Gotham Gazette Wed, 05 Aug 2020 13:38:01 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Insurgent Campaigns Try to Replicate Major 2018 Voter Turnout Jump in Very Different Circumstances partii bowman

Jamaal Bowman's congressional campaign attempts to capture some 2018 magic (photo: Bowman campaign)

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


After a massive wave of voters shook New York’s 2018 primary elections and subsequent state government, this year’s primary turnout could be hobbled by the lasting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whereas the 2018 primaries for state Legislature, governor, and other state-level seats saw an immense jump in voter participation from 2014, this month’s party primaries — almost all of which are again among Democrats — for president, state Legislature, the U.S. House of Representatives, and other seats, could see a drop. 

Many of the strategies employed by campaigns and activists in 2018 — explored in-depth in part one of this two-part series — have simply not been possible during the coronavirus shutdown, fundraising has become a major challenge, and many voters are less able to focus on politics given the public health and economic hardships ravaging New York City.

Across boroughs and races, Gotham Gazette spoke to a diverse array of campaigns to understand how tactics have shifted throughout the coronavirus crisis, and how they are trying to draw voters to the polls — or to the absentee ballots all eligible voters can use given gubernatorial order based on the pandemic — as millions of New Yorkers' lives are upended, advantages of most incumbents appear strengthened, and there is an immense unknown when it comes to voter participation.

Several of these races are in districts that overlap with pivotal districts from the 2018 state primary elections. While there are no statewide seats on the ballot this year as there were in 2018, the state and federal primaries (state Legislature, U.S. House, president) are combined this year while in 2018 they occurred over three different primary days.

Some of the results from 2018 may be instructive in 2020, especially when it comes to the tactics and strategies used by activists and campaigns, the coalitions that formed or grew and remain active, and where within specific districts saw the largest voter turnout jumps in the prior primaries. But at the same time, 2020 has become an election year like no other in recent memory due to the pandemic.

From Door-Knocking to Delivering Groceries
The neighborhoods within Queens’ 34th Assembly District — parts of Jackson Heights, East Elmhurst, and Woodside — were some of the hardest hit in the city by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Jackson Heights, one in every 25 people have contracted the coronavirus; in East Elmhurst, one in 23 people have contracted it; and in Woodside, one of every 39 people have had it, according to Department of Health data analyzed by The New York Times

The devastation and dangers wrought by the virus made normal political campaigning untenable. In its place, candidates started using their campaign apparatuses as mutual aid networks to help residents in need. 

“My office and campaign volunteers have shifted to providing much-needed supplies and food to my constituents,” Assemblymember Michael DenDekker told Gotham Gazette. His campaign has largely been on pause since March, and only recently began again, mostly online. “The need has been overwhelming,” he said. 

DenDekker is vying to keep his seat from four challengers this competitive primary season; the first time he has had to overcome any primary competition in a 12-year legislative career

Three of his challengers — former Manhattan prosecutor and local civic leader Nuala O’Doherty-Naranjo; former National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health Executive Director Jessica González-Rojas; and Uber driver and organizer Joy Chowdhury — also began to funnel campaign energy and resources into fighting the effects of the pandemic, they said in interviews. 

O’Doherty-Naranjo started the COVID Care Neighborhood Network in Jackson Heights, which delivers supplies and staffs a helpline residents with the coronavirus can use to connect to different services. Instead of fundraising for her campaign and appealing to voters, O’Doherty-Naranjo has been raising tens of thousands of dollars to support COVID Care.

“It’s a weird kind of campaign,” she said. 

Chowdhury paused his campaign for a few months and started delivering food to residents in need through the Queens Mutual Aid Network. Both Chowdhury and González-Rojas used their campaign staff to deliver groceries and supplies.

“The priority was not IDing voters, but checking in on neighbors,” said González-Rojas, who has amassed significant support from progressive individuals and groups, such as the Working Families Party and immigrant rights group Make the Road Action. State Senator Jessica Ramos, who won her seat in 2018 in the partially overlapping Senate District 13 after upsetting another long-standing incumbent, former State Senator Jose Peralta, had similar progressive support from the WFP and Make the Road Action, among others. 

González-Rojas and O’Doherty-Naranjo also said they have prioritized educating voters about the new, pandemic-driven practices around absentee ballots, with both campaigns noting that many voters are confused about the ballot. 

Absentee ballots are perhaps the biggest wild card in this year’s primary election cycle, as the New York City Board of Elections scrambles to deliver on an unprecedented increase in absentee ballot requests. It is unclear whether everyone who wants to vote absentee will be able to have their vote counted.

Whether and how campaigns have urged their likely and potential voters to access the absentee voting process could be determinative in closer contests. While absentee voting strategies have always been important, more so in some races than others, this year’s circumstances have given such tactics an unprecedented weight.

In grassroots and insurgent campaigns, where candidates don’t have the benefit of name recognition that the incumbent has, the pandemic has made the hard task of winning even harder. 

“The number one most effective thing is for the candidates themselves to be able to speak directly to voters,” said Mia Pearlman, a co-founder of the grassroots political organization True Blue NY, which has endorsed González-Rojas and a slate of other candidates in this month’s primaries. “And then after that, the next most effective thing is for activists like us to do so, or people who work with the campaign. So that’s really been a struggle for campaigns to redesign their strategy in the moment in order to reach voters.”

True Blue NY was part of a coalition of grassroots organizations that helped trigger a wave of insurgent progressive candidates to overtake incumbents in the New York State Senate in 2018. Those races, along with a competitive, intense and high-spending gubernatorial primary, and a renewed interest in local politics spurred by the 2016 presidential election, led to a record-breaking primary turnout in New York in 2018. 

These factors helped Ramos, who True Blue endorsed, to victory that year. Voters in swaths of Assembly District 34, especially in Jackson Heights, turned out in force for Ramos in 2018, potentially signaling that the district could be ready for another progressive insurgent in 2020. While the races have many differences, some of the neighborhoods and players are the same.

Pearlman is concerned that challengers this year may get lost in the shuffle. 

