Can Tenants Help Turn the State Senate Blue?

Can Tenants Help Turn the State Senate Blue?

October 2016

With only a few weeks remaining before the November 8 election, tenants are nervously anticipating the results. Not only about whether our next President will be a nutjob, racist maybe-billionaire bloviator or a Wall Street-beholden millionaire hawk. But also whether the Democrats will be able to capture control of the New York State Senate, an outcome that would make it possible to reverse the phaseout of our endangered rent-regulation laws.

Because this is a presidential year, turnout is expected to be high among Democratic voters. In 2012, Democrats won a 33-30 majority in the Senate, but were denied control when several turncoats allied themselves with the Republicans. In 2014, turnout was a million votes lower, and three marginal Democrats lost their seats, giving the GOP a narrow but clear 33-30 majority.

This year, the crucial races are in Nassau County, the Hudson Valley, and western New York. There are no competitive races in New York City, where only two Republicans hold Senate seats—and one, Marty Golden of Brooklyn, does not even have a Democratic opponent. 

The Senate Democrats, led by Andrea Stewart-Cousins of Westchester County, have recruited a strong field of candidates, and have done a good job of fundraising. But the Republicans have several advantages.

First, Governor Andrew Cuomo cut a deal in 2012 that let the Senate Republicans draw hyper-partisan district lines that favor their incumbents. In a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 2, nonpartisan redistricting would inevitably result in a Democratic state Senate.

Second, the Senate GOP has collected millions of dollars from the real-estate industry and from the hedge-fund billionaires who are behind the attacks on public education and voting rights. This infusion of big money into our elections is made possible by the absurdly high contribution limits and other loose features of our campaign-finance laws that the governor and legislature have refused to reform.

Third, it is clear by now that Gov. Cuomo wants a Republican-controlled Senate. He helped engineer the 2012 alliance between the GOP and the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference that nullified the Democratic majority. In 2014, he pledged to help his party regain a majority, but did minimal campaigning for Democratic candidates and did not share the millions in his campaign treasury. He is doing the same thing this year.

Fourth, Hillary Clinton’s coattails may not be much help. While recent polls show her with a landslide lead over Donald Trump, that is because she is burying him in New York City. On Long Island and upstate, the same polls indicate that Trump is ahead.

Tenants are playing an important role in this election. Tenants PAC has contributed $52,000 to nine Democratic candidates, and is trying to raise funds to do more. This is a fraction of what real estate pumps into the GOP’s coffers, but it can still make a big difference to help underfunded challengers running against long-term incumbents.

Tenants PAC is also recruiting volunteers to do door-knocking, phone banking, and get-out-the-vote efforts—the grunt work that is necessary to win elections—in four suburban races, two in Nassau County and two in Westchester.

The most likely Democratic pickups are in Nassau, where Ryan Cronin is challenging longtime GOP incumbent Kemp Hannon—the architect of the 1993 vacancy-decontrol amendments—and a second race for an open seat, where Democrat Adam Haber is opposed by Republican Elaine Phillips. There are also chances to pick up three or four seats in the Hudson Valley, the fastest-growing part of the state, and two more in Buffalo and the Southern Tier. Two Democratic incumbents, George Latimer in Westchester and Todd Kaminsky in Nassau, would also have to win re-election.


The case against Cuomo

Tenants, a core Democratic constituency, have been betrayed by our Democratic governor, who gets even more real-estate money than the Senate Republicans. 

In addition to his sellout on the 2012 reapportionment, he has never pushed for stronger rent-regulation laws. In his January 2015 State of the State speech, Cuomo did not even mention that the state rent laws were coming up for renewal that June. He eventually pretended to come out for repeal of vacancy decontrol, but then settled for minor, piddling improvements that he tried to sell as the biggest tenant victory ever. 

If the Democrats take over the Senate in January, we will not have to wait until 2019, when they next come up for renewal, to fix our broken rent laws. With both houses under Democratic control, we should be able to pass significant pro-tenant legislation, including the repeal of vacancy deregulation, the preferential-rent eviction loophole, and the 20 percent statutory vacancy bonus. But we will have to shame Andrew Cuomo into doing what is right.

The recent indictment of his top staffers on corruption charges might weaken Cuomo politically. Certainly legislators no longer fear him as they did when he was riding high in the early years of his first term.


What about the IDC?

The Independent Democratic Conference turncoats complicate the chances for Democratic control. The IDC is led by Jeffrey Klein, whose district overlaps the border between the northeast Bronx and Westchester County.

