News & Politics

Progressive Politics Gets a Boost in New York

Progressives scored big victories in key races, congressional and statewide, in the primaries.

While right-wing multimillionaire Carl Paladino's win over former Rep. Rick Lazio in New York's Republican gubernatorial primary attracted most of the media attention, progressives scored victories in key races lower down on the Democratic side.

In the only Democratic statewide race with a significant contest, State Sen. Eric Schneiderman, running as an unabashed liberal, won the five-headed battle for state attorney general. He narrowly edged out Kathleen Rice, district attorney for suburban Nassau County and the candidate favored by gubernatorial nominee Andrew Cuomo.

Schneiderman, who represents Upper Manhattan and part of the Bronx, touted his endorsements from the Nation and the National Abortion Rights Action League and pledged to "vigorously enforce every statute that protects the rights of the LGBT community." He also emphasized his sponsorship of the bill that reformed the state's harsh "Rockefeller Law" mandatory-minimum drug sentences, and criticized Rice for opposing it. (Rice said she had supported reforming the law, but like most of the state's prosecutors, she lobbied against the provision that let judges sentence drug offenders to treatment instead of prison.)

In the Bronx, state Sen. Pedro Espada, arguably the worst legislator in New York's notoriously dysfunctional state government, lost to challenger Gustavo Rivera, who was backed by unions and tenant groups.

Espada became the living symbol of Albany's dysfunction in June 2009, when he switched to the Republican side, creating a 31-31 deadlock in the state Senate that paralyzed state government for two months, until he switched back. (There was no lieutenant governor available to break the tie, because David Paterson had moved up to governor after Eliot Spitzer's resignation.)

Espada did more to kill attempts to strengthen New York State's rent regulations than anyone in Albany. His move came the day before his committee was scheduled to vote on a bill to repeal the 1997 deregulation of vacant apartments that rented for more than $2,000 a month, the tenant movement's main demand of the Democrats. Naturally, he later received a few hundred thousand dollars in contributions from the real estate lobby. He may well be indicted for corruption now that he's out of office, as he is under investigation for allegedly filching funds from health clinics he owns for personal and political gain.

"We asked you to imagine an Albany without coups, corrupt lobbyists and backroom deals," Rivera said in his victory speech. "We asked you to imagine a community where tenants won't have to fear homelessness because their rent laws are being written by wealthy landlords."

In Harlem, State Sen. Bill Perkins, another progressive (pro-tenant and pro-gay) legislator, turned back a challenge from a candidate backed by billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg and funded by wealthy charter-school advocates. And in Queens, former state Sen. Hiram Monserrate lost his bid for an Assembly seat. Monserrate, an Espada ally, was expelled from the Senate last February after he was convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence charge. (He escaped a felony assault conviction after his girlfriend changed her story from "He cut my face with a broken glass" to "I was drunk, and he tripped when he was bringing me a glass of water.")

The Gubernatorial Race

Carl Paladino's win over Rick Lazio probably has more to do with personalities and local conditions than with the strength of the far right in New York. Lazio is widely considered a lightweight. His most prominent campaign issue was his opposition to the proposed Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan. Paladino opposed it too. So given a choice between a genuine bigoted wingnut and an establishment Republican taking up bigoted-wingnut issues, the GOP grassroots is going for the real thing.

On the other hand, this leaves Democratic nominee Andrew Cuomo in a white-knight position. Cuomo seems to be a solid corporate conventional-wisdom type, one who presents the idea that there is no "responsible" alternative to laying off state workers and "reforming" their pensions out of existence.

Cuomo has won the endorsement of the labor/liberal Working Families Party (New York law lets candidates run on multiple party lines), but few progressives are enthusiastic about him. "We hope he's educable," says a Manhattan WFP leader.

Far-right politics generally don't play well in New York. Even the rural far north, traditionally heavily Republican, sent a Democrat to Congress in a special election in November 2009 after national and religious-right Republicans rejected the party's nominee as too liberal. And the Long Island suburbs, the swing region key to GOP dominance in statewide elections from the '70s through the '90s, have become more Democratic.

Suffolk County, the once-rural outer suburbs that mushroomed in the white-flight era, was once one of the most heavily Republican areas of the Northeast. In 1972, it gave Richard Nixon 70 percent of its vote, and Ronald Reagan took 66 percent in 1984--the last year a GOP presidential candidate carried New York. But as crime receded and the county became more multiracial, that has changed. Barack Obama carried Suffolk with 52 percent of the vote in 2008, and liberal Rep. Tim Bishop is likely to keep his seat this year.

On the other hand, Suffolk County is also home to a nasty anti-immigrant movement. County Executive Steven Levy, a Democrat-turned-Republican who some GOP officials asked to run for governor, has made it his signature issue, and in 2008 an Ecuadorean immigrant was beaten to death by white teenagers. A Bishop town-hall meeting in 2009 was one of the first Tea Party disruptions of Democratic congressmembers' events.

Still Uphill

Progressives still have an uphill battle in Albany. New York City has the highest percentage of renters and among the highest housing costs of any city in the U.S. Rents have exploded since the state gutted the rent-regulation laws in 1997. Yet the city government's hands are tied by a Rockefeller-era law that prohibits it from enacting rent controls stronger than the state's.

For years, Democrats promised they would strengthen the rent laws if they ever regained control of the state Senate. They did in 2008, after more than 40 years in the minority. Yet Espada's party switch blocked a whole package of pro-tenant bills, and this year, the Democratic leadership failed to push to get them passed.

Landlord lobbyists have begun contributing heavily to key state Senate Democrats--in early July, a Real Estate Board of New York event raised more than $125,000 for them. At least two leading Senate Democrats "are owned by the landlords," says longtime housing activist Michael McKee.

Democratic Senate leader John Sampson, McKee adds, did not want to "inflame the real-estate lobby" and also "wants the landlords to continue giving money to the Senate Democrats."

Steven Wishnia is a New York-based journalist and musician. The author of Exit 25 Utopia and The Cannabis Companion, he has won two New York City Independent Press Association awards for his coverage of housing issues.