From Brooklyn to Buffalo, Socialists are Organizing to Tax the Rich

Issue 262

The Democratic Socialists of America are challenging austerity and strengthening the ties of a statewide socialist movement. They’re also putting the Albany establishment on notice.

Rob Katz Mar 15, 2021

Also see “Three Months In: Assemblymember Phara Souffrant Forrest Reports Back from an Albany in Strife” by Rob M. Katz

Even before the looming COVID-19 pandemic tore open a $60 billion hole in New York State’s finances for the next four years, Sen. Liz Krueger, the chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, was hearing calls to raise taxes on New York’s wealthiest.

When a coalition of 40 organizations wrote to Krueger in February 2020 to propose a package of income taxes on wealthy individuals and large corporations, she told the Daily News that she supports a “robust progressive tax system” but insisted that only the governor, who has spent his decade-long tenure slashing taxes and social spending, could grow total spending for new or expanded programs. In the pre-pandemic world, Krueger made clear that while she supported the sentiment, she believed her hands were tied.

One year later, Krueger was hearing those demands louder than ever — this time from right outside her apartment in the Upper West Side.

For the second week in a row, advocates from the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (of which this writer is a member) were joined by members of other organizations such as New York Communities for Change and Met Council on Housing for a rally outside of Krueger’s home apartment complex. A couple of NYPD officers watched from across the road and masked passersby hurried through the small crowd.

“We’re here to make a simple reminder to Liz that you are in office because of us,” speaker Robert Cuffy, a member of DSA’s Afrosocialist Caucus, announced. “You serve the people, we don’t serve you. And there’s a very clear message we want to send to you. Six bills are in the legislature targeting the rich. If you don’t sign them, you won’t be in the legislature. Because we’re going to primary you, and we’re going to mobilize against you.”

Cuffy’s promise to evict the chair of the Senate Finance Committee from Albany was rooted in a very tangible existential threat to the Democratic old guard. Left organizations like the DSA have orchestrated a dizzying succession of electoral upsets, from the ousting of seven incumbent Democratic state senators in 2018 to the socialist sweep of six state legislative districts last year. Even the most entrenched veteran legislator could be felled.

In a statement to the Indypendent, Krueger repeated her desire for “a robust progressive tax system.”

“Our conference is engaged in a thorough evaluation of many potential revenue-raising proposals, and we will continue to push to ensure that everyone pitches in their fair share, and no one is made to bear a disproportionate burden,” Krueger said.

One year since the Feb. 20 open letter, her public stance was one of the few elements of this political struggle that remained the same.

Fighting for a Bigger Pie

The net worth of NY’s billionaires has soared during the pandemic. Photo: Ken Lopez.

NYC-DSA’s Tax the Rich Campaign joins a wider statewide project, the Invest in Our NY (IONY) Coalition. A report released by the coalition in January 2021 outlines six bills that would raise a combined $50 billion in annual revenue “to invest in our towns and our cities, our housing and healthcare, our schools and teachers, accessible transit and our people with disabilities, our workers and our youth.” The bills, if passed, would open up new revenue sources in the upcoming state budget, which is set to be signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo by April 1.

“Our coalition decided that we’re not going to go the route of the earmark,” Michael Whitesides, a campaign organizer, said. “Instead of all fighting for different pieces of the same pie, we’re all gonna get together and fight for a bigger pie. That way we’re not going to be easily divided. We’re all united in this fundamental belief that the wealthy need to pay more in New York to fund a better future for the working class.”

But the DSA’s Tax the Rich Campaign, which began in December and later merged with the sprawling IONY Coalition, attracted attention for the scope of its field operation. During the campaign’s “Week of Action,” volunteers dialed more than 105,000 numbers and placed flyers on 60,000 doors, according to field organizers Ben Silver and Nadia Tykulsker. That wave of calls boiled down to 2,500 conversations,

2,000 newly identified supporters, and at least 900 respondents who agreed to be transferred to their state representative’s office line right away.

Since then, socialist organizers have discovered more than 1,200 additional supporters in the city, transferring nearly half of them to their state representative’s offices, and left literature at 50,000 more doors encouraging New Yorkers to make calls.

Upstate & Downstate, Stronger Together

At the DSA and coalition levels, the joining of political forces on the side of taxing the rich runs from the Big Apple to Rochester, where four assemblymembers have co-sponsored the IONY Act and working-class organizations like the Rochester Organization of Rank and File Educators have hosted phone banks with Rochester DSA. The strategy reflects lessons learned from the Upstate-Downstate Housing Alliance that won sweeping tenant protection legislation in 2019.

In Central New York, reductions totaling $84 million have forced Onondaga County to downsize its public workforce. The county seat, Syracuse, already struggles with one of the nation’s highest poverty rates and has had its own budget slashed by $18 million.

Capitalizing on the need for a sustainable revenue stream, Syracuse DSA has mobilized in partnership with NYC-DSA and local groups, according to Keller Shelton, a member of the chapter. For example, they’ve collaborated with the progressive organization CNY Solidarity Coalition to clog representatives’ phone lines with messages.

“Instead of all fighting for different pieces of the same pie, we’re all gonna get together and fight for a bigger pie. That way we’re not going to be easily divided.”

While two senators preside over Syracuse, freshman John Mannion and sophomore Rachel May, the Salt City socialists have chosen to focus their might on their more entrenched, conservative Democratic representatives, Assemblymembers William Magnarelli and Al Stirpe.

