Gotham Gazette Sat, 28 Nov 2020 14:59:48 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) In Brooklyn, Blake Morris Tries to Upend the State Senate Power Balance All By Himself blake morris 1

Blake Morris (photo: @BlakeMorris4NYS)

The race for control of the New York State Senate is again this year a key touchstone of a state election cycle, but before the November general election that will determine whether Democrats can win a majority from Republicans, and thus control both houses of the Legislature, there is a series of competitive primaries on the Democratic side that will be decided September 13.

Among them are eight races in which incumbents -- former members of the now-defunct Independent Democratic Conference -- are being challenged, mostly by young progressives, despite a “unity deal” fostered earlier this year by Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, whereby the rogue conference returned to the mainline Democratic fold, leaving the Democrats just one seat shy of a 32-member majority in the 63-seat chamber.

And while those eight races, including six in New York City districts, have offered immense intrigue and garnered a great deal of attention, it’s unlikely that any of them will actually affect which party controls the Senate at the start of the next legislative session in January (though the challengers and some other Democrats say they do not trust the former IDC members to stay true to their Democratic colleagues).

More clearly relevant to party control of the upper chamber (the Assembly is a Democratic stronghold and will remain such), is a primary in Brooklyn where an incumbent Democratic senator who has been part of the Republican conference, giving it a one-seat edge in recent years, is being challenged in the primary.

Senator Simcha Felder, who since 2012 has run as a Democrat but caucused with Republicans, while also running on the Republican line in 2016, has ensured the Republican majority, which was bolstered by the IDC. Felder ran in 2012 after that year’s redistricting made the 17th a heavily-Orthodox Jewish district essentially for Felder’s taking; that year, Felder, who had left the City Council in 2010, soundly defeated 21-year-old Abraham Tischler in the primary and then defeated Republican David Storobin, who briefly held the seat the year prior to the redistricting. Felder also ran on the Conservative Party line that year.

If he wins the Democratic primary, where he is being challenged by Blake Morris, Felder is likely to take the Republican nomination again this year. In the general election he would face Luis Rivera, who is running on the Reform Party ticket.

Felder has not faced any serious opposition since 2012.

But Morris, who is running to Felder’s left as a “real Democrat,” emphasizing Felder’s alliance with Republicans and its impact on New Yorkers, has significant backing from progressive groups, including the Working Families Party, Our Revolution, and Citizen Action, as well as 32BJ SEIU, the property services workers union.

Morris’ campaign has drawn much less media attention and funding, and fewer endorsements from Democratic elected officials, than most of the IDC challengers. Morris says this is because the party “establishment” is afraid of him.

“Elected Democrats are scared,” Morris told Gotham Gazette in an extensive interview covering his position on a wide variety of topics, including controversy over the education provided by Orthodox Jewish yeshivas, the fight for school speed cameras, Felder’s record, Republicans, Democrats, the State Senate, the diverse priorities of the district, and how Thomas Edison sued his family out of business a century ago.

Felder, an Orthodox Jew whose district, allegedly drawn for him in 2012, has a large Orthodox population, has been a lightning rod of controversy throughout his tenure in both the City Council and, since 2013, the State Senate. He has recently drawn Cuomo’s ire, though there is some evidence Cuomo has been happy with a Republican Senate majority, and that of the former members of the IDC. Senator Jeff Klein, the leader of the IDC, has stated repeatedly on the campaign trail and in debates that the Republican majority in the Senate was propped up only by Felder, and not by the IDC -- an argument that is only partially true.

In choosing to remain with the Republicans even after the IDC unity deal, Felder cast his decision as one made for the sake of bipartisanship and the institution of the Senate, while he has long insisted that his top priority is delivering for his constituents, even indicating that his party allegiance is available to the highest bidder.

“Political gamesmanship must not be allowed to jeopardize the leadership, committee structure and staff of the New York State Senate and push this institution into turmoil,” Felder said in April, according to the New York Times, just after Cuomo brokered the post-budget unity deal and there were questions about whether Felder might be persuaded to cross the aisle for the rest of the legislative session.

Prior to the April unity deal, Felder appeared ready to hold up the state budget in order to loosen oversight of yeshivas, the Jewish religious schools, many of which have been accused of failing to provide basic secular education to their students, by diluting state “equivalence” standards for non-public schools. This occurred amid a New York City investigation into the yeshivas that has been thrown into some uncertainty based on the new state laws that Felder achieved.

While Felder partially succeeded, the State Education Commissioner also gained new oversight capabilities over the schools. The yeshiva issue has continued to cause controversy throughout the political season. Felder, as chair of the Senate’s Cities Committee, has also shouldered much blame for the lapse of the city’s school speed camera program, which had been approved by the state, but after expiring was reinstated via an executive order from Governor Cuomo and new City Council legislation. Felder was also one of the loudest voices in opposition to implementing a plastic bag fee in New York City, pushing the state to supercede a city law, much to the consternation of his colleagues in city government.

While he’s better known outside the district for what he’s blocked than for what he’s passed, Felder’s politics have been described as “transactional” on behalf of his Orthodox voting base. In the City Council, he opposed same-sex marriage but voted for Christine Quinn, who is gay, as Speaker. In the Senate, Felder’s alliance with the Republicans has given him, and the community he represents, outsize power in Albany. One of his most notable legislative achievements was securing state-funded “door-to-door” private busing for yeshiva students, amounting to a $42 million community investment.

felderFelder (pictured) declined to be interviewed for this story; his spokesperson said he is not doing interviews.

Morris, a contract and property lawyer whose resume includes volunteer work with Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, a group opposed to the construction of the Atlantic Yards project, told Gotham Gazette that he never intended to run for office, much less Felder’s seat. In 2016, after four years of Felder’s alliance with Republicans and two consecutive elections where Felder was uncontested, Morris was an original member of a new activist group called “NYSD 17 for Progress,” which formed in early 2017 to push for progressive action in state and local government, educating district residents on civic matters and registering voters. Its members appeared interested in a candidate to oppose Felder.

Morris said that he is a “reluctant candidate” and that being a candidate was “absolutely not” his first choice; he said he spent considerable time trying to find someone else to run against Felder. He, and others in his orbit, were expecting Felder, who joined the Republican caucus immediately after his election, to face a Democratic primary challenge in 2014 and 2016. In neither election did Felder face one, however, and so Morris decided to run.

“The concept of actually being the horse was never in my mind,” Morris said. “If it was, I would’ve done this a long time ago.”

Morris captured the special impact his own victory would have, saying that, unlike the IDC races, he could decisively flip the State Senate to Democrats.

"On November 6, when I win the general election, I've already done the major thing,” Morris told Gotham Gazette, forecasting victory. “I hope to do a lot more, but the first big major thing I'm going to do is just by winning the election. Because once I win the election, the Senate gets flipped."

“My election would change everything in New York State,” he said, noting that it would solidify Democratic control. Morris’ analysis does not, of course, take into account that there are at least a handful of swing Senate districts that will be determined in November, potentially complicating the notion that the Felder seat is all-determinative.

“Everyone has a long story of what they’re gonna do for the public when they’re elected,” he said, referring to the reaction to his pitch that Democratic clubs have at endorsement meetings. “No one ever just says their election changes everything.”

Morris' take also does not acknowledge the likely long odds in unseating Felder, though there’s minimal data to assess the race other than the fact that incumbents have extremely high reelection rates. While there has clearly been an awakening among many Democrats, new activists who are backing the IDC challengers, Morris, and others, it is unclear how much power there is behind the Morris campaign.

