Gotham Gazette Sat, 06 Mar 2021 04:29:59 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) New York Looks to Georgia with Senate Control and Much More on the Line schu cuomo feds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

New York Looks to Georgia with Senate Control and Much More on the Line Mon, 14 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
State Inaction Means New York City Won't Launch Online Voter Registration Before 2020 Deadline online voter sep

Voter registration (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

A bill that would have made it possible for many thousands of New York City residents to register to vote online, which passed the State Senate but stalled in the Assembly earlier this year, is unlikely to pass before the general election registration deadline and would be too late to be implemented even if it did, officials say.

The legislation, first introduced in the summer of 2019, would allow the New York City Campaign Finance Board to open the online voter registration portal it created last year, pursuant to city law, which was blocked by the New York City Board of Elections, citing technical barriers in state law. After a chaotic primary season, the bill was passed by the State Senate's Democratic majority as part of a package of voting reforms, but was held in committee in the Assembly.

Assembly Member Charles Lavine, a Nassau County Democrat and chair of the chamber's election law committee, said the chances of lawmakers coming back into session before the general election was unlikely and the prospect of them taking up online voter registration in New York City was "very, very slim." 

"This was something that came through the Senate very, very late, I think in late July and at that point the Assembly was primarily focused on a bill Latrice Walker had for statewide automatic voter registration," Lavine said, referring to legislation that would require some government agencies to register their clients starting in 2023, a form of which voting reform advocates have pushed for years.

"We still are considering this particular bill, however the likelihood of it being passed in time to make any meaningful difference, any difference whatsoever, this year is not likely," he said of online registration. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie's office and Assemblymember Michael Blake, the bill's sponsor, did not respond to requests for comment on the status of the bill and why it hasn't advanced.

Lavine says it's unclear whether Heastie will call the body back into session before the election. "If we do go back to session, in all likelihood we'll be very preoccupied with issues involving state spending," he said, citing uncertainty around additional federal aid and referring to the state’s immense budget hole due to a massive drop in tax revenue because of the covid-related shutdown.

Matthew Sollars, a spokesperson for the Campaign Finance Board, told Gotham Gazette that at this late stage the portal would not be ready to launch by the October 9 registration deadline to vote in the general election. Early voting is set to occur October 24 through November 1, Election Day is November 3, and every eligible New Yorker is allowed to vote by absentee ballot due to coronavirus concerns.

With the presidency, state, and local offices on the ballot, the fall election is expected to shatter turnout records. State administrators are anticipating turnout to reach 8 million -- nearly three-quarters of the total registered population in a state that regularly lags behind national turnout rates.

The online voter registration bill would let New York City residents register via a Campaign Finance Board website until the state launches its own portal for all New York State residents, which was originally slated for April 2021. But one state election commissioner told Gotham Gazette that work on the state portal had been temporarily delayed due to fiscal belt-tightening, which could mean New York City residents will lack online registration through the consequential mayoral and other city government primaries in June 2021.

Voter registration has long faltered in New York City and State, where election rules are antiquated and cumbersome, and avenues to get on the rolls are limited. But in the first ten weeks of 2020, registration at both the city and state levels exceeded 2016 figures. Then the pandemic hit New York.

In mid-March, around the time Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio declared states of emergency, the rate of registrations dropped significantly, falling below 2016 levels. By June, only about 80,000 New York City residents registered to vote, compared with 155,000 in the first half of 2016, according to the Campaign Finance Board. The divide between New York City and the rest of the state also widened during the pandemic, with new registrants outside of New York City surpassing 140,000 by June.

In 2017, the New York City Council passed a law mandating the development of an online voter registration system that would transmit a voter's information electronically to the BOE. The portal was developed by the city's Campaign Finance Board and ready to launch in 2019, but the BOE said the system, which allowed for only an electronic signature, violated the state's signature stipulations.

In June 2019, the BOE voted to require that people who register through the portal be mailed a separate form that they would have to sign and send back. Good government groups decried the decision, saying it made the city's online voter registration more complicated, not less. Since the decision, the Campaign Finance Board and voting advocates have been pushing legislators to pass the state bill authorizing the city's portal.

"We urge our state leadership to protect our democracy during this emergency by establishing an online voter registration system that all New Yorkers can access,” said Amy Loprest, executive director of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, in a statement on March 31. “With in-person voter registration events shut down, we are concerned that young voters and naturalized citizens, in particular, will be disenfranchised during this critical election year.”

The state law to create statewide online registration by 2021, passed before the BOE ruling and did not address the city's problem.

Currently, the only online voter registration in the state is through the Department of Motor Vehicles and requires a driver's license or other DMV-issued ID. In New York City, where public transportation options are abundant, DMV registrations accounted for only one in ten voter registration forms received by the Board of Elections, according to the Campaign Finance Board's annual election report in 2018.

More than 700,000 eligible New York City residents do not have a state driver's license or other DMV identification, according to a CFB spokesperson, who pointed out that over 430,000 young people (ages 18-29) qualify to be registered but are not.

"This was a bill that I think would have been really good to have passed earlier in the year and signed into law," said State Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat, the bill's Senate sponsor, and Lavine's elections chair counterpart in the Legislature’s upper chamber, in a recent interview. "It would have been really helpful for us to give New Yorkers the option to register online, particularly when we have a system that is ready to go."

"It’s frustrating to know that an already created portal to allow New York City residents to register to vote online is waiting for the green light from the legislature at a time when enrollment has dropped significantly from where it was in prior presidential election years," wrote Jennifer Wilson, deputy director of the New York State League of Women Voters, a good government group, in an email.

Lavine said a number of obstacles prevented the bill from passing this year with its Senate companion, including the BOE's own limitations.

"We had staff members who had reached out to the city Board of Elections and they were preoccupied with trying to get ready for the November general election, which is understandable," Lavine said.

"No comment," wrote BOE spokesperson Valerie Vazquez in an email.

"Generally speaking, a lot of bills that concern the city Board of Elections will come from the city Board of Elections, which is not to say that this not a good idea, it is a good idea but it is still being analyzed," Lavine said.

Lavine also blamed cultural differences between the Senate and Assembly that give individual senators greater autonomy from the majority leader. "It is much easier for senators in the majority to get those passed. In the Assembly we have to take into consideration the fact that there are on any given day close to 110 members of the Assembly who are in the majority party. While in the Senate, we have 37 or 38 senators in the majority. Senate staff is allocated primarily to senators and in the Assembly we have a much stronger central staff, so it's a differently balanced system and has been for as long as I've been in the Assembly."

"This is how it goes sometimes. I'm going to continue to push and my hope is that we can get it across the finish line," Myrie told Gotham Gazette.

