The crowd at the Bronx Ale House erupted in cheers and shouts. Some danced or jumped up and down, although the bar was so crowded that could have gotten someone hurt. Every eye was focused on one of several video screens, some tuned to New York 1, some to Bronx News 12.
When the victor in the primary for the 34th state Senate district was declared, the response was deafening. Alessandra Biaggi had upset incumbent Jeff Klein for the Bronx-Westchester seat, winning 55 percent of the vote.
Klein was the founder of the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of rogue senators who entered into a power-sharing arrangement with the Republicans that enabled the GOP to keep control of the chamber even during the two years (2013-2014) when the Democrats held a 33-30 majority. They claimed credit for some progressive half-measures and things that a Democratic majority would have passed anyway, but their move was directly responsible for killing numerous progressive bills, including all legislation to strengthen tenant protections and stop the loss of rent-regulated and other affordable housing.
The Republicans gave them all the goodies controlled by the majority: larger offices, extra staff, committee chairmanships, and extra discretionary funds to shower on their districts. Klein and his cronies got away with this for a while, because most voters were not paying attention. The election of Donald Trump changed that. A newly energized electorate began to hold them accountable. When the last IDC recruit, Jose Peralta of Queens, announced his defection in early 2017, his constituents erupted in anger.
Then, after years of claiming that he could not force the Democrats to unite, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in April that Klein had agreed to dissolve the IDC and become deputy to Democratic Senate leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (Westchester). But the anger toward the IDC actually grew stronger, culminating in their collective loss in the September 13 primary.
In addition to Biaggi unseating Klein, former City Councilmember Robert Jackson defeated Marisol Alcantara in northern Manhattan. In Queens, former City Comptroller John Liu beat Tony Avella, and Jessica Ramos won handily over Peralta. Zellnor Myrie defeated Jesse Hamilton in Brooklyn, and Rachel May edged David Valesky of Syracuse. Only two IDC members, Diane Savino of Staten Island and David Carlucci of Rockland County, survived their primaries.
The New York City victors are virtually guaranteed to win in the November 6 general election. The Syracuse district is less reliably Democratic, and at press time, there was some speculation that Valesky, who had not yet conceded, might run on the Independence Party line in November. That could split the vote, allowing Republican Janet Burman to win.
All eight of the challengers ran on unapologetically progressive platforms, including embracing the agenda of the tenant movement. Tenants played a big role in their campaigns, knocking on doors, phone-banking and doing get-out-the-vote work. Tenants PAC recruited volunteers and gave a total of $11,000 to four of the anti-IDC challengers. This was dwarfed by the massive amounts of real-estate money pumped into trying to protect the IDC incumbents. But as Alessandra Biaggi said at her victory party, “If this does not prove that political currency is people over money, I do not know what does.”
Klein spent at least $2 million. One Bronx voter said that when he returned from a week’s vacation, there were eight pieces of Klein literature in his mailbox.
Another significant change happened in the north Brooklyn district represented for many years by Martin Malavé Dilan. A real-estate favorite, Dilan was decisively beaten by Julia Salazar, a member of Democratic Socialists of America.
In the “super Jewish” Brooklyn district covering Borough Park, Ditmas Park and Midwood, Simcha Felder, a Democrat who has caucused with the Republicans since his 2012 election, handily turned back a challenge from attorney Blake Morris, the first time he has faced a primary opponent. Some have called for Felder to be expelled from the Democratic Party.
What it means
There are two larger contexts here. One is that with the purging of the IDC and their replacement with steadfast tenant advocates, the Senate Democratic conference next year will be even more committed to strong tenant protections. Gov. Cuomo, never a tenant advocate, will have a hard time backing away from the campaign promises he made to fend off progressive challenger Cynthia Nixon. That includes his promise to support repealing vacancy decontrol, a position he had refused to take in his eight years in office. And he won’t have his ally Jeff Klein to help slow things down in the Senate. The ground has shifted.
