Gotham Gazette Tue, 11 May 2021 19:28:43 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) The State of Play in the State Senate as the 2020 Election Moves to Counting Absentee Ballots New York State Senate chambers almost empty

The New York State Senate chambers (photo: NY Senate)

Though hundreds of thousands of votes across New York are still to be counted and many races are not yet called, it appears certain that Democrats will retain the majority in the State Senate that they won two years ago, and by a fairly wide margin. But, Republicans seem poised to regain several seats in the chamber to narrow what has been an exceptionally wide 40-23 seat margin and keep Democrats from expanding it to what they hoped would be a veto-proof supermajority.

With a comfortable hold on the State Assembly and the governor’s office, Democrats will continue to control state government for at least the next two years.

But with the 2020 election heading toward counting of absentee and other paper ballots, a number of State Senate races remain up in the air.

Unofficial election night results showed Democrats winning at least 28 State Senate seats and Republicans winning 9. With about 1.2 million absentee ballots cast statewide in the election and with counting of those ballots set to only begin next week, it’s too early to tell how the rest of the 26 races will end up.

Early indications show that Republicans seem to have a lead in several competitive districts home to first-term Democratic senators, meaning the Democratic majority could be diminished by as many as five seats. Republican Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt said Wednesday he believes his conference will have at least 27 seats when the dust settles.

Going into the election, Democrats held 40 seats and Republicans held 20 seats in the 63-seat Senate, while three seats most recently held by Republicans were left vacant based on retirements or resignations.

Democrats were hoping to pick up ten seats, particularly “open” seats where there had been Republican retirements and the districts held a Democratic voter enrollment advantage. Democrats were also on the defensive in several seats. It remains to be seen how all those districts will shake out.

“Despite a difficult night for many Democratic candidates throughout the state and nation, the Senate Democratic Conference comfortably retained our majority and will be welcoming a historic group of new upstate Democrats to the Senate,” said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester Democrat who was just reelected, in a statement. “With the record high number of outstanding absentee ballots that are overwhelmingly Democratic, we will add even more victories to our majority as the vote counts continue. The Senate Democratic Majority will continue to lead New York State forward as we recover from this pandemic and economic crisis.”

In a Wednesday appearance on The Capitol Pressroom radio program, Deputy Majority leader Mike Gianaris, a Queens Democrat who also won reelection this week, expressed confidence that there are an “overwhelming” number of Democratic votes that were cast in absentee ballots. “Given our projections, we fully expected that some of these close races we were going to be behind on election night and ultimately win,” he said. “That's the posture we're in right now. We secured 36 seats comfortably so the majority is intact with a sizeable cushion. That number is going to grow because there are eight or so districts where we still believe we can overtake the Republicans.”

On the Republican side, Minority Leader Ortt, speaking to reporters on Wednesday morning, saw the early results as an indication that voters are disaffected with Democrats. “What you saw last night was a repudiation of one party rule,” he said, confident that the party will win up to 29 seats once all votes are counted.

Along with the Senate races, he also pointed to the party’s victory in some congressional seats held by Democrats. “That is a huge, huge signal, I think certainly to the leadership of the majority of the State Senate that the people of New York, of all political stripes, did not like what they saw the last two years,” Ortt said. “And they want to see something different. They want to see more balance, they want to see checks.”

In seven districts where Democrats had expressed confidence about picking up seats previously held by Republicans, the results are mixed so far. The in-person vote tallies do not account for significant numbers of absentee ballots, leaving a lot unknown for the time being. The State BOE provided a snapshot of absentee ballot numbers as of November 6, though absentee ballots were continuing to be delivered and those numbers were likely to change.  

In District 1, Republican nominee Assemblymember Anthony Palumbo leads with 54.08%, or 74,289 votes, against Democrat Laura Ahearn, who has received 55,554 votes, about 40.44%. There were 32,485 absentee ballots returned by voters in the district. Of those, 15,508 were from Democratic voters, 7,322 from Republicans and 7,588 from independent voters. 

In District 41, incumbent Republican Senator Sue Serino is ahead with 56.49%, or 68,907 votes, against Democrat Karen Smythe, who has 49,477 votes, about 40.56%. This is Smythe’s second time challenging Serino. In 2018, Serino won by only 688 votes. 30,712 voters have returned absentee ballots, including 16,088 Democratic voters, 5,580 Republican voters, and 7,166 independent voters.   

In District 46, Republican Richard Amedure has received 66,784 votres, about 51.19%, compared to Democrat Michelle Hinchey, who has 58,613 votes, or 44.93% so far. There were 25,987 absentee ballots returned from 13,311 Democratic voters, 4,980 Republican voters, and 5,910 independent voters. 

In District 50, Republican Angi Renna leads with 63,299 votes, about 51.45%, against Democrat John Mannion, who has 56,071 votes, about 45.57%. There are 37,149 absentee ballots left to be counted from 17,127 Democrats, 9,286 Republicans and 8,450 independents. 

In District 55, Democrat Samra Brouk has the lead with 59,560 votes, about 49.88%, against Republican Chris Missick, who has received 54,504 votes, about 45.65%. Voters returned 42,443 absentee ballots in the district – 21,018 came from Democrats, 9,141 from Republicans and 8,982 from independents. 

In District 56, Democrat Jeremy Cooney has a marginal lead, with 46,469 votes, about 47.16%, over Republican Mike Barry Jr., who is just behind with 45,587 votes, about 46.27 %. There were 32,578 absentee ballots returned from the district including 16,444 from Democrats, 7,017 from Republicans and 7,108 from independents.  

In District 60, Democrat Sean Ryan has won 68,633 votes, about 54.32%, leading against Republican Joshua Mertzlufft, who is far behind with 52,391 votes, about 41.47%. Ryan may well keep his lead as the 26,729 absentee ballots in the district are counted. Most of the absentees, 15,347 to be exact, were from Democratic voters, while 5,076 were from Republicans and 4,517 were from independents. 

In three districts, Democrats felt they had a solid chance of flipping Republicans seats but the current vote tallies, without the absentee counts, look promising for the GOP.

In District 4, incumbent Republican Phil Boyle has a strong lead with 69,199 votes, about 55.49%, against Democratic challenger former Assemblymember Christine Pellegrino, who has received 46,464 votes, about 37.26 %. There were 19,717 absentee ballots from the district, including from 9,495 Democrats, 4,747 Republicans and 4,363 independent voters. 

In District 51, Republican Peter Oberacker has won 57.01%, or 64,014 votes, so far, while Democrat Jim Barber trails with 37.70%, or 42,336 votes. Voters returned 20,264 absentee ballots, including 9,020 Democrats, 5,742 Republicans and 4,281 independents.  

In District 61, Republican Ed Rath already has 57.81%, or 64,887 votes, against Democrat Jacqualine Berger, who has received 36.81%, or 41,314 votes. Of the 31,628 absentee ballots returned in the district, 16,121 were from Democratic voters, 7,635 from Republicans and 5,987 from independents.  

Republicans fielded competitive candidates in several races, particularly challenging first-time Democrats elected in 2018 in relatively moderate districts. Almost all of those challenges seem like they could yield seats.

In District 3, Republican challenger Alexis Weik leads with 53.01%, or 59,155 votes, against first-term incumbent Democratic Senator Monica Martinez, who has received 40.68%, or 45,388 votes so far. There were 20,012 absentee ballots returned, including 9,715 from Democrats, 4,693 from Republicans, and 4,416 from independents. 

