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All-Blue Albany?

from the magazine

All-Blue Albany?

Democratic control of both houses of New York’s state legislature looms in November. Autumn 2018
Politics and law
New York

Though New York is generally considered a blue state and has reliably voted Democratic in national elections since 1984, its local politics are driven by a long-running partisan split in the state legislature. The New York State Assembly is dominated by Democrats, who have ruled the lower chamber uninterruptedly since 1975; the New York State Senate has been mostly under Republican control since 1939. But this November, if electoral trends persist, it’s likely that the Democrats will win the senate outright, and achieve long-sought legislative control over New York State. The policy implications will be enormous.

In 2008, Democrats narrowly won senate control, but party disunity and disputes led to factions defecting to the Republicans, in exchange for largely honorary leadership positions. The spectacle of state senators bickering over parking spots and office space, locking one another out of chambers and turning off the lights, as well as the arrest of three successive Democratic leaders on corruption charges, helped Republicans regain control in 2010. In 2012, the Democrats won the senate again, but Jeff Klein of the Bronx led a group of moderates in forming the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), agreeing to caucus with the Republican minority in exchange for leadership posts. Mainline Democrats were outraged. New York mayor Bill de Blasio, who took office in 2014, set out to help Democrats take control of the state senate that November. He campaigned widely, but to negative effect—the Republicans won outright control again.

The state Democratic Party’s left wing has long suspected that the IDC was enabled by—if not actually a creation of—Governor Andrew Cuomo. In this view, Albany’s fabled rule by “three men in a room”—the governor, the assembly speaker, and the senate majority leader—was easier for Cuomo to dominate if the other two men came from the opposing party. Progressive suspicions seemed confirmed when, following Cynthia Nixon’s announcement that she would challenge Cuomo for the Democratic nomination, the IDC dissolved itself, with the governor’s approval. Its members returned to the Democratic caucus.

Anger at the treachery of these “Trump Democrats” was fierce, and revenge was swift in the 2018 primary elections: six of the eight former members of the IDC failed to win renomination to their seats. Running mostly on hard-left platforms, their vanquishers will all likely become state senators in January. Two retirements of long-serving Republican senators (including Bill Larkin, one of two remaining state legislators in the nation to have fought in World War II) leave seats open to Democratic capture; three others (including the one held by Marty Golden, one of two Republican state senators in New York City) are considered vulnerable. Simcha Felder, an Orthodox Jew from central Brooklyn who runs on the Democratic and Republican lines, has always said that he will caucus with the party that gives him the better deal. The Democrats have gotten their house in order and appear poised to take power.

Once New York State is solidly blue, a long legislative wish list awaits passage. Progressives are gleeful about the possibilities open to them without Republican obstruction. A top priority for the most left-leaning Democrats is passage of the New York Health Care Act, which will “provide universal, comprehensive health care to all New Yorkers without premiums, co-pays, deductibles, or limited provider networks.” The bill, which has passed the assembly four years in a row, offers the usual promise of painlessly converting the state’s current health-care system to a single-payer (government) model, similar to the one that covers the poor and disabled already. The RAND Corporation estimates that implementation of single-payer health care for all New Yorkers—including for 800,000 illegal aliens—would require a 156 percent tax increase, or $139 billion on top of the $90 billion that the state already collects in individual, corporate, and real-estate taxes. Governor Cuomo is skeptical, too, saying that, while he supports the single-payer model, health-care reform must be tackled at the national level. So the New York Health Care Act may languish for another season.

Rent control, on the other hand, is a Democratic legislative priority that will likely not be postponed. Approximately 1 million rental units in New York City come under some form of regulation, and the Rent Guidelines Board caps rent hikes. The federal government imposed regulated rents during World War II, and Albany has kept the policy in place ever since. In the view of many economists, urbanists, and property owners, rent control is the leading cause of New York City’s perpetual housing crisis, but progressive advocates believe that rent control isn’t extensive enough. They want New York City (not Albany) to be able to set its own rules on rental and eviction protection.

If the Democrats take control of the senate, the likely new majority leader will be Andrea Stewart-Cousins of Yonkers. She backs the expansion of rent control statewide and has sponsored a bill that would bring tens of thousands of deregulated apartments in New York back under the regulatory umbrella. Advocates want to stop landlords from raising the rent when a tenant leaves, and they want all new construction to be rent-regulated, too. It’s hard to imagine a less friendly policy for growth, or even maintenance of the existing housing stock, than universal rent control.

For years, senate Republicans blocked a state DREAM Act that would give illegal aliens access to in-state tuition rates, scholarships, and other forms of funding for higher education. It should pass under a Democratic legislature. Driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants would surely follow. Statewide criminal-justice reform will occupy legislative attention, too—from the elimination of bail, an oft-cited Democratic priority, to the legalization of marijuana, considered even by opponents to be virtually a fait accompli. Expungement of criminal records for marijuana offenses is already taking place in Brooklyn, and some legislators have spoken of paying reparations to minority communities for the damage caused by drug-law enforcement.

Ten percent of New York City public school students—mostly minority children from low-income families—are enrolled in charter schools, which offer an alternative to failed district schools in many neighborhoods. The success of some charter school networks has been a bugbear to the United Federation of Teachers, which has tried to stymie the growth of the charter movement. Charter schools are popular, but a Democratic legislature would surely work to limit their expansion and to impose greater oversight and stricter rules on existing networks.

Mayor de Blasio has long sought a “millionaire’s tax” to fund various programs—universal prekindergarten, housing for seniors, subway repairs. Taxing the rich, it appears, is his first priority; what to do with the money can be determined later. But the mayor needs Albany’s approval to pass a special tax on high-income New Yorkers. De Blasio will enjoy legislative backing, but it’s not clear that Cuomo would support it.

Indeed, Governor Cuomo remains the wild card in a looming all-Democratic state government. He has moved cautiously, for the most part. Of Albany’s “three men in the room,” the governor is more than the first among equals; he proposes the budget, and he must approve changes to it. Cuomo has demonstrated that neither legislators nor mayors can push him around. Assuming that New York State goes all blue this November, predicting where the assembly and senate will want to go is easy; determining how Cuomo will react is a guessing game.

Photo: Pete Dzintars

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