Gotham Gazette Mon, 19 Apr 2021 18:35:27 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) New York Leftists Strategize for the Post-Trump Era Julia Salazar Albany

State Senator Julia Salazar with activists (photo: NY Senate)

For four years, moderate and progressive Democrats, a number of independents, and even some Republicans have shared a common objective: ensure Donald Trump is a one-term president.

Now, with that objective accomplished and a moderate Democrat in Joe Biden set to enter the White House in January, leftists are ready to go all out, at the federal and local levels, to pull the party further leftward and accomplish goals like taxing the wealthy and defunding the police so that they can pass universal health care and increase funding for social programs including public education.

Those plans are also coming together in New York, where a new crop of left-wing Democrats was just elected to both houses of the state Legislature, building on a progressive slate that won State Senate seats in 2018, not to mention the ascension of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that year, followed by Rep.-elect Jamaal Bowman this year. Many of these winning candidates prevailed with the support of the New York City branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, the progressive Working Families Party, or both.

Along with impacting government policy at all levels, left-learning activists and elected officials now have their eyes on the 2021 New York City election cycle, which will see the election of a new mayor, as well as dozens of new City Council members, and other officials.

In an event that resembled a party as much as it did a strategizing session, state and city legislators, along with City Council candidates and progressive activists, met virtually on Tuesday night to chart a path for post-Trump leftism, with a focus on New York. They started by refuting claims by moderate Democrats, including Governor Andrew Cuomo, that a fear of socialism impeded Democratic successes in this year’s elections.

“It’s kind of nuts” that Democrats would say that, said Manhattan Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou. “It’s no coincidence that all of The Squad won their reelection,” said Samuel Nemir-Olivares, the organizer and emcee of the event, who is also a district leader in Brooklyn. Nemir-Olivares echoed Ocasio-Cortez’s point that all swing-state House Democrats who endorsed Medicare for All won or were on track to win re-election.

Messaging by Republicans running for office also accused Democrats of being anti-police, and some Democrats took the bait, said State Senator Julia Salazar of Brooklyn, who was elected in 2018 over a more moderate Democratic incumbent with the support of the DSA. “Our movements for racial justice and economic justice cannot succeed if the Democratic Party insists on apologizing for them when elections come around,” she said. Significantly reducing funding for the police remains a large part of leftists’ platforms, especially considering the desperate financial situation the city and state governments are in. But some legislators in attendance said Democrats need to do a better job explaining what “defunding the police” means.

“You go into public housing saying defund NYPD, they’re gonna be like, ‘what the heck are you speaking about?’” said Jasmin Sanchez. “If we defund the police, this is what people in public housing and other minority communities are gonna think,” said Brooklyn Assemblymember Maritza Davila: “‘Who’s gonna protect us, and who’s gonna come out?’ So you have to spend more time explaining that.”

Brooklyn City Council candidate Wilfredo Florentino agreed, saying that community members don’t immediately embrace the thought of defunding the police and “what we really want to talk about is reinvesting in our community.”

“The reality is that progressive ideas are popular all across the country,” said Brooklyn Assemblymember-elect Emily Gallagher, who just defeated longtime liberal incumbent Joe Lentol in this year’s primary, “but we have to communicate them in a way that is user-friendly and is engaging.”

Even so, some activists used language that even many progressives shy away from. “We have to be extremely clear that we want to defund the police, that we want to abolish police,” said socialist activist Jawanza James Williams, expressing a different point of view from Democrats who are careful to draw a distinction between abolishing the police and diverting even large portions of police funding to social services. “Policing, including the NYPD itself, is a problematic institution that is predicated on the dehumanity of Black people,” Williams said.

CUNY student-activist Aaron Narraph Fernando shared a personal experience where public safety at his college asked for his identification and suggested he might pose a threat. “We need to really use [democratic socialist candidates] to defund and disband the NYPD,” he said.

Participants in the event expressed hope about the possibility of a supermajority of Democrats in the State Senate to match the one already in the Assembly, once officials finish counting absentee ballots. A few days later, leaders of the Senate Democrats gathered in Albany to celebrate the likely wins that would get them to that supermajority, and offer the ability for both houses to override vetoes by Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who is more moderate on many issues, especially related to the economy and taxes. But such overpowering of the governor would require progressive and moderate legislators to band together.

“While I’m very excited about a Democratic supermajority in the State Senate, I know that we’re still going to need to see that political courage,” said Salazar, “and we have not seen a great demonstration of political courage in the state Legislature collectively this year.”

A supermajority, leftists hope, would give state legislators power over a governor some think is too powerful and too centrist. “We have a top-heavy problem in New York,” said Zephyr Teachout, a progressive hero in New York who ran against Cuomo in the 2014 primary. “He’s really a Republican,” Manhattan City Council candidate Marti Gould Allen Cummings said of the third-term governor who is quite popular in New York City, especially among voters of color.

“Implementation is everything,” said Brooklyn City Council candidate Brandon West. “A lot of times, we’ve seen really good politics come together, progressive groups put a lot of energy in, and then everyone leaves after implementation, so no one focuses on it, so then it fails, then Cuomo’ll be like, ‘oh, that policy doesn’t work anymore — guess we shouldn’t have tried!’”

Gallagher said that if there is a supermajority, Democrats should take advantage of it to push through bold ideas. “These moments don’t last forever,” she said, “and if we don’t do anything with [the supermajority,] we will lose it.”

In order to accomplish controversial goals like defunding the police and decriminalizing sex work, Brooklyn City Council candidate Sandy Nurse said that progressives need to educate people to build community consensus. “We are literally just facilitating the needs and the wants of the people in our districts and in our communities,” she said. “If those priorities are not aligned, we’re not actually able to make those hard transformations that we’re asking for.”

One thing everyone seemed aligned on was higher taxes on the wealthy — something the governor has largely opposed, before and during the pandemic recession, opting instead for a combination of cuts, withholdings, and waiting for a federal aid package, hopefully a large one spurred by Biden’s victory.

“The money is there,” said Nemir-Olivares, pointing out that New York billionaires have only gotten richer during the pandemic. “The question is whether the political class and the governor has the will to really tax the multimillionaires and redistribute the wealth that we need and the workers themselves created so we can fund the actual health care that we need, the masks for the nurses, the tablets for our schools.”

“There are so many things that we can fund that aren’t police or jails,” Cummings said, citing the underway plan to build four new jails to replace those on Rikers Island. Those things, activists said, include making CUNY tuition-free again, forgiving all student debt, funding public housing, and fighting food insecurity. Other priorities include LGBTQ rights, the rights of undocumented people, canceling rent, legalizing marijuana use, and passing a Green New Deal to fight climate change.

“If we had invested in our communities, we wouldn’t have been hit that hard” by the pandemic and recession, said Niou. “If we had invested in our healthcare system, we wouldn’t have been hit that hard. If we had invested in our education system, we wouldn’t have been hit that hard. If we had invested in our small businesses, we wouldn’t have been hit that hard. This is the stuff that is so basic.”

by Lauren Hakimi, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

New York Leftists Strategize for the Post-Trump Era Mon, 23 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000
After Strong Primary Showing, Will New Crop of Progressives Push Assembly Democrats Further Left? 5 progressive assembly

The State Assembly (photo: @NYSA_Majority)

For some time, a lack of Democratic control in the New York State Senate prevented progressive legislation from becoming law. But even after the chamber flipped from red to blue through the 2018 elections and a long list of Democratic priorities were acted on, some bills that once passed the State Assembly when Republicans held the Senate are now having trouble reaching that chamber’s floor, leading to frustration that multiple insurgent campaigns capitalized on in this year’s primary elections.

Longtime incumbents who, at least on paper, support legislation that has been stalled in the Assembly — like the New York Health Act to institute single-payer health care in the state, raising taxes on the wealthy, and legalizing adult use of marijuana — faced tough primary challenges and, in some cases, are on the verge of losing their seats to candidates with very similar platforms but who said they will do what their opponents have not: get things passed.

“It’s not good enough to just vote the right way,” said Jessica González-Rojas, an activist who is well ahead of incumbent Michael DenDekker in Queen’s 34th Assembly District as absentee ballots are being counted. “Now, we need champions for these policies.”

If her primary lead holds and she wins the likely noncompetitive general election in the heavily Democratic district, González-Rojas could be one of several new Assembly members with a brand of punchy, anti-establishment progressivism more focused on delivering on campaign promises than toeing the party line. They will join several other incumbent Assembly members retaining their seats who are also outspoken and more independent than the bulk of the large Democratic conference dominated by New York City officeholders and led by Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx.

Senators with similar agendas and ideology were essential to Democrats flipping the Senate in 2018, as many of them won primaries against members of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a rogue group that had a power-sharing agreement with Republicans, often preventing progressive legislation from being passed.

In some ways, but definitely not all, the Assembly has become the more moderate house, although it remains to be seen how additional independent progressives entering the majority may change that. A number of frustrated return incumbents and several new like-thinking members, often of a younger generation and representing marginalized communities, could impact the direction of the Assembly majority and how its leader, Speaker Heastie, operates. At least that’s what those candidates and incumbents, and some of the progressive activists behind their rises, hope.

But unlike those who challenged members of the IDC, many of this year’s insurgents lacked significant platform differences from their incumbent or establishment-backed opponents. Instead, they mainly distinguished themselves demographically and through their activist backgrounds, claiming they would be a stronger voice for constituents and would fight harder to see meaningful legislation passed.