Even with citywide online voter registration off the table for the presidential election, the system could still be in place for next year's elections for mayor and other city offices. According to State Board of Elections Co-Chair Douglas Kellner, work on the state's online registration portal, which was slated to be up and running by April, had been paused for over four months due to budget cuts in response to New York's fiscal crisis.

"The funding had been suspended by the budget office shortly after the budget was adopted but it was unfrozen thanks to efforts by Senator Liz Krueger a couple of weeks ago," Kellner said over the phone. "So now it's back in process."

The citywide primaries, which are in most districts all but decisive in the heavily Democratic city, will take place in June 2021. Asked whether the temporary budget freeze would impact the April deadline, he said: "Somewhat, yes. As I say it's now back on the front burner and people are working on it, which was not the case from April until mid-August."

[See options for registering to vote by the October 9 deadline for this fall's elections here]

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

State Inaction Means New York City Won't Launch Online Voter Registration Before 2020 Deadline Thu, 24 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
We Should Never Have to Choose Between Life and Democracy in person voting pandemic

In-person voting during a pandemic (photo: Gotham Gazette)

We should never have to decide between public health and democracy. We must have both.

We hoped that voter suppression was a thing of the past, and yet it is still present not just in the South but in the South Bronx and across the country.

We are witnessing a public health and democratic crisis that must be addressed immediately—otherwise, lives will be taken as electoral gains are also stolen.  

In short, the coronavirus crisis has cast a light on the deteriorating health of American democracy, and it’s time we act urgently.

In the midst of a global pandemic, state and local governments have had to adjust the way voters participate in elections to minimize transmission of COVID-19 and keep people safe, including using early voting and mail-in ballots so that people have options to cast their vote.

However, the past few months have shown that our electoral system is still in dire need of repair. The fact that it is taking weeks to count ballots in the South Bronx, for example, does not bode well for upcoming elections—the most important of which is defeating Donald Trump in November. 

In Pennsylvania, tens of thousands of voters received their ballots in the mail after the election had passed. Baltimore residents had to wait more than a week longer to receive their ballots than residents of the other parts of Maryland. More than 1,000 voters in New Mexico were disenfranchised because their mail-in ballots arrived too late to be counted on Election Day.  

In Georgia, tens of thousands of voters had yet to receive their ballots by mail on the day before the primary election, and more than 10% of in-person polling places in the state had been closed, forcing many voters to wait for hours in line at those sites that remained open. 

Unfortunately, in New York’s June primary elections, we saw more of the same—delayed or missing ballots causing the disenfranchisement of people unable to leave their homes due to health concerns; polling places closed or moved without explanation; lifelong Democrats told to submit an affidavit ballot because their party status was somehow in question; voters forced to wait hours in line in the midst of a pandemic.

There were just under 800,000 absentee ballots sent out by the New York City Board of Elections and more than 400,000 absentee ballots returned by voters. However, we still have no clarity on the actual number of people who never received their ballots or received them late, nor the actual timetable of when the ballots were mailed out in the first place.

We also still don't know why the top voting Black polling place in my Assembly District (the 79th) was moved nor why several of our polling places were opened late nor why so many persons were only given presidential primary ballots nor why so many largely Black polling places have two-hour-plus lines due to insufficient equipment and scanners going down. Some may call these all innocent errors, but there's simply too much consistency to ignore, too much likely intentionality to overlook.

When the government needs to contact us to collect money, the mail system works seamlessly. However, from delayed stimulus checks earlier this year to now delayed ballots, we are not helping our fellow Americans to recover and exercise their right to participate in our democracy.

Simply put, it is unacceptable that untold numbers of Americans are being asked to literally risk their lives to participate in the electoral process because of the inadequacies of the vote-by-mail system and boards of elections. 

I am proposing the following set of remedies.

First, all poll workers must receive non-partisan training, be treated as skilled employees with approved certification, and have no connection to any candidate or campaign. Moreover, the leadership and staff at boards of elections should always be independently appointed.

Second, there must be a public schedule that explicitly sets forth when ballots should be received by voters in the mail, ensuring some degree of government accountability. In addition, there must be a tracking system to notify voters of ballot distribution and arrival, just as there would be for any package purchased online. 

Third, if someone is found to have participated in voter suppression, he or she must be immediately referred to the New York State Attorney General for investigation.

Fourth, we must ensure that devices at polling places are able to identify a voter who lives within that site's jurisdiction so that people are not unjustly turned away from their polling site or forced to submit an affidavit ballot.

Fifth, the public must be given transparency as to why a person is asked to vote by affidavit ballot or has had their ballot invalidated. My team has identified several hundred affidavit ballots that were initially deemed invalid, many for simply undemocratic reasons such as a person who is confirmed by the Board of Elections to be a Democrat had their ballot invalidated because they didn’t check a box  for why they were voting by affidavit. What if the person didn’t know why they were being forced to vote affidavit or the poll worker didn’t actually have a reason?

Sixth, there must be emergency allocations for local boards of elections and postal services to have sufficient capacity prior to the election. In the event that legal action is required in the 15th Congressional District -- or elsewhere -- to review the election results, that election should not be certified until the legal action is resolved. This should be the standard across the board.

Seventh, wherever possible, a public hearing and approval process must be established prior to moving a polling site.

It pains me to think that this undemocratic process has occurred over the course of many decades. Anyone who has contributed to the intentional disenfranchisement and suppression of voters should be ashamed, as your silence has led to the voices of New Yorkers not being heard.

If you voted by affidavit or absentee ballot, you should demand an immediate answer as to whether your ballot has been deemed valid and counted in this electoral contest. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers are thinking right now that their vote was counted, but unbeknownst to them, and for some undisclosed reason, their ballot was in fact voided. We should not have to sift through countless reams of paper to discover that New Yorkers—especially those in low-income, Black and brown neighborhoods—are being unfairly disenfranchised and suppressed.

The reforms outlined above are necessary because these issues are not theoretical. A recent study found that Wisconsin’s decision to hold an in-person election in April led to a substantial spike in coronavirus infections. In other words, these election-related issues are a matter of life and death. If we’re going to offer the early and mail-in voting that we should, it must work, and work well, to ensure that New Yorkers and all American voters have their right to vote protected and ensured.

As I continue to cry and mourn the loss of Civil Rights icon Rep. John Lewis, whom I had the honor to meet several times and bestowed upon me one of his final endorsements, my spirit reflects heavily on one of his many profound sayings: "If you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something about it." As we enter the fourth week after our election with so many unresolved problems, I'm writing this because we have a moral obligation to end the voter disenfranchisement and suppression that occurs across New York State and this country.

Countless numbers of our ancestors marched, bled, and died for the inalienable right to vote.  We shouldn’t have to risk death to vote again.

Michael Blake is a member of the state Assembly and candidate for Congress in the Bronx. On Twitter @MrMikeBlake.