“The pandemic is an incumbent protection machine,” she said. “Everything about the pandemic favors the incumbents. And it creates a situation in which challengers are really fending off a lot of problems simultaneously.” 

Campaigning Without Contact
Typical campaign tactics like door-knocking, rallies, and in-person fundraising events became an impossibility in mid-March, when social distancing measures were put in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Instead, campaigns amped up phone-banking and -texting operations, dipped their toes into virtual events, and tried to meet voters where they were — at home. 

In Brooklyn’s competitive 9th Congressional District primary, the race to draw in voters has become more important than ever. 

“We’ve had to completely shift the way campaigning works,” Krysten Copeland, the communications director for incumbent U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke’s campaign, said in an interview. 

Clarke’s campaign has conducted Zoom and Facebook Live events, and several weeks ago held a virtual campaign rally featuring various prominent endorsers to kick off the stretch run toward primary day, June 23. 

The primary race looks tight: four challengers have been campaigning against Clarke, including Adem Bunkeddeko, who narrowly lost to Clarke in 2018 in what was a one-on-one contest. Other challengers this year include City Council Member Chaim Deutsch, small business owner Lutchi Gayot, and U.S. Army veteran Isiah James. 

Clarke, who was first elected in 2006, represents a diverse swath of Central and South Brooklyn, spanning from Park Slope to Crown Heights to Brownsville and Gerritsen Beach. 

In normal election cycles, campaigns often highlight prominent endorsements to build momentum and gain goodwill with voters. In such an unusual election year, endorsements represent one of the additionally limited tools campaigns have to catch voters’ attention. 

Clarke is being backed by a long list of elected officials and power players, including U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the 32BJ SEIU union, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and State Senator Zellnor Myrie, whose district overlaps with NY-9, to name just a few. “I think it sends a strong message that the people of Brooklyn know that Congresswoman Yvette Clarke has been fighting for them in Washington,” Copeland said of Clarke’s local endorsers.  

The Brooklyn Young Democrats are among those endorsing Clarke. The group’s president, Christina Das, said that the pandemic has vastly impacted campaigning strategies as they work to get candidates they support elected in Brooklyn. 

“It is a stark contrast comparing 2020 to 2018,” she said.

Das and many BYD members campaigned for Myrie when he was making an ultimately successful insurgent bid for incumbent Jesse Hamilton’s seat in 2018. Instead of canvassing and knocking on doors as they did in the area in 2018, the group has been phone-banking and hosting virtual events.

“It feels so much less energizing to get on the phone from your bed…than to knock on doors,” BYD Executive Vice President Julia Elmaleh-Sachs said. 

With so many people out of work due to the coronavirus-forced economic downturn, it has also been difficult for campaigns to fund-raise. “I don’t think they can give their $30 to a fundraiser right now,” Elmaleh-Sachs said of many voters. 

Both Das and Elmaleh-Sachs said that they think insurgent candidates will have a tougher time this election, as those candidates often rely on new and non-traditional voters heading to the polls. 

Myrie was able to score a victory over Hamilton through an extensive campaign network of political groups, volunteers, and progressive activists able to turn the tide of the district and attract new voters, a feat that may be more difficult without in-person campaigning. Additionally, Myrie snagged a broad spectrum of endorsements, including from many of Brooklyn’s big-name Democrats, such as some of the borough’s Congressional delegation, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and Council Speaker Corey Johnson, among others.

Bunkeddeko said in an interview that he has made reaching out to residents a priority during the coronavirus crisis, participating in mutual aid efforts across the district and encouraging people to sign up for absentee ballots to not put their health at risk at the polls. 

“Our big push has been to push everyone to vote absentee,” he said. 

In a crowded field, Bunkeddeko said that his progressive policies and his track record running for election in the district before have helped him stand out to voters when his campaign calls. 

“We’ve run the race before,” he said. “We were primarying people before it became cool.”

As of late May, Bunkeddeko’s campaign had hundreds of volunteers, made over 14,000 calls, and sent over 12,000 texts to voters, according to a campaign email. Those efforts have only intensified in June.

“One thing that’s been really powerful as we make calls for Adem in his race is the fact that you’re calling and checking in on people,” said Ricky Silver, the co-lead organizer with Empire State Indivisible, a progressive political activist group formed after the 2016 presidential election and has endorsed Bunkeddeko in NY-9.

“Phone-banking for a candidate as a part of outreach for mutual aid has been, I think, a really critical development in the post-COVID world,” Silver continued. “There’s been a real positive response to those types of outreach calls, because people are looking for help.”

In a time where so many people are looking for assistance, the outreach shows voters that the campaign is looking to help those in the district, not just “transactional ways to get elected,” Silver said. 

Empire State Indivisible backed Myrie in his race in the somewhat overlapping State Senate district in 2018. Bunkeddeko has received some of the same endorsements and progressive support that Myrie did in 2018, including an endorsement from The New York Times, but endorsements from many of the major elected officials that backed Myrie have eluded him.

One of the key differences between some of the most contentious 2018 primaries and the 2020 ones is the presence (in 2018) or absence (in 2020) of the State Senate Independent Democratic Conference, whose members had lost a great deal of support from other elected officials, labor unions, and other key electoral players.

While Myrie was running to unseat a Democratic state senator who had helped empower Republicans, Bunkeddeko is again running to unseat a member of the House delegation in solid standing with most of her colleagues. While Ramos ran in Queens to similarly unseat a Democratic state senator whose conference allied with Republicans, some of the Assembly primaries happening in and around her district do not have that galvanizing element for the insurgents.

As Some Things Change, Some Things Stay the Same
Though the pandemic has radically impacted how campaigns are normally run, certain objectives remain the same: attract voters and endorsements, raise funds, and run a compelling campaign. 

In the race for the 16th Congressional District, which includes parts of the northern Bronx and southern Westchester, incumbent U.S. Rep Eliot Engel faces one of the most competitive matchups of his political career and this year’s primary election cycle. Engel has three challengers: middle school principal Jamaal Bowman, retired NYPD officer Sammy Ravelo, and tax attorney Chris Fink. 