Further west, Buffalo DSA is knocking doors and calling neighbors in Sens. Timothy Kennedy and Sean Ryan’s backyards. Their push to tax the rich has been their second major effort following the Buffalo DSA Healthcare Work Group’s success in pressuring Democratic Congressmember Brian Higgins to cosponsor the Health Emergency Guarantee Act, which would provide single-payer coverage through the duration of the pandemic.

“I think that people recognize that the interests of capital and the private sector — health insurers, banks, corporations — have been placed above their own,” Mo Madden, Buffalo DSA secretary and a caseworker who works with expectant mothers, said. “We’ve lost health insurance and some services we rely on are in jeopardy. Public school class sizes are growing. Here in Lockport, which is just north of Buffalo, there was a maternity floor closure, so people have to drive to a hospital in Amherst [a Buffalo suburb] to have their baby.”

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, along with Kennedy, Ryan, and Assemblymember Monica Wallace have found themselves in the crosshairs of Buffalo DSA, which hopes to build connections with their electeds through sustained pressure and advocacy. According to Madden, the chapter has knocked on about 640 doors and identified about 200 supporters over the phones.

Outside of New York City, DSA’s statewide operation has discovered over 1,200 supporters and directly transferred about 500 to their representative’s office lines at presstime.

Higher Expectations for Electeds

To pass, the IONY Act will require 76 out of 150 votes in the State Assembly and 32 of 63 votes in the State Senate. As the Indypendent goes to press, 22 of 43 Democratic senators and 55 of 107 Democratic assemblymembers, plus one independent assemblymember who caucuses with the Democrats, publicly sponsor or co-sponsor at least one of the bills. No Republican is supporting the measure.

That leaves several unmoved and high-profile Democrats like Krueger in NYC-DSA’s sights, which have narrowed over the course of the campaign. One big fish, Senator Brian Benjamin — chair of the Committee on Revenue and Budget — announced his support for the package in mid-February.

To ramp up the pressure on more obdurate targets, DSA members across the state have recontacted New Yorkers supportive of the campaign and invited them to constituent meetings, where electeds’ staffers are briefed on the IONY legislation and constituents can make their case face-to-virtual-face.

On March 4, a group of teachers and students had met with staffers for Sen. Michael Gianaris, the deputy majority leader of the Senate who touted the support of progressive icons like Sen. Bernie Sanders in his re-election campaign. The meeting was organized by Michael Corsillo, a teacher at I.S. 145 in Jackson Heights and a member of the progressive United Federation of Teachers caucus Movement of Rank and File Educators.

On the Zoom call, students shared personal stories about how funding cuts to public schools had directly affected their and their friends’ lives. The staffers were amicable but deflected, claiming that Gianaris had to make calculated choices about what he supports as deputy majority leader.

Still, “the students were very clear that if the senator’s staff wanted to highlight his role as a leader, that they expected him to lead on this issue,” Corsillo said.

The New York Stock Exchange, backed by groups like the deficit-wary Citizens Budget Commission, has threatened to mutiny if financial transactions are taxed.

The next day, Corsillo received an email from Gianaris thanking him for arranging the meeting. Separately, the veteran legislator announced that he had co-sponsored all six bills, providing them with the credence of the second-highest-ranking senator in Albany. Corsillo wondered if the staffers’ report back from the meeting had made an impression on Gianaris.

“[Gianaris’s turnaround] was profound, and I think that the students are the reason for that,” Corsillo said. “The personal stories of, ‘this is where the money was going last year and how that was benefiting me as a student, and then that program was cut, and here’s exactly how it hurt me’ — any adult that could listen to a student say that and not be moved would have to be a really cold person.”

Drashti Brahmbhatt, one of the campaign’s organizers, credited the campaign with moving Benjamin, Gianaris, and at least 10 other legislators to partially or fully sign on to the IONY package.

“I think politics in Albany is not the same anymore,” Whitesides said. “You can’t just show up, take a few votes and go home. People are demanding that their legislators do their jobs and actually deliver support for people. If legislators are feeling the pressure, that’s the whole point.”

In the short run, some of that pressure has been relieved. The stimulus funding provided by the American Rescue Plan Act, which was signed by President Joe Biden in March, would deliver $12.5 billion in federal aid for the state. However, that falls short of the $15 billion for which Cuomo had lobbied to fill the budget gap and, as Whitesides noted, would merely let Albany kick the can down the road until next budget season.

“Fundamentally, the federal aid isn’t particularly meaningful for this project,” they countered. “If you have one-time federal aid without an equal increase in annual revenue, you ensure a big fiscal cliff. You’re funding an expansion of public services with no way to sustain that expansion, so a few years from now [the budget] will require bigger cuts than what we faced now.”

Meanwhile, the corporate world is ringing the alarm bells of capital flight, and significant reaction has been targeted toward the tax on financial transactions, or the “Wall Street tax,” sponsored by progressive Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou and democratic socialist Senator Julia Salazar. The New York Stock Exchange, backed by groups like the deficit-wary Citizens Budget Commission, has threatened to mutiny if financial transactions are taxed.

DSA chapters across New York State are pushing Albany to call Wall Street’s bluff.

“When people don’t take you seriously, they ignore you,” Whitesides said. “But Wall Street’s been hammering on it being a bad idea, and that’s because they’re scared. The financial transactions tax is a fantastic bill and the movement that we’ve seen from the entrenched political establishment to push back on bills like that shows to me that they’re afraid it might actually pass.”

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