How the state budget could protect New York Democrats in November

Provisions on affordable housing, retail theft, squatters and more may help respond to Republican attacks.

Gov. Kathy Hochul brought a post-budget checklist on combating retail theft to an event.

Gov. Kathy Hochul brought a post-budget checklist on combating retail theft to an event. Susan Watts/Office of Gov/ Kathy Hochul

After Gov. Kathy Hochul proposed her executive budget in January, she wasted little time heading to a key battleground region in the state. “I knew I wanted to come to Long Island first for my first rollout of the plan,” Hochul said at a press conference in Suffolk County just two days after unveiling her spending plan in Albany.

It made sense. Earlier that month, Hochul had offered up a State of the State address with an agenda that seemed tailor-made to appease suburban moderates during a crucial election year – focused on combating crime, with no new taxes or the unpopular housing construction mandates that went over like a lead brick last year. Democrats had performed particularly poorly on Long Island in 2022, losing all four congressional seats in the region after previously holding half of them. The heart of Republicans’ winning message that year was fear around crime increases following Democratic criminal justice reforms out of Albany.

Several months later, the enacted budget largely reflected the vision that Hochul laid out in her State of the State. It’s a spending plan that could offer vulnerable incumbents and Democratic congressional candidates a defense against the types of attacks that helped defeat the party’s candidates two years ago. But the budget may not end up playing a decisive role in November. Republicans are already developing new lines of attack against Democrats – maybe you’ve heard about what’s happening on college campuses? – and the presidential race could drown out most other talking points for both Democrats and Republicans down ballot.

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This year’s budget was three weeks late, as Hochul and legislative leaders fought over issues like education funding, mayoral control of New York City schools and housing. But in the end, the governor got most of what she wanted. That makes this arguably her strongest spending plan since taking office – and one that could stand to benefit the Democratic Party during a crucial election year. “One of the things you see with this budget is that the governor has embraced her dual role as the chief executive and the head of the Democratic Party,” said Basil Smikle, the former executive director of the state Democratic Party. “I also think that it has the ability to protect incumbents from challenges on both the left and the right.”

The budget contained a number of provisions that should benefit state legislators who are facing primary and general election challenges. As a late addition, lawmakers and the governor agreed to add in language to address the issue of squatting in New York City, which rose to prominence thanks to several viral videos, coverage in right-leaning media and attention from Republican politicians. Shortly before the budget passed, Assembly Member Ron Kim – a progressive who narrowly won reelection in 2022 and is facing both a strong primary challenge from the right and a tough general election fight this year – introduced legislation related to squatting and rallied for his bill. Its language was included in the enacted spending plan.

The inclusion gave a vulnerable incumbent a win to campaign on – and offered an assurance to a class of New Yorkers that Democrats hope to win over after some tough years in the suburbs. “This is something that we need to give middle-class constituents the reassurance that we take property rights seriously in our state,” Kim told City & State, adding that Democrats’ strong focus on tenant protections in recent budget cycles has highlighted the tensions among tenants, landlords and homeowners. “We just want people to understand that we still have a constitution that defends people’s property rights,” Kim said. “And we don’t want middle-class homeowners to think that, you know, you forgot about their views.”

This year’s budget also included some tenant protections as part of a broad housing deal meant to spur more construction after two years of inaction. Although the final deal left both tenant advocates and real estate interests unhappy, it should help incumbent legislators facing left-wing primary challengers, who now have concrete accomplishments related to housing to campaign on when they head back to their districts. “We’re seeing a lot of momentum and pressure, because people are really, really feeling the problems,” said Annemarie Gray, executive director of the pro-housing group Open New York. The group, which offered muted praise for parts of the housing deal, recently launched a PAC to support pro-housing candidates in the upcoming elections and has begun the process of endorsing.

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In the 2022 midterm elections, Democrats around the country succeeded by focusing heavily on national issues like abortion rights, but Republicans overperformed in New York by campaigning on public safety concerns. Republican congressional candidates capitalized on ire against Hochul and Democrats in the Legislature and swept many of New York City’s suburbs, which allowed the GOP to take control of the House. Smikle, the former head of the state Democratic Party, said that this year Hochul is placing a strong “emphasis on supporting Democrats (and) supporting the party as a whole,” which is reflected in her budget priorities.

In 2022 and 2023, Hochul spent most of her political capital to win rollbacks to the state’s landmark bail reform law, which Republicans blamed for increasing crime. This year, though, the governor focused on a series of specific issues making headlines – introducing measures to expand the list of hate crimes, make it easier for cities to shut down illegal pot shops and increase penalties for retail theft and assaulting retail workers.

In the lead-up to budget negotiations, Hochul went on a charm offensive to promote her public safety agenda, appearing with prosecutors supportive of her proposals and defending her successful push in last year’s budget for a provision giving judges greater discretion to set bail. “We’re not talking about, you know, a kid who makes a mistake one time,” Hochul said at a February event alongside Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz touting her retail theft agenda. “We are not criminalizing poverty here.” The following month, Hochul took her message upstate with an appearance at the New York State Police headquarters, where she celebrated the progress the state has made in addressing gun safety and vowed that “our next challenge is retail theft.”

