Zack Fink

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The Cuomo Invasion

In the iconic 1975 book, “The Power Broker,” Robert Caro details ( and I mean REALLY details ) how Robert Moses maneuvered through State and City government to build massive infrastructure projects across New York. Governor Andrew Cuomo appears to be looking to channel Moses by refurbishing area airports, rebuilding the Kosciuszko and Tappan Zee Bridges, and instituting cashless tolls,  even holding a musical light show at the new iteration of the Kosciusko. The Governor seems eager to make a hard pivot  from Albany, which this legislative session has  brought him fights over policy as well as his first truly late budget — and toward new infrastructure which can help shape Cuomo’s legacy. It could also help boost Cuomo’s reputation in time for re-election in 2018, and possibly beyond in 2020.

Moses relied on a somewhat obscure agency to expand his power, the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. Moses floated bonds through this entity then used that money to build other projects. Cuomo has also taken an interest in this same authority as a means to accomplish some of his goals, roughly 85 years after Moses first did.

The Governor has been moving the State Police into territory previously policed by the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority Police, now known as the Bridge and Tunnel Officers. In addition, the State Police are now pulling over motorists in the five boroughs for routine traffic stops, which has typically been the domain on the NYPD. And consistent with Cuomo’s push to remake the airports, State Police have now also been brought into JFK airport prompting the head of the Port Authority PBA last week to tell NY1 that Cuomo was using troopers as his own “Praetorian Guard.” Responding to the story via Twitter, a spokesperson for Governor Cuomo called the story “utter garbage.”

But let’s focus for a minute on just the bridges and tunnels. Last October, Cuomo announced that 150 Troopers would be assigned to MTA bridges and tunnels. Law enforcement sources say the State Troopers “don’t want to be here as much as the Bridge and Tunnel Officers don’t want them there,” since Troopers appear to be infringing on Bridge and Tunnel Officer turf. However, they all must accept what is happening since the “order is from the top.” Although privately, law enforcement insiders will say that Troopers “aren’t supplementing” the police presence but rather “duplicating” it.

Then there is the matter of newly painted squad cars. All Bridge and Tunnel patrol cars were quietly painted blue and gold so that they now mirror State Police vehicles, as first reported by our own Dean Meminger. A motorist getting pulled over by either agency would be unlikely to notice the difference at first glance. According to the MTA, the total cost here is $189,000 to paint 69 patrol cars and one mobile command vehicle. It’s also worth noting that other vehicles in the Bridge and Tunnel Officer’s fleet were not repainted, including trucks used for plowing and towing. So then why paint just the police cars? MTA officials say the idea is to maintain consistency with other New York State law enforcement vehicles. “Was that a necessity?” Asks one law enforcement source who then answered his own question with a solid “no.” “They are trying to make the Bridge and Tunnel cars look like State Police.” He argues that instead of using Troopers, which is a waste of taxpayer dollars since it costs more to have them downstate, why not just add numbers to the 500-strong force of Bridge and Tunnel Officers and let them perform the functions of their own job. The Port Authority Police are making the same argument. They want more manpower in the form of more PAPD officers, not Troopers who are “like fish out of water” when they are downstate.

There is some precedent for this. When the region goes into an elevated threat level in the post 9/11 world, Troopers are brought down from upstate to protect state assets such as bridges and tunnels which are considered top targets for terrorists. They can also participate in joint counter-terrorism operations and training. But that’s not what is going on here. The increased Trooper presence appears permanent and it coincides with the Cuomo initiative to institute cashless, or “Open Road Tolls” (ORT). The goal of Open Road Tolls is to reduce traffic by improving flow since cars will not have to slow down. According to the minutes from the Bridges and Tunnels Committee meeting from October 26, 2016 Cuomo’s plan to roll out cashless tolls will cost $500 Million. To help offset some of those costs toll violation fees will be doubled at certain crossings from $50 a ticket to $100 per ticket. Some have speculated that the increased police presence by State Police is aimed at issuing more summonses to gain even more revenue. Cuomo’s plan also includes a lighting extravaganza, on display last week at the opening of the new Kosciuszko Bridge. Lighting those bridges cannot be cheap either, although we have yet to see a final figure.

