New York State

How progressive has the state legislative session been?

City & State checked in with longtime Albany observers and insiders to offer their thoughts on how newly ascendant progressives have fared so far.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Erik Pendzich/Shutterstock

With less than a week until the scheduled end of the state legislative session, Democrats have plenty of accomplishments to tout – but some high-priority bills remain up in the air. In this week’s “Ask the Experts” feature, we check in with longtime Albany observers and insiders to offer their thoughts on how newly ascendant progressives have fared so far.

We reached out to Bruce Gyory, a Democratic political consultant and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany; Larry Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies; Justin Lapatine, a partner at Global Strategy Group; and Ken Lovett, vice president of communications and Albany director for Metropolitan Public Strategies.

Here’s what they had to say.

What has been the biggest surprise so far this session?

Larry Levy: It was always naïve to think that the election of a Democratic majority meant election of an ideological and political monolith. So perhaps to be just a little bit mischievous I’d say that the biggest surprise is just how much progressive legislation and budgeting they DID approve without a lot of drama – to real people, not those caught in the loud Tuesday lobbying days bubble of Albany – around the state.

Ken Lovett: How even without the Independent Democratic Conference, progressive legislation has been no slam dunk. Yes, they got a lot done early, including strengthening the state’s abortion laws, new gun control measures, and passage of the DREAM Act. But that was the low-hanging fruit. I think the blowback from Republicans and the business community over the collapse of the Amazon deal paralyzed suburban senators, particularly from Long Island, and made them fearful of rushing into doing a ton more progressive legislation. It’s why issues like marijuana legalization, which looked like a slam dunk earlier in the year, and the driver’s license bill for undocumented immigrants (an issue I am working on), face a tough road this year.

Bruce Gyory: The biggest surprise of the session so far has been the threat of primaries from the left against stalwart members of the Democratic Assembly. But unlike the anti-IDC primaries, where the progressive coalition that sustained those primary challenges had a vibrant macro message – why would good Democrats work with Republicans they were able to label as Trump Republicans? – tied to labor support for many of the challenge candidates (e.g., 32BJ doing an IE for Biaggi), if the left actually goes after the Assembly Democrats in primaries, they will face huge hurdles. First, the Assembly has a pretty stellar record in the eyes of progressive voters on labor, education, environmental and criminal justice issues and the social justice issues (i.e., from paid family leave and the minimum wage, to the DREAM Act and the Reproductive Health Act). Second, labor support would be locked in behind Speaker Heastie and his colleagues in the Democratic Assembly. Which opens up the seminal third question: Can the progressives launch successful primary challenges without any labor backing? Especially given the huge size of the Assembly’s Democratic conference, for these rumored challenges to have any impact they have to win a large number of them. And to do run that many challenges, the disgruntled progressives will run the significant risk of having to spread themselves too thin. When these probabilities sink in, I would imagine that these threats of primary challenges from the progressives will dissipate. But the very existence of the threat has been the biggest surprise of the session in my eyes.

Justin Lapatine: The biggest surprise for me is that recreational marijuana may not get legalized. Rarely is there the opportunity to simultaneously redress the massive impact marijuana arrests have had on communities of color while also bringing millions of dollars in new tax revenue to the state. It polls very well. Progressives are strongly for it. Unions are for it. The governor is for it. And it has a great fiscal impact. So while it’s certainly complicated, I’m surprised it hasn’t come together yet, but if it doesn’t it shows that the newly elected and most vulnerable members of the state Senate in Long Island, Westchester and the Hudson Valley flexed their muscle.

True or false: The session has been a disappointment for progressives.

Justin Lapatine: Reality: false. Perception: true. Congestion pricing, rent regulation reform, criminal justice/bail reform, codifying Roe v. Wade. I’m hard pressed to think of a more successful progressive legislative session. But the most progressive wing of the party will still say they are disappointed, partly because expectations were so high with full Democratic control in Albany and partly as set up for the next legislative session.

Bruce Gyory: Through any realistic prism, based upon the body of accomplishments, the progressives ought be most happy: RHA, the DREAM Act, a large increase in education spending, a long list of criminal justice reforms, with real prospects for passing the Green Light bill, climate change and pro tenant rent reforms to accompany the extension of the state’s rent regulations. But that body of work comes up against the progressive reflex to never be satisfied. Carl Sandburg once observed that Lincoln was a sad man because he could not do it all at once. That is the source of linking progressives’ drive and their chronic anxiety/disappointment. The historical inability of the progressives and their liberal ancestors to stop and smell the roses has often proven exhausting to moderate voters and over time becomes a point of friction where these reformers from the left lose support from the vital center of the electorate which in the past has led to a conservative resurgence (e.g. the 1880s, 1920s, 1950s and the 1980s).

Larry Levy: I suppose if you ask an ideological rabid version of the word – or someone devoted to one very specific issue that didn’t get as much attention as they like – I suppose they would say they were disappointed. But politics is the art of the possible, as they say, and real progress needs to be sustainable, so I think that the Democrats achieved somewhere near the outer edges of what was really likely given the diversity of the Democratic Senate conference and their more moderate primarily suburban voters. If the Senate had gone much farther, at least this year, they would have been in grave danger of losing the majority and the ability to make more progress and protect what they’ve done. Even now some suburban members are more vulnerable to Republicans than they were when they took office a few months ago.

Ken Lovett: True and false. For many on the left, the new pro-tenant rent laws and the fact they are permanent, the passage of long-stalled legislation like the Reproductive Health Act and new gun control measures are huge victories and cause for excitement of a new day in Albany. But there is always more they want, including marijuana legalization, the driver’s license bill, and an environmental package to address climate change. Some have proven to be impatient, which is why you’re already hearing threats of primaries against Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and some of his members. And many progressive activists remain angry at the governor.

What is your bold prediction for the end of the session?

Ken Lovett: There may be a few surprises. With renewal and expansion of the rent laws seemingly out of the way, maybe they have time to pull a rabbit out of the hat and get a marijuana bill or the driver’s license legislation done. But with nothing that HAS to get done by the end of next week, it's more likely the session could simply just fizzle out.

Larry Levy: That it it will not end boldly. Maybe big and ugly, but more the proverbial whimper than a bang.

Justin Lapatine: Mass fingerpointing and broadsides will quickly vanish as leaders come together to claim victory. Just kidding, nothing bold about that. Despite what I said above, I think marijuana gets legalized.

Bruce Gyory: I have no confidence in any bold predictions. But I will express a personal hope that a purposeful compromise emerges on the climate change front, given the current pessimism that nothing will pass.