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We Should Never Have to Choose Between Life and Democracy Sat, 18 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
A Pandemic and A Primary in the Most Impoverished Congressional District in the Country Ritchie Torres Ruben Diaz Sr congress

Ritchie Torres looks at Ruben Díaz Sr. (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

This story, and the series it is a part of, has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.


New York City has had very limited success in the voter turnout department for congressional elections in recent years. For the 2018 congressional primaries, the turnout did go up — to 11 percent, from a shockingly low 8 percent in 2016. Though the Bronx was part of a huge surge in turnout for state elections in 2018, the last primary election to take place in the borough’s heavily-Democratic 15th congressional district, in 2016, netted a voter turnout of just under 3 percent.

That’s during ordinary times in a district that encompasses south and west Bronx neighborhoods including Hunts Point, Melrose, Tremont, Fordham, and Bedford Park, which collectively make up the country’s poorest and most nonwhite district.

To add to the structural obstacles, would-be voters are now contending with the swirling maelstrom of a still-ongoing pandemic that has ravaged poorer communities in the global epicenter of New York, and its vast social and economic consequences; a mass popular uprising against police brutality that was met with a heavy-handed response from the NYPD; and confusion over whether the primary is even taking place, and if so, in what format.

The 15th congressional district has been one of the hardest hit by the novel coronavirus in what is thus far the most affected city in the country. A mix of higher prevalence of pre-existing conditions and higher concentrations of essential workers who couldn’t work from home has led to higher death rates in the Bronx and a dire socio-economic picture.

Beyond that, the district has some special political upheaval and intrigue this year: an “open” congressional seat, up for grabs for the first time in 30 years. Longtime Rep. José Serrano announced last year that he would not be seeking reelection following a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, setting off a scramble to succeed him.

Even by normal-year standards, it’s a crowded race with a deep bench of political figures with history in the district, many of whom have been waiting for just such an opportunity. No fewer than five of the primary contenders are current or former elected officials — City Council Members Ritchie Torres, Ydanis Rodríguez, and Rubén Díaz Sr.; Assemblymember Michael Blake (who is also a national vice chair of the Democratic National Committee); and former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

Also in the race are Samelys López, a community organizer and former aide to Serrano who has received the endorsement of the Democratic Socialists of America and the Working Families Party, as well as progressive heavy hitters like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders; Chivona Newsome, a former financial advisor who co-founded Black Lives Matter of Greater New York; Tomas Ramos, a program director at the Bronx River Community Center; and a handful of others from outside the established political channels.

“I watched a panel the other day, and there were about five candidates that I wasn't even aware were running that were on that panel talk,” said Ed Mundo, a city tunnels and bridges worker who said he’s lived on the same South Bronx street since he was six years old. Mundo volunteers for a few community organizations, is active in pro-bike advocacy, and is more politically engaged than most of his neighbors, yet he still feels that there is precious little information trickling out about the candidates and the election.

In the current moment of crisis, Mundo worries that “a lot of folks are not aware there is a primary. So many folks are just accustomed to the November elections, see whoever is on that ballot, then they vote.”

The race has become particularly high-profile as a result of its position at the intersection of several broader political currents and movements — longtime political establishment versus insurgent outsiders; the chance to shift the balance of power for the first time in decades; the acute power of federal policy-making during moments of crisis in particular. There’s also the Díaz Sr. factor, as a long-serving, socially-conservative Democrat with strong name recognition, a solid base of support, and a polarizing presence is within striking distance of victory. He has no dearth of critics in the district, a fact that has seemed not to phase him; in fact, he appears to thrive in controversy. His presence in the race has driven local and national attention to the primary.

For the residents of the district, it’s an opportunity to collectively exert real influence, and the race has appeared very much up in the air. Motivating even small groups to turn out can make all the difference, lifting the voices of those living in a district with such great needs.

Several campaigns told Gotham Gazette that they were focused on providing support and services to the community in lieu of pure campaigning. “What we do is we ask people how they're feeling, how they're doing. If they need anything, if they need an errand to run, if they have a need for food,” López said in late May.

“Whenever my volunteers and I are out in the field,” said Torres, “we're limiting ourselves to distributing food and PPE and doing no electioneering out in the field at the moment. The reason for which is simple: campaigning, business as usual, would come off as insensitive to the deep suffering in the South Bronx.”

Newsome said she had her volunteers teaching people how to file for unemployment, and had been riding around the Bronx in a truck with supplies including diapers and baby food. Mark-Viverito has been working with a local restaurant to provide meals to undocumented residents. Not everyone has executed this notion without controversy; Díaz Sr. has been accused of piggybacking off of food distribution events that neither his office nor campaign was involved in to raise his profile, distribute campaign materials and electioneer.

The aid strategy has also been embraced by community organizations, who are focused on simultaneously providing the type of support that their members and clients have always relied on them for, while gently prodding them to exercise their civic voice in the election.

“We started doing care packages, and in those care packages we have a bunch of those safety supplies, some tea, some canned foods, some Asian groceries and veggies. And then we've also put resources and materials in there,” said Khamarin Nhann, campaign director for Mekong NYC, which provides community organizing, cultural activities, assistance with public benefits, and other social services for the Southeast Asian community. These materials include those related to the 2020 Census, access to health care, and elections, including information about where to vote and how to vote in-person and via mail.

The question of tone is one that comes up often as a contentious, high-stakes election unfolds amid a multi-faceted humanitarian crisis. There is real and obvious devastation throughout the district. Yet the overlapping crises to some degree present the opportunity to very plainly tie the political questions at stake to Bronxites’ lived experiences. Questions related to jobs, affordable housing, food security, health care, and police relations have never been abstract in what is the poorest and most nonwhite district in the country, but the pandemic and the social unrest have brought everything into stark relief.

“There are absolutely competing needs for our folks. We've seen our members really struggle with food or worried that when the eviction moratorium ends, will they become homeless and what that looks like,” said Sandra Lobo, the executive director of the Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC). “What we've tried to do is really equip our folks with an understanding, a deeper analysis that, what they do, how they vote, and how they organize, absolutely impacts what's next for all of us.”

This has involved emphasizing that none of these issues exist in isolation, and in fact they compound; any effort to tackle the current emergencies must also tackle the circumstances that let them get so bad, especially in the district. “I think communities of color, low-income communities, have always struggled with layered issues,” said Lobo. “We've seen our folks really understand and be sophisticated about, where does the power lie, both in organizing and in the electoral system?”

There are particular groups for whom federal policy-making looms particularly large; for example, healthcare workers, many of whom are represented by 1199SEIU, a union that has endorsed Blake, who has amassed a great deal of labor support in the race.

“We've had our members engaging our congressional leaders. We've done roughly 20 video conferences with our New York delegation, where we've had members…explain the realities of what's going on in the frontline,” said an 1199SEIU official who asked not to be identified. “I think that helped our members make the connection, or made it stronger, that politics is the way that we make the transition” to a system more responsive to their needs.

