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Max Politics Podcast: What's Next for New York's Pro-Housing Movement


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New York City (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


December 14, 2021 - Max Politics Podcast: What's Next for New York's Pro-Housing Movement

As the Bill de Blasio administration ends and the Eric Adams administration is set to begin, New York City's housing politics are in flux. Housing affordability and homelessness in the city remain related crises; the city's housing production has come nowhere near keeping up with its population and job growth; and public housing is crumbling. In the final weeks of the de Blasio years, the city is passing rezonings in wealthier areas of Gowanus and SoHo, part of the outgoing mayor's affordable housing and community development plans. What will Mayor Adams do? What will Governor Hochul do? Is help coming from Washington?

Where do things stand and what's next?

Rachel Fee, Executive Director of New York Housing Conference, and John Sanchez, Board Member of Open New York, joined the show to discuss housing policy and politics.

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: What's Next for New York's Pro-Housing Movement

WATCH: What's Next After New Yorkers Voted on 5 State Constitutional Amendment Ballot Questions


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Voter registration (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


After voters across New York State voted on five ballot proposals for potential state consitutional amendments, two were approved and three were disapproved. All five measures dealing with a variety of issues — from legislative redistricting to enviromental protections to voting rights — were on the 2021 general election ballot because they were proposed state constitutional amendments that had been passed by two consecutive classes of the State Legislature.

In something of a surprise, voters disapproved of the proposals to adjust legislative redistricting and to pave the way for no-excuse absentee voting and for registering and voting on the election day (aka "same-day voter registration." Voters passed the proposal to create a constitutional right to clean air, clean water, and a healthful environment for all New Yorkers and the proposal to expand the jurisdiction of the New York City Civil Court from claims up to $25,000 to up to $50,000.

On a new episode of Represent NYC from Manhattan Neighborhood Network, host Ben Max of Gotham Gazette was joined by State Assemblymember Robert Carroll of Brooklyn, who sponsors one of the voting bills, Pamela Stewart-Martinez of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, and Diane Burrows from The League of Women Voters of New York City to discuss the results of the ballot proposals and what comes next. Watch:

Read more: WATCH: What's Next After New Yorkers Voted on 5 State Constitutional Amendment Ballot Questions

In the 'New Albany,' State Senate Regularly Outpaces Assembly on Reform


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The New York State Senate (photo: NY Senate Media Services)


For years the Democratic majority of the New York State Assembly advanced bills its members knew the Republican-controlled State Senate wouldn't pass. Still other legislation, especially related to government ethics, transparency, and elections, stewed on the backburner with neither majority moving it forward. Those were the days of two-party rule in Albany, of a group of breakaway Democrats who buoyed Republicans, and a governor happy to straddle the middle.

Since Democrats took over the State Senate in 2019 those dynamics have shifted. The floodgates opened to a stream of progressive and reform legislation that had long been blocked by Republicans, aided by the Democratic faction known as the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), or remained on the Assembly's cutting room floor of one-house bills. But for the last three years of one-party rule, even as they passed a long list of priorities, a new sticking-point has emerged in the path of several reform efforts: Assembly Democrats.

"The Senate has its foot on the gas and the Assembly has its foot on the break, generally speaking," said Blair Horner, executive director of the good government group NYPIRG. "Now of course that's not always true," he added, "and sometimes there are good reasons to have your foot on the brake."

In the first week of the 2019 session, lawmakers passed major changes to elections and gender discrimination statutes that had been in the offing for years. Since then, both chambers have passed a slew of weighty legislation dealing with climate change, reproductive rights, rent regulation, bail and discovery, and campaign finance, to name a few.

Yet, for many other bills — including reforms in the face of government scandal — the Assembly has been a tempering force amidst the gusto. In the most recent session, January-June 2021, the State Senate passed a raft of legislation aimed at addressing government ethics, workplace harassment, domestic violence, human trafficking, gun control, clean water, and street safety -- all without movement in the Assembly.

Even on some bills that have passed in the 'new' Albany, like a major new campaign finance system with a public matching component, the Assembly almost torpedoed reform while the Senate wanted to go further. More recently, as the Senate has appeared inclined to pursue significant reforms to the dysfunctional New York City Board of Elections, the Assembly Speaker has indicated no such sense of urgency.

Governor Andrew Cuomo was known for pitting political blocs against one another and wielding his immense power over the budget and legislative process to sink or float most measures. One Democratic leader, Senator Michael Gianaris of Queens, recently called him a "Machiavellian manipulator." Governor Kathy Hochul, who took office in August after Cuomo’s resignation amid scandal, has signaled support for a more collaborative culture in Albany and has taken administrative steps to improve government ethics and transparency. Her full impact on the interplay between the Senate and the Assembly, once an epicenter of Cuomo's politicking, will become clearer as the next legislative session approaches.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins did not deny a divide with the Assembly when asked about it in a September interview with Gotham Gazette. "I'll leave that analysis for others," she said, noting the last three legislative sessions were "the most productive that this state has seen in its history," which couldn't be done without both houses passing bills.

Asked why Assembly Democrats aren’t moving as fast on reform legislation, like an omnibus bill to overhaul the maligned Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), Stewart-Cousins demurred. "You'd have to ask them," she said. "Sometimes it's just working the details. Sometimes it's things that are more significant than that. But I'm not in a position to speak for them." The Senate passage in May of the ethics reform bill was one of the rare times a bill passes one house without having been introduced in the other.

In a May interview on Spectrum News' Capital Tonight, Heastie said the Senate had not coordinated with the Assembly, though he did not say he supported the bill. "We will always be open to making sure that New Yorkers feel that their government is functioning in an honest and open and transparent and in an efficient way...but this was a bill the Senate passed that they really did not engage with the Assembly on," he said.

Heastie’s office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

The explanations for the Senate outpacing the Assembly on reform are a mix of structure, culture, and ideology. The Senate is a smaller body, roughly a third the size of the Assembly, where lawmakers say it is easier to build consensus. Many of its Democratic members, long the minority during the IDC era, are now in power and eager to score legislative wins under a leader known for independence and few ties to party machinery. The newer electees -- six of whom defeated IDC incumbents -- ran largely on progressive and reform platforms buoyed by anti-Trump, anti-IDC, and anti-Cuomo sentiments in 2018.

The Assembly, on the other hand, is a more "hierarchical" body, according to insiders, with control over lawmaking held tightly by Heastie and his central staff. Having run the Bronx County Democratic Party until he was selected as speaker, Heastie has been emblematic of New York machine politics, with stronger links to Cuomo and the Democratic establishment than Stewart-Cousins and a far more skeptical eye toward ethics and transparency reforms. He was chosen by Assembly members to replace longtime Speaker Sheldon Silver in 2015, after Silver was arrested on federal corruption charges.

With Assembly Democrats having held the majority for over four decades, "a sort of pattern" has taken shape, according to Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat who has been in the chamber since 2002. The Assembly is governed by strict procedures dictated by committee chairs, each hand-selected by the speaker. The model is "you wait your turn," Krueger said, an apparent reference to leadership controlling the flow of legislation and who can advance it.

"I do think the Senate from time to time is a smaller body and is able to act more effectively," said Assembly Member Robert Carroll, a Brooklyn Democrat who, with Krueger, sponsors a state constitutional amendment to scrap JCOPE entirely, along with the Legislature's own Legislative Ethics Commission, and replace both with a more independent government ethics oversight body.

"Or because it doesn't have as many institutional members they're just ready to forge ahead, which can sometimes be frustrating from the Assembly perspective," he added.

Senate Democrats "are essentially insurgents that took power," said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, another good government group, while Assembly Democrats have been in power for much longer. According to Horner of NYPIRG, who previously worked in Cuomo's attorney general's office, "it's historical institutions that often act as a brake."

Responding to Scandal
The omnibus JCOPE reform bill is one of several pieces of legislation intended to address some of the behavior that led to Cuomo's resignation in August.

JCOPE's members have largely been seen as under the influence of those who appoint them -- the governor and legislative leaders -- and have the ability to shield them from ethics inquiries. The body was the origin of a leaked secret 2019 vote related to an ethics probe of a former top aide to Cuomo. More recently, its staff conditionally approved Cuomo's pandemic memoir, later revealed to have been written using state resources, and its newly-constituted board subsequently revoked that approval after Cuomo’s resignation, new appointments by Hochul, and a public backlash.

