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Veterans, Council Members Push City on Contract Goals

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SBS Commissioner Torres-Springer testifies before the Council (photo: @NYCBusSolutions)

NEW YORK—It has been nearly two months since the Department of Small Business Services and the Mayor's Office of Veterans' Affairs released their long-awaited report on veteran owned-businesses. The report included a variety of plans to support veteran business owners, but recommended against City contract procurement goals for those businesses, a decision that angered many in the tight-knit veterans community.

On Wednesday, veterans were able to publicly voice their concerns about the report at a joint hearing of the City Council's Veterans and Small Business Committees.

First, Department of Small Business Services (SBS) Commissioner Maria Torres-Springer and her policy team, and Catherine LaPorte, chief of staff for Mayor's Office of Veterans' Affairs (MOVA) Commissioner Loree Sutton testified regarding the report. (Sutton was unable to attend the hearing because she fell earlier in the day and was injured).

Kelly Dougherty, executive director of SBS, and LaPorte of MOVA stayed to listen to veterans and advocates address the Council.

"The issuance of this report allowed us to discuss this issue at great depth and to get a better understanding of the struggles a lot of veterans face when they come out of active duty and want to open their own business," Council Member Eric Ulrich, chair of the Veterans Committee said following the hearing. "I wish more folks from the administration would have decided to stay."

Several veterans brought into question the numbers SBS used to make its recommendation against a veteran-owned business contract procurement goal. The SBS-MOVA report, titled "A Roadmap for Supporting Veteran Owned Businesses," estimates 6,200 veterans able to contract with the City, out of a total city veteran population of about 235,000.

"At this point, we believe we can have a larger and more immediate impact within the veteran community by assisting veterans through a wide array of outreach, training, and networking opportunities," Torres-Springer said during her testimony.

But the Veterans Advisory Board (VAB), which operates as a policy liaison between the New York City veterans community and MOVA, argued those numbers don't add up. During his testimony, VAB Chair Vince McGowan asked why the U.S. Census 2007 Survey of Business Owners data was not utilized in the report. The data, provided in McGown's written testimony, showed New York City had 39,236 veteran-owned businesses, excluding Staten Island due to insufficient data. This was in sharp contrast to the estimated 15,400 veteran-owned businesses listed in the SBS report.

The 2007 report is clearly old data, but may very well provide cause for looking at why in just eight years the number of veteran-owned businesses has seemingly decreased so dramatically.

"We encourage the City Council to scrutinize the methodology of [its new] report and consider its findings in this context," McGowen said during his testimony.

Not quite M/WBE
In the report SBS recommends veteran-owned businesses take advantage of the Minority and/or Woman-owned Business Enterprise (M/WBE) or the Emerging Business Enterprise (EBE) programs which already have procurement goals (though according to a report issued by Comptroller Scott Stringer they are often not met). SBS estimates 50 percent of the veteran-owned businesses in the City could take advantage of these programs.

But retired Army Captain Scott Davidson testified that trying to fit veterans into a program not specifically designed for them is counterproductive.

"We lose sight of the fact that a veteran status is the only status that is earned," Davidson said, adding that not having procurement goals is "almost insulting to veterans."

Davidson, who is a white male, said he has been unsuccessful in trying to do business with the City because he is unable to qualify for M/WBE or EBE status. His business, Vets MS, is currently doing contract procurement at the federal level because it has had veteran-owned business procurement goals since the late 1990s.

Using publicly available data, Davidson found there were only 4,024 M/WBE businesses certified to do business with the City, and only 20 enrolled in the EBE program, which is—by SBS's own admission—difficult to qualify for. Davidson argued Wednesday that the pool of 15,400 veteran business owners in the city far exceeds the number of M/WBE businesses currently contracting with the City.

"You are not going to attract any veteran businesses to the City of New York because there is no incentive to contract here," Davidson said.

More than a roadmap
The report's seven recommendations are welcomed by advocates because, as was repeatedly said in the hearing, the issuance of the report is a step in the right direction of more City support for veterans. But as Council Member Paul Vallone pointed out, each of the recommendations ends with similar language: more outreach, better working relationship, more solutions, better partner.

"If I'm a veteran, it's not really what I want to hear," Vallone said. "I like hearing you want to partner in our communities, but I want to hear the administration say, 'this is the resources we are going to commit, these are the programs we are going to institute, this is the staff we are going to use'...But that was not said today."

Torres-Springer countered, saying, "We are not waiting." She pointed to several ways in which the City is making immediate changes based on the recommendations in the report.

In a matter of weeks, businesses which enroll online as vendors with the City using the Payee Information Portal (PIP) will be able to self-identify as a veteran-owned business. This will give SBS and MOVA concrete data on how many veteran-owned businesses are currently doing business with the City.

"To effectively create a goals program, we need to know more about the universe of businesses that want to sell goods and services to the City, which we will be in the position to do through the aforementioned changes to the PIP system," Torres-Springer said.

It should be noted that the onus will be on veterans to self-identify, which often poses a problem for veterans, particularly post-9/11 veterans who have trouble doing so. Torres-Springer said additional training for SBS staff at their business help centers begins next month, which could help eliminate some of the issues around self-identification.

In addition to improvements in PIP, Torres-Springer said the City will launch a new course titled, "10 Steps to Starting a Business for Veterans" in February and is currently recruiting for the Veteran Entrepreneurship Program, which also begins in February.

Outreach will be the key to success for these programs, especially reaching veterans who may not be eager to self-identify.

"Veterans will not come to you, you need to go to them," Avi Leshes, Director of Neighborhood Business Services with the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, said during his testimony Wednesday. "You can talk about all these great resources for veterans but if they don't know about it, it is pointless."

If there was one thing veterans can hold onto, it's that it appears procurement goals for veteran-owned businesses are not off the table.

"We have been, are today, and will continue to be open to any strategy or programs that allow us to more effectively serve veteran business owners," said Torres-Springer.

For Council Member Robert Cornegy, chair of the Committee on Small Business, that glimmer of hope that procurement goals for veterans could happen in New York City will work for now.

"I'm satisfied that the door has not been closed on doing set-asides," Cornegy said following the hearing. "Because [the City] chose to go this route now, it doesn't mean in the future they won't do set-asides."

UPDATE: Avi Leshes wrote to Gotham Gazette to add, "SBS has a suite of terrific services that the veteran community desperately needs. The Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce fully supports and applauds SBS in making outreach to the veteran community a priority, because without their efforts, veterans wouldn't know about these valuable resources."

by Kristen Meriwether, Gotham Gazette

Note: this article has been corrected to reflect that a represenative from SBS did in fact stay for the duration of the hearing. An earlier version of the article incorrectly stated that no one from SBS had remained after its representatives testified. We regret the error.

Striving for Impact, Borough Presidents to Set 2015 Agendas

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The five borough presidents at a Crain's New York event (photo: Ben Max)

They used to be some of New York's most powerful elected officials, but their roles have changed over the last 25 years. The job of today's borough presidents has become more about creativity than clout.

Recent borough presidents have found ways to stay relevant. And the current crop of five, which includes four borough presidents just a year into their tenures, shows how much flexibility the position allows. Ruben Diaz Jr. is currently far outside of the Bronx leading a delegation of Latino leaders on a weeklong trip to Israel and Eric Adams' work on police-community relations has taken a national stage, resonating beyond Brooklyn. Yet, while there are moments like Adolfo Carrion ousting several Bronx community board members after they rejected plans for the new Yankee Stadium in 2006, the borough president office doesn't carry the same concrete weight it once did.

The position was established in 1898 to give each of the five boroughs equal representation after New York's municipal consolidation created the city in its present form. The mayor, comptroller, president of the Board of Aldermen (later City Council president) and borough presidents sat on the Board of Estimate -- once the most important body in local politics -- to vote on land use, review legislation, control the city budget, and more.

"They had real power, they had to approve everything that went on with all major policy issues," said Joseph Viteritti, chair of the Urban Affairs and Planning Department at Hunter College, of borough presidents in a bygone era.

In 1989, The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Board of Estimate was unconstitutional because each borough president got one vote even though they represented vastly different numbers of people. A commission re-worked the city's charter and created New York's current system of municipal government, which corrected the representation issue by making the City Council more powerful, expanding it from 35 to 51 members and setting district population requirements. Voters ratified the charter on Nov. 7, 1989, eliminating the Board of Estimate and diminishing the borough presidents' power.

"I don't think the people on the commission fully appreciated the importance of borough identity," said Viteritti. Albeit with less power, in the years since borough presidents have continued to push borough-specific needs and promote their home turf.

Since 1989, the duties of modern-day borough presidents have included making land use recommendations, allocating a shared five percent of the city budget to local projects, overseeing community and borough boards, introducing legislation, and maintaining an accurate topographical map of their borough. Otherwise, the position is open to interpretation.

"It's a good position for political experimentation," said Gregory Perotta, author of the article "A Case For and Against the Borough President in Twenty-First Century New York City."

When successful, this experimentation can help raise borough presidents' profiles and lead to greater things. Scott Stringer started a program called Bank On Manhattan that helped low-income residents open bank accounts and avoid steep fees for check cashing and money order services. It became a model and he ran on the success of that and other efforts to become the city's current comptroller. In Brooklyn, Marty Markowitz was an energetic supporter of the borough's revitalization, including a push to bring in the Barclays Center. Term-limited, he was rewarded by fellow Brooklynite Mayor Bill de Blasio with a top job at NYC & Co., the city's marketing and tourism agency, and a $20,000 raise.

While borough presidents have racked up plenty of accomplishments over the last 25 years, some people still want to get rid of the position altogether. David Casavis, a local professor, has campaigned to become Manhattan's borough president multiple times on the sole platform of abolishing the office if he won.

"This is a retirement prize for senior politicians," said Casavis. "The sad thing is the money of the borough presidencies could be spent on so many other things."

Borough presidents can serve for a maximum of eight years. They currently earn $160,000 per year and each employ staffs ranging from approximately 30 to 60 people. According to the Independent Budget Office, the combined cost of all five offices exceeded $22 million in 2014.

