a set of new requirements around the community board application process and more, passed with 72.3 percent approval.

Community board members, who are appointed by Borough Presidents and currently allowed to serve an unlimited number of two-year terms, will now be allowed only to serve four consecutive two-year terms. At that point, members will be term-limited out, but they will be allowed to be reappointed after a two-year interregnum. Current community board members will be allowed to serve an additional four terms no matter how long they have served as of 2019. Thus, no current member will be term-limited off their board until 2027.

To prevent heavy turnover that year and the following year, appointees commencing their term in 2020 will be allowed to serve five terms.

Borough Presidents will also be required to seek out diverse candidates for community board appointments, ensuring that different geographic areas are adequately represented. The proposal mandates that borough president reach out to community organizations active in the district and also allows civic groups and neighborhood organization to submit nominees to the Borough President. Community boards as constituted today are often criticized for being older and whiter than the communities they serve. Younger and more diverse voices on community boards could lead to very different outcomes. Borough presidents will also be required to make applications for community board member positions available on their websites with detailed requests for information about members, including work and community experience, demographic information (which would be optional) and conflicts of interest disclosures, among other things.

While community boards do not have a binding vote on land use and development matters, local City Council members often strongly consider and align with their home community boards. Four of the city's five current Borough Presidents expressed strong opposition to proposals 2 and 3 (Brooklyn's Eric Adams was the lone exception) and worked unsuccessfully to defeat them.

The civic engagement commission approved in proposal 2 will also be required to provide additional resources to community boards, such as “urban planning professionals and language access resources.”

Though it received a higher vote share than proposal 2, proposal 3 was widely seen as the most controversial of the three during the election season. While proponents noted that community boards are often older and whiter than the communities they represent, opponents said the measure would lead to a brain drain to the benefit of real estate developers. The worry was that an influx of new members without land use knowledge would allow developers to run roughshod over community interests. In the end, voters took the side of the proponents.

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ben Brachfeld contributed to this piece.

]]>
Next Steps for 3 City Charter Revisions Passed Election Day Sun, 02 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Prominent Elected Officials Oppose De Blasio Charter Revision Proposals https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8026-prominent-elected-officials-oppose-de-blasio-charter-revision-proposals https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8026-prominent-elected-officials-oppose-de-blasio-charter-revision-proposals Mayor de Blasio

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio is seeking to make a lasting impact on city governance through a charter revision commission that would transform the city’s campaign finance system, promote greater civic involvement in city affairs, and inject new blood into local community boards. But prominent elected officials, most of whom are Democrats like de Blasio, don’t agree with the proposals the mayor’s commission has put on the November 6 ballot and are urging New Yorkers to reject them.

The mayor’s commission put three questions on the ballot for voter approval through a simple majority. The first would significantly reduce individual campaign contribution limits and expand the city’s public matching funds program; the second would create a civic engagement commission with appointments mostly by the mayor to coordinate citywide participatory budgeting and other initiatives such as interpreting services at polling sites; and the third would impose term limits on community board members and alter how those members are recruited and appointed to ensure greater diversity.

Though the mayor appointed the commission and announced its areas of focus, he was not to have direct say over its final report or proposals, but he did announce support for all three and is now campaigning to see them approved by voters.

“These reforms will go a long way toward strengthening our democracy and limiting the influence of big money in our elections,” he said in a September statement, when the proposals were released. “There's no doubt in my mind that these measures will help us build a more fair and equitable city.” On Sunday, de Blasio spoke at two churches in Manhattan, urging congregants to flip their ballot and decide on the three questions. “[V]ote yes, yes, yes. So we can open up the doors of democracy wide and make this an even greater city,” he said at Bethel Gospel Assembly.

Other elected officials, however, are not so certain, and are expressing somewhat mixed reviews, though many are opposed to community board term limits.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, for instance, supports lowering contribution limits and creating a civic engagement commission, but not term limits for community board members. “I don’t think term limits are necessary,” Johnson, a former community boar chair, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “These aren’t lifetime appointments. They must be reappointed by elected officials who are term limited. I think that provides enough checks and balances to our community boards, while allowing us to keep the good members with experience and wisdom. It is also our job as elected officials to always be looking to appoint new civic minded leaders who are interested in serving.”

