Gotham Gazette Sun, 07 Mar 2021 23:41:24 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) ‘I'm On A Mission’: Ritchie Torres Goes to Washington to Save Public Housing 1cm ri nycha wagner

Rep. Ritchie Torres (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

Ritchie Torres, a Bronx Democrat, was sworn in early this month among the new class of the House of Representatives, becoming the first openly-gay Afro-Latino member of Congress. After seven years advocating for his district on the New York City Council, Torres now takes to the halls of Congress to exert whatever influence he can for his constituents, particularly through a plum committee assignment not often given to freshman lawmakers. One of his chief priorities remains the state of public housing in New York City and he is optimistic that with full Democratic control of the federal government, the New York City Housing Authority will finally get its due.

The future of NYCHA is a deeply personal issue for Torres, who grew up in public housing and went on to chair the City Council’s public housing committee. “My highest priority is affordable housing. I would not be where I am today but for affordable housing and the stability it gave me and my family,” Rep. Torres said in an interview.

NYCHA houses more than 400,000 New Yorkers, largely people of color, and is a crucial lifeline for families in a city with a housing affordability crisis. But, owing to decades of disinvestment by the federal government, the state, and the city, as well as mismanagement by city government and its chosen NYCHA leadership, public housing developments across the city have fallen into a state of deep disrepair. Tenants have been forced to live with problems that include rat infestations, mold, lead paint, broken elevators and other key infrastructure, and a lack of heat and hot water.

NYCHA Chair and CEO Gregory Russ estimated in January last year that repairing and maintaining the aging infrastructure will cost as much as $40 billion, and watchdogs have warned that many NYCHA towers could soon be so dilapidated that repairing them is more expensive than building anew. 

The housing authority is currently under federal monitorship over a lead paint crisis spanning many years, though that oversight and the threat of receivership did not come with additional federal dollars. Various partial NYCHA rescue plans from de Blasio, Russ, and Russ’ predecessors have shown limited results, in part because the mayor has not put his political capital behind them. But the federal government has also been largely missing in action.

Enter Torres. And his Democratic colleagues. 

On the City Council, Torres led the Committee on Oversight and Investigation and the Committee on Public Housing before that, and has spent years holding the de Blasio administration’s feet to the fire over its repeated failures at NYCHA, while consistently calling for more state and federal funding. As a member of the House, he is now among those who hold the authority’s purse strings after he was appointed to the House Committee on Financial Services, which includes public housing within its purview. 

In an interview with Gotham Gazette, Torres acknowledged that NYCHA has a tough path ahead. The authority is dealing with multiple crises and while de Blasio’s administration brought its operating finances into far better shape, much of its capital costs remain unresolved. The mayor and NYCHA leadership have sought other avenues for funding through the NYCHA 2.0 plan, which would implement about $24 billion worth of repairs over ten years. But in that slow-moving plan are measures that have proved controversial including the sale of air rights, allowing private development on NYCHA-owned land through the infill program, and converting properties to private management through the federal Rental Assistance Demonstration program (RAD).

Torres insists, however, that the best solution is more federal funding. Currently NYCHA only receives about $1.5 billion every year, a drop in the bucket compared to its needs. Just last week, according to a Brooklyn Paper report, Democratic U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez introduced the Public Housing Emergency Response Act to provide $70 billion for public housing nationwide, including $32 billion for NYCHA alone. But, while Torres also said that the federal government should not “micromanage” the agency, he believes any additional assistance should come with adequate oversight so that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

GG: Congratulations on being sworn in. Glad to see you’re safe after the insurrection at the Capitol.

Rep. Torres: “It's been a much more eventful week that I had a plan for...I never thought that as a freshman member, my first order of business would be to defend democracy itself.”

GG: I saw your account in the Daily News. My only question was, did you get a safety briefing when you were sworn in? An evacuation plan for such a situation?

Torres: “No...We're living in a dangerously unprecedented time for which the normal rules no longer apply.”

GG: What do you think you can do for NYCHA now that you're in the lion's den so to speak?

Torres: “There are four exclusive committees in the United States Congress. Ways and Means, Appropriations, Energy and Commerce, and Financial Services, and for a freshman member to be appointed to an exclusive committee is a rare occurrence. I specifically sought to be a member of Financial Services so that I can continue the advocacy for public housing that I began in the City Council. For me, the New York City Housing Authority is a singular institution in the life of America. It is the largest provider of affordable housing in the country...If NYCHA were a city unto itself, it would be the largest city of low-income Black and brown Americans in the United States. But the federal government has so systematically starved public housing of funding in New York City, that it has $40 billion worth of capital needs. So for me the highest priority is to ensure that NYCHA gets its fair share of federal funding, that it gets enough federal funding to address the humanitarian crisis. I spent seven years in the Council shining a spotlight on the humanitarian crisis in public housing. I'm now, as a congressman, I'm on a mission to secure funding to address the crisis. But for me, my goal is not simply to rebuild public housing in the same form. There's a historic opportunity to reinvent public housing as the greenest city in America. Imagine public housing with rooftop gardens, energy efficient retrofits, electric heating systems, rooftop solar panels. Public housing can become the gold standard of sustainable affordable housing in the United States. NYCHA can become the gold standard of sustainable affordable housing in the United States.”

A spokesperson for Torres confirmed after this interview that he supports the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act, legislation that was introduced by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. The bill would invest about $172 billion over ten years to retrofit more than 1.2 million units of public housing to make them energy efficient. Torres spokesperson said in a statement, "The Congressman looks forward to signing on the legislation once it is reintroduced in this session of Congress."

GG: This will require billions and billions of dollars. Do you think the federal government will provide more than the $1.5 billion or so it does every year?

Torres: “I do because all the stars are aligned politically. We have the makings of an FDR moment: a Democratic presidency, a Democratic House, and a Democratic Senate. And there are going to be opportunities to make massive investments in public housing, in NYCHA, through both a future stimulus package and a future infrastructure package. There's a widespread recognition in Congress that housing is infrastructure and that housing is a human right. So that newfound appreciation for housing, I think works to the advantage of NYCHA, more funding for NYCHA.”

GG: If the federal government provides funding, is that going to obviate the need for NYCHA infill or the RAD program? Do you think all of that is still necessary? Is it going to work in concert?

Torres: “It's up to the city to decide here. I'm not here to micromanage what the city should do. There is a value in creating affordable housing apart from the revenue it generates. But there's no substitute for federal reinvestment in public housing. It is a moral imperative. It's an existential imperative for not only NYCHA, but the City of New York. NYCHA is the core safety net of deeply affordable housing in the city of New York.”

GG: Talking about RAD, do you agree with the de Blasio administration’s request to give over two-thirds of NYCHA stock to private management? [NYCHA Chair Greg Russ made that request to the state Legislature in December, estimating that it could help raise $25 billion for repairs]

Torres: “Historically, I've been supportive of RAD because I saw it as the best tool for securing billions of dollars in federal funding for NYCHA housing. But with a Democratic Senate and a Democratic House and a Democratic president, we're going to be in a position to directly fund public housing in the traditional form in which it exists. But I’m open to exploring reforms that can ensure public ownership in the context of RAD...It’s something I’m thinking through at the moment.”

GG: What about infill and the sale of air rights?

Torres: “I think the federal government has to be careful not to micromanage local and state governments. Our overriding role is to provide federal funding to state and local governments, which are on the front lines of administering public services.”

GG: Do you generally agree or disagree with the infill program? There’s some criticism that it’s going to privatize public property?

Torres: “It depends on the context. If you're creating 400 units of affordable housing on public housing land, am I going to oppose? No. If you're creating luxury towers on public housing land, I would have concerns. If you're creating affordable housing on public housing land, then that seems to advance the social good.”

GG: Considering the years of not just underfunding, but also rife mismanagement at NYCHA, do you think there need to be additional controls?

Torres: “Yes, of course. NYCHA needs more money and better management. But my singular focus is on more money.”

GG: Something like the federal monitor? Do you think there needs to be permanent oversight?

Torres: “Everything’s on the table. I'm a policymaker so I'm going to take a hard look at both, not only funding but the management of public housing, of course.

GG: Do you have any legislation in the works already?

Torres: “We do but I never share them in advance.”

GG: What’s your first priority?

Torres: “My highest priority is affordable housing. I would not be where I am today but for affordable housing and the stability it gave me and my family…For me, affordable housing is more than brick and mortar, it's the foundation on which you build a better life for yourself and your family. So I'm a huge proponent of the Section 8 program. Housing is a human right and Section 8 is the best tool for implementing housing as a human right...Every American in need should have access to a Section 8 voucher, which ensures that you pay no more than 30% of your income toward your rent.”