These numbers may seem high, but a common justification is that each borough is the size of a city in its own right and deserves specific representation. Brooklyn and Queens each have more than two million residents.

"The more people who are watching and the more people who are acting as stewards for those areas, I think the city as a whole is better for it," said Perotta.

Four of the five current borough presidents (BPs) have just completed their first year in office, in which they began to establish long-term priorities. All five appeared active in 2014 and begin this year eyeing greater accomplishments. Soon, New Yorkers will get to hear from their borough president as those from the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn deliver "State of the Borough" addresses and the Staten Island borough president, James Oddo, hosts an open house.

The Bronx
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., in office since 2009, has been especially active.

"I'm trying to keep with the spirit of not just having the borough presidents cut ribbons and give out proclamations," he said on NY1's Inside City Hall while promoting new legislation to require health inspection grades at nail salons and barber shops.

One of Diaz's main accomplishments was advocating for a law that now requires developers who receive taxpayer funding for their projects to pay employees a living wage. He also played a large role in mediating disputes over development plans for the Kingsbridge Armory and has started multiple programs to help stimulate the Bronx economy.

"A lot of it is what you make of it. I think that we've done a very good job of keeping this office vibrant, important, and relevant," said John DeSio, Diaz's director of communications, in a recent phone interview.

On what he has called the borough's top priority, Diaz is pushing hard to get funding for four new Metro-North stations on the Bronx's east side. Governor Andrew Cuomo indicated plans to comply in a speech this week.

In Manhattan, Gale Brewer has carried on with many issues she fought for as a member of the City Council. On the Council Brewer helped pass paid sick leave legislation, focused on the use of technology and data to solve problems, encouraged composting in schools, and tried to get city agencies to purchase more goods locally. Renowned for her availability and constituent services, Brewer will soon open a second office uptown on 125th Street so residents can walk in for help - her main office is in the Municipal Building downtown.

Brewer's team has organized numerous training sessions for community board members on how to understand city data, land use procedures, Robert's Rules of Order, and more. She brought in students from the CUNY Service Corps program to help community boards better utilize the city's open data portal and other technology. With a variety of major land use decisions coming up in Manhattan, such as East Midtown Rezoning and redevelopment of the South Street Seaport area, Brewer wants her constituents to be prepared.

"Giving the real capacity to community boards -- technology and everything else -- that's not sexy stuff, but it absolutely has to get done," she said in a recent interview with Gotham Gazette. "People need this kind of expertise."

New Queens BP Melinda Katz facilitated a dramatic shake-up at the Queens Library. She fired six people from the board of trustees, survived a lawsuit that they subsequently filed against her, and helped pass transparency reform legislation through the City Council. "Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and the dark days of this saga are finally behind us," Katz said in a recent statement.

The Queens borough president also co-led the World's Fair Anniversary Committee, hosted commemorative events, and helped get funding to restore the New York State Pavilion in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

Staten Island
On Staten Island, James Oddo set himself apart by holding a private swearing-in at his parents' house for a fraction of the cost of his colleagues' inauguration events. And, he's the only one of the five BPs holding an open house instead of a "State of the Borough."

Oddo's focus has been constituent services and community activism, his mission is to make the office more accessible and transparent.

"I hope you've figured out by now that we at the Borough President's office are not government bureaucrats," Oddo wrote in his December newsletter.

Oddo started an anti-litter campaign and is working on multiple health and fitness initiatives. His office's new phone app, BP Assist, helps Staten Islanders report issues such as potholes and graffiti. He has also played a major role in continued Sandy recovery efforts, most recently calling for the new Staten Island Sandy Task Force to include more local input.

In Brooklyn, Eric Adams has billed himself as "a tough cop" and "a tender borough president." This year the former NYPD officer has established a new tradition by hosting a New Year's Eve celebration on Coney Island. He's worked to update technology in local schools, including a program that will give some students iPads.

Improving police-community relations has become a main priority for Adams in light of recent events and current tensions. As a former NYPD captain, he brings a different perspective to the divide, especially in some Brooklyn neighborhoods. In a Martin Luther King Day speech at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Adams spoke frankly about his position on the dispute between Mayor de Blasio and police unions.

"Unions should always fight for their members, but they should never get it twisted. When it's time to determine what policies are going to impact the people of the City of New York, I did not elect the PBA. I elected the mayor," he said.

The Year Ahead
While they may have different styles, the borough presidents can still come together on certain issues. Collaboration among the borough presidents can be expected going forward - in early 2014 they held several meetings and public appearances all together. Most recently, they opposed the new LinkNYC payphone Wi-Fi proposal until changes were made to ensure equitable speeds across the city.

"In today's world, the borough presidents -- all five of us -- get along very well," Brewer said.

Though that camaraderie may only last until it's time to compete for higher office.

A borough presidency can be a springboard, as was the case with Stringer. Adams has made no secret of his intention to run for mayor and some believe Diaz plans to do the same. Many borough presidents have run for mayor before, but Robert Wagner Jr. and David Dinkins are the only ones to ever win.

Now, the borough presidents are preparing for their various "State of the Borough" events. Katz will speak at Queens College on Thursday, Jan. 22. Oddo is having an open house at Staten Island Borough Hall on Sunday, Jan. 25. Brewer will host a discussion with "four Manhattan thought leaders" at Columbia University on Feb. 8. Diaz will be speaking at the Mall at Bay Plaza on Feb. 19. And Adams hasn't announced plans for a speech yet.

by Cole Rosengren, Gotham Gazette

How Barack Obama Sounded Like Bill de Blasio, Andrew Cuomo in His State of the Union

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President Obama during his State of the Union Address (@nytvideo)

It is oft discussed in New York politics that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo represent different wings of the Democratic Party, with de Blasio flanking Cuomo on the left. Like Cuomo, United States President Barack Obama has at times been chided from the left on economic and education policies. All three Democrats agree on quite a bit, of course, not the least of which includes a progressive stance on social issues like marriage equality.

In delivering his sixth State of the Union Address on Tuesday night, Obama touched on a wide variety of domestic and foreign policy issues. In some instances, he sounded a bit like de Blasio; in others, he spoke to issues that Cuomo has taken up.

Cuomo will give his fifth State of the State address on Wednesday, and there is speculation that he may someday pursue the presidency. De Blasio will take the stage for his second State of the City speech soon - a date has not yet been announced, but it is expected to be as early as next week - and there have been murmurs about his larger ambitions as he has built a national and international profile in the past year.

De Blasio helped form and is Chair of "the Cities of Opportunity Task Force" which has him "bring[ing] together mayors from across the country to develop an action plan to challenge the growing inequality crisis in America."

As soon as Obama finished his speech, the mayor's press office emailed a statement with praise from de Blasio on the mayor's central issue. It began, "Tonight, President Obama laid out his clearest vision yet for how the United States must tackle the greatest challenge of our time—income inequality—and said what Americans across the country have known for some time: the time to act and to defeat this challenge is now." Obama's prepared remarks included the word "inequality" once, when he called for tax reforms to close loopholes he said are being taken advantage of by "the top one percent."

De Blasio recently unveiled a business tax reform plan aimed at helping small business owners and working and middle class New Yorkers that will need approval at the state level.

In his State of the Union remarks, Obama called for paid sick leave legislation, something that de Blasio has championed - one of his first acts as Mayor was to sign into law an expansion of the city's paid sick leave rules. On Twitter, the mayor's account showed support for Obama's statement in real time: "Gratified to see President @BarackObama come out in support of paid sick leave. New York City supports you, Mr. President."

The president also called for raising the minimum wage, something de Blasio has pushed for - he wants local control so that New York City can set its own regardless of the State's mark - and Cuomo recently announced he was planning to pursue. The governor's new proposal is for a gradual rise to a $10.50 statewide minimum wage, with $11.50 in New York City, but no local control.

And it's not exactly pre-K, which Obama called for an expansion of last year, but this year the president spoke about the need to help families better afford childcare. De Blasio was surely nodding in agreement when Obama said, "And that's why my plan will make quality childcare more available, and more affordable, for every middle-class and low-income family with young children in America — by creating more slots and a new tax cut of up to $3,000 per child, per year."

Obama also seemed to sling an arm around de Blasio's shoulders when he touched on race and policing in America. The president appeared to reference comments made by de Blasio on the night of the Staten Island grand jury decision not to indict Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner. That night, de Blasio spoke of teaching his son Dante, who, like Obama, has one black parent and one white parent, to take special care when interacting with the police. In his State of the Union, Obama said, "We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York. But surely we can understand a father who fears his son can't walk home without being harassed."

Obama did not stop there, though, and in more Cuomo-ian fashion, he added, "Surely we can understand the wife who won't rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift. Surely we can agree it's a good thing that for the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together, and use that as a starting point for Democrats and Republicans, community leaders and law enforcement, to reform America's criminal justice system so that it protects and serves us all."

Also like Cuomo, Obama discussed passing legislation to ensure women are entitled to 'equal pay for equal work.' Cuomo continues to pursue his ten-point Women's Equality Agenda against tough Republican opposition in the State Senate.

The president and the governor both seem excited about the prospects of the U.S. normalizing relations with Cuba. The governor explained recently that he plans to break into the Cuban trade markets since the president has announced plans to lift the embargo with Cuba.

On education, Obama and Cuomo seem to see eye-to-eye in many ways, such as support for charter schools, but the president did not go into much K-12 education policy in his remarks. When the governor takes the stage on Wednesday in Albany, he is expected to focus heavily on education reform.