It’s an argument that’s also been advanced by four of the five borough presidents -- only Brooklyn’s Eric Adams supports the term limits question.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, in fact, led the creation of an independent expenditure committee to oppose both term limits and the civic engagement commission, an effort in which she was joined by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, and Staten Island Borough President James Oddo (Oddo is the lone Republican in the group). “These proposals would be a real—and in some cases dangerous—disruption to the way Community Boards protect our communities,” Brewer wrote in an email to supporters earlier this month, arguing that it could lead to a drain in institutional wisdom and give real estate interests and lobbyists a leg up in discussions about community development. The proposal does include a provision whereby individuals term-limited off of community boards are eligible to serve again after a one-term, two-year “cooling off period.”

“Our community boards are the eyes and ears of our neighborhoods and are often the first line of defense against unwanted projects as well as the initial point of contact between city agencies and our neighbors,” said Diaz Jr. “We should be working to strengthen their role, not strip them of the knowledge and historical focus that makes them so important in the first place.”

Katz said the current appointment process allows “ample opportunity” to pick diverse candidates “for a dynamic mix of talent,” while Oddo worried that the “one-size-fits-all solution” could have unintended consequences.

Adams, however, has argued, “While institutional knowledge is valuable, a reasonable term limit for Community Board members will allow the best of both worlds: institutional knowledge and new voices.”

On expanding the campaign finance system, however, only Adams and Oddo have publicly opposed the question among the borough presidents, though for different reasons. “[Brooklyn BP Adams] opposes the campaign finance reform measure because it doesn’t go far enough as he believes in 100 percent public financing,” said an Adams spokesperson. Oddo, on the other hand, has been a staunch opponent of public financing and simply said, “Hell no!” about proposal one.

Spokespeople for Katz and Diaz Jr. did not respond to requests for comment about the campaign finance reform proposal.

[Read: Brewer Creates Committee to Oppose Charter Revision Proposals]

Comptroller Scott Stringer also opposes the second and third questions while supporting the first on campaign finance reform. “The City must take a serious look at our Charter — it’s critical to tackling the important issues facing New Yorkers,” he said in a statement. Stringer has laid out his own exhaustive plan of charter proposals to the 2019 charter commission, a separate one from the mayor’s that was created through City Council legislation that is taking a far broader look at the city’s governing principles. 

Stringer added, “I support the first initiative because we need a campaign finance system that does everything it can to engage New Yorkers and help people run for office. I oppose proposals 2 and 3 which will weaken communities’ voices in shaping their own development.”

At an October 31 news conference at City Hall, Gotham Gazette asked Speaker Johnson if he would urge the 2019 commission to reverse community board term limits if they should pass. Johnson said he would not. "I think it's important to lice by the will of the voters," he said.  

A spokesperson for Public Advocate Letitia James did not provide her stances despite multiple requests for comment, one of which was acknowledged.

Among a few rank-and-file City Council Members, reception of the proposals seems to be mixed. Council Member Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat, for example, supports all three proposals and has in particular been advocating for the creation of the civic engagement commission -- Lander had proposed the idea through legislation and presented it to the commission.

“I truly believe these ballot proposals give us an opportunity to do something important to strengthen our local democracy: To improve our campaign finance rules. To turbo-charge civic engagement. To expand participatory budgeting city-wide,” he said in an email blast to supporters, calling on New Yorkers to pledge their support.

Manhattan Council Member Ben Kallos, also a Democrat, is backing all the proposals as well. Kallos has been a staunch campaign finance reform advocate and the first question would partially achieve what he has in the past tried to do through legislation, to expand the amount of public funds given to candidates running for office. “Democracy in New York City will finally get better,” he said in a September 6 statement, if the first question is passed, “reducing contribution limits and making small dollars more valuable by matching more of them with a greater multiplier.”

City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, a Queens Democrat, is also urging a "yes" vote on all three proposals. City Council Member Jumaane Williams, a Brooklyn Democrat, has expressed support for the campaign finance proposal, but a spokesperson did not respond to a request for his positions on the other two.

On the other end, there’s Council Member Helen Rosenthal, again a Manhattan Democrat, who opposes all three measures. “The spirit of the first two proposals is positive and some of the substance is even promising, but each raises significant concerns to the point where I cannot support them,” she said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. Also noting a criticism that was raised when the mayor first announced his commission, she added, “Of course, all three proposals could be implemented through the current legislative process.”

