Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/268 Thu, 25 Feb 2021 02:41:00 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) The Covid Crisis Made the New York Health Act More Urgent, More Unlikely, or Both https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9910-covid-crisis-new-york-health-act-single-payer-care-urgent-unlikely https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9910-covid-crisis-new-york-health-act-single-payer-care-urgent-unlikely 2 commish

New Yorkers at a hospital, pre-pandemic (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


When Mariana Pineda was diagnosed with COVID-19 in April, she spent several days in the hospital being treated for pneumonia and sepsis after not being able to see a primary care doctor due to a recent change in insurance plans.

Pineda, an asthmatic, is one of an untold number of New Yorkers who put off seeking treatment for the coronavirus due to complications with insurance plans or not having health care coverage at all.

“The third day of feeling very sick at home I drove myself to urgent care because it felt like my lungs were filling with wet cement,” she said.

After her stay in the hospital and what seemed like a successful recovery, Pineda began to experience chest pain and difficulty breathing in August. A month later she underwent surgery for a pulmonary embolism and had to have six blood clots removed from her lungs.

Due to long-term complications from COVID-19, Pineda has been unable to work and was set to lose her employment-based insurance on October 19.

She was planning to enroll in COBRA, which will cost her thousands of dollars a month for coverage for herself and her four children, instead of the $400 she would usually pay monthly to get coverage through her job as a special education teacher.

“I'm not working and I don't have an income, there's no way I'm going to be able to afford the COBRA,” she said, “so I have to decide whether I just force myself to go back to work against doctor's orders to keep my health insurance.”

The pandemic has further exposed issues with how health insurance is so often tied to employment in the United States. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, almost 50% of New Yorkers got their health insurance via their jobs in 2019. Overall, the percentage of New Yorkers with health insurance was about 95% in 2019, a record high thanks to the state’s insurance marketplace and other factors.

But massive job loss has thrown health insurance coverage into question for many thousands of New Yorkers, and during a pandemic no less.

In New York City, the unemployment rate was only 3.4% in February, a record low for the city. However, coronavirus restrictions forced many businesses to close in March, tourism came to a halt, and unemployment numbers began to rise, peaking in June at 20.3%. The most recent numbers released by the Department of Labor show that the city unemployment rate was 13.2% in October. Unemployment has been marginally better statewide. Up from 3.7% in February, it peaked in July at 15.9% before coming back down to 9.6% in October. 

For some, the link between getting health insurance through an employer and sudden job loss during a pandemic has highlighted the need for the passage of the New York Health Act, a bill in the state Legislature that would create a version of a single-payer healthcare system for universal health coverage in the state. The pandemic has dealt a significant blow to people who get their insurance from their jobs, leading proponents of the Health Act to call it more urgent than ever. As of September, the number of New Yorkers enrolled in Medicaid is up by over half a million from the same time last year.

For others, however, the legislation and what it portends is still too expensive and too disruptive, as it would completely change the way health insurance works in New York, and necessitate an overhaul of the tax code and a massive expansion of state government. Governor Andrew Cuomo, a third term Democrat, has long opposed passage of the New York Health Act on the grounds that it would be too expensive and disruptive, and while it passed the Democrat-controlled Assembly multiple times, the bill has not moved in the Assembly or Senate since Democrats took control of both chambers at the start of 2019. The bill’s future appears murky, and there is little indication that either majority plans to make it a top priority in 2021. The offices of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins did not respond to requests for comment about the status of the New York Health Act in their respective chambers.

Under the Health Act, all residents of the state would be enrolled in a state-run insurance system for health care coverage, and one that would remove copays, concerns about finding “in-network” doctors, and other problems often associated with the current health insurance system. Proponents say that major inequalities in the current health insurance and health care systems that have been further exposed by the coronavirus pandemic would have been prevented or to a significant degree mitigated if single-payer health care had been in place in New York.

“If we had the New York Health Act sooner I would have had a primary care doctor all along,” said Pineda, who is working with the Campaign for New York Health to raise funds to cover the cost of her COBRA coverage and is a proponent of the legislation. “I probably would have gone to see him instead of trying to wait it out before I wound up, you know, with pneumonia and sepsis.”

The bill, the lead sponsors of which are State Senator Gustavo Rivera of the Bronx and Assemblymember Dick Gottfried of Manhattan, both Democrats, has passed the Assembly four times since 2015, but has not yet passed the Senate, and neither house has passed it since Democrats regained control of the State Senate in January 2019. Just before those elections, the Assembly passed the bill and all the Democratic members of the Senate signed on to Rivera’s bill as co-sponsors if they hadn’t already.

When both houses of the Legislature had majorities and began passing many progressive priorities, there was greater expectation among advocates and other supporters of the bill, including legislators who’ve sponsored it, that it would move. But given Cuomo’s long-standing opposition as well as questions about its feasibility and criticism from some labor unions, the legislative majorities put the bill on the back-burner while Rivera and Gottfried continued to discuss it with key stakeholders, especially the unions, and held a series of hearings on the bill while tinkering with its language, hoping for further discussion in 2020 and potential movement in 2021, after another state legislative election cycle that is unfolding this year. 

Then the pandemic hit.

Assemblymember Gottfried believes that the New York Health Act would have helped prevent some of the now more than 26,000 deaths caused by the pandemic because New Yorkers would have had better, cheaper access to health care, both before and during the deadly outbreak.

“I believe a lot of people who developed COVID-19 symptoms put off going for care because they were afraid of the cost. And many of those people got a lot sicker, and many died as a result,” he said. Many New Yorkers who died, or got very ill, from COVID-19 also suffered from significant pre-existing conditions, like asthma and diabetes, that can develop or be worsened by insufficient medical care.

According to Gottfried, the bill is likely to have more support than ever in the upcoming session, beginning in January 2021, which he attributes to the pandemic and the new class of progressive Democrats taking office, some joining each of the Senate and Assembly. Several progressive candidates who beat Democratic incumbents in New York City or won open primaries in the city and elsewhere ran on the New York Health Act.

Senator Rivera, whose district has been among the hardest hit by the coronavirus in the five boroughs, says now is the time to get the legislation passed.

“We need to start going in that direction and do so aggressively,” he said. “If not, every time that we delay, it’s people that go broke because they get sick or die because they don't have care.”

The bill faces opposition from Republican legislators, who are not convinced that a single-payer health-care system would be something the state can successfully implement, as well as some moderate Democrats, labor unions, and others.

At a joint legislative hearing on the Health Act last year, Republican Senator Patrick Gallivan said a government-run, taxpayer-funded system was not the way to solve any issues within the current health-care system.

“This seems highly impractical in that no taxpayer-funded program can afford unlimited and unrestricted health care,” he said. “As I learned during a recent meeting with health-care experts in Toronto, approximately 30% of Canadian health care is funded by private insurance and out-of-pocket expenses.”

Bill Hammond, Senior Fellow for Health Policy at the Empire Center, a conservative think tank, said the legislation would be more disruptive than helpful, noting in an interview that 95% of New York’s population is already insured, and implementing the legislation would only disrupt their coverage. Hammond went on to say that the Health Act would consume the state Legislature “for the years that it takes to implement the plan, and probably forever after.”

Currently, the bill is in committee in both houses and the co-sponsors say there haven’t been any changes made to it as a result of the pandemic, though they had been making changes prior to the covid crisis based on the public hearings they held around the state last year.

In an interview on the Max & Murphy podcast earlier this year near the height of the pandemic in the city, Rivera emphasized the need for the New York Health Act and that it was imperative that the legislation gets passed as soon as possible.

“For those folks who would argue that it is complicated and is expensive: I would argue that it is neither as expensive or as complicated as the situation we find ourselves in right now,” he said.