And Mayor de Blasio, who does not subscribe to the same education doctrine as his two fellow Democrats, will be sitting in the audience watching.

by Ben Max, editor, Gotham Gazette

The Week Ahead in New York Politics, January 19

New York City Hall

New York City Hall

What to watch for this week in New York politics:

The week began, of course, with the Martin Luther King holiday, which itself saw no shortage of political action. As for the rest of the week, we're watching the following storylines:

  • Governor Andrew Cuomo has been rolling out major policy proposals in advance of his major speech to be delivered on Wednesday in Albany. Our look at what the governor has unveiled thus far and what is still to come. On Tuesday morning Cuomo will be speaking to the Association for a Better New York (ABNY), a New York City-based business group. According to his public schedule, the governor will be previewing his 2015 infrastructure and transportation agenda at the ABNY event. Once the governor gives his budget address/State of the State speech, Republicans and Democrats in the State Legislature will respond, budget hearings will commence, negotiations will be ongoing, and speculation will be rampant. Another fun legislative session is upon us!
  • A new Siena poll is due out on Tuesday showing public opinion on the governor, the Legislature, fracking, public education, and more in New York State.
  • Once the governor has given his big speech, will he announce a date for a special election in New York's 11th Congressional District? Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan is the presumptive Republican nominee for the race; Democrats are taking more time, but could settle on a candidate any day.
  • Mayor Bill de Blasio is on a quick trip to Paris. Leaving Monday evening after giving Martin Luther King Day remarks at BAM and NAN and returning Tuesday evening, the mayor will be joining French officials and Jewish leaders to pay respects to victims of recent terrorist attacks in Paris.
  • We're expecting Mayor de Blasio's State of the City speech to be given before the end of the month, likely next week. Meanwhile, the borough presidents are beginning to give their state of the borough speeches (at least those who are giving them - BP James Oddo of Staten Island is having a Jan. 25 open house instead) - Queens BP Katz gives hers on Thursday. Others will do so in the coming weeks.
  • Demand has appeared quite high - perhaps overwhelmingly so - for the City's new municipal identification card. Now appointment-only, there is a months-long wait to apply for the card as our Samar Khurshid discovered the hard way - will the City announce new measures to speed the process up?
  • Applications of City Council discretionary funding are still be accepted; the new participatory budgeting season is ongoing; and community board applications are due to the borough presidents shortly. The City Council has its second full-body Stated Meeting of the month on Thursday. 

As always, there's a great deal happening in committee hearings at the City Council and all over the city. More detail below...

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics?
E-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com***

The run of the week in detail:

As mentioned, Tuesday morning the Association for a Better New York (ABNY) will host Gov. Cuomo, for a discussion of the governor's priorities.

On Tuesday morning, City Comptroller Scott Stringer will participate in "Council on Foreign Relations' Renewing America Series Panel: Risks and Priorities in Public Pension Plans."

Also mentioned previously, Tuesday will see the Civic Hall Open House/Grand Opening: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., 156 5th Ave at 20th St, 2nd Fl. Comptroller Stringer, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and other elected officials and civic leaders are expected to give remarks. [Read our look at the project, its roots and its goals.]

Tuesday's City Council schedule will include a meeting of the Committee on Housing and Buildings for an oversight hearing regarding "Short Term Rentals – Stimulating the Economy or Destabilizing Neighborhoods?" - this, of course, refers to the controversial Airbnb.

Prior to that hearing, at 9:45 a.m. on the steps of City Hall, there will be a "rally against illegal hotels before the Housing and Buildings Committee's oversight hearing on short-term rentals" led by Council Members Helen Rosenthal, Mark Levine, Rosie Mendez, Antonio Reynoso, Ydanis Rodriguez, Rory Lancman, Corey Johnson, Ben Kallos, and Margaret Chin; State Senator Liz Krueger; State Assembly Members Richard Gottfried, Linda Rosenthal and Keith Wright; Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer; and a variety of community and advocacy groups.

The City Council schedule will also include an afternoon meeting of the Committee on Parks and Recreation to consider "naming of 56 thoroughfares and public places" including those for Detectives Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, who were killed in the line of duty on Dec. 20.

There will also be an afternoon meeting of the Committee on Youth Services for an oversight hearing in relation to "Culturally Competent Afterschool Programs: Exploring how culturally and linguistically competent afterschool programs benefit youth."

On Tuesday at 10:45 a.m., "Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams will launch a series of digital youth dialogues with Brooklyn students on the issue of police-community relations, in response to recent citywide tension following widespread protests of policing practices and the assassinations of two NYPD officers. The conversations will take place among young people conversing over Google Hangout, while moderators remotely pose questions to them to drive discourse; tomorrow's discourse, moderated by representatives from the Peace Institute, will be between students from Bishop Kearney High School in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn Academy of Science and Environment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn Amity School in Sheepshead Bay, and Sunset Park High School in Sunset Park. Borough President Adams will further outline his ongoing effort to bridge the divide between police and the communities they serve; the conversations will inform a report of recommendations with the goal of advancing public safety citywide, as well as police and criminal justice reforms."

On Tuesday, "The Council for Senior Center and Services of New York City (CSCS) will host its 26th Annual Conference on Aging...Focusing on the transformation of aging, CSCS will present workshops on topics of interest to those in aging services and those serving older adults...Among the day's highlights will be remarks by Nora Super, Executive Director of the 2015 White House Conference on Aging...Keynote speaker, Ana Oliveira President and CEO of The New York Women's Foundation, will discuss the strengths of older New Yorkers as anchors in their communities as well as the realities, perceptions and implications of the changing aging landscape in New York. Other speakers include Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, Deputy Mayor, Health and Human Services; Corinda Crossdale, Director, New York State Office for the Aging; and Donna Corrado, Commissioner, New York City Department for the Aging."

Tuesday morning, City & State NY, in partnership with Effective NY, will host "Property Taxes and New York's Future: Solving the Fiscal Crisis of Counties." The event "will convene leaders in government, business, and advocacy...to discuss how New York can solve the fiscal crisis facing counties around the state." Featured speakers to include NYS Comptroller Tom DiNapoli; Mayor of Syracuse, Stephanie Miner; and Former Lieutenant Governor, Dick Ravitch.

Mid-day Tuesday, the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School will host "Ferguson Is Everywhere: Policing and the Criminalization of Communities of Color," a panel discussion covering "the non-indictments in the Ferguson and Staten Island cases" and the national movement they have given rise to. Speakers will include Professor Alex S. Vitale and activist Linda Sarsour.

Tuesday evening at City Hall: "Council Member Mark Levine will moderate a panel discussion called "Shared Narratives, Values and Cultures of the Latino and Jewish Communities in New York City." The panel will include Assemdly Member Nily Rozic, who was born in Jerusalem and also has Argentinian heritage. Former Bronx Borough President, Fernando Ferer and Hispanic Federation President Jose Calderon will also share their perspectives and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is slated to give opening remarks.

For those interested in more on IDNYC, there will be an information session/community meeting in Manhattan, on Tuesday evening at 6 p.m. at El Museo del Barrio.

Tuesday evening in Albany, City & State NY will host its annual "State of Our State Reception" on "the eve of Governor Cuomo's State of the State" address.

Also on Tuesday evening, the Manhattan Young Democrats will host a panel discussion on race and policing. The event will feature Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, activists Michael Skolnik and Linda Sarsour, Professor Christina Greer, and others.

Later on Tuesday evening, all eyes will be on President Obama's sixth State of the Union address, 9 p.m. on many networks. Several watch parties will be happening around the city, including those held by the aforementioned Manhattan Young Democrats, but also the Working Families Party (at Plan B Bar in Brooklyn) and Democratic Leadership for the 21st Century (DL21C) in Manhattan.

Governor Cuomo will present the 2015-16 Executive Budget and give his postponed State of the State Address at the Empire State Convention Center on Wednesday afternoon.

[Read our preview of the speech. Also, read our look back at highlights and themes from Cuomo's first four State of the State speeches.]

Wednesday's City Council schedule will include a meeting of the Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries and International Intergroup Relations to discuss resolutions regarding "commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps on January 27th, 2015"; and "Declaring January 15th - 22nd of each year as Peace Week in NYC"; a meeting of the Committee on Technology for an oversight hearing regarding "Filming and Community Impacts," and to see the introduction of a new bill in relation to "requiring monthly and annual reports concerning film shoot permits"; a meeting of the Committee on Women's Issues to discuss a "resolution calling upon the United States Congress to pass legislation to protect a woman's health, her right to determine whether and when to bear a child, and her ability to exercise that right by limiting government interference with the provision of abortion services and ensuring legal, safe abortion care is available to any woman who needs it"; a meeting of the Committee on General Welfare for an oversight hearing on "Homelessness and the Implementation of the Living in Communities (LINC) Program" and to also discuss a "resolution calling upon the New York State Legislature to pass, and the Governor to sign, A.2819, which would establish a hospitality gift fund for the homeless"; a meeting of the Committee on Veterans with the Committee on Small Businesses for a joint oversight hearing regarding "Supporting Veteran-Owned Businesses and Promoting Veteran Entrepreneurship." [Read our report on the subject.]

The "small cities schools lawsuit" trial is set to begin Wednesday in Albany: "After waiting six years, the parents and children in eight NY, high poverty, low wealth school districts will finally get their day in court. The plaintiffs in Maisto v. New York – known as the "Small Cities" case – are challenging New York's persistent failure to provide sufficient teachers, curriculum, reasonable class sizes, interventions for at-risk students, and other resources deemed essential for a sound basic education under the NY Constitution. The eight Small Cities districts are Jamestown, Kingston, Mount Vernon, Newburgh, Niagara Falls, Port Jervis, Poughkeepsie and Utica. Last month, the case was assigned to a new Judge, and a new trial date was selected.

"The Bronx Youth Empowerment Program (YEP), in partnership with NYC Council Member Andy King and NYPD's 47th Precinct, will host a "Connections" forum on Wednesday, January 21, 4 p.m. at Evander Childs High School Campus, Blackbox Theater Room, 800 East Gun Hill Rd., Bronx. "There was a time when community residents knew the officer who walked the beat in their neighborhood and that officer knew the various families and youth in the community by their first names. The purpose of the Bronx YEP Connections program is to get back to that familiarity and close the communications gap in order to create a friendlier 'connection' between the NYPD and our youth," explained Council Member King. "In addition, the forum is an opportunity for youth to learn what to do if they are stopped by a police officer and it also gives youth a chance to ask questions of their local NYPD officers.""

