The New Contours Of Primaries

From the Morning Memo:

Once upon a time, local-level primaries were predictable events.

Often the low turnout nature of the elections led to the establishment candidate easily coasting to a victory that was never in doubt.

Like many things in the era of President Donald Trump, that’s changed.

The apparent victory of Tiffany Cabán in the Queens district attorney race — she leads Melinda Katz narrowly and making up the difference in paper ballots appears a high bar to reach — is now a version of the new normal.

Cabán’s victory, of course, will be compared to the stunning upset by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a year ago, when she defeated Rep. Joe Crowley. But it’s also another example of how the low turnout advantage in these races has flipped from the establishment to the insurgent candidate.

And unlike Crowley, Katz could have seen the Cabán challenge coming. If Crowley wasn’t an example of what could happen to a “Queens machine” politician, look no further than the September primaries weeks later in 2018 throwing out Democratic incumbents around the state.

Katz, after all, had the backing of key Democratic leaders like Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who helped fundraise for her as well as key labor unions. She had the name recognition of someone who has run borough-wide in the past.

Now in low turnout races, where there’s a strong ground game from candidates like Cabán with volunteers willing to knock on doors and do the leg work, the competitive edge has been flattened.

For now, this is only working on the local level, where GOTV efforts have not been as robust for less nimble establishment candidates and the progressive grassroots want something different on issues like criminal justice policy, which a district attorney is in charge of carrying out.

Statewide, these challenges are likely difficult to scale. Cuomo spent heavily to win his primary last year against Cynthia Nixon, but he did so with an eye toward goosing turnout as much as possible — and it showed in the final results.

But at some point, those advantages for running statewide — a large ad budget, campaigning across multiple media markets in a state that can take five hours to traverse end to end in a car — could very well melt away, too.

For readers of tea leaves, it could very well be the shape of things to come for primaries, especially next year, when state lawmakers seek re-election themselves. The grassroots of the Democratic base is eager for some change and are willing to cast aside the establishment choice to get it.

If you are an incumbent state lawmaker, the planning will begin now for how to counter — or subsume — that enthusiasm over the next 12 months.

Biaggi Says She Was Stunned By Unanimous Vote For Sexual Harassment Changes

The unanimous vote for a bill that changes sexual harassment laws in New York was “stunning” to Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, she said in an interview on WCNY’s The Capitol Pressroom.

The bill, among other things, narrowed the definition from “severe or pervasive” for sexual harassment cases to a broader definition that covers a wider range of misbehavior and conduct.

The legislation was approved in both chambers, and passed in the state Senate 63-0.

“Surprisingly, maybe not to others, but to myself, there were quite a few number of my male colleagues who on at least on the Senate side sponsored this piece of bedrock legislation and it had a unanimous vote across the aisle,” she said in the interview with members of the Sexual Harassment Working Group.

“That was just completely stunning. I think that put me back on my heels a bit, but also maybe feel very much in awe.”

The measure’s passage came after the first two public hearings — one in Albany and another in New York City — on the issue. Lawmakers, as well as the Sexual Harassment Working Group, pushed for the hearings and legislation amid a societal reckoning surrounding sexual abuse and misconduct.

4 Takeaways From The Legislative Session

From the Morning Memo:

The session is over, and it was perhaps one of the most consequential six months for New York in a very long time. 

Bills were moved that touch on nearly every facet of life in New York — from the means in which we get our food, to how it’s bagged in supermarkets and how, one day, the car we use to get to the store will be powered. 

Here are four takeaways from the legislative session. 

1. Progressive flex

Elections do indeed have consequences. Voters swept Democrats into power last year in the state Legislature, giving the party a comfortable majority in the state Senate and sustaining the seemingly endless advantage in the state Assembly.

This time around, Democrats signaled little desire to squander one party rule in Albany, pushing through bill after bill the base of the party had long sought to strengthen abortion rights and labor rights for farm workers, gun control, fight climate change, enhance LGBTQ rights and expand and bolster rent control laws.

