Politics

Suburban Democrats lost. Now they wield all the power.

Whether carving themselves out of a tax to fund the MTA or killing the governor’s marquee proposal, it’s a great time to be repping the suburbs.

City & State New York's May 29, 2023 Magazine Cover

City & State New York's May 29, 2023 Magazine Cover Eric Palma

The 2022 state legislative elections in the suburbs weren’t quite an extinction event for Democrats, but it was a close call. They came out of the 2022 elections with just two seats on Long Island after starting the cycle with five. The Hudson Valley fared better, but only just. Republicans flipped one state Senate seat and won a new district created through redistricting (not to mention the congressional bloodbath). The remaining Democratic state senators in the region won by the skin of their teeth. And Gov. Kathy Hochul lost every suburb of the New York metro area outside of Westchester in the closest gubernatorial contest in two decades. Her opponent? A popular Republican Congress member from the suburbs.

But the electoral losses and close calls didn’t seem to hamper the influence that suburban Democrats had during the legislative session in Albany. In fact, it may have had the opposite effect as, particularly during the extended budget season, members from the suburbs of New York City managed to rack up some significant victories in killing the governor’s housing plan, carving themselves out of a transit-related tax hike and securing another tweak to bail reform in order to give judges greater discretion to set bail.

Albany has gone through significant upheaval in the past decade-and-a-half, with power changing hands between parties, break-away conferences forming, governors resigning and new powers emerging. But through it all, regardless of the particular political landscape or who may find themselves leading at any given time, the suburbs in particular have managed to ensure that the voices of their constituents are heard – and heeded – in the halls of the Capitol. This year was no different as the national spotlight suddenly shone on the Long Island and Hudson Valley when a handful of House races decided the balance of power in Congress. 

State Sen. James Skoufis / NYS Senate Media Services

Democratic state legislative losses on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley were an “eye-opening” experience for some members of the Legislature. At least, that’s the thinking of Hudson Valley state Sen. James Skoufis, who narrowly won his own reelection last year. “I think there’s growing recognition that if there’s one place geographically that’s not a bubble in New York state, a political bubble, it’s the suburbs,” Skoufis told City & State. “I occasionally speak to my colleagues about the repercussions of our policymaking sometimes, and what it means for us back home.”

But if you rewind the clock a little over a decade, most suburban officials still vividly recall the 2010 election, when Democrats lost their tenuous majority in the state Senate thanks to the approval of a new tax to help fund the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Dubbed by political observers as the “Long Island extinction event” for Democrats, the backlash to a new tax was swift as voters backed Republicans who promised not to bow to the whims of New York City. “I vividly remember that day, I really remember that time,” Assembly Member Michaelle Solages of Long Island told City & State. “So there is a lot of trauma dealing with that, so… the suburbs spoke loud and clear that we already (have) a tax burden and we don’t want additional taxes.” The property taxes in the New York City suburbs, where most people are homeowners, are among the highest in the nation.

The very tax that cost Democrats so dearly a little over a decade ago came up again this year during budget negotiations when Hochul promised a slight increase to the payroll mobility tax for the parts of the state served by the MTA to help ease the beleaguered agency away from a fiscal cliff. Both chambers rejected the higher tax rate on businesses in their rebuttal proposals, instead pitching higher taxes on the wealthy. 

But as a budget deal drew closer, the payroll mobility tax remained on the table, a pitch that directly pitted New York City and suburban members against each other. “I kind of screamed bloody murder in conference,” Assembly Member Robert Carroll of Brooklyn told City & State late last month about the prospect of carving out the suburbs from the proposed tax hike so only New York City businesses would feel the impact. “I heard from the Senate that it started in the Senate as a ‘We want to exempt northern suburban communities’ that a bunch of Democratic senators were worried about. And then it just morphed into ‘Let’s just exempt all suburbs.’” In the end, New York City saw a tax rate increase to 0.6% instead of the original 0.5% Hochul proposed for the whole region. “Our constituents are much more vocal about taxes, or at least it seems that way,” Westchester Assembly Member Amy Paulin told City & State. “So there’s always a big outcry from suburban lawmakers whenever taxes are being raised.”