Bowman’s progressive campaign has made enormous waves in recent months, netting high-profile endorsements from the Working Families Party, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and Bronx State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, among many others within and outside New York, such as U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. He has reportedly raised $2 million in campaign contributions, and has benefited from a few high-profile gaffes Engel has made over the course of campaign season. 

However, the incumbent has many major endorsements of his own, including Governor Andrew Cuomo and former Secretary of State and New York Senator Hillary Clinton. 

Last election cycle, in 2018, Biaggi was able to unseat a powerful incumbent, former State Senator Jeff Klein, in a district that overlaps some with NY-16. Bowman hopes to have a similar upset against Engel, who has held a congressional seat since 1989.

Biaggi’s door-knocking was a key voter engagement strategy for her campaign, and her largest shares of voters were also in the neighborhoods that had some of the highest increases of voter turnout in the district, such as Riverdale. While in 2018 the candidate and volunteers were able to pitch Biaggi’s message to thousands across the district in person, Bowman has had to adjust his own strategies in the age of social distancing.

Luke Hayes, Bowman’s campaign manager, and Biaggi’s before that, said in an interview that phone-banking and Bowman personally calling voters has been a boon to the campaign. The campaign has also sent out mailers, hosted listening tours and livestreams, and connected with volunteers. Bowman has also developed a fairly large social media following, regularly posting direct-to-camera video messages that range from reflective to inspiring to singing and dancing.

“Jamaal is like, ‘Give me more voters to talk to,’” Hayes said.

As of mid-June, Bowman’s campaign had made over 850,000 calls to voters in the district, and thousands of people have signed up to volunteer with the campaign, its representatives said. In the days leading up to the primary, as coronavirus restrictions began to ease, Bowman and the campaign were out in the field more, and are conducting a bus tour around the district to encourage voters to choose the challenger.

In a sign of Bowman's momentum, Biaggi herself recently changed her endorsement from Engel to Bowman.

“Very few people have voted for elections by absentee in New York," Hayes said of the big outstanding question of how that process will unfold and which campaigns may be best able to take advantage of the shift. "So we’re all in the same boat.”

Ravelo’s campaign also has an extensive phone-banking strategy, a representative said.

“The first weeks of the pandemic, we felt destroyed. Because nobody wanted to hear about politics,” said Catherin Corrales, a volunteer coordinator for the campaign. After two weeks, the campaign adjusted, and volunteers started making calls to check in on residents and offer information during the pandemic. 

“For everybody, this is a moment to learn and come up with a new plan. In the end, this wasn’t what we were expecting, but at least we were able to do something else,” Corrales said. 

Similarly, Fink said via email that he has an extensive phone-banking, targeted email and social media strategy. He is working with a local production company to make videos of himself talking about the issues on camera, as a substitute to talking to voters in real life. 

Though campaigns across the city have adapted to a year of new strategies, the results of hotly contested primary races is anyone’s guess. 

“You have a massive number of variables interacting in a different number of ways, it’s extremely difficult to predict,” Baruch College political science professor Doug Muzzio said in an interview. Muzzio pointed to the destabilizing effect that the pandemic has had, along with the protests brought on by the police killing of George Floyd, a black Minnesotan, as factors that could drive the election in different ways. 

 “In New York politics, there’s always problems going to the polls,” said Pearlman, of True Blue NY. “It’s a mess on a good day.”

 With all of the issues the pandemic created, turnout for 2020 is anyone’s guess, Pearlman said.

 “That, in my opinion, is the number one biggest question mark right now. What will the turnout be?”


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

by Victoria Merlino, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Insurgent Campaigns Try to Replicate Major 2018 Voter Turnout Jump in Very Different Circumstances Mon, 22 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Voter Turnout in New York City Was Cratering; Then Came 2018 biaggi voters

Alessandra Biaggi on the 2018 campaign trail (photo: @Biaggi4NY)

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


On the night of September 13, 2018, a wave crashed through New York state politics.

For years, pressure had been mounting on the members of the Independent Democratic Conference, or the IDC, a small group of high-profile and controversial Democrats who caucused with Republicans in the New York State Senate. At times, the IDC effectively barred the mainline Democratic conference from holding a majority in the chamber, hobbling party-backed legislation and affording its members major leverage in Albany.

The presence of the IDC also appeared to hamper Democratic efforts every two-year cycle to swing certain State Senate districts from Republican to Democratic hands, meaning a split Legislature with Democrats in control of the Assembly. After the election of President Donald Trump in November of 2016, significant additional pressure grew on the members of the IDC and their Democratic allies, which included Governor Andrew Cuomo.

By April of 2018 and facing his own reelection campaign with a primary challenge from his left, Cuomo brokered a deal with the IDC to dissolve and rejoin the mainstream Democrats, with an eye toward capturing the majority together as Cuomo sought to quell a progressive uprising and secure a third term. But the damage was already done, at least for IDC members who provoked such backlash in their districts that activists were set on removing them from office.

A group of largely young, progressive challengers rose up in the districts, recruited and bolstered by the Working Families Party, grassroots groups, community activists, and a smattering of elected officials. By the end of primary night in September 2018, six of the eight former IDC members had been knocked out (while Cuomo secured victory by a wide margin). 

Those Senate challengers would go on to win their general elections and, along with newly elected colleagues that gave Democrats the majority, become massive forces in Albany, championing landmark rent, criminal justice, gun control, environmental, and voting reforms — among others — that were centerpieces of a historic 2019 legislative session.

Though some of the most striking images of that September 2018 primary election night come from the victors — pictures of the Bronx’s Alessandra Biaggi with her fist raised in the air, or Queens’ Jessica Ramos surrounded by cheering supporters — images only tell part of this story. 

The other part isn’t as flashy, but speaks to something more powerful: voter turnout. Voters across New York went to the polls in record numbers for the 2018 state primary elections — the gubernatorial primary more than doubled the votes cast four years prior, and some districts surpassed turnout during the 2016 presidential primary. Still, New York City voter turnout numbers have a long way to go, never in recent years hitting 40 percent in a primary other than when there is a presidential election, a trend that helped lead to the sweeping electoral and voting reforms, like early voting, passed in 2019.