Klein’s story is that he started the IDC because he was unhappy with the “dysfunctional” Democratic leadership, particularly after 2009, when a surprise alliance between the corrupt Pedro Espada and Hiram Monserrate and the Republicans sabotaged the Democrats’ first Senate majority in 48 years. That stalled all legislation for several weeks, until they were lured back.

In reality, Klein’s forming the IDC was a sheer power move following his disastrous tenure as head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, their campaign arm.  

Klein has long wanted to be Senate leader. During the 2009 coup, he tried to put together a coalition with the GOP that would name him as leader. In the 2010 election, he poured millions of the DSCC’s money into attempting to re-elect centrist incumbents—nicknamed the “Kleiniacs”—that he expected to support him, and three lost their seats. Klein also directed $500,000 of DSCC money into a foolish effort to defeat an entrenched upstate GOP incumbent with a candidate he thought would vote for him as leader.

The Democrats lost their majority, the DSCC was $3 million in debt, and Klein’s colleagues were furious. They replaced him as DSCC head with his bitter enemy Mike Gianaris of Queens. Klein announced the creation of the IDC only a few weeks later, in January 2011. It took Gianaris four years to dig the DSCC out of debt. More than a dozen Democratic senators signed promissory notes, personally guaranteeing repayment, in order to obtain $2 million in loans to enable the DSCC to function. Klein did not sign one.

When the Democrats regained the majority in 2012, Klein and Cuomo cut a deal with GOP Senate leader Dean Skelos in which he and Skelos would be co-leaders, shutting the Democrats out of power. When the Republicans regained a majority in 2014, Klein’s power was diminished, but the IDC maintained an alliance with the GOP that preserved perks such as larger staff and larger offices.

Jeff Klein has consistently been a landlord operative who gives lip service to tenants’ rights but refuses to cosponsor any pro-tenant legislation. Tony Avella of Queens is the only IDC member who has put his name on tenant bills. The list of Klein’s campaign contributors reads like a Who’s Who of the real-estate industry.


Expanding the IDC

The IDC currently consists of five members: Klein, Avella, Diane Savino (Staten Island/Brooklyn), David Carlucci (Rockland County), and David Valesky (Syracuse). They are looking to add a sixth: Marisol Alcantara, who won a four-way primary in upper Manhattan’s 31st senate district to replace her mentor, Adriano Espaillat, who is headed to Congress after winning a multiple-candidate primary to replace retiring Rep. Charles Rangel. Espaillat will be the first Dominican-American member of Congress. Alcantara, most recently an organizer for the New York State Nurses Association, will be the first Dominican-American woman elected to the state Senate.

Alcantara waited until barely six weeks before the Sept. 13 primary to start raising funds. Espaillat had little money and lots of debts left over from his unsuccessful challenges to Rangel in 2012 and 2014. In mid-August, the two made a deal with the devil: They enlisted help from the IDC in return for a pledge that if elected, Alcantara would join the breakaway Dems.

That put substantial resources behind her. Klein made a deal with the Independence Party and got a ruling from the state Board of Elections that allowed the IDC and its political arm, the Senate Independence Campaign Committee, to function as a political party, which lets them launder money the same way the Democrats and Republicans do—even though the IDC is not a political party.

According to SICC filings with the Board of Elections, it spent more than $500,000 to support Alcantara in the month before the primary. That money came largely from charter-school advocates and real estate, including $85,000 from the Real Estate Board of New York. Her own committee raised only about $155,000.

On Sept. 16, Cuomo gleefully told reporters that Alcantara’s victory represented the “institutionalization” of the IDC, and that the IDC is now essentially a “third party.” 

Both Espaillat and Alcantara are clearly committed to stronger rent protections. But they have downplayed the danger to the rent laws from the IDC. If Klein cuts another deal to keep the GOP in control, no tenant bill will see the light of day. And if Alcantara votes to install a Republican leader or co-leader of the Senate, her re-election will be in danger. She is almost certain to face a primary challenge in 2018. The 31st District, which includes Washington Heights and Inwood, has more rent-regulated apartments than any other in the state.

This could give tenants some leverage, by putting pressure on Alcantara to promise that she will never vote for a Republican as leader or co-leader. That also gives tenants indirect leverage over Jeff Klein, because he has to keep her happy.

It seems clear that Klein is going to be co-leader of the Senate next year, because neither party is likely to have enough seats to claim the majority without the IDC. The question is, will he ally with the Democrats or the Republicans? That, of course, depends on how many seats the Dems pick up on November 8. But it also might depend on what voters in the 31st District do to make it hot for Marisol Alcantara. The prospect of having to vote for a Republican clearly makes her nervous.


Michael McKee is a board member of Met Council, Inc. and also treasurer of the Tenants Political Action Committee.