The earliest the bill could pass is 2021, and only after significantly more debate, though that seems especially unlikely given the state’s ongoing public health, fiscal, and other crises wrought by the coronavirus outbreak. The influence of new, more progressive members in both Democratic conferences, including several backed by the New York City Democratic Socialists of America, could prove influential, but a path to passage is currently unclear. For something of this magnitude, a three-way deal with Governor Cuomo would also likely be a prerequisite to passage in the Legislature, and while Cuomo has come out in support of single-payer health care, he has said it should only be done at the federal level.

In August, Democratic State Senator Julia Salazar of Brooklyn, who is backed by the DSA, spoke about how the Legislature should be prioritizing the passage of the New York Health Act, particularly because of the impact the pandemic has had on communities of color.

“We really need to find a way to pass the New York Health Act or to ensure true universal health care,” she said on the Max & Murphy podcast. “A disproportionately high number of Black and brown New Yorkers are or have been dying from COVID-19 due to inequitable access and distribution of healthcare resources.”  

Phara Souffrant Forrest, a nurse and Assemblymember-elect after winning this year’s election, in which she first triumphed in the primary over a Democratic incumbent in Brooklyn, has the passage of the New York Health Act at the top of her campaign platform. She said it was one reason she ran against Assemblymember Walter Mosley, echoing other challengers in recent years who’ve said that Democrats must really fight for the progressive policies they say they support.

During a late October interview on Max & Murphy, Souffrant, also a DSA member and endorsee, suggested that in order to repair the state’s budget and find the revenue to pay for the New York Health Act, the state needs to “instill justice into this budget where we have people paying their fair share.”

“We have 126 billionaires living in New York City that made billions during a pandemic. So money is being made. It's just people aren't getting any of it, and some people are getting all of it,” she said.

But both legislative majorities have a diversity of Democrats, and there are few beyond the furthest left candidates and incumbents who cite the Health Act as a top priority for the near future.

Gottfried said both he and Rivera are prepared to make the appropriate amendments in order to get the legislation passed and signed. What those amendments may be is not totally clear, however.

“It’s not really the state’s responsibility”
Whenever it is brought up, the New York Health Act faces scrutiny over the estimated cost of the program, though those concerns are heightened for some now that the state is facing large deficits given the massive drop in tax revenue due to the covid shutdown and resultant job losses and limited economic activity.

A 2018 assessment done by the RAND corporation has been the main source of information about the potential impacts of the New York Health Act. Overall, it showed that the state would need to collect massive additional amounts of tax revenue, but that that revenue would negate similar overall expenditures on health insurance and health care that New Yorkers currently pay. Depending on the tax structure involved, many New Yorkers would save money on health costs.

The study suggested that if the Health Act was soon passed, state government would be spending about the same amount of money in 2022 as it currently spends on health care and would only see significant savings in health care costs by 2031 -- a roughly 3% decrease in overall spending. The report went on to say that in 2022, the state would need to collect $139.1 billion in tax revenue to pay for the program, a 156% increase from what the state collected in tax revenue at the time. However, what the state collects in taxes for the program would replace what New York was spending on health care services, about $141 billion.

All New Yorkers enrolled in the state’s single-payer health care program would only pay the taxes taken out of their income -- every other cost associated with health insurance and care would be covered under the program. The Health Act is similar to how health insurance and care works in Canada and several other countries around the world, automatically providing residents access to both.

The proposed tax would be based on a person’s ability to pay -- anyone making less than $25,000 a year would be exempt. Rand’s 2018 assessment estimated that the new tax would range between 6.1% and 18.3%, depending on income, for everyone else.

However, under this model, Rand estimated that 98% of New Yorkers would end up paying less for their health care than they do now.

The state would require that all residents enroll in the program, which would essentially make private insurance in New York obsolete. This includes those enrolled in Medicare and Medicaid as well -- with permission from the federal government, the state would use the funds it receives from the federal government for those existing programs to pay for executing the new single-payer system. That would be in addition to a payroll tax, some of which would come out of workers’ paychecks and vary depending on how much money they make annually, with higher taxes on those making more income. Employers would pay at least 80% of the tax on payroll, and employees would pay up to 20%.

In order to use the funding the state gets for Medicaid and Medicare for implementing the New York Health Act, the state would need to receive a waiver from the federal government. Assemblymember Gottfried said New York may be able to get that waiver under a Democratic presidential administration, but that the state can proceed with creating a single-payer system if the legislation is passed.

“It is very clear that even without federal cooperation, a state can create a single-payer system without losing any of our current federal funding. Federal cooperation would make it simpler but is not really necessary, legally or financially,” Gottfried said, noting that a Biden administration may be more open to the idea of single-payer in New York, but did not elaborate on how the state would be able to implement the plan without a waiver.

One of the most prominent voices regularly arguing against the New York Health Act is Hammond, who says that the real issue is containing health care costs, which requires different answers. Hammond and other opponents of the legislation argue that the necessary taxes could discourage the wealthy from living in New York, and that the shifts involved would be incredibly disruptive to the way insurance and care work in the state.

“The majority of people have private coverage, it's not really the state's responsibility to take care of that,” Hammond said in an interview. “They're taking care of it on their own, either with their own money or their employer's money.”

Medicaid enrollment is up by about half a million people after the pandemic led to thousands of New Yorkers losing their jobs and their employment-provided insurance. To some, this means there are already systems in place to ensure people have access to insurance and care.

Hammond said there are more important things that state legislators should be focused on instead of creating a single-payer health-care system.

“We have a deficit of unprecedented proportions. We are right now thinking about major cuts to existing spending on schools, and transportation and health care,” he said.

The state budget deficit is estimated to be around $14.5 billion in the current fiscal year, which runs through March. Legislators and advocates have been pushing tax increases on top earners and the wealthy to plug that gap as well as to help fund the New York Health Act and other progressive priorities.

According to Lev Ginsburg, Senior Director of Government Affairs at the Business Council of New York State, introducing another income tax now could drive businesses and the wealthy out of New York.

“We already see a lot of problems in New York State with companies relocating out of the state or not coming to the state because of various expensive burdens,” he said. “We think that it would be a true economic disaster to put it in place now.”

Government Regulation, Health Care, and Labor Unions
Advocates for universal health insurance and care coverage in New York say that the system already in place for both private and state insurance plans is confusing and hard to navigate. They also point to the battles people must wage with their health insurance companies to get coverage for care.

Elisabeth Benjamin, Vice President of Health Initiatives at the Community Service Society, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on advancing opportunity for underserved communities, said that the current pricing system for hospitals is the biggest indicator of why the state needs a single-payer health system.

Hospitals charge a person depending on what insurance they have, rather than establishing a fixed set of prices for every service they offer. This can result in patients paying different amounts based on the type of insurance they have, and can discourage them from seeking care.

“If the hospitals charge the health plans more, the health plans can charge the consumer more, right? No one has an incentive, actually, to control costs,” she said.

Benjamin believes that there should be more government regulation on how much hospitals can charge patients, and said a single-payer health-care system can help achieve that. There are proposals to mandate uniform hospital and health care charges without moving to a single-payer insurance and care system.

A report done by the Campaign for New York Health, an organization advocating for universal health coverage for all New Yorkers, found that 50% of those surveyed said they were on private health insurance but couldn’t afford to use it because of copay costs. Katie Robbins, Director of the Campaign for New York Health, said that rising health-care costs likely contributed to the spread of coronavirus in New York.

“It would be really critical for a better response to this kind of pandemic to make sure that people have coverage as a guaranteed right and they don't delay because they're afraid of how much the treatment is going to cost,” she said.

The New York Health Act has garnered the support of several labor unions in New York, including the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) and 1199 SEIU, a union for many health care and hospital workers. Both unions potentially see job security for their members in such a system.

Having health care off the bargaining table would allow the unions to negotiate better contracts for their members and potentially lead to a stronger union presence in New York, according to Judy Sheridan-González, the President of NYSNA.

“If unions seek out support for people, whether they're in their union or not, union density grows and union credibility is much more valued,” she said.