The map below shows where turnout increased the most and the least in the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary compared to the 2014 primary.

1 govturnout withoutlines 061120

Overall, the Senate districts represented by IDC members saw voter turnout spikes in line with the overall trend, but within those districts, much of the increases came in geographic areas where the challengers did especially well, a new Gotham Gazette analysis shows. 

The reasons for the voter spike are far more complex than a single night, or even the months of anger among Democrats who finally learned about their rogue state senators. And while in 2018 many New York Democrats were still reeling from Donald Trump’s election as president, it wasn’t that simple either — individual campaigns, newly-formed grassroots groups, and long-standing labor unions and other organizations all played a role in bringing many more voters to the polls. Some relied on tried and true tactics, while others got more creative.

The groups that rose or grew in 2018, and the tactics they developed that year, were ready for a big 2020 — until the pandemic hit. But many of the same activists are again doing all they can, albeit under very different circumstances, to see their favored candidates win in this month’s primaries for congressional and state legislative races. Even as New York City could see a major drop in voter participation, those 2018 successes are still reverberating throughout the state as lawmakers pass bills dealing with public health and police accountability. 

‘Trump Democrats’
Donald Trump’s divisive presidential victory in 2016 sparked a wave of renewed political activism across the United States. Huge demonstrations marked the early days of Trump’s administration, such as the 2017 Women’s March or the protests over a travel ban on countries in the Middle East and Africa.

In New York, grassroots organizations began to coalesce around electing progressives to local and state political positions. Though over half of eligible voters had turned out for the November general election in 2016, the state primary turnout rate that September was abysmal: only 10 percent of voters had come out. 

 For many, the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) of the State Senate was the first on their list for change. 

“People were angry,” said Mia Pearlman, a co-founder of True Blue NY. The idea for True Blue was born soon after Trump’s election, at a Park Slope meeting where people were gathering to politically organize. 

 “A lot of people who were at the meeting lived in [State Senator] Jesse Hamilton’s district at the time and were really upset to find out the morning after Election Day that not only was Donald Trump president, but that their own Democratic state senator was empowering Republicans,” she said of Hamilton, an IDC member. 

True Blue began on the idea that even though New York was seen as a Democratic bastion by others around the country, on the state government level, it struggled to pass meaningful progressive legislation. This was in part due to the IDC, and how complacent so many Democrats were about its presence and a Republican-controlled State Senate. In the months after Trump’s election, grassroots groups like True Blue and a network of Indivisible groups sprung up and tapped into the outrage people felt to get them more involved in local politics.

In part, they pointed people angry over Trump’s election to the State Senate, with its Republican control bolstered by rogue Democrats.

True Blue began to reach out to other grassroots groups in districts represented by IDC members, building a coalition of over 45 organizations. The main strategy was voter education — whether that meant protests, phone-banking, tabling at events, handing out informational palm cards, and sending handwritten postcards to voters to convince them to turn out against the IDC.

“The biggest issue with the IDC was that most people didn’t know that their own state senator was in the IDC, or they didn’t know what that was,” Pearlman said. The groups utilized one of their biggest assets — time — to educate voters in the months between early 2017 and the September 2018 primary election.

This initial campaign against the IDC began before the districts even had candidates to put up against IDC members, which was key, according to Pearlman.

“By the time we started to recruit candidates, along with No IDC New York and other groups, we sort of created an opening for them to have the opportunity to win,” she said. 

“The way that the 2018 election went was that it really started 18 months prior, with the notion of, ‘We need to go out and do constituent and voter outreach and engagement on the issues,” said Ricky Silver, the co-lead organizer with Empire State Indivisible, a grassroots political activist group formed following the 2016 presidential election and part of the True Blue NY coalition. 

Silver said that the races against IDC members were powered largely by enthusiastic volunteers. Empire State Indivisible was able to draw volunteers in by hosting forums across the city about particular issues, like education funding or the climate crisis, and educating residents about how the IDC slowed progress on those issues, the importance of electing “real Democrats” and of flipping control of the State Senate (the November elections, with a focus on one Republican-held Brooklyn State Senate seat and others in the city’s suburbs, were always on activists’ minds, even as they focused on the primaries first).

“People showed up because they cared about the issues, and then we were able to get them involved because they understood the pathway to a new vision was electoral. And that’s how we were able to grow the movement,” he said. 

Meanwhile, a slate of statewide races was about to rocket progressive politics, the debate over what it means to be a “real Democrat” (AKA “True Blue”), and the need to control the State Senate, to the forefront of New York political consciousness. 

Backed by the Working Families Party and other progressives, actor and activist Cynthia Nixon ran for governor against Cuomo. The WFP bet big on Nixon, despite upsetting some longtime political allies, and endangering its financial support from labor unions afraid of incurring Cuomo’s wrath. Nixon’s race was accompanied by competitive primary campaigns for lieutenant governor, between incumbent Kathy Hochul and challenger Jumaane Williams, then a City Council member, as well as for the “open” state attorney general seat.

The WFP credited the threat Nixon and Williams posed to Cuomo as the reason the governor brokered the deal to dissolve the IDC, following long-standing accusations that Cuomo backed and benefited from the IDC-GOP arrangement, which Nixon made central to her campaign.

The WFP also took on the IDC, launching a campaign against what they called the “Trump Democrats” in May 2017. The campaign organized thousands of voters against the IDC, giving insurgent candidates a head start before even officially entering their races. WFP ran nightly texting and phone banking activities with over 1000 shifts, and by the end of the campaign, had identified 10,000 voters who would vote against their IDC member in the Senate.

Thanks to the shock of Trump’s victory and these organizing efforts, well over a year before the September 2018 primaries, many New York Democrats were engaged in local politics for the first time.

Central Brooklyn
In Brooklyn, trouble was brewing for Jesse Hamilton, a two-term legislator who had joined the IDC shortly before the 2016 general election

Despite the IDC’s dissolution, many prominent borough Democrats continued to denounce Hamilton’s actions as self-serving well into the primary season, though Hamilton continued to have the support of Borough President Eric Adams. 