Nhann said that particularly in the last couple of weeks, he’d actually seen a spike in the number of community residents interrogating the decisions of their political leaders. He dismissed “this whole notion that just because folks don't speak English, they're not aware of politics or they're not aware what's going on in the news. For the most part, our folks are actually pretty savvy.”

Dariella Rodríguez of The Point CDC, a community development nonprofit, said the organization’s approach partly centered around making clear that the district was particularly hard hit not just because of decisions made during the pandemic, but decisions made before. “Although we are struggling with the impact of covid in our community, we've been burdened with issues around respiratory health and asthma, issues with water quality — we've been burdened with those issues for a very long time. We've been saying we know when something like this happens, our community is at higher risk.”

For her part, Newsome has found a natural connection between her work with Black Lives Matter and the campaign, particularly as the outrage over police brutality again takes center stage in New York and nationally. Even before current wave of protests, Newsome said she had been part of a group pressuring Governor Andrew Cuomo to acknowledge that “the NYPD was incapable and incompetent in handling the enforcement of social distancing.” The current popular movements presented an opportunity to connect police brutality directly with political participation.

No one knows how many of the roughly 337,000 eligible Democratic voters in the 15th congressional district will cast a ballot, absentee or in-person, for this month’s election. In 2016, Serrano received just over 9,000 votes in the Democratic primary, beating an opponent who received just over 1,000. A total of about 74,000 votes were cast in the district during the 2016 presidential primary. In 2018, Serrano did not have a primary, but won the general election with around 125,000 votes to his opponent’s 5,000.

One quirk of a low-turnout race is that very small differences in the number of votes cast for each candidate can determine a win and a loss. This fact has taken on an added salience for progressives in the district given the candidacy of Díaz Sr., an always controversial and regularly offensive political figure. A pentecostal minister, he is probably the most socially-conservative Democrat holding political office in the city, having staked out positions opposing abortion and marriage equality. A comment claiming that the City Council was “controlled by the homosexual community” last year got his issue committee disbanded and prompted calls for his resignation. He has also called into question the mandate to report sexual harassment.

Nonetheless, he has held political office in the Bronx for nearly 20 years continuously and enjoys a base of support with religious and conservative Latino residents, who have a strong presence in the district. He won his seat at the Council just three years ago, edging out more progressive challengers as he moved from the state Senate with at least tacit support from much of the political establishment. The concern that candidates to his left will split the vote and hand Díaz Sr. the primary win is being used to varying extents by rival campaigns.

Torres in particular appears to be making opposition to Díaz Sr. a centerpiece of the turnout effort. “From day one, I have been sounding the alarm about the threat of a Trump Republican representing the most Democratic district in America,” he said, adding that in the home stretch of the campaign, he would be pitching himself as the candidate most able to head off this threat. Díaz Sr. did not respond to messages seeking comment. He has repeatedly ducked debates in the race.

A significant concern is that there will be issues not only of enthusiasm, but mechanics. An attempt by the state Board of Elections to cancel the Democratic presidential primary over coronavirus concerns failed when a federal judge ruled that it had to be held, in response to a lawsuit filed by former presidential candidate Andrew Yang. Yet a number of voters may have heard that the primary was off, but not back on.

Disseminating the information can be difficult, partly because some of the community groups and campaigns involved aren’t entirely sure what the correct information is. “Is the election going on? Where's my polling station? Can I vote early? Who are the candidates? Where's the platform? All of those have been communicated via text via email, via phone,” said Lobo.

The point was echoed by some of the candidates. “There's a lot of confusion. There was that whole back-and-forth around the presidential primary and canceling it, not canceling it. So some people assume that the primary completely is canceled,” said Mark-Viverito.

Some number of voters won’t want to go to the polls due to the extant viral threat, leaving the option of absentee voting, and herein lies another problem: unlike 34 other states, New York typically doesn’t allow “no excuse” absentee voting. In April, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order making the coronavirus part of the existing “excuse” of illness and directing county boards of elections to mail absentee ballot applications to all eligible voters, but the lack of a prior generalized avenue for absentee voting has left many voters unfamiliar with how it works and the New York City Board of Elections appears to be straining under the demand, leaving many unanswered questions as voting of all kinds wraps up on primary day, June 23.

Mundo, the community resident, said he’d gotten a ballot application in late May. “It looks like traditional junk mail. So if you're not actively looking for it, you may bypass it. Or someone like my mother, who's been out of town since April, she's not even going to get that application.”

Rodríguez of The Point said that the group had been providing staff members specifically to explain to voters how poll sites (both for early voting and primary day) work and how to access absentee voting. “We're using apps to do mass texting, we're using social media, we're using Zoom, WhatsApp and Signal. There's even been suggestions of other kinds of apps that folks from other countries use, especially Southeast Asian communities,” she said.

The Point, NWBCCC, and Mekong all had a built-in advantage in that they were part of a coalition that spent months crafting a “people’s platform” that had community delegates participate in crafting a set of issues and proposals meant to be representative of the entire district’s political priorities. The listserv has been useful in disseminating information to the community at large, even via word-of-mouth from individual influential residents.

Fundamentally, the winning approach seems to be one of illuminating how the extant crises are manifestations of broader systemic issues. “You can’t separate the political from the personal, especially at these times,” said López. “So this is the time that we need to rally and organize for the kind of society that we want to live in. And those are the kinds of conversations that we've been having through the phone banks.”


This story, and the series it is a part of, has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

A Pandemic and A Primary in the Most Impoverished Congressional District in the Country Mon, 22 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
WATCH: Democratic Primary Debate in the Bronx's 15th Congressional District bx debate 514

left to right: (top) Michael Blake, Chivona Newsome, Frangell Basora, Samelys Lopez
(bottom): Melissa Mark-Viverito, Tomas Ramos, Ydanis Rodriguez, Ritchie Torres

On Thursday, May 14, eight Democratic candidates vying to replace retiring Bronx Congressional Rep. José E. Serrano met for an online debate hosted by Gotham Gazette, City Limits, The Point CDC, and other partners.

The debate, watched by hundreds on Zoom and Facebook Live, with a Spanish translation phone line, can be viewed via the embedded video below.

Participating candidates were Frangell Basora; Michael Blake; Chivona Newsome; Samelys Lopez; Melissa Mark-Viverito; Tomas Ramos; Ydanis Rodriguez; and Ritchie Torres.

The debate was moderated by Gotham Gazette's Ben Max, with questions asked by Daniel Parra of City Limits, Sierra Straker of The Point, and Parker Quinlan of Hunts Point Express/Mott Haven Herald.

