The Democratic Divide in New York State

It's not only about Andrew Cuomo. It's about the State Legislature too.

Anyone who first encounters politics in New York is bound to be a little bewildered. There are obscure factions and endless infighting, odd rivalries and ancient resentments. All of it, from time to time, can seem alien, out of joint with reality.

For the uninitiated to New York politics, there are a few rules to learn. Governor Andrew Cuomo is a Democrat but didn’t want Democrats to hold power in his state for a very long time. Eventually, he was forced to accept it. For half a decade, a group of Democrats in the State Senate—they called themselves the Independent Democratic Conference—helped Republicans stay in the majority. Cuomo had a hand in creating and empowering this IDC. Most of them were defeated two years ago.

Democrats, next year, will have veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the state legislature. This never happened in the 20th century, let alone the 21st. Never mind that a Republican presidential candidate hasn’t carried New York since Ronald Reagan in 1984. Gerrymandering and Democratic self-sabotage go a long way.

For much of the last half century, only the State Assembly offered staunch liberals any scent of power. Trapped between a Republican Senate and a typically hostile governor—a Cuomo or maybe just a Republican, like George Pataki—various progressive advocates, activists, and organizations had only one place to go. The corrupt Sheldon Silver, the Assembly speaker for two decades, could be, by default, a liberal champion, since he was quite literally the only game in town. Though it wasn’t much said out loud, there were those in the Assembly who were content with the long-running status quo. The Assembly mattered. A New York City mayor, if he had any liberal inclinations, had to make them their first stop. It was no accident Bill de Blasio shamelessly defended Silver as a “man of integrity” when he was indicted in 2015.

These days, the two chambers in Albany exist in a state of equality. Both are dominated by Democrats. Both have their largest factions based in New York City. For progressives, especially in 2019, this was the legislative nirvana long sought. Christened the “wonder twins,” the two Democratic leaders, Speaker Carl Heastie and Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, teamed up to rush a bunch of bottled up bills to Cuomo’s desk. The Republicans had been vanquished. That year, tenant and environmental protections were strengthened to an unprecedented degree. Cash bail was partially eliminated and the discovery process was revamped. Undocumented immigrants got driver’s licenses and tuition assistance. Early voting was finally implemented.

The two chambers couldn’t always be in concert. In the smaller State Senate, moderates in the suburbs helped derail marijuana legalization. The tenant protection legislation didn’t include a provision to make it far harder for landlords to evict tenants, thanks to opposition from Heastie, who has nurtured ties to the real estate industry.

Now a new fault line has opened up between the chambers: when taxes should be raised on the wealthy and how high they should go. Thanks to dogged reporting from New York Focus, we’ve learned that the State Senate is pushing for much higher tax increases to offset a massive budget shortfall caused by COVID-19. The Senate wants taxes that could bring in $4 billion in revenue, while the Assembly is focusing on a narrower range of taxes that would only produce $2 billion in new funds. The Senate is proposing retroactively applying the tax hike to 2020 while Heastie’s Assembly only wants to raise taxes going forward, citing constitutional questions that few tax experts believe would pose any real impediment to a 2020 hike.

“The Senate is in a better place but not the place advocates want to be, and the Assembly is in a horrible place. Carl is just in a bad place. He’s in a bad place on everything. And I’ve heard he’s talking to Cuomo,” Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator of the Housing Justice for All coalition, told New York Focus.

You should read the rest of the story to get a sense of what’s happening with the tax fight and why it’s so important. But I want to focus on the politics here. Why is the State Senate in a “better place” than the State Assembly? Aren’t both supposed to be pretty liberal? Isn’t the Assembly the place, after all, where single-payer healthcare was passed a bunch of times before dying in the Senate?

The Assembly, run by Democrats, remains a conventionally liberal chamber on most issues. A divide will widen, though, between the two legislative bodies if more new lawmakers don’t start pouring in within the next few election cycles. Until 2019, Republicans controlled the State Senate. Once they were driven from power, they weren’t just replaced by Democrats—they were replaced by very progressive Democrats. Six of them ran unabashedly leftist campaigns to defeat members of the IDC. A seventh, Julia Salazar, is an open democratic socialist. Next year, another democratic socialist, Jabari Brisport, will join her. Combined with the existing progressives in the chamber and those who shifted immediately left after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in 2018—the Senate deputy leader, Mike Gianaris, falls into the latter camp—this new bloc arrived to immediately exercise power.