Members of the Brooklyn Congressional delegation, state legislators, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, chose to back Zellnor Myrie, a young lawyer trying to unseat Hamilton in Central Brooklyn’s 20th State Senate District.

The campaign got a boost from the WFP, which provided Myrie with media training and campaign support, and from grassroots activists and local political clubs who wanted a bluer district. 

“There was a lot of energy in the air for a real Democrat, and not a law and order Trump Democrat,” according to Myrie’s senior campaign advisor André Richardson. 

Myrie’s supporters took to the streets to drum up buzz for their candidate. For the Brooklyn Young Democrats, a club that endorsed Myrie that spring, that meant extensive canvassing, door-knocking, and days of action. 

“We all went out there in a storm for him, not only because [he was] against the IDC, but because he was speaking to issues in the community,” BYD President Christina Das said. Das estimates that the club knocked around 2,000 doors for Myrie, and held three or four days of actions either in conjunction with other organizations, or on its own. 

A native Brooklynite, Myrie had strong roots in the district, which spans through parts of Sunset Park, Park Slope, Crown Heights, Prospect Lefferts Gardens, and Brownsville. The district is diverse, but predominantly black — of the nearly 310,000 people living in District 20 in 2018, 50 percent were black, 19 percent were white, and another 19 were Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. 

One of Myrie’s main focuses in his campaign was affordable housing and tenant protections, goals that spoke to a district that is home to an overwhelming majority of renters, who faced challenges with rising costs.

“It was a great race because everyone was kind of in it together in the neighborhood,” BYD Executive Vice President Julia Elmaleh-Sachs said. 

In 2014, the year Hamilton was first elected, there were roughly 129,000 active registered Democrats in the district, but only around 15,000 voted in the primary, which was quite competitive as Hamilton edged out Rubain Dorancy, who had backing from de Blasio, among others. Hamilton won with almost 10,000 of those votes. Then in 2016, Hamilton went through primary season uncontested. In the heavily-Democratic district the Democratic primary is tantamount to full electoral victory.

2018 was going to be a very different year as those frustrated by the IDC, including many educated and activated after Trump’s election, went from not fielding a primary challenger to Hamilton to immense organizing behind Myrie.

On primary day in 2018, Myrie defeated Hamilton by almost 4,000 votes. Voter enrollment and participation in the district saw significant spikes, with 44,000 of the roughly 141,000 eligible Democrats casting a ballot. The increase from 15,000 votes in Hamilton’s contested 2014 primary to the 44,000 votes in Myrie’s victory over the incumbent made for almost a 300 percent increase in raw turnout, and the district was in line with the overall turnout jump seen in the gubernatorial race from 2014 to 2018. 

Part of Myrie’s success stemmed from his ability to garner support from different facets of Brooklyn’s Democrats, from longtime black voters to newcomers and progressives, Richardson said. 

“I think Zellnor’s case was a very unique case because he was able to bridge that divide,” Richardson said of longtime black voters, newcomers to the district, and white progressives. Myrie’s campaign attracted hundreds of volunteers, Richardson added, attributing part of Myrie’s success to his authenticity and speaking to the needs of the district across demographic and other divides.

Myrie nabbed the greatest share of votes in Gowanus, Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Prospect Lefferts Gardens and parts of Crown Heights and Sunset Park. In several of these areas, turnout jumped enormously from. The map below, from the CUNY Mapping Service at the Center for Urban Research, CUNY Graduate Center, shows where Myrie and Hamilton each did well: 

2 nysenate20 primary results 2018

The Bronx and Westchester
When Alessandra Biaggi, a lawyer in the Cuomo administration and former staffer on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, began her campaign to unseat State Senator Jeff Klein — a founder and the leader of the IDC — from Senate District 34 in the Bronx and Westchester, she understood the stakes. 

“I didn’t go into it thinking to myself, ‘I’m going to absolutely win,’ Biaggi said in a recent interview. “I went in thinking to myself, ‘We probably won’t win. But what we will do is have a win in the loss.’ Because we’re going to raise awareness about an issue that is so devastating to the state. And people are finally going to be excited about their state government and want to fight for it.”

As the head of the IDC, Klein held immense power in state government, and was a major target for progressives. With millions of dollars in Klein’s war chest and his strong web of political connections made over decades, however, most pundits considered a challenge to Klein almost unwinnable. 

In 2014, Klein faced a challenge from former New York Attorney General Oliver Koppell and kept his seat fairly easily, winning with over 9,000 votes compared to Koppell’s roughly 5,000. According to voter enrollment data from that November, about 101,000 active Democrats were registered to vote in the district, which encompasses parts of the Bronx and southern Westchester County, including Riverdale, Hunts Point, Throggs Neck, Pelham Parkway, City Island, and Pelham. 

In 2016, Klein was unopposed in the primary. 

Biaggi’s campaign was assisted by anti-IDC groups that started educating voters in the district about the IDC before Biaggi even started running, according to her 2018 campaign manager Luke Hayes. 

The campaign tapped into community members in the district, generating support in key neighborhoods through word-of-mouth. Together with Biaggi and other organized forces, they started to knock on doors.

“It was a scrappy campaign. We knew we weren’t going to outraise Klein,” Hayes said of the assumed fundraising disadvantage. By the end of the race, Klein would spend more than $3 million on his campaign, an unusually high total for a state legislative race, and 10 times more than Biaggi spent. 

Biaggi said that fundraising became less integral to her campaign than canvassing and meeting with voters.

“I was going to win this thing on the doors. I laced up my sneakers every single day and I was knocking on doors,” she said. She and her supporters engaged with many thousands of voters up to and including primary election day. 

She also credits young, politically active students, some high school-aged, with helping to activate the community around her campaign. About 324,000 people lived in the district in 2018. Of that number, 43 percent were Hispanic, 34 percent were white, 14 percent were black and 6 percent were Asian, according to American Community Survey data. 

