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State Budget Crunch Time, City Council & Charter Revision Hearings, & More: The Week Ahead in New York Politics, March 18


New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

The week begins with Mayor Bill de Blasio again returning from a trip to an early presidential primary state as he continues to tease a potential run for president. He's not a candidate at this time but he's not ruling it out, he regularly says. This weekend he was in New Hampshire, after a trip to South Carolina last weekend, and Iowa before that. De Blasio has also repeatedly said he will decide on whether to enter the Democratic primary fray sooner rather than later, which would, one assumes, mean fairly soon.

Meanwhile, the City Council will continue this week to examine the mayor's $92.2 billion preliminary budget, with another series of committee hearings.

More pressingly, Monday marks just two weeks until a state budget is due on April 1. The Legislature will be in session in Albany three days this week, with public and private budget negotiations expected among representatives of Governor Cuomo, the Senate majority, and the Assembly majority. It's unclear when Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie may meet themselves.

Key issues on the table include exactly how much to spend and on what, which revenue-raising policies to keep/add/end/enhance (like a new pied-á-terre tax), and specific issues like marijuana legalization, congestion pricing and MTA reform, criminal justice reform, environmental and energy policy, campaign finance and ethics reforms. Cuomo has said he won't approve of a budget that doesn't include criminal justice reforms (to bail, speedy trial, and discovery) and a permanent 2% cap on annual property tax increases everywhere outside New York City, which has been exempt to the current cap, which expires in 2020. The Senate has approved of the cap, the Assembly has not, but Heastie has not explicitly said the Assembly is against doing it -- it appears it may be more of a bargaining item at this point. Cuomo, who continues to criticize Senate Democrats for the loss of the Amazon deal, has said that he and the legislative majorities are further apart on marijuana legalization and criminal justice reform than legislators have indicated.

Also to watch are the extension of mayoral control of New York City schools, which isn't due to expire until June, but could be done in the budget, perhaps with tweaks to the system to empower local communities and parents, and the cap on charter schools -- all of the slots allowed in New York City under the current cap have now been filled -- among additional issues that are at times flying under the radar. As usual, state school aid to localities is a key topic of negotiation, as well as health care funding, namely through Medicaid, again from the state to localities.

We're also watching this week as the 2019 Charter Revision Commission continues to do its work, hearing from experts on various focus areas and considering proposals to change the city charter. Whatever the commission decides is worthy of possible change to the charter, the city's foundational legal document, will go before voters in November.

There are a variety of events to be aware of this week - see our day-by-day rundown below.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
e-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.***

The run of the week in detail:

Monday
The New York State Legislature will be in session on Monday in Albany.

On Monday at 4:30 p.m. at City Hall, "Mayor de Blasio will hold public hearings and sign three pieces of legislation—Intro 1329-A to give BIC the authority to register unions and union representatives operating in the trade waste industry; Intro. 1373-A which requires BIC to refer labor and wage violations to the proper state or federal authorities; and Intro. 1368-A which requires BIC to share workers’ rights information to the employees of the trade waste industry...In the evening, the Mayor will appear on NY1’s Inside City Hall."

There will be a preliminary budget hearing Monday at the City Council on health at 10 a.m., regarding the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Medical Examiner.

Also at the City Council on Monday:
--The Committee on Small Business will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss several proposed laws, including laws requiring SBS to perform an assessment of the “state of storefront businesses” in the city every five years, requiring developments receiving city financial assistance to provide affordable retail space, providing legal services to small business owners facing eviction, and requiring property owners to register vacant storefronts with the city.
--The Committees on Oversight & Investigations and Economic Development will meet jointly at 1 p.m. for an oversight hearing regarding the New York Works jobs plan.
--The Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions, and Concessions will meet at 1 p.m.

On Monday at 10:30 a.m., Comptroller Scott Stringer will appear on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show. In the evening, Stringer will be in Queens to host a "roundtable with South Asian Community Stakeholders."

At noon Monday, the Association for a Better New York will host MTA Chief Development Officer Janno Lieber for a lunch discussion on “rebuilding and expanding New York's transit system to make it faster, better, and more affordable.” The event will take place at CBRE’s Midtown offices at 200 Park Avenue.

At 6 p.m. Monday at City Hall, the 2019 Charter Revision Commission will hold its fifth “issues forum” featuring experts on the specific focus topic at hand and potential charter revisions. This forum will focus on the city’s governance and elections, with topics to include the role of the Public Advocate and the “appointment and removal powers of city officials.”

At 6:30 p.m. Monday, U.S. Rep. Max Rose will hold a town hall meeting at St. Philips Baptist Church in Port Richmond, Staten Island.

Tuesday
The New York State Legislature will be in session on Tuesday in Albany.

At noon Tuesday, the New York State Board of Elections will hold a commissioners’ meeting in Albany.

The following City Council committees will hold preliminary budget hearings on Tuesday:
--Public Safety at 10 a.m., regarding the NYPD and the Civilian Complaint Review Board.
--Justice System and Public Safety jointly at 2:30 p.m., regarding district attorneys, the special narcotics prosecutor, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, the Office of Civil Justice, and legal aid.

Also at the City Council on Tuesday:
--The Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises will meet at 9:30 a.m.
--The Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting, and Maritime Uses will meet at noon.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, the MTA will host the third of four open houses for community members regarding the “revised” L-train rehab project. This open house will take place at the Grand Street Campus High School in Williamsburg.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, the Association for a Better New York will host City Planning Commission Chair Marisa Lago at a happy hour at the Beekman Pub in the Financial District. Lago “will discuss her career path, experience as the City Planning Commissioner Chair, and vision for New York City.”

Wednesday
The New York State Legislature will be in session on Wednesday in Albany.

The following City Council committees will hold preliminary budget hearings on Wednesday:
--Education at 10 a.m., regarding the Department of Education and the School Construction Authority.
--Immigration at 2 p.m., regarding the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

At 7 p.m. Wednesday, the state’s Census commission will hold the third of six public hearings to discuss the upcoming 2020 U.S. Census and the myriad related issues. The hearing will take place at SUNY Sullivan in Loch Sheldrake, Sullivan County.

Thursday
At 9 a.m. Thursday, City & State will host its 2019 “Diversity Summit” at National Geographic Encounter in Midtown. Leaders in government, business, and academia will discuss diversity within civic spaces. Keynote remarks will be delivered by U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez. Other speakers include State Senator James Sanders; City Council Members Robert Cornegy, Helen Rosenthal, and Rafael Salamanca; Lourdes Zapata, Chief Diversity Officer in the Governor’s office; Jonnel Doris, Director of the Mayor’s Office of MWBE; Victor Calise, Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities; Gregg Bishop, Commissioner of the Department of Small Business Services; Michael Garner, Chief Diversity Officer for the MTA; Lorraine Grillo, President of the School Construction Authority; and others.

