Gotham Gazette Sun, 05 Jul 2020 11:46:55 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) After 28 Years in Office, Jeff Aubry Faces Tough Assembly Primary from Disgraced Former Senator Hiram Monserrate ric aubdry 01

Assemblymember Jeff Aubry (photo: State Assembly )

This story was first published by the Queens Daily Eagle 

Eleven years have passed since Queens Assemblymember Jeff Aubry led the successful effort to repeal the state’s Rockefeller drug laws and address the brutal impact of the War on Drugs on communities of color. Since that fight, Aubry has sponsored legislation to ensure inmates have access to mental health treatment behind bars, introduced a bill to curtail the use of solitary confinement, and called for a special prosecutor to investigate prison deaths and complaints made against correction officers. 

 The 14-term incumbent, who once taught at a New Mexico prison in the early 1970s, championed criminal justice reform long before criminal justice reform became a hot issue among his Democratic colleagues.

 “I’m proud of the way young people in the Senate and Assembly have come to this battle,” Aubry told the Eagle June 10, a day after he voted to eliminate 50-a, the state law that shielded police personnel records. “Once we’re on a roll with justice, you try to keep that ball rolling.” But the ball may keep rolling while he watches from the sidelines. 

 Aubry, 72, is facing the toughest primary challenge of his 28-year career. Perhaps fittingly, it’s the tenets of criminal justice reform — second chances for the formerly incarcerated, a complex life beyond the superficial label of ‘convicted felon’ — that inform the viability of his opponent, Hiram Monserrate. Or at very least, it’s what enables some supporters to justify their votes for an extremely polarizing politician convicted of cutting his girlfriend and stealing public funds.

In November 2019, Monserrate, a former state senator and City Council member, declared that he would challenge Aubry in Assembly District 35, which covers much of Elmhurst, East Elmhurst, Corona, and LeFrak City. To many voters, the name “Hiram Monserrate” is synonymous with a recent era of political corruption that saw numerous state elected officials charged, convicted and sentenced for bribery, kickbacks and steering schemes. 

Monserrate, who did not respond to multiple phone calls, emails, and Twitter messages for this story was sentenced to two years in federal prison in 2012 after he funneled City Council money to a nonprofit and used the cash to boost his Senate campaign. He was ordered to pay nearly $80,000 in restitution, but by February 2020, he had paid less than $9,000. 

He told the New York Times he would pay the rest leading up to the primary. It remains unclear whether he actually has paid the money back. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan, to whom he owes the money, did not immediately respond to emails and phone calls. 

Monserrate was also convicted of a separate domestic violence-related misdemeanor in 2009 after he cut his then-girlfriend in the face with a glass, dragged her to a car, and drove her to a far-away hospital. He and his then-girlfriend said the gash she suffered was the result of an accident.

If that wasn’t enough baggage, Monserrate is known for grinding the Senate to a halt by briefly siding with Republicans and nullifying the slim and, at the time extremely rare, Democratic majority. 

“The rise and fall of Hiram Monserrate is like a movie,” Aubry said. “He robbed, he stole, he beat his girlfriend and still he rises. It’s a sexy story and any darn writer can make a novel about that. And I think he sees himself that way.”

On the Ground in Elmhurst and Corona
New York City will soon find out how voters see Hiram Monserrate. 

His campaign signs adorn the walls of various shops and businesses around Elmhurst and Corona, though that does not necessarily mean that passersby — or even the store owners themselves — know who he is.

At a bus stop near the corner of Grand Avenue and Queens Boulevard, not far from the Queens Place mall on June 18, five people who said they were registered to vote in the area said they had never heard of Monserrate, whose sign hung in the window of a doctor’s office behind them.

Across the street, a man named M.D. stood outside a bodega and counted himself a Monserrate supporter. “He’s a gentleman. I’ve known him for years,” M.D. said as he scratched off lottery tickets against a railing. A Monserrate sign hung from the window of an Indian restaurant next door. 

“Somebody just came and pasted it on the wall,” said the restaurant owner. “I said, ‘OK.’ I don’t know him.”

The same thing happened at a discount store a few blocks away, the store clerk said. 

“Some kids just came by and asked if they could put the signs up. We said, ‘Yes,’ but I don’t know who he is,” she said.

The demographics have shifted significantly in District 35, with Latino residents now accounting for more than 60 percent of the population — up from 52 percent in 2012. At the same time, the district’s Black population has decreased. The demographics could help Monserrate, a Latino candidate who connects with many voters in their native language, said political strategist Martha Ayon, who lives in District 35 and has endorsed Aubry.

“From November, all the way until February they could have been doing articles and going on TV in Spanish to criticize Hiram,” Ayon said. “They didn’t take the time before this to reach the Spanish audiences. “You need it to be in El Diario and some of the other Spanish publications in Queens.”

In recent weeks, Aubry’s campaign has circulated Spanish-language literature, but Ayon said it was already too late to reach many voters.

“They weren’t persuading them in the language that they understand,” Ayon said. “Why don’t people care about his criminal history? Because you’ve been saying it in English,” she added. 

Younger voters, meanwhile, may not recall his past misdeeds — or Aubry’s achievements

“My story is longer and maybe not so flashy,” said Aubry, who is Black. “You get a younger population where Rockefeller is like the First World War.”

Monserrate has already been elected to a party post during his post-prison comeback. Assembly District 35 Democrats chose him as a district leader in 2018. 

During that election, Monserrate helped carry three other other members of his East Elmhurst Corona Democratic Club to district leader victories as well. The four officials are gadflys among the borough’s 72 elected district leaders — two men and two women in every Assembly district. They refuse to support the county party’s endorsed candidates and Monserrate has been an outspoken opponent of the organization, which has long backed Aubry.

Though Monserrate did not respond for this story, loyal surrogates have repeatedly come to his defense.

“If we speak about reform and forgiveness and giving people a second chance then we speak to people who are critical of Hiram,” said Monserrate’s friend and ally Anthony Miranda, a retired police sergeant running for Queens borough president. Ten years ago, Miranda lost to Aubry in the Democratic primary for Assembly District 35. He has received campaign contributions from Monserrate during his bid for borough president.

“I don’t agree with any of the things he’s been accused of, but he was found guilty, he served his time, he came back to the community. And the community residents voted him in,” Miranda said, referring to the district leader election.

Monserrate, a gifted retail politician, has remained active in the community, developing relationships and laying the groundwork for his campaign through his political club. 

“Hiram has been physically working and getting out the vote for months, doing mutual aid, handing out PPE, door-knocking and that’s not something that should be taken for granted,” Ayon said.

Monserrate has advised the anti-displacement coalitions Nos Quedamos and East Elmhurst Alliance, which advocate for affordable housing in Willets Point. After the Eagle referenced Monserrate’s criminal history in a 2018 article about those efforts, an East Elmhurst Alliance representative wrote a message explaining why the members value and support Monserrate.

“We believe in fully re-integrating our returning citizens. He has done lots of great things in our community and quite frankly our Coalition has gotten more than a full semester of Willets Point knowledge from him,” the representative wrote. 

“His past errors have nothing to do with our fight at Willets Point and our Nos Quedamos Queens coalition stands by him because quite frankly he is the only Leader who is independent of the machine with the knowledge and force to stand up for us when other politicians cut deals with developers etc.,” they continued.

The East Elmhurst Corona Democratic Club has also served as a sort of power broker in the area, running a slate of candidates for elected office in the past few election cycles and hosting higher-office hopefuls like Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and four candidates for Queens borough president: Donovan Richards, Elizabeth Crowley, Costa Constantinides and Miranda, who the club endorsed.

Last year, the club’s pick for Civil Court judge, Lumarie Maldonado Cruz, defeated the candidate endorsed by the county organization in Queens’ first contested Democratic primary for a judgeship in decades.

The club, one of the most active in Queens, features an effective petitioning operation and has organized a get-out-the-vote initiative in the district as well. Two Corona residents said East Elmhurst Corona Democratic club members even visited their home to help their older relatives apply for absentee ballots and then returned a few weeks later with the ballots, which they had picked up from the Board of Election office in Forest Hills. 

One resident, Natalia Guzman, said she answered the door and spoke with the campaign worker to prevent the woman from pressuring her mother.

“She asked if she is going to vote for Hiram Monserrate and I said, ‘She’s not going to declare that right now,’” Guzman said. “She was reluctant to let go of the ballot.”

Election attorney Sarah Steiner said that picking up blank ballots is not prohibited, but verges on illegal when a campaign worker pressures a voter while they fill out a ballot — or fills out the ballot themselves.

“There’s a fine line about what’s legal and what’s not,” Steiner said. “You can deliver absentee ballots, you can pick up absentee ballots, but if you help the voter fill out that ballot you could be breaking the law.”

Antagonists Unite for Aubry 
On June 18, Aubry — far from an active social media user — tweeted a major development in the race: U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was endorsing him for reelection. On Sunday, she even canvassed with Aubry in LeFrak City.

The endorsement was also unique in Queens politics because it united two influential antagonists — Ocasio-Cortez and U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks, the chair of the Queens County Democratic Party, a position he won after Ocasio-Cortez defeated then party chair Joe Crowley. 

“Aubry’s going to win. Here’s a man of distinction, character who has served his community with grace and decency,” Meeks told the Eagle Friday. “People in his district are recognizing that.”

Some colleagues and Queens leaders were slow to provide that sort of aggressive support for Aubry earlier in the campaign, however. While elected officials have focused on their own races and the impact of COVID-19, they have also weighed the political risks of alienating Monserrate supporters.  

Aubry said he does not fault his allies for showing up late to rally behind his candidacy given the impact of COVID-19 and current political realities.

“Some folks were under pressure from outside forces in their district,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 28 years. I watch and know politics as best as anybody else, and I know the things that people have to watch out for in their own world and have to take into consideration.”

Others spoke out early on. City Council Member Francisco Moya called Monserrate a “disgraced politician” and a “joke” when Monserrate first filed a campaign committee in November 2019. Assemblymember Catalina Cruz from the neighboring 39th Assembly District sponsored a failed bill that would prevent people convicted of public corruption from serving in the state Legislature. 

In March, Assemblymember Aravella Simotas vowed to leave the Democratic conference if Monserrate were invited to join after potentially defeating Aubry.

“I will not sit in the Democratic conference if he is sitting there with me,” Simotas said during an appearance on WBAI radio’s City Watch show.

“I’m very passionate about this because I’ve spent years talking with domestic abuse survivors and survivors of sexual assault and women and men who’ve had this violence,” she added. Simotas is facing a tough primary challenge of her own from Democratic Socialist of America-backed organizer Zohran Mamdani.