The bill would change some of the body's most obstructive partisan strictures -- namely the ability of one party to unilaterally stop an investigation. "Not even having an Assembly sponsor shows you the gap" between the Senate and Assembly, Kaehny said of the legislation.

Senator Alessandra Biaggi, a Bronx Democrat who chairs her chamber’s ethics committee and sponsors the bill, said she had asked the Assembly's ethics chair, Brooklyn Democrat Jo Anne Simon, to carry it in her chamber. "She said yes," according to Biaggi, but "was never given a bill number" by the Assembly's bill-drafting staff.

"That obviously makes it impossible to pass a bill," said Biaggi, who ousted IDC leader Jeff Klein in the 2018 election, in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

According to a spokesperson, Simon had introduced a similar bill after the 2021 session with the hope of reconciling it with Biaggi's in 2022. The spokesperson denied that the bill had been refused a number by the Assembly central staff, but noted Simon had difficulty getting a number assigned to another JCOPE-related bill, also carried by Biaggi, because it was introduced too late in the session.

At least six bills aimed at preventing and punishing sexual harassment -- the linchpin of Cuomo's downfall -- passed the Senate but not the Assembly earlier this year. One would require JCOPE to conduct anti-harassment training for lobbyists. Another would extend the statute of limitations to file workplace discrimination claims. A third bill would bring the staff of elected officials and judges under the anti-discrimination provisions of other government employees. Yet another would ban settlements in discrimination cases that include financial penalties when victims break non-disclosure agreements.

"There's nothing that makes sense,” Biaggi said, “about a year in any legislative body where a governor has acted as unethically as many times as our previous governor has and we don't...see it as an opportunity to make our laws and systems better."

Legislation that bucks old and explicitly partisan government structures, like JCOPE or the Board of Elections, are especially subject to assasination in the Assembly. Heastie, as former head of the Bronx County Democratic Party and now one of the most powerful officials in the state, is still closely tied to the political establishment that appoints election commissioners and patronage hires, while he makes appointments to JCOPE.

One bill that has been gaining momentum would help to "professionalize" and bring some accountability to the New York City Board of Elections. In an October panel hosted by DemocracyNYC and Women Creating Change, Krueger lauded the support the bill has received in her chamber, while the Assembly co-sponsor, Nily Rozic, indicated the body was unlikely to pass it without more cosponsors and a concerted grassroots movement.

"We need people, especially in the Assembly, to show that there is a groundswell of support for this. It's going to be an uphill battle," said Rozic, a Queens Democrat.

Even more simple election changes, like one to require poll sites on college campuses, have passed the Senate repeatedly without the Assembly. In 2020, the measure was scheduled to come to the floor only to be pulled by Assembly leadership in the final moments of session, according to Horner. "You would think that wouldn't have much of a fuss but it's the Assembly that kills it," he said.

It is not only bills around government ethics, discrimination, and voting that fail to gain traction in the Assembly.

A bill aimed at holding weapons vendors and manufacturers accountable for public harm caused by gun violence and one enacting a waiting period for firearm purchases also failed this year in the lower chamber after passage in the Senate.

As did two bills for clean water: one requiring testing for lead contamination in public park drinking water and another prohibiting polluters from receiving state assistance for pollution remediation.

Gotham Gazette identified at least four bills related to domestic violence, seven to improve traffic safety, and three to curtail human trafficking that also stopped in the Assembly while being passed in the Senate.

‘A Very Strict Process’
Some Assembly members have defended the slower pace of their house.

Assemblymember Daniel O'Donnell, a long-serving Manhattan Democrat, said there is often a lack of communication coming from the Senate about when the majority will pass a bill, leaving the Assembly unprepared when they do.

"It's not as if we're going slowly intentionally. It's that we're not always provided with the information," he said.

Part of the reason that communication is so important is because the Assembly has more bureaucracy, O'Donnell told Gotham Gazette. "We have a very strict process. My domain needs [a bill] to go through four committees before it gets to the floor. How about you tell me you're going to do that so I could line up those committees," he said of the Senate passing legislation. "They don't always do that."

Lawmakers in both houses have pointed to the Assembly's size and the diversity of its members as an explanation for the differing paces. The Assembly has 150 seats with close to 110 members in the majority caucus. The Senate majority has roughly the same proportions but with fewer members: 63 seats, 42 of which are held by Democrats.

"When they deliberate on an issue it takes them three hours," said Assemblymember Ron Kim, a Queens Democrat and member of the party's progressive wing. "It takes us three days of debate."

"It's hard to just sometimes come together to a consensus...and that can be frustrating but it's also democracy," said Carroll, a progressive Democrat from Brooklyn. "I get that we need to get 76 members and there are some of these bills that I would like to see passed. Some of them are my bills."

‘Wandering in the Desert’
When Democrats took over in 2019, the backlog of progressive causes and the momentum from the "blue wave" 2018 election led to a long series of lawmaking that has slowed but not subsided.

"I do think that the Senate Democrats, having been wandering in the desert for 40 years, are very, very hungry to move major legislative changes," Krueger said.

On her first day passing legislation as majority leader, Stewart-Cousins riffed on the old order of business under GOP control and her old mantra in the minority. "Certainly I want to thank the members of the press for coming today as we urge our Republican colleagues to take up our bills," she said, before adding with a laugh: "I'm just kidding."

But some legislation, historically supported by Assembly leaders under a split government, ran into friction once Democrats controlled both chambers.

That was the case of the statewide public campaign financing system, which, despite having the support of Silver, the former speaker, received heavy push-back from Heastie. It ultimately passed in 2019 under significant grassroots pressure, over the objections of Assembly leaders apparently concerned it would make it easier for incumbents to be unseated.

"Throughout the entire process the Senate provided the driving energy behind it," said Kaehny of Reinvent Albany, which lobbied in support of public campaign financing.

Potential political repercussions for controversial proposals are lesser when a bill is "a one-house special" with no prospects of passing both chambers, Horner said. When both houses are in partisan alignment, he added, "the legislation runs into more trouble."

Some sweeping bills that Democrats from both houses have called major priorities in the past remain stuck.

One example is the New York Health Act, which would institute a single-payer health care system in the state and has 33 sponsors in the State Senate and 87 sponsors in the Assembly. It hasn't moved in either house despite passing multiple times in the Assembly prior to 2019. Another is the Climate and Community Investment Act, a bill to help the state meet environmental goals codified in the landmark Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act of 2019. It has 29 sponsors in the Senate and 54 in the Assembly but is stuck in committee.

Assembly Speaker's Control
With fewer members and a different majority leader, observers say, individual senators are able to stretch their legs outside of the leader's will. The Assembly leadership, on the other hand, has tightened its grasp on the chamber's central staff and bill drafting process over decades of Democratic control, even through the shift from Silver to Heastie. When replacing Silver, Heastie won the role over a push from a group of reform-minded Assembly members but made some concessions to their demands in the process.

The culture can make it difficult for members outside of Heastie's good graces to pass legislation, according to Kaehny. "Senators want to find [Assembly] sponsors who can actually pass things and are not in Heastie's doghouse," he said.

"The Senate doesn't seem to have a Democratic doghouse," he added, citing the example of Senator Diane Savino, the Staten Island Democrat who once shared power with Republicans as a member of the IDC. Savino has been involved in numerous bills and was a key player in the state's push to legalize marijuana. "If she was in the Assembly, she'd probably be on her own island," Kaehny said.

Silver was one of the most influential men in the state after consolidating power as speaker for more than 20 years -- a position he exploited for personal gain while stifling a variety of reforms, covering up sexual harassment, and contributing to a culture of government secrecy meant to protect incumbents and their political allies. Assemblymember Kim, who has been pushing for term limits for the governor, said he was supportive of term limits for legislative leaders too.

"I think there will be a time in the near future when you will see institutional changes that not only speak to limiting how many terms leadership can serve but personnel and staffing power that's deeply linked with seniority," Kim told Gotham Gazette.

He hopes to alter the Assembly rules to change how legislation gets introduced in a way that is "much more open, transparent, democratic." Part of that is ensuring "every member gets the same amount of money," he said, noting administrative pursestrings and pork barrel funding are another way the speaker maintains power.

"Even this year, we've had internal working groups trying to push certain reforms under Carl that didn't go anywhere," Kim said. "But he had to engage with us because we had enough votes to make an impact." Kim said there were about 11 or 12 members of the working group. "We're only going to get more votes as time goes."

