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The Muckraker Vs. the Muck

A crusading journalist is running to take down one of Albany’s sleaziest pols as NY progressives take aim at GOP-controlled state Senate.

Peter Rugh Dec 22

Issue 231

You might think that New York State, with its overwhelmingly liberal populace, would provide a blueprint for barricades or at least buffers lawmakers might erect against the far-right agenda now frothing out of Washington. But no. Universal health care, stronger rent regulations and tenant protections, cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, a genuine medical marijuana program, early voting, campaign finance reform, and tuition assistance for undocumented college students are just some of the progressive reforms that have gone to the state Senate to die.

With the blessing of its Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, New York has become an exemplar of self-serving, dysfunctional state government, in which a faction of renegade Democrats expresses support for “progressive” initiatives while facilitating Republican control of the legislature’s upper house. Minnesota Congressmember Keith Ellison, deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, has called the New York state Senate’s governing system “a danger to the nation.”

But look out, Albany. An emerging cadre of Democratic candidates plan on busting up the delicate balance of power in Albany in 2018 and blue-ifying New York — for real.

Among them is Ross Barkan, a journalist by trade, who in October announced his candidacy in the 22nd Senate district in southern Brooklyn. Tired of beating Albany over the head with his pen, first for the Observer — until the Jared Kushner-owned rag endorsed Donald Trump for President — and later for the Village Voice and Gothamist, the 28-year-old opted to step into the political arena himself.

“I understand how the system works, why it succeeds and why it fails,” Barkan says. “I know what motivates politicians, for better and worse, and I have a strong understanding of the issues. I’ve held the system to account from the outside. Now I will do it from the inside.”

Will GOP control of the NY Senate end in 2018?

On a rainy December night in Long Island City at John Brown’s Smokehouse, as a fundraiser for Barkan wound down in a tent behind the brisket joint, he explained what first motivated him to run for office. It was over the summer, when New York City’s subway crisis began to reach its apex and Gov. Cuomo wondered out loud “who’s in charge.” (He is.) As is the case in much of the city, the trains in Barkan’s native Bay Ridge neighborhood run infrequently, and none of the stations in District 22 are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. He wants the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA’s) budget boosted, and for the agency to spend money on computerizing its Depression-vintage signaling system rather than on flashy beautification projects backed by the governor.

“It’s a system-wide failure,” Barkan says. “And there has been a lack of impetus on the part of a lot of elected officials to hold the MTA to account, to hold the governor to account, to really say, ‘Here is the problem. Here is how we can actually try to fix it.’”

His get-down-to-business approach to the troubles afflicting America’s largest subway system is indicative of Barkan’s political style. He plans to tell it like it is, unlike the buckpassing politicians he has covered over the years. “You’re going to know where I stand on an issue,” he promises. “I have great relationships with people who are very conservative. We agree on nothing, but they know where I’m coming from. They know I’m an honest person.”

Those relationships with conservatives might come in handy if Barkan’s reform politics are to at least receive an airing in District 22, an artfully gerrymandered bastion of mostly ethnic-white and Republican voters that looks something like a cubist interpretation of a trowel imposed diagonally over Brooklyn’s south end. The fat northwestern handle of the district takes up Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Fort Hamilton and a chunk of Bensonhurst, avoiding the public-housing projects of Bensonhurst andConey Island. Conveniently slim in the middle — save for a northwestern detour at Ocean Parkway — it bloats out again in a V shape, shoveling up the Gerritsen Beach and Manhattan Beach neighborhoods to its south and Marine Park to the north, much to the benefit of Barkan’s opponent, Republican incumbent Martin Golden.

New York State voters are predominantly blue but, in part due to gerrymandering, the state legislature is a bruised purple. For decades, the Democrats in control of the Assembly have outlined districts to their advantage, and by mutual agreement have allowed the Republicans in control of the Senate to do the same. Backroom deals, lax campaign-finance laws, lulus — stipends that come with committee chairmanships — and, of course, pork are other ingredients in how the sausage is made in the state’s capital.

For a muckraker aiming to take on the muck, Barkan could not have chosen an opponent more drenched in mire. Golden has funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds from landlord and law enforcement lobbies into his family catering business since he was first elected in 2002. His office did not respond to requests for comment on this article. 