New York is now firmly in the column of a vanguard of progressive states controlled by Democrats like California that are enacting liberal policies in the era of President Donald Trump. Indeed, it’s easy to see much of what happened in Albany over the last six months as a direct reaction to Trump’s election nearly three years ago.

2. Activists hold sway

In a related development, activism in state government has never been more intense — or effective. Lawmakers listen to the activists who show up — be it on issues like criminal justice reform, affordable housing or marijuana legalization — there is a palpable sense at the Capitol that elected officials don’t want to anger the people who are showing up to demonstrate and command what is likely outsize influence over the legislative process. They are the ones engaged in the process, being able to spread their message on social media like never before.

At the same time, the activism is also driving primary threats next year for Democratic incumbents, especially in the state Assembly.

As one lawmaker put, lawmakers once reacted to the editorial boards; now they’re reacting to the activism.

3. Heastie’s leadership

The Democratic majority in the state Senate is new. Heastie’s speakership is not. And this year Heastie demonstrated a degree of command over the budget process and legislative negotiations like never before. The job of Assembly speaker — riding herd over more than 100 members from vastly different regions of the state — is perhaps the hardest job in Albany. But this year, Heastie demonstrated an ability to both count votes on nail-biting outcomes like a measure to end the religious exemption for vaccinations, while also allowing Democratic no votes on measures like extending driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.

Heastie also set his sights early on a major rent control deal, striking one with Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, seemingly to the surprise of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, successfully negotiating one of the most consequential housing policy developments in recent history.

On top of that, he remains one of the more accessible legislative leaders in Albany.

4. Cuomo’s influence

Much has already been said about whether Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s influence is waning in Albany after a legislative session that saw lawmakers seemingly acted independently of the governor on major issues. And this session could very well mark a major shift in the relationship between a newly emboldened Legislature and a governor in his third term.

Still, Cuomo’s legislative prowess should not be napped on: He muscled through an appointment of his budget director to the board of the MTA, he held sway over the Capitol Projects budget bill until the very end, and, as he was happy to point, lawmakers could not get a deal done on full marijuana legalization outside of the state budget.

The job of governor remains a powerful one in state government. The Legislature is only now really waking up to the power it holds against him, but Cuomo’s experience in the process remains an advantage.

Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Heads To Cuomo’s Desk

A bill that decriminalizes the possession of small amounts of marijuana and expunges marijuana-related arrest and conviction records is heading to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s for his approval.

State lawmakers in the Assembly put the finishing touches on the bill early Friday morning following a marathon final session day. The state Senate approved the measure Thursday evening.

“The drug laws that are currently on the books have devastated our communities by disproportionately targeting people of color, forcing them to live with a criminal record that makes it harder to get a job or find housing,” Speaker Carl Heastie said.

“Decriminalizing marijuana, paired with expunging records for these low-level offenses, will help undo some of these decades long injustices, and allow for people to be productive and successful. This is not the final step, but it will lay the groundwork for full decriminalization and legalization in the future.”

The bill changes the current marijuana possession law, which punishes possession by a fine for the first offense and as a misdemeanor once it is open to public viewed or being burned.

The bill would change first-degree unlawful possession to an ounce of marijuana or more. The maximum fine would be $200. Second-degree unlawful possession would lead to a maximum $50 fine.

Lawmakers introduced the measure earlier this week as a fallback option amid disagreement over a broader legalization package that would have set up a retail and regulatory system for cannabis in the state.

But lawmakers could not reach an agreement on the legalization plan, and advocates for the bill were disappointed with the more narrow decriminalization alternative.

Still, lawmakers said the bill that is expected to be signed by Cuomo is step forward toward broader legalization.

“By passing this bill, we will bring hope and relief to thousands of New Yorkers through the expungement of low-level marijuana records and by preventing unnecessary arrests for small amounts of marijuana,” Assembly Majority Leader Peoples-Stokes said.