At 9 a.m. Thursday, City Comptroller Scott Stringer will host an “Irish Heritage Breakfast” at his offices in the Manhattan Municipal Building.

At 6 p.m. Thursday, the 2019 Charter Revision Commission will hold its sixth “issues forum” at City Hall to discuss potential charter revisions. This forum will focus on the city’s land use process.

At 6 p.m. Thursday, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer will hold a public hearing at the Cooper Union to hear from Manhattan residents on the issue of congestion pricing.

At 6 p.m. Thursday, Assemblymember Latrice Walker, State Senator Zellnor Myrie, and the Let NY Vote coalition will host “The New York Voting Rights Agenda: The Challenges Ahead” at Brooklyn Law School. The speakers will discuss the reforms recently passed by the state and other reforms that have yet to pass, including automatic registration, codifying the restoration of voting rights to felons into state law, and reenacting the protections afforded by the Voting Rights Act.

At 6 p.m. Thursday, U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez will hold a community town hall meeting at the Manny Cantor Center on the Lower East Side.

Friday and the weekend
Mayor de Blasio may make his weekly appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show Friday morning at 10 a.m.

The following City Council committees will hold preliminary budget hearings on Friday:
--Housing and Buildings at 10 a.m., regarding the Department of Buildings.
--Housing & Buildings and Capital Budget jointly at 11 a.m., regarding the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
--Public Housing and Capital Budget jointly at 2 p.m., regarding NYCHA.

At 1 p.m. Friday, the Senate Standing Committees on Corporations and Transportation and the Assembly Standing Committee on Transportation will meet jointly at Onondaga Community College for a public hearing regarding the effectiveness of the state’s transit network in Syracuse.

At 3 p.m. Saturday, U.S. Rep. Max Rose will hold a town hall meeting at Fort Hamilton High School in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

***
Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

***
by Ben Brachfeld and Ben Max
@GothamGazette

State Comptroller Discusses Fiscal Picture as Budget Season Heats Up


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Comptroller DiNapoli, right, and Gov. Cuomo (photo: governor's office)


With a state budget due April 1 and several major question marks hanging over negotiations between Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature, State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli gave his latest assessment of New York’s economic outlook and key aspects of the budget picture. Appearing on WBAI radio’s Max & Murphy show on Wednesday, DiNapoli reiterated the concern over dips in state revenue, which he and Cuomo have attributed to impact from the new federal tax code and related taxpayer behavior.

The state’s chief fiscal watchdog also said more data is essential before making any final declarations, acknowledging that everyone will know a lot more once most of the tax returns are in next month. Yet, amid more uncertainty than in recent years state leaders must craft a new budget well before the April 15 tax deadline, a fact that has prompted some, including Cuomo, to revisit the notion of moving the state fiscal year to start in June or July, something DiNapoli said is worth taking a serious look at.

On that question and others, DiNapoli gave his typically cautious answers, not taking a definitive stand on several issues on the negotiating table. DiNapoli noted that he does not have a seat at that table, but that his job is to evaluate the budget that is agreed upon by those who do, namely the governor and the two houses of the Legislature.

In January, DiNapoli and Cuomo announced that the state fell short of its projected revenue by $2.3 billion. He partly blamed geopolitical uncertainty regarding President Trump’s tumultuous trade war with China, turbulent Brexit negotiations, and stock market fluctuation. But more so, DiNapoli held the 2017 federal tax overhaul responsible, which instituted a cap on individuals’ ability to deduct state and local taxes from federal taxes and significantly impacts New York due to the high taxes at the state and local levels.

Much of dip in state revenues “had to do with a change in taxpayer behavior,” DiNapoli said. “Particularly the cap on local and tax deductibility.” He added that the state has already regained losses from down financial markets in December, but advised waiting to draw definitive conclusions.

“We probably need more data from the Department of Tax and Finance,” he said. But DiNapoli also attributed some losses to ultra-wealthy residents fleeing the state, echoing Cuomo, but, also like Cuomo, not yet able to offer definitive proof. “One percent of New York taxpayers carry 46 percent of the personal income tax revenue that comes to the state,” he reminded.

“If you lose even a handful of those billionaires or multi-millionaires,” the state will feel the difference, he said.

“The next time we’ll have more solid numbers is in April and the budget is supposed to be done by April 1,” he said. “Which begs the question of whether to change the fiscal year.” While DiNapoli admitted “there’s a logic to it,” considering most other states either begin on July 1 or run on a calendar year, he said “the likelihood of that reform happening anytime soon is probably wishful thinking.”

“New York is still in a strong position,” he said. “I would hope that April would see some rebound in the collections. We don’t know that for sure.”

As the state budget is finalized, DiNapoli voiced moderate support for a pied-à-terre tax system, which would tax high-value homes in New York City that are not the owners’ primary residences. “We’re setting a threshold at $5 million,” he explained. “If you can afford a $5 million pied-à-terre, you can probably handle additional levels of taxation.”

He spoke to indecision in the state legislature regarding further measures to raise revenue and the notion that a plan to legalize and tax recreational marijuana may not be included in this year’s spending plan. “There was never an expectation that marijuana legalization was going to bring in money in the coming fiscal year,” he said. The hosts and the comptroller also noted that congestion pricing for Manhattan’s central business district may also not happen, despite widespread agreement that it is needed, both to help declutter the streets and to raise revenue for mass transit.

“At this point, you have some very different sets of priorities about how to” raise revenue within the state legislature, DiNapoli said. He emphasized that under a plan put forth by Assembly Democrats, upper income New Yorkers would pay higher taxes, but the Senate majority and Cuomo appear against that path, though all agree on extending the current “millionaires’ tax” that is soon to otherwise expire. “Under the Assembly’s proposal, they would add three new higher tax brackets,” he explained. “They estimate that would raise $1.3 billion, in addition to that pied-à-terre tax.”

The question of how Cuomo and legislators will raise new revenue and cautiously budget based on the projected revenue forecast will continue to be essential to budget negotiations over the next two weeks or so.

On the always contentious topic of education aid from the state to localities, DiNapoli said agreement is often challenging because “what is equitable very much sits with the eye of the beholder.” He said it is indeed worth considering recommendations from the Citizens Budget Commission and like-minded experts who say that the state should not continually increase aid to all local school districts, but only target aid to the neediest districts.

DiNapoli was also asked about the status of work he’s overseeing to use the state pension fund toward the fight against climate change.