Our Town, in association with the New York Society for Ethical Culture will host a town hall meeting on Wednesday evening, "Pedestrians vs. Cars: Manhattan's Deadly Traffic Problem and What Can Be Done About It." The event will feature Commissioner of the NYC Department of Transportation, Polly Trottenberg; Former Executive Director at the New York Times, Jill Abramson; City Council Member, Helen Rosenthal; Dana Lerner, Families for Safe Streets; and will be moderated by editor-in-chief of Our Town Kyle Pope.

Thursday morning, the Association for a Better New York (ABNY) will host Chancellor Carmen Fariña for a breakfast event addressing the Chancellor's "priorities for improving the city's public schools and ensuring better outcomes for all students."

Also on Thursday morning, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz will deliver her annual "State of the Borough" address in Colden Auditorium at Queens College.

Thursday's City Council schedule includes a meeting of the Committee on Finance regarding a bill relating to the sale of tax liens and to discuss the resolution "approving the new designation and changes in the designation of certain organizations to receive funding in the Expense Budget" and the second Stated Meeting of the month at 1:30 p.m.

Friday and the weekend
Friday's CityLaw Breakfast Series event at New York Law School will feature the United States Attorney of Southern District of New York Preet Bharara.

Also Friday morning The Mayor's Community Affairs Unit and the Mayor's Office of Appointments host One City Rising Together: The Role of Inclusive Leadership in Good Government at Tweed Courthouse: "Interested in making a difference and serving as a leader in City government? Meet members of City government's inner circle and network with hiring managers from different city agencies at this event. Learn why inclusive leadership teams are so important to the future of New York City and for creating a legacy of good government. Hear first-hand about the Mayor's equity agenda and his vision for the City from the men and women who are leading key aspects of his important plan...Moderated by Baruch Professor Hector Cordero-Guzmán of the School of Public Affairs, this conversation will be an exciting exchange about leadership, government, and career opportunity" and will include First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris; Commissioner Gladys Carrión, Administration for Children's Services; Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl, Department of Cultural Affairs; Commissioner Maria Torres-Springer, Department of Small Business Services; First Deputy Commissioner Benjamin B. Tucker, New York Police Department.

Friday's City Council schedule is a meeting of the Committee on Education jointly with the Committee on Health regarding legislation relating to "Health and safety of youth football teams" and "creation of a youth sports health and safety task force."

On Sunday morning: "What Matters Now: An LGBTQ Youth Summit" co-sponsored by Council Member Corey Johnson. "What Matters Now: An LGBTQ Youth Summit aims to engage Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Gender Nonconforming, and Queer youth from all over NYC in a day of skills building, community organizing and resource sharing. The summit will offer a variety of workshops that will cover topics that will assist LGBTQ youth in advocating for and developing safe spaces in their communities...The summit is hosted in partnership with the Office of New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito & the LGBT Caucus of the NYC Council."

Also Sunday: the "Annual Staten Island Borough Hall Open House - Direct Connect Sunday": 12-3 p.m. at Staten Island Borough Hall, hosted by Borough President James Oddo. "All Staten Islanders are encouraged to come by, learn in detail about the things we have worked on this past year, our agenda for 2015, and have an opportunity to connect directly with the BP and his staff."

Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: bmax@gothamgazette.com (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

by Rati Mukhuradze and Ben Max

In New Civic Tech Hub, A Family Legacy of Community Building Continues

civic hall

An early Civic Hall presentation for beta members (photo: @VeronicaLudwig)

NEW YORK—On Tuesday Andrew Rasiej and his business partner Micah Sifry will open Civic Hall, a 21st century community center and event space for New York City's rapidly growing civic technology sector. The space will be a central hub where hacktivists, data geeks, and government officials can regularly meet to collaborate on ways to address civic problems—a space missing in the city until now.

For those in the civic technology arena, it comes as no surprise that Rasiej and Sifry have taken on the project. The duo started Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) in 2004 as a one-day conference to bring together those interested in how the internet and technology was changing politics and governance. PDF has grown from an initial one-day conference of 200 people at the New School in 2004, to multiple two-day events in cities around the globe attended by thousands in person and online.

PDF and now Civic Hall are all about sharing ideas, solving problems, and improving government. The new space and membership to it are designed to enhance collaboration, innovation, and all the key elements of what makes the civic tech community so impactful.

Rasiej and Sifry have cultivated this community for over a decade, and now the pair will fittingly be the ones to build, open, and operate a center for the community each has become so immersed in.

But the inspiration for Civic Hall wasn't born out of a hacknight, or people bugging Rasiej and Sifry about the lack of space for people interested in civic tech. Sure, those conversations happened, but the seed was planted years earlier on two separate, but equally powerful trips to Poland.

Poland, 2004
Community centers have been in Rasiej's family for nearly a century. He just didn't know it until he was in his forties.

Rasiej had not been to his family's homeland of Poland since childhood and decided to go with his father, Steve Rasiej, to his birthplace of Nehrybka in 2004. There, father and son were driving from the two-room house without running water that the father had been born and raised in to Parish Church of Nehrybka, two miles away, where he had been an altar boy.

It was on this road where they passed a red brick building with "Community Center" painted in white on a wooden sign outside. Rasiej's father pointed to the building and said, "I laid the bricks for that building."

Rasiej was puzzled, having never heard the story growing up and asked his father to explain. Rasiej's grandfather, Zygmunt Rasiej, was a local police captain for the small township which had a mix of Catholics, Jews, and Russian Orthodox residents. He noted these groups were meeting in churches and temples to discuss local issues, but had no secular place to safely meet together.

So Zygmunt asked for funding from the government to build a local community center which would give these very different groups with equal stake in the community a place to meet. They were given enough money for materials, but not labor to build it. So Rasiej's grandfather called on his family—including Rasiej's father, who was nine years old at the time—to help build the community center. It was completed in 1936.

Shortly after the community center was erected, World War II broke out. In 1940 Rasiej's grandfather was one of the 22,000 leaders arrested and killed in the Katyn Forest Massacre and Rasiej's father was sent by the Soviets to the labor camps in Siberia. Rasiej never met his grandfather, but decades later he saw his family's legacy of community building right where it started.

"This desire to build community is in my genes," Rasiej said during a recent interview at Civic Hall, which will hold a kick-off open house on Tuesday, January 20.

"It is very moving and gratifying that Micah understands that this [Civic Hall] is actually an extension of my family's work," he added, as tears filled his eyes.

It wasn't until another trip to Poland in 2013, this time with Sifry, that Rasiej finally got the ball rolling on a community center of his own.

rasiej grandfather

(Zygmunt Rasiej) 

Poland, 2013
For years civic tech enthusiasts from Warsaw had been flying to the United States and neighboring European countries to attend PDF. They asked Rasiej and Sifry for a conference to be held in Warsaw, Poland, and in 2013 the pair obliged.

Following that first PDF in Warsaw, Rasiej and Sifry had a few extra days before returning to the U.S. and decided to visit Auschwitz. The trip was very personal for both men. Like Rasiej, Sifry's family also suffered during World War II, his at the hands of the Nazis. Sifry's mother is a holocaust survivor and both his and his wife's families lost dozens of members during the war.

The visit was, for obvious reasons, very powerful for both men and initially the car ride back was quiet as they contemplated what they had seen. But as they drove further away, their thoughts slowly began to return to the real world and their most pressing question: what would they do next? They were at something of a crossroads and had what they say was a "what do we want to be when we grow up" moment in the car.

"Do we want to just keep doing a conference (PDF) and a website and being community weavers in our personal time?" Sifry said they asked themselves. "Or what can we do that is more institutionally valuable?"

With images of Auschwitz still fresh in his mind, Sifry's thoughts turned to Rasiej's grandfather's story, which he had heard before. A lightbulb went off. What about a community center for those in civic tech they had been working with for over a decade?

During their ten years in business together, Sifry said he had often bugged Rasiej about having a "store front" for their civic tech community. But the timing had never been right for a variety of reasons and the idea was always shelved.

The conversation in the car accelerated and the initial plans for Civic Hall began to take shape.

Civic Hall
The idea for Civic Hall began to become a reality shortly after that 2013 trip to Poland. The duo took their idea to Omidyar Network, Google, Ford Foundation, and Microsoft, and received initial funding. They spent a year doing research, speaking to over 150 key players in the civic tech ecosystem, not just in New York City, but around the world.

"What we were trying to figure out is what does civic tech need, what are we particularly good at doing, and what does the civic tech community in New York City, in particular, need?" Sifry said during last week's interview. "That is where Civic Hall was born."

Sifry said they looked at successful models in other cities with robust civic technology communities, including 1776 and Open Gov Hub in Washington D.C., the Berkman Center in Cambridge, and 1871 and Smart Cities in Chicago.

"One of the things we saw was that the whole ecosystem benefits when there is a central hub," Sifry said.

Chicago's co-working space, 1871, is a prime example of how a central hub has benefited the tech community. The 50,000 square foot space opened in January of 2012 and has become the most prominent co-working technology space in Chicago.

"Having that physical meeting space is valuable," Derek Eder, co-founder of Chicago's Open City hacking group and partner at DataMade, said in a phone interview last week. "The community would not be what it is without that central place."

1871 is where the Open City hacknight was based for two-and-a-half years before recently moving to a larger space (albeit in the same building). What started as a small group of like-minded civic technologists interested in solving some of Chicago's perplexing civic problems with data, has grown into the go-to place for all things civic tech.

Eder said the current Chief Data Officer for Chicago, Tom Schenk Jr., is a regular attendee of the hacknight, along with a bevy of other government officials from across multiple agencies. He said having the meeting on neutral ground, outside a government building, allows for more open and frank conversation.

"If we were all meeting somewhere on government premises, I think it would change the dynamic of how people would act," Eder said. Fully engaging, thinking creatively, and speaking candidly are all key to making such communities flow.

"That is an important thing to having the success of the community," Eder said of open, frank conversation.

Civic Hall aims to be that "safe zone" for collaboration among government and civic technologists here in New York. How much the de Blasio administration will buy in to Civic Hall remains to be seen, but it appears at the outset the administration is supportive.