Cuomo's Heavy Hand
During his tenure, Cuomo's influence, with his control over the budget and other levers, was widely felt in the Legislature. That was especially true after both Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican, stepped down amid corruption charges in the mid-2010s -- leaving Cuomo the most senior politician in the room.

"Did Governor Cuomo heavy-hand trying to stop any of this from going forward, reforms? Yes he did," Krueger said of reforms like Biaggi's JCOPE bill. "I think the question is, now that he's not there to bully and intimidate and threaten, will we see a change in how both houses move forward with important reforms?"

Some of Heastie's power came from his apparently close relationship with Cuomo, according to observers. "Part of that was Heastie appearing to marginalize critics of the governor," Kaehny claimed.

Most recently, after the governor resigned, the Assembly Judiciary Committee began motions to shutter its impeachment probe and kaibosh its report into Cuomo's behavior, only to finish and release the report after a public backlash.

On the other hand, after Stewart-Cousins became Senate leader she maintained people in leadership that were outspoken against Cuomo, including Deputy Leader Michael Gianaris of Queens.

How much Hochul's new governorship will change the dynamics of the two chambers is anybody's guess.

"To the extent that Governor Hochul does want to do things in areas where Governor Cuomo didn't want to do it, there may be more movement," said Horner. "But then again there may be areas where she is reticent for action and one of the houses will react to that."

"I think you will see a much more muscular legislative policy development in a way that you didn't see when Governor Cuomo was there,” Horner said. "This will be a time where the Legislature gets a chance to assert itself in a way that probably hasn't been seen since the first year of Governor Paterson."

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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The Developing 2022 Race for New York Attorney General


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NY AG Letitia James is vacating the position to run for Governor (photo: AG's office)


UPDATE: On December 9, 2021 New York Attorney General Letitia James dropped out of the race for Governor and announced her intention to seek reelection as Attorney General in the 2022 election.

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With current New York Attorney General Letitia James launching a campaign to be the next governor, the race to fill her seat is attracting a growing swell of candidates.

James, a Democrat elected in 2018, was planning to run for reelection and would have been heavily favored to win, but Andrew Cuomo’s resignation created a new playing field for the governor’s race and James decided to jump in.

With another “open” race for Attorney General, candidates from across the state and political spectrum with a wide variety of resumes are either declaring or exploring candidacies to become the state’s top legal officer. The New York Attorney General is the attorney for the State of New York, representing the state in legal proceedings of all kinds, and leads a large and powerful office that is also responsible for handling criminal appeals, influencing a state's approach to law enforcement, enforcing federal and state laws, and acting as a representative of the public interest. 

There is a lot of discretion involved in being Attorney General as well, and different officeholders have had varied priorities, including how much they take on issues of national importance, Wall Street, climate change, political corruption, and more.
The next New York Attorney General will be chosen by voters across the state through party primaries set for June and the general election in the fall of 2022. The winner will take office January 1, 2023.

As of November 20, three Democrats and two Republicans have officially declared their candidacies for Attorney General, though several others are exploring possible runs.  New York has not elected a Republican statewide since Governor George Pataki won a third term in 2002 and has not elected a Republican state Attorney General since Dennis Vacco won in 1994. Democrats retain a massive voter enrollment advantage, but Republicans are hopeful about 2022.

Below is a brief initial rundown of the active and pending candidates for New York Attorney General, which Gotham Gazette will update periodically as the field develops:

DECLARED DEMOCRATS

Shelley Mayer
State Senator Shelley Mayer announced her Attorney General campaign in early November. Mayer has represented the 37th Senate District, a Westchester district that includes Yonkers, White Plains, New Rochelle, Rye, and their surrounding areas, since 2018. Mayer is currently the chair of the Senate education committee but has a background in legal work, having served as an Assistant Attorney General from 1982-1994. From 2013 to 2018, Mayer also served as a member of the New York State Assembly, representing the 90th district covering Westchester county.

In an interview with Spectrum News’ Capital Tonight on November 9, Mayer said that she views the position of Attorney General as having “incredible authority and power to make changes in ordinary people’s lives,” citing former Attorney General Bob Abram’s used-car lemon law.

“I think it’s several things,” said Mayer, when asked what specific areas she would focus on as Attorney General. “Consumer protection, particularly as we recover from COVID. Ensuring that, in terms of credit cards, insurance, all the issues that people deal with, that we have all the protections [required].”

Zephyr Teachout
Zephyr Teachout, a progressive professor at Fordham Law School, author, and former candidate for several political offices, announced her bid for Attorney General on November 15.

Teachout is a star of New York’s left for her legal work, including calls for corporate regulation, trust-busting, government ethics and campaign finance reform, as well as her campaign against then-Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2014, 2016 congressional bid, and 2018 run for Attorney General.

After coming in second to James in that hard-fought 2018 Democratic primary for AG, Teachout is trying to make 2022 her year. In a four-way primary in 2018, Teachout got 31% of the Democratic primary vote.

“As Attorney General, I will defend poor, immigrant, and working class New Yorkers from corporate abuse,” Teachout tweeted on November 17. “We must make it too costly to break the law. I'll bring big, creative, cutting edge lawsuits to stop corporate monopolists.”

Daniel S. Goldman
The lead prosecutor in Donald Trump’s 2019 impeachment, Daniel S. Goldman, announced his campaign for New York AG on November 16. Before acting as counsel to the House Intelligence Committee for Trump’s first of two impeachments, Goldman worked as a trial lawyer, legal analyst, and federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, where he prosecuted the Genovese crime family as well as various white-collar criminals.

“I think most importantly we need to have one standard of justice and everyone needs to play by the same rules,” Goldman said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe where he first made his campaign announcement. “But I think there are bigger fights out there that relate to both New Yorkers and to the nation: voting rights are being restricted around the country, reproductive rights, climate change is a massive problem, civil  rights, criminal justice reform and holding the wealthy and well connected accountable.”

Maria Vullo
Maria Vullo, the former Superintendent of the New York State Department of Financial Services, entered the 2022 Attorney General race in November as well.

As the state’s top financial regulator from 2016 to 2019, Vullo was appointed by former Governor Cuomo to protect markets and consumers from fraud and to oversee financial services regulation.

Vullo, a Brooklyn native, also served as the chief of the Economic Justice Division in the Attorney General’s office in 2010 under then-AG Cuomo, and otherwise worked from 1988 to 2015 at the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, where she was a partner.

After leaving the Department of Financial Services in 2019, Vullo has been running a private financial advisory firm, directing a life insurance company, and is an adjunct professor at Fordham Law School, according to her LinkedIn account.

During her governmental and legal career, Vullo’s new campaign website says, she passed cyber-security legislation, reclaimed money on behalf of New York State from big banks, and represented sexual assault survivors in court.

EXPLORING DEMOCRATS

Eric Gonzalez
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez has been eyeing a run for Attorney General and openly discussing the possibility, including during several events in Puerto Rico for the annual Somos conference that occurred just after Election Day 2021.

Gonzalez is the first Latino District Attorney in New York City history and would be seeking to become the state’s first Latino Attorney General.

Starting in 2016, he filled the role of DA in an acting capacity upon the death of District Attorney Ken Thompson, then won the seat outright in 2017, followed by his reelection in 2021. He has built a reputation as a progressive reformer and is being encouraged to run by a variety of allies including Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., in part because he could be the first Latino to become New York Attorney General while bringing the only Latino representation to a statewide or citywide elected position in the state or New York City.

Michael Gianaris
State Senate Deputy Leader Michael Gianaris, who represents the 12th Senate District that covers parts of western Queens, has been testing the waters for a possible 2022 Attorney General bid as well. Gianaris has a powerful role in the Senate and a reputation as a progressive legislator who has championed causes such as bail reform. He is also known as the leading elected official who helped torpedo the deal to bring a massive Amazon campus to Queens.

Reportedly, Gianaris has $3 million ready for a potential race. Earlier this year, Gianaris told Gotham Gazette that he hoped Attorney General James would run for Governor but said until she made her decision it was too early for him to speculate on whether he would run for Attorney General. He said he would not run against James for AG, but with her in the Governor’s race, Gianaris has since said he’s considering the run.

Melinda Katz
Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz is also preparing for a run for Attorney General, sources told The City. Before she was elected as Queens DA in 2019, Katz was a City Council member, a State Assembly member, and then Queens Borough President from 2013 to 2019.