DiNapoli said that he had had a conference call that day with individuals involved in his Decarbonization Advisory Panel, which is evaluating ways to further use state investments to influence the world’s biggest polluters. DiNapoli, who has resisted calls to divest the pension fund from fossil fuel companies, said a plan will be forthcoming in the next couple of months. The panel’s stated goal is “how to best decarbonize the pension fund in a way that will secure retirement for hardworking New Yorkers and help support the overall health of the state’s economy and protect our environment for generations to come,” according to the governor’s office. DiNapoli said that this week based on pressure from the pension fund, Dollar General and Under Armour both agreed to formulate plans to reduce their carbon footprint.

[LISTEN: Max & Murphy Podcast: Comptroller Tom DiNapoli]

Max & Murphy Podcast: Comptroller Tom DiNapoli


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Ben Max, left, of Gotham Gazette, and Jarrett Murphy, right, of City Limits


March 13, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Comptroller Tom DiNapoli

tom dinapoli 150With the state budget deadline of April 1 fast approaching, state finances in challenging position, and a wide variety of issues on the table as the governor and legislature negotiate, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli joined the show to give his perspective on the state's economic outlook, budget picture, and key aspects of fiscal debate.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: The Push for Criminal Justice Reform, with Tina Luongo of Legal Aid Society


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Ben Max, left, of Gotham Gazette, and Jarrett Murphy, right, of City Limits


March 13, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: The Push for Criminal Justice Reform, with Tina Luongo of Legal Aid Society

tina luongo 150With major criminal justice reforms being debated and negotiated in Albany, Tina Luongo of the Legal Aid Society joined the show to discuss the details of bail, speedy trial, and discovery reform that public defenders and other advocates want to see from state government.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

State District Attorneys Association Targeted as Roadblock to Reform


city council justice preli budget

District Attorneys (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


Advocates who are pushing to reform the criminal justice system by focusing on the powerful role that district attorneys play as enforcers of the law often cite Larry Krasner as a model. Krasner was elected the district attorney of Philadelphia in 2017 on a comprehensive reform platform and in November last year, just 11 months into his first term, he pulled out of the statewide Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association. Krasner blamed the association for holding back much-needed reform and advocating for overly harsh prosecutorial policies.

Reformers and advocates in New York hailed Krasner’s withdrawal as an example to follow. They’ve long argued that the District Attorney’s Association of the State of New York (DAASNY) is one of the biggest roadblocks to criminal justice reform making its way through the state Legislature. DAASNY essentially acts as a lobbying group for prosecutors, critics say, and attempts to water down legislation to maintain the already significant discretionary authority that individual district attorneys enjoy.

“Ultimately this is about power not wanting to lose power,” said Erin George, statewide Criminal Justice Campaigns Director for Citizen Action of New York. “The DA’s association is set against reforms that would threaten the unbridled power they have in the current pretrial system to railroad New Yorkers and drive the case outcomes and convictions that they’re looking to secure.”

It’s a harsh assessment backed by years of seeing DAASNY oppose efforts to change New York’s drug sentencing laws, early release policies, criminal charges for gravity knife possession, and a commission to investigate prosecutorial misconduct. This year, with Democrats in full control of the Legislature, advocates are again seeing the largely invisible hand of DAASNY guiding legislation to reform the state’s discovery, bail, and speedy trial laws. George said the association’s “fear mongering narratives and dog whistle tactics” become “the political narrative that has to be responded to and the issues sort of avalanche.”

Last month, a coalition of advocacy groups including Citizen Action, VOCAL-NY, New York Communities for Change, and JustLeadershipUSA formally sent letters calling on several sitting district attorneys who call themselves progressives to step down from DAASNY, publicly disavow the association and support reform legislation in Albany. The letters were sent to Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez, Manhattan DA Cy Vance, Erie County DA John Flynn, Suffolk County DA Timothy Sini, and Nassau County DA Madeline Singas.

“DAASNY is once again, the primary opposition to passing legislative changes that would advance justice, equity and an end to mass incarceration in New York State,” the letter reads. Early last month, Citizen Action also sent a similar letter directly to Albany DA David Soares, a Democrat and the current president of DAASNY.

Soares was elected as a reformer himself but has since disappointed activists who say he has acted more in DAASNY’s interests than in the interests of justice. But he rejects their criticism.

“There is an unfortunate misperception that DAASNY is opposed to reform. This is far from the truth," Soares said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “For decades DAASNY has been at the forefront of alternatives to incarceration programs. We supported legislation to allow the sealing of past criminal convictions and to help convicted offenders obtain a second chance.”

He said that DAASNY supports both discovery and bail reform but does not support “discovery measures that threaten the safety of victims and witnesses” or “bail reform measures that undermine the safety of domestic violence and sexual assault victims.” Soares was among 15 prosecutors who recently wrote to Governor Andrew Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie to profess support for ending cash bail and overhauling the state’s bail system. “The only people who should be detained pretrial are those who a judge finds pose a specific, clear and credible threat to the physical safety of the community, or who are a risk of intentionally evading their court dates,” they wrote.

For advocates like George, the issue at hand is DAASNY’s “unbridled power, unequal power” in Albany. Just as individual DA’s leverage their authority to win favorable pleas, even if it means withholding evidence that could be beneficial to defendants until just before trial, they say DAASNY leverages its authority to impact bills that have been moved through grassroots efforts.

Nick Malinowski, civil rights campaign director of VOCAL-NY, said DAASNY’s role has become all that more apparent this year. In past years, Republicans held the state Senate and were more often than not opposed to the types of progressive bills being championed by Democratic legislators and advocacy groups. Yet, DAASNY has continued to push back against reform. “What we’re seeing is the impact of DAASNY, which traditionally had been influencing Republicans. It’s having a similar influence even with a Democratically-controlled Senate,” Malinowski said. “They’re doing the same type of fear-mongering.”

Malinowski cited outright misinformation being put out by the association. For instance, in an op-ed in the Times Herald Record, Orange County DA David Hoovler, the vice president of DAASNY, argued that the governor’s discovery reform proposal being considered in Albany would open up witnesses to intimidation and threat since it would make their addresses public. “That’s not actually what’s in the bill and these guys know that,” Malinowski pointed out, noting that the bill allows prosecutors to provide “adequate alternative contact information” of witnesses instead of addresses. That could include an email or phone number, Malinowski said. Bills introduced in the state Legislature similarly contain witness protections.

“DAASNY, which is a lobbying group for prosecutors, like any other advocacy group, they are in Albany lobbying legislators to increase the power and influence of their constituents, which are prosecutors,” he added. “Their constituency is not crime victims, it’s not voters, it’s not the public. It’s prosecutors.”

While DAASNY does influence legislation and the legislative process, its leaders are not registered lobbyists. Soares opposes use of the term lobbyist group, instead calling DAASNY a trade organization.

Vance’s office declined to comment for this story. The Albany Times Union reported that he and others targeted by the coalition of advocates did not plan to leave DAASNY.

