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At First Forum of Governor's Race, Democrats Stake Out Positions on Progressive Priorities


Tom Suozzi, Jumaane Williams, and Kathy Hochul

(l-r: Tom Suozzi, Jumaane Williams, and Kathy Hochul)


At the first forum in the Democratic gubernatorial primary race, progressive activists pressed the declared candidates on their positions on prominent pieces of legislation and policy from single-payer health care to good cause eviction and increased funding for climate protection, and more.

Three candidates are so far running in the Democratic primary for governor that will be decided this June: incumbent Governor Kathy Hochul, U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi, and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams (while former Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to join the race soon). At the virtual forum on Thursday night, hosted by Our Revolution New York and New York Progressive Action Network, Suozzi and Williams made appearances to speak to activists’ priorities; Hochul’s campaign was represented by a surrogate, New York City Council Member Gale Brewer. The three appeared one at a time to answer the same set of questions.

Suozzi, a centrist representing Nassau County, was game for the back-and-forth despite being hard-pressed for support among the forum’s attendees, made up of some of the most ardently progressive activists in the state. “I've always considered myself a progressive but I'm not really progressive in the terms of the modern day progressive as much,” he said in his opening statement. “So I'm more of a common-sense Democrat now.”

Hochul, had she made an appearance, would likely be in a similar position since she too leans towards the center on the issues that are dear to the progressive left, though in her short tenure as governor thus far she has sought something of a liberal middle ground between more conservative Democrats and the progressive wing. Brewer was cautious on Hochul’s behalf, making few commitments and instead spending her time touting Hochul’s accomplishments since she took over after Andrew Cuomo’s resignation this past summer.

Williams, on the other hand, found a welcoming audience. The progressive Democrat with a background in grassroots activism has been a darling of the left and was even endorsed by NYPAN when he last ran for statewide office, seeking the office of Lieutenant Governor against Hochul, at the time an incumbent, in 2018.

The candidates were questioned about six key issues and pieces of legislation and there were clear differences among them.

Single-Payer Health Care
The New York Health Act, sponsored by Assemblymember Dick Gottfried and Senator Gustavo Rivera, would establish a single-payer health-care system in the state and has been a priority for progressives for decades. But there has been little consensus among Democrats about the legislation despite the party controlling both chambers of the state Legislature and the executive branch.

“I support the idea behind the New York Health Act but I don't support the New York Health Act and I would not support it,” Suozzi said, insisting it would cost far too much to implement and that the state cannot afford to raise already-high tax rates. He also didn’t pledge to veto the bill should it pass the Legislature. “If my legislature decided that they thought it was the right thing to do, and they could persuade me as to why it would not ruin the state, I'd consider it. So I'm not going to say whether I would or would not at this stage of the game,” he said. 

Brewer touted Hochul’s investment of billions of dollars into health-care wages, mental health hygiene worker retention bonuses, and cost of living raises for health workers and health infrastructure. “I don't know that she is specifically supporting [Gottfreid’s] health insurance system, which is basically what it is, a universal single-payer system,” Brewer said. Hochul has not come out in support of the New York Health Act, and it was not in her recently-released State of the State policy agenda, though she does have ideas for further expanding health insurance coverage to New Yorkers.

Williams has long been a supporter of the New York Health Act. “If we don't understand how important it is now in this pandemic, I don't know when we’ll get it,” he said, insisting that the state must raise taxes on the wealthy to fund it. 

Eviction Moratorium and Good Cause Eviction
New York State’s moratorium on evictions is set to end on Saturday, January 15, and activists and lawmakers have called for it to be extended. At the same time, tenant advocates as well as elected officials have been pushing for the passage of the Good Cause Eviction bill that would prevent landlords from evicting a tenant without a valid reason and would give tenants an automatic right to renew their lease while setting limits on annual rent increases.

Asked if they supported both an extension of the moratorium, which it appears state leaders will let expire, as well as the bill, again the candidates differed. 

“I've supported the extension of the eviction moratorium in the past, but I think we need to start figuring out how to fix this problem in our state and move forward,” Suozzi said, insisting that the moratorium is hurting small landlords. “It has to be fair and equitable, but I don't think we should extend it again.” He also opposed the good cause bill, saying the state already has some of the most stringent eviction protections anywhere in the country.

Brewer noted what Hochul has confirmed publicly, that she will not extend the eviction moratorium. “We talked about giving people a little more breathing room, giving them a little more relief on a short-term basis and that went all the way until January 15,” Hochul said on Tuesday. “And what we want to do is let people know that that is concluding very shortly. I’m having conversations with the Legislature on what to do on this issue.”

On the Good Cause Eviction bill, Brewer said she is “personally supportive” but “I don't know as much about [Hochul’s] position on this as I do about January 15.” Rather, she pointed to the governor’s efforts towards ending homelessness and funding anti-eviction legal assistance programs, among other measures. Hochul has not come out in support of the good cause bill, it was not in her State of the State, but has said it is among the policies she is discussing behind-the-scenes with legislative leaders.

Williams was supportive of both. “We do know that the eviction moratorium can't last forever,” he conceded. “But what I also know is this: You can't have an eviction moratorium end in the middle of a pandemic, in the winter, and not have good cause-only eviction. The combination of those things is wildly, wildly dangerous from a public health standpoint from what it’s going to do to homelessness and housing."

Taxing the Rich
During last year’s budget season in Albany, more than 120 advocacy groups from across New York came together to push for higher taxes on the wealthy and reinstating the stock transfer tax, which could raise billions in revenue for the state – they were partially successful as the state raised taxes on the highest earners and corporations. Centrists like Suozzi and Hochul (like her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo) have always been hesitant to raise taxes in what is already a high-tax state. Suozzi has pledged to cut property and income taxes should he win.

Asked if he supported raising taxes on high-income earners, Suozzi acknowledged, “I'm batting zero with your agenda but the reality is I don't.” He said taxes on the wealthiest should rather be increased at the federal level, where he has advocated for that on the Ways and Means Committee. “We can't keep on increasing taxes in New York, though, because people are leaving New York,” he said, citing concerns about driving businesses and Wall Street executives out of state.

Brewer spoke of Hochul’s investments in small businesses and steps to increase middle class tax cuts and rebates for struggling New Yorkers. “But I have not heard that she's going to support the stock transfer tax, which I know quite a bit about, or the [taxes on] high-income earners, which I know came up in the State Senate and Assembly last year,” Brewer said.

Williams pointed out that higher taxes on the wealthy were part of his campaign platform when he ran for lieutenant governor. “It's troublesome that, again, the governor won't even entertain revenue-raising options…We can't create the transformational new New York that we need, if we're not going to do this.”

Funding for Climate Protection and Green Energy
In 2019, the state Legislature passed and then-Governor Cuomo signed the landmark Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which mandates that the state reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and at least 85 percent by 2050, with other benchmarks as well. But little funding has gone into the goals of the legislation, which include environmental justice investments and green jobs programs.

“I totally support that 100%. We need to increase the funding,” Suozzi said, finally finding common ground with the progressive crowd. He also touted his efforts both at the local and federal levels to fight for climate action. “It's something that's near and dear to me,” he said. No specific funding methods were discussed.

Brewer said, “I think this is something that is moving in the right direction.” She pointed to Hochul’s recent announcement that the state will invest $500 million in offshore wind energy infrastructure, which is meant to generate $2 billion in economic activity and create more than 2,000 green jobs. “So sounds like to me that this major climate justice is something very focused on,” she said.

Williams again fell back on the need to raise more revenue. “I don't want to sound broken record-ish but, again, without entertaining revenue-raising options, it's very hard to do these things,” he said while expressing full support for investing more to reach the climate goals.

Home-Care Worker Pay
The Fair Pay for Home Care bill would raise the minimum wage for home-care workers from an average of $12.50 an hour to $22.50 an hour, in an effort to address a shortage of home-care workers across the state and pay them a good wage. In December, 40 county offices for the aging called on the governor to support the bill.

Suozzi said Thursday that he is “totally supportive” of increasing wages for home-care workers and pointed to his own bill before Congress to create long-term care insurance. “Long-term care insurance is not affordable for people anymore,” he said. “And we have to figure out how we can create a public-private partnership to create affordable long-term care by creating a federal insurance program for catastrophic care.”

