Eight of the top Democratic mayoral candidates appeared at a virtual forum on Monday to outline their legislative and budget priorities at the state level, and their strategies for achieving those goals. To varying degrees, they laid out tactics for partnering with, even opposing, Governor Andrew Cuomo and corralling the state Legislature to their side. But there were clear differences among the candidates, informed by their own background and experiences, and some seemed to take the candidate privilege of overestimating the heft they would have as the next mayor of New York City.
Monday’s forum was hosted by Empire State Indivisible, a progressive advocacy group, and moderated by Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max. Empire State Indivisible is part of a coalition that has been urging the passage of the Invest in Our New York Act, a package of six bills to raise taxes on wealthy New Yorkers, corporations, and Wall Street activity to fill the state’s massive revenue shortfall, prevent cuts to public services and local aid, and provide additional revenue to achieve progressive priorities. Among many other topics, the candidates were asked to weigh in on that proposal.
The forum featured two 90-minute panels with four candidates each. The first panel included City Comptroller Scott Stringer, former counsel to the mayor Maya Wiley, Brooklyn City Council Member Carlos Menchaca, and former city sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia. On the second panel were Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, former federal housing secretary Shaun Donovan, former city veterans services commissioner Loree Sutton, and former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales. Ray McGuire’s campaign did not respond to invitations to the forum and Andrew Yang had been set to participate until he was diagnosed with COVID-19 and experiencing symptoms.
A great deal of what happens in New York City is determined by state law and state government, where power resides on a host of issues from tax policy to education aid and much more. A mayor’s ability to navigate the intricacies of Albany can make or break their overall agenda and have major impacts on the lives of New Yorkers.
New York’s governor and New York City’s mayor have historically had a frosty relationship even when they hail from the same party. That holds particularly true for third-term Governor Cuomo and two-term Mayor Bill de Blasio, both of whom are Democrats. Over the last seven years, the two have feuded over matters existential and inconsequential to New Yorkers, though most of the slings and arrows tend to fly from the governor’s hands. Cuomo has sought to dominate and undermine de Blasio while showing frustration with the mayor’s often stumbling efforts to manage city government and forge strong intergovernmental relationships -- de Blasio has also struggled to work well with the State Legislature.
With Cuomo expected to run for a fourth term in 2022 and de Blasio term-limited this year, the next mayor of New York City, almost certainly a Democrat because of the party’s heavy enrollment advantage, should have a clear idea of what awaits them in Albany. De Blasio’s dreams often died at the steps of the Capitol, where for years Republicans and moderate Democrats in the State Senate and Cuomo, a Democrat who often takes moderate stances, invariably stood in the way. Cuomo has also repeatedly sought to offload costs onto the city during the state budget process.
There are now allies in both houses of the Democratically-controlled state Legislature that have been friendlier to the city and the mayor. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie represents a district in the Bronx and has a keen interest in ensuring that New York City is protected, and he has been de Blasio’s long-standing top ally among the leaders in Albany. The new-as-of-2019 State Senate Democratic majority includes a number of New York City-based legislators with significant influence and a city-focused agenda.
Even with legislative supermajorities in both houses, Cuomo’s power has far from waned, and it is not always easy for the mayor of New York City to advance priorities in state government. Nevertheless, there is broad agreement that the next mayor has much room to improve upon the approach taken by the current one, making the importance of Monday night’s discussion paramount.
Articulating an agenda
Most candidates offered specifics about their agenda in Albany while some offered generalities and buzzwords.
Garcia presented a six-point agenda that included immediate investment in the city’s recovery, expanding healthcare access, passing elements of NYCHA’s “Blueprint for Change” proposal, investing in mass transportation, education, and combating climate change. She said she would push for expanding Medicaid eligibility and greater mental health services, restoring 24/7 subway service, funding for the MTA’s Fast Forward plan, among other items.
“[W]e need to create a strong foundation for the long term so that New Yorkers have the essentials – quality health care, affordable housing, a world class transportation system, a thriving economy, and an education system we can really be proud of,” she said.
Menchaca said his Albany agenda was three-pronged: “political,” climate change, and equity in the city’s recovery. “I think we have to understand that the political dynamics are shifting,” he said. “The City of New York helped create a supermajority in the Senate. I think we need to continue to support our state legislators to keep that super majority. That's going to continue to shift the way that the governor works.”
Besides pushing for more climate action at the state level, he said he would advocate for an equitable recovery by through taxes on the wealthy, ‘cancelling rent’ and ensuring that essential workers, particularly undocumented immigrants, receive direct emergency aid. He specifically spoke of a bill sponsored by State Senator Jessica Ramos that would create an excluded worker fund for those purposes.
“Our recovery will run through Albany, and we've got to fundamentally reset the Albany relationship,” said Stringer, who cited his own Albany experiences as an Assemblymember for 13 years. “New Yorkers cannot afford to have a mayor walk flat-footed in the capital, especially not now,” he added, in a clear shot at Mayor de Blasio.