Even government reform groups appear somewhat split on the ballot proposals. Reinvent Albany is advocating for all three. “Reinvent Albany believes a YES vote on these ballot measures will collectively amplify the voice of everyday New Yorkers and create new opportunities for injecting fresh perspectives into the public debate over how to make our city better for everyone,” the group said in an email blast on Monday.

Citizens Union, another good government advocacy organization opposes the proposal for a civic engagement commission, supports community board term limits, and has not taken a position on the campaign finance question.

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated with additional comment from City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Members Jimmy Van Bramer and Jumaane Williams.   

]]>
Prominent Elected Officials Oppose De Blasio Charter Revision Proposals Mon, 29 Oct 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Puts Three Questions on November Ballot https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7912-mayoral-charter-revision-commission-puts-three-questions-on-november-ballot https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7912-mayoral-charter-revision-commission-puts-three-questions-on-november-ballot charter revision commission 2018

The Charter Revision Commission (photo via Charter Commission)


After months of meetings and deliberations, thousands of suggestions and dozens of hours of public hearings, the charter revision commission created by Mayor Bill de Blasio voted to put three broad questions on the ballot in November. If approved by voters, the proposals would significantly reduce campaign contribution limits in city elections, create a new agency to civically engage the public, and apply term limits and appointment reforms to community boards.

De Blasio created the commission to review the city charter with an eye on reducing the impact of wealthy donors and special interests in electoral campaigns and drawing more New Yorkers to participate in elections and civic life. The 13-member commission largely stuck by that mandate, though it did consider and reject other significant proposals including independent redistricting of City Council districts and instant runoff voting, also known as ranked choice voting, which the mayor does not support. (A separate City Council-created charter revision commission is also beginning public hearings this month and could possibly take up the issues left unresolved by the mayoral commission. It will recommend ballot questions in 2019.)

On Tuesday, the members of the mayoral commission met for the final time, at the New York Historical Society west of Central Park, to approve their final report and three “yes” or “no” questions that will be put to voters on the November 6 general election ballot.

“Our job was to try to figure out what could make our city more just, more fair and more democratic and then to put it on the ballot to see if New Yorkers wanted the city to be run in this new fashion,” said Cesar Perales, chair of the commission, on Tuesday. “That’s what we did. I think we did that well and it’s going to be up to the voters in November to determine whether or not these things would be better for our city.”

The first question proposes expansive reforms to the campaign finance law and the city’s public matching funds program, which incentivizes grassroots fundraising by matching the first $175 of every eligible campaign contribution at a 6-to-1 ratio for candidates who choose to participate in the program.

The proposal would reduce contribution limits for participants from $5,100 to $2,000 for citywide candidates, from $3,950 to $1,500 for candidates for borough president, and from $2,850 to $1,000 for City Council seats. The proposed limits for those who choose not to opt in to the program are $3,500, $2,500 and $1,500 respectively.

The proposal also increases the matching ratio to 8-to-1 for the first $250 raised by a citywide candidate and for the first $175 raised for all other seats. It would increase the cap on public funds disbursements from 55 percent to 75 percent of the spending limit for a seat, while also doling out the funds earlier in the election cycle.

There was some clear disagreement about how the new campaign finance rules would be applied. A majority of commissioners agreed that candidates should be able to choose to abide by the new rules for the next citywide primary in 2021, and that the rules would be mandatory thereafter.

Two of the commissioners, John Siegal and Wendy Weiser, disagreed with that implementation plan, though both voted to approve the question. “I do not think it is wise public policy to have a situation in which regulated parties get to make the decision as to whether they will or will not follow new regulations,” Siegal said. “I cannot think of another situation in which a regulatory agency has been put in that position. I do not think its necessary. I actually don’t think there’s any benefit to it.” He did, however, hold out hope that candidates would see the benefit of voluntarily participating, since the lower contribution limits would be accompanied by potentially more public funds.

“While I do share the concern about having a choice, I am heartened by the assurances that this is really unlikely to come to pass,” Weiser said, “that everyone is really likely to follow the new system. It is the one that makes much more sense.”