Hochul has not taken a position on the bill yet and Brewer did not take one on her behalf. Instead, she pointed to various initiatives that she said the state was taking to help recruit, train, retain and incentivize home-care workers and nonprofit home-care providers. She said the state has applied for $2 billion from the federal government to fund those initiatives. “I believe this is something that Kathy Hochul is very, very focused on,” Brewer said.

Williams also supported the bill. “It's remarkable to me that it seems we're trying to force workers to go to work without addressing so many of the issues that they talked about before the pandemic,” he said.

Tuition-Free CUNY
The activists asked the campaigns whether they support the New Deal for CUNY bill, which would return CUNY to a tuition-free institution as it was before New York City’s fiscal crisis in 1975, among other things.

“I think it's more likely we’ll get something done in Washington, to try and get free community college for people as a first step, but I support the idea,” Suozzi said.

“I don't know the governor's perspective on that, about being a tuition-free institution,” said Brewer. Hochul has not called for CUNY to be tuition-free, though she has proposed several measures to improve CUNY, including providing free child care, increased tuition assistance, paid internship programs, and more.

Williams noted that he is a CUNY graduate himself. “CUNY was free till about the 1970s. The only thing that changed was the complexion of people who started going to CUNY,” he said. “The largest expansion of CUNY happened during the Great Depression. That was because people believed to help get us out of that, you had to educate a population. So there's no reason why we can't go back to a free CUNY tuition today.”

Real Estate Donations
One of the main litmus tests posed by the progressive left to candidates has been whether they will accept campaign contributions from the powerful real estate industry and how that will affect their decision-making.

Suozzi said he would accept them, “but I'm not getting many. They're all going to the governor, the sitting governor.” “I've never let a contribution influence my decision-making,” he added.

As has been reported, Hochul has already built a massive donor network and has been courting many of the biggest contributors to her predecessor, including those in the real estate industry. Brewer had little to say, however. “I don't know the answer,” she said.

Williams began rejecting real estate donors when he ran for lieutenant governor in 2018, and he won his public advocate races beginning in 2019 following that same rule. “We can continue to honor that pledge. We were the first people to win citywide office with that pledge,” he said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max Politics Podcast: Senator Jessica Ramos on Overhauling Child Care in New York & Other 2022 Priorities


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Senator Jessica Ramos (photo: NY Senate Media Services)


January 11, 2022 - Max Politics Podcast: Senator Jessica Ramos on Expanding Child Care, Replenishing the Excluded Workers Fund, & More

State Senator Jessica Ramos, a Queens Democrat who chairs the Senate's labor committee, joined the show to discuss her push to vastly expand child care in New York, replenishing the Excluded Workers Fund, raising the minimum wage, and other top 2022 priorities, as well as aspects of the political and electoral landscape in this state election year.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think, on Twitter @TweetBenMax. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts at Max Politics.

Read more: Max Politics Podcast: Senator Jessica Ramos on Overhauling Child Care in New York & Other 2022...

Promising ‘New Era’ of Collaboration and Sweeping Agenda, Hochul Delivers First State of the State Address


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Governor Hochul delivers her 2022 State of the State (photo: Darren McGee/Governor's Office)


Governor Kathy Hochul delivered her first State of the State address on Wednesday, laying out a vision for New York's future as the state enters another year of pandemic and economic recovery. Facing a primary in June, Hochul's speech outlined the agenda of her first — and possibly only — full year in office.

Speaking to the State Legislature and all New Yorkers from the Assembly Chamber — a return to tradition but a break from her predecessor, disgraced former Governor Andrew Cuomo, who resigned in August — Hochul sketched a plan she said would shepherd the state through the medical, economic, and social perils of the pandemic and confront long-standing needs in climate resilience, infrastructure, and government ethics.

It was the first time a woman delivered the annual address that is required by the state constitution.

The venue was one of several ways in which Hochul, a Democrat from the Buffalo area, made a point to distinguish herself from Cuomo, though she never mentioned him by name. Since taking office, the former lieutenant governor has made efforts to usher in a culture shift in the executive chamber, state government, and throughout New York politics, embracing a spirit of transparency, government ethics, and cooperation.

"To my colleagues and partners in government, for too long Albany's executive and legislative branches were fighting each other in that arena. No more. That ends now," Hochul declared Wednesday. She promised a "new era" of deference to "the rightful role of this legislature" and without "petty rivalries" with the mayor of New York City – both apparent references to Cuomo's notorious leadership style.

"And the days of three men in a room are clearly over. Just ask the majority leader," she added with a nod to Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who was among the few top state officials sitting near the standing Hochul on the dais. Also there were Attorney General Letitia James and Comptroller Tom DiNapoli. A small crowd of legislators was socially-distanced in the chamber. Missing was Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who was watching from his Albany residence after a positive COVID-19 test result.

"My fellow New Yorkers, this agenda is for you," Hochul said. "Every single initiative is filtered through the lense of how to help you and your families."

The agenda includes over 200 initiatives, including some grand ideas – like growing the healthcare workforce by 20% over five years; replacing the embattled state government ethics body, JCOPE; exploring a new "inter-borough express" transit line connecting Brooklyn and Queens; and building or preserving 100,000 affordable housing units over five years. It includes tax breaks for small businesses and middle class individuals, families and homeowners; greater access to public colleges; and investments in workforce development and childcare; funding and new models for gun control and violence mitigation; and reversing the historic damage of infrastructure projects on neighborhoods of color; among many others.

"We are going to jumpstart our economic recovery by being the most business friendly and worker friendly state in the nation," she said. That includes a promise to invest millions to develop urban centers of commerce, and promote a range of sectors from finance to retail to tech and healthcare.

Several of her proposals are to continue or tweak initiatives already underway, but a majority will unfold before the end of the legislative session and the gubernatorial primary, both in June. Some are things she can do on her own, many she needs legislative approval for, a number of which are dependent on the shape of the next state budget, which is due by the April 1 start of the state fiscal year. That spending plan will be heavily influenced by Hochul’s first Executive Budget, due later this month, and subsequent negotiations with the two houses of the Legislature, both of which are controlled by Democrats.

"I think many of those priorities coincided with ours," Stewart-Cousins, a Democrat from Westchester, told reporters after the speech. "It is good to have partners in government who understand fundamentally that there are things that we can do together."

"The governor outlined numerous proposals in her address, and in the coming weeks we will be reviewing them so that together we can improve the lives of all New Yorkers," Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, said in a statement. "In the Assembly, we have and always will put families first and fight for the everyday needs of the people we represent."

A major theme of the address was targeting the public health and economic effects of the pandemic by expanding and supporting critical workforces, like healthcare and education, and matching industry needs with labor market supply.

One of Hochul's goals is to expand the healthcare workforce by 20% in five years with a $10 billion state investment, including $4 billion in wage supplements and bonuses and $2 billion in capital infrastructure. It includes changes to state regulations to allow doctors and nurses from out of state to practice in New York and tuition benefits and stipends for people training in the field.

Part of Hochul's workforce objective is expanding support for workers and job-seekers, like training, accreditation, and childcare. She plans to "reboot" the state's workforce development office by folding it into Empire State Development Corporation "so it can build stronger relationships with employers." The effort includes sending more funding through regional economic development councils, tying workforce funding to job placement, and making it easier for businesses to qualify as MWBEs.

It also means improving access to public higher education. Hochul proposed making the state's tuition assistance program (TAP) available to part-time students, adding childcare on every SUNY and CUNY campus, and increasing enrollment in public higher education to 500,000 students by 2030. A capstone initiative is her "Jails to Jobs" plan to support employment for formerly incarcerated individuals upon release. It entails training parole officers in career planning, more voluntary in-prison employment, more vocational training programs in prisons, and restoring TAP to incarcerated individuals. She also wants to pass the Clean Slate Act, a measure that allows certain criminal records to be sealed after a sentence is completed, something criminal justice reform advocates have been pushing for.

The address also included a series of financial relief measures for individuals and small businesses struggling to weather the pandemic.

Hochul proposed phasing in a $1.2 billion tax cut to 6.1 million middle-class taxpayers two years earlier than currently planned, and a $1 billion property tax rebate to 2 million middle-class homeowners. She wants to expand access to childcare for 100,000 families either through the Build Back Better federal package working its way through Congress, or by expanding eligibility at the state-level, and invest $75 million in wages for childcare providers.