Stringer said he would enlist the help of a slew of progressive legislators, including Ramos, who have backed him to create the largest childcare program across the country, to repeal the 421-a tax credit for building affordable housing, and to raise taxes on the rich.
Wiley was the only candidate who released a detailed Albany agenda in the hours before the forum, announcing her support for the Invest in Our New York Act along with a large slate of other bills related to housing, worker and tenant protections, education, jobs and small businesses, criminal justice reform, electoral reforms, and climate change policies.
At the forum, Wiley honed in on issues of affordability, specifically housing, child care, and health care. “Those things were already deeply broken, and deeply broken before covid, for communities of color in particular and for the middle class. And so to solve them, yes, we need to have a partnership with Albany,” she said.
Adams’ focus was somewhat narrower than the other candidates as he repeatedly said it is essential to push state government to adequately fund education in New York City. He pointed to the State Court of Appeals’ 2006 decision in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case, which has become something of a quagmire. Advocates say the state should provide billions more in foundation aid to struggling schools to live up to the ruling, while Governor Cuomo has largely rejected that argument while attempting to change the formula for foundation aid.
“It is imperative that we get our fair share, and we are not,” Adams said. He said he would establish greater coordination between city and state agencies, which currently “operate in silos,” push for greater city representation on the MTA board with a new member for each borough, and pursue for a real-time monitoring system for affordable housing stock. He also said he wants to see reform at the State Liquor Authority so that it stops targeting Black-owned businesses and changes to how private health insurance is taxed.
Donovan has his own six-point agenda that covers building affordable and supportive housing and tackling homelessness, creating jobs by restructuring tax programs, fair funding for education, a public option for health care that includes undocumented immigrants, investing funds in the MTA in exchange for more seats on the board, and his “equity bonds” proposal to give every child $1,000 when they’re born and $2,000 every year after.
“I think I'm a unique candidate in this race given that I've worked at all levels of government to lead through crisis,” he said. “No one else in this race has that deep experience in working not only with the state, but with the federal government and with the local government as well.”
Morales offered few specific policy ideas but outlined some of her planned tactics for dealing with Albany. “My agenda for Albany aligns with my agenda for New York City. It's centered on the interest of everyday New Yorkers,” she said. “Everything that we do and everything that we need is connected to Albany. Our schools, our housing, our health care, our transportation. Everything needs Albany approval.”
She did say she would work with Assemblymember Richard Gottfried to pursue passage of the New York Health Act, which would establish a single-payer health-care system in the state, along with increased taxes on the wealthy to pay for it. “I think that there is increasing political will towards doing both of these things,” she said.
Sutton stressed the need to ensure New York’s economic recovery, preventing an exodus of residents, bringing back tourism, repairing the fiscal hole, reopening businesses, and keeping the streets and subways safe. She is among the more centrist candidates and has repeatedly raised concerns about New York’s business friendliness, issued warnings about going too far with new taxes, and pointed to issues with public safety.
But, while Sutton spoke mostly of what was at stake, she did not offer any concrete solutions or specific policies when asked for her Albany agenda. “[I]f we cannot work together, the city and Albany with our electeds, with the myriad private sector leaders, our philanthropy leaders, our state and federal partners, and treat them truly as respected partners, bringing together community input and community needs, the rest of what we're talking about, it really won't matter, because New York City will not come back,” she said.
When asked for something specific, she later said her first priority in Albany would be to sit down with Assemblymember Gottfried to discuss his proposal and to explore measures to improve public health infrastructure, linking public health with public safety, both cornerstones of her platform. She also said she would work to create a coalition with the governor and state lawmakers around the state’s recovery while trying to “disrupt” the way state and local governments work. “Let's figure out what are the things that we need to permanently change. Let's look to improvise, let's have a sort of a skunkworks,” she said.
Approach to Albany
Along with proposing a firm agenda, any successful mayor will have to use their political capital and skills to move the levers of power in Albany. Between the governor and the two legislative chambers, that task is easier said than done and the candidates offered different approaches. They also sought to define how they would specifically deal with Governor Cuomo, who is known for his heavy-handedness and zero-sum approach to power.
Garcia said she has a track record of bringing people together on “really thorny issues” over the course of her 14-year career. “[Y]ou have to find those key stakeholders, particularly within the Legislature who are going to be advocates for your program,” she said. Mayor de Blasio’s agenda, she pointed out, was often haphazard and created last-minute, leading it to flounder in Albany. She recalled being enlisted in the administration to make last-minute calls for the extension of mayoral control of city schools. “So my approach is we need to be collaborative, but really also clear and long-term in our thinking,” she said.
