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Now Law, New York to Create City Cultural Plan


BdB Van Bramer Levin

Mayor de Blasio signs the cultural plan bill into law (photo: @JimmyVanBramer) 


New York may be the considered the country's cultural capital, but the city has never had a comprehensive plan to outline its immense cultural assets, identify areas of need, and chart a path forward. A new law, passed by the City Council and signed on Monday by Mayor Bill de Blasio, will change that.

Read more: Now Law, New York to Create City Cultural Plan

SAFE Act Haunts Movement on Gun Safety Legislation


students NYAGV

Student activists in Albany (photo: @NYAGV1)


Earlier this month, New Yorkers Against Gun Violence brought 150 school children from the Bronx and Harlem to Albany to recite poetry, sing songs, and perform skits about the impact gun violence has on their daily lives.

They didn't get the warmest of welcomes. Kicked out of the space they had booked - the very public well of the legislative office building - they were forced into a hearing room. They were replaced in the well by a wine tasting.

Read more: SAFE Act Haunts Movement on Gun Safety Legislation

Next Steps for Two Soon-To-Be-Vacant City Council Seats


weprin ignizio

CMs Weprin, left, & Ignizio, right, are both leaving the Council (photo: William Alatriste)


City Council member Mark Weprin, a Democrat who represents part of Queens, announced on Monday that he will step down from his seat to join Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration as Deputy Secretary of Legislative Affairs, making him a key liaison between the governor and the state Legislature, City Council, and others.

Read more: Next Steps for Two Soon-To-Be-Vacant City Council Seats

At Chaotic Time, Cuomo Hires Weprin to Assist in Deal-making


mark weprin via alatriste

CM Weprin, right, has accepted a position in the Cuomo Administration (William Alatriste)


A legislature plagued by scandal; two new, inexperienced house leaders; a governor facing the lowest approval ratings of his tenure; and only a few weeks to get anything done. This is the setting for Mark Weprin's return to Albany, where he'll be tasked with fostering dialogue, brokering deals, and making progress in a new role.

Read more: At Chaotic Time, Cuomo Hires Weprin to Assist in Deal-making

Resolution Calls for Constitutional Amendment Negating Citizens United


kallos

Council Member Ben Kallos (photo: William Alatriste)


City Council Member Ben Kallos, chair of the governmental operations committee, will introduce a resolution at Thursday’s full-body Stated Meeting calling on members of the United States Congress to commit to a constitutional amendment that would limit independent expenditures in election campaigns. It is a move aimed at reducing the “dark money” spent during political campaigns and to counteract the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United ruling.

Read more: Resolution Calls for Constitutional Amendment Negating Citizens United

Progressive Caucus Responds to De Blasio's Executive Budget


rosenthal and co 

CM Helen Rosenthal is a vice chair of the Progressive Caucus (@TenantPowerNY)


In response to his recently unveiled fiscal year 2016 Executive Budget, the City Council’s 18-member progressive caucus sent a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio Tuesday outlining an eleven-point “advancement framework.” In the letter, which alternately praises the mayor and requests additional funding for specific priorities, the council members outline “legislative, fiscal and advocacy goals” for a “more equal and more just New York.”

The effort, in part led by Council Member Helen Rosenthal, a Progressive Caucus vice-chair, drew feedback from caucus members to identify where the mayor’s budget is in line with the group’s progressive agenda and where it still needs attention. “It is really the moral document behind the rhetoric,” Rosenthal told Gotham Gazette of the city budget in a Wednesday phone interview.

The council members, 18 of the body’s 51 total members, largely commend de Blasio for his executive budget, released last week, that focuses on tackling income inequality, particularly through commitments to housing, workers’ rights, and civil legal services. “On the whole there’s no question it’s a very progressive, very impressive, and fiscally responsible budget,” said Rosenthal, who is a budget expert and chairs the Council’s contracts committee.

But, Progressive Caucus members also pointed to certain priorities which complement the mayor’s own efforts and will be a part of budget negotiations over the next few weeks. “Some are smaller indications, some are bigger,” said Rosenthal. “But they all get to the same point,” she said, alluding to the work of "advancing opportunity for all New Yorkers," as stated in the letter, a copy of which was read by Gotham Gazette.