These candidates made their positions on the outside of the political establishment a key area of difference from their opponents, distancing themselves from the ineffectiveness they, and some voters, associate with the current Legislature. They say that the state is not aggressively enough addressing crises including poverty, public health, public housing, and more, with many pointing the finger at both Governor Andrew Cuomo, a third-term Democrat with a strong moderate streak, and the Legislature’s unwillingness to go further and force Cuomo along. These officials and candidates and their supporters found additional urgency leading into this year’s primaries given the COVID-19 crisis that worsened many existing problems and inequalities, as well as the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement to end police racism and brutality following the killing of George Floyd.

The Assembly candidates who broadly fit the category at hand include González-Rojas, Jenifer Rajkumar, Khaleel Anderson, Emily Gallagher, Zohran Mamdani, Danielle Brecker, Mary Jobaida, Phara Souffrant Forrest, Marcela Mitaynes, George Diaz, Garfield Holland, and Mahfuzul Islam (as well as Sarah Clark outside the five boroughs).

González-Rojas, Rajkumar, Clark, and Anderson are in strong position to win their primaries after the in-person vote; while Mamdani, Souffrant Forrest, and Mitaynes are in seemingly toss-up territory in their challenges to incumbents; and Gallagher, Brecker, Jobaida, Diaz, Holland, and Islam are near defeat — though a great deal could change given the unprecedented number of absentee ballots.

The Candidates and the Progressive Push in Albany
Though he is not unseating an incumbent, Anderson, a 24-year-old organizer for a non-profit, is well ahead of the local party’s pick in the Democratic primary for an open Assembly seat in Queens, where the most recent officeholder, Michele Titus, vacated the post for a position as a New York City Civil Court judge. Anderson is the likely winner of the primary in Assembly District 31, which covers parts of Southeast Queens. 

Anderson, who had the backing of a wide array of organizations including the Working Families Party, TenantsPAC, True Blue NY, Citizens Union, and Rockaway Youth Action Fund, ran on a platform of fighting environmental racism in his district, which borders Jamaica Bay and includes JFK Airport, increasing public school funding, food justice, and affordable housing through housing vouchers.

“Now that we have a new body, we can energize some of the members that have been kind of on the edge with this stuff and mobilize them and really get them to understand that this is what the people want,” said Anderson, who could become one of the youngest elected officials in New York City history, in an interview. “And we just need to find the best way possible to package it to ensure that we’re speaking for as many folks as we can, and supporting and getting resources to as many folks as we can. I’m super excited to get in there and to start getting some of these bills moved.”

Anderson, who is Black, is one of several insurgents who are vocal supporters of the New York Health Act, which he said was especially important due to how it could be a step forward in addressing health inequities that affect Black people, and especially Black women, in New York.

Rajkumar, who is on the verge of winning the Democratic primary in District 38 over incumbent Assemblymember Michael Miller, also stressed the importance of pushing ahead on the single-payer health care bill that Assembly Democrats championed when the Legislature was split but did not push when Democrats took control of both chambers last year. 

“The New York Health Act has never been more needed, the pandemic has made that clear, and it has passed the Assembly at least four times,” Rajkumar said. “The new generation of legislators will be able to make sure that it is signed into law.”

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who is responsible for what legislation ends up on the floor of the body, said in 2017 when the Assembly again passed the New York Health Act, “While lawmakers in Washington debate giving tax cuts to the wealthy and cutting funding for healthcare for those who need it most, the Assembly Majority remains committed to ensuring every New Yorker has access to the care they need and deserve,” and called on the State Senate to act. Now, he has been relatively quiet concerning the legislation.

Heastie’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article. Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a close ally of Heastie, said the New York Health Act has simply been held up.

“As a sponsor of the New York health bill, I certainly would love to see that go,” Peoples-Stokes, who represents Buffalo in the Assembly, said in an interview. “The thing that in some ways kind of holds that up, notwithstanding the fact that the Assembly has passed that in the past, we still need to have partners.”

Though most members of the Senate Democratic conference either have been co-sponsors of the New York Health Act or ran in support of it in 2018, that majority also did not make it a priority in this first two-year session of its reign. The lead sponsors of the bill, Assemblymember Dick Gottfried and Senator Gustavo Rivera, have continued to push for the legislation, including by holding hearings around the state, and have said they don’t think the lack of official movement on it means it is dead. They’ve said they need to continue to build public support for it to make it a political necessity.

As Rajkumar indicated and as many others have argued, Rivera has said that the mass unemployment wrought by the pandemic has made it abundantly clear that health insurance and quality health care should not be tied to employment. Opponents of the legislation, including Governor Andrew Cuomo, point to its massive cost and the need to raise taxes on many New Yorkers while overhauling huge portions of the state’s economy.

There has also been frustration among some progressive Assembly members, groups, and candidates about how Heastie and the conference back-tracked or proved reluctant on other high-profile priorities, such as campaign finance reform, including a public matching system. While a system did eventually become law earlier this year, it was met with some frustration over the details of the donation limits as well as the fact that it appears to make life much harder for the liberal Working Families Party, which has been at war with Cuomo for years and supported many of the 2018 and 2020 insurgents for legislative seats.

Additionally, legalizing adult use of marijuana, which the governor and both majorities say they support, is among other bills and progressive priorities yet to be acted upon after talks fell through last year and thus far this year.

Peoples-Stokes, the lead Assembly sponsor of the marijuana legalization bill, said such policies have simply taken more time to finalize. Although she welcomes new progressive Assembly members and their voices, she does not see them being elected as playing a major role in whether or not the bills get passed.

“That speaks to their electorate and their decision to want to see a new person in that seat,” Peoples-Stokes said. “Clearly, when the new Assembly members arrive they will have the same opportunity that I do, one vote. That’s not going to change, you still need to have the majority of the people say the same thing at the same time to have it passed.”

The Democratic majority has put some money to back incumbents, with legislators like Assemblymember Joe Lentol of Brooklyn controversially receiving $45,000 from the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee, which to some is only supposed to help Democratic Assembly candidates win general elections. But in some of the closest races, where after the in-person voting incumbents appear most at risk of losing their seats, current Assembly members received little support. Incumbents Miller, DenDekker, and Aravella Simotas, all of Queens and in tight races with or trailing challengers Rajkumar, Gonzalez-Rojas, and Mamdani, respectively, have all received nothing from the DACC. Miller and DenDekker received around $4,000 each from Speaker Heastie's PAC, all as of the most recent filings.

Progressive Assembly members already in the body have been frustrated with limited action on certain legislation. In interviews, Assembly members mentioned a wealth tax as well as higher taxes on upper income brackets, plus the Home Stability Support anti-homelessness rental subsidy, the “good cause” eviction bill, NYCHA funding, and other previously-stated policies. Tensions were particularly high when none of those measures were included in this year’s state budget, which narrowly passed the Assembly. Several progressive members, such as Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, expressed significant disappointment with what she called an “austerity budget.”

Niou, who represents the 65th Assembly district in Lower Manhattan and has repeatedly criticized Cuomo, said in an interview, “Why is it that we passed austerity budget after austerity budget after austerity budget?...It's really important that people are speaking out that are saying we need to prioritize our working families over wealthy corporations and the multi-million and billionaires. Why is it that we have folks who are still asking ‘What if multi-millionaires and billionaires move away from New York?’ Well, but what if people die?”

Niou is a leading voice of a growing number of progressive Assembly members willing to criticize the status quo, including the annual budget process, which is always lacking in transparency, even for members of the Legislature. Lawmakers often do not have a chance to actually read the budget bills they are voting on as the bills are passed just before or after the start of the new fiscal year.

The recent budget barely passing — one key budget bill received the bare minimum 76 “yes” votes in the 150-seat chamber — puts on display what seems to be a growing divide within the Assembly between progressives further to the left and others, particularly leadership. Assemblymember Ron Kim of Queens, who also voted “no,” said he hopes incoming Assembly members will further strengthen the former group.

“The outcome is clear, that the public wants real change up in Albany. They want people who are there to genuinely speak up for their interests, the people’s interests, and protect the most vulnerable members of our communities first,” said Kim, who represents the 40th Assembly District. “As a legislative body, we have done some positive work but not enough to deliver fundamental change that should have taken place, especially at a time like this pandemic, when we know there are hundreds of thousands of families that have been left behind.”

Kim said not being able to pass long-term progressive priorities such as single-payer health care and a wealth tax has been “super frustrating and completely demoralizing.” He said Cuomo uses his immense influence to ensure the state follows his agenda.

“Many of us are sick and tired of playing this song and dance where we pretend that we’ve actually done something, but when you actually look at the policies in the budget, it’s completely watered-down and it’s just giving the facade that we’re actually championing peoples’ values when we’re not,” Kim said, going on to state that he hopes the Assembly’s ability and willingness to pass progressive legislation and block what he sees as regressive policies will change after this year’s elections. “With the changes that are coming, there is no way we would pass another budget that cuts Medicaid in the middle of an emergency, they wouldn’t have the votes to get it done. That alone is significant enough to change the culture of how we legislate and how we focus on new solutions.”

But other Assembly members, even those who are part of the push for more progressive legislation, like Assemblymember Catalina Cruz of Queens, say it's not a lack of want preventing these policies from being put to the floor, but the often slow and bureaucratic reality of governing.

“It’s too soon to tell how effective those folks are,” said Cruz, who represents the 39th Assembly District, of incoming progressive Assembly members. “I’ve been on both ends, where I’ve been an advocate, where I’ve been inside of government implementing laws, and where I’ve been the one creating them. One thing is to be on the outside advocating for something, another completely different reality is once you get in and you are one of 150.”

Cruz cited marijuana reform as an example. She said the governor’s stated support did not manifest itself when lawmakers were trying to work out how to make the legislation happen and, although there are many vocal supporters, there are also many members of the State Senate and Assembly firmly against it — even some who support an array of other progressive measures.

Asked for comment on some of these points and critiques, a spokesperson for Cuomo put the focus elsewhere.