For small businesses, she proposed $100 million in tax relief to close to 200,000 businesses as well as tax credits for farm owners (as a boon to bars and restaurants, Hochul also wants to reinstate to-go alcoholic beverages, a popular measure from the first year of the pandemic).

Hochul discussed major infrastructure projects like reconstructing Penn Station, advancing the Gateway Project, and construction at LaGuardia Airport and the Second Avenue Subway. Her "Interborough Express" idea would repurpose an existing 14-mile freightline from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, to Jackson Heights, Queens, to connect the two boroughs, shorten commutes, and spur economic development. Hochul said she was ordering an environmental review of the project, which is inspired by the Regional Plan Association’s Triboro RX plan (that also includes extension into the Bronx).

Hochul also committed to ameliorating the damage caused by some 20th Century urban design and transportation infrastructure that divided and polluted neighborhoods of color, with a set of four projects, in the Bronx, Rochester, Buffalo, and Syracuse. Each aims at reconnecting severed communities; a proposal to cover parts of the Cross-Bronx Expressway with public amenities would help bring together neighborhoods divided for decades and could reduce the effects on vehicle pollution in the area, according to the policy book released by the governor's office.

Several of the climate goals Hochul touted are already in progress, like her call to increase the Environmental Bond Act to $4 billion (a measure that will go before voters for approval this November) and clean energy projects to eliminate 80% of New York City's power plant emissions by 2030. She restated objectives to create more electric transit capacity and pass legislation to make all new building construction zero-emission by 2027.

Infrastructure also includes the digital – Hochul is planning $1 billion to expand high speed internet. It also includes facilitating the production or preservation of affordable housing through changes to land use rules, hotel conversation, accessory dwelling units, and replacing the 421-a tax abatement. The five-year, $25 billion goal to create or preserve 100,000 units of affordable housing also includes 10,000 units of supportive housing for homeless New Yorkers and other vulnerable populations.

“We are especially pleased to see Governor Hochul propose the Inter-borough Express, which will utilize existing railroad tracks to create new transit services in Brooklyn and Queens - and has long been a priority for RPA," said Regional Plan Association President and CEO Tom Wright in a statement Wednesday. "Additionally, her proposals to generate more multi-family housing near transit and the legalization of accessory dwelling units will create more vibrant communities while reducing greenhouse gas emissions."

"We are heartened by Gov. Hochul's words of concern and compassion for homeless New Yorkers, and pleased that she recognizes some of the pressing problems that unnecessarily cause homelessness as well as some important solutions like supportive housing," reads a statement from Shelly Nortz, Deputy Executive Director for Policy at Coalition for the Homeless. "Her forthcoming executive budget proposal will illuminate the adequacy and soundness of her proposals."

Hochul did not mention the January 15 expiration date of the state's eviction moratorium in her speech. Nortz called for the governor "to appropriate sufficient funds to keep New Yorkers facing eviction in their homes, provide adequate ongoing rental assistance to prevent and address homelessness for all New Yorkers, and extend the eviction moratorium." Coalition for the Homeless and other advocates have also called on the state to offer hotel rooms for homeless New Yorkers during the pandemic.

She invoked New York City's decaying public housing stock – home to 400,000-plus residents and in need of over $40 billion in capital funding – promising to take action without offering specifics. "We can no longer ignore the plight of NYCHA residents living in sometimes deplorable conditions," she said. "The lieutenant governor and I will work with the city of New York and this Legislature on concrete action this session." The governor's policy book makes no mention of NYCHA or public housing policy.

Good government advocates lauded Hochul's proposal to scrap and replace the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, the state's ethics watchdog universally criticized for having little bite and being under the influence of the elected officials who appoint it. Under Hochul's proposal, the replacement body would have "a rotating board of five members made up of the 15 state-accredited law school deans or their designee" and be subject to the state's Freedom of Information and Open Meetings Law.

"We believe this new independent ethics commission is by far the most important reform the Governor can champion to restore New Yorkers’ faith in their state government and curb abuses of power and conflicts of interest," wrote Reinvent Albany, a government ethics advocacy group, in a statement.

Earlier this week, the governor unveiled proposals to limit statewide elected officials to two terms and prevent them from earning non-government income, two other measures commended by government transparency and anti-corruption advocates and widely seen as an attempt to distance herself from Cuomo and prevent abuses of power like he committed.

Hochul's policy book contains legislative changes to protect voting rights and make it easier to cast a ballot: a state-level Voting Rights Act to combat voter suppression; moving the voter registration deadline to the constitutional minimum of 10 days from 25; and requiring poll sites on college campuses. She is also supporting the repassage of constitutional amendments to create same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee voting, measures that were defeated by voters this past fall after passing two consecutive legislative classes.

To promote public safety and combat a rise in gun violence, Hochul wants to triple the resources of the State Police gun-tracing efforts and direct state funding to local law enforcement. Notably, she proposed an "Interstate Gun-Tracing Consortium," similar to a central promise of Mayor Eric Adams when he was campaigning last year, that would be housed in the State Police and work with local law enforcement and neighboring states. The consortium will be led by Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin, working with Adams and law enforcement agencies at a level of "unprecedented cooperation," Hochul said.

​​Mayor Eric Adams commended the speech in a tweet Wednesday afternoon. He wrote: "Congratulations to @GovKathyHochul on a powerful #StateOfTheStateNY address. We have to meet this moment and deliver results for New Yorkers. The largest city in the country is ready to get the job done." Adams didn’t go into any specifics, but he is expected to testify on Hochul’s agenda and budget at the annual state legislative hearing on cities, likely in February.

Adams and Hochul are scheduled to appear together for an announcement in lower Manhattan on Thursday afternoon.

State Republican Party Chair Nick Langworthy issued a statement Wednesday afternoon criticizing Hochul's handling of the pandemic, public safety, small businesses, and other issues, and compared her and her policies to her disgraced predecessor. "She is already running an administration less transparent than the Prince of Darkness himself by hiding her meetings with the lobbyists and special interests she has raised more than $10 million from in the last three months," he said, using a nickname for Cuomo.

Langworthy decried high taxes, government overreach, bail reform, and population out-migration. He did not offer a vision or agenda for change, however, beyond electing Republicans in the upcoming elections.

***
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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State Psychiatric Facilities, Home to Especially Vulnerable Patients, Hit with Another Covid Surge


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Mid-Hudson Psychiatric Center (photo: omh.ny.gov)


State-run psychiatric hospitals have been engulfed by this winter's coronavirus surge, casting one of the most vulnerable populations back into the pandemic's path and miring the state agency responsible for them.

Confirmed covid cases among patients and staff living and working in the state's 24 inpatient psychiatric centers have been ticking up for the last several weeks before jumping significantly more recently, mirroring the trend around the state.

In less than two weeks, from December 20 to January 2, the number of infected patients quadrupled to 177 (4% of a total population around 4,370) and staff cases increased tenfold to over 500 out of 12,230 employees, according to the most recent data posted by the State Office of Mental Health (OMH), which runs the facilities.

A majority of the more than 4,300 individuals living in OMH psychiatric centers have severe mental illness, many with simultaneous medical issues, making the facilities among the most covid-susceptible congregate settings in the state.

Patients in state custody enter the system either through a referral from a doctor or hospital administration or through the criminal legal system. They typically lack the resources for private inpatient care leaving them under the jurisdiction of the state. In the first year of the pandemic, the per capita covid mortality rate among state psychiatric patients dwarfed that of state prisoners, residents of another pandemic-battered custodial facility, but was far smaller than that among nursing home residents.

In recent weeks, covid rates have exploded around the state, due to the appearance of the highly-contagious omicron variant and other factors, like the colder weather.

OMH is taking steps to mitigate the latest outbreak, including limiting visitation, regular testing, personal protective equipment, postponing nonessential training, and ramping up cleaning and disinfection protocols, according to a spokesperson.

"Although more contagious variants of COVID have increased infection rates in communities across the State, the infection control measures implemented by OMH have helped us protect our employees and the 11,369 patients served in our psychiatric centers since March of 2020," wrote James Plastiras, the OMH spokesperson, in an email referring to both inpatient and residential patients.

