Gotham Gazette Wed, 26 Feb 2020 14:21:43 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Max & Murphy Podcast: De Blasio Finishes Year 5 & The Push for 'Fair Elections for New York' mxm logo

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

December 5, 2018 - Max & Murphy Podcast: De Blasio Finishes Year 5 & The Push for 'Fair Elections for New York'

wbai hirsh jw 400bMayor de Blasio is nearing the end of his fifth year in office, and in the first half of the show the hosts take stock of recent news surrounding the mayor and questions of his leadership.

In the second half of the show, Max & Murphy were joined by two leaders of the new "Fair Elections for New York" coalition that is made up of activist groups, labor unions, and other organizations seeking to pass a slate of reforms related to voting and campaign finance in New York: Jess Wisneski of Citizen Action New York and Alison Hirsh of 32BJ SEIU. Wisneski and Hirsh outline the planks of the policy push and the political dynamics at play as they seek to pass policies like early voting and a public-matching campaign finance system with Democrats fully in control of state government in 2019.

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

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Max & Murphy Podcast: De Blasio Finishes Year 5 & The Push for 'Fair Elections for New York' Wed, 05 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Political Purity Tests in New York mxm logo

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

April 25, 2018 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Political Purity Tests in New York

m m stanley fritz citizen action 277px

Stanley Fritz is the New York City campaigns manager for Citizen Action NY, a progressive advocacy organization that has endorsed Cynthia Nixon for governor and is an affiliate of The Working Families Party, which has also endorsed Nixon. Fritz explains the work he does as a community organizer and political operative, his views about Governor Cuomo's tenure, his take on the Cuomo-Nixon primary, why moderates and Republicans shouldn't be afraid of progressives, and more.

Listen to the full conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy and guest Stanley Fritz (@StanFritz). You can listen to the episode through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Political Purity Tests in New York Wed, 25 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Progressive Groups Endorse Democrat in Key Westchester Senate Race mayer naral pro choice

Shelley Mayor, center (photo: @Shelley4Senate)

A coalition of progressive community organizations representing thousands of members across New York State will support Shelley Mayer, the Democratic Assemblymember who is running for an open state Senate seat in Westchester that could decide which party leads the legislative chamber.

Mayer is running against Republican Julie Killian for the 37th Senate District seat, in a special election scheduled for April 24. The seat has been vacant since January after its previous occupant, George Latimer, was elected Westchester county executive.

A Mayer victory in the district would likely give Democrats the numerical majority in the state Senate, paving the way for a unity deal between mainline Senate Democrats and the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group of eight senators who prop up Republican control of the chamber along with renegade Democrat Simcha Felder. A deal is on the table that parties other than Felder have agreed to pending the results of two special Senate elections, the highly competitive Mayer-Killian race and one in the Bronx, where Assemblymember Luis Sepulveda is all but guaranteed to win.

The state Democratic Party has begun to put its weight behind Mayer’s candidacy, and Governor Andrew Cuomo has also endorsed her. Earlier this week in Larchmont, Cuomo rallied with fellow Democratic elected officials in support of Mayer. “This is a crucial race and Shelley’s victory will help bring the Democratic Majority in the Senate we need to continue our proud legacy of fighting and advancing progressive change for New Yorkers,” Cuomo said in a statement on Sunday. (The Westchester County Independence Party has also backed Mayer.)

Now adding its voice to the growing support for Mayer is the “Progressive Power Coalition” of five community advocacy groups -- Make the Road Action, NY Communities for Change, Citizen Action of New York, Community Voices Heard Power, and VOCAL-NY Action Fund -- which will announce its endorsement of Mayer on Friday.

The groups cite, as reasons for their support, Mayer’s impressive record of fighting for working New Yorkers and immigrants, her support of campaign finance reforms that prioritize small donors over wealthy interests, her advocacy for expanding childcare, affordable housing and combating homelessness, and her leadership on protections against wage theft by bad-actor employers. Democratic control of the state Senate, currently Republicans’ only stronghold at the state level, is seen as key to ushering through a wave of progressive policies.

"Shelley Mayer is a powerful leader for New York State,” said Sojourner Salinas, a member-leader of Community Voices Heard Power from White Plains, in a statement. “She stands tall and firm on what we believe in: fighting for communities of color and low-income families of New York State on all the tough issues that we are being attacked on by the Trump administration."    