“We've spent the last 130 some odd days dealing with a global pandemic, where New York was the global epicenter,” said Rich Azzopardi, a senior advisor to Governor Cuomo. “We tamed the beast, but it’s not over and we have no time, and frankly no patience, for small and asinine palace intrigue."

Progressive Activists and Organizers Push for Change
Many on-the-ground organizers have echoed Niou and Kim’s sentiment that change is all the more needed due to the pandemic, such as Javier Valdés, Co-Executive Director of Make the Road Action, an immigrant advocacy organization that gathers many volunteers to help on selected campaigns. 

Valdés was among the leaders of the push for recently-passed pro-immigrant policies like the New York Dream Act, which allows undocumented immigrants to access state college tuition assistance, and the Green Light bill, which allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain New York driver’s licenses, two policies cited by Cuomo and many Democrats in the Legislature as evidence of their aggressive pursuit of progressive priorities under full Democratic control of state government.

But even with those and other wins, Valdés said after fighting for a long time to flip the Senate, Make the Road Action turned to the Assembly because of the lack of movement on some issues.

“For us, the Assembly races were the next step,” Valdés said of the transition from 2018 to 2020. “A lot of times these incumbents would say ‘well I always voted for you on your issues,’ and I think what we actually need is people that actually are champions of our issues, that actually get our issue to be voted on and are fighting for us.”

Valdés said policies such as the “good cause” eviction bill, the excluded worker fund for workers not getting support from the federal government during the pandemic, particularly undocumented individuals, and repealing the “walking while trans ban” in order to decriminalize alleged loitering for the purpose of prostitution, are some of Make the Road Action’s priroities.

Valdés said he has not seen much energy in the Assembly regarding these topics, but hopes new “champions” like González-Rojas -- whom Make the Road Action put significant resources behind -- can help to make a strong push for them along with current progressive members like Kim, Niou, and Cruz, who have all been endorsed by Make the Road Action.

But Cruz said she felt, in some cases, that unseating an incumbent can put the progressive movement behind if the incumbent is already fighting for these issues and has the benefit of connections made and experience gained from being in office.

She emphasized the distinction between someone who is running purely to challenge the “political machine” and someone who is running because they truly think they can make an effective change in their community.

“To me, when I see a perfectly progressive incumbent…who has been on the right side of history, and then somebody comes in and is trying to out-left them, I don’t know how I feel about that,” Cruz said, without naming names other than Brooklyn State Senator Julia Salazar, whom she said ran to defeat the machine and with a new vision for her community in her 2018 primary victory. “If they were doing a good job, if they’re representative of their community, but your beef or your problem is with the machinery rather than whether the person is doing a good job or not, you’re going to have a rude awakening when you actually get in the room where decisions are being made and you have to work with another 149 people.”

Two incumbents facing stiff challenges who made such a case have been Assemblymembers Aravella Simotas of Queens and Lentol of Brooklyn. While Simotas is neck-and-neck with Mamdani (he’s up 589 votes), Lentol has a solid 1,763-vote lead ahead of Gallagher — with thousands of absentee ballots being counted in each race.

Jonathan Westin, Executive Director of New York Communities for Change, a group focused on affordable housing and socioeconomic equity, does not necessarily disagree with Cruz, but he said some incumbents being around for decades creates an element of complacency, and a tendency to want to maintain the status quo.

“The challenge with the Assembly is that there is honestly just so much entrenched power that’s been there for decades,” Westin said. “So many Assembly members have literally been in office for two, three, four decades and have never been challenged, and really are just there to continue the same power structure in New York that has existed for years and years and years.”

Westin said this is particularly problematic due to the connections Assembly members build with lobbyists working for finance, real estate, and technology companies, and that elected officials who take money from those lobbyists and industry leaders are often the ones to block major reforms like taxing the rich, canceling rent, and creating a fund for excluded workers.

Westin said Speaker Heastie, who has served in the Assembly since 2000 and as Speaker since 2015 and has been a leader of the Bronx Democratic Party, is obviously part of the entrenched and calcified power structure of the Assembly.

“His view of politics very much resembles a machine view of ‘everybody needs to fall in line,’” Westin said of the speaker, whose job is to find consensus among his members. “A lot of times those machines are propped up by the industries that need to curry favor in Albany and we continue to see that.”

Both Make the Road Action and New York Communities for Change were among the long list of progressive groups who organized to defeat six of eight IDC senators in the 2018 primaries and backed quite a few Democratic insurgents this year, largely in the Assembly but also for Congress, such as Jamaal Bowman in the Bronx and Westchester. As the calendar this year turns toward the fall general election, State Senate Republicans will be using the progressive surge in New York City Assembly races as campaign fodder to convince suburban voters to help flip the Senate back to Republican control. Senate Republicans often warn voters outside the city that New York City "radicals" are setting the agenda in Albany without the check of a Republican Senate.

Among those progressive organizations, the Working Families Party (which includes several of the aforementioned groups) and the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (NYC-DSA) are among the most prominent when it comes to campaign tactics, including the type of voter contact seen as essential to winning contentious local elections. In her bid to unseat Brooklyn Assemblymember Felix Ortiz, Mitaynes had the support of the WFP, NYC-DSA, and other groups as they argued for the need for change in the Assembly. The WFP backed González-Rojas and Anderson, while the DSA supported Mamdani and Souffrant Forrest, who took on Brooklyn Assemblymember Walter Mosely.

NYC-DSA has grown significantly in recent years and put a lot of muscle into policy and electoral organizing, helping several favored candidates win competitive primaries. It has particularly supported candidates who take on the real estate industry and call for raising taxes, among other priorities in opposing the political establishment.

The DSA has worked to find and support primary challengers to a growing list of incumbents, even some considered by many to be strong progressives, as Cruz indicated. For example, Mamdani is his bid to unseat Simotas in western Queens. Mamdani claimed throughout the race that Simotas, a staunch progressive, was a product of the “Queens political machine” and called her out for breaking her pledge to not accept real estate donations.

Co-chair of the NYC-DSA Sumathy Kumar said she hopes the work her organization and others have done will encourage the Speaker and the Assembly Democrats to enact more far-reaching progressive legislation.

“The Speaker has a lot of responsibility for what gets passed and what doesn’t get passed and what comes up to the floor and what doesn’t,” Kumar said, going on to say that, even so, she is hopeful electing more progressives will push him and the body to the left. “He listens to the rest of the Assembly and that’s why it’s really exciting that we have more progressive voices in the Assembly so that we can push the legislation from the bottom up.”

[Read: 'Not A Budget Anybody Should Be Celebrating': Democratic Legislators Displeased with Albany Compromise]

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

Note: this article has been corrected to reflect that González-Rojas was not endorsed by NYC-DSA as previously stated. It has also been updated to reflect that Lentol received $45,000 from the DACC, with $25,000 coming after the initial $20,000 originally stated here.

After Strong Primary Showing, Will New Crop of Progressives Push Assembly Democrats Further Left? Tue, 14 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
WATCH: Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou and Challenger Grace Lee Debate in Lower Manhattan Democratic Primary mnn sidebysideb

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Niou of course disagrees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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

Self-Funding Community Activist Challenges Progressive Star Incumbent in Lower Manhattan Assembly Primary Sun, 14 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
At NYCHA, Home is No Safe Harbor - But It Must Be nycha manhattan

NYCHA in Manhattan (photo: NYCHA)

The coronavirus pandemic has shone a stark and unflattering light on the inadequacy of the social safety net in our city and across this country. And nowhere is this failure more glaring than at the New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA.

Due to COVID-19, we all must “shelter in place” in the safety of our homes, but for over half a million NYCHA residents, home is no safe harbor. Years of state and federal underfunding have left buildings with no hot water, toxic mold, lead paint, unhygienic conditions, and countless outstanding repairs.

NYCHA, which is essentially run by the Mayor under the watch of a federal monitor, has a crumbling infrastructure and legacy of mismanagement that virtually guaranteed a slow and ineffective response to the pandemic. Yet the Authority made promises it knew it could never deliver on, claiming in March that it would start disinfecting all buildings at least three times per week — five times for senior buildings. But tenants confirm that this is not happening and their buildings continue to be hotbeds for the spread of the virus. One tenant advocate clearly stated the grave stakes of NYCHA’s failure: “People are going to die in their apartments.”

Let’s be clear: the high levels of infection and fatalities - the full scope of which we may never know - did not have to happen. The severity of this pandemic’s impact on NYCHA residents could have been prevented if New York did not persistently underfund and neglect NYCHA’s infrastructure. For years, community advocates and many of us in the state Legislature have been urgently pleading for the state and federal governments to take action on cleaning, funding, and fixing NYCHA. Our pleas have been ignored again and again.

This chronic disinvestment in NYCHA was completely unacceptable long before this crisis began. It was unacceptable when NYCHA residents were left without heat or hot water due to failing boilers during the coldest winter months. It was unacceptable when botched lead-based paint inspections left tenants exposed to deadly toxins. And it is unacceptable now. It is clearer than ever that the government’s failure to support NYCHA has always cost lives, and now it’s costing lives more than ever.

For NYCHA residents, this is a story of compounding inequalities. Many of the folks who live in one of NYCHA’s roughly 174,000 apartments are also the essential workers at the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are taking care of us in our hospitals, making sure we can still get our weekly groceries, keeping our water and electricity running, and operating our buses and subway system — all while putting themselves at further risk of infection. It is beyond shameful that when they get home from high-risk work, they are still in danger, perhaps more so, because of unclean and unsafe apartments. And for NYCHA’s senior population, the risk of infection and death is even higher.

