To Rural Democrats, Stewart-Cousins Pitches A Democratic Majority

From the Morning Memo:

Last weekend, Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins spoke to a gathering of the Rural Democratic Conference, pitching her vision of a Democratic majority in the state Senate.

That vision includes a number of bread-and-butter planks for the state Democratic Party: Paid family leave, increasing the state’s minimum wage and reforming campaign finance laws.

But she also pointedly took aim at Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education measures, which were included in the state budget agreement to the consternation of the statewide teachers’ union, NYSUT.

“We are about standing up for our children and our teachers and ensuring that our educations system gets the needed resources,” she said, according to prepared remarks. “We can’t simply demonize teachers and call that reform!”

The DRC is close to Cuomo: The group in 2002 backed his quixotic and ultimately doomed campaign for the Democratic nomination against Carl McCall that year.

Cuomo had continued to court the DRC after he took office as governor in 2011. One year, his campaign even gave out wine tumblers with the Cuomo 2014 logo on them.

But Senate Democrats this year have taken a more assertive posture with Cuomo, who was criticized by liberal advocates for not doing more to help his own party take control of the Senate.

Cuomo allies have argued 2014 was a Republican wave year and more money into Senate campaign coffers wouldn’t have helped.

This year, Cuomo did not address the DRC as he was preparing to travel to Cuba. Cuomo sent his newly elected lieutenant governor Kathy Hochul instead.

Also addressing the crowd at the DRC this past weekend was Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who may have designs on the governor’s office himself in 2018.

But for now, a more near-term goal for Democrats is taking over the state Senate, where the Republicans have a thin majority, but an alliance with the Independent Democratic Conference that could preserve their power.

Upstate Democrats did not fare well in the last election. Three incumbent Democratic lawmakers — Sens. Terry Gipson, Ted O’Brien and Cecilia Tkaczyk — lost their seats to Republicans.

A bright spot for the conference was the election of Sen. Marc Panepinto, who unseated Republican Mark Grisanti, long a target for the Senate Democrats.

Stewart-Cousins said that a majority is possible, but it takes organizing on the local level.

“We need you to talk to your local communities and tell them what a Senate Democratic Majority means,” she said.

NYC Public Advocate Backs ‘The Right Woman’ for the Presidency

NYC Public Advocate Tish James, who just yesterday seemed a little wishy-washy in her support for Hillary Clinton’s second White House run, this afternoon issued a full-throated endorsement of the former secretary of state, calling her the “right woman for the job.”

“I know that America’s tomorrow will be better with Hillary Clinton as our next President,” James wrote in an email sent to supporters this afternoon from her campaign committee, Letitia James 2017. “By electing Hillary as President, we will shatter the highest, hardest ceiling of them all.”

“Even more importantly, we will be electing a proven champion for working families and a leader with the experience and vision to move our country forward. I am proud to endorse Hillary for President and urge progressives everywhere to join us in supporting Hillary in 2016.”

Following NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s refusal to endorse Clinton right off the bat, and NYC Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s reluctance to jump on the Clinton bandwagon, James seemed to back off her earlier pledge to endorse the former first lady in her 2016 quest for the presidency, telling the NY Observer:

“I think Hillary is absolutely fabulous and wonderful, and it would be really exciting, exciting to have a woman president, and I’m looking forward to that. And I have a number of questions for Hillary, and I’m looking forward to that conversation.”

James backed Clinton’s unsuccessful White House run in 2008, and had said – unlike some of her fellow New York Democrats contacted by Capital NY in January – that she would support the former US senator again.

In her email, James said she feels a “sense of urgency about the challenges we face as a nation” – especially income inequality, which is an issue about which the left is particularly concerned as Clinton mounts her second presidential bid.

Senate Dems: Ready For Terry?

From the Morning Memo:

Last year, Democratic Sen. Terry Gipson was one of a trio of upstate incumbents to lose his seat in the chamber in an election-year rout that helped give the Republicans a full majority in the state Senate.

Now, Senate Democrats are looking ahead to 2016 and a potential Gipson comeback for the Hudson Valley seat he lost to Republican Sue Serino last fall.

At the 14th Annual Anna Buchholz Citizen of the Year Award by the town of Poughkeepsie Democratic Committee last week, Democratic Sen. George Latimer feted Gipson at a citizen of the year award ceremony in a sign the party wants the one-term lawmaker to take another shot at the Senate.

