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After Strong Primary Showing, Will New Crop of Progressives Push Assembly Democrats Further Left?

5 progressive assembly

The State Assembly (photo: @NYSA_Majority)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

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

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