"Mayor de Blasio has set forth a goal to make New York City the most tech-friendly and innovative city in the world. Collaboration with our vibrant civic tech community is vital to this success," Chief Technology Officer Minerva Tantoco said by email. "As CTO, I look forward to working together with Civic Hall to harness the creativity of all New Yorkers to bridge the digital divide, foster an innovation economy, and incubate the next generation of government technology."

Supporting the Civic Hall endeavor is low-risk for the de Blasio administration and may be why it is willing to lend early support. Few city governments around the country are willing to build or lead an innovation project like this, largely due to their political risks.

"The capacity to use failure as a way to learn inside government is close to zero," Mark Headd, former CTO for the City of Philadelphia, said during an interview at Civic Hall last week. "[Failure] is really one of the core ingredients of innovation. You have to be able to fail without it being the end of the world."

Sifry and Rasiej openly acknowledge Civic Hall is an experiment and, like the other innovation projects they have collaborated on in the past, they are sure it will evolve to ensure its longevity. The fact they won't have the ravenous New York City press corps waiting to feast on any misstep will allow them breathing room, a luxury City Hall would likely not be afforded.

Rasiej sees Civic Hall working with or without buy-in from City Hall, although he is optimistic based on how the de Blasio administration broached tech in the new mayor's first year. He has already watched government benefit from collaboration with civic technologists on projects using MTA data and numerous successful apps coming from the City's BigApps competition.

Civic Hall will offer city agencies a place to flock when ready to enlist the help of the civic tech community, on data projects for example.

Memberships are tiered, running from $30 to $550 per month depending on how much access is desired.

"If I was still in government, I wouldn't want to have to go hunting around to try and find these people [civic technologists]," Headd said. "If I could find a place that brought them in, it would be really attractive to me."

Community building legacy
Rasiej didn't lay the physical bricks for Civic Hall, but like his grandfather did with the community center in Poland, he did have a hand in a key piece of the infrastructure—albeit a more modern version. Civic Hall is wired with blazing fast Wi-Fi, something Rasiej has long been advocating for improving everywhere.

The sign on the door at Civic Hall isn't wood or painted white. In fact, city laws prohibit signage outside of 156 Fifth Avenue, in the Flatiron District, where it is located. But in the digital age, the word is spreading virtually with the hashtag #civichall, which is etched in frosted glass on the front door of the second floor entrance.

The building is different and so is the sign, but much like his grandfather, the idea of bringing together those ready to make positive change in the community is very much behind Rasiej's community center. He and Sifry are nothing if not community builders.

"I think that idea of creating a community center for our community, the community we have been building, that is really at the core of what we hope Civic Hall will be," Sifry said. "It is a chance to do something new and challenging that we think can really make a contribution."

[Read: De Blasio Admnistration, City's Tech Community Look Ahead to Big Year Two]

by Kristen Meriwether, Gotham Gazette

Note: this article has been updated.

Cuomo Continues Rollout of 2015 Agenda, Still Much to Say as Major Speech Looms

Cuomo January 2015

Gov. Cuomo unveiling more of his 2015 agenda (photo: Governor's Office, via flickr)

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced he wants to raise New York City's minimum wage to $11.50 and the state's to $10.50 on Sunday during the latest in a series of his "2015 New York State of Opportunity Agenda" presentations. The minimum wage proposal is one of Cuomo's new "Ten Point Plan to Combat Poverty and Fight Inequality."

Cuomo has held events several days in a row to put forth major policy initiatives that will be a part of his combined State of the State Address and budget presentation to be given on Wednesday, Jan. 21, in Albany.

On Sunday, Cuomo employed the term "economic inequality," which until recently has been almost completely absent from his public vocabulary, but picks up on a theme of Mayor Bill de Blasio's and of many advocates and politicians. Cuomo went on to say that the minimum wage deal reached in 2013 wasn't enough. "We raised the minimum wage last year and we're now in the midst of a minimum wage phase-in schedule, and I'm proud that we raised the minimum wage," Cuomo said. "But the wage gap is continuing to grow." Cuomo's new wage increase needs legislative approval, which could be challenging given the Republican-controlled State Senate.

Cuomo and the Legislature reached a deal in 2013 that lifted the minimum wage to $8.75 at the end of 2014 and will increase the wage to $9 in December of this year. But advocates and many New York City-based legislators have insisted that even $9 is not enough to keep families above the poverty line. Mayor Bill de Blasio has pushed the State to allow municipalities to set their own minimum wages, especially New York City, where the cost of living is much higher than the rest of the state.

This summer, Cuomo has announced support for raising the state minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, a number President Obama called for nationally, and allowing localities to set the wage 30 percent higher than the state's minimum.

Contacted last week about the governor's probable wage proposal, advocates insisted the wage should be raised to $15 across the state.

"It would be great if Governor Cuomo recognizes that low wages are holding our economy back," said Michael Kink of Strong Economy For All. "He should make New York a leader nationally with a $15 minimum wage. The facts on the ground show that the states with the highest minimum wages have the best economies in the nation." Kink also wants Cuomo to index the wage to inflation.

Karen Scharff of Citizen Action reiterated Kink's call for a $15 minimum wage with indexing. The Working Families Party, which endorsed Cuomo in last year's election after a contentious process, only to feud with him publically later, issued a Sunday statement praising the proposal a a first step but pushing for a $15 minimum wage.

Progressive reboot?
Advocates and legislators are waiting anxiously to see if Gov. Andrew Cuomo's second term includes a more progressive reboot. A push for another minimum wage adjustment with some local indexing provides some hope in this regard. After a rough election year where he was beaten up in the Democratic Primary by union members and progressive groups angry at his more conservative economic policies, some insiders say Cuomo is looking to move more toward the left on both social and economic issues. And yet so far the governor has revealed fiscal plans that irk liberals. Those plans include what has been labeled by some advocates as a "Hunger Games" style competition between upstate localities for up to $500 million in state grants, three of which are available for seven regions to compete for. And, Cuomo's promising to hold budget spending to a 2 percent cap.

In his first term Cuomo used his State of the State Addresses to build what observers call his version of "a new Democrat," or his version of being (Bill) Clintonian - rolling out fairly moderate-to-conservative fiscal proposals, including some that targeted Western and Upstate New York for growth, and liberal social policies like marriage equality and gun control. But Cuomo failed to go all-in on other major progressive issues like public financing of elections, The DREAM Act, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, and proposals for larger minimum wage increases.

"Four years ago Cuomo unveiled his version of the brand-new Democrat - his version of Bill Clinton. But he was really hurt in this past election by public workers, teachers, and anti-frackers. That anger really hurt him. Now is the chance for him to strike out with his own liberal agenda," said Mark Dunlea of Hunger Action which hosts The Peoples' State of the State each year to focus on progressive issues.

This year's State of the State will be different from any given before as Cuomo delayed the originally-scheduled speech because of his father's death. And so he's doing a significant preview of his 2015 New York State of Opportunity Agenda.

"The fact that they have used the word "opportunity" as the organizing principle around this thing is nice," said Kink before saying that it would have to be backed up by actions that helped the poor as well as the rich to have any meaning.

Some advocates have put a lot of stock into what they heard in Cuomo's inauguration address where he noted the State has recovered from a $10 billion budget gap and now enjoys a $5 billion surplus. What was most compelling to many progressive advocates was this bit of Cuomo's speech: "Americans are rightly disheartened and disappointed by the economic climate and rightly so. We are told the recession is over, we read reports that say the economic numbers are going up and up but we work harder and we earn less. Income inequality is at the highest in over a century."

[Related: Four Cuomo State of the States: Hits, Misses & Themes]

Cuomo has made a number of announcements across the state during this week prior to his major speech, highlighting key policy proposals for 2015. Earlier Sunday Cuomo unveiled a series of tax cuts for small businesses.

On Saturday at New York University Cuomo unveiled a proposal to codify campus sexual assault rules already in place at schools in the SUNY system. Those rules employ an affirmative consent requirement to any sexual encounter on higher education campuses across the state, a sexual assault victims bill of rights, and more.

Cuomo has also released a student loan forgiveness program that would pay the difference between a New York resident's student loan bill and what is covered by the federal Pay as You Earn program as long as the student earns less than $50,000 a year. Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group praised the proposal, saying Cuomo "deserves a gold star."

Other recently-debuted proposals include a property tax subsidy for middle-income renters and homeowners; a plan to expand broadband access across rural areas of the state; and the contest where upstate localities can compete to win up to $500 million of a $1.5 billion pot of state economic stimulus funds. The plan has faced backlash in some quarters because Cuomo's "Buffalo Billion" program gave $1 billion to Buffalo development without the city having to compete against others. Noting that four of the seven regions able to compete for the monies will likely go without, some have dubbed it "The Hunger Games." James Parrott of The Fiscal Policy Institute said he thinks the metaphor is appropriate. "To force upstate regions to compete is pretty cynical. Are we saying some areas are not worthy of assistance if they can't manage the sharpest elbows in the competition? It doesn't recognize the disparity of need in some of these regions."

Key issues not yet addressed
Leading up to and on Wednesday in Albany Cuomo is expected to make major proposals on a slew of other issues.

The governor is expected to move on criminal justice reforms in the wake of the death of Eric Garner and a Staten Island grand jury's decision not to indict the officer who put him in a fatal chokehold. "The truth is the justice system does need review," Cuomo said in his inaugural address. "The truth is there are troubling questions that have been raised that must be answered. The truth is police officers need do more safety and need more protection. The truth is law enforcement needs the respect of the community as much as the community needs to respect law enforcement."

Considering he has called for a full review of the system, it is unclear how many specific recommendations Cuomo might make on criminal justice. It looks like he will at least start with calling for more transparency in the grand jury system.

Senate Republicans are scheduled to hold hearings on police safety and criminal justice issues across the state the week after Cuomo's address. Republican Sen. Martin Golden of Brooklyn, a former police officer himself, told Gotham Gazette he expects Cuomo to strike a balance between police safety and community concerns. He said he expects the Senate hearings to take a similar tone. "We will be looking at getting bulletproof vests and glass for the officers, things they need to do their jobs safer, and of course criminal justice reform."