Advocates are hoping to make membership in DAASNY a litmus test for progressives, as is evident in Queens. Seven candidates are hoping to secure the Democratic primary nomination for Queens DA June 25 as DA Richard Brown, who has been in office for nearly three decades, is retiring as of June 1. His term ends this year. In the mix are several candidates trying to out-progressive each other. Most, if not all, have said they will reform the office, which has jurisdiction over the city’s most diverse and second-largest borough.

Two of the candidates, City Council Member Rory Lancman and public defender Tiffany Cabán, have pledged that they will not join DAASNY. Lancman has said he has seen DAASNY’s obstructive efforts firsthand when he was a member of the state Assembly. “I'm not joining DAASNY. And I plan on having a *robust* legislative affairs office to lobby for real reform in Albany & NYC (and Washington where necessary),” he tweeted in October last year. “If you're an elected official fighting for reform, I'm going to have your back.”

Similarly, Cabán called out DAASNY in a tweet last month for lobbying against the open discovery bill. “The DA Association of the State of New York is wrong to oppose it, which is why I will exit DAASNY & work instead with DAs who share our values,” she wrote.

Soares did not seem to take kindly to those pledges. “My advice to those District Attorney candidates who are pledging to not join DAASNY as part of their campaign tactic is this: Rejecting DAASNY may make you a political darling amongst a small segment of supporters, but it won't make you a better prosecutor.”

The other candidates in Queens haven’t been as willing to shun DAASNY, even as they say they disagree with the association’s positions on certain reforms. Among them are former State Supreme Court Judge Gregory Lasak, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, former prosecutors Mina Malik and Betty Lugo, and Jose Nieves, a former senior prosecutor in the Brooklyn DA’s office. (Emma Whitford reported for Gotham Gazette that Lugo and Nieves intended to join DAASNY, even though both have expressed reservations about the association’s position on discovery reform).

Lasak said in a statement that he intends to implement or advocate for several reforms after joining DAASNY, including creating a Conviction Integrity Unit, expanding diversion programs, and ending cash bail on low-level, non-violent offenses. “I’ve always believed that the best way to change an organization is from within,” he said. “It’s easy to throw stones from the outside but it won’t effect [sic] real change.”

Malik, similarly, argued that it would be “misguided” to leave Queens’ 2.4 million residents “without a voice in the room” even as she said she disagrees with DAASNY on bail and discovery reform. “My role with DAASNY would be to advocate for Queens and to organize from within to empower progressive DAs. I would keep all options on the table, including withdrawal, if membership in DAASNY proves fruitless to those aims,” she said in a statement.

Katz said she intended to “export” the progressive policies she implements in the Queens DA’s office to the association’s other members. “You can’t be heard if you’re not at the table,” she said in a phone interview. “I think you can institute the policies that we care deeply about here, like no cash bail, like discovery reform...I can do all of that without legislation in Albany. I’m strong enough to believe that should I be sitting on an organization that has the other DAs on it, that I can help move them in that direction too.”

Advocates, however, are hoping their collective clamor will make DAASNY a pro.minent enough issue for voters who are increasingly beginning to pay attention to how district attorneys wield their power. Malinowski issued a simple warning. “You can’t say that you’re a progressive prosecutor and then at the same time be part of a lobbying group that is trying to kill every piece of progressive legislation.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to clarify a quote from Erin George of Citizen Action 

New York Nurses Threaten Major Strike Over ‘Understaffing’


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(photo: @nynurses)


During one night shift at the children’s hospital where she worked as a nurse, Nicolette Mabeza‘s unit filled up with intubated children. She and the other nurses were frantic.

“It was just the entire floor running around,” said Mabeza, who worked in the intensive care unit at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital in Washington Heights. “Some nurses had two intubated patients and they weren’t even right next to each other.”

Nurses stretched to the limit by understaffing would regularly cry on the job, she said.

“Not only does it make you feel that you’re being a terrible nurse,” said Mabeza. “You also wonder, why should patients come here if nurses can’t give the adequate care that they deserve?”

Feeling that she could no longer do her job in good conscience, she quit last April after less than a year at the hospital.

After years of complaints, understaffing has become a major point of conflict between the nurses union and private hospitals in New York City.

Around 13,000 nurses could strike this month if negotiations fail between the New York State Nurses Association and a group of three major hospital systems, union leaders say.

Nurses from Montefiore, Mount Sinai, St. Luke's-Mount Sinai West, and New York-Presbyterian hospitals authorized a strike last week and announced a rally for safe staffing on Monday, March 18 at Mount Sinai Hospital in East Harlem.

“We’re saying enough is enough,” said Carl Ginsburg, a spokesperson for the union, which represents 37,000 nurses. “No sooner do we make a deal than we drift back into this danger zone.”

He said contract negotiations have slowed to a crawl with the New York City Hospital Alliance, an informal bargaining group of private hospitals that includes Montefiore, New York-Presbyterian, and Mount Sinai hospitals.

On the bargaining table is an increase in nurse-to-patient ratios in emergency rooms and intensive care units. Staffing levels have reached dangerously low levels, putting the safety of both nurses and patients at risk, Ginsburg said.

“Sometimes where a nurse should be caring for five patients, she’s caring for eight or 10,” said Ginsburg. “Make no mistake – it’s dangerous.”

In 2018, more than 12,000 nurses signed “Protest of Assignment” forms to complain about unsafe conditions at Montefiore, Mount Sinai, and New York Presbyterian.

A spokesperson for the NYC Hospital Alliance said that hospitals are financially stretched because of state Medicaid cuts. He added that the recent “Protest of Assignment” forms account for a negligible portion of the total number of nurse shifts.

Understaffing at hospitals forces nurses to make tough choices, said Anthony Ciampa, a nurse at New York Presbyterian for the last 14 years.

“I had to make the decision whether to hang blood or to help an elderly patient eat,” said Ciampa. “No nurse should be forced to make these types of decisions.”

The elderly patient sat in front of the food – unable to eat – while Ciampa took care of the blood transfusion, he said. By the time Ciampa was able to help, the patient’s food tray had been removed, untouched.

“I’m still upset about that,” said Ciampa, who is currently representing the union in contract negotiations. “It was like torture to sit there with the meal in front of you and not be able to eat it.”

Outside Brooklyn Hospital Center last month, nurses were reluctant to talk about staffing conditions, fearing retaliation from their employers.

“Everybody’s understaffed,” said a medical assistant who requested anonymity and said she has worked at the hospital for more than 20 years. “The patients are not getting adequate care.”

But the NYC Hospital Alliance denied reports that understaffing is leading to unsafe conditions, and said that enforced staffing ratios would be costly and ineffective.