 Yet, it’s more than just tweets and bromides. Support for Aubry has surged in recent weeks based on financial disclosure reports.

 Aubry began the year with $114,000 in his campaign account but raised just under $21,000 between Jan. 11 and May 18, according to financial disclosure reports filed with the state Board of Election. 

 But over the next two weeks, Aubry raised more than $40,000, including a $4,700 contribution from ex-Rep. Joe Crowley’s campaign account, according to Aubry’s 11-day pre primary report.

In contrast, Monserrate raised $68,772.02 between July 15, 2019 and Jan. 11 of this year but just over $4,800 between Jan. 11 and May 18, according to financial disclosure reports. He raised another $7,150 in late May and early June, according to his latest filing.

 Ayon, the Queens political strategist, said the race remains wide open a day ahead of the primary.

 “That’s why I endorsed Aubry, because I’m extremely concerned,” she said. 

Whatever voters think of the candidates and their pasts, there’s a practical reason to vote for Aubry, she said.

 “Anyone can be an advocate, but if I’m paying someone to go to Albany and pass legislation, that is not something Hiram will do,” Ayon said. “The governor, Carl Heastie, they won’t let his legislation get to the floor. That’s my argument for Hiram and Aubry: Who can physically do the job? Hiram cannot.”

by David Brand of the Queens Daily Eagle
@DavidFBrand @QueensEagle

After 28 Years in Office, Jeff Aubry Faces Tough Assembly Primary from Disgraced Former Senator Hiram Monserrate Tue, 23 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Long-time Incumbent Faces Two Challengers from the Left in Western Queens Assembly Primary Cathy Nolan Assembly

Assemblymember Cathy Nolan at the Amazon 'HQ2' announcement (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

Long-time Queens Assemblymember Catherine Nolan faces two challengers in this month’s Democratic primary in her first reelection campaign since coming out in support of the controversial deal that would have brought a massive Amazon campus to Long Island City.

Nolan has represented the 37th Assembly District, which includes Long Island City and parts of Astoria, Sunnyside, Maspeth, and Ridgewood, since 1985. The district is 39% white, 36% Hispanic, 15% Asian, and 7% black, according to Census data.

Long Island City is the fastest growing neighborhood in the country, and new development resulted in a $3,450 median asking monthly rent in 2019, up 11% from the year prior, according to a StreetEasy market report.

The issues of rising rent and displacement are central to the campaigns of both of Nolan’s challengers, activists Mary Jobaida and Danielle Brecker. Brecker said the incumbent could have shown her opposition to both trends if she had opposed Amazon, and her failure to do so is part of what made Brecker lose faith in Nolan and run against her.

“Assemblymember Nolan had at one time proposed a moratorium on development,” Brecker said. “So when she supported Amazon it was surprising to me as a constituent and felt like a missed opportunity on her part to lead us not only against Amazon but also on stopping luxury real estate development in LIC and the full district.”

Jobaida and Brecker have similar far-left, progressive platforms and a similar message: even if Nolan supports progressive causes, she has not done enough to get them passed.

“I’m running for office because of my dissatisfaction with how New York State has been operating, especially in Assembly District 37,” Jobaida said in an interview. “My interest to run for office comes from my dissatisfaction living in this district, being a mother, being a commuter.”

Jobaida, who moved to Queens in 2001 from Bangladesh, said the district has been a difficult place to live for those like her: low-income people, commuters, and parents of children who attend often crowded public schools. And she’s learned that firsthand, whether when commuting to her work at a healthcare center in the Bronx in crowded, delayed subways or when, despite applying right after admissions opened, her second child ended up 59th on the waitlist for the local pre-kindergarten program due to the overwhelming number of applicants.

“All of a sudden because of overgentrification and overdevelopment, unplanned development, all of a sudden we saw a surge of people coming to this district but resources were not expanded,” Jobaida said. “The living cost is beyond bearable now, and is displacing the people who have been living here and also making the district totally not liveable.”

Jobaida’s platform includes single-payer healthcare, a Green New Deal for New York, tuition free public college, removing income requirements for affordable housing, and criminal justice reform such as ending cash bail, decriminalizing sex work, and legalizing adult-use marijuana.

Her opponent and fellow challenger to Nolan, Brecker, is running on a similar platform, and for a similar reason.

“I never, ever thought I would run for office but then I was co-leader of Empire State Indivisible, we defeated the IDC, and then we sort of discovered that the Assembly was still a problem,” Brecker, said in an interview. “I discovered that my Assemblymember was a little bit complacent, maybe didn’t fight as hard as I and her constituents needed her to and was probably a little more moderate than, say, I am. And so I decided to step up.”

Brecker was an advertising executive for more than two decades before joining organizing and activist efforts following the election of Donald Trump. She said Nolan has simply not done enough to stop overdevelopment. Despite calling for a moratorium on new construction in 2018, Nolan supported the ill-fated Amazon ‘HQ2’ deal. The Assembly member spoke at the announcement press conference with Governor Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Amazon representatives, and others to celebrate the deal, which promised tens of thousands of jobs. But the deal, which was abandoned by the mega-corporation just a few months after it was announced due to significant local backlash, also represented to many a threat of accelerating rising costs of living and displacement.

“Over the course of my career I’ve been very involved in many, many progressive things,” Nolan said in an interview, defending her record. “I supported tenants’ rights, supported paid family leave, supported the cause of women’s entry into the political system, helped mentor a lot of women and was kind of a trailblazer, was the first woman to chair the labor committee in the history of New York State.”

Nolan said she’s championed progressive legislation for her career and cited recent sponsorship of a bill to provide all New Yorkers with sick leave and wage replacement during the COVID-19 pandemic if they are unable to work due to quarantine requirements.

She also referenced endorsements she has received from a variety of labor unions, political clubs, and others, including 32BJ and 1199 SEIU, New York League of Conservation Voters, Transport Workers Union, The Civil Service Employees Union Metropolitan Region 2, the New York Hotel Trades Council, Progressive Voices United, Eleanor's Legacy, and the Stonewall Democrats LGBTQ Club (a full list of endorsements was not provided to Gotham Gazette after multiple attempts to reach Nolan’s office, and she has no campaign website where such lists are typically offered, though some have been posted to her Facebook page).

Nolan’s labor support, which includes a variety of law enforcement unions, has helped her raise money for her campaign: about $120,000 of her $170,000 total haul has come from political action committees (PACs), many representing unions. She’s received donations from chapter 338 of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the New York State United Teachers, the Sergeants Benevolent Association, and many others.

She’s also received a few donations from real estate interests: $500 from the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), $500 from Triad Management LLC, which manages rental properties in Long Island City, and $100 from Gotham Realty. She’s also received several campaign donations from other elected officials and $20,000 from the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee, which seeks to protect incumbents and flip Republican seats to Democrats.

Brecker, who was recently endorsed by well-known progressive Zephyr Teachout, has said she’s knocked on over 5,000 doors in her efforts to flip the New York State Senate with Empire Indivisible. She also worked to urge U.S. Senators to vote no on Trump’s initial cabinet appointments and in early 2017 captained a bus to the first Women’s March in Washington D.C.

“I just want that action,” said Brecker, who has also been endorsed by True Blue NY, Empire State Indivisible, and New York Indivisible, of getting more progressive legislation across the finish line. “I just want a leader who’s going to be a little bit more of an activist in her office and less kind of complacent and letting it go and letting it be politics as usual.”

Nolan, though, has largely painted her opponents and their supporters as part of an online progressive movement that is not representative of the district. The Assembly member said she’d only discovered Twitter two years ago, and wants nothing to do with it. She has a Facebook, but she doesn’t have a Twitter account or a campaign website, unlike her opponents, and said she thinks much of the criticisms thrown at her online is more likely from out-of-district millennials who aren’t aware of what she has done for her community.

“One of the problems for like Twitter and Facebook and all this stuff is that people get to say ‘this is who I am,’ but sometimes it’s a little more complex than that,” Nolan said. She added that while her two opponents live in the district, “Many of their supporters do not. So the people hurling these charges don’t seem to know what my record is, and they don’t seem to care about the things we mentioned that we achieved, whether it’s tenant’s rights or environmental issues.”

Lupé Todd-Medina, a political consultant working on other campaigns this cycle, voiced a similar sentiment in her assessment of the race.

“Cathy Nolan is another one who’s been very effective,” Todd-Medina said. “Unfortunately, we are now living in a time where people, younger generations especially, are just not reading the newspaper. They’re online and they’re reading stuff. If they’re not reading the newspaper and you’re not putting it on Twitter they don’t know what you’ve done. Cathy is very effective.”

It’s younger, newer residents’ votes that Brecker and Jobaida should hope to win if they have a shot at unseating Nolan, according to Doug Forand, who runs Red Horse Strategies, a political consultancy.

“This is one of those districts where you have seen a shift in the population, increased gentrification and economic turnover, and a lot of new residents coming in,” Forand said. “That’s a district where I would not be comfortable with an incumbent, in that district, if I was not very very in touch with the newer residents.”

Forand said most challengers, especially in races without major policy differences and well-enough-liked incumbents, would have to draw on newer, gentrifying residents who want change and associate with further left, progressive politics. Without the ability to canvas, Brecker and Jobaida have attempted to reach such an audience on Twitter, where they both have around 1,000 followers.

But any success they’ve had in gaining larger online followings than Nolan does not seem to have translated into their fundraising as both challengers have struggled to gain financial backing. Brecker has only raised $9,000, solely from individuals, and has put another $13,000 of her own money into the campaign, as of as of the recent 11-day pre-primary filings.

After a promising start where Jobaida received 326 donations for more than $34,000 by January 17, she has only received another $7,500 or so since, likely a result of how the world has shifted due to the coronavirus outbreak. Jobaida has found support in endorsements by Our Progressive Future, Amplify Her, Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, Muslim Democratic Club of New York, Bangladeshi American Advocacy Group, New American Leaders Action Fund, and Ozone Park East New York Democratic Club.

Neither Jobaida nor Brecker have received any corporate or PAC money, and both said their fundraising struggles stem from the pandemic, which has left many New Yorkers facing financial hardship and many candidates more reluctant to ask for donations.

“I call this pandemic a capitalist problem,” Jobaida said. “This pandemic is hurting the poor and low-income people and our grassroots campaign is no different.”

