Budget vote exposes Democratic divisions

Assembly Member Marcela Mitaynes
Assembly Member Marcela Mitaynes
Zach Williams
Assembly Member Marcela Mitaynes at a hunger strike rally in Albany on April 5.

Budget vote exposes Democratic divisions

Some moderates voted against the revenue bill, while Democratic Socialists changed their vote at the last minute.
April 8, 2021

The Assembly finished passing the state budget last night, but not without a little last-minute drama, as a handful of Democratic Socialist lawmakers changed their votes on the “Big Ugly” revenue bill from no to yes. It’s common for new, insurgent progressives who campaigned on big ideas to accept compromise once they’re faced with Albany realities. But the final twist in budget season also showcased internal Democratic turmoil that recently has boiled over into public view.

Earlier in the day, Assembly Members Marcela Mitaynes and Phara Souffrant Forrest – both freshmen from Brooklyn who toppled Democratic incumbents with the backing of the Democratic Socialists of America – expressed their intention to vote “no” on the revenue bill. For Mitaynes, her vote was over the excluded workers fund included in the legislation that will provide aid to undocumented workers who have not been eligible for unemployment or federal relief throughout the pandemic. Mitaynes has been a staunch supporter of the fund and even joined a hunger strike for nearly two weeks to demand a $3.5 billion fund. 

In the end, lawmakers agreed on a $2.1 billion fund, celebrated as a victory by many lawmakers and immigration advocates. But Mitaynes said the restrictions on how to access that money were too onerous and would leave out too many who should be eligible for relief. “To those who fought hard to set up roadblocks for eligibility, you’ve succeeded,” Mitaynes said on the floor of the Assembly during debate on Wednesday. She said that several of her fellow hunger strikers would not be able to access funds under the system as written in the bill. And she said that rhetoric she heard during debate over the fund was “offensive, insulting and at times racist.”

Souffrant Forrest also stated her intention to vote no during debate, saying that the budget still did not go far enough and that lawmakers had conceded too much to Gov. Andrew Cuomo during negotiations. She was disappointed that changes were made to the budgets proposed by each chamber of the Legislature, which included more revenue from new taxes than made it into the final budget. “We had a plan, a vision for justice,” Souffrant Forrest said. “But all of this was erased, set back, subverted by one, corrupted, fraudulent, austere, abusive, nepotistic governor… By accepting this bill, I will then accept that my voice as a member of this Assembly means nothing.”

Hours later, though, fellow freshman DSAer Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani of Queens said that while he originally intended to vote “no” on the revenue bill, he, Mitaynes and Souffrant Forrest were “strong-armed” into changing their votes. “We were going to be voting no on this budget because we could not accept it,” Mamdani said. “We started to be strong-armed into accepting what we had made very clear was too little.” He said they were told their intent to vote “no” was motivating other Democrats to vote down the bill over opposition to the excluded workers fund. Mamdani didn’t say who specifically they received pressure from, but vaguely mentioned fellow members, leaders and activists.

Mamdani did not pull any punches with his unhappiness with the situation. “The idea that was coming to life, was that we were being held hostage in this budget process,” Mamdani said. “So it breaks my heart today to announce that, against what I told many… that I and my colleagues… will be changing our votes to vote in the affirmative for this budget.” He ended his speech by implying that some unnamed members should face primaries.

Mitaynes did not explain her vote when the time came, and would not comment when reached out to by City & State. But Souffrant Forrest did speak again on the floor to explain why she would change her vote. She echoed Mamdani’s words about getting pressured into voting “yes” so that Democrats would not vote with Republicans. “Today, I'm being asked to compromise my principles as a Democratic Socialist, and I will do so,” Souffrant Forrest said. “But only as part of my continuing fight against racism and xenophobia, in all its forms, and all who would use it for political benefit.” A spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie did not respond to a request for comment about the alleged pressure these lawmakers received to change their votes.

In the end, 17 Democrats and one Independence Party member who conferences with them voted against the revenue bill. Only one of those dissenters spoke to explain his vote – Assembly Member Phil Steck from the Albany area said the budget was unfairly picking and choosing which workers deserved support by creating a large excluded workers fund but not approving higher wages for direct-care workers. Capital DistrictAssembly Member Carrie Woerner, who voted no, had previously said she opposed the excluded workers fund. For the most part, those casting dissenting votes were moderate Democrats from the suburbs or upstate.

Progressive insurgents being unhappy with what they are capable of getting done in Albany is nothing new. The 2019 budget fell short of expectations even after the state Senate flipped blue and a class of new, insurgent Democrats joined the chamber with big policy ideas. But what happened during the tail of this year’s budget debate seems to be further evidence of fracture lines appearing in the Democratic Legislature. 

Turmoil started to boil to the surface over the excluded workers fund as rhetoric got heated between progressive and more moderate lawmakers. State Sen. Gustavo Rivera earned a rebuke from Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie after saying some of his members were supporting racists and implying the Assembly was standing in the way of the excluded workers fund. A conference dispute between freshman Assembly Member Amanda Septimo of the Bronx and Westchester Assembly Member Tom Abinanti made its way to Twitter. Abinanti also called Rivera a “Trump-like bully” for threatening not to work with him.

State Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs admonished Rivera and state Sen. Jabari Brisport for implying their colleagues were racist for not supporting the excluded workers fund, which led to Brisport creating a video response explaining racism.

With the budget done and lawmakers taking a break for a few weeks, that might provide some time for tempers to cool and some unity to be restored. But it also might just be the beginning of what seems to be growing unrest within the Democratic supermajority among old and new, moderate and progressive.

Rebecca C. Lewis
is a staff reporter at City & State.
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