Can Michael Gianaris lead the revolution?

State Sen. Michael Gianaris was a "liberal regular." Then Queens transformed around him.
State Sen. Michael Gianaris was a "liberal regular." Then Queens transformed around him.
Sean Pressley
State Sen. Michael Gianaris was a "liberal regular." Then Queens transformed around him.

Can Michael Gianaris lead the revolution?

Or is Joe Crowley’s old pal just along for the ride?
August 5, 2019

Michael Gianaris is aware of his surroundings. On a warm July morning at a café, just weeks after the end of a state legislative session that featured the passage of one blockbuster progressive bill after another, the state Senate deputy majority leader reflects on the successful session and his own role in orchestrating those victories. Before he orders a latte, Gianaris suggests moving to a “Godfather”-style booth in the corner where he can sit with his back against the wall, not running the risk of being approached unexpectedly. You never know where you’re going to run into an Amazon supporter, he jokes.

At Queen’s Room – a bistro bar half full of 20-somethings working on laptops – Gianaris does not catch any grief for his fervid opposition to a planned (and since lost) Amazon headquarters in Long Island City, Queens. In other neighborhoods, contributing to the loss of more than 25,000 jobs that Amazon had promised to bring to New York might amount to a stain on one’s political record. Here, it’s another stamp of approval from Queens’ growing contingent of progressive Democrats. Astoria, after all, is one of the gentrifying neighborhoods where young newcomers helped elect Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over veteran congressman Joseph Crowley. It’s also the current home of insurgent Queens district attorney candidate Tiffany Cabán, another new voice that has energized a young and reform-minded electorate.

For anyone just tuning in to New York state politics for the first time this year, Gianaris is recognizable as the guy who killed Amazon’s HQ2 plans. But those taking a longer view can see that Gianaris’ legwork propelled one of the most progressive state legislative sessions on record, which included the passage of comprehensive rent regulations, a set of ambitious climate targets and tighter anti-sexual harassment laws.

As chairman of the New York Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, Gianaris led the effort to unseat former members of the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference last fall. He said he recruited five of the six candidates – Jessica Ramos, Alessandra Biaggi, Zellnor Myrie, John Liu and Robert Jackson – who ousted the former IDC members. The other candidate, Rachel May, replaced David Valesky in Syracuse, while two former IDC members were reelected.

“I remember sitting with Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and we said, 'Well, let's just go to battle.’”

To get to that point, conference leaders had to decide that they’d had enough of the IDC. The breaking point, Gianaris said, came when then-state Sen. José Peralta left the Democratic conference for the IDC in January 2017. Shortly after, Gianaris and Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins plotted a strategy to not lose any more conference members. “Every day, there was a rumor about who was the next one to go; there were tweets about the IDC having more members than the regular conference,” Gianaris recalled. “I remember sitting with Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and we said, ‘Well, let’s just go to battle.’” Stewart-Cousins would hold down the fort and seek to ensure that no other Democrats defected, while Gianaris was charged with finding challengers to the IDC. As early as spring 2017, Gianaris began meeting with potential candidates. The next year, however, Gov. Andrew Cuomo brokered a reunification deal between Senate Democrats and the IDC, which included an agreement that the conference wouldn’t fund any primary challenges to former IDC members. While Stewart-Cousins endorsed those former IDC members, it was too late to stop the momentum of the insurgent candidates Gianaris helped recruit. “I don’t want to take credit for their electoral victories, but yes, we helped create the groundwork and support to get them moving,” he said.

Those victories – along with Gianaris’ successful effort to knock out a number of incumbent Republicans – gave Democrats a real majority in both chambers and paved the way for the passage of progressive legislation on issues like criminal justice reform, rent regulations and sexual harassment. “They were able to pass these bills because of a Democratic majority that (Gianaris) played a leading role in helping to achieve, as chair of the DSCC. The bills passed easily and clearly and smoothly on the floor because he manages the floor on behalf of the leader,” said Evan Stavisky, a longtime friend to Gianaris and also a partner at the Albany lobbying firm The Parkside Group, which has been a lead consultant for the DSCC for years. “You point at the Child Victims Act – in any other year, that’s the biggest accomplishment in session. You point at the DREAM Act – in any other year, that’s the biggest accomplishment in session. You point at the conversion therapy ban – in any other year, it’s the biggest accomplishment in session.”