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Long-time Incumbent Faces Two Challengers from the Left in Western Queens Assembly Primary Tue, 16 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
WATCH: Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou and Challenger Grace Lee Debate in Lower Manhattan Democratic Primary mnn sidebysideb

Yuh-Line Niou, left, and Grace Lee during their debate

Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou and her Democratic primary challenger, Grace Lee, met for a debate on Monday, June 15, hosted by Manhattan Neighborhood Network and moderated by Gotham Gazette's Ben Max. The primary for this Lower Manhattan State Assembly seat is happening this month, with early voting ongoing through June 21; primary day on June 23; and all eligible voters allowed to vote by absentee ballot. Watch the debate:


WATCH: Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou and Challenger Grace Lee Debate in Lower Manhattan Democratic Primary Mon, 15 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Self-Funding Community Activist Challenges Progressive Star Incumbent in Lower Manhattan Assembly Primary grace lee yuh line niou

Challenger Grace Lee, left, and Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou

An intense Democratic primary is unfolding in Lower Manhattan, where incumbent Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, a staunch progressive, is facing a challenge from business owner and activist Grace Lee, who is partially self-funding her campaign.

While the two candidates don’t appear to disagree on much politically, the race looks like a test of whether a well-financed challenger seizing on hyper-local issues can motivate enough voters to overcome a broadly popular incumbent. Meanwhile, the election is unfolding during a pandemic, and in a district that has been uniquely harmed by the coronavirus outbreak and its fallout, throwing campaigning into new territory and casting a great deal of uncertainty around who will actually vote this month.

The district includes parts or all of the Lower East Side, Chinatown, Battery Park City, and the Financial District, as well as Governors Island. The primary, open to all Democrats in the district, is part of an election cycle where all 150 Assembly, 63 State Senate, and 27 New York House of Representatives seats, among others, are on the ballot, though not all have party primaries. Primary day is June 23, while early voting is June 13-21, and all voters are eligible for absentee balloting given a gubernatorial order due to the pandemic.

Seeking a third term, Niou has a strong following among progressive activists and elected officials, with the endorsements to show it, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nydia Velazquez, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and Comptroller Scott Stringer, many of her Assembly and Senate colleagues, and even U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, to name a few. She has the support of the liberal Working Families Party, which helped spur her to victory over a short-lived incumbent in 2016, as well as New York State United Teachers, New York State Nurses Association, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, AmplifyHER, Empire State Indivisible, Stonewall Democrats of NYC, and many other unions and political clubs.

Niou was born in Taiwan and moved to the United States when she was just six months old. She holds the seat that was for decades the domain of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whose corruption conviction paved the way for a 2015 special election won by Silver ally Alice Cancel, whom Niou then defeated in the primary the following year.

Her challenger, Lee, is a first-generation Korean-American who owns a toxin-free beauty line for pregnant women and new moms. She got more formally involved in politics in 2018 when she worked as an event organizer with the progressive group called Swing Left, which is focused on getting Democrats to volunteer in swing states. More recently, she co-founded Children’s First, which organized a group of parents to advocate for the cleanup of a possibly toxic former thermometer factory site across from her daughter’s school in the South Street Seaport. The site is slated for development, which worried Lee and others about the disruption of buried toxins, and Lee says she’s running because she does not believe Niou has been active enough on the issue, or others. Earlier this year, Lee wrote an op-ed (in Gotham Gazette) about the issues at the site and a legislative response she wants to see that would empower local communities and apply to other similar circumstances.

“The shocking thing to me through this process is that there were no laws to protect children from sites like this one,” Lee said in an interview. “There were other legislators in New York State who were proactive about finding solutions and writing legislation to protect children from mercury except our legislator, namely my opponent, was not.”

Lee has made her campaign about this type of questioning Niou’s commitment to the district, as she otherwise shares a similar progressive platform to the incumbent. Both support single-payer healthcare, increased funding for public schools and public housing, and climate resiliency efforts. Aside from the seaport site issue, neither Lee nor her campaign spokesperson offered other specific examples where Lee believes Niou has not performed well, though the challenger has offered some broader criticism of Niou’s closeness to issues on the ground and representation of the district in Albany.

Community Ties
Lee has said that, having lived in Lower Manhattan for 15 years, she is better situated to lead the district in the midst of an ongoing public health and economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I believe that we are only in the first inning right now of one of the deepest economic crises of our lifetime,” Lee said. “And we need someone that understands it, who’s lived it before and can help lead this district out of the crisis.”

Lee specifically said her experiences being in New York during September 11, 2001 and the Great Recession that started in 2008 make her more prepared to lead the way.

Niou of course disagrees.

“[In 2008] she was working for JP Morgan & Chase, literally the people who were putting us into a subprime crisis,” Niou said in an interview. “It’s really important for us to make sure we have a good advocate at this time, and my whole life has been based on advocacy.”

After moving around a bit as a child, Niou primarily grew up in Washington State, where she attended Evergreen State College. During her time there, she interned for Washington State Congressmembers Debbie Regala and Eileen Cody before doing post-grad advocacy work with the Statewide Poverty Action Network, according to her LinkedIn page. She later came to New York in 2010 as one of CUNY’s National Urban Fellows and worked at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and, after that, became Chief of Staff for New York State Assemblymember Ron Kim, a Queens Democrat.

Lee has tried to argue that Niou growing up out of state means she does not have strong local roots, going so far as to claim that she “parachuted in” to the district in 2016 to run for office.

Voter registration data from the New York City Board of Elections shows that Niou first voted in the 65th Assembly District in November of 2014.

“These are laughable lies from a desperate candidate,” said Doug Forand, a political consultant who runs Red Horse Strategies and counts Niou as a client. “For Grace Lee to make these claims? Look, we know that we have politicians like Donald Trump who lie, we do not need politicians like that within our own Democratic Party.”

Forand pointed to Lee’s own community ties. Although she has lived in Lower Manhattan for some time, last May Lee moved about four blocks to officially reside within the 65th Assembly District, a move that occurred because her family needed more space, a Lee campaign spokesperson said.

Lee has some of her own endorsements from local organizations, such as Downtown Independent Democrats, the largest political club in the district. She’s also endorsed by local District Leader Jonathan Gardenhire. Niou, meanwhile, has endorsements from seven District Leaders in the district.

Key Issues
Lee also has drawn support from 10 members and presidents of tenant’s associations at NYCHA developments. Assembly District 65 is among the top 10 districts with the most public housing apartments, according to 2018 data compiled by the Community Service Society of New York. It has 12 NYCHA developments, according to NYCHA. Lee lists funding for NYCHA as one of her main priorities on her website and has made it a campaign talking point.

Niou has focused on NYCHA during her tenure, helping to push for hundreds of millions in state funding for the housing authority, but seemingly noticed Lee’s attention to the issue, writing a recent op-ed (in Gotham Gazette) on the topic, where she called for further action at all levels of government in light of the pandemic and other long-standing issues.

“More than anything, I am deeply saddened by the way our NYCHA residents are being willfully ignored and mistreated,” Niou wrote. “[T]hey deserve a government that will fight for them, not turn a blind eye to their suffering. Like so many institutions of government, NYCHA needs to rebuild trust with its residents, and that starts with honestly and competently addressing the problems they are facing today, not making false promises or missing more deadlines.

On Niou’s campaign website, NYCHA funding and oversight is prominently featured under housing. The website states Niou “secured a record $550 million in funding for NYCHA for capital repairs to the crippling infrastructure,” over her two terms in office.

She also has her own list of endorsements from local NYCHA leaders.

Niou has criticized Lee on tenants’ rights issues more generally, citing her lack of support for Brooklyn State Senator Julia Salazar’s “good cause” eviction bill that would protect tenants in market-rate apartments from being evicted without reason. (Salazar is among Niou’s endorsers.) Lee had previously told Gothamist she was undecided on whether or not she supported the bill, but in a January Q&A with The Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, which has since endorsed Niou, she affirmed her support.

“This is a necessity more than ever given the coronavirus pandemic,” Lee said at the time. “This, among other housing policies, will be the cornerstone of my agenda during my first term in office.”

Lee has made her background in business (she has a bachelor’s in economics from Columbia and a master’s in business administration from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business) She also founded and runs her own business, part of her pitch to voters, arguing that she would be able to help small businesses thrive and deal with the economic aftereffects of COVID-19. The broader coronavirus crisis has hit the district, especially Chinatown, very hard.

She’s also criticized Niou’s response to it, citing her “no” vote on an early March measure to issue $40 million of relief that also would grant Governor Andrew Cuomo the ability to supersede local and state authorities by way of executive order.

“For her to vote against that aid was voting against the health and well being of this community,” Lee said. “And we can’t have leaders in this district who don’t understand that.”

Niou said her vote was about disagreeing with giving the governor added powers she did not believe he should get.

“The governor stapled $40 million towards services and expenses related to the COVID-19 outbreak to some very concerning expansions to his own authority and power,” Niou said of her vote in an explanation posted to Twitter. “This was done in the span of just a few hours with no eyes on the language of the bill until just before the vote.”

During the pandemic, both Niou and Lee have been working to help residents of the district. Niou’s office has been working to help people file unemployment claims, and to connect those in need of food or other necessities with mutual aid organizations. Lee is collaborating with the “$1k Project,” an initiative that matches families in need of financial assistance with other families that have committed to donating $1,000 a month to them for three months. Of nine families that have applied through her so far, two have been sponsored, seven are being considered and none have been declined, according to a Lee spokesperson.

Niou was also one of an unusually high number of Assembly Democrats who voted against parts of this year’s state budget. She did so in a floor speech, the video of which circulated widely, where she said, “This budget, this values document, makes a terrible statement that we value big businesses and profits more than we value people, our people, the people of this state, and that is simply not who we are."

Lee's work with the $1k Project, which relies on making connections to better-off families, mirrors Lee’s own fundraising. Her campaign has been heavily supported by business executives and wealthier donors, many from the financial services industry she formerly worked in. As of the most recent campaign finance filings, Lee has raised about $200,000 while also giving $250,000 of her own money to her campaign.

Niou has raised almost $230,000 in total for the campaign, with almost 5,000 individual donors — which is about 10 times more than Lee — and a much smaller average donation than her challenger.

Other than herself, Lee’s largest donors are Charles and Marissa Cascarilla, who each donated $4,700 (Charles is the CEO and co-founder of Paxos, a company with its own digital currency). She’s also received $2,000 from Frank Bisignano, Chairman and CEO of Fiserv, another financial technology company. Philadelphia-based Lily Fong, the Vice President of AIG, an American multinational finance and insurance corporation, donated $3,000 to Lee, who also received $2,000 from Emma Bloomberg, daughter of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

In the most recent campaign finance filings posted on Friday, which show contributions made in the last three weeks, the difference in Niou and Lee’s fundraising has become even starker. While Niou had over 3,000 individuals donate to her during that time period (bringing her cycle total to more than 5,000) — an especially large number for an Assembly campaign — Lee had only 13 individual donors. Lee still had an influx of cash, though, as she put another $150,000 of her own money into the fund (bringing her total in self-financing to the aforementioned $250,000).

