Op-Ed: New York’s New Energy Era Needs a New Leader

Senators must reject Hochul’s latest right-wing nominee.

Daniel Atonna Jun 6, 2023

When a New York Governor named Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the New York Power Authority (NYPA) to build the energy system New Yorkers deserved, he appointed Frank P. Walsh as its first president.

Walsh was an avowed progressive who helped the National Women’s Trade Union League win a ruling that women had the same right to employment as men, that fought to ban child labor and is remembered as a leading labor ally. Under his leadership, NYPA became a New Deal model, and the largest public power provider in the country.

Over the ensuing decades, NYPA was restrained by corporations afraid of competing with public power. But last month, in what’s been hailed as the biggest Green New Deal win in U.S. history, a movement of thousands of New Yorkers won a four-year battle to pass the Build Public Renewables Act (BPRA) and once again unleash NYPA as an engine of justice.

This law mandates that NYPA build the system we need: one that puts environmental justice, labor rights and the futures of ordinary New Yorkers first. And to do it, it needs a visionary leader like Walsh.

Justin Driscoll

Justin Driscoll, Governor Hochul’s nominee for NYPA President, is not this leader. In fact, as one state senator said recently, Driscoll’s history is of standing against these values.

Compare the two: Frank P. Walsh built his pre-NYPA reputation in the 1910s and ‘20s becoming a labor hero. Driscoll built his career as a lobbyist at Brown & Weinraub, a go-to firm for fossil-fuel companies and groups like the American Petroleum Institute. And while Walsh won legal precedents that protected the rights of ordinary people, Driscoll’s legal legacy is of helping the wealthy and powerful take rights away.

In 2014, Driscoll led a case against an indigenous land-rights claim that ultimately denied those rights, putting the final nail in the coffin to a case that began in 1986. BPRA will rely on NYPA to democratically navigate land rights for renewable siting — which cannot be trusted to a leader who worked to remove those rights from marginalized communities. 

Justin Driscoll’s right-wing, pro-corporate legacy makes him ill-suited to lead the New York Power Authority as New York prepares to launch a state-level Green New Deal.

But perhaps Driscoll’s most lasting mark on our legal system is when he won a case arguing that health providers have no “duty of reasonable care,” solidifying a legal precedent that let providers deny coverage of Lyme Disease for over a decade. 

Does that sound like someone who puts public good over private profit the way BPRA mandates?

Or does it sound like someone who donates money to Republicans like Peter T. King, a champion of Trump’s Muslim Ban, and John Sweeney, a member of the Trump White House transition team?

Importantly, Driscoll’s right wing, pro-corporate legacy at Weinraub & Brown is not just in the past, but has continued in his actions at NYPA to this day. To add to his already well-documented controversies, he’s used NYPA to offer discount energy to controversial private renewable developer Plug Power, a client of his old firm who is also the subject of major insider trading scandals.

The power built by the four-year campaign to pass BPRA is not going anywhere, and right now, the momentum is on our movement’s side, which is why it’s imperative to show the days of rubber-stamping the Governor’s right-wing nominees ended with the Senate’s rejection of Hector LaSalle earlier this year.

This law means New York is entering a new chapter that not even Hochul’s fossil fuel-backed administration can stop. But with our future on the line, every state senator who rightfully worked to pass this historic climate law should put a quick stop to the Governor’s last-ditch effort to slow it down.

Fortunately, some are already standing up to vote against him. But with a possible vote any day now, there’s no excuse for any Senator to wait: #DumpDriscoll!

Daniel Atonna is the Political Coordinator of For The Many and a Steering Committee member of Mid-Hudson Valley DSA.

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