In addition to the safety protocols in hospitals, OMH staff have also been subject to the statewide covid vaccine mandate for health care workers. In December, Governor Kathy Hochul shortened the quarantine requirement for staff who test positive but are asymptomatic from ten days to five days in accordance with CDC guidelines. OMH also requires enhanced screening for visitors in counties with seven-day covid positivity rates above 3%, which now includes all of New York State.

The covid outbreaks have been especially severe in a few facilities, like Pilgrim Psychiatric Center on Long Island, Mid-Hudson Psychiatric in Orange County, South Beach Psychiatric on Staten Island, Manhattan Psychiatric, and Creedmoor in Queens. All of them had covid rates peak at 9%, either among patients or staff, in the previous week; and each had at least 15 positive patient cases and dozens of covid-positive staff on Sunday, January 2. Only two of the 24 facilities reported having no infected patients or staff.

Pilgrim, which has the most cases, went from zero positive patients on December 14 to 14 positive cases six days later. By December 28, the hospital had a peak of 41 infected patients – a number that has since fallen, according to the OMH data. Pilgrim had among the most staff cases, as of January 2, with 59 infections. Creedmoor had the highest with 79 employees testing positive – one in every 10.

Throughout the pandemic, Pilgrim has been one of the most deadly OMH sites, in part because it is one of the biggest. Ten patients died there between March and June of 2020, the most of any facility. One state employee who until recently provided services to patients at Pilgrim was not surprised it was again besieged by the virus.

"Of course it's dripping with covid," the employee wrote in a text message.

Psychiatric hospitals are ripe for COVID-19 infection because of the number of patients, visitors, clinical staff, and administrators coming and going and the close quarters in which patients live. The first wave of the pandemic decimated facilities in the spring of 2020 and after, killing at least 49 patients in the first year (and likely closer to 58, counting deaths presumed to be covid-related). Since February 2021, at least four more patients have died of the virus, according to Plastiras and available state data. In that time, psychiatric facilities have fared better, enjoying a months-long lull in cases in many parts of the state.

There have still been some outbreaks, like at Rochester Psychiatric, which saw more than a dozen patient infections last summer. And like New York's prisons and jails, psychiatric hospitals have suffered from short staffing and low morale, according to employees. Morale among patients has also waned during the recent covid surge, with the suspension of visitation and some so-called "fresh air" activities to limit the spread, marking another season of pandemic limitations.

"We have a lot of staff that have been out in general and now also with the covid outbreak, which has been going on for a couple of weeks, it's put more people out, it's more of a strain," said an employee at South Beach Psychiatric Center on Staten Island, speaking with Gotham Gazette on the condition of anonymity.

As of Sunday, South Beach had 26 positive patients and 46 positive employees. The employee said a mix of competition with other government agencies, forestalled retirements, and "resentment" toward what they described as OMH's top-down handling of the pandemic has led to what felt like an exodus in recent weeks. Available data shows South Beach's roughly 700-member staff declined by 11 members in the last six weeks.

The employee said the availability of testing marks a big change from the first pandemic wave in 2020, when covid tests were scarce. "This time we have the tests, so everyone gets tested, staff and patients, whereas the first time we didn't even know who was sick and who was not sick," he said.

Rockland Psychiatric Center, another large facility with some patients admitted through criminal court, had 14 confirmed cases among patients and 45 among staff on Sunday. As of Monday, January 3, all but two of Rockland's 13 units were either "quarantined" because a patient had tested positive or "closed" because an employee had, according to an email to staff obtained by Gotham Gazette. One unit also has a separate influenza outbreak.

"It has just burned through this place, at least among the staff, within the last two weeks," one member of Rockland's clinical staff told Gotham Gazette, also speaking on the condition of anonymity.

A quarantined unit means changes to the dining schedule and setting, reduction of off-unit furloughs, and other restrictions, according to the staff member there. Rockland has also halted family visitations and outdoor services, they said. Group therapies are now taking place in residential units instead of shared spaces.

Patients at Rockland are "upset that they can't have family visits, they don't get fresh air right now," the clinician said.

Staffing shortages limit the effectiveness of protocols for isolation and distancing. Ten of the units are "closed," to prevent staff from transmitting the virus from one ward to another.

"It just means that technically staff shouldn't be going from one unit to another unit but that never happens because staff has to float at night due to short-staffing. And if there is an emergency staff has to go," the employee told Gotham Gazette.

The pandemic's endless churning has worn down patients and staff. Rockland has added over 20 members to its staff since late November, according to OMH data.

"It's just as stressful," the staff member said. "Everyone is running low on staff, so at any given point there's at least one or two people on quarantine for five days and then I'm sure it's going to keep bubbling along and so we'll be short-staffed for who knows how long."

Since the demand for testing has increased this winter, testing sites around the state have seen long lines and delays in turn-around time. Plastiras, the OMH spokesperson, said the agency has administered over 313,000 rapid tests since December 4, 2020. The Rockland employee said OMH has improved testing protocols for staff over the last two weeks, opening up a daily testing window for any interested member. But they believed more could be done to screen patients, who don't have regular access to screening.

"For the patients they are only doing like two units a day, whereas it should really be [testing in] every unit every day," they said. "I'm sure that that's a supply-side constraint, but my unit hasn't been tested since early last week."

***
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

The 20 Most-Read Gotham Gazette Stories of 2021


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Eric Adams voting for himself for Mayor (photo: @ericadamsfornyc)


The most-read Gotham Gazette reporting of 2021 shows what kind of year it was, dominated by the New York City election cycle and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

[Revisit our most-read reporting from 2020 here.]

And while the list below of the 20 most-read Gotham Gazette stories of 2021 is biased against some of our excellent December reporting, which has had less time to accumulate readership, it is still very much reflective of the in-depth local journalism Gotham Gazette is proud to provide New Yorkers. Especially so during such an important election year.

Not included on this list are some of the articles that had the most readership but are more election guides than reported articles, such as “Meet the Republican Candidates for Mayor” and “Where They Stand: Compare Democratic NYC Mayoral Candidates On The Issues,” or rundowns of election results, or more recent but very popular posts like “Mayor-Elect Adams Announces Hundreds of Transition Committee Members” and “Tracking the Transition: Eric Adams Appoints His Government.” 

1. Eric Adams’ Strengths and Weaknesses as He Runs for Mayor - by Samar Khurshid & Ben Max
(This article was published in the final days of 2020, but saw the vast majority of its readership in 2021 and was our most-read of 2021)

2. Kathryn Garcia’s Strengths and Weaknesses as She Runs for Mayor - by Samar Khurshid & Ben Max

3. Mayor-Elect Eric Adams’ Biggest Campaign Promises - by Ethan Geringer-Sameth

4. Maya Wiley Rallies Black Women to Make Her the First to Become Mayor of New York - by Samar Khurshid

5. 88,000 New York City Voters Shifted from Republican or Independent to Democratic Party Ahead of Primary - by Samar Khurshid

6. Maya Wiley’s Strengths & Weaknesses as She Runs for Mayor - by Samar Khurshid & Ben Max

7. ‘This Is Going To Change Everything’: How the American Rescue Plan Will Impact New York City - by Ethan Geringer-Sameth

8. What is Andrew Yang’s Mayoral Campaign Policy Platform? - by Samar Khurshid

9. Mayoral Hopefuls Appeared at a Candidate Forum, Then the Conversation Got Interesting - by Samar Khurshid

10. Report Takes Closer Look at Low-Income New Yorkers’ Concerns About Long-Term Covid Impacts - by Ethan Geringer-Sameth

11. Antonio Reynoso is the Likely Next Brooklyn Borough President; Here’s What He Ran On - by Laura Glesby

12. An Initial Look at Voter Turnout in the 2021 NYC Primary - by Ethan Geringer-Sameth

13. Consultants, Advisors and Staff: Who’s Running the Democratic Mayoral Campaigns? - by Samar Khurshid

14. Eric Adams Vows to Overhaul How City Government Works; Experts Point to Several Essentials to Following Through - by Samar Khurshid

15. Despite Assurances, De Blasio Yet to Release Plan for City’s Devastated Economy - by Samar Khurshid

16. CUNY Confronts Series of Challenges as University System Nears In-Person Reopening - by Megan Kelly

16. Vanessa Gibson is the Likely Next Bronx Borough President; Here’s What She Ran On - by Laura Glesby

17. Mark Levine is the Likely Next Manhattan Borough President; Here’s What He Ran On - by Laura Glesby

18. During Pandemic Peak, Psychiatric Patients Were Rushed Into Institutions - by Ethan Geringer-Sameth

19. As Eric Adams Allies Push Francisco Moya, Coalition Forms Behind Adrienne Adams for Next City Council Speaker - by Ben Max

20. The Growth of Dominican Political Power in New York - by Felipe De La Hoz

***
@GothamGazette

‘We Need Historic Leadership from Biden and Schumer’: Jamaal Bowman on ‘Build Back Better’ Negotiations, Mayor-elect Adams, & More


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Rep. Jamaal Bowman in Washington, D.C. (photo: @RepBowman)


U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman says he is optimistic about the incoming mayoral administration, even going so far as to say Eric Adams has the potential to be “one of the best mayors in New York City history,” but he’s less bullish about the state of Build Back Better in Congress, owing to what he describes as donor-driven obstruction by West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.