And that’s just legislation that passed in January. “2019 will be a session that historians look back on decades from now and note how much got done,” Gianaris boasted.

Yet some say that Gianaris’ progressivism – as displayed in his opposition to Amazon, for example – is a recent political move to keep up with his changing district. Others insist that he has always been progressive, even if the meaning of that word has evolved. But the notion that Gianaris has had a great year? Few can argue with that.

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Gianaris embraces state Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins after helping her gain the majority.
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Gianaris embraces state Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins after helping her gain the majority.
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Gianaris embraces state Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins after helping her gain the majority.
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Gianaris embraces state Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins after helping her gain the majority.
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Gianaris embraces state Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins after helping her gain the majority.
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Hans Pennink/​AP/​Shutterstock

On paper, Gianaris is not the picture of reform or insurgency. The 49-year-old son of Greek immigrants, Gianaris has served for nearly two decades in the state Legislature. Gianaris’ father was a professor of economics and statistics at Fordham University – where Gianaris received his undergraduate degree – and his mother was a homemaker. He was energized by fellow Greek American Michael Dukakis’ 1988 presidential run, but immediately after graduating from Harvard Law School, he went into private practice with the firm Chadbourne & Parke LLP. “I worked there out of law school for six months, at a firm in New York which doesn’t exist anymore,” he said. “It was one of these behemoth New York firms, (and it) paid off my student loans.” Gianaris took a leave from the firm to work for then-Gov. Mario Cuomo and then left the firm in 1996, going on to work as a lawyer for the Assembly before succeeding Assemblyman Denis Butler after Butler retired in 2000. For Gianaris, there was no turning back to the private sector: “Best decision I ever made was making this choice, even though the pay cut was massive.”

Dukakis helped to light Gianaris’ political spark as a young son of immigrants, but to see the roots of Gianaris’ political drive, you’d have to go back to where his family is from: Kalavryta, a small Greek mountain municipality on Peloponnesus and the site of a World War II massacre in which nearly all of the town’s male population was killed. “My family has always had a kind of political sensibility, just growing up, it would always be a subject of conversation,” Gianaris recalled. “The suffering that they endured was always an intense part of our identity. My dad’s village was burned to the ground by the Nazis, and I would hear the stories about how he and his family – he had seven brothers and sisters – would literally sleep in the dirt because they didn’t have a home.” Gianaris’ maternal grandfather was the mayor of Ano Kleitoria, a village in Kalavryta.

Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas, who took over Gianaris’ Assembly seat when he ran for state Senate, remembers Gianaris as the older kid next door who volunteered to mentor her high school’s mock trial team. “I remember when he was at Harvard Law School, and I’d look out the window to see when he would visit his house,” said Simotas, who immigrated from Greece. “His house was literally right next to mine. And he was always just a very respectful, honest, hardworking kid.”

The Astoria that Gianaris grew up in, however, is not the same one that elected Ocasio-Cortez. Today, his district spans Astoria, Long Island City, Sunnyside and parts of Woodside, Maspeth, Ridgewood and Woodhaven. The street that he grew up on – four blocks away from the hip Astoria café where we met – is the same street he lives on now. The immigrant enclave welcomed his parents along with a wave of other Greek immigrants, though Irish, Italian and German waves came through too. In recent decades, the Arab population and those from the former Yugoslavian countries have grown. “But that all got stymied by a young energy that you’re seeing in the neighborhood now,” he said. “That’s why you see coffee shops like this and people walking down the street the way you do. It’s been really vibrant and a great influence on the community, but it has broken that traditional pattern of the next immigrant group coming and laying roots here, and now it’s become a place with a lot of energy, a lot of young people and the progressivism you see.”

The neighborhood, and the borough at large, was poised for an even greater transformation with the arrival of Amazon.

