New York City

Will Albany Dems be their own worst enemy?

Experts assess the issues that could divide the state Senate Democrats – and the long-term effects.

Michael Gianaris faces off against Andrew Cuomo

Michael Gianaris faces off against Andrew Cuomo Photos by Mike Groll; a katz/Photo illustration by Alex Law

When Democrats swept into power in the state Senate last fall, there was little sign of division in the newly expanded conference.

But even as they celebrate a string of high-profile bills passed in the first few weeks of the legislative session, tensions in Albany between New York City Democrats and their colleagues in the suburbs and upstate areas are emerging. Just this week, a group of Democratic senators from Long Island sided with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, reportedly complaining about the opposition of downstate Democrats to Amazon’s plan for a major “HQ2” headquarters in Queens.

So we asked our readers to weigh in on the apparent intra-party rift between the city and its suburbs – and what the split could mean going forward. As of Tuesday evening, two thirds agreed that there were divisions in the state Senate Democratic conference between New York City and its downstate suburbs. Voters cited Amazon’s HQ2 (19 percent) as the biggest source of tension, followed by property taxes (17 percent) and congestion pricing (13 percent) – while about 1 in 5 voted for all of the options listed. Voters were almost equally divided on whether the disagreements would hurt Senate Democrats in the next election.

Now, in this week’s “Ask the Experts” feature, we turn to five New York experts to shed more light on the Democrats’ regional divides: Bill O’Reilly, a Republican political consultant with The November Team; George Arzt, the president of George Arzt Communications; Larry Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies; Steve Levy, a former Suffolk County executive and the president of Common Sense Strategies; and Jeanne Zaino, a political science professor at Iona College.

Are there divisions in the state Senate between New York City and the downstate suburbs?

Larry Levy: There are POTENTIAL divisions that are causing tensions behind the scenes – of which HQ2 is one – but they won't become reality until the Legislature gets down to the brass tacks of actually voting on something.

Bill O’Reilly: If there aren't tensions already, there certainly will be. Democrats in Albany, save former IDC members, have long been unified in their opposition to Republicans. With Democrats now in charge of all three branches of state government – and Republicans deemed irrelevant – expect regional differences to predominate going forward. That's both natural and healthy in a state as large and diverse as New York. An interesting dynamic to watch will be whether suburban legislators reflexively align with city legislators or whether they can be coaxed to partner with upstaters on key budget issues. Suburban electeds have a great deal of leverage at the moment; I would expect them to use it in full.

Jeanne Zaino: There have long been divisions in the Senate between New York City and the downstate suburbs. What is different today is that whereas in the past we may have seen that reflected in divisions between the two major parties, now the tensions are dividing the Democrats. This is, for lack of a better term, a curse of being in control and gaining as many seats and as much power as the Democrats have across the state. No longer are those divides between themselves and members of the opposition, but internal. We have seen this play out in a host of ways, most recently as it pertains to Amazon. Representatives from downstate suburban communities, most notably but not exclusively in this case Long Island, serve an entirely different set of consitituents than do their counterparts in New York City. As a result they believe that if the anti-Amazon forces are successful it will damage them in their re-election bids. The challenge here is not just for the representatives, but the leadership of the party who is now in the difficult position (not unlike their counterparts in Washington, D.C., like Nancy Pelosi, and prior to her John Boehner and Paul Ryan) of trying to appease and hold together a large and often diverse constituency, while still moving forward the party's agenda.

George Arzt: That is to be expected when each region has different constituencies with diverse problems and therefore dissimilar agendas. Suburbs take care to protect commuters from what they view as unfair taxation in the city. That’s why the commuter tax was so repugnant to the counties surrounding New York City helping to compel its demise in 1999. Upstate has struggling economies and often chafes at characterizing New York City as the state’s economic engine. Still there are enough overlapping issues to keep all the regions on the same page.

Steve Levy: Having served in the state Assembly I can attest to the fact that divisions between New York City legislators in both houses and those representing downstate suburbs are real and are based on geographic interests as much as partisan differences. The interests of urban residents center more on mass transit and social programs, while suburbanites are concerned more with high property taxes, enhanced education aid to buffer against further property tax increases, and environmental matters (especially Long Island, which gets its drinking water via underground aquifers). Density, income and family status influence policy. Suburban nuclear families are generally homeowners, focusing on the condition of their neighborhoods and schools. Young, single millennials in Manhattan want mobility, social consciousness and behavioral freedom. City residents want rent stabilization, while suburbanites want a tax cap. City dwellers want to fix the subways while suburban commuters want their railroads to run on time. City folk want enhanced health care for all, including the undocumented, while suburbanites want more audits to weed out wasteful spending. Generally speaking, on non-parochial matters, such as social issues and taxation, the Legislature is divided into three sectors: rural conservatives, urban progressives and moderate suburbanites.