Members of the coalition intend to bolster Mayer’s campaign by mobilizing their base of activists to knock on doors, call constituents and get out the vote in the lead up to, and on, Election Day. Several of the groups are known for their abilities to have boots on the ground for such activities. Mayer is considered a favorite given the district’s Democratic enrollment advantage and recent election trends, including Latimer’s runaway victory over two-term incumbent Rob Astorino.

Mayer said in a statement that she was “proud” to receive the coalition’s endorsement. “Donald Trump's constant attacks on our values and the failures of his Republican allies in the State Senate have made this special election critical for our future,” she said. “I’m proud of my track record fighting for families and creating better opportunities for Westchester’s hard working families, and I will continue that work in the State Senate.”

Killian, Mayer’s opponent, is a former Rye City Council member and deputy mayor taking her second shot at the 37th Senate District, after failing to unseat then-Senator Latimer in 2016. Her campaign has focused on portraying Mayer as an Albany insider and on decrying the culture of corruption that has flourished in the state Capitol. Earlier this week, after Joseph Percoco, a former top aide to Cuomo, was found guilty on federal corruption charges, Killian’s campaign tweeted, “One would hope that today’s conviction of Gov. Cuomo’s top aide in a bribery scheme would help slow down Albany’s rampant corruption, but history sadly shows us that it will continue unimpeded. Only way to change Albany is to change who we send there.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Progressive Groups Endorse Democrat in Key Westchester Senate Race Thu, 15 Mar 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Alain Kaloyeros, Powerful Centerpiece of Buffalo Billion, Could Become Household Name Kaloyeros Cuomo Buffalo

Alain Kaloyeros (photo via the Governor's Office on flickr)

It is easy to spot Alain Kaloyeros, head of SUNY Polytechnic, around Albany. You can often see him jetting around Stuyvesant Plaza, an upscale shopping center basically next door to the campus he built, which features a spaceship-like structure rising out of the dirt of constant construction.

It doesn't hurt that he drives a Ferrari Spider with the license plate "Dr. Nano." He is New York's highest paid state employee.

Working with five governors, and powerful legislative allies like former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Kaloyeros has overseen the development of the nano school while attracting millions of dollars of outside investment. He oversees over $14 billion worth of campuses, labs, and scientific "clean rooms" across the state. Under Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Kaloyeros added to his portfolio helping the state direct the Buffalo Billion program that has attracted major investments from IBM and SolarCity - and now, from U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

As Kaloyeros' power and influence has grown many who observe and are involved in state government say that checks and balances around his decisions have evaporated.

"The governor loves this guy. He's got carte blanche," said one legislator who is particularly interested in Kaloyeros' work and requested anonymity in discussing it. Kaloyeros makes more than $800,000 a year - Cuomo earns $179,000 annually, while state legislators earn just under $80,000.

Kaloyeros' cavalier attitude, flaunting his extensive power, and what some say is a focus on promoting profits over academia and rewarding allies appear to have earned his projects the attention of federal investigators led by Bharara.

Bharara's office has subpoenaed SUNY Polytechnic and insiders say the focus of the probe is the request-for-proposal process and whether officials tailored RFPs to award contracts to major political donors and allies. While SUNY Polytechnic says that Kaloyeros has not been subpoenaed, watchdogs are concerned that there is not enough oversight in place to prevent Kaloyeros from benefiting himself in these deals.

SUNY Polytechnic issued a statement saying the organization doesn't believe it or any of its employees are under investigation. and claiming they have been transparent. Asked about the investigation last week, Gov. Cuomo told reporters, "You can have investigations but that does not mean there's any 'there' there, or that anyone did anything wrong."

Journalists who have attempted to scrutinize contracts and requests for proposal have had their freedom of information requests refused, or been given censored documents by the Cuomo administration and Kaloyeros' organizations, raising further concerns about the transparency surrounding the investment of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds into private business.

Good government groups including Reinvent Albany, Citizen Action, NYPIRG, and League of Women Voters have called on reforms to peel back the layers of opaqueness that surround the the state's investment in semi-private and private entities, which is the essence of the Buffalo Billion project meant to stir the city's economy.

"By using a mixture of non-profit groups—including Ft. Schuyler and the SUNY Research Foundation—and academic institutions like SUNY Polytechnic, the State is blurring responsibility and reducing the accountability for decisions worth hundreds of millions of dollars," the groups said in a recent statement. "Subsidy deals are complex, often involve a real risk to public funds, and have the potential for significant conflict of interest. We wonder, who exactly is making the crucial decisions about who wins these deals? What is the basis of these decisions and how can we be sure that the deals themselves are well conceived and fairly awarded?"