Lee’s campaign financing has drawn criticism from Niou’s camp, with Forand characterizing her campaign as an attempt to “buy her way into elected office.”

While Niou’s average campaign donation from individuals over the election cycle is now about $10, Lee’s is $366, according to State Board of Elections filings (and that doesn’t include the $250,000 Lee gave herself).

Besides a large number of individual donations, Niou has received money from many political action committees (PACs), the vast majority of which are associated with unions. The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, New York State United Teachers, and Tenants PAC have each donated around $5,000 to Niou’s campaign.

In a statement to Gotham Gazette about her campaign funding sent after the publication of this article, Lee said, "At the beginning of this pandemic, I had to make some hard choices. I could either spend my time calling donors for money or going out into my community and helping. I chose the latter. My husband and I are fortunate enough to be able to loan my campaign money so that I could keep my staff on payroll. I don’t feel comfortable asking for money while people are dealing with this crisis." She highlighted that unlike Niou she has not taken any PAC money, and added, "I worked very hard to raise money for my campaign, and outraised my opponent in the first quarter without any establishment support. Unlike my opponent, I don’t have a citywide, establishment elected official or unions dialing for dollars on my behalf.”

The two candidates will meet on Monday, June 15, for a debate hosted by Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN) and moderated by Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max. [UPDATE: Watch the AD Democratic Primary debate between Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou and Grace Lee]

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this story has been updated with comment from Lee about her campaign fundraising. Also, while the Lee campaign said that the candidate had been endorsed by Alysha Lewis-Coleman, Chair of Community Board 3, and this article originally included that endorsement, Lewis-Coleman told Gotham Gazette that she had made no such endorsement and wished to have her name removed from Lee's list of endorsers above.

Self-Funding Community Activist Challenges Progressive Star Incumbent in Lower Manhattan Assembly Primary Sun, 14 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Race, Representation, and Community Roots in Focus in Central Brooklyn Assembly Primary Assembly candidates 

The two Democratic candidates in Brooklyn's 56th Assembly District

With incumbent Assemblymember Tremaine Wright of Brooklyn seeking a promotion to the State Senate, the 56th Assembly District is an “open” seat for the 2020 election. The two candidates vying for the Democratic nomination in this month’s primary, Justin Cohen and Stefani Zinerman, represent differing policy approaches, campaign styles, and backgrounds. As no other candidates have filed to run in the deep blue district, the winner of the Democratic primary will be unopposed in the general election and secure the seat.

The 56th Assembly District is predominantly anchored in Bedford-Stuyvesant, but also stretches into some of Crown Heights. The district’s residents are predominantly black, accounting for 63% of residents, according to Census data. Hispanic residents comprise 18% of the district and white residents are 13%. The district is relatively young, with nearly three-in-five voters under the age of 40 and an average age for district residents of 33.5, compared to 39 statewide.

In stark contrast to the nearby affluent neighborhoods of Park Slope and Boerum Hill, 26.1% of the district’s residents live in poverty, nearly double the statewide rate of 14.6%. The median household income is $45,269, compared to $65,323 statewide.

Zinerman, a black woman, is a former pastor who has worked as an aide for retiring State Senator Montgomery (whom Wright is running to replace in the somewhat overlapping district) and a chief of staff to City Council Member Robert Cornegy. All three of those local officials -- Montgomery, Wright, and Cornegy -- are backing Zinerman for Assembly. Zinerman has been involved for many years in a number of community organizations, including the Brooklyn NAACP and Age-Friendly, a senior-focused initiative which she chaired.

Cohen, a white man, is a community organizer and activist. He worked as an education advocate in Washington D.C., cofounded the anti-gun violence group Politicize My Death, and has worked with other organizations such as Campaign Zero and Black Lives Matter. He also touts himself as a “social entrepreneur,” as a cofounder of the Wayfinder Foundation.

Zinerman has questioned Cohen’s roots in the community he seeks to represent and frequently highlights her own, “as a third-generation Bed-Stuy resident.” When asked about her opponent, she warned that “the next assault on our community seeks to destabilize our political power with seemingly well-meaning outsiders.”

When asked why he decided to run for Assembly, Cohen told Gotham Gazette that he had come to the conclusion that “the best use of my energy was to run.” He frames his entire campaign around one overarching theme, justice, which for him would mean that “communities most marginalized by our system get the resources they need to thrive.”

Cohen extends the theme of “justice” to a variety of issues, from public safety to immigration to transportation. He says the 56th district is a “transit desert,” where public transportation is not readily accessible for many and often inconsistent. He says a commute into Manhattan can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, which he calls unacceptable.

On issues of healthcare, public safety, and many others, he makes a similar case: that the district does not get enough resources and attention. Cohen calls his proposals “radical” and says “this is a nominally progressive state but we never talk about the wealthy people in our state,” meaning that he wants to increase taxes on the highest-income New Yorkers.

In response to the pandemic, Cohen has argued that rent should be cancelled for the time being. He also supports the New York Health Act for single-payer health care in the state, a homes guarantee, universal rent control, making the MTA’s subways and buses free and accessible for all, and the Green New Deal, among other policies.

When asked at a recent candidate town hall hosted by the Brooklyn Movement Center, a nonprofit community group with deep roots in the district, about the recent protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, Cohen called for defunding the NYPD by $1 billion, although as a state legislator he would not have a direct say in that decision. Cohen said on Twitter he was arrested during a May 30 protest, along with other demonstrators.

While Cohen focuses on broad systemic issues and puts forward ambitious policies for seismic change, Zinerman takes a different approach, focusing on more localized concerns and constituent engagement. She lists her top two priorities as community health and education equity for the schools in the district.

On health, Zinerman said she is advocating for several community-based initiatives, including a “healthy aging programming, community farms and access to healthy food, doula care to reduce maternal morbidity, expanding the number of school-based health clinics,” and “safe staffing standards for licensed nurses.”

On education, Zinerman wants the promise of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity to be fulfilled through $3.9 billion in state foundation aid for New York City. Education equity, for Zinerman, would mean that schools can offer career and technical education, “high-quality academic enrichment,” and “physical and mental health programs.”

Zinerman’s position on debates over policing is community-focused. She said at the Brooklyn Movement Center town hall that the “only thing we can do is lessen contact with police,” advocating for “new models” of public safety.

The Money Tree and District Roots
Cohen holds a significant financial advantage over Zinerman. He had raised $83,211, with $15,611 in cash-on-hand as of the 32-day pre-primary report filed on May 22. Zinerman had raised just $13,689 and had $10,090 in her campaign account as of the same date. Additionally, Cohen has spent $67,600 so far in the campaign, while Zinerman has only spent $3,599 as of that 32-day pre-primary report. The average contribution to Cohen was $189, while Zinerman’s average contribution was $227.

Notably, out of the Cohen campaign’s 167 individual contributions, 56% have come from outside New York State and 72% are from outside Brooklyn. By comparison, 40% of Zinerman’s 40 contributions were from outside Brooklyn. Yet, Cohen has far more contributions from within Brooklyn (57) than Zinerman (16). Meanwhile, Cohen’s campaign committee is registered to an address in Jersey City, New Jersey, according to his most recent financial disclosure.

Cohen said he doesn’t take funds from “the monied interests in real estate and the political establishment in this city”  and his campaign has instead “turned to national networks to support our insurgent campaign.” Explaining the reason a New Jersey mailing address was used for his campaign filing, Cohen told Gotham Gazette that his “campaign treasurer is my closest friend, a lifelong New Yorker, who just moved to Jersey City, hence the address on the filing.”

Zinerman is not the only person to raise concerns over Cohen’s connection to the district. At the recent Brooklyn Movement Center town hall, Cohen was asked how he, as a white man, would represent the interests of a majority-black district. He responded that he acknowledges that he “is not the ideal messenger, but I am who I am” and that “my track record shows that I do the work and put in the time.”

Later, in the same town hall, an audience member asked a similar question, wondering if Cohen had a “white savior” complex and how he would make inroads in the local community. He answered that “trust is earned. There’s a difference between being a gentrifier and a neighbor.”

It is Zinerman who holds the advantage in endorsements. She has been endorsed by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, State Senators Velmanette Montgomery, Brian Benjamin, and Kevin Parker; three State Assemblymembers (including current 56th District incumbent Tremaine Wright, as well as Brooklyn’s Walter Mosley and Rodneyse Bichotte), and local City Council Member Robert Cornegy, whom she used to work for. She has also received the endorsements of Vanguard Independent Democrats, Planned Parenthood Action, the Brooklyn Young Democrats, Social Services Employees Union (SSEU) Local 371 and Local 372.

Assemblymember Bichotte, the Brooklyn Democratic Party leader, said in a statement endorsing Zinerman that “I have worked with Stefani personally and she is astute, smart and dedicated to effectively serving the community she grew up in as a legislator.”

Cohen touts endorsements from Kei Williams, a founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, and government reform group Citizens Union. While not endorsing his campaign, several community leaders have voiced support for his COVID-19 recovery plan, including Pastor Rob Waterman of Antioch Baptist Church, which including the NY Health Act, paid sick leave for essential workers, and giving the state the ability to assume control of noncompliant nursing homes.

Zinerman’s endorsement advantage and support from Brooklyn Democratic Party leaders has led some, including her opponent, to assert that she is the “establishment” candidate. Cohen told Gotham Gazette that “if there’s one thing that is clear in our current moment, it’s that business as usual is not working, especially when it comes to the political establishment’s lax reaction to violent policing.”

However, Zinerman sees her endorsements edge as a result of what favorably differentiates her from Cohen in this race. She’s a “long-time resident with generational roots” in the district and she has “a proven track record of accomplishments that demonstrate my commitment to this community. That, she says, is why she is “endorsed and trusted by our elders, small business owners, faith-based and political leadership.”

Early voting starts June 13 and goes through June 21; primary day is June 23. All eligible voters can vote absentee per an executive order by the governor issued resulting from the pandemic. This and other Democratic Party primaries are only open to registered Democrats.

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Race, Representation, and Community Roots in Focus in Central Brooklyn Assembly Primary Thu, 11 Jun 2020 20:28:00 +0000
Community Activist Takes on 47-Year Incumbent in North Brooklyn Assembly Race 2 prog comm

Assemblymember Joe Lentol (photo: @assemblymanjoe)

Emily Gallagher, a local community board member, is the first person in a decade to challenge New York State Assemblymember Joe Lentol, who has represented North Brooklyn’s 50th Assembly District for 48 years. Her rallying cry has been less to change the policy priorities of the district’s representative, and more to inject new blood into the Assembly, despite Lentol’s progressive track record.

