Despite Disappointing Election, Opportunities in 2015

The election results on Nov. 4 were clearly disappointing to tenants, the Working Families Party, and others aiming for a Democratic majority in the state Senate. The outcome was the result of several factors, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s indifference, enormous expenditures by the real-estate industry and charter-school backers, and the poor showing by Democrats across the country. Even Mayor Bill de Blasio’s robust efforts to channel union money and election workers to competitive Senate districts backfired to some extent, as Republicans were able to generate a backlash against him.

Still, the political landscape in Albany in 2015 will be slightly better than it was in 2011, the last time the rent laws came up for renewal, when modest but important improvements were achieved. The same “three men in a room”—Gov. Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos—will still dominate state government, but de Blasio, a forceful advocate of stronger tenant protections, has replaced Michael Bloomberg, who was hostile to tenants’ interests and did nothing to advance them in Albany. And the chair of the Assembly housing committee is now Keith Wright of Harlem, a rent-stabilized tenant who has been somewhat more responsive to tenants than his predecessor, the disgraced Vito Lopez of Brooklyn.

An effective Democratic majority in the Senate would have cleared the way for major and long overdue improvements in the rent laws. But now, with the Republicans winning a clear majority even without the renegade “Independent Democratic Caucus” led by real-estate ally Jeffrey Klein, the prospects appear greatly diminished for repealing vacancy decontrol and vacancy increases; ending abuses of “preferential” rent, improvements, and fees; and strengthening eviction protections.

Yet tenants and affordable housing advocates must be clear in our demands. The death by a thousand cuts inflicted on rent and eviction protections by the state legislature in the last two decades must end. The relentless loss of affordable housing must be reversed. Many believe the simplest and most democratic way to do that would be to repeal the 1971 Urstadt law and restore New York City’s ability to enact stronger local rent and eviction protections—a key element of de Blasio’s strategy to preserve existing affordable housing, but also unlikely to pass a GOP-majority Senate.

An insider’s view

The election returns were a major disappointment to the Working Families Party, which was created in 1998 as a coalition of labor unions and community organizations such as ACORN to push the Democrats to the left on economic justice issues. (Met Council joined as an affiliate this year, as part of the party’s effort to enlist activist groups like Make the Road and New York Communities for Change, ACORN’s successor.) The WFP has taken advantage of the state’s fusion-voting laws to help elect progressive Democrats and get legislation passed to raise the minimum wage twice and reform the draconian Rockefeller drug laws. It has also used its ballot status to develop a “pipeline” of local activists to run for and win lower offices as an entry point for higher positions.

 This year, it was clear that Andrew Cuomo was almost certain to win re-election. But he has broken every commitment he made to clean up Albany’s culture of corruption—to support public financing of elections, ensure nonpartisan redistricting, and have the most open administration in history. The WFP began preparations to run an independent candidate, secure that doing so would not risk tipping the election to a Republican, who likely would be even worse than Cuomo.

 However, some of the major unions who have provided leadership and financing for the WFP felt compelled to support Cuomo because their members’ jobs depend on the vindictive governor. Some indicated that they would have to leave the party and withdraw their resources if it did not endorse him. At the other extreme, many local activists opposed endorsing Cuomo under any circumstances, based on his record. In the middle, and probably controlling the outcome, were those who see the WFP as a way to achieve things, not simply to protest or endorse the incumbent unconditionally. (As state committee member from the 69th Assembly District on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, I cast about 2% of the convention vote, which is based on WFP strength in each district, and was part of this third group.)

In the months leading up to the May 31 endorsement vote, negotiations took place with Cuomo in which it was suggested that if he enacted a legitimate law for public financing of elections, that might be sufficient to get him the WFP endorsement. But Cuomo could not get this through the Republican-IDC controlled Senate. As the party’s convention neared, it appeared that it was going to nominate Fordham Law School professor Zephyr Teachout.

The governor, seeing that we were not bluffing, and seeing polls that indicated that he risked getting under 50% of the vote if Teachout ran on the WFP line, relented. In an agreement brokered by de Blasio and some of the unions, Cuomo agreed to support an increase in the minimum wage and legislation to advance immigrants’ rights, women’s reproductive rights, and education funding. Most important, he promised to restore Democratic control of the Senate by either forcing the Klein faction to rejoin the Democrats or by running well-financed primary challenges against them. Given his trail of broken promises, none of us was naïve enough to take him at his word, but the agreement was backed by de Blasio and the presidents of major unions like George Gresham of Service Employees International Union Local 1199 and Hector Figueroa of Local 32BJ.

Even though we felt we would get far more votes with Teachout as our candidate, the prospect of recapturing the Senate was too big a prize to turn down, so after a spirited debate, the WFP voted by a 3-2 margin to give Cuomo our ballot line. Teachout went on to win more than a third of the vote against Cuomo in the Democratic primary.

As expected, however, Cuomo’s commitment to the agreement was minimal. He endorsed a few Democrats in swing districts and provided modest assistance through the state party. In a typically Machiavellian move, he put more effort and money into creating something called the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) and collecting enough petition signatures to get it on the ballot, largely to take votes away from the WFP.

With credible primary challengers lining up against the IDC members, Klein announced that they would form a bloc with the Senate Democrats in January if they won a majority. The primary challenges all failed, and Klein reneged on this agreement the day before the election, saying he’d wait until “the dust settles” to decide which side he’d be on.


Easy Being Green?

Green Party candidate Howard Hawkins won 176,000 votes, enough to move the party up to Row D, the fourth-highest ballot line, for the next four years. But the Greens backed candidates in only seven state Senate races, cross-endorsing Democrat-WFP nominees in four, running their own nominees in two, and letting Republican Terrence P. Murphy gain their line for the key lower Hudson Valley seat Democrat Justin Wagner was hoping to pick up.

When the WFP endorsed Cuomo, we knew that much of the anti-Cuomo protest vote would go to the Greens. But the WFP still got about 120,000 votes, well above the 50,000 needed to keep its ballot status, although it will drop from Row D to Row E.