Serrano is retiring from Congress after 30 years due to health reasons, so his seat in New York's 15th Congressional District is effectively open and a crowded field has formed in the Democratic primary, set to be decided in June. Given it is one of the most Democratic districts in the country, the winner of the primary is all but certain to be the next member of the House of Representatives from the Bronx district home to some of the highest poverty rates in the country.

Voting is just around the corner: primary day is June 23, with early voting from June 13 through June 21, and all eligible voters will be mailed an absentee ballot given the coronavirus outbreak.

Ruben Diaz, Sr., also a candidate for the office, did not agreed to participate in the debate. (There will be other candidates on the ballot, but they have not mounted serious campaigns as indicated by a total lack of fundraising and were not invited to the dbeate: Mark Escoffery-Bey, Julio Pabon, Marlene Tapper.)

The 15th is the only Congressional district located entirely within the Bronx. It covers Mott Haven, Hunts Point, Melrose, High Bridge, Port Morris, Clason Point, Morrisania, Concourse Village, East Tremont, Tremont, Morris Heights, Castle Hill, University Heights, Bronx River, Belmont, Shorehaven, Claremont Village, Fordham, West Farms, Longwood, Mount Hope, Soundview and Harding Park.

Watch the candidates discuss their records and platforms and answer questions about the coronavirus response, housing, immigration, jobs, and more:

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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WATCH: Democratic Primary Debate in the Bronx's 15th Congressional District Sat, 16 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Intense Competition for 'Open' Bronx Congressional Seat: Watch the District 15 Democratic Debate on Thursday May 14 Michael Blake, Renee Chivona, Ruben Diaz Sr., Samelys Lopez, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Tomas Ramos, Ydanis Rodriguez, Ritchie Torres

left to right: (top) Michael Blake, Chivona Newsome, Ruben Diaz Sr., Samelys Lopez
(bottom): Melissa Mark-Viverito, Tomas Ramos, Ydanis Rodriguez, Ritchie Torres

With longtime Representative José E. Serrano retiring from Congress after 30 years due to health reasons, his seat in New York's 15th Congressional District is effectively open and a crowded field has formed in the Democratic primary, set to be decided in June. Given it is one of the most Democratic districts in the country, the winner of the primary is all but certain to be the next member of the House of Representatives from the Bronx district home to some of the highest poverty rates in the country.

With the vote just around the corner -- primary day is June 23, with early voting from June 13 through June 21 and all voters eligible for absentee balloting given the coronavirus outbreak -- 8 of the Democratic candidates will debate on Thursday, May 14, from 6-8 p.m.

The debate, hosted by Gotham Gazette, City Limits, The Point CDC, and other partners, will be streamed via Zoom (at this link) and Facebook (at this link).

The debate will also be translated in Spanish at 1-800-719-6100 followed by the access code of 1157388. Those interested in Spanish translation can watch the debate by Zoom or Facebook while listening via the aforementioned phone line.

The participating candidates include: Frangell Basora; Michael Blake; Chivona Newsome; Samelys Lopez; Melissa Mark-Viverito; Tomas Ramos; Ydanis Rodriguez; and Ritchie Torres.

Ruben Diaz, Sr., also a candidate for the office, has not agreed to participate in the debate. (There will be other candidates on the ballot, but they have not mounted serious campaigns as indicated by a total lack of fundraising: Mark Escoffery-Bey, Julio Pabon, Marlene Tapper.)

Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max will moderate the debate, and panelists will include Sierra Straker of The Point CDC's youth advisory group; reporters Daniel Parra of City Limits and Parker Quinlan of the Hunts Point Express and Mott Haven Herald.

The 15th is the only Congressional district located entirely within the Bronx. It covers Mott Haven, Hunts Point, Melrose, High Bridge, Port Morris, Clason Point, Morrisania, Concourse Village, East Tremont, Tremont, Morris Heights, Castle Hill, University Heights, Bronx River, Belmont, Shorehaven, Claremont Village, Fordham, West Farms, Longwood, Mount Hope, Soundview and Harding Park.

Tune in at 6 p.m. on Thursday, May 14 via Zoom or Facebook.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Intense Competition for 'Open' Bronx Congressional Seat: Watch the District 15 Democratic Debate on Thursday May 14 Wed, 13 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Push for Online Voter Registration Bill as Coronavirus Prevents Registration Drives voting

Coronavirus complicates voter registration efforts & voting itself (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

A bill before the state Legislature expanding online voter registration in New York City has taken on particular urgency amid the coronavirus pandemic, its sponsors say, as in-person voter registration drives become impossible and New Yorkers are told to avoid leaving their homes but for essentials and emergencies.

The New York City Board of Elections currently only allows an individual to register to vote online through the Department of Motor Vehicles website. But any potential voter must first have a DMV-approved identification. In New York City, at the end of 2018, 3.8 million people had driver’s licenses in the city, which has a population of over 8.5 million, though many are under voting age of course. Driver’s licensing rates tend to be higher in rural and suburban counties, compared to the city’s dense and transit-rich boroughs.

The New York City Council attempted to open up the voter registration process through legislation under which the city’s Campaign Finance Board created an online voter registration portal that was ready last year. But the Board of Elections imposed additional burdens on the process, making it even more onerous than registering by mail, amid contradictory opinions about whether the city had the authority to create such a portal.

A bill sponsored in the State Legislature by Senator Zellnor Myrie of Brooklyn and Assemblymember Michael Blake of the Bronx, both Democrats, would give the Campaign Finance Board the express permission to launch that portal. It has passed the Senate’s election committee, which Myrie chairs, but has not yet moved to a full chamber vote or anywhere in the Assembly. Both legislators say it is particularly important that it be approved as the coronavirus crisis brings the state to a virtual standstill.

“We need to find every possible way to make sure democracy stays intact,” said Blake, in a phone interview. “We need to make sure that people are able to exercise their democratic rights. And just because someone is unable to go outside and live their lives should not mean that democracy should stop.”

The pandemic has already led to upheaval in the state’s democratic processes. Two special elections in New York City, for a Brooklyn City Council seat and Queens Borough President, as well as the statewide presidential primary were all postponed to June 23 to coincide with the congressional and state legislative primaries. Governor Andrew Cuomo suspended ballot petitioning and reduced the threshold for getting on the ballot.

Along the lines of the online voter registration push, there are calls for expanding automatic absentee and mail-in voting.

“Moments such as this, the crisis and challenge should lead to us having creativity,” Blake said. He said he has been raising his bill as well as expanded voting measures with leaders in his chamber. “We don't know when this will end. So what we should be doing is doing everything possible to make sure people are part of the process. You're using your phone to get news updates, you're using your phones to check on your loved ones. You should be able to use your phones and laptops to be registered.”

The registration deadline for new voters to participate on June 23 is May 29, and the deadline for the November 3 general election is October 9.

