The Blueprint for Progressive Victories, Worked to Perfection
NY nailed it
Years of Organizing and Winning Primaries Helped New York Progressives Make History
At last, there’s some good political news to report out of New York. A lot of good news, actually.
Over the past few weeks, Democrats in New York have legalized marijuana, repealed a crooked corporate immunity law, and passed a progressive budget that includes historic investments in working people and a long-overdue tax increase on the wealthiest New Yorkers. All of these things are very significant accomplishments on their own, but when you factor in how the state has been run for the past four decades, they’re almost miracles.
Though it’s about as solid blue as it gets in federal elections, New York hasn’t exactly been a bastion of progressivism. The months of national headlines about Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s many alleged improprieties and abuses of power offered the rest of the country just a hint of the corruption and toxic culture in Albany. But the tide has been quietly turning since in 2018, when a band of progressives primaried members of the IDC, a group of turncoat former Democrats that caucused with and gave a majority to the GOP. The progressives won six of eight of those primaries, enabling actual Democrats to win back control of the State Senate that fall.
The party expanded its lead into a supermajority this past November. Those wins, along with close alliances with progressive activist groups, set the stage for the historic advances just enacted.
“Increasing taxes [on the wealthy] and establishing the Excluded Workers Fund and doing things that are in line with progressive values require us to not only work together to beat the system, but really use grassroots momentum and political strategy to effectuate all of these things,” says State Senator Alessandra Biaggi, who unseated the leader of the IDC in 2018. “It’s really important to give credit where credit is due and we owe a lot of the success to the Invest In Our New York campaign, because they spent a significant amount of time and resources and human capital to put towards making this possible. And it's not easy to do that when you already start a process inherently disadvantaged.”
Invest In Our New York is a coalition of over 100 progressive activist and nonprofit groups that came together in January to lobby for tax increases on the wealthy as a means to fund significant social investments. Since taking office in 2011, Gov. Cuomo has aggressively forced austerity on the state’s schools and healthcare system, with the deepest cuts reserved for low-income residents and New York City. He has also defiantly refused to raise taxes on the richest New Yorkers, even as income inequality in the state soared to record highs. Even Cuomo’s 2020 budget, passed as New York was being ravaged by COVID-19, cut Medicaid spending.
The calculus changed when Democrats won a veto-proof supermajority infused with progressive legislators. Many of those legislators emerged from the activist community and rode their support to important primary victories, giving districts that had long ago become majority-minority new representatives that matched their demographics. As a result, staunch progressives like Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas replaced “deeply mediocre” members, as one person involved in the coalition put it to me.
This gave the organizations involved in Invest In Our New York both an entree into policymaking at the same time that they rallied and pressured from the outside. State Sen. Jessica Ramos and Assemblywoman Carmen De La Rosa sponsored the Excluded Workers Fund while others joined activists and workers on a three-week hunger strike.
Not every Democrat in New York identifies as progressive — there are still plenty of more centrist legislators, especially in the suburbs, and Wall Street will always hold some power — but the numbers, urgency of the moment, and momentum within state politics gave the left unprecedented bargaining power. The significant cash from the federal American Rescue Plan didn’t hurt, either, as it provided plenty of resources to replenish schools, Medicaid, and other programs that were shared priorities across the party.
And, as Biaggi points out, with a large supermajority, they didn’t need every single Democrat to vote for every single element of the budget. That provided members from more conservative districts the cover to vote no on some things, leading to a more amicable process.
Some of the highlights of the budget’s historic investments include:
$311 billion for infrastructure
The first universal broadband plan that caps payments at $15 a month for low-income New Yorkers
$2.4 billion in rent relief, providing up to a year of back rent for eligible New Yorkers
$800 million in small business grants
And then there is the Excluded Worker Fund, which will provide $2.1 billion for undocumented New Yorkers who pay taxes on their income but were ineligible for unemployment benefits and other benefits during the pandemic. Undocumented workers were hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic, while poor New Yorkers, without their social security numbers or permanent addresses, couldn’t even claim a single stimulus check.