For instance, the letter applauds the mayor for redirecting $506 million to the New York City Housing Authority through 2019, and providing an additional $300 million in capital funds over the next three years. But the mayor’s rightsizing initiative has created the need for more resources for relocating families, they say in the letter. The caucus calls on the mayor to create a fund similar to the Council’s Moving Allowance Program that helps low-income tenants relocate. It also asks for more funding for Housing Preservation and Development’s (HPD) Alternative Enforcement Program that undertakes maintenance work on dilapidated buildings.

The mayor, in his executive budget, adjusted the income of 35,000 contract workers to provide them a living wage increase. The Progressive Caucus welcomed this measure. “The Caucus shares in your belief that a hard day’s work deserves a fair day’s pay,” reads the letter. Caucs members hope, however, that the mayor would expand this to all 125,000 city-contracted social service workers.

“The point that this document intended to make is that we’re not just saying it. We’re giving exact examples,” Rosenthal said.

Among the other allocations and initiatives the caucus praises in its letter are the $78 million commitment to mental health services; the $1.8 million increase for the Commission on Human Rights; $18.9 million for the municipal identification program, IDNYC; improvements in community safety; and the efforts to reduce homelessness.

Caucus demands are both targeted and general. Among other things, the members are pushing for increased funding for seniors; restoring $8.7 million for park maintenance employees and greater funding to the Green Thumb community garden program; money to provide six-day service in libraries; creating an LGBT liaison at the Department of Education; providing green education programs; increasing support to worker cooperatives; tackling viral hepatitis cases; addressing disparities in school athletic opportunities, particularly for young women and students of color; and increasing funding for the Office of Special Enforcement to tackle illegal hotels.

The letter also indicates the caucus’ disappointment for the lack of funding for oversight and protection against employer abuse. Earlier this year, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito  proposed the creation of an Office of Labor Standards for this very purpose.

Although Mark-Viverito has technically not signed the letter, the agenda laid out in the document is in line with the City Council’s preliminary budget response put out by Mark-Viverito, Finance Committee Chair Julissa Ferreras, and their fellow council members. Mark-Viverito was a co-founder of the Progressive Caucus with Council Member Brad Lander, but she has formally removed herself after becoming speaker. The caucus is currently co-chaired by Council Members Antonio Reynoso and Donovan Richards; Council Member Ben Kallos and Rosenthal are co-vice chairs. After outlining his executive budget last week, de Blasio is in Washington, DC and California this week talking about the fight against inequality in New York and nationally. He unveiled The Progressive Agenda to Combat Income Inequality in DC on Tuesday with a large group of collaborators and co-signers.

Moving forward in the city, the final deatils of the budget will be worked out before the June 30 deadline, and Rosenthal said the progressive caucus will be asking detailed questions about where de Blasio’s latest iteration falls short and why. Publicly, these questions will be raised during the Council’s weeks of executive budget hearings set to begin next week. Following that, Progressive Caucus members will reconvene to give their input to the Speaker as Mark-Viverito works with the entire Council and negotiates with the mayor. 

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by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@samarkhurshid

Overwhelmingly Passed Again by Assembly, Bill to Close LLC Loophole Appears Iced by Senate


squadron podium

Sen. Daniel Squadron (photo: @DanielSquadron)


On Tuesday the state Assembly passed a bill to close the controversial LLC loophole at the center of the federal corruption cases against former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Both men - a Democrat and a Republican, respectively - were recently arrested and subsequently stepped down from their powerful leadership posts. Later in the evening Tuesday, the Senate’s version of the bill to close the loophole that allows money to flow unfettered into campaign accounts appeared to be dispatched by Senate Republicans in a bit of behind-the-scenes maneuvering.

The LLC loophole that allows individuals and corporations to donate unlimited amounts of cash to legislators has been treated by many as a political hot potato all year. It gained attention when Glenwood Management and its principle, Leonard Litwin, were connected to the Silver indictment. Litwin is the state’s largest campaign donor thanks to the many LLCs he controls and his tendency to donate large sums to politicians at all levels of state government and in both major parties. The issue flared up again after Litwin and his company appeared in the federal complaint against Skelos.

According to a study by Common Cause NY, Glenwood Management has given $12.8 million in political donations from 2005 to 2014, but only 10 percent of those donations actually came directly from Litwin or his companies. The rest of the donations were made by LLCs registered to Glenwood or listed at its address.