In a statement, Senator Myrie said, “If there ever was a time to bring New York’s democracy into the 21st century, it’s now. While we know there are a lot of issues on the table right now, our commitment to this issue hasn’t changed and we will continue to work with our colleagues to get it done.”

The Legislature is doing modified, social-distance appropriate voting in Albany this week as legislators and Governor Cuomo attempt to finalize a state budget by the April 1 deadline of the new fiscal year. As usual, many policy issues are on the table as well as fiscal ones.

Myrie and Blake aren’t the only ones pushing for their bill to become law. Jessica Rosario, a 21-year-old junior at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, has launched an online petition calling on the governor and Legislature to approve the bill and is working with other youth activists to organize a virtual day of action. “We're supposed to be socially distant but I think that we could still be socially aware at the same time,” she said in a phone interview.

She noted that the only other means of registering if you don’t have a DMV identification is if you print out and mail a form to the Board of Elections. “I don't know about anyone else but I'm in Queens, and I don't really feel like it's safe to go out if you don't have to for food or medical purposes,” she said. “And not everyone has a printer. Not everyone has that access.”

“I feel like it's never been more important than right now for things to move digitally. We have education moving digitally, people working remotely. Why not create a digital space for democracy?”

If the bill should pass, the Campaign Finance Board would be able to launch its portal almost immediately. The bill would then become redundant in 2021, when the state Board of Elections is meant to launch a statewide registration portal.

"We urge our state leadership to protect our democracy during this emergency by establishing an online voter registration system that all New Yorkers can access,” said Amy Loprest, executive director of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, in a statement. “With in-person voter registration events shut down, we are concerned that young voters and naturalized citizens, in particular, will be disenfranchised during this critical election year.”

"The NYC Campaign Finance Board's online registration system is a sensible, secure and timely alternative to paper applications and in-person registration efforts during this unprecedented public health crisis, “ said Luis Feliz Leon, a spokesperson for DemocracyNYC, a de Blasio initiative aimed at improving voter participation in the city. "We hope the City Board of Elections will work with the CFB to accept voter registrations submitted this way."

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated with comment from a spokesperson for DemocracyNYC. 

Push for Online Voter Registration Bill as Coronavirus Prevents Registration Drives Mon, 30 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
As NYCHA Teeters, Calls for More Funding in City and State Budgets comm center marcy

NYCHA is on the brink (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Despite significant attention from Mayor Bill de Blasio and some from Governor Andrew Cuomo, the New York City Housing Authority, public housing home to more than 400,000 New Yorkers, continues to crumble. While both the mayor and governor, as well as many others, point to federal disinvestment in NYCHA, dissatisfied elected officials say that initial drafts of next fiscal year’s state and city budgets aren’t sufficiently addressing the problem.

As they push for more funding to a public housing authority with well more than $30 billion in estimated physical needs to enter a state of good repair, some have even threatened to vote against any budget that does not include a massive infusion of funds for NYCHA.

A growing chorus calling for more state and city money for NYCHA has been somewhat muted, at least temporarily, by the coronavirus outbreak, which is sure to bedevil the ongoing budget discussions. A new state budget is due by April 1; a city budget by July 1.   

For decades, public housing has been underfunded by the federal government, leaving the state and city to pick up the slack. But successive administrations showed little indication of taking the issue seriously, which left a ticking time bomb that exploded on de Blasio’s watch. While public housing is largely governed by federal law, the mayor appoints the leadership of the authority and is responsible for its day-to-day operations and conditions.

The latest federal budget proposed by the Trump administration would also slash funding for public housing further, including completely eliminating capital funding (which is currently about $582 million), $5 billion in cuts to Section 8 rental vouchers (the city would lose about 6,300 vouchers), and a 10% cut to operating funds for public housing agencies across the country (which would equate to about $100 million for the city).

NYCHA has had a few victories and mostly setbacks under the de Blasio administration. The administration was able to bring NYCHA’s operating expenses under control and has also put into place NYCHA 2.0, a plan to raise $24 billion in capital funds for repairs and maintenance at housing developments. But those funds are not only a long way from being realized, they are also eclipsed by the agency’s $32 billion capital need, which could rise to as much as $68 billion by 2028, noted Council Member Vanessa Gibson, at a NYCHA budget hearing on Friday, March 13. (Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel, who chairs the public housing committee, was absent and Gibson, who chairs the capital budget subcommittee, chaired the hearing in her stead.)

Early in the hearing, Gibson raised the red flag about NYCHA’s worrying funding gaps for critical capital repair and maintenance. “While NYCHA 2.0 is a big and bold plan, it still leaves about $9 billion in unfunded capital needs across its portfolio and does not account for the fact that NYCHA’s capital need could as much as double by the end of the ten-year plan,” she said.

NYCHA is also currently under the purview of a federal monitor, Bart Schwartz, installed last year in agreement with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, after the authority was found to have falsified lead abatement reports for years. Lead and mold at housing developments continue to plague the city, which is undertaking a concerted effort to remediate those conditions. Heat and hot water outages have become all too common in the winter, though emergency measures and a milder winter have meant fewer outages this year. Adding to the authority’s woes is the coronavirus outbreak, which has affected the operations of the entire city government.

NYCHA’s budget cycle begins in January, as opposed to the city’s, which begins in July. Its 2020 budget was adopted in December. The agency has a $3.75 billion annual operating budget, and was projecting a surplus of $91 million in revenues at the end of the year.

At the budget hearing, Greg Russ, chair and CEO of NYCHA, detailed the authority’s various efforts to meet its obligations under the federal agreement, including putting $2.2 billion in city funding towards capital repairs over the next ten years. “Mayor de Blasio has committed an unprecedented level of resources to the authority,” he stressed in his opening remarks, “a total of $6.4 billion, including $1.3 billion to repair nearly 1,000 roofs and $200 million to replace boilers and upgrade heating systems.”

He also previewed several other measures the agency is taking to improve operations and conditions at housing developments. An additional $100 million in state capital funds will go to fulfilling the federal agreement, after a spending plan for the allocated money was approved by the state. He promised that a new organizational plan for the authority will be released this summer.

NYCHA is also creating a small projects management team for capital projects as well as a new staff position to act as a liaison with the City Council to oversee current and future capital projects funded by the city. The agency’s lead action plan is being submitted to the federal monitor for his approval. 

Even as NYCHA contends with a capital needs gap, the proposed federal cuts “would completely spin us in the wrong direction in terms of the investment that we have to make,” Russ said. “These are significant cuts that the President and the administration have proposed and they're unconscionable.”

He did say he did not expect federal capital funding to be zeroed out, putting faith in the Congress to push back against the cuts. And he said the authority could continue to manage day-to-day operations even if operating funds were reduced.

