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Would a Smaller NYS Assembly Be More Progressive?
On the politics of Albany
Albany is strange place, with its own logic and laws of political gravity. For all the upheaval that has taken place there in the last few years—the downfall of an all-powerful governor, the collapse of a Republican majority—much still remains the same in terms of how power operates. Bills only move if leadership consents, and decisions are made in the shadows. The State Senate, with its smaller body and influx new members, has become naturally more progressive, with socialists and leftists able to flex new muscle. There are limits to how far Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the majority leader, will let them go, but it’s the chamber now where there’s more hope for a leftward push in New York State.
The State Assembly, which for years was the only chamber where left-leaning Democrats had any say in the future of the state, is now where progressive policy is more likely to be snuffed out. Some of this is a function of how big the Assembly is, with 150 members and more than 100 Democrats. The new crop of socialists and progressives can only make so much of a difference in a sea of bodies. Consensus is prized and individual Democrats face greater political risk when asserting themselves. The Senate has turned over dramatically in the last few years but the Assembly, overall, has experienced much less change. And even long-tenured progressives like Richard Gottfried, who is retiring this year, are rarely prepared to take the fight to the speaker for cherished priorities, like the New York Health Act. In a chamber where a sizable number of lawmakers have served for 20, 30, or 40 years, seniority is the holy grail.
One of the great questions in Albany this legislative session is whether the Good Cause eviction bill will pass. Good Cause eviction is both vitally important to the tenant movement and not nearly as radical as it’s been portrayed. In essence, the bill would give tenants across the state a defense against arbitrary or retaliatory eviction and makes the absence of a lease or expiration of a lease irrelevant, not grounds for eviction.
Tenants everywhere would enjoy the kind of protections that are granted to tenants in rent-stabilized apartments in New York City. More than a million tenants live in such apartments. Versions of Good Cause have passed in smaller cities like Albany.
Since the legislation would make it harder to evict tenants, the landlord lobby is furiously opposed. Opposition has come from the Rent Stabilization Association, the chief landlord group, rather than the Real Estate Board of New York, the powerful developer lobby that is less concerned about the legislation. RSA has created a PAC and is pushing furiously behind the scenes to defeat Good Cause in the Assembly. In 2019, they were successful in getting it dropped from a raft of historic tenant protections that ended up passing.
Good Cause has the votes to pass the State Senate. Its future in the Assembly is brighter than it’s been since 2019, but the challenge will be overcoming an informal bloc of two dozen or so Democrats who are either close to the RSA or ideologically opposed to making it harder for landlords to evict tenants. One notable dynamic of the Assembly now is that Carl Heastie, the speaker, is probably operating more to the left of where the broader conference—a mix of moderates and veteran city Democrats that are skeptical of young leftists—has ended up, with his challenge becoming how to whip enough votes to make Good Cause possible. Heastie is not personally opposed. But he is wary of bucking members who are.
Progressives, meanwhile, are gaining ground in the Assembly but lack even their own caucus. They are not in large enough numbers to overwhelm moderates, who are sprinkled in New York City and across the state. Good Cause has met opposition from some centrist Black lawmakers in the five boroughs and it is these voices Heastie is having a difficult time ignoring. Inez Dickens, a landlord herself, is a Good Cause opponent, as is Clyde Vanel and Alicia Hyndman in Southeast Queens. Crystal Peoples-Stokes of Buffalo, a close Heastie ally, is not considered a Good Cause supporter. All of these lawmakers are in safe Democratic districts and cannot be easily challenged from the left. They represent districts with larger numbers of homeowners.
White moderates are another obstacle for tenant advocates. One, Michael Cusick, is not seeking re-election, and his Staten Island district could flip to a Republican. Others represent suburban or upstate districts where tenant voices lack power. Tom Abinanti and Amy Paulin of Westchester belong to this loose faction of white moderates, as well as Patricia Fahy in Albany and Pat Burke. Monica Wallace, of the Buffalo area, represents a district Republicans can compete in.
The reality, for progressives, is that a larger Democratic conference—even one with a veto-proof supermajority—is not always amenable to their goals. If a Democrat represents a seat that can also be won by a Republican, this Democrat will be wary of tacking too far left. In Congress, it is important to win swing seats and hold the majority. In Albany, the calculus is different because Democrats have held the majority since the 1970s and are in no danger of ever losing it. The supermajority has also become less meaningful because veto overrides are so rare.
Over the next month, as lawmakers hash out the budget, these ideological divides may become, internally at least, starker. Politics in the state capital is changing. It’s the pace of change that’s always in question.