In 2018, the state of New York witnessed a political earthquake