Sheridan-González said the passage of the New York Health Act could also lead to more job creation in the healthcare industry as a result of heightened demand for doctors.

“I certainly see it in primary care. I think that the initial phase-in, if people know that they don't have to pay anything, I think more people would access preventive care and primary care,” she said.

Not all unions are on board, however: the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) has testified against the bill, most recently in 2019.

In a statement, NYSUT spokesperson Matthew Hamilton noted that the union supports efforts for universal health care, “especially during a public health crisis,” but that the union believes “a national health care system would be the most effective way to address this issue.”

***
by Caroline Leddy, Gotham Gazette
  @GothamGazette

Read more by this writer.

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The Covid Crisis Made the New York Health Act More Urgent, More Unlikely, or Both Mon, 23 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000
'We're in a State of Transition': Bronx Democrats Wrestle with Changing of the Guard https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9706-2020-state-of-transition-bronx-democrats-wrestle-changing-guard-heastie-diaz-jr-sr https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9706-2020-state-of-transition-bronx-democrats-wrestle-changing-guard-heastie-diaz-jr-sr Bronx Democrats Heastie Diaz Jr Crespo

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***
by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette
   

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

Note - this article has been updated.

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'We're in a State of Transition': Bronx Democrats Wrestle with Changing of the Guard Sun, 23 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
We Were Proud to Vote for Police Reforms, Now It’s Time for Prison Reform https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9580-proud-to-vote-for-police-reforms-now-prison-reform-new-york-parole https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9580-proud-to-vote-for-police-reforms-now-prison-reform-new-york-parole New York State government capitol building Albany legislators

The State Capitol Building (photo: Governor's Office)


The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black people at the hands of police sparked righteous calls for change across New York State and led to meaningful action in Albany. We were proud to vote for police reforms that promote more transparency, accountability, and justice for those we represent. These were important steps, but they fall short of addressing the harm that happens to our constituents behind bars.

For years, we’ve spoken with mothers, children, and other people in our communities whose loved ones have suffered while incarcerated in our state prisons. This harm is often fatal and happens out of the view of cellphone cameras. Unsurprisingly, people of color disproportionately experience this harm.

Black and Latino people make up 34% of all New York State residents but represent 72% of the state’s incarcerated population. Amidst COVID-19, 80% of people who died in the custody of our state prisons were people of color -- 60% were Black people. Many of these people were older and posed no risk to public safety.

Black people and other people of color are disproportionately serving longer prison sentences and given fewer opportunities for release than their white counterparts. In New York State in particular, years of investigations have exposed that the State Parole Board disproportionately denies parole release to Black people, even when compared to their white counterparts with similar convictions and institutional records.

There are also roughly 1,000 New Yorkers serving prison sentences that don’t even allow a chance at release or public safety assessment. These cruel and unusual punishments amount to New York’s new form of capital punishment: death by incarceration. Curbing state violence on the streets does not address the full spectrum of harm if we continue systematically sentencing mostly Black and Latino people to die in prison without any meaningful second chance, exemplified by the tragic cases of Valerie Gaiter, Benjamin Smalls, and so many others.

People can be held accountable without being sentenced to die in prison. Victims and survivors can find healing without the person or people who harmed them facing a lifetime of punishment and torture. New York can promote safety and decarceration at the same time. We are ready to address these forms of state violence by passing two bills this state legislative session: our Elder Parole Act and the Fair and Timely Parole Act. 

Elder Parole would allow the Parole Board to individually assess incarcerated people for a chance at release once they’ve served 15 more or years and are aged 55 or older. The bill would effectively end prison death sentences in New York State and help us move beyond our shameful distinction of having one of the highest prison populations of people serving life sentences in the country. 

Fair and Timely Parole is just as important. It would change the Parole Board’s culture of punishment and vengeful practice of blanket parole denials by ensuring that parole release decisions are based on who people are today, instead of just on the nature of their crime. If at least part of the purported purpose of incarceration is rehabilitation, then the Parole Board’s decisions must be guided by people’s change over time. 

These two bills, which align with decades of criminal justice research and public safety data, would allow us to reinvest resources, and would bring families back together. In this particular moment, they would also bring us steps forward in our lifelong battle to end structural racism and state violence.

*** 
Carmen De La Rosa is a New York State Assembly Member representing parts of Manhattan and the lead sponsor of Elder Parole (A.9040). Gustavo Rivera is a New York State Senator representing parts of the Bronx and is the lead sponsor of the Fair and Timely Parole Act (S.497A). On Twitter @CnDelarosa & @NYSenatorRivera.

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

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We Were Proud to Vote for Police Reforms, Now It’s Time for Prison Reform Wed, 08 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
New York Got Federal Money to Address Extreme Heat; Now’s The Time To Use It https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9559-extreme-heat-health-crisis-federal-funds-new-york https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9559-extreme-heat-health-crisis-federal-funds-new-york new york city summer night pink clouds

Summer heat has arrived (photo: governor's office)


The sudden spread of COVID-19 caught governments around the world off-guard, setting off one of the deadliest public health crises in generations. We are learning many lessons from this pandemic, including the importance of preparing for emergencies early and taking decisive action when they strike, especially in New York State, the epicenter of the crisis, where there are over 380,000 confirmed cases and more than 24,000 deaths.

With summer officially beginning on June 20, another public health crisis is hiding in plain sight: extreme heat. It is our duty to sound the alarm when our constituents are facing danger, and that moment is now.

Extreme heat is the deadliest of all natural disasters in our state, killing an average of 130 people every year in New York City alone. With climate change fueling hotter, longer heatwaves, and COVID-19 forcing New Yorkers to spend more time in their homes and apartments, this year is poised to be much more dangerous.

At highest risk are our Black and brown communities – the same ones that have already suffered the most from the novel coronavirus, and which continue to experience tragic police brutality, rampant discrimination, and the many other effects of systemic racism. All of these issues have one thing in common: the stakes are literally life and death.

In these communities that are already hurting so badly, thousands of families don’t have an air conditioner. Many more can’t afford to run the one they have. As unemployment skyrockets, New Yorkers across the state will be forced into the completely unacceptable choice between putting food on the table and switching on the A/C unit that could save their lives.

We cannot allow that to happen.

Many of the places that New Yorkers traditionally visit to beat the heat—such as pools, movie theaters, and cooling centers—could be closed for large parts of the summer. For this reason, we need to bring a fresh approach to keeping New Yorkers safe and cool by focusing on homes and apartments.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently took a necessary step by dedicating $55 million to provide air conditioning units to 74,000 elderly and low-income New Yorkers.

Now it’s time for Governor Andrew Cuomo to do his part to help New Yorkers stay cool in New York City and across the state.

Currently, New York State allocates just $6 million per year for in-home cooling assistance though the Home Energy Assistance Program, or HEAP.

HEAP funds are disbursed on a first-come-first-serve basis, meaning that many households that need help will get turned away if available funding doesn’t meet the scope of the need.

But importantly, as part of the federal CARES Act, Congress recently allocated $28.8 million to New York State in additional HEAP funding. These funds should immediately be allocated to address cooling support this summer for our vulnerable residents.

Governor Cuomo should simultaneously reform the state’s HEAP program, managed by the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA), to ensure this desperately needed financial aid reaches those who need it most.

First, the Governor should expand program eligibility to include NYCHA and Section 8 residents, historically barred from the program. He should also simplify medical documentation requirements to ease the burden on our health-care system. Finally, he should expand HEAP to go beyond providing A/C units by authorizing cash grants to help households pay their higher summertime electricity bills.

These important reforms can all be accomplished by executive order. The time to act is now – lives depend on it.

***
State Senator Gustavo Rivera represents parts of the Bronx. Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi represents parts of Queens. On Twitter @NYSenatorRivera & @AndrewHevesi.