While Gallagher has been amassing more support than is often typical of a primary challenger to a well-liked incumbent, Lentol is not prepared to cede his post.

The Democratic primary between the two will be decided this month, with early voting June 13-21, primary day June 23, and absentee balloting allowed for all eligible voters due to the governor’s coronavirus-inspired order.

Lentol, who has been influential in passing criminal justice legislation such as raising the age of adult responsibility, has also done much to provide green space for his district, which includes neighborhoods such as Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and part of Clinton Hill. The district, predominantly home to white residents, contains a mix of manufacturing and residential buildings as well as a lot of waterfront property, making it an attractive place for parks.

Lentol helped to pass the bill that created the East River Park, advocated for the buying of MTA-owned land to contribute to the building of Bushwick Inlet Park, and says he has spoken with the governor about including $7 million in the state budget to build the Kosciuszko Bridge Park.

Gallagher, who has lived in the district for 13 years and founded the Greenpoint Sexual Assault Task Force, said Lentol has not been active enough in pushing for significant, progressive change.

“We can’t have a democracy if it’s on autopilot,” Gallagher said in an interview. “Even if we’re comfortable with someone, if they’re nice, if they’re doing an OK job, we need to be having a conversation about what’s going on and what the future looks like. It is my view that we need a lot of grassroots energy, a lot of progressive energy and new fresh ideas and perspectives.”

Lentol pushed-back on the idea that he doesn’t pack a punch, or has slowed down in recent years, and said his efforts to advance progressive causes are both significant and current.

“I’ve probably passed more legislation, progressive legislation...Than may have ever been passed in the history of the State of New York,” Lentol said in an interview. “I did that in the last three years.”

Lentol was one of four lead sponsors of the 2019 New York State Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which requires the state to cut its greenhouse emission levels 85% by 2050 and is one of the most ambitious climate plans in the world.

The incumbent also highlighted some of his recent work during the coronavirus pandemic, including legislation to suspend the euthanizing of cats and dogs, create an emergency pandemic plan for nursing homes, and start a compassionate companion program that would have those who may be immune to COVID-19 care for elderly patients infected with the virus who may otherwise have to die alone.

He also cosponsored legislation to support renters impacted by the pandemic that, while creating a $100 million relief fund, was hailed as too little by many state legislators (including plenty who voted for it), and by his opponent. The voucher program requires that to qualify for the money a person has to be rent-burdened, able to prove loss of income since March 7, and make 80% or less of an area's median income.

“A means-tested, federal-funded rent-voucher system...that’s going to leave so many people out, and it’s going to leave out actually the most vulnerable populations,” said Gallagher, who has made housing one of the two top issues of her campaign, with a focus on renters, along with climate change.

Lentol said it was a practical way of providing support to those in need.

“You can’t ‘cancel rent’ and expect landlords to be able to upkeep their buildings, especially in a district like mine that doesn’t have a lot of large buildings, has a lot of small homeowners,” Lentol said. “What [Gallagher]’s only saying is I haven’t advocated for a free rent program that’s never going to pass, and that’s probably correct. I haven’t advocated strongly for that because I’m smart enough to know that if the people who are sponsoring it aren’t advocating for it, who is?”

Lentol said nonprofits, including ones in Brooklyn that advocate for tenants’ rights such as St. Nicks and Los Sures, also need money they get as landlords so “the tenants that they help can survive and so they can survive.”

Gallagher was formerly a co-chair of a nonprofit herself, called Neighbors Allied for Good Growth, which fought to create new parkland, protect Greenpoint’s waterfront, and preserve rent stabilized housing. In 2016, she ran for District Leader in the 50th Assembly District, but narrowly lost. She had been approached to run by members of the New Kings Democrats, who are currently endorsing her along with political clubs and groups Our Progressive Future, Brooklyn Young Democrats, True Blue New York, Citizens Union, and NY Communities For Change.

She also received an endorsement on Monday from prominent progressive Zephyr Teachout, a law professor and former candidate for governor, Congress, and attorney general.

“I support Emily because I support gig workers, renters, police reform and transformational change in Albany,” Teachout said in a press release. “Joe Lentol isn't going to shake up Albany after 48 years there, and he’s told us so — he refused to support the call for sexual harassment hearings when victims asked for it. Lyft is spending money to re-elect him for a reason — he's not going to fight for gig worker rights. And Emily is brainy, fearless, and awesome.”

Teachout was referring to Lentol’s support from New Yorkers For Independent Work, a political action committee set up by Lyft to spend $1.1 million on New York State Elections. 

Gallagher, like Teachout, has criticized Lentol’s fundraising habits. While she has only raised $60,000 during the election cycle as of the most recent filing period, it has been through 600 individual transactions. Lentol had raised over $410,000, with most of what was raised during this election cycle coming from political action committees of labor unions and entities.

“The money is coming from very different sources,” Gallagher said. “It says a lot about who your audience is.”

Lentol maintains that he did not actively fundraise due to the fact that he had money leftover from past campaigns.

“I’ve raised some money before this primary that a lot of it came from different sized donors, that’s true. But I can honestly tell you that there haven’t been huge contributions,” Lentol said. “I have not focused on raising, especially during a pandemic, from people who can’t afford to give me money...I could raise money from people who know me, I’ve got a lot of friends in my district that would be willing to give to my campaign, but I haven’t asked them for money.”

Lentol has his own key progressive endorsement from the Working Families Party. He’s also been endorsed by Assemblymembers Jo Anne Simon and Dan Quart, and City Council Member Stephen Levin, who represents Greenpoint and Williamsburg. He’s also union-backed, and has received endorsements from the New York State and City teachers’ unions, the state nurses union, the 32BJ chapter of the Service Employees International Union, the Laborer’s International Union of North America, and many more.

Lentol’s support in his district and his past legislative successes make some question why Gallagher is running against him from the left. Lupe Todd-Medina, who consults on other Assembly races this cycle, believes Gallagher doesn’t have a strong justification for running and thinking she can win.

“Nobody’s criticizing the work that Joe Lentol did, they just are saying ‘it’s time to bring in younger blood,’ that’s what they really want to say. I don’t know if that’s valid, I don’t know if that’s a good enough answer,” Todd-Medina said in an interview. “This is someone who has fought, fought for rights, fought for all, fought to get us to where we are now. Now that we’re here, is it fair to now tell him ‘Go,’?”

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Community Activist Takes on 47-Year Incumbent in North Brooklyn Assembly Race Wed, 10 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Race to the Left in Western Queens Assembly Primary race left western

Assemblymember Simotas, right (photo: @AravellaSimotas)

Since Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s historic campaign to win her 2018 primary against incumbent Democrat Joe Crowley, many progressive challengers have tried to use her playbook: a grassroots campaign with an uber-progressive platform where a candidate makes up for what they lack in political experience with robust canvassing and a promise of change.

And in Queens’ 36th Assembly District, which includes most of Astoria and all of Ditmars Steinway and overlaps somewhat with Ocasio-Cortez’s 14th Congressional District, housing counselor Zohran Mamdani hopes to pull off an upset against incumbent Aravella Simotas in this month’s Democratic primary. But while Mamdani has some momentum, Simotas has key differences from Crowley: her many progressive bonafides and reputation as a present and engaged representative. Yet Mamdani, who is running with the support of the New York City branch of the Democratic Socialists of America (NYC DSA), says Simotas simply hasn’t been active enough to protect her constituents, especially with regard to housing and education.

For example, Mamdani has criticized Simotas’ vote in favor of a 2015 state budget package that tied teacher evaluations to state test scores. However, Simotas also co-sponsored legislation in 2019 to remove that very requirement. Simotas has similarly supported and sponsored other progressive legislation in line with Mamdani’s own platform, though he continues to argue the district needs a more aggressively progressive representative to push the envelope further on issues like housing costs and school segregation.

Simotas has appeared to take note of the challenge from her left, and has gotten more vocal on topics like ‘canceling rent’ amid the coronavirus crisis that has ravaged New York. She’s also touting her record from well before her challenger emerged.

“I’m proud that I introduced and passed in one year a bill to expand and strengthen worker rights and protect against harassment and discrimination in the workplace,” Simotas said in an interview of legislation from 2019. “And it’s unheard of to do such a monumental bill where there were vast business interests against in one year.”

Now in her fifth two-year term, Simotas has co-sponsored legislation like the Green Light Bill, which allowed undocumented New Yorkers to obtain a driver’s license, and the Reproductive Health Act, which codified Roe v. Wade abortion protections into state law. She also supports the legalization of recreational marijuana and single-payer health-care in New York, two pieces of progressive legislation that have been held up despite Democratic control of both state legislative houses and the governor’s office.

Simotas has been endorsed by many state officials, including Queens State Senator John Liu and Queens Assemblymember Catalina Cruz, as well as a large number of unions and clubs, such as a local chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, the United Federation of Teachers, the New York Nurses Association, and a local transportation workers union, among others. Notably, a number of Simotas' legislative colleagues from Queens, such as State Senators Michael Gianaris and Jessica Ramos, have not announced support for her campaign.

Mamdani, a 29-year-old Indian American who came to New York at the age of seven from Uganda, has been endorsed by former public defender and candidate for Queens District Attorney Tiffany Cabán, actor and former gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, and State Senator Julia Salazar of Brooklyn, all three of whom have been backed by the NYC DSA in recent election cycles. He also has the backing of the Muslim Democratic Club of New York, New York Communities for Change, and other groups.

Mamdani argues Simotas has underperformed, specifically, he says the incumbent hasn’t done enough for renters and homeowners in the district, which has rapidly gentrified in recent years. The area has continued to see major development and rising housing costs.

“Seeing my work in foreclosure prevention, I’ve seen how so many people, so many working-class New Yorkers...are having their homes and the ownership of their homes or their residency put in question by their landlords or big banks or servicers,” Mamdani said in an interview. “The reason that I’m running is in my work and in my life, I have seen how the State has abdicated its role in ensuring that every single New Yorker can not only feel at home in this state, but can also have a home.”

Nearly 40% of households in the district are rent-burdened, a high number that is still slightly lower than Queens and New York City averages. Demographically, the district is about 47% white, 27% Hispanic, 16% Asian, and 7% black, according to Department of City Planning data on Queens Community District 1, which largely overlaps with Assembly District 36. According to NYU’s Furman Center, Astoria has been among the city’s most gentrified neighborhoods of this century.

Mamdani, who is Muslim, has done outreach to Muslim communities within the district through a mutual aid initiative that provided over 12,750 meals during Ramadan, according to his campaign. Simotas, meanwhile, has a large amount of support from the Greek community, reflective of her ancestry — her parents immigrated from Greece.

