Dr. Gerald Benjamin of the Benjamin Center has written or edited more than a dozen books on the workings of New York State government and politics. In light of historic changes in the balance of power in New York State on Tuesday, it seemed all-too-obvious to get Benjamin’s quick take on what has happened and what it means for New York’s voters.
Next Wednesday, November 15th, Benjamin will co-lead a conversation at the State Academy for Public Administration in Albany on this topic. But ahead of that event here’s Benjamin’s framing.
The Most Important, Least-Discussed “Win” for Democrats
Benjamin said the statewide majority in the Senate, retention of the Governorship by Cuomo, and the firm grip on the Assembly is a precursor to retaining control of all three branches in 2020 and controlling redistricting. “We had a constitutional amendment to mitigate partisanship and redistricting. But the final say remains with legislators.” Consequently, he said, we can be sure that Democratic control will be cemented in both houses, and congressional districts will be redesigned to favor them.
However, speaking on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show Wednesday, Senators Michael Gianaris and Liz Krueger said they’re not happy with the redistricting amendment. “It was really nothing more than an awful political outcome,” Gianaris said. “The Republicans made sure that they ingrained an unfair process in the state Constitution.” Kreuger pointed out that, given the state’s party alignment, Democrats would still secure their majorities without the level of gerrymandering that exists today. “You can do redistricting independently and fairly and you’re still going to end up with more Democratic Senate seats because the gerrymandering has been so unfair for so many decades.”
How many decades?
Benjamin notes that the Senate has persistently, with very few exceptions, been in the hands of Republicans in New York since 1894. Creating a non-partisan, independent redistricting commission will require amending the Constitution and will not be easy, even with single-party control, but it could well be in Democrats’ interest to do so, since with the current partisan configuration of the electorate they would have little to lose. Good government would be good politics.
Voting Reform Before Anti-Corruption Measures
Krueger mentioned on WNYC that voting reform is necessary statewide and that it would be something the Senate would take up as early as they could. Gianaris said, “We’ve had a system in New York that prevented people from voting because it was in the political interest [of the Senate].” Gianaris said there’s no reason that there shouldn’t be statewide early voting, and said that some of the reasons why New York City continues to have problems with voting is that the sheer number of voters on a single day is simply too administratively burdensome.
Benjamin says that even if Cuomo’s governed as a centrist he’d probably be far more in favor of signing voting reform measures than backing other causes backed by liberal Democrats in Albany, like anti-corruption laws.
Hopes and Fears of a Progressive Agenda
As for laws New York’s liberal Democrats hope to enact, Benjamin listed the Reproductive Health Act and New York Dream Act, which, in order, would protect a woman’s right to choose; and enable DACA recipients and undocumented high school graduates in New York to have access to state financial aid (but not federal aid) to attend public colleges.
Benjamin said he’s sure the Senate will act on reproductive rights, “Assuring that whatever the Supreme Court does, in New York a woman’s choice will be protected.”
And Cuomo and the Senate and Assembly’s agendas do dovetail on infrastructure.
Cuomo’s pushing repair of Kennedy Airport, while the MTA has multifaceted woes. Senator Kreuger said on WNYC on Wednesday that public transit is a massive issue for the 12 New York counties that surround New York City, not to mention the five boroughs.
Do the math: That’s the majority of the population of the entire state and to put a very fine point on it, it may not be a liberal cause, but funding the MTA is tantamount to Democratic survival statewide.
During that same interview, Senator Gianaris added LGBTQ+ rights to issues he expected the legislature to address.
Paying for Everything
Benjamin made clear that despite a desired liberal agenda, or an infrastructure agenda, somehow these initiatives have to get paid for. “Cuomo had an ally in the Republican Senate on that,” Benjamin noted, that enabled him to resist spending without having to look like the bad guy, “But now he has no ally. So he has to manage the expectations of the left, and he has to be responsive to the core constituency, which wants him to protect New York’s economy.” But, Benjamin said, Cuomo’s very adept at political maneuvering, as he’s shown using Trump’s own tax plan to enable Amazon to open operations in Long Island City.
Good Luck on Single-Payer Health Care
Single-payer health care is one issue that, in theory, could be addressed by the legislature and the executive, but it also might not happen quickly. Both Kreuger and Gianaris fairly slyly said that they couldn’t go too fast on this idea because New York State needs a federal waiver to operate such a system. “We still have a guy named Donald Trump in charge and I don’t think he’d give us the waivers we require,” Kreuger said. “New Yorkers want better access and better quality health care without bankrupting them,” Kreuger said. That coda gives you some idea of what Benjamin also noted: Democrats want a durable majority, and that means not passing painful taxes in the name of expanding a social agenda.
Single Party Rule — in Context
There is a temptation, Benjamin said, to view single-party rule as a panacea. “Democrats had brief control in 2009-10, but they proved unable to govern.” That was by a very slim 32-30 majority in the State Senate. It was also a poor time to raise taxes, during the Great Recession, and after the Democrats voted to do so, they lost power, mostly by losing districts they’d recently won, on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley. Governor Cuomo, who would seem to have more power than at any time in his tenure, framed this 2018 election carefully when he was interviewed on WVOX in Westchester Wednesday, saying “This is not a one-dimensional state politically.”
Benjamin echoed that sentiment, pointing out that new Senate members like Democrat James Skoufis, who narrowly won New York’s 39th Senate district, represent complex, even conservative-leaning constituents. “That balance is not easy,” noted Cuomo. “Democrats have won the Senate before only to lose it.”
But Benjamin thinks Democrats may have an easier hand to play than in 2009. “The conference is going to try to protect its young members because they want to entrench their majority.” And Cuomo said that these new representatives “Understand they have to represent their districts,” and Benjamin is fairly certain one way that will happen is with the governor actually doing what seems to come most naturally to him — checking the impulses of the more liberal wing of his own party.
Benjamin made clear that just because Democrats control all three major political institutions won’t suddenly make all the problems of statewide governance evaporate. Albany politics, he said, have never been known for sweetness and light, even during times of single-party rule.