Looking Past 2013

Much attention this year has been focused on the upcoming New York City elections, and understandably so.  In a little over two months, we will elect an entirely new slate of city officials, and replace a good portion of the city council.  The results of this year’s elections will have a major impact on the future of this city.

But unfortunately, many of the boldest candidate proposals this year require at least some action by the state legislature.  As Ken Lovett wrote last week in the Daily News, “De Blasio’s call to raise the city income tax on those making more than $500,000 would have virtually no chance of passing in Albany next year.”  The same is true for Comptroller John Liu’s plan to legalize and tax marijuana sales.

The reality is that much of what ails New York City can only be adequately addressed by legislators in Albany.  The MTA remains woefully underfunded, thanks to mostly Republican upstate legislators who see no benefit in a strong public transportation system.  Those same legislators line their campaign coffers with money from the real estate industry, dooming any hope for stronger rent regulations.  On issue after issue, from drug law reform to the minimum wage to immigration policy, New York City is at the mercy of the state.

The bulk of the blame lies with the State Senate – more specifically, with the alliance of Republicans and the Independent Democratic Conference.  Together, these two groups control 35 votes in the Senate, and hence control which bills advance to the floor.  Over the past year, this bloc has managed to kill nearly every good piece of progressive legislation to come out of the Assembly: campaign finance reform, the NY DREAM Act, GENDA, and marijuana law reform, to name a few.  Time after time, the Senate has failed to act and New Yorkers have paid the price.

Nowhere was this failure more evident than in the Senate’s inability to pass Governor Cuomo’s signature piece of legislation, the Women’s Equality Act.  While the Assembly passed the 10-Point Plan, the IDC opted instead to break up the bill into 10 separate pieces.  The motivation for this strategy was clear: having entered into an alliance with the Senate Republicans, the IDC was wary of putting their GOP allies in the position of having to take a vote on the issue of choice, one of the major planks of the legislation.  This craven political move on such an important Democratic issue only reaffirmed the IDC’s real goal: to maintain its power in the Senate at the expense of women throughout the state.

It’s clear that Democrats must commit to restoring a true Democratic majority in the State Senate in 2014. This will mean defeating some Republican Senators, but it will also mean supporting opponents of the members of the IDC and electing Democrats who care less about power and more about achieving progressive results.

None of this is meant to imply that the city elections this November don’t matter.  While it’s true that major policy changes must come from the Legislature, the next Mayor has an important role to play, as both an advocate and a thought leader.  It might be up to Albany to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, but the Mayor can demand that the police commissioner stop the abuse of Stop and Frisk, which disproportionately affects young men of color and is responsible for a large percentage of marijuana arrests.

The Mayor can also set priorities for the city, such as improved public transportation, and lobby Albany legislators and the Governor to increase state funding. He or she can also demand more concessions from real estate developers, such as increased affordable housing and more green space, in exchange for tax breaks and zoning changes.

The bottom line is this: the 2013 city elections are important, and our next Mayor will play a huge role in shaping the future of this city.  But the only way to truly achieve many important reforms is to ensure that the Mayor will have real partners in Albany.  Otherwise we’ll see four years of obstruction and unfulfilled promises.