Zack Fink

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Health Chair Goes on Tirade

When I was younger, there was a commercial on television for Polaner All Fruit. It was basically a jam, but the marketing gimmick was to present it as far more sophisticated than something you’d simply spread on toast.

In the spot, a bunch of upper crust people are sitting around a dinner table. Classical music plays in the background, and they politely ask one another to “Please pass the Polaner All Fruit.” But one guy sitting at the table doesn’t quite get it, and toward the end of the ad he loudly, and with a full southern accent, asks someone at the table to “please pass the jelly.”

The music stops. Dishes are dropped. Mouths go agape, and gasps are audible.

It was what one might call in the 80s a “social faux pas.”

I was reminded of this commercial when I heard about a fundraiser Monday night for Democratic State Sen. Gustavo Rivera.  At a time of tension between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature, add cursing and insults to the mix.

It’s well known by now that Cuomo and Senate Democrats have been at odds over the deal to bring Amazon to Queens. The deal fell apart in a highly public and abrupt way earlier this month, and Cuomo put the blame squarely on the members of the Democratic conference.

Last night Rivera held a fundraiser at the hoity-toity Fort Orange Club – a favorite among certain members of Albany’s political class since 1880, (especially the Senate Republicans, though apparently, it’s a majority thing more than a party thing). The event was hosted by the New York State Health facilities Association and the New York State Center for Assisted Living, according to the invitation. 

The “suggested donation” to attend was $1,000, with checks payable to “Gustavo Rivera for State Senate.”

Rivera made headlines last fall for a somewhat raunchy Facebook post where he said he was going to be ” a Mother—-ing Chairman!” A reference to the prominent and powerful Senate Health Committee that he now indeed chairs, though he hadn’t yet been formally named to the position when he posted that celebratory statement on social media.

Last night, witnesses say, Rivera launched into a fresh profanity laced-tirade that took aim at Cuomo.

He said that Cuomo can “blame himself for the F—ing Amazon mess.” Reportedly, Rivera used the obscenity “F—” several times throughout the night in reference to the governor and his policies.

Now, we’ve all heard these words and phrases before, although I’d argue more often out in the school yard as kids. It’s generally not something you hear at an event coming out of the mouth of an elected official.

Reached by phone, Rivera acknowledged there was a very “frank discussion” about the governor’s policies, including a cut to “those who protect the most vulnerable.” He didn’t deny using colorful language, but insited it was about the governor’s proposals, not him personally.

This Time, They Want it in the Budget

The New York City School Bus Coalition continues its push to ensure protections for school bus matrons, drivers and mechanics, this time as part of the state budget. In 2016, both houses passed a bill codifying what is known as Employee Protection Provisions. However, the provisions were vetoed by Governor Cuomo who said at the time that there was no funding in the budget for the additional protections. This time around, “Driving Our Future,” a group that includes labor groups, contractors and parents, wants to bypass the legislative process and make it a budgetary item.

Driving our future has released a new ad which focuses on driver’s and matrons who take children with special needs to and from school. The ad, which will begin on digital but could expand to cable, was produced by the very talented Jimmy Siegel of Siegel strategies, who has done work for Governor Cuomo and others.

Ad is below:

Grassroots Groups Challenge Cuomo Lobbying Reform

In his his Executive Budget, Governor Cuomo has proposed lowering the expenditure threshold for groups to be considered lobbyists from $5000 to $500. If the change were to go through, that would mean any group spending more than $500 on it’s advocacy would have to register with the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, as a lobbying organization. That would mean far more burdensome reporting requirements, including filing with JCOPE 6 times a year.