In District 5, Republican candidate Edmund Smyth is leading with 51.33%, or 69,015 votes, against incumbent Democrat Jim Gaughran, who has 41%, or 55,132 votes. There are plenty of absentees to count, however, and they favor Democrats. Of the 36,048 absentee ballots returned, 18,445 were from Democratic voters, 7,366 from Republicans and 8,645 from independents. 

In District 6, incumbent Democratic State Senator Kevin Thomas is behind with 56,672 votes, or 43.03%, against Republican Dennis Dunne, who has 64,509 votes, about 48.99%. Voters returned 27,600 absentee ballots including 13,553 Democrats, 7,127 Republicans and 5,760 independents. 

In District 22, Republican challenger Vito Bruno is in the lead with 40,621 votes, about 51.37%, against incumbent Democratic State Senator Andrew Gounardes, who has received 34,586 votes, about 43.73%. According to the New York City Board of Elections, 39,294 voters requested absentee ballots in the district, including 24,689 Democrats and 5,587 Republicans. Of those, a total of 18,524 ballots were returned by 11,622 Democrats and 2,651 Republicans. Another 7,785 independent voters also requested absentees and 3,714 returned them to the BOE. 

In District 39, Democratic State Senator James Skoufis, a first-term incumbent, is currently ahead but with a margin that appears too early to call, though the senator did declare victory. He has received 50%, or 54,976 votes, so far, compared to Republican challenger Steve Brescia’s 44.23%, or 48,639 votes. There were 5,432 absentees returned – including 3,069 from Democrats, 927 from Republicans and 1,128 from independents.

In District 40, incumbent Democratic State Senator Pete Harckham, another first-term senator, is trailing with 45.48%, or 58,233 votes, against Republican challenger Rob Astorino, who has received 51.31%, or 65,686 votes, and was previously Westchester County Executive and the 2014 GOP nominee for governor. There were 31,622 absentee ballots returned in the district, including from 17,354 Democratic voters, 5,775 Republican voters and 7,000 independent voters. 

In District 42, Republican Mike Martucci is in the lead with 52.65%, or 58,685 votes, against Democratic incumbent Jen Metzger, who has received 43.11%, or 48,054 votes. There are 12,700 absentee ballots left to be counted including 6,526 from Democrats, 3,141 from Republicans and 2,363 from independents.  

Besides Stewart-Cousins and Gianaris, other incumbent Democrats who won reelection, many of them running uncontested, include John Brooks, James Sanders, John Liu, Jessica Ramos, Leroy Comrie, Toby Ann Stavisky, Simcha Felder, Julia Salazar, Roxanne Persaud, Zellnor Myrie, Kevin Parker, Diane Savino, Brian Kavanagh, Brad Hoylman, Liz Krueger, José Serrano, Brian Benjamin, Robert Jackson, Luis Sepúlveda, José Rivera, Alessandra Biaggi, Jamaal Bailey, Shelley Mayer, Neil Breslin, and Tim Kennedy.

The conference is set to have one newcomer in Jabari Brisport, an activist and teacher backed by the Working Families Party and the Democratic Socialists of America, who ran uncontested in the general election for the 25th State Senate District in Brooklyn. Brisport pulled off an upset in the primary, defeating Assemblymember Tremaine Wright, who was supported by the previous officeholder, the retiring Velmanette Montgomery, and a third candidate, Jason Salmon.

The nine incumbent Republicans who won their races include Minority Leader Ortt, and Senators Andrew Lanza, Joseph Griffo, Patty Ritchie, James Tedisco, Fred Akshar, Pamela Helming, George Borrello, and Patrick Gallivan.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated.

Note- this article has been updated with a snapshot of absentee ballot totals as of November 6. It has also been corrected to reflect accurate absentee ballot totals from Senate District 22.  

The State of Play in the State Senate as the 2020 Election Moves to Counting Absentee Ballots Wed, 04 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Democrats Flipped a Brooklyn State Senate Seat in 2018; Is It In Play In 2020? Senator Andrew Gounardes Brooklyn Albany presser

State Senator Andrew Gounardes in Albany (photo: @sen_gounardes)

Pro-NYPD and Black Lives Matter protesters clashed, sometimes violently, in Southern Brooklyn last weekend, a conflict emblematic of the changing and complicated politics in traditionally moderate to conservative neighborhoods that have been home to leftward political movement, partially due to an influx of new residents.

One marker of the changes was the 2018 election of Democrat Andrew Gounardes in State Senate District 22, where he defeated long-time Republican incumbent and former police officer Marty Golden to flip the seat and help flip the Senate, thus creating all-Democratic control of state government and ushering in an era of sweeping progressive change in New York.

Now, Gounardes is up for reelection and facing an opponent whose platform centers around the polarizing topic of police reform and argument that Democrats in Albany have lurched too far left. In fact, Gounardes’ opponent in the upcoming November general election, former nightclub owner Vito Bruno, who ran unsuccessfully for Brooklyn borough president in 2017 and also serves as president of Brooklyn’s Edmund G. Seergy Republican Club, attended the pro-NYPD rally, as did Golden, which wasn't simply supportive of the police, but included people espousing racism and misogyny in virulent verbal and sometimes physical attacks on Black Lives Matter supporters.

Like many Democrats, Gounardes has walked something of a middle ground, expressing support for police officers and public safety, while lamenting police brutality and racism and calling for reform. He’s also voted for reform, with the Legislature recently passing a package of new police oversight and accountability measures.

In response to the weekend protests and chaos that ensued at times, Gounardes and his close ally, City Council Member Justin Brannan, who represents an overlapping district, denounced all violence involved and reiterated a nuanced stance.

“We’ve seen videos and read eyewitness accounts of the protests in Bay Ridge. What we saw and read is deeply troubling and disturbing. Violence initiated by both protestors and counter-protestors, eggs thrown at police officers, people being pepper-sprayed, American flags burning, and inflammatory and hateful rhetoric spewed venomously,” the statement reads. “As we have done consistently when violence has erupted at protests across the city, we forcefully condemn this unacceptable behavior. All of it. We support everyone’s right to demonstrate for what they believe in, but will not stand for instigating violence.”

Multiple videos circulated of pro-NYPD protesters using sexist, racist language against counter-protesters. Some said they hoped Black Lives Matter protesters would be raped and that Black lives were "garbage," as reported by Gothamist. And despite assaults being committed by individuals of both groups, as Gounardes and Brannan noted in their statement, two Black men part of the Black Lives Matter protests were arrested, while no pro-NYPD protesters displaying similar behavior faced charges, according to Gothamist. Gounardes and Brannan did not address this in their statement, although they condemned local organizers for not doing more to denounce the “violence, racism and misogyny” of Sunday’s protest in Dyker Heights.

They also said they have asked for a full investigation into a video showing a Black man having a brief exchange with police officers before being shoved, tased, and tackled by police (video appeared to show that protestor previously throwing a helmet into a crowd of pro-NYPD ralliers), and said they would be meeting with the captain of the 68th precinct for a full briefing of the events.

Although it is unclear if they live in the district, Twitter users on both sides of the issue seemed displeased with the politicians’ response, indicative of some of what both Gounardes and Brannan must navigate in what is about as much of a swing district as exists in New York City. Gounardes defeated Golden in 2018 by less than 2% of the vote, with 33,507 votes to 32,236 votes. Brannan won his 2017 general election by just 794 votes over his Republican opponent, John Quaglione.

“Real ‘very fine people on both sides’ energy,” Nicole Murray wrote, referencing President Donald Trump’s remarks about a 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA that were widely criticized for equating white supremacists to anti-racist protesters.

“You guys are a disgrace to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, NYC and politics for not supporting your police. You don’t deserve to live in my city,” Carlo D'Angelo Jr. wrote.

