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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.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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