“People are going to want Terry Gipson in 2016, not phony choices,” Latimer told the crowd.

And in a shot at Serino, Latimer praised Gipson’s independence.

“That’s why you need Terry Gipson sitting on the Senate floor, not someone who is going to do what she is told,” he said.

Democrats will likely be helped across the board in 2016, a presidential election year that will likely draw out more Democratic voters than last year.

Still, Gipson won his seat in 2012 in part due to a crowded field that included incumbent Republican Sen. Stephen Saland and Conservative Party candidate Neil DiCarlo.

Rep. Maloney’s $610K Haul

From the Morning Memo:

Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney’s campaign will announce today that the Hudson Valley lawmaker has raised $610,000 in the first quarter of 2015, which ranks among his strongest fundraising performances to date.

Details regarding the number of donors, so-called “burn” rate (spending), and cash on hand were not immediately available.

But Maloney, who survived a re-match in NY-18 last fall with the woman he ousted in 2012, former GOP Rep. Nan Hayworth, did release the following statement:

“We went right to work to fight for hardworking Hudson Valley families on issues like rail safety, human trafficking and stopping trade deals that ship jobs overseas, and I’m grateful for the support from my friends and neighbors who believe in our bipartisan work.”

“Our work this Congress is just beginning – too many of our hardworking neighbors are struggling in this economy and need someone fighting for smart investments in education, infrastructure and technology that create good jobs here in the Hudson Valley.”

Maloney’s campaign says he’s among the top fundraisers in the House Democratic conference this quarter.

The NY-18 race was hard fought last fall, and attracted millions of dollars worth of outside spending. The congressman won a second term in part by focusing on his bipartisan efforts, touting the endorsement of local Republicans like state Sen. Bill Larkin and former state Sen. Greg Ball.

Maloney also highlighted his ties to former President Clinton, for whom he worked in the White House.

The congressman is a fierce supporter and defender of the Clintons, and this week chastised NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio for refusing to endorse the former first lady’s second presidential bid, saying the mayor needs to have his “head examined.”

De Blasio, however, stuck to his guns yesterday, reiterating that he wants to hear more about Clinton’s priorities – especially when it comes to bridging the income inequality gap. As for Maloney’s comment, the mayor quipped that he appreciated the congressman’s “concern for my health.”

Smikle Named Democratic Committee Exec Director

Basil Smikle, a well-known political operative and one-time candidate for state Senate, on Thursday was named the new executive director of the state Democratic Committee.

“Basil is a national-caliber political operative and we are lucky to have him leading day-to-day operations for the State Democratic Party,” former Gov. David Paterson, the state party chairman, said in a statement. “Basil combines a mastery of public policy with an inherent feel for communities throughout New York State. With his impressive academic credentials as a policy thinker and his vast experience in electoral politics, he will play a key role in leading Democratic efforts heading into the 2016 election cycle.”

The news of Smikle’s appointment was first reported by The Daily News, which also reported this morning the departure of longtime aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Drew Zambelli.

Smikle was an aide to Hillary Clinton during her 2000 campaign for the U.S. Senate in New York and later served as her deputy state director.

He unsuccessfully challenged Democratic Sen. Bill Perkins in a 2010 primary.

Smikle runs a consulting firm and contributes to Washington, D.C.-based The Hill.

The Smikle appointments comes after Cuomo’s re-election to a second term and some jockeying among both Democrats and Republicans to potentially run to replace him in 2018.

Cuomo recently changed the named of his campaign committee to Andrew Cuomo 2018 and his former top aide, Larry Schwartz, expects he will run for a third term.

Dream Deferred

From the Morning Memo:

Last night, a number of Senate Democrats took their frustration with being excluded from the closed-door budget negotiations on the final product, voting “no” on part of the agreement that dealt with transportation, economic development and environmental spending.

There was some testy back-and-forth between Democrats and Republicans on the Senate floor during the debate, and you should expect more of the same – if not worse – when it comes time to take up legislation relating to the most controversial parts of this budget: Ethics and education.

It’s a fairly safe bet that Sen. Jose Peralta will be voting “no” on the education bill, if for nothing else than to demonstration his distress over the fact that the DREAM Act did not make it into the final budget deal.

