Commentary Politics

New York State Needs to Live Up to Its Progressive Reputation

Joe Dinkin

Democrats in the state Senate must stop training their fire on each other, ceding control to Republicans, and pretending it's someone else's job to build a progressive majority.

California and New York have a few things in common. Friendly rivalry notwithstanding, both are big progressive coastal economic powerhouses, whose political leaders and culture often influence the nation. They are home to diverse populations, including millions of immigrants and union members, and to media and Hollywood, respectively. Both have been incubators of social movements that have helped transform the country.

But while California’s political leaders have aggressively pursued policies to defend the state’s residents from Trump administration moves, New York has lagged. In the parlance of presidential elections, New York is a clear blue state. But in state government, the color is something murkier, because Republican leadership, now artificially propped up by some Democrats, has blocked progress for years.

Millions of New Yorkers are upset and frightened by what the Trump administration is proposing. People are afraid of losing health care, losing rights, and even getting deported. But on many of the critical issues facing New Yorkers, the obstacles in Albany are formidable.

The New York Senate has a numerical majority of Democrats. Eight senators elected as Democrats are members of a breakaway faction called the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), which formed a coalition with the Republican leadership. A ninth Democrat, not part of the IDC, individually caucuses with the Republicans outright. Despite a state assembly in which Democrats outnumber Republicans by two to one, Trump-allied Republicans, led by conservative Sen. John Flanagan (R-Smithtown), control the debate and the floor schedule in the upper house. They can block any legislation they don’t want to pass.

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This year, California became the first state to approve legislation barring local law enforcement from assisting Trump’s federal immigration officials. But the home of the Statue of Liberty and the historic gateway for generations of immigrants is, for the time being, unlikely to follow suit. Flanagan flatly declared that the senate wouldn’t vote on the Liberty Act, a similar proposal for New York.

State senate Republicans are also holding up the Reproductive Health Act, which would update New York’s woefully outdated abortion laws. While roughly two-thirds of New Yorkers support abortion rights in all or most cases, New York’s own laws guaranteeing reproductive choice haven’t been updated since 1970. Trump’s judicial appointments, combined with Vice President Mike Pence’s fundamentalist fervor, promise to further erode women’s reproductive choice—and one more conservative on the Supreme Court could even overturn Roe v. Wade altogether.

California, meanwhile, has expanded access to abortion rights in recent years, actually increasing the number of abortion providers and trying to make medication abortion more available at college health centers.

Trump’s budget would also dramatically cut funding for public schools and universities. But with Republican leadership in charge, New York will not meet the level of state funding for public education required by the Campaign For Fiscal Equity lawsuit and ordered by an appeals court more than a decade ago. In contrast, California voters extended a tax on the wealthy to increase funding for public schools with a 2016 ballot measure—a mechanism not available to New Yorkers.

If Trump and the Republicans succeed in their drive to overturn Obamacare, New York Republicans will oppose raising the necessary taxes on the wealthy to keep their constituents covered.

The story is the same on issue after issue. From combating climate change to reducing mass incarceration, California has taken massive steps forward. But in New York, the Republican leadership calls the shots, even though Republicans hold a numerical minority of seats.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the leader of the state’s Democratic Party, could step in and fix the problem, using his bully pulpit and his political leverage. But Cuomo has demurred, saying it’s “not [his] place” to get involved. Much has been written about how he benefits from Republican control of the senate; in short, it provides the governor, who has largely been a centrist, a foil to blame for progressive legislation that doesn’t pass. In 2011, Cuomo allowed Republicans the ability to draw their own district lines; without those partisan district lines, control of the senate would likely not even be close.

The IDC was formed as a separate conference in 2011. Political columnist Blake Zeff reported in 2014 that Cuomo “encouraged the marriage that allowed the Republicans to remain in leadership” after the 2012 elections. For most of the last few years, however, this alliance flew under the radar for most voters.

That’s not the case anymore. The issue is reaching a fever pitch since the inauguration of Donald Trump. The Working Families Party (for which I work) announced a resistance agenda of 11 bold pieces of legislation that are blocked under the Republican-IDC coalition. Meanwhile, IDC members have been the target of vigorous protests. The same energy of resistance that sprung up against Republicans and Trump has moved New Yorkers who have never protested before to march and picket against the state legislators they thought they elected as Democrats but who are instead supporting the leadership of right-wing Republicans.

National progressive figures have begun to speak out as well. Democratic National Committee Deputy Chair and Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Keith Ellison said, “Democrats must come together and fight for working people together” and pledged to do everything he could to end Republican control. Recently, all 18 New York Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives signed a letter asking the IDC to break with the Republicans and return to the Democratic conference. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the party campaign arm responsible for electing state legislative candidates, has also spoken out against the IDC’s support for the Republicans.

The IDC argues that most of the items on the progressive wish list still don’t have the 32 votes necessary in the senate to pass—a point they make with a video asking the senate to “call the roll” on a number of pieces of legislation. The point is true, as far as it goes; the slim margin for Democrats in the senate means any proposals would fail to win majority support if any one Democrat broke ranks. On many issues, at least one would.

But the IDC’s argument misses a larger point: As long as the Democrats are divided and at war with each other, they have no path to continue picking up seats and winning a bigger majority that could allow a full progressive agenda to pass.

Given the energy among progressives across America, 2018 presents a huge opportunity for Democrats to pick up seats—if they unite instead of keeping their fire trained on each other. Furthermore, New York has a handful of swing districts that could help win back control of Congress next year. A united progressive majority in the state senate could pass laws to make it easier to vote and could draw fairer congressional district lines too, to ensure the state’s overwhelmingly Democratic population is reflected in its congressional delegation.

Statements like Ellison’s are a good start. Democratic leaders in New York and across the country should follow the lead of grassroots progressive activists and make it clear: Especially in the age of Trump, Democrats who put Republicans in charge are failing to meet the urgent needs of their constituents.

Just recently, Cuomo has said for the first time it would be “optimal” for Democrats to be in charge in Albany—after refusing for months to say even that much. But he has still remained reluctant to use his estimable political power to force a new arrangement.

With Trump in the White House, the stakes are high. But there will never be a progressive majority as long as Gov. Cuomo and the IDC pretend it’s someone else’s job to create it. The IDC members should step up and work to create a progressive majority, in order to defend the people of New York from Trump. This is not the time for excuses, silence, or support for the state’s senate Republicans. This is the time to stand up, be counted, and provide the leadership this moment demands.

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