Bowman, a freshman legislator who represents the Bronx and Westchester in Congress after defeating longtime incumbent Eliot Engel in a Democratic primary last year, appeared on a recent episode of the Max Politics podcast from Gotham Gazette for a wide-ranging discussion touching upon President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion Build Back Better agenda, Manchin’s obstruction of that social and physical infrastructure package, and his thoughts on the incoming administration of Mayor-elect Adams.

Bowman, a former school principal, is a card-carrying member of the Democratic Socialists of America who has allied himself with fellow Bronx Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the progressive “squad” they are both part of. Bowman, Ocasio-Cortez, and other members of the squad voted against the president’s bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed Congress and was signed into law earlier this year, arguing they could not support the measure unless it was coupled with the Build Back Better package, lest Manchin (and other moderate and conservative Democrats) be ceded leverage that he wouldn’t have if they were voted on at the same time.

Bowman has been highly critical of Manchin, who represents West Virginia, a heavily red state, for blocking Build Back Better for what he describes as underhanded reasons, at the behest of his donors and against the interests of his constituents.

“People just want things to get done for them, for their families, for their children, for their community. And what Manchin is doing right now is he is stopping progress,” Bowman told Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max in the podcast interview, just a few days after Manchin had announced on Fox News that he was not in favor of moving ahead on Build Back Better. “He is stopping the progress of his own party. He is stopping the progress of those who are most vulnerable in our district and in our country. And…he seems to be more responsive to donors and dark money and special interests than he is to the people of West Virginia.”

Manchin has reportedly offered a counterproposal to the Biden administration, which includes the White House’s goal of universal pre-K and, crucially, hundreds of millions of dollars in money to address climate change. But it eliminates the child tax credit (Manchin reportedly believes, despite no evidence, that families spend money from the tax credit on drugs), a crucial lifeline for many families living in poverty, and which Bowman believes is not something he and other progressive Democrats should be forced to compromise on.

“I'm very frustrated that progressives are consistently the ones who are asked to compromise,” Bowman said. “I don't want to compromise on anything, just to be clear. But where we are now, there's going to be some compromise. I hate -- and I never use the word hate for anything -- but I hate that we are compromising on childhood poverty.”

Bowman highlighted the climate investments, but also noted that Build Back Better includes a massive influx of funding for public housing, including NYCHA, as well as childcare, pre-K, violence reduction, workforce development, capping insulin costs, paying home-care workers livable wages, and more. "The largest so-called social investment in U.S. history but one that is equitable...is the game-changer that we need right now,” he said.

While Bowman sounded somewhat cautiously optimistic that some compromise agreement can be reached in 2022, he believes that Biden used most of his political capital getting the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, and is worried that the Democrats may not be able to pass various other priorities, including Build Back Better, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, immigration reform, gun safety regulations, and protection of reproductive rights.

“It's not just on Manchin, it's on [Senate Majority Leader Chuck] Schumer and Biden, who all represent a sort-of old-guard status quo of Congress that is not moving any of these pieces of legislation forward,” Bowman said. “And then when you see declining approval rating numbers, then you wonder why, and you get upset and the administration doesn't seem to know what to do about that.”

"Biden ran on these things, and these things aren't moving,” Bowman said. “Don't run as a progressive and then get in and don't do anything, or do very little to move the progressive agenda forward."

“Hopefully we can hit the ground running in January. Because if we don't, then we don't have a shot,” he said of Democrats retaining their slim House majority in the 2022 elections. “It's gonna be hard to keep the majority if we don't come out swinging in early January."

“We need historic leadership from Biden,” Bowman said, “and we need historic leadership from Schumer,” he added of his home-state senior senator who ascended to Senate Majority Leader of the 50-50 Senate this year.

Bowman, who endorsed civil rights attorney Maya Wiley in the Democratic primary for mayor earlier this year, had positive things to say about the potential of the incoming administration of Eric Adams. The congressman, a former middle school principal, said that he has been in communication with Adams and his choice for schools chancellor, David Banks, who founded schools for boys of color in the Bronx, in a sort of advisory role on education issues.

He said that Adams is “very comfortable” taking advice from others on issues he doesn’t claim expertise in, like education, and sees lofty potential in the Adams administration if he can “get education right.” He also said he's keeping a close eye and talking with Adams about the next mayor's approach to public safety, trying to ensure it is a holistic effort. Bowman expressed optimism there, too, given that Adams sent a representative to a recent roundtable the congressman hosted on community safety.

“I think Mayor Adams, despite not being as quote-unquote 'progressive' as me, has a chance to be one of the best mayors in New York City history,” Bowman said. “If he gets education right."

Bowman thinks Adams is off to a good start by picking Banks as chancellor; he was effusive in his praise of Banks’ network of Eagle Academy schools, which specifically focus on the empowerment of young African-American men. Both Bowman and Banks founded schools in the Bronx. He worries that Adams’ willingness to listen could backfire somewhat if charter school backers get his ear, but said he’s been reassured by Banks that that won’t happen.

“David was very clear to me when I spoke to him, he was like ‘this is a public school system man,’” Bowman said, though Adams has been a supporter of public charter schools for years. “There's space for optimism and hope, but also being diligent to make sure that most of our attention is going to our public school system.”

[LISTEN to the full conversation: Rep. Jamaal Bowman on Max Politics]

***
by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Predictions! Experts Look Ahead to 2022 in New York Politics


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The 2018-to-2019 ball drop (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


As we usually do around this time of year, Gotham Gazette asked New York politicos to look into their crystal balls for predictions for the year ahead. Below you'll find insights from elected officials, advocates, consultants, analysts, and others who are tuned in to New York politics.

As we say goodbye to 2021, we all hope for a better, safer, and healthy 2021.

2022 will undoubtedly be a year of major change in New York politics given the start of the Eric Adams administration and the rest of the new class of city government. There’s also upcoming state and federal elections, and much more.

We know that there will be many important political races, debates, and decisions. But what *exactly* will happen? Read below for some ideas.

Before (or after) seeing this year's predictions for 2022, revisit last year's predictions for this year here — there were some really good ones, and many that missed the mark.

Have something to add to the conversation? Tweet @GothamGazette with your reactions or predictions for 2022 in New York politics.

Predictions for 2022 in New York Politics

Gale Brewer, Manhattan Borough President & City Council Member-Elect, District 6
-I don't want to predict! There's what, ten more letters of the Greek alphabet we can use for COVID variants?
-Women in power in New York will use their political clout to achieve the balance of family and work that we have waited decades for.
-The arts will lead New York City's recovery in 2022.
-Buck Showalter will lead the Mets to winning the pennant.

City Council Minority Leader Joseph Borelli
-Andrew Cuomo does a TV tell-all, resulting in New Yorkers disliking him even more.
-The New York primary gets delayed until September.
-Lee Zeldin wins the governor’s office, ushering in an era of prosperity, progress, and glory in the State of New York.

City Council Member Keith Powers
-Speaker Adrienne Adams takes over and helps the City Council play a central role in addressing the COVID crisis and economic recovery.
-Max Rose wins a close election and retakes his Congressional seat.
-Borough President Mark Levine walks the entire borough of Manhattan again.
-New York City sees a resurgence in tourism and spending in the second half of the year as the weather gets warmer and vaccinations increase.
-Outdoor dining becomes permanent in New York City and to-go drinks are brought back.
-Knicks bounce back and make the playoffs.

