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Why the State Senate Matters

Ross Barkan Jul 30

Issue 238

What is going on with the New York State Senate these days? It’s an innocuous question with a labyrinthine, but vitally important, answer for our democracy here in New York, which is far lousier than most residents imagine. While the heinous Donald Trump gobbles up what little attention and patience people have for current events, Albany muddles on, calling the shots in our lives while remaining cloaked in relative anonymity, just the way most legislators like it.

When I tell people I’m running for state Senate, I explain to them that this vague-sounding office is actually incredibly crucial to their lives. Despite our belief that New York is a deep blue state and a progressive bastion, Republicans control the state Senate. They have done so, with the exception of one brief and chaotic interruption, for a half-century, a fact that truly staggers the mind.

Yes, Republicans have been running the show in New York, in one form or another, since Lyndon Johnson was president and the Beatles were owning the charts.

What has this meant? For New York City, a whole lot, and little of it good. Our rent control and rent stabilization programs, the last bit of protection for the working class we have in this city, exist at the whims of the state legislature. Every four years, the rent laws come up for renewal, and every four years Republicans backed by millions of dollars from the real estate lobby try to weaken the laws with the eventual goal of doing away with them altogether.

Since the 1990s, we have lost hundreds of thousands of units of rent-stabilized housing because Republicans and complicit, real estate-friendly Democrats have supported policies to make it easier for landlords to deregulate the housing stock. New York City can’t set its own rent laws because of something called the Urstadt Law, which gave the state dominion over city housing laws during the 1970’s fiscal crisis.

Republicans in Albany are loathe to give it up.

Our income taxes, minimum wage, education and transportation are all controlled by the state. Mayoral control of public schools is now a once-a-year proposition that can disappear whenever because Republicans in Albany hate Mayor Bill de Blasio. The MTA will never be adequately funded or held accountable for its management failures because Senate Republicans, based primarily in suburban and rural areas that have little in the way of public transit, don’t really care. (Mediocre Democrats can share some blame in this too, of course.)

New York abortion law, last updated in 1970, predates Roe v. Wade, and Senate Republicans refuse to strengthen it so the Roe v. Wade decision (now imperiled by Trump’s Supreme Court) is codified in the New York State Constitution. Republicans refuse to pass a bill granting civil rights protections, statewide, to the LGBTQ community. They refuse to ban so-called conversion therapy.

I can go on and on and on.

The Republican Senate doesn’t so much exist to advance conservative policy — Assembly Democrats can always thwart actually destructive legislation — as to thwart, dilute and limit progressive outcomes. New York’s antiquated voting and campaign finance laws are a legacy of a Republican Senate that sees no problem with millionaires and billionaires dominating our politics. The status quo serves them fine.

And then there’s the elephant (or the elephant in donkey’s clothing) in the room: Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The terribly kept secret of Albany over Cuomo’s two pharaonic terms is that the governor with presidential ambitions would prefer that Democrats never take control of the state Senate.

How? Why?

The how is easiest to answer. Republicans have clung to razor-thin majorities in the Senate even as demographics and voter registration numbers work decidedly against them because their districts are blatantly gerrymandered. My own state Senate district, drawn by the Republican incumbent Marty Golden, is just one of many bizarrely-shaped seats designed to empower Republicans at the expense of Democrats.

In 2012, the last time redistricting occurred, state Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats were each allowed to draw their own districts. This is an Albany tradition dating back to time immemorial. Unlike California, we do not do independent redistricting. Incumbents protect themselves.

When Cuomo first ran for governor, he campaigned, strangely enough, on a platform of good government. He said he would veto new district lines that weren’t independently drawn. This never happened, and Cuomo happily let Golden and the Republican majority shape district lines that have girded them for the last six years. It’s why that, even with the wind blowing so fiercely in an anti-Trump state, they believe they can find a way to retain their majority.

In 2011, Cuomo and Jeff Klein, a Democratic state senator in the Bronx who has an affinity for real estate developers and charter schools, effectively collaborated to create the Independent Democratic Conference. Whether it was more Klein’s idea or Cuomo’s has never been clear — maybe Klein hatched the concept and found a willing enabler — but the aim became readily apparent after Barack Obama was reelected and Democrats won enough seats to take control of the state Senate.

Klein’s bloc of Democrats, then four in number, chose to align themselves with the Republicans to keep the rest of the Democrats out of the majority. This partnership brought enormous benefits to Klein and his allies, granting them all the perks of the majority: swollen staff budgets, funding for their districts and coveted committee chairmanships.

Cuomo, who has always been most comfortable governing in the Clintonian center and once proclaimed himself a “new Democrat” who was going to break the hold of organized labor on New York, relished this arrangement. When progressives cried foul, he could always blame the Republican-IDC majority for stifling bills. When trades needed to be made, he could claim victory, like when Republicans allowed Cuomo to phase in a $15 minimum wage in much of the state.

The evidence of Cuomo’s affinity for the IDC-GOP partnership lay in how little he did to thwart it or aid Democrats in their quest to take control of the Senate. As Democrats in 2014 battled Republicans and Cuomo ran for reelection, he half-heartedly campaigned for a few candidates and saved his massive campaign war chest for himself. When 2014 drew to a close, Cuomo still had millions in his account and the Democrats were swamped.

The winds have now shifted. Trump is president and arrangements with the Republican Party are out of vogue. Doing what Democrats begged him to do years ago, Cuomo overnight crushed the IDC this spring, forcing them to rejoin the mainline Democrats. The IDC, now numbering eight, technically belongs to the Democratic conference but its members have been further ostracized in the wake of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory over Rep. Joe Crowley, the once powerful Queens Democratic boss and Cuomo ally.

All of them are facing primary challengers, several of which are quite strong. Mainstream politicians like Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Comptroller Scott Stringer have lined up against the former IDC members, further bolstering a movement that once only existed in activist circles.

It is a precarious time but a special time. I hope the Republican majority is finally beaten and Democrats, particularly good ones, can prevail. New York is a retrograde state, in many chilling ways. Next year, we can really change all of that.

Ross Barkan is a journalist-turned-political candidate running in State Senate District 22 in South Brooklyn.

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Photo: The New York State Capitol Building in Albany. Credit: Wally Gobetz.