Menchaca emphasized the shifting political balance in Albany, and seemed to set his focus on progressives in the state Legislature asserting their power against the governor. But he also stressed the need for the mayor and City Council to present a united front in Albany along with state legislators and congressional representatives, something he said has been lacking under de Blasio. “I think that can really send a message to the governor. And I think his tone is going to change. It's already changing,” he said, though he did not explain what he was referring to.
Notably, Menchaca endorsed Cuomo’s primary opponent, Cynthia Nixon, in 2018, which would likely come back to haunt him if he should win the mayoral primary given the governor is known for his exacting grudges. Asked about what he would say to the governor if he wins, he said, “I'm gonna say both looking forward to working with you and watch out,” (which were the two options offered to him by the moderator).
Having been members of the State Legislature in the past, both Stringer and Adams fell back on their personal Albany connections and experience.
Stringer noted that, as comptroller, he already has an agenda that he takes to the capital every year and he pointed out his close working relationship with the younger crop of progressives elected to the Legislature in recent years. He repeatedly mentioned his contributions to helping some of them defeat members of the rogue Independent Democratic Conference, which partnered with Senate Republicans, along with the efforts of the host group, Empire State Indivisible.
“But I also have a relationship with this governor and we respect each other,” Stringer added. “And we will work to build the bridge between our progressive legislators in the Assembly, in the Senate, with the governor, because we have one thing in common: the future New York City.”
He had harsh words for the mayor. “I think time and time again, the mayor's lunch money was stolen even before he walked into the state Capitol,” he said. “He was constantly with a limited Albany agenda because he did not do the groundwork to create a specific legislative agenda and rally people around it.”
Wiley said she would prioritize partnerships with the leaders of the Legislature and create a “shared agenda” with rank-and-file legislators. But she stressed the greater importance of building groundswell support for policies among communities that are affected. “[I]t's fundamentally about partnering with the people who are impacted, who have a voice and should have a voice in Albany, and we should be facilitating that voice,” she said.
She particularly went out of her way to distance herself from her old boss. “First of all, I have a very different personality from the current mayor,” she said, underscoring that she would not undermine senior leadership in her mayoralty like de Blasio has done.
Of all the candidates, she seemed most willing to let the governor take center stage. “You have to have a relationship with the governor, you have to have a back channel with the governor,” she said. “You have to recognize there are times when you're going to get what you want done because you'll let the governor take credit. But that's not every time and it's not the only way to work.”
Morales presented the most critical approach, decrying the preferred tactics of politicians. “We've been getting our asses kicked, and it didn't start with Cuomo and it's not going to end with him,” she said. “I don't want to work within this broken system that has repeatedly and consistently failed our people. What we have seen work is exposure and escalation,” she said of how to get the political best of Cuomo.
She said she would marshal everyday New Yorkers, rather than lobbyists, to advocate for her agenda. “My agenda and more importantly, my approach will not be driven by inside baseball machinations that have gotten us nowhere. I'm not going to focus on bragging about my network or making backroom deals or holding private meetings at the Fort Orange club,” she said. “I'm an organizer on issues, it's what I do best. So that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to bring the fight to Albany if I have to.” But she did concede that her approach would also be “relational” and that, as an organizer, she shares common interests with elected representatives.
Adams took a middle-of-the-road approach, speaking of the need to “mobilize people” as well as forging alliances with legislators, visiting their districts and inviting them across the city. “But have well thought out plans with some clear results in mind that they can look at and see as we move our target forward,” he said.
Adams noted that passing legislation through Albany would require aligning the interests of legislators from diverse parts of the state, particularly in the state Senate where moderate Democrats tend to be wary of progressive legislation.
He also insisted he would never feud with the governor. “Leadership is not only substantive, it’s symbolic,”he said. “I am not going to have public disputes with the governor. We'll have our disagreements behind closed doors, but we will have a united front.”
Though Donovan has experience working with elected officials on policy, he said his approach would also start with the people. “A wise person once told me politics is felt need, and unless you feel the need, unless it is organized and relentless, you are not going to get things done to build those coalitions,” he said. He also took a shot at the mayor for always planning during crises rather than having comprehensive plans ready proactively. “If you believe that you can plan in crisis and get things done, you will fail. You need to have those plans ready before the crisis hits,” he said.
Donovan noted in particular that he has worked with the governor in the past. “When Sandy hit, and President Obama asked me to lead the recovery efforts, I worked very effectively with Andrew, to get stuff done,” he said of Governor Cuomo. “We didn't agree on everything. But we were able to work out those differences, and get the biggest, most important things we needed to get done, done.”
Sutton didn’t shy away from criticizing de Blasio’s relationship with Cuomo, which she witnessed firsthand in the mayor’s administration and described as “a dysfunctional relationship that was grounded in disrespect and disdain even for each other.” “That just has no place in our public life and New Yorkers in the city and the state paid a huge price for it,” she said.