Bruno has made support for the police and a tough-on-crime stance a focus of his campaign and has blamed spikes in crime on Democratic policies like state bail reform. He’s been endorsed by Curtis Sliwa, a radio host and the founder of the Guardian Angels anti-crime organization that encourages street patrols, and who has a history of misogyny and racially insensitive comments.

“Nobody out here is with the defunding of the police,” Bruno said of the district in an interview. “The crime has gone through the roof since the bail reform laws were passed, I know they tried to do a little bit of a fix, but the crime has gone through the roof. It’s absolutely frightening to the people that live out here.”

Bruno was referring to changes in the law that went into effect at the start of the year that drastically curtailed the use of cash bail for almost all defendants, other than those accused of violent misdemeanors or felonies. The laws expanded use of supervised release and other pre-trial mechanisms for ensuring defendants continue to show up for court and their proceedings without being jailed while not convicted of a crime.

However, after backlash from District Attorneys, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD, and others who claimed crime rates increased because of the new bail system, Governor Andrew Cuomo and the State Legislature rolled back portions of the law to expand bailable offenses. In a deal reached in early April that went into effect July 1, crimes like second-degree burglary, any crime that results in a person’s death, and others, were again made eligible for bail. Added restrictions were also put on certain people with narcotics related charges, who are on probation or parole, and who are charged with a felony after having two prior felonies.

“When it comes to things like bail reform, it is all a part of the Republican fear machine of — even yesterday the New York Post put out an article showing how the NYPD’s own statistics disprove that the increase in crime, which is happening nationwide, it’s not like a New York City thing, has nothing to do with bail,” Gounardes said in a recent interview. “Obviously, I take every issue of public safety very seriously and I’m just as concerned as the next person about spikes in shootings and spikes in fireworks and spikes in handle surfing crimes and crimes of convenience, but we have to be smart about the approach we’re going to take to combat those issues, and work with our law enforcement partners, target solutions that actually get to the root cause of this stuff and that’s how we’re going to solve these problems. Not fear-mongering, not scapegoating, not finger-pointing, and certainly not pumping your chest and saying that just because you support police you’re a better person.”

The Post cited NYPD statistics of shootings through June 30 that show just one person released under the bail reform laws has been charged with a shooting. It also shows 91 of 11,000 people released from Rikers Island through the same reforms were involved in a shooting, and of those over half were either victims or witnesses.

Asked about that data, Bruno said it does not prove those released without bail are not committing more of the shootings as the data only uses information on people who are caught by police. He claimed more people released due to the bail reform could be committing shootings but not getting caught and stood by the claim by the NYPD that the legislation was responsible for the spike in crime.

“If somebody does a violent crime, they should not be out in two hours. It’s just wrong,” Bruno said, although the bail reforms allowed for those accused of two violent crimes — burglary in the second degree and robbery in the second degree — to be released without bail. Otherwise, those accused of other violent crimes have been required to post bail, if they are released at all.

Gounardes refutes Bruno’s depiction of him as lacking support of the police, referencing his sponsorship of a bill that made first grade police officers who have served for 25 to 30 years eligible for the same pension benefits as those in higher positions and of a bill that increases the benefits by 3% for spouses of fallen police and firefighters, among other legislation.

“My record on supporting law enforcement is pretty unimpeachable when it comes to those things, and I have no problem matching my record against his on these things,” Gounardes said.

“It’s just kind of ironic that Vito himself is trying to be the law and order candidate when he’s made his entire career on the club and drug scene of the ‘80s and ‘90s that ravaged New York City,” Gounardes said. “I just find it very rich that all of a sudden he found the gospel and is now preaching law and order.”

Bruno had been accused of (and even appeared to admit to) breaking multiple laws while running his nightclub, Odyssey, including throwing parties that broke the curfew at the time, bribing police officers, and obtaining drugs for his celebrity friends. When asked, Bruno denied the claims, said those times were long behind him and expressed frustration that they continue to be brought up.

“Everybody likes the sensationalism of stuff that’s 40 years old. It’s really all settled,” Bruno said. “All of that’s not true and all of that stuff is just me being sarcastic with people. Me running a nightclub that, back in those days, the clubs all stayed open late, that’s what it was. And you’re competing with somebody and then you get in trouble. That’s all in the past.”

The effectiveness of Bruno’s law and order platform is yet to be seen, but some, like Liam McCabe, who ran in the 2017 Republican primary in the 43rd City Council District now represented by Brannan, believe Gounardes is in a difficult position as a representative often seeking to find a middle-ground amongst his constituents in a district with vocal supporters of President Donald Trump and more conservative views but also of progressive politics and politicians. A potentially ‘silent majority’ of voters, though, seem to support candidates who seek middle ground and don’t regularly flock to one political pole or the other, such as their current representatives: Gounardes, Brannan and Congressional Representative Max Rose.

“Andrew and Justin and Max are all in a very, very difficult political situation because they can’t, ultimately, appease both sides,” McCabe said of the three Democratic officials representing the area.

McCabe mentioned members of the “Defund the NYPD” movement who protested outside Brannan’s house after he voted ‘yes’ for the new city budget that did not cut the demanded $1 billion from the NYPD. He said those on the right would be just as unhappy with Brannan, who had committed to voting for a budget only if it had $1 billion in meaningful NYPD cuts, for supporting the defund movement, while those on the left were not satisfied with the final result, either. Brannan voted in favor of a budget deal he said did meaningfully shift resources from the police department to things like youth services, including a significant amount of capital money that allowed the total figure to surpass $1 billion.

Still, Brannan, Gounardes, and other politicians in the area have sought to maintain something of a middle ground, while mostly trying to focus on local, quality of life, and community issues, and constituent services.

When it comes to the Defund the NYPD movement, Gounardes was not prepared to provide an answer during the interview with Gotham Gazette, but later said in a statement, “Many of our law enforcement officers’ current responsibilities relate to mental health and social services — we can and should allocate resources for the safety of all New Yorkers while ensuring NYPD officers can do their core jobs.”

On bail reform, Gounardes said in a statement, “The old system of guilty until proven rich wasn’t working but we made changes to the law that were responsive to the concerns of people on the ground.”

Gounardes believes his record of listening to his constituents and to all sides on an issue while trying to find common ground will help him win come November. It’s unclear how competitive Bruno and Republicans can make the race, and what kind of effort Gounardes and his supporters will have to make to ensure his reelection. In Gounardes’ 2018 win over Golden, Governor Andrew Cuomo campaigned with him in the district multiple times, and progressive groups who had focused a great deal of energy on Senate primaries were able to also devote significant attention to the only competitive general election Senate race in the city.

This year, Gounardes has been endorsed by the Working Family Party, New York Immigration Coalition Action, Planned Parenthood, labor unions including 1199 SEIU, UAW Region 9A, CWA D1, the New York State Nurses Association, and the National Association of Social Workers, and political clubs Bay Ridge Democrats and Stonewall Democrats. That list is likely to continue to grow significantly as November approaches.

“I haven’t seen a single plan or idea from my opponent since he announced his candidacy,” Gounardes said in the interview. “It’s easy for someone to come in and just yell and scream and point fingers. It’s another thing for someone to come to the table with solutions and come to the table and say that you were wrong and listen to and speak to everyone in your community. I think that my record shows that I have given everyone in the community a voice and a seat at the table, it doesn’t matter who they are or where they come from or what language they speak. We have a very, very diverse district and anyone that wants to represent this district has to acknowledge and empower that diversity.”

Gounardes cited his votes as part of the new Democratic majority for legislation he had said he would help pass if elected in 2018, such as the Child Victims Act, the Reproductive Health Act, speed camera authorization, and gun control legislation.