Running for Queens DA, Katz emphasized criminal justice reform, pursuing hate crimes more intensely, boosting workers’ rights, tackling housing fraud, and other issues. As the district attorney in Queens, Katz launched a review of potential wrongful convictions, as she had previously promised. In her first year as DA, Katz established a review unit for criminal cases that may have been improperly handled, leading to four exonerations, and halted prosecution on certain low-level, non-violent crimes.

Clyde Vanel
Representing District 33 in Southeast Queens, Assemblymember Clyde Vanel is also openly looking into joining the race to be the next New York Attorney General. Vanel has served as the Chief of Staff for New York State Senator James Sanders Jr. and owns the Vanel Law Firm, which focuses on intellectual property, business, and estate law.

Recently, Vanel opened a  campaign committee and has said that, if elected, housing security would be a key issue to tenure.

DECLARED REPUBLICANS

Michael Henry
Commercial litigation attorney Michael Henry officially announced his Attorney General bid in August, getting an early start on the campaign. The Astoria, Queens resident is vying to win the Republican nomination then general election to become the state’s first Republican Attorney General since Dennis Vacco’s term finished at the end of 1998. Henry has not held or sought public office before this run.

Henry has thus far been running on criticism of Democratic politicians and championing issues such as justice for families of nursing home residents who died of COVID-19 amid decisions made by the Cuomo administration, taking on government corruption, reversing bail reform, reducing violent crime, and supporting law enforcement officials.

“Letitia James surprised no one by living up to becoming an ‘AG’ or ‘aspiring governor,’” said Michael Henry in an October 29 press release. “In anticipation of this move, radical Democrats, like Zephyr Teachout, want to take her leftist legacy further. Others who supported, wrote and promoted bail reform and so-called criminal justice policies, have also floated their names as potential candidates for Attorney General, with zero embarrassment about the crime crisis they created. These radicals also remained silent during the worst of the pandemic as COVID ravaged nursing homes and their corrupt party head made millions off of a book.”

Joseph Holland
Joseph Holland, currently the managing principal at Kingdom Partners real estate group, has also entered the Attorney General race. Holland has run for Attorney General in 1994 and 2018, where he won 25% of the primary vote before supporting Republican nominee Keith Wofford in the general election.

In 1995 and 1996, Holland served as Commissioner of the New York State Department of Housing and Community Renewal. He has had an extensive career outside of politics, where he has worked as an attorney, writer, entrepreneur, and ordained minister. Holland has worked at the Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker law firm, served as Vice-President of the Harlem Business Alliance, and co-founded the Beth Hark Christian Counseling Center.

According to his campaign website, Holland has three main platform points in his Attorney General run: economic recovery, crime and public safety, and enforcing the rights of New Yorkers. To help fuel covid recovery efforts, Holland says he plans to create a new bureau, the "Economic Development Bureau," to assist small businesses from the AG's office. He also says he will combat gun violence by working with clergy and civic leaders to form new crime prevention initiatives. Holland says as AG he would provide a "new focus on the rights of victims in three critical areas: victims of gun violence; victims in high-crime communities; and victims of hate crimes."

John Sarcone
John Sarcone, Principal Attorney of the Sarcone Law Firm in White Plains, announced his Attorney General campaign in November. Sarcone has served as the Town Attorney for the Town of Eastchester and Deputy Town Attorney for the Town of Cornwall. As an  attorney, Sarcone has provided legal counsel to businesses, municipal governments and labor unions and his firm focuses primarily on small business and family-owned corporations, construction arbitration and litigation, insurance defense, and  federal/state court commercial litigation, according to his website. When announcing his entrance into the race, Sarcone said public safety is key to his campaign.

“Our state has seen better days - with rampant crime and a revolving door built into our judicial system letting violent criminals back on the streets after they’re caught,” said Sarcone in his campaign announcement in front of the Westchester County Courthouse earlier this month. “I’m running for AG not to focus on just a few high-profile cases to raise my personal profile, but to bring common sense back to our justice system.”

Potential Wild Card
Andrew Cuomo
According to reporting in ABC News 10BC News 10 and the New York Post, former Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo has been looking into a possible 2022 Attorney General bid as a comeback. Cuomo held the Attorney General’s office from 2007 through 2010, when he was elected governor for the first of three times.

Though public opinion of Cuomo remains low following his fall from power amid revelations of sexual misconduct and other scandals, he still has millions of dollars in his campaign account that could be used to run for Attorney General or another office.

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by Lachlan Hyatt, Gotham Gazette

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City Council Examines CUNY Employment of Adjunct Faculty Amid Pandemic Turmoil


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A CUNY classroom (photo: @cunyedu)


During a hearing this past Friday, November 12, the New York City Council sought new information about the use and treatment of adjunct faculty at the City University of New York (CUNY), a controversial topic that has become more fraught amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The virtual hearing, held by the Council’s higher education committee and chaired by Council Member Inez Barron, a Brooklyn Democrat, included testimony from two main CUNY officials: Interim Executive Vice Chancellor and University Provost Daniel Lemons and Senior Vice Chancellor and Chief Financial Officer Matthew Sapienza. Other members of the CUNY community also testified.

In her opening statement, Barron -- a former educator for the New York City Department of Education -- stressed the importance of adjunct faculty, who are not full professors but teach courses, to CUNY and students’ education. She said she wanted to learn more about the university’s decision to let go 486 full-time teaching positions and 2,800 adjunct faculty members and some of the school’s financial challenges, including a $52 million loss in revenue due to lower student enrollment and $75 million in unplanned emergency costs. Some of those issues have been at least partially addressed by federal COVID-19 relief funds.

“At today’s hearing, I am interested in learning about current adjuncts, laid off adjuncts, and rehired adjuncts, as well as the status of continuing education teachers. I want to take a deep dive into what is driving the school’s decisions and to know how it is impacting all students,” Barron said of her objectives during opening remarks.

Vice Chancellor Lemons acknowledged the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on New York City and CUNY, and said that the university could not rehire some of the adjunct part-time professors due to lower student enrollment and budget constraints. He reaffirmed CUNY’s commitment to value its adjunct faculty members’ contributions and said he and others helped ensure part-time instructors have enough teaching hours to prevent adjunct faculty from losing their health benefits. Lemons also emphasized the importance of philanthropic donations, such as the $10 million gift from Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to help CUNY reinstate some of the adjunct faculty members who were laid off, Lemons said.

Lemons also talked up the university’s achievements, including newly-implemented health measures to ensure the safety of faculty members and students in accordance with COVID-19 federal guidelines. He noted that as the result of the school’s transition to online teaching and learning, the CUNY School of Professional Studies received the 2020 University Association for Professional, Continuing, Online Education Mid-Atlantic Region Award for Faculty Development.

Addressing CUNY enrollment of students of color in community colleges, Lemons said the pandemic has exacerbated some of the systemic problems for those who wish to access higher education. He emphasized the importance of tackling these issues, citing a major pilot initiative, called the Bronx Self Demonstration Project, launched by CUNY to create a comprehensive approach to tackle students’ well-being and help boost the enrollment rate of students of color. The university also ran the largest debt-forgiveness program in the country, according to Lemons, easing as much as $95 million of students’ debts, in large part thanks to CUNY’s use of federal relief funds.

Vice Chancellor Sapienza also discussed contributions from adjunct faculty and highlighted the university’s commitment to support its members. These commitments, as laid out in the university’s contract, include increasing adjunct faculty salaries, integrating part-time faculty members to the CUNY campuses, and connecting adjunct faculty with students.

“We value very much the critical contribution of our adjuncts, which is underscored in the Collective Bargaining Agreements that were announced in October 2019,” Sapienza said. “An agreement that called for adjuncts’ pay-per-course be historically increased. The contract with the Professional Staff Congress was agreed to within the first six months of Chancellor Matos Rodriguez’s administration and reflected his and the university’s resolute commitment to tens of thousands of our staff.”

Along with enrollment and financial challenges for CUNY, the pandemic has created additional problems regarding the health and education of the university’s students and staff, requiring CUNY to offer more services around mental health and educational support.

[Read: CUNY Confronts Series of Challenges as University System Nears In-Person Reopening]

Under questioning from Barron, Lemons said there are now about 12,000 adjunct faculty members at CUNY. But CUNY has not broken down the demographics of these faculty members and representatives said they would follow up with Barron on that information.