Russ also testified about aspects of the NYCHA 2.0 plan that are underway to raise funds for the authority’s housing stock and renovate and repair 62,000 apartments by 2028. Those particularly involve utilizing the Permanent Affordability Commitment Together (PACT) program and federal Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program. Under PACT, the housing authority partners with private entities to maintain and repair developments, with housing units transferred to the Section 8 housing program. Through the program, Russ said the city has so far addressed $1.1 billion in capital needs by converting almost 7,800 apartments in 30 housing developments to Section 8 funding. He said 21,000 apartments would be “in the conversion pipeline” by this spring. Just last month, the authority selected five development teams to convert 5,908 apartments in Manhattan and Brooklyn to the program, agreements expected to cover $1.5 billion in critical capital needs.  

There was, however, little discussion of other parts of the plan, including the sale of air rights and allowing private developers to build mixed-income housing on NYCHA land, also known as infill development. Infill projects were aimed at raising as much as $2 billion for the agency over ten years but have failed to move forward so far. Some air rights sales have been completed, though. 

On March 19, the New York State Assembly's Manhattan delegation released a report that highlighted conditions at NYCHA developments and tenant needs. Among several recommendations, the delegation urged the state to find a dedicated funding stream for the ailing agency as well as to provide more transparency around existing funding and how it is utilized. "Written prior to the COVID-19 State of Emergency, the pandemic further highlights that, for over 400,000 NYCHA tenants in substandard housing, the public housing crisis is a public health crisis,” said Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, dean and Chair of the delegation, in a statement. "New York State can act now with serious funding commitments and lead the way towards the restoration of NYCHA."

Though the City Council in its initial response to the mayor’s preliminary budget pledged to advocate for more funding for housing, there was no particular mention of NYCHA. It’s unclear what additional commitments the Council may request in its official response, which was due after budget hearings that have since been suspended amid the coronavirus outbreak.

But it’s clear that Council Speaker Corey Johnson is looking to Albany for additional funding from the state government. “The city can’t do it on our own,” Johnson said at a rally in early February outside City Hall, according to a New York Daily News report. He called for $2 billion more from the state. “We put up a lot of money — we should put up more money — but we need a state partner to put up money with us.”

Advocates and elected officials have also been critical of the state for its slow support for NYCHA. It was only in November that the state released $450 million in funds appropriated for NYCHA in 2017 and 2018. The funding was repeatedly put on hold as the city contended with the lead testing lawsuit and the subsequent negotiation over the federal agreement. Governor Cuomo eventually said he would not release the funds until an independent monitor was appointed to oversee its disbursement.

“For years the New York City Housing Authority was underfunded by the Federal government and its administrators, and to help, New York State stepped up and made an unprecedented commitment to NYCHA for reliable heat, safe elevators and a better quality of life,” said Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the state Division of Budget. “In all,” he said,” the executive budget Cuomo released in January that forms the basis for budget negotiations with the Legislature, “includes $650 million in ongoing support for NYCHA projects so that their 400,000 residents will finally see results.”

“Is there always a need for more funding for public housing? Absolutely,” said Bronx Assemblymember Michael Blake, a legislator who has repeatedly called for more NYCHA funding, in a phone interview. He said the state’s first priority should be to release $100 million for NYCHA that was allocated by the state Legislature last year, atop the $450 million that had already been set aside for the agency. And he called for an urgent response to ensure public housing residents are protected during the coronavirus pandemic without having to forego day-to-day maintenance.

“We have to make sure that we don't have a scenario where the funding that we're going for that is needed for the everyday repairs comes at the risk of the present emergency upon us,” he said. “While, yes, coronavirus is an emergency, so is a lead paint crisis.”

Other elected officials at the state and city level have already declared that they wouldn’t support any spending plans that don’t substantially increase NYCHA funding, though it is worth noting those promises came before coronavirus seemingly changed everything.

“I repeat. I will not vote for a budget without funding for our public housing,” tweeted Manhattan Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou.

Manhattan Assemblymember Harvey Epstein echoed the sentiment. “I am with you @yuhline I will NOT vote for a budget without a substantial investment in public housing!” he tweeted.

New York City Council Member Carlina Rivera of Manhattan wants to see the city cough up more funding. “The City and State must step up this year and contribute billions more dollars in their own budgets, and we will be calling on our colleagues in the Council and State Legislature to fight for this as well,” Rivera wrote in a joint op-ed with congressional Rep. Nydia Velazquez in Gotham Gazette.

The Legal Aid Society, a member of the Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance which is behind the Housing Justice for All campaign, released data last week showing that between October 1 and December 31, 2019, there were 1,246 heat and hot water outages at NYCHA complexes, affecting about 178,267 apartments that are home to 391,661 residents.

“NYCHA is clearly still unable to ensure that utility systems seamlessly provide for residents, and these numbers confirm what we hear from our clients on a regular basis,” said Lucy Newman, Staff Attorney with the Civil Law Reform Unit at The Legal Aid Society. “These outages could be meaningfully addressed with the right resources. As Albany continues to negotiate the Fiscal Year 2021 budget, we demand that lawmakers allocate $2 billion to NYCHA to help the Housing Authority address these and other outstanding issues that still plague tenants.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated with a reference to a new report released by the New York State Assembly's Manhattan delegation. 

As NYCHA Teeters, Calls for More Funding in City and State Budgets Mon, 16 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Bill Allowing Online Voter Registration in New York City Moves in State Senate, Stalls in Assembly bill online voter

State Senator Myrie, middle, is pushing his online voter registration bill (photo: @SenatorMyrie)

Last year, the New York City Board of Elections hobbled a City Council effort to create an online voter registration portal for city residents, claiming it conflicted with state law. But the state Legislature may take steps to correct that situation this year by clarifying the law and allowing an online portal that would act as a test case for a statewide system slated to launch next year.

The New York City Council passed a bill, sponsored by Council Member Ben Kallos, in late 2017 that mandated that the Campaign Finance Board build an online portal to expand access to voter registration. Currently, the state only allows online registration through the Department of Motor Vehicles website and requires an official DMV driver’s license, permit, or non-driver ID. This effectively shuts out many New York City residents who rely on mass transit and do not have a DMV-issued document.

The CFB created the portal and was ready to launch it in June of last year. It would have allowed residents to fill out the form online, with an electronic signature, and the CFB would then transmit the information to the City Board of Elections for processing. But a week before the site was to go live, the BOE added an additional hurdle that essentially negated the purpose of the portal – commissioners voted that, after receiving a form from the CFB, the BOE would mail the form to the potential voter, who would then have to return it with their physical signature. The process would have been slower than mailing in a registration form.

At the time, the State Board of Elections’ Democratic and Republican commissioners had contradictory positions on whether signatures collected electronically would be acceptable under state law, even though a legal opinion from the state attorney general’s office had already put that question to bed in 2016. This year, legislation sponsored by Brooklyn State Senator Zellnor Myrie, chair of the Senate’s elections committee, and Bronx Assemblymember Michael Blake seeks to clarify state law and give the city the necessary authorization to begin collecting registration forms electronically.