This is outrageous, bordering on criminal, and demands further action at every level of government; city, state and federal. Decades of underfunding by the federal and state governments are only part of the problem. NYCHA’s history of dishonesty, corruption, and managerial incompetence have made it far worse. And just days ago, NYCHA’s federal monitor admitted that they will be unable to meet their goals for identifying and repairing unsafe conditions on time.

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

We need NYCHA’s leadership to come forward with real, workable plans, with real timelines, not only to address the pandemic as it recedes and potentially rises again into a new wave of sickness and death, but also on the many long-standing repairs and other health and safety issues that continue to threaten NYCHA residents. And we need all levels of government at the table to finally fund our public housing so it can provide safe shelter to public housing tenants. We needed to do this yesterday.

State Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou represents parts of Lower Manhattan. On Twitter @yuhline.

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

At NYCHA, Home is No Safe Harbor - But It Must Be Fri, 12 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
‘Not a Budget Anybody Should Be Celebrating’: Democratic Legislators Displeased with Albany Compromise 3 maj leader asc

A nearly-empty State Senate Chamber as business is conducted amid coronavirus outbreak (photo: NY Senate)

If New Yorkers take Governor Andrew Cuomo’s word for it, the new $177 billion budget approved last week will “deliver results” for the people of the state and was a far cry from a “bare minimum” spending plan at a time when the state’s finances are racked by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. But within his own Democratic Party, which controls both houses of the Legislature where the plan was passed, the budget is a highly unpopular document that to many legislators fails to live up to the needs and priorities of New Yorkers.

"This is a moment in history unlike any other, and government needs to function and deliver results for the people of this state now more than ever — and that's exactly what we did with this budget," Cuomo, now in his third term, said in a statement last Thursday, after announcing the highlights of the budget agreement with the Legislature, which included a wide variety of policy and fiscal decisions.

Cuomo cited a number of policies that were passed, including a paid sick leave bill, legalizing gestational surrogacy, creating a new felony for hate crimes considered acts of ‘domestic terrorism,” banning gender-pricing disparities known as the “pink tax,” creating new regulations on vaping and e-cigarettes, establishing a $3 billion bond act for environmental restoration and climate mitigation projects, among others.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins similarly touted some of the same and other accomplishments, such as new controls of prescription drug prices, easing access to public assistance, bolstering unemployment insurance by $1 billion, and preventing huge cuts to education spending, and more -- but she also sounded a bittersweet note.

“This is not the budget we had hoped to pass at the beginning of Session, or even the budget we had envisioned just a month ago,” she said in a statement after the budget passed. “Our state’s financial situation has been thrust into a true economic crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic. Yet even in this crisis we managed to achieve a balanced budget that includes victories for the people of New York.”

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie boasted about environmental protection legislation, new gun control measures, the expansion of paid sick leave and particularly investments in higher education. “In these challenging and uncertain times, education and upward mobility have never been more important. That is why we fought relentlessly to ensure the preservation of critical funding for the programs New Yorkers count on to climb the economic ladder,” he said in a statement.

But the vote totals on the various budget bills and some of the floor speeches by Democratic legislators told a different story than the three people in ‘the room.’ An usually large number of Democratic lawmakers showed their displeasure with the fact that several progressive priorities were left out or modified, and chafed at some of the spending and tax decisions.

Recreational marijuana was not legalized. Bail reforms implemented just three months ago were rolled back. Renters suffering from the economic devastation of the coronavirus were not given any relief. Hospital funding was cut. A plan to reduce homelessness was again shelved. No new taxes on the wealthy were approved. Funding for public housing was not bolstered. School aid remained flat.

[Read: 10 Major Proposals Not Included in New State Budget]

This is the only the second year in Cuomo’s long tenure that Democrats have controlled both chambers of the state Legislature, after a decade of a Republican-led Senate and Democrat-dominated Assembly. Last year saw a raft of progressive bills across a range of issues: criminal justice reform, tenant protections, voting reform, women’s reproductive health, gun control, LGBTQ rights, environmental preservation, to name a few. So it wasn’t surprising that many Democrats, particularly in the 150-seat Assembly where they hold an overwhelming majority, were frustrated by the budget. What was unusual, though, was the number of "no" votes.

There isn’t one singular budget vote, but rather several appropriation bills that lawmakers vote on separately related to state operations, aid to localities, the legislature and judiciary, debt service, and capital projects. Then there are the Article VII Bills, grouped under four categories:  Public Protection and General Government (PPGG); Education, Labor and Family Assistance (ELFA); Transportation, Economic Development and Environmental Conservation (TED); and Revenue. They often include major policy decisions.

The votes varied but it was clear that a sizable number of Democrats were displeased. The ELFA bill, which contained the bail reform changes and included Medicaid overhaul provisions, barely squeaked through the Assembly, where it received 76 “yes” votes to 66 “no” votes, meaning it received the bare minimum number of votes to pass the chamber. It passed the 63-seat Senate 35-26. The TED bill was also a somewhat close vote in the Assembly, where it was approved 81-60, while the Senate passed it 39-22. There are 105 Democrats in the Assembly, and 40 members of the Senate Democratic conference.

In past years, Assembly Democrats voted in lock-step and near-unanimity to pass budgets agreed upon by the governor and legislative leaders, who typically conference major aspects of the compromises as they develop to ensure that most if not all members are on board. This year, however, a number of Democrats voted against key portions of the deal reached among Democratic leaders and didn’t hold back how they feel about the budget, even as some admitted that they voted for it despite the flaws they saw in it.

Assemblymember Aravella Simotas, a Queens Democrat who voted against the ELFA, TED and revenue bills, criticized the lack of new revenue raisers in the budget, the watering down of bail reform, cuts to healthcare and the underfunding of school aid, among other issues. “Decades of underfunding our most vital human services so the wealthy could get by without paying their fair share brought us to this point,” she said in a public statement

Assemblymember Yuh-line Niou, a Manhattan Democrat, similarly voted against the ELFA and TED bills. “In the recovery that must come after this crisis, what we need is not the cuts proposed by our governor but strong investments in our infrastructure and the public assets that could have mitigated this crisis had we only been willing to fund them previously,” she said as she explained her vote on the Assembly floor (the video of her remarks has been circulated widely on social media among progressives). “This budget, this values document, makes a terrible statement that we value big businesses and profits more than we value people, our people, the people of this state, and that is simply not who we are.”

Senator Brian Benjamin, also a Democrat from Manhattan, conceded that he was faced with impossible competing priorities. “I had 3 choices: a) vote yes for a negotiated budget where the Legislature has limited power; b) vote no and accept the Governor’s extender; or c) vote no on both and shut down the Govt. As a leader of the Senate, I took the hard vote and voted yes so others didn’t have to,” he tweeted on April 4.

If the government shut down, state employees would have gone unpaid during the outbreak, Benjamin noted. And he refused to cast a symbolic “no” vote to express his anger. “The ultimate lesson here is that the Senate and the Assembly have to work together and address our important nonbudgetary concerns BEFORE the budget process because if we don’t then the Governor has outsized power to address the issue and we will end up in this place again,” he added.

Senator Roxanne Persaud, a Brooklyn Democrat, professed a similar ambivalence in a statement to her constituents, noting that the final budget shows the “numerous tremendously difficult decisions” the Legislature had to make during the current crisis. “While I am not pleased with a number of final agreements contained in the thousands of pages of legislation, I am confident that my colleagues and I fought our hardest to deliver a balanced budget that mitigates some of the toughest possible outcomes,” she said.

In the days leading up to the budget deal, Assemblymember Robert Carroll, also a Brooklyn Democrat, wrote an op-ed asserting that negotiations were focused on the wrong priorities, calling for holding off on most policy decisions and passing a robust coronavirus relief agenda including a rent freeze and funded in part by higher taxes on top earners.

During a Wednesday interview on the Max & Murphy podcast, Queens State Senator Jessica Ramos criticized the bail rollbacks, hospital funding cuts, and other aspects of the budget deal in explaining her votes against pieces of it. She also lamented a lack of new revenue-generating measures, and connected what she sees as long-standing patterns of too-little investment in communities like she represents -- largely low-income and immigrant -- to the depth of the current coronavirus crisis.

"That’s why I’m so disappointed in the budget and why I voted 'no' on a few of the bills," Ramos said, "and I’m really hoping that we’re canceling rent soon, especially as May begins, and to figure out what the bailout looks like because every single New Yorker deserves the opportunity to be able to thrive after this calamity.”

“This is not a budget that anybody should be celebrating,” said Senator Andrew Gounardes, another Brooklyn Democrat, in his own public statement, though he did not vote against any bills. He pointed out that the budget was two days late, leading to delayed paychecks for state workers. If there had been any further delay, he said, New Yorkers waiting for unemployment checks from the state government would have continued to suffer.

Gounardes continued, “This is a budget that cut state spending by $5.7 billion, including more than $1 billion in healthcare at a time when our health network is working overtime to keep people alive. This is a budget that ignores the moral imperative to tax the ultrawealthy, raising the revenue we need to stave off cuts to critical services. This is a budget that failed to invest in our public higher education system, when it was needed most.”

Gounardes cited the same issue that Benjamin raised, as did Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat, that the state budget process places far too much power in the governor’s office.

Myrie, who outlined the good and bad in the budget, said in a public statement to his constituents, “You should know that the budget process is constitutionally flawed. The Executive has enormous control over the agenda and the Legislature is often left with a "take it or leave it" proposition. During a pandemic, this imbalance is magnified. Under these conditions, the Leadership was faced with the prospects of shutting down the government during a public health crisis, or, accepting a flawed budget. They made the excruciatingly difficult decision to accept a flawed budget.” He noted that he nonetheless voted “no” on bills that contained provisions he did not agree with, including the cuts to Medicaid spending for hospitals and the bail reform rollback.

