Gotham Gazette Mon, 22 Jul 2019 14:23:08 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) WATCH: A Veteran & A Rookie Discuss 2019 Plans for New State Senate Majority nys senator elect state senate majority deputy leader mnn

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This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
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Democrats won control of the State Senate in November and are set to take the majority in January, giving the party full control of state government. Senator Michael Gianaris, soon-to-be deputy leader of the conference, and newly-elected Julia Salazar, who will be the senator representing parts of northern Brooklyn, joined hosts Ben Max and Jarrett Murphy to discuss the year ahead, their individual priorities and where the Democratic majority plans to take the state.

 Gotham Gazette:

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

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

WATCH: A Veteran & A Rookie Discuss 2019 Plans for New State Senate Majority Thu, 20 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Pushing the Envelope on Rent Reform in Albany 2019 mayorsoffice chirlane mccray fac

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

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

Today, New Yorkers are living in an era of mass displacement due to the skyrocketing cost of rent. This makes it absolutely imperative for rent-stabilized tenants to maintain their rights and for these rights to be extended to tenants currently living without them. We must act swiftly to implement the bold policy of universal rent-control in order to protect tenants from market forces.

Close to half of the nearly 2.2 million housing rental units that exist in New York City are rent-stabilized. Tenants living in rent-stabilized units benefit from having the right to a renewal lease once their current lease expires, plus legal limits on how much their rents can be raised annually or biannually. Additionally, rent-stabilized tenants have succession rights, granting them the right to pass their unit on to a family member living in the unit.

All of these tenant protections provided under New York state law, however, are set to expire on June 15, 2019. In the upcoming legislative session, New York state legislators will be tasked with ensuring that we pass stronger rent laws before the June deadline. With the State Senate now having the largest Democratic majority we’ve seen since 1912, state legislators have a responsibility to not only extend the rent laws to protect all New York tenants, but to also eliminate the harmful loopholes that exist in the current laws.

The Flaws with our Rent Regulated System
Although certain tenants are protected under New York’s rent-regulated system, there are loopholes that exist within the system that landlords take advantage of in order to deregulate units and to push low-income tenants out. Currently, if a rent-regulated tenant’s monthly rent reaches above $2,733.75, the landlord becomes entitled with the right to deregulate the unit and subsequently raise the tenant’s rent to any amount they see fit or simply not renew the tenant’s lease. This phenomena—known as vacancy decontrol—is responsible for the loss of at least 155,664 rent-regulated units from the years of 1994 through 2017, according to the New York City Rent Guidelines Board.

Vacancy bonuses allow landlords of rent-regulated units to increase rents up to 20 percent to incoming tenants once an apartment is made vacant. This is an amount that is seven times more than any rent increase approved by the Rent Guidelines Board – the appointed board that determines yearly increases for rent-regulated tenants – in the previous five years.

The other two loopholes that landlords take advantage of to generate more profit through the rent laws are preferential rents and major capital improvements (MCIs).

Many tenants across the city are paying preferential rents, which are below the legal margin that landlords can mandate to be paid. Why is this a flaw within the rent-regulated system considering that tenants would benefit from paying lower rent? Unfortunately, it’s been widely proven that landlords provide these lower rents while simultaneously registering a higher, fraudulent legal rent to the state. Once a tenant’s lease is up for renewal the landlord could increase the tenant’s rent to the higher, fraudulent registered amount.

Landlords also use MCIs, building-wide improvements made through the landlord’s finances, to increase rents up to 6 percent. These increases all too often surpass the 6 percent margin and are permanent increases. Landlords also game the system by fraudulently claiming improvements they don’t make or more expensive improvements than they actually make.

Vacancy bonuses, MCIs, and preferential rents are all loopholes and tactics that landlords legally and illegally utilize to raise rents and eventually deregulate a unit through vacancy decontrol.

Housing Justice for All: the Platform
Bills to repeal the loopholes in our rent-regulated system have already been written and have been stalled from passing mostly because of the Republican-led state Senate and their outgoing allies (mostly in the former Independent Democratic Conference).

