Democrats Finally Control the Power in Albany. What Will They Do With It?
It’s been years in the making, if not decades: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the Democratic Party seized complete control of the New York State government on Tuesday, decisively evicting Republicans from running the State Senate, which they have controlled for all but three years since World War II.
Now Democrats have to figure out just what to do with that newfound power — and almost everyone has different ideas and priorities.
After a tumultuous primary season in which liberal challengers ousted seven more moderate Democratic state senators, Democrats were on track to pick off more than a half-dozen Republicans on Tuesday to secure a majority in the State Senate. Democrats had previously been just a seat short in the 63-member chamber.
As a result, more than one in three of the Democrats who will be sworn into the majority in January will be new to the ways of Albany — and demanding change.
“You have a raft of legislation that has been bottled up for decades,” said Senator Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat.
There is already chatter about legalizing recreational marijuana; curbing the vast amount of money allowed in state campaigns; investing more in the crumbling subways; ending cash bail; tightening gun control; codifying Roe v. Wade’s protections in state law; expanding rent control; addressing climate change; installing an early voting system for the first time; creating a state-run universal health care system (this is, perhaps, the least likely); and overhauling ethics rules that have been flouted by a raft of lawmakers, not to mention some top Cuomo administration officials.
In short, it could be a very busy year in the state capital.
“We’re going to be testing the limits of progressive possibilities,” Mr. Hoylman said excitedly. “I hope we look a lot more like California.”
Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who is slated to become the first woman and first female African-American to lead the New York State Senate, preached caution for the Democratic agenda. “You eat the elephant one issue at a time,” she cautioned.
Deciding which issue to prioritize will fall upon the legislative leaders, including Ms. Stewart-Cousins, and, to a larger extent, Mr. Cuomo who declared New York the “progressive capital of the nation” on Tuesday night in a speech far more focused on casting himself as a bulwark against President Trump than on any agenda in Albany. He did not mention the State Senate in his speech, the control of which had not yet been decided when he spoke.
Mr. Cuomo’s insistence that he is a progressive champion has been doubted by some Democrats; they have accused the governor of doing nothing to prevent a group of rogue Senate Democrats from previously breaking away to empower Republicans. Most of those breakaway Democrats lost primaries in September, including their leader, Sen. Jeffrey D. Klein.
[What drove the rogue group of Senate Democrats to work with Republicans? Read more here.]
Gustavo Rivera, a Democratic state senator from the Bronx, said that Democrats had failed to keep the trust of voters during their brief time in charge nearly a decade ago and know they must do better this time.
“Governing is a very complicated matter,” Mr. Rivera said. “It’s not just giving raises to your staff and getting nicer offices.”
For many, the scars from that brief 2009-10 period of Democratic rule are still fresh. It was a tumultuous time marked by ugly legislative high jinks, warring factions and, the former Democratic leader eventually getting sent to prison.
Mr. Cuomo won in 2010, in part, on a promise to restore sanity and stability to the statehouse. And he did so by occupying the political center between a liberal State Assembly and a Republican-controlled State Senate. For years, he has blamed any number of stalled liberal goals on recalcitrant Republicans. That catchall excuse dissolved Tuesday evening.
Alessandra Biaggi, who defeated Mr. Klein, the leader of the breakaway Democrats, said of Mr. Cuomo, “Now it’s up to us to actually hold him accountable and to make sure that the things that he says are not just campaign promises.”
Mr. Cuomo had been criticized by fellow Democrats for a less-than-robust efforts to help his fellow party members in State Senate contests in years past. “You can’t call that campaigning,” Mr. Cuomo told Republicans behind closed doors after 2016. But this year, Mr. Cuomo was heavily involved, directing money toward television and digital ads and investing in a field program to boost Democrats in key races on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley.
The governor is widely expected to embrace stalled progressive social measures, such as putting abortion rights into state law. Items that cost money could be more complicated.
Mr. Cuomo has generally been more leery of raising taxes and other measures that would negatively affect the business community; real estate interests pour millions of dollars into his campaigns. Mayor Bill de Blasio has repeatedly called for a new millionaire’s tax to fund various programs; Mr. Cuomo has steadfastly opposed it.
The last time Democrats controlled the full Legislature, they raised taxes only to see themselves lose back the Senate within two years. “This scary narrative about tax-and-spend-Democrats will not pertain to us,” said Ms. Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester Democrat. “It does not pertain to us.”
One big issue sure to come up in 2019 is rent control, as the current rules are set to expire.
Ms. Biaggi acknowledged that real estate interests are “ a powerful force” in Albany, but said the cohort of a half-dozen Democrats who defeated Democratic incumbents are unusually not beholden to the industry. “We have not been influenced by them because we refused to take money from them,” she said.
State Senator Brian P. Kavanagh, a Democrat from Manhattan elected in 2017, predicted “a fundamentally different debate about the relationship between landlords and tenants” than in the past.
The governor has also signaled he wants to push a congestion-pricing plan to boost funding for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the subway system.
“How are we going to fix the M.T.A.? We have got to do this,” Ms. Biaggi said. “This is insane. Enough now. I don’t think anyone wants to hear any more excuses.”
Mr. Cuomo has previously feuded with state Senator Michael Gianaris of Queens, who runs the political operation of Senate Democrats. Even some of the governor’s allies were perplexed by an October news release from the state party, which Mr. Cuomo controls, that contrasted his efforts with those of Mr. Gianaris.
“Fund-raising Effort Follows News That D.S.C.C. is Losing Money Race,” the release blared. (Mr. Gianaris runs the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.)
Ms. Stewart-Cousins noticed, especially as her party committee had raised its most funds ever. “I thought that was an unfortunate press release, frankly, and I made sure that the state party chair was aware of that,” she said.
During Mr. Cuomo’s seven-plus years in office, the Assembly — in which the Democrats hold a supermajority — has been passed a variety of progressive measures, including single-payer health care, only to have them die in the Senate. But Sean Ryan, a Democratic assemblyman from Buffalo, said the impact of one-party rule in Albany could range far beyond just what Republicans have blocked.
“There’s things that people never even considered bringing because of the guys on the other side of the Capitol,” he said, referring to the Senate. “We have very archaic systems which have been basically unchanged since World War II, because of the built-in Republican majority in the Senate.”
Sky-high expectations of a Democratic wonderland suddenly descending on Albany are already worrying some top Democrats.
“I like to under-promise and over-deliver,” Ms. Stewart-Cousins said.
It already may be too late for that.
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