“When you have a dynamic candidate like Alessandra, when you can engage with a candidate one-on-one, that can counteract a lot of ads,” Hayes said. 

Support from groups and officials were also key. 

“Endorsements are a big deal,” Biaggi said. “If you are going to be endorsed by, for example, the Working Families Party, which was my first endorsement, it gives you legitimacy.” 

The powerful union 32BJ SEIU backed Biaggi in a big way, mobilizing thousands of members to conduct phone-banking and door-knocking from six weeks before the primary. The move surprised some in the state political scene, as 32BJ’s president at the time, the late Hector Figueroa, had initially helped to kick off attempted IDC reunification with Democrats in 2017. In a 2018 interview with Gotham Gazette, Figueroa said that he thought that the IDC was not sincere in its efforts to fix Democratic unity and explained the 32BJ decision to buck the deal orchestrated by Cuomo. 

Silver, of Empire State Indivisible, points to the cooperation of a litany of organizations, such as the WFP, unions like 32BJ, and grassroots organizations, as one of the keys to Biaggi’s success in appealing to a diverse district. 

“It was that sort of coalescing of organizations that made it powerful,” he said. 

City Comptroller Scott Stringer and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson voiced their support for Biaggi in June 2018, giving the campaign more legitimacy, adding media buzz, and bringing their networks of volunteers to campaign for her. The New York Times endorsed her later that summer. 

When the results rolled in that September, it was a shocking upset: Biaggi had nabbed 19,000 votes to Klein’s 16,000. There were a total of 107,000 Democrats eligible to vote in the district that November. The jump in voter turnout from Klein’s last challenge in 2014 was significant, moving from around 14,000 voters to around 35,000 voters, or increasing by 250 percent. The parts of the district where Biaggi did best also saw the biggest jumps in voter turnout from 2014 to 2018.

The precincts Klein did best in had lower jumps in voter turnout compared to Biaggi’s best precincts. In the Bronx, Biaggi had the greatest share of votes in Riverdale, Fieldston, Kingsbridge and City Island.

“For Senate District 34, the green precincts match up well with Klein's best precincts, especially around Castle Hill and the Throgs Neck area, while most of the orange precincts match up perfectly with Biaggi's best precincts, centered around Van Cortlandt Park,” said Benjamin Rosenblatt, president of Tidal Wave Strategies, who performed data analysis and mapping for Gotham Gazette for this piece. The first map below, created by Rosenblatt, shows where turnout jumped the most and least in 2018, from 2014, for Senate District 34. The second map below, from the CUNY Mapping Service, shows where Biaggi and Klein each did well.

3 sd34 withlines


3 nysenate34 primary results 2018

Western Queens
In Queens, Jessica Ramos, a former mayoral aide, was challenging State Senator Jose Peralta for his seat in Senate District 13. 

Peralta joined the IDC in early 2017, claiming that it was a pragmatic choice to best serve the district during the new era of Trumpian policy. At a packed town hall soon after the decision was announced, some residents protested, calling Peralta a “traitor.” 

A legislator with almost two decades of experience, Peralta had no competition in the district’s Democratic primary for the entire time he held the seat, running unopposed in the primary in 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016. 

The district’s neighborhoods, including Jackson Heights, Corona, and East Elmhurst, are home to large immigrant communities. Of its population of 302,000 in 2018, over half were born outside of the United States, according to American Community Survey data. Of the district residents, 62 percent were Hispanic, 17 percent were Asian, 14 percent were white and 6 percent were black. 

Trump’s rhetoric and policies against immigrants, such as the ‘public charge’ rule or travel bans to certain countries, directly impact residents in those communities, and led many to question how Peralta could align himself with the IDC, which bolstered Republican leadership of the State Senate, preventing major immigrant-friendly legislation from passing. That included the Dream Act that Peralta championed and he apparently saw as possible to get passed with added leverage as part of the IDC.

Make the Road Action, a leading immigrant rights group that is very active in the district, endorsed Ramos for the Senate seat in July 2018, and set out to have thousands of its members phone-banking, canvassing, and engaging voters for Ramos.

Progressives in the district were energized by the stunning upset political unknown Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had in June against then-U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley, the Queens County Democratic Party boss and one of the highest ranking Democrats in Congress. New York’s 14th Congressional District overlaps with Senate District 13. There was a renewed sense of what was possible after Ocasio-Cortez’s win as Ramos and her supporters eyed the sprint from the June congressional primaries to the September state primaries (those primaries were merged to June starting this year).

“Most of all, I think her win has created a lot of enthusiasm for the small “d” democratic process in the district and that enthusiasm is what we’re hoping to maintain our momentum,” Ramos told City & State in the summer of 2018. 

Other political powerhouses and grassroots organizations coalesced around Ramos. The WFP helped her hire key staff, consulted on her campaign, and identified thousands of voters for her. Stringer backed Ramos in March. In the summer after Crowley fell, de Blasio, for whom Ramos had previously worked, and Johnson backed her, and Ramos and gubernatorial candidate Nixon cross-endorsed each other. 

On primary day, Ramos defeated Peralta by over 2,000 votes, with almost 23,000 votes cast in total. In November of that year, 90,000 Democrats were eligible to vote in the district.  Ramos did far better in parts of the district like Steinway, Astoria Heights, and Jackson Heights. The map below, from the CUNY Mapping Service, shows where Ramos and Peralta each did well.

5 nysenate13 primary results 2018

Other Races in Manhattan and Brooklyn
Other districts around the city saw increased voter turnout in the same neighborhoods where insurgent candidates nabbed the largest share of votes. 

In Manhattan’s Senate District 31, former City Council Member Robert Jackson emerged victorious on primary night over former IDC member and State Senator Marisol Alcantara. Jackson had run for the seat before in 2014 and 2016, losing narrowly to Alcantara in 2016 in a three-way race. Alcantara only served one term in office before Jackson overtook her in 2018. 