Kaloyeros has repeatedly rebuffed interview and information requests from the Investigative Post's Jim Heaney, who has doggedly reported on Buffalo Billion spending from the start. "I told you once and I told you a million times. We are not political operatives nor do we respond to perceived threats and terrorism," Kaloyeros told Heaney in an email.

At public events, Kaloyeros has refused to take questions from the press about Bharara's interest in his work. He told a Syracuse reporter that it isn't polite to ask off-topic questions.

Kaloyeros' behavior has frightened some of his colleagues involved in the partnerships between academia and state government who feel he has far too much power over the state's investments. Further, they say that his public displays of wealth and power are not becoming of someone in his position and they expected it to draw the attention. Kaloyeros is not known to be an easy boss.

Some critics point to Kaloyeros' Facebook page that some say can resemble that of a teenager. The page is a mixture of bathroom selfies, memes about slow drivers, and pictures of sports cars and Darth Vader.

Kaloyeros has touted his lifestyle as funded by proceeds from his patents in interviews with The Buffalo News and The New York Times.

Kaloyeros was raised in East Beirut, Lebanon. A Times Union article from 2012 describes how as a 19-year-old college student Kaloyeros was attacked by what he assumed were members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization at the start of the Lebanese Civil War. His face was sliced and he was left for dead. One of his friends was actually killed. Later he said he joined a Christian militia and was trained by Israeli forces in tanks and artillery, later commanding a group of two dozen street fighters.

That part of Kaloyeros' life appears to have been balanced by his love for science. His father was a school teacher and his mother worked in marketing for Sanyo and SONY. Kaloyeros left Lebanon in 1980 to attend graduate school in the U.S. and in 1988 earned a doctorate from the University of Illinois.

In 2002, Kaloyeros told the Times that the "in crowd" in his high school was made up of the smart kids. ''Better be nice to geeks,'' he said, ''because the way the world is going, chances are you're going to end up working for one.''

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Alain Kaloyeros, Powerful Centerpiece of Buffalo Billion, Could Become Household Name Tue, 29 Sep 2015 01:44:06 +0000
Cuomo Seizes on Wage Issue as Legislature Sits Paralyzed by Scandal, Partisanship Cuomo

Gov. Cuomo at a minimum wage rally (Office of the Governor - Kevin P. Coughlin)

"Do we have any members of labor in the house today? I can't hear you!" Gov. Andrew Cuomo shouted to a crowd of union members holding signs touting the "Fight for $15." Cuomo held a large rally in Manhattan's Union Square earlier this month as he announced he had instructed his labor commissioner to empanel a wage board to consider upping the minimum wage for fast food workers.

Cuomo Seizes on Wage Issue as Legislature Sits Paralyzed by Scandal, Partisanship Tue, 26 May 2015 02:10:07 +0000
Amid Further Ethics Scandal, What Can Cuomo Do Now? cuomo side

Gov. Cuomo (photo: @NYGovCuomo)

Last March Gov. Andrew Cuomo killed the Moreland Commission on Public Corruption in a deal with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Now, a little more than a year later, both legislative leaders have been arrested and charged with multiple counts of federal corruption. Surrounded by scandal, it isn't immediately clear what the governor can or will do next. One thing that is sure, though, is that the worse Albany looks, the worse Cuomo looks.

After Silver's January arrest Cuomo gave a speech at NYU outlining grand ethics reform proposals like public financing of campaigns and enacting a full-time legislature. But when it came time to cut a budget deal, Cuomo again agreed to limited change in order to get an on-time spending plan. After Skelos' arrest this week, the governor has remained relatively quiet. With Albany in disarray and a national laughingstock, what can Cuomo do in a tough situation he has largely made for himself?

Reformers and political experts are torn about Cuomo's next move, especially after he's trumpeted many ethics adjustments as the end-all-be-all. Some say Cuomo needs to use the bully pulpit without fear of losing political capital, while others say Cuomo shouldn't say anything at all. On Wednesday Cuomo lamented the fact that if the charges against Skelos are true, it flies against the work he and others, including Skelos, have done trying to clean up the capital.

Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham Law professor whose speciality is corruption and 2014 primary opponent of Cuomo's, said that the Skelos indictment shows that none of Cuomo's smaller ethics initiatives have actually changed the climate of corruption in Albany. "Symbolic action won't cut it," said Teachout. "There is no bridge he can start to build right now, there is not one thing he can toss out there at this point."