“This is an important first step to take towards marijuana justice, but there is more to be done. I will continue fighting for communities and people most harmed by the war on drugs, and remain committed to establishing wide ranging marijuana-related policies that will improve lives and provide for community investment.”

Jeffries Endorses Katz For Queens DA

From the Morning Memo:

Queens district attorney candidate Melinda Katz on Thursday will pick up the endorsement of Brooklyn Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries.

“We have a broken criminal justice system in Queens in desperate need of reform,” Katz said. 

“With the election of the trailblazing Ken Thompson in 2013, it became clear that the district attorney’s office can be a powerful vehicle to change direction and make a substantial difference. At this moment, Melinda Katz is the person best positioned to bring about the sweeping criminal justice reforms needed in Queens, given her commitment to progressive change and considerable managerial ability.”

Katz, the Queens borough president, is running in a crowded primary for the Democratic nomination next Tuesday.

Jeffries is considered a rising star for Democrats and is viewed by some in the party as a potential House-speaker-in-waiting.

On Wednesday, Katz rival Tiffany Cabán was endorsed by U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both presidential candidates who have strong followings within the progressive base of the party.

Katz supporter Rep. Gregory Meeks criticized the endorsements.

“I saw today that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have decided to get involved in the DA race in Queens County,” Meeks said. “I don’t know who they spoke with, but clearly they did not speak with the Elected Officials of Queens County, or the people who elected them.”

Warren Endorses Cabán In Queens DA Primary

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Wednesday endorsed the district attorney campaign of Tiffany Cabán in Queens ahead of a closely watch primary next week.

“I’m proud to endorse Tiffany Cabán for Queens DA in New York. @CabanForQueens will fight for working families and work to end mass incarceration,” Warren wrote on Twitter. “Make sure you get out and vote for Tiffany next Tuesday, June 25th. In the meantime, head to to volunteer!”

Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, has seen her poll numbers rise nationally in the presidential nominating contest, now placing second behind former Vice President Joe Biden in some polls.

Cabán has captured a series of progressive endorsements in recent weeks in her bid for the DA nomination.

Deal Struck For Farm Workers Labor Bill

A long-sought bill by farm worker advocates expanding overtime, collective bargaining and other labor rights to agriculture workers is expected to be approved this week.

The measure, first proposed more than a decade ago, will represent a major shift in farming and how farm workers are paid in the state.

“This legislation is truly historic,” said Sen. Jen Metzger, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee. “Farm workers have been denied basic rights that the rest of labor has enjoyed for a long time. We got this bill to a place that reflects farming and the economic realities of farming.”

Farmers, meanwhile, expressed reservation with the final agreement, including the overtime provision, with one industry coalition, Grow NY Farms, said did not take into account realities like weather patterns.

“This provision would inevitably force a 60-hour work week to be applied over six days and will not meet the legislative intent of providing reasonable and predictable wages, especially when weather patterns often dictate work schedules,” the group said in a statement. “Farmers will be forced to impose a mandatory day of rest thus decreasing the number of hours farm workers would like to work. Farm workers will choose to seek a second agricultural job or pursue opportunities in other states.”

A deal was struck in the final days of the legislation and weeks after a state court ruled in favor of extending collective bargaining rights to farm workers.

“Our farm workers bill builds on the court case that gave way to allow for collective bargaining,” said Sen. Jessica Ramos, the Labor Committee chairwoman. “Our bill goes a step further and allows card check neutrally.”

Meanwhile, some lawmakers want to go further for farmers. One bill introduced would create an agriculture investment task force to examine issues facing the industry.

“In light of the recent compromise reached on farm labor, it’s important that we now turn our attention to the sustainability of New York’s agricultural economy,” said Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, the Agriculture Committee chairwoman.

“By studying the current economic conditions farms are operating under, we can enter next year’s budget discussions with tangible solutions that will help protect and grow this critical sector of our economy.”

Sweeping Rent Control Changes Approved

State lawmakers on Friday put the finishing touches on a sweeping package of changes to rent control in New York, which allow communities outside of the New York City area to opt in to regulations designed to protect tenants.