GG: President-elect Biden has promised to vastly expand Section 8.

Torres: “We're gonna be on the same page when it comes to Section 8 expansion...Section 8 is a uniquely powerful tool for bringing deeply affordable housing to families in need. In addition to housing, I'm on a mission to put more money in the pockets of families struggling during COVID-19: expanding the child tax credit, the earned income tax credit, providing hazard pay to essential workers, sending a stimulus check of $2,000 a month. I have a particular passion for the child tax credit. The structure of the child tax credit is so regressive that it leaves behind a third of American families, the poorest families in America. And in the South Bronx, two-thirds of American families are excluded from the full benefit of the child tax credit. So if we were to extend the child tax credit to the poorest families, then families in the South Bronx and elsewhere in the city would receive up to $300 per child every single month. Research has shown that extending the child tax credit would cut child poverty by 40% in the span of a single year...We should send a message that where you live, your zip code, should be no barrier to how far you can go in America.”

GG: Can New York City, can New York State, can America build more public housing? And will it? Shouldn't there be more NYCHA developments built in the city?

Torres: “We certainly should build more deeply affordable housing. We have to see to it that the housing we create is deeply affordable to the poorest Americans, the poorest New Yorkers. So that to me should be where the focus is, creating deeply affordable housing; deeply, permanently affordable housing. Should NYCHA run the housing? I think the priority should be to create deeply and permanently affordable housing regardless of whether it's publicly or privately operated.”

GG: We haven’t talked about lead.

Torres: “The consent decree by the settlement is an unfunded mandate. The federal government mandates $3 billion worth of lead abatement in public housing without fully funding it.”

GG: So you’re saying the city’s hobbled by that?

Torres: “Yeah. What's the value of a mandate without funding? Especially in a time of fiscal crisis, when New York City is teetering on the brink. So we have to hold the federal government accountable for funding the mandates that it imposes on public housing authorities, especially on an issue as critical as lead abatement.”

GG: Do you think some of this lets the state off the hook? That they haven't done enough to fund NYCHA either?

Torres: “It's a federal mandate. The federal government should fund federal mandates, especially when the price tag is $3 billion. Only the federal government can run a deficit and only the federal government has the resources to fund $3 billion worth of lead abatement.”

GG: Do you think the state should be offering up more money either way?

Torres: “Of course. There should be more funding for NYCHA at every level of government, but at the moment, the only level of government that has money is the federal government.”

GG: Who do you think should be the next mayor of New York City?

Torres: “I will make a decision. So stay tuned.”

GG: I'm sure if you do, one of the things you'll be urging them to do is pay attention to public housing.

Torres: “No question about it. Yes...The next mayor has to center public housing. Much more so [than de Blasio].”

GG: If you had to give the mayor a grade on public housing?

Torres: “You know the answer to that question. You’ve seen my hearings. You know the answer to that question. It’s a mischievous question to ask.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated with a reference to legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez.

Note - this article has been updated to clarify that Torres supports the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act. 

‘I'm On A Mission’: Ritchie Torres Goes to Washington to Save Public Housing Mon, 11 Jan 2021 05:00:00 +0000
Chuck Schumer's Moment 3 nys congressio

U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (photo: governor's office)

With Democrats poised to win both seats in the Georgia United States Senate runoffs, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York is poised to be one of the most influential elected officials in the country, with enormous implications for his home state and city. After four years leading the minority conference, Schumer is on the verge of being able to set the agenda in the Senate under Democratic President-elect Joe Biden and in partnership with a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives under Speaker Nancy Pelosi.    

After the November general election, Democrats held 48 seats in the Senate to Republicans’ 50, with the two seats in Georgia undecided. In the runoff election that concluded January 5, Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock was declared the victor on election night against Sen. Kelly Loeffler while Democrat Jon Ossoff leads against Sen. David Perdue by one point. Though there are votes that remain to be counted, most are from Democrat-heavy counties and Ossoff is expected to prevail. With the two parties holding an equal number of seats, the vice president -- soon to be Kamala Harris -- would cast the deciding vote on anything deadlocked before the Senate.

On Wednesday morning, Chuck Schumer declared himself the next U.S. Senate Majority Leader. If that declaration holds, it will be the culmination of a long and ambitious political career for the Brooklynite who was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and New York State Assembly before being elected to the Senate in 1998. And it will likely be an immense boon to his home state and city, which are in desperate need of aid from the federal government stemming from the coronavirus crisis and several crises and challenges that pre-date the pandemic.

“President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris will have a partner who is ready, willing and able to help achieve a forward-looking agenda and deliver help and bold change to the American people,” Schumer said in a Wednesday morning statement.

The Democrats’ likely one-party rule over the federal government is what New York and other ‘blue’ states have been hoping for after suffering a barrage of punitive domestic policies under President Donald Trump, the outgoing Republican president who has governed with an especially heavy focus on politics and appeared largely indifferent to the spread of and suffering under the COVID-19 pandemic. Starting with additional federal aid to shore up state and local government budgets, more funding for mass transit, and additional economic recovery stimulus, New York is looking for a new federal approach on everything from taxes to housing to transit to immigration. And in Schumer, the state and city will likely have one of their own at the helm.

“This was a very, very big win for the Democratic Senate and it bodes well for the state of New York,” said Governor Andrew Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, at a news briefing on Wednesday as he congratulated Schumer on becoming majority leader. “Washington has abused New York State for four years, and that is not rhetorical.”

“Brooklyn’s own, New York City's own Chuck Schumer could not be better for this city and for this nation and Chuck Schumer working, of course, with Vice President Kamala Harris will lead the Senate and allow us to finally get the support we need to fully recover and move forward as a city, as a nation,” Mayor Bill de Blasio, a second-term Democrat, said at his daily news briefing on Wednesday, where he said he was “feeling bubbly.” “Senator Schumer has been tenacious defending the interests in New York City. He feels New York City in his heart, in his soul but he's also been a great leader for this whole country.”  

At a time when factions of the Democratic Party are often at war with each other – moderates like Pelosi continue to clash with progressives like the representatives of “the squad” and its New York co-founder, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – Schumer has shown himself as somewhat adept at accommodating the left, which has an especially active presence right in his backyard, and evolving to meet the wants and needs of a diversifying party. Though he was once a tough-on-crime and pro-Wall Street centrist, he’s also been a staunch liberal on social issues and has more recently come to embrace the party’s progressive wing, at least to an extent — the true measure may be how he navigates the upcoming waters in a new position of such great powers. Schumer remains popular in his home state, where he makes a concerted effort to visit every county and focus on local issues. He has a ubiquitous presence, speaking at college graduations and inaugurations for local elected officials, holding Sunday press conferences on quality-of-life issues, and popping up at fairs and other events. Schumer lives and breathes politics and has always played both the short and long games of garnering press attention and setting himself up for career advancement. 

“Chuck is really in the driver's seat, both in the Senate and in his influence with the new administration,” said George Arzt, a veteran Democratic consultant in New York. “Chuck is knowledgeable, has been around for a long time, knows the Senate backwards and forwards and is probably one of the few top officials who never forgot his roots.”

Challenges lie ahead, however, for the likely next Senate majority leader. He will have to corral the ideologically divergent members of his own party just for the bare minimum of votes to pass legislation. “Everyone is going to have their hand out and rightfully so,” said Dr. Christina Greer, political science professor at Fordham University. “The beauty and the curse of the Democratic Party for Chuck Schumer is that it is incredibly diverse in all senses of the word. And so he's going to have to negotiate all of the different shades of blue and all the sometimes competing interest from within the party.”

Biden, Harris, Schumer, Pelosi, and their party have less than two years of runway to make an impact and hold their legislative majorities. Schumer is up for reelection himself in 2022 and, historically, the party and president in power tend not to fare well in the first midterm elections of a presidency. There’s the vague threat of a primary challenge to Schumer, stoked by some on the left in New York who don’t believe he has fought hard enough for major progressive causes like a Green New Deal and Medicare for All, neither of which he has endorsed. Ocasio-Cortez has been asked if she will seek to run against him and has repeatedly left the question open, though most political observers believe it is unlikely she would challenge him. He still may face a formidable primary opponent in the upcoming election, which will likely coincide with a fourth-term bid by Cuomo, a moderate known to attract a challenge from the left and whose fate is now far more intertwined with his home state senior senator.