But some of the smaller grassroots groups say this could potentially cripple their ability to do even minimal issue based advocacy. Ricky Silver from Empire State Indivisible says,

The current threshold accounts for all big money lobbying expenditures. This is a blatant attempt to discourage grassroots organizations, in large part run by activist volunteers, from mobilizing and educating constituents to engage in their representative Democracy. It’s the exact type of politics our movement was built to end.
Some groups are even smaller like “Rockland United,” which was founded after the 2016 Presidential Election. One of the volunteers, Ivanya Albert says,
We each contribute what we can to the volunteer work that we do as activists. Our “budget” consists of individual members chipping in when they can to buy stamps, postcards, markers, blue hair clips, buttons, coffee, donuts, and poster-board. Does it add up to over $500 per year? Sure. Does it add up to over $5000? No. We are not professional lobbyists. We do not get paid to do this. We are making calls to legislators on the drive home from work, picking up poster-board for rallies while we pick up school supplies for our own children, arranging conference calls around bedtime routines. We barely have time to make dinner and get the kids to soccer practice, let alone squeeze in a few extra hours to file lobbying reports in a legalese that we most likely would not even understand let alone be able to write.
Some believe this is an attempt by Cuomo to punish some of the smaller, more progressive groups that either endorsed his Democratic Primary opponent Cynthia Nixon, or actively supported her fledgling campaign. As Rebecca Saletan of Indivisible Harlem says,
By attempting to lower the threshold of spending to such a tiny amount, it’s hard to imagine that the Governor has anyone but us in his sights. The question is, why would he want to silence us?
Not so, says the Governor’s office. This is all part of a larger reform package. Rich Azzopardi, Senior Adviser to Governor Cuomo says.

It’s not just lobbying reform, it’s lobbying reform, and campaign finance reform, and independent expenditure reform and voting reform and procurement reform. It’s all related and we have an unprecedented opportunity to increase transparency and disclosure and improve our democracy for the better — the fact that some self-described reform groups are against reform speaks to the problem in better ways than I can.

Raise Ruckus

A handful of conversations with members of the Assembly reveals that many are very unhappy about the Compensation Committee’s proposed pay increase. “We got hosed,” says one lawmaker.

During budget negotiations last March, state leaders hastily created the committee which didn’t even hold it’s first meeting until last month. After taking public testimony ( of which there was very little ), the Committee Thursday proposed raises up to $110,000 in 2019, $120,000 in 2020 and $130,000 in 2021.  Legislators currently make $79,500.

But members of the legislature say this pay scale is unfair for several reasons. For beginners it doesn’t tie any future increases to inflation. That’s precisely how we got into this situation in the first place. Lawmakers haven’t had a raise since 1999. They feel the $130,000 figure is a bit arbitrary and didn’t consider the rising costs of housing, inflation or other critical indexes. Former New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson, who is a member of the committee said those factors were, in fact, considered when setting the rates.

The committee also voted to limit outside income. Some legislators believe that is an entirely different discussion that should be held outside the scope of the committee, which they believe was charged solely with evaluating lawmaker pay. There are real consequences to this change from a part time to a full time legislature. For example, Assemblyman John T. McDonald owns a pharmacy in the Capital Region. According to his financial disclosure form, he earns between $50,000 and $100,000 per year. If the pay commission vote becomes law, he may have to sell it because earning that much money is now prohibited. Reached by phone McDonald says,

The message I got from the Compensation Committee is that if you are a professional of any sort, you’re not welcome in the legislature.

Some lawmakers complain that there should at least be a distinction between earning outside income going forward, and business owners who worked in the private sector before they chose to run for office. Then there is the elimination of stipends, which lawmakers also find unnerving. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has not said so publicly but he was described to me as being “livid” about the committee’s vote Thursday.  In fairness, stipends have also traditionally been used by leadership as  an incentive to keep members happy, so a loss of such incentives takes away a critical tool of the Speaker’s, as he tries to maintain loyalty among members.

Finally, there is a provision that would require lawmakers to pass an on time budget in order to hit the final tier of $130,000 in year three. Some lawmakers consider that just straight up extortion. And they note that the Commissioners in the Executive branch, who will also get a sizable raise, are under no such parameters based on their job performance. Although if the budget is late in year two, the commissioners don’t get raises either.