With the city’s spike in shootings front-and-center as the race unfolds, Gounardes’ campaign emphasized his role in gun control legislation, especially as a sign that he has meaningfully worked toward addressing the problem while his opponent has not proposed any solutions.

Asked to elaborate on what he sees as the solution to the increase in gun violence, Bruno again emphasized his opposition to Gounardes.

“Obviously, the gun control is not working,” Bruno said, going on to restate his criticism of defunding the NYPD and bail reform, as well as the recent disbandment of the NYPD’s “anti-crime unit” made up of plain-clothed officers who focused on getting guns off the street but NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said had at times exacerbated tensions with communities.

Bruno also said that emphasis from the Defund the NYPD movement and others on redistributing resources from the police to mental health, employment, youth, and other services in order to reduce what they believe are root causes of crime is misguided.

“I know what they’re all saying and a lot of those programs do already exist,” Bruno said. “It’s the culture that’s the problem. And statistics will show — and I know they’ll turn it into a racial thing, which I do not want to. I do not want to — but statistics show that households that don’t have a father, the crime and all that is through the roof.”

Bruno also mentioned affordability and relief for small businesses as priorities for his campaign. When asked on multiple occasions to name policies or legislation he supports, Bruno declined to do so but said his campaign will roll out “legitimate policies and legislation” in the next few weeks.

Mike Murphy, a campaign spokesperson for New York Senate Democrats, said he believes Gounardes’ track record when it comes to legislation, especially compared to Bruno’s limited experience in government, makes the seat one Democrats are confident they will hold.

“Gounardes has been a huge part of the conference and has really made a name for himself. I think it’s one of those districts that we expect to win pretty handily,” said Murphy, who also runs communications for Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. “Bruno has a lot of issues that will obviously be highlighted.”

The district, which voted for Obama in 2012 and then Trump in 2016, has been considered fairly favorable for Republicans — as were others prior to 2018 — though Democrats have had a voter registration advantage for several years. It is among the areas previously helpful to electing Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg as mayor, and parts of the Senate district went for Republican Nicole Malliotakis in 2017 as she attempted to unseat Mayor Bill de Blasio, even as district voters also elected Brannan to the Council by a narrow margin. While it has a sizeable pro-Trump voting bloc, it is also home to many supporters of Bernie Sanders.

The Senate District has 176,315 registered voters, with 87,648 Democrats and 36,645 Republicans; 1,323 registered with the Conservative Party and 4,498 with the Independence Party; and 45,129 unaffiliated with a political party (often referred to as “independents”).

Shockingly to some, Golden ran for reelection unopposed in 2016. In 2014, he won by over 30% of the vote against Democrat Jamie Kemmerer, and defeated Gounardes himself in 2012 by about 15% of the vote.

After the 2018 elections, when Republicans lost many seats in the State Senate, there is not a clear path back to the majority for the party that is now down to only 23 seats in the 63-seat Senate.

When Republicans lost the Senate majority, they lost significant financial support, too. They have received fewer donations from formerly-reliable sources, like the real estate lobby, which went from donating over $200,000 to the Senate Republican Campaign Committee in 2016 to about $60,000 in 2018 to $0 so far this year. Meanwhile, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee raised more than $2 million in the last six months, from January to this month’s filing deadline, according to the New York Daily News, and the SRCC just $248,000.

That checks out in Senate District 22, where Gounardes has over 10 times more money on-hand than Bruno, with a nearly $400,000 balance compared to Bruno’s $24,000, as of the most recent campaign finance filings. Gounardes outraised his opponent, with $340,000 this last six-month period to add to a starting balance of around $170,000. Comparatively, Bruno raised a little under $40,000 for his campaign.

Since losing the majority by such a wide margin in 2018, Republicans have tempered expectations about retaking it in 2020, seeing it more as a two-cycle project, going through the 2022 elections, which will be the next gubernatorial election year. Even McCabe, a staunch Republican, said flipping the Senate is likely a long-term process. Still, he said winning seats like Gounardes’ back is a “big part” of being able to do so.

Republicans have “always had seats in the Senate, in the city, and I think they need to continue to regain those and hold on to them,” McCabe said. “You don’t have to win the entire city, but you have to hold on to a certain position of it to do well statewide.”

State Senator Pam Helming, the newly-named chair of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, said there “is not a seat we are not focused on,” and that, although Democratic enrollment far exceeds that of Republicans, she feels areas including the Hudson Valley, the Finger Lakes region, Western New York, and the North Country have voters across the political spectrum who are concerned about one-party rule of the state and want to see a change.

Helming, who represents Canandaigua, said it would be Bruno’s presence in the community, more than anything, that would be key in propelling him to victory.

“I’m very excited about our candidate, Vito Bruno, he is an exceptional candidate, a very successful businessman and he’s just brought this level of energy and excitement to the neighborhood,” she said in an interview. “The feedback we’re getting from people, it’s something that’s missing, something that the present senator, he’s not actively engaged in the community, he’s not out there and he doesn’t have a strong presence. This is going to be a close race that we win.”

Gounardes has disputed the idea that he is not in the community and cited the work his office has done in feeding thousands of families by providing hot meals five days a week, groceries, and unemployment filing assistance throughout the pandemic.

He’s also made a pitch to voters about the work he will continue to do if reelected, highlighting priorities like free public higher education, improvements to the MTA, specifically with regards to accessibility, and improved action on climate change. He said “We have to start talking about what it means to live in a post-COVID world,” and referenced the need to address child care, creating an education system that works for everyone, investing in public hospitals, and having a safety net for people as key issues he is “going to run on, and that’s what I’m going to win on.”

But Helming, like Bruno, also focused on high crime rates she says Gounardes’ constituents are concerned about.

“The Republicans are going to take back this seat because they want common sense restored,” Helming said. “They are seeing this dramatic rise in crime in the New York City area, they are feeling like it’s becoming dangerous to live in their areas. They want change, they want stability back, they don’t want someone who supports criminals over crime victims. They want someone who’s going to protect all people, including our law enforcement.”

In a statement, Gounardes further framed himself as a legislator who finds a middle ground in a diverse district.

“The local Republican leadership here keeps running on the same old tired tropes,” Gounardes said. “They don’t understand that yes, you can be against racism, believe that Black Lives Matter, and still respect our local police. It's the job of a leader to find common ground and not further contribute to the divisive politics that are tearing our country apart — and now threaten the civic fabric of our own communities."

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

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Democrats Flipped a Brooklyn State Senate Seat in 2018; Is It In Play In 2020? Sun, 19 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Democratic State Senators Call for Raising Taxes on Wealthy, Passing Coronavirus Relief Measures state senators

Senators Ramos and Gounardes (photo: NY Senate)

A group of Democratic state senators, mostly from New York City, gathered in a digital forum Wednesday night to discuss the government’s COVID-19 response. The virtual event, held in partnership with the Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI), a nonprofit liberal think tank, covered topics including the state budget, impending cuts and proposals to raise revenue, and legislation to address ramifications of the virus.

Eight senators, or a fifth of the Democratic majority in the 63-seat chamber, participated in the online discussion.

New York’s new state budget, passed in early April by the Legislature in partnership with Governor Andrew Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, was a main topic of conversation, including critical comments from the senators about the governor. Many state legislators, mostly in the Assembly, voted against budget bills this year, despite the fact that they were representative of compromise among two Democratic majorities and the Democratic governor. Some senators voted against certain pieces of the budget, while others criticized the deal but voted for it anyway.

The budget included significant cuts to planned spending as the state faces a massive drop in tax revenue -- estimated at roughly $10 billion to $15 billion - due to the coronavirus fallout, which comes on top of a roughly $6 billion budget gap that the state had to close leading up to adoption of the spending plan.