Progressives have had their reasons to be skeptical of Schumer. He helped author the 1994 crime bill, voted for the Iraq war, supported the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 (a major New Deal banking regulation), and once supported building a border fence between the United States and Mexico. 

Now, there are already progressive groups calling on Schumer to accede to their demands. Last month, members of the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America marched to his office to call on him to support a slate of progressive legislation, such as the Health Care Emergency Guarantee Act, a green jobs guarantee, and the Protecting the Right to Organize Act. On Wednesday, activist group Empire State Indivisible called on him to “deliver structural change commensurate with the moment.”

“The road to recovery post Trump, amidst the raging COVID19 pandemic, must start with direct and immediate economic stimulus complete with critical state and local aid as well as a full commitment to passing Democracy reforms like HR1’s For the People Act and statehood for the District of Columbia,” the group said in a statement. “Senator Schumer must meet this historic moment with historic leadership. We will be watching to see if he is up to the job of leading us into a more progressive future. Our work has just begun.”

Schumer has shown that he is willing to embrace some such progressive wish-list items, albeit at times in measured doses. For instance, last month, he stood with newly-elected Members of Congress Jamaal Bowman, Mondaire Jones, and Ritchie Torres to push for his plan to cancel up to $50,000 in debt for federal student loan borrowers. He also rallied with New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a hero of the New York left, and environmental justice groups to push for investment in green energy infrastructure.

“He's got great political instincts and he knows how to get consensus,” said Arzt. “He’s a person who knows the game and knows it well.”

“I can't imagine anybody better,” said Carol Kellermann, a friend and former staff aide to Schumer who has held a number of prominent roles in and out of New York government. “He's got boundless energy, he's got a great relationship with everybody in the caucus...If anybody is going to be able to marshal the troops to have a productive session, I think it's him.”

An open question is whether Schumer will wield power with the same degree of political calculation as Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom Schumer is planning to succeed. Progressives have pushed Schumer to eliminate the legislative filibuster so they can pass bills with a simple majority, but he has so far been noncommittal.

“Democrats tend not to be good at offense. Republicans are great at it,” said Greer. “I'm curious to see how long it will take Chuck Schumer to recognize that he needs to take power and take charge and set an agenda and be ruthless for the American people the way Mitch McConnell was ruthless against the American people.”

For New York, the chief concern at the moment is another stimulus package that delivers billions in government aid. The state needed as much as $59 billion over two fiscal years to cover costs for state and local governments and, crucially, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which alone needed $12 billion to stay afloat and not make major cuts to subway, bus, and commuter rail services. The agency received $4 billion in the latest stimulus package, leaving it with an $8 billion hole. 

Schumer has shown a deep concern for the MTA, as well as for broader infrastructure funding for New York including projects like the Gateway Tunnel, buoying the hopes of transit advocates.

“The Georgia Senate runoff results are shaping up to be very good news for public transit riders in New York and across the nation,” said Betsy Plum, executive director of Riders Alliance, an advocacy group, in a statement. “With Brooklyn's own transit champion Senator Chuck Schumer as likely majority leader, riders look forward to winning more COVID aid and equitable investment in our common infrastructure. We are eager to work together to get public transit back on track and realize its potential to help meet the country's pressing needs for climate and racial justice."

Brooklyn City Council Member Brad Lander, in an interview last month, noted that the MTA has long been underfunded by the federal government and Schumer has always “doggedly” fought for it. “Having somebody from here who rides the subway, who knows that we have to save it, and who has a track record and a history of fighting for it, that's very valuable for New York.” 

Schumer has promised to advance legislation to provide another $2,000 in direct individual aid, which is sorely needed in New York at a time of high unemployment and an eviction crisis looming. Democrats could not convince Republicans in the Senate to approve more than a $600 payment in the recent, months-in-the-making round of stimulus and campaigned in Georgia on the promise of providing more should they win. 

“I think his goal will be to hit the ground running, get the $2,000 checks passed,” said Kellermann, noting that the funding was first championed by progressives but supported by moderates as well. “And that’s kind of the best way to resolve the differences is to get everybody to work together in the beginning, at least on things that are acknowledged to be necessary...and things that everybody would agree on and kind of build bridges.”

Schumer confirmed as much during a brief press appearance in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, where he discussed the Georgia results and his likely ascension before heading into what promised to be a long and arduous process of finalizing the electoral college votes to put the final stamp on Biden’s victory over Trump and turned into a day marred by a violent, pro-Trump insurrection at the Capitol, spurred on by the outgoing president himself.

“One of the first things that I want to do when our new senators are seated is deliver the $2,000 checks to the American families,” Schumer said Wednesday. He added that he was not ready to get into further specifics, but that he was looking forward to seeing the certification of the presidential election as well as the Georgia runoffs, the seating of the new senators, and the transition of power on the presidential and Senate levels. "I'm excited," Schumer deadpanned in typical fashion.

“I was sitting at home in Brooklyn, watching my television,” he told reporters when asked when he realized he was likey going to be the next majority laeder, “and at about midnight, having talked to Ossoff about three or four times and Warnock several times, I realized that even though he was behind then by about a couple of thousand votes, that all the votes that were coming in were going to be Democratic votes and the odds were very, very high that he would win. And wow, who would have thought? As I said, this is not the path we chose to get here, but we're here.”

Of course, Schumer’s ascension means that he will have to negotiate with up to 99 other members of the Senate as well as House and White House leadership on issues, spending, and legislation affecting the nation. New York’s agenda may naturally fall more to the state’s junior senator, Kirsten Gillibrand. “It's always good when we have someone at the table, but for local issues, I think that makes Kirsten Gillibrand’s plate a little bit more full,” said Greer.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

Chuck Schumer's Moment Wed, 06 Jan 2021 05:00:00 +0000
New York Looks to Georgia with Senate Control and Much More on the Line schu cuomo feds

Senator Schumer and Governro Cuomo (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election brought the collective nightmare of the Democratic Party to an end after four years. But the celebration was muted given the party’s majority in the House of Representatives diminished and, more importantly, the fate of the U.S. Senate remained undecided despite grand Democratic hopes for taking the chamber. The near- and long-term implications for New York are immense given the size of the federal aid package that it -- including state and local governments, especially New York City, governmental authorities like the MTA, businesses, nonprofits, and people -- is hoping for from a President Biden and Democratic Congress.

So much, including the success or failure of Biden’s broader, ambitious agenda, which will have major ramifications for New York, hinges on the results of two simultaneous Senate runoffs in Georgia, which has for many years elected Republicans to the upper house of Congress, that will be decided in early January, just days before Biden is inaugurated.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that tens of billions of dollars in pandemic-related aid to New York, and much more in terms of policy and future appropriations, could be on the line in Georgia, and it appears many New Yorkers are well aware and are taking action. 

Democrats made a net gain of one in the Senate after the party flipped two seats in Arizona and Colorado but lost one to Republicans in Alabama. The Democratic Party now holds 48 seats to the Republican Party’s 50. In order to pass any major legislation through the Senate, should Republicans vote strictly on party lines, Democrats will need to win both seats in Georgia to hold half the legislative chamber. In any tie in the Senate, the vice president -- soon to be Democrat Kamala Harris -- casts the deciding vote.

The last Democrat to win Georgia in the presidential election was Bill Clinton when he was first elected in 1992. Four years later, when he ran for reelection, he lost the state to Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole. The state has not had a Democratic Senator since the late Zell Miller, who held the seat between 2000 and 2004. 

This year, Biden broke that losing streak and won Georgia with 2.47 million votes to President Donald Trump’s 2.46 million, a margin of only 12,670 votes or 0.25%. 

The two Senate races were inconclusive since none of the candidates crossed the 50% vote threshold required by Georgia election law. The races are headed to a January 5 runoff election – with in-person early voting beginning Monday, December 14 – in which incumbent Republican Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler are being challenged by Democrats Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock, respectively. 

Democrats from around the country know that much of Biden’s agenda depends on control of the Senate and have aimed all their resources on the two races. Here in New York, local, state and national elected officials are pulling out all the stops to achieve those victories. Congressional leaders have been sending out fundraising pleas to their supporters, progressive groups have held phone-banking and text-banking events and have been registering voters. 

“The two Senate elections in Georgia have a direct relation to the lives of New Yorkers,” said Bill Neidhardt, press secretary for Mayor Bill de Blasio, in an email. “This will determine the Senate majority, which means it will determine if New Yorkers get the stimulus we need, let alone the progressive policies they could pass afterwards.”

If Democrats do win both seats, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer from New York would go from being the minority leader to holding the Senate agenda in his hands. Last month, after Biden was finally declared the winner four days after Election Day, Schumer said, “Now we take Georgia, then we change America!”