I suppose the moral of the story here is this: be careful what you wish for. Creating a Compensation Committee under the cloak of darkness and sticking in into a $150 Billion budget just days before it passes is not exactly the best way to do government. Clearly there was not a meeting of the minds among the leaders about what exactly the scope of the commission should be. Governor Cuomo wants the pay raise attached to reforms, Heastie thinks that’s a separate issue. Incoming Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins thinks the raise should also be tied to reforms, but she did not take part in negotiating the process here, current Majority Leader John Flanagan did.

Lawmakers are back in Albany next week. The Assembly is set to conference Wednesday afternoon. Should be a doozy.


Flanagan Calls The Roll

On Friday Republicans are expected to meet in Albany to determine their leadership going into 2019. It’s a significant transition since, for the first time in years, the Senate Republicans will find themselves in the minority. Current Majority Leader John Flanagan is facing the most significant challenge of his tenure from Senator Cathy Young of Olean.

Some believe Flanagan is pushing for an early vote in part because he wants to lock this up before opposition can build. For example, Senator Sue Serino is currently out of the country and will not be able to attend Friday’s leadership reorganization meeting. Sources say Serino did not receive the financial support she needed in her race against Democrat Karen Smythe. Critics say the Republican campaign committee instead dumped an inordinate amount of resources into Tom Basile’s losing race against Democrat Jim Skoufis. The truth is, that race was always a losing cause. Skoufis already represented much of the district in the Assembly, and polls showed him way ahead the whole time. Serino on the other hand, was an incumbent and a valued Republican member in a swing district who needed help. If she were to attend the meeting, some believe she could be a critical swing vote in support of Cathy Young, especially if she told that story.

Sources say Flanagan is also calling for secret ballot, for whatever that is worth.

The Flanagan camp has a very different take. They say he would not be calling for a vote, if he didn’t already have what he needed to win. This actually makes sense, because Flanagan was never in the habit of bringing bills to the floor without knowing they would pass. As for Serino, they say the bottom line is that she won her race. And it’s inaccurate to say they did not provide resources. In fact, they matched what she had as the race got tighter. Early polls showed her in the lead.

Finally, Republicans find themselves at a real crossroads. Especially with the prospect of becoming a “permanent minority” ( like the Assembly Republicans ) looming. Some say now is the time for a leadership change to set the course for the future. Especially if they can’t make a change with Republican State Chairman Ed Cox, who has made clear he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. On the other hand, Flanagan has always come through for his members. And some believe he will be rewarded for that dedication and loyalty.

Republicans Look Inward

For the second time in three and half years Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan finds himself in a leadership fight. The first in 2015 between him and John DeFrancisco ended with a Flanagan victory to lead what was then the majority chamber. He did so partially on a promise to unite upstate and downstate Republicans, but he also got a boost from Governor Cuomo. 2015 was the peak of the good years between the Democratic Governor and the Republican controlled upper house.

My, how times have changed.

Today Flanagan is facing a new challenge, this time from Senator Cathy Young of Olean, who also has the backing of some strong Republican donors including the Real Estate Board, or REBNY. The environment is very different for this fight, of course, with Republicans heading into the January legislative session with devastating losses, particularly on Flanagan’s home turf of Long island. As one Republican put it recently, “The Long Island 3 doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as The Long island 9” ( Republicans once controlled as many as 9 seats on the island, now it’s down to 3 ).