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

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New York Got Federal Money to Address Extreme Heat; Now’s The Time To Use It Sun, 05 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senator Gustavo Rivera on New York's Health Care Response to COVID-19 https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9441-max-murphy-podcast-state-senator-gustavo-rivera-on-new-york-s-health-care-response-to-covid-19 https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9441-max-murphy-podcast-state-senator-gustavo-rivera-on-new-york-s-health-care-response-to-covid-19 state senator gustavo rivera

State Senator Gustavo Rivera (photo: New York Senate)


May 27, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senator Gustavo Rivera on New York's Health Care Response to COVID-19

State Senator Gustavo RiveraState Senator Gustavo Rivera returned to the show to discuss how New York is responding to the coronavirus crisis, and the status of the New York Health Act, a bill he sponsors that would bring single-payer, universal health care to the state, and more.

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 wbai.org.

Max & Murphy · Episode 224: State Senator Gustavo Rivera On New York's Health Care Response To COVID - 19

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senator Gustavo Rivera on New York's Health Care Response to COVID-19 Wed, 27 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
State Lawmakers Criticize Campaign Finance Commission Results While Legislative Leaders Stay Mum https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8960-state-legislators-criticize-campaign-finance-commission-outcomes-while-legislative-leaders-mum-cuomo-heastie https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8960-state-legislators-criticize-campaign-finance-commission-outcomes-while-legislative-leaders-mum-cuomo-heastie state legislators hearing

(photo: @FairElectionsNY)


A state commission charged with creating a system of public financing for state elections has prompted harsh rebukes from several state legislators for proposing what they say is watered down campaign finance reform and for ostensibly advancing a political agenda that targets longtime critics of Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The New York State Public Campaign Financing Commission was appointed by Cuomo and state legislative leaders after a failure of consensus on overhauling the state’s campaign finance system. It was tasked in state law to create a public campaign finance system and, per Cuomo’s goals, to examine political party qualifications.

Advocates have long called for a setup at the state level modelled on New York City’s successful public matching funds system, which incentivizes candidates to seek small dollar donations rather than relying on wealthy contributors, includes low maximum individual contributions, requires a great deal of transparency, and comes with robust oversight.

But the system proposed by the commission, in its final vote on Monday, fell short of the expectations of advocates and reform-minded legislators. Though it voted to reduce contribution limits across the board for statewide and legislative seats, candidates will still be able to raise vast amounts of private money for elections. For instance, the limits for statewide candidates were reduced from about $70,000 to $18,000 for a full election cycle. But that is more than three times higher than the $5,400 that a candidate for president can raise in a cycle.

Unless the state Legislature returns to amend the commission’s recommendations within three weeks, the system will be adopted. The Legislature could, however, choose to pass new campaign finance laws and tweak the program in the next legislative session, which begins in January.

The commission also approved a higher threshold for parties to obtain a ballot line, increasing it from 50,000 votes in a gubernatorial election to 130,000 votes every two years, and increased the ballot petition signature requirement for statewide candidates from 15,000 to 45,000. To observers, the ballot threshold change in particular seemed intended to kneecap third parties like the Working Families, Conservative, and Green Parties and appeared to be carried out at the behest of Cuomo, who has feuded with the WFP for years. But that controversial mission was also carried out with at least the acquiescence, if not full support, of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, both Democrats, as is Cuomo.

Yet several Democratic Assembly members and Senators from New York City were displeased by the recommendations the commission made and the process through which its work was carried out over the last several months and quickly made their concerns known.

Queens Senator Jessica Ramos, a progressive elected last year with support from the WFP, took to Twitter to air her criticism of the commission’s proposals, as did other legislators. “We worked HARD last session to fix NY’s broken electoral system. We made it easier to vote & got closer to a people-powered government. The Public Finance Commission's vote is a disservice to our democracy & will eliminate @NYWFP. We need to engage more voters, not limit them!,” she tweeted.

Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou of Manhattan agreed with Ramos, simply tweeting “Yup” in response.

Senator Julia Salazar of Brooklyn tweeted, “This is shamefully undemocratic. We need to act swiftly in the legislature to reject it.”

Brooklyn Assemblymember Walter Mosley tweeted that the party qualification issue should never have been on the commission’s agenda. “Third parties are an essential part of the electoral system in New York, shining light on important issues that otherwise may not get the attention they deserve,” he wrote, calling the proposals “unacceptable” and promising to oppose an increase in the threshold for ballot access. “We should be making it easier for third parties to make it on the ballot, not harder,” he wrote.

In a series of tweets, Assemblymember Bobby Carroll of Brooklyn cited his “no” vote on this year’s state budget deal because of the inclusion of the “poison pill” provision on the state campaign financing commission. “I have said it from the beginning that this commission was rotten! Now we just know how rotten,” he tweeted. “This isn’t a public matching program this is a farce. The legislture (sic) needs to take back control.”

Manhattan Assemblymember Harvey Epstein tweeted, “Deeply concerned w Public Campaign Financing Commission’s vote to recommend legislation riddled w inadequacies, including overly high contrib caps at every level & a measure to kill minor parties."

In response, Manhattan Assemblymember Richard Gottfried wrote, "Protect voters & 3rd parties. The Legislature must reject the commission scheme!"

Brooklyn Assemblymember Jo Ann Simon tweeted, "I’m disappointed w/the Public Campaign Financing Commission’s vote to make it more difficult for minor parties to access a ballot line. We need a special session to address this, the still-too-high contribution limits, & limiting matching donations to a candidate’s district only."

Bronx State Senator Alessandra Biaggi has repeatedly let her disappointment be known. She credited the commissioners for their service but said she does not like the product, writing in part, "The Commission was created to put forth a plan that empowers everyday NYers & reduces the influence of money in our politics – the existing proposal only scratches the surface in achieving that aim, failing to significantly lower contribution limits." Biaggi also cited a "political agenda" at play in the attempt to "increase barriers for third parties."

"This proposal is half-baked & does not reflect the vision of the NYer who testified at the Commission’s hearings, & who raised their voices throughout this entire process," Biaggi continued. "The Legislature now has the responsibility to fulfill our promise to the people and get the job done."

In a phone interview, Bronx Senator Gustavo Rivera reiterated his call for the Legislature to vote on a “clean bill” on campaign finance reform. “I'm terribly disappointed, but I'm certainly not shocked,” he said of the commission’s recommendations.

Rivera blamed the governor’s machinations for derailing the process. “The governor, sadly, does not really care about establishing a campaign finance system. All he cares about is getting even with the folks who are his political rivals. That is his M.O.,” he said.

The “pièce de résistance” he said, was the ballot access threshold requirement, “which is ultimately, with a wink and a nod, trying to get rid of the WFP, which is really what this was about from the beginning.”

“The overwhelming majority of people made it very clear that they should create a campaign finance system that actually tries to at least minimize the impact of big money but that they should steer away from third parties, from fusion voting altogether. All those folks were ignored,” he said.

It’s unclear whether legislative leaders have any intention to support the idea of modifying the binding proposals. Assembly Speaker Heastie’s appointees on the commission generally went along with Cuomo’s appointees, while those commissioners appointed by Senate Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins tended to break from the pack.

Heastie’s office did not return a request for comment about the commission’s plan. Carolina Rodriguez, a spokesperson for Stewart-Cousins, referred Gotham Gazette to comments the senator made in a November 22 interview with WXXI News’ Karen DeWitt. “I’m not trying to destroy parties or make it impossible,” Stewart-Cousins said. “I definitely know, however, that we must reform our campaign finance (system).” She said she would prefer the party conversation to be separate from the campaign finance one, but also seemed open to legislative tweaks come January.

A spokesperson for Senator Mike Gianaris, the deputy majority leader, acknowledged a request for comment but did not provide one by publishing time. Senator Liz Krueger’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Jonathan Timm, a spokesperson for Senator Zellnor Myrie, declined additional comment until the commission’s recommendations are formally released. “Senator Myrie has made clear his support for public financing of campaigns, lowering contribution limits, and keeping the commission's hands out of fusion voting (which he stated explicitly in his testimony to the commission),” Timm wrote in an email. 