In conclusion, Cuomo is looking to put his imprint on some of the big projects in and around New York. And the State Police seem to be playing role in boosting the State’s presence down in the city. Some believe this is merely an extension of his ongoing feud with Mayor Bill de Blasio. And others say it’s just a way for Cuomo to make sure he has some control at the agencies he is working with to accomplish what he wants.

What Actually Blew Up The budget

Last night during Democratic Assembly conference one of the members was texting either Governor Cuomo or a member of his staff and telling him exactly what Carl Heastie was saying. None of it was good. Cuomo saw what was being said and texted Heastie in the middle of conference to say, “why are you bad-mouthing me?” Heastie ( understandably ) lost his mind. This may not be the only reason the budget blew to pieces, but it certainly took an already incendiary situation and threw gasoline on it.

Sources close to Heastie say he wasn’t actually that mad, he was laughing and told his members to tell Cuomo they are good with what they have. But others say after an already exhausting week, this was the straw.

OK, Now It’s Starting To Get A Little Weird…

Nearly 20 years ago I traveled to El Salvador on a relief mission with the New Jersey Air National Guard. A major hurricane had devastated parts of the Caribbean Basin, and the United States military was delivering aid and helping to rebuild in certain areas using Comalapa Airport in San Salvador as a staging area.

The unit I traveled with was delivering military vehicles for the ground operation. We flew down on a C-141 plane with jeeps stored in the cargo bay. But a funny thing happened on the way to El Salvador. For some reason the military diverted our flight from McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey to a military base near Pensacola Florida where we were inexplicably grounded for two days.

We eventually took off, landed safely in San Salvador and off loaded the vehicles but while we were waiting for clearance to do that, I remember asking the Colonel, who was the pilot on our mission, what exactly was going on, and why had our plane been re-routed. I was a young reporter at the time, and was hoping to get back to New Jersey quickly to get the story on the air.

The Colonel half smiled when I asked him what had happened, as he looked at me and said: “Son, Let me tell you something I’ve learned during my years of service with the guard. There is a right way to do things, a wrong way to do things, and then there is the Army way.”

It’s a lesson I never forgot, because it helps explain the inexplicable. And it’s fair to say Albany has Army tendencies.

As lawmakers continue to slog through budget negotiations, one should keep in mind that if this were the private sector, it would be time to walk away. Refresh and live to fight another day. There comes a point when as one insider put it, “people are no longer negotiating in good faith.” That may be close to where we are at.

Until yesterday no one had seen Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a week. One person jokingly described him as holed up in his second floor lair maniacally laughing. But the truth is, none of this is actually funny. The staffs are worn out, and so are the members.

Based on numerous conversations around the Capitol the last few days, here is part of the problem: Some of the rank and file members of the Democratic Assembly wanted to hold up the budget in exchange for a better deal on Raise the Age – an issue that is deeply important to them. They were willing to do that…to a point. Just enough to miss the April 1 deadline, but not enough to go nuclear and actually shut down the government.

The latter would have made a statement. And it would have been painful for everybody, but guess who would have gotten most of the blame? Governor Andrew Cuomo. A shutdown would have given the Assembly real momentum to show just how important the details on Raise the Age are to them. Instead, they signed off on an extender that avoids Armageddon.

Let’s face it, when you are threatening to drive the vehicle over the cliff you gotta be “Thelma and Louise,” otherwise the other side knows your limit.

So, while the Assembly is now telling members to expect to be here until Friday, there are rumors either Cuomo or members of the GOP Senate will pull up stakes and go home.  The governor clearly wants a final budget deal, but he can likely live with the extender. So can the Senate. Once again folks, it’s two against one.

Harlem Shuffle

With Brian Benjamin’s big win Saturday, he is all but assured to be voted in May 23rd as the next Democratic Senator from Harlem’s 30th District. The seat is significant for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that numerically it represents number 32. Meaning if all Democrats joined together when he is seated, they could form a governing majority in the State Senate. Benjamin is well aware of this designation, and explained by phone earlier today that his number one priority will be reuniting mainline Senate Democrats and the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference or IDC.

While Benjamin has vowed to remain in the mainline Senate conference, he apparently flirted with an opportunity to join the IDC. As Will Bredderman reported Saturday, Benjamin met with IDC Leader Jeff Klein and sources say he asked for IDC support in his race. Benjamin denies asking Klein for financial support claiming he met with both the IDC and the mainline Democratic leadership. Either way, Benjamin has a fine line to walk and not just because of the Democratic split in the State Senate.