But not everyone is cheering the suburban victories. The MTA payroll mobility tax suburban carveout puts a higher burden on New York City to fund the regional transit agency. The Fiscal Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, recently released a study that found the increased tax rate will disproportionately impact workers of color in the city thanks to the exclusion of the suburbs.

Asked whether he could take credit for the carveout, Skoufis nodded. He said that geographically diverse suburban lawmakers joined together this year even more than past years to make an “informal delegation” on shared issues to ensure that their constituents still got heard in Albany despite recent electoral losses and close calls. “We try and coalition build, that’s the name of the game here,” Skoufis said. “The carveout on the MTA payroll mobility tax, that, by definition, was a suburban issue. However, it’s important to note that we spoke with key people, colleagues and some external people to get buy-in to the proposal.” And so suburban Democrats avoided a repeat of the 2010 disaster.

Suburbia, suburban legislators play a critical role in really determining the balance of power
- Long Island state Sen. Michaelle Solages

In the past, much of the suburban power was consolidated on Long Island. When Republicans held control of the state Senate, it came in the form of a delegation dubbed the Long Island Nine. “Their influence was not just on whoever was governor or in the Legislature, but it was within their party,” said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. “A lot of the big fights that didn’t get seen were between the Long Island delegation and other Republicans in the state Senate in particular.” Whereas the GOP base was and continues to be upstate in more rural parts of New York, downstate suburban interests differed from other party priorities, and the Long Island delegation represented a powerful and unified bloc of votes.

When Democrats won back control of the state Senate in 2018, they also gained a strong foothold on Long Island, with six of the nine seats going blue. As marginal members that still voted as a bloc, moderate suburban members still managed to exert influence on legislative proceedings, including on some of the most controversial measures such as drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants. A number of moderate lawmakers from the suburbs opposed the measure and voted against it. Particularly in the state Senate, Democrats did not hold a supermajority, so the suburbs had enough members to kill bills. Leadership needed to whip enough votes to allow those marginal members the cover to vote “no” on legislation that wouldn’t play well in their districts so as to keep control of the chamber. Walking that fine line would determine whether Democrats would keep control or fall apart like they did in 2009 and 2010.

This year, Senate Democrats only held on to two seats on Long Island, along with one of their Hudson Valley seats. The party still maintained its supermajority, based largely in New York City and other urban centers in the state. If ever there was a year for the suburbs to lose influence, it would be 2023. But the opposite seemed to happen. “Just because we lost a few members didn’t mean that we lost power out in the suburbs,” state Sen. Kevin Thomas of Long Island told City & State. “If anything, both (state Sen.) Monica Martinez and I, we consolidated power to make sure that our voices were heard even more.” He said that meant working even more closely with suburban lawmakers in the Hudson Valley to ensure they spoke in a unified voice on shared interests.

From a political standpoint for Democrats, neither chamber suffered significantly from the losses in the suburbs, but the desire to protect members and expand back into lost ground was apparent this legislative session. “Carl has always been extraordinarily responsive to a group of members, regardless of where they live,” Paulin said of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s continued deference to suburban members, particularly this year. “He’s very politically savvy.” She added that the losses on Long Island “played a role” in this year’s session. “There was a shift in this last election cycle, we all felt it,” Paulin said. It doesn’t hurt that state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins hails from Westchester.

It’s impossible to ignore Hochul’s poor performance in the suburbs, nor the congressional losses that brought attention to a state national observers typically pass over. Now, with a fight between New York City and surrounding counties over how to handle an influx of migrants to the state, the suburbs are getting even greater attention. The region has always been a toss-up even as communities continue to trend blue, but the 2022 elections served as a reminder that the ‘burbs still hold sway. “When we talk about the balance of powers, suburbia, suburban legislators play a critical role in really determining the balance of power, whether that’s local, regional or national,” Solages said. “When we talk about policies, the suburbs are really where the policies… set an agenda for the state and country.”