“The reality is that the union’s rigid, mandated staffing ratios would lower the quality of patient care by overriding the professional judgment of nurses and healthcare professionals and crowding out other members of the care team,” said Linden Zakula, a spokesperson for the group.

Zakula said that state budget cuts to Medicaid have resulted in a loss of $240 million in expected funding for the three hospital groups combined.

“Alliance hospitals respect our nurses and are committed to bargaining in good faith,” said Zakula. “We are doing everything we can to reach an agreement that is fair, reasonable, and responsible for all parties.”

In the last few years, several New York City Council members have shown support for more staffing regulation at hospitals.

“Nurses are some of the most important people in the hospital,” said New York City Council Member Carlina Rivera. “It’s important that they feel they have the resources they need to be supported in some of the most stressful environments.”

Rivera, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Hospitals, cosponsored a resolution in 2018 that called on the state Legislature to pass the Safe Staffing for Quality Care Act.

The bill would set specific nurse-to-patient ratios by hospital unit, and would ensure that nurses can’t be assigned to more patients than specified.  Hospitals that break the law would be fined.

But there is no vote in sight for either the Council resolution or the state bill, which are both stuck in committee.

For many years, safe staffing legislation was met with resistance from Republicans who controlled the New York Senate.

Last week, New York Assemblymember Karines Reyes said she was confident that the Senate’s new Democratic majority would bolster the bill’s chances of passing.

“Apart from the Republican Senate’s pushback in past years, the primary obstacle posed to the legislation stems from the conflicting opinions of hospital administrators,” said Reyes, who is also a registered nurse in the Oncology Department at Montefiore Einstein Hospital. “These points of view fail to acknowledge that safe staffing is about saving lives. The legislation is paramount to the safety and outcomes of patients while not only providing adequate staffing to nurses, but to ancillary staff as well.”

While several states have laws that address nurse staffing, California is the only state that requires hospital units to maintain a minimum nurse-to-patient ratio.

Under that law – in effect since 2004 – critical care units in California must have at least one nurse for every two patients. The required nurse-to-patient ratio varies by department, with 1-to-4 for labor and delivery units and 1-to-6 for psychiatric units.

A 2010 study published by the National Institutes of Health found that mandated nurse-to-patient ratios resulted in fewer patient deaths and better morale for nurses compared to other states without similar legislation.

***
Gaspard Le Dem is a freelance journalist. On Twitter @GLD_Live.
@GothamGazette

Note: this story has been updated to change $300 million to $240 million based on corrected information provided by Zakula of NYC Hospital Alliance.

One-House Budgets in Albany, NYCHA Hearings, & More: The Week Ahead in New York Politics, March 11


New York City Hall

New York City Hall


What to watch for this week in New York politics:

Monday marks exactly three weeks until the April 1 start of the new state fiscal year, by which time a new state budget is due. Negotiations among the two houses of the Legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo have already heated up, with key policy and funding issues outstanding, and the two Democratic legislative majorities set to introduce their one-house budget resolutions on Monday.

There are four legislative session days again this week in Albany, so there will be public and private negotiations, posturing, and such. Key issues that need to be worked out include a variety of funding levels, including for local education aid, as well as marijuana legalization, congestion pricing, environmental policy, criminal justice and campaign finance reforms, and more. Most of those issues could be kicked to after the budget and continued in negotiations as the legislative session proceeds toward its June finish. Rent regulations are another issue that is likely to be left till after the budget. Mayor control of New York City schools and the cap on charter schools could be dealt with in the budget or after as well, not to mention a number of other policies like sports gambling.

This week we’re also waiting to see when exactly Jumaane Williams officially becomes New York City Public Advocate and how he starts his tenure in the citywide role.

The budget for the office is one smaller aspect of overall city budget negotiations. The City Council will continue this week its hearings on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $92.2 billion preliminary budget plan. And the 2019 charter revision commission will continue its public hearings -- the commission is looking at the city’s budget process, the role of the public advocate, and much more.

De Blasio is due back on Monday from South Carolina, where he spent the weekend exploring a run for president, flying there after an appearance in Albany Friday, where he talked with Cuomo and legislators about top city priorities for the state budget and spoke at the kickoff reception for Somos weekend.

There's a lot happening this week - see our day-by-day rundown below.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
e-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.***

The run of the week in detail:

Monday
The New York State Legislature will be in session on Monday in Albany.

The New York State Board of Regents will meet on Monday and Tuesday in Albany.

"On Monday, Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza will meet with students from P.S. 130 during their lunch period...Immediately after, the Mayor and Chancellor will host a press conference to make an announcement on school meals. This event is open press. There will be Q-and-A. Later, the Mayor will ride the subway from Chambers Street to 14th Street Station to talk with riders about congestion pricing and MTA reform. In the evening, the Mayor will appear live on NY1’s Inside City Hall."

The following City Council committees will hold preliminary budget hearings on Monday:
--Cultural Affairs at 10 a.m., regarding libraries and the Department of Cultural Affairs.
--Youth Services at 2 p.m., regarding the Department of Youth and Community Development.

Also at the City Council on Monday: the Committee on Public Housing will meet at 10 a.m. for an oversight hearing “examining NYCHA’s new agreement with HUD.”

“Representative Adriano Espaillat (NY-13), joined by immigration advocates, will hold a press conference and community event on Monday, March 11th at 10:00 a.m. to speak out against the recent incident by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents that were spotted parked outside of a Washington Heights school and in violation of sensitive locations parameters.”

At 10 a.m. Monday at City Hall, “The New York Alliance Against the Legalization of Prostitution — a coalition of women’s rights organizations, direct service providers, faith-based community leaders, sex trade survivors, and concerned New Yorkers — will hold a press conference and rally to voice opposition to proposed legislation sponsored by New York State Senators Julia Salazar, Jessica Ramos and Brad Hoylman, and Assemblyman Richard Gottfried to decriminalize prostitution, including pimping and sex buying. The Alliance will discuss evidence that prostitution is not a victimless crime by looking at the inherent harms of the sex trade and the lifelong trauma and medical injuries it causes the people it exploits for profit. They will also present the effects of legalized/decriminalized prostitution in other jurisdictions and highlight what can happen if New York state gives the sex trade a green light to flourish. The group will present a progressive alternative to the legislators’ proposal and to current New York State prostitution laws: decriminalize only the people who are prostituted (partial decriminalization) and provide them with comprehensive services, including housing, medical care, trauma-informed counseling, education, job training, and a way to exit the sex trade should they wish to do so.”

At 11 a.m. Monday in Albany, "The Chairs of both the Senate and Assembly Environmental Conservation Committees – Senator Todd Kaminsky and Assemblymember Steve Englebright – and the We Love New York coalition will hold a press conference...to respond to the disastrous potential precedent of an 2019-2020 Executive Budget proposal that would allow agencies to offload staffing costs onto the Environmental Protection Funding (EPF)."