A bill to end vacancy decontrol has been introduced in the past by Linda B. Rosenthal in the Assembly (A433) and by soon-to-be Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in the Senate (S3482). Bills to eliminate vacancy bonuses have been introduced by Assembly Member Daniel J. O’ Donnell (A9815) and Senator Jose M. Serrano (S1593). Bills to prohibit landlords from adjusting the amount of preferential rent upon the renewal of a lease have been introduced by Assembly Member Steven Cymbrowitz (A6285) and Senator Liz Krueger (S6527). The offices of Senator Michael Gianaris and Assembly Member Brian Barnwell are working with the Housing Justice for All Coalition (HJFA) to write bills that would ban landlords from passing the costs of MCIs onto tenants forever (MCI costs would rather last to the end of each tenant’s lease from the moment the MCI officially took place).  

HJFA is a coalition of tenant advocates, tenant unions, and housing organizations from across the state that are demanding the passage of the bills cited above. On November 15, 2018, over 700 members of the coalition showed up to downtown Manhattan on a snowy and icy night to march for these demands and then some.

HJFA is fighting to extend current protections under our rent laws to tenants that live in buildings that are five units or fewer, including 1- to 2- family homes (with exception to those where landlords reside). This concept is known as universal rent control, a policy proposal that recent gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon and Lieutenant-Governor candidate Jumaane Williams, and Senator-elect Julia Salazar campaigned for.

Fifty-four counties across New York are not able to opt into having the rent-regulated protections that New York City tenants currently have, making them all vulnerable to predatory housing companies that use lax or non-existent rent regulations to push people out of their housing. HJFA is also demanding that renters across the state be granted the opportunity to bring rent controls to their communities through the expansion of the Emergency Tenant Protection Act (ETPA).

It is vitally important to point out that these demands have not yet taken the shape or form of a bill. And it is these additional demands that figures with authority, like Governor Cuomo, must deliver in 2019.   

Going Beyond: Truly Delivering for Tenants
Democrats were able to take full control of state government by flipping eight Republican-held Senate seats. As of January, they will hold a majority in the Assembly and in the Senate, and the Governor’s Office. The change in the political landscape in Albany grants a window of opportunity for our leaders to strengthen our rent laws to the degree that HJFA is outlining. Unfortunately, the Democratic leadership might not be too keen on setting the bar higher and delivering universal rent control, but may rather just flirt with the idea of eliminating loopholes.

Governor Cuomo recently came out in public support of ending vacancy decontrol. Although we may all applaud this statement, the fact of the matter is that this, along with ending MCIs, preferential rents, and vacancy bonuses, should be relatively easily accomplished as soon as we enter the next legislative session.

In 2015, when the rent laws were renewed only after facing a near two-week expiration, Cuomo coined an op-ed in the Daily News and expressed his full support for passing these basic reforms. He wrote, “We must eliminate vacancy decontrol or at the very least significantly raise vacancy decontrol thresholds; further limit vacancy bonuses to ensure landlords aren't rewarded financially for schemes to force tenants out; make major capital improvements and individual apartment improvement surcharges that go away once recovered by landlords, instead of ways of artificially raising a unit's monthly rent; and make the preferential rent operate as the legal rent for the life of the tenancy. These should be foundational elements of any new rent regulation legislation.” These were the words of our governor on June 6, 2015.

Gotham Gazette: Ending the various loopholes pertaining to our rent laws should be a given considering the blue wave that just occured. Leaders like Governor Cuomo with the power to push the rent regulation envelope further should not exclude from the discussion universal rent control and their support (or lack thereof) of the concept. Tenants in New York needed loopholes closed in 2015, and in 2019 the tenant movement requires protections for all tenants. Swiftly passing long-needed reform measures is important, while also tackling the challenges of today.

There will be no excuse for Governor Cuomo and other leaders if the Legislature simply passes the set of reforms the governor was calling for almost three years ago. The Republican majority is no more, the opportunity for real reform is there for the taking in 2019.

And let’s be clear: universal rent control is not a radical idea. In response to high inflation rates in 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted Federal Rent Control through the Emergency Price Control Act (EPCA), which allowed for “a universal, nationwide price regulatory system.” By 1950, we had 2.5 million units that were rent-regulated in New York, more than double the stock we have today.