The budget agreement included no significant new revenue-raising measures, such as tax increases on higher earners, nor did it include as grave cuts as some feared. But it also gave the governor significant leeway to make budget changes throughout the year, depending on the tax revenue picture (the Legislature retained the right to overrule the governor, but it would have to come up with its own plan to slash spending).

And on April 25, the Cuomo administration announced an additional $10 billion in cuts, mostly -- at $8.2 billion -- in aid to localities, a category that covers education and much more, as well as a $1.6 billion cut to state agency operations and $293 million to debt service, according to information provided during the senators’ event.

“It’s very bleak, it’s very difficult,” Queens Senator John Liu said of the budget situation.

“The Cuomo cuts are fake austerity, and we’ve been living with this fake austerity for a while,” said Queens Senator Jessica Ramos. “Before the pandemic, we were already in a deficit. There’s nothing worse than saying we don’t have the money when we’re not proactively wanting money.”

Brooklyn Senator Andrew Gounardes agreed, saying that now is “not a time to practice and preach austerity politics, this is not a time to be cutting budgets, this is a time to be investing in people.”

Ron Deutsch, the executive director of FPI, blamed the “austerity” on Cuomo’s “arbitrary” 2% cap on annual state spending increases.

“We’re still maintaining this austerity mindset, this scarcity mindset that we can’t possibly spend more than 2%,” Deutsch said. “This 2% is an arbitrary figure, it has no basis in reality. It’s just something the governor wants and pushes for. And what has it resulted in. It has decimated human services programs across this state. We’ve seen a significant reduction in human services.”

The participants moved from the state budget to federal stimulus money with senators discussing why they believe New York didn’t get more aid from the $2 trillion package, and if New York could receive more aid going forward.

“The state cannot pull us out of the hole that we are in, we’re not allowed to run a deficit, we have to balance the budget,” said upstate Senator Rachel May. “And when we’re talking about $13 billion that we’re in the hole, even with the great ideas people have mentioned about raising revenue, we need help from the federal government.”

The recent $2 trillion federal aid package provided $150 billion for state aid, which was distributed based on population. This, many of the senators agreed, was the inherent issue with it.

“We got anywhere from $6-7 billion out of the $150 billion, and that’s the problem, we didn’t get treated fairly,” said Liu. “How do you allocate state aid based on population when at the time we had between one-third and one-half of the [coronavirus] cases. If we had gotten one-third of the $150 billion, we would have gotten $50 billion. And that right there would have solved many of our problems. Not only to provide enough aid to our state government and to localities, for schools, for firefighters, for teachers, for police officers, for ambulances. It also would have helped us in our programs to cancel rents, and with mortgage payments. That is the kind of assistance, real assistance, we need in a federal stimulus package. We are a very rich state, that’s for sure, but even the richest state can't get out of this humongous disaster by ourselves.”

Manhattan Senator Robert Jackson agreed, saying, “when you talk about fair share, you can talk about population, but when you talk about that, New York City and New York State as the epicenter of this pandemic, that’s where the resources should have come to.”

“We need assistance from Washington,” said Liu. “I don’t want to take away from that argument, I don’t want to be negotiating against ourselves. We absolutely need the aid from Washington in the form of unrestricted state aid. But we also need our own proposals, because [the federal government] might not give us enough to fill the $13 billion hole we’re in. Rather than suffer ridiculous cuts to schools and healthcare and other vital state services, we need to think of these proposals as quickly as possible and keep them on the front burner.”

The conversation then turned to ways in which the state could raise revenue to help plug its deficit and avoid making huge cuts to education, health care, and more. The most heavily discussed revenue raising policy was an ‘ultra-millionaire tax.’

“The wealthiest 1% pay a smaller percentage of their income in taxes than do the poorest 20% of New Yorkers,” said Deutsch. “How do we justify that in a state with so much wealth. Our tax system is completely upside-down and we need to reverse that. We are behind numerous other states when it comes to the progressivity of our income tax structure.”

Such an action would be far from unprecedented, it was noted. After September 11, 2001 the Republican leader of the Senate and the Democratic leader of the Assembly came together to propose higher taxes on the wealthy, overriding Governor George Pataki’s veto, according to Deutsch.

Similarly, after the financial collapse in 2008, the state was facing a huge budget gap. Governor David Paterson led the institution of higher taxes on millionaires, which became known as the first “millionaires tax” surcharge, which has been in place since, renewed several times despite the original notion that it would be temporary.

Ramos added that she introduced, and is working with partners on a soft rollout of, a worker bailout that would tax billionaires’ asset growth. “It could generate $5 billion for us every year,” Ramos said. “So this year we would want to use it to help those who don’t have any safety net,” and give $3,300 per month during the pandemic to those who aren’t eligible for or don’t qualify for a wage assistance program, she said. Liu called it a good proposal on top of the revenue raising proposals that have already been put forward.

He added that taxing millionaires more in New York is not out of the question, reiterating what Deutsch had said previously, that New Yorkers are not taxed as high as top earners in other states. In California for example, top earners are taxed 5% more than top earners here, he said.

Cuomo and the Senate Democratic conference have been against raising taxes on higher earners, and as the coronavirus recession set in just before the budget was negotiated, there appeared to be little discussion of it as a possibility.

Liu also emphasized what he sees as the importance of a pied-a-terre tax and that it should be “at the very top of the list,” imposing a tax on non-primary luxury homes, which Liu pointed out are owned by wealthy people and are often not lived in. He says it could raise many millions of dollars per year. Brooklyn Senator Julia Salazar and Bronx and Wechester Senator Alessandra Biaggi agreed with Liu.

Biaggi also made a push for two policies that would bring in state revenue and have been discussed in Albany for quite a while -- legalizing adult use of marajuana and legalizing mobile sports betting. She said both would be good opportunities to use well-considered legislation to raise revenue in a time when it is necessary.

Salazar said there are more than a dozen serious proposals to raise revenue and it’s a “shame that in the budget these revenue sources were not considered.” During this crisis, she said, the Legislature has an “ethical obligation” to help New Yorkers make ends meet.

Biaggi mentioned her push for a bill that is a constitutional amendment that would allow the Legislature more power to amend the budget before its adoption. New York’s budget law and process is notoriously governor-dominated, what Biaggi called “an inordinate amount of power over the budget.”

She said her bill seeks to equalize the power between the executive and legislative branches of government, and rebalance the power. Before it can be put into the constitution, the amendment needs to pass through two consecutive legislative sessions and go to a public vote.

Gounardes agreed with the importance of Biaggi’s bill and said that in the current system “we don’t have the ability to submit our own budget document” and it “ties our hands when it comes to the budget.” May added that “the other articles in the constitution say the Legislature shall provide for basic education or all our children, for roads and bridges, all kinds of things -- it’s our responsibility, but we don’t have the power to put together a budget that can allow us to carry out our responsibility.”

Jackson said he is putting forward a bill that would allow for tenants to use their security deposits to pay rent during the pandemic. “If your situation is such that you can’t afford to pay you rent, the first thing you should do is communicate with your owners,” said Jackson. “If the landlord says no, then it’s our job to pass the legislation.”

Salazar has also put forward a rent bill, the Emergency Coronavirus Affordable Housing Preservation Act, colloquially known as Relief for All.

“What this bill proposes is not only relief for residential tenants and also commercial tenants, making sure that for property owners whose tenants have been impacted they will also have relief,” she said during the digital forum. “Additionally, and this is to address the concerns of nonprofit affordable housing, we are also providing relief to them, looking out for them, because they are going to be experiencing long term effects from the economic crisis that we’re facing.”

