ALBANY, N.Y. — In the final days of New York’s legislative session, the state’s progressive left-wing seemed poised to score a surprise victory.
After being abandoned for dead, a bill to allow New York to develop publicly-owned renewable energy was reintroduced. Although it was met with strong resistance from the energy industry, the Senate passed the bill. After intense lobbying by grass roots activists, the Assembly approved the legislation.
The Assembly Speaker, Carl E. Heastie did not call the bill to the Floor and it was voted out of session.
The inability to force Mr. Heastie’s hand was a glaring example of how the most left-leaning state lawmakers have hit headwinds this year, but it was not the only one: Proposals to protect tenants from evictions, create universal health care, and seal criminal records all fizzled, while landmark progressive changes made in prior years, like the 2019 bail reforms, drew backlash.
The battle over the renewable energy bill served as a reflection of both the growing strength of the party’s left wing and its limitations, especially 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’ve aligned their legislative and campaign efforts, urging lawmakers to commit to items like the renewables bill, or face the wrath of progressive voters in primary elections.
Sarahana Shrestha (climate activist) is running to be a State Assembly candidate in the Hudson Valley. Her team estimates they have knocked on 250,000 doors in Kingston where she plans to challenge Kevin Cahill, the Democratic incumbent who holds the seat since 1992.
She said that the Assembly’s failure to pass the renewable energy bill illustrated how traditional machine politics has led to a broken and undemocratic system.
“That just worked perfectly in our messaging of what’s wrong with our government — the culture of our government,””Good governance requires courage,” she added. “It’s much safer to say, ‘This thing did not happen, this bill did not pass,’ then to pass something and then probably be hounded about it.”
Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez endorsed Ms. Shrestha. The Democratic Socialists of America as well as the Working Families Party backed her.
The Assembly Insurance Committee’s Chairman, Mr. Cahill called it “a.” “power grab.”
“It’s about a group of people in the Assembly and in the Senate who mostly have just arrived on the scene in the last couple of terms who believe that they should be put in charge of the place,”He stated. “And they know they can’t do it unless they occupy more seats.”
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Jay Jacobs (chairman of the state Democratic Party) argued that primary issues revealed the “arrogance” of progressive activists who were too impatient about achieving their goals, and whose efforts he feared would endanger Democrats’ supermajorities in Albany.
“The Assembly has been a progressive body for quite some time, and has enacted a lot of great progressive pieces of legislation,”He stated.
These insurgent candidates want to reproduce the 2018 State Senate primaries, in which a small group of progressive-minded Democrats challenged some established incumbents. The body was transformed and won a series of wins, including climate protections and criminal justice reforms.
The ballots for the Senate and Assembly seats will go out in November. However, the primary election in June will only be held in the Assembly.
Primary elections for Senate and congressional seats were delayed until Aug. 23 by the state’s highest court, which appointed an outside expert to redraw lines it said were gerrymandered by Democrats in the State Legislature.
Also, the lines drawn by State Assembly members were declared inconstitutional. However, they won’t be changed until after elections.
A few of the 150 Assembly seats available this year have received a lot of interest.
Three Democratic candidates are running to succeed Yuh-Line Niou as Assemblywoman on the Lower East Side. They pride themselves in their immigrant heritage and face off against each other in this district, which lost large swathes of Wall Street for the election.
Illapa Sairitupac (a social worker who is also a son of Peruvian immigrants) is running the race with the support of the Democratic Socialists along with a handful of progressive leaders.
Grace Lee, who is the first generation Korean entrepreneur has been supported by Representatives Jerrold Ndler, Hakeem Jeffreyries, and Grace Meng.
Denny Salas is a third candidate and a political advisor. He has made the American dream of a Dominican immigrant central to his campaign. Some unions and police associations have endorsed him.
A few decorated candidates were involved in a lively race to the top after Richard Gottfried’s retirement from the Assembly of Richard Gottfried. Gottfried was the longest-tenured New York state lawmaker.
In Harlem the long-serving Assemblywoman Inez Dicens faces a primary challenge by Delsenia Glover. She is a housing advocate and is supported by the Working Families Party.
In the Bronx Jeffrey Dinowitz from Kingsbridge and Michael Benedetto, Throgs Neck are facing some of the most difficult challenges they have faced in their years in the Assembly.
Mr. Benedetto, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, helped broker negotiations that delivered two years of mayoral control of city schools — a power-sharing agreement between the city and state — to Mayor Eric Adams of New York City, who has endorsed him.
Mr. Benedetto’s challenger, Jonathan Soto, has sharply criticized mayoral control, which he says cedes too much power to the executive at the expense of parents.
The threat to Mr. Dinowitz’s powerful Codes Committee that oversees the changes in criminal and civil laws comes in the shape of Jessica Altagracia Wolford, a first-time candidate.
Mrs. Woolford was a member of Senator Kirsten Gilbrand’s and ex-Mayor Bill de Blasio’s staff. She created a network that provided mutual help during the pandemic. This helped to deliver groceries in her Bronx neighbors.
Her platform seeks to extend the work of those people on state issues, such as housing, climate and health care.
“I see this fight now, in the Assembly, as really essential to make sure that we’re delivering on those progressive values that Democrats are supposed to stand for,””Mrs. Woolford has the support of the Working Families Party and is running,” she said.
Her enthusiasm, progressive values, and Dominican heritage are what she hopes will win her over in a district where the Hispanic population is growing significantly since Mr. Dinowitz represented them for 28 years.
The support of almost every major union means that Mr. Dinowitz does not think identity should have a decisive role.
“I think it’s very opportunistic to look at this race based on ethnicity,”He stated. “I think most people are smart enough to vote based on the merits.”
He added that he believed his record of championing issues like housing — he was the Assembly sponsor of the state’s pandemic eviction moratorium — and transit access spoke for itself.
Much like many of her progressive friends, Mrs. Woolford has been able to benefit from the enthusiasm of left-leaning organizations and the attention of people such as Ms. OcasioCortez.
Because of the low participation rate expected for the primary elections, even small numbers of voters could be energized to make a difference.
Races are losing their heads because of the high stakes.
Two super-PACs, funded partly by real estate interest, have spent extravagantly in the last week. They circulated negative mailers regarding progressive candidates, including Mr. Sairitupac and Ms. Shrestha, calling them “too extreme.” One spent over $80,000 on Ms. Shrestha’s race alone, according to Board of Elections records.
National Working Families Party used an independent committee for hundreds of thousands in TV advertising and mailings. Many of the ads portray incumbents as wealthy corporate donors.
The framing was so offensive that incumbents became enraged. Some even claimed the left had imposed purity tests, which manipulated facts to suit a particular political narrative.
“You don’t just say no because you didn’t get every single thing you want,”According to Ms. Dickens, Harlem. “That’s not how you negotiate. That’s not how you’re going to navigate through any of the three levels of government.”
Elle added: “When they get in power, what are they going to do different?”
While Mr. Cahill claimed he supported public power bills, he stated that he believes that disenchantment was due to a distortion in the measures.
He said that while the left framed the legislation as an environmental bill, he viewed it as more of an economic one, because of the impact it would have on the state’s energy market.
A month following the primary vote, the Assembly will hold an hearing on the legislation. Though it’s unclear whether it will proceed, progressives like Ms. Shrestha see the extended conversation as progress.
“Whatever we did to make Albany scared of 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.
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