Born in Harlem, Benjamin moved away as a kid living in both Brooklyn and Queens. After attending Brown University and then Harvard Business School, Benjamin chose to return to Harlem. he eventually joined the influential Community Board 10, rising to Chairman. While Harlem is one of the most reliable bases for Democratic votes in Manhattan, it’s also a very traditional middle class community. So, while the politics there tend to be liberal, the customs and practices are often quite conservative.  For example, elected seats don’t open up very frequently. Politicians, many of whom are pillars in the community, tend to stay put as they age. People like former Congressman Charlie Rangel, former Mayor David Dinkins, former Governor David Paterson, former Assemblyman Keith Wright and current Assemblyman Denny Farrell are institutions who stayed in their seats for years. In some cases they remained active in Harlem politics even after leaving office. It is an old school Democratic tradition that can sometimes deter new leadership.

Benjamin’s closest rival in Saturday’s County Committee vote was Al Taylor, the longtime Chief of Staff to Assemblyman Farrell. Taylor, who is a Reverend and wears a bow tie, was much more the candidate from what might be called “Old Harlem.” A Harlem that has changed dramatically in the last two decades. In fact, it’s been a tricky needle for local leadership to thread. While gentrification has brought new investment to the neighborhood, and boosted property values for many longtime residents, rising rents have also forced people out of their homes. “New Harlem,” while vibrant and exciting, also needs to hold on to some of the more settled families that make it one of the most storied and well known neighborhoods in the entire city. Benjamin would appear to be just the guy who can close that gap between old and new Harlem. Born in Harlem Hospital, he has roots in the community which helps boost his credibility. But as someone who moved there just ten years ago and worked in real estate he is also part of the neighborhood’s evolution.

Ultimately, we can lament the loss of the way things were, but change is kind of the story of New York City. Neighborhoods are organic. They shrink and expand depending on the times. The current law of real estate in Manhattan is that it eventually goes up in value since there is a finite amount of space on the island. And once that change takes place it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle. What voters can do is ensure that their leadership steadily guides the ship so that progress can be made without the flavor of a neighborhood being lost forvever.

Former Assemblyman Keith Wright, certainly part of that old Harlem guard, was savvy enough to recognize an individual like Benjamin represents the future. Wright took an enormous amount of guff for fixing the vote Saturday by making sure his people showed up to vote for his candidate and his opponents did not. Whether those allegations are even true or not is hard for me to say. However, Wright, who recently left public office to work for a lobbying firm, intends to remain as Manhattan County Democratic Chair which he describes as an “insiders game.” meaning opponents would have to elect enough district leaders in the 2017 September Primary to force him out. Congressman Adriano Espaillat, who beat Wright for the Congressional seat last year, is said to be considering his own bid for Manhattan County Chairman. Espaillat backed Taylor in the race for the Democratic line Saturday and lost. But that too was an insider’s game with 400 plus County Committee members making the decision about who the candidate will be, not the voters.

So while Benjamin, who is expected to win easily in May, will likely have his work cut out for him if he is going to try and unite the two Democratic factions in the State Senate, he will also have a lot to focus on in his own district. And that is striking the balance of representing an old school neighborhood that is undergoing a very modern transformation.


Israel Diary

I think it’s fair to say that the photos in my Twitter feed the last 48 hours really tell the best story about Governor Cuomo’s whirlwind trip to Israel. In fact, I was going to put them all together in a slide show montage and set them to music. Preferably something really contrived and obvious like Green Day’s “Time of Your Life” or “These are the Days” by 10,000 Maniacs. Much like a parent might do for their son’s high school graduation in the year 2000. But then I thought that was a little elaborate for what would ultimately amount to a joke. Even though deep down I feel like most ( but certainly not all ) of you would have appreciated the stab at humor.

I arrived in Israel on Saturday afternoon. Linked up with Avi, the local editor and shooter we had hired for the Cuomo visit. Little did he know, he was about to work an 18-hour day for us Sunday, editing late into the night on both days. And Truth to be told, he could not have been more of a mensch about it.