Another senator, Queens’ Michael Gianaris, who the deputy majority leader and was not part of the event, has been leading a “cancel rent” push, with his own legislation to enact a rent moratorium for those significantly impacted financially by the coronavirus fallout, with the state stepping in to help make landlords whole. Gianaris has also said he wants to see the federal government step up so the state doesn’t have to shoulder the burden on top of its existing budget hole.

Brooklyn Senator Zellnor Myrie, who also participated in the forum, has put forward a bill, the Do No Harm Act, to “prevent disproportionately impacted populations from being further victimized in the wake of budget cuts resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to the bill text.

“This has not begun with COVID-19, this was a process decades in the making, particularly for black and brown communities where we refused to invest in preventative care, we refused to invest in affordable housing, education, nutrition,” Myrie said. “All of those comorbidities were brought into sharp relief at the advent of this crisis.”

His bill “requires that any budget cuts due to the COVID-19 pandemic that disproportionately affect certain populations identified by disparities in rates of infection and death due to race, age and zip code based on demographic data provided by state and local departments of health be accompanied by a remediation plan to offset the disproportionate impact of those cuts.”

Myrie also said he has a bill pending that would provide the New York Attorney General more investigatory power to look into nursing homes during this pandemic. Myrie explained that nursing homes “have been their own epicenter” and in need of more oversight.

Senators also mentioned a variety of worker protection bills. Jackson said he put forward in January an amendment to labor law, seeking to redefine employment. The bill seeks to “reclassify more workers as employees rather than independent contractors in order for them to receive benefits such as healthcare and retirement,” Jackson said, also connecting the definition to times of crisis with so many independent contractors also losing work but having a harder time with unemployment benefits.

Ramos mentioned her legislation to expand the whistleblower law. There have been cases in the news of healthcare workers saying they don’t have enough personal protective equipment (PPE) and getting fired. Ramos said she wants to ensure that these individuals don’t suffer consequences for speaking out.

“We have not been physically in Albany, but that does not mean we have not been at work,” Liu said. “Answering constituents’ requests everyday, talking amongst ourselves about the legislation that has been proposed.” Either virtually or physically in Albany, he said, “Either way we are going to get work done and pass bills that are needed.”

by Katie Kirker, Gotham Gazette

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Democratic State Senators Call for Raising Taxes on Wealthy, Passing Coronavirus Relief Measures Fri, 01 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Senator Michael Gianaris on 'Canceling Rent' & Other Responses to the Coronavirus Crisis 1 senator gianaris wbai 600

State Senator Michael Gianaris (photo: Senator Michael Gianaris/flickr)

April 15, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Senator Michael Gianaris on 'Canceling Rent' & State Senate Priorities

michael gian senate 150

State Senator Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat who is the Deputy Majority Leader of the Senate, joined the show to discuss his push to "cancel rent" amid the onset of the coronavirus recession, other measures he wants to see government take in the face of the crisis, and his reflections on the recently-passed state budget.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Senator Michael Gianaris on 'Canceling Rent' & Other Responses to the Coronavirus Crisis Wed, 15 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Senate Deputy Leader Gianaris on Gun Control, Queens Politics & More gianaris sen mda wbai px

Senator Gianaris with activists (photo: @SenGianaris)

August 7, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Senate Deputy Leader Gianaris on Gun Control, Queens Politics & More

mike gianaris wbai inset pxState Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris of Queens joined the show to discuss gun control laws that have been passed in New York, what is ahead for state government in the next legislative session, Queens political dynamics including the result of the District Attorney primary, and more.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Senate Deputy Leader Gianaris on Gun Control, Queens Politics & More Wed, 07 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
I'm Not Running for Congress; Here's Why gustavo rivera senate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'm Not Running for Congress; Here's Why Fri, 12 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senators Liz Krueger & Zellnor Myrie on the Year in Albany mryie krueger wbai 600px

(photo: NYSenate)

June 26, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Reflecting on the Year in Albany, with Senators Krueger & Myrie

wbai krueger myrieState Senators Liz Krueger of Manhattan and Zellnor Myrie of Brooklyn joined the show to reflect on the year that was in Albany, the January through June session with Democrats in full control of state government for the first time in many years. Two two senators discussed their majority's first session in power, dynamics between the Legislature and Governor Cuomo, what got done and what fell off the table - and why.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senators Liz Krueger & Zellnor Myrie on the Year in Albany Wed, 26 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
For Senators and Advocates, It’s How, Not Whether, to Implement Automatic Voter Registration myrie avr

Senator Zellnor Myrie at Thursday's pre-hearing rally (photo: @SenatorMyrie)

Following several reforms to the state’s election and voting laws that were passed by the state Legislature and signed by Governor Cuomo earlier this year, the New York State Senate’s elections committee seems poised to move ahead with legislation to implement a system of automatic voter registration.

At a public hearing on Thursday in Albany, the elections committee, chaired by Democratic Senator Zellnor Myrie of Brooklyn, heard testimony from experts, election officials, voting reform advocates, and immigrant advocates, all of whom agreed that New York must implement automatic voter registration (AVR). The hearing came just after a crowded and energetic rally in the capital, led by the Let NY Vote coalition, at which legislators of both houses and advocates called for passage of AVR.

The key questions apparent on Thursday were whether AVR has support in the Assembly and from the governor, and what type of AVR system should be adopted -- a split opinion was clear at the hearing, which was called in part to help sort out the different proposals.

In 2016, Oregon was the first state to approve AVR, and since then, 17 other states and the District of Columbia have also adopted the system. In New York, which has consistently ranked low on voter registration and turnout, Myrie said AVR is “critically important to our democracy.”

“My goal is to bring New York from worst to first,” he said, with reference to the package of bills passed earlier this year, which included an early voting program set to launch this fall.

There have been several bills on AVR introduced this legislative session in the Senate and Assembly. Besides massively increasing the number of registered voters in the state -- roughly 2 million New Yorkers are eligible to vote but not registered -- AVR also promises to reduce the costs of election administration, make voting more efficient, and expand access for the state’s most vulnerable populations including low-income communities, people of color, and young people.

It would also complement the many reforms that the Democratic-controlled Legislature passed this year, including early voting, pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds, and portability of voter registrations The Legislature also consolidated the state and federal primary and approved the use of electronic poll books, and crossed one of three thresholds for other reforms, including same-day voter registration, that require a change to the state constitution.

The State Board of Elections showed its own split on the idea of AVR. In testimony submitted to the committee, Todd Valentine, the BOE’s Republican co-executive director, said, “Forcing inclusion against the voter’s will is an act of a top-down government. And saying that there’s an ‘opt-out’ clause is really flipping the script on free choice – the choice is made – you are in. This violates a citizen’s basic free speech rights, which includes expressing displeasure
with the electoral process by not participating.”

Robert Brehm, the Democratic co-executive director, who testified in person, supported it. “Certainly, automatic voter registration is an important reform,” he said, also hinting at the disagreement within the Board. “We have a bit of an ideology issue there,” he said.

Dustin Czarny, an elections commissioner in Onondaga County, and chair of the Democratic Caucus of the New York State Elections Commissioner Association, called AVR an “egalitarian benefit” and said the Legislature must pass it to build on the successful reforms from this session. “I’m here to caution against the feeling that maybe we’ve done enough, because we can never have done enough when it comes to voter access,” he said.

Though there was generally consensus at the hearing about the benefits of AVR, the panellists testifying before the committee disagreed over whether AVR should be implemented through a front-end or back-end system, or some hybrid of both.

