Socialist Elected Officials Are Changing the Way New York State Politics Are Done
Emily Gallagher is New York's state assembly member for the fiftieth district and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. In an interview with Jacobin, Gallagher discusses how socialists led the way on calling for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s removal from office, the current state budget fights, and how DSA electeds are crafting a new, leftist approach to governance.
- Interview by
- Sam Mellins
In 2020, Emily Gallagher was elected to represent Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood in the New York State Assembly, defeating a forty-eight-year incumbent friendly to corporate power. In a close election, Gallagher’s progressive platform of promoting affordable housing and opposing new fossil fuel development won out over Joe Lentol’s boilerplate liberalism.
Gallagher, a Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member, took office in January 2021, and last month, NYC-DSA voted to approve her request to join the Socialists in Office caucus along with five other DSA members in the legislature. The beginning of her tenure in office has seen some of the most tumultuous events in recent New York political history, with Governor Andrew Cuomo facing two investigations over multiple allegations of sexual harassment, and an FBI probe related to an alleged cover up of COVID-19 deaths in the state’s nursing homes.
New York is also barreling toward the finalization of the nearly $200 billion state budget sometime next week. Negotiations have been fierce, with progressive organizations and lawmakers pushing for new taxes on the wealthy and expansion of social services to aid the state’s recovery from COVID-19.
Sam Mellins spoke to Gallagher about how legislators have been working to hold the governor accountable while also winning a budget that meets the needs of working New Yorkers, and what growing socialist and progressive power in New York means for the future of the state.
Let’s start off with the subject that’s been making national headlines the past month: the multiple accusations of sexual harassment that have been made against Governor Cuomo. How have you and other progressives been working to hold the governor accountable, and what effect do you think you’ve had?
It’s been a really challenging time for many of us. I’m a sexual assault survivor. Trying to hold somebody accountable is a core reason I ran for office — I didn’t like how people were handling sexual harassment and brushing it under the rug and making excuses for people.
We’ve been very clear about what we think is appropriate leadership behavior and what is not. Any kind of abusive interaction with staff members is not appropriate. Someone who resorts to such debasing and demeaning behavior on a regular basis is not someone that we want as a leader. So we’ve been out in front, asking for the removal of the governor from this office. Governing out of fear and intimidation and humiliation is wrong.
You and other socialist lawmakers were some of the earliest to call for the resignation of the governor. Do you think that has had an effect on the groundswell of legislators’ voices calling for his resignation or removal?
It opened the conversation up. It made people uncomfortable at first. When you’re calling for such a major change in leadership, it’s not normal. A lot of us felt that when we got rid of Trump, we could take a sigh of relief. But the reality is that toxic governance is still all over our country.
For some of us, it was easier to come out right away, others were a bit more hesitant. Having us [socialists] start the conversation, rip the band-aid off — we’ve moved the Overton window.
At the same time as scandal swirls around the governor, we’re in the middle of the most important few weeks in New York’s legislative year, leading up to finalization of the state budget. You and other DSA electeds are part of the Invest in Our New York coalition, a group that’s calling for $50 billion in new taxes on the wealthy and corporations to be included in this year’s budget. Why this is necessary?
We’ve normalized an austerity budget in New York. The idea of asking people who have a great amount of wealth to give a little bit more to the community — we’ve made that more taboo than telling people that they can’t get the things that they need to survive.
People have massively profited off of this pandemic. People have had some of the best returns on their investments and their businesses because of this pandemic. Meanwhile, we have lost so much of our population, seen people becoming homeless — it is just shocking how fragile our system proved to be.
For me, seeing this fragility laid bare made me realize that we don’t have time to wait and hem and haw about changing the way we do things. This is urgent. It’s not just a relief effort, it’s actually an opportunity for a cultural shift.
Austerity has eroded our ability to provide for our own citizens, and there’s only one way to really get rid of that, which is a permanent shift in the way we do taxation. There are so many pockets of wealth that are just untouched, such as the financial marketplace, inheritances, the places where people who have accumulated wealth watch it grow untouched.
We say that people are leaving the state and we worry about the wealthy leaving, but we really need to worry about why the working people and the middle income people with families are leaving. It’s because we don’t provide very basic things that people need to live their lives.
Has the work of the Invest in Our New York coalition been able to move the needle on these issues?
Invest in Our New York is a coalition of advocacy groups that brought in progressives and interested legislators to get the right proposals into conversation across the state. We have very active legislators and advocacy groups in western New York, in central New York, in the city, in Long Island, in the Adirondacks. We’re really all across the state. Because we all need this. All our communities need this.