In April, Sen. Daniel Squadron, a New York City Democrat, used a parliamentary maneuver called “Motion for Committee Consideration” to force the Elections Committee to consider the bill. In an apparent move designed to avoid controversy, Republican Senators voted to move the bill out of committee without recommendation. Instead of being sent to the floor for a vote it was sent to the Corporations Committee. Squadron told Gotham Gazette at the time it appeared the Republcians had “used a loophole to kill an attempt to stop a loophole” because the Corporations Committee rarely meets.

The rules say that once a bill is referred to a committee it must be heard within that committee’s next two meetings, if they are held within the legislative session for which the bill is active.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Corporations Committee did indeed meet on Tuesday, only after the meeting had been rescheduled multiple times - its second meeting since the bill left the Elections Committee. The meeting was finally called to order in the evening after the day’s Senate session. Committees rarely, if ever, meet after session. In fact, Squadron said he couldn't recall a committee meeting being scheduled for after session during his seven years serving in the Senate.

The LLC bill was not on the committee's agenda despite Squadron’s insistence that Senate rules mandated it. Committee Chair Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer told Squadron that he had not received a letter requesting his bill be put on the agenda until just before the meeting.

Squadron said he indeed had notified the committee properly and that the request for consideration he filed with the Elections Committee should have ensured the bill was on the agenda. Republican counsel interpreted the rules differently saying that the motion did not mandate a vote in Corporations.

“I just got your letter. I haven't been able to digest your letter,” Ranzenhofer told Squadron. “Let me take look at it and decide whether it should be on the calendar.”

Squadron pressed Ranzenhofer on when the committee might meet next and if it is likely his bill would be on the agenda. “Actually, before this subject came up it was actually not my plan to have any more meetings,” Ranzenhofer responded and referenced the many bills that had already been considered during the meeting. With that the meeting was adjourned.

“Hope springs eternal,” Squadron told Gotham Gazette. “I have hope that the new leader will consider the importance of this measure,” Squadron said, noting that new Majority Leader John Flanagan had only been elected to replace Skelos the day before. Flanagan told reporters earlier in the day that he would discuss the loophole with his conference.

Barbara Bartoletti of The League of Women Voters said she wasn’t exactly surprised Squadron’s bill was not considered. “No one pays attention to committee meetings in the Senate,” she said, adding, “Most lobbyists don’t even show up because they are controlled by leadership.”

Consensus on ending the loophole has been elusive despite the headlines it has inspired.

Closing the loophole appeared to be part of budget negotiations, with Governor Andrew Cuomo saying publicly that he believes it should be closed, but it was absent from the final deal that was revealed to legislators minutes before they had to vote for it. It has been unclear if the governor, whose campaign accounts have benefited immensely from LLC contributions, has worked at all to move Senate Republicans toward closing the loophole.

In April, good government groups partnered with legislators to push the State Board of Elections to close the loophole that it had created through a 1996 ruling. The Board deadlocked 2-2, with both Republican appointees voting against a measure sponsored by the Democrats to consider limits on LLCs.

Also last month, the Senate Elections Committee referred Squadron’s bill to Corporations, where it appears it will die. There is no indication that the committee will meet again before legislative session ends in mid-June.

“They all benefit from this,” said Bartoletti of both houses of the Legislature and Governor Cuomo. “One of them will do something on it knowing the other will prevent real action.”

Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, a New York City Democrat and sponsor of the Assembly bill to close the LLC loophole, acknowledged the fact that members of both political parties are beneficiaries in the status quo. “This is a non-partisan issue,” said Kavanagh. After his bill was passed by a whopping 120-8 vote in the Assembly, Kavanagh later issued a statement saying he hopes “The Senate will join us in enacting this, by passing Senator Daniel Squadron's companion bill."

In the news release celebrating the Assembly vote sent out by Speaker Carl Heastie’s office, Kavanagh is also quoted saying that "The LLC loophole is perhaps the most egregious weakness in our laws regulating money in politics. It has been the mechanism of choice for certain people to attempt to buy influence wholesale.”

For his part, Heastie stated, “Limits on political contributions exist for a reason...By treating LLCs the same way we treat corporations, we can create greater transparency and put an end to the use of multiple LLCs as a means of working around campaign finance laws.”

Good government groups issued a statement praising the bipartisan passage of the bill in the Assembly. “With the passage of A.6975-B, the Assembly has sent a strong bipartisan signal, and is taking an important step to uphold the public interest and rebuild confidence through the passage of one of many needed ethics reforms,” said the statement from a coalition of groups including The New York Public Interest Research Group, Common Cause, The Brennan Center, Reinvent Albany and Citizens Union. “We encourage the Senate to follow suit and let New Yorkers know they are serious about addressing the pervasive culture of corruption plaguing Albany.”

