New York’s local politics have long been driven by a partisan split in the state legislature. With the help of moderate Democrats, Republicans have held a narrow majority in the state senate since 2010. This year, however, many of those moderates were beaten in the primaries by more progressive candidates. As a result, Democrats are poised to take over state government in Albany next year.
Democrats in the legislature will likely pass a progressive-policy wish list: a millionaires’ tax, rent control, single-payer health care, and more. Governor Andrew Cuomo, however, who appears certain to win a third term, is the wild card. It remains to be seen how Cuomo will react to aggressive leftward pressure from his party.
Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks Podcast. This is your host, Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Before we get started, I want to tell listeners that our new Autumn 2018 issue is hot off the press. You can check out the full table of contents on our website, but for starters, we have Kay Hymowitz with a history of women’s advocacy in America – this is already available online – John Tierney on the prescription drug debate, economist Edward Glaeser with policy proposals to get the long-term unemployed in the Rust Belt back to work, and Nicole Gelinas on the growth of non-bank lending and the mounting risk that entails. Then we have articles on the homeless problem in Seattle, Miami’s innovative program for diverting the mentally ill from jail, and lots, lots more. We will be recording podcasts on 10 Blocks with some of these authors, so stay tuned for all that in the coming weeks. But we are here today to talk with my colleague Seth Barron about the city and state that many of us here at City Journal call home, New York. Listeners outside New York might not know this, but Republicans, with the help of moderate Democrats, have held a narrow majority in the state senate. That looks set to change with the upcoming election, and the implications for policy could be enormous in New York. So, we’ll talk with our associate editor Seth Barron after this. Seth, thanks for joining us.
Seth Barron: Thanks, Brian. I am glad to be here.
Brian Anderson: The elections are coming up and Democrats do seem poised to takeover full control of state government. So, can you give a breakdown for our non-New York listeners about what the most likely outcome of this election is looking like electorally, and how did a group of Democrats – people don’t understand this outside New York, I think – end up caucusing with Republicans for the last eight years I think, and what’s going to happen now?
Seth Barron: Sure, Brian. You said before that Democrats held the state senate briefly in 2010. Really, Republicans have had control of the New York State Senate since the ‘30s, except for a very brief interlude in 2010, which turned out to be so dysfunctional that it just collapsed almost immediately. Three successive Democratic leaders went to prison for various scandals. You know, it just devolved into arguments about parking spots, and keys, and who got which office. It turned into a real mess, and the Republicans managed to take control again. Now, yes, there was a group of Democrats who, led by Jeff Klein in the Bronx, who decided to caucus, or form an Independent Democratic Conference, as they called it, and they agreed to caucus with the Republicans. These were moderate Democrats, I mean not – I mean liberal by the standards of, you know, the American political scene, but somewhat moderate by New York standards. Now, the reason they did this is, there’s a number of reasons. For one, Jeff Klein felt aggrieved that he wasn’t going to be made the Senate majority leader, that he wasn’t going to be president of the Senate, basically because the Democratic caucus, dominated by downstate Dems, had agreed among themselves that they would only vote for a person of color to be the Senate president. As one of the top fundraisers, this annoyed Klein. So, he and his girlfriend, who was a senator from Staten Island, Diane Savino, and a few other state senators cleaved off and agreed to caucus with the Republicans. Some people say that this was facilitated by Governor Cuomo who, you know, in a divide-and-conquer scheme wanted to have…
Brian Anderson: More influence and power himself.
Seth Barron: Exactly.
Brian Anderson: Well, what has happened to this this group of supposedly independent Democrats?
Seth Barron: Well, the mainstream Democrats in New York State have been targeting the IDC for years.
Brian Anderson: Through primaries.
Seth Barron: Through primaries. And this was Bill de Blasio's – one of his top goals in 2014, was to unseat the IDC. It worked against him and, in fact, the Republicans took over, like, outright control at that point. 2016 they had other things going on. This year, 2018, the progressive Democrats really focused strongly on unseating the IDC and almost all of them were turned out, Jeff Klein, Tony Avella, Jose Peralta, so it’s – it was pretty much a bloodbath for the IDC. And they have all been replaced by, you know, very loyal, loyal mainstream Dems.
Brian Anderson: So, the Democrats, if they do win in the upcoming election, they’re going to get their wish for an all blue New York. What do you think is going to be at the top of their policy agenda, or kind of, you know, legislative pushes would we be looking at here in New York? We’re talking about a millionaire’s tax, that’s something that has been bandied about before, that kind of thing?
Seth Barron: I think that would definitely be on the agenda. I mean they have a very long wish list. And, you know, of course you can’t do everything all at once. So, they’re going to have to prioritize. One thing that they have wanted very much and they have been pushing for is the New York Health Care Act, which has passed the Assembly a number of times, never made it through the Senate, and this would be a single-payer…
Brian Anderson: State-based single-payer system.
Seth Barron: State-based, yes. Single-payer healthcare system where everyone would buy into it. It would basically be a kind of Medicare-for-all, just in New York State. You know, this is estimated to, you know, it will cost something like a hundred forty billion dollars.
Brian Anderson: It just seems wildly unfeasible.