Soon after Morris entered the race, Felder brought a lawsuit aiming to kick him off the ballot, on the grounds that Morris’s nomination papers, and his name on the ballot, appeared as his middle name Blake, instead of real first name Lawrence. Morris got the suit tossed, and connects the fairly common practice to a broader critique of Felder.

“He doesn’t have any ideology, he doesn’t have any pragmatism. It’s just all extortion. He just holds things up and extorts people,” Morris said. “And so that’s what happened in court, and that’s they thought they were gonna do, they were gonna take my time and money, my campaign money, and extort me in court on a pointless lawsuit.”

As such, the State Democratic Party has abandoned Felder and has pinned its hopes on Morris, as has the Working Families Party, despite Morris’s assertion that those Democrats in power are “scared” of his victory, and a unified Democratic government.

Morris, 56, was born in Pennsylvania, the son of a traveling salesman, and has lived in Ditmas Park for 20 years, he said. He has practiced law for 30 years, and has recently become something of a political activist and good government advocate.

In April, Morris won a lawsuit ordering the State Senate to disclose its guidelines for how taxpayer-funded mailers were distributed, which Morris claimed were significantly weighted to favor certain members, such as Felder. Morris claimed that the disparity in discretionary mailer budgets among senators ranged from $500 to $100,000. The Senate appealed, and the matter is currently pending.

Morris described the mailer controversy as an “incumbency protection program” and “discreet corruption,” the latter referring to micro, “everyday” corruption occurring within the statehouse versus actions that can land politicians in prison.

Morris said that his several months of campaigning have left him optimistic.

“I’ve never met a Democratic-voter Felder-supporter,” he said. “I’ve met Republicans who are Felder supporters.”

Of the Democratic primary voters he meets, he splits them into two groups, but the end result is the same, he said.

“There’s groups who know me and there’s groups that don’t know me,” Morris said. “The groups that know me, those are the people who walk up to me and they say ‘thank you for running, you’re saving us.’ So that’s the level of support, people say ‘thank you, I have been waiting six years for someone to run, you’re saving me.” In contrast, the groups that don’t know Morris, according to him, give him their support essentially blindly when he says he’s running against Felder. “I don’t know who you are, you have my vote. I hope you’re a good guy, because I’m voting for you.”

The Morris campaign told Gotham Gazette that the district is “very diverse,” a statement contradicted by Steve Romalewski, Director of the CUNY Mapping Service at the Center for Urban Research. The data provided to Gotham Gazette by the Morris campaign, compiled on Statistical Atlas and based on U.S. Census data, showed the district at 65.5 percent white, but Romalewski noted that the share of the voting age population that’s white is nearly 73 percent.

“Based on the data I wouldn’t describe the district as ‘highly diverse,’” Romalewski said in an email. “It has some diversity, and I’m sure even within the white population there is diversity...But the core of the district is overwhelmingly white.”

While Morris’ assertion that the district is diverse may not hold up to scrutiny, he wants to change its composition regardless. In 2012, District 17 was gerrymandered, in his view, to specifically empower, and represent the interests of, Borough Park over neighboring communities such as Midwood, Bensonhurst, and Sunset Park.

“All the districts need to be redrawn,” Morris said, arguing that the 2012 redistricting had systematically benefitted Republicans by under-populating upstate districts and over-populating downstate ones; he said the average district upstate, which he defined as north of Bear Mountain Bridge in northwestern Westchester County, has 300,000 people, while the average downstate one, including District 17, has 325,000, a finding largely consistent with an analysis of the 2012 redistricting by the CUNY Center for Urban Research.

The 2012 redistricting process has been widely criticized as a questionable deal among Cuomo and legislative leaders that helped solidify the Democratic Assembly majority and the Republican Senate majority. A new redistricting process, approved by voters in 2014, will be in effect for the next redrawing, in 2022, after the upcoming Census.

The district also has a sizable Asian population, with 18.7 percent identifying as Asian according to U.S. Census data. The Asian sections of the district also contain high proportions of immigrants, according to a comparison of the district map with the City’s 2013 “Newest New Yorkers” report. The only sections of the district with sizable non-white populations, the ones overlapping Assembly Districts 49 and 51, saw very low voter turnout in the 2012 primary, with just 164 and 356 votes cast, respectively, according to the City Board of Elections. The Morris campaign described the district as 60 percent Jewish, with two-thirds of that 60 percent being Orthodox, with a significant ultra-Orthodox population.

Morris firmly believes that the diversity of the district can power him to victory, dispelling the image of the district as a homogenous Orthodox community.

To prevent himself from being two-faced in appealing to both liberal voters and to more conservative Orthodox voters in Borough Park, Morris says that he tries not to mince words.

“I tell them the truth. I say the 17th Senate District is much larger than Borough Park,” he said.

Perhaps the most salient issue in the district beyond Felder himself, that of the investigation into yeshivas accused of failing to educate students according to state law, is a sticking point for Morris, and one he believes distinguishes him from Felder. While Felder helped lead a watering down of the oversight laws, and New York City officials slow-walked an investigation into the yeshivas of whether they are providing the mandated “substantially equivalent” secular education to public schools, Morris called it a “yeshiva dog-and-pony show.”

Morris said Felder “worked mischief” but unintentionally provided the State Education Commissioner with new authority to unilaterally withhold state funds from yeshivas that are deemed to be inadequately educating children.

While yeshivas are classified under the constitutional category of “non-public” education, the state still provides resources to yeshiva students in the form of transportation, building maintenance, and textbooks. If a school is found to be deficiently educating students, the commissioner can recommend that the comptroller not disburse funds to those schools.

Morris believes that, per a letter from New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, the yeshivas that recently turned away city Department of Education inspectors should have their funds withheld, and that the new “status quo” of the commissioner, rather than district superintendents, being able to make recommendations to the comptroller should be maintained.

“I don’t think the district superintendent, which is the mayor, I don’t think the mayor ever asked the state superintendent, as a referral, to suspend payments to the schools that would not let them in,” Morris said. “And that is what should’ve happened. And my suspicion is, being a contract disputes attorney for over 30 years, my suspicion is that when these schools were ordered, got the letter saying that their payments from the state were gonna be suspended, they might’ve opened the door.”

Morris differentiated himself from Felder in yet another way, by pointing out the differences in their campaign contributions. According to the State Board of Elections, Morris has not taken any corporate donations, and has taken few non-individual donations. These include $5,000 from 32BJ, $3,500 in in-kind contributions from the State Democratic Committee, and $1,000 from the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats. He has raised $91,500 from 769 donations as of the September filing.

For Felder, meanwhile, 138 out of his 240 donations since January 2017 have been from non-individual donors, including several real estate LLCs, the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), charter school advocates, and $11,000 from “Friends of John Flanagan,” the committee controlled by the Republican Senate majority leader. Only 12 donations were under $200, with a total of 40 of $250 or less.

“Felder runs around saying ‘oh, look at my community, you know, I support my community.’ He never uses the word ‘district,’ he never says the word ‘district,’” Morris said. “And he never uses the word ‘constituents,’ he always talks about ‘my community.’ And, for the longest time, I’ve been always saying, we don’t know what his community is because we can’t figure out who he’s representing. And then you look at his financial disclosure, and now you find out his community. His community’s REBNY, it’s John Flanagan, it’s the corrections union, troopers’ union, it’s the PBA. It’s nursing homes, it’s bus companies with state contracts -- basically special interests with loaded state contracts. And the real estate lobby.”