Peralta, clad in his signature DREAM Act T-shirt, which he sports over his chamber-dress-code-appopriate shirt and tie, told me during a CapTon interview last night that he and his fellow Latino lawmakers in both the Senate and Assembly are in discussions to reject the education bill, even though they are well aware their “no” votes will be merely symbolic.

Many of the same lawmakers threatened to vote “no” on last year’s budget if the governor failed to include the DREAM Act, which would help undocumented college students pay for college by allowing them to apply for TAP.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo did not heed that call, and the DREAM Act ended up coming onto the Senate floor for a stand-alone vote, where it died without a single “yes” vote from any GOP senators.

This year, Cuomo included the DREAM Act in his executive budget for the first time, which advocates saw as a very positive development, but many were disappointed that he linked it to the Education Investment Tax Credit in hopes of forcing the Senate GOP’s hand.

This gambit did not work, in part because so many of the Senate GOP’s new – and most politically vulnerable – members specifically campaigned against the DREAM Act and providing any sort of taxpayer-funded support to undocumented immigrants during the 2014 election cycle.

Now Peralta, the main sponsor of the DREAM Act in his chamber, and others are looking to Cuomo to expend some political capital to push the Senate Republicans to pass the measure in the post-budget session.

But Cuomo’s main leverage is in the considerable power afforded to the executive during the budget process, and he declined to use in large part during this year’s talks. The DREAM Act was not the only policy initiative he proposed in his executive budget to fall off the table as the April 1 deadline drew near.

It is possible that the DREAM Act could get linked to something else during the end-of-session horse trading that comes before the so-called “big ugly” – the mishmash of bills passed in a mad rush before lawmakers depart Albany for the summer.

Linkage of a number of education initiatives that didn’t make it into the budget is already under discussion, including EITC, continuation of mayoral control in NYC and raising the charter school cap.

In the meantime, DREAM Act advocates are also planning to exert some pressure on a some of Republican lawmakers – especially on Long Island – whose districts have sizable Latino populations, staging rallies in their districts and engaging local religious leaders to help spread their message.

Senators Phil Boyle, (who was missing from the 2014 DREAM Act vote), and Jack Martins come up fairly frequently as potential targets of the DREAM Act advocates. (Martins voted “no” last year, saying the bill was drafted too broadly). Peralta said Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, another Long Islander, will also be targeted.

Boyle told City & State he’s not planning on altering his position on the DREAM Act, even if supporters launch a campaign against him. He plans to continue pushing for a non-taxpayer-funded alternative – several of which were floated to no avail during the budget talks.

Two Democratic senators – Rochester freshman Ted O’Brien, who was defeated by a Republican, Sen. Rich Funke, in last year’s election; and Brooklyn’s Simcha Felder, who conferences with the GOP, also voted “no” in 2014.

Later yesterday afternoon, Peralta issued a statement slamming Skelos for saying the DREAM Act would give undocumented students an unfair advantage over college students with legal immigration status who are forced to take out loans to pay for their education.

Peralta noted that TAP is an entitlement program, which means all students must meet residency and financial requirements to qualify, and to do that, they have to be paying taxes.

“Since Senator Skelos is in the majority, he is in a position to give those kids who take out loans an advantage by increasing the income eligibility from the current $80,000 per household per year to $150,000,” Peralta added.

“This means the kids’ parents would have to make under $150,000 combined to quality for TAP. Senator Skelos has the power now to make this happen but he is not using it.”

“He can help all college students, but he may rather give this money to the rich so they can get tax breaks when buying their private yachts and private planes.”

Expect a lot more where that came from.

The yacht tax break is going to be a very big focus for progressives as the budget battle winds down, even though, as Capital NY’s Laura Nahmias points out this morning, the sales tax exemption for expensive boats had its genesis in both houses of the Legislature, which means both Assembly Democrats AND Senate Republicans were on board.

The measure was not included in the governor’s executive budget proposal.

Pelosi Makes Fundraising Push for Slaughter

Taking a breaking from the budget madness for a moment to focus on the 2016 congressional elections…(yes, I know they’re far away).

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi sent out a fundraising appeal over the weekend on behalf of veteran Rochester Rep. Louise Slaughter, whose near loss in the 2014 general election by her under-funded and little-known Republican challenger, Gates Town Supervisor Mark Assini, took Democrats both in New York and across the nation by surprise – especially after Slaughter survived a tough challenge in 2012 from a far better known GOP opponent, Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks.