Over opposition from Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and some legislators in the state Senate who objected to increasing criminal penalties for retail theft, Hochul successfully fought for higher sentences for retail theft and other punitive measures, such as aggregating multiple smaller offenses into a higher-level charge. The final budget also included an expanded definition of hate crimes, after Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, local lawmakers and civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, all expressed support for it. The budget also addressed the issue of migrants, which emerged as a top issue in the special election between Rep. Tom Suozzi and Republican candidate Mazi Melesa Pilip on Long Island, by allocating $2.4 billion to support New York City as it continues to accept asylum-seekers.

The criminal justice and hate crime changes are playing well with some Democrats running in swing districts. “I really feel that the budget responded to these issues in a lot of really positive ways,” said Democratic candidate Kim Keiserman, who is running on Long Island against Republican state Sen. Jack Martins and plans to use Democratic budget victories as part of her strategy. She said voters still express concerns about public safety when she knocks on doors – and the issue consistently ranks among the top issues for voters in polling. “We’ll be reminding voters that we’re making these very positive moves in public safety, and this is the kind of thing that I’ll be supporting.”

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The state budget may be designed to insulate Democrats from Republican attacks, but it’s not clear that it will be the deciding factor in various races. The 2024 election cycle is an entirely different beast than 2022. Two years ago, Hochul was at the top of the ticket in New York. This year, she’s not even on the ballot. That may actually be a boon for Democrats, as many observers credited her lackluster performance with negatively impacting races down ballot and the latest Siena College polling has her favorability and job approval ratings at all-time lows. Hochul notably did not stump for Suozzi during his high-profile race in February despite her role as de facto head of the state Democratic Party. And in the weeks following the state budget, she has only visited a swing district to celebrate her policy successes in the spending plan once.

Instead, President Joe Biden and Donald Trump will be at the top of the ticket, and any thoughts about the specific policies included in the state budget could be reflected by voters’ sentiments about the two presidential candidates. “With the presidential campaign at the top of the ticket, I don’t think what Hochul does, or doesn’t do, will make a particular difference in any of the competitive congressional races,” said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. “Yes, she may be cited by Republicans along with several other high-profile Democrats as supposedly insensitive to their constituents on housing and crime, to see if that still sticks, but mostly it’s going to be about Trump and Biden.”

One Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, called this year’s spending plan a “do no harm budget” with real wins for a governor who herself is not up for reelection for another two years. That hasn’t stopped Republicans like Alison Esposito, who is running against Rep. Pat Ryan in a Hudson Valley swing seat, from attacking the budget. In a statement to City & State, Esposito said Hochul and the budget did “absolutely NOTHING to address New York’s violent crime crisis.”

When asked about how the state budget might impact his race, Ryan did not directly reference any of the policies included in the budget. “The far-right only looks backwards, fear mongering and sowing division with no regard for actually delivering results,” he said in a statement to City & State. It’s not the first time the first-term Democrat has distanced himself from Hochul. He also tacitly criticized her decision to send National Guard troops into the New York City subway system in March as a means to address unease over crime.

Republicans have already begun to focus on new issues that were not addressed during the budget process, such as recent college protests against the war in Gaza. These protests, which have centered around Columbia University in New York City, have drawn national attention and scrutiny, redefining debates around antisemitism. While the budget attempted in some way to address the issue of antisemitism with its hate crime provisions, Republicans are now framing antisemitism as an issue of higher education funding and Democratic inaction endangering students.

Republican Rep. Mike Lawler, a first-term Hudson Valley Republican facing a staunch Democratic challenge from former Rep. Mondaire Jones, recently made headlines when the House passed his legislation that would redefine antisemitism to include certain criticisms of Israel, and imperil the federal funding for colleges that permit such speech. Although viewed by First Amendment advocates as an assault on free speech and a means to silence student protesters, the measure passed with bipartisan support. A majority of Democrats voted in favor, including New York Democrats like Ryan, Suozzi and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries.

House Speaker Mike Johnson even made a rare trip to New York, which holds the unusual distinction of being a key congressional battleground state this year, in order to visit Columbia and denounce the university’s response to pro-Palestinian protests and alleged antisemitic incidents. He was flanked by other New York members of Congress, including Lawler and Rep. Anthony D’Esposito, who also faces a Democratic challenge on Long Island and has been a vocal critic of the campus protests.

Even more recently, Democrats suffered a setback on the issue of abortion, which they hoped would help drive voters to the polls in ways the issue largely didn’t in New York in 2022. A Republican state judge knocked a state constitutional amendment off the ballot that would enshrine abortion rights, along with a bevy of other civil rights, into the state constitution. Organizers have been ramping up a planned $20 million effort to get out the word and Democratic leaders had hoped that synergy on abortion rights would benefit their candidates. But now, they find themselves in a fight to get the measure back before voters.

Hochul helped craft this year’s state budget with an eye on November, and she largely succeeded. But even a carefully designed budget can only have so much impact on races in a presidential year. With six months left until the general election, there’s no telling how many other new issues could emerge that will throw Democrats’ election year calculus off-track.