That prospect has Republicans in Georgia and elsewhere worried, and they’ve used the Schumer video clip in attack ads against Warnock and Ossoff, warning their base about “radicals” taking over the government. The Republican National Committee is also spending about $20 million on the election. In Georgia, however, both Democratic candidates are relatively moderate – for example, neither has backed policies like the Green New Deal or Medicare for All that are associated more closely with the progressive wing of the party. 

At a Crain’s New York Business forum last month, Schumer even said the party would let Georgia Democrats be the face of the campaigns. “We're leaving the Georgia campaign to the Georgia folks...Their side [the GOP] is trying to nationalize it. We're making it a Georgia-run campaign,” he said. 

The first priority for Democrats is another federal stimulus package, particularly one that will provide aid to state and local governments that have seen their economies devastated by the coronavirus pandemic, leading to major job loss, business closure, and tax revenue drops. New York State needs as much as $60 billion over the current and next fiscal years to fill the state government’s budget hole, provide the necessary level of funding to municipalities, and to keep the Metropolitan Transportation Authority afloat without drastic cuts to subway, bus, and commuter rail services and personnel layoffs.

“If we want to increase our chances of having a better 2021 and beyond, we need more help from the federal government,” said State Assemblymember Michael Blake, a Bronx Democrat and vice chair of the Democratic National Committee. “We want that help from the Fed, we need to have people that actually want to help us.” Blake recently hosted a virtual conversation and fundraiser with Warnock, a statewide prayer call with Georgia clergy, and has been helping boost the candidate on social media.

A number of other elected officials have also used their platforms to provide assistance. Rep. Nydia Velazquez and Representative-elect Ritchie Torres have been using their supporter lists to solicit donations for the two candidates and to promote voter registration drives in Georgia. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has built a massive following on social media, took to Instagram to stress the importance of the runoffs.   

Republicans in the Senate have been reluctant to approve as large a stimulus package as Democrats are demanding, leading to a months-long deadlock. The House-passed HEROES Act, worth a total of $3 trillion and passed May 15, has not been taken up by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and no three-way deal among the two legislative majorities and President Donald Trump has been reached on any aid package since the CARES Act in March.

New Yorkers have continued to suffer in that time, particularly after the additional weekly federal unemployment assistance of $600 ended on July 31, and the state is now well within a second wave of the virus that threatens to shut down parts of the economy again. Unemployment in the state, especially the state and federal “economic engine” of New York City, skyrocketed then came back down somewhat, while hundreds if not thousands of businesses have shuttered, people are struggling to put food on the table or pay rent, and governments are facing the potential of laying off many thousands of workers.

Democrats in the House have considered compromising with the Republican Senate to approve a $908 billion package as a stopgap measure, before pursuing another package after Biden is sworn into office. One of the key sticking points has long been that Republicans are reluctant to plug state and local government tax revenue holes, the largest of which exist in New York, which had the worst covid outbreak thus far and economic devastation to match.

In a desperate plea, New York’s elected leadership including Governor Andrew Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Mayor Bill de Blasio and several labor leaders called on the state’s congressional delegation to ensure the state receives its fair share of those funds if such a compromise is reached.

“New York has the highest number of deaths in the nation and has among the highest number of unemployed people in the nation because COVID came to New York before the Trump Administration even acknowledged COVID's presence on the eastern seaboard,” they wrote in a letter on Wednesday. “Federal funds should not be distributed politically but rather distributed by need and damage. By any fair estimate, New York is the economic engine of the United States, a fact that should be recognized in any federal legislation intended to jumpstart the national economy, and no state was damaged to the extent that the federal government damaged New York.”

Without sufficient federal aid, Governor Cuomo and the Democrat-led Legislature have tough choices ahead. Either they will have to make major cuts to local aid, which will most impact funding for education and health care, or find new ways to raise revenue. Legislative leaders have emphasized that wealthier New Yorkers should pay more in taxes, though they’ve taken no action to do so, while the governor has long been averse to tax increases, insisting that they will simply incentivize higher-wage earners to leave the state. 

“January 20th we are going to have a President that will be looking to actually help us and not hurt us. It is equally important to have a U.S. Senate led by Senator Schumer. These special elections in Georgia are crucial,” said State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Democratic majority leader, in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

One of the most significant aspects of the federal aid package will be the amount of funding for mass transit. The MTA is already threatening increased fares and reduced service, along with layoffs, as it looks for a way to make up for $12 billion in lost revenue because of the pandemic. 

Beyond the stimulus package, Blake said the next Congress will also have to handle the Herculean task of ensuring an equitable and effective vaccine distribution plan to combat the pandemic. He noted that Perdue and Loeffler couldn’t be trusted with that task, pointing to the controversial stock trades the two Senators made when the coronavirus began to take hold in the country, earning them accusations from Democrats that they were profiting off the pandemic.

“Given the history of [the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment], given the history of what's happened in this country, do we want someone in Loeffler and Perdue who, when they learned information, what they first thought about was making money for themselves?” Blake said. “Or do we [want] Ossoff and Warnock who are going to be a part of the process to make sure there's equity when it comes to distribution?” 

Biden’s broader national agenda also includes a $2 trillion infrastructure plan that would be crucial for New York to build everything from housing to climate resiliency and green energy projects. He’s promised to create a $100 billion affordable housing fund which could provide the state, and particularly New York City, with support it needs to fight a housing affordability crisis that has deepened over the years. And there is always the question of federal funding for NYCHA public housing, which is in deep disrepair.

“New Yorkers are clear that a full recovery that we need from the COVID crisis, the economic crisis, relies on a robust strategy led by Democrats at the national level,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, New York State director of the Working Families Party. 

The WFP is a national organization with its base in New York and a presence in Georgia as well. It is among the many national groups like MoveOn and Sunrise Movement and local organizations like the Manhattan Young Democrats and Persist Brooklyn  that have turned their attention to the Senate runoffs, providing what support they can to help the two Democratic candidates succeed. 

“New York was ground zero for COVID and we are still waiting for adequate relief from the government for small businesses, for working people, for excluded workers who are not getting by in this moment in New York State,” Nnaemeka said. “The federal government and what Congress does or does not pass directly impacts working people here in New York State.”

Brooklyn City Council Member Brad Lander partnered with Persist Brooklyn, a local progressive group, and the Working Families Party for a recent phone-banking and fundraising effort for Ossoff and Warnock. In a phone interview, Lander pointed to the dire need for aid to states and cities as a chief concern. “We've already made cuts to sanitation services and parks staffing and summer youth jobs and making any more would be devastating. But if we don't get federal aid, you know, really hard choices will have to be made,” he said. “And the city suffers doubly, because not only do we have our own deficit, but the state has an even worse deficit. If they don't fill it, they're going to pass more cuts on us. So we'll get hit twice.”

Almost daily, new announcements are coming from Democratic elected officials, activists, and political clubs for ways New Yorkers can get involved in the Georgia elections. On Monday, Queens Assemblymember Catalina Cruz emailed her supporters to announce an upcoming phone-bank along with New Visions Democratic Club and the Lesbian & Gay Democratic Club of Queens. “Polling shows these two races are in a statistical tie,” Cruz’s email said, “so we have to make sure we're doing everything we can.”

While they appear less active around the Georgia elections given their smaller presence in the overwhelmingly Democratic city, New York Republicans are also paying attention to what happens in the Peach State, of course. A recent email blast from the New York Republican Party passed along a pitch from the Young Republican National Federation (YRNF) asking for donations to “deploy young Republicans into Georgia.”

“The Democrats are targeting the Senate Majority!,” the YRNF email says. “We can save the Senate and, in turn, save America from extreme socialist policies, but we need your help.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

New York Looks to Georgia with Senate Control and Much More on the Line Mon, 14 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
‘Hanging On’ is Not a Management Strategy fy202 eb

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography)

As required by the state Financial Control Act, last Monday Mayor de Blasio presented a modification of New York City’s current fiscal year budget and four-year financial plan. This “first quarter mod” is usually a no-drama, technical adjustment that makes few substantive changes to the budget adopted at the start of the fiscal year in July. It incorporates changes in revenue projections based on receipts actually received through September and any unanticipated adjustments in expenses (usually increases). But this has been anything but a usual year, and a more urgent tone and more aggressive budget changes were called for and not delivered. 