Democrats won huge last week in the Senate. And lots of people and organizations deserve the credit including Senator Michael Gianaris and The Parkside Group, Governor Andrew Cuomo, The Working Families Party, the anti-IDC groups, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, Cynthia Nixon and of course, the individual candidates themselves. I would never take anything away from those overwhelming Democratic victories. But Republicans also lost in ways that remain baffling. For starters, just look at the votes. Republican Congressional Representative’s Lee Zeldin and Peter King both won. So, clearly the votes were there somewhere for Republicans. It’s not like they stayed home. Yet somehow Democratic Senator John Brooks,who was down ballot from King, and Democratic Senate Candidate Monica Martinez, who was down ballot below Zeldin, both also won. “That’s malpractice,” said one Republican. In the case of the King-Brooks line, they also had votes below them where Michael LiPetri defeated Democrat Christine Pellegrino for the Assembly seat. How does that even happen?

*UPDATE** One Republican points out that the LiPetri Assembly District and the Brooks Senate District are not completely congruous. Trump won LiPetri’s district by more than 20 points in 2016 for example, whereas Hillary won the Brooks district by a point.

Some put the blame on Flanagan, who they say could not manage the relationships needed to support their candidates. “John couldn’t articulate where people stood with him. He’d talk for hours and not say anything,” said one Capitol watcher. For example this year there were internal discussions about a bill to redefine public works. The trade unions really wanted it, and REBNY did not. Nothing wound up happening with the bill, but Flanagan managed to alienate the Trade’s for his failure to get it done, while at the same time upsetting REBNY for even considering the bill in the first place.

Then there was the whole issue of education. Virtually every member of the Republican conference wanted to approve the bill de-coupling annual performance reviews from state testing. Instead of passing the bill commonly referred to as “APPR,” Flanagan held out for additional measures related to charter schools, even though he knew that was a poison pill for the Democratic Assembly and NYSUT. As a topper Republicans didn’t have enough votes to pass anything at the end of session, let alone things the other house opposed.

As a result, NYSUT and the Trade’s went big for Democrats. And REBNY largely stayed on the sidelines.

Then there was the issue with Senator Marty Golden. Simcha Felder, who is a man without a party, didn’t want speed cameras ( Felder is a Democrat who conferences with Republicans ). Instead of protecting an actual member in Golden, Republicans chose to support Felder on the notion that he’d continue to conference with them instead of his own party after the election, and would likely once again be the critical 32nd vote. Big mistake. Golden was not a big supporter of speed cameras to begin with, or at least he opposed the initial pilot program back in 2013. But the man is politically savvy enough to have found Jesus on the issue this past year by realizing he needs to support them in order to win his district. Instead the conference hung him out to dry. Sided with Felder. Blocked speed cameras. And Golden took a beating for it in Bay Ridge. On the Golden situation, one Repub says “You can’t make mistakes like that in a year like this.”

Defenders of Flanagan say it’s grossly unfair to hang all this on his neck. “Things were lined up against us.” Independent expenditure groups largely stayed clear. And as a result many of the races were close. Flanagan is going to make his case to continue on as leader. And while some say Young would send the right message, others say she hasn’t always demonstrated great leadership. One insider says she “treats everything like it is a crisis.”

Bottom line? It’s a very healthy debate for Republicans to be having right now. The odds were certainly against them this cycle. But some argue while it was always gonna be bad, it just didn’t have to be this bad.


Bill Would Eliminate the Office of Public Advocate

The office itself is a bit of a mystery. Created in 1993, the City’s Public Advocate is second in line to the Mayor ( which is actually quite weird, if I’m honest ). For years politicians have been trying to better understand how to utilize the office as a force for good in the City. Mostly though, it’s become a perch for local elected’s to plot their next move, which likely involves running for Mayor. In a couple of months, there is expected to be a special election to fill the unexpired term of current Public Advocate Letitia James, who was elected State Attorney General last week, and will be sworn in January 1.

But something is afoot in the City Council. As early as this Wednesday, a bill could be introduced to eliminate the office of Public Advocate which has an annual budget of more the $3 million. And while that is a rather small number compared to the $80 Billion City budget, some believe that money could be better allocated elsewhere.