New York City today faces an affordability crisis that it has not seen since the Great Depression and 89,000 people across the state live in homeless shelters, while tens of thousands of children sleep in insecure housing. Communities like Williamsburg, Brooklyn has seen over a quarter of their communities of color displaced. So-called economic development projects like bringing Amazon to Queens will only exacerbate the city’s affordability crisis, though stronger rent regulations would help stem the tide.

As Governor Cuomo wrote in 2015, “the crisis of affordability is back with a vengeance,” and it will continue unless we boldly act to provide protections for all of our tenants. Our task is simple and it requires the moral courage from our elected officials to stand up to real estate interests. We must prove to tenants that at a time when we have a corporate politician leading us awry in the White House that we don’t need a corporate Democrat doing so in Albany as well.

In 2019, there is no room for political posturing. We must act to not just end the loopholes within our current rent laws but also to extend protections to all renters. We must finally deliver for the largest constituency in New York, the tenant-renter constituency.   

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

Boris Santos is a former public school teacher, DSA member, and soon-to-be Chief of Staff to Senator-elect Julia Salazar.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Pushing the Envelope on Rent Reform in Albany 2019 Wed, 28 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Opponents of Democratic Senator Raise Questions About Past IDC Financial Support loft law presser

Senator Martin Dilan (Photo: Sen. Dilan's Office)

A campaign fundraising committee set up to bankroll the state Senators from the erstwhile Independent Democratic Conference was recently ruled to have been illegal by a state Supreme Court judge. Campaign finance records show that Brooklyn Senator Martin Dilan, who was never part of the IDC but is facing a tough primary challenge this year, was also a beneficiary of thousands of dollars spent by that committee for his last reelection campaign, a fact opponents are using as fodder to criticize his commitment to the Democratic base.

The Senate Independence Campaign Committee (SICC) was created in 2016 in an arrangement between the Republican-allied IDC, a conference but not political party led by Bronx Senator Jeff Klein, and the Independence Party. Klein chaired the SICC and funnelled about $1.4 million in total to his campaign and those of his fellow IDC members, allocating funds even after the IDC was dissolved in April, when its members rejoined the mainline Democratic conference. While there were questions about the legality of the SICC from its inception, there had been no legal rulings about it until recently.

A state Supreme Court judge ruled in June that the SICC arrangement was not compliant with state election law, and the state Board of Elections enforcement counsel, Risa Sugarman, subsequently called on the IDC members in a June 20 letter to return the contributions they had received from the SICC within 20 days. That deadline passed on Wednesday, and the senators have shown no indication that they intend to refund any of the donations. IDC members maintain that the issue identified by the court, which related to the party affiliation of the SICC leadership, has been resolved, and say that the judge did not order them to return any money. Sugarman declined to comment for this article.

Then or soon-to-be members of the IDC received various amounts of campaign money from the SICC last election cycle, two years ago, including about $540,000 that went to help Marisol Alcantara win a close, four-way Democratic primary, after which she joined the IDC. Like the other seven former members of the breakaway conference, Alcantara is facing a primary challenge this year.

In 2016, when Dilan was running for reelection and faced a primary challenge, the SICC spent about $8,000 in his favor. Dilan was the only member of the mainline Democratic conference to receive aid from the committee, a fact his primary opponent, Julia Salazar, a young democratic socialist, has highlighted. Dilan also got a $5,000 donation from Klein himself. “The fact that Senator Dilan accepted support from the IDC's illegal slush fund just two years ago raises troubling questions about where his loyalties lie,” said Michael Kinnucan, a Salazar campaign spokesperson, in an email. “The voters of District 18 deserve a senator who is accountable to his constituents, not to wealthy donors and Republican-linked special interests.”

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

Salazar, a community organizer, is running as a progressive from Dilan’s left, focusing on issues such as affordable housing, healthcare, and immigration while refusing donations from the real estate industry, which has been generous to Dilan and, even more so, to Klein and the IDC. She has criticized Dilan’s record, particularly on housing and tenant protections, over his eight terms in office, highlighting the rampant gentrification that has hit the northern Brooklyn district, which includes Williamsburg and Bushwick, and taking aim at his vote for vacancy decontrol, which he has since disavowed.