Doug Forand, a political consultant who runs Red Horse Strategies, which is working on other races this cycle, said Mamdani would need support from younger, newer residents of the neighborhood if he were to pull off an upset. But those residents, Forand said, seem to be just as likely to support Simotas.

“I don’t think [Simotas’] opponent has made a strong case for why she should not be in office,” Forand said. “That’s another district where you’ve seen a fair amount of gentrification and economic turnover, but at the same time I think it’s one of those places where the local legislators have sort-of recognized that the nature of their constituency is changing and they have responded appropriately.”

Even longer-time residents of the district, some who might consider themselves “victims of gentrification,” as Forand put it, elected Simotas in the first place and don’t appear ready to abandon “electeds they know and have worked with for years.”

Still, Mamdani has tried to make the argument that Simotas has not done enough to fight gentrification and overdevelopment in the area. Real estate interests and their influence in politics through campaign donations exacerbate these issues, Mamdani said, while pointing to Simotas’ coffers. He cited donations she’s received such as roughly $10,000 from George Tsunis, a developer and head of Chartwell Hotels, and his wife. Mamdani also cited an additional $1,000 donation from Irene Feggoudakis, whose family owns over a dozen residential buildings, all of which are in neighboring Queens districts. Both Tsunis and Feggoudakis are of Greek heritage like Simotas, who has organized in the Greek community.

Overall, Simotas has raised about $220,000 during the two-year election cycle through about 260 donations, including more than $64,000 from labor union political action committees and other PACs (facing pressure amid recent scrutiny of police brutality, she recently said she would give away donations from law enforcement unions). Mamdani has raised about $120,000 through over 3,500 individual transactions, a very large number for an Assembly campaign, according to State Board of Elections records.

“I certainly raised small amounts of money from homeowners who rent out an apartment in their house in order to afford Astoria and I will do my best to help them, just like I fight as hard as I can to help tenants,” Simotas said, before going on to restate then qualify her pledge about real estate donations. “I pledged not to take real estate money and I have kept that pledge. I have not raised a single cent from developers or landlords who are building luxury housing and make the city unlivable for so many.”

In a statement, Mamdani argued the donations mean Simotas broke her Homes Guarantee pledge to reject developer and real estate money.

“Assemblymember Simotas signed a pledge to ‘reject any developer and real estate contributions,’” Mamdani said in the statement. “Now, she claims that commercial real estate developers don't count — and neither do residential real estate developers if she knows them personally. This is exactly the type of double-talk that makes ordinary people hate politicians.”

Simotas does have a history of supporting pro-tenant legislation and policy. She supported the sweeping tenant protection laws passed last year dealing with roughly 1 million rent stabilized apartments. She also was against the Amazon ‘HQ2’ deal, which would have brought a massive new Amazon campus and thousands of jobs to Long Island City (just outside her district), but several groups opposed due to fears of rising prices and more long-time residents being pushed out of the nearby communities.

More recently, Simotas said she fought to “cancel rent” in recent legislative conference discussions as many New Yorkers who are newly unemployed, facing medical bills, or otherwise struggling financially, have had a hard time paying rent due to the coronavirus pandemic and its fallout. The legislation would apply to renters impacted by the financial impact of the coronavirus recession, and also provide for landlords who would lose rental income.

“Affordable housing was what allowed my family to claw their way up to the middle-class, so I am very sensitive to people who are now concerned about paying rent,” said Simotas, who said she grew up in the living room of her parents’ rent-stabilized apartment. “I’m fighting very hard, as hard as I can, to cancel rent.”

But the Legislature has not passed the rent cancellation bill, the charge for which has been led in the State Senate by Gianaris. Instead a bill was approved that would provide $100 million in relief to renters through vouchers. To qualify for a voucher, a person will have to be at a certain income level, rent-burdened, and be able to prove loss of income since March 7. Simotas voted against the bill.

“I’m very passionate about making sure that renters in my community, and throughout the state, don’t have to deal with additional anxiety, we’re already dealing with a massive, unprecedented in our lifetime, health crisis. People shouldn’t have to worry about paying rent, so I was disappointed,” Simotas said. “I didn’t think we went far enough.”

Like other policy areas, Mamdani’s views seem to be in line with Simotas’.

“This legislation isn't about protecting tenants, it's about bailing out landlords. It locks millions of tenants out of real relief with a preposterous means-testing formula, putting New Yorkers across the state at risk of eviction,” Mamdani said in a statement. “New Yorkers need a universal rent and mortgage holiday for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis, with no back payments due later.”

But, Mamdani still sees Simotas as complicit in legislation passed by Albany, like the rent voucher bill, which he says are  failures. Simotas, meanwhile, believes she’s done what her constituents sent her to Albany to do.

“I’ve worked very hard in Albany to write and pass progressive legislation that makes a difference in people’s lives,” Simotas said. “That’s who I am.”

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated to note that Simotas has not been endorsed by Senators Gianaris and Ramos.

Race to the Left in Western Queens Assembly Primary Mon, 08 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Fierce Competition as Upstarts and Assembly Member Vie for Brooklyn State Senate Nomination ny25

Left to right: Tremaine Wright, Jason Salmon, Jabari Brisport

Brooklyn State Senator Velmanette Montgomery’s January retirement announcement created an opening for a coveted seat in the upper house of the State Legislature, leading to a fierce Democratic primary that is set to be decided this month.

Given the overwhelming Democratic enrollment advantage in the 25th State Senate District, where Montgomery has been the senator since 1985, the primary winner is all but certain to become one of 63 state senators in the state. The district is a diverse constituency where 46% are black, 27% white, 17% Latino, and 5% Asian, according to census data.

Two upstart candidates, Jabari Brisport and Jason Salmon, were already running to unseat Montgomery at the time of her announcement. Assemblymember Tremaine Wright, who represents a partially overlapping Assembly District 56, declared her candidacy for the Senate seat shortly after Montgomery’s announcement and received the retiring senator’s endorsement. Both Montgomery and Wright are black women; Brisport is a black man; and Salmon is a biracial (black and white) man. Additionally, if elected Brisport would be the first queer person of color in the State Legislature.

The Senate district includes parts or all of Fort Greene, Boerum Hill, Red Hook, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Sunset Park, Gowanus, and Park Slope. It is home to some of the wealthiest and poorest neighborhoods in Brooklyn, if not the city.

Along with Montgomery’s, the endorsements have continued to flow in for Wright, who occupies a quasi-incumbent status in the race, as the only elected official in the running and from an overlapping district, in Bedford-Stuyvesant. She has been in the Assembly since 2017 and, in addition to the backing of the retiring incumbent, has the support of the Brooklyn Democratic Party and most elected officials in the borough.

In an interview, Wright touted the CROWN Act, which prohibits discrimination based on natural hairstyles or traits associated with race, and workplace antidiscrimination rules, passed in last year’s state budget as among her proudest legislative accomplishments. 

But Wright appears to have a more challenging path to the Democratic nomination than others in a similar situation may find themselves given the rest of the field and the support that her opponents have been accruing.

When asked by Gotham Gazette about her status as the “establishment” candidate, Wright said, “I doubt that the voters in the 25th Senate District will characterize dedication, consistent service, and a commitment to community empowerment as a deficiency.” She said that she is “the only candidate in this race that has a record of leadership, commitment and experience.”

In an apparent reference to her opponents, Wright said, “it is useless to simply identify problems. I am focused on finding solutions.”

The two candidates running against her in the Democratic primary would of course disagree with her assessment of their campaigns.

Brisport is a political activist, math teacher, and former Green Party nominee for City Council in 2017 (he lost to incumbent Council Member Laurie Cumbo as she won reelection). He is part of a slate of candidates running for the State Legislature this year backed by the Democratic Socialists of America -- the New York Post wrote he “could be the next AOC.”

In his 2017 City Council race, Brisport earned 29% of the general election vote in a district that shares many of the same neighborhoods as Senate District 25, including Fort Greene and Bedford Stuyvesant, as well as Clinton Hill, Crown Heights, and Prospect Heights.

His campaign platform should be familiar to those who have followed the rises of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) of the Bronx and Queens and Brooklyn State Senator Julia Salazar. In an interview with Gotham Gazette, he said he supports “a safe home for everyone, free and quality health care, strengthening unions and workers’ rights, fully funded schools, a Green New Deal in New York, and so much more” and he argues all of this can be accomplished through increased taxes on the wealthy and “standing up to corporate interests.”

As such, Brisport supports the New York Health Act, which would institute a universal public health insurance system, and a 2030 target for net-zero carbon emissions in the state. He believes that rent should be cancelled during the Covid-19 pandemic and supports Sen. Salazar’s Good Cause Eviction bill. He has also voiced support for the No New Jails pledge, promising to oppose the construct of any new prison facilities.

Salmon is a political activist and former aide to Senator Montgomery, having served as a community liaison in her office. He has been endorsed by Brooklyn City Council Member Carlos Menchaca, whose Council district has some overlap with the western portion of the 25th Senate District. Salmon bills himself as a practical progressive, highlighting his “dual-lens” as both a community organizer for police accountability and legislative staffer. He said the latter position gave him “an up-close-and-personal look as to how our political system is fundamentally flawed.”

Salmon has made criminal justice reform the centerpiece of his campaign, decrying the fact that “not a single police reform bill made it out of committee” in the last session, even amidst a wave of progressive legislation. In an interview, he said “police hand out masks in affluent, white neighborhoods; they issue summons in low-income communities of color.”

Salmon’s platform, per his campaign website, is heavily focused on criminal justice reform. He advocates defunding the police by requiring that all funding for law enforcement is matched by funding for community-based alternatives and restorative justice programs. He would also ban the use of deadly force by police “except when necessary to protect human life and only after all other non-lethal options have been exhausted” and require the NYPD report racial impact data.

Both Brisport and Salmon are part of a wave of younger candidates talking about generational change, and trying to appeal to younger voters with platforms more aligned with Bernie Sanders than Joe Biden. Perhaps helpful to their chances, the presidential primary is back on the ballot in New York this month after a legal battle, which could drive more Sanders supporters to the polls. There are also a host of state legislative and congressional races across the city and state, among others.

The two are also framing their candidacies as anti-establishment, while Wright is part of that establishment as a sitting elected official not known for outlier views among the Assembly majority Democratic conference, though she has only held her seat for three-and-a-half years. Before she was a legislator, Wright served for fourteen years on her local community board, including three as chair. She is a lawyer and owned a local coffee house.

Brisport sees himself as the outsider candidate who can galvanize progressives, saying it boils down to “a movement versus the machine” and “I think that separates us from the other candidates.” He asserts that in this race he is the only candidate who “won’t have to rely on special interests or unsavory political compromises to get things done in Albany.”