The law would go into effect immediately and would be repealed 90 days after a statewide registration system becomes operational. The registration deadline for this year’s April 28 presidential primary is April 3. The deadline to register for the June 23 state and congressional primary is May 29, and the deadline to register for the November 3 general election is October 9.

“An online voter registration system that all New Yorkers can access is long overdue,” said Amy Loprest, executive director of the CFB, in a statement. “This legislation will make it easier for millions of city voters to register and vote in this critical election year.”

Though the bill has not moved in the Assembly, it was passed by Myrie’s Senate committee last month and he is hoping to see it approved by the full Senate and Assembly as soon as possible. “Time is of the essence,” he said in a phone interview, stressing the importance of launching the portal in a presidential election year when turnout is massive, with this year’s expected to be even moreso. “It allows for the state to see how this system rolls out.”

Neither Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s nor Assemblymember Blake’s office provided comment on the status of the bill in their chamber.

A trial of online voter registration by New York City would help inform the state’s effort, Myrie noted. Last year’s state budget included legislation that ordered the state BOE to create an online voter registration system for the entire state by January 2021. Once that system takes effect, it will supersede the city’s.

“As we have seen the national discussion hit a fever pitch, there will be many folks interested in registering and getting engaged in their democracy and we want to make that as easy for them as possible,” Myrie said.

He pointed out that it will require few resources and would barely be a burden for the Board of Elections. “This is not a labor-intensive endeavor,” Myrie said. “This is a system that has already been built, that has already been designed. Let's give the city the authorization to have it up and running. And then we can see whether or not the state should adopt it as a model statewide.”

Myrie seems to have the support of Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. "We are committed to making it easier for eligible New Yorkers to vote, that is why this session we built upon the historic voting reforms of last year by making improvements to early voting and passing automatic voting registration. We look forward to reviewing this bill as a Conference to ensure it works as intended,” said Senate Majority spokesperson Mike Murphy, in a statement.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is also a supporter of the online voter registration effort and was critical last year of how the BOE meddled in it. “The City Board of Elections should allow the CFB’s online voter registration system to roll out immediately, so thousands of New York voters can register this year for the critically important 2020 elections,” said Luis Feliz Leon, a spokesperson for DemocracyNYC, the office the mayor launched to improve voter participation in the city, among other things. “The Administration appreciates that the Legislature is taking a close look at this issue.”

BOE spokesperson Valerie Vazquez said in a text message, “No comment on pending legislation.”

“New York City’s online voter registration system is ready to go for all the people who are inspired to vote in the presidential election and the coming primaries,” said Council Member Kallos, in a brief phone interview. “Thank you to State Senator Zellnor Myrie for getting this done in the Senate and we’re looking to the Assembly to get it done and the governor to sign it in time to enfranchise a whole generation of voters in time for the presidential election.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Bill Allowing Online Voter Registration in New York City Moves in State Senate, Stalls in Assembly Wed, 12 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
The Social Value of Bail Reform michael blake presser

Assemblymember Blake, one of the authors, at a recent rally

On January 1, as New York took a considerable step towards a more just and equitable criminal justice system, we heard the all-too-predictable objections to bail reform. Now, along with the chorus that tried to shout down reforms in the last legislative session, we hear some of those who supported these reforms wanting to undo a policy that takes seriously the rights of low-income New Yorkers and communities of color—because of a tragic incident in Monsey that has nothing to do with bail or reform.  

As a black state legislator who represents Latino, African, African-American, and white residents in a Bronx district whose citizens have long borne the brunt of inequitable and unjust bail policies, and as a Jewish nonprofit leader whose organization is headquartered in the same district and has worked in jails and prisons for decades, we are appalled that the bitter pain of racism and a resurgence of anti-Semitism are being used to divide us rather than bring us together.

Let’s look at the facts. The purpose of money bail is to ensure that defendants—people who are only accused of a crime and thus are legally presumed innocent—will appear in court. It is not meant to be a punishment or a fee. Yet for many people, it represents an insurmountable financial barrier to release that carries dire and life-altering consequences. We have many examples of individuals like Kalief Browder and thousands of others who were arrested and held not because they were a flight risk, but simply because they or their families could not afford bail. Kalief experienced such violence and torture while detained that he took his own life after release. Layleen Polanco never made it home and died while detained on $500 bail.

We cannot ignore the historic and systemic racism, sexism, and ageism at the root of many criminal justice policies, nor can we pretend that bail does not criminalize poverty and perpetuate injustice, and we must recognize that pretrial detention actually diminishes public safety.

Detention is more likely to cause crime than improve public safety. A report from the Arnold Foundation revealed that people detained for two or three days were almost 40 percent more likely to commit a crime before trial than those detained for less than 24 hours, and those held for more than a month were 74 percent more likely to be arrested for a new crime.

How could this be? After just a few days of detention, people may lose their jobs, miss rent payments, or have their children taken away. After a month, these consequences become even more pronounced and threaten community ties that are crucial to stability and wellbeing. To make matters worse, people who are detained awaiting trial are far more likely to accept plea agreements, even when innocent, because they want to go home — see the exonerated Central Park Five — or be convicted of a crime than similar defendants who are not subjected to conditions that damage their wellbeing. 

Contrary to the rhetoric of many critics, our reformed bail law does not encourage prosecutors or judges to let “dangerous people walk free.” New York has never permitted preventive detention based on a prediction of future “dangerousness.” Prosecutors and judges have long worked within a system that asked them to consider only whether a person was likely to return to court and provides many options to support people in returning to court that do not depend on financial capacity.

The truth is that most of the benefits of cash bail went to private insurance companies in the bail bond business, and that we are terrible at predicting future behavior. We should not allow the present fear-mongering to create more punitive and harmful bail and detention policies than those we reformed during the last legislative session in Albany.

We stand together for bail reform and all policies that address the underlying inequities and biases in our legal system. It is time to give bail reform a fair chance and not allow this thoughtfully-constructed law to be undone under the pretense of fighting anti-Semitism.

Yes, there is more to do. We must continue to implement programs that increase public safety while addressing inequity. New York City has been working to ensure that people who are released from court or jail are offered needed social services, an approach that should be supported by those who claim to be so concerned about releasing people who were previously being held for ransom they could not pay.

We look forward to a productive and progressive 2020 legislative session that builds on last session’s reforms and continues to shift New York towards a more just and equitable legal system.

Assemblymember Michael Blake represents the 79th District in the Bronx. Elizabeth Gaynes is President and CEO of The Osborne Association. On Twitter @MrMikeBlake & @OsborneNY.

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The Social Value of Bail Reform Thu, 16 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000