In a fiery speech on the Assembly floor, Bronx Assemblymember Michael Blake invoked the history of slavery, emancipation and the civil rights movement as he critiqued the watering down of bail reform, urging his colleagues to join him in voting “no.”

“It’s in this moment that we must truly ask ourselves what is more important, rushing to vote on a budget when many of us are afraid of being paid for a day or rushing to lock up more black or brown folk who get paid cents in a day?….For students, our seniors, our humans behind bars, this budget bill is not justice, it is the justification of continuing 401 years of injustice,” Blake said.

Other "no" votes by Democratic legislators on at least one budget bill included Senators Alessandra Biaggi, Gustavo Rivera, and Julia Salazar, as well as Assemblymembers Harvey Epstein, Jeff Aubry, Charles Barron, Catalina Cruz, Carmen De La Rosa, Mathylde Frontus, Nathalia Fernandez, Ron Kim, Joe Lentol, Walter Mosley, Danny O'Donnell, Felix Ortiz, Dan Quart, Jo Anne Simon, Latrice Walker, and Tremaine Wright. 

Republicans, meanwhile, still made up the vast majority of "no" votes in both houses. They were incensed that the budget was not a bare bones spending plan and that Democrats advanced a slew of non-revenue legislation. Most also wanted to see the changes to last year's bail reforms go further in the other direction.

“During unprecedented times that demand a concentrated focus, [the] state Majority rushed out a cluttered state budget that offered nothing of the kind,” said Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay, in a statement on the budget. “Concocted behind closed doors and advanced under the cover of darkness, the state’s final spending plan drifted too far from our current crisis and was entirely bogged down by misguided political policies.”

He added, “Assembly Majority rejected a Minority proposal to help small businesses and employees, but they extended tax credits to Hollywood studios. As restaurants everywhere are forced to close their doors, Majority politicians added more regulations that stifle growth and cut deeper into the industry’s bottom line. The appropriate time to discuss taxpayer-funded campaigns, gestational surrogacy or criminal justice reforms is in the light of day, with an open debate and transparent process.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

‘Not a Budget Anybody Should Be Celebrating’: Democratic Legislators Displeased with Albany Compromise Thu, 09 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
After Successful 2018, Empire State Indivisible Backs Initial Trio of Progressives in 2020 Races Empire State Indivisible

Empire State Indivisible activists

The 2018 elections saw a sweeping victory for Democrats, as they recaptured the House of Representatives, in part thanks to victories in New York, where the party also took full control of the state Legislature for the first time in nearly a decade. The state election saw several moderate Democrats, who had comfortably worked with Republicans for years, swept out of power and replaced with a new cohort of progressives buttressed with grassroot activist support, while several suburban swing districts went from red to blue.

This year, with all U.S. House and state legislative seats on the ballot, along with the presidential race, grassroots activists are seeking another round of wins to keep progressive legislators in power or move Democratic seats left, while also flipping Republican-held seats and electing a Democratic president.

Empire State Indivisible, part of a vast network created in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the White House, contributed significantly to those 2018 wins where New York congressional seats flipped and the State Senate went Democratic, and by a wide margin. Activists now want to replicate those results, endorsing young Democratic candidates seeking to challenge incumbent congressional representatives in the upcoming primaries, while ensuring that certain incumbents who face challenges themselves are able to survive.

Announcing its first wave of 2020 endorsements, Empire State Indivisible is backing three Democratic candidates in the June 23 primary – Manhattan Assemblymember Yuh-line Niou, who was first elected in 2018 and faces a well-funded primary challenger; Adem Bunkedekko, who is running against Democratic Rep. Yvette Clarke in Brooklyn’s 9th congressional district for a second time after a narrow 2018 defeat; and Melanie D’Arrigo, who is challenging Democratic Rep. Tom Suozzi in Long Island’s 3rd congressional district.

“The case we're making in this announcement is around the need to not just elect Democrats, but elect better Democrats,” said Ricky Silver, co-lead organizer of Empire State Indivisible, in a phone interview, echoing much of the motivation behind 2018 efforts the group was involved with regarding the New York State Senate.

Empire State Indivisible was part of the True Blue NY coalition of organizations that rallied around progressive Democratic candidates who in 2018 successfully ousted members of the former Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a rogue faction of state senators who shared power with Republicans and helped them hold the chamber. Though the eight-member IDC was dissolved in the months before the primary, the resentment they had engendered among activists and voters carried through to the election. Six of its members lost their seats and, with additional victories in Brooklyn and outside the five boroughs, Democrats regained control of the chamber. But the progressive movement was not limited to the state Legislature alone, of course. True Blue NY also endorsed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated the Democratic heavyweight Rep. Joe Crowley, and has since risen to national prominence. Meanwhile, other Indivisible chapters helped swing a number of state Senate and House seats in other parts of the state.

“I think the IDC was one of the most transparent ways an elected Democrat can support Republicans, in the fact that they literally caucused with the Republicans. But that certainly isn't the only way,” Silver said, in a general critique of longtime elected officials who, in their quest for power, no longer seem to represent their constituents. “Democrats or elected officials in general focus on power dynamics and focus on the consolidation of power over the actual progressive causes that they run on.”

Silver said Niou, Bunkedekko, and D’Arrigo are all progressive organizers who have shown they stand up for their communities. Empire State Indivisible plans to bolster each of the candidates’ campaigns, sending volunteers to gather ballot petition signatures, canvass, and for get-out-the-vote efforts.

For Empire State Indivisible, Niou has been a crucial partner in advocating for campaign finance reform, enhanced tenant protections, and greater transparency in the workings of the state Legislature. Some of those efforts were especially fruitful given the Assembly’s more progressive voices and the new Senate majority.

“New York leads the nation in income inequality, reminding us that we need outspoken advocates in Albany who are ready to fight for a government that works for all of us and not just some of us,” said Kellie Leeson, co-lead organizer of Empire State Indivisible, in a statement. “Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou understands the issues that matter and has proven during her short time in Albany that she is a fierce ally and is ready to stand up to support tenants, improve our schools and protect the most marginalized among us.”

Niou welcomed Empire State Indivisible’s support. “I'm proud to have them on my side as I keep building a people-powered movement in Lower Manhattan,” she said in a statement.

Bunkedekko and D’Arrigo face a different set of challenges.

Bunkedekko is making a second attempt at unseating Rep. Clarke, a 14-year incumbent, after coming close in the 2018 primary – Clarke got 52% of the vote to Bunkedekko’s 48%. Empire State Indivisible criticized Clarke for being far too “passive” in office, praising Bunkedekko as a good alternative.

“For us, it’s all about getting out into our communities and doing the work to engage with people one-on-one, and that kind of commitment is what we look for in candidates,” said Shannon Stagman, co-lead Organizer of Empire State Indivisible. “Adem focuses on the people of his district - they’re his priority. Politics can often feel removed from everyday life, but Adem is out there connecting with his community members every day. He’s ready to take their flights to Washington.”

D’Arrigo, meanwhile, faces Rep. Suozzi, who has only held his Long Island seat since 2017. Empire State Indivisible criticized Suozzi’s decision to join the so-called Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of representatives that, according to ESI, resembles the IDC.

“Largely backed by corporate interests and dark-money groups like No Labels, the Problem Solvers Caucus has continually acted as a roadblock for progressive policy and a limiting force on the House’s ability to hold the President accountable,” Empire State Indivisible’s announcement reads.

In a statement accompanying the announcement, D’Arrigo echoed that critique. “Our campaign is about restoring Democratic values to a safe blue seat occupied by a corporate politician who caves to the GOP and ignores our district's priorities,” she said.

Silver framed the fight in stark terms. “The Democratic Party is going through a crisis in some ways where simply standing for progressive values isn’t sufficient in the age of Trump,” he said. “Voting records and co-sponsorships of bills, for example, used to be the way that elected democrats across the state...validate their progressive chops and we believe that the time calls for something greater than that....When we look around at New York's elected leadership at all levels, we still see a lot of bluster in terms of the things that electeds say they support but very little action. And so we're looking to continue our efforts to elect Democrats that are not just there to speak, but they're there to fight.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

After Successful 2018, Empire State Indivisible Backs Initial Trio of Progressives in 2020 Races Sun, 26 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
State Lawmakers Criticize Campaign Finance Commission Results While Legislative Leaders Stay Mum state legislators hearing

(photo: @FairElectionsNY)

A state commission charged with creating a system of public financing for state elections has prompted harsh rebukes from several state legislators for proposing what they say is watered down campaign finance reform and for ostensibly advancing a political agenda that targets longtime critics of Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The New York State Public Campaign Financing Commission was appointed by Cuomo and state legislative leaders after a failure of consensus on overhauling the state’s campaign finance system. It was tasked in state law to create a public campaign finance system and, per Cuomo’s goals, to examine political party qualifications.

Advocates have long called for a setup at the state level modelled on New York City’s successful public matching funds system, which incentivizes candidates to seek small dollar donations rather than relying on wealthy contributors, includes low maximum individual contributions, requires a great deal of transparency, and comes with robust oversight.

But the system proposed by the commission, in its final vote on Monday, fell short of the expectations of advocates and reform-minded legislators. Though it voted to reduce contribution limits across the board for statewide and legislative seats, candidates will still be able to raise vast amounts of private money for elections. For instance, the limits for statewide candidates were reduced from about $70,000 to $18,000 for a full election cycle. But that is more than three times higher than the $5,400 that a candidate for president can raise in a cycle.

Unless the state Legislature returns to amend the commission’s recommendations within three weeks, the system will be adopted. The Legislature could, however, choose to pass new campaign finance laws and tweak the program in the next legislative session, which begins in January.