Budget watchers hoped that the new budget documents would present a more realistic picture of the serious fiscal situation the city faces and the concrete steps the de Blasio administration will take to address it. Covid continues to wreak havoc on the city’s residents and its economy. Despite the expected arrival of a vaccine in the next few months, it is far from certain that things will bounce back and tax revenue will quickly return to pre-covid levels. Even during prior (”normal”) recessions, it has taken three years for the city’s economy to recover, and this recession is not normal.

Tourism, commercial real estate transactions, entertainment, and other activities may well take years to rebound and/or may undergo permanent changes and retrenchment. How will the city adjust its revenue and spending over the next four years to respond to these changes over an extended period of time? This budget modification doesn’t tell us.

We know that in addition to further income, business, and real estate tax revenue losses, the city could also face severe cuts in state aid because the state is in even worse financial shape, but that is not  reflected in the budget either. One billion dollars in state school aid to the city has already been removed from the state’s baseline budget for fiscal year 2022. In addition there is potentially $8 billion in unspecified statewide local aid cuts that could mean a loss of $2-3 billion to New York City. Instead, the city’s new budget mod relies on debt service savings (which are routine, not the result of new, affirmative steps by the city government), minimal efficiencies, and largely symbolic, non-recurring measures like short furloughs of management employees and postponements of payments to public employees (laughably characterized as “savings”) to balance this year’s budget and reduce the 2022 budget deficit by $400 million to $3.8 billion. 

According to Mayor de Blasio, the strategy is to ‘hang on’ because sometime soon, there will be an infusion of federal stimulus funds which will close both the city and state gaps: 

“….first of all, we need relief immediately to be able to continue to provide city services and to be able to keep people employed…We do not want to reduce services exactly when we're trying to come back and when people are in such dire need. So, this was a way of getting us to next year. But we've said all along, the only way we can actually make all of this come together is with the stimulus…And the federal government was supposed to protect us. Obviously, that didn't happen…So, for us to just keep hanging on is the right approach to get to the day where there's actually the federal support we deserve and which I absolutely believe is within reach.”

But federal aid to states and localities is far from certain. Hopes for imminent help were first focused on the post-election Congressional session, which will likely end by mid-December. There is discussion of a last-minute stimulus deal before Congress recesses in the next few weeks but Republican Senate recalcitrance makes adequate help for state and local governments unlikely, even though a number of ‘red’ states are in financial trouble as well as 'blue' ones.

The mayor’s preliminary budget for next fiscal year must be submitted to the City Council in January. Will President-Elect Biden be able to deliver any more state and local aid than is possible in the current Congress? Not necessarily. And if making that determination takes until February, or even later, is Mayor de Blasio going to ‘hang on’ even longer without taking any steps to solve our fiscal problems? Delaying the start of gap-closing measures will only make the problem and the necessary solutions more painful.

Federal funding to assist the city and other jurisdictions that faced economic shutdowns because of the pandemic is unquestionably necessary and appropriate, but whatever amount is authorized — if any — will unlikely be sufficient to cover the full New York City deficit and will not last for more than one or two years. As Citizens Budget Commission President Andrew Rein has said, federal stimulus will only be a bridge to a more sustainable future; the City and State will face continuing budget gaps if the economy doesn’t fully recover by 2023. So, what’s the plan? 

The MTA and Port Authority, also struggling with dramatically-reduced revenue, have presented budget plans showing how they will survive without federal aid. The prospects of reduced transportation service are daunting indeed, but the public needs to understand them and be prepared if these difficult scenarios come to pass. Governor Cuomo has temporarily withheld substantial state aid payments to localities and cut back agency spending, warning that these cuts and more could become permanent. Mayor de Blasio prefers to avoid proactively making tough decisions that will make New Yorkers unhappy, but the uncertainty is already causing distress and there will be anger if New Yorkers feel they were misled to believe that federal aid would make everything better and they are confronted with service cuts, layoffs, tax increases, or a combination of all of these at the very last minute.

If the administration will not present a specific plan for multi-year gap closing then the Financial Control Board (FCB) should require that it do so. It is the FCB that requires the city to maintain a balanced budget, prepare a four-year financial plan, keep it updated, and demonstrate the fiscal discipline to maintain long-term fiscal stability. At the FCB meeting in August the Executive Director suggested that because of the unique circumstances wrought by covid it would be appropriate to hold another session in November to review the budget modification. But it is December and it doesn’t appear that such a meeting has yet been scheduled and the Executive Director of the FCB retired in mid-October; no replacement has been announced. It is critical that the FCB adopt a more assertive strategy to assure there is clarity about how state aid cuts will impact the city and hold the mayor accountable for a real fiscal management plan.

Moreover, if the mayor is going to ‘hang on,’ he will be leaving his successor to confront revenue shortfalls along with the larger issues of how to get the economy back on track. When he took office the mayor complained that his predecessor left him with a raft of unresolved labor contracts. What he seems to be ready to leave his successor is much worse. The media and voters should start asking mayoral candidates what their plans are for closing our budget gaps if federal funds do not make our fiscal challenges go away. The sooner we hear from them about this crucial issue, the better.

Carol Kellermann was president of Citizens Budget Commission from 2008 through 2018. Norman Steisel was a First Deputy Mayor of New York City, Sanitation Commissioner, and First Deputy Budget Director, all between 1974 and 1994.

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‘Hanging On’ is Not a Management Strategy Tue, 01 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Our School Situation is Dire: Congress Must Step Up to Save Lives and Children’s Futures cm bl outdoor

A student ready to learn during a pandemic (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)

I’ve been scared for a long time now, but not like this. 

My colleague, Sandra Santos-Vizcaino, was the first New York City teacher to lose her life to COVID-19. Today — Thursday, September 10 — I return to our same school without the confidence my district has the resources to provide the expensive equipment, testing, and contract tracing necessary to safeguard the lives of our students and the teachers, administrators, and staff. 

Once there, I will face the greatest challenge of my teaching career: providing an excellent education to students suffering from pandemic-related stresses and academic decline. While I am eager to learn best practices to pull this off, our professional development funding has been decimated. Soon, it might be my actual job that’s cut.

New Yorkers are tough, and city teachers like me are as tough as they come. But our communities are tapped out. While I will do everything I can for my students, I’m asking the federal government to do what it can for schools. 

Congress must provide $250 billion in additional stimulus funds for education. Not only will this address the immediate health, safety, and academic challenges, but also the long-term effects the pandemic has had on learning across the country. These include support for new teachers entering in the next school year; incentives to expand learning time for students; and measures to help teacher candidates of color realize their passion.

But most importantly, we need these funds for student mental health and well-being. Students’ social-emotional health was the number one concern in a recent scientifically-representative survey of New York City teachers conducted by Educators for Excellence. After meeting the basic needs (making sure every student has a teacher, that all are safe, and everyone can access remote learning tools), we must tackle the trauma students face so they can be in a place to learn. 

But this is hard work. And it takes resources.

The pandemic has made supporting the whole child an unprecedented challenge, especially for teachers like me working with special needs students, often from low-income households. These students require stability in their learning in order to thrive, consistency they often lack in the rest of their lives. 

For one example, one of my students living in a shelter shuts down at even the slightest change to his environment, severely restricting his ability to learn. Others struggle to communicate their needs verbally, and remote settings or ones that require facial coverings will make it difficult for their teachers to give them everything they need to learn. 

These vulnerable students need resources to succeed, from counselors to work through the anguish of quarantine and the death of loved ones to prioritizing them for in-person instruction and individualized attention. 

But the places teachers normally look for resources are tapped out. After crippling budget cuts at the local level, the State held back 20% of all schools’ aid for July and August. The federal government is the last place to which we can turn.

Our representatives know we’re all hurting. There have been several attempts at a further stimulus package for schools, but they keep falling through. As this school year begins around the country, I hope our politicians will begin to feel at least a fraction of my fear, so this desperately needed funding comes through in time. Without it, members of our school communities will die — and the wellbeing and futures of countless children will be irreparably harmed.

Deirdre Levy is a special education teacher in Brooklyn and a member of Educators for Excellence-New York.

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Our School Situation is Dire: Congress Must Step Up to Save Lives and Children’s Futures Wed, 09 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Fact-Checking Malliotakis and Rose Campaign Ads in NY-11 max rose budget

An image from a Malliotakis attack ad

It’s been clear for quite some time that the race between Democratic Congressional Rep. Max Rose and his Republican challenger, Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, would be highly competitive and full of mud-slinging. The campaign in New York’s 11th Congressional District, spanning all of Staten Island and a slice of Southern Brooklyn, is among the most-watched nationally, and the attack ads have been flying for months.