The WFP itself appeared to threaten primary challenges against legislators who fall in line behind the governor’s “power grab.” “Instead of designing a strong system of public financing of elections, this commission has designed a weak one, as a cover for a politically motivated attack on the Working Families Party,” Bill Lipton, WFP director, said in a Monday statement. 

He added, “Our opponents believe they can kill us. They are wrong. We will bring the full power of the WFP and our allies to bear in 2020 challenging those who block progressive change and electing the next generation of progressive leaders. We will build the biggest WFP GOTV operation yet to meet these new thresholds. And we will win.”

“If New York Assemblymembers don't speak up about and act to stop this public financing commission, they will be primaried with some amazing, energetic, democratic candidates. We are ready to go,” tweeted Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout, who ran against Cuomo in the Democratic primary in 2014, last year sought the Democratic primary nomination for attorney general, and is something of an inspirational leader for the New York left.

At a media gaggle on Tuesday, Cuomo downplayed the changes made to ballot thresholds while praising the commission. “I think the commission was charged with a very difficult task, which was to reform the campaign finance system,” he said. “I have to read the full report, I haven’t done it yet, but they made a number of inarguably great and dramatic reforms.”

He said the state shouldn’t be doling out public funds to political parties “without accountability and responsibility.”

“They’ve set a threshold by percentage and number, which they believe is a threshold that a credible party should reach,” he said. “If it’s not a credible party, then it shouldn’t be getting public tax dollars in primary races, et cetera. The Working Families Party, I think, would meet that threshold. You have to work to meet the threshold, but if you’re not working to meet a threshold, then you shouldn’t be qualifying for public money anyway.”

[Read: State Commission Approves New Campaign Finance System, Raises Bar for Political Party Ballot Access]

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

Read more by this writer.

This article has been updated with additional comments from legislators.

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State Lawmakers Criticize Campaign Finance Commission Results While Legislative Leaders Stay Mum Tue, 26 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
I'm Not Running for Congress; Here's Why https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8670-i-m-not-running-for-congress-here-s-why-gustavo-rivera-bronx https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8670-i-m-not-running-for-congress-here-s-why-gustavo-rivera-bronx gustavo rivera senate

Senator Gustavo Rivera, the author (photo: State Senate)


To someone who isn’t from the borough, the mention of the Bronx may evoke images of Yankee Stadium, the Bronx Zoo, or Arthur Avenue. A lesser-known fact is that the Congressional District that covers all three landmarks, and most of the South Bronx, is home to an open seat and will host a highly-contested election in 2020. The future of one of the poorest and most densely-populated districts in the country will be determined next year, making it one of the most important upcoming elections in New York City.

New York’s 15th Congressional District is geographically one of the smallest, with 730,000 people living within its lines. Nearly 97% voted for Barack Obama in November of 2012, making it the most Democratic district in the country. This means the congressional election will be determined in the June primary, not the November general.

For almost 30 years, this district has been represented by the consistently progressive voice of José E. Serrano, who announced his retirement earlier this year. This vacancy is an opportunity to bring new leadership into the House and this district, but it also carries a significant obligation to continue the progressive legacy of the Congressmember while blazing a new trail to effect change.

As the State Senator representing part of this Congressional District, I know well the needs and challenges of this community. The 15th Congressional District faces significant obstacles that are exacerbated by the current federal government. We need bold leadership who fights for fair housing and treats public housing residents with respect; who recognizes that healthcare is a human right; and who stands up for all residents of the district, regardless of citizenship status. The 15th Congressional District also needs a leader who sets an unparalleled ethical standard, just like our retiring Congressmember has done for decades. The work cannot stop; we need someone who will double down on the fight ahead of us.

I believe in public service, and in the positive impact government can have on people’s lives. This belief drove me to run for the State Senate in 2010 and it has been at the center of my efforts in office.

This past year, the State Senate regained the Democratic majority and passed a slew of progressive legislation that New Yorkers badly needed, including the Dream Act, the Reproductive Health Act, criminal justice, voting, and housing reforms, driver's licenses for all, gun regulations, and LGBTQ protections -- among others. I was also given the great honor to chair the Senate Health Committee, a position that had never been held by a person of color or a Bronxite, despite the disparities these groups have faced in accessing healthcare for generations.

The New York State Senate is enacting true change and fighting to help all New Yorkers thrive, but our work is far from done. This responsibility has influenced my decision to not seek the open seat in Congress next year. Representing my community in the State Senate has been the greatest honor of my life, and it is exactly where I believe I can best serve for the foreseeable future. This is particularly crucial since state government is one of the most effective checks and balances on the great national threat from Washington, D.C.

Nonetheless, I cannot ignore the importance of this election at such a critical moment.

The Federal Administration makes a mockery of our democracy daily, and actively works against the communities of my district, the Bronx, and New York City. As we look at a crowded field of Democrats vying for this seat, one thing is clear -- we have a serious responsibility to identify and unify behind a strong leader who will speak on our behalf and will join the new class of Congressmembers that reject the status quo of corporate politics. The 15th Congressional District deserves the very best, and I look forward to hearing from the candidates and eventually endorsing someone who will fight for that same standard for our community and our country.

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State Senator Gustavo Rivera represents parts of the Bronx and chairs the Senate's health committee. On Twitter @NYSenatorRivera.

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

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I'm Not Running for Congress; Here's Why Fri, 12 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
In ‘Most Historic and Productive’ Session, Albany Democrats Move Extensive Agenda to Transform New York https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8629-historic-productive-session-democrats-albany-cuomo-transform-new-york https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8629-historic-productive-session-democrats-albany-cuomo-transform-new-york gov cuomo photos

(photo: the governor's office)


Just after it ended, Governor Andrew Cuomo deemed 2019’s “the most productive legislative session in modern history” at a news conference on Friday in Albany.

The Democrat in the first year of his third term went through only a partial list of the many laws and investments he and state legislators had made between January and June, in what was the first period of full and functional Demcratic control of state government in decades.

Though the session included a good deal of sparring between Cuomo and legislators, especially with the governor repeatedly attacking or needling Senate Democrats, a pattern that intensified after the demise of the deal to bring an Amazon campus to Queens, almost all of the priorities laid out by the governor and the legislative majorities were accomplished in some form.

"Six months ago we laid out our 2019 Justice Agenda - an aggressive blueprint to move New York forward - and today I'm proud to say we got it done," Cuomo said on Friday, adding, “...this was the most progressively productive legislative session in modern history. The product was extraordinary, and we maintained our two pillars - fiscal responsibility and economic growth paired with social progress on an unprecedented and nation-leading scale."

As the Legislature wrapped up its work, similar boasts came from the two majority leaders -- Carl Heastie in the Assembly and Andrea Stewart-Cousins in the Senate -- as well as many other Democratic state lawmakers, advocates and activists, and like-minded officials from around New York, including Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

“This session we’ve chosen to stand up with the people over special interests,” Stewart-Cousins said in her closing remarks as the Senate completed its session. “We’ve chosen to invest in the future over the failed policies of the past. We’ve chosen science over rhetoric. We’ve chosen equality over divisiveness. This is the most historic and productive legislation session in New York State history, period.”

“We haven’t seen a session this daring, productive and progressive in decades,” de Blasio said in a long, celebratory Friday statement about the session. The mayor highlighted many of the bills that were passed, from stronger rent regulations to congestion pricing, criminal justice and voting reforms to driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, and more.

In many ways it was a historic session, with Democrats following through on much of what they promised during last year’s campaigns, when Cuomo easily won a third term and the party took a commanding new majority in the Senate to couple with long-standing control of the Assembly. There were roughly 800 bills passed by both the Senate and Assembly, according to Stewart-Cousins.