Dr. Christina Greer, political science professor at Fordham University & FAQ NYC podcast co-host
-Kathy Hochul cruises to victory and Bill de Blasio garners an embarrassing single-digit percentage of Democratic primary voters.
-There will never be a dull day with Mayor Adams. The NYPD has everything they need. Teachers will continue to feel unheard. And the press corps will get an average of two hours of sleep per night.
-Former Bloomberg employees will have a resurgence in the Adams administration.
-And Ben Max will join FAQ on election night 2022 to help us make sense of everything. That I know for sure!

Chris Coffey, Tusk Strategies Co-CEO
-Frustration with mandates (crazily) and pandemic overall will bring about some close congressional races this year, both in primaries and generals. Look for some surprises.
-Not a big surprise or bold prediction but look for Mayor Adams to just dominate TV and tabloid coverage. Hard to find a politician who has a better sense for the one liner or is better behind a podium at dominating the news and keeping people guessing. And not conventional!

Kathryn Wylde, President and CEO, The Partnership for New York City
The female majority on the City Council is going to make that body more practical and less ideological, surprising those who predict a standoff with Mayor Adams. The women are going to put the city’s long-term interests ahead of parochial concerns and petty politics. Very exciting!

Jolie Milstein, President and CEO, New York State Association for Affordable Housing
New York will leverage federal infrastructure dollars to wire all affordable housing units for high-speed broadband, becoming the first state in the nation to provide free or low-cost internet to all residents living in subsidized housing.

Olivia Lapeyrolerie, political consultant, SKDKnickerbocker
2022 is going to be a great year for the cover editors of the New York Post and Daily News because between the midterms, gubernatorial race, and our highly quotable new mayor, there will be a lot of excellent content for the wood.

Phil Singer, Founder and CEO, Marathon Strategies
New York’s upcoming gubernatorial election will be the closest the state has seen since 1994, with Lee Zeldin serving as a serious Republican challenger to Democratic Party rule.

Danny Harris, Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives
-Mayor Eric Adams will take concrete steps early on in his administration to put NYC 25x25 into action and reclaim streets for people.
-Mayor Adams and new NYC DOT Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez will expand bike and bus infrastructure in communities that have not received their fair share of investment. This means more protected bike and bus lanes, more Bridges 4 People, and a quicker expansion of bike share – with new city subsidies to make this happen.
-Los Deliveristas Unidos will achieve additional legislative wins and worker protections, continuing to prove that they are one of New York City’s most effective grassroots advocacy groups.

William F. B. O’Reilly, Partner, The November Team
-Congestion pricing gets delayed because of the halting comeback of midtown and downtown Manhattan.
-Andrew Cuomo joins the Trump/O'Reilly roadshow tour.
-Bail reform remains unchanged and State Senate Republicans win back three seats or more.

JC Polanco, attorney and commentator
-Mayor Eric Adams, as a centrist, will be the transformational mayor New York City has yearned to have for eight years now. Solid appointments and know-how approach to fighting crime will prove to benefit all. Because of this, the rest of the city will realize that centrists make the best policy and we will see more centrist victories.
-Public Advocate Jumaane Williams will do very well in the gubernatorial primary as he gets an overwhelming majority of young progressives in NYC, across college campuses, and in NY's urban centers from Buffalo to Albany. He will shock many.
-After stunning victories by GOP in Queens and Brooklyn among Asian voters, talk of getting rid of gifted and talented programs and eliminating the SHSAT will disappear like the dodo bird.

Carol Kellermann, former president, Citizens Budget Commission, and columnist, Gotham Gazette
-Mayor Adams issues the first veto of a bill passed by the City Council in more than 8 years.
-Governor Hochul proposes a four-year plan to relieve localities, including New York City, of all Medicaid costs and all the other gubernatorial candidates immediately endorse it.
-The MTA is forced to delay the opening of East Side Access because the new LIRR cars do not fit in the tunnel designed over 20 years ago (just kidding).

Danielle Brecker, Co-leader Organizer, Empire State Indivisible
-No matter what the Independent Redistricting Commission does or doesn't do, the New York State Legislature will draw the new maps.
-No matter who is elected Governor, Jay Jacobs will be out as the head of the New York State Democratic Party once the election is over.
-No matter what happens the people still have the power and in 2022 we will use it like we never have before!

Anat Gerstein, Founder and President, Anat Gerstein, Inc.
With several nonprofit leaders taking on senior roles in the Adams administration, and with a taskforce already underway to address egregious nonprofit payment problems, 2022 will be the year nonprofits get better treatment from city government. Nonprofits, which the city relies on to do some of the hardest and most important work, will see: on-time payments; elimination of onerous and useless reporting requirements; increased wages - especially for frontline workers; and contracts that cover costs, including overhead costs.

David C. Bloomfield, Professor of Education Leadership, Law & Policy, Brooklyn College and The CUNY Graduate Center
-In the first of many performative showdowns despite good internal relations, DOE Chancellor Banks and UFT President Mulgrew will spar over school reopening rules. To satisfy multiple constituencies, Banks will keep schools open with expanded covid testing and provide a remote option as parents/students struggle over inadequate staffing.
-In Albany, the State Education Department will end required Regents exams and issue new rules on private schools' provision of secular instruction. Those will be ignored by Mayor Adams, supporting ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders' opposition.
-The City Council, flexing illusory muscle over education policy, will pass a bill limiting class size, which will have no practical effect. Calls to end Mayoral Control will be similarly dismissed by Adams and the State Legislature.

Rachel Fee, Executive Director, New York Housing Conference
Congress will pass a Build Back Better bill with some housing funding but not nearly enough to address our housing crisis. With the end of the eviction moratorium early in the new year and the ongoing housing instability and homelessness, Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams will step up and dramatically increase affordable housing resources.

Eli Valentin, professor and commentator
-Mayor Eric Adams and the City Council will be at war plenty of times this year, causing Speaker Adrienne Adams to play the role of referee between the mayor and the progressive caucus.
-Governor Hochul will win election as governor.
-Latinos will get shafted again when it comes to representation at the highest levels of the mayoral administration.

Jake Dilemani, Managing Director, Mercury Public Affairs
-As I predicted last year, candidates and voters will come to the realization that there is a difference between progressive politics and purity politics. To a substantial extent, we saw that play out in the NYC mayoral primary, with left candidates only receiving about 30% of the vote in the first and penultimate rounds of RCV. This trend will continue to materialize in the 2022 primary elections as the Democratic Party realizes where the majority of Democratic voters are ideologically.
-In keeping with this trend, the NYC Council will continue to be a progressive body by national standards, but will not be a reflexively and comically leftist chamber as some had thought a year ago. However, the Council will continue to churn out some of the most progressive legislation in the nation, some necessary, others well-intentioned, but naive and counter-productive.
-Mayor Adams will be the most engaging and energetic mayor the city has had in more than 30 years.
-AG Tish James will have a banner year in the press with her effort to depose Trump and with whatever other major scandals come her way, with an eye toward Senator Gilibrand’s seat, which is up in 2024.
-By Election Day 2022, Biden’s approval rating will be higher than it is today. And with redistricting, Democrats will escape losing NY House and State Senate seats, with two possible exceptions.
-New York bail laws are revised in response to 2021 general election results and to protect marginal State Senate Democrats facing tough re-elections. Gov. Hochul will support modifications to take away an issue from Rep. Suozzi in the Democratic primary for governor.

Amy Cohen, Co-Founder, Families for Safe Streets, and mother of Sammy Cohen Eckstein, killed by a reckless driver at age 12 in 2013
-Governor Hochul will become the Safe Streets Governor. She will sign the entire Crash Victim Rights and Safety Act – which includes Sammy’s Law for safe speed limits – into law. Under her leadership, New York City will get home-rule on its streets so we can finally lower the speed limit and expand the hours and locations of speed cameras without having to go to Albany. In doing so, New York State will be a safe streets leader for the rest of the country and thousands of lives will be saved annually.
-Incoming NYC DOT Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez will do what past DOT Commissioners have not and regularly visit the sites of fatal crashes to honor victims, join in solidarity with families, and more quickly implement changes to prevent bloodshed on dangerous corridors.
-Mayor Eric Adams will equip NYC DOT with the resources needed to achieve – ahead of schedule – the life-saving street design investments set out in the NYC Streets Plan.
-Mayor Adams will lead a groundbreaking on a memorial grove for victims of traffic violence.