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Senate Democrats have pushed for special prosecutors to look into police shootings of unarmed citizens, but many Republicans oppose the idea because they say it will undermine locals District Attorneys. Other proposals would make the grand jury process more transparent so that the public would understand why an officer is or is not indicted. Cuomo said on Wednesday that while he was looking at reforms to grand jury secrecy he had yet to settle on any particular proposals.

Expect strong words from the governor on passage of his Women's Equality Agenda. Cuomo himself created an entire political party to back the ten-point proposal that has been the source of bickering and stalemate between the Democratically-controlled Assembly and Republican-controlled Senate because of the plank that would codify Roe v. Wade in state law. The Senate moved swiftly this year to neutralize the issue by passing eight of the planks in the second week of session. Senate Republicans are pressuring the Assembly to vote on the eight measures they passed. It is unclear how Cuomo will navigate the impasse.

A number of New York City legislators are hopeful Cuomo will make good on a campaign promise and help pass The DREAM Act to provide tuition assistance to undocumented immigrants who meet existing guidelines. "He needs to make good and put the DREAM Act in the budget," said Sen. Jose Serrano of the governor. "He has a great opportunity to lead on a progressive agenda. He has it in his DNA. His father raised him with that. He grew up with that great liberal lion."

Perhaps the most divisive part of Cuomo's address will be his education agenda. Thus far, the only preview of his education agenda that Cuomo has given is a lengthy letter that he had a commissioner send to outgoing State Education Commissioner John King and Board of Regents head Meryl Tisch. Cuomo has made a significant number of public comments (and past actions) that indicate he will look to bolster charter schools and implement tougher evaluations for public school teachers. Last month Cuomo vetoed his own teacher evaluation bill saying that it didn't actually "fix the foundational issues with the teacher evaluation system."

Teachers unions took it as retribution for the fact that they refused to back him during the 2014 election cycle. In October, Cuomo promised to "break" what he called the public education "monopoly."

"It would be nice to hear him say something positive about the people who are teaching our children," said Assembly Member Deborah Glick, who chairs the Higher Education Committee. "If we want kids to respect their teachers then officials need to display some as well and acknowledge it is a difficult job." Cuomo has repeatedly said he is not anti-teacher, but that the state education system is not working well enough and reforms are needed, whether backed by the unions or not.

[Related: Four Cuomo State of the States: Hits, Misses & Themes]

New York City waits
Meanwhile a number of issues important to New York City will be before the Legislature this year - rent laws and mayoral control of schools are each set to expire and while most legislators say they expect to renew both, major battles will be fought over the details of each.

Mayor Bill de Blasio finds himself in a precarious position since his bid to remove Senate Republicans from power failed spectacularly. He will need Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and possibly Cuomo's help to get what he wants, or anything near it.

"There is a basic institutional conflict at play," said Doug Muzzio, professor emeritus of political science at Baruch College, of the city-state tug of war. "On top of that there is this real soap opera with a guy who worked for the other guy [as de Blasio did for Cuomo]. Cuomo ravaged de Blasio over universal pre-kindergarten and then de Blasio saves his ass at the Working Families Party meeting."

Muzzio says that once again de Blasio is at Cuomo's mercy despite being helpful to the governor several times over the past year. "There is a triangle as far as negotiations in Albany" with Republican Senate Leader Dean Skelos, Assembly Speaker Silver, and Cuomo, "but Cuomo is at the top of the triangle. So does he give Republicans something to soothe their anger with de Blasio or not? You can't put the toothpaste back in tube. [De Blasio] sent the staffers up there and spent the money to beat [Senate Republicans]. He is at the governor's mercy now."

Sen. Golden agreed that de Blasio faces stiff opposition from his conference in Albany. "He's gonna have a rough time. But it's my job as a Senator from the city, and all the others', to make sure there is balance in what the city gets."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

At Especially Poignant Time, NYC Commemorates Dr. King

new yorker cover mlk

Upcoming The New Yorker cover art by Barry Blitt (via @NewYorker)

As an embattled mayor faces off against stubborn police unions and the City Council revisits police reform, New Yorkers are gearing up to march in the streets for what looks like the most significant celebration of the legacy of civil rights activism in the country in years. The annual Martin Luther King holiday comes this year at an especially pregnant moment in New York City and elsewhere. The holiday itself and days surrounding it will include a great deal of action around today's major civil rights issues, especially that of criminal justice reform.

Outrage against racial injustice has become widespread in the last few months and the dialogue over inequality and discrimination, especially in law enforcement, has gripped the entire nation. A movement that began to steam after the July death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner at the hands of an NYPD officer has been boiling over in the face of events across the country, including in Ferguson and Cleveland, and the lack of a grand jury indictment against Daniel Pantaleo, the officer shown on video with his arm around Garner's neck.

Activists, community organizers, scholars, and elected representatives are commemorating the best-known American champion of civil rights and racial equality, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as numerous protests and panels planned over the next several days call attention to issues of racial injustice not only in New York City, but across the nation.

Things are especially tense in New York after Garner's death, the Pantaleo decision and resulting protests, and the killing of two police officers on Dec. 20. Thousands have protested in the streets and angry words have been hurled, at times by some protesters and regularly by police union leaders. It is a time when, according to a new poll, 46 percent of New York City voters say race relations are "good" and 45 percent say they are "bad."

Mayor Bill de Blasio has sought to quell controversy and his Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has taken to dozens of media appearances as middle man. Meanwhile, as they gear up for a major MLK Day march, activists say that their demands have not changed, but that a period of calm was appropriate after Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were killed.

What is unclear is what renewed protest activity will look like and what the NYPD response will be. Throughout most of December, the city saw minimal violence, property damage, and arrest totals despite nightly protests, which often shut down busy roadways.

Along with protests, New York City will see a variety of panel discussions and commemorations of Dr. King's legacy. All should take on special poignancy this year.

"The conversations around this are highlighting the fact that the country is segregated, physically and mentally," said Christina Greer, Professor of Political Science at Fordham University, and author of Black Ethnics. "Martin Luther King Day is more important than ever. Dr. King's work has advanced, but his work is not over," she added.

Greer sees the movement as an expression of a disaffected public which responds to incidents such as the Garner case, but fails to choose effective leaders to represent their interests. "You can't have democracy without active citizens," she said.

In this atmosphere of growing outrage, Martin Luther King Day is particularly important this year, according to Glenn Martin, founder and executive director of JustLeadershipUSA.

"More and more people are understanding how the criminal justice system has eroded the gains of the civil rights movement and Dr. King would have been embarrassed that we allowed this," he said.

Martin criticized the militarization of police departments and over-policing, and cited incarceration statistics to argue that more black men are disenfranchised now than when Dr. King was alive (King was assassinated in 1968). The criminal justice system, he believes, has become an instrument of control over poor people and people of color.

The most interesting aspects of the current movement, Martin said, is that there is no identifiable leadership, which gives the movement longevity. "It's hard to chop off the head when you don't know who it is," he said. He lauded the participation of many more young people, particularly white people, and the use of technology - such as the video of Eric Garner's death - which has long-lasting resonance beyond the geographical boundaries of New York, even the United States.

The protests have indeed sprung up from various quarters and no one organization has spearheaded the movement.

"A real movement is never a single organization," said Alex Vitale, Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College who focuses on urban politics, policing, and social movements. "The Civil Rights Movement wasn't; the anti-war movement wasn't. There will be conflict at times but also convergences and coalitions on certain issues."

Looking at it as a "decentralized movement with very loose coordination," Vitale nevertheless believes the mayor will not be able to sit idly by and wait for the protests to subside. He states that the trend of younger people coming out nationally under the a new generation of leaders of color started with the killing of Trayvon Martin and subsequent case. "But it didn't become a sustained movement," he said. And Vitale predicts over the next few days that there will be a return of significant protest activities which might carry momentum forward through spring.

A flurry of activity is indeed set to occur. On Saturday, This Stops Today, an activist coalition led by Communities United for Police Reform, will hold die-ins in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx to mark six months since the day of Eric Garner's death.

Justice League NYC, another coalition of reform and advocacy groups is also leading action. They are massing protesters under the banner #DREAM4JUSTICE to march on Martin Luther King Day, beginning in Harlem. Representatives from the Justice League met with Mayor de Blasio on December 19.

Michael Skolnik, political director for Russell Simmons and president of GlobalGrind.com, is a board member of the Justice League. He said, "Dr. King in his legacy was someone who has been remembered as a peaceful warrior who came up against an incredible amount of opposition but never wavered. There are so many young people, also peaceful warriors, who are coming against opposition for a more just society on the whole and a just city."

Citing the release of the movie "Selma," Skolnik said the movement is connected to the historic struggle from the civil rights era, and is marked by an inspiring activism toward improving race relations in the city. "As individuals, we wake up everyday wanting to be better," he said. "Collectively as a city, that's the spirit in which we march."

This spirit and energy are reminiscent. "There's nothing new under the sun," said Bronx City Council Member Andy King, quoting the Book of Ecclesiastes from the Old Testament. He said a similar sentiment fueled by frustration and anger against institutionalized bigotry defined the civil rights struggle, and now, "We're reliving a play with different players."

King believes that the current climate shows that, in ways, society has taken steps backward and that the movement is necessary to advance the cause of racial equality. He said, "In the words of the great Frederick Douglass, 'If there is no struggle, there is no progress.'"

Honoring Dr. King's birthday on Wednesday, Council Member King presented a City Council proclamation to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Health Center in the Bronx, at its first annual celebration of the activist's life.

"It's where it all started. Being the namesake of Dr. King, it's only right that we acknowledge and recognize their commitment to serving those who have and those who do not have," King said.

The march on Monday is expected to be largely led by a younger generation. "This time it's more than a routinized commemoration of the past and more about what we have to do right now as Dr. King's legacy of equality and human rights is in the forefront of people's minds," said writer-activist Marlon Peterson, a leader of Justice League NYC. But the march, he said, is simply one of many fronts. Actions will propel the movement and initiate the conversations necessary to bring about "not just incremental change in policy, but groundbreaking and precedent-setting in nature."