Now with under three months until Election Day, the Rose and Malliotakis campaigns both recently released negative ads that stretch the truth — though the challenger’s is significantly more misleading than the incumbent’s.

Rose, an Army veteran who is still part of the National Guard, was able to flip the seat in 2018, winning 50% of the vote against incumbent Dan Donovan’s 46%. The Democratic win was among several red-to-blue flips in New York, which contributed to the party’s seizure of the House majority. It also ensured that New York City had an all-Democratic congressional delegation.

Malliotakis, who represents a significantly overlapping district in the State Legislature and was the Republican nominee for  mayor in 2017, now hopes to flip the seat back. Rose’s successful 2018 approach was based on a moderate brand of Democratic politics, focusing on less partisan issues like infrastructure, criticizing de Blasio, and mostly avoiding the often polarizing topic of President Donald Trump, who carried the district and won Staten Island overwhelmingly in 2016, though Rose did eventually vote for Trump’s impeachment.

But you wouldn’t know that Rose has staked out a moderate, law enforcement-friendly path after seeing Malliotakis’ recent ad titled, “Thin Blue Line,” which groups Rose in with de Blasio — who the Congressmember has recently called “not only the worst mayor in the history of New York City, he’s the worst mayor in the history of this great country” — and, despite evidence to the contrary, says Rose’s positions on the New York Police Department “aren’t just radically liberal…they’re radically dangerous.”

Rose’s own ad, “When the Virus Hit,” goes after Malliotakis for her actions related to the coronavirus pandemic, although points of criticism it raises are on policies or votes shared with her Democratic colleagues in the Assembly.

“Thin Blue Line”

In her ad, Malliotakis says that Rose “joined de Blasio and the defund the police crowd” in “calling to dismantle the NYPD,” referencing the “defund the NYPD” protest movement spurred by the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, which calls for resources to be redistributed from the NYPD to youth and social services.

But Rose has made multiple public comments stating that he does not support the “defund the NYPD” movement. In early June, Rose tweeted “I don’t support defunding or abolishing the NYPD,” while criticizing Republicans for their role in not funding police. A month later, Rose wrote an op-ed in the Staten Island Advance titled, “Defunding the police is shortsighted and wrong,” in which he said, “I oppose #DefundThePolice and spoke out against efforts to cut funding to our District Attorney’s office because doing so will undermine the most critical goal of the moment: to build a city and country where relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve are based on trust and mutual respect.”

Rose serves on the Committee on Homeland Security and Committee on Veteran’s Affairs in Congress, and has worked to increase Homeland Security funding for New York and co-sponsored a bill to increase mental health programs for law enforcement.

When asked why Malliotakis’ ad suggested Rose supports defunding the NYPD, a spokesperson for Malliotakis’ campaign pointed to his attendance of a peaceful Black Lives Matter march where some protestors held “defund NYPD” and other signs as evidence of his support for the movement.

“On issue after issue Max Rose tries to play both sides,” Malliotakis’ spokesperson, Rob Ryan, said. “He takes part in an anti-NYPD demonstration where his fellow marchers chant ‘defund the police’ and carry signs saying ‘Blue Lives Murder” and then he claims he supports the NYPD; he can’t have it both ways.”

Rose previously responded to Malliotakis in a tweet by alleging she was insincere in her remarks for criticizing his attendance of the march despite having expressed support of recent peaceful demonstrations in Bay Ridge and Staten Island in her own tweet two days prior. Meanwhile, Malliotakis attended a pro-NYPD rally at which demonstrators used sexist, misogynistic language against Black Lives Matter supporters, something Rose condemned in a statement the next day.

In her ad, Malliotakis also said Rose had joined calls to “end cash bail.” Rose voiced support for bail reform generally in a 2018 Lambda Independent Democrats of Brooklyn candidate questionnaire, which cited a proposal by Governor Andrew Cuomo that included legislation to “Eliminate monetary bail for people facing misdemeanor and non-violent felony charges.”

However, when New York State’s initial bail reform laws passed in 2019, Rose joined Republicans and some Democrats, including de Blasio, in criticizing them and said the reforms “went too far, too fast.” He also called for changes to prevent major drug dealers from being released along with Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan and Staten Island District Attorney Michael McMahon.

"Unlike Nicole Malliotakis, I know what it means to risk everything to keep this country and those I love safe,” Rose said in a statement to the Gotham Gazette. “That's why I opposed defunding the police, secured millions of dollars for the NYPD to keep NYC safe from terrorists, and have taken on my party no matter the consequences. Nicole lies as if her very life depends on it and flip flopped on everything from support to President Trump, to sanctuary cities, and even the Black Lives Matter protests. After this election, hopefully she'll finally understand you can't lie to the people you're trying to lead."

Rose was referring to how Malliotakis previously said she “was never really a supporter of his” in reference to Trump and had tried to distance herself from him while running for mayor in 2017, as well as how she voiced support in 2017 for a type of sanctuary city policy put in place by former Mayor Ed Koch but in January 2019 wrote an op-ed saying New York should no longer be a sanctuary city.

“When the Virus Hit”

Rose’s ad focuses on the pandemic and Malliotakis’ response as a member of the State Assembly, where she is in the minority. The ad mentions three main points: that Malliotakis photoshopped herself into a picture to make it appear as if she were providing covid-related relief to New Yorkers, that she voted to cut hospitals funding by $400 million; and that she voted for a law that “protects shady nursing homes that put seniors at risk,” as the ad says.

Although it is true that Malliotakis was photoshopped into a picture in early April as part of an Instagram post that said she was delivering PPE and other supplies to nursing homes, sanitation workers, and first responders, the photoshopping was done by the Brooklyn Conservative Party, which posted the image. Her campaign noted that although the particular photo was not genuine, Malliotakis had done a significant amount of work to distribute PPE and help her constituents in other ways during the pandemic.

The two other allegations made in the ad are also broadly correct — Malliotakis did vote to cut hospital funding and pass a law that protects nursing homes from litigation, but those votes were part of the State budget that passed in late March. For it to pass, many Assembly members — mostly Democrats — voted in favor of the same motions, even though many later said they were unhappy with the end result, rammed through by Governor Cuomo while legislators argued the budget needed to be passed to prevent a government shutdown or delay in services or aid to New Yorkers.

“The real fraud in this race is Max Rose; he cynically attacks Assemblywoman Malliotakis on issues that were part of the state budget process, all the time knowing that the vast majority of legislators voted the same way including his Democrat colleagues,” Ryan said in a statement. “It’s another example of how he twists the truth.”

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Fact-Checking Malliotakis and Rose Campaign Ads in NY-11 Mon, 17 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
The United States of America is Becoming a Failed State desembarks afo

President Donald Trump (photo: Joyce N. Boghosian/White House)

In January 2018, President Trump disparaged African countries and Haiti by referring to them as “s---hole” countries. He asked why the United States would want more immigrants from these debilitated economies. Given the president’s comments, there is some amount of irony in the fact that the United States appears to be on track to join the same list of countries that he referred to. As a tweet by Jasmine Tyon aptly described it, the U.S. is a third-world country with a Gucci belt. You may not see it yet, but it is quickly becoming a failed state. 

Additionally, sentiments expressed by the president notwithstanding, our country isn’t heading towards failed statehood because it allowed entry to immigrants from under developed nations.

Some would argue that race -- in terms of Trump, racism and white supremacy -- has a lot to do with the United States’ march toward failed statehood. The fact remains that immigrants from under-developed nations have little to do with the failure that Trump has led this country to.

There are a number of factors that precede failed statehood. My focus here is accountability — in this case, the lack of it. 

A failed state is a country with a political economy that has become so dysfunctional that it can no longer function properly. Even if it appears to display functionality, it is not considered legitimate, and that is precisely what is happening to the United States. 

The federal government has many parts to play, but of the responsibilities entrusted to it, the two most essential are both intricately linked to accountability.

The first responsibility is to ensure appropriate segregation of powers so that we don’t end up with a King (having a Queen is unlikely, since as an enlightened, first-world country, the U.S. is still a long way from electing a female president). Even at this point we find ourselves under President Trump, we are unlikely to end up with a King because one cannot be a King while simultaneously abdicating accountability. We currently do not have a King, a Queen, or even, really, a President.

What we have is an aspiring despot — a ruler whose wish is mostly Congress’ command; a tyrannical, oppressive autocrat.

The second most central responsibility of the federal government is to ensure that the rights of U.S. citizens and, yes, undocumented persons alike, remain protected. How protected do you feel these days? 