Teachout added that "the thing that is so damning" about the complaint against Skelos is that the alleged corruption occurred since Cuomo's been in office, "not like the Silver indictment where things took place before Cuomo took office. So it shows us these incremental changes haven't paid off."

The Skelos complaint details how the majority leader asked Glenwood Management to steer title insurance business to his son. Skelos allegedly threatened to punish members of the real estate industry if they failed to comply with his demands and eventually a representative of Glenwood allegedly gave Skelos' son a $20,000 commission for doing no work. Glenwood steers millions of dollars into campaign accounts - including Cuomo's - of candidates running at all levels through the LLC loophole that allows them to subvert campaign finance limits.

"We've always suspected this is how things are done behind closed doors, but these complaints have really brought it into the light," said Dick Dadey, executive director of good govenrment organization Citizens Union. "Not just the influence of campaign donations but that some officials use their positions to extort," he added.

It was these kinds of relationships that the Moreland Commission was digging into when Cuomo's aides began interfering with it. And it was that kind of scrutiny that led legislative leaders to pressure Cuomo into ending the commission altogether, though it is unclear how much pressure they really had to apply.

Teachout said that Cuomo, who has taken in over $1 million from Glenwood, should go to great lengths to demonstrate he is not himself tied to the company in any quid-pro-quo arrangement.

"He should tell Glenwood their kind of business is not welcome in Albany, he should reveal his emails with Glenwood and [its head] Leonard Litwin and say enough is enough on the LLC loophole," said Teachout.

Bill Samuels, head of good government organization EffectiveNY, called on Cuomo to return all the donations from Glenwood. "I shouldn't have to call on the Governor to return this tainted money. If he were truly committed to ethics reform and cleaning up Albany, Cuomo would have immediately returned these funds to Glenwood Management and expressed outrage over this latest corruption scandal unfolding on his watch," Samuels said in a statement.

Cuomo told Capital New York at a press conference in Syracuse on Wednesday that he would not return the donations or refuse to accept more because Glenwood representatives had not been charged with wrongdoing. "If no one did anything wrong, then you can't just say, 'You have no right to participate in the political process,'" the governor said.

Dadey agrees that Cuomo should not have to return the contributions because they were made legally, but says that it would be, "Helpful to know what kind of interactions the administration had with Glenwood."

Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action NY, said she feels Cuomo's attempts at ethics reform haven't paid off because he is so concerned about immediate political wins rather than the long-term good. Scharff said she'd like to see Cuomo take to the bully pulpit on public financing of elections even knowing that he won't win this year, but ready to take a loss and do it to build political momentum.

Teachout agrees. "If he actually believes in reform he has to show he is willing to take genuine political risk," she said. "He has to come out saying: 'Win or lose I am going to put capital on the line for this to get credibility."

Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, told Gotham Gazette that he has concerns that public financing of campaigns simply won't go anywhere because Senate Republicans are ideologically opposed. He and other good government advocates also worry that Cuomo no longer has any credibility on reform issues and that his proclamations on the subject have become white noise to the public and to legislators.

"The governor has eroded the bully pulpit," Horner said. "He has been delivering speeches but not real reform. In Albany, talk is cheap. He has shown that he prefers triage but that doesn't get you anywhere."

Dadey said that Cuomo must stay on the soap box to "connect the dots of corruption for the public."

"The governor must not allow this saga of scandal and corruption to prevent him from enacting real ethics reform," said Dadey. Good government groups like Citizens Union and NYPIRG, as well as reform-minded legislators and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, have been calling for sweeping reforms aimed at truly cleaning up Albany's corruption problem. They say that the time for incrementalism is over.

Horner said that action is critical and he thinks the governor could find quick consensus with the Legislature on certain issues. Horner wants to see a new ethics watchdog where "the appointees aren't captives," a bill to restrict legislators' outside income, and legislation to end the LLC loophole. "The time for fake ethics reform has long past," said Horner.

Cuomo has remained relatively silent on Skelos' indictment. On Wednesday he said he will not call on Skelos to resign because, "I don't have the option of picking who they pick as their leaders. They pick a Senate leader, I will work with that leader," Cuomo said referring to state senators, especially the Republican majority.