A staunch defender of Trump, Golden has been stoking the flames of controversy long before Boss Tweet’s ascent to power. In 2012, his office canceled a workshop it planned to host that promised to teach women how to “sit, stand, and walk like a model” and “walk up and down a stair elegantly,” after women’s groups raised an outcry. In a 2015 Facebook post that Barkan himself reported on at the time, Golden jokingly conflated the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage with the lifting of marijuana prohibitions in several states, writing: “It all makes sense now. Gay marriage and marijuana being legalized on the same day. Leviticus 20:13 — ‘if a man lays with another man he should be stoned.’ We’ve just been interpreting it wrong all these years.”

On Dec. 11, confronted by a Brooklyn bicyclist when a Cadillac he was traveling in drove through multiple red lights and nearly ran the man off the road, Golden impersonated a police officer and threatened to bring him to “the precinct,” the cyclist said. When the cyclist, who did not initially realize he was in the presence of a state senator, asked who he was, Golden responded, “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

Barkan said he hopes to raise “several hundred thousand dollars” through small contributions. Last summer’s City Council bid by Palestinian-American pastor Khader El-Yateem in Bay Ridge serves as an inspiration for Barkan. El-Yateem raised over $100,000 before he narrowly lost the September Democratic primary. Though he resists being pigeonholed with the Berniecrat label, Barkan is seeking endorsements from the Working Families Party and the Democratic Socialists of America, which sent many of its 2,000-plus New York City members out knocking on doors for El-Yateem.

INSURGENTS: Fellow Senate candidate Zellnor Myrie confers with Barkan during a joint fundraiser in Queens. Credit: Peter Rugh.

Barkan says he is already excited by the “number of people, the wide array of people, from all backgrounds” who have given to his campaign. Like El-Yateem, he wants to connect with the changing face of southern Brooklyn — home to a growing Arab population that enthusiastically supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primaries — but to also be a candidate the district’s older white voters can get behind, by addressing bread-and-butter policy concerns.

“When I talk about our failing transportation system, when I talk about health care, when I talk about overdevelopment and the real-estate industry running the state, [voters] are very receptive,” Barkan says. “And I tell them, ‘You know what? Marty Golden is in the pocket of big real-estate developers.’ And they go, ‘Wow.’ And suddenly something clicks in their head.”

Barkan sees his campaign as paralleling the primary challenges to the members of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) — the breakaway Democrats who share power with the Republicans. Technically speaking, Democrats hold 32 seats in the Senate to the Republicans’ 31, but the GOP wields power thanks to the IDC, along with Sen. Simcha Felder of Borough Park, a Democrat who caucuses with the Republicans.

“They’re turncoat Democrats, Trump Democrats,” said former City Councilmember Robert Jackson, who led a decade-long battle for fair state funding for urban school districts before entering electoral politics. He is challenging the IDC’s Marisol Alcantara for her Upper Manhattan seat. Attorney Zellnor Myrie is looking to knock off IDC member Jesse Hamilton of Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, and Jessica Ramos, a former labor union staffer turned aide to Mayor Bill de Blasio, is mulling a run against Jose Peralta in Jackson Heights.

Their candidacies come amid a year-long grassroots push by activists with the Working Families Party, Fordham School of Law professor Zephyr Teachout — who won more than one-third of the vote in her longshot challenge to Gov. Cuomo in the 2014 Democratic primary — and others who have held rallies in Albany and bird-dogged the Republican collaborators in order to shine light on and break up the alliance.

Treachery has its perks, however.

Senate Republicans have been generous to the IDC turncoats. IDC members receive additional staff, computers and larger offices, and committee chairmanships that attract donors hoping to influence legislation and come with lulus ranging from $9,000 to $34,000 a year. As lawmakers often chair multiple committees but can legally receive only one stipend, Republicans opt to receive lulus from the committee with the largest payout, and then pass the cash remaining on the table to GOP and IDC vice chairs, misleadingly listing them as committee leaders on payroll documents submitted to the state comptroller. Jesse Hamilton, for instance, chairs the Banks Committee, receiving a $15,000 stipend.