The largest increases in voter turnout in the district from 2014 to 2018 were in the Upper West Side, Manhattanville, Washington Heights, and parts of Inwood, all where Jackson performed the best, indicating how well the insurgent’s supporters did at turning out the vote. The map below, created by Rosenblatt, shows where turnout jumped most and least in 2018, compared to 2014, in Senate District 31.

6 sd31 withlines

In Brooklyn’s Senate District 18, progressive upstart Julia Salazar triumphed against Martin Malavé Dilan, who had represented Brooklyn in the State Senate since 2003. Dilan was not a member of the IDC, but the progressive push in 2018 helped fuel Salazar’s campaign, including backing from the Working Families Party and the New York City branch of the Democratic Socialists of America. 

Salazar picked up votes in neighborhoods with some of the highest changes in turnout from 2014 to 2018, including East Williamsburg, Bushwick and Greenpoint. 

“While the Senate primaries saw dramatic increases in turnout throughout each district from 2014 to 2018, even compared to the gubernatorial primaries, the relative turnout increase was absolutely massive in the areas where progressive primary challengers did best,” said Rosenblatt, of Tidal Wave Strategies, referring to his data and mapping analysis. The map below, created by Rosenblatt, shows where turnout increased the most and least in 2018, compared to 2014, in Senate District 18.

7 sd18 withlines7

The fight continues
According to Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College, campaigns need three things to succeed: money, organization, and message. 

“The opponents of the IDC had more of the three than the members of the IDC,” he said, looking back at 2018’s primary upsets. 

The odds piled up for dramatically increased voter turnout, and for a turnout against the IDC: the national Democratic movement in response to Trump and for a “blue wave” in the 2018 midterms, accelerated progressive conversations and efforts launched by grassroots organizers, strong upstart candidates, and a concerted plot to educate voters ahead of the election cycle. 

“The wind was at the back of Democrats and progressives nationally. And certainly the state was part of that,” Muzzio said. “[The IDC] were out of step with the zeitgeist of the time.”

And while pundits and political analysts were surprised by the unprecedented spike in voter turnout in New York, that didn’t mean that turnout in the 2018 primaries was overwhelming. Although turnout in races with former IDC members garnered more attention, the average turnout in those districts and other Senate districts was almost the same — around 29 percent — according to a report from the New York City Campaign Finance Board. 

“This shows that the perceived competitiveness of an election does not necessarily lead to increased turnout in that district, and that in this high-profile election, voters turned out regardless of whether they were voting in a competitive election,” the report reads.

But the key for the IDC challengers appears to have been where some of the increased turnout occurred, in areas of the districts they were running in that were most enthusiastic about their candidacies, and about defeating the incumbents.

To get there, activists as well as candidates and their campaigns, endorsers, and other supporters utilized a variety of tactics, including an unprecedented organizing and voter education effort done over an especially long period of time before any votes were cast. Dynamic and diverse candidates were recruited and backed, and they were just as willing as their volunteers and staff to knock doors and pass out flyers.

These strategies and others mixed with Democratic reaction to Trump’s election, growing frustration with a lack of movement on progressive priorities in Albany, and a robust left-wing challenge to Cuomo, which both further galvanized progressives and pushed the governor to spend tens of millions of dollars getting out his vote.

The energy that led to defeat for six of the eight IDC members then helped flip several state Senate seats in November 2018, giving Democrats a solid, “True Blue” majority for the 2019 session to combine with the Assembly Democratic majority and third-term Democratic governor reelected by a wide margin on a slate of progressive promises.

With those 2018 electoral wins and the legislative victories that followed in 2019 and into this year, the WFP, True Blue NY, and other progressive organizations began preparing for a new slate of races in 2020, hoping to use a similar organizing playbook to net more wins. However, the coronavirus pandemic changed everything.

With campaigns scrambling to adjust to a world without rallies, door-knocking, or tabling, key questions loom. Can upstart campaigns and supporters reach voters to the same extent? Can they drive voter turnout in the 2020 primaries to anywhere near the same level of 2018?

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

by Victoria Merlino, Gotham Gazette

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Voter Turnout in New York City Was Cratering; Then Came 2018 Fri, 19 Jun 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

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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
In End-of-Session Scorecard, Progressive Coalition Grades State Legislature on First Year of New Democratic Power gov cuomo protecting

Heastie, Stewart-Cousins, Cuomo, Hochul (photo: Mike Groll/Governor's Office)

Following a historically productive legislative session in Albany, a broad coalition of progressive advocates has scored the performance of state lawmakers on a range of topics, pointing to major victories and unfinished tasks for reformers as political dust continues to settle from last year’s elections and this year’s governing.

True Blue NY, a grassroots coalition formed to oust rogue Democratic state senators who shared power with Republicans, released its “People’s Platform” in January, seizing on the electoral momentum that brought sweeping changes to the upper legislative chamber’s power structure and created one-party control in Albany.

The coalition, made up of dozens of new constituent-engagement and traditional advocacy organizations, was created to support challengers to members of the state Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) -- a group of eight break-away senators who formed a power-sharing deal with Republicans, giving them control of the chamber for several years and ensuring a divided Legislature, with Democrats holding a wide majority in the Assembly.

Six of the eight IDC senators were defeated in last year’s Democratic primaries. Then, in November, major grassroots efforts and a huge jump in voter turnout -- seen, in part, as a reaction to the first two years of the Trump presidency -- saw a number of Democratic wins to flip Republican seats, handing the Democrats a solid majority in the Senate under Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

As the calendar turned to 2019 and the legislative year in Albany was set to begin, the attention turned to governance, and following through on campaign promises.

“The People’s Platform came together with a sense of the notion that if we stuck together, if we brought the same galvanized energy to the legislative work, we’d be way more successful,” said coalition member Ricky Silver, co-lead organizer with Empire State Indivisible, in an interview. “Even though we had a Dem majority, no one thought it would be easy.”

With Democrats holding both houses of the state Legislature and the Executive Chamber, this year’s session was an opportunity for Democrats to achieve some of the long-sought legislation that had been blocked or backlogged under the Republican-led Senate over the past decade. On issues ranging from civil rights and climate change to gun control and election reform, grassroots activists and reform-minded elected officials pushed an aggressive agenda and achieved many policy goals that catch-up to or go further than other states.