Andre Ward, Associate Vice President of the David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy at the Fortune Society
-The New York City Council will pass the Fair Chance for Housing Act, finally putting an end to the blanket discrimination by landlords and real-estate brokers against formerly incarcerated people looking for homes.
-Legislation will pass at both the state and local levels requiring correctional officers to wear body cameras while interacting with incarcerated individuals.

Cory Epstein, Communications Director, Transportation Alternatives
-New York City will move to expand its pilot to containerize trash pick-up, finally getting trash off sidewalks. It will be overseen by a new inter-agency City Hall office in charge of public space management. The trash containerization pilot will be extremely effective and quickly become popular, with many asking why New York had not made this move earlier.
-Following the lead of Jersey City, NYC DOT will announce a pilot for secure bike parking facilities and infrastructure.

Have something to add to the conversation? Tweet @GothamGazette with your reactions or your own predictions for 2022 in New York politics.

New York Department of Labor Sued Over Failure to Release Unemployment Insurance Information


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Gov. Hochul presents data (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


An advocacy group for low-income communities is suing New York State for documents and data that could shed light on the struggle of non-English speakers to get unemployment insurance during the pandemic.

The National Center for Law and Economic Justice (NCLEJ), a legal advocacy organization, filed a lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court last week against the state Department of Labor for documents the group requested under the state Freedom of Information Law. According to NCLEJ, workers who don't speak English as a first language have faced barriers to accessing state and federal unemployment payments throughout the pandemic, including limited translation services. Its lawyers are seeking documentation of the policies and procedures the Department of Labor instituted to assist non-English-speakers and data on claims filed by people with language access needs. 

"We have all of these very, very troubling anecdotes and we want to get a better picture of what are the agency’s policies, what were they actually doing, how much of this was agency oversight and how much of it was the result of actual documented policies? We just don't know," said Katharine Deabler-Meadows, the NCLEJ staff attorney who filed the suit. She described applicants who could not reach a DOL representative that spoke their language, workers being sent notices in the wrong language, and delays in translating important information on DOL's website.

"Without the DOL complying with their FOIL obligations and giving us the information that they have, it's difficult to get a systemic picture," Deabler-Meadows told Gotham Gazette.

A spokesperson for the Department of Labor wrote in an email: “The New York State Department of Labor cannot comment on pending litigation."

Unemployment in the state skyrocketed during the pandemic, jumping from 4% to 16% in April 2020, and remained high for much of the past 20 months. In New York City, the unemployment rate hit 20% last year and remains more than double pre-pandemic levels. The economic fallout has landed disproportionately on lower-wage sectors that tend to employ more immigrants and people with limited English fluency – particularly retail and food services.

In September, multiple federal unemployment programs implemented under the CARES Act expired, including Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, which was available to individuals who did not qualify for traditional state unemployment insurance, like gig workers, people who were self-employed or didn't work enough hours to qualify. Roughly 900,000 people were receiving benefits through PUA when the program expired. Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, or PUEC, which supplemented the unemployment benefits of traditionally eligible workers, also expired. According to NCLEJ, administrative obstacles at DOL existed while the agency was administering the programs and continued after they ended.

The Freedom of Information Law enables public access to government records upon request but has suffered from abysmal response times and poor document retrieval. NCLEJ requested the documents nearly a year ago, in January 2021, on behalf of its members, Make the Road New York, an advocacy group and service provider for immigrants, and others. The group filed the lawsuit after DOL "failed to produce a single document or respond in any meaningful way to the request," according to the NCLEJ. It was served to DOL on Tuesday. If NCLEJ prevails, the state will have to cover its legal fees.

The documents, including internal DOL policies on handling applications from non-English speakers, records on translating DOL's website, statistics on claims by applicants’ languages, and statistics on staffing levels, including bilingual staff, and translation capacity.

The lawsuit is just one of hundreds or thousands filed every year on behalf of people seeking government records but it is indicative of what transparency advocates call a "broken" FOIL system.

In her four months in office, Governor Kathy Hochul has made government transparency, and improving FOIL, in particular, a central commitment as part of an effort to distance herself from some of the hallmarks of the Cuomo administration. In October, Hochul announced a number of changes to the way FOIL requests would be processed to reduce delays and "the backlog of thousands of FOIL requests inherited by the Hochul Administration."

"From Day One, I've been committed to restoring New Yorkers' faith in their government by improving transparency and increasing accountability," Hochul said in an October statement. "The changes we're announcing today bring us closer to creating the kind of government that New Yorkers deserve, and we'll continue to build on this progress."

"I have instructed my counsel to come up with an expedited process to fulfill all FOIL requests as fast as possible—and post completed requests publicly online," she said in her major address as governor.

"Governor Hochul is committed to transparency and restoring trust in government and has announced major improvements to the FOIL process, with the goal of providing more public records on a faster timeline and reducing the significant backlog of FOIL requests inherited by the Hochul Administration," wrote Hazel Crampton-Hays, a spokesperson for Hochul, in an email, noting the Executive Chamber does not comment on ongoing litigation. "We will continue to build on our progress to deliver the accountability New Yorkers deserve."

As part of the October measures, the administration released "agency transparency plans" where agencies reported to the governor how they would improve access to government information. The Department of Labor's plan includes a section on improving FOIL that consists of only two measures, exploring the use of request tracking software and continuing to post commonly requested data online, which it will complete in the third or fourth quarter of 2022, according to the document.

"Although we face significant staffing challenges within Counsel’s Office, as a Department, NYSDOL is already very responsive to FOIL requests," the plan states.

"What you see here with this is typical because the agencies pay no price for basically ignoring FOIL," said John Kaehny, executive director of the good government group Reinvent Albany. "They find it easier to just get sued than they do to comply with the law. And it's systematic, it's everywhere."

Kaehny believes part of the problem is that the Committee on Open Government, the state agency that oversees FOIL, the Open Meetings Law, and privacy laws, is only an advisory body with few teeth, and the shrinking local news landscape means delinquent agencies aren't being "name[d] and shame[d]."

"No one knows how many FOIL requests are filed. Nobody knows how long it takes agencies to respond because that data is not collected. And there is no government body that has the authority to do anything that is charged with continuous improvement of FOIL," he said.

While transparency advocates have been heartened by Hochul's early efforts to review and adjust agency information access, more is expected.

"This is something that [Hochul] should be specifically asked as a candidate," Kaehny said. "How are you fixing Freedom of Information Law structurally so that agencies like this comply with it and so that the process is improved?"

"This new era of transparency that Governor Hochul promised when she took office is not happening at the DOL," Deabler-Meadows said. "We are in the same position that we were in the Cuomo administration where we're having to fight tooth and nail just to get basic information. And it's causing people real harm."

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Max Politics Podcast: Rep. Jamaal Bowman on 'Build Back Better,' Democratic Compromise, & More


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Rep. Bowman with top New York leaders (photo: Mike Groll/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul)


December 21, 2021 - Rep. Jamaal Bowman on 'Build Back Better,' Voting Rights, & More

Congressional Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a first-term progressive representing New York's 16th Congressional District, which covers parts of the Bronx and Westchester, joined the show to discuss where things stand on 'Build Back Better' and other top items on his agenda, how Democrats can come to a compromise on the massive social package that is a cornerstone to President Biden's platform, and other topics, including the former principal's thoughts on the incoming Mayor, Eric Adams, and schools chancellor, David Banks. 

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think, on Twitter @TweetBenMax. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts at Max Politics.

Read more: Max Politics Podcast: Rep. Jamaal Bowman on 'Build Back Better,' Democratic Compromise, & More

Failure of Ballot Questions Halts New York's Three-Year Expansion of Voting


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An Albany rally for voting reform (photo: Senator Michael Gianaris)


When New Yorkers voted down two state constitutional amendments this fall that would make it easier to vote they put a stunning stop to a three-year deluge of major statewide election reform.

Voting rights advocates and Democratic state lawmakers are licking their wounds and looking ahead to the next legislative session, beginning in January, with a list of changes to election rules and operations, including some of the measures that just failed.

Had they been passed by voters after having been passed by two consecutive classes of the Democrat-led State Legislature, the amendments would have enshrined or paved the way for universal absentee voting – a pandemic-era provision with a year-end expiration date – and "same-day voter registration,” which allows people to register and cast a ballot on the same day.