Sapienza said the number of adjunct faculty has been stable this year after last year’s cuts. Lemons also mentioned that faculty changes are complex due to a number of factors, including student enrollment, course offerings, and more.

Barron asked about how many adjunct faculty members who were laid off last year were not reappointed, but Lemons said they did not have that data. Barron emphasized the importance of these numbers in order to keep tabs on which faculty that lost work had or had not regained it.

Barron also asked specifically about the financial impact of COVID-19 on adjunct faculty employment at CUNY. Sapienza acknowledged a variety of financial burdens that CUNY has been facing, such as uncertainty about the state’s and city’s funding and the opening of school’s facilities, leading to cuts. He emphasized that, through the establishment of CUNY’s Vacancy Review Board, the university is continuing to monitor its budget and faculty numbers.

According to Sapienza, CUNY gradually reduced its full-time staff numbers from 19,000 to about 18,000 from April 2020 to September 2021, saving the school $71 million annually going forward. The university also saved $3 million in the 2021 fiscal year by reducing the number of adjunct faculty members. CUNY’s financial plans will be contingent on the level of state and city funding, as well as the universities’ and community colleges’ enrollment rates, Sapienza said.

When questioned by Barron, Lemons said that the university estimated that there were about 155 faculty members who lost their health insurance in 2019-2020 and 135 members in 2020-2021. The university worked to ensure that part-time instructors always have enough teaching hours to be qualified for health insurance benefits during the pandemic, Lemons said. He pledted that CUNY is working to minimize the number of staff members who lose health benefits going forward.

Discussing the correlation between the size of the faculty and the number of majors or courses offered by CUNY, Lemons admitted that there is a correlation, including demands for classes’ sections, courses, or majors that the university could not address with a smaller faculty. According to Lemons, most of these instances happened in community colleges. Lemons said the administration is working to find the number of courses and majors that are not offered due to the reduction of adjuncts and would follow up with Council Member Barron.

Barron also questioned how CUNY's current class size compared to the pre-pandemic class size. Lemons said that the class size depends on the demand for certain courses, how the instructors organize the class, and the type of courses that were offered. He reaffirmed that the university has not seen a dramatic increase in class size because of the pandemic. 

Asked by Barron, Lemons discussed the self-sustained programs in CUNY’s Continuing and Professional Education that aid students beyond their college education. These programs are funded by other stakeholders, including the union CUNY Professional Staff Congress or from city, state, and federal levels, that can address the professional needs of CUNY students.

Toward the end of the hearing, Barron inquired more about CUNY’s use of federal funding, especially from the CARES Act, and how it was distributed to help CUNY’s Continuing and Professional Education programs.

Sapienza explained that, when determining the size of grants for colleges across the country, the federal Department of Education used a formula that was based on the number of students in specific degree programs. This formula did not account for the number of students who took CUNY’s Continuing and Professional Education programs, so the university has not distributed federal funding for these programs. According to Lemons, the university maintained its commitment to support the administration of these programs.

Barron also raised questions about CUNY’s plan to use $100 million of federal allocation it received from the state budget. According to Sapienza, the university is working to develop plans to use the funding and bring these plans for state approval. Sapienza also highlighted the different needs that each college within CUNY could lead to different funding requests.

CUNY is also requesting an additional $416 million in the next city budget plan for fiscal year 2022, which begins July 1, 2021. Sapienza said he would follow up with Council Member Barron on the details of the money requested so that the City Council can better understand how CUNY plans to use this requested funding. According to Sapienza, CUNY is planning to offer 500 full-time teaching positions for its adjunct faculties.

James Davis, President of PSC-CUNY, also testified at the City Council hearing. He praised CUNY’s requested budget as “worthy of its students’ needs as well as of faculty’s and staff’s.” Davis especially highlighted CUNY’s plan to provide a career pathway for part-time faculty to become full-time professors while discussing the hardships that adjuncts face, including low wages and larger class sizes. He called on CUNY and the City Council to continue to tackle these issues.

[Read: CUNY Confronts Series of Challenges as University System Nears In-Person Reopening]

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by Tri Truong, Gotham Gazette

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Latino Vote Podcast: Redistricting, Representation, and Latino New Yorkers


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A Hispanic heritage celebration at City Hall (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


On this episode of the Latino Vote podcast from Gotham Gazette and hosted by Eli Valentin, the topic is legislative redistricting and Latino representation, and the guests are Lucia Gomez, Political Director at the NYC Central Labor Council; Dr. Carlos Vargas-Ramos, Director of Public Policy and Media Relations at the Centro for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College; and Frederick Velez Burgos, National Director of Civic Engagement at the Hispanic Federation.

Listen through the audio below or find this and other episodes of Latino Vote under the "Max Politics" podcast stream wherever you get podcasts:

Read more: Latino Vote Podcast: Redistricting, Representation, and Latino New Yorkers

Rikers Crisis Renews Push for State Bill to Create 'Correctional Ombudsman' and Oversight Board


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Cleaning up at Rikers Island (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


The deaths this year of 14 people held on Rikers Island and recent reports of inhumane conditions have renewed attention on the dereliction of one of the country's largest municipal jail systems.

That includes from the lead sponsor of a bill in the state Legislature that would create an oversight board and statewide ombudsperson with jurisdiction over local jails and state prisons. The bill's author, Assembly Member Daniel O'Donnell, says he is pushing for its passage in the next legislative session, which begins in January, arguing it would add needed transparency to a vast system with restricted public access.

"You have people both at Rikers and in prisons who are not getting the things that they need to be safe," said O'Donnell, a Manhattan Democrat, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. "If that's the case somebody needs to look at: is that an accident, is it intentional, is it a systematic problem -- and that's part of what the job of the ombudsman would be."

The legislation would establish a "correctional ombudsman" and a new Correctional Oversight Board separate from state and local correction departments with access to all prison and jail documents and the power to conduct investigations. While the new office would not be empowered to enforce its findings, it would be able to refer them to local prosecutors and the state Attorney General.

O'Donnell, a former chair of the Assembly correction committee, believes the state's current prison oversight system is flawed because of conflicts of interest and the State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision's restrictive approach to information. The department's remediation system is either housed internally or in the New York State Commission of Correction, a body of three members, all former correction and law enforcement officials.

"Allowing employees to judge other employees is not a good recipe for success," O'Donnell said  of a provision barring former DOCCS employees of the last 10 years from becoming the ombudsperson.

The New York City Board of Correction oversees the city's correction department with nine members appointed by the mayor, six upon the recommendation of the City Council and State Supreme Court. During the pandemic, the board has suffered from budget cuts and restrictions on its typical investigative functions. It has also been accused of lacking independence from de Blasio, who also controls the DOC, having issued no violations since the pandemic began. Along with the ability to make recommendations to the Board of Correction, the City Council also has oversight of the city’s jails and some power to legislate.

In 2015, Rikers Island came under the oversight of a federal monitor as part of a settlement with the Department of Justice and advocates over brutality and rampant civil rights abuses in the complex. The dysfunctional jail complex became a target of activists and elected officials, particularly former Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. After eventual buy-in from de Blasio, it is now slated for closure and replacement by 2027.

Another organization, the Correctional Association of New York, is a storied nonprofit with the unique statutory authority to monitor and report on state prisons and has been doing so for 175 years.

Anthony Dixon, director of community engagement at the Parole Preparation Project, believes the state would be better served by empowering the Correctional Association than creating a new body. "Why do something like that when you got a mechanism that is there, that's been there...but they just never had the teeth," Dixon, a formerly incarcerated Brooklynite, told Gotham Gazette.

"By all means more oversight," said Jennifer Scaife, executive director of the Correctional Association, "and I would offer as a consideration that further empowering existing forms of oversight might be a strategy that legislators could consider in lieu of establishing yet another form of oversight at significant cost to taxpayers and questionable independence from the executive."

Scaife argued “the Correctional Association is well-positioned to be further empowered to provide that kind of oversight.”

Another bill sponsored by State Senator Luis Sepúlveda, who also carried O'Donnell's bill, would have given the Correctional Association much of the authority of the proposed ombudsman, like unfettered access to DOCCS records, including surveillance footage, and the right to unannounced site inspections of any state prison. The State Legislature passed it in 2020 but, according to Scaife, then-Governor Andrew Cuomo stripped it of those key provisions before signing it in December.

