Like oil drillers own Texas, or corn growers have long controlled politics in Iowa, such is the grip real estate has had on politics in New York State. They donated aggressively to Republicans and pliant Democrats alike, which is what makes recent developments in Albany so astonishing to observers: The state legislature passed a raft of tenant protections and rent regulations. And after a generation of big corporate developers’ winning, rent regulation eroding, and a housing crisis growing ever more acute, it couldn’t have come a moment too soon.
If that was all that came out of the legislative session in Albany, it would have been impressive. But it was just one of many major wins for progressives this cycle, including passage of the most ambitious climate bill in America, drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants and meaningful criminal justice reforms. And there’s even still some hope on public financing of elections.
A year ago, any of these policies would have been impossible to achieve. What changed? The big shift that enabled such massive wins for tenants, for immigrants, for the climate, and for all New Yorkers came last September when seven progressive WFP champions ousted seven corporate Democrats who had thrown control of the state Senate to Republicans.
For almost eight years, transactional politicians in the so-called “Independent Democratic Conference” helped keep Republicans in control of the Senate with the quiet backing of Governor Andrew Cuomo. The result? Millions of students in underfunded schools and universities; a crumbling transit system; tens of thousands of New Yorkers locked in jails with no sentences, just because they can’t afford bail. Inaction on rent laws, immigration, climate, and reproductive choice. A broken democracy with outdated voting laws.
That system worked out great for the real estate industry and wealthy donors fighting to keep taxes low. Albany prioritized the demands of powerful donors—mostly corporations and wealthy white men—leaving the rest of us laboring for the occasional win that didn’t conflict with their core interests. Government was the best government real estate and Wall Street donors could buy. Time and time again, the interests of the many were ignored, and the agenda of a wealthy few was enacted.
But all that changed last November. A group of underfunded outsiders who looked like and came from the communities they wanted to serve ran for office against the IDC and won big. The scale of the turnover was unprecedented. With the backing of unions, community groups, and activists at the core of the Working Families Party, seven progressive champions defeated seven corporate-funded Senators in Democratic primaries.
People like Jessica Ramos, a labor advocate, renter, and public school mother of two. Zellnor Myrie, a tenants association president and the son of Costa Rican immigrants, who grew up in a rent-stabilized apartment in Prospects Lefferts-Gardens/Flatbush with a single mom. Robert Jackson, an education leader who was an original plaintiff in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity school funding lawsuit. Rachel May, a grassroots organizer and advocate for education, the arts, and the environment. Julia Salazar, a self-identified Democratic Socialist community and union organizer who worked for UAW and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. Or John Liu, the former New York City comptroller. And last but not least, Alessandra Biaggi, a lawyer and advocate for women’s reproductive health who defeated the head of the IDC, while being outspent 10-1.
The candidates and the organizers were working with a clear-eyed strategy. They understood that winning a Democratic state Senate majority would do more than anything else to advance a progressive, anti-corporate agenda in New York. But it was about more than just ending the Republican stranglehold on the senate. It was also about showing incumbent Democrats that they were risking their careers if they put real estate lobbyists and corporate donors ahead of the needs of their own voters. The wins changed the calculus for incumbent Democrats in Albany too, who saw an activated and informed base ready and able to challenge politicians in either party who blocked progressive reforms.
And it worked. The WFP-backed progressive champions were able to work with Senate majority leader Andrea Stuart-Cousins to advance progressive legislation and put it on Governor Cuomo’s desk. And as we’ve seen, that’s made all the difference.
This has been a historic session, but opponents still wield a lot of power. Corporate lobbyists have scored some wins by delaying public financing and legalizing marijuana. They’ve stripped some important progressive revenue raisers to appease the real estate lobby. And the powers that be are striking back by trying to destroy fusion voting and undermine the WFP.
The Working Families Party was founded in New York two decades ago with the goal of flipping the state Senate, make it better, and break the logjam for progressive policy in Albany. It’s been a slow and rocky road, with advances and setbacks along the way. But this year couldn’t be more of a vindication of the WFP’s strategy.
The WFP and other progressives in New York are still up against the full weight of CEO donors and real estate. But the shift they were able to accomplish in the last year has been nothing short of a sea change—but a sea change two decades in the making. Progressives have fundamentally shifted the balance of power in Albany, and we’re only going forward—not one step back.