So what is accountability? It’s rooted in one’s obligation or willingness to accept responsibility for their actions. Notice willingness. If a person does not deem something as their responsibility, then they cannot be held accountable. To deny responsibility and accountability can thus quickly translate into a perpetual state of denial, and that is precisely what our president does.

Trump denies the role he has played in leading one of the world’s superpowers to imminent disaster. From the Mueller findings on obstruction to the impeachment offenses to personally benefiting financially from his government position to introducing his Muslim travel ban and creating racial unrest to the ill-equipped and deadly responses to Hurricane Maria and the COVID-19 pandemic, the list of Trump’s failures is impossibly long and, thus far, with zero accountability attached to it.

In the case of failed states, the ineffective organization of political communities permits powerful individuals to skirt their duties and avoid accountability. That’s what is happening to the United States. American politics has become entrenched in tribalism and sectionalism. This has played an essential role in shaping the United States into a failed state. Individuals are no longer restrained by notions of basic morality. Cruelty gets normalized and combatants become increasingly inclined toward corruption. If this continues, the U.S., I advance, will finally be declared the failed state that our president wants it to be, so he can consolidate power to himself. 

It’s not too late, though. We are still a democracy. As people, we have the power to elect our next leader. If we don’t vote to install a new government that respects the appropriate segregation of powers and works to ensure that the rights of U.S. citizens and undocumented persons are protected, then we are equally accountable for what happens next. 

Come the fall election, you can either shun your responsibility or accept it as an obligation to your country. If we act decisively, we may still be able to reverse our rapid transition to failed statehood and begin to rebuild this country.

Lessie Branch is an Associate Professor at Metropolitan College of New York; author of Optimism At All Costs: Black Attitudes, Activism, and Advancement in Obama’s America; and co-host of HERe ME Podcast. On Twitter @LessieBBranch.

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The United States of America is Becoming a Failed State Tue, 11 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
No, Trump Can’t Postpone the Election, But Congress Needs to Fund It participate electoral college

Electors to the Electoral College voting in Albany (photo: governor's office)

This guest column is part of Citizens Union Speakers, a regular series of op-eds written by members of the Citizens Union Foundation community in Gotham Gazette, CUF's flagship public education program. The opinions expressed in these Citizens Union Speakers columns are those of the authors alone, not Citizens Union Foundation, Gotham Gazette, or any other entity.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In a tweet posted at 8:46 a.m. on July 30, President Trump floated the idea of postponing this fall’s general election. Once again making baseless charges against the integrity of mail-in voting, Trump tweeted – the three question marks are his – “Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???” Well, Trump cannot postpone the election. There is no reason to postpone the election. But Congress must act to assure the legitimacy of this fall’s vote.

First, and most importantly, the President has no power to set, modify, or alter the date of the election. That date – which governs elections for the Senate and House of Representatives as well as for President – is set by Congress. Since 1875, that date, as we all know, is the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, which this year is November 3.  

With respect to the Presidency, Congress has further elaborated by statute the schedule for the casting and counting of the votes by the Electoral College, which, as we were reminded in 2000 and again in 2016, actually picks the President. By law, the electors are required to meet in their home states and cast their votes on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, which this year is December 14.

By law, Congress meets on January 6 to count the electoral votes, declare a winner, or resolve any disputes. And under the Constitution, the President’s term ends at noon on January 20, 2021. Any change to Election Day or the schedule for the casting and counting of electoral votes would require an act of Congress. Any change to the expiration of the presidential term would require a constitutional amendment. The first, which would require approval by the Democratic House of Representatives, is extremely unlikely. The second, which would require approval by two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-quarters of the states, is virtually impossible.

The President has no national emergency power to stop or reschedule the election. As just noted, the election dates are determined by Congress and the actual operation of the election is conducted by the states and local governments, subject to congressional revision. The President has no power to change that.

Second, there is no reason to postpone the election, even if at this stage it were legally possible. COVID-19 is surely a hugely disruptive and tragic event, but we have stuck to the electoral schedule during even greater crises. Presidential and congressional elections were held as scheduled in 1864, at the height of the Civil War. Indeed, absentee voting was first pioneered during the Civil War to allow Union army soldiers to vote from the battle front.

Presidential and congressional elections were again held as scheduled in 1944, during the peak of fighting during World War II, with millions of soldiers around the world able to participate. And the congressional elections of 1918 were held as scheduled even as both the influenza pandemic and World War I raged.

Regularly scheduled elections are perhaps the most important feature of our democracy. Like past disasters, COVID-19 is a challenge to be addressed, not an excuse for cancelling democracy.

Third, however, it will require action by Congress for the COVID-19 election to succeed. Despite the president’s tweets, vote-by-mail has a proven track record of integrity and effectiveness. Even before COVID-19, roughly 20 percent of ballots cast in recent federal elections were submitted by mail, and in five states elections are conducted virtually entirely by mail. But these states took time to transition from polling-place voting to address some of the problems mail-in voting raises, including verifying signatures, getting ballots out and back on time, and tabulating the results.

The unprecedented surge in mail-in voting in place of traditional voting in primaries this spring and summer raised a lot of these problems in states around the country. Dealing with them will require getting and testing new equipment, training election workers, preparing the postal service, and educating voters. All this will require a major administrative effort by state and local election administrators, and it will also require money.

Congress is currently struggling over the latest COVID relief bill. The House bill – passed in May – offers states and local governments $3.6 billion in election assistance funds, which are essential for smoothing the transition to mail-in voting as well as for proving election administrators with the money necessary to make polling places safe and sanitary for the many millions of voters who will want to vote in person, whether at early voting election centers or at polling places on Election Day. The latest Senate Republican proposal has NO money for election assistance. 

It is certainly understandable why Congress should focus its concern on the unemployed, small business, and essential workers. But democracy is also essential, and surely a few billion of the trillion dollars or more than Congress will eventually appropriate must be allocated to protecting democracy. 

Congress’ failure to appropriate the funds needed to pay for the transition to mail voting and making polling places safe and sanitary would mark a greater threat to the legitimacy of the 2020 election than any of the president’s tweets.

Richard Briffault is the Joseph P. Chamberlain Professor of Legislation at Columbia Law School and Vice Chair of Citizens Union Foundation.

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This guest column is part of Citizens Union Speakers, a regular series of op-eds written by members of the Citizens Union Foundation community in Gotham Gazette, CUF's flagship public education program. The opinions expressed in these Citizens Union Speakers columns are those of the authors alone, not Citizens Union Foundation, Gotham Gazette, or any other entity.

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
No, Trump Can’t Postpone the Election, But Congress Needs to Fund It Mon, 03 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
To Honor Essential Workers, Congress Must Save Public Transit honor essential

Nurses and other essential workers need public transit (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

I am a lifelong New Yorker and public transit rider. In March, when so many of my friends, family, and neighbors stopped commuting, I kept traveling to work. I depend on a bus and two subways to get from my Queens home to the East Side of Manhattan hospital where I’m a pharmacist. 

Like most people, I had never heard of “essential workers” before COVID-19. Everyone I knew got up and went to work regardless of what job they had. And thankfully, many I know are still employed, though working from home. I found out that being an essential worker, besides fighting COVID directly, meant still having to commute while others sheltered at home.

As a commuter during COVID, I have depended on transit more than ever. Without a car, the bus and subways were my lifeline. Without public transit, I could not reach nor serve my patients. More this year than ever, I need reliable service. Especially when service was reduced for months, any delay became magnified and more frustrating than before. 

I am so grateful for the transit workers who showed up so that I could show up too. It has been heartrending to hear of the losses among bus drivers, train operators and conductors. I don’t always think of myself as a hero just because I work in a hospital during a pandemic. But if I am one, the people getting me there every day despite everything are certainly heroes as well.

Now, as I watch terrified while COVID cases rise around the country, I also fear for my commute here in New York. I know firsthand how many fewer people have been commuting through the pandemic. I understand how much less money the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has from fares, and from tolls and taxes as well.

In March, New York’s Congressional leaders brought home $3.9 billion to keep trains and buses running through the worst of the pandemic in New York. But that money is nearly gone. The MTA is back to normal service and doing a lot more cleaning, still with relatively little money coming in. To avoid huge cuts next month, the agency needs another $3.9 billion.

In May, New York’s members in the House of Representatives put $3.9 billion for the MTA in the House’s $3 trillion HEROES Act. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hasn’t taken up the bill. With COVID worsening nationwide, it now looks like another aid bill will start moving through the Senate soon. Congress must again take care of the MTA and people like me who depend on it.