At 11 a.m. Monday, “Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, together with community leaders and criminal justice experts, will make a major announcement.”

At 6 p.m. Monday, the 2019 Charter Revision Commission will hold its third “issues forum” at the Borough of Manhattan Community College to discuss potential charter revisions. This forum will focus on the city’s budgeting processes.

At 6 p.m. Monday, the state’s Census commission will hold the second of six public hearings to discuss the upcoming 2020 U.S. Census and the myriad related issues. The hearing will take place at Hostos Community College in the Bronx.

Tuesday
The following City Council committees will hold preliminary budget hearings on Tuesday:
--Governmental Operations at 10 a.m., regarding the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, the Law Department, the Board of Elections, the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, and community boards.
--Aging at 10 a.m., regarding the Department for the Aging.

The New York State Legislature will be in session on Tuesday in Albany.

At 9 a.m. Tuesday, the New York City Board of Correction will hold a public meeting at 125 Worth Street.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, there will be a debate among the seven candidates for Queens District Attorney at CUNY Law School. Gotham Gazette’s Ben Max and law professor Zephyr Teachout will moderate the debate, which is being co-sponsored by a long list of advocacy and community groups. [Read: 'We're in a New Era’: Inside the Crowded Race to Elect the Next Queens District Attorney and Reset the Borough’s Prosecutorial Agenda]

Wednesday
The City Council will hold a stated meeting on Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. Council Speaker Corey Johnson will host the usual pre-stated press conference at 12:30 p.m.

The New York State Legislature will be in session on Wednesday in Albany.

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, the City Planning Commission will hold a public meeting at 120 Broadway.

At 5 p.m. Wednesday, this week’s Max & Murphy program will air on WBAI radio, and will feature an interview with state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, and a discussion of criminal justice reform issues with Tina Luongo, chief defender of the criminal practice at Legal Aid Society.

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, the MTA will host the second of four open houses for community members regarding the “revised” L-train project. This hearing will take place at the Williamsburg Northside School.

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, the Civilian Complaint Review Board will hold a public board meeting at the Van Dyke Community Center in Brownsville.

Thursday
The following City Council committees will hold preliminary budget hearings on Thursday:
--Transportation at 9:30 a.m., regarding the MTA and New York City Transit, the Department of Transportation, and the Taxi and Limousine Commission.
--Criminal Justice at 10 a.m., regarding the Department of Probation, the Department of Correction, and the Board of Correction.
--Veterans at 2:30 p.m., regarding the Department of Veterans’ Services.

Also at the City Council on Thursday
--The Committees on Public Housing and Oversight will meet jointly at 11 a.m. for an oversight hearing “examining the DOI report on NYCHA mismanagement at the Throggs Neck Houses,” as well as to discuss proposed laws requiring agency heads to disclose false statements made in an official capacity by their agency and for DOI to report to the council on NYCHA employee overtime. The committees will also discuss a resolution calling on the state to pass a law requiring NYCHA to “conduct annual evaluations of agency property employees.”

The New York State Legislature will be in session on Thursday in Albany.

At 10 a.m. Thursday, the New York City Campaign Finance Board will hold a board meeting at 100 Church Street.

The latest episode of the What’s The [Data] Point? podcast from Gotham Gazette and Citizens Budget Commission will tape and publish on Thursday, and will feature Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute discussing transit-related issues, including her evaluation of New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s recently-unveiled proposals for city takeover of the subways, a five-year “master plan for city streets,” and more, as well as her own recent study of congestion in the city. Find What’s The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, or look for it posted at the Gotham Gazette website on Thursday afternoon.

At 6 p.m. Monday, the 2019 Charter Revision Commission will hold its fourth “issues forum” at the Borough of Manhattan Community College to discuss potential charter revisions.

Friday and the weekend
Mayor de Blasio may make his weekly appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show at 10 a.m. Friday.

The following City Council committees will hold preliminary budget hearings on Friday:
--Economic Development at 10 a.m., regarding the Economic Development Corporation.
--Consumer Affairs at 11 a.m., regarding the Department of Consumer Affairs.
--Small Business at 1 p.m., regarding the Department of Small Business Services.

At 10 a.m. Friday, the Senate Standing Committee on New York City Education will meet at 250 Broadway in Manhattan for a public hearing regarding mayoral control of public schools.

At 2 p.m. Friday, the Senate Standing Committees on Corporations and Transportation and the Assembly Standing Committee on Transportation will meet jointly at Buffalo City Hall for a public hearing regarding the effectiveness of the state’s transit network in Buffalo.

At 2 p.m. Friday, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams will host a joint legislative hearing at Brooklyn Borough Hall to “examine NYC’s homeownership housing crisis.” He will be joined by Senators Velmanette Montgomery, Brad Hoylman, Kevin Parker, Robert Jackson, and Brian Benjamin, and Assemblymembers Tremaine Wright and Al Taylor.

***
Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

***
by Ben Brachfeld and Ben Max
@GothamGazette

Speaker Says Assembly No Longer Supports Public Campaign Financing, Downplays Other Reforms


heastie carl nys assembly speaker 9.62

(photo: Buck Ennis/Crain's)


Though Democrats have for years blamed Republican intransigence for the failure of key campaign finance and ethics reforms in Albany, those measures still appear stalled even as their party controls the entire state Legislature and governor’s office. On Friday, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said that the votes are not there in his chamber to approve a public-matching campaign finance system, despite the fact that the Assembly has repeatedly passed such a measure in the past when Republicans controlled the Senate.

Heastie appeared at a Crain’s New York Business forum at the New York Athletic Club, where he gave remarks about the Assembly’s accomplishments and priorities, then took questions from Erik Engquist of Crain’s and Errol Louis of NY1, before also speaking with other reporters after the event.

With a new state budget due April 1, Heastie said it appeared unlikely that the Assembly would approve public campaign financing before or within that deal, though it is a long-held Democratic goal espoused not only by Assembly Democrats but also the new state Senate Democratic majority and Governor Andrew Cuomo.

“I think the members want to discuss it but I’d say right now what the concerns are on IEs [independent expenditures], problems with [New York City’s] campaign finance system, also with a shortage of [state] money, I think they want to have the discussion but I’d say right now there’s not 76 members who want to move forward with it in the next three weeks in the budget,” Heastie said in response to a question from Gotham Gazette, and referring to the minimum number of votes needed to advance a bill in the 150-seat chamber.

The speaker later tweeted to add to his comments from the morning, writing that the Assembly does want to consider a small-dollar matching program, but one that does not use public money.

Heastie also threw cold water on a state Senate-approved bill to limit campaign contributions from entities seeking state contracts and downplayed the need for additional government ethics reforms, saying that law enforcement entities catch bad actors and he is “still waiting for the idea of the bill that will really fix people’s morality.”