Carlo Scissura, the commission secretary, was the sole dissenting voice on the campaign finance question. He conceded that the commission published an “overall great report” but has in past hearings expressed doubts about increasing the taxpayer contribution by creating a larger public matching funds program. “I wish that on the campaign finance, that we took a little different approach but it does reflect the will of what we heard and the will of the majority of the commission,” he said.

The second question, which was unanimously approved, would create a new 15-member Civic Engagement Commission, with eight appointed by the mayor -- including the chair and executive director -- two by the City Council speaker and one each by the five borough presidents. The mayor would have to appoint at least one member from each of the city’s largest and second-largest political parties, which, likely in perpetuity, means Democrats and Republicans.

Among the roles the commission would play are administering a citywide participatory budgeting program starting in 2020 (it’s currently employed by City Council members in dozens of districts); providing interpreters at poll sites; working on civic engagement with advocacy groups and nonprofit service providers, with a particular eye on outreach to limited English-language speakers; and providing annual reports on progress on those fronts. The proposal also allows the mayor to delegate more powers and responsibilities to the commission.

The notion of an Office of Civic Engagement has recently been pushed forward by City Council Member Brad Lander, who has introduced legislation to create one. If approved, the charter revision creation of such a commission would appear to negate Lander’s legislation. The Brooklyn Council member testified to the commission about the idea of creating a civic engagement body and has held his legislation as the charter commission proceeded with its work.

The most controversial proposals the commission is putting on the November ballot deal with community boards, the most local form of city government. The third question would establish staggered term limits for community board members, to reduce mass simultaneous turnover. Those members appointed or reappointed on or after April 1, 2019, would be allowed to serve four consecutive two-year terms; those appointed on April 1, 2020 may serve five terms; and those appointed after that would again only serve four terms.

The commission also recommended changes to the appointment process, to make it consistent across the five boroughs and to promote diverse membership. The civic engagement commission, if passed, would also be tasked with providing technical assistance to community boards, particularly urban planning expertise and language access. Eleven commissioners voted in favor of the question, while Commissioner Angela Fernandez abstained from the vote.

The commission’s final report was also approved unanimously, and the questions will be delivered to the City Clerk to place on the ballot, giving the commission two months to educate and inform New Yorkers that they’ll be able to choose more than just candidates in November, when New Yorkers will be voting largely on state-level elected positions, including for Governor and members of the state Legislature.

“These reforms will go a long way toward strengthening our democracy and limiting the influence of big money in our elections,” Mayor de Blasio said in a statement. “There’s no doubt in my mind that these measures will help us build a more fair and equitable city.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Puts Three Questions on November Ballot Tue, 04 Sep 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Working Families Party Puts It All On The Line https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7840-working-families-party-puts-it-all-on-the-line https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7840-working-families-party-puts-it-all-on-the-line Cynthia Nixon, Jummane Williams, and Alessandra Biaggi

Cynthia Nixon (left), Alessandra Biaggi (top right), Bill Lipton & Jumaane Williams (bottom)


The Working Families Party celebrated its 20th anniversary last month at Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg, with its rank-and-file cheering on a line up of politicians that have served as standard bearers, past and present. But it’s the future of the party that is especially uncertain as the upstart liberal organization lays it all on the line in backing insurgent candidates in state elections this year.

In doing so, especially in its decision to take on Governor Andrew Cuomo by backing Cynthia Nixon, some the party’s longtime allies have turned adversaries, portending a potentially diminished presence in the state’s political landscape if its gamble does not pay off over the next several weeks. At the anniversary celebration, which featured Mayor Bill de Blasio, among others singing the party’s praises for its push to create a more fair and equal New York, there was little sign of uneasiness about its bold choices this election year; an atmosphere of revelry prevailed, possibly the sign of progressive activists happy to be going for it all instead of triangulating with Cuomo and other more centrist Democrats as it had in the past.

There is also a sense among WFP leaders and supporters that the party is already where the Democratic Party is heading, and where it needs to be, with a more progressive vision of left politics reflective of a new post-Clinton, post-Cuomo Democratic era.

Created by community advocates and labor unions with a vision of pulling Democrats to the progressive left, the WFP has played a prominent role in championing the bread-and-butter issues that most affect working, low- and middle-income Americans. Through activism and advocacy around policy and funding, the party battles inequity, whether it be in housing, employment, wages, criminal justice, education, environment, or electoral access. In local and state elections, Democrats eager to brandish their progressive bonafides have coveted and sought the WFP’s endorsement, and the party’s vocal leaders and active network of members and volunteers.