Despite support among New York City voters, they failed statewide after a well-funded campaign by conservatives in the suburbs and upstate stoked unfounded fears of voter fraud, one that unfolded against a national backdrop of unproven election claims by former President Donald Trump. It caught Democrats flat-footed: the Conservative Party spent roughly $3 million, about ten times what State Senate Democrats spent, in advertising to defeat the two proposals and a third related to state and federal reapportionment and redistricting.

Voter turnout on the two ballot proposals in New York City, where the amendments were popular, was just 16% of registered city voters, compared to 28% of registered voters outside the five boroughs.

"They cannot have won without attracting ‘blanks,’ or independent voters, as well as even Democrats to their side," said Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs, in an interview on WCNY's The Capitol Pressroom shortly after the amendments lost, adding later, "It's something we ought to pay attention to."

Facing criticism for the defeat, Jacobs blamed the lawmakers who had pushed the amendments in the Legislature, mostly progressive Democrats, for not enlisting the party machinery. "From the state party's standpoint, we didn't hear much from the stakeholders on the issues so there wasn't any direction really to engage to a large degree on these amendments."

Since Democrats took full control of the State Legislature in 2019 by winning a Senate majority to match their long-standing Assembly one, lawmakers have passed a slew of reforms to change the voting landscape.

They attached a nine-day preamble of early voting to every election and moved state and local primaries to June to align with Congressional elections. They shortened the party enrollment deadline, made voter registration "portable" around the state, and authorized 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote. They passed requirements to make ballots easier to read and enabled poll workers to use electronic poll books instead of cumbersome paper rolls.

Beginning in 2023, eligible New Yorkers will be automatically registered to vote when they go to the DMV and a handful of other state agencies, unless the potential voter opts out. This year, state lawmakers passed a bill to automatically restore the voting rights of people when they leave prison.

Many of these changes were considered nonstarters before 2019, when Republicans controlled the State Senate with the help of a breakaway faction of Democrats.

When the pandemic hit, lawmakers enacted temporary no-excuse absentee voting and later changed the rules for counting and correcting flawed ballots. They also passed (to the chagrin of voting advocates) a law letting voters apply for absentee ballots earlier but restricting the deadline to request them.

In New York City, a voter-approved city charter amendment in 2019 enacted the new ranked-choice voting system in municipal elections. This month, the New York City Council passed legislation allowing green card holders and immigrants with legal work authorization to vote in local races.

Supporters say these measures have and will expand access to the ballot box and modernize New York's elections, which for years have suffered from low turnout, long lines, and administrative blundering. The changes have not been without challenges to local election boards that have had to devise numerous new systems to implement them.

The backlash against the state constitutional amendments this fall has echoed in opposition to the city's new immigrant voting law. Last week, Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay, and other Republican legislators issued a joint statement calling the amendments "Democrats' transparent political power plays and un-American electoral 'reforms'" and promising "a swift, Constitutionally-sound, and ultimately successful legal challenge" if immigrant voting is enacted in New York City. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he would not veto the bill and City Council lawyers and other legal authorities believe it will survive a battle in the courts.

While this fall's defeat has given reformers some pause, Democrats and voting rights advocates say they will continue to push for changes to the state constitution and election law.

State Senator Leroy Comrie, a Queens Democrat, sponsored the no-excuse absentee voting amendment and told Gotham Gazette he would reintroduce it next session.

"We were surprised," he said. "I had no idea there was such a rabid campaign against it. The Democratic Party on the state level was caught with its pants down and they were totally unprepared to respond to it and never put together a campaign to even promote it."

"I don't anticipate having any problems with reintroducing it and getting it passed," he added, and said he was also working on bills "to increase voter participation, voter awareness, and also transparency."

Assembly Member Robert Carroll of Brooklyn also said he would reintroduce the same-day registration amendment he sponsored. "A hundred percent, I'm undeterred. We're going to get this done and we're going to get it back on the ballot and I'm convinced it will pass," he said recently on Manhattan Neighborhood Network's Represent NYC.

The two amendments could be back on the ballot for voters as soon as fall 2023 if passed by both houses of the Legislature in 2022 and when a new class is seated in 2023.

Comrie, Carroll, and other supporters say they do not view the loss as a break in the momentum of election reform nor cause for Democrats to reevaluate their aggressive approach to the issue.

"I don't think it indicates that at all," said Assembly Member David Weprin, a Democrat who represents a conservative section of Queens. He thinks his party needs to continue pushing the measures with better public advocacy and a "more organized support mechanism."

“A very low turnout election with an extraordinary amount of dark money spent to try and defeat pro-democracy measures. I think it's a unique situation that I do not expect to see repeated,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of the good government group Common Cause New York, in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

“That's indicative of what a corrosive use of money can do. I don't think it's indicative of how people think about democracy upstate at all,” she added.

In a recent report on the state of New York's elections, State Senate Elections Chair Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat, wrote, "The message is clear: without aggressive action to reform our elections and a full-throated defense of voting rights, opponents of expanding democracy can and will prevail."

The report comes after a tour of public hearings where voters and poll workers across the state voiced concerns and hopes for future elections. Without identifying specific legislation, Myrie recommends a host of causes for legislators to pick up when they return to Albany next month: restructuring the New York City Board of Elections; enhancing the capacity of other local boards; strengthening the oversight role of the State Board of Elections; adding professional requirements to election commissioner selections; and improving poll worker training and recruitment.

Advocates at places like the Brennan Center for Justice support many of these goals. The Brennan Center published a report this week, "How to Fix Election Administration in New York State," with a roadmap for state officials to make effective changes. It suggests adding a fifth party-unaffiliated commissioner to the four-member, bipartisan State Board of Elections and changing state law to allow boards to hire nonpartisan staff, including a single executive director at the state-level, rather than co-executive directors from both major parties.

The report also recommends a more transparent commissioner selection and staff hiring process for local boards, with public jobs postings and merit-based standards, and giving the State Board and, in some cases, local elected officials the power to remove commissioners for good cause after review by the courts. Brennan Center and other advocates have also suggested more resources for local boards, including more funding from counties and more centralized procurement by the state. They also want better reporting of voting data by county and state boards in order to better monitor the implementation and efficacy of election reforms.

Myrie is the prime sponsor of the New York Voting Rights Act, an omnibus bill that gives the State Attorney General the authority once held by the U.S. Department of Justice under the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 to pre-clear elections changes that could discriminate against a protected minority group. It would also cover attorney’s fees for winning voting rights cases. The bill includes the creation of a statewide database of election results and voter information and language assistance at more locations.

Another bill, that lawmakers have been working on for several years and is echoed in Myrie’s report, would set minimum professional standards for New York City Board of Elections commissioners and delineate the responsibilities of board management. The City Board has been criticized for patronage hiring and nepotism and has been responsible for major election bungles over the last decade. The bill has undergone some revision since it was first introduced and while the bill’s Senate sponsor, Manhattan Senator Liz Krueger, has indicated it has a good chance of advancing this session, its Assembly sponsor, fellow Democrat Assembly Member Nily Rozic, has said it will be "an uphill battle" in her chamber, where reform is generally less popular.

Common Cause New York supports the Krueger-Rozic bill, along with one sponsored by Myrie and Assembly Member Amy Paulin to require voting machines use voter-marked paper ballots and other security measures. The group also supports prolonging a pandemic-era extension on the nominating petition deadline and reduction of signature requirements for candidates to get on the ballot. Another bill would extend the temporary allowance for no-excuse absentee voting into 2024.

“I think if that were not to pass people will be shocked that they are unable to get absentee ballots,” Lerner said. She also said legislation that would move the 25-day voter registration deadline back to the constitutional minimum of ten days “will have a significant impact in correcting the misinformation” around voter fraud that helped kill the same-day registration amendment.

***
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max Politics Podcast: A New Deal for CUNY?


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PSC CUNY President James Davis (photo courtesy of Professional Staff Congress)


December 15, 2021 - Max Politics Podcast: A New Deal for CUNY?

James Davis, President of the Professional Staff Congress of CUNY, joined the show to discuss where things stand at the City University of New York and the push by his union and its allies for reforms, increased funding, and a "New Deal for CUNY."

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think, on Twitter @TweetBenMax. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts at Max Politics.

Read more: Max Politics Podcast: A New Deal for CUNY?



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