The bill’s main sponsor is Councilman Kalman Yeger. But co-sponsors include Ritchie Torres and Rev. Ruben Diaz. Reached by phone at the airport in San Juan as he prepares to return home from the Somos conference, Diaz said he is inclined to support the elimination of the office. Another supporter of the bill called the Public Advocate’s office “useless.” Reached for comment, Nomiki Konst, one of the few if not only non-elected ( or previously non-elected ) candidates to seek the office early next year says,

“When politicians call to eliminate watchdog positions, their motivations should be closely examined. As our country faces despotism, I’d hope our leaders would call to strengthen the office of PA, rather than eliminate it in effort to prevent future competitors from getting a leg up in future citywide races. Alternatively, I call to bar the PA for running for or coming from the positions of Mayor, Council or BP for five years.”

This afternoon The Working Families Party is expected to meet and endorse Jumaane Williams for Public Advocate in the special election.

Eliminating the office of Public Advocate would actually require a referendum that would go directly to the voters.

Jumaane Pushes WFP Vote

In a new Facebook video, City Councilman Jumaane Williams urges voters to support Democratic candidates on the Working Families Party line next week. The video is similar to one just posted by Cynthia Nixon, who urges a “top to bottom” vote on the line, only Williams never makes any reference to Governor Cuomo ( oblique or otherwise ) who is at the top of the ticket.

Williams says,

WFP members have shown up to stand up for justice over and over again. That’s why it’s my party. And the hundreds of thousands of people who vote on the WFP line are a big part of why our movement is stronger than ever right now. So on November 6th, let’s stand together.  Find the Working Families Party line on your ballot and join me in voting WFP on election day.
It’s not all that surprising that Williams is urging voters to support candidates on the WFP line. He had a big showing last month, receiving more votes than even Nixon in the primary. He also got his start with the WFP. What is noteworthy however, is that Williams is doing this video a few months before a likely special election to fill the unexpired term for Public Advocate. Letitia James, the current PA, is expected to win the race for State Attorney General next week. While any special election to fill the PA office would be non-partisan, the WFP endorsement could make a huge difference in a crowded race. And Williams is in a strong position to receive that endorsement, which would include field work on his behalf.
The WFP meeting is scheduled to take place November 12. Here is a link to the Jumaane Williams video.

Cynthia Nixon Endorses Andrew Cuomo For Governor…On WFP Line

After staying mostly on the sidelines since losing the Democratic Primary to Andrew Cuomo last month, Cynthia Nixon has endorsed the Governor for re-election. In a Facebook video, Nixon urges fellow progressives to vote on the Working Families Party Line “Top to bottom.” Cuomo will be at the top of the ticket next week.

The WFP endorsed Nixon for Governor last April, but after losing the Primary in September, party leaders began to consider what to do with the ballot line for November. Nixon had said she never wanted to “play spoiler” and allow the possibility that by staying in the race she could split the vote with Cuomo and throw the election to Republican Marc Molinaro. With Some maneuvering, the WFP voted earlier this month to drop Nixon from the WFP line and put Cuomo’s name on the ballot instead.

In the video Nixon concludes,

I don’t have to tell you how important this election day is. If we all show up and vote, we can take back Congress from Trump and the Republicans in Washington. And in New York, we can win a Democratic majority in the State Senate that will be game-changing. That’s why on November 6th, I’m joining with hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers to vote on the Working Families Party ballot line. Top to bottom.

Since Primary Day, Nixon’s campaign has sent out a handful of emails urging New Yorkers to help win back the State Senate. Sources say there were overtures between the Cuomo and Nixon teams about a possible endorsement, but those discussions never really got off the ground. The Nixon camp was still smarting over a mailer sent out by the Democratic State party falsely accusing Nixon of being an anti-semite. The Cuomo campaign blamed the mailer on David Lobl, a former aide to the Governor who handled outreach to the Jewish community, and Larry Schwartz, the former Secretary to the Governor who ( laughingly ) told reporter’s he saw the mailer but failed to flip it over and see the egregious part on the back before it went out. At least one source points out that it is unlikely any mailer costing roughly $11,000 would go out the door without approval at the highest levels of the campaign, if not the Governor himself. Cuomo denied ever laying eyes on the mailer before press reports about it surfaced.

