As New York moves to certify its election results, the narrative that Democrats’ bail reform package cost them suburban seats has been inverted.
While Republicans initially declared victory after leading many key legislative races on and after election night, Democrats will actually add a State Senate supermajority to their existing one in the Assembly.
Just a few weeks ago, such a result seemed utterly out of reach. Democrats faced well-funded challenges by Republicans in several suburban districts, while the state’s powerful police unions — as well as Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s longtime ally and millionaire Ron Lauder — aimed to make the election a referendum on the state’s recent bail reform legislation.
The 2019 package, which severely restricted cash bail and sought to reduce pre-trial detention for most offenses, has been controversial since becoming law. Soon after going into effect in 2020, the reform bill was altered as a result of a concerted backlash by police unions, Republicans and prosecutors, according to Katie Schaffer, director of advocacy fo the New York-based Center for Community Alternatives.
“There was a highly coordinated racist fear-mongering campaign led by police unions and prosecutors and taken full political advantage of by Republicans around the state,” Schaffer said. “[And] the Democratic majority in the legislature allowed the rolling back of bail reform … and they did it explicitly for political reasons [because] they were nervous about the backlash from police and prosecutors.”
Hoping to capitalize on that backlash, Republicans argued bail reform had led to rising crime and a state in disarray.
“Despite [the law’s alterations] … opposition to bail reform was the primary thing that many of the Republicans around the state ran on during the 2020 elections,” Schaffer added. “And [they] lost substantially.”
After spending millions of dollars, Republicans still only managed to flip two seats and defend one of the six senate battleground districts they targeted. Meanwhile, Democrats were able to win several open races for a net gain of three seats. Their two-thirds supermajorities give them the ability to pass legislation over Gov. Cuomo’s veto, though it’s unclear how willing they will be to clash with a three-term governor from their own party.
For criminal justice advocates like Schaffer, these results prove that progressive stances on criminal justice are not radioactive.
“There has been in New York State a move in a more progressive direction,” they said. “And that includes in some somewhat more conservative districts.”
Schaffer also argues that this year’s election victory also solidifies previous progressive gains while paving the way for more extensive future pushes.
“We and other [advocates] will continue to push for decarceration,” they said. “I think the reality of this election is that it has made clear that bail reform was not, in fact, a political liability, and that sort of greatly reduces the chance of a future threat to it.”
Additionally, some elected officials see a validation of their grassroots organizing politics in the results.
“[Winning a supermajority] is an incredible testament to the work that progressives have done,” Democratic State Senator Jessica Ramos told The Indypendent News Hour, the weekly radio show of this publication. “I’m very happy that we are able to prove that with our progressive politics, with a politics that cares about human beings … [we have] a winning strategy.”
Now with full control of the legislature, New York Democrats are floating proposals for several progressive policies, including higher taxes on the rich, rent forgiveness and cannabis legalization.
“Now that we’re battle-tested, we need to push,” said State Senator Ramos.
However, with the party divided between an insurgent left and more moderate leadership, it remains unclear what form much of this legislation will take.
“We have an exact supermajority … you know what Cuomo is thinking, he’s going to try and pick off one or two of the usual suspects,” said Ramos. “We have to be strategic.”
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