Clearly, the Democrats do not intend a repeat of this experience when they try to re-take the majority in 2016, should the 85-year-old Slaughter seek yet another term. Assini has already signaled an interest in a rematch, and Slaughter has not ruled out running again.

In her email sent Sunday morning, Pelosi said she needed to talk about “my friend Louise,” who “won by just 871 votes last year, attracting the attention of Speaker Boehner and every mega Tea Party donor across America.”

“The first FEC deadline of the year is arguably the most important one, especially after such a close call in November,” Pelosi continued. “Louise’s opponent will be scouring this FEC report for any sign that Louise is weak. She must shatter records before her deadline on Tuesday.”

“Louise needs our help…We need more people like Louise in Congress. But apparently Republicans think we need less—and they’re prepared to put their money where their mouth is. That’s why I’m asking you to help Louise fight back now – before it’s too late.”

According to Pelosi, the DCCC is matching all contributions to Slaughter of $3 or more – yet another sign that the Democrats aren’t fooling around this time, taking this race seriously.

And if Slaughter doesn’t run, they’ll have to defend an open seat. Technically speaking, that should be a fairly easy lift for the Democrats in a presidential year, since they enjoy an enrollment edge in NY-25, but it all depends on who the candidates are – and, of course, you can’t forget that all politics are local.

It’s also worth noting, though this is completely unrelated, that Slaughter is appearing today with US Sen. Chuck Schumer, who is the favorite to succeed retiring Sen. Harry Reid as the next Democratic caucus leader in the upper house. The duo is together for a dedication ceremony at the Rochester Main Post office in honor of SPC Matt Glende

UFT Declares Victory In Budget Battle (Updated)

From the Morning Memo:

The United Federation of Teachers on Sunday night declared victory in an email to its members, writing that most of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “Draconian agenda” had been turned back by state lawmakers.

“Now all of our hard work is paying dividends,” the teachers union that represents mostly New York City teachers wrote in the email to members. “The governor’s Draconian agenda has, in large part, been turned back. We want to thank the Assembly and the Senate for standing up for our schools and school communities.”

In the email, the union pointed to a variety of changes in the final budget agreement that had been reached last night, including tweaks to school receivership that provide for some local control, altered tenure requirements for up to four years and an evaluation system that will use several metrics, including state tests, observation and local input.

Cuomo was not able to win his plan to lift the cap on charter schools by 100 — a proposal that may be tied later down the road to an extension on mayoral control for New York City schools.

Also gone from the final product: A $20,000 merit bonus proposal for high-performing teachers.

Updated: Contra UFT’s email, the administration says an appropriation for the bonus proposal was included in the final agreement.

The Cuomo administration sees the education battle’s outcome a bit differently. Merely having state lawmakers, especially the Democratic-led Assembly, actually agree to these changes is a huge step forward.

A senior administration official last night called the public education system across the “$50 billion industry” that is resistant to reform.

At the same time, the reforms agreed to in the budget framework represent one of the biggest shifts in education policy in the state’s history, the official said.

Still, in the early reporting there’s some disagreement over the extent of the changes: Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie last night told reporters there is input from the Department of Education on helping develop teacher evaluation criteria.

The official last night said SED’s role in criteria development for evaluations was minimal, save for helping put together a second, optional test for school districts to use.

Nevertheless, the efforts by both UFT and the statewide New York State United Teachers made for a more complicated and difficult set of negotiations with the state Legislature and Cuomo.

The governor was accused of “demonizing teachers” with the proposed changes and local level union members were stirred into traveling to the Capitol to protest and contacting their Legislature.

The unions’ strength and influence was strongest in the Democratic-led Assembly, where lobbyists were a near-constant presence this weekend waiting for news on education budget.

UFT describes rank-and-file members’ impact this way:

“They blasted his agenda on social media; invited him to visit their classrooms to see for himself the impact of overcrowded classes and lack of supplies; spoke out at community education forums; called, faxed and sent postcards to their state legislators; and held actions at their schools that engaged the entire school community.”

Four Budget Bills Pop Over Night (Updated)

Four budget bills were introduced before midnight on Saturday, while a broader deal on the state budget is yet to be reached.