Though Morris has steered clear of corporate donations, he did not rule out accepting them, saying that if a “masochist” real estate company decided to donate to him, despite his policy preferences, he wouldn’t decline the donation.

Morris also said the school speed camera program and establishment of a single-payer healthcare system were key issues for the district he hopes to represent. On his website, Morris’ policy objectives include building the TriboroRX subway line connecting the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn, passing GENDA, implementing early-voting and no-excuse absentee voting, building protected bike lanes, public financing of state elections, and expanding rent stabilization. Though Morris has embraced the mantle of “real” Democrat and is largely in-line with the IDC challengers, he told Gotham Gazette that he not a “handicapper” in saying that he would not publicly endorse either Cuomo or Cynthia Nixon for governor.

As for Morris’ family feud with Thomas Edison, it derives from events of a century ago. Morris’ mother’s family, “known for their steady hands,” was at the apex of the hand-cranked motion projector industry, contracting themselves out to New York City movie theaters to hand-crank the projectors.

“But then Thomas Edison put them all out of business with the electric motor for motion picture projectors,” Morris said, noting that Edison invented a stable electric motor that wouldn’t spark and cause the highly flammable film stock to catch fire.

Afterwards, the family started selling light bulbs without a license; Edison sued them for patent infringement.

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been corrected to clarify Morris' role in SD17 for Progress and the organization's mission.

In Brooklyn, Blake Morris Tries to Upend the State Senate Power Balance All By Himself Wed, 05 Sep 2018 04:00:00 +0000
In Albany, De Blasio Evaluates Cuomo’s Budget, Faces Legislators’ Questions de Blasio albany budget testimony 2017

Mayor de Blasio in Albany (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor’s Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio visited Albany Monday for his annual budget testimony in front of the joint budget committee of the state Senate and Assembly. In opening remarks, de Blasio touted some of his accomplishments and gave his on-the-record response to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recently-released executive budget plan in terms of what it means for New York City and his own agenda. The mayor then fielded hours of questions from state legislators that often veered far from strict budget matters and went into how he is running city government and his policies.

Over the course of more than three hours, de Blasio was asked about a wide variety of topics by senators and Assembly members from both parties, engaging in mostly collegial back-and-forth that on a few occasions flared into contentiousness. A few topics, including an imminent city fee on plastic and paper grocery bags and the city’s child welfare agency, were asked about by multiple legislators, but there was no clear theme to the questioning like there was last year, when many pressed de Blasio on property taxes.

For his part, the mayor appeared mostly concerned with Cuomo’s new 421-a program, which aims to revive a property tax break meant to spur affordable housing development, and a variety of proposed funding cuts to the city that the governor outlined. As is often the case when he testiies in front of the state legislator, de Blasio was also engaged in fending off criticism from multiple avenues and attempting to finish his testimony as unscathed as possible.

The mayor, a Democrat now in the final year of his first term, opened his budget testimony on a conciliatory note, thanking the leadership in both chambers, and emphasizing that the interests of New York City and the rest of the state are intertwined.

“We see our role as continuing to be an economic engine for the state as a whole and for the region,” de Blasio said. “And obviously, we are the state’s primary gateway to the rest of the world and we know we have to play that role well. I also think it’s fair to say that New York State succeeds when New York City succeeds, and New York City succeeds when New York State succeeds. It’s a truly symbiotic relationship.”

He touted several accomplishments, including the development and preservation of 62,000 units of affordable housing -- part of the city’s plan to create or preserve 200,000 affordable apartments over 10 years -- dipping crime rates, higher graduation rates and test scores at public schools, and the city’s rollout of universal pre-kindergarten, which is largely funded through the state budget, he noted.

“Now, 70,000 four-year-olds are enrolled in pre-K, and we’re making sure that that investment pays off. Again, I want to offer my profound thanks on behalf of the parents of the City of New York for your support in allowing us to achieve this success,” de Blasio told about 25 legislators seated on a two-tiered dais.

New York City will need the state’s support to continue to build on its successes, de Blasio said, while acknowledging that the city still has much work to do and specifically citing homelessness as an area in need of improvement. De Blasio again promised a new homelessness-fighting plan in February, and even said that it will include a better method of community outreach in siting shelters.

Addressing the state budget, de Blasio had less to complain about this year than last -- in 2016, the the city faced nearly $1 billion in shifted costs under the governor’s initial budget proposal -- but he raised several concerns about the governor’s new 421-a plan, as well as multi-million dollar cost shifts on pre-K, charter schools, healthcare funding, and more.

The mayor praised elements of Cuomo’s budget, particularly the governor’s plan to provide tuition-free city and state college to middle class New Yorkers, a proposed three-year extension of mayoral control of New York City schools, election reforms, various criminal justice reforms, and state coverage of increased Medicaid costs.

De Blasio also sounded the alarm on threats from the Trump administration, stressing the urgency in securing public health funds and passing legislation to protect the environment. He cited Trump’s plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which he said currently covers 1.6 million New York City residents. Up to 200,000 public hospital patients could lose their insurance, endangering their health, and also potentially costing the public hospital system hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, according to de Blasio.

“So, we are quite clear that any actions taken in Washington could create real pain for both state and city government,” said de Blasio. “That’s why it’s so important that we ask your support in making sure that the state budget insulates and protects local governments and our work given these great uncertainties.”

Some of de Blasio’s comments came in contrast, to an extent, to his own preliminary budget, which the mayor released last week. In that spending plan, de Blasio made no “Trump-specific adjustment,” he said, because it was too early to tell what the new president may do on policy and budgeting.

While Cuomo’s executive budget will not be passed through the Legislature without changes, New York City would see a “net positive impact” of $279 million for the coming fiscal year, according to the financial plan. Though Cuomo’s proposal does include some smaller cost-shifts to the city, the budget stays away from the nearly $1 billion in CUNY and Medicaid cost-shifts to the city the governor had proposed last year, which were ultimately beaten back by de Blasio and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat and the mayor’s most important ally in the capital.

On Cuomo’s rebranded 421-a, called Affordable New York, de Blasio said that it would cost the city too much in foregone property tax revenue per unit of affordable housing. The mayor wants tweaks made to the proposal before it is passed, and also said that one tweak he does not want to see made to it is the re-inclusion of luxury condominiums. The program, which the de Blasio administration says is essential to building mixed-income apartment buildings in the city’s most desirable neighborhoods, was at the center of the falling out between de Blasio and Cuomo and will apparently become a contentious issue over the course of budget negotiations.

During the question-and-answer session of de Blasio’s Monday testimony, about 15 lawmakers asked the mayor dozens of questions in two-to-three minute segments.

Several Republican lawmakers pressed the mayor on how education funding is distributed, the hotly contested bag fee, and the city’s Administration of Children’s Services (ACS), which has been criticized of late for several high-profile and tragic child fatalities.

The most contentious moments of the Q-and-A came in exchanges between de Blasio and Senators Catharine Young, Simcha Felder, and Terrence Murphy, all of whom are part of the Republican majority caucus in the Senate.

Murphy, who has long-standing conflict with de Blasio after the mayor attempted to help unseat him in 2014, was the lone legislator to bring up the law enforcement investigations into the mayor and his allies. The two talked over each other at times, with Murphy saying de Blasio is untrustworthy and de Blasio claiming Murphy clearly “has a bone to pick.”