“These are people who really need the money,” Biaggi says. “They are people who are essential workers who have not been able to work ,whether it’s because they're cleaning people's homes or home health aides or other jobs where it was too dangerous. There are a lot of people who are just very much waiting for this and time is of the essence. I think everybody knows the seriousness of it.”
The bill leaves it up to the state Attorney General, Letitia James, to determine how the funds will be distributed to the nearly 300,000 New Yorkers who are eligible to receive them. There are some residency requirements and other restrictions, though families whose main breadwinner died during the pandemic are also eligible. People in the top tier of eligibility could receive up to $15,600 from the state, which is a historic outlay for a class of people who are so often fully ignored by governments.
Given the supermajority, Cuomo had no choice but to accept the bill, even if he tried to undercut the payments at the last minute. His scandals, of course, also played a role in winning these big victories.
“I think it would be really intellectually dishonest to say that it didn't have an impact,” Biaggi admits. “But I think the organizing efforts by different grassroots organizations and a real majority of legislators coming forward and saying that ‘this is something that we need to do, this is the right thing to do,’ is ultimately what put it over the edge.”
Cuomo is facing two serious scandals at the moment. The coverup of COVID deaths in nursing homes followed by the corporate immunity given to those same nursing homes (and Cuomo political donors) was soon followed by the onslaught of sexual harassment allegations against the governor. Biaggi has been one of the most outspoken voices in Albany pushing for both justice for victims and Cuomo’s resignation.
Along with Assemblyman Ron Kim, who began leading the push to investigate the nursing home scandal more than a year ago (read our interview with him about it here), Biaggi co-sponsored the legislation that finally repealed the immunity given to corporate operators whose decisions likely cost thousands of people their lives. It’ll be up to a judge to decide how it applies to people who lost loved ones early in the pandemic, but many avenues for a modicum of compensation have been opened.
“These families deserve justice, because the stories that myself and Assemblymember Kim have heard, they’re just gut-wrenching,” she says.
There’s a palpable anger in her voice at the gamesmanship that Cuomo pulled to pass the immunity in the first place — he signed the law on the same day as the 2020 budget — and it’ll help fuel a renewed campaign to force Cuomo’s hand on resignation now that the budget has been settled. Biaggi spent time working for the governor in 2016, witnessing some of the toxic culture that has finally been exposed in the media. She’s also worked closely with the Sexual Harassment Working Group, an organization of former staffers who suffered for years in the swamp of old-school Albany, where sexual predators have been protected for generations.
As stories about the rampant harassment and fear-mongering that have gone on in the capital continue to spring up in both state and national media, it’s going to be impossible for lawmakers to do anything other than push for resignations and reforms, even before formal investigations are concluded.
“One of the tricks of crisis communications is to wait out the crisis, let it pass, and time will wash away people’s memories that someone did something wrong, but the complete opposite is happening, the stories are continuing to happen,” Biaggi says. “We have to keep this going because people need to understand that that is an abuse of power, that it's not something that's going to go away, and I think [Cuomo] needs to understand that.”
Cuomo’s popularity continues to sink in New York, a remarkable reversal of what was happening at this time last year. His slideshows won the governor an Emmy, even if they didn’t quite entertain most legislators. The country was enamored with Cuomo’s daily presentations and seemingly strong, decisive leadership, which was promoted as a counterpoint to Donald Trump’s pernicious incompetence.
“I think a lot of lawmakers didn't want to cross him, but some of us didn't care,” Biaggi says of Cuomo during his run of popularity last spring and summer. “That didn't stop me because I saw right through it, because it was all a show, which is actually quite ironic considering that he won an Emmy for doing his job. It's a perfect zenith point for him because the essence of who he is as a leader is an actor.”
Puncturing that veneer of competence is essential to the argument that Cuomo needs to resign or be impeached. If he’s not as strong a leader as he seems, what’s his rationale for staying? Biaggi notes that Cuomo’s weakened state during budget negotiations allowed for more progressive policies to pass, portending an even more progressive and equitable future without him in office.
“If this is what we could do with a 50% diminished capacity governor, I think what we’ve proven is that not only can we lead without him, but we will actually thrive without him.”