But Republicans also believe the session provides them with significant new ammo to flip Senate seats back next year and begin to line up the pieces to eventually retake the chamber and win their first statewide office come 2022, when Cuomo has said he’ll seek a fourth term.

Much of life for New Yorkers will be altered by what Democrats in Albany decided this year, with impacts -- social, economic, environmental, and political -- for many years to come. The party in power is certain it has produced for New Yorkers who will benefit in many ways. The results will start to be seen soon.

Here’s a look at what got done this session in Albany:

JANUARY
>Election Reform
Lawmakers started off the session passing legislation aimed at reforming voting and elections in New York. The Legislature passed a series of bills to establish early voting and no-excuse absentee voting, expand voter registration, impose limits on LLC campaign contributions, and extend primary election voting hours.

>LGBTQ and Women’s Issues
They also passed the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), which prohibits discrimination based on gender identity or expression. This act also added transgender people to those protected under New York’s Hate Crimes Law, which defines a hate crime and specifies mechanisms for punishing those who commit hate crimes.

Also in an effort to protect members of the LGBTQ community, lawmakers banned conversion therapy for minors.

They also codified Roe v. Wade abortion protections into state law through the Reproductive Health Act. The RHA legalized abortion past 24 weeks of pregnancy if the woman’s health or life is at risk, or if the fetus is not viable.

The Legislature also passed the Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act, which requires health insurance companies to cover all FDA-approved contraceptive options, and the Boss Bill, which ensures that employees are able to make reproductive healthcare decisions without fearing adverse employment consequences.

>Children, Immigrants, and Survivors
The Legislature passed the Jose Peralta New York State DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented students in New York to qualify for state aid for higher education and create a Dream Fund for college scholarship opportunities for these students. It was named after the late Senator Jose Peralta, who had championed the bill in the past.

They also passed the Child Victims Act, which reformed the state’s statute of limitations for child sexual abuse. The legislation provides that the statute of limitations doesn’t start until someone turns 23 years old, where it previously started when a child turned 18. It also allowed a temporary look-back window to allow individuals to file civil claims for long-ago incidents.

>Gun Control
Lawmakers also passed a gun control bill package that bans bump-stocks, creates regulations for gun buybacks, extends the background check period for people trying to purchase a gun, and institutes the “red flag” law to allow teachers and others to petition judges to order removal of firearms from a troubled student’s home.

FEBRUARY
After an onslaught of legislation in January that opened the floodgates after years in which Democrats saw their agenda items often stall in the state Senate, February was slower. This was in part due to the fact that there are often fewer session days in February due to the annual school vacation-aligned break.

Legislators did pass a bill that criminalizes “revenge porn,” or the distribution of intimate images with the intent to cause harm to another person.

MARCH
The Legislature passed additional gun and voting reforms in March just ahead of the budget deal that came together at the end of the month: a bill that creates stronger regulations for gun storage, aiming to prevent unintentional gun violence, and the Voter Friendly Ballot Act, which aims to create a more readable ballot layout.

>Budget
As usual, the state budget was perhaps the most consequential piece of legislation to pass during the month of March. Along with spending decisions adding up to about $175 billion, it included sweeping legislative changes.

Lawmakers and Cuomo reformed the criminal justice system, the electoral system, health care, and public transportation. From bail and discovery reform to a plastic bag ban and congestion pricing and the expansion of speed cameras allowed in New York City, the budget was home to many major changes for the state and city.

It also increased funding for education through local school aid and grants across the state. And, they made the property tax cap, which prevents annual increases in property taxes from exceeding 2% of the previous assessment or rate of inflation, into permanent law (it applies everywhere outside New York City).

The budget passed a compromise on campaign finance reform, creating a commission to propose a public campaign finance system, with recommendations due before the end of this year.

The budget agreement came together in the final days and hours of March, and was given final passage on April 1, the day of the start of the new fiscal year.

APRIL
As is often the case in Albany, the post-budget months of April and May were relatively quiet times between the big budget push in late March and the end of session flurry in June.

But, just after the budget, in April, lawmakers raised the age to purchase tobacco products in the state from 18 to 21. This legislation includes cigarettes, chewing tobacco, and vape products.

The Legislature also passed a bill package aimed at promoting environmental protection and conservation. Among the provisions of this bill package is a ban on harmful pesticides and the establishment of a constitutional right to water and life and strict regulations on the toxic chemicals in children’s toys.

MAY
In May, the Legislature passed a series of bills aimed at protecting victims and survivors of domestic violence. These bills varied from special ballots for victims of domestic violence to requiring companies to allow victims of domestic violence to cancel contracts.

Among the domestic violence protection bills, the Legislature also passed a bill banning the manufacturing and selling of undetectable or “ghost” guns, such as 3D printed guns. It makes it illegal for anyone to knowingly possess, manufacture, sell, transport, or possess undetectable firearms.

They also created protections for disabled New Yorkers through a bill package that: creates an advocacy office for those living with disabilities, expands Medicaid coverage for people with autism, and provides housing for New Yorkers with therapy animals.

JUNE
Things in Albany got very busy again in June, especially toward the end of the legislative session and at its very end, with movement on a variety of bills, though Democrats did not find compromise on some professed priorities.

>Rent Regulations
Expiring rent regulations that apply to roughly 1 million New York City apartments was the marquee issue of the end of session. After a great deal of debate, advocacy, negotiation and consternation -- including some conflict between the governor and Senate -- the Legislature passed and the governor signed the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019, which was called the strongest tenant protection bill in state history.

The legislation makes the rent regulations permanent, with no sunset clause as had been the precedent, repeals two key elements that had led to many thousands of units leaving regulation over decades, vacancy decontrol and the “vacancy bonus,” drastically reduces what landlords can recoup in rent for “major capital investments” into buildings, and more.
The legislation also allows other areas of the state to opt into the regulations if they have a housing emergency based on a lower than 5% vacancy rate and the local legislature votes to adopt them.

>Fighting Climate Change
During the last month of session, there was increased pressure from lawmakers and activists on passing the Climate and Community Protection Act, an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and move New York toward renewable energy and a cleaner economy. The legislation, which had fairly aggressive timelines and requirements, as well as mandates around environmental and economic justice to ensure investments in communities hardest hit by climate change and pollution, was opposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who said in a June 7 interview with WAMC radio that “it actually doesn’t do, in my opinion, any of the main goals or initiatives.”

Despite Cuomo’s repeated criticism and opposition, a compromise was reached with lawmakers that included elements of the CCPA into a bill more aligned with Cuomo’s related bill, with the new law known as the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. The legislation that was passed has New York transitioning to 70 percent renewable energy by 2030 and 85 percent greenhouse gas emissions reductions by 2050.

Part of the reason for Cuomo’s opposition related to the redistribution of funding to communities most vulnerable to climate change and hurt by pollution. The agreed-upon bill has between 35 and 40 percent of the funds allocated by transition requirements going to impacted communities. It also creates wage and labor standards for state-supported green jobs.

>”Green Light”
Undocumented immigrants now have access to driver’s licenses in the state with passage of the Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act (known as “Green Light NY” as termed by supporters). This legislation was a priority for many progressive organizations, and it repeals a 20-year-ban enacted after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 on undocumented immigrants obtaining driver’s licenses.

>Farmworkers’ Rights
Another of several major pieces of legislative to move in the final week of the session, the legislature also passed the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act. The legislation is aimed at addressing the standards of working conditions for farm workers across New York. It grants collective bargaining rights, workers’ compensation, unemployment benefits to farm laborers, as well as bringing them in line with other workers in terms of mandatory overtime and time off, where they had been carved out of labor law decades ago.

“We are correcting a historic injustice, a remnant of Jim Crow era laws, to affirm that those farmworkers must be granted rights just as any other worker in New York,” Senator Jessica Ramos, a Democrat and the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement.