Cuomo and his team arrived Sunday morning and proceeded to hold back to back to back events, often at unprecedented speed. The Governor is a VERY fast walker as we learned in 2014 when we sprinted through Jerusalem’s old city. Same deal this time. We saw many of the sights. We just didn’t stay too long. Poor Avi had to run backwards as he shot video of the Cuomo tour at one point he kept complaining that he was bumping into something which turned out to be loaded M16 belonging to a member of one of our heavily armed security detail.

When we were hauled into a conference area to wait for Cuomo’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Bibi was running a little bit late. Sunday’s are often a critical day for cabinet meetings in Israel. It’s the first day of the week following the Sabbath and their is much to discuss. As the clock ticked and ten minutes soon turned into twenty our attaché Eitan poked his head into the room and informed all of us politely but quite firmly that we needed to keep our voices down. Apparently we could be heard ( quite loudly ) in the Prime Minister’s office next door. I thought, How fitting that a delegation from New York is a little bit louder than most.

Speaking of New York exporting its unique flavor, at one point we were at a business luncheon waiting for Cuomo’s formal press conference to begin and we overheard a conversation that went, “No, no, no, I smeared the hummus ON my pastrami sandwich!” To which someone replied, “this is is the most Jewish conversation I’ve ever heard.”

Cuomo seems to genuinely appreciate all that Jews have contributed to New York life and culture. Or at least he said so at every stop. And no matter what a cynic would say about his political motivations for making the trip ( and they’d say a lot ), it’s hard to argue with the fact that he quite literally showed that he cares just by showing up. You can try and ask average Israelis we encountered ( many of whom have New York ties ) if they were at all bothered or put off by Cuomo’s visit and overwhelmingly the answer was that they could not have been more appreciative. The Governor was greeted warmly and in some cases even cheered on the streets of Jerusalem.

What was even more amazing was that Cuomo and his team pulled the trip off at the last minute. If Cuomo didn’t decide last Wednesday morning to make the trip, it was not much earlier than the night before. That doesn’t leave a lot of time to set up the logistics. And yet the Israeli president Reuven Rivlin and even the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cleared a portion of their schedules to make time for Andrew Cuomo. He even brought them gifts, delivering authentic pieces of Steel from the World Trade Center, attached to the words “peace is our gift to each other,” which were written by author Elie Wiesel.

The intense pace of the schedule threw all of us for a loop including ESD’s Howard Zemsky who I found morosely wandering the lobby of the King David hotel late Sunday night, head firmly planted in palm. Turns out Zemsky had misplaced his cell phone and when it came time for he and the entire Cuomo entourage to leave the hotel en route to the airport to make a 12:05am flight back New York Howard was still without his device. Well, you’re in luck, Howard. Moments after you left someone turned in a blackberry that looks just like yours. At the behest of Cuomo’s Chief of Staff Melissa DeRosa via text message I convinced the front desk to transfer possession of that phone to me which I promptly shoved into my luggage for the trans Atlantic Trip. You, as they say, are welcome.

As I edited and prepared to send my video to NY1 Sunday night, I noticed the hour had quickly become 1am on a day that had begun at 8am. I looked around the hotel lobby and saw that Myself and Jesse McKinley from the New York Times were the last two men standing. The Balloons had dropped. The party was over. The janitor was literally sweeping the floor. Jesse looked at me and said we need to get out of here. I could not agree more.

We grabbed a taxi and hightailed it out of Jerusalem to the more cosmopolitan city of Tel Aviv. After a 45-minute cab ride we quickly located the only open restaurant at 2am on a Monday morning which just happened to be situated right on the Mediterranean Sea. I only had about a half hour before heading to the airport and braving the notoriously stringent Israeli security apparatus to catch my 5:20am flight back to the states which was yet another long night’s journey into day. And while the small reprieve of downtime was short, it was just enough to appreciate that all was well, even with a heavy dose of sleep deprivation. Cue the Green Day.

The Governor’s Play List

With the political world in turmoil, it’s easy to understand if you missed what amounts to Governor Cuomo’s mixtape to New York. But as the governor on Wednesday announced that the Spotify music streaming service was expanding its footprint in New York, he also unveiled his Spotify playlist — which showed his love for middle-aged white guy rock — which makes sense considering he’s a middle-aged white guy.