"Granted, we were in a different administration, so it could be that the climate is more favorable to passing something like this," she said, noting no draft legislation has yet been introduced.

Victor Pate, a statewide organizer with the HALT Solitary campaign, said O'Donnell's bill was a good idea "theoretically," but he had reservations. "It's not effective until you have people that have been directly impacted through the system of incarceration that is a part of these particular boards and oversight committees."

At least ten other states have some form of correctional ombudsperson, according to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie's office in 2016, as do Canada and parts of the United Kingdom. O'Donnell's proposed Correctional Oversight Board would have 12 members all appointed by the governor: one would be the state Inspector General; four would be appointed from recommendations from the Assembly and Senate; two others from a recommendations by prison advocacy non-profits; and the others would be a formerly incarcerated person, a former state prison employee, an attorney recommended by the state bar association, a medical professional, and a mental health professional.

The board would hire the ombudsperson who, in addition to having full access to state and local correctional records, could make unannounced site visits to facilities with their staff of investigators.

O'Donnell first introduced the legislation in 2016 following a prison break from Clinton Correctional Facility near the Canadian border. The escape -- through a tunnel dug with the help of prison guards -- led to a multimillion-dollar manhunt and the death of Richard Matt, one of the escapees. The bill passed just weeks after the federal monitor released its first report on Rikers Island, detailing some progress but continuing problems like guards' excessive use of force.

The State Assembly, with a Democratic majority, passed the bill that same year but it failed in the Republican-controlled Senate. The bill has not passed either house since Democrats took control of both chambers in 2019.

"Independent oversight has been sorely lacking in the state's correction system for far too long," Heastie said when the legislation passed in 2016. "The Office of the Correctional Ombudsman, which would be separate from DOCCS, will allow for impartial investigations that will get to the bottom of such troubling allegations of retaliation against prisoners, violent assaults and inmates being denied medical attention so we can take corrective actions that will ensure the safe, just and effective operation of the state's correctional facilities."

Heastie's office did not respond to a request for comment for this story on the bill or its chances in the next legislative session.

O'Donnell said he has not yet spoken with the Hochul administration about the bill but believes public pressure to change the state's correctional system will be enough to bring it to the finish line next year.

"I think it's going to happen because its time has come," he said. "When there are weekly stories and discussion about the conditions and the failure of oversight, the solution is to change oversight, right?

"Governor Hochul will review all legislation that reaches her desk," said Avi Small, a spokesperson for Hochul. Mitch Schwartz, a spokesperson for de Blasio, said the mayor's office was reviewing the bill.

The New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association representing 18,000 corrections officers did not comment on the legislation despite requests from Gotham Gazette.

In October, Governor Hochul and Mayor Blasio announced the emergency transfer of 350 individuals from Rikers custody to state prisons to alleviate some of the burden on the city's facilities and spare people incarcerated from abuse and neglect at the hands of the city Department of Correction (DOC). Hochul also signed the Less is More Act, aimed at preventing recently paroled people from being sent back to prison for technical violations.

On Monday, Hochul announced the closure of six state prisons by March due to dropping inmate populations. The maneuver is expected to save the state $142 million and entail the transfer of hundreds of incarcerated individuals.

With a $2.5 billion budget, DOCCS has 50 facilities housing about 31,500 incarcerated individuals around the state. While the population has decreased by more than half over the past two decades, violence against staff and detainees remains a serious issue. In the first ten months of 2021, there were roughly 900 reported assaults on staff and another 900 on people in prison, according to DOCCS records.

In the previous fiscal year (July 2020 to June 2021), the New York City Department of Correction reported an average daily population of just under 5,000, less than half of what it was when de Blasio took office in 2014. But in recent weeks, reports of chaos in the wake of the pandemic, increasing arrests, and staffing shortages have left detainees and jailers at risk.

In August, the federal monitor issued a report detailing sinking conditions on RIkers Island prompting a series of visits by City Council members and state legislators who expressed horror at what they saw. In response, de Blasio issued an emergency plan to address concerns. But, in September, a group of New York's Congressional Democrats issued a letter calling on the Biden administration to intervene. A short time later de Blasio indicated he would visit the complex. his first time since 2017, but did not speak with any incarcerated individuals or rank-and-file guards when he did.

While New York's jails and prisons have been plagued by violence, decay, and opacity for decades, O'Donnell believes the current crisis on Rikers will be a tipping point in the public debate.

"I would rather go to Attica than go to Rikers Island. OK? Does that tell you something?" he said.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Constitutional Amendments: New York Voters Approve New Environmental Rights, Disapprove Voting and Redistricting Reforms


New York Voters Approve 5 Constitutional Amendments to Alter Redistricting, Expand Voting Rights, Ensure Clean Air and Water

Voting (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


With more than 100,000 absentee ballots yet to be counted, New York voters thus far appear to have approved two state constitutional amendments on the general election ballot and voted down three others. It is unlikely that the mail-in ballots will be enough to sway some or all of the outcomes, setting the stage for only two of the five ballot referendums to pass, though it is not impossible.

The statewide results lend traction to environmental advocates but deliver a major blow to election reformers seeking to continue the momentum of the last three years. They also settle the latest contentious chapter of the state's legislative redistricting reforms, which divided good government groups and elected officials this year -- just as they did in 2014 when another referendum made major changes to the state constitution.

Yorkers will now have a constitutional right "to clean air and water, and a healthful environment," something only a handful of other states have. The proposal, which was Question 2 on the ballot, received roughly 61% of the statewide in-person vote, according to the State Board of Elections' unofficial results.

A second successful amendment, what was Question 5, will broaden the jurisdiction of the New York City Civil Court, allowing claims to keep up with inflation and for cases to be more evenly distributed among the courts. It garnered about 54% of in-person votes from early voting and Election Day.

But the measures to allow for same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee voting both appear to have failed. As does the amendment containing new rules for the decennial drawing of state legislative and Congressional district lines, which will be finalized by Albany lawmakers next year. It would have made changes related to population apportionment, including how prisoners and undocumented immigrants are counted, the size of the State Senate, and how district lines get approved.

"Tonight's results should remind us all not to take pro-democracy victories for granted," said Theo Oshiro, executive director of Make the Road New York, on election night. Ochiro was part of a coalition that supported the voting and redistricting amendments. He blamed a "a fear-mongering campaign from Trump conservatives" and the amendments' supporters who "remained complacent and did not invest the energy and resources needed to correct the record and win."

"The failure of props 1, 3, and 4 is a black eye for democracy," said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, another member of the coalition.

Just above half of all voters counted by the end of election night voted "No" on the elections amendments. For the redistricting proposal, 48.5% of voters were opposed and only 38.4% were for it.

In New York City, those dynamics were flipped with all ballot proposals receiving at least 58% of the vote, according to the City Board of Elections' unofficial results.

The unofficial results do not include many absentee and affidavit ballots, which have yet to be counted.

Each of the five proposed amendments were passed by the Democratic-controlled State Legislature twice in successive legislative sessions before going to voters. In most cases, they represented years of advocacy within and outside of government. But Democrats did little to push for voter approval of all the measures while Republicans pushed hard in opposition to all of them, especially those related to redistricting and voting, Questions 1, 3, and 4.

"For the party itself this was not something that we were taking as a priority," said State Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs in an interview on Capital Pressroom Thursday. "That might have been something where we should have paid more attention."

"I think there was an assumption they were gonna pass," he said.

The newly enshrined right to clean air and water for all New Yorkers could have significant implications for government and a number of industries, whose actors may be more liable for the pollution they spew. Still uncertain is how courts will view the new right, laying the groundwork for its impact to be contoured by case law.

Environmental advocates say the amendment may also influence how regulators like the State Department of Environmental Conservation and City Department of Environmental Protection view their mandate to protect the state's natural resources, how local governments ensure clean drinking water and air quality, and other issues. 

The narrowest amendment on the ballot expanded the New York City Civil Court's jurisdiction to include claims of up to $50,000, up from a previous limit of $25,000. It will apply only to New York City. The justification was simple: to keep up with inflation (the limit was similarly raised in 1983 from $10,000 to $25,000) and to reduce the backlog of civil cases in the State Supreme Court. A nearly identical referendum went before voters in the 1990s but failed.