Last November, Amazon announced that it would split its second headquarters into two massive sites in Long Island City, and Crystal City, Virginia. Each site would get at least 25,000 new jobs and billions in investment, affirming each location’s credentials as a tech hub. For Gianaris – and other Queens representatives, including Ocasio-Cortez and New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer – the cost of those benefits came too steep. New York’s bid to win the new headquarters, struck behind closed doors by the governor – who offered to change his name to “Amazon Cuomo” – and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, involved roughly $3 billion in corporate incentives. Broken down, the $3 billion consisted mostly of performance-based and other incentives, plus a capital grant of up to $505 million if it hit its job creation target. “Then you had this symbolism of not only do we want $3 billion in incentives and grants, but also give me a heliport,” Gianaris said, referencing plans to secure Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos access to a helipad at the development site. “It was the ultimate example of hubris for the wealthiest man on Earth to be demanding that this community essentially hand its community over to him, and start making outrageous demands about helipads.”

Add to that the potential for an incoming tech giant to encourage further gentrification and cause a shortage of affordable housing – as well as concerns about the company’s resistance to unionization, ties to federal immigration enforcement and meager efforts at community outreach – and progressive activist groups and lawmakers like Gianaris were dead set against HQ2.

“I would not have expected the biggest, baddest corporation in the U.S. to tuck tail and run, just because I got nominated to a board.”

While Ocasio-Cortez drew national attention to the progressive case against HQ2, it was Gianaris who arguably prompted Amazon to pull out of New York in one of the messiest Valentine’s Day breakups in history. Many point to Gianaris’ nomination to the state Public Authorities Control Board – a state body which may or may not have had the ability to veto the HQ2 deal – as the breaking point.

Looking back, Gianaris said he was careful not to say whether or not he would veto anything, because even he wasn’t sure of the board’s authority. He believed Cuomo wouldn’t approve his appointment, though the governor never gave a definitive answer publicly, other than to say he wouldn’t approve anyone who was there to “play politics.”

“I would not have expected the biggest, baddest corporation in the U.S. to tuck tail and run, just because I got nominated to a board that I never actually sat on,” Gianaris said. “But it does speak volumes about how they view the need for community engagement.”

But there’s two sides to every story, and Cuomo was never going to let Gianaris get away with having the last word. The governor’s office and other proponents of the deal pointed out that Gianaris had signed a 2017 letter inviting Amazon to come to New York, suggesting that he supported a new headquarters until it was not politically viable. “The local senator who now has to cater to the local politics, otherwise he gets a primary – he does a 180,” Cuomo said during a radio interview in February.

While that letter didn’t mention anything about subsidies for Amazon, others noted that Gianaris then refused an invitation to join a Community Advisory Committee that was intended for all kinds of community stakeholders to provide input on the development. He also declined multiple requests to meet with Amazon representatives.

“I’ve seen this playbook run before, where post factum, there is a committee set up to give input on a deal that’s already been set in stone,” Gianaris said. “I was not interested in being window dressing for Amazon’s PR campaign to show that it actually cared about the community when all evidence was to the contrary.”

And what about the polls that demonstrated widespread support for HQ2? One showed 60% of Queens respondents wanted Amazon to come to the borough, compared to 26% opposed, and 55% approved of the $3 billion incentive package while 39% were against it.

Questions asked in polls can be misleading and paint an incomplete picture, Gianaris said. “Once you dig into it and realize what effect it would have on the community and on the people, and you educate people about that, that opinion shifts,” he said.

Gianaris said he has no regrets about losing HQ2. If he’s known as the “Amazon Slayer” for the rest of his life, so be it. Still, some Democrats supported Amazon, including Queens Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan and state Sen. Todd Kaminsky, the dean of the conference’s Long Island delegation. Days after the Amazon deal fell apart, Cuomo lamented the loss during a radio appearance on WAMC. “What happened is the greatest tragedy that I have seen since I have been in government,” he said. Later, he alluded to Gianaris specifically. “What happened here was a number of factors, but primarily, the state Senate made the misguided decision in my opinion, which I think is now clear to all, to treat Amazon as a local political issue and defer the decision-making to the local political senator,” he said.

“There are people interested in dividing our conference for their own needs,” Gianaris told City & State. Asked to elaborate, he said he was referring to the governor, “I’m sorry for him that the IDC is gone and that the Republicans are not in charge anymore, but we now have a strong and unified Democratic conference, whether he likes it or not.”