Brisport points to his fundraising abilities in support of this argument. He had raised $128,660 during this campaign and had $89,138 cash-on-hand as of his 32-day pre-primary report filed in late May. His campaign boasts that “nearly 700 residents of District 25 have donated to our campaign,” in addition to having “over a thousand” volunteers participate.

His fundraising haul is more than double the $58,500 that Wright had raised in the campaign as of her most recent filing. She also has about half as much in her campaign account as of the filing, $44,539. Salmon has nearly equaled the Assembly member’s fundraising, having collected $57,500 in contributions during the campaign, and had $27,503 on hand as of they end of May.

However, Brisport’s claim to the status of progressive outsider is complicated by Salmon, and vice versa, as Salmon says he has “spent my career fighting for this entire district,” from “organizing tenants on the verge of eviction in Bed-Stuy…to delivering meals to our food-insecure neighbors in NYCHA during this crisis.”

Brisport touts his endorsements from the aforementioned Senator Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, State Senator Julia Salazar, the Democratic Socialists of America, the Working Families Party, New York Communities for Change, and Our Revolution.

Council Member Menchaca, who represents Red Hook and Sunset Park, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette explaining his endorsement of Salmon, “the political machines are battling out the politics of the race but Jason is just focused on what is right for Red Hook and the district.” Salmon’s other endorsements include the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, the Stonewall Democrats, UAW Region 9A, and local pastor Rev. Anthony Trufant.

Wright has the endorsements of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, in addition to eight State Senators, nine other Assembly members, two City Council members, and two members of Congress. She also has the endorsements of several labor unions and community groups.

The per capita income in the 25th State Senate District is about $40,000, slightly higher than the state average, but the poverty rate is 21.6%, compared to the statewide poverty rate of 14.6%. The district has a median household income of $61,165, nearly on par with the state as a whole, but that number hides a huge variation among neighborhoods.

In Boerum Hill, for example, the median household income is $128,274, while in Bedford-Stuyvesant it’s $53,971. The neighborhoods in the district also vary widely in terms of diversity. White residents make up 61% of Boerum Hill and 21% of Bedford-Stuyvesant; black residents comprise 10% of Boerum Hill and 52% of Bedford-Stuvesant.

A 2019 report from Urban Displacement Project at UC-Berkeley, which “analyzed regional data on housing, income, and other demographics to better understand and predict where gentrification and displacement is happening and will likely occur in the future,” found that much of the western section of the 25th Senate District, in neighborhoods such as Park Slope and Boerum Hill, has already experienced high levels of displacement of low-income households, which is their measure of gentrification. However, in the eastern section, namely parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the report says some census tracts are currently undergoing displacement of low-income households, while others have not yet seen widespread displacement.

Wright’s Assembly district covers most of that eastern section, grounded in Bedford-Stuyvesant. While there is sizable overlap between AD-56 and SD-25, there are important variations between the demographic makeups of each district. In the 56th Assembly District, 63% of residents are black, whereas 46% of residents are black in the 25th Senate District. The median household income in AD-56 is $45,300, compared to $61,165 in SD-25.

In his 2017 race, Brisport’s 29% was the second-best showing by a third-party candidate in that year’s City Council elections and the best result for a candidate running to the left of the Democratic Party. However, the 35th Council District has less than half as many residents as the 25th Senate District. There are five Assembly districts that overlap with Council District 35. Of those, Brisport fared best in the parts of the 52nd Assembly District, earning 37% of the vote there, where the median household income is $130,303 and 66% of residents are white. He performed the worst in Wright’s 56th Assembly District, where he got 16% against Cumbo.

As with every other facet of life in New York, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way campaigning happens. When in-person meetings were no longer an option, the campaigns shifted focus. Instead of door-knocking and in-person campaign events, phone-banking and tele-conferencing became the primary modes of campaigning.

Assemblymember Wright said in an interview that she put her campaign “on pause” during the worst of the crisis, but declining coronavirus case numbers have allowed her to resume some “regular campaign activities,” but not canvassing as of yet.

Wright also said that her team has “conducted wellness checks, provided food, [and] assisted with unemployment claims,” during the crisis. While not current officeholders like Wright, the two other candidates have also acted to help the district during the crisis, they said. Brisport has supported Bed-Stuy Strong, a mutual aid network serving district residents. Salmon said his campaign is “delivering meals to our food-insecure neighbors in NYCHA.”

Early voting starts June 13 and goes through June 21; primary day is June 23; and all eligible voters can vote absentee per executive order by the governor issued due to the pandemic. This and other Democratic Party primaries are only open to registered Democrats.

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

This article has been updated to add that AOC endorsed Brisport.

Fierce Competition as Upstarts and Assembly Member Vie for Brooklyn State Senate Nomination Thu, 04 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio Delay Plus Pandemic Means Property Tax Reform Appears Off the Table This Year Mayor de Blasio property tax reform dead

Mayor de Blasio's slow-play on property tax reform has now been compounded (photo: Edwin J. Torres/ Mayor's Offie)

The start of the year 2020 offered what many believed to be the most promising steps in decades to revamping New York's confusing and unfair property tax system. In January, an advisory commission established by Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City Council, which was tasked with comprehensively assessing and reevaluating the property tax system, released a set of recommendations. While coming much later than many had hoped, the recommendations were supposed to lead to community conversations around the city and a set of legislative proposals to be acted on at both the city and state levels to make a more rational and equitable system.

But less than four months after the commission released its initial report, the coronavirus pandemic has effectively closed the door on property tax reform this year at the same time the contracting economy re-centers property taxes as the city's most reliable revenue stream.

New York City fiscal watchdog and reform groups say addressing inequities in the property tax is more important than ever, but with the advisory commission's next phase on hold and the State Legislature scaling back its work amid the coronavirus crisis, hope for meaningful changes any time soon has vanished.

“We are seeing first-hand the economic impact COVID-19 is having in New Yorkers who are struggling to get by. At the same time, we must balance the very real needs of the City, which relies on property taxes to fund the essential city services like hospitals and our first responders," wrote Laura Feyer, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio, in response to an inquiry about what changes the city was making. She said the city had taken some steps toward relief for property owners facing hardship due to the pandemic but did not say whether there were plans to resume the timeline for the advisory commission's public forums or broader reform.

But property tax reform remains essential, argues Martha Stark, former finance commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloombergn, now serving as policy director of the advocacy group Tax Equity Now, which sued the city and state over inequities in its property tax system. "Given that the city's only mechanism for raising revenue is going to be through the property tax, I don't know how much more urgent it could be to ensure the taxes are done in a way that is fair and that is really reflective of people's values," Stark said in an interview.

De Blasio has been seeking federal relief aid and has implored state lawmakers to authorize $7 billion in emergency borrowing to fill what has become a $9 billion budget gap due to lost revenue from tourism, sales and real estate transaction taxes, and more. In the city's latest projections, property taxes now account for 35 percent of the city's total revenue in the current fiscal year, according to officials in the mayor's office and City Council, compared with 30 percent last fiscal year.

"Especially since we don't know what's going to happen in Washington, we right now are absolutely dependent on whatever resources we can get and property tax is a part of it for sure," the mayor told reporters on May 10, as part of a response to a question about property tax relief for struggling homeowners and landlords.

New York City's property taxes have long been criticized for having an irrational assessment and levy structure that places an uneven burden on low-income communities and communities of color. Homeowners in some of the city’s most booming neighborhoods have among the lowest effective property tax rates, as do some of the most expensive coops and condos, while homeowners in places like the Bronx and Staten Island, which have not seen rapid gentrification, pay a much higher percent of their property's value in real estate taxes. Tenants often serve as a release valve for the high taxes on large rental buildings. With property taxes now making up a larger portion of the city's total revenue, the unequal tax burdens represent yet another example of the pandemic crisis being borne largely on the backs of poor black and Latino New Yorkers.

In 2002, newly-inaugurated Mayor Michael Bloomberg, facing a gap of $7.4 billion over two years due to fallout from the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, raised property tax rates. Stark says if the city were to increase taxes, "they are going to actually exacerbate the real estate tax differential for those homeowners," increasing the urgency for reform. De Blasio has given no indication he is looking at property tax rate increases.

Changing New York City's property tax scheme requires action at both the city and state levels, and while ad hoc changes have been made over the past 40 years, the conflicting interests involved in overhauling a system that touches every resident of the state have been a death sentence to prior reform efforts.

The recent momentum came after the Tax Equity Now lawsuit and the Advisory Commission on Property Tax Reform, empanelled by de Blasio and Council Speaker Corey Johnson in 2018, which released its preliminary report in January, giving city and state lawmakers the beginnings of a roadmap to approach wholesale reform. The commission was slated to hold another round of public hearings and produce a final set of recommendations, many of which will require action in Albany.

But the first hearing, scheduled for March 12 on Staten Island, was postponed and it is unclear if any make-up for it or subsequent hearings is in the works.

"Virtual hearings would be an independent commission decision, and have not been planned as of now," said Feyer, the spokesperson for the mayor.

A spokesperson for Johnson said his office was in conversations with the administration about the next steps for public hearings.

Parallel reform efforts in the State Legislature have also stalled.

"Property tax reform is not the issue we are dealing with this year," said State Senator Brian Benjamin, a Manhattan Democrat and chair of the Committee on Revenue and Budget, on the Max & Murphy Podcast Wednesday.

"At this point we are really dealing with the COVID crisis. I would imagine that we will fervently look at property taxes next year. I would have liked to look at it more closely this year and that was the energy we were on and then COVID hit and it's really been hard to focus on that," said the senator, who organized a number of public forums and an expert roundtable on property tax reform last fall in anticipation of the 2020 legislative session and the commission's initial report. Benjamin is also a candidate for New York City Comptroller in the 2021 election.

"The time should not be wasted," wrote Andrew Rein, executive director of Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit watchdog, in an email to Gotham Gazette. "The Commission's report was a solid start to comprehensive reform."

The commission's initial recommendations took aim largely at inequities in the assessment of 1-3 family homes, small rental buildings, and cooperatives and condominiums. It did little to address commercial and large rental buildings, where the tax burden is often passed on to tenants.

"While there may be general consensus on many of the recommendations, detailed proposals and legislative language are needed to fully evaluate the impact," Rein wrote.

Rein fears the lost momentum might lead to piecemeal changes without a comprehensive approach, which he says could further complicate the opaque and often irrational system. But Stark says there are some steps the mayor can and should take now, amid a crisis known for exacerbating inequities across lines of race and class.

"One-, two-, three-family home owners, owners of rental properties where tenants are struggling to pay rent...are going to be struggling to pay their real estate taxes," Stark said. "This could not be a more appropriate moment for the city to really be addressing especially the many inequities that are within their control."