Frankly, I’m shocked Cuomo’s list was free of Boston — the ultimate in non-threatening suburban listening for men of a certain age. Let’s also put aside some of the more eclectic tracks such as those by the Alabama Shakes and Bruno Mars or even Tom Waits who is at least interesting.  I want to focus on the obvious stuff which rings more authentically Cuomo: a couple of tracks from Bruce Springsteen, “The Rising” and “Erie Canal.” Both perfectly respectable. I would have maybe gone with “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” and “Spirits in the Night.” Or perhaps something dark that really captures the essence of New Jersey, like “Atlantic City.”

The least surprising picks included his friend Billy Joel but here is where I really would have to part ways. Shortly after the press conference, WNBC-TV’s Andrew Siff immediately walked up to me, cocked his head, and asked “We didn’t Start the Fire?! Really?!” It was a sentiment I share. Of all of Billy Joel’s many songs, this one is just bad. I think even Billy hates that song. I mean, how could he not!?! It’s not the worst song ever written because that prize clearly belongs to “Benny and the Jets” by Elton John — with “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood a close second.

Don’t get me wrong. I love me some Billy. My mom used to put on “The Stranger” when I was little and we would dance around the apartment. “The Nylon Curtain” was by far my favorite album when I was in the fourth grade. I can even rock “The Bridge.” But “Storm Front” was a bit much. And “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is not only emotionally aggressive but also painfully contrived and riddled with pseudo-sentimentality. Not to mention I feel like he is shouting at me. Stop yelling. Oh, and don’t even get me started on “River of Dreams.”

The Tina Turner stuff on the governor’s list is both good, and anticipated. For those of us who covered the 2014 Cuomo re-election campaign we became very accustomed to hearing the theme song, “Simply the Best,” which was played loudly at every stop. “Proud Mary” is on there too and it’s hard to argue against. Interestingly enough with all the hits Tina churned out in the 70s and 80s, the only song she ever recorded that hit number one on the charts was “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” which is not on here. The Lady Gaga stuff is good in the wake of a Superbowl halftime show that was deeply patriotic while also managing to be very entertaining. The Journey tune on there (guess which one) just wins the obvious award. And that John Fogerty song, “Rock and Roll Girls” is hardly a winner. Let’s be honest.

It’s hard not to love “Empire State of Mind” by Alicia Keys and Jay-Z. Of course Jay-Z was going for the stadium anthem here, and me not being a playa hater, I’m willing to let him have it. One day it will seem quaint that New Yorkers used to exit sporting events to Frank Sinatra instead of the more modern Jay-Z, who was at least very much on top 17 years ago as opposed to 60.

But here is the bottom line. I give the Governor a lot of credit for even putting out his playlist. I’m sure we’d all have some gems on our own that we wouldn’t exactly be proud to share with the general public. I certainly have some. In fact, Jesse McKinley from The New York Times has been on my case since I revealed to him and his colleague Vivian Yee at a generously-served dinner that my four Pandora radio stations are Michael Jackson, Big Daddy Kane, Steel Pulse and Traffic. And yes, it’s the last one he won’t stop bringing up. Whatever, dude. Steve Winwood was brilliant prior to 1980. It was the “Bring me your Higher Love” stuff we would all have been better off without. It’s not quite Lionel Richie “Dancing on the Ceiling” bad, but awful nonetheless. Besides, I suppose I can cop to Traffic since I’m not very far from being a middle-aged white guy myself.


Bag Fee Latest

With just days to go before a fee on grocery bags takes effect, the behind-the-scenes scramble is underway to find a resolution. This afternoon, Governor Cuomo met with environmental groups to get their take on what he should do, and sources say they overwhelmingly urged him to veto the State legislation.

Last week, both the Senate and Assembly voted on a what was commonly referred to as a “compromise bill” that postpones the five cent fee on plastic and paper bags adopted by the New York City Council last year and signed into law by Mayor de Blasio. That bill has now landed on Cuomo’s desk, and the clock is ticking since the City’s bag fee is set to come on line February 15. If Cuomo signs the state legislation, it will block the City’s law for one year, although a newly elected City Council would actually have to pass it again in 2018 before the merry-go-round starts anew. So, for all intents and purposes, the State is superseding the City and overturning it’s law indefinitely.