Asked about it by the moderators, Heastie expressed concerns that a bill passed on Tuesday by the state Senate could end up hurting the party in power. The bill, S3167, prohibits companies bidding for state contracts from contributing to “officeholders with authority over procuring entities” within a specific window of time, therefore applying largely to the executive branch, namely the governor.

Though Heastie’s conference has advanced similar bills in previous years, he hesitated to endorse that measure, which was sponsored by new state Senator Zellnor Myrie from Brooklyn.

“On the premise of it, it sounds great. Yeah, anybody who wants to bid on a contract, yeah they shouldn’t have the opportunity to make contributions to the governing entity because there could be the appearance that somebody’s trying to grease the skids,” Heastie said. “But the way that the legislation is drafted...it just covers such a vast number of people so that one company who...bids on a contract, their lobbyist, and it doesn’t just stop there, every other company that that lobbyist is responsible for is now radioactive.”

The bill would also put the State Democratic Party and Governor Andrew Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, “in a bind,” he said, because it would exclude them from raising funds from entities who would be able to donate to Republicans who don’t hold the same authority in state government. The bill includes a prohibition on contributions “indirectly or directly, to political committees operationally controlled by officeholders with authority over state governmental entities” that receive and review bids and issue contracts. “So I guess that on the surface the bill sounds like a great idea, but it really does put the governor and the Democratic Party at a huge disadvantage as compared to the Republican Party,” he said.

Asked about Heastie's comments, Jonathan Timm, a spokesperson for Senator Myrie, said in a statement, "The history of corruption in New York State government demonstrates that inaction is not an option. As with any other legislation, this bill will be subject to negotiation with the Assembly, and the Senator looks forward to working with them to clean up state government in the best way possible."

Speaking to reporters after Friday's event, Heastie then tempered expectations about public campaign financing, which appeared for months as though it would be a crowning achievement of the new Democratic era in Albany.

His comments weren’t taken lightly by a variety of advocates, including the Fair Elections for New York coalition, which has been pushing the state to adopt a small-donor matching system similar to the one in place in New York City, among other reforms.

“Historically, the Assembly Democrats have supported people-powered elections anchored with a small-donor matching system,” the coalition pointed out in a Friday statement, responding to Heastie’s comments as initially reported by Gotham Gazette.

“‘Fair elections’ is the policy that will really shake up the status quo, and thus the real test of the new Albany,” continued the coalition statement, referring to the Fair Elections Act that the Democratic Assembly has passed in previous sessions and that Senate Democrats have supported in the minority. “Passing this legislation now, in the budget, is the best chance for New York to once again lead the nation by having a campaign finance system that gives everyday New Yorkers as loud a voice as the wealthiest donors.”

The coalition is made up of more than 200 groups, including labor unions such as 32BJ, tenant organizers such as New York Communities for Change, immigrant advocates like the New York Immigration Coalition, environmental and racial justice groups such as the Sunrise Movement and VOCAL-NY, good government advocates like Reinvent Albany and more.

Urging the governor and legislative leaders to reject a budget that does not include public campaign financing, the coalition offered solutions for Heastie’s concerns. It said a public financing system should not include spending limits, therefore mitigating the effect of outside independent expenditure campaigns; suggested that New York follow Connecticut’s public matching program, which gives assistance to candidates in using small dollar contributions, compared to New York City’s program that many have called too punitive; and pointed out that the total budget ramifications of public financing were between $40-60 million, which wouldn’t even be apparent in the short term and could hardly affect a $175 billion state budget. The annual costs, the coalition estimated, would be less than $3 annually for every New Yorker.

Asked to comment on Heastie’s statements, neither the office of Senator Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins nor that of Governor Cuomo responded.

After seeing the blowback to his comments, Heastie issued another statement on Twitter Friday afternoon, writing, "I want to be clear – the Assembly Majority is supportive of limiting the influence of money in our elections through consideration of a small dollar donor matching system that does not rely on scarce public funds. Our members are not ready to support the NYC model for the entire state, but we will continue to have discussions in order to reach our goals."

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

This story has been updated.

Note - This article has been updated with comment from a spokesperson for Senator Zellnor Myrie. 

Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senator David Carlucci


mxm logo

Ben Max, left, of Gotham Gazette, and Jarrett Murphy, right, of City Limits


March 6, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senator David Carlucci

dav carlucci senateState Senator David Carlucci represents a Rockland and Westchester district that has a significant stake in the MTA, congestion pricing, and other key transit discussions, not to mention the overall state budget and other state policies. Carlucci joined the show to discuss his priorities and his take on the congestion pricing debate (and more) as Albany lawmakers look to make an agreement before a budget is due April 1.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

'We're in a New Era’: Inside the Crowded Race to Elect the Next Queens District Attorney and Reset the Borough’s Prosecutorial Agenda


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Queens Borough President Katz swears-in community board members (photo: @QueensBPKatz)


Uncontested for seven terms spanning more than a quarter-century, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown has hung back while his counterparts in Brooklyn and Manhattan join a growing national conversation about criminal justice reform and the power of prosecutors to decarcerate jails. While the retiring Brown is a “dear friend,” former New York Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman told Gotham Gazette recently, “it’s time for a new prosecutor with new, up-to-date modern views.”

Answering that call, six of seven announced candidates in the upcoming Democratic primary are campaigning as the best progressive reformer for the job. Even the exception, self-described “middle of the road” attorney Betty Lugo, has aligned herself with the pack in promising fewer low-level prosecutions and condemning a surge in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrests outside Queens courts.

The June 25 election will almost certainly determine Brown’s successor and reset the prosecutorial tone in a vast, diverse borough of more than two million residents. “We’re really looking for someone who works with the community and understands that we’re in a new era. We’re no longer in a tough-on-crime, war on drugs era,” said 18-year-old Andrea Colon, a member of the Rockaway Youth Task Force, one of several criminal justice and immigrant rights groups demanding change in the office.

But Queens is an ideological patchwork. “It's an older voter, especially out east where it's more suburban,” said one party insider, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely. “They don't like people who jump turnstiles. They don’t want people smoking [marijuana] on the streets.” Former Queens Supreme Court judge and county prosecutor Greg Lasak, who’s pitching himself as the only candidate who can properly balance public safety with reform, has endorsements and donations from a number of law enforcement unions, including court clerks and officers. He's leading in funds raised for this race, with more than $800,000 to date, but trails Borough President Melinda Katz and City Council Member Rory Lancman in money available given their resources from prior campaign accounts.

Conversations with each candidate -- prosecutors Jose Nieves and Mina Malik and public defender Tiffany Cabán round out the field -- reveal real differences: on prosecutorial priorities and experience, as well as how they view the scope of the job. Now that the term progressive has wide application, says Steve Zeidman, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at CUNY School of Law, “we have to push and get into the fine print.”