In a front-end system, voters that interact with specific state agencies for different purposes – such as the Department of Motor Vehicles – would be automatically given the option to register to vote and choose one or no party affiliation, or opt out. In a back-end system, the state would use databases of New Yorkers maintained by different agencies to determine who is eligible to be registered and transmit that information to the state Board of Elections to add them to the voter rolls. The BOE would then inform those individuals by mail, giving them the option to choose their party affiliation or to opt out and not be added to the rolls.

Of the states that have passed AVR, only Oregon and Alaska implemented a back-end system. But both approaches have their weaknesses, experts said.

A back-end system could inadvertently enroll ineligible individuals such as undocumented immigrants and legal non-citizen residents, which could open them up to deportation or threaten their chances of obtaining citizenship. It could also enroll voters who want to maintain their confidentiality, such as survivors of domestic and sexual abuse.

Voters would also not be immediately affiliated with a party, which could lead to confusion because of New York’s closed primary system and early deadlines for switching party affiliation -- nearly six months before a primary. Voters, particularly in New York City, tend not to respond to mailers from the BOE, which means they could miss the opportunity to fix any issues with their registration.

But a front-end system would require agencies to ask an individual about their eligibility and citizenship, a fraught question particularly in a state with a large immigrant population among whom the federal government under President Donald Trump has created an atmosphere of heightened fear.

Other experts and advocates raised concerns about the lack of training among agency personnel about registration procedures and the dearth of accomodation for people with limited English proficiency. At an agency point of service, under constraints of time and with other priorities in mind, individuals could make mistakes.

Sean Morales-Doyle, counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, warned against a back-end system. “We don’t want people getting registered without knowing it,” he said, insisting that an AVR system should have protections for vulnerable communities and that it should be implemented through multiple agencies, including the DMV, which already processes voter registration applications.

But Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said her organization tended to prefer the back-end system and emphasized that there are ways to filter information on voting eligible New Yorkers without adverse consequences. For instance, she noted that the Department of Health serves a far broader population than the DMV and has more than 6 million people registered for Medicaid, which tracks their status. “So we’re not asking the agency to ask citizenship questions that they’re not already asking,” she said.

It is often noted even under the current registration system that centering the DMV favors suburban and rural areas over urban centers given that city-dwellers are less likely to interact with the DMV.

Lerner urged the committee to ensure several provisions in any bill that passes, including creating a working group of agencies and advocates to study which agencies are best to implement AVR, ensure the security of collected data, and to require regular reporting on how the system is being implemented.

Morales-Doyle, Lerner, and others generally agreed that AVR should involve multiple agencies, and that some flexibility should be built into the legislation to allow more agencies to implement it.

Sean McElwee, founder of AVR Now and co-founder of Data for Progress, also supported a back-end system, noting that from analysis of Oregon’s program, 44% of those registered through AVR cast a ballot in the 2016 election. “In the Oregon system, more than 90% of people do not opt out, so they’re either added to the rolls or have their registrations updated,” he noted. “In Colorado, prior to switching to a back-end system, only one in three people chose not to opt out.”

Senator Michael Gianaris has introduced a bill that would implement back-end AVR, and he argued at the hearing that he would rather put the onus of a registration system on the government rather than individuals. His bill contains a safe-harbor provision that would prevent an individual from being liable for a mistake in the state voter rolls. “An error in the statewide voter registration list shall not constitute a fraudulent or false claim to citizenship,” his bill reads.

But immigration advocates weren’t reassured by the provision, noting that federal enforcement agencies do not give immigrants the benefit of the doubt in such cases. “They do not weigh intent. They do not weigh method of registration,” said Amy Torres, director of policy at the Chinese-American Planning Council.

That sentiment was shared by Wennie Chen, senior manager of civic engagement at the New York Immigration Coalition, and Monica Vargas-Huertas, deputy northeast director of NALEO Educational Fund. “Errors that can cause serious negative collateral consequences are more likely to go unnoticed until it’s too late in a backend system,” said Vargas-Huertas.

With eleven session days left in the legislative year, the Assembly has yet to even discuss the issue of AVR. “We will talk about it with our members,” said Mike Whyland, a spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, in an email.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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For Senators and Advocates, It’s How, Not Whether, to Implement Automatic Voter Registration Thu, 30 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
2010 Change to How New York Prisoners are Counted is Part of Upcoming Census and Redistricting Puzzle govcuomo meadow

(photo: Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)

As focus on the 2020 Census intensifies, one key aspect of the discussion is how the population count will impact legislative representation and redistricting. Along with new congressional districts -- New York stands to lose at least one if not two seats in the House of Representatives -- the state will also redraw its legislative districts for the State Senate and State Assembly, along with local legislative bodies.

One important and controversial element in both the population count and the subsequent redistricting in the 2010-2012 cycle was the location of state prisons and how prisoners were counted in the Census; specifically, whether prisoners are counted as residents of the location of the prison they are held in or of their prior home address.

Prison populations had significant impact on local counts and therefore district lines, particularly in some of the more rural areas where most state prisons are located. At the same time, state prison population in New York has been on the decline since 1999, when it was at a peak of 71,649 prisoners. Now, that number has fallen to 46,973 prisoners, according to a press release from Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Up until 2010, the Census counted prisoners in the districts they were incarcerated in, despite most of them coming from New York City and Long Island, according to data from the New York State Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research on Reapportionment (LATFOR), which has oversight of the redistricting process.

The prison count has had a significant impact on redistricting within New York, adding to the population of certain regions of particular importance for State Senate seats. While the Assembly has been dominated by Democrats for decades now, the Senate has largely seen a very close split between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans controlled the Senate for most of the past decade, including during the 2012 redistricting, until this year -- Democrats won a fairly large majority in last year’s elections.

When Democrats last had control of the Senate, briefly in 2009-2010, a controversial bill was passed amid the 2010 Census mandating that prisoners are counted based on their last known home addresses.

While counting prisoners at their prior addresses is likely to remain the case going forward, some redistricting experts are concerned that this method of counting prisoners may not be deployed because newer legislation does not address it. In 2014 and after much criticism of the 2012 redistricting process as overly political, New York voters approved a ballot measure creating a new, more independent redistricting process for 2022 and beyond.

The 2020 Census count will begin in April of next year, without full clarity on the prison count question. Prison populations can have significant impacts on how district lines are drawn, and those lines can greatly influence legislative balances of power.

How did prisons impact redistricting?
For State Senate and Assembly redistricting, the Census is taken, then the total number of people in the state is divided by the total number of districts -- 150 Assembly districts and 63 Senate districts. District lines are then drawn necessitating that a similar number of people are counted within each district.

In 2010, many State Senate districts in upstate New York were underpopulated relative to other districts, giving upstate voters more influence over their representatives than voters in overpopulated districts downstate, including in New York City, where voter power was deflated. When taking away the prison population of seven of those upstate districts, they became severely underpopulated, further inflating upstate voters’ power, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

Senate District 45, which includes Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Hamilton, Warren and Washington Counties, had one of the highest prison populations, 14,161, as of 2007, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Taking away that prison population, the district had almost 30,000 fewer residents than the 2010 average population per district of 312,550, according to the Center for Urban Research at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Prison population counting also affected redistricting on a local level in places like Rome, New York. According to information from the Prison Policy Initiative, in Rome’s second ward, half the population counted in the census was incarcerated, inflating the local non-incarcerated population to double its actual size. Thus voters in Rome’s second ward had roughly twice the influence they would otherwise demand; prisoners are not allowed to vote in New York.

Some upstate populations inflated by prisoners meant that more funding and political attention was allocated to predominantly Republican communities, in part through districting, helping the party hold a firmer grasp over the State Senate.