But Dante Barry, director of the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, believes the movement is in its "infancy" and that people want to rush progress. The persistent tactics of die-ins and marches are the heart of the movement, he says, and meant to grab people's attention for what is to come. "(These methods) keep people active and engaged. And we're going to see more and more people getting agitated, mad and frustrated, and they'll want to do something about it."

What defines this current movement is again the aim of transforming a power structure. "We're challenging people to think about what the world looks like when black lives matter. That's a conversation we haven't had yet," Barry said.

In keeping with Dr. King's legacy, the movement is non-violent, it's leaders say. New Yorkers who have borne the brunt of policies such as Broken Windows and stop-and-frisk are not responding with aggressive action. "We've seen social movements across the country and the globe that have used nonviolence to uplift people from oppression," said Barry. "It's been a successful tactic and I think it will continue in this movement. The protests, the demonstrations, have been principled and non-violent."

The oft-repeated refrain is the criticism of a criminal justice system in desperate need of reform - not individuals in positions of power but the bastions of power themselves. There are those who support Mayor de Blasio and those who criticize him, but they all agree that the problem is systemic. Political leaders do, of course, have say over the system.

JustLeadershipUSA's Martin critiqued the Mayor for "waffling" on issues of police reform, but stressed that focusing on one person, either the Mayor, Police Commissioner or even the Staten Island District Attorney, for instance, detracts attention from a biased system that doesn't work. "People don't change institutions. Institutions change people first," he said. "Law enforcement has grown into a behemoth of a system with its own momentum and no one in the driver's seat. It's the system that gets away with murder, not individuals."

Vitale similarly said that what started as narrow anger towards a policing system eventually evolved into a broader issue of racial injustice revolving around the entire criminal injustice system. Stop-and-frisk, he said, was initially a policing issue which became a civil rights issue. "That's when it became politically untenable for the police."

As many plan to take to the streets over the next several days and beyond, activists and other interested parties will be watching Governor Andrew Cuomo's major speech on Wednesday in Albany. The governor has promised to take up criminal justice reform in 2015 and is likely to discuss at least his general plans and goals on the subject during his combined budget presentation and State of the State Address.

In New York City, many are eager to witness Mayor de Blasio commemorating the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and what he might say about racial equity and criminal justice. De Blasio is set to give remarks at both the annual Brooklyn Tribute to Dr. King at BAM and at the annual National Action Network policy forum in King's name. The latter is especially fraught, of course, because it is Rev. Al Sharpton's organization and de Blasio's allegiance with Sharpton has been a major sticking point for police union leaders and others. 

Along with aforementioned protest actions planned for Saturday and Monday, a series of civic events will be taking place around the city, including WNYC's annual commemoration at the Apollo Theater on Sunday and the annual BAM event on Monday. On Sunday, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former police officer, is hosting a town hall on "improving police-community relations" and on Tuesday evening, the Manhattan Young Democrats is hosting a "non-partisan" panel event including Adams, Greer, Skolnik, Martin, and others "which seeks to address the administration of fair and equal justice."

With a Martin Luther King Jr.-like eye on ensuring that action accompanies talk, the event is said to be "an opportunity to learn about what we can do to tackle racial injustice."

Just after that on Tuesday evening will be President Barack Obama's 2015 State of the Union Address.

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette

Note: this article has been updated.

Four Years of Cuomo State of the States: Hits, Misses & Themes

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Gov. Cuomo gives a pre-State of the State speech (photo: @NYGovCuomo)

Governor Andrew Cuomo's decision to combine his 2015 State of the State Address and budget presentation appears to be a move that will play to the governor's strengths. Not only should what he's calling his 2015 New York State of Opportunity Agenda showcase the governor's skills as a public speaker, but it should also work to his advantage at the negotiating table.

Cuomo's past State of the State addresses show a governor less given to the soaring oratory of his famous father, instead comfortable with boardroom-like pep talks built around carefully-designed PowerPoint presentations. Combining his budget presentation and policy agenda could very well allow Cuomo to tightly connect his platform - which, based on history, could very well be passed in large part through the budget anyway.

Cuomo has displayed a willingness to do away with tradition to fit his own style - in 2011, his first year in office, he began holding his State of the State in the Empire State Plaza Convention Center, rather than in the Assembly Chamber like his predecessors. Many legislators took it as a sign of disrespect, others took it as a message that Cuomo would be playing by his own rules, setting his own agenda.

Cuomo has won many of his major State of the State proposals in his first four years as Governor, and he has at times been rebuffed by the Legislature and walked away from high-profile policy proposals. At other times the governor has abandoned his own ideas seemingly because they no longer served him politically.

This year, Cuomo comes into his major January speech walking his usual tightrope, governing as both a fiscal moderate and social liberal - a dichotomy the governor himself boasts of, even using the word conservative to describe his economics. Cuomo has made his legacy on that dichotomy, which has led to many compromises, returning New York to sound fiscal footing, and a fair share of both praise and consternation as he often leaves many pleased and no one pleased.

As Cuomo gets set to take the stage next week, a review of his first four State of the State Addresses shows the types of initiatives the governor has prioritized, where he has been successful and where he has not, and several themes that are sure to inform the speech and path ahead.

Compromise will surely be necessary again this year as Cuomo works with a Democratically-controlled Assembly and a Republican-controlled Senate. Governing from the middle with occasional leaps to the left and to the right is where Cuomo appears comfortable. How much he can convince Senate Republicans to let him leap left is important to watch, especially as they harbor resentment toward New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and note that some of their former colleagues who lept with Cuomo on marriage equality and the SAFE Act are no longer in office.

But this year, unlike in the past, Cuomo has a serious pot sweetener: over $5 billion in settlement cash that a number of legislators hope will be used for infrastructure improvements across the state - or, more specifically, in their districts.

It is a safe bet that Cuomo's 2015 address will feature some more-than-familiar moments to those who've watched the speeches of years past.

In each of his State of the State speeches Cuomo has used the capitol building as a metaphor for something that was once glorious and can be restored; he has said he wants to re-establish New York "the progressive capital of the nation"; he has touted the number of on-time budgets he and the legislature have delivered (this year he'll say four in a row and counting); he has demanded more teacher accountability but explained new changes he's seeking; and, he has stressed a need for ethics rules overhaul and campaign finance reform while mentioning unsavory headlines.

A closer year-by-year look at Cuomo's past State of the State addresses and major proposals therein:

In a cold, impersonal convention center, backed by a large video screen Cuomo gave his first State of the State, and announced: "We need radical reform, we need a new approach, we need a new perspective, And we need it now."

Cuomo went on to attribute the state's $10 billion deficit to chronic overspending by the Legislature and announced a number of fiscal austerity measures, including a salary freeze on public workers and drastically cutting Medicaid spending. He also pushed for a property tax cap.

He further announced that he wanted increased accountability in education, with school funding based on performance.

Cuomo said that the notion that the Legislature is corrupt is an "aberration" and proposed full disclosure of outside income by legislators and public financing of campaigns. Both those things are still on Cuomo's agenda today, but face extreme opposition from legislative leaders. However, in June 2011 Cuomo reached a deal with the Legislature that started a new ethics body - the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) - and passed a law to require stricter disclosure on legislators' outside income.

Promising to return New York to the "progressive capital" of the nation Cuomo announced his backing of marriage equality. The bill would pass the state Senate in June and become law in July of 2011. By many, it is still seen as the governor's crowning achievement.

With juvenile offenders having a recidivism rate of 90 percent Cuomo pushed for major reforms to the justice system, including focusing on alternative punishment and treatment. He also famously said, "An incarceration program is not an employment program," something that deeply worried upstate legislators who represent districts where prisons had been the major employer. Cuomo noted that the state had many empty prison beds throughout and went on to shutter seven prisons across New York. Not all of them were in the most obvious locations upstate, two were in New York City. Still the move upset many Republicans.

Cuomo took his time in 2012 to relish in his major early victories, which included marriage equality, ethics reform, closing the $10 billion deficit, establishing regional economic development councils, renewing rent laws, and eliminating nearly 4,000 prison beds.

The fresh proposals Cuomo outlined in 2012 did not turn out to be as easy to deliver on as 2011's.

Cuomo led off by proposing the "nations largest convention center" in Queens. The idea came out of left field for most observers. The New York Times later reported that Malaysian casino operator Genting proposed the idea to Cuomo at a fundraiser in Westchester. Genting also made major donations to the Committee to Save New York - a group formed at Cuomo's urging to back his agenda.

Plans for the convention center were eventually scrapped.

However, Cuomo did announce some of what became signature issues, including $1 billion in development funds for Buffalo, allowing casinos across the state, and creating a DNA database for anyone convicted of a felony or misdemeanor.

Cuomo also famously doubled down on tying education funding to performance and pushing for greater teacher accountability, saying: "l learned that everyone in public education has his or her own lobbyist. Superintendents have lobbyists. Principals have lobbyists. Teachers have lobbyists. School boards have lobbyists. Maintenance personnel have lobbyists. Bus drivers have lobbyists.The only group without a lobbyist? The students. Well, I learned my lesson. This year, I will take a second job - consider me the lobbyist for the students."

Cuomo is still pursuing these education goals, though he's made some slight progress toward them.

The governor was not able to deliver on his push for campaign finance reform or for legislative district lines being drawn through an independent process. Nor was he able to successfully push for the Reproductive Health Protection Act which eventually became (and remains) the most controversial plank of the Women's Equality Agenda.

Cuomo mentioned hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the Southern Tier only to say the Department of Environmental Conservation was still conducting its review.

Cuomo's third State of the State contained a number of highs and lows for the governor. The speech came shortly after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre and Cuomo focused on his seven-point SAFE Act that featured the toughest assault weapon ban in the nation, required more stringent background checks for gun sales, and banned direct ammo sales over the internet. The Legislature moved to pass the bill only days later.

Cuomo was also able to deliver on his promise to set a path toward increasing the minimum wage. Progressives pushed for a much more significant bump, but what they got in the end was a staggered increase to $9.00 an hour by December 2015.

