Democrats gain supermajority in both houses
Both houses of the New York State Legislature should be more pro-tenant when their 2021 session begins on January 6.
Tenants will benefit from changes in the state Senate in particular. All but one pro-tenant incumbent was re-elected, and five Democrats won in Republican-held districts. Overall, the Democrats gained three seats to take a 43-20 majority, one more than the two-thirds needed to override a gubernatorial veto, and 11 more than the 32 votes needed to enact legislation.While the overall numbers in the Assembly are the same — a 107-42 Democratic majority — the arrival of a large new freshman class, including leftist insurgents who knocked off long-serving incumbents, should make the Democratic conference more progressive. Its pro-tenant caucus will be significantly larger, as many of the new members ran on strong social-housing platforms.
The significance of a supermajority
The Senate Democrats picked up five seats and lost two. The pickups were all upstate, which means that there will be eight upstaters in the conference instead of the current three. Four of the five seem solidly pro-tenant: Samra Brouk and Jeremy Cooney from Rochester; John Mannion from Syracuse; and Michelle Hinchey, from a large district that stretches from Montgomery County west of Albany down to Ulster County. The fifth, Sean Ryan of Buffalo, who has served in the Assembly since 2011, has been generally progressive: He voted for the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019, although he opposed some of its sweeping changes.
Of the two Democratic senators defeated for re-election, Monica Martinez of Suffolk County is no loss to tenants. She was one of only four Democrats who voted against the HSTPA. The other defeat is bad for progressives: Jen Metzger, whose rural district sprawls from the Pennsylvania border in Sullivan County across the Catskills to Ulster County, is a rarity: a non-urban legislator who understands the need for tenant-protection laws and is concerned about protecting rural renters. Her replacement, businessman Mike Martucci, is not likely to be supportive.
While Senate Democrats will have enough votes to override a veto by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, don’t expect a flood of overrides in 2021. Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins would have to persuade moderate Democrats such as Long Islanders John Brooks, James Gaughran, and Anna Kaplan, as well as Simcha Felder of Brooklyn and James Skoufis from the lower Hudson Valley, to go along. She could not afford more than one defection.
Another new Democratic senator is Elijah Reichlin-Melnick, who was elected with lots of real-estate money in a district that includes most of Rockland County and a sliver of Westchester. He will replace Independent Democratic Conference cofounder David Carlucci, who ran for Congress and lost.
Where the supermajority might have a tangible impact is in negotiations. Because the Assembly has had a Democratic supermajority for decades, both Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie will now be able to use the implicit threat of an override to persuade Gov. Cuomo to agree to things he does not want, such as raising taxes on his rich donors. For this governor in particular, losing an override vote would be humiliating. He would much rather agree to something for which he can then claim credit.
Cuomo will still have the upper hand in budget negotiations, but the legislative leaders at least should be able to force him not to stuff unrelated legislation into the budget bills, as governors have been free to do since the state Court of Appeals’ Pataki v. Silver decisions in 2004.
The governor’s dominance of budget negotiations will continue unless both the Senate and Assembly pass the Budget Equity Act, a constitutional amendment that would make the Legislature an equal partner in the process. Unfortunately, both Stewart-Cousins and Heastie opposed the bill, and refused to bring it to the floor in 2020 despite widespread support among their members. This means that the earliest it could go on a statewide ballot for approval by the voters would be November 2023 — if it passes both houses in the 2021-22 session, and again in 2023.
The progressive Working Families Party survived Gov. Cuomo’s clear attempt to eliminate its automatic ballot line: A provision inserted into the state budget that raised the number of votes minor parties need to keep their line — and not have to collect petition signatures to get on the ballot — from 50,000 in a gubernatorial election every four years to at least 130,000 for either president or governor every two years.
The WFP far exceeded that threshold, garnering 386,000 votes on its line for the Joseph Biden – Kamala Harris ticket. The Green and Libertarian parties both lost their automatic ballot lines, as did the Independence Party, which exists mainly to sell its endorsement line to the highest bidder, usually Re-publican state Senate candidates.
New York City elections in 2021
Eleven months before New York City’s municipal elections next year, more than two dozen candidates to succeed Mayor Bill de Blasio have registered with the city Campaign Finance Board.