Graham Parker, a spokesperson for Dilan’s campaign, issued a scathing response to his opponents’ criticism of the SICC expenditures, without mentioning Salazar’s name at all. He said Dilan “was not considering, and has not considered leaving the Senate Democratic Conference.”

“These attacks and accusations only serve to hide who the opponent really is and who really backs her candidacy,” Parker said in an email. “[Salazar] has nearly $50 thousand in unitemized contributions. She hosts lavish fundraisers with Wall Street executives. Most all of her money is from out of the district. She lives in luxury, and decries displacement. She's a republican one year, a socialist the next. She is the exact opposite of what’s been portrayed. It’s fitting the [Working Families Party] supports her; they haven’t been about workers or families in a decade. It’s why the laborers left, and now support the Senator.”

The funds behind the SICC came from donors who are more often linked with Republicans -- including the real estate and charter school sectors -- which is anathema to several progressive challengers who are taking on Democratic incumbents across statewide races. At a Thursday news conference on the steps of City Hall, four of the eight candidates challenging the former IDC senators excoriated them for refusing to give the SICC funds back. They were joined by Bill Lipton, political director of the New York Working Families Party, which has endorsed the challengers as well as Salazar.

“I think it’s a really important data point that defines a certain type of Democrat,” Lipton said of the SICC expenditure for Dilan, shortly after the news conference. “That you would be willing to take money from a party that openly supports Republicans for Congress, openly has supported Republicans for state Senate and the money comes from some of the wealthiest people in the world. These hedge fund and real estate barons are extremely powerful and they support the Independence Party and they support candidates like Dilan and the IDC because they want their interests protected.”

The SICC money “suggests that he’s IDC-friendly,” Lipton said. It’s not clear if there was ever anything further than the 2016 expenditure to indicate that the IDC was recruiting Dilan or if he was at any point considering joining the breakaway faction. Dilan has had harsh words about the IDC in the past, saying in 2014, “They’re not Democrats, no matter what they say. They should all be disenrolled by the Democratic Party.”

Barbara Brancaccio, a Klein spokesperson, did not address the Dilan expenditure but had caustic criticism for the IDC challengers and the WFP. “There is no legal basis for returning these funds and the account is fully compliant, unlike their Working Fraud Party, who continues to violate finance and election laws in campaigns throughout New York State,” she said in a statement, before identifying three challengers to former IDC senators by name and making apparently unsubstantiated allegations against them.

“The recent flood of endorsements for Julia Salazar and IDC challengers demonstrate how electeds and key institutional players are following the cues of progressive grassroots activists,” said Susan Kang, a spokesperson for No IDC NY, a group opposing the former IDC members which has its own multi-candidate campaign committee. “Incumbents like Dilan with deeper connections to the real estate interests than his own constituents are out of the step with the current political moment,” she added.

The primary is September 13.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Opponents of Democratic Senator Raise Questions About Past IDC Financial Support Tue, 14 Aug 2018 02:38:55 +0000
Working Families Party Puts It All On The Line Cynthia Nixon, Jummane Williams, and Alessandra Biaggi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Read: New York Democrats’ Season of Choosing]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Working Families Party Puts It All On The Line Thu, 02 Aug 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Running for State Senate, Julia Salazar Attempts Progressive Primary Upset  julia salazar campaign photo w supporters

Julia Salazar, middle in black (photo: Salazar campaign website)

The Harlem apartment where Julia Salazar lived in 2013 while completing her undergraduate work at Columbia, where she majored in Middle Eastern Studies, was falling apart.

It was run “by a totally abusive management company, a neglectful landlord,” Salazar, 27, told Gotham Gazette. “They didn’t heat the building adequately in the winter, failed to make repairs that were really urgent. Some people had been waiting for well over a year for really serious stuff to just make our apartments liveable.”

It was, in a word, decrepit. So she organized. Salazar, 22 at the time, “looked on the city’s website” and discovered that the tenants could legally stage a rent strike “if done the right way.”

“I talked to my neighbors and my roommates and organized us to withhold our rent for three months. And it led to us going to housing court with the management company, and we won concessions from them,” Salazar said. The tenants did not have to pay back the rent they withheld during the strike, and necessary repairs were made, she said.

