By former Assemblyman Steven Sanders
The stakes are high in next week’s special election to fill vacancies in several state legislative seats on April 24. In our own Assembly District Democrat Harvey Epstein will be squaring off against Republican Bryan Cooper and two third-party candidates, Adrienne Craig-Williams and Juan Pagan, to fill the vacant seat left by Brian Kavanagh who was elected to the State Senate representing lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn.
The winner of that election will be a key player for our community. But the real significance will be in the several special elections for the Senate across the state. The results of those elections could have important policy and political implications for New York as well as national ambitions.
For most of his two terms as governor, Andrew Cuomo has presided over a divided government. The Senate has been controlled by the Republican Party with the essential aid of a handful of Democratic Senators aligning themselves with the Republicans to give them numerical control. In exchange, these Democrats have received certain personal and political perks. This arrangement had the tacit approval of Cuomo. Why (you might ask), would a Democratic governor prefer a Republican-controlled State Senate?
The answer lies in what Cuomo viewed as being in his best interest to govern New York and position himself as a potential Presidential candidate in 2020. Andrew Cuomo is essentially a moderate. He tilts slightly left of center with regard to social policies but he leans to the right of center with regard to economic issues. And for years he felt that was the path to winning the Democratic Party nomination for president.
Moreover, Cuomo did not want either party controlling both houses of the state legislature for fear that he might be presented with legislation that was either too progressive for his tastes or too conservative. That calculus however has been changed by the ascendancy of the more liberal faction of the Democratic Party to counter-balance the Trump presidency and his policies. It has become clear that the leaders of the Democratic Party on the national level are now those who hue more closely to the views of Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Andrew Cuomo to some extent is now viewed as being out of step with the most active and motivated Democratic Party voters. So much so that he faces a primary from the progressive candidacy of Cynthia Nixon with the apparent support of the left-leaning Working Families Party. So in order to show his liberal bona fides, Cuomo now needs a unified State Legislature controlled by the Democratic Party so as to engineer a more progressive legislative portfolio.
But first the Democrats must win the open State Senate seats and convince a recalcitrant incumbent Democratic senator from Brooklyn to actually vote with his party to form the majority. Thus far that senator has refused to do so.
If the Democrats and Andrew Cuomo can pull this off in the Senate special elections next week, and the Democratic Party takes control of the State Senate for only the second time in over 50 years it could be the impetus in moving long bottled up legislation enhancing tenant protections, social programs, women’s equality issues and others that have not seen the light of day in the conservative-leaning Republican-controlled State Senate. It would also be the opportunity for Andrew Cuomo to fend off his challenge from the left and reposition himself as a national candidate with better liberal credentials.
So as the legendary Speaker of the House of Representatives, Tip O’Neil once proclaimed that “All politics are local,” these local special elections may change the course of history in New York State and maybe even beyond. At the very least it will define the next chapter of the political career of Andrew Cuomo.