New York state Senate Democrats have used their first two months in control to pass significant legislation, including voting reforms, the Dream Act and codifying women’s reproductive rights. Now, following the collapse of his Amazon HQ2 deal, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is trying to slow their progress, telling them to stop listening to progressives or else face political repercussions in the suburbs and put the party’s majority at risk.
We’ve heard it in the governor’s comments, following the demise of an Amazon deal that he blames on progressive activists, that state senators “don’t appreciate their own need to get reelected in their own district.” And we’ve seen evidence in the reports that Cuomo has been calling Long Island state senators to dissuade them from supporting the restoration of access to driver’s licenses for all on the grounds that it will endanger their reelection prospects.
The governor’s political analysis is wrong. State Senate Democrats should keep pushing for transformative progressive victories this year.
Last fall, Democrats won sweeping victories, giving the party a commanding 39 seats in the 63-seat Senate with big victories outside of New York City. From Long Island to upstate, candidates including Rachel May, Jen Metzger and Kevin Thomas supported progressive platforms that mirrored those of progressive candidates in New York City. All of these candidates proved that energy and transformative ideas, rather than timidity, do win elections.
Still, Cuomo and other centrists want to tame progressive firebrands by trying to scare suburban Democrats into thinking their colleagues are leaving them out to dry. Their historical example: 2009-2010, when Democrats briefly held Senate control. Following a coup that squandered the majority, Democrats then lost seats the next election and were in the minority until this year. The centrists argue that Democrats lost the election because a caucus led by New York City members forced a vote on the MTA tax that led to the loss of Long Island state senators Craig Johnson and Brian Foley. Suburban Democrats could face a similar fate, they say, in 2020.
But 2020 isn’t 2010, an off-year election with low Democratic turnout and a highly-energized Tea Party base. First, while not every 2018 election was a blow-out, most winning state Senate Democrats outside of New York City prevailed by large margins, outperforming national results. Six of these senators won by between 8 and 24 percentage points.
This should make state Senate Democrats confident, especially going into a presidential election with likely high voter turnout. In 2018, voting surged across New York – 49 percent, compared to 31 percent in 2014 – with big boosts on Long Island and the Hudson Valley. Turnout in 2020 will be substantially higher. Turnout is always higher in presidential years – 57 percent of eligible New Yorkers voted in 2016 – but it will be especially true with Democrats motivated to defeat President Donald Trump.
Higher overall turnout benefits Democrats because it reduces the discrepancy in voting rates between Democratic-leaning constituencies such as people of color, young people and low-income people, and the richer, older, whiter electorate that favors Republicans. Higher voting rates will help ensure Democrats hold the state Senate in 2020. While Trump’s base may also be more enthusiastic to vote with him on the ballot than they were in 2018, the data suggest a net boost for Democrats. On this firm footing, Democrats should stick to the progressive vision that helped secure their strong majority.
At bottom, the call for Democrats to slow down after they passed their early landmark bills implies that the rights of women, immigrants and transgender people do not matter in the suburbs. Having led suburban community organizing efforts for years, we know these issues resonate with many suburban residents. And suburban demographic change has brought significant increases in immigrants and people of color who lean progressive.
For example, data show that affordable housing can be a winning issue with suburban residents. A 2017 Long Island Index report revealed deep concern about the lack of affordable housing among Long Islanders and strong support for government solutions that increase access to rentals. Similarly, a 2014 statewide poll found 73 percent of voters strongly or somewhat supported government efforts to increase affordability through increased investments and stronger policies to benefit families, homeowners and tenants. What’s more, a key plank of the universal rent control package, a “good cause” evictions bill, would expand protections for unregulated tenants, making an enormous difference for 1.2 million households living in rentals, and 150,000 households living in mobile homes, outside of New York City.
Similarly, restoring access to driver’s licenses to all qualified drivers, regardless of immigration status (a policy that New York had in place until the early 2000s, when Gov. George Pataki unwisely eliminated it), is critical for suburban residents who need to drive to get to work or take kids to school. While the governor has allegedly been whispering against this legislation, which he publicly says he supports, there’s no evidence to suggest a net cost to Democrats for passing the bill. On the contrary, suburban senators have a built-in immigrant constituency that cares passionately about this issue, as well as strong data on how this legislation will improve road safety and boost the economy and state coffers.
In short, state Senate Democrats are not especially vulnerable in 2020, and they should go big in what remains of this legislative session. They should pass public financing of elections, which will also help them stave off efforts by rich individuals and business interests to buy future state Senate elections for Republicans. They should restore access to driver’s licenses to all. They should pass universal rent control legislation. And they should dramatically expand access to health care.
It may make Cuomo uncomfortable, but a state Senate Democratic majority is here to stay. It’s time to take that advantage for a spin and pass the transformative policies that gave Democrats the majority in the first place.