At last, there’s some good political news to report out of New York. A lot of good news, actually.
Over the past few weeks, Democrats in New York have legalized marijuana, repealed a crooked corporate immunity law, and passed a progressive budget that includes historic investments in working people and a long-overdue tax increase on the wealthiest New Yorkers. All of these things are very significant accomplishments on their own, but when you factor in how the state has been run for the past four decades, they’re almost miracles.
Though it’s about as solid blue as it gets in federal elections, New York hasn’t exactly been a bastion of progressivism. The months of national headlines about Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s many alleged improprieties and abuses of power offered the rest of the country just a hint of the corruption and toxic culture in Albany. But the tide has been quietly turning since in 2018, when a band of progressives primaried members of the IDC, a group of turncoat former Democrats that caucused with and gave a majority to the GOP. The progressives won six of eight of those primaries, enabling actual Democrats to win back control of the State Senate that fall.
The party expanded its lead into a supermajority this past November. Those wins, along with close alliances with progressive activist groups, set the stage for the historic advances just enacted.
“Increasing taxes [on the wealthy] and establishing the Excluded Workers Fund and doing things that are in line with progressive values require us to not only work together to beat the system, but really use grassroots momentum and political strategy to effectuate all of these things,” says State Senator Alessandra Biaggi, who unseated the leader of the IDC in 2018. “It’s really important to give credit where credit is due and we owe a lot of the success to the Invest In Our New York campaign, because they spent a significant amount of time and resources and human capital to put towards making this possible. And it’s not easy to do that when you already start a process inherently disadvantaged.”
Invest In Our New York is a coalition of over 100 progressive activist and nonprofit groups that came together in January to lobby for tax increases on the wealthy as a means to fund significant social investments. Since taking office in 2011, Gov. Cuomo has aggressively forced austerity on the state’s schools and healthcare system, with the deepest cuts reserved for low-income residents and New York City. He has also defiantly refused to raise taxes on the richest New Yorkers, even as income inequality in the state soared to record highs. Even Cuomo’s 2020 budget, passed as New York was being ravaged by COVID-19, cut Medicaid spending.
The calculus changed when Democrats won a veto-proof supermajority infused with progressive legislators. Many of those legislators emerged from the activist community and rode their support to important primary victories, giving districts that had long ago become majority-minority new representatives that matched their demographics. As a result, staunch progressives like Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas replaced “deeply mediocre” members, as one person involved in the coalition put it to me.
This gave the organizations involved in Invest In Our New York both an entree into policymaking at the same time that they rallied and pressured from the outside. State Sen. Jessica Ramos and Assemblywoman Carmen De La Rosa sponsored the Excluded Workers Fund while others joined activists and workers on a three-week hunger strike.
Not every Democrat in New York identifies as progressive — there are still plenty of more centrist legislators, especially in the suburbs, and Wall Street will always hold some power — but the numbers, urgency of the moment, and momentum within state politics gave the left unprecedented bargaining power. The significant cash from the federal American Rescue Plan didn’t hurt, either, as it provided plenty of resources to replenish schools, Medicaid, and other programs that were shared priorities across the party.
And, as Biaggi points out, with a large supermajority, they didn’t need every single Democrat to vote for every single element of the budget. That provided members from more conservative districts the cover to vote no on some things, leading to a more amicable process.
Some of the highlights of the budget’s historic investments include:
- $311 billion for infrastructure
- The first universal broadband plan that caps payments at $15 a month for low-income New Yorkers
- $2.4 billion in rent relief, providing up to a year of back rent for eligible New Yorkers
- $800 million in small business grants
And then there is the Excluded Worker Fund, which will provide $2.1 billion for undocumented New Yorkers who pay taxes on their income but were ineligible for unemployment benefits and other benefits during the pandemic. Undocumented workers were hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic, while poor New Yorkers, without their social security numbers or permanent addresses, couldn’t even claim a single stimulus check.
“These are people who really need the money,” Biaggi says. “They are people who are essential workers who have not been able to work, whether it’s because they’re cleaning people’s homes or home health aides or other jobs where it was too dangerous. There are a lot of people who are just very much waiting for this and time is of the essence. I think everybody knows the seriousness of it.”
The bill leaves it up to the state Attorney General, Letitia James, to determine how the funds will be distributed to the nearly 300,000 New Yorkers who are eligible to receive them. There are some residency requirements and other restrictions, though families whose main breadwinner died during the pandemic are also eligible. People in the top tier of eligibility could receive up to $15,600 from the state, which is a historic outlay for a class of people who are so often fully ignored by governments.
Given the supermajority, Cuomo had no choice but to accept the bill, even if he tried to undercut the payments at the last minute. His scandals, of course, also played a role in winning these big victories.
“I think it would be really intellectually dishonest to say that it didn’t have an impact,” Biaggi admits. “But I think the organizing efforts by different grassroots organizations and a real majority of legislators coming forward and saying that ‘this is something that we need to do, this is the right thing to do,’ is ultimately what put it over the edge.”
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