ALBANY, NY — In the final days of the New York legislative session, the state’s progressive left seemed poised for a surprise victory.
A bill that would allow New York to build state-owned renewable energy has suddenly been thrown into play, after being considered dead. It passed the Senate despite strong opposition from energy producers, and after hours of fervent grassroots lobbying, activists proclaimed they had enough votes in the Assembly to pass.
But Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie never introduced the bill, and the session ended without a vote.
The failure to force Mr. Heastie’s hand was a glaring example of how more left-leaning state lawmakers have encountered headwinds this year, but it wasn’t the only one: proposals to protecting tenants from eviction, creating universal health care and sealing criminal records have all failed, while historic incremental changes made in previous years, such as the 2019 bail reforms, have drawn backlash negative.
The battle over the renewable energy bill has reflected both the growing strength of the party’s left wing and its limitations, particularly in the Assembly, which has been controlled by Democrats since 1975.
Now a new slate of left-leaning candidates — some backed by the Working Families Party, others backed by the Democratic Socialists of America — are challenging Democratic incumbents in the June 28 primary, hoping to win enough seats to push the Assembly to the left.
To that end, they have aligned their legislative and campaign efforts, urging lawmakers to commit to things like the renewable energy bill, or face the wrath of progressive voters in the primary election.
Sarahana Shrestha, a climate activist running for state assembly in the Hudson Valley, estimates her team has knocked on 25,000 doors in the Kingston district she hopes to wrest from the incumbent Democratic, Kevin Cahill, who has held the seat since 1992.
She said the Assembly’s failure to pass the Renewable Energy Bill illustrated how traditional machine politics has led to a broken and undemocratic system.
“It worked perfectly in our message about what is wrong with our government – the culture of our government,” she said, adding that good governance takes courage: “It is much safer to say, ‘This thing didn’t happen, this bill didn’t pass’, then pass something and then probably get nagged about it.
Ms Shrestha, who is backed by the Democratic Socialists of America and the Working Families Party, was endorsed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who lent the strength of her reputation to the New York primary election this year, stirring intraparty conflict.
Mr Cahill, who heads the Assembly’s Insurance Committee, called it a “power grab”.
“This is a group of people in the Assembly and the Senate who, for the most part, have just come to the scene in the last two terms and who think they should be put in charge of the place. “, did he declare. “And they know they can’t do that unless they take more seats.”
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State Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs argued that the main challenges revealed the “arrogance” of progressive activists who were too eager to achieve their goals and whose efforts he feared would endanger the Democratic supermajorities in Albany.
“The Assembly has been a progressive body for some time and has enacted many progressive bills,” he said.
The insurgent candidates hope to replicate the 2018 primary results in the state Senate, where a group of progressive-minded Democrats successfully challenged a handful of entrenched incumbents, transforming the body and enabling a series of victories from the reforms of the criminal justice and climate protections to the legalization of marijuana last year.
Assembly and Senate seats will be voted on in November, but only the Assembly primary will be held in June.
Primary elections for Senate and Congressional seats have been postponed until August 23 by the state’s highest court, which appointed an outside expert to redraw lines it says were manipulated by Democrats in the state legislature.
State Assembly lines were also declared unconstitutional, but will not be redrawn until after the election.
Of the 150 Assembly seats up for grabs this year, a handful have attracted considerable interest.
On the Lower East Side, the race to replace Congresswoman Yuh-Line Niou, a candidate for Congress, pits three Democratic candidates proud of their immigrant heritage in a district that for this election has lost much of the Wall Street area. and won parts of the Lower East Side.
Illapa Sairitupac, social worker and son of Peruvian immigrants, presents himself there, with the support of the democratic socialists and a handful of progressive leaders.
Grace Lee, a first-generation Korean entrepreneur, has won support from reps Jerrold Nadler, Hakeem Jeffries, and Grace Meng, among others.
The third candidate, Denny Salas, a political consultant, made the American dream as a Dominican immigrant a centerpiece of his campaign, and was endorsed by some labor and police groups.
In a nearby neighborhood, the retirement from Assembly of Richard Gottfried, the longest-serving state legislator in New York’s history, sparked a spirited race among a handful of decorated candidates.
In Harlem, longtime Congresswoman Inez Dickens faces a major challenge from Delsenia Glover, a housing advocate backed by the Working Families Party.
And in the Bronx, Jeffrey Dinowitz of Kingsbridge and Michael Benedetto of Throgs Neck face some of the toughest challenges of their decades in Assembly.
Mr. Benedetto, who chairs the Assembly’s education committee, helped broker negotiations that gave the mayor two years of control of the city’s schools – a power-sharing deal between the city and the ‘State – to Mayor Eric Adams of New York, who endorsed it.
Mr Benedetto’s challenger, Jonathan Soto, has strongly criticized the control of the mayor, who he says cedes too much power to the executive at the expense of parents.
For Mr Dinowitz, who chairs the powerful Codes Committee, which oversees criminal and civil law changes, the threat comes in the form of first-time candidate Jessica Altagracia Woolford.
Ms. Woolford, who worked on the staff of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and former Mayor Bill de Blasio, has built a support network during the pandemic that has helped deliver groceries to her Bronx neighbors.
Its platform rests on extending the remit of this work to statewide issues such as climate, health care and housing.
“I see this fight now in the Assembly as really essential to making sure we live up to these progressive values that Democrats are supposed to stand for,” said Ms. Woolford, who is running with the support of working families. To party.
She hopes her enthusiasm, progressive values and Dominican heritage will help her win over a neighborhood whose Hispanic population has grown significantly in the 28 years that Mr. Dinowitz has represented it.
Mr Dinowitz, who has the backing of nearly every major union, said he did not believe identity should play a decisive role.
“I think it’s very opportunistic to watch this race based on ethnicity,” he said. “I think most people are smart enough to vote on merit.”
He added that he believes his record in advocating for issues such as housing — he was the Assembly’s sponsor of the state’s pandemic eviction moratorium — and access to public transportation spoke for themselves.
Like many of her progressive allies, Ms Woolford has benefited from the zeal of left-wing organizers and the attention of people like Ms Ocasio-Cortez.
And the low turnout levels expected in the primary election mean that energizing even a small number of new voters can have a significant impact.
The stakes have turned some races sour.
Over the past week, two super PACs funded in part by real estate interests have spent lavishly, circulating negative mail about progressive candidates including Ms. Woolford, Mr. Sairitupac, Ms. Shrestha and Mr. Soto, calling them “too extreme”. One of them spent more than $80,000 on Ms Shrestha’s run alone, according to Board of Elections records.
The National Working Families Party, in turn, has used an independent committee to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on television ads and direct mail, some of which portray incumbents as out of pocket for corporate donors.
Incumbents were widely infuriated by this framing, and several said the left was imposing purity tests that manipulated facts to fit a political narrative.
“You don’t just say no because you didn’t get everything you wanted,” Ms Dickens of Harlem said. “That’s not how you negotiate. This is not how you will navigate through any of the three levels of government.
She added: “When they come to power, what are they going to do different?”
Mr Cahill said he supported the Public Electricity Bill but believed much of the disenchantment with it was based on a distortion of the measure.
He said while the left framed the legislation as an environmental law, he viewed it more as an economic law, because of the impact it would have on the state’s energy market.
The Assembly will hold a hearing on the legislation on July 28, a month after the primary vote. Although it is unclear whether this will continue, progressives like Ms Shrestha see the extended conversation as progress.
“Whatever we did to scare Albany off the climate movement this time around, we want to do the same for health care, we want to do the same for housing,” she said.