Doug Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College, said he believes Cuomo is doing the best thing he can for himself by remaining mum on the scandals that have left Albany more dysfunctional than ever. "My initial inclination is he should keep quiet, stay far away from it, don't even comment," Muzzio told Gotham Gazette. Cuomo appears to be taking that tack, instead promoting on Wednesday that several private New York colleges have signed on to his campaign aimed at reducing sexual assault on campuses and penning an op-ed in the New York Times announcing his new move geared at raising the wages of fast-food workers.

What he'll do next on ethics reform is far from clear. Muzzio said Cuomo should avoid making any grand speeches on reform because everyone has heard it before. "I don't think Groundhog Day works because the press are gonna hang him for it. He should keep quiet while working toward a strategy of reform because this is going to pass."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Amid Further Ethics Scandal, What Can Cuomo Do Now? Wed, 06 May 2015 21:02:53 +0000
Dean Skelos Thwarted Reform and Maintained Power, Despite the Odds Skelos Silver Cuomo

Dean Skelos in 2012 (photo: The Governor's Office via flickr)

In June 2008, after serving 23 years as the State Senator from Nassau County, Dean Skelos inherited the troubled Republican conference from retiring Majority Leader Joe Bruno. It wasn't exactly the most enviable position.

Facing an aging conference and with Democrats enjoying a huge enrollment advantage across the state, 2009 saw Republicans enter the Senate minority for the first time in decades. The same month Skelos began his stint as minority leader his predecessor was indicted on eight counts of corruption. It began Skelos' long but successful fight to keep his conference not only relevant but in charge when it mattered the most in terms of decision-making for the future of his party.

Now, seven years later, Skelos faces a federal complaint with several charges, including monetizing his office by arranging payments to him and his son through a developer who sought favorable legislation. The case involves many elements of state government that have been attacked as corrupt and unethical - from the LLC loophole that allows donors to pump the lifeblood of campaign cash into the Republican conference, or the 421-A tax break for developers that has been attacked as a giveaway to corporate donors, major issues at play in the indictment are parts of how Skelos managed to keep himself and the Senate Republicans in power in Albany.

"I'm going to be president of the Senate, I'm going to be majority leader," Skelos allegedly told his son during a phone conversation about their deal with a developer - a call being recorded by federal agents. "I'm going to control everything, I'm going to control who gets on what committees, what legislation goes to the floor, what legislation comes through committees, the budget, everything."

On Monday Skelos issued a statement claiming his innocence and worked to maintain his role as leader of the Senate Majority.

Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action, an organization that has advocated many major reforms that Skelos directly opposes, said that Skelos' power can be directly traced back to the policy he delivers and the reforms he opposes.

"It was never more clear than in last year's Senate elections how much the system helped keep the Republicans in power," said Scharff. "They raised vast amounts of money from hedge funds that were interested in very specific policy points and had them spend massive amounts of money in independent expenditures to deliver the policy that keeps them in power."

During his time as Majority Leader Skelos won battles on redistricting, not only pushing back efforts to create independently drawn lines but even succeeding in the creation of the 63rd Senate seat upstate. He publicly derided campaign finance reform, public financing of campaigns, and efforts to have lawyers disclose their clients. And behind the scenes he was mostly successful in holding back the tide of government and campaign finance reform. He's appointed members to the state's Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, and fought successfully to kill the Moreland Commission on Public Corruption. As the federal charges against him and much political history show, Skelos has not been alone in any of this.

The indictment against Skelos alleges he monetized his office by abusing the same systems and loopholes that he protected from reform. The charges against Skelos say that the developer involved in the kickback scheme used the LLC loophole to subvert campaign finance limits. Only last month, Skelos' new appointee to the Board of Elections thwarted efforts to eliminate the same loophole.

Skelos maintained this power by cutting deals with Democrats like Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Independent Democratic Conference head Sen. Jeff Klein who both share some of Skelos' economic concerns and larger donors.

"Skelos' indictment gets to the core problem," Scharff told Gotham Gazette. " Those who raise the most money are the ones who have the most power and they have gone out of their way to make sure reform doesn't happen. They have made sure it is built into how Albany works."

How He Got Here: The Coup
In 2009, Senate Democrats reveled in their new-found power. Exposing Bruno's largess - personal, customized vans for his use, private printing facilities, and television studios, Democrats were riding high as they took control of the chamber. But Democrats only enjoyed a few seat margin over Republicans.