Seth Barron: It would require a 156% tax increase, I believe. I mean, this is the sort of thing that Cynthia Nixon, when she was running for governor, said she doesn’t care how it gets paid for, let’s just pass it and then we’ll work it out. And that does seem to be the attitude of a lot of the more Left-leaning Democrats. Governor Cuomo, to his credit, has indicated that this is the sort of thing that he thinks needs to be tackled nationally, not at the state level. So, I’m not so sure that that would…
Brian Anderson: He might veto such a bill.
Seth Barron: He might veto such a bill.
Brian Anderson: What other…
Seth Barron: Well, rent control, for instance. In the early ‘70s, Albany passed something called the Urstadt Law, which is a slow, very slow deregulation of the New York rent control system. So, there are, like if an apartment, if a rent-regulated apartment reaches a certain rental threshold and the people who live there make a certain amount of money, it can become decontrolled and become a market-rate apartment. It includes different triggers. If someone moves out, the landlord can do improvements and increase the rent, so forth and so on. This is very much disliked by progressive Democrats. They want elimination of the Urstadt Law. They would like to see increased regulation of apartments, more apartments brought under rent control or rent regulation, they want more control just given to the municipalities, so this would, you know, this is likely to be on their agenda. Another thing that the Democrats would probably push for is limitation on charter schools. New York City right now, almost I think 10% of New York City public school children attend charter schools, and they’re very popular, but the UFT and NYSUT are not happy, you know, the teachers’ unions…
Brian Anderson: Of the growing percentage of students in these schools, right?
Seth Barron: Yes, they’re very unhappy about it, and they would like to see limitations on this. So, it’s likely that they would push for caps, if not outright, you know, rollbacks. Yeah, a millionaire’s tax - Mayor de Blasio has been pushing for a tax on people making $500,000 and up since the beginning of his term, and he – it’s funny, he comes up with different things to spend the money on, but really the main thing for him is the tax.
Brian Anderson: The tax itself.
Seth Barron: Yes. So, originally, he said well, we need this tax to pay for pre-K for all kids. Then he said no, now we need it for senior housing. And now he says he wants it to fix the MTA. So, this is another thing that he – that he will push. I don’t know whether or not, you know, he needs Albany to pass it. Whether or not Cuomo would go for this, it seems – it’s unlikely, but, you know, it’s on his list.
Brian Anderson: Well, Cuomo started his first term you know, many years ago now, as at least a somewhat more bipartisan figure, or at least a more conservative Democrat, by the standards of New York. Now it’s 2018, the national political environment has certainly changed with the election of Trump, with, you know, what is going to be a very contested battle for the democratic presidential race. What does Cuomo’s governor’s race look like and what do you think about his aspirations for national prominence?
Seth Barron: Well, it seems – I mean I think all the smart money is on Cuomo for winning the governor’s race. I mean, he has, you know, millions of dollars in the bank compared to his primary competitor, Republican Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, who has a few thousand dollars, you know, comparatively. The other people who are running, Stephanie Miner, the former mayor of Syracuse, Larry Sharpe, the libertarian, and Howie Hawkins in the Green Party, you know, these are all marginal candidates. So, Cuomo won’t get a third term. Then the question becomes what is he looking for? You know, it’s likely that he has some kind of desires for a national platform, but you know, honestly speaking, he’s not really – he’s not very good at pressing the flesh. He’s not a real retail politician in that way. It seems very unlikely, you know, just his demographic profile seems – it’s somewhat out of favor in that party, so I’m not so sure. He may just seek to get a fourth term in 2022. He may have reached his level.
Brian Anderson: On a related topic, you mentioned earlier the arrests of several Democratic leaders. There’s also Republican legislative leaders behind bars. Corruption has been this ongoing problem in Albany. Indeed, several of Cuomo's close associates have been convicted in recent years for bribery and other charges. Is there anything new on that front that could give New Yorkers greater confidence in the honesty of their elected officials?
Seth Barron: I don’t think so.
Brian Anderson: And why is corruption just so bad in this state?
Seth Barron: I have heard different people opine on this. I’m not sure it’s necessarily worse here than it is in other states. There’s a lot of money floating around New York State. The governor has tremendous power and tremendous authority over dispersing money, and that leads to all kinds of potentials for corruption. I mean, from everything I’ve heard, Andrew Cuomo is not personally venal, he’s just very, very into power. So, when you have someone like that in control of tens of billions of dollars in development money, it can lead to a lot of corruption underneath him, and that’s what we’ve seen. It’s a sad state. I don’t see any way that it’s going to be changed or reformed at any time soon. I mean, another thing that the Democrats will probably want to push for in assuming they win will be state campaign finance reform, including limits, and including a public financing of campaigns.
Brian Anderson: One of the real problems I think is you don’t have a two-party state or anything close to it. It really is becoming a kind of political monoculture, so that, you know, that can lead to corruption as well.
Seth Barron: Certainly. And as we see in New York City, where we have a very robust campaign finance system, public campaign financing, and we have horrible turnout, we have incumbents and, you know, getting reelected all the time, and we have an entrenched consultant culture, and I think we’ll just see that grow more thoroughly statewide.
Brian Anderson: Well, on that rather pessimistic note, why don’t we end this conversation for now and hope for the best come election day, and hope that New York becomes a more competitive political culture over time. Don’t forget to check out Seth Barron’s great work on our website, www.City-Journal.org. You can follow Seth on Twitter, @SethBarronNYC, and we’d love to hear your comments about today’s episode on Twitter, @CityJournal. Thanks for listening and thanks, Seth, for joining us.
Seth Barron: Thanks, Brian.