The Nixon team was seeking a public apology from Cuomo, which was unlikely ever to happen. Nevertheless her endorsement of the Governor drops 6 days shy of the election. Nixon says,

Every one of the 500,000 votes cast for me was a vote for our values. Medicare for all. Free college. Getting big money out of politics. Affordable rent. Legalizing marijuana. A subway system that actually works. Fully funding every school in every zip code, and taxing the rich to pay for it. The Working Families Party is where we are carrying on the fight for those issues.

A link to the video can be found here.

The Truth About Abortion in NYS

With the recent swearing in of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court, supporters of women’s reproductive rights have been concerned that landmark Supreme Court decisions such as Roe v Wade and Casey v Planned Parenthood could now be in jeopardy. Those decisions guaranteed a right to abortion under federal law, and upheld that right, respectively. Kavanaugh replaces Justice Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote on the court, which means a majority of Justice’s on the court are now considered to have conservative leanings.

So what does that mean for New York?

The answer is not much at all, at least according to a recent somewhat under-the-radar report from the non-partisan Rockefeller Institute of Government. Interestingly enough, Rockefeller’s President is Jim Malatras, who previously served as Governor Cuomo’s Director of State Operations. But it was earlier this month at a stop in Peekskill where Cuomo announced that he will bring Democrats together to vote on the Reproductive Health Act within the first 30 days of the new legislative session that begins in January. That’s assuming, of course, that Democrats win a majority in the State Senate. Republicans have refused to schedule a vote on the bill ,known as RHA because they claim it is a massive expansion of abortion, whereas Democrats say the bill merely codifies federal abortion law into New York State Law.

The Rockefeller report concludes,

It is unlikely that any changes to federal law will directly affect the future of abortion rights in New York State because the New York Constitution and statutes already protect abortion rights in many of the same ways as the current federal constitutional precedents.

New York State was actually way ahead of the curve, passing it’s right to an abortion law in 1970 and predating Roe v Wade by three years. Under that original New York Law, abortion is addressed through the penal code. So certain types of abortions put doctors who perform them at legal risk. However, it would likely not fall back on that law if Roe v Wade were overturned because the State Constitution guarantees the same protections as the federal laws that currently exist. Those rights were found to exist as a right to privacy in the 1994 case Hope v Perales before The New York State Court of Appeals. It is hard to foresee a scenario in which New York’s highest court would overturn what is coming up on 25 years of precedent. Not to mention that all seven Judges currently on the court were appointed by Governor Cuomo, who has been a fierce advocate of women’s reproductive rights.

RHA would allow non-physician’s to perform abortions. Specifically Physician’s Assistant’s and Nurse Practitioner’s. That makes some people uncomfortable. As one Republican told me, the Senate Majority is “generally comfortable with current abortion law, but if you start expanding it, that makes them nervous.”

Cuomo’s Chief Counsel, Alphonso David told me earlier this month that if federal protections were eliminated that could be a problem in New York. “If the floor changes, then it’s vulnerable,” he said. According to David if doctors See any risk of being criminally prosecuted for performing abortions after 24 weeks, then they could make the choice not to perform them at all, and the procedure could end up only being available to the wealthy. He also says Physician’s Assistant’s and Nurse Practitioner’s were not certified professions in 1970, meaning that they may very well have been allowed to perform abortions under a doctor’s supervision.

The bottom line is that even if the Supreme Court overturns abortion, New York will likely be unaffected. However supporters of RHA want to make sure that’s the case by updating New York’s law and getting abortion out of the penal code. But as long as RHA changes the definition of who can perform the procedure, there is always going to be strong opposition by those who favor restrictions on abortion.