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing 

John Flanagan's Senate Campaign Finance: The Full Picture


Flanagan via Senate website

John Flanagan (photo: Senate website)


John Flanagan, Republican state Senator, is now Temporary President and Majority Leader in Albany's upper chamber. He replaces Dean Skelos in leadership following the fellow Long Island senator's arrest on federal corruption charges. With a nod to upstate legislators, Flanagan retains Tom Libous as deputy leader, despite Libous himself being under federal indictment.
 
In his new, higher-profile, more powerful leadership role, Flanagan will be at the table with Governor Andrew Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, both Democrats, as all major policy decisions are negotiated. With increased power comes increased scrutiny - just after being elected to lead the Senate, Flanagan was asked repeatedly by reporters on Monday if he is under federal investigation. He indicated he is not. As both Skelos and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver were brought down by federal indictments related to financial matters, whether extortion, kickbacks, or other charges, the political finance network of John Flanagan is now more relevant than ever. While Flanagan last week quit his other job as a lawyer leading up to his Senate ascent, he has been in the Legislature for more than twenty years and has a long campaign finance record, both in terms of donations to his campaign accounts, and expenditures made by those accounts.
 
Here is a look at Flanagan's fundraising velocity across his career in the New York Senate, which he joined in 2003 after many years in the Assembly:
 
flanagan 1
 
Flanagan has raised $2,557,409.53 since 2000 (beginning in earnest with 2002, an election year). He had his biggest fundraising year in 2006. From 2002 through 2014, he collected an average of $196,362.27 in donations per year, in an average of 350 donor transactions.
 
Here are his top Individual donors (everyone who gave $5,000 and up, 2002-2014):
flanagan individual donors
His largest donor, Ronald Parr (whose business also appears on the next list, of corporate donors) describes his company as, "Headquartered in Ronkonkoma, New York, The Parr Organization has been a leading Long Island full service construction and development company for more than fifty years."
 
Burton Resnick is a real estate executive with Jack Resnick and Sons. Rod Brayman is President at Phoenix Beverages. Paula G. McInerney, Matthew Cody, Roger Hertog, and Bruce Kovner are all current or retired hedge fund managers.  
 
Sen. Flanagan's top Corporate donors (2002-2014):
flanagan corp
This list is almost entirely liquor- and beverage-related with a tiny touch of real estate and Up From The Ashes, Inc, which is associated with Rod Brayman (who is in beverages).
 
Between the use of multiple entities, and all the variations in how names are entered, identifying these relationships can be tricky. When special care is taken to review the diversely named enterprises of Leonard Litwin and Glenwood Management, $31,500 in accumulated contributions from these sources to Flanagan emerges. This means that while traditional methods implicate BOTTLEBARGAINS NORWOOD LIQUORS INC. as Flanagan's largest corporate donor, this honor apparently goes to Glenwood, instead. By comparison, Dean Skelos received over $110,000 from Litwin, while John DeFrancisco (across two committees) received $36,100.  
 
Sen. Flanagan's top Institutional donors (2002-2014):
flanagan institutional
Flanagan's chairmanship of the Education committee, at the very least, is apparent in the institutional donor list above. Otherwise, the major spenders in his world are the same as the rest of leadership, past and present. As senate leader, Flanagan will no longer chair the education committee, he has yet to name a successor.
 
Looking at Flanagan's campaign account expenditures show interesting data of how the senator has spend that money (again, 2002-2014):
flanagan expenditures
Like his Assembly counterpart, Democratic Speaker Carl Heastie, Flanagan appears quite comfortable putting massive expenditure on his American Express. At $115,025.96, that is where 4.49% of every dollar Flanagan raised actually went.  
 
Using information (unevenly supplied) in the memo column, it appears that most of this credit card money is spent on food and liquor, followed by gas and hotels. The rest of that lump sum is spent on late fees and interest payments to American Express.
 
Standing out from this list are Flanagan's campaign payments to Toyota Financial Services - presumably an auto loan - in the total amount of $32,817.90, so far. It would appear he is financing an automobile with campaign account funds. 
 