But in certain critical areas, True Blue NY’s post-session scorecard identifies what the coalition views alternately as shortcomings and complete failures in the end-of-session outcomes.

The People’s Platform scorecard, set to be released widely on Tuesday, rates the state Senate and Assembly individually in 13 distinct issue categories. The group plans to release another scorecard of Governor Andrew Cuomo after he takes action on the legislation that has passed both houses.

The activists and organizers in the coalition see the scorecard as a measure of accountability, and the basis for both celebration and top agenda items for next year.

The highest grades (A) were for advancing legislation that protects some of New York’s most underserved populations: immigrants, transgender and gender-nonconforming people, and survivors of child sex abuse.

The scorecard also shows favorable performances on items like voting reform (A-/B+), gun safety (A-), housing (B), and reproductive and sexual health (B). Of the 13 issue categories outlined by True Blue NY, the Assembly and Senate each scored As or Bs in eight, and Ds and one F in the other five (the Assembly got an F on tax reform for not introducing two tax credit bills that the Senate did).

“Working with a Democratic Senate Majority for the first time in ten years, we were finally able to deliver the progressive legislation we have championed for years,” the Assembly majority, led by Speaker Carl Heastie, said in a celebratory statement released on Monday, another in several efforts to sum up the massive amount of legislation passed this year. “Looking back on all we’ve accomplished this year, New Yorkers have a lot to be proud of.”

Both chambers earned A grades for promoting civil and human rights and protections for immigrants. For the civil and human rights rating, True Blue NY cites the passage of the Gender Expression Non-discrimination Act (GENDA), extending the statute of limitations to bring charges under the Child Victims Act, and a ban on “conversion therapy” to try changing the sexual orientation of minors. All three measures had long been sought by LGBTQ or children’s rights advocates, and all three passed during the first month of the legislative session under the new cohort of Democratic lawmakers.

For immigrant protections, the coalition weighed the passage of the controversial Driver's License Access and Privacy Act, known as the “Green Light bill,” which allows undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses. Supporters say the measure will allow immigrants, many of whom are already driving, to obtain licenses legally, bolstering regulatory effects, creating safer traffic conditions, and bringing in revenue. The bill was one of the last to pass the Legislature, hitting roadblocks in the final days of session and requiring concerted pressure from supporters.

In other categories, the True Blue NY grades are more middling, like on efforts to improve criminal justice, promote reproductive and sexual health, and advance comprehensive environmental protections. In these cases, the coalition identified some positive results accompanied by notable shortcomings.

The Legislature passed reforms to the cash bail and speedy trial systems, but failed to act on calls to end solitary confinement and fell short of securing many of the restorative elements that advocates sought in the push to legalize recreational marijuana. 

“When it comes to redirecting revenue or investment to communities most impacted by the drug war, climate change, and housing instability, they came woefully short,” reads a statement attached to the True Blue NY scorecard.

Legalization of adult-use marijuana failed to pass, largely due to opposition from suburban and upstate Democrats in the state Senate, some of whom represent newly-taken swing districts and feared swinging the pendulum to far to the left. A bill to decriminalize marijuana was passed at the end of June with some elements of what reformers desired, but not nearly all of it.

In a statement on the bill, Stewart-Cousins said, “This legislation is marking a momentous first step in addressing the racial disparities caused by the war on drugs. The Senate Majority continues to move forward on full legalization...”

A number of mediocre grades are accompanied by the view of some coalition members that critical measures promoting the interests of more marginalized constituencies were deprioritized.

“I think that’s a reflection of the Legislature focusing on the politics of issues, concerned about the maintenance of their seats, the maintenance of their power,” said Jawanza Williams, director of organizing at VOCAL-NY, a member of the coalition.

That is not inherently a bad thing, according to Williams, “but whenever you don’t center the experiences of some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers, like those who are dealing with marijuana prohibition legacy issues,” it can overshadow “the experiences and the needs of the people that are directly impacted by some of the most devastating issues in the state.”

Some of True Blue NY’s worst grading was given in categories that the coalition felt would do the most to change the dynamics of power in Albany and across the state. In categories titled “Big Money Out of Politics” and “Clean Up Albany” the Assembly and Senate both received Ds.

“There is no question this was a historically progressive year and that the state made a big leap forward, but unfortunately it didn’t make that equal leap forward for everyone,” Silver said. “If you look at the things that were left on the table, these are issues that affect the most marginalized in our state or effect real representation.”

True Blue NY members were especially disappointed to see delays to comprehensive campaign finance reform, like a publicly-financed campaign matching funds program, which they view as essential to limiting the influence of special interests and promoting more representative candidates.

“It’s the discrepancy across the pillars and within certain core pieces of legislation, where economic and social issues were not prioritized, that we believe is a good example for why the Legislature should have pushed heavier for fair elections,” said Silver.

The rest of the D and F grades were given in categories impacting some of New York’s most essential functions and public resources: taxation, education, and healthcare. Creating a more equitable tax system, funding culturally-responsive education, and establishing single-payer healthcare through the New York Health Act were all left on the table at the end of session.

The People’s Platform scorecard is calculated based on a number of factors for each bill in an issue category tracked by the coalition, including legislative activity as reported on the Senate and Assembly websites, according to True Blue NY’s co-leader, Judith Hertzberg. Each legislative body earned credit when a bill supported by the coalition advanced, whether it be out of committee or on the floor.

If populist displeasure helped turn the state Senate in September and November, it was the sustained grassroots advocacy, not the partisan control, that brought many reforms to the finish line, according to members of True Blue NY.

“You look at the housing bills, you look at the harassment-free legislation that passed, this is due to everyday New Yorkers stepping up and saying, ‘I need to be heard. And if you are going to pass legislation, you need to listen to people that have actually been impacted by it.’ And a number of our senators and Assembly members were champions of that approach,” said Silver.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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In End-of-Session Scorecard, Progressive Coalition Grades State Legislature on First Year of New Democratic Power Mon, 01 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000