New York changes how the census counts prisoners
In 2010, several non-profit groups including The Brennan Center, The Prison Policy Initiative, and Demos rallied against the way prisoners were being counted, calling it “prison-based gerrymandering.”

They strongly advocated for a bill (S6725A) sponsored by then-State Senator Eric Schneiderman, a Manhattan Democrat (who went on to become New York Attorney General, a position he resigned from in 2018 amid a domestic abuse scandal). The bill required incarcerated people to be counted based on their home residence and not based on the address of the prison where they are incarcerated.

This legislation was passed, along with a provision postponing the deadline for prisons to report inmates’ home addresses from July 1 to September 1. It was introduced as an amendment to the New York State revenue budget bill in August 2010 -- four months after the 2010 Census count had begun in April.

Almost 80 percent of the state’s prison population was then successfully recounted based on inmates’ last known addresses. The state prisoners whose addresses were not identifiable, as well as all federal prisoners, were not taken into account when determining legislative districts.

The legislation mostly stopped upstate communities from gaining additional political influence and resources based on housing prisons. At the time, the move was hotly contested, but it has not been discussed much since.

Justin Levitt, currently a law professor at Loyola Law School, who then served as counsel at The Brennan Center for Justice, believes redistricting was made fairer as a result of the legislation. “In the districts where there are prisons, the surrounding communities are represented by their representatives, but the people who are artificially stuck in that neighborhood are represented by legislators in the areas where they are from,” he said in a phone interview.  

Opponents of the change
The legislation faced fierce opponents, many of whom were legislators in districts home to prisons. Senator Betty Little, a Republican representing counties including as Clinton, Franklin, Essex and Washington Counties in Northern New York, was one of the senators most strongly against the legislation.

Senator Little’s district housed 13 state and federal prisons in 2009, although three of those have now been shut down based on New York Department of Corrections’ prison maps. The new method of counting prisoners meant that her district would have to be redrawn to accommodate more people so that it was not severely underpopulated.

Little filed a lawsuit in April 2011 against the Legislative Task Force for Research and Reapportionment (LATFOR), a task force set up by minority and majority leaders of the Senate and Assembly to determine district lines. The lawsuit aimed to strike down the prisoner counting legislation. She lost in Little vs LATFOR.

The plaintiffs argued that the legislation was unconstitutional, did not correctly count inhabitants, and that the method of counting inmates did not line up with what was recommended by the U.S. Census Bureau. The New York Supreme Court ruled that the legislation did not obstruct the constitution beyond a reasonable doubt. It also determined that prisoners’ addresses at the prisons should not be viewed as permanent. The ruling also quoted Census Bureau Director Robert M. Groves, who said that states may count prisoners however they please.

Today, Senator Little still argues her case. “My contention has been that incarcerated individuals should be counted where they are serving their sentence, their 'usual residence,' not where they are from and may or may never return," Little told Gotham Gazette via email. "Where they utilize services is where they should be counted because the allocation of resources for these services is often apportioned based on representation and population."

Efforts Since 2012 Redistricting
Jeffrey Wice, who has served as counsel to Democrats during state legislative redistricting, and is currently a fellow at SUNY Rockefeller School of Government, is concerned that New York may go back to counting prisoners in the districts where they are incarcerated as 2022’s redistricting process approaches.

Wice points to the redistricting amendment made to the New York State constitution in 2014, based on popular vote after passage by the Legislature. It stated that a ten-person redistricting commission would be appointed to determine district lines in the redistricting cycle of 2020-2022, and refined the criteria for commissioners and that the commission would take into account when determining district lines.

“The constitutional amendment is silent on that,” Wice said of how prisoners are counted. “And several of the commissioners could question whether the state is still required to reallocate prisoners because the constitutional amendment is silent.”

However, a spokesperson from Governor Andrew Cuomo's office sounded definitive, saying of prisoners: “They will be counted as part of their home districts.”

What next?
The impact of counting prisoners in the census, wherever they are located or tallied, is decreasing as the prison population is decreasing.  In the new state budget, the Legislature agreed to allow Cuomo to shutter up to three more prisons, the number will depend on which prison beds are identified for elimination given the declining inmate populations. It’s unclear how the closure of two or three prisons may impact the populations in other prisons, where some inmates may be transferred.

Meanwhile, the budget also included new criminal justice reforms that promise to significantly reduce jail and prison populations, including bail, speedy trial, and discovery reforms.

The likely continuing reduction in prison population across the state, plus the prison population-counting legislation passed to apply to the 2010 Census and beyond, and the new redistricting process set to take hold based on the constitutional amendment that was passed in 2014, may ultimately ensure counting of prison populations will play less of a role in determining legislative district lines in the 2020-2022 redistricting cycle.

[READ: New York's New, Untested Redistricting Process Set to Unfold After 2020 Census]

by Ashad Hajela, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

2010 Change to How New York Prisoners are Counted is Part of Upcoming Census and Redistricting Puzzle Mon, 15 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Creating a Single-Payer Health Care System That Works for All New Yorkers health care is a right

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

In November, New Yorkers voted for a united government in Albany with a resounding directive: fix our broken healthcare system. Those election results are directly linked to the financial strain New Yorkers are facing as they struggle to choose between paying for their medication, premiums, long-term care, and basic needs, such as food or housing.

The high costs of healthcare in our state have devastated hundreds of thousands of New York families by bankrupting those who are underinsured or forcing them to forgo treatment due to the financial burden it usually causes. According to the Campaign for New York Health, approximately 1 million New Yorkers still do not have health insurance; 20,000 New Yorkers have died due to their lack of coverage in the last ten years; and millions more would be bankrupt if faced with a medical emergency under their current health care plan.

The New York Health Act (NYHA) is the only option on the table that would provide comprehensive healthcare coverage to all New Yorkers. It would extend coverage to those that currently have no access while providing quality and comprehensive care to New Yorkers who have been traditionally underinsured.

This year, we are going one step further. We are introducing a version of the NYHA that aims to close an additional gap in our healthcare system by integrating long-term care coverage into the legislation. This shift in policy will address our state’s long-term care crisis and meet the healthcare needs of seniors, people with disabilities, as well as countless family caregivers, who are primarily women, for generations to come.

The benefits of including long-term care in the NYHA will not only be felt by those who will now be able to afford assisted living, nursing home care, or home health care, but it will also have a rippling effect on our economy. In the Northwest Bronx, where we both live and work, thousands of home health aides, care workers, and unpaid caregivers have to withstand low wages, few benefits, and not enough investment in training and retention services. The current system is financially debilitating to families, those who require care, and the workforce that is tasked with administering care, all of whom are predominantly women struggling to provide for their loved ones. For instance, nationally, Latinx family caregivers spend 44% of their annual income providing caregiving services, while African-American family caregivers spend 34% of their income.

A healthcare system that guarantees long-term care coverage would help ease the financial burden of thousands of families across our state while dramatically improving the system for those who receive and provide care. According to a study recently released by the RAND Corporation, even with the addition of long-term care, the NYHA would cost less than what is being spent under the current healthcare system. It is simply the most fiscally responsible step to take.

The majority of New Yorkers have spoken loud and clear. They are demanding a healthcare system that works for them and not for the most powerful corporations. This new version of the NYHA and our new leadership in Albany bring us one-step closer to making healthcare a right and not a privilege for all New Yorkers.

State Senator Gustavo Rivera is the Senate sponsor of the New York Health Act. Karla Lawrence is a direct care worker specializing in gerontology and long-term care; she is a member of 1199 SEIU and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and a leader in the New York Caring Majority.

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Creating a Single-Payer Health Care System That Works for All New Yorkers Mon, 11 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000