Progressive ‘Piss and Vinegar’ Takes On Albany

Progressive ‘Piss and Vinegar’ Takes On Albany

Progressive ‘Piss and Vinegar’ Takes On Albany

How a new class of lawmakers is transforming the New York State legislature.

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It’s a new day in Albany. Democrats finally have full control of the legislature; rising stars like Alessandra Biaggi and Julia Salazar are injecting the state capital with much-needed progressive energy; and the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a group that for years stymied progressive legislation by caucusing with the Republicans, has finally been neutered. Of its members, only Senators David Carlucci and Diane Savino survived the last election cycle, and even they have rejoined the true-blue fold. Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins became the Senate majority leader, and has since been working closely with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie to transform bills that passed the Assembly year after year, only to languish in the Senate, into laws.

Spend a few days in Albany, and you can tell right away that the energy has changed. The marble halls of the Legislative Office Building are adorned with blue-and-white signs illustrated with a gender-neutral parent figure cradling an infant. They list 10 nursing and baby-changing facilities and explain where to find refrigerated storage, presumably for breast milk or formula (the facilities have existed since 2008; the practice of breastfeeding on the floor of the Assembly has not). A “pbd kitchen” sandwich board in the food court advertised “cutting edge, chef inspired, natural” sandwiches underneath an all-caps demand: “housing justice for all.”

“I’m wearing fuchsia,” Assembly member Nily Rozic texted on her way to meet me. Minutes later, a tall woman wearing a fuchsia jacket over a black dress, patterned tights, and long black boots appeared. Her long brown hair was pulled up in a youthful ponytail; she greeted me, and told me to follow her. Twenty-six when she was first elected in 2012, Rozic was then the youngest woman in the New York State legislature; a decade ago, there were just 10 legislators under 35 in the legislature and three female legislators under 40, while today, there are 28 legislators under 35 and 18 female legislators under 40. Rozic is in her element; Albany is finally catching up to her.

Rozic still stands out, though, and not just because of her love of bold colors. Just over 67 percent of New York State legislators are men, most of whom wear unflashy suits and muted ties. Rozic, who is of Argentinian descent, was born in Israel and belongs to the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus. After seven years in Albany, she’s totally at ease engaging in rapid-fire exchanges with colleagues and lobbyists while striding through the halls of the capitol. Firm but smiling, “I respectfully decline,” she told a particularly aggressive supplicant, who was trying to get her to sign a letter.

“I can’t do this right now,” she crisply told another, making eye contact without breaking stride. “She’s a reporter, not my staffer,” she corrected a man who tried to hand me information about a bill he wanted her to consider.

The energy and confidence of legislators like Rozic and her colleague, former state Assembly member turned senator James Skoufis, 31, along with new-to-Albany legislators like Biaggi and Salazar, is contagious. They are here, said Skoufis, “for all the right reasons.” After all, he said, the Democratic majority of a decade ago “didn’t turn out so well,” thanks to the literal “crooks” who were then in the majority. Rozic, on her part, said her first formal request of the Assembly was to be seated as far away as possible from “that sexual predator”—the disgraced and now deceased former Assembly member Vito Lopez. Skoufis was quick to note that nearly all of Albany’s “bad actors” are gone, and some are even in jail.

That’s changed the atmosphere significantly. “There’s an excitement that’s going on that I think hasn’t been felt in a long time…an energy that’s palpable,” Biaggi told me in a phone conversation in February. She said that wasn’t not only because the Democrats now control the Senate; it’s also because Stewart-Cousins and Heastie “are working very closely together…which ultimately means that the things that we can get done will get done faster, and in a really cooperative way.” Today’s Albany, she said, is the “complete opposite” of the dysfunctional state capital with which many New Yorkers are all too familiar.

Salazar made a similar point. “I think every member is [dedicated to] the well-being of the conference as a whole,” she said over the phone. That includes “those with pretty different politics from me.” Salazar credits Stewart-Cousins: “Andrea’s leadership has really enabled and inspired that.” Skoufis shares this view of Stewart-Cousins, who, he said, should have been majority leader a long time ago: “If I were in her shoes, my head would have exploded.” Some people, he said, “would have centralized that power after waiting for so long. She has done the exact opposite.”

Assembly member Linda B. Rosenthal, who was elected in 2006 (and whom I worked for from 2008–09) said that in today’s Albany, “new people feel more powerful than new people used to feel.” Indeed, Salazar noted her surprise at how empowered she feels as a new member. According to Rosenthal, voters in previous years didn’t necessarily expect newly elected legislators to take ambitious action right away. “Now,” she said, constituents “expect you to accomplish great things, regardless of seniority.”