Gov. Kathy Hochul had to scrap her entire housing plan over suburban opposition.
Gov. Kathy Hochul had to scrap her entire housing plan over suburban opposition. (Mike Groll/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul)

As New York continues to hemorrhage middle and lower income residents to more affordable states like New Jersey, Georgia and Florida, Hochul in January announced an ambitious plan to build 800,000 units of housing in the state over the next decade. Central to the housing compact was the authority to override local zoning laws to make sure individual communities met their housing construction targets. Each downstate municipality would be required to increase their housing stock by 3% in the next three years. When Hochul raised the specter of overriding local zoning laws, to say the suburbs reacted poorly to the pitch would be an understatement. Unsurprisingly, local Republicans leaders across the state immediately began to denounce the plan that also would have compelled development near transit stations. Republican opposition to a proposal from a Democratic governor normally doesn’t amount to much in a state with Democratic supermajorities in both legislative chambers. But Democrats in the suburbs can claim victory when it comes to killing the housing plan. 

“I subscribe to the theory that good government is good politics,” Skoufis said of the various suburban victories secured this year. He said the achievements came based on the “merits,” not politics. The same coalition that succeeded with the MTA payroll tax worked to eliminate the housing mandates in favor of incentives for localities to build more, and Skoufis argued that approach would have worked better than the governor’s pitch. “If you’re not attuned, if you disregard how the public would receive things you do here, you’re in the wrong line of work,” Skoufis said.

It’s not the first time that the suburbs managed to stop a housing idea from the governor. Last year, Hochul proposed legalizing accessory dwelling units as a means of increasing the amount of housing in the state. The suburbs balked at the pitch to increase density by letting people build more units on their properties, and she ultimately dropped it from the budget. But that singular idea pales in comparison to Hochul’s Housing Compact. Suburban backlash resulted in her unceremoniously cutting the entire proposal out of the spending plan. The future of the initiative remains uncertain as Hochul regroups. “We have to go back at it, breaking the mentality in the suburbs that growth is bad,” Hochul said at a Regional Plan Association event on May 5. “I'm going to be out there once again talking about it, overcoming fears. I spent 14 years as a local official. I know how they think.”

The exclusion of housing policy also led pro-development contingents to lament the fact that both legislative leaders and the governor bowed to suburban demands. “Suburban Republicans are firm NIMBYs and opposed Hochul’s Housing Compact,” Eric Kober, a senior fellow at the conservative think tank the Manhattan Institute, wrote in a recent issue brief. “Democrats are not going to risk further losses in the suburbs in the absence of a plausible base of support.” He posited that the electoral losses in the swingy suburbs meant that legislative leaders didn’t want to rock the boat, and that Hochul didn’t mobilize the kind of support she would need from the region to get her plan through. And while other states have managed to form bipartisan coalitions among lawmakers to achieve similar housing reforms, Kober argued that the environment isn’t right for that in New York. Influential lawmakers from Manhattan that may have helped push the suburban policies through opposed parts of the housing plan that would have allowed for greater density in New York City, which meant that Hochul’s proposal had few strong advocates in the Legislature. As the politics stand now, the suburbs hold significant influence, regardless of if the final policy outcomes are positive or negative for the state as a whole. “Democrats will need to solve this problem within their own caucus,” he wrote.

Correction: This story originally misstated the number of seats Democrats held on Long Island prior at the start of the 2022 election cycle. They held five, not six. This story also originally misstated the number of seats Democrats lost in the Hudson Valley. They lost one seat, but lost two elections.

NEXT STORY: Lawmakers consider a bevy of appointments in waning days of session – including two former Assembly members

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