The commission also approved a higher threshold for parties to obtain a ballot line, increasing it from 50,000 votes in a gubernatorial election to 130,000 votes every two years, and increased the ballot petition signature requirement for statewide candidates from 15,000 to 45,000. To observers, the ballot threshold change in particular seemed intended to kneecap third parties like the Working Families, Conservative, and Green Parties and appeared to be carried out at the behest of Cuomo, who has feuded with the WFP for years. But that controversial mission was also carried out with at least the acquiescence, if not full support, of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, both Democrats, as is Cuomo.

Yet several Democratic Assembly members and Senators from New York City were displeased by the recommendations the commission made and the process through which its work was carried out over the last several months and quickly made their concerns known.

Queens Senator Jessica Ramos, a progressive elected last year with support from the WFP, took to Twitter to air her criticism of the commission’s proposals, as did other legislators. “We worked HARD last session to fix NY’s broken electoral system. We made it easier to vote & got closer to a people-powered government. The Public Finance Commission's vote is a disservice to our democracy & will eliminate @NYWFP. We need to engage more voters, not limit them!,” she tweeted.

Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou of Manhattan agreed with Ramos, simply tweeting “Yup” in response.

Senator Julia Salazar of Brooklyn tweeted, “This is shamefully undemocratic. We need to act swiftly in the legislature to reject it.”

Brooklyn Assemblymember Walter Mosley tweeted that the party qualification issue should never have been on the commission’s agenda. “Third parties are an essential part of the electoral system in New York, shining light on important issues that otherwise may not get the attention they deserve,” he wrote, calling the proposals “unacceptable” and promising to oppose an increase in the threshold for ballot access. “We should be making it easier for third parties to make it on the ballot, not harder,” he wrote.

In a series of tweets, Assemblymember Bobby Carroll of Brooklyn cited his “no” vote on this year’s state budget deal because of the inclusion of the “poison pill” provision on the state campaign financing commission. “I have said it from the beginning that this commission was rotten! Now we just know how rotten,” he tweeted. “This isn’t a public matching program this is a farce. The legislture (sic) needs to take back control.”

Manhattan Assemblymember Harvey Epstein tweeted, “Deeply concerned w Public Campaign Financing Commission’s vote to recommend legislation riddled w inadequacies, including overly high contrib caps at every level & a measure to kill minor parties."

In response, Manhattan Assemblymember Richard Gottfried wrote, "Protect voters & 3rd parties. The Legislature must reject the commission scheme!"

Brooklyn Assemblymember Jo Ann Simon tweeted, "I’m disappointed w/the Public Campaign Financing Commission’s vote to make it more difficult for minor parties to access a ballot line. We need a special session to address this, the still-too-high contribution limits, & limiting matching donations to a candidate’s district only."

Bronx State Senator Alessandra Biaggi has repeatedly let her disappointment be known. She credited the commissioners for their service but said she does not like the product, writing in part, "The Commission was created to put forth a plan that empowers everyday NYers & reduces the influence of money in our politics – the existing proposal only scratches the surface in achieving that aim, failing to significantly lower contribution limits." Biaggi also cited a "political agenda" at play in the attempt to "increase barriers for third parties."

"This proposal is half-baked & does not reflect the vision of the NYer who testified at the Commission’s hearings, & who raised their voices throughout this entire process," Biaggi continued. "The Legislature now has the responsibility to fulfill our promise to the people and get the job done."

In a phone interview, Bronx Senator Gustavo Rivera reiterated his call for the Legislature to vote on a “clean bill” on campaign finance reform. “I'm terribly disappointed, but I'm certainly not shocked,” he said of the commission’s recommendations.

Rivera blamed the governor’s machinations for derailing the process. “The governor, sadly, does not really care about establishing a campaign finance system. All he cares about is getting even with the folks who are his political rivals. That is his M.O.,” he said.

The “pièce de résistance” he said, was the ballot access threshold requirement, “which is ultimately, with a wink and a nod, trying to get rid of the WFP, which is really what this was about from the beginning.”

“The overwhelming majority of people made it very clear that they should create a campaign finance system that actually tries to at least minimize the impact of big money but that they should steer away from third parties, from fusion voting altogether. All those folks were ignored,” he said.

It’s unclear whether legislative leaders have any intention to support the idea of modifying the binding proposals. Assembly Speaker Heastie’s appointees on the commission generally went along with Cuomo’s appointees, while those commissioners appointed by Senate Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins tended to break from the pack.

Heastie’s office did not return a request for comment about the commission’s plan. Carolina Rodriguez, a spokesperson for Stewart-Cousins, referred Gotham Gazette to comments the senator made in a November 22 interview with WXXI News’ Karen DeWitt. “I’m not trying to destroy parties or make it impossible,” Stewart-Cousins said. “I definitely know, however, that we must reform our campaign finance (system).” She said she would prefer the party conversation to be separate from the campaign finance one, but also seemed open to legislative tweaks come January.

A spokesperson for Senator Mike Gianaris, the deputy majority leader, acknowledged a request for comment but did not provide one by publishing time. Senator Liz Krueger’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Jonathan Timm, a spokesperson for Senator Zellnor Myrie, declined additional comment until the commission’s recommendations are formally released. “Senator Myrie has made clear his support for public financing of campaigns, lowering contribution limits, and keeping the commission's hands out of fusion voting (which he stated explicitly in his testimony to the commission),” Timm wrote in an email. 

The WFP itself appeared to threaten primary challenges against legislators who fall in line behind the governor’s “power grab.” “Instead of designing a strong system of public financing of elections, this commission has designed a weak one, as a cover for a politically motivated attack on the Working Families Party,” Bill Lipton, WFP director, said in a Monday statement. 

He added, “Our opponents believe they can kill us. They are wrong. We will bring the full power of the WFP and our allies to bear in 2020 challenging those who block progressive change and electing the next generation of progressive leaders. We will build the biggest WFP GOTV operation yet to meet these new thresholds. And we will win.”

“If New York Assemblymembers don't speak up about and act to stop this public financing commission, they will be primaried with some amazing, energetic, democratic candidates. We are ready to go,” tweeted Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout, who ran against Cuomo in the Democratic primary in 2014, last year sought the Democratic primary nomination for attorney general, and is something of an inspirational leader for the New York left.

At a media gaggle on Tuesday, Cuomo downplayed the changes made to ballot thresholds while praising the commission. “I think the commission was charged with a very difficult task, which was to reform the campaign finance system,” he said. “I have to read the full report, I haven’t done it yet, but they made a number of inarguably great and dramatic reforms.”

He said the state shouldn’t be doling out public funds to political parties “without accountability and responsibility.”

“They’ve set a threshold by percentage and number, which they believe is a threshold that a credible party should reach,” he said. “If it’s not a credible party, then it shouldn’t be getting public tax dollars in primary races, et cetera. The Working Families Party, I think, would meet that threshold. You have to work to meet the threshold, but if you’re not working to meet a threshold, then you shouldn’t be qualifying for public money anyway.”

[Read: State Commission Approves New Campaign Finance System, Raises Bar for Political Party Ballot Access]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

This article has been updated with additional comments from legislators.

State Lawmakers Criticize Campaign Finance Commission Results While Legislative Leaders Stay Mum Tue, 26 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Our Work on Public Campaign Financing is Not Done Niou Ramos Albany

the authors: Assemblymember Niou, center, & Senator Ramos, left (photo: @NYCComptroller)

We’ve got a big money problem here in New York, and we hear loud and clear the New Yorkers who are calling for a small donor solution in the form of public financing of elections.

Public financing became a top issue in state budget negotiations earlier this year because of public demand. The plan for a commission to now determine the parameters of public financing of elections was placed in a large budget bill in the final hours of budget negotiations, making it nearly impossible to oppose as legislators.

But we must introduce and move public financing of elections bills this legislative session -- before it ends June 19 -- to fix, or overturn, a weak commission result. We’re committed to ensuring that we end this year with a strong public financing program in New York, whether via commission, legislation, or a combination of both.

It’s important to push this issue ahead and not simply allow the commission to unfold without additional legislation for several reasons.

As women of color and as elected leaders representing people from all walks of life, we are here to bring change and shift power away from big donors and to the people of New York.

Our elections are currently dominated by a tiny number of big donors. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, just 100 donors outspent all the 137,000 small donors combined last year. It’s time for regular constituents to get their say through a 6-to-1 small donor match, lifting the voices of everyday New Yorkers and fundamentally changing the way politicians fundraise by allowing them to focus on those who may only give $20.

Those who oppose reform point to the price tag with a high estimate of $100 million per year (a small fraction of one percent of our state’s budget) as an excuse to avoid changing the status quo. They say we can’t afford it. You know what costs more? Corruption.

When elected leaders are forced to spend their time rubbing shoulders with big donors—who tend to be predominantly corporate donors—we end up with expensive, unnecessary, out-of-touch policies that hurt the rest of us. We also shut out people with a desire to serve their communities but without connections to big donors from running for office. These systematic barriers block women and people of color—in particular women of color—from running and winning public office.

Following damaging decisions by the Supreme Court that now allow unlimited money into our elections, public financing of elections is the only real way to counter the corrosive influence of super PACs—and we have a chance to show the nation how to get it done.

In Connecticut, after a small donor public financing system was put in place, lawmakers moved forward policies to end corporate giveaways and pushed ahead issues that are meaningful to communities of color and other underrepresented communities.

Once public financing was in place, leaders passed mandatory paid sick days, increased the minimum wage, instituted in-state tuition for undocumented students, and helped low-income and working individuals and families by adopting an Earned Income Tax Credit.