A common feature of leadership and putative leadership in each legislative chamber in Albany is being a net creditor to your party-conference organizations. While some tithes to parties are handled as expenditures, larger sums are often handled via Schedule H (transfers out). Here are nearly a dozen committees to which Flanagan transfered money (2002-2014):
flanagan transfers
The bulk of these transfers, to his party machine, were conducted in 2010 and 2014, while balance-of-power elections raged in his chamber. In 2006, the SRCC transferred $200,000 to Flanagan. He has since transferred $551,000 back. 

***
by Jon Reznick for Gotham Gazette
Data analysis performed using FTMSQL2 by Competitive Advantage Research, LLC

The Flanagan Effect: What the New Senate Leader Means for the De Blasio Agenda


Flanagan oath Facebook

New Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (photo via Facebook)


ALBANY - Republican John Flanagan assumed the mantle of Senate Majority Leader on Monday during an unprecedented time of upheaval in Albany, brought on by the arrests of both former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos on multiple federal corruption charges. Scandal unearthed by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has exposed the backroom dealings of the state's largest political donor and the men who control the flow of legislation. As he takes a new seat at the negotiating table, Flanagan faces a variety of challenges, including establishing himself as free of ethical baggage and coalescing a fractured Republican party.

While he'll have to prove his trustworthiness to his colleagues and the public at a time filled with ever-increasing cynicism about government, one challenge Flanagan will not have to face is convincing many of the rank-and-file senators he now leads to oppose policies favored by progressive New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. As legislative session begins its final six weeks with another major leadership shake-up, de Blasio and many others from the city are looking to Albany with nervous anticipation as key policies hang in the balance.

Just moments after being congratulated on the floor of the Senate, Flanagan spoke to reporters and acknowledged the "boatload" of issues facing New York City and said that de Blasio should be reaching out to legislators and the governor to move some of the issues forward.

Earlier on Monday, before it was clear that Flanagan would be the next Senate Leader, de Blasio was asked about the power shift in Albany at an unrelated press conference. The mayor called the situation in Albany "unstable" and uneasily said, "Right now, we're focused on getting what we can get done over the next six-seven weeks in Albany for the people in New York City."

With only 17 session days left on the calendar, de Blasio is still waiting for Albany to negotiate deals on renewing sunsetting rent laws, the 421-A tax break for developers, and mayoral control of city schools. De Blasio and his allies in the City Council are also aligned with state Democrats in pushing for an increase in the minimum wage and paid family leave. It seems unlikely that Flanagan's ascent will change the Republican Majority's stance against a minimum wage increase and other changes favored by city leaders.

In fact, as he seeks to establish himself as the lone Republican of the "three men in a room," Flanagan may drive an even harder bargain than Skelos might have.

Many observers say they see Flanagan as a 'continuation of the status quo.' The 53-year-old senator has served in state government for more than half his life, is a white male Long Island Republican, worked at a lawfirm up until last week, is a member of conservative think thank ALEC, voted against marriage equality, and has already clashed with de Blasio, Senate Republicans' favorite foil.

While some of the profile fits, Republican insiders say that Flanagan's political history belies his biggest strength - his ambition. And it is that ambition that could see Flanagan become even more of a thorn in the side of de Blasio and an opponent of his agenda than even his predecessor, Skelos, who carried a major grudge after the mayor's 2014 attempt to win the Senate for Democrats.

After a fast leadership battle that some legislators say has been fracturing for the beleaguered Republican Majority, some legislators and activists say they expect de Blasio could serve as a uniter for Flanagan and the conference.

Flanagan is likely to make all effort to show strong leadership immediately. While other members of the Senate Majority have been content to serve as seat holders far into old age to keep the conference relevant, Flanagan has loftier goals. The new Senate Leader sees himself as a viable statewide candidate, and although he passed up the opportunity to run on the Republican ticket for Attorney General last year, he still harbors ambition to be Governor.

Not unlike the current governor, Democrat Andrew Cuomo - whom Flanagan will now be working with much more closely, the new Senate Leader has already tweaked Mayor de Blasio on education issues. Earlier this year, in an interview on The Capitol Pressroom, Flanagan, then chair of the education committee, said that mayoral control of schools might not be renewed and certainly would not be renewed as is. On renewal, Flanagan said: "I believe we have a very sincere and open opportunity to do so. Can I guarantee that? No."

Flanagan complained that de Blasio hadn't been particularly communicative with his conference and that he was trying to schedule hearings on mayoral control with de Blasio and City Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina.