But the organizing had negative consequences, too. Most of the building’s units were not rent-stabilized, the management company raised rents “super-high,” and Salazar was displaced.

“What this represented to me was that this is a systemic problem and it demands a systemic solution,” she told Gotham Gazette. “Ultimately, it got me thinking: How do we systemically change these problems through policy?”

After additional years of organizing around issues of housing, economic, racial, and criminal justice, Salazar is now eyeing elected office. She is running to represent parts of northern Brooklyn in the New York State Senate, staging a primary challenge against incumbent Democratic state Senator Martin Malavè Dilan, who is running for his ninth two-year term and represents Senate District 18. The election is September 13.

Gotham Gazette spoke with Salazar at her campaign headquarters along a quiet road in Bushwick, near what seemed to be an industrial park, on Saturday afternoon. Outside the beige, one-story building was a folding table with ballot petition sheets, pamphlets on the candidate, and “Salazar for State Senate” pins; a chalkboard beckoned visitors, in Spanish and English, to enter and register to vote.

In a small room adjacent to the main campaign space, which was full of canvassing materials, maps of the district, and busy-seeming young adults, Salazar explained the path that led to her candidacy, an uphill battle against a long-time incumbent buoyed by new progressive energy and momentum behind candidates like her. A first-time candidate for office, Salazar paused before answering questions, and her answers did not appear canned, as if she’d already delivered them hundreds of times. She clearly articulated her motivation to run, largely staying away from attacks on Dilan.

Salazar is centering housing justice in her campaign to represent a district containing neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Greenpoint that, by some measures, have experienced the city’s most severe gentrification.

“In North Brooklyn, from Greenpoint to Cypress Hill, every inch of the district, people see the effects of lack of regulation in the housing market, the lack of affordable housing, and the failure to protect tenants. So, for me, it’s a very apparent issue,” she told Gotham Gazette.

So Salazar’s calling for universal rent control, which she says is attainable through a package of policies: expansion of the rent stabilization system throughout the state, capping the amount landlords can raise rent annually, and ending vacancy decontrol, vacancy bonuses, and improvement-induced rent increases, all technical mechanisms that allow landlords to raise rents.

She called it “egregious” that housing justice is not a more visible political issue, especially in North Brooklyn, where, she said, “a lot of community members have long been trying to pressure Senator Dilan to change his course on housing policy to end vacancy decontrol,” which allows landlords to charge market price, if it’s at least $2,000, for rent-controlled properties when their tenants leave. Dilan voted to institute vacancy decontrol in New York City while on the City Council in 1994, but has publicly expressed regret at his vote and has sponsored several unsuccessful repeal bills in the Senate, where, during most of his tenure, the Democrats have  been in the minority. Current rent laws will expire in 2019 and will be largely renegotiated on the state level from January to June of next year. Those crafting and negotiating the details of the legislation, including the governor, will be elected or reelected this fall.

On her campaign website, Salazar critiques her opponent as part of “the political machine in North Brooklyn,” and vowed, at a Monday cross-endorsement rally with gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, to “replace legislators in Albany who have failed to advocate for tenants.” A Dilan campaign spokesperson did not provide a comment for this story.

Thus far, at least, Salazar is running a largely positive campaign, with a focus on what she wants to see out of Albany. While at the endorsement rally in Bushwick’s Maria Hernandez Park, Nixon railed against Dilan and Governor Cuomo, her opponent, calling them both “corporate Democrats,” but Salazar did not mention Dilan by name in her prepared remarks.

Most of Salazar’s campaign platform makes maximalist, rather than incrementalist, demands. In addition to supporting universal rent control, she advocates for the elimination of cash bail, free tuition at CUNY and SUNY schools, and Medicare for All, and she’s rejected corporate donations. Salazar is a member and endorsee of the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (NYC-DSA), the burgeoning left-wing organization that recently helped another one of its members, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, defeat Rep. Joe Crowley of Queens and the Bronx in a primary upset that sent shockwaves nationally. Salazar’s platform is rooted in her theory of change — she refuses to “make political concessions from the outset” — and, like Ocasio-Cortez and NYC-DSA, she articulates broad, concise visions.