The governor's 10-point Women's Equality Act proved much more divisive. "Maybe its a man's world, but it is not a man's world in New York. Not anymore," Cuomo said after unveiling the agenda that included protections for domestic violence victims, greater penalties for human trafficking, and a measure that would make Roe v. Wade part of New York law. "We are going to pass this Women's Equality Act. We are going to change the lives for my daughters and your daughters and your sisters and your nieces and your wife..." Cuomo said with a fervor absent from most of his public speaking. And yet the act remains contentious in Albany because Senate Republicans refuse to act on the abortion plank and the Assembly refuses to act on the rest without it. Cuomo created the Women's Equality Party last year to push the agenda, not being able to move it this year could prove embarrassing.

Another item Cuomo was unable to deliver on was his promise to reduce penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana."There is a challenge posed by the stop and frisk police policies." Cuomo said, noting that marijuana arrests make it hard for people to find jobs and get into college. Cuomo was challenging a major policy of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who he had a contentious relationship with. The Legislature resisted and later Cuomo said that the city had addressed stop-and-frisk on its own, making State action unecessary.

On education, Cuomo lamented what New York gets for its investment. He called for longer school days and universal pre-kindergarten, as well as again calling for tougher teacher evaluations and suggesting performance bonuses.

Cuomo's first election-year State of the State lacked some of the big ideas of previous addresses and focused heavily on taxes and the upstate economy.

On infrastructure, Cuomo stressed the need for a new Tappan Zee Bridge and proposed renovations of JFK and LaGuardia Airports. He also discussed preparing for extreme weather events and "hardening our transit system."

Cuomo touted the need for the Moreland Commission to clean up corruption in Albany, saying: "The argument by some members of the Legislature is that we created JCOPE and that should solve the problem. But there has been a string of bad acts, almost on a daily basis. Open up the newspaper, even today, and you see more and more stories of individual legislators who have done bad acts. And it reflects poorly on all of us, because people don't distinguish: it's an Assemblyman, it's a Senator, it's a Democrat, it's a Republican - it's just a politician."

Cuomo cut a deal to shutter the commission a few months later. It was also revealed his office played a hand in crippling investigations.

This Year
The Cuomo balancing act has caused a few bumps in the road for him of late. Although he ran on several progressive issues and said he supported a Democratic Senate, he faced major backlash from his Democratic base on fiscal issues and is working with a Senate that is still controlled by Republicans unlikely to let him veer very far left.

Senate Republicans are seemingly unwilling to address most of the progressive issues touted by Cuomo's left-leaning constituents, such as campaign finance reform, a further minimum wage increase and control by localities, and the abortion plank of the Women's Equality Agenda. Rent laws governing New York City will be of special significance this year.

Republicans are angry that Mayor Bill de Blasio led a major effort to unseat them (with the less-than-enthusiastic help of Cuomo). But more than being angry, some Republicans are extremely hesitant to stick their necks out for Cuomo because they or their colleagues have taken serious lumps from constituents over support for same-sex marriage and the SAFE Act, two signature first-term, liberal Cuomo accomplishments. All four GOP members who voted for same-sex marriage after lobbying from Cuomo and his allies have lost their seats.

The SAFE Act came to a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate and passed with the help of a number of prominent Republican votes. It was a major issue upstate during the 2014 gubernatorial and legislative contests.

As always, what might be palatable this year will largely depend on what is being offered in exchange.

[Read our detailed preview of the governor's State of the State/budget presentation speech, which includes a look at key aspects of his "Opportunity Agenda" that he has unveiled in the week prior to the speech]

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

Research contributed by Jarad Sassone-McHugh

What Might Be Next for Dan Donovan's DA Seat

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Dan Donovan, left, with Errol Louis on the NY1 set (photo: @InsideCityHall)

Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan, a Republican, is running for Congress and widely considered the favorite no matter who the Democrats nominate to face him in an upcoming special election. If Donovan wins that contest in New York's 11th Congressional District, what will happen to his DA seat?

Donovan, who presented the grand jury case against Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the killing of Eric Garner, is already in a re-election year. So, there will be a vote for Richmond County (as Staten Island is also known) District Attorney in November 2015 no matter what. The question is: will Dan Donovan be on the ballot? It is far too early to tell, but with Donovan seen as difficult for any Democrat to beat in the race to replace disgraced former Congressman Michael Grimm, there are several key moving parts to be aware of.

Experts say Governor Andrew Cuomo will likely set the special congressional election for the spring. On Wednesday at an unrelated event the governor told reporters he had no timetable for calling the election.

Whenever it happens, if Donovan wins the NY-11 special, he will have to vacate his position as District Attorney. Donovan is an accomplished prosecutor with an impressive resume, but is facing a storm of criticism over the lack of indictment from the Pantaleo grand jury. On the Republican-heavy borough of Staten Island, though, many are supportive of the grand jury decision. The congressional district encompasses all of Staten Island and part of Southern Brooklyn.

There has been little attention paid to or indication of who would run for DA if Donovan should step down.

Matthew Smalls, a Democrat from from Staten Island's North Shore, announced on Monday that he is running for the DA seat. He has previously served in Manhattan as Assistant District Attorney under the former DA Robert M. Morgenthau. Attacking Donovan's record in a statement he released to the press, he stated in part, "Donovan hid while New York City grappled with the aftermath of his incompetence. And now, like a true politician, he is leaving his mess for someone else to deal with."

Tom Shcherbenko, president of the Staten Island Democratic Association, has come out in support of Smalls, who looks to be the only Democratic contender so far. "I haven't heard of anyone else, besides (Smalls) setting up a committee yet," said Shcherbenko.

Republicans have also not specified if they have anyone waiting in the wings to replace Donovan, but political watchers seem to think that State Senator Andrew Lanza is primed for the position. Lanza, a lawyer from Staten Island, has the name recognition to be a strong candidate, plus a resume including service in the Manhattan DA's office and on the City Council..

Should Donovan be elected to Congress, the Governor will appoint an interim DA for the remainder of his term. The Governor is required by law to announce a special election for Grimm's seat and an announcement in this regard should not be too far off, though Cuomo may wait until after his Jan. 21 budget address and State of the State speech. During a Wednesday evening appearance on NY1, Donovan said he expects an announcement from the governor sometime after the speech.

There is speculation that Cuomo may call it to coincide with the District Attorney and other elections of 2015, which would be the most cost-efficient for the state. "There is talk that he might call it on primary day," said consultant Jerry Skurnik of Prime New York. In that case, Donovan would be unable to run and the Democrats might have a better chance at the DA seat, Skurnik said. "Without Donovan running, it's not impossible for Democrats to win the seat."

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette

Garodnick, Menchaca Set Council Hearing to Review Sunset Park Development Project

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Council Member Garodnick at press conference (photo: William Alatriste)

The City Council's Committee on Economic Development will hold an oversight hearing later this month to discuss plans for the redevelopment of the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal in Sunset Park.

The redevelopment of the industrial site recently became a bone of contention between the de Blasio administration and City Council Member Carlos Menchaca, whose district encompasses Sunset Park. The Mayor's Economic Development Corporation (EDC) withdrew a $115 million proposal to revamp the Terminal after it claimed Menchaca was making unreasonable demands about control of the 88-acre project.

The hearing, which will be held by the Council's Economic Development Committee, will be chaired by Council Member Dan Garodnick and take place on January 27. In a Wednesday press release Garodnick said, "We will work with Council Member Menchaca, EDC, and all relevant stakeholders to ensure that the plan for Sunset Park is primed for job growth in the context of a plan that addresses local concerns."

EDC spokesperson Ian Fried confirmed to Gotham Gazette that EDC will be testifying at the hearing. Fried added, "Good manufacturing jobs are at the top of our agenda, and we remain committed to finding a path forward that brings them to Sunset Park."

The South Brooklyn Marine Terminal site, built in the 1960s, was used primarily for handling marine cargo but has been inactive for nearly two decades. In recent years, the NYPD utilized the facility as a towing yard. In 2009, the City released its Sunset Park Vision Plan and proposed to improve the existing infrastructure in Sunset Park and connect the site to the national rail network. (The Bush Terminal Piers Park was completed in 2013 under this program).

Council Member Menchaca took to Facebook last week, after negotiations failed, to voice his concerns. He claimed that he requested the EDC withdraw its plan for a 49-year lease on the development since there had been no inclusion of the community in the decision-making. Criticizing the EDC for rushing through the process, he wrote, "I made it clear to the EDC that our community deserves better. Their request was made less than 45 days ago and required a council action today, leaving out meaningful community dialogue during a hectic holiday season."

One of his demands is that a community board or special development corporation be allowed control over the terminal and that the City Council play a part in deciding the lease, rather than hand over absolute control to the EDC. A similar arrangement exists in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. A member of the Council's Progressive Caucus, Menchaca has been a staunch supporter of the mayor, but he took a strong position against the administration in this issue. The Council Member's office declined a request for comment.

But, in the statement released by Garodnick's office, Menchaca's stance was softer. "Creating good jobs for local residents, attracting relevant and responsible industry, and appropriate investment in local community amenities are shared goals of this Council, the de Blasio administration, and community stakeholders. I look forward to studying the intersections of those goals more carefully," Menchaca said.

Currently, the SBMT space is occupied by the Sims Municipal Recycling Facility, which was completed in 2013. The remaining area was leased in 2007 to the Axis Group which planned to use the port for manufacturing and shipping automobiles. But, Axis filed for bankruptcy in 2012 forcing the EDC to revise its plans for the terminal.

Kyle Kimball, President of the EDC, told Crain's New York last week that Menchaca's actions were obstructionist and would cost his district jobs. The project, according to the EDC, calls for "reactivation of maritime service specializing in handling automobiles and other roll-on/roll-off cargoes." It would create more than 250 new jobs, they project.

In the Wednesday press release Garodnick said of the need for the Jan. 27 hearing, "There are significant economic development and community issues at play here, and we need to get it right."

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette

Note: this article has been updated with comment from EDC.

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