 

By all accounts, Gianaris is adjusting well to the new normal in Albany. To hear him tell it, he’s helping to lead both his district and the conference in a more progressive direction now that they have a real majority. To hear it from more cynical observers, Gianaris’ reputation as a stalwart progressive is the result of a recent, timely transition away from the more establishment wing of the party.

“Once Crowley went down, he very quickly read the tea leaves.” – longtime Albany observer

“Mike is very politically astute. He’s always been ambitious, and I think once Crowley went down, he very quickly read the tea leaves,” one longtime Albany observer said. “And he knew for his own political survival – forgetting even the conference, but his own political survival – he was going to have to reinvent, in a sense. And he’s done that. I think it was like a day or two later, he was wearing an AOC T-shirt after Crowley lost, which raised a lot of eyebrows.” Gianaris’ office said it was actually two months later, at a voter register event co-sponsored by the state senator and Ocasio-Cortez.

Political consultant George Arzt also pinpointed Ocasio-Cortez’s election as a turning point. “I don’t think I ever remembered him as the progressive,” Arzt said. “He was always a liberal regular, but a regular. Until AOC and the district shifted, and he shifted with the district. The district became more left and he became more left.”

“The neighborhood is kind of now in a place that's more consistent with where I've always been.”

As a Queens Democrat who has been around for nearly 20 years, Gianaris can’t really escape associations with the infamous Queens machine, the county’s powerful Democratic committee whose chosen candidates – Joseph Crowley, Melinda Katz – have faced competitive challenges from the left. Arzt and others describe Gianaris as close with Crowley, the former party boss. Stavisky denies that Gianaris “came up through” the Queens machine in the traditional sense. “(It) wasn’t about working your way up through the clubhouse, but when the opportunity presented itself, he was someone who was a known commodity in Albany, he was a known commodity in the district, he was well-respected in both places,” Stavisky said.

He may have been backed by the county party while running for the Assembly and endorsed by his predecessor in the state Senate, but Gianaris points out that he was a progressive alternative to the outgoing Democrats he was replacing. Former Assemblyman Denis Butler was known for putting up a budget amendment every year to end taxpayer funding for elective abortions. “When I came around, it was like, ‘Oh, this guy is out there for us,’” Gianaris said. Later, Gianaris replaced state Sen. George Onorato, a Democrat who was one of the “no” votes on same-sex marriage. “My beliefs have been consistent, and the neighborhood is kind of now in a place that’s more consistent with where I’ve always been,” Gianaris said.

Political consultant Jerry Skurnik noted that in contrast to Butler and Onorato, Gianaris was more progressive. It may not be his voting record that has shifted, but his endorsements. “He usually – not always – went along with the county Democratic organization’s candidates. And this year, he did support some insurgents. The most significant one was Cabán,” Skurnik said. Even still, until Ocasio-Cortez ran against Crowley last year, there wasn’t a surfeit of progressive challengers to choose from. “Nobody ran against Joe Crowley, so it wasn’t like he supported Joe Crowley over all these other progressive candidates over the years. Nobody ran against him. Nobody ran against (Queens District Attorney Richard Brown), so it wasn’t like he supported Dick Brown over the equivalent of Cabán eight years ago,” Skurnik said. “Those candidates didn’t exist. So it could be we’re just noticing it because those challenges are now happening when they were not happening earlier.”

Responding to those who say his progressivism is only recent, Gianaris points to his legislation to eliminate bail, which he first introduced four years ago, and his leadership on same-sex marriage. “My positions on the issues, which is all that New Yorkers care about, has been incredibly consistent,” he said. “(People) want to draw conclusions about political alignments, and the fact that the establishment doesn’t seem to recognize the change that’s happening – the positive change that’s happening,” he said.

A number of his colleagues agree. “He’s always been progressive,” Simotas said. When Gianaris decided to leave the Assembly, he met with Simotas to talk to her about running. “The first question he asked me when we were talking during that February 2009 meeting, he asked me, ‘What is my position on choice and what is my position on marriage?’”

And even those with doubts can’t deny that this session has largely been a progressive success. “They did accomplish stuff,” the Albany observer said. “A lot of it was low-hanging fruit, but I don’t think anyone necessarily expected the Green Light bill to pass. By all accounts, (Gianaris) worked really hard behind the scenes on that.”