We’ve heard all the arguments already. Plastic bags are bad for the environment. They end up in trees. By imposing a fee ( even five cents ) it forces a change in people’s behavior, since they can avoid that fee by carrying reusable canvas bags. On the flip side, opponents argue it’s a regressive tax that disproportionately punishes those who can least afford it. Rich people don’t generally carry their own grocery bags. Poor folks generally do. Moreover, there were concerns about the City Council legislation since the fee is open ended. It doesn’t cap at five cents, and it can actually go higher. Since the City of New York has no power to tax itself ( that must go through Albany ) it’s technically a bag “fee” and not a “tax.” The money goes to the grocery stores, which the Council is powerless to change without vested state authority. Even Cuomo expressed dismay this week about where the money ends up.

But here is the problem for Cuomo…while he would like to appease environmentalists, sources say he is very concerned about his veto being overturned by the legislature. That would be embarrassing. And this Governor does NOT like being embarrassed. The state legislation passed the Senate 43-16, and the Assembly 134 – 16. In both houses those are enough votes for an override.

So while things are coming down to the wire and no one is prepared to throw up their hands and walk away, it’s looking increasingly likely that Cuomo will sign the state legislation. The City Council’s final offer on a compromise is language to change the fee to a hard five cent cap, and add a sunset provision ( famous in Albany ) and first reported by David Giambusso of Politico. The Council does not seem prepared to move much more on this. Moreover, insiders point out that Cuomo seems more likely to side with the legislative leaders in both houses, whom he not only has to work with to craft a budget, but because those relationships have recently fallen on rocky times. Signing their bill might help build some goodwill. Finally, if he signs the bill it is yet another reminder to his sometimes nemesis Mayor de Blasio  which government has the final word on just about everything.

Plastic Bag Fee Collision Course

With the calendar officially turning to February we are now just two weeks away from the implementation of a 5 cent fee on plastic bags here in the five boroughs. This week, Mayor de Blasio, who supports the fee, took an earful from State lawmakers when he testified in Albany on the $152 Billion proposed state budget. The loudest criticism ( and yes, I mean that literally ) came from State Senator Simcha Felder of Brooklyn. The fee is intended to change behavior by forcing New Yorkers to bring reusable bags to the grocery instead of relying on the bags given out by stores. Fewer bags means less waste which some believe ultimately helps save the environment.  But Felder and others claim this really has nothing to do with the environment and everything to do with a regressive tax that disproportionately punishes lower income New Yorkers.

To make his point Felder Monday, brought props from his district including a loaf of Wonder Bread and a carton of eggs. For those who asked ( and there were many of you ) there WERE actually eggs in the carton. Reached by phone, Felder said he was very concerned he would end up accidentally crushing the eggs, which would have deflated the point he was trying to make about whether the Mayor understood the everyday prices New Yorkers currently pay at the local Bodega for staples such as bread and eggs. It was one of the most colorful exchanges Monday besides the back and forth between Republican Senator Terrence Murphy and de Blasio over Mayoral control of City schools. It would have been great to ask the Mayor about either of these dust-ups, but he refused to take questions. The first time a sitting New York City Mayor has done that on Albany’s “Tin Cup Day” in as long as most anyone can remember.

But back to Felder for a minute.

On Tuesday, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie raised the prospect of delaying the February 15th bag fee implementation in order to hold hearings down the line. That way there can be a full airing of the issue. Right now, Felder’s legislation, which has already passed the Senate, would overturn the City’s law. Asked if he would be open to a delay, which is basically what happened when this bill was supposed to take effect last year, Felder said that would be like “seeing a bad movie for the second time.” He added that he is open to trying to figure out a compromise down the road, but the Council bill in its current form needs to be “nullified.”

The City Council is having none of it. Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is moving full speed ahead on this. As far as she is concerned the fee will go into effect February 15. There will be no further hearings or delays. Some in the Council even see the suggestion of more hearings as an attempt by state leaders to “embarrass” the Democratically elected members of the New York City Council. So in short…no compromise.

That leaves the Democrat dominated Assembly with a tough decision. Do you override the will of the Council, or try and negotiate some kind of delay with Felder and the Senate which would require new legislation. Either way, it involves the State superseding the City’s law which some see as a bad precedent. On the other hand, some in the Assembly see a path out of this with a delay. That way, they are being slightly less aggressive while simultaneously buying some time. If it’s delayed one year from February 15th for example, some state insiders point out that Mark-Viverito will no longer be the Speaker. Either way, Heastie needs to do something soon. And my understanding is that he has the votes within the Democratic conference to do either an override or a delay.