In that same interview Flanagan chided de Blasio for failing to "properly listen" to Republican legislators from the city and for trying to win the Senate majority for Democrats.

"I would recommend to the mayor that that was not the most prudent course of action," Flanagan said. "Look, he took a shot. He decided he wanted to do something, and the good news for the taxpayers of this state is, he didn't get it. We have the majority, and in some ways, his actions helped us politically. Because a lot of the things that he stands for, people outside the City of New York find anathema to their own interests."

On Monday, when de Blasio was asked about the fact that Senate Democrats did not try to grab the majority during the chaos caused by Skelos' arrest, he said, "I'm certainly not going to speak for them. They understand their circumstance better than I do. It's a very sad moment in Albany – let's face it – and a moment that's somewhat unstable." The mayor went on to allude to the 2016 elections, when Democrats will be hoping to ride a Hillary Clinton wave into control of the chamber. "You know, the future – obviously there will be an election next year that will determine the fate," de Blasio said, "but I think that State Senate Democrats are dealing with a situation as best they can right now."

Close de Blasio ally and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito was specific in issuing a statement congratulating Flanagan. "With so many important legislative issues in Albany - from affordable housing, to education to paid family leave - it's essential that the Legislature be able to continue it's critical work and I look forward to working with Senator Flanagan to make New York a better place," Mark-Viverito's statement reads.

Tenant activists have already written off the Republican conference as a whole because of members' connections to the real estate industry. De Blasio recently issued a housing policy agenda that supports a number of measures to strengthen rent control laws - Republicans are said to want a straight renewal of rent laws in exchange for continuation of the controversial 421-A tax abatement.

Groups tied to Glenwood Management - the developer named in charges againt both Silver and Skelos, gave Flanagan over $40,000 in the last few years, according to a study by Common Cause NY. Reporters repeatedly asked Flanagan if he was the subject of any investigations and he repeatedly said that there was nothing to worry about.

Flanagan takes the reigns of the Senate in what some have come to see as a "post unity" era. Skelos and his conference suffered major push back from the Conservative Party and upstate Republicans for cooperating with Cuomo to pass marriage equality, the SAFE Act gun control measures, and the last minimum wage increase.

With the slimmest of majorities, many expect Flanagan will look to bolster his conference by appealing to the base with attacks on de Blasio and pushback against his progressive agenda. Flanagan's opponent in the race to replace Skelos, John DeFrancisco, had the backing of many upstate and western New York politicians. Flanagan will need to appeal to them to keep the the party from fracturing.

To some Republicans Flanagan represents the more liberal branch of the party because of his support for the recent gun laws. On Monday the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association issued a statement saying Flanagan's election, is "a divisive blow to the freedom loving people of New York and should send a chill down the spine of every gun owner since the new leader voted for the so-called SAFE Act."

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by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

Tenant Advocates Seize on Scandal in Push for Stronger Rent Laws


make the road activists

Make the Road activists (photo: @Met_Council)


Tenant advocates, angered by Gov. Andrew Cuomo's recent comments that they see as favoring landlords and the real estate industry, protested outside his Manhattan office on Wednesday afternoon.

The action, which featured members of Metropolitan Council on Housing, Tenants and Neighbors, and Make the Road New York, is the first in what will be an onslaught targeting Cuomo and bringing up his close ties to the real estate industry, especially the fact that his biggest donor is Glenwood Management, the group tied to the federal complaints against former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.

As legislative session continues in Albany and key housing-related legislation is set to expire, advocates want to see an end to the 421-A tax break for developers and strengthening of rent regulations.

Cuomo told The Association for a Better New York on April 24 that dysfunction in Albany could lead to a straight extension of the rent laws and the controversial 421-A program that has also been at issue in the Silver and Skelos investigations. Tenant activists have taken Cuomo's comments and the possibility of his prediction coming true as an assault on their goals.

"The governor's comments were unacceptable," Javier Valdes, co-executive director of Make The Road New York, told Gotham Gazette. "It shows a real disconnect about the crisis that is going on for tenants in New York and the suburbs."

Jonathan Westin of New York Communities for Change said that his organization hopes to pressure Skelos, a Republican, and Cuomo, a Democrat, on rent laws so that there isn't simply a straight extension. "The governor supports the status quo and make no mistake about it, the status quo is a victory for real estate interests. The status quo means thousands more affordable apartments lost," Westin told Gotham Gazette.