Salazar told Gotham Gazette that “the language of universal rent control is kind of radical. The development lobby and for-profit real estate developers have so much power and are so entrenched in our political system in many ways that these demands seem out-of-reach for so many people, even housing advocates, but it’s policy that all tenants want. There’s still a gap in political imagination.”

Recent events have shown that the boundaries of the political imagination may prove weaker than is generally accepted. For instance, the stance to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcements was, until quite recently, the domain of the Democratic Party’s leftist fringe. Ocasio-Cortez was one of the first national political figures to hold that position, and, since her victory last month, “Abolish ICE” has become a mainstream Democratic position with stunning speed, endorsed within the past two weeks alone by U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, and Mayor Bill de Blasio. Salazar, for her part, would also like to see ICE abolished.

However, Salazar warned of ideas becoming diluted when they leave the Left and enter the mainstream, province of politicians and political expediency: “What really matters is that we want to make these ideas mainstream as long as we maintain the integrity of the idea,” she said. “We need to be explicit in these demands, as much as sometimes it’s tedious to talk about the technicalities of policy to people who don’t live and breathe politics and policy.”

Her politics are informed heavily by what she calls her “lived experience and class experience.” Salazar was born in Colombia in 1990 and moved as a baby to South Florida, where her mother raised her and her brother.

“She really struggled to support me and my brother financially,” Salazar said. “I started working when I was 14 in a grocery store, then through high school in the service industry, then as a domestic worker through college at Columbia.”

Entering Columbia in 2009 immediately after high school, Salazar found her first opportunities to become involved in social justice work, joining the Israel/Palestine activism scene as a member of J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace. The Ivy League school also exposed her, for the first time, to immense wealth, and was instrumental in developing her class consciousness and progressive politics. Salazar said that Columbia “is an institution with an immense amount of wealth, with a lot of people who had gone to private school, who had resources their entire lives that were shocking to me.”

After Columbia, which she did not graduate from, Salazar began grassroots organizing in New York City more heavily. She is currently a staff organizer in Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, a partner in Communities United for Police Reform, and active as a member of NYC-DSA. Her work has often centered around police accountability — Salazar campaigned extensively for the passage of the Right to Know Act, a city legislative package providing protections for civilians and restrictions on police during encounters, and recently published an essay in Jacobin on sexual assault at the hands of NYPD officers.

She was engaged in extensive legislative advocacy, describing herself as “on the forefront” of the citywide push for the passage of the Right to Know Act and involved with state police accountability measures, as well. The experience shaped her views of the New York political system: “Driving buses of advocates up to Albany to demand special prosecutor legislation and ultimately, after going back to the same legislators over and over again, making what we know are common-sense demands, you get to the point where you just think, ‘We have to replace these people.’”

Salazar was in Nashua, New Hampshire with her union, the United Automobile Workers, for whom she organized during a contract dispute at Barnard College, on Election Day in 2016. They were there on a get-out-the-vote campaign, and, she said, “collectively, we all felt certain that Hillary Clinton would win. When the results came in, it was really, really devastating...My heart hasn’t stopped racing since that moment, basically.”

The election of Donald Trump was a clarifying moment for many on the Left, and it sparked a well-covered surge in progressive activism nationwide — the Democratic Socialists of America, for instance, gained over 1,000 members in the single day following the election. For many, like Ocasio-Cortez, Nixon, Salazar, and their supporters, there has been a reevaluation of what kind of Democrat is acceptable, and an interest in running primaries against those not deemed sufficiently progressive. In New York, this shift has also produced primary challengers to the eight state senators who formerly made up the Independent Democratic Conference, which formed a ruling coalition with Senate Republicans.

“The Trump Administration has motivated more people, myself included,” Salazar said, “to shift our focus to trying to effect change as much as we possibly can at the city and state level, where we have more control, where we can effect change in a practical sense and also do harm reduction in response to federal policies across the board.”

So when three friends from NYC-DSA approached her in the beginning of 2018 about running for the state Senate seat in District 18, Salazar took their urgings seriously.