A Curious Occurrence in Queens

Frustrated by a promised pay raise which never materialized. And weary of the constant trips back and forth to Albany in the freezing rain, a handful of New York City-based Assembly Members are thinking of jumping into primaries this year for City Council. For some it’s a simple calculation: they wouldn’t have to give up their Assembly seats if they lost, and if they won they’d be making almost twice as much money as Council Members ( Assembly makes $79,500, Council makes $148,500 ).

Some of those who have already announced, filed a City campaign fund, or told someone they were running who then told me are Assemblyman Felix Ortiz ( D-Brooklyn ), Mark Gjonaj ( D-Bronx ), Peter Abbate ( D – Brooklyn ) and Francisco Moya ( D – Queens ). In the State Senate we already know about Bill Perkins ( D- Manhattan ) who is running in a February 14 primary. And Ruben Diaz ( D – Bronx ) is also considering a run. All of these individuals and their decision making processes have back stories, and eventually I’ll try and get to all of them. But Moya’s is particularly interesting.

Moya’s district lines up with City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras. In fact, Moya ran against her in 2009 for the seat and lost. But this time around he may get some more help from the Queens County Democratic machine. Insiders say County does not like Ferreras, and they want to either weaken her by running a formidable primary opponent, or knock her out of the Council altogether. The history here gets a little backroom and convoluted. Some say it dates back to the LIBRE scandal ( Ferreras once served as Chief of Staff to former Queens Senator and Councilman Hiram Monserrate ). Others say she has shown too much independence, and County doesn’t like that. Or as one observer put it, “they are afraid of her.”

While it’s early to say what things will look like in the Council Speaker’s race come June, it’s probably fair to say that at least some insiders are already jockeying and starting to raise money. So far, the other candidates besides Ferreras include Corey Johnson ( D – Manhattan ), Jimmy Van Bramer ( D -Queens ) and Mark Levine ( D – Manhattan ). If Ferreras stays in the race, she has a pretty good shot some believe, because the three other white male candidates could cannibalize each other’s voters. Moreover, both Van Bramer and Johnson could help cancel each other out while both appealing for LGBT votes. Moya is close with County leaders, and as someone who is already elected, could help them solve their “Julissa problem,” as some have called it.

Finally, there is some recent history at work which is driving Queens County Democratic leaders to get out in front of the Council Speaker race this time around. In late 2013, then Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio and Brooklyn Democratic Chair Frank Seddio joined forces to help clear the way for current Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to get elected. Queens County Chair Joe Crowley, and then Bronx County Chair Carl Heastie were not thrilled about the pick. Not so much that they were against Mark-Viverito as with their united front, they felt they should control more of the outcome. The combined muscle of Bronx and Queens County held the largest bloc of votes. Other members were more diluted and fragmented. And sure enough the soon-to-be Mayor along with the powerful Brooklyn Chair were able to pick off enough members and install the winner. Technically of course, the elected Council Members choose their own Speaker in a January 2018 vote. But this being politics, and this being New York City, that deal is often made in backrooms long before the votes are ever cast.

Things Fall Apart

For a month, legislative leaders negotiated a deal to bring lawmakers back to Albany for a special session to vote for a pay raise and a handful of other legislative initiatives. On Friday night, the deal that had been struck earlier that day among the Governor and the two legislative leaders fell apart. People who would adopt the Governor’s point of view would be inclined to say that after Republican Senate Majority Leader negotiated in good faith for several weeks, he ultimately could not sell the deal to his members. That’s one view. But the other is a little more nuanced than that. As Ken Lovett reported, Cuomo was still trying to resurrect talks on the special session in the days after Flanagan pulled the plug. In fact as late as Saturday, Christmas Eve, Senate Democrats say the Governor’s office reached out to them asking for 16 to 18 votes for the pay raise to pass. Without seeing bill language or being included in negotiations they declined. Reinforcing what everyone already knew. The proposal was dead.