In another illustrative example, they also ended the practice of returning unclaimed bottle deposits to the beverage industry. The influence of beer and soda distributors long kept this giveaway worth up to $24 million annually in place. Now the money can be redirected to important public programs.

To ensure a similar result—a democracy that is not beholden to wealthy special interests and instead is responsive to the needs of constituents—in New York, we must ensure a strong Public Financing and Elections Commission that gets to work soon with diverse and credible commissioners to hold transparent proceedings with ample room for public input.

As lawmakers, we have to be prepared for the possibility of a weak commission result. Our responsibility does not end with appointing commissioners. It’s our duty to ensure a strong public financing program, and that means having legislation ready should we need to improve upon the commission’s recommendations.

Our mission is clear. We must deliver a strong small donor public financing program by the end of the year to shift power to the people of New York and away from big donors. We’ve come too far to settle for anything less.

State Senator Jessica Ramos represents parts of Queens. Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou represents parts of Manhattan. On Twitter @jessicaramos & @yuhline.

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

Our Work on Public Campaign Financing is Not Done Sun, 02 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Amid Larger Moment, Will Albany Face Another Sexual Misconduct Reckoning? Cuomo Sheldon Silver Skelos Albany

Gov. Cuomo, Sheldon Silver & Dean Skelos in 2012 (photo via The Governor's Office)

As allegations of sexual harassment and assault against disgraced movie producer and major Democratic political donor Harvey Weinstein piled up earlier this month, women around the world took to social media to share stories of abusive behavior using the hashtag #MeToo.

The light being shone on the predatory behavior of Weinstein and many others resonated at statehouses across the United States, from California to Rhode Island, where women in politics have been speaking out about sexual misconduct they experienced first-hand or witnessed, with victims including legislators, young staffers and interns, lobbyists, and others.

In New York’s capital, the response has been more muted, in part because the Legislature is not currently in session, but also because Albany was recently forced to face its own mishandling of sexual misconduct scandals. As recently as 2014, the aftermath of a debacle around sexual harassment by Assemblymember Vito Lopez, which led to his forced resignation from the Assembly, produced a number of significant reforms to how harassment, misconduct, and discriminatory behavior are addressed in the state Assembly.

Now, three years later and amid a national reckoning with issues related to sexual misconduct, women in state government who spoke to Gotham Gazette noted an improvement in the Albany culture since these reforms, but say that sexist attitudes and behavior continue to plague New York state government.

While several female legislators were hesitant to speak on the record about their own experiences with sexual harassment, Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa spoke frankly about her own experiences with sexism in the political sphere at a recent forum organized by Berkeley College in Manhattan. She described one incident, a decade ago, when on a conference call, it was announced that she would take the lead on a project. A man on the line, who is now a national leader in progressive politics, according to DeRosa, joked, “She can take the lead right up to my hotel room,” apparently unaware that DeRosa was on the line.

“These instances have stuck with me, but I'm not kidding myself and neither should you — many women have and still do experience far worse every day, and it's not just actresses you're reading about in the news this week,” she said, according to a transcript distributed by the governor’s office.

Calling for “societal course correction,” DeRosa encouraged young women in all industries to speak out.

The statement was a powerful one coming from DeRosa, who at 34 became the youngest person and first woman to be named Secretary to the Governor, the top aide to the state’s most powerful government official, when she was appointed to the post by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Days after DeRosa’s remarks, a former top official in Cuomo’s administration came forward with allegations that her former boss sexually harassed staffers, saying she was inspired by DeRosa’s remarks, according to The New York Post.

Patricia Gunning, who had recently resigned as the special prosecutor/inspector general of the Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs, told The Post that she faced retaliatory violence for calling out her boss for his behavior.

“My hope is that this conversation will be the beginning of a new era in [how] these issues are addressed by employers,” Gunning told The Post.

On Monday, it was revealed that Sam Hoyt, a former assemblyman and Cuomo ally who ran Buffalo area projects for the state's Empire State Development Corporation, had abruptly resigned to take a job in the private sector. By Tuesday afternoon, Hoyt, who was disciplined by the Assembly in 2009 for an affair with 19-year-old intern, was accused by a former state employee of pressuring her into a romantic relationship. She told The Buffalo News that she was paid $50,000 for her silence.

In a statementCuomo spokesperson Dani Lever acknowledged that allegations of misconduct had emerged against Hoyt and that an investigation was underway.

"All state employees must act with integrity and respect," the statement read. "When the complainant made these allegations, they were immediately refered to the  Governor's Office of Employee Relations (GOER) for an investigation."

After GOER determined there were grounds for further review, the matter was referred to the Inspector General's Office, and later, the Joint Commission of Public Ethics (JCOPE), according to the statement. Hoyt maintains that the relationship was consentual, according to The Buffalo News.

But while to this point there has not been a new public outcry at the New York Legislature, female lawmakers say that the Weinstein scandal and its fallout have struck a chord and sparked private conversations about their early experiences in Albany and how they can best aid young female staff aides and legislators.

One such conversation occurred at a retreat for the Women’s Legislative Caucus in Saratoga two weeks ago, where women shared uncomfortable incidents they had experienced early in their careers and discussed how they could better unify when scandals occur, according to Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo area lawmaker who chairs the Women’s Caucus. One thing agreed upon, Peoples-Stokes said, was that the Assembly’s sexual harassment enforcement could be enhanced by a mentorship program for incoming members and their aides.

“We wanted to see if there is anything we can do in addition to ensure that we never need to have these experiences again,” said Peoples-Stokes. “It is something that we decided we are going to do as women of the Legislature, and you know, when women decide to do something, we get it done.”

While the Assembly reforms appear to have improved the culture in the 150-seat chamber, Albany’s sexual harassment problem has not disappeared. The Senate and the Assembly have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past two years on outside counsel to investigate sexual harassment complaints. The Assembly’s ethics committee -- which exists solely to enforce policy on sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation -- convened a meeting in executive session on October 12 and is expected to meet again on November 2. The matter at hand is not clear.

Currently reported to be under investigation by JCOPE and the Erie County District Attorney’s office is Senator Marc Panepinto, a Democrat from Buffalo, who announced he would not seek reelection last year amid rumors of sexual harassment. Also last year, the Senate paid out $121,000 for two contracts with Kraus & Zuchlewski LLP “for legal counsel related to U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission matters and investigation of sexual harassment claims.”

Assembly members who spoke with Gotham Gazette acknowledged the body’s embarrassing history of dismissing sexual misconduct claims internally, which has led to a slew of unflattering headlines in 2012 and 2013, but noted that an influx of female legislators to the Assembly in recent years has also helped to reshape the culture. At the Senate, such scandals and its culture of protecting those in power has not drawn the same scrutiny.

Last week, New York’s chapter of the National Organization of Women (NOW) made an effort to further jumpstart the conversation, calling on women and men who currently or previously work(ed) in government in Albany and throughout the state to speak out about their personal experiences with sexual harassment or assault while on the job, citing the Legislature’s history of quashing sexual harassment complaints.

“Government sets the standard and the policies and the laws that all other industries are asked to uphold,” said Sonia Ossorio, president of the National Organization for Women - New York, said in a statement. “Given that Albany is a place where lawmakers have abused their power and sexual harassment has gone unchecked in the past, we felt it was important to give women in politics a platform to speak up.”

The women’s advocacy organization has announced the creation of a new, dedicated hotline for individuals in government to report their experiences (people can call 518-362-7857 or submit a story online at

In an interview with Gotham Gazette, Ossorio said the goal is to build on the momentum of the #MeToo movement. The hotline will provide independent counsel and resources to victims while also assessing how effective recent policies have been, she said.

“We immediately thought about the culture that has existed in Albany and we wanted to be able to empower women who work in politics, particularly young women and interns who head to their internships idealistic and wanting to be part of American government and are disillusioned by it,” she said. “We really want to know to what degree the environment of sexual harassment has been uprooted.”

The personal stories tumbling out of statehouses around the nation are eerily familiar to anyone who has closely watched New York state government in recent years. In California, women leaders in government have formed a campaign called “We Said Enough,” sharing stories about how they have endured groping, inappropriate comments about their bodies and abilities, and insults and jokes that diminish them professionally. In some cases, “men have made promises, or threats, about our jobs in exchange for our compliance, or our silence. They have leveraged their power and positions to treat us however they would like,” wrote the group on a website created for women to submit their stories.

An open letter circulated by members of the Illinois Legislature drew a direct comparison between the Weinstein scandal and the coercive situations in which women in government find themselves and had drawn 130 signatures by Tuesday afternoon, the AP reported.

"Every industry has its own version of the casting couch," reads the letter. "Ask any woman who has lobbied the halls of the Capitol, staffed Council Chambers, or slogged through brutal hours on the campaign trail. Misogyny is alive and well in this industry."

Albany, which has historically been referred to as the New York’s own “sin city,” is no stranger to such scandals. Repeatedly, a series of particularly egregious complaints of sexual harassment or rape has led the Legislature to a watershed moment of sorts, producing much-needed reform in how accusers are treated and how their complaints are handled.

A major turning point for the Assembly occurred in 2004, when, roiling from a series of rape accusations against Assemblymember Adam Clayton Powell IV and Michael Boxley, chief counsel to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, its leadership decided to bar members of the Legislature from fraternizing with interns.

In the state Senate, a somewhat similar soul-searching happened, but at the time many of its members were strongly opposed to the idea of an intern-fraternization ban.

In comparison to the 150-seat Assembly, sex scandals in the 63-seat Senate have unfolded more discreetly -- hinted at through money spent on lawyers or a senator or a top aide leaving the job abruptly amid rumors -- and as a result the body’s leadership has not been forced to publicly reckon with its record in the same way, according to Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat who was instrumental in compelling the Senate to implement a mandatory sexual harassment training program.

