2020 Elections:

Can Dems Win Veto-Proof Majority in State Senate?

As Tenant/Inquilino went to press, the November 3 election was less than two weeks away. Tenants in New York State are naturally worried about whether voters can oust the rage-babbling authoritarian President and his followers who control the U.S. Senate. But the races for the state Senate and Assembly are important to the future of tenant-protection laws and policies.

It is very good news that, based on the results of the June 23 Democratic primary, tenants will have one new champion in the Senate and several in the Assembly. Jabari Brisport, a schoolteacher and member of the city chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, won a three-way primary for the central Brooklyn Senate seat held for 36 years by Velmanette Montgomery, who is retiring. Brisport ran on a forthright platform of housing as a human right and will be a great addition to the pro-tenant caucus in the Senate Democratic conference.

Six insurgents in Brooklyn and Queens defeated longtime Assembly incumbents. Marcela Mitaynes, a longtime tenant organizer in Sunset Park and Tenants PAC board member, will be a fierce pro-tenant legislator. So will the others: Phara Souffrant Forrest, a nurse and Crown Heights Tenant Union member in central Brooklyn; Emily Gallagher in north Brooklyn; Zohran Mamdani in western Queens; and Jessica González-Rojas and Jenifer Rajkumar in central Queens. Mitaynes, Souffrant, and Mamdani were supported by NYC DSA.

These six will make the small protenant caucus in the Assembly Democratic conference much larger. (At press time, incumbent Walter Mosley was still campaigning on the Working Families Party line against Souffrant, despite the WFP’s endorsing Souffrant after she won the primary. Under state election law, having given its ballot line to Mosley, the WFP cannot take it back.)

In the Bronx, progressive Amanda Septimo will replace machine-hack incumbent Carmen Arroyo, who got booted from the ballot after she submitted fraudulent nominating petitions. There will also be three new upstate Assemblymembers who support tenants’ rights: Sarah Clark and Demond Meeks in Rochester, and Anna Kelles in Ithaca.

With the possible exception of Souffrant, all these primary winners are virtually guaranteed to win in November.

State Senate races

Two years ago, the Democrats finally won a majority in the state Senate—a decisive 40-23 majority in a chamber where it takes 32 votes to pass legislation. That election set the stage for the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019, the greatest legislative victory New York’s tenant movement has ever achieved. For forty- odd years, the Senate Republican majority had prevented enactment of any pro-tenant reforms and weakened several important tenant protections. The HSTPA restored most of those protections.

There seems to be no chance that the Democrats will lose their majority. But they could lose a few seats, limiting their ability to pass progressive legislation. Pro-tenant incumbents elected two years ago who could be vulnerable include Andrew Gounardes of south Brooklyn, who ousted GOP incumbent Marty Golden by 1,271 votes; Pete Harckham, who bested a Republican incumbent in a north Westchester-Putnam County district; Jen Metzger, who won an open seat in a rural district stretching from Delaware County to Ulster County; and Rachel May, who beat a rogue incumbent Democrat in the primary and went on to win his Syracuse-area seat.

Harckham’s challenger is Rob Astorino, the former Westchester County executive who was the Republican candidate against Andrew Cuomo in 2014. He has excellent name recognition and lots of real-estate money.

On Long Island, Democratic incumbents who are less committed to tenants’ rights also face serious challenges. Monica Martinez and James Gaughran, both of whom voted against the HSTPA, could go down, as could Kevin Thomas, who voted for HSTPA but refused to put his name on any of the tenant bills that led up to its enactment. Thomas is considered the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent, followed closely by Harckham and Gounardes.

Senator Shelley Mayer of Westchester, a strong supporter of tenants, has a right-wing GOP opponent. Observers don’t expect her to have trouble winning.

Open Republican seats

Because a large number of Republican senators decided not to seek re-election in a state where Donald Trump is likely to drag the GOP ticket down, Democrats could pick off a few open seats. Two based in Rochester seem especially likely to flip: Democrats Samra Brouk and Jeremy Cooney, both running on a strong pro-tenant platform, are well positioned to win. In a Buffalo-area district, Democratic Assemblymember Sean Ryan was also likely to win the seat held by Republican Chris Jacob, who won a special election for the U.S. House in June.

There are two marquee races for open seats: In the Hudson Valley’s 46th district, Democrat Michelle Hinchey, daughter of the late Rep. Maurice Hinchey, faces Richard Amedure in the race to replace retiring Republican George Amedore. Apparently the GOP hopes that confused voters will think Amedure’s name is a misspelling of Amedore. In the 50th district, based in Syracuse, Democratic highschool teacher John Mannion is running against Angi Renna, a financial planner. Both Hinchey and Mannion are strongly pro-tenant.

In Suffolk County, Democrat Laura Ahearn is seen as a strong contender for the seat vacated after 44-year GOP incumbent Kenneth LaValle decided not to try for another term. Her opponent is Assemblymember Anthony Palumbo. Ahearn is being actively supported by the real-estate lobby.

Some Republican incumbents have serious Democratic challengers. In the upper Hudson Valley, pro-tenant Karen Smythe is mounting a rematch against Sue Serino, who beat her by 646 votes in 2018. This district used to be deep red, but is now purple. In the Finger Lakes and Southern Tier, Democrat Leslie Danks-Burke is again taking on incumbent Thomas O’Mara, who beat her in 2016. This is a tough district for a Democrat, but Danks-Burke ran ten percentage points ahead of Hillary Clinton in 2016. If she wins, she will be a staunch supporter of tenants’ rights.

If the Democrats win at least two more Senate seats, they will have a two-thirds supermajority, able to override a gubernatorial veto. The Assembly Democrats have had a supermajority for decades. Veto overrides are rare, but having the numbers would increase the Legislature’s leverage with Gov. Andrew Cuomo in negotiations over the budget and legislation.

Dark money

The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee has vastly outraised its Republican counterpart, with $2.7 million on hand as of early October, compared to the GOP’s $978,000. Individual Democratic candidates have also done well in fundraising.

But a huge amount of dark money has found its way into the 2020 contests, in the form of independent expenditures on behalf of both sides. These groups are supposed to be independent of individual campaigns, legally barred from coordinating efforts with them. Since September 1, they have spent $4.8 million for Democrats and $5.5 million for Republicans.

The best known is cosmetics tycoon Ronald Lauder’s Safe Together New York, a super-PAC that has ponied up $4 million to bolster nine GOP candidates. It’s running TV and radio ads and hiring phone-bank callers to deliver messages of race-baiting, fear-mongering language, and falsely accusing the Democrats of placing “the interests of criminals over those of law-abiding citizens.” Some observers believe that Gov. Cuomo is behind this, to make it harder for the Dems to achieve a super-majority; Cuomo has denied that, despite his close relationship with Lauder.

Police-affiliated super-PACs are also slamming Democratic candidates, using the same message as Safe Together. On Long Island they are sending mobile billboards into Democratic districts.

In a switch from its recent support of only Republican Senate candidates, the real-estate lobby is now supporting Democrats Ahearn, Gaughran, Thomas, and Elijah Reichlin-Melnick, who is running to replace a retiring Democrat in a Rockland County district that includes a sliver of Westchester County. Labor unions are spending to bolster Democrats, as are charter-school advocates.

Tenants PAC has been raising funds to support 11 Democratic candidates who have solid pro-tenant positions. We want to expand the pro-tenant caucus within the Senate Democratic conference.

Esteban Girón is a member of the Crown Heights Tenant Union and a board member of Tenants PAC.