The election night results constituted a mixed victory for the State Republican Party, which opposed each measure -- particularly the redistricting amendment, which would have done away with a number of tools used by Republicans for decades to control the line-drawing process and pack the State Senate with members of their party. Those machinations, often reached via deals with Democrats under a split government, will still become the province of Democrats now in power to craft district lines to their liking. 

The amendment would have made numerous changes to the process, ranging from the substantial to the technical. It would have frozen the number of State Senate seats at 63, the current level. And it would have required map-makers to count jailed New Yorkers as residents of their hometowns, as opposed to prison towns. It would also have required that all residents be counted, regardless of citizenship status.

In many of the redistricting processes over the last 100 years, Republicans have used an allowance in the State Constitution to add seats to the State Senate in areas likely to vote Republican (often after horse-trading with Democrats, who got their own advantages).

The GOP has also benefited from counting incarcerated individuals in the places they are imprisoned, rather than where they hail from, boosting populations in more conservative districts upstate. Both practices have helped Republicans control the State Senate for most of the last century. They were both targeted by Democrats once they took the Senate in 2019, matching a long-time majority in the Assembly (also bolstered by generous line-drawing) and were presented on the chopping block for voters this fall.

The amendment would also have made changes to how district lines are approved, first by the new state redistricting commission (itself established in a highly debated referendum in 2014) and finally by the State Legislature. It would eliminate certain partisan voting requirements of the commission, which must draw and pass proposed maps before advancing them to the Legislature, and adjust some of the deadlines for doing so to keep up with recent changes to the primary election calendar. It also lowered the necessary final vote threshold needed to pass new district maps in the State Legislature from a two-thirds supermajority to an easier 60% of each house.

Some good government groups, like NYPIRG and Common Cause New York, supported the new amendment, saying it helps fine-tune parts of the 2014 amendment (both opposed that referendum when it was on the ballot). Other groups, like Citizens Union and the League of Women Voters, opposed the new changes because they make it possible for lawmakers to draw lines with less cooperation across the aisle (they both supported the 2014 referendum).

The voting changes were relatively simple, if controversial. One would have eliminated a constitutional deadline to register to vote 10 days before polls close, making it possible for New Yorkers to register to vote and cast a ballot up to and on any election day.

The other would have made absentee ballots available to all voters in all elections, regardless of the circumstances by eliminated the need to provide a justification for requesting one. But that, for the time being remains the status quo: since the onset of the pandemic, the risk of spreading the coronavirus -- something that applies to all voters -- has been considered a valid reason.

 

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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​Hochul Signs Two Bills to Protect Domestic Violence Survivors


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Gov. Kathy Hochul (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)


Governor Kathy Hochul is signing two bills Thursday to protect the personal information and finances of domestic violence survivors fleeing their abusers.

One bill allows survivors to shield their home address in public records when registering to vote with the Board of Elections. The second bill requires utility companies to release individuals from shared contracts without charge when they affirm that they are victims of domestic abuse. The latter makes it easier for individuals to leave abusive homes without the financial penalties often attached to seeking safety. State lawmakers passed the bills almost unanimously this spring.

"My mother worked with domestic violence survivors all her life, and I’m proud to continue the mission to put an end to abuse and support the needs of survivors and families,” Hochul said in a statement provided to Gotham Gazette. “Requiring utility companies to release survivors of domestic violence from their contracts freeing up funds for necessities as they get their feet on the ground in a new home and keeping those new homes’ addresses confidential ensures survivors can live there safely."

The legislations’ supporters say the laws will help individuals, especially women and youths, extricate themselves from abusive environments. Home addresses in Board of Elections records can be used by abusers to locate their victims and renew cycles of harm. And so-called "escape clauses" in utility contracts can mitigate the often great personal costs survivors sustain when they break free, the bill's sponsors said. The new provision only applies to contracts initiated after the law is signed.

“The unfortunate truth is that New York State needs to do more to ensure protection for victims of domestic violence," said State Senator Kevin Parker, a Brooklyn Democrat and one of the lead sponsors of the utility contract bill. "As survivors work to move forward with their lives they need [to] be able to break away from utility contracts without penalty."

Assemblymember Carmen De La Rosa, the Manhattan Democrat who carried the bill in the Assembly, noted that "intimate partner violence manifest itself in physical, verbal, and economic abuse."

The bills each require victims to submit affirmations in writing in order to opt-out of their respective obligations. In the case of voter registration, the documentation must be a signed statement expressing that the voter is a victim of domestic violence and "that because of the threat of physical or emotional harm to themself or to family or household members, [they wish] for their registration record to be kept confidential." The confidentiality exemption will last four years, after which the voter may reapply.

“No survivor should have to give up their right to vote in order to protect themselves from abuse," said Assemblymember Nily Rozic, a Queens Democrat who championed that bill.

Previously, registered voters would have to apply for a court order from the state supreme court in order to shield their address.

"We want all New Yorkers to play a role in our democracy," said State Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Democrat from Brooklyn who carried the bill in his chamber. "By removing a cause for fear, this law will hopefully make it easier for survivors to find and use their voices in our elections."

To break utility contracts, individuals will have to request to be removed from contracts in writing and submit some form of official documentation attesting to their status as a victim of abuse. Valid statements include an incident report, police report, order of protection, or a signed affidavit from a range of medical, social service, or legal professionals.

Hochul, a Democrat, has championed a number of initiatives to protect domestic violence survivors in her two months in office. Earlier this month she made the annual declaration of October as "Domestic Violence Awareness Month" and allocated $6.5 million to survivor support and domestic violence prevention programs. Roughly three-quarters of the funding went to organizations that provide housing for survivors.

In her first major address after being sworn in as governor -- the first woman to hold the position in the state's history -- Hochul said her mother grew up "in an abusive home" and imparted to her the value of social justice advocacy. "Together, we founded a home for survivors of domestic violence when she was 70 years old—she taught me empathy," Hochul said in the August 24 speech.

Hochul has committed to championing anti-sexual-harassment and discrimination issues and turning the page on a culture of sexism in state government. She came to power this summer after former Governor Andrew Cuomo resigned following a report from the Attorney General’s office showing he sexually harassed multiple women, including current and former staff members, and oversaw a toxic workplace.

The bills being signed Thursday appear to be the first anti-domestic violence legislation Hochul has enacted into law in her short time as governor.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Hochul Releases 'Ironclad' Conflicts of Interest Policy Related to Husband's Work


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Governor Hochul with her husband (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)


UPDATE: The day after this article was published by Gotham Gazette (headlined "Hochul Pledges to Release 'Ironclad' Conflicts of Interest Policy"), Governor Hochul released the recusal policies she, Secretary to the Governor Karen P. Keogh, and Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin signed related to their private business interests. For Hochul and Keogh the recusals involved the work of their husbands at Delaware North and Bolton-St. Johns, respectively. Benjamin's policy involves recusal in certain matters related to NextPoint Acquisition, an investment firm he founded and directed and in which he still owns stock, and to his spouse's position at New York State Homes and Community Renewal, a state agency. The release was part of a larger announcement of new government transparency measures that included plans to improve agency information sharing, Freedom of Information Law compliance, and an executive order requiring in-person ethics training for state employees.

Here is the article published on October 27, 2021:

Before taking the state’s highest office, then-Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul promised to take big strides away from the corruption and impropriety that have characterized Albany politics for decades. ​​Among her commitments was to craft policies to prevent conflicts of interest related to the business dealings of her husband, a senior executive at an international gaming company, and the spouses of other high-ranking executive branch officials, especially Secretary to the Governor Karen Persichilli Keogh.

More than two months into her tenure as governor, no policy has been made public and government watchdogs continue to question what guardrails are in place during ongoing state decision-making.

In answering some of the persistent questions around whether a conflicts-of-interest policy exists and what it entails, Hochul’s administration is offering new details and a promise that the policy will be released publicly.

“Governor Hochul is committed to restoring trust in government, and she holds herself and her staff to the highest ethical standards," Avi Small, the governor's spokesperson, told Gotham Gazette. "Before the Hochul Administration began, the Governor and Secretary signed recusals to prevent even the appearance of conflicts of interest. We have been consulting with legal experts on these policies, and we are planning to release them publicly.”

Small said the policies include Hochul's recusal from matters that have an explicit impact on Delaware North and a commitment to abstain from using her office to benefit the company. Similarly, any state business related to the work of Keogh's husband, an influential New York lobbyist, is being delegated to other executive staff, Small said.