Ramos said she has always seen Gianaris as one of the more progressive elected officials in western Queens. But she doesn’t deny that the bar that progressives have to clear to hold on to that label has risen. “I think the word ‘progressive’ has progressed in a very positive way,” she said. “It went from something that used to be a lot more centrist than it is today.”

In a separate interview after his first sit-down in that trendy Astoria café, Gianaris suggested his understanding of how progressive the party should be has evolved too. “I’m seeing that the party should change. It needs to change in the era of Donald Trump,” he said. “There are elements of the establishment that refuse to see that and are not willing to make the changes necessary that I think are necessary. So yes, over time, I realized that, and I wish the party at large would realize it, because it’s desperately needed for the Democratic Party’s success going forward.”

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Gianaris sits on a park bench in Queens.
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Gianaris sits on a park bench in Queens.
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Gianaris sits on a park bench in Queens.
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Gianaris sits on a park bench in Queens.
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Gianaris sits on a park bench in Queens.
Image Credit: 
Sean Pressley

Few who speak of Gianaris fail to note that he’s bright and driven. He has a commanding presence, whether he’s in a suit or a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt. And despite nearly 20 years in the state Legislature, he wears his experience well – a 49-year-old with a 30-year-old head of hair. He’s also noticeably laid-back in his demeanor, if not in his actions. “I think that’s a characteristic that he shares with the majority leader,” Myrie said. “He’s not fire and brimstone, unless it’s necessary.”

In the past session alone, he’s earned the nicknames “Guccinaris” from Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, and “G-Mobile” from Myrie. “He has very young energy,” said Biaggi, who sat behind him in the chamber this year, frequently accepting dark chocolate peppermint patties from Gianaris’ candy drawer.

“I view my role as working with our newer members, but also helping people who have been around longer to break the mold that they’re accustomed to,” Gianaris said. While members like Myrie recognize him for serving as that bridge between the old and the new, others find another quality more notable. “He listens to women,” Ramos said, adding that such a trait is rare in Albany. “I mean maybe not rare, maybe medium. Medium-rare.”

Whether Gianaris will be satisfied being a deputy or a “bridge” forever is not a question he’s ready to answer yet. A former candidate for state attorney general in 2006, Gianaris is a prolific fundraiser and currently has a campaign account with roughly $2.3 million. Colleagues like Ramos, Myrie and Biaggi would like to see him run for higher office – should he want that too.

But as a white, straight man, Gianaris’ role in an increasingly diverse and representative progressive wing isn’t immediately clear. “I think in some ways, the political atmosphere is more difficult now in the Democratic Party for him,” the Albany observer said. “Really since the racial and gender politics make it more difficult right now for him. The pendulum swings, but right now, I think it could be hard.”

While noting the need for diversity in politics, Gianaris said it’s the ideas that have to prevail. “It’s about the issues,” he insisted. “If we agree on the things we advocate, we seem to work in sync well together. And I think there’s a value to having someone in the leadership in a position of authority in the conference to advocate some of these things, and help create the support in the conference to get them done.”

He is also the son of Greek immigrants, and understands the struggle of other immigrant groups, Ramos said. Biaggi added, “I think that one of the dangers that we have as progressives is if we have purity tests where only certain people are allowed. That’s really not right.”

Gianaris doesn’t rule out running for higher office, but says he’s focused on his upcoming election. Backlash to his role in driving away Amazon has produced at least one primary challenger: Justin Potter, a registered Republican up until this year. “The beauty of what’s been going on lately is people are engaged,” Gianaris said. “If someone wants to go make the case that Amazon should be here, we’ll have that debate in the election.”

With Letitia James recently elected state attorney general, it’s not clear what higher office he would seek. Gianaris says he’s got enough on his plate at the moment, and will focus next year on unfinished business like recreational marijuana legalization and solitary confinement. He’s in a position where he can keep an eye on the evolution of the rest of his conference and his district. Whether he’s following that evolution or the one pulling it to the left depends on who you ask.

For the time being, it’s from this spot that he’ll attempt to execute the progressive agenda – or what’s left of it after this past session. “I’ve been sitting around too long to not have these things happen,” he said. “Spending years in the minority waiting for this moment, my foot is on the gas, trying to get as much of it done as possible.”

Annie McDonough
is a tech and policy reporter at City & State.
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