The "Three Amigos" including Pedro Espada, Carl Kruger and Ruben Diaz pushed for more power within the conference in exchange for their loyalty. Democratic Majority Leader Malcolm Smith appeared weak and scattered. Meanwhile Buffalo billionaire Thomas Golisano, who had helped Democrats win the majority, felt ignored by Smith. He and his political fixer Steve Pigeon met with Skelos and Republican Sens. Tom Libous and George Maziarz in an Albany rock club and began devising a Senate takeover.

They recruited the dissatisfied and particularly-ambitious freshman Espada and Espada recruited Sen. Hiram Monserrate. On June 8, 2009, with only days left in session, facing the expiration of mayoral control of schools and the rent laws, Republicans lept into action. Republicans moved for a surprising leadership vote and although it was disputed by Democrats soon Skelos was standing in the chamber shaking hands with Espada - the two split Smith's positions as Majority Leader Espada and Senate President Skelos.

Control of the Senate was disputed for months. Eventually Espada and Monserrate rejoined the Democratic conference but the damage had been done - rifts in the Senate Democrats were made public, and they were painted as dysfunctional during their first shot at the majority in decades.

Worth noting is that at the time both Monserrate and Espada faced ethical questions beyond just conniving for Senate power. Espada was eventually convicted of stealing from his own health clinics, in one case using cash for HIV victims to fund his campaigns, and Monserrate was eventually expelled from the Senate for slashing his girlfriend's face with a bottle. And yet, Skelos partnered with both men for a tenuous shot to regain control of the Senate.

Keeping Power Through Redistricting
In 2011 Skelos regained the title of Senate Majority Leader thanks to major donations from real estate, developers, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and it wasn't a moment too soon. A coalition of reform groups led by former Mayor Ed Koch were pushing for legislators to deliver a redistricting plan that better reflected the actual enrollment and population of the state. For decades Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats engaged in a redistricting process that allowed them to draw districts that would assure their incumbents had the best chance of being reelected, disregarding the actual makeup of communities. Skelos played hardball, slamming Koch's efforts as "partisan."

Eventually Cuomo gave up his pledge to veto any district lines that were gerrymandered and agreed to new lines that drastically favored Senate Republicans, even creating a 63rd district upstate that suspiciously carved its way around major population centers and incorporated rural towns populated by more voters who were more likely Republican.

During this time Skelos proved to be a valuable ally to Cuomo as he helped the governor pass some of his more conservative fiscal plans, including a tax cap, while also delivering Cuomo the votes he needed on same-sex marriage. Although Cuomo also delivered a highly-touted ethics package that year, advocates insist that major issues were ignored because Skelos and Senate Republicans refused to cede any ground on campaign finance reform as they believed the current system was essential to keeping them in the majority.

2013-2014 Deals and The Death of Moreland
Democrats technically held enough seats for a majority after the 2012 elections but Skelos cut a deal with the IDC and newly-elected Sen. Simcha Felder to create a coalition government which saw Skelos rotate control of the chamber with Klein. During this time a number of legislators were indicted on corruption charges and advocates began a major push for public financing of campaigns. Skelos stood steadfast against campaign finance reform, even holding a hearing against the policy featuring national anti-public finance advocates.

"Public financing of elections would not have stopped any one of those crooks and idiots from doing what they did," Skelos told reporters on April 23, 2013. Skelos directly referenced Smith who had been indicted that day on counts that he tried to bribe his way onto the Republican ticket in the race for New York City mayor.

As pressure mounted in 2013 Skelos obstinately opposed a series of reforms proposed by Cuomo - a package of reforms most advocates actually considered insignificant. Finally Cuomo made good on his longtime threat to empanel a Moreland Commission to investigate public corruption. For months, as Moreland held hearings, Skelos and now-indicted then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver waged a court battle against Moreland and publicly decried it as a "witch hunt."

"These actions amount to an attempt to coerce or threaten the Legislature and upset the separation of powers that exists between the executive and legislative branches, and cannot be accepted," Skelos wrote to Senate Republicans in November 2013.

It was in 2013 that reports of possible influence by Cuomo's office into the commission began. Some Moreland insiders insisted Cuomo's office was particularly deadset on stopping subpoenas to the Real Estate Board of New York, whose members are key Cuomo donors, but also major backers of Skelos and Senate Republicans. Cuomo began facing increasing pushback from Skelos and Silver during 2014 budget negotiations.

Moreland was reportedly closing in on ties between donations from the real estate industry and policy and it was making everyone in charge antsy. In March, Cuomo quietly announced he had killed Moreland in exchange for his proposed slate of reforms. "Skelos killed the commission just as it was starting to expose the quid-pro-quo system that is built into Albany," said Scharff.