One thing the city could do is lower the assessment ratio on certain properties to correct the imbalance in tax burden, Stark said. Another is to undertake extensive quality control to ensure that its assessment models are determining property value based on the value of truly comparable properties, which experts point out is often not the case.

A growing chorus of landlords, tenants, and business owners are calling for property tax relief. On May 13, the mayor and the New York City Banking Commission called on the City Council to create a hardship exemption for property owners facing financial challenges due to the pandemic that would eliminate interest on late payments for property taxes due in July on property assessed below $250,000. The measure would require the city to pass a local law, according to a press release from the mayor's office.

"The Council is glad the administration acted on our budget response request and looked at ways to work with struggling property owners. The Council is reviewing these recommendations amid ongoing negotiations with the administration," wrote a Council spokesperson in an email.

In May, a group of industry and civic groups, including the Real Estate Board of New York and the NAACP, called on the city to freeze property tax rates and assessments, reduce interest penalties, and allow owners to pay taxes on a monthly basis.

The lawsuit by Stark's group, Tax Equity Now (which is not a part of the coalition), is an attempt to force property tax reform through the courts. The effort saw a serious setback when it was dismissed in the appellate division earlier this year, but the group is filing an appeal in the state's highest court.

"Part of the reason why we brought our lawsuit is that we didn't think that the political side was going to be able to handle property tax reform,” Stark said. “This has been an issue for 40-plus years and the political side hasn't been able to do anything.”

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

De Blasio Delay Plus Pandemic Means Property Tax Reform Appears Off the Table This Year Thu, 28 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Progressive Coalition Backs Slate of Incumbents, Challengers and Upstarts in June Primaries tbny slate 2020 cropped

Endorsed candidates (image via True Blue NY)

A coalition of progressive activists from across the state, which formed as a response to Donald Trump’s election and helped tip the balance of the state Legislature towards Democrats in 2018, is backing a slate of Democratic candidates in the June primary election to propel movement on issues of social, economic, and racial justice that they feel have been ignored by the current state government.

The True Blue NY coalition scored a progressive coup in the last state election cycle by helping elect several progressive Democrats to the State Senate, helping give the party power over the chamber for the first time in nearly a decade. In the primaries that year, they helped oust most members of the erstwhile Independent Democratic Conference, a rogue faction that shared power with Republicans and helped them hold the chamber, then helped flip seats in the 2018 general election to ensure the majority that ushered in a new era in Albany.

With Republicans in the Senate minority, and with Democrats having enjoyed an overwhelming majority in the Assembly for years and a third-term Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, the party was finally able to pass a slew of progressive bills that had languished session after session. This year, True Blue NY hopes it can carry that momentum forward by helping favored incumbents keep their seats, disfavored incumbents lose theirs, and upstarts fill “open” seats where no incumbent is running.

The coalition is endorsing 18 “Fighters for a True Blue Recovery,” Democratic candidates from across the state who the coalition believes will push for the progressive legislation it sees as necessary for New York to ensure an equitable recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. The candidates include incumbents such as Assemblymember Yuh-line Niou and Senator Julia Salazar who are running for reelection; candidates seeking open seats such as Elijah Reichlin-Melnick, Jeremy Cooney, Kristen Browde and Kim Smith; and candidates such as Emily Gallagher and Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas who are challenging sitting Democratic legislators.

According to members of True Blue NY’s steering committee, all the candidates expressed general support for progressive priorities including criminal justice reform, raising taxes on the wealthy, housing for all, healthcare for all (through the New York Health Act), and more.

“We’re looking for social justice, for economic justice, for a recovery that isn't just for wealthy people,” said Livvie Mann of Rise and Resist, a member group of True Blue NY, which also includes Empire State Indivisible, The Creative Resistance, Future Voters of America, and Code Blue, among 45 member groups.

As Mann pointed out, the state currently faces a dire financial situation and Cuomo, who has a well-known aversion to tax increases, has proposed severe cuts to health care and education funding if the federal government does not bail out the state.

“The austerity budgeting policies over the years have kind of put us in this situation where the pandemic is really hurting New York State,” Mann said. “Now we’re looking at major cuts at a time when we absolutely can’t afford cuts to Medicaid and education even though the playing field could be leveled by raising taxes by a few percent on people who can afford it.”

Mann emphasized that despite Democrats having control of the entire state Legislature and the governor’s office, progressive bills still often fall to the wayside. It’s why they are supporting challengers against sitting Democrats. “The motto used to be, ‘Any blue will do.’ But that just doesn’t work, and we discovered that in the last budget,” she said. “We need a solid, energized, passionate, progressive group to be able to make policies that are working for the people of New York.”

The pandemic has also underscored the need for the True Blue coalition to activate the network of organizations under its banner to organize around each candidate, boosting them through all available forms of media and grassroots advocacy. Candidates and their boosters cannot conduct much if any in-person campaigning and canvassing, which is forcing them to get creative to get their message out, including through video-conferencing calls and virtual town halls and forums.

“I think that all of our candidates face an incredibly unusual election cycle,” said Judith Hertzberg, a True Blue NY steering committee member. “We're exploring virtually every kind of medium that is high-visibility, high-touch, without physical contact.”

Hertzberg said the coalition’s organizing activities are particularly necessary at a time when the entire voting process is under attack, noting that President Trump has repeatedly and without evidence said that measures to expand voting by mail will lead to widespread voter fraud. New York is among the states that has allowed all voters to request an absentee ballot because of the coronavirus. Each vote counts more than ever, Hertzberg said, “because the barriers to voting are higher than ever. And I think every single candidate is grappling with that.”

And in a state with an overwhelming Democratic majority, it is often the primary that decides the victor of a race. “The primary will set the stage for November in so many ways,” Hertzberg said.

The full list of 18 endorsements includes:

– Assemblymember Yuh-line Niou, who represents Assembly District 65 in Lower Manhattan. Niou faces a competitive, well-funded challenger in Grace Lee, a local businessperson.
– Assemblymember Diana Richardson, who represents Assembly District 43 in Central Brooklyn. Richardson is being challenged by former state Senator Jesse Hamilton, who was a member of the IDC and lost his seat in 2018.
– Assemblymember Aravella Simotas, who represents Assembly District 36 in Western Queens. Simotas is being challenged by Zohran Mamdani, a housing counselor.
– Senator Julia Salazar, who represents Senate District 18 in Brooklyn. Salazar is being challenged by Andy Marte, a former political aide.

Challenging an incumbent
– Emily Gallagher, who is running for Assembly District 50 in Brooklyn. Gallagher is an activist and community board member who is challenging Assemblymember Joe Lentol, who has been in office since 1973.
– Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas, who is running for Assembly District 34 in Queens. Rojas is former executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. She is one of four candidates challenging Assemblymember Michael DenDekker, a six-term incumbent.
– Corey Mosher, who is running for Assembly District 121, which covers Madison County and parts of Otsego and Oneida counties. Mosher, a fourth-generation farmer, is going up against Dan Buttermann for the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Assemblymember John Salka in the general election.
– Danielle Brecker, who is running for Assembly District 37 in Queens. Brecker is a community activist and was a co-lead organizer for Empire State Indivisible, one of the many progressive grassroots groups that make up True Blue NY. Brecker and another candidate, Mary Jobaida, are challenging Assemblymember Cathy Nolan, who has held her seat for 34 years.
– Phara Souffrant Forrest, who is running for Assembly District 57 in Brooklyn. Forrest is a nurse employed with NYC Health + Hospitals and a tenant activist. She is challenging Assemblymember Walter Moseley.
– Rajiv Gowda, who is running for Senate District 23 in Staten Island. Gowda is a labor advocate who has served as a community board member, a community education council member, and as a Democratic county committee member. He is challenging Senator Diane Savino, one of the two former members of the IDC who is still in office.

Running for an open seat
– Elijah Reichlin-Melnick, running for Senate District 38, which covers most of Rockland and parts of Westchester counties. The seat is currently held by Senator David Carlucci, who was a member of the IDC before it dissolved prior to the 2018 election. Carlucci is currently running for New York’s 17th Congressional District, leaving his seat up for grabs. Reichlin-Melnick is currently legislative Director for State Senator James Skoufis. He is running against two other candidates, Eudson Francois and Justin Sweet, for the nomination.
– Kristen Browde, who is running for Assembly District 93 in White Plains. Browde is one of several candidates seeking to replace Assemblymember David Buchwald, who is running for an open seat in New York’s 17th Congressional District. If she wins, Browde would be the state’s first openly transgender elected official.
– Adam Bojak, who is running for Assembly District 149 in Buffalo. A tenant rights attorney, Bojak is running for the nomination against two other candidates, Robert Quintana and Jonathan Rivera. The current incumbent, Democrat Sean Ryan, is running for state Senate in District 60.
– Jeremy Cooney, who is running for Senate District 56 in Rochester. Cooney is one of three Democrats, along with Hilda Rosario Escher and Sherita Traywick, who are seeking the nomination for the seat and hoping to replace Republican Senator Joe Robach, who is not seeking reelection.
– Kim Smith, who is running for Senate District 61, which covers Genesee county and parts of Erie and Monroe counties. Smith is an organizer with VOCAL-NY, a progressive advocacy group, and previously worked for the Monroe County Department of Public Health for 25 years. She faces two other Democratic candidates, Jacqualine Berger and Joan Elizabeth Seamans. Republican Senator Michael Ranzenhofer, the incumbent, is retiring at the end of current term.
– Valerie Cartright, who is running for Senate District 1 in Suffolk county. A Brookhaven Town Council Member, Cartright is one of five Democrats – including Laura Ahearn, Tommy John Sciavoni, Nora Higgins and Skyler Johnson – trying to win the nomination for the seat. The district is currently represented by Republican Senator Kenneth LaValle, a 44-year incumbent who is stepping down.
– Jason Salmon, who is running for Senate District 25 in Brooklyn. Salmon is facing two Democrats, Assemblymember Tremaine Wright and Jabari Brisport, for the nomination to replace Democratic Senator Velmanette Montgomery, who is retiring. Salmon was previously a community liaison for Montgomery.
– Khaleel Anderson, who is running for Assembly District 31 in Queens. Anderson is a community activist and faces a crowded field of Democrats seeking the party’s nomination in the primary. His opponents include Richard David, Tavia Blakley, Derrick DeFlorimonte, Lisa George and Shea Uzoigwe. The seat has been open since Assemblymember Michele Titus was elected as a civil court judge last year.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated.

Progressive Coalition Backs Slate of Incumbents, Challengers and Upstarts in June Primaries Wed, 27 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000