Inside Missouri’s Medicaid Mess
After a full decade of their Republican-led legislature refusing to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, Missourians last summer took matters into their own hands. In August, voters in the state approved a ballot measure to drastically expand access to the government health program, a huge win for a progressive policy in a state where former President Trump took more than 56% and the GOP tightened its grip on the legislature in November.
Now, emboldened by their November victories and driven by a rigid right-wing ideology that sanctions ignoring the results of democratic elections, GOP legislators in Missouri are threatening to leave the Medicaid expansion unfunded. While Gov. Mike Parson presented a budget that included funds for the program, the GOP supermajority in the State House passed a budget bill last week that assigned the influx of federal funds from the American Rescue Plan to other programs. As the State Senate debates its own annual budget bill, the well-being of both 230,000 low-income residents and democracy itself may hang in the balance.
“Because of term limits and because of the changes within the Republican Party, the fights that we end up having end up not being over policy or even politics,” says Shawn D’Abreu, the policy director at the nonprofit advocacy group Missouri Health Care For All. “It's more about this sectarian identity that one party is really fully embracing that says that they have the divine right of kings to rule and governance doesn't matter and any election that they lose doesn't matter.”
The justifications for the funding omission offered by Republican members of the House line up with D’Abreu’s assertions.
“Rural Missouri said no,” said Rep. Sara Walsh, a rural Republican, said when the House voted the Medicaid expansion down, ignoring the more than one-third of rural voters who did vote yes. “I don’t believe it is the will of the people to bankrupt our state.”
Other GOP representatives have made similar arguments, all of which are enormously dishonest. Gov. Parson’s budget anticipates a $1.1 billion surplus and $2.8 billion from the American Rescue Plan. The stimulus also offers Missouri a $1.15 billion windfall for expanding Medicaid, as the federal government will cover 90% of expenses for the first few years. That it would actually make the state money is irrelevant, of course, when ideology dominates all decisions.
Republicans are comfortable defying the will of voters, by the way, because they were able to sneak through a gutting of another previous ballot initiative, which would have taken way the GOP’s ability to gerrymander legislative districts. Again, it all comes back to passing the For the People and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Acts.
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Important News You Need to Know
Here are a few stories from around the country — I deliver longer coverage of more news, keep up on these stories, and publish interviews throughout the week in the issues sent out to premium members!
National: Undoubtedly terrified by the fevered few days of attention focused on Georgia-based corporations like Delta and Coca-Cola in the wake of their home state’s passage of racist voter suppression laws, major companies based in both Arizona and Texas are getting out ahead of the game and publicly urging their own local GOP lawmakers not to enact similar Jim Crow restrictions.
The concern isn’t just limited to Arizona and Texas, either. This weekend, dozens of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies met over Zoom to discuss how they might put pressure on lawmakers in other GOP states who have proposed hundreds of voter suppression laws. Here’s a suggestion: Don’t donate hundreds of millions of dollars to the right-wing dark money groups and Republican lawmakers that advocate for and enact mass voter suppression laws?
As I’ve noted in this space before, Republicans are remarkably sensitive to any sort of criticism, whether it’s from corporations or Democrats and progressive activists. Mitch McConnell wigged out at corporations making tepid statements on behalf of voter rights in Georgia (though he backtracked because he loves their money) and last week, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a hardline lunatic, lost his mind when Texas’s blatantly racist voter suppression proposals (read all about them here) were called racist:
"Senate Bill 7 is about voter security, not about voter suppression, and I'm tired of the lies and the nest of liars who continue to repeat them," Patrick said. “You’re questioning my integrity and the integrity of the governor and the integrity of the 18 Republicans who voted for this when you suggest that we’re trying to suppress the vote. You are, in essence, between the lines, calling us racist, and that will not stand.”
As a refresher, Dan Patrick is the Republican who said that seniors should lay down their lives to the COVID-19 pandemic so that the economy could stay open. His judgment is not always great!
Also: Watch Florida, where a package of attacks on voting rights is working its way through the legislature.