But after years of being let down by elected officials they propped up, the WFP’s leadership made a drastic decision this year to endorse underdogs in key Democratic primaries. They backed Nixon’s challenge to Cuomo, a two-term incumbent seeking reelection, and New York City Council Member Jumaane Williams in his attempt to unseat Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul; and they are fiercely rallying behind progressive candidates who are trying to replace Democratic state Senators who until recently made up the Republican-allied Independent Democratic Conference (IDC).

The reaction to the WFP’s moves has been significant, and potentially crippling. Several unions that had filled the party’s coffers for years pulled their support for fear of angering the governor, who made explicit threats against anyone who would stay, according to a WFP leader. But advocacy groups and a progressive activist base rallied, resolute to take on Cuomo, whom they no longer trusted after a 2014 deal went bad, and the former IDC members, who had betrayed their Democratic party-mates.

While acknowledging its newfound vulnerability, WFP leaders and supporters also had a sense that they were on the right side of history, pursuing their true vision of where the Democratic Party should be (with the necessary help of the WFP), representative of the national trendlines -- the WFP did back Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary -- a feeling only bolstered in recent weeks by events like the shocking congressional primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whom the WFP had not endorsed over Rep. Joe Crowley, but quickly sought to align with thereafter.

“I think the unions are dismayed by the way the Working Families Party has chosen to operate this cycle,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, in a phone interview. RWDSU was among those unions that left the party this year and Appelbaum is one of several labor leaders who say that Cuomo deserves to be reelected.

“They’re diverting energy and resources from the effort to send more Democratic congresspeople from New York to Washington, [and] our prime responsibility is to work to take back the House of Representatives…Our concern is that the WFP no longer is representing, in its current rendition, the interests of working men and women, despite their name, and that is why unions felt it was necessary to disassociate themselves.”

WFP leaders and allied elected officials say the party made a calculated wager, riding a groundswell of progressive sentiment that has moved the state’s political center, and that no matter how the chips fall on September 13, primary day, the party has already won.

“This is the party they founded 20 years ago...to pull the Democratic Party to the left and with a coalitional approach to building power,” Brooklyn City Council Member Brad Lander told Gotham Gazette at the WFP’s anniversary gala. Lander spoke of the “radical but also practical vision” of Jon Kest, the progressive organizer who founded the WFP as well as the advocacy groups New York Communities for Change and its predecessor, the now-defunct Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN).

“The WFP’s always contained this dynamic tension,” Lander said, between “the strength of voice of grassroots activists” and “established but still progressive” institutions such as labor unions. “At this moment, given shifts in the broader zeitgeist...and of course because of the way the governor has approached this, the party is in a more activist movement space,” he said. Like the WFP, Lander is backing Williams for lieutenant governor and several of the challengers to the former IDC members.

Surely, if the WFP notches wins in the many primaries it is involved in -- the WFP offers a general election ballot line, but does much of its work backing its preferred candidates in their Democratic primaries -- it will strengthen the party, and conversely, losses will set them back, Lander said. Though, given the state of New York’s politics, “There’s no choice,” Lander said.

For nearly eight years, the WFP has cried foul about Democratic recalcitrance as key progressive policies have failed to pass the state Legislature. The WFP continues to advocate for issues that include healthcare for all, ending the school-to-prison pipeline, fair wages, fixing the city’s subways, increasing funding to under-resourced schools, the DREAM Act, campaign finance and voting reform.  

Cuomo and the members of the erstwhile IDC largely claim to support that agenda and have repeatedly blamed the Republican-controlled Senate for thwarting its planks. But Cuomo tolerated, if not supported, the presence of the IDC, and critics hold its members up as a major obstacle to full Democratic control of both legislative chambers. Democrats have a comfortable majority in the 150-seat Assembly but, with the return of the IDC to the mainline Democratic conference, hold 31 seats in the 63-seat Senate.

And though the State Democratic Party, at Cuomo’s behest, is focused on recapturing the Senate, which necessitates flipping seats in the general election, groups like the WFP insist on replacing rogue Democrats with candidates who better embody progressive values and they trust to not flee for a deal with Republicans.