As the 2014 election season kicked into high gear Cuomo felt increasing pressure to support a Democratic Senate and align himself with liberal policy. The governor promised the Working Families Party he would help elect Democrats to the Senate and the IDC promised it would caucus with Democrats.

Senate Republicans mobilized their major donors, reminding them of the coming sunset of the rent laws, the push to expand charter schools in the state, and of the "Democratic dysfunction of 2009." Not only did the real estate industry pour record amounts of cash into Senate Republican coffers, but it marshalled a number of independent expenditures to boost candidates in important districts.

This Year
Republicans started 2015 with the wind in their sails. They had won complete control of the Senate and soon after the year began Silver, longtime Democratic Assembly majority leader, was indicted. But quickly word came that Skelos was also a target of US Attorney Preet Bharara. Still, Skelos rejected just about any Democratic policy proposed in the state budget: tossed out were proposals on campaign finance reform, renewing mayoral control of schools, criminal justice reform, raising the minimum wage, and a host of other issues.

After returning from the budget break in mid-April, Republicans largely ignored the major outstanding issues. Session became a parade of small-time legislation having to do with vanity license plates and honoring local sports teams. Last week as more chatter picked up around Skelos' possible indictment, session slowed even further with Republicans spending more time in conference.

Finally on Friday the New York Times and Wall Street Journal reported federal prosecutors might arrest Skelos on Monday. Skelos and his son faced charges in court and the Senate Majority leader proclaimed his innocence. Senate session went on as planned Monday afternoon, with little of substance being discussed and many Republican Senators expressing solidarity with Skelos, the man who kept them in power against the odds. But signs exist of a possible break in the solidarity. Some, like Sens. John DeFrancisco and John Flanagan jockeyed to replace Skelos while others like Sen. John Bonacic said Skelos had to resign with an indictment over his head.

Democratic Sen. Michael Gianaris said he was "troubled" by the allegations against Skelos, adding: "Senator Skelos should now step down as Majority Leader for the good of our state and in the interest of allowing the remaining weeks of our legislative session to proceed without distraction. There are too many important issues which remain unresolved, ironically including several long overdue ethics reforms and expiring housing laws."

Saying that "Legislative leaders must be held to a higher ethical standard of conduct and his actions violate that standard," good government group Citizens Union called for Skelos to step down from his leadership post on Tuesday.

Klein, who maintains a deal with Senate Republicans, did not call for Skelos to resign. "The burden now falls on the Republican Conference to determine if new Republican Leadership is warranted," Klein said in a statement.

Cuomo, who has remained mostly in New York City of late, was in Albany Monday, but his only public event was an announcement that he participated in by phone. He did not comment on the Skelos matter.

Scharff and Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Group both said it is now up to Cuomo to push through the reforms he could not achieve earlier this year. "At the top of that list of legislative "must dos" are initiatives to overhaul ethics enforcement, limit outside income, and reign in the influence of New York's powerful special interests," said Horner. "The governor must take up the unfinished Moreland Commission agenda to restore the public's confidence in state government; specifically closing the LLC loophole."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union

Dean Skelos Thwarted Reform and Maintained Power, Despite the Odds Tue, 05 May 2015 15:59:40 +0000
Assembly Budget Champions De Blasio Agenda bdb parade

Mayor de Blasio (photo: @BilldeBlasio)

Mayor Bill de Blasio got a boost from Assembly Democrats on Tuesday in the form of their one-house budget proposal that includes a number of the mayor's major priorities. Facing a state budget negotiation with his agenda at the mercy of his rival-pal Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Senate Republicans who he unsuccessfully tried to unseat last year, de Blasio needed some help.

Bargaining help arrived thanks in part to de Blasio's new Albany ally, recently minted Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat from the Bronx. The most direct symbol of Heastie's and his New York City-dominated chamber's allegiance to de Blasio comes in the form of a budget that renews mayoral control of city schools for 7 years, delivers a major increase in education funding without Cuomo's proposed reforms, increases pre-K monies, and would deliver a $15 minimum wage for the city. It is unlikely any of these proposals make it into the state budget unscathed, but they function as a negotiating post for the Democratically-controlled Assembly.

"I commend the Assembly for its one-house budget proposal, which includes a number of initiatives that will go a long way toward combating inequality and protecting New Yorkers around this city," said de Blasio in a statement. "I am grateful to Speaker Heastie and the Assembly for their leadership."