Young represents Chautauqua and Allegany Counties, chairs the Senate finance committee and co-chaired the budget hearing. She challenged de Blasio on how education funding is distributed to city schools and suggested the state should withhold funding from ACS. The ACS commissioner resigned amid criticism that recent tragedies could have been prevented by the child welfare agency, and de Blasio announced Monday that a new commissioner would be in place by early March.

The mayor defended the work of the child welfare agency, noting that it sees 50,000 to 60,000 complaints of child neglect or abuse per year, and in an overwhelming majority of cases, the agency helps children and families. He noted that sometimes courts stand in the way of a child’s removal from a troubled home. De Blasio found support from Senator Diane Savino, who is a former child protective specialist, acknowledged improvements at ACS, and said she is drafting legislation to relieve child protective workers of some of the administrative burdens of their work.

Young also pushed the mayor on property tax reform, which dominated last year’s hearing. While de Blasio has not raised property tax rates, property taxes have continued to rise quickly under this mayor because of increased property value assessments. Republican lawmakers have been pushing for both a general restructuring of the city’s property tax system, which de Blasio has regularly said is coming eventually, and a cap on city property tax growth. De Blasio and Assembly Democrats have refused such a cap, explaining that the city relies on tax revenue to fuel its $80-plus billion budget.

Senator Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat that caucuses with Republicans, expressed outrage over the so-called “plastic bag tax,” a 5 cent surcharge on paper and plastic bags to discourage use, reduce waste, and improve the environment.

“I fundamentally disagree that this issue isn’t urgent to address, in terms of climate change,” the mayor said. “It’s going to have devastating impacts if we don’t address it on all levels. We have even more urgency because we don’t know whether the federal government is going to take a step back on climate change.”

Felder and several Republican lawmakers chimed in, insisting that their objection to the fee was not an objection to the validity of environmental science.

“New Yorkers are sick of being insulted and lied to,” Felder said, raising his voice. “It has nothing to do with whether people do or don’t care about the environment. The issue is whether we have to be punitive. If government doesn't have a way to fix something, no problem -- tax! No problem -- ticket! No problem -- fee!”

With the bag fee about to go into effect in mid-February, the state Legislature is considering legislation to overrule and negate the city’s law. A bill passed the Senate, and the Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, may take it up.

Many Democrats positioned themselves as allies of the mayor on Monday, including Assemblymember Catherine Nolan, the Assembly’s education committee chair, who asked about Foundation Aid and the failure of the state to make due on the Campaign for Fiscal Equality, a decade-old court ruling that was supposed to ensure a basic quality education to all public school students and the requisite funding. Framing it in terms of her experience as a public school parent and de Blasio’s as a former public school parent, she asked, “Do you think we were duped into thinking that we would all benefit from a full CFE?”

“It cannot be airbrushed out of history, our children have suffered from the lack of state funding,” de Blasio agreed.

Democratic Senator Liz Krueger helped defend de Blasio on a variety of issues, including his support for a “mansion tax,” which would add a surcharge to apartments sold for over $2 million.

Senator Daniel Squadron, a Democrat representing Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn, took on a more contentious tone with de Blasio, however, renewing his previous calls for the mayor to sue the bad actors involved in the flipping of Rivington House, the former nursing that is becoming luxury housing. De Blasio said that the city had explored its options, but did not believe that it had a case to bring suit. He promised that his administration would talk more with Squadron about anything that can be done.

Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican representing Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn, commended the mayor for investing in NYPD equipment, before challenging de Blasio on his vow to defy Trump’s immigration ban. The Assemblymember, a frequent critic of the mayor, argued that the city’s list of 170 offenses that would warrant cooperation with federal immigration agents was insufficient. Noting that the city has only complied with 32 out of 584 deportation requests from federal immigration enforcement agencies, she asked, “Why would you protect individuals who are here illegally who are committing these crimes instead of putting your citizenry first and foremost and ensuring that we receive the federal funding that we need for law enforcement to do its job?”

“Assemblymember, I know you are a true believer in your ideology and I am in mine,” de Blasio replied. “And we have very different facts. We are going disagree even on the premise of the question.”

He reiterated that his administration was more concerned that low level, nonviolent offenses like marijuana possession would be used as an excuse for deportation, stressing that conforming to Trump’s anti-immigrant policies would make undocumented immigrants unwilling to speak to police, which would put the city at risk. However, he conceded, “If there are some offenses we should add [to the list of 170], we are willing to do that always.”

The exchange with Malliotakis was indicative of most that de Blasio had on Monday: he pushed back on legislators’ wording, premises, and data, but did so with some semblance of willingness to communicate further and collaborate where possible. The question then becomes, of course, whether de Blasio does indeed intend to communicate and collaborate more, or whether he was attempting to diffuse criticism at such a rare and public hearing.

After his appearance, de Blasio refused to answer questions from members of the media. While he had done so prior years after his budget testimony, this year the mayor ignored reporters who attempted to ask him questions as he walked the halls of the Legislative Office Building, engaged in conversation with a member of the Assembly.

De Blasio had meetings scheduled Monday afternoon with Heastie, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein, and Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. The mayor was not set to meet with Cuomo, despite the rare occurrence that both were in Albany on the same day.

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

In Albany, De Blasio Evaluates Cuomo’s Budget, Faces Legislators’ Questions Mon, 30 Jan 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Early in Albany Session, Plastic Bag Fee Sparks Home Rule Debate felder bag fee city hall via scott reif

Senator Felder & opponents of the bag fee (photo: Scott Reif)

An attempt by lawmakers in Albany to prevent the New York City Council from imposing a fee on plastic and paper bags at retail stores has reignited a debate over home rule and the state government’s interference in the work of a democratically elected local legislative body.  

The New York State Senate passed a bill on Tuesday that prohibits “the imposition of any tax, fee or local charge on carry out merchandise bags in cities having a population of one million or more.” The bill, sponsored by Sen. Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat, directly targets a law passed by the City Council and signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio last year that imposes a nickel fee on those bags and is due to go into effect February 15.

The law, which passed with a relatively slim City Council majority, is meant to reduce waste and environmental damage, as New Yorkers send billions of bags per year into the waste stream While it make exceptions for people on public assistance, its opponents argue that it would be a prohibitive burden on New Yorkers, including poor people and families more broadly.

“Many families have a hard time just getting by, paying for groceries, rent and heat, and now the Mayor wants to shake them down every time they shop just for the privilege of using a plastic bag,” Senator Felder, who represents part of Brooklyn, said in a statement on Tuesday. “Mayor de Blasio, please do not nickel-and-dime New Yorkers with another tax. This will hurt lower- and middle-income families who already struggle. I'm asking New Yorkers to stand up and tell the Mayor that this bag tax has to go.”

Although Felder is a Democrat, he caucuses with Republicans to create a Senate majority. His bill was co-sponsored by three Republicans and also two other Democrats, both members of the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group that shares power in the Senate with Republicans. Felder’s bill passed with 42 votes in favor and 18 against.

For the Democratic Senators who opposed Tuesday’s bill, the plastic bag fee at the heart of the issue was not the only thing under threat. They criticized Felder’s bill for violating the state constitution’s principle of home rule that gives local governments the authority over many of their own affairs, and for doing so only in the case of New York City while making no mention of smaller jurisdictions that have passed similar bag fees.

The Senate bill, Democrats insisted, was narrowly targeted and would set a dangerous precedent for the legislative body. Even the word “fee” became a point of contention. Felder, and those who supported him, call it a “tax” instead and argue that the city has no right to impose it. Under state law, only the state Legislature can approve any new taxes. It is considered a fee because the stores keep it, the money is not passed to the government.

