It took nearly three weeks, but the result, for State Senate Democrats, was worth the wait.
Despite pronounced and expensive efforts by law-enforcement unions and others to loosen the party's hold on the State Senate, that appeared from the Election Night results to have succeeded, the party secured a veto-proof super-majority following the counting of absentee ballots in some races.
‘A Red Mirage’
Although Republican candidates, including several backed by police unions, seemed to have secured comfortable winning margins in several key races initially, huge numbers of votes counted beginning Nov. 9 tilted many of the contests leftward.
And when Republican Rob Astorino, the former Westchester County Executive, conceded to incumbent Peter Harckham in District 40 on Nov. 23, the net effect was at least 42 Democratic members in the 63-seat upper chamber.
“The red wave turned out to be more of a red mirage,” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said after Mr. Harckham’s victory had clinched the two-thirds majority.
While much of legislators’ work for the next year will concentrate on how to plug a $14-billion revenue shortfall this fiscal year that is projected to grow to $16 billion in 2022, Ms. Stewart-Cousins said Democrats would forge ahead with the progressive agenda that gathered momentum during the last session. She said the election represented a referendum of sorts on policy cornerstones such as a property-tax cap, strengthened tenants’ rights, increased protections for immigrants and LGBTQ persons, gun-safety legislation, and investments in health care, education and infrastructure.
“New Yorkers expect certain things from a progressive state, and we will continue with that,” she said during a Nov. 23 press conference.
Setback for Cop Unions
That Democrats increasing their hold on the Legislature amounted to a significant setback for a coalition of law-enforcement unions that, citing “anti-police, pro-criminal” reforms enacted in the last year, backed a slate of Republican candidates for State Senate seats.
The Democrats’ already solid advantage in the Senate allowed the caucus to pass thorough bail and discovery reforms, which city police and their unions have blamed for spikes in shootings and killings. The law-enforcement unions’ hope was that Republican gains in the Senate could usher in reappraisals of those reforms.
The unions, though, could still succeed in having legislators revisit their repeal of a section of the State Civil Rights Law that, until June, had kept officers’ disciplinary records from public view. Because the extent to which the personnel records will be available has yet to be firmly established by the courts, legislators might be willing to curtail some access to the records, particularly concerning allegations that were never substantiated.
Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris said that Democratic gains in the Senate unequivocally reflected voters’ approval of the justice reforms passed in the last year.
“Every voter who voted in the State Senate election knew that bail was an issue and they made their choice,” he said at the press conference. Noting the police unions’ lobbying as well as billionaire Ronald Lauder’s injection of millions to bolster Republicans' Senate chances, Senator Gianaris added: “The opponents of bail reform took their best shot and they failed, miserably.”
Patrick J. Lynch, the president of the Police Benevolent Association, called out legislators for their lack of engagement with the union and said the PBA would keep up its outreach efforts to residents:
“Every single session, we attempt to have a rational discussion with legislators about both policing and labor issues. For the past two years, we’ve been met with silence, double-talk or outright lies,” he said in a statement. “For too many of these legislators, politics and governing are just games played for bragging rights. For cops and regular New Yorkers, their game-playing has real and dangerous consequences.”
Both Mr. Gianaris and Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins said that opponents of bail reform had spent time and money “mischaracterizing” the changes.
“We want to criminalize criminals, but not criminalize poverty,” she said. Reforms, she said, “were important, and obviously the majority of New Yorkers felt that way as well.”
Mr. Gianaris indicated that justice reforms would remain among the Democratic caucus’ prime concerns. “We’re going to continue to do the work that we have been doing and prioritize fairness in our criminal-justice system,” he said.
Stephanie Luce, a Professor of Labor Studies at CUNY’s School of Labor and Urban Studies, said that raising taxes on the wealthy should be among legislators' priorities.
“The budget makes it imperative that they press on these millionaire-taxes ideas,” she said.
“I think Cuomo’s arguments that it would push people out of the state don’t hold that much water” she added, particularly since New Jersey recently moved to expand the top tax rate to those earning $1 million, where it was formerly $5 million, and Connecticut is considering a similar step.
For labor, that could translate into helping preserve public-sector jobs but also bolster services and resources such as job training and preparation and extended unemployment benefits, Professor Luce said.
'Daunting Work Ahead'
Legislators could also boost worker protections by passing legislation that would extend protections and benefits to so-called gig workers, raise wages for home-health workers at time they are most needed and increase worksite enforcement
Ms. Stewart-Cousins said the start of the legislative session would be contingent on any Federal aid coming through. Regardless, she called the work facing her and her colleagues as a second wave of the coronavirus threatens to envelop the state just as Christmas’s commercial season gets underway as “daunting.”
Among the revenue-raising mechanisms legislators will discuss are the legalization of marijuana and online gambling. With both of those having been green-lighted in New Jersey, she indicated that passage in Albany was more politically palatable. Ms. Stewart-Cousins also did not dismiss raising taxes on the very rich, as some have encouraged Governor Cuomo to do.
“We know that the burden must be shared fairly and that we must secure additional revenues,” she said, “including help from our Federal Government, and that all this must be done without relying on our working and middle-class families or struggling small businesses.”
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