At least ten are serious enough con-tenders to have viable chances in the June 22 Democratic primary. Three are term-limited elected officials: Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, City Council member Carlos Menchaca of Brooklyn, and Comptroller Scott Stringer. Rep. Max Rose of Staten Island, who was defeated for re-election by Republican Nicole Malliotakis, has also filed.
The other six are Shaun Donovan, formerly housing commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama; former city Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, who also briefly head-ed the New York City Housing Authority; Wall Street executive Raymond McGuire; Dianne Morales, former CEO of the Phipps Neighborhoods social services nonprofit; retired Army General Loree Sutton, who was de Blasio’s commissioner of veterans’ services; and Maya Wiley, former counsel to de Blasio and head of the Police Department’s Civilian Complaint Re-view Board. Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang is expected to announce in January. Other possibilities rumored include state Senator John Liu of Queens and former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, both candidates in 2013.On the Republican side, two possible candidates are billionaire John Catsimatidis and term-limited Councilmember Eric Ulrich of Queens.
City Council elections
With two-thirds of the City Council’s 51 members barred from seeking re-election by term limits, more than 300 hopefuls have already filed with the CFB. Most races will be decided in the June 22 Democratic primary, but five Council vacancies will be filled sooner by in special elections. The first, on Dec. 22, will choose a replacement for Andy King of the Bronx, who was expelled for misconduct. Queens voters will pick a successor on Feb. 2 for Rory Lancman, who resigned to take a job with Gov. Cuomo, and for new Borough President Donovan Richards on Feb. 23.
Two more special elections are expected in the Bronx in March, to re-place Andrew Cohen, who will become a judge Jan. 1, and Ritchie Torres, who was elected to Congress.
Other city races
Four candidates are vying to succeed Stringer as comptroller: state Sen. Brian Benjamin, term-limited Councilmember Brad Lander, state Sen. Kevin Parker, and Assemblymember David Weprin. Quinn has also been mentioned as a possible candidate.
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams has a couple of declared opponents, but his re-election seems assured.
Term-limited Councilmembers are packing the races for borough president. In the Bronx, the seven candidates include two, Fernando Cabrera and Va-nessa Gibson, as well as Councilmember Rafael Salamanca (who is not term-limited), Assemblymember Nathalia Fer-nandez, and Sen. Luis Sepúlveda. Three outgoing Councilmembers, Robert Cornegy, Mathieu Eugene, and Antonio Reynoso, are among the 10 candidates in Brooklyn, along with Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon.
The six hopefuls for Manhattan Borough President include state Sen. Brad Hoylman and term-limited Councilmembers Benjamin Kallos and Mark Levine. Donovan Richards is expected to coast to re-election in Queens.
In Staten Island, two Republicans have filed: term-limited Councilmember Steven Matteo and former GOP county chair Laticia Remauro. Democratic possibilities include Councilmember Debi Rose and Assemblymember Michael Cusick, who voted against the HSTPA.
Beginning with the Feb. 2 special election in Queens, New Yorkers in 2021 will cast ballots using the ranked-choice voting (RCV) system, which was approved by 74 percent of voters in 2019. Instead of voting for a single candidate, voters pick up to five and rank them in order of preference. If no candidate wins a majority of first-choice votes, the last-place candidate is eliminated and their voters’ second choice is counted. The process is continued until someone reaches 50 percent. The system, now used for municipal elections in San Francisco and Minneapolis, is touted as a way to ensure that winners have genuine majority support and to avoid expensive, low-turnout runoff elections.
However, six black Councilmembers filed a lawsuit Dec. 8 seeking to delay its implementation, claiming that it will disenfranchise voters of color be-cause the city has not yet educated the public about how it works. “Black voters are not stupid. It is insulting to say that they will not be able to un-derstand,” Bertha Lewis of the Black Institute responded at a Dec. 7 Council hearing.
One side effect of RCV might be more civility, as candidates who make nasty attacks on their opponents risk alienating voters they hope will pick them as second or third choices. At a Dec. 5 mayoral forum on housing issues sponsored by the West Side Neighborhood Alliance, the eight candidates who attended held a substantive and calm discussion, occasionally complimenting their opponents.
Esteban Girón is a member of the Crown Heights Tenant Union and a board member of the Tenants Political Action Committee.