The party is taking a “big risk,” Dorothy Siegel, WFP treasurer, conceded on the sidelines of the gala, where Nixon, Williams, de Blasio, and Ben Jealous, the WFP-backed Democratic nominee for governor in Maryland, took the stage one by one to celebrate the WFP’s history. “Because, the power structure doesn’t like to be challenged...and the WFP is a really small organization,” Siegel said. “The people who control the levers of power win. Individual people never win.”

Siegel lamented her belief that the state’s politics, the governor, and state Legislature are powered by special interests, largely real estate developers and Wall Street executives (she left out the extensive influence of labor unions). “The WFP is not powered by any of those powerful people. We’re only powered by people who pay us $5 a month,” she said. “It’s a true David and Goliath situation. If we lose the governor’s race, we run the risk of very powerful people being very angry. They can do a lot of things to us that would make our lives difficult.”

Siegel pointed to the investigation involving the WFP that stemmed from alleged campaign finance violations in the election of City Council Member Debi Rose on Staten Island in 2009. Two campaign workers were accused, and later cleared, of charges that they worked with the WFP’s consulting firm, Data and Field Services, to circumvent campaign finance law. The years-long episode cost time and money that the WFP could ill-afford. “Lots of people got laid off. We almost went out of business,” Siegel said. “They could do that again. Do not underestimate the power of super-wealthy people to trample people who want to take away their power.”

Is it worth the risk? “Absolutely. 100 percent,” she said.

One of the most consequential possible effects of the WFP backing Nixon over Cuomo -- who they endorsed in 2014 after he promised to bring the IDC to an end and enact many of the same policies he’s promising again this year, which he did not follow through on -- is that it could cost the party automatic ballot access. A “third party” like the WFP needs at least 50,000 votes for its candidate for governor to maintain its ballot line into the future, which Nixon could easily attain in the general election. But Nixon losing the Democratic primary would put the WFP in a tough spot. Its leaders claim they won’t play spoiler and risk electing a Republican by drawing general election votes away from Cuomo. The party could feasibly get behind Cuomo while removing Nixon from the gubernatorial ballot line. A back-up plan is in place to move her to an Assembly race, in which she would not run, they say.

[Read: The Cynthia Nixon-Working Families Party Back-up Plan]

“We’re confident that Cynthia’s going to win and that the insurgents running against the IDC are all going to win,” said Bill Lipton, NYWFP political director, in a phone interview. “There’s a progressive wave coming. In the unlikely event that she loses, Cynthia’s agreed to meet with the leaders of the WFP and we’ll have an important decision to make. We’re very confident about any of the possible scenarios.”

A Nixon win would shock the political world, and catapult the WFP to never-before-seen power for a minor party. While initial polls show Nixon losing badly, her campaign argues that polling has been skewed and that polls are unable to capture the insurgent energy among Democrats and behind her candidacy. On the other hand, polling shows Williams to have a very real shot at unseating Hochul, which would also strengthen the WFP and cause major headaches for Cuomo (candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run separately in the primary, but as a ticket for the general election).

If Lipton had concerns about the WFP’s undertaking in this election cycle, he betrayed none of them. “We’re not taking a risk. We’re fulfilling our mission. The risk would be for us if we stray from our mission,” he said, critiquing the Democratic establishment for relying on the same wealthy donors as their Republican opponents. “The mission of the WFP is to break up that cozy relationship between these parties and these oligarchs and demand that there be a party that is truly fighting for working people,” he added. “And Cuomo and the IDC fundamentally made the problem worse by not just taking money from the same wealthy donors that fund the Republican attacks on working people but actually openly supporting and aligning themselves with the Republicans. The danger for us would’ve been not standing up to these Trump Democrats. That would’ve been the greater danger.”

The WFP hasn’t been a pure supporter of every progressive candidate, as evidenced by its choice of Cuomo over Zephyr Teachout in 2014, among others. Though the party derived momentum after the recent primary victory by Ocasio-Cortez, the young democratic socialist who defeated ten-term incumbent Rep. Crowley in Queens, its backing of Crowley left many questioning the WFP afterward. Lipton said the party was now fully behind her and that their earlier decisions owed to the fact that Crowley was moving to his left and the party had already committed to challenging former IDC state senators. “In retrospect, we clearly made a mistake. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has inspired us and working people around New York and the nation,” Lipton said.  