The Senate is smaller than the Assembly. This is obvious, though observers don’t always give it enough thought. There are 63 state senators and 150 assembly members. Of the 63, 43 will be Democrats next year. And of the 43, a significant faction will self-identify with the Democratic Party’s most liberal wing. They won’t only be confined to New York City. In Rochester, two Democrats won in November who back a single-payer health plan for New York and would, at the minimum, champion stronger tenant protections and higher taxes. Progressives in the Senate simply have a lot of leverage. More moderate lawmakers can still check some of their ambitions, but these newer, younger progressives vote together enough to force the hand of their more cautious majority leader, Stewart-Cousins. The 2018 election cycle, which brought many of them to Albany, was truly seismic.

The Assembly now lags. Until 2020, competitive primaries were very rare there. Many of the Democrats, even those from New York City, have held their seats for 30 or 40 years. They are liberals in a traditional sense, but are not necessarily occupying the vanguard of the party anymore. Some of this was by design. Since the Assembly, for decades, was the lone bastion of Democratic power in the state, it was considered off-limits for primary challenges. Activist groups like the Working Families Party would usually not support campaigns against Assembly incumbents. Even in 2020, two years after the Ocasio-Cortez victory, the WFP didn’t take on any of the riskiest Assembly primaries. It’s been instinctual, for much of the left, to leave the Assembly alone.

Not all of the long-serving members are wary of the left. Richard Gottfried, Albany’s most senior lawmaker, was first elected to the Assembly in 1970. A Manhattan Democrat, he is the architect of the legislation to create a single-payer healthcare system in New York. He has been fighting for marijuana legalization longer than some of his colleagues have been alive.

Gottfried, though, is more of an exception, not a rule. Age and seniority, generally, don’t lend themselves to radicalism. In the Brooklyn delegation, Helene Weinstein was first elected in 1980. Peter Abbate was elected in 1986. Bill Colton, a neighboring lawmaker, won his first race in 1996. Before their defeats this year, incumbents Joe Lentol and Felix Ortiz were elected in 1972 and 1994 respectively. Nick Perry won in 1992.

In Queens, Cathy Nolan was elected 1984. Vivien Cook first won in 1990; Jeffrion Aubry, in 1992. Manhattan’s Deborah Glick was elected in 1990. In the Bronx, Jeff Dinowitz was elected in 1994, the same year as Carmen Arroyo. Jose Rivera and Heastie, who is from the Bronx, each first won in 2000.

There are other lawmakers who have been in office 10 or 15 years. All of the veterans chair important committees that determine which legislation gets a hearing and a vote. The older lawmakers can be less moved by the activist wing of the party or even grassroots protests. They haven’t faced an election in years and may not get one for a long time. No imperative exists to pivot or adjust. Those that arrived through special elections have never had to compete for votes in their lifetimes. Beyond the rent negotiations of 2019, this dynamic became most evident during the debate over congestion pricing—tolling entry into parts of Manhattan. Opposition in the Assembly was quite strong, with much of it coming from lawmakers who listened mostly to automobile owners. It was a constituency they were used to catering to and one year wouldn’t change that. Congestion pricing only became law—it’s currently delayed—because it was bundled into the budget, which few legislators vote down.

Change, of course, is afoot. This year brought the very first wave of primary challenges to hit the Assembly in modern memory. Three candidates backed by the Democratic Socialists of America ousted incumbents. Other progressive insurgents, like Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas in Queens and Emily Gallagher in Brooklyn, won as well. The class of 2020 will be the most left-wing in the Assembly’s history. Many of them are openly hostile to Heastie. Like their counterparts in the State Senate, they will be ready to drag the chamber leftward.

There’s only one hitch: the Assembly is a lot bigger. Fifteen or 20 new progressives can easily dominate a Democratic conference of 43. The Assembly Democratic conference will number 107 next year. With such a large body, it’s easier for the speaker to muffle resistance. DSA and their allies, in one election cycle at least, will only be able to go so far. It will probably take much of the 2020s to inject the Assembly with enough new blood to meet the demands of the emboldened left. For now, they’ll be outgunned. The good news for them, at least, is that the next election is less than two years away.