Invest in Our New York Act
The forum was an opportunity for Empire State Indivisible to gauge the candidates’ support for the Invest in Our New York Act, which could raise as much as $50 billion in revenue for the state at a time when it faces a roughly $60 billion shortfall over four years, according to the coalition pushing the package of six bills.
There were varied opinions among the candidates on the tax package, though they all agreed on the need for a more progressive tax system.
Wiley, Morales, and Menchaca all unequivocally expressed support for it in full. Stringer hedged during the forum, but a spokesperson later clarified that he is in full support.
Adams would not commit to supporting the heir’s tax or the billionaires tax, and raised concern about the legality of the corporate tax bill. Instead, he discussed finding ways to cut city agency spending and find savings through attrition.
Donovan too did not support the full slate of bills. But he, like Adams, focused on the federal government instead. “Fundamentally, the place we need a far more progressive system is in Washington, so that we're not disadvantaged in New York City or New York State compared to other places around the country,” he said.
Sutton took issue with the Invest in Our New York campaign, saying its rhetoric demonizes the rich rather than including them in the city’s recovery. “I think that New York City doesn't work without all of us working together in an inclusive, respectful process,” she said. Though she said she supports parts of the package, she did not make clear which ones.
Garcia hedged in her response. “I absolutely think that revenue is going to be essential. I also think growing our economy is going to be essential to get through this fiscal crisis,” she said without directly saying whether she supports the package. She also raised a warning about the exodus of rich New Yorkers during the pandemic, citing a large drop in residential trash pickup from Manhattan.
Various Other Issues of State Policy
The candidates varied on several other issues as well.
Stringer, Donovan, and Adams warned against the city taking over control of the subways or a large chunk of what is now the MTA. “That would be a recipe for disaster,” Donovan said, noting that it is part of a regional system. Stringer said, “I've done the numbers, and maybe in a utopian society, we could control the MTA but we can’t. The debt service would crush the city.”
Garcia and Morales, similarly, said municipal control of parts of the MTA would be ideal but not without the revenue to support it. Sutton was among several candidates, including Donovan, Adams, and Stringer, calling for greater city representation on the MTA board. Adams’ push for five new borough-based appointees would also mean the city would have a plurality and significantly more authority on the board. Donovan said his goal would be for city and state appointees to have equal footing on the board and a clearer power-sharing agreement, with the city contributing more capital funds to the agency through several mechanisms including congestion pricing and value capture funds.
Menchaca was the only one to unreservedly call for city control of the MTA
Nearly all the candidates supported repealing the Urstadt Law, which gives the state control over rent regulation and prevents the city from establishing its own rent rules. Donovan, however, had concerns about it. “I think there are real issues about the city taking over Urstadt given the rent control and rent stabilization powers that exist outside of the city,’ he said. “I am certainly open to more control. I don't think you would be able legally to give the city full control on it.”
When asked about the law, Sutton instead said that recent rent regulations passed by the state Legislature went too far, particularly in the burdens they placed on small landlords.
Most of the candidates extolled the virtues of mayoral control of city schools, with several saying it should be permanent. Only Adams suggested that the regular expiration and renewal of mayoral control was necessary. “I believe we should every two years, go back and see it for review. You should earn the right to have that level of power,” he said. And Morales was again the only candidate who expressed an interest in doing away with the current model of mayoral control of schools and establishing a new, more community-focused model.
Only three members of the second panel were asked whether they would support repeal of the 1971 Hecht-Calandra Act, which created the Specialized High School Admissions Test as the sole entrance criteria for the city’s three most selective high schools (Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech) that has become a subject of intense controversy in recent years. They were also pressed on whether the city should have the authority to control the cap on charter schools rather than the state. Stringer, who was on the first panel, volunteered his support for repealing Hecht-Calandra to give the city the power to determine admissions to all the specialized high schools.
Donovan and Morales both said they support repeal and said the city should have control of the charter school cap.
“I believe the state should make that determination,” said Adams, who also called for creating five more specialized high schools in the city. “I'm not running for state office. I'm running for city office. They need to decide and debate that and give them the opportunity to come to a conclusion.” Asked if he thought the mayor’s voice was important in the debate, he said, “No, I don't.” Similarly, on the charter school cap, he said, “I believe that should be a state decision. They should make the determination.”
The candidates were also somewhat split on the bail reforms approved by the state Legislature in 2019 that were subsequently partially rolled back in 2020 after significant opposition from law enforcement officials, Republicans, and some Democrats.
Both Menchaca and Morales said they were disappointed that the law was watered down. Adams and Garcia seemed satisfied with where the law stands now. And Donovan and Stringer said they would have to wait to see how the law is currently working -- though a Stringer spokesperson again clarified after the forum that the comptroller still opposes the rollbacks and would prefer the original reforms passed in 2019 to be the law.