The IDC’s political chicanery has also meant that Senate Democrats have secured just $3 million for their districts out of the $1.6 billion State and Municipal Facilities (SMF) bond issuance program established in 2013, while the Republicans have received $210 million and IDC members $35 million. The largest IDC share has gone to the faction’s leader, Jeff Klein, who took $17 million in SMF bonds home to his northeast-Bronx/Westchester district, where a 2018 primary challenger has yet to emerge. Klein has used the dough to put millions of dollars toward park upgrades in his district, according to records from the state Dormitory Authority, which reviews most SMF requests.

“What the IDC has relied on is their ability to bring back some of these perks and to be able to tell the community, ‘Well look, I’m doing what’s best for you,’” explained Zellnor Myrie. “Once people start realizing we are only getting one slice of the pie when we should be getting the entire pie, people are going to be upset about that.”

With each party ruling a legislative house, the spoils are nearly divided: Assembly Democrats have steered $150 million in SMF earmarks their way, with Republicans getting just $4 million. But beyond the pork, the power split allows the Assembly and Gov. Cuomo to support liberal legislation, but blame the Senate when the bills are watered down, as happened with 2016’s $15-an-hour minimum-wage law. If a measure goes nowhere, like 2017’s universal health care bill, Cuomo and company can also blame the Senate. In neither scenario do they lose face before their well-heeled donors. 

“Reaching across the aisle as a principle is a great thing, but blaming the opposition party for not working with you is also a great thing,” former Cuomo campaign advisor Hank Sheinkopf told Politico, describing how the governor, possibly positioning himself for a 2020 presidential run, “can have it both ways.”

It remains to be seen where the state’s powerful labor unions will fall in 2018. In the past they have campaigned for and donated heavily to Cuomo and the IDC senators. With the Trump administration powerfully anti-labor and a pending Supreme Court decision that could force public-employee unions to represent nonmembers for free by banning “fair-share fees,” unions could be more likely to back less progressive candidates they are confident will win, in order to have a seat at the table when legislation is drafted or when their contracts are up.

New York unions are “going to do what is best for their members,” said Myrie. “I would hope that what they feel is best is real progressives in Albany, people who won’t just be satisfied with compromises but will go on the offensive.”

Myrie, Robert Jackson and their comrades have apparently lit a fire under Albany. Cuomo brokered an agreement that is supposed to bring the IDC members back into the mainline Democratic caucus, which has 23 members and is headed by Andrea Stewart-Cousins of Yonkers, who is poised to become the first woman of color to lead either house of the legislature.

The IDC says it’s on board, with Jeff Klein praising the offer as an “assurance that our progressive legislative agenda will be advanced.” But Cuomo will likely blunt the deal’s effect by not calling a special election to fill two vacant seats in Democratic districts until April, after the March 31 budget deadline — the most important day on the legislative calendar.

The deal was crafted to “delay special elections and allow a Republican budget,” Zephyr Teachout tweeted. “We have to double and triple the heat!”

Even if the IDC steps on board, Simcha Felder will likely be a holdout. Secure in his Borough Park seat — home to a conservative, predominantly Orthodox Jewish community — he promptly went over to the Republicans after being elected as a Democrat in 2012. Felder has urged IDC senators to rejoin the Democratic fold but has made excuse after excuse for not doing so himself, telling one reporter he won’t join up with his party again until there is an armed guard stationed at every New York City school. One Republican will have to fall if Democrats hope to win control of the Senate again. Barkan hopes it will be Marty Golden.

“In order to build a strong Democratic majority in the Senate, you have to defeat Republicans,” he says. “I see this as a joint effort. We want the same thing. We want a majority of real Democrats who are going to fight for New York City.”

In Washington State, an IDC-style agreement in which two Democratic state senators made a power-sharing deal with Republicans ended after last November’s elections when voters gave Democrats full control of both houses of the legislature and the governorship. The odds of knocking off all nine of the New York Senate’s renegade Democrats in one election are much steeper. But the days when IDC members could brazenly live a double life in Albany without being noticed by their constituents are over.

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Photo (top): STUMP SPEECH: State senate candidate Ross Barkan speaks to supporters at a house party hosted by the writer Masha Gessen. Credit: Vanessa Ogle.