The Invest in Our New York campaign is actually making the budget a more openly political issue. It’s not all that common for people across a state to be advocating for higher taxes. A very robust advocacy initiative has been happening outside the halls of Albany, with door knocking and phone banking.
The same way that people might act during an election, they’re acting to advance these ideas into the budget. It’s been really invigorating for people who have participated, and I think it’s been pretty shocking for a lot of folks who are seasoned legislators who are not used to being lobbied like this.
As this advocacy has been going on across the state, what effect have you seen it have on the inside of the legislative process?
I think it’s surprised more seasoned legislators. Some have been really swayed by this engagement, others alarmed by it. But it is definitely causing conversation. This has gone from something that could have been ignored to something that we absolutely talk about often among legislators.
It is so antithetical to the culture of Albany. When I was talking to people about state representatives before we took down the IDC [Independent Democratic Conference], before we flipped the Senate, people were like, “Oh nothing really happens in Albany, just people talking in circles amongst themselves.” There is a culture that is ready to be shifted.
That’s what the Invest in Our New York Campaign has done so well. Meeting people who are pretty detached or jaded with our government and saying, “Here’s something for you to work on with us.” Those of us on the Left want to see that shift to a responsive, open government, but that’s very different to what’s been there before. If you’ve adjusted to a certain way of governing, then the change would be pretty uncomfortable.
Where has the budget been moved in the last few months relative to where it has been historically?
We have financed many more of people’s needs that we ever have before. We are including more opportunities to raise money from wealthy people in the budget that wouldn’t normally happen. We are giving money to a more robust group of folks in need, including undocumented immigrants.
Historically, the governor has had a lot of power over shaping the budget into its final form. Do you think that his current scandals will affect his ability to exert influence over the budget?
I would like to think that, but unfortunately, given who the governor is, I don’t think he’s going to act any differently. The reality is, almost every single New York elected has asked him to resign. I don’t really see him adjusting his swagger. I see him continuing on in the way he acted before. He’s calling our bluff. He doesn’t believe that we’re going to impeach him, so he’s still going to act exactly how he was acting before.
It is important for people to make it known that they want the governor gone. We already have the nursing home report done by [Attorney General] Tish James, which to me has all the evidence that one would need. Changing the data of death in a health report is fraudulent. That’s why I came out for impeachment around that time.
So if the governor isn’t going to be backing down at all, how will socialist lawmakers be working to hold the line and prevent the gains that have been won in the budget from being watered down?
We’re planning to continuously push for the things we need in that budget. Continuously advocating and keeping our community informed about what we’re hearing, and what’s going on, and trying to push from the outside and the inside.
Beyond the budget itself, what are the goals that you and other socialist lawmakers have for the rest of the session?
We passed HALT [an anti-solitary confinement bill]. In my district, we have National Grid trying to build a liquified natural gas plant, and in Astoria we have an attempt to build a power plant there. We are pushing this idea of “renewable energy or bust.”
If we’re coming out against climate change, we need to not just say that we want this to be the future, but we need this to be the present. We can’t keep building fossil fuel infrastructure and say that we’re moving toward a greener future. We have another opportunity to pass the [single-payer] New York Health Act and finally win good cause eviction.
How hopeful are you about your legislative prospects with a caucus of six socialists in office? What do you think you can do and what can you not do yet — what might you be able to do with a few more?
We work together very well, sharing our resources. Doing this by yourself, you just don’t have enough resources.
Every member of the assembly is given $185,000 for their staff, which you can split up however you want. But when you’re part of DSA, you have a lot of passionate people and amazing volunteers who bring a diversity of experience and expertise, and you have those folks helping you develop policy, helping you with constituent outreach, helping you across the board. It makes our offices much more robust, and allows us to write really strong policies, and to find policy ideas that will have popular support.
If we had a few more legislators, our resources could expand exponentially. The more ground we can cover as socialists, the more we’re bringing in volunteers, the more we’re bringing in political education to those areas, the more we’re engaging our constituents in important conversations. It’s a culture shift, one we desperately need.
The old way is when you as a voter say, “Oh, I pick who I want to represent me and I’m just going to let them do their thing.” The DSA way is, “We do this together. I’m your representative and I want constant feedback, and I want you to know what I’m doing. I’m not going to Albany by myself, I’m bringing you with me.”