A decade ago, Krueger said she was privy to two incidents involving interns who were molested by older male senators. One incident occurred in a packed elevator and Krueger famously threatened to kick the senator if he touched an intern again. The other time she learned of a sexual assault claim when she found a young staffer crying outside a senator’s office at the Capitol.

After the second incident, Krueger, who is known for her bluntness on the topic, said she urged then-Senate Leader Joe Bruno, a Republican from the Capital Region, to create mandatory sexual harassment training for all senators. When she threatened to hold a press conference naming and shaming the offending senators, Bruno, who later stepped down from the leadership role amid his own public corruption scandal, responded he would hold a competing press conference naming Democratic senators.

The way Krueger tells it, she said, “I didn't tell you [what] party this senator is in. I don't give a damn what party they are. We can do a joint press conference, and we all can name names. I don't give a [expletive].” To which Bruno responded, “OK, OK, we'll do mandatory sexual harassment training,” Krueger told The Albany Times Union.

The training became mandatory for senators and staff members and the regulations were clearly stated in a written document.

It was not the last time Krueger took her colleagues in the Legislature to task over crimes against women. In June 2003, when Boxley was led out of the Capitol in handcuffs, having been accused of rape for the second time, Krueger said she had a very public confrontation with Assemblymember Lopez, who a decade later would be toppled by his own slew of sexual harassment scandals. They were scheduled, coincidentally, to hold a joint press conference in front of the Legislative Correspondents Association office. According to Krueger, the Assembly member fumed, “How dare they come over here and arrest our counsel in our house?”

“I said ‘excuse me, he was tried with rape,’ pause, ‘for the second time,’ pause,” Krueger recalled to Gotham Gazette, “‘It seems to me that if you have anything to say publicly about this, it's let justice be fair and swift. Otherwise, I think you should keep your mouth shut.'”

Lopez’s Assembly colleagues later told her that she had made an enemy for life. “I said, ‘Good. Some enemies are worth having,’” said Krueger of the former Brooklyn Democratic boss, who lost a City Council race in 2013 and died in November 2015.

Still, Krueger acknowledges that the current sexual harassment policy in the Senate does not encourage women to come forward. “I’d like to believe the written policies the Senate came up with and mandatory training might have helped in some small way,” she told Gotham Gazette last week.

In 2014, following a series of sexual misconduct scandals involving Lopez, Assemblymember Micah Kellner, and Assemblymember Dennis Gabryszak, the Assembly officially changed its policy on sexual harassment, which had last been updated in 2009. In the past, sexual harassment complainants would typically report the incidents to the speaker’s office or the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), but it was up to the discretion of the speaker’s counsel whether to investigate the complaints.

When it was revealed that Speaker Silver did not follow protocol and report misconduct allegations by two staff members against Assemblymember Lopez to the ethics body, instead cutting a secret $103,000 settlement with the women, Silver publically apologized for the lapse and announced that the Assembly would review its practices.

To help restructure the chamber’s sexual harassment policy, the Assembly’s ethics committee enlisted CUNY Law School Professor Merrick Rossein, an attorney, law professor, and expert in discrimination litigation. Through interviews with women in the Assembly, Rossein made a series of recommendations to the bipartisan legislative task force that was convened to address deficiencies in the Assembly’s policy.

“There are a number of things in this policy that I’m very proud of that I’d like to see in every sexual harassment policy, including the private sector,” said Rossein, who has since been retained by the Assembly as an outside counsel to investigate complaints against members, in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

Recommendations made by Rossein include the appointment of an outside investigator to look into complaints; a guarantee of confidentiality for accusers; severe consequences for an employer that retaliates against a complainant; and more. Most importantly, a lawmaker accused of harassment is barred from talking to the accuser until a designated time. Additionally, lawmakers were made mandatory reporters, required to inform the ethics committee about sexual misconduct if they see it or hear about it -- a component women say has had a dramatic impact on the culture in Albany. A hotline has been set up for people to submit tips.

The Assembly policy outlines two types of harassment, hostile work environment harassment — which is directed at somebody based on their sex, would be considered offensive by a reasonable person, and is severe or pervasive enough to interfere with one’s work environment — and quid-pro-quo harassment, the type described by victims of Weinstein, in which professional opportunities are offered in exchange for sexual favors.

In response to the barrage of corruption and sexual harassment scandals over the last decade, the Legislature has also dramatically revamped the way it approaches its ethics and sexual harassment training, according to Assemblymember Charles Lavine, a Democrat from Nassau County and former chair of the Assembly’s ethics committee. Not only are class sizes smaller, according to Lavine, but they have gone from obligatory and dry, to dynamic, thought-provoking, and interactive.

“We have gone from the days when it was almost an obligation to provide -- or what seemed to be at the time -- ethics training that was done in large groups of people,” said Lavine in a January interview with Gotham Gazette. “And while it was content-specific and good, it was not nearly so effective as the modern approach, which is to work with smaller groups of individuals in an interactive environment.”

Still, there is undoubtedly more work to be done to rectify inequities for women and in Albany. It likely doesn’t help that those at the top of Albany’s power chain are all men. Many have pushed for Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester County legislator who has led Senate Democrats since 2012 and is the first woman or person of color to lead a legislative conference, to be included at the negotiating table during budget and other high-level talks. Currently, the state’s $150 billion-plus budget is largely hammered out by four men: Governor Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Senator Jeff Klein, leader of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), which forms a ruling coalition with the Republican conference. Democrats hope that the 2018 state-level elections and an agreement with the IDC will lead to Stewart-Cousins becoming the leader of a new Senate majority.

Having more women in the Legislature would go a long way towards creating a safer space for female employees at all levels of government, according to Stewart-Cousins.

“The most disturbing thing is that almost every woman has a story regarding harassment or worse,” said Stewart-Cousins, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “This is true in every walk of life and unfortunately true in government. Only by confronting sexism and gender bias head-on will we be able to truly create a culture which respects everyone equally. We need to support women and pro-women candidates for office and energize pro-women New Yorkers to get out and vote.”

An increase in the number of women in Albany has helped reshape the culture from an old boys' club, in which women were largely relegated to secretarial positions, to a more egalitarian environment, where women are not only elected to office, but have risen to acquire key chair positions in both houses and led the passage of women-friendly legislation.

Assemblymember Nily Rozic, who became the youngest woman in the state Legislature and the first woman ever to represent Queens’ 25th District when she was elected in 2012, said she has watched the culture transform since she began her tenure in Albany as an aide to Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh.

“It’s certainly gotten better since I was a legislative staffer, but we have a long way to go. The underlying change that’s happening is that more women are getting elected to the Legislature and that really positively affects our work place,” said Rozic.

Aside from the most serious cases of sexual assault and rape, it’s often sexual comments and diminishing jokes -- such as the one described by DeRosa -- or an extra-long hug that makes the state Legislature a treacherous place for young women.

Alexis Grenell, a political strategist and commentator on feminist issues, said the comment described by DeRosa is a quintessential example of how women are verbally undermined in the workplace.

“The harassment that Melissa described is fundamentally dehumanizing,” said Grenell. “There is nothing benign about it. It’s meant to take away her worth as a thinking, contributing person in a professional environment and renders her the sum total of her physicality and sex appeal. That is dehumanizing. It’s not why she’s on the call.”

Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, in an interview with Gotham Gazette, recalled her first years as a legislative staffer in Washington, D.C. and as chief of staff to Assemblymember Ron Kim, of Queens. She said that when she first arrived in Albany, Kim warned her not to get into elevators with “the wrong people.” Later, she learned that she had been named on a “hot or not” list that had been circulating among male staffers at the Legislature.

“People would stop me in the hallway and say ‘you are just so exotic,’ but you know I’m not going to report them for it,” said Niou, who was elected to Silver’s old Assembly seat in 2016. “It’s just an ignorant and not very thoughtful comment.”

These types of incidents collectively create a hostile environment that women internalize and come to see as normal, she said.

“Over time, I’ve built this protective shell, like ‘oh these things are just going to bounce right off of me,’ but these things happen every day,” said Niou. “Somebody insists a kiss on the cheek -- like forces it -- but everyone kisses on the cheek, all over Albany people do the kiss-kiss thing.”

The cheek kiss, which is often reserved for women in political settings, falls into a bit of a grey area, but many women in government have observed the greeting often provides an opportunity for hands to roam. The Assembly’s newest sexual harassment policy warns that touching -- including brushing against the body, squeezing, hugging, massaging or patting -- may fall under the category of sexual harassment, but that has not ended the practice.

Grenell, who frequently holds press conferences at the Capitol, said to bypass the double kiss, she initiates a handshake by extending her arm as far away from her body as possible.

A similar strategy is deployed by one Pennsylvania lawmaker, who at a recent women-led panel in the state, explained how she avoids the cheek kiss -- by placing one hand on her colleague’s shoulder, and the other outstretched for a handshake, according to an account by a journalist covering the Harrisburg Capitol in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Albany veterans say they have grown accustomed to awkward and demeaning daily experiences.

"I've been saying for the last 15 years: Every week, I drive three hours north and 30 years back in history in regards to how we treat women," said Senator Krueger, of Manhattan.

With women across all industries, including government, empowered by the Weinstein blowup and its ripples to speak out about their experiences, Krueger said she would not be surprised if it led to another watershed moment in Albany.

“I would suspect in the New York State Legislature, like so many other places -- where you have men in powerful positions and young women who might not have a lot of worldly experience, who think these are very important men,” she said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if more stories come out.”

Update: The story has been updated with allegations about former EDC official Sam Hoyt that emerged Tuesday afternoon.

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Amid Larger Moment, Will Albany Face Another Sexual Misconduct Reckoning? Tue, 31 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000