“I really love being a community organizer and a labor organizer…at first I didn’t even consider it,” she said. “But after a while of deliberating and going back-and-forth, I committed to doing it.” She finalized her decision in March, and publicly announced her run in April.

Since then, Salazar has been mounting a campaign in North Brooklyn based on grassroots organizing principles. It’s composed of Salazar, three paid staff members, and “hundreds of volunteers,” she said. She emphasized her efforts to “meet community members and voters where they are, and have our ear to the ground” — one of her goals is to use “the campaign to amplify the organizing that’s already being done in the community,” especially around housing justice. DSA members have been showing up to the Bushwick campaign headquarters to sign up for canvassing shifts, and the organization has helped inform Salazar’s electoral strategy and path to victory.

The similarities to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are striking — both are Latina democratic socialist challengers of outer-borough Democratic incumbents — and many, including Nixon, have drawn comparisons between the two. In announcing its endorsement of Salazar, New York Communities for Change described her as “the next Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.” On Twitter, Ocasio-Cortez pushed back against the direct comparison, writing that “[Julia Salazar] isn’t the next me, she’s the first HER.”

Salazar volunteered for Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign and knows her personally from their time in NYC-DSA. In fact, the pair canvassed together several weeks before Ocasio-Cortez’s primary election, and Salazar’s staff members and volunteers helped with her get-out-the-vote drive.

With her seat in the U.S. House of Representatives nearly assured, Ocasio-Cortez has “definitely” played a role in the Salazar campaign, Salazar said. “A bunch of people from her campaign have already come out to canvas multiple times,” Salazar told Gotham Gazette, and the vocal, public support of her DSA-comrade-turned-national-figure has been welcomed gratefully. Also on Twitter Monday, Ocasio-Cortez urged her followers to “return the favor” to Salazar and “help her get on the ballot for September.” That tweet, to date, has been retweeted almost 4,500 times and received over 24,000 likes.

Ocasio-Cortez and Nixon cross-endorsed each other the day before the congressional primary, and Nixon appeared at Ocasio-Cortez’s victory party, where she told NY1 television that her campaign is of the same ilk. Nixon’s Monday event with Salazar struck the same theme. This time, the cross-endorsement comes a little more than two months before both women will be on the ballot, attempting to dethrone deeply entrenched incumbents. Beneath a cloudless sky and in 90-degree heat, Bushwick residents and members of New York Communities for Change, an activist organization backing both candidates, spoke of the issues facing their community — high rents, soaring cost of living, financial precarity — before Nixon and Salazar made their cases for themselves, each other, and their shared political vision.

“As true progressives,” Salazar said to the crowd of 30 gathered in a Brooklyn neighborhood with over half of its residents rent-burdened, an incarceration rate 1.5 times the city average, and the city’s third-highest uninsured rate, “we don’t operate from a position of scarcity, but from a position of abundance.”

by Daniel Yadin for Gotham Gazette

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Note: this article has been corrected to reflect that Salazar did not graduate from Columbia.

Running for State Senate, Julia Salazar Attempts Progressive Primary Upset Tue, 03 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Ocasio-Cortez and Democratic Socialists Boost Each Other Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez NYC DSA socialism

Ocasio-Cortez and DSA (image: NYC DSA)

Donald Trump was a boon to the Democratic Socialists of America, or DSA. The organization, founded in the early 1970s, had comfortably maintained between 5,000 and 10,000 members for most of its existence. But on the first day following Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, over 1,000 individuals joined DSA. Between November 2016 and July 2017, DSA gained over 13,000 new members. As of now, there are over 30,000 Democratic Socialists of America, and, after a shocking upset in last Tuesday’s New York congressional primaries, one appears headed to the United States House of Representatives.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory over Rep. Joe Crowley — the “King of Queens,” ten-term incumbent, chair of the House Democratic Caucus and shortlisted successor of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — stunned the political world, and it all but guarantees that the 28-year-old member of DSA’s New York City chapter, NYC-DSA, will head to Washington, D.C., in January.

Ocasio-Cortez’s win is another big boost to DSA, especially its New York City branch, and DSA helped her pull off the event that sent shockwaves throughout local and national politics. NYC-DSA co-chair Abdullah Younus told Gotham Gazette that the local chapter canvassed for Ocasio-Cortez and provided her with political guidance.