Thomas Waters, housing policy analyst for The Community Service Society of New York, told Gotham Gazette he simply doesn't believe dysfunction is going to get in the way of negotiating the issue. "We saw how quickly the Assembly moved on from Silver's indictment," he said.

The protesters circulated a letter to Cuomo on Monday that read in part, "We write to express our outrage over your recent comments that displayed, at best, indifference to New Yorkers who are struggling to pay their rent in rent-regulated apartments. Low- and moderate-income tenants who live in more than 1 million rent-regulated apartments are at a breaking point because of the failure of leadership in Albany."

Tenant advocates are increasingly unnerved by Cuomo's comments about the rent laws, 421-A, and Skelos. On Wednesday Cuomo said he would negotiate with Skelos because he couldn't pick who runs the Senate and that 421-A must be extended. He also was asked to explain his relationship with Glenwood Management. "They are a donor of mine. They are a donor of many elected officials across the state, and that's basically the interaction," Cuomo said. "I've had nothing to do [with them], except they've been political supporters of mine."

Valdes said his group plans to convey to Cuomo that recent scandals have changed the playing field because they've exposed how things work in the backroom.

"The governor made comments in Syracuse that 421-A has to be renewed and yet it is in the complaint against Senator Skelos where he is getting kickbacks from the real estate industry," said Valdes. "There is a major disconnect here. The governor is supporting the status quo and the status quo just won't cut it anymore. We won't stand for tax breaks that favor millionaire developers while our members are driven out of their apartments.

The complaint against Skelos alleges that Glenwood, Cuomo's largest campaign donor, provided Skelos' son with $20,000 for doing no work after Skelos pressured Glenwood reps to provide his son with business.

It appears one of Glenwood's higher-ups is now serving as a witness and informant for federal investigators. Cuomo defended Glenwood during an appearance in Syracuse on Wednesday, saying he would not return donations from the company and its main players because there was no proof of "wrongdoing."

"The difference this year is that it is all out in the open," said Westin. "We see how the billionaire developers influence policy with campaign donations and illegal bribes and we aren't going to let it stand."

Advocates plan a two-headed strategy with tenant advocates tying Cuomo to major real estate donors and legislators and union members pushing Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie to play hardball when it comes time to negotiate the rent laws.

"Carl can't just go in there with Cuomo and Skelos to negotiate," said Michael McKee, treasurer of Tenants PAC. "He has to take hostages. If they want to get anything they want, Carl has to get stronger rent laws. It's up to him."

Last Friday, legislators, union heads, and Mayor Bill de Blasio came together for a strategy meeting on rent law lobbying. According to numerous sources, the meeting convened by 1199 SEIU was designed to involve more unions in the effort and convince union heads that the issue is critical to their members.

On Tuesday, de Blasio issued a statement supporting stronger rent laws and advocating a number of specific policy points like reducing how much landlords can raise rent for repairs, ending high-rent vacancy decontrol, and eliminating landlord's ability to raise the rent of rent controlled apartments by 20 percent after it is vacated. He did, however, also argue for the extension of 421-A, as long as it is tied to more clear mandates for the affordable housing that is supposed to come with the tax benefits. "No more tax breaks without building affordable housing in return," de Blasio said in a statement to the New York Times.

"The biggest thing that has changed this time around is that we have the mayor on our side for the first time," said Waters, who said de Blasio is backing the choice measures out of the slate of policy reforms his organization supports. Getting over the hurdles of a Republican-controlled Senate and a real-estate friendly governor will not be easy, of course. Plus, many Democrats at all levels of government receive large donations from real estate interests.

Landlord groups like the Rent Stabilization Association insist that a number of the measures in the rent laws that de Blasio and tenant advocates want eliminated are critical in allowing landlords to afford the costly maintenance of apartments. The RSA is currently running a television spot that laments the plight of landlords and Albany's inability to come up with a solution to help landlords maintain the housing stock.

Valdes and Make the Road will be in Albany every Tuesday for the rest of session, they've said. Session is scheduled to go until mid-June, and advocates plan a large rally during the first week that month. Other rallies are expected across the city and in Albany, with major one in Manhattan's Foley Square on Thursday, May 14.

Valdes said that his group sees an "affordability crisis" building across the city and the suburbs. "People used to think of this as a Manhattan problem but I can tell you it is an outerborough problem now."

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing



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