Sen. Liz Krueger, a Democrat from Manhattan, arguing on the Senate floor against Felder’s proposal, wondered “why should we override history, precedent, perhaps the constitution...and take an action that overrides a local government’s law applying only to itself?”

Krueger expressed concern that it reflects political developments at the national level, where the incoming federal administration may seek to unduly interfere in the workings of the state. In a statement after the passage of the bill, Krueger said, “If this bill becomes law, it will set a shameful and dangerous precedent that local solutions to local environmental issues will be vetoed in Albany.”

The bill is now with the Democrat-led Assembly and if it passes there, it would be sent to Governor Andrew Cuomo for his signature. “We would like to see if we can get the city come to an agreement with how the Legislature has raised a concern,” said Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, at a Tuesday news conference. “But again, we don’t want to minimize the environmental concern that the city has raised.”

State intervention in New York City’s affairs is not novel and has in the past been a source of tension in the city-state dynamic, at times along partisan lines. The state’s Municipal Home Rule Law provides that the state can intervene in a local jurisdiction’s affairs if the locality sends a “Home Rule message” to the state Legislature requesting that certain laws be enacted or if the state Legislature demonstrates that an issue is a “matter of state concern.” Otherwise, the state Legislature cannot pass laws that apply only to a specific locality. That the bill targets New York City is a given: there is no other municipality in the state with more than a million residents. That might give its opponents an opportunity to challenge it as a “special law” rather than a “general law” that applies statewide.

Courts have in the past cited ‘home rule’ as a basis for striking down laws passed in Albany that affect New York City alone. But the language in Felder’s bill refers to an “open class” of locality, rather than naming New York City, and that argument has been upheld by courts, said Richard Briffault, a professor at Columbia Law School who specializes in state and local government law. “The state most likely has the legal authority to ban local plastic bag fees but it is completely inconsistent with the idea and purpose of local home rule,” he said.

Echoing Briffault, Doug Muzzio, political science professor at Baruch College, emphasized Albany’s “virtually absolute” power over New York City. “Under Dillon's rule, cities are creatures of the state,” Muzzio said, referring to a judgement in 1868 by Judge John Forrest Dillon, then-chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, which narrowly defined a municipality’s authority as being derived from the state government. “Their powers, their very existence is determined by the state,” Muzzio added. “Albany's power over the city has long been a source of anguish. In his 1861 address before the Common Council, Mayor Fernando Wood called Albany's power ‘odious and oppressive.’ It remains so.”

Muzzio said Senate Republicans were using the authority within their right to enforce their own goals. Complicating matters, though, is that there are more than a dozen Democrats in the New York City Council who voted against the bag fee. Still, this does not change the fact that the city passed its own law on the matter.

The overarching debate is also somewhat complicated by the fact that the plastic bag fee has pitted senators representing New York City against their colleagues from the five boroughs, making them all stakeholders in the issue serving overlapping constituents. Supporters of the bag fee insisted on Tuesday that legislators from outside the city should not interfere with local matters while opponents of the fee pleaded to those outside legislators to help them avoid imposing a new burden on their constituents.

“There are seven City Council members who represent my district,” said Senator Diane Savino, an IDC memebr and one of the state cosponsors who represents Staten Island’s northern shore and parts of South Brooklyn, during the Senate debate. “Every single one of them voted against [the bag fee bill in the City Council]…What they weren’t able to accomplish in the City Council, they want me to be able to deliver for them up here in Albany. They thought it was bad policy for the City of New York. They lost the fight there but they want us to win the fight here.”

Savino also complained that the Senate had been misled by the City Council. The bag fee would have gone into effect in October last year but the Council delayed its implementation after facing strong opposition in Albany. The Senate voted then, as it has now, to ban any taxes or fees on plastic bags. As a result, the City Council struck a deal with the State Assembly to push implementation to 2017 and to revisit the language in the bill. Those negotiations have yet to produce results, with the fee set to go into effect in less than one month. “They did not negotiate in good faith,” said Savino. “We cannot trust them.”

Senator Jesse Hamilton, another IDC member from Brooklyn, who spoke later, stood up against the Senate bill. “Every time we speak about home rule in this chamber, it never applies to New York City," he said. "For this chamber to say the City Council in New York City, they don't know what they are doing, I find that a little offensive.”

Negotiations between the Council and state lawmakers are still continuing, said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at a news conference on Wednesday, in response to Gotham Gazette’s questions. Mark-Viverito expressed her displeasure that the Senate was attempting to thwart legislation that had been extensively debated. “I think it’s unfortunate that New York City is being specifically targeted by the bill that is being presented and that is being discussed and the Senate voted on,” she said.

The day before the Senate took up the bill, Mayor de Blasio vowed to push back against its efforts. In his weekly appearance on NY1, he told host Errol Louis, “I’ll work with the City Council to push this back, because I don’t see an alternative. Do we really want to keep doing something that’s really bad for our environment and takes up lots of fossil fuels as we’re facing climate change. I think the Council was right to pass it and if some of the folks in the state Senate oppose it, what’s their alternative? The status quo is not acceptable.”

A key player in what happens next is a main de Blasio ally: Assembly Speaker Heastie, a Bronx Democrat. Then, there is Gov. Cuomo, not typically a de Blasio friend, who would be forced to decide whether to sign the state legislation if it passes both houses. Cuomo’s office did not return a request for comment about the debate over the bag fee.

City Council Member Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat and one of the prime sponsors of the bag fee legislation, is hoping that either the Assembly will vote down the bill or that Governor Cuomo, known for his positive record on environmental conservation, will veto it.

Lander said it was “mystifying” that the state Legislature would attempt to roll back environmental regulation and dictate a “law of dubious legality” to the city. But he remained open to changing the language in the bill if it meant it could be improved and receive the Legislature’s support. “I’m worried that Albany is going to nullify this very sensible effective environmental policy,” he said. “I assumed that when Suffolk County, not known as a bastion of left-wingers, passed the same bill, and when the City of Long Beach in Nassau County did the same, that that would help members of the Legislature see that this is growing, that there’s support for it, that this is something we should be looking at more broadly.”

Critiquing Felder’s bill, he added, “It is an unconstitutional special law masquerading as a general law. Home rule should be required and I think everyone knows it.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Additional reporting by Rachel Silberstein

Early in Albany Session, Plastic Bag Fee Sparks Home Rule Debate Thu, 19 Jan 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Democrats Must Control the State Senate ASC and other Sen Dems

Sen. Stewart-Cousins and fellow Senate Democrats (photo: @AndreaSCousins)

This November millions of New Yorkers will head to the polls on Election Day. While our state legislative races receive far less media attention than the Presidential race, they are still critically important. Today, much of the dysfunction in our state, and our government’s failure to address the real needs of working people, young and old, is a direct result of continued Republican control of the State Senate.

Now that the primaries are over, it is essential that New Yorkers focus on Democratic control of the Senate through November’s vote.

There are currently 32 Republicans in the 63-seat State Senate, including Simcha Felder, who was elected as a Democrat but conferences with the Republicans. The five Democratic senators who make up the Independent Democratic Conference have conferenced with the Republicans under a power-sharing agreement first announced in December 2012. Although the people of New York State went to the polls in November 2012 and elected a true Democratic majority, the victorious Senate Democrats have been relegated to minority status in the State Senate since 2013, despite holding a technical majority in the chamber.