Thanks to these new and newly empowered lawmakers, the legislature has, in less than two months, passed key voting reforms, gun-safety measures, the Reproductive Health Act, the Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act (which has yet to be delivered to the governor), the Child Victims Act, and the Dream Act. “I have found that this has been the most productive six weeks of state government that I have been a part of in the last seven years,” Skoufis said. He likened his time in the Assembly to Groundhog Day: “We’d just sort of go through the motions, year after year.”

Assembly member Catalina Cruz, who became the first Dreamer to hold office in New York State when she was elected in 2018, said, “I didn’t know what to expect because prior to [my election], the Assembly looked one way.… with a Democratic Senate, it’s like, are we just going to get our entire wish list to actually occur?” And, at least for the first four weeks, she said, that’s how it felt: “It’s almost like Oprah: ‘You get a bill, and you get a bill; everybody gets a bill!’”

The legislature is also getting serious about ethics reform. Biaggi, who chairs the Senate’s committee on ethics and internal governance, isn’t taking off-the-floor meetings with lobbyists at all. While that may change at some point, she said that “while I’m still learning, I just don’t think it’s appropriate” to leave the chamber during session.

Lobbyists aren’t universally charmed by this approach: “One lobbyist was like, ‘Your team told me you don’t do off-the-floor meetings; you’re really doing things differently here,’” Biaggi cheerfully recalled. “I was like, ‘Yes. That’s the whole point.’” She said she wanted to lead the ethics committee “to push back on corruption,” adding, “When you don’t have an ethics committee that is taken seriously, or that takes itself seriously, then you of course are going to have people crossing barriers and lines and doing whatever they want to do, because there’s no enforcement.” Biaggi believes “it’s inherently a conflict of interest” for government officials who are longtime colleagues to police each other, and is committed to holding regular meetings, exercising the committee’s function of overseeing rules and laws that affect ethics and good government, and making sure that people affected by sexual harassment, corruption, and other ethics violations “are heard.” To be clear, she added, “It’s a literal mess…. we’ve got to clean it up.”

The legislature is expected to pass a package of criminal justice reforms in the near future (it was supposed to pass on February 12, but was delayed by last-minute wrangling over the details of bail reform). Legalization of recreational marijuana, single-payer health care, and pro-tenant rent laws, all of which face organized and well-funded opposition, will be a harder sell. Senator Liz Krueger said in a phone conversation that she is “cautiously optimistic” the legislature will be able to “hash out” a deal on marijuana as part of the budget process. “On a lot of [issues related to legalization], we are very much in tune with the governor’s people,” she said. (As of late January, Assembly majority leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, sponsor of the Assembly’s legalization bill, was less optimistic.)

Assembly member Richard Gottfried, chair of the Assembly’s Health Committee and sponsor of the New York Health Act, the single-payer health-care bill that has passed the Assembly every session for the last four years, acknowledged that there will be “nervousness on the part of the Senate leadership to move forward” with the bill. Still, “I think that nervousness would be misplaced,” he added, noting that all the polls he’s seen indicated substantial support for single-payer legislation. What’s more, many of his new colleagues in the Senate campaigned on the issue: “I think if the Senate does not fulfill its promises on single payer, they will see a backlash,” he said.

Skoufis thinks new legislators are injecting long-needed “piss and vinegar” into the legislature. But the energy in Albany owes as much to the resurgent radicalism of the AOC era as it does to new blood—and young legislators aren’t the only ones seizing the moment.

Nor are young members inherently more ethical than their older colleagues. Former Democratic Assembly member Micah Kellner was 30 years old when he harassed a staffer in 2009. Former Assembly member Angela Wozniak, a conservative Republican, was 28 when she retaliated against a staffer in 2015. Meanwhile, Rosenthal, 61, has become a leader on menstrual equity, a cause more closely associated today with Teen Vogue than with lawmakers born in the 1950s (though the concept has existed since the 1970s). And 71-year-old Gottfried, one of the longest-serving legislators in New York history, is a stalwart progressive who has carried the New York Health Act since 1992. In his first term, he backed a bill to allow liquor stores to sell marijuana, and he was the first New York legislator to propose legalizing same-sex marriage.

In 1971, The New York Times reported that a guard who thought Gottfried, then 23, was too young to be a legislator barred him from the chamber on his first day in office. Three years later, in the wake of Watergate, Democrats took control of the Assembly. There was, Gottfried told me, “a great feeling of giddiness about suddenly having the majority.”

Today, given Republican dominance at the federal level, he said, it is more critical than ever for states like New York to “move aggressively forward with a progressive agenda”—and no time to rest on laurels. “I don’t think in history, we reach a moment where good has triumphed and the sun will shine forever,” he said. “It’s always a struggle.”

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