The second is that tenants cannot rest on our laurels, but must work during the seven weeks left before the November 6 general election to flip more seats from GOP to Democratic control. The Democrats now technically have a 32-31 majority, but Felder’s defection gives the Republicans the 32nd vote they need to pass or kill legislation.
There are several possible pickups, most on Long Island or in the Hudson Valley. Gaining one seat would give the Democrats control, but if they can return to Albany in January with 36 or 37 seats, that would make life easier for both them and tenants. The real-estate lobby will be courting the newly elected Democrats with cash, especially those from upstate.
That six of the eight IDC members went down on the same night is a huge victory, and tenants can proudly claim some credit. As Cynthia Nixon said in her concession speech, “The blue wave is real, and it is not only coming for Republicans—it is coming for Democrats who act like them.”
Governor & Lieutenant Governor
Even though they did not win, tenants owe a great deal of thanks to Cynthia Nixon and Jumaane Williams for challenging Andrew Cuomo and his handmaiden Kathy Hochul. In a way, Nixon was the best governor tenants have ever had. Her challenge forced Cuomo to move to the left on many issues, including rent. If he did not think she was a serious opponent, he would not have spent $25 million of his $32 million war chest blanketing the airwaves with ads.
When the state rent and coop laws come up for renewal on June 15, it will now be harder for Cuomo to deliver a result that will make his real-estate donors happy. In 2011 and 2015, the governor negotiated piddling improvements to rent regulations while leaving all the loopholes that let landlords jack up rents intact. Both times, he issued ludicrous claims that these were great tenant victories.
Cuomo also earned a lot of negative coverage in the campaign’s last week. The weekend before the primary, the state Democratic Party he controls sent out a mailer to Jewish voters falsely accusing Nixon of anti- Semitism. This blew up in his face, drawing scathing criticism from the New York Times and teachers’ union leader Randi Weingarten, whose wife is the rabbi of the synagogue Nixon’s family attends. Cuomo denied any responsibility and refused to apologize. Also, following his “grand opening” of the new Hudson River bridge, engineers closed it due to safety concerns, and it came out that Cuomo’s minions had offered sweeteners to the contractors to get the project open in time for a photo opportunity before the primary.
Despite losing to Hochul, Jumaane Williams made a credible argument that the lieutenant governor should not be merely a ribbon-cutting second banana, but an independent advocate for the people of the state, willing to challenge the governor and hold him accountable.
The messiest race on the September 13 primary ballot was for Attorney General, a position that opened up in May when Eric Schneiderman resigned within hours of a New Yorker article about his abuse of a series of girlfriends. Four candidates competed: New York City Public Advocate Letitia “Tish” James, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney from the lower Hudson Valley, Buffalo attorney Leecia Eve, and Fordham Law School professor Zephyr Teachout, who had bravely challenged Cuomo in the 2014 primary.
James, immediately tagged as the front-runner, cut a deal with Cuomo to earn his support and help with fundraising. The governor, enraged that the Working Families Party had endorsed Nixon, threatened to withhold his support if she accepted its ballot line, and despite having been elected to the City Council in 2003 as a WFP candidate, James agreed. That proved to be a bad miscalculation. Six months ago, few would have questioned her progressive bona fides, but taking the deal gave James the aura of a corporate-establishment Democrat. Then the campaign cash started coming in from all of the scuzzy Cuomo donors, including landlords.
Maloney, who voted to weaken the Dodd-Frank Act’s controls on financial institutions and was the only New York Democrat who voted against Obamacare, got substantially more landlord money. The real-estate lobby also funded an attack on Teachout.
In the end, James won, Teachout came in second, Maloney third, and Eve a distant fourth. If James defeats Republican Keith Wofford in November, she will be the first woman to be elected Attorney General and the first African- American woman to win a statewide office.
Tish James now has to demonstrate that she is not Andrew Cuomo’s puppet. Let’s hope that she does.
Michael McKee is treasurer of the Tenants Political Action Committee and a board member of Met Council on Housing.