Cuomo's budget - which de Blasio gave mixed reviews during recent Albany testimony - ties a $1.1 billion increase in education spending to a number of reforms opposed by teachers unions and their allies. The Assembly budget would increase education spending without those proposals, which include increasing the degree to which standardized tests factor into teacher evaluations and raising the charter school cap. Cuomo has insisted that he will only increase education spending by a few million dollars if the Legislature does not agree to his reform package, which is lauded by those in the so-called education reform movement.

De Blasio has been outspoken recently about education funding and even teamed with Cuomo foil Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner to call on the governor and Legislature to increase education funding to what they call necessary levels. Advocates point to the 2003 Campaign For Fiscal Equity Lawsuit where an appellate court judge found the State allows public schools to go "chronically underfunded."

Echoing advocates and unions, de Blasio claimed the State owes New York City schools $2.6 billion, while Miner said the state owes Syracuse schools $87.1 million.

The Assembly also sided with de Blasio on the minimum wage. Cuomo and de Blasio both support a wage increase - and one that would be in some way larger for New York City, where the cost of living is greater, than the rest of the state - but they differ in their plans.

Cuomo's plan would set the state minimum wage to $10.50 per hour, with an $11.50 hourly rate in New York City by the end of this year. De Blasio's calls for the State to allow the City to set its minimum wage based on inflation and a $15 hourly rate by the end of 2019. The Assembly plan essentially mirrors de Blasio's call but also allows New York City suburbs to set their minimum wages to inflation.

"Raising the minimum wage is about the moral obligation we have to help families across the state who are struggling to get by," Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said in a statement. "The current wage floor is not enough to allow full-time workers who put in a 40-hour work week to afford life's basic necessities, let alone achieve financial independence."

De Blasio praised the move in his statement: "The Assembly's minimum wage proposal is also a critical step toward providing the fair wages New Yorkers need and deserve as we continue to take on income inequality in New York City and beyond."

De Blasio has shown an increased appetite to publicly challenge Cuomo this year. His Feburary budget testimony, although at times praiseful of Cuomo, also included criticism of the governor's funding plan around programs to help the homeless and the state's commitment to the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).

The Assembly budget addresses those issues and others by doing away with Cuomo's proposed decrease in funding the city receives for its Emergency Assistance to Families program. De Blasio testified before the Legislature in February that the plan "would effectively mean a $22.5 million cut to our homeless prevention programs. That money would provide shelter for 500 families for a year."

The Assembly would also give de Blasio an extended break from having to petition Albany to extend mayoral control of schools. Cuomo has proposed a three-year extension while the Assembly prefers seven. De Blasio called for permanent mayoral control last month.

"We feel like Mayor de Blasio shouldn't be treated any differently than Mayor Bloomberg," Heastie told reporters after unveiling the Assembly budget proposal. "Mayor Bloomberg was given more than three years, so to provide the kind of stability the mayor wants to turn around particularly failing schools we feel that more than three years is appropriate."

Liberal advocacy groups like The Working Families Party and Citizen Action also applauded the Assembly budget. "Millions of New York's lowest paid working families can finally imagine a life above the poverty line," said WFP chair Bill Lipton in a statement. "We commend Speaker Carl Heastie, Labor Chair Titus and the Assembly majority for calling for a $15 minimum wage. New York should be a leader in the fight against inequality and for an economy that works for all of us." Lipton also praised the Assembly's education funding proposal.

"We applaud Speaker Heastie and the State Assembly for taking bold action to reverse the state's devastating underfunding of public schools and to ensure working families can earn enough to meet basic needs," said Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action of New York.

The Senate's one-house budget is expected to exclude a number of priorities de Blasio has advocated, including The Dream Act and a minimum wage hike. Senators say their proposal will increase education aid by $1.9 billion.

The Assembly budget ignores a slate of ethics reforms in the governor's budget (which de Blasio has not weighed in on). Cuomo has insisted the reforms are non-negotiable and he is willing to have a late budget to get them. Heastie said that those reforms are still being discussed. "We made reference to the issues on disclosure, we have campaign finance reform and many of the discussions that we've been having with the governor have been going well," Heastie told reporters."I think by the time we get to voting on the budget, we'll have a very detailed and satisfactory ethics reform."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Assembly Budget Champions De Blasio Agenda Wed, 11 Mar 2015 04:11:43 +0000