“This is nothing short of a political earthquake,” said Younus. “Every corporate-funded politician should be terrified.”

In an interview with Gotham Gazette, Younus described the Democratic Socialists of America as a “grassroots, member-driven organization.” It is not a political party, but an activist organization with an array of chapters in 47 states and Washington, D.C., united under the rule of the 16-person National Political Committee, which guides and helps implement DSA’s political goals.

The New York City chapter is the nation’s largest, with over 3,000 members as of last November. It describes Governor Andrew Cuomo as “a major roadblock for any progressive agenda,” the New York State Legislature as “corrupt to its core,” and Mayor Bill de Blasio as “a major disappointment.”

It endorsed Ocasio-Cortez in late April. She had been running for the Democratic nomination to represent District 14, covering parts of Queens and the Bronx, in the U.S. House of Representatives since the previous May, and approached NYC-DSA for its endorsement.

Ocasio-Cortez’s platform largely aligns with DSA’s leftist values. She centered her campaign on racial, social, and economic justice, with a heavy focus on housing affordability, and has called for universal health care coverage, a federal jobs guarantee, and the abolition and investigation of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). She regularly provides variations of her belief that “in a modern, moral, and wealthy society, no person in America should be too poor to live," as she said on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and has said, “to me, what socialism means is to guarantee everyone a basic level of dignity,” according to NYC-DSA.

NYC-DSA runs a citywide Electoral Working Group that recruits and supports socialists running for local election, operating what Younus termed a “candidate recruiting pipeline.” The Electoral Working Group contacts individuals interested in running for public office and discusses with them the prospects of a political run, focusing efforts on women, people of color, and working-class New Yorkers.

Once she’d received the approval of the Electoral Working Group, different organizational branches, and, ultimately, the citywide group, Ocasio-Cortez gained access to NYC-DSA’s veritable army of canvassers. NYC-DSA members knocked on “thousands of doors” throughout District 14 in support of Ocasio-Cortez, collected voter data, and assisted with funding, according to Younus. Ocasio-Cortez was buoyed by small-dollar donations and used the comparison to Crowley’s heavily-corporate-funded campaign to make her case as someone in tune with the community who would not be influenced by large donors.

NYC-DSA has offered its endorsement sparingly. The only other candidate in New York City currently endorsed by the organization is Julia Salazar, an organizer running for New York State Senate in Northern Brooklyn’s District 18, where she is attempting to unseat state Senator Martin Dilan in the Democratic primary set for September 13.

“We keep it generally limited so that we don’t just do paper endorsements,” Younus told Gotham Gazette. “We do real endorsements...our strength is our ability to knock on doors. If a person approaches us that we’re willing to endorse, we’re going to donate our labor.”

Nationwide, DSA is emerging as a significant political force. Dozens of DSA members are running for elected office, according to The New York Times, and “socialism” is hardly the dirty word it once was, especially among young Americans. DSA appears to be part of the energy moving the Democratic Party, and many of its elected officials, leftward, while also working to replace some of them. On the other hand, the presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders, who was endorsed by DSA, and, now, the victory by Ocasio-Cortez have heightened public criticism by many on the right of “socialism,” where it is typically conflated with communist, authoritarian regimes, like Cuba’s, as opposed to modern European models, like in Sweden, that are guided by socialist principles. Those critics have also raised questions about Ocasio-Cortez's and other Democratic Socialists' views on raising taxes and allowing more immigrants into the country, among other issues.

The New York City chapter of DSA is “absolutely” expecting to see an uptick in interest from prospective candidates seeking its endorsement and resources, said Younus, and the infrastructure to handle an influx in electoral work is said to be in place.

“The more we rattle the establishment,” he continued, “the more we empower people who otherwise would not have considered seeking office because of the entrenched power involved.”

These remarks echo Ocasio-Cortez’s, delivered as she watched the results from the primary election roll in: “We meet a machine with a movement.”

by Daniel Yadin for Gotham Gazette

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Ocasio-Cortez and Democratic Socialists Boost Each Other Sun, 01 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000