Some lawmakers and farm owners who would be affected by the bill were opposed to it, saying that the legislation disregarded the interests of Upstate New Yorkers.

“The new One Party Rule continued to steamroll over Upstate interests, this time targeting our farmers,” Republican Senator Fred Akshar said in a statement.

>Sexual Harassment and Rape Law Udpates
The Legislature moved and Governor Cuomo supported significant changes to the state’s sexual harassment and rape laws, lowering what was called an exceedingly high bar to proving sexual harassment in the workplace and extending the statue of limitations on rape in the second and third degrees from five to at least 10 years, with specifications at times allowing more than that.

"Sexual abuse is a far too widespread and pervasive stain on our society, and the five-year statutes of limitations for rape in the second and third degrees has been an abject dereliction ofjustice,” Cuomo said in a June 19 statement. “By providing victims more time to bring claims in court, we are honoring those who suffered pain, endured humiliation, and had the courage to come forward.”

>E-scooters and E-bikes
The legislature also passed a bill to legalize e-scooters and e-bikes, but would allow localities to determine implementation and regulation. But unlike most other high-profile measures passed by the Legislature, this bill does not necessarily have Cuomo’s blessing.

“That's a bill that's going to I think need more review and discussion,” Cuomo said in his end of session news conference when asked if he’d sign it.

Not Passed
The most high-profile measure not to pass this year despite widespread expressions of support for it from Democratic leaders is the legalization of adult-use marijuana. It was a priority for many Democratic legislators and activists, and was listed on the governor’s early 2019 agenda and top ten end-of-session priorities when he put forth that list after the budget.

The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, which would have legalized marijuana use for people at least 21 years of age, came close to passing but ran out of time, according to its lead sponsor in the Senate, Senator Liz Krueger, a Democrat.

"It is clear now that MRTA is not going to pass this session,” Krueger said in a statement just before the end of session. “This is not the end of the road, it is only a delay. Unfortunately, that delay means countless more New Yorkers will have their lives up-ended by unnecessary and racially disparate enforcement measures before we inevitably legalize.”

Although the MRTA didn’t pass, lawmakers did pass legislation to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana and establish procedures for record expungements for past and future convictions. Cuomo said marijuana legalization efforts should have been included in the budget, as he initially recommended, but indicated he would sign the decriminalization measures.

Lawmakers also failed to pass the Human Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement (HALT) Act, which according to the bill “limit[s] the amount of time an inmate can spend in segregated confinement, end the segregated confinement of vulnerable people, restrict the criteria that can result in such confinement, improve conditions of confinement, and create more human and effective alternatives to such confinement.”

The governor, Stewart-Cousins, and Heastie did, however, form a joint agreement on addressing some of the goals of the legislation administratively, to be executed by Cuomo’s administration in the prisons.

"While we are disappointed that HALT legislation could not be passed this year, we have reached an agreement to dramatically reduce the use of solitary confinement in correctional facilities,” reads a joint statement released by the three parties. “These new steps build on this year's landmark reforms and will further help to correct inequities and end inhumane practices in our criminal justice system.”

Lawmakers were also unable to pass bills on automatic voter registration (though legislative leaders promised to move it in 2020), the legalization of paid surrogacy, and an expansion of the prevailing wage requirement for building projects that receive state subsidies. And though it was much-discussed in last year's elections, the New York Health Act to institute single-payer health care in the state did not come to a vote.

What the Session Means
This session marked the first time in about a decade that Democrats have been the majority party in both houses of the Legislature, and the first time in well beyond that where they had a functional majority in both houses. For party members and progressive activists, this session proved that the party is capable of accomplishing big things.

“We demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that not only we can govern, but we can govern like gangbusters,” Democratic Senator Gustavo Rivera said, with reference to the questions facing the Senate Democrats as they took power with remnants of 2009-2010 dysfunction and chaos hanging over them.

The session included a good deal of infighting between Cuomo and legislators, especially in the Senate, with Cuomo repeatedly questioning the Senate’s ability to find consensus, focus on policy over politics, and move controversial legislation -- most of which was proven unfounded in the end, Rivera and others note.

“Across the board, I think we've had an incredibly successful year, which I put right at the feet of our leader,” said Rivera, who has repeatedly criticized Cuomo on multiple fronts, in part in defense of Stewart-Cousins. “And she has been very ably dealing with all the difficulties like of us figuring out how to be a majority conference which has its own idiosyncrasies, and the fact that we have been fighting somebody downstairs on the second floor [where the governor’s offices are], who would not like us to be successful, everything that we've been able to achieve has not been because of the governor, it's been in spite of him.”

Republican Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb disagreed on the session’s successes and called it a six-month parade of irresponsible progressivism.

“One-party rule in Albany is an unmitigated disaster,” Kolb said in an end-of-session statement. “The best part about the 2019 Legislative Session is that for now, the damage is over. What we saw during the last six months was unchecked liberal extremism too eager to show what could be done, without giving any consideration to what should be done.”

The results of what Democrats passed are yet to be seen: much of the legislation doesn’t go into effect right away, and even after it does, only time will tell.

“We still have a long laundry list of things that we need to pass, because our communities have been under resourced and over criminalized for so long that we have to undo those harms,” Javier Valdes, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, an immigrant advocacy organization, told Gotham Gazette. “So this is a long term process. But the thing this session has shown us that we're building momentum, even better things to come.”

And there’s another session before the next state legislative elections in 2020, when the entirety of both chambers will again be on the ballot.

“All of those things speak to the energy that's got us here, and that's the same energy is going to carry us next year,” Rivera said of Democrats’ long list of 2019 achievements and the 2020 elections.

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by Caitlyn Rosen, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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In ‘Most Historic and Productive’ Session, Albany Democrats Move Extensive Agenda to Transform New York Sun, 23 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Rep. Serrano’s Retirement and a Looming Rumble in the Bronx https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8394-rep-serrano-s-retirement-and-a-looming-rumble-in-the-bronx https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8394-rep-serrano-s-retirement-and-a-looming-rumble-in-the-bronx rubendiazjr richie torres cm

Rep. Serrano, BP Diaz Jr., CM Torres (l-r) (photo: @rubendiazjr)


It’s time for a rumble in the Bronx. After 29 years in Congress and 44 years in elected office, Congressional Rep. José Serrano has decided to retire from office. Together with the likes of Herman Badillo, José Rivera, Robert Garcia, Gerena Valentin, and Ramon Velez in the Bronx, Serrano has been a pioneering figure within the Latino/Puerto Rican political landscape in New York City.

Serrano fought at the frontlines for Latino political representation at a time when Puerto Ricans were left out of the political equation despite their burgeoning numbers. Serrano, and the rest, fought arduously for this long-sought-after recognition. Their hard work paid off. Serrano won an Assembly seat in 1975.

While Serrano’s early work to gain Latino political representation is not debatable, the rest of his legacy is more dubious. Serrano has not been known for any sort of legislative prowess. The South Bronx, which he represents, has long been a poverty stricken area that has seen scant federal resources for decades, despite Serrano’s long tenure in Congress.

As a result of this record, observers like long-time political operative Mike Nieves had surmised that a formidable and credible candidate could defeat Serrano. No one ever did.

Serrano’s legacy notwithstanding, the eyes of our political world will now turn to the 15th Congressional district in the Bronx to see who will succeed him in Congress.

The timing of Serrano’s retirement announcement coincides with City Council Member Ritchie Torres’ own recent announcement that he would challenge the incumbent representative for the seat. In a previous column, I mentioned that Torres would be one to watch as we eye the future of Latino politics in the city. His intellectual abilities, grasp of public policy, and ability to articulate his view have deservedly caught people’s attention.

Torres is clearly a formidable candidate for the “open” congressional seat. Most of his Council district, which he first won in 2013, lies within Serrano’s Congressional district. After six years in the Council, Torres has been able to gain some recognition among voters for his work on behalf of his constituents, particularly in areas affecting NYCHA residents.