Hochul's husband, William Hochul, Jr., is a senior vice president and general counsel at Delaware North, an international concessions and entertainment company with stakes in numerous state contracts and decisions. It has a notable interest in a potential $1.4 billion deal to create a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills, which could involve generous state subsidies -- and which Hochul has said she is committed to seeing through.

Meanwhile, Mike Keogh is a partner at Bolton St.-Johns, a powerful Albany lobbying firm whose work touches a wide variety of issues and decisions.

In an August 11 interview, soon after scandal-mired Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his intention to resign, Hochul told the Buffalo News her husband "will continue to recuse himself from anything to do with state government​​." She said nothing of her own recusal in state negotiations. A few days later, and a week before her August 24 swearing-in as governor, she committed to working with outside experts to develop an "ironclad policy."

"I understand concerns and I have reached out to outside ethics experts to come up with an ironclad policy so no one will ever question that there's any involvement with my husband and anything pertaining to the state of New York," she said in an August 15 interview on CNN when asked about potential conflicts with Delaware North.

Good government advocates and other concerned parties say the governor should make her policy public and have it independently verified, either by the state Attorney General and Comptroller, or by the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), the state's ethics oversight body.

"It's never going to be perfect but having an independent eye on it from the Comptroller or the AG or both," said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a government transparency advocacy group, "that would lend tremendously to the credibility, because otherwise it's just her or Delaware North saying, 'Trust us.'"

"That's policing yourself and policing yourself doesn't work so well," he added. Kaehny said there should also be a plan in place for the Hochul administration to regularly update those entities on the policy's implementation.

"Internal guidance, though helpful, isn't enough," said Blair Horner, executive director of the good government group NYPIRG. "The governor should request a formal opinion from JCOPE and then she should release that decision to the public."

In an editorial published Tuesday, the Albany Times Union editorial board took the same position. "She owes it to New Yorkers to get a credible second opinion, and to share it with the public," the board wrote, later adding, "It would give members of the public a chance to judge for themselves whether the finding and constraints are appropriate."

"We think the Comptroller or AG would be more credible than JCOPE as that second opinion," Kaehny said, an apparent reference to criticisms that the commission lacks independence and bite (Hochul and some legislators have said it is in need of a major overhaul). "That said, a public, unredacted JCOPE advisory opinion that clearly addressed public concerns about conflict of interest would be a heck of a lot better than nothing."

Family ties are a tradition in the State Capitol: Melissa DeRosa, Secretary to former Governor Andrew Cuomo, is the daughter of Bolton St.-Johns' chief Albany lobbyist, Giorgio DeRosa. When the younger DeRosa was appointed to the influential post in 2017 government watchdogs raised alarms about the potential conflicts her relations posed. Cuomo dismissed them. "Her father is a longtime, well-known lobbyist in Albany. Everybody knows that. So, I don’t see the issue whatsoever," he said at the time. DeRosa has said she complies with recusal rules of the state's Public Officers Law and consulted with JCOPE to avoid the appearance of conflicts.

New York's Public Officers Law does not explicitly mention conflicts of interest related to family members but does bar officials from having "any interest, financial or otherwise, direct or indirect," or "engag[ing] in any business or transaction or professional activity or incur[ring] any obligation of any nature" that would conflict with their official duties.

JCOPE generally recommends officials "recuse yourself from any personnel decisions that involve a family member or close personal friend." It is unclear what direct guidance DeRosa received from JCOPE because the body's advisory opinions do not contain identifying information. It is also unknown in what instances DeRosa recused herself, an especially complicated task in a state government where issues are often intertwined in large package deals during budget and end-of-session negotiations.

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

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Hochul Yet to Release Promised Assessment of Hurricane Ida Preparation, Response


hochul directs state

Gov. Hochul & other officials in Ida's aftermath (photo: Darren McGee/Governor's Office)


After the powerful remnants of Hurricane Ida hammered the Northeast and killed 16 New Yorkers, Governor Kathy Hochul promised a full review of the state's handling of the catastrophe. Nearly two months later, the governor has not released anything or provided any update about the assessment while questions remain about how the nascent Hochul administration dealt with the storm's approach and arrival. 

As the storm crossed into New York on September 1, only a week into Hochul’s tenure as governor, her office issued an advisory warning of heavy rain and "possible flooding." That morning she directed state agencies to take some precautionary action but did not declare a state of emergency, hold a press briefing, or announce any travel restrictions before the worst of the storm hit that evening.

That night and into the next morning, the downstate region saw torrents of water -- enough to submerge cars up to the windows and fill basement apartments, especially in parts of Queens where geography and infrastructure placed homes in the floodpath. Those basements are where most of the victims died.

Subway entrances resembled waterfalls and the rain erased the contours of streets and highways. It was not until after midnight that Hochul declared a state of emergency.

Within days the state assessed tens of millions of dollars in property damage.

"I'm going to be convening a task force of individuals who will do an after-action report to me," Hochul said at a briefing in Yonkers on September 3. "I've insisted on this already and I want to know exactly what we did right. If we did it right, we'll keep doing it right. If there were any areas that were shortcomings I want to know what they are and how we address them."

Without admitting fault, Hochul said the state needed to be better prepared for extreme weather events like Ida, which have been coming with more frequency in recent years.

"Some people called this a 500-year event. I don't buy it because I was up on Lake Ontario when in 2017 we had what was known as a 100-year event. It happened two years again later," she said at the September 3 briefing, surrounded by grieving families and other elected officials.

A day earlier, Hochul laid out the critical questions of her post-mortem.

"Did we have enough warning? Did we let people know? Should we shut down subways earlier? Was there a breakdown in communication with the weather systems? Were we prepared enough?" she asked at a press briefing on Long Island. "I am going to intensely ask those questions, get the answers, and when I get that, I will share that with the public because every crisis is an opportunity to learn and to improve and to be more prepared for the next one."

"The after-action report is in progress," said Avi Small, a spokesperson for Hochul, when asked about the review and any preliminary findings. 

On the morning of September 1, Hochul began issuing warnings and directing state agencies to deploy available emergency response resources. The state Department of Transportation was instructed to clear drain catches and dispatch generators, pumps, chainsaws, and emergency lighting. Plows, dump trucks, and other equipment from the Thruway Authority were placed on standby and MTA crews were called in to inspect "flood-prone areas" of the subway. At least ten state agencies and authorities were engaged in a last-minute rush to prepare the state.

While the review hasn't materialized, the administration has been active in the aftermath of the storm. Hochul secured a major disaster declaration from President Joe Biden, along with millions in federal aid. For immigrants excluded from FEMA relief, the administration established a $27 million fund that was applauded by advocacy groups. The governor visited devastated areas of New York City and other parts of the state -- including a visit to Queens with Biden and other elected officials -- and pledged to return.

On Monday, as another (less severe) deluge was expected to hit the state, Hochul issued a preemptive state of emergency declaration. The early order is a sign of the apparent lessons learned from getting caught flat-footed in the storm water two months prior.

"I am proactively declaring a State of Emergency to ensure we can provide the necessary resources to respond to this storm and protect lives and property in regions where the forecast is calling for significant rainfall," Hochul said in a statement accompanying agency directives that looked similar to what she issued the morning before Ida hit, though without the emergency declaration. "I am encouraging New Yorkers to prepare now for inclement weather expected over the coming days and urging commuters to take precaution ahead of heavy rainfall expected tomorrow morning."

On September 23, three weeks after Ida, Mayor Bill de Blasio issued a report from a city task force he convened in the aftermath of the storm with new protocols for responding to catastrophic weather events. The task force recommended $2.7 billion in new funding for resiliency projects, which de Blasio said he supported.

“Extreme weather is more common than ever, and more severe than ever. Business as usual is over. Keeping New Yorkers safe means profoundly changing the way we prepare for – and react to – this new normal,” the mayor said in a statement. “This new report charts a path forward for investing in vulnerable neighborhoods, shoring up our infrastructure, warning communities ahead of major weather events, and better tracking storms before they arrive."

Like Hochul, the mayor received significant scrutiny about the city's preparations for Ida and the fact that so many people died in basement apartments that were not up to code. The new plan includes developing the Office of Emergency Management's early warning systems -- a project that had been planned for 2023 but de Blasio said the city would expedite. Some have questioned why the system wasn't in place when Ida hit, given the city's knowledge of both flooding problems and widespread code violations for basement apartments.

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

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