Defenders of the current majority leadership point to recent successes on issues like the minimum wage and paid family leave. However, support for those vitally important initiatives was a long-fought effort of the Democratic Party, the Working Families Party, labor unions, faith-based organizations, and progressive community organizing groups. That effort, which Governor Cuomo only began championing in early 2016, was met with outcry and dissension from the Republican-led majority. Today, the minimum wage agreement has resulted in a three-tier structure, with different wage limits and phase-ins that offer only limited relief to the poverty-level pay of workers in Upstate New York and Long Island.

Governor Cuomo, who wields enormous power and benefits from a divided Legislature, was indeed able to push some legislation through in this year’s budget. But should progress in our state depend on the discretion of one person? And what about important progressive issues like the DREAM Act, campaign finance reform, increased MTA and education funding, election reform, and closing tax loopholes—the carried interest loophole among them—that benefit millionaires and billionaires at the expense of the middle class?

A number of bills passed by the Democrat-led Assembly can’t get a vote on the floor of the Senate because the Republican leadership won’t allow it; examples include Nicholas’s Law, which would require the safe storage of firearms in homes, and GENDA, which would outlaw discrimination based on gender identity or expression and has passed the Assembly nine times in consecutive years. Even the tenth plank of the Women’s Equality Agenda, which governs abortion rights, can’t pass the Republican-led chamber in a state that prides itself on being a progressive leader among other states.

Americans are conditioned to see a fully funded public education as the right of every child and every family. Our state constitution guarantees a sound public education to every student. Yet despite the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, decided almost a decade ago in favor of New York parents, public education here remains underfunded to the tune of billions of dollars, leading to the most racially and economically segregated classrooms in our nation.

Super PACs advocating for charter schools, which often siphon resources away from public education, and for tax credits for private and parochial schools have not shied away from advertising their interest in maintaining a Republican-led majority. In the primaries, one such PAC, New Yorkers for Independent Action, specifically targeted a Democratic senator and three Democratic Assembly members representing communities of color. Thankfully, these efforts were unsuccessful as voters chose candidates who support public education.

Fulfilling the promise of public education—and supporting the hard-working teachers who provide it—has become a Democratic prerogative.

This year saw corruption exposed at an unprecedented level in Albany. Nevertheless, despite promises of strong ethics and government reform, New Yorkers have been disappointed time and again by the paralysis of our state Legislature. Reforms that get passed are inevitably watered down. Last month, for example, the governor signed an “ethics reform” bill that was roundly criticized by good government groups and editorial boards for not going far enough or attacking the root of the problem. Rather than addressing the perverse amounts of money being thrown at our state legislators, the bill simply increases disclosure requirements for independent expenditures and lobbyists.

By contrast, the Democrats, led by State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, are looking to close the LLC loophole, which allows corporations to give nearly unlimited funds to candidates. They also propose enacting a public financing system for elections and lowering contribution limits for campaigns. These reforms would fundamentally improve our system of government by taking power out of the hands of large corporations and powerful lobbyists, who are able to wield extraordinary influence in Albany at the expense of tenants, immigrants, seniors, and students.

This November New Yorkers have a chance to take back some control of their state Legislature by electing a real Democratic majority. We urge New Yorkers to restore and expand on the promise of Election 2012 in this crucial election year.

Kate Linker and Kim Moscaritolo are the president and vice-president of the all-volunteer advocacy organization Greater NYC for Change, a partner in the Demand Democracy campaign. Kim is the Democratic District Leader in AD76 in New York City.

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

Democrats Must Control the State Senate Thu, 15 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000
In Albany, De Blasio Argues for Mayoral Control Extension de blasio testimony senate

De Blasio testifies in Albany (photo via @KellyCummings)

Mayor Bill de Blasio received a generally friendly welcome from Senate Republicans throughout several hours of testimony in Albany on Wednesday during a hearing on mayoral control of city schools. De Blasio was peppered with questions regarding issues such as special education, charter school co-locations, mental health services, and school space, but the issue of mayoral control as a governance structure was addressed head on only in limited doses.

For his part, de Blasio touted gains in graduation rates and test scores, he spoke of the growth of universal pre-kindergarten and community schools and explained new goals around literacy rates and computer science courses. He even pointed to the number of weak teachers let go during his administration. The mayor was flanked by his schools chancellor, Carmen Farina, who often added specifics to bolster the mayor’s argument or answer questions from legislators.

The hearing could have come at a better time for the mayor - Senate Republicans have recently seized on news of investigations facing de Blasio around his involvement in 2014 efforts to win the chamber for Democrats. De Blasio has been plagued by a series of investigations by federal, state, and city authorities into his fundraising practices.

Sen. Terrence Murphy was the only Senate Republican to bring up the matter during the hearing. "Why I should vote for mayoral control with all the allegations that are going on in your office?" Murphy asked de Blasio.

De Blasio asked Murphy to consider facts such as a 70 percent graduation rate and other successes, adding, “We don't literally know of any other alternative.” De Blasio addressed the allegations saying, "In a democracy, we don't judge by allegations, we judge by facts." Murphy countered that “trust” was still an issue.

De Blasio has served as an electoral boogeyman for Senate Republicans across the state for the last two years, but tensions have heightened in the wake of the investigations and the results of a special election on Long Island where Democrats won the seat that was long held by former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Bad feelings, largely emanating from de Blasio’s involvement in the 2014 election cycle, resulted in a one-year extension of mayoral control last year. De Blasio cried foul pointing out his predecessor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, was granted a seven-year extension.

This year, Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan insisted mayoral control not be addressed as part of the state budget, an agreement on which was reached March 31, and invited de Blasio to testify at two public hearings. The second will be May 19 in New York City.

The Democratic-controlled Assembly has advocated a seven-year extension, while Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed three. At the end of his opening testimony, during which he highlighted his long support for mayoral control of city schools and the bipartisan nature of overall support, de Blasio asked for a seven-year extension.

Wednesday’s hearing was more dominated by specific concerns from Democrats about schools in their districts than any hostility from Senate Republicans. Education committee chair Sen. Carl Marcellino led the hearing with little fanfare, asking substantive questions and attempting to keep things focused and moving.

In his preparation for renewal this year de Blasio has referenced his predecessors and support from business groups in an attempt to paint the issue as non-partisan. It was a note he repeatedly hit during Wednesday’s hearing.

“We are in lockstep on mayoral control,” de Blasio said referring to Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. “It's a system that is superior to what we had before and there is no third way.”

Marcellino, a Long Island Republican like Flanagan, who was his predecessor as education chair, began the hearing by bluntly asking de Blasio about his previous stance on mayoral control. “There was point in time you didn't think highly of mayoral control, why did you change your mind?”

De Blasio quickly countered that his voting record demonstrates his support of the system, but said that he had been concerned in the past about parental involvement.

With that out of the way de Blasio delivered prepared testimony where he touted a familiar list of achievements including the city reaching 70 percent graduation rates for first time in its history; the enrollment of 68,000 students in pre-K, and a commitment to new goals and standards. De Blasio repeatedly thanked legislators for their support, specifically pointing to their approval of funding for pre-K.

There were a few moments of drama.

Sen. Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, who is elected as a Democrat but caucuses with Republicans, complained of being ignored by the administration and demanded de Blasio promise to ease the process by which parents of students with special needs are ensured of an appropriate learning environment for their children by the beginning of the next school year. De Blasio commiserated with Felder on the importance of the issue, but declined to make such a broad promise. He did, however, commit to providing Felder with a letter describing what progress the city does intend to make. Felder appeared satisfied by the end of the exchange.