The state Senate approved the package, announced earlier this week by the legislative leaders, 36-26. The Democratic-controlled Assembly followed suit soon after, 95-41.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the bills shortly after they achieved final passage.

The governor, who faintly praised the agreement earlier this week at a news conference, released a more celebratory statement on Friday.

“At the beginning of this legislative session, I called for the most sweeping, aggressive tenant protections in state history. I’m confident the measure passed today is the strongest possible set of reforms that the Legislature was able to pass and are a major step forward for tenants across New York,” Cuomo said.

“As the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Clinton, I know full well the importance of affordable housing and with the existing rent laws set to expire tomorrow, I have immediately signed this bill into law – avoiding the chaos and uncertainty that a lapse in these protections would have caused for millions of New Yorkers.”

For Democrats who gained control of the state Senate, the passage and forging of the deal was a victory. The measures permanently extend rent control laws and allow local governments to opt in and adopt their own local-level regulations.

The measures make it harder for landlords to evict tenants when rent is increased and raise rents when capital improvements are made to a dwelling.

“We made a commitment that the new Senate Democratic Majority would help pass the strongest tenant protections in history,” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said. “The legislation we passed today achieves that commitment and will help millions of New Yorkers throughout our state. I thank my partner in legislative leadership, Speaker Carl Heastie and the Chair of the Senate’s Housing, Construction and Community Development Committee, Senator Brian Kavanagh for his leadership on this issue.”

Both Heastie and Stewart-Cousins announced the two-way deal on Wednesday, well ahead of the Saturday deadline for the current laws to expire.

The measures are expected to face a court challenge from real estate interests in court.

“For too long, power has been tilted in favor of landlords. But today we were able to level the playing field and bring stability to tenants across New York State, whether they live in an apartment in the Bronx, a single family home in Nassau County or a manufactured home upstate,” Heastie said. “The Assembly Majority will continue working to ensure every New Yorker can find quality, affordable housing.”

Hochul Endorses Katz For Queens DA

From the Morning Memo:

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul on Friday is set to endorse Queens district attorney candidate Melinda Katz in the heated primary for the post.

“Nobody is better prepared to bring criminal justice reform to Queens than Melinda Katz,” Hochul said in a statement.

“Not only is she a skilled attorney, she’s a dedicated public servant who knows how to build a diverse coalition to push for change better than anyone else. Melinda understands that civil rights and reforms to the justice system go hand-in-hand with public safety. Her agenda to change the DA’s office will make it more responsive to the community and better equipped to protect workers, immigrants, women, and people of color.”

Hochul’s endorsement for Katz will be highlighted alongside other prominent women and women’s organizations supporting her bid, including Rep. Carolyn Maloney, the Brooklyn-Queens and New York City chapters of the National Organization of Women and Planned Parenthood NYC Votes PAC.

Katz is currently the Queens borough president.

“Lieutenant Governor Hochul has been at the forefront of some of the most important progressive fights in our state in recent years,” Katz said.

“She’s helped build support for paid family leave, raising the minimum wage, and the essential criminal justice reform measures that were signed into law earlier this year. At every level of government that she’s served in, she’s broken barriers and been a tireless supporter of working people across our state. It’s an honor to have her support.”

Sources: Green Light Bill Gains Key Senate Support

Multiple sources on Thursday said a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses has gained three key votes in the state Senate: Sens. Anna Kaplan, Joe Addabbo and Diane Savino.

Support from Kaplan, a freshman Long Island Democrat, is seen as especially vital by supporters given the concerns that have been raised by Long Island Democrats in recent weeks.

The focus will likely be on upstate and suburban Democratic lawmakers for the final passage of the measure, known as the Green Light bill. The proposal was approved on Wednesday in the state Assembly.

Supporters of the bill have argued this year that extending access to licenses to undocumented immigrants has economic merit for drivers to obtain insurance and have transportation to work. But opponents have criticized the measure over security concerns.