Various other names are being floated at this nascent stage. Among them are former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. Mark-Viverito has just come off a dismal showing in her race for the citywide position of public advocate. Yet she still holds some name recognition, particularly among Latinos.

Her home congressional district is currently represented by Adriano Espaillat but since there are no in-district residency requirements for a congressional seat, she could still make a play for the Serrano seat.

Then there is Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, who is also the Bronx Democratic leader. Crespo’s Assembly district lies entirely within Serrano’s Congressional district and he would therefore potentially go into a race of this sort with a natural base of followers. Some will question his alliance with Council Member Ruben Diaz, Sr., who has been challenged for repeated homophobic statements and positions. But given Crespo’s potential to capitalize on some of the resources that would naturally come his way by virtue of his party position, he would quickly be considered a leading candidate for the position.

Yet another recent public advocate candidate might also throw his hat in the ring. Since Michael Blake’s election to the Assembly, and then his appointment to be a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, rumors have swirled that he would one day challenge José Serrano.

That day never came. But this opening can provide an opportunity for Blake. Despite losing the public advocate race, Blake won his home borough of the Bronx and did fairly well in the portion covering Serrano’s Congressional district.

And if he’s the only African-American in the race, that could also create a path to victory for Blake. With multiple formidable Latino candidates, a strong African-American candidate could win the seat.

Almost a third of the Democratic electorate in this Congressional district is African-American. Over 55 percent is Latino. If the race takes an ethnic path, that could lead to a split Latino vote and a more consolidated African American vote.

Then there’s state Senator Gustavo Rivera. Rivera, first elected in 2010, represents a swath of Serrano’s district in the state Senate. He has earned admiration from many progressives for standing up to the Bronx political machinery and for policies that progressives have long championed.

Lastly, if he were to step up, one elected official who could clear many if not all in the field would be Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. Diaz, Jr. is known throughout the borough and remains popular among many voters. Furthermore, this district has always been his home district -- he represented parts of it in the Assembly for 13 years.

Diaz Jr.’s capable communications guru, John DeSio, has tweeted that the borough president is not interested in the position. The borough president appears focused on launching a mayoral bid. But politics is practical and a congressional run could be an easier path to victory than a citywide mayoral race.

All this is conjecture, of course. What’s certain is that we can expect a free-for-all for the position ahead of the 2020 vote, and thus another rumble in the Bronx.

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Eli Valentin teaches political science at Monroe College and is a frequent guest political analyst on Univision NY. On Twitter @EliValentinNY.

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

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Rep. Serrano’s Retirement and a Looming Rumble in the Bronx Wed, 27 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Automatic Sealing? Expungement? As They Legalize Marijuana, New York Lawmakers Negotiate Clearing Criminal Records https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8288-automatic-sealing-expungement-as-they-legalize-legalize-marijuana-new-york-lawmakers-negotiate-criminal-record-clearing https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8288-automatic-sealing-expungement-as-they-legalize-legalize-marijuana-new-york-lawmakers-negotiate-criminal-record-clearing may bdblasio office

Mayor de Blasio discusses marijuana policy (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


New York seems poised to enact the country’s first automatic record-clearing guidelines for past marijuana convictions. Doing so, advocates and officials say, could remove barriers for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers whose convictions -- for behavior that may soon be legal -- complicate tasks ranging from obtaining child custody to job searching to renting an apartment.

Automatic record-clearing is part of a larger ongoing discussion on legalizing adult marijuana use in New York, something Governor Andrew Cuomo has made a 2019 priority after years of opposition that also has support in both Democratically-controlled houses of the state Legislature. “Legalize adult-used cannabis,” Cuomo said in his State of the State address in January. “Stop the disproportionate criminal impact on communities of color.”

Bronx Senator and Senate health committee chair Gustavo Rivera also emphasized on the Capitol Pressroom with Susan Arbetter earlier this month that “the primary concern for many of us is the restorative justice aspect of this.”

New Yorkers poised to benefit from record-clearing for past marijuana offenses are majority black and Hispanic. In New York City, these communities made up 85 percent of marijuana possession arrests in 2016. It’s still unclear, though, how many crimes will be eligible for automatic clearing. There are also different record-clearing processes within an automatic framework: to seal a record is to shield it from view, while to expunge it -- advocates’ preference -- removes it completely.

Melissa Moore, deputy New York director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said advocates with the statewide marijuana abolition campaign Start SMART took notes on California’s approach to marijuana legalization. There, people with certain marijuana-related convictions were invited to apply for their records to be cleared. The Drug Policy Alliance has hosted free legal clinics in the state to assist them. “It’s still onerous,” says Moore. “In New York, how do we do this in such a way that places the lowest burden possible on individuals who have already been wronged? Making it automatic.”

“I believe that the Governor's office shares the goal of Assemblymember Peoples-Stokes and I,” stated Senator Liz Krueger, “to create a mechanism for automatically clearing records for marijuana offenses that would no longer be crimes.” Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, carries the Legislature’s Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act along with Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat who is also the majority leader of the Assembly.

As for scope, Cuomo’s budget proposal would automatically clear the low-level possession convictions that make up the majority of marijuana arrests -- 800,000 over the last 20 years according to his office -- by amending existing record-sealing procedures. By contrast, Democrats in the Legislature have in recent legislative sessions proposed clearing more records: all possession-related, and some sale-related, convictions.

“We recognize and see where the governor was trying to go and we think it just needs to be much more expansive,” says Kassandra Frederique, New York director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “If we are going to end the criminalization of marijuana in this state, then we have to end the criminalization of marijuana in this state, wholesale.”

"We have three goals,” Cuomo’s counsel Alphonso David told Gotham Gazette, defending Cuomo’s proposal. “The first goal is to make sure that we advance social justice. The second is to advance economic development, and the third is to protect public health and safety. Our proposal addresses all three goals."

Currently there is no expungement procedure in New York, and the governor’s office has indicated he prefers sealing. But advocates say expungement would remove ambiguity. “You would be able to say, ‘I have no criminal record,’ and that would be the end of the conversation,” says Legal Aid Society attorney Emma Goodman, an expungement expert who helped draft relevant bill language shared with Krueger’s office in January.

Advocates have proposed that court records, including criminal complaints and any written decisions, be marked as expunged, while ancillary records such as fingerprints and mugshots are physically destroyed. (Even expunged marijuana convictions can be grounds for deportation, notes Immigrant Defense Project Supervising Attorney Marie Mark, so the proposal includes additional protective measures for non-citizens.)

“Expungement means completely erasing these convictions and criminal records to give New Yorkers of color a fresh start,” said Samaria Phillips, manager of the We Rise to Legalize campaign, in a statement. Her group is attending the New York State Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators’ annual conference on Saturday in Albany to call for expungement.

Mayor Bill de Blasio also endorsed automatic expungement in a December 2018 task force report from his administration, with the caveat that district attorneys should have the ability to challenge on a case-by-case basis. “Expungement should occur as an automatic process…to minimize procedural burdens on those with past convictions,” the report states.

But in the interview, David emphasized the governor’s support for sealing. Because New York has strong sealing laws, he argued, the “impact of sealing is a functional equivalent of expungement, while immunizing the legislation from potential legal challenge.”

Senator Krueger’s chief of staff, Brad Usher, also confirmed that her office does not have a preference so long as the process is automatic.

“While sealing does essentially the same thing to the record, it does not bring the same level of clarity and peace of mind,” Goodman challenges. “Sealing is ambiguous and confusing for employers and people with convictions, whereas expungement is not.”

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by Emma Whitford, Gotham Gazette
@emma_a_whitford

Read more by this writer.

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Automatic Sealing? Expungement? As They Legalize Marijuana, New York Lawmakers Negotiate Clearing Criminal Records Sat, 16 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000