What will be the biggest source of tension between New York City and downstate suburban Democrats this legislative session?

Steve Levy: The battle lines between city and suburban legislators will be drawn around: 1. more aid for suburban schools vs. payments to city schools via the Fiscal Equity lawsuit; 2. expanded city health care that suburbanites don’t want to pay for; and 3. congestion pricing.

  1. City legislators joined with then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer demanding more aid to urban schools pursuant to a past Fiscal Equity judicial decree. Gov. Andrew Cuomo says aid must be distributed based upon the realism of the state’s budgetary shortfalls. Suburbanites dismiss the claim that city schools underperform due to inadequate funding, noting that aid has soared over the past decade and that overall aid to the city is commensurate to city students’ composition of the state’s total enrollment.
  2. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to ensure health coverage for every city resident, even the undocumented. Suburbanites will bite back if he intends to seek state revenues to meet his lofty goals.
  3. Cuomo is pushing congestion pricing for driving in parts of Manhattan. Look for Long Island senators to balk, unless major revenues are slated for not just city subways, but for suburban commuters as well.

George Arzt: Congestion pricing. Many people the suburbs view this as an unfair tax on their commuters.

Bill O’Reilly: Education funding. Long Island fared particularly well under Republican control of the Senate, arguably at the expense of New York City, and to some extent Westchester County. Many suburban districts, in particular, are straining at the cost of bilingual education mandates that kicked in with the sharp and unforeseen immigration trends of recent years. They're not going to be looking to give money back. Democrats on Long Island are going to have a heck of a fight keeping funding formulas intact. They can't win without others losing, and none of the parties at the table will have Republicans to blame. Make no mistake about it: Trains will collide here.

Larry Levy: Probably over school aid and other major funding such as infrastructure and health care.

Jeanne Zaino: At its heart the tension stems from the fact that the constituents these two sets of representatives are serving have very different interests and needs. We see that over and over again whether you are talking over the years about issues of housing, education, transportation, jobs or taxes. The representatives, who are closest to the people, understand this firsthand; while party leaders are in a different and – arguably – more difficult position of having to pursure an agenda that is palatable to all sides. To do this they often try to make the case that whatever policy they are pursuing is in the larger, common good and in keeping with their party's founding principles. We saw the governor and other leaders make this case regards to Amazon. As they increasingly feel pushback on the deal, they are coming face to face with the reality that perceptions on what is indeed in the common good vary depending on who you talk to and where they live.

How likely is it that regional tensions between New York City and its suburbs will hurt state Senate Democrats in the next election?

Jeanne Zaino: The tension has long been there and will persist. As it pertains to its impact on the next election, that will be detemined by several factors, including whether anything at the local, state or national levels serves to unify members of the party regardless of where they live. In the specials post 2016 and again in 2018, for instance, Democrats across the state had the benefit of being unified against something (i.e. the president and the GOP as a whole in Washington D.C. and Albany). Imagine how differently those elections may have turned out if, for instance, Hillary Clinton had been elected in 2016. More than a few Democrats who have won in New York since that time will privately admit that they owed their victories, or at the very least the margins of their victories, to the outcome of 2016 and the unifying effect it had on many Democrats.

Larry Levy: It would only hurt the Democrats if the suburban constituents feel their new Democratic senators didn't deliver as well as the Republicans did and were bullied by the New York City delegation.

Steve Levy: Will Long Island's new Democratic Senate bloc make the same mistakes as did Democrats in 2009? Then, the issue was the MTA payroll tax that passed with support of Long Island Democratic senators – who, amazingly, bargained for nothing in return. Livid suburbanites ousted them. The new Democratic class already exhibited its naïveté by voting for priorities of city legislators and teachers unions (granting tuition breaks to illegal aliens and dropping teacher evaluations) without first getting the Assembly’s commitment to support the suburbs’ top priority: making the tax cap permanent. They can still rebound, but if not, it could be 2009 once again. Congestion pricing, another attempt to impose a new tax to fund the transit system, has suburban legislators squirming. Thousands of suburbanites drive in the city, but the will suburban homeowners perceive this tax to benefit them in any way? Long Island millennials stuck in mom’s basement are eager to apply for six-figure Amazon jobs. Woe to the Senate if parochial interests from the city’s majority scare these jobs away.

p.s. Suburban moms don’t like infanticide. Democratic senators from all regions underestimated how revolting it looked – even to pro-choice voters – doing high fives after codifying 9th month abortions.

Bill O’Reilly: I would expect national politics to overshadow local concerns in 2020, which should significantly benefit suburban Democrats. But if Democrats reclaim the White House in 2020, look to 2022 as a strong Republican comeback year at the local, legislative and congressional levels. The pendulum will swing. If President Trump is re-elected, all bets are off.

George Arzt: Not likely at all. All regions need help and they all realize the power of alliances in fulfilling their own needs and nourishing the old custom of, “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.”