Measures introduced last night include spending plans for the legislative and judiciary branches, aid to localities spending, health and mental hygiene and the revenue bill.

Gone from the budget framework is a property-tax rebate proposal akin to a “circuit-breaker” that would tie relief to a household’s income.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo told reporters on Saturday at the Capitol the property tax discussion, as well as a minimum wage increase, could be left for later in the legislative session, which runs through June.

Major aspects of the 2015-16 state spending are yet to be ironed out, however.

Lawmakers and Cuomo are yet to reach an agreement on education spending in the state, which is typically the final piece of the budget puzzle.

What makes this year different is that Cuomo is pushing for education reform measures in the budget – including a tougher teacher evaluation criteria and a receivership program for struggling (AKA “failing”) schools.

Assembly Democrats, in particular, have been hesitant to accept Cuomo’s education proposals.

We do know, however, that due to opposition in both houses, education spending in the budget is no longer linked to the reforms, and lawmakers expect to have a district-by-district breakdown of school aid – also known in Albany as “school runs” – in the coming days.

Cuomo had angered local education officials by refusing to release school runs this year, saying the numbers would be vastly different depending on whether lawmakers accepted or rejected his reform proposals. A number of those proposals have fallen off the budget negotiation table.

It is expected the final education aid increase will stand at around $1.4 billion, if not more.

At the same time, Cuomo is also pushing Senate Republicans to accept new disclosure measures for outside legal clients of state lawmakers.

As of Sunday morning, neither the massive education, labor and family assistance bill or the ethics bill has appeared in print — meaning both will likely require a message of necessity from Cuomo to waive the required three-day aging process if officials want to meet Tuesday’s on-time budget deadline.

Cuomo is due back in Albany later today after appearing at the Greek Independence Day Parade in his role as grand marshal.

Lawmakers are also due back to the Capitol later in the day to conference the latest in the budget talks.

UPDATE: The Assembly Democrats are scheduled to conference early this evening. The Senate Republicans are not conferencing again until tomorrow at noon.

Cuomo’s Second Term Blues

From the Morning Memo:

A major facet of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s first-term power was his power to persuade, cajole and pressure state lawmakers and elected officials to bend to his will.

This year, the opposite appears to be occurring.

Now entering his second term, the governor appears to have lost high-profile debates in the state budget session to the state’s teachers union on education issues while he’s had difficulty in getting Senate Republicans to agree to disclosure legislation.

Those were once nominal allies of the governor, like mainline Senate Democrats, have little hesitation in criticizing him, either.

“It sounds like what we’re headed towards is a glorified extender which keeps the government running, but takes all the major issues out of it,” said Sen. Mike Gianaris, a Queens Democrat who is the deputy leader in the chamber, in a Capital Tonight interview.

Indeed, budget lines in the sand from Cuomo over ethics, education reform, the DREAM Act and education tax credit melted away in the last several days. Jettisoned from the budget talks, too, were discussions over juvenile justice reform and curtailing sexual assault on college campuses (funding for raising the age of criminal responsibility is still under discussion in the budget talks).

Every budget year is always different, but this does not appear to be shaping up to be the like packages of the first term, which included long-sought reforms in addition to being on time.

Part of that is Cuomo’s skill as a negotiator. Gianaris, in the interview, added a second factor: Cuomo’s mandate.

“There’s always a deference to a governor who is recently elected in his first term,” he said. “There’s a mandate there”

He cited Republican George Pataki who, in his first several years, won major victories on the death penalty and tax cuts, but ran into difficulty legislatively later in his time as governor.

Then, like now, the mandate for Cuomo appears to be waning, which has encouraged lawmakers in both parties to push back.

“As that fades, I think the Legislature is emboldened to speak up and stand up a little more,” Gianaris said. “Now we’re seeing, coming off an election the governor scored 52 percent or so of the people that turned out, I think people are feeling on the legislative side, and we’re talking about the majorities as well, a little emboldened to make that case. That’s a natural phenomenon, I’ve seen it happen with other governors and I think we’re seeing it now.”

Granted, Cuomo has found ways in his first four years to win major victories outside of the budget: Same-sex marriage, gun control, tax reform, a new pension tier and previous ethics victories just to name a few.

Cuomo can still turn his year around in Albany, but he’ll have to do without the powers afforded the governor in the budget-making process.