A number of Democrats including Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, a Brooklyn Democrat, appeared to urge de Blasio to distance himself from Bloomberg’s legacy on mayoral control but de Blasio declined, saying that he felt there had been “undeniable” progress made under Bloomberg, though he did note he thought recent improvements had been made to parental involvement.

De Blasio spoke carefully on the subject of charter schools, even while being offered several chances to criticize them by Senator Bill Perkins, a Manhattan Democrat who asked a series of charter-related questions. The mayor repeated his recent public opinions on charters by saying that they must enroll a student body representative of their surrounding areas and retain challenging students while also saying that the administration is working well with many charter schools.

Marcellino reminded Perkins that it was a hearing on mayoral control, not charter schools and Perkins explained that charters are a key piece of education policy, having noted that under Mayor Bloomberg charters began to proliferate in his district.

Gov. Cuomo and Senate Republicans have been very supportive of charter schools in the past, while de Blasio has often battled with the most high-profile charter network, Success Academy.

The individuals testifying immediately following de Blasio and Farina were tied to charter schools in various ways. They complained of the mayor’s treatment of the schools and expressed support for limiting the renewal of mayoral control. They noted that charter schools are subject to renewal after lengths of terms varying from five, two, or even one year. Testimony was by invitation only. A number of Democratic Senators said they had heard from parent groups that had requested to testify but were denied.

In one of the only direct questions regarding the city’s school governance system, Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, asked de Blasio what it would mean to have mayoral control renewed on a one-year basis.

“It creates instability,” said de Blasio, who added that it impacts larger initiatives to improve schools over a span of years. “It is a disservice to our children if we don't even know what our governance will be in a year. It doesn't allow us to achieve what we need to achieve.”

De Blasio and Farina both returned to a theme over their three hours of testimony that they haven’t been presented with an actual alternative to mayoral control. “To what end,” de Blasio asked of frequent debates over the system. “If there was an alternative on the table that is better I would debate it any day.”

Krueger suggested that perhaps the Legislature shouldn’t meddle in city school issues given that a lot of the issues discussed during the hearings including co-location and school space required hyper-local knowledge. “There are certain roles for the state Legislature that are important, there are others that we have to leave alone,” said Krueger.

De Blasio appeared to distance himself from that assertion. “We should be in regular dialogue,” he said. “There should be a partnership. We honor that fact and we want to be in regular communication about how we do things together.”

The mayor took a firm, but collaborative and deferential tone for most of the hearing, appearing to understand his audience and its power. He also surely knows, though, that Gov. Cuomo will have a lot of influence over the fate of mayoral control when the governor and legislative leaders negotiate any policy between now and the end of the session in June.

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

In Albany, De Blasio Argues for Mayoral Control Extension Wed, 04 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000
New York One Signature Away from Calling for Overturn of Citizens United nys


In a landmark year for corruption in the state legislature, 2015 saw the arrest and conviction of two of the most powerful political leaders in New York. A crescendo of voices across the state -- from good government watchdogs to lawmakers -- expressed outrage and demanded stronger ethics laws and campaign finance reforms. In one sense, Albany now has the opportunity to put its money where its mouth is -- and all it needs is one signature.  

New York is one signatory away from becoming the 17th state in the country to call for a constitutional amendment to negate the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case, which gave entities such as corporations and unions the same rights as individuals in contributing to electoral campaigns.

A successful bipartisan appeal for a federal constitutional amendment in the State Assembly has yet to be replicated by the State Senate, where 31 senators -- one short of a majority -- support overturning Citizens United to minimize the role of money in politics. While agreement by a majority of each house from New York would only be advisory, like the other states that have reached consensus, a groundswell for negating Citizens United could influence Congress.

"As we've seen again and again, Citizens United has opened the floodgate to unchecked and often opaque corporate political contributions, muscling real people out of the political process,” said State Senator Daniel Squadron, a Brooklyn Democrat, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. Squadron is leading the effort among the Senate Democratic Conference and has 23 co-signers on a letter addressed to the United States Congress which calls for the constitutional amendment.

(Squadron also said that the state legislature should support his Corporate Political Activity Accountability to Shareholders Act, which would increase transparency and accountability.)

Senators Ruben Diaz Sr. and Simcha Felder are the only Democrats who have not joined their colleagues on the letter. The five members of the Independent Democratic Conference together signed an identical version of Squadron’s letter while Senate Democratic leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins independently wrote to members of Congress. (Felder is elected as a Democrat but caucuses with Republicans in the Senate, and Diaz Sr. is often difficult to pin down ideologically.)

Sen. Stewart-Cousins, in her missive, said that the independent contributions made possible by Citizens United “represent a deliberate effort to unfairly influence the electorate and empower a small group of individuals and corporations. Elected officials are becoming more beholden to the interests facilitating these outside funds while the public’s trust in our democracy erodes.”

Stewart-Cousins is adamant about reforming the state’s campaign finance system and believes that Senate Democrats have led the fight on many fronts. She lays blame with the members on the other side of the aisle. “We need to restore the public’s trust in state government and that will only happen when the Senate Republicans agree to listen to the voters and take meaningful steps to clean up Albany,” she said in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

While the Democrats who support overturning Citizens United total 29 votes, only 2 Republican state senators have supported the effort -- Senators Phil Boyle and Kemp Hannon, albeit in language different from the Democrats’ letters (it, for example, decries the massive potential outside spending to support Hillary Clinton's presidential bid). Sen. Boyle, who circulated his letter among his colleagues, refused to comment for this article.

Reluctance of New York Republicans to join the effort comes as a growing number of voters, including Republicans, oppose Citizens United. In a Bloomberg poll from September, 78 percent of respondents said they wanted the decision overturned.

“We’re at a crossroads in the movement where Democrats who hadn’t signed on are signing on, and where Republican voters are strongly in favor of a constitutional amendment, but we’re working to make that transition with Republican legislators,” said Jonah Minkoff-Zern, co-director of the Democracy Is For People campaign at Public Citizen, a nonprofit advocacy group that has been garnering a coalition to lobby state legislators for their support in the matter.

Senior attorney Gene Russianoff, from the New York Public Interest Research Group, is not surprised by the Republican legislators’ lack of support. Some of these state senators, he said, “feel teflon-proofed” and he applauded those who signed the petition. “Citizens United is the right target to fight the influence of money and political interests,” he said.

For good government groups like NYPIRG and Citizens Union of the City of New York, the Supreme Court’s decision to treat corporations as individuals in campaign finance has wreaked untold havoc on elections.

“New York State is severely hampered by federal court decisions in terms of how it can address the corrosive role of money in politics,” said Rachael Fauss, director of public policy, Citizens Union. “Action by the New York State Legislature would help drive attention to this national problem, and put New York on the record as being against campaign money being considered free speech.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whom many reformers look to be more of a leader on campaign finance reform in New York, recently made clear he thinks that as long Citizens United is around, his hands are largely tied. In an interview with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer on Dec. 21, the governor promised that he will advocate for campaign finance reform in 2016, but conceded that he could only do so much.

“If you say, 'Well, money influences,' then forget it, because [with] Citizens United you're not going to get the money out of the system until the federal government changes the court or the law or both,” he said. He was also dismissive of New York City’s public campaign financing system, calling it a “mockery” that independent committees can donate large sums of money to candidates as a result of Citizens United.