Bad news: The union vote in Amazon failed by a large margin, though it should tighten somewhat when challenged ballots are counted.
I know, it’s simply shocking that low-paid and abused employees that get punished for even taking a piss break and were subjected to two months of relentless anti-union harassment and propaganda that threatened their livelihoods did not vote to authorize a union.
I’ll have more on this later this week, but the loss is more than anything else an indictment of the system that churns through workers and makes it almost impossible for labor organizers to make their case. Imagine if for months before a presidential election, the government that controlled every aspect of your life, down to your defecation schedule, subjected you to endless propaganda and veiled threats about voting for the challenger. Would you consider that a fair election?
There are other issues, as well. Alabama, a deeply segregated right-to-work state, is not right now particularly welcoming of labor unions, especially those aligned with the civil rights movement. While it has had in the past a higher density of unionized employees than other southern states, especially in the New Deal era, the deep poverty has made jobs that pay decent wages hard to come by. Amazon took a carrot and stick approach, promising improvements to warehouse workers if they voted against unionizing. They also ran a vicious union-busting campaign with blatantly illegal tactics that could see the whole election thrown out by the NLRB.
It’s not all bad news, though, because the unionization effort and the significant national support it received has clearly helped embolden Amazon warehouse workers in other, more union-friendly places. Last Wednesday, workers at a giant Chicago warehouse walked out on the job and live-streamed their action, during which they called for the end of the exhausting, exploitative 10.5-hour “mega” shift that Amazon now employs.
Criminal Justice Reform
Maryland: Democrats in the legislature overrode Gov. Larry Hogan’s vetoes of a historic criminal justice reform package, codifying into law on Saturday a wide-ranging series of policies aimed at reining in the police and fixing the broken carceral state. Here’s a good rundown of its headline provisions:
The legislation will overhaul the disciplinary process for officers accused of misconduct, allow public scrutiny of complaints and internal affairs files, and create a new legal standard requiring that police use only “necessary” and “proportional” force. Officers who use excessive force will face additional criminal penalties, including up to 10 years in prison. Also, police will be limited on when they can obtain so-called “no-knock” warrants or raid homes at night.
Remember how centrist Democrats criticized Black Lives Matter protestors for their slogans and marching last summer, saying they were the reason they lost races? Well, given the major reforms we’ve seen passed in Maryland, New York, Minneapolis, Massachusetts, Los Angeles, and New Mexico (which just repealed qualified immunity!), it seems to me that those protestors and the legislators that supported them know a lot more about working politics and exercising power than milquetoast politicians.
Just look at what one Maryland State Senator said upon the passage of the new bills:
“Last year, I attended and participated in multiple demonstrations of people demanding change — the young and the old, people of all races and walks of life,” said Sen. Charles Sydnor, a Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored one of the bills. “With so many situations being thrust before our eyes, we could no longer deny what we see, and I thank my colleagues for believing their eyes and listening to the majority of Marylanders.”
Can’t get more explicit than that.
Florida: While the GOP still refuses to expand Medicaid out of sheer spite, Democrats were able to pass an extension of postpartum benefits for uninsured mothers. The new law increases Medicaid coverage for new mothers from two months to an entire year.
Colorado: Beyond the stimulus’s subsidizing of COBRA for a bit longer, the federal government has yet to get around to dealing with health care (hey, they’re busy). In the mean time, Colorado lawmakers are resuming debate on a state-level public option insurance plan, which would be somewhat cheaper than commercial plans on the state market.
Under the proposal for a Colorado public health care option, the state’s insurance commissioner must establish a standardized plan that offers premiums at a rate of 10% lower than they are right now in 2023 and 20% lower in 2024. If health care costs do not fall after two and a half years, the state’s competitive health insurance option would go on the market.
It’d be more of a discount than anything, but only the federal government really has the capacity to offer a true buy-in to a “single-payer” plan.
South Dakota: Several activist groups are working to get Medicaid expansion on the ballot for a voter initiative in 2022. This is exciting but would be even more so if Republicans weren’t just ignoring the successful marijuana legalization initiative passed last November.
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