To truly understand how we got here, one needs to go back to the creation of the pay commission in March 2015. The same three leaders determined that an independent pay commission was the best way to take politics out of the equation and give lawmakers their first raise since 1999. That was the agreement. It was part of a larger deal on the budget that had been painstakingly negotiated. So when Governor Cuomo’s appointed members of the commission began openly suggesting in the media this past summer that they are not likely to vote for a pay raise, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan probably didn’t take it all that seriously. Cuomo appointee Fran Reiter made the point several times that Speaker Heastie or other members of the Assembly must make their case for a raise in person.

So, when November 15 rolled around, the final day of the Commission’s statutory existence, and Reiter and Cuomo’s other members failed to support even a modest raise that would have taken effect automatically, it became clear to some members of the legislature that Cuomo had interfered. Moreover, Reiter even admitted on the record that she wouldn’t have voted for a raise even if Heastie himself had testified in person. In the view of Assembly Democrats, they had been had. Or as one Republican put it, Cuomo “meddled with the pay raise the way he did with Moreland.”

Assembly Democrats are furious. And as Mike Vilensky astutely points out, this is a very contentious way to start the new legislative session. That’s why Cuomo wanted to show he was still trying to make this happen on Christmas Eve. He knows. As one insider put it, “Cuomo simply miscalculated.” He thought Republicans would come around. They didn’t, and here is why.

On the morning of April 1st, Senate Republicans were still on the floor of the Senate after an all night voting session. They were passing the budget that Leader John Flanagan had negotiated for them which included a robust paid family leave program and a path to a $15 minimum wage. But when it came time to vote on the bill containing these final two pieces, some Republicans balked. Led by Republican Senator Thomas Croci of Long Island who asked that the minimum wage for Long Island be on the same schedule as upstate, Cuomo aides Melissa DeRosa and Bill Murrow were called down to the conference room just off the chamber as Flanagan paused the voting and pulled his members off the floor. Mulrow and DeRosa attempted to exlain to Croci that the ink was dry. The bills were printed and nothing was getting reopened at this point. But it was Flanagan with an assist from his sometime rival, Republican Senator John DeFrancisco who convinced Croci and others to go along. DeFran was quite blunt as to why, telling reporters at the time,

“We’d like to have a Republican Majority next year. And to do that we’ve got to stick together on our campaigns and on what we believe is best for this unit to stay together.”

Flanagan echoed those concerns saying,

“Yeah, we got resistance because this is real life. These are people who went back and listened to their non-profits, chambers of commerce, their hospitals, their nursing homes. We took a proposal and we made it significant better. We got a billion dollar tax cut to go with it.”

So, after taking this risky vote and trusting that Flanagan had a partner with Cuomo, something else happened. Cuomo decided to actively campaign for Senate Democrats and even throw them some money. He bet big on Hillary Clinton and he bet big on winning a Democratic State Senate and he lost. Couple that with the pay commission, and Republican members felt downright betrayed. As one Republican puts it, “there is a trust issue with this guy. No one believes him.” The Republican went on to say ( paraphrasing here ) ‘what if we come back Christmas week and authorize the pay commission and then they still vote against a raise only to have Cuomo turn around and say there is nothing he could do since the Commission is independent.’

So when it came time to sell the special session to members, sources say Flanagan’s heart wasn’t in it. There would be no big sell like there was for the budget containing the minimum wage. “Why would we throw him a lifeline,” asks one Republican. “I mean…enough already. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Cuomo messing with the pay commission.”

The goals for the session also kept changing. First it was constitutional amendments to enact term limits and limit outside income and when that fell off the table the ask was Uber for upstate. All of this is a sign, according to one insider, that Cuomo sensed he had a problem with the legislature if he didn’t deliver that raise. It’s the first time maybe ever, Governor Cuomo couldn’t pull off the grand bargain with the legislature. He usually gets at least something.

People with Cuomo’s view argue that Flanagan was too weak to sell the special session deal to members, and needed second floor help last year to pass the budget. That could spell his end as leader. “Dean never would have needed that,” says one ally. Maybe. But what seems more likely here is that Senate Repubs are more united as a party than they have been in a long time. And Cuomo helped set them free.

My prediction? Very little gets done in Albany this coming year. Cuomo is already literally  moving away from the State Capitol with his State of the State message going on the road. And we’ve already seen a policy pivot away from legislation and toward building infrastructure like say, the Second Avenue Subway.