The party also hasn’t made an endorsement in the state Senate District 18 race where Julia Salazar, also a democratic socialist, is posing a primary challenge to Democratic Senator Martin Dilan, an eight-term incumbent. Although, Lipton did not close the door on the prospect of an endorsement. “As of now, the WFP has made no endorsement in the race,” he simply said. The party is backing Andrew Gounardes in a competitive Brooklyn Democratic primary with Ross Barkan, the winner of which will try to unseat one of the few Republican elected officials in the city, Senator Marty Golden.

[Read: Running for State Senate, Julia Salazar Attempts Progressive Primary Upset]

Karen Scharff, co-chair of the NYWFP and, until recently, longtime executive director of Citizen Action of New York, an activist group and member of the WFP, insists the party will come through September 13 with several victories, similarly citing Ocasio-Cortez, among other progressives, who prevailed in the congressional primaries.

“The headline that came out of June 26 was not ‘Democratic establishment wins big.’ It was quite the opposite,’” Scharff said in a phone interview. “I think really that Cuomo and the IDC and the establishment Democrats took a major risk themselves by ignoring the growth of the progressive movement as it really built up steam over the past seven years going back to Occupy Wall Street and then Bill de Blasio’s election in New York City, the Black Lives Matter movement, the Bernie Sanders momentum, and they’re showing that they realize it.”

She noted that Cuomo has moved to his left in the last few months on several fronts, owing to the shifting dynamics of the Democratic base. “I think that the risk we’ve taken in our endorsements this year have already paid off in moving the dominant issues in our state in a direction that is gonna meet the needs of working families instead of the needs of hedge fund donors and real estate donors,” she said, insisting that the governor and state Legislature, no matter who wins, can ill-afford to ignore the WFP’s agenda next year. “I think this is the direction the electorate is moving in and the Democratic Party’s going to have to either move with it or risk being left behind,” she said.

“I don’t think WFP is out on a limb by itself here,” Scharff continued. “This is really part of the establishment versus the entire progressive and resistance movement….We’re definitely acting as part of a broader movement with a lot of allies.”

Public Advocate Letitia James, who first got elected to the City Council on the WFP line in 2003, also attended the 20th anniversary gala, though her presence was more muted. Despite being a longtime WFP poster star, she did not speak to the gathering, choosing to mingle on the sides. James is running for attorney general with the governor’s support and eschewed the WFP’s endorsement, which the party has reserved for either James or one of her primary opponents, Zephyr Teachout, hoping that one of the two prevails September 13. Asked about the party’s risky endeavors this year, which include the challenge against Cuomo, James demurred. “I was with WFP when they had fundraisers at churches and if you didn’t get there early enough, all the cheese and crackers were gone. They’ve come a long way,” she said.

“They took a chance on me several years ago,” she said, “and they are voting their values. I just wanted to come because they are my friends and because when I needed a party to run on, the Working Families Party was there and that’s something I’ll never forget.”

Theodore Hamm, associate professor and chair of journalism and new media studies at St. Joseph’s College and longtime Brooklyn politics watcher, struck an optimistic note about the state Senate candidates that the WFP has endorsed, though he said that Nixon and Williams are unlikely to win. “The question, I guess, is if those people win but Cuomo holds on, then how will the new state Senate take shape with the some of the IDC figures no longer there and the challengers now taking those seats,” he wondered. “But that would certainly give the WFP influence, to a much greater degree than they’ve had thus far in the state Senate. That really should be where they put their energy.”

Even Hamm admitted, though, that after Ocasio-Cortez’s shocking upset, “There’s no certainties anymore of what will happen in the future. In the wake of her victory, even though they didn’t support her, it made it seem like their gamble was worth at least pursuing.”

At the WFP gala, Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke early and eagerly. His association with the party goes back to his years as a City Council member from Park Slope. “People try and bet against the Working Families Party all the time, the status quo loves to discount them,” the mayor said to whoops and applause. “But guess what? The Working Families Party is here to stay.”

[Read: New York Democrats’ Season of Choosing]

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Working Families Party Puts It All On The Line Thu, 02 Aug 2018 04:00:00 +0000