Advocates and reform-minded legislators continue to push Cuomo to call for a statewide public campaign finance system, which he has given lukewarm support for in the past.

Just a few hours after Cuomo’s Dec. 21 WNYC remarks, Mayor Bill de Blasio held a roundtable with members  of the news media at which he also said passing a constitutional amendment was an “imperative” without which “we’re in an environment where a lot of very wealthy, powerful people will use their money to reinforce the status quo.”

In an editorial on Dec. 22, a day after Cuomo’s remarks on WNYC, the Albany Times Union called on the remaining state senators to take the bold step and join the growing call for an amendment.   

On the surface, New York calling for a constitutional amendment may be symbolic in the absence of Congressional action. But, according to Common Cause NY executive director Susan Lerner, “In this instance, symbolism is especially potent.” She believes that owing to New York’s large congressional delegation, even symbolic measures carry significant weight.

“Remember, New York is a donor state,” she said, referring to New York’s influence on elections all over the country. “Everybody running for office comes to New York for campaign contributions. When New York elected officials say the system has gotten out of control, it’s particularly applicable.”

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@samarkhurshid    @GothamGazette

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

New York One Signature Away from Calling for Overturn of Citizens United Mon, 11 Jan 2016 18:11:32 +0000
State Senate Democrats Poised to Ride Hillary Clinton Wave hillary-clinton

Hillary Clinton during a recent appearance in NYC (photo: NYC Mayor's Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio may not have endorsed Hillary Clinton's presidential bid yet, but her candidacy could be instrumental in accomplishing something he and Governor Andrew Cuomo failed at last year: putting the State Senate in the hands of Democrats.

"I think she will have longer coattails next year than Cuomo did last year," said Kenneth Sherrill, who taught political science at Hunter College for decades. "Turnout will be higher and more partisan. There won't be any winks and nods toward Republican incumbents."

If the Democrats can wrest control of the Senate in 2016 they would control both houses of the Legislature come 2017 (they already hold a significant majority in the Assembly), and, at least in theory, be able to force the governor to the left.

"A presidential year with a rock star from New York running for president will immensely help voter turn out," State Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, predicted enthusiastically.

Democrats have been creeping toward the majority in the Senate after holding it briefly from 2009 to 2010. In 2012 the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference, a splinter cell of dissatisfied Democrats, gave Republicans the majority - with Cuomo's blessing.

In 2014 de Blasio launched a campaign to win outright control for Democrats and pressured the IDC to return to the fold - its members promised to conference with Democrats, but that seemed to hinge on the Democrats winning enough seats to have a majority. Cuomo, who faced a tepid response from his liberal base, barely campaigned for himself let alone Democratic candidates and flirted with backing Republican legislators who had supported his major policies in the past.

Republicans won outright control, in part thanks to Brooklyn Sen. Simcha Felder, an elected Democrat who conferences with Republicans. Now de Blasio and like-minded Democrats face a Senate Majority that holds a grudge and the fate of rent laws, mayoral control of schools, and other key elements of de Blasio's progressive agenda in its hands. Cuomo holds a bag of progressive 2014 campaign promises that Senate Republicans seem dead set on preventing him from delivering, while they do enable him to deliver on the more conservative or centrist pieces of his economic and education agendas.

However, a massive advantage in voter registration and a younger base appear to make a Democratic takeover an eventuality. Hillary Clinton's candidacy could be the shove Democrats need to get them over the threshold and to never look back. Compared to Republicans, Democrats see larger turnout fluctuations in presidential and non-presidential years, with Clinton expected to provide a significant (if not Obama-esque) boost.

Cuomo would be faced with a liberal tidal wave in the Legislature and he might not be able to find a strong middle ground, though underestimating his ability to do so might be dangerous. Democrats further to the left, including de Blasio, would have two houses of the Legislature looking to deliver on progressive issues.

For some Democrats 2016 is D-Day. They expect Democratic turnout will spike and Clinton coattails - Hillary is technically a New York resident who represented the state in the US Senate and whose campaign office is in Brooklyn - will drag Democrats into perhaps permanent control of the chamber.

"I really think this is it," said New York State Senator Neil Breslin, a Democrat from Albany. "Her candidacy will be a strong attractor for new candidates, for veteran legislators to increase their involvement, and it will boost Democratic turnout."

Krueger said that with Clinton's candidacy, the push by US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to recruit more women candidates, and efforts from advocacy groups and PACs, "I do think we will see more interest in people who are willing to run for state government. The trouble is that a lot of people say: 'Albany, really? Yuck!' We need to get people...past that cynicism. When women see other women in leadership it makes [them] think, 'I can do this,'" she added.

Breslin believes Clinton's candidacy will also give some Republicans pause, and perhaps lead to the retirement of some more senior members.

Senate Republicans have been playing defense for years, fighting off changes to election law, redistricting, and campaign financing. They've also had to convince older members to stay in their seats for fear that their name recognition, not their party affiliation, is what has kept their seats in Republican hands.

"I get a 25,000 boost in votes in a regular presidential year," said Breslin. "That is the margin of victory for most candidates. Now translate that to Hillary."

Senate Democrats have worked diligently on presenting a unified front during their time in the minority, rallied around leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and even begun to openly challenge the policy decisions of Gov. Cuomo, who has done little to help them electorally and undermined and overlooked them legislatively.

In a sense Democrats have been liberated and become less fractious because they have lost some of their more rural and conservative districts to Republicans; meanwhile, districts that used to be fairly conservative are trending more liberal.

"We are in an extremely strong place regardless of whether 2016 is a presidential year," said Sen. Michael Gianaris, a Democrat of Queens, who noted the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee is out of debt for the first time in years. "We have 31 elected Democrats [in a 63-seat chamber] and there could be special elections before then for any number of reasons. Now add a Clinton candidacy to that - [she] is a daughter of New York - and we are in an amazing position."

Gianaris incudes members of the IDC in his count - they may quickly attempt to reconcile with mainline Democrats if the party is able to take a majority.

Republicans have laboriously tried to maintain some level of bipartisanship, fostering their alliance with the IDC and allowing them to bring some more Democratic issues to the floor including the DREAM Act and parts of Cuomo's Womens Equality Agenda. And they partnered with Cuomo to pass marriage equality and the SAFE Act - but they also saw incumbent legislators defeated after facing backlash on their votes on those two issues. And in the past two years Majority Leader Dean Skelos has pushed back hard against the progressive agenda.

Even some Senate Republicans say privately that passing the DREAM Act could be beneficial to the conference in certain districts with growing Latino populations, but Skelos has been adamant that the conference remain united in its public opposition to the measure. It's a certainty that Clinton and other presidential candidates will be heavily courting Latino voters.

Skelos has also refused to budge on a new round of minimum wage increases, and appears to have opposed a number of criminal justice reforms put forward after the July death of Eric Garner in New York City.

"We want to see these policies enacted for the good of the people of New York," said Gianaris of a progressive agenda. "The more these guys reject these common sense issues like a minimum wage increase and paid family leave for things like tax breaks for yachts and private jets the more it becomes obvious to voters how out of touch they are."

As bright as the state Senate future may seem for Democrats and as inevitable a 2016 Democratic ticket headed by Clinton may seem at the moment, some in the party acknowledge that without Hilary they could be in serious trouble. "Forget it," said one Democrat who asked to remain anonymous."If Hillary loses the primary we are in major trouble. All bets are off."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

State Senate Democrats Poised to Ride Hillary Clinton Wave Wed, 15 Apr 2015 16:03:37 +0000