Without more aid, the MTA will soon be short half the money it needs on a monthly basis. With a $17 billion annual budget, it could soon face a gap of $650 million each month. That’s a lot of trains and buses that would have to stop running.

To put it into perspective, the MTA’s last major cuts came in 2010 to save $400 million over one year. Today’s cuts could be 20 times larger than that. Last time, the MTA cut the V and W trains and cut or reduced service on 110 bus lines. In a report from 2011, they found that 15% of riders were inconvenienced by the cuts. A decade later, bus ridership had dropped 25%.

Cuts 20 times larger than those of 2010 could mean entire subway trunk lines shut down. The Riders Alliance recently produced a subway map with half the lines removed. Even if it’s not quite that bad, we could be waiting 20 to 30 minutes for trains during much of the day. Crowding would be very dangerous. Fares could rise by several dollars even as service is far worse. 

Life as we know it in New York would be devastated if Congress does not rescue the MTA. We have already known so much unprecedented hardship this year. For essential workers like me, it is unimaginable what a cruel blow to the infrastructure we depend on would mean after what we’ve already experienced on the frontlines of COVID. It also makes me worry about some of our patients, who rely on public transportation to get to their medical care. The MTA cut would be another barrier for them to overcome to stay healthy.

Our influential leaders in Congress must stand up for us. We need our New York leaders in the House and the Senate to speak up now more than ever. They must tell their colleagues how letting New York’s transit system collapse would destroy our recovery and bring the nation down with us. Leaders like Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Hakeem Jeffries -- and the entire New York delegation -- must use the great power they’ve built in Washington to save the commutes of millions back home in New York City.

Suk-Yee Wong is a pharmacist who lives in Queens and works in Manhattan.

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To Honor Essential Workers, Congress Must Save Public Transit Sun, 26 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Congress Returns; New York’s Future Hangs in the Balance us capitol

The U.S. Capitol (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)

With Congress back in Washington, D.C., New Yorkers have a big stake in the outcome of the next federal economic stimulus package. 

No Clear Signals on New Aid to State and Local Government
Serious negotiations are finally starting on an aid program to help an American economy devastated by the coronavirus recession. Two months have elapsed since the Democrats in the House of Representatives passed a $3 trillion aid package that included $1 trillion in support for state and local government, territories, and tribal nations across the country. The Republicans in the Senate are finally responding and are anticipated to introduce a bill soon.  

The unique $600 a week supplement to regular unemployment insurance benefits that has aided tens of millions of Americans and shored up consumer spending expires on July 31, and in some states like New York, on July 26. While discussions are underway about an extension of some kind, there is considerable conservative opposition to continuing that generous benefit level.

With the election just a few months away, I cannot imagine there will be another stimulus package beyond the next one that is enacted before the November election (barring a national economic collapse), so whatever gets passed now will have to last many months. 

New York State and City Have Enormous Budget Deficits
New York State, New York City, and the MTA all have immense budget deficits and need major help. The New York State government, responding to the plunging economy, adopted a budget in April with $10 billion in spending cutbacks, but has yet to implement most of that plan. The State Division of the Budget’s July 8 update says final details on cutbacks will be developed and notice given to service providers once the federal package is known

The MTA is on the Brink of a “Four Alarm Fire” Crisis
The MTA is the most desperate of these three huge New York governmental sectors. In April subway ridership was down 95% as the lockdown began, and even last week was down 80% from normal, according to a July newsletter from New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

The MTA has described its problems as a “four-alarm fire.” Despite receiving $3.8 billion in the first round of Congressional support, it says it needs another $3.9 billion for the remainder of 2020, and shortfalls of $4.5-$8.7 billion remain through the end of 2021. The MTA will have little choice but to scale back some of its ambitious capital expansion plans, and may have to divert new tax revenue in a “lockbox” to help pay for those projects instead toward rescuing the operating system. If the MTA cannot get major new support from Congress, the state and the city will have to step up to help the agency as a last resort. The state authorized the MTA to borrow money to prop up its budget, but the agency is in such bad shape it may not be able to borrow the billions it needs and the state may have to borrow money on its behalf.

New York’s Lockdown Losses Are Staggering
The lockdown of the economy in New York State brought a staggering loss of 1.8 million jobs, including 900,000 in New York City, between February and April. Recovery has been slow and painful. The most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics update for New York, released July 17, showed the state regained about 300,000 jobs in June, after gaining about 100,000 jobs in May. Although the economy was regaining jobs, unemployment rates in New York rose in June because more New Yorkers re-entered the labor force than found work. The unemployment rate in the state rose from 14.7% in May to 15.4% in June, and the unemployment rate in the City rose from 18.3% in May to 20.4% in June.

2.6 million New Yorkers were on unemployment benefits at the end of June. Governor Cuomo remains cautious in allowing New York City to reopen, but New York’s slow reopening may end up with the state in a better position than other parts of the country where the coronavirus is exploding and parts of the economy are reclosing.

New York Has Taken Some Intermediate Actions to Address the Deficit
New York took limited action this spring to address its financial problems while waiting for help. The New York State Comptroller’s Office reported that state tax receipts were down 17% in June 2020 compared to June 2019. The State Division of the Budget, in the July 8 report cited above, said it will have withheld about $1.2 billion in local aid through early July, about half the rate necessary to achieve the full spending cuts in the adopted budget.

Governor Cuomo, during his daily briefings on the coronavirus this spring, said local aid cutbacks could reach 20% in education, 20% to hospitals, and 20% for other local government services that would imperil first responders, absent new federal support. The state budget also provided for $2 billion in state agency cutbacks.

New York’s Choices: Slash the Budget or Borrow
Whatever happens in Washington in the next several weeks, New York will face major challenges. New York doesn’t just face a $10 billion deficit this year, it faces a projected $8 billion deficit next year and continued problems thereafter.

The state government was authorized in the budget to borrow up to $11 billion this year, initially for cash flow purposes for just one year, but the law permits the state to extend that borrowing long-term. If federal aid is inadequate, New York will face the choice of slashing the budget or borrowing at least some of whatever deficit remains after federal aid has been provided to mitigate service cuts. The state may also have to bail out the MTA and consider the City of New York’s own request that it be permitted to borrow money for short-term operating expenses.

The New York City Adopted Budget’s Labor Provisions
New York City adopted its own budget in time for the July 1 start of the new fiscal year. It was filled with placeholders, the largest of which is $2 billion in new federal aid, which has not been passed and is the subject now at hand in Washington. The city budget also has a $1 billion placeholder for the de Blasio administration to negotiate savings in wages and benefits with the public employee unions. The mayor has said the city will have to lay off up to 22,000 employees beginning in October if it cannot achieve these savings.

The New York City Police Department ended up with modest cuts. Personnel moves will bring the size of the police officer force from 36,000 to 34,000, and the city has set a saving of $350 million in the police overtime budget. School security officers will be transferred from the Police Department to the Department of Education, which will reduce the police budget by $500 million, but the money will simply be spent in another agency.

The city used $4 billion in reserves to balance its budget, drawing down nearly all of its General Reserves, as well as about half the funds in a Retiree Health Benefits Trust. In the original proposed budget in April, the city projected it will have a $5 billion deficit next fiscal year, 2021-22, with little cushion left from its depleted reserves. Projected deficits for 2020-21 increased later this spring, meaning the ‘21-22 deficit could grow past $5 billion.

The adopted city budget did not anticipate any further cutbacks from the state government, despite the State’s Financial Plan with $8 billion in local aid cutbacks (which included other municipalities, not just New York City). The extent of aid in the federal package, therefore, will affect both the level of cutbacks from the state to the city, and the city’s own budget level.

The state and city both faced increased health care and emergency expenses above and beyond their normal budgets, but some federal aid from the original package is still untapped due to the failure of the Trump administration to provide guidance on how to spend the money and can be directed to provide relief.

The Answer, of course, is the Election: A New Progressive (or At Least Liberal) Government
Federal financial relief that just replaces revenue lost from economic decline can only last so long. If any relief package enacted now has a short duration, state and local government retraction is likely inevitable given how slowly the overall economy may recover from the virus. In the Great Recession, the Obama 2009 stimulus package expired in 2011 as the Republicans were coming back into power after winning back the House of Representatives in 2010. They restricted federal spending and the nation lost 500,000 jobs in state and local government over a several year period, slowing down the overall economic recovery. Let’s hope the same mistake is not made again, and that a new progressive government in the United States arrives to the rescue soon.

Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years, where he chaired four committees. On Twitter @JimBrennanNY.

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Congress Returns; New York’s Future Hangs in the Balance Thu, 23 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000