Prosecutorial Differences
Katz and Lancman are both established politicians with law degrees, strong name recognition in the borough, and early fundraising success. Both formerly served in the state Assembly. “I think there needs to be a change in focus in the DA’s Office,” Katz told Gotham Gazette, outlining her plan for new bureaus focused on immigrant rights, housing fraud, and worker rights.

But Katz -- who recently won the endorsement of the Queens County Democratic Party -- has proposed narrower prosecutorial reforms than most of the pack, pledging along with Lasak only to decline to prosecute marijuana possession cases. By contrast Lancman, Cabán, Malik, and Nieves have all outlined do-not-prosecute lists including fare evasion, drug possession, and prostitution -- in the style of recently-elected reform district attorneys like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and Rachael Rollins Boston.

Judge Lippman told Gotham Gazette that though he doesn’t typically endorse candidates, Lancman, the first candidate to enter the race, “was always the first one to be there to generate support for a new view for criminal justice.” But the City Council member has lots of company now. He, Cabán, and Nieves have all pledged to never request cash bail, on the grounds that it perpetuates racial- and class-based inequities.

Four of the candidates -- Malik, Nieves, Lasak, and Lugo -- tout their prosecutorial experience. Malik, who is originally from Queens, served most recently as a deputy for the District of Columbia Attorney General. She also helped the late Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson implement a policy for fewer marijuana prosecutions. Like Lasak, she’s served in the very office she’s running to lead. “Queens deserves someone who can come into the DA’s office, know from day one how it operates,” Malik told Gotham Gazette.

Nieves, meanwhile, emphasizes his recent experience prosecuting police officers at the state attorney general’s office and holding “the system itself accountable.”

Cabán’s status as the only public defender in the race, most recently with New York County Defender Services, has won her endorsements from ascendant groups on the left. “Her ultimate responsibility is to the public and that's what it's always been,” said Zohran Mamdani, an electoral organizer with the Queens branch of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Addressing a crowd of supporters in Jackson Heights this month, Cabán said she’ll fight for defendants, not convictions. As a queer Latina from a low-income family, she relates to the challenges her clients face. “For me, my decision to run in this race very much so feels like the natural progression of my advocacy for my clients,” she said.

How the candidates approach the prosecution of violent crimes, from murder to burglary, is another useful differentiator. Most say that fewer misdemeanor cases will free up resources to prosecute violent crimes. In endorsing Lasak, Glen Damato, president of the New York State Court Clerks Association, praised “his work putting away Queens’ most violent criminals and his compassion in exonerating the wrongfully convicted.”

When Katz was a child, a drunk driver struck and killed her mother. She said that if she’s elected district attorney cases involving intoxicated driving are going to be prosecuted “to the fullest extent of the law, in my administration.” She said life sentences can be justified “on a case by case basis” while Lancman, Nieves, and Cabán say they’ll never request such a sentence.

Cabán has been most vocal about a less punitive approach to violent crime. She says her father, a retired elevator mechanic, has struggled with alcoholism and that her grandfather, a veteran with PTSD, was abusive. Incarcerating people for repeat violent behavior “is not changing the behavior,” Cabán said, calling for a shift in funding towards alternatives such as mental health services. "Sometimes that means showing compassion for someone who does harm."

Race Strategy
Increasingly, district attorney candidates are expected to weigh in on political debates outside the courtroom. Lancman and Cabán, for example, have promised not to join the statewide district attorney association, which has recently lobbied against pretrial reforms currently up for consideration in Albany, like open file discovery and the elimination of cash bail.

Everyone but Lasak, who declined to weigh in, told Gotham Gazette they support the city’s commitment to close the jails on Rikers Island. Cabán and Nieves have taken this a step further, saying they oppose replacing them with new or revamped jails across the city. “I don't think we need 40-story super structures to house more people,” Nevies said. “I think we need less people incarcerated.”

Cabán is also refusing corporate donations: a position that aligns her with other DSA-endorsed New York candidates like Congressional Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Cynthia Nixon, who ran an unsuccessful 2018 Democratic primary challenge to Governor Andrew Cuomo. Doing so, Cabán says, will reassure Queens residents that she’s not afraid to prosecute landlords or employers accused of wage theft.

Lancman is dismissive of the stance. “I am not bringing a knife to this gun fight,” he scoffed. “I am not in this race to lose but claim a moral victory and then see black and brown people terrorized.”

Voters are also considering candidates’ proximity to the Queens County Democratic Party. Its endorsement of Katz is bad optics for both, according to Jesse Rose, founder of the New Queens Democrats, a progressive civic engagement group that has endorsed Cabán. “It was just absurd to me,” he said. “They didn’t have a forum. They didn’t have a vetting process. They didn’t ensure that there was transparency in any way.” (The party did not respond to a request for comment, but has defended its process to the Queens Daily Eagle.)

The dynamic isn’t a major concern for Lugo. A singer by hobby, she says she even performed the traditional Irish ballad Danny Boy at a recent county party dinner. “I think had they interviewed me they would have found me the most qualified, but it is what it is,” she said.

But Katz, who has won two borough-wide elections, seems to be downplaying her endorsement. She plans to implement a grassroots strategy with “a volunteer army knocking on doors,” according to Doug Forand, a campaign advisor with Red Horse Strategies. “She'll be reaching out broadly, and engaging the newer voters who are bringing new energy into Democratic primaries, and we look forward to earning their support."

The groups already rallying around Cabán have proven formidable in this realm, knocking on doors for Ocasio-Cortez and, more recently, protesting the ill-fated Amazon campus in Queens. “I wouldn’t be surprised if their activity [and] endorsement means something considerable, even in Queens, which still has conservative areas,” said Baruch College political scientist Doug Muzzio.

Regardless of who wins in June, advocates are hopeful that this election will increase awareness across the borough that district attorneys are powerful, and elected by their constituents.

“This not about winning an election,” explained Alyssa Aguilera, co-executive director of VOCAL-NY, a nonprofit that works on criminal justice reform, among other issues. “It's about, how do you get into the public narrative and get people in Queens talking about criminal justice reform, the power of prosecutors, and how you hold them accountable?”

Gotham Gazette is cosponsoring a candidate debate on March 12 at 6 p.m. RSVP here.

Note: soon after this article was published, DA Brown announced that due to health issues he would be stepping down as district attorney effective June 1. His chief assistant, John M. Ryan, will run the office in his absence.

***
by Emma Whitford, Gotham Gazette
@emma_a_whitford

Read more by this writer.

Correction: this article has been updated to clarify that Lasak leads in funds raised for this race, though he does trail Katz and Lancman in funds available.



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