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Nov. 4 Elections: Battle for State Senate

The tightest contest in New York State elections this November is the battle for control of the State Senate.

Currently dominated by Republicans, the State Senate has blocked legislative action on a number of priority issues for unions and progressive activists. Proposals to tax the wealthy, expand undocumented immigrants’ access to college, or give cities authority over rent controls have won support in the New York Assembly – only to be stonewalled in the State Senate.

Political Importance

“Winning progressive tax reform is essential if we want to reverse decades of disinvestment in CUNY,” said PSC First VP Steve London. “To have a shot at that, we need to win the State Senate fight. The same is true for adjunct faculty unemployment insurance, the New York State DREAM Act and cities’ ability to hike the minimum wage. The results of this election matter.”

“If control of the State Senate shifts, labor will still have to mobilize if we want to move our agenda forward,” said Steve Levine, a member of the union’s Legislative Committee. “But until we change who controls the committees, we can’t get anything to a vote. This November, we can remove that roadblock.”

PSC members will join with activists from other unions in a “labor walk” in support of State Senate candidate Justin Wagner on October 18. To take part or to learn more about this or other PSC election activity, contact Amanda Magalhaes (amagalhaes@pscmail.org or 212-354-1252).

State Senate candidates endorsed by the PSC and its statewide affiliate, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), in the November 4 election include:

JUSTIN WAGNER, District 40 (mainly Westchester, also Putnam & Dutchess counties): New York “needs to foster and develop” its public higher education system, says Wagner, who received an early endorsement from NYSUT in July. He says the state must also prioritize keeping tuition under control: “Students and families should not have to plunge themselves into insurmountable debt to receive the education that is necessary to succeed in the 21st century.”

Wagner says that public investment in infrastructure and education can “both put people back to work and lay the foundation for future economic growth.” He emphasizes his support for the Women’s Equality Agenda, legislation strengthening women’s rights in reproductive choice, pay equity and domestic violence cases, which the State Senate defeated by one vote in 2013. Wagner’s opponent in the race for the open seat, Republican Terrence Murphy, opposes the Women’s Equality Act, which has led women’s groups and reproductive rights organizations to back Wagner.

The son of a public school teacher in special education, Wagner is an attorney working in commercial litigation. After the 2008-9 economic crash, his pro bono work included representing low-income homeowners facing foreclosure. He is also an opponent of fracking and a board member of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence.

ADRIENNE ESPOSITO (District 3, Suffolk County): Esposito has been a forceful advocate for full funding for public education in New York State, and has called for “moving away from the extreme focus on standardized testing.”

Newsday described Esposito as “a well-known Long Island environmental activist,” who has “led campaigns against pesticides in drinking water and to clean up pollution sites.” The paper reports that Esposito is combining her environmental record with an emphasis on working-class concerns, “including jobs, property taxes and women’s issues such as affordable day care and equal pay.”

“Anyone working 40 hours a week should not be living in poverty, especially hard-working single mothers,” Esposito said outside the Suffolk County Legislature Building in Hauppauge on September 30, at a women’s rally in support of raising the minimum wage. In addition to NYSUT and the PSC, Esposito is endorsed by the New York State Nurses Association, NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the Long Island Progressive Coalition.

CECILIA TKACZYK (District 46, western Hudson Valley north of Poughkeepsie, Catskills, and west of Albany along the NY State Throughway): When NYSUT endorsed Sen. Tkaczyk in July, Executive VP Andrew Pallotta called her a “true friend to public education,” with a record of “vigorously advocating for a strong SUNY, CUNY and community college system that has a place for every student who graduates high school and wants to go on to college.” First elected to the State Senate in 2012, Tkaczyk won despite district lines widely seen as gerrymandered in favor of her opponent.

Tkaczyk is former president of the school board around Duanesburg, NY, where she and her husband own and live on a sheep farm. She is the only farmer currently serving in the State Senate.

This year Tkaczyk put forward a bill that would have banned other states from exporting hazardous hydrofracking wastes into New York, as Pennsylvania drilling companies already state they are doing. “These wastes have high levels of heavy metals, carcinogens and other toxic chemicals and compounds,” Tkaczyk noted, but under federal law on oil and gas exploration “they are exempt from the storage and treatment regulations which govern the handling of other hazardous substances.” The bill was defeated in committee by a one-vote margin, opposed by every Republican on the State Senate Environmental Conservation Committee.

Several PSC- and NYSUT-endorsed candidates who won contested primary races in September are strongly favored to win in the November general election. They include Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky, former chair of the State Senate Higher Education Committee and currently its ranking Democrat. Stavisky has been a graduate student at Hunter and Queens Colleges, and has worked closely with the PSC in support of increased CUNY funding. PSC First VP Steve London called Stavisky “a strong advocate for quality, affordable education for CUNY students, and for decent pay and working conditions for CUNY faculty and staff.” A Forest Hills resident, she represents the 16th State Senate District in Queens.

Supporting Higher Education

Another is Charles Barron, former chair of the City Council’s Higher Education Committee, who clinched the Democratic nomination in the 60th Assembly District in East New York. A CUNY graduate, Barron has been a consistent voice for increased public funding for CUNY, better student services, and for adequate capital resources to rebuild and upgrade college facilities. He has been a leader in developing new financial aid programs and has defended open admissions policies, saying that both are central to CUNY’s historic mission.

Rebecca Seawright is a graduate of CUNY Law School, a former Assistant District Attorney in the Brooklyn DA’s office, and now the Democratic nominee for Assembly in the 76th District on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. She is chair of the board of directors of the Feminist Press, a non-profit publisher based at CUNY, and was the only woman candidate in this crowded primary race for an open Assembly seat. In addition to the PSC and NYSUT, she was supported by Citizen Action, NY State NOW, Gay & Lesbian Independent Democrats, the NYC Central Labor council and a wide range of individual unions.

Prior to the primary vote, the New York State AFL-CIO decided not to endorse any candidate for governor; NYSUT and New York’s largest union of State employees, CSEA, also made no endorsement, while the Public Employees Federation (PEF) backed Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout’s energetic challenge to Cuomo in the Democratic primary. City and State said that these stances reflected discontent over deep concessions Cuomo had demanded from public workers: “Two labor leaders who were elected after [2010] – PEF President Susan Kent and NYSUT’s Karen Magee – joined CSEA’s Danny Donohue in channeling the anger of their rank-and-file members.”

Many individual unions are backing Cuomo in November, however, and several large labor organizations – including SEIU 1199, SEIU 32BJ and the Hotel Trades Council – pushed hard to get the union-backed Working Families Party to nominate Cuomo on the WFP’s ballot line. In a fiercely debated decision (see Clarion), the WFP agreed to do so after Cuomo stated that he would support a number of its priorities, including a proposal to give cities authority to hike the minimum wage and backing an aggressive push for Democratic control of the State Senate.

A Siena poll released September 26 showed Cuomo with 56% support, 27% for Republican Rob Astorino, and 7% for Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins. Hawkins’ running mate for lieutenant governor, Brian Jones, is a doctoral student in urban education at the CUNY Graduate Center.

NYSUT and the PSC have endorsed Eric Schneiderman for Attorney General and Tom DiNapoli for State Comptroller, both running for reelection. NYSUT President Magee praised Schneiderman as a fighter for working people who has played a strong watchdog role as the State’s top legal officer. DiNapoli, she said, has been a “tireless champion of retirement security” and a solid steward of the state’s finances.

Most congressional races around New York City are not competitive, the main exception being Staten Island, where polls show Democrat Domenic Recchia running neck-and-neck with Republican Michael Grimm. Grimm has seen his reelection prospects threatened after being indicted for tax fraud and televised threatening to throw a TV reporter off a balcony in the Capitol building. Recchia has significant labor support, with backing from the New York State AFL-CIO.

A Close Race

Meanwhile on eastern Long Island, Rep. Tim Bishop is backed by NYSUT and a wide range of unions against Republican challenger Lee Zeldin. “I don’t believe we fix public schools by taking money out of them,” Bishop told NYSUT’s Representative Assembly last year. A member of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and former provost of Southampton College, Bishop says “college affordability is a top concern for middle-class families on Long Island,” and he has fought to lower the cost of student loans. A recent Newsday poll showed Bishop ahead, though some private polls have shown the race as closer.

A full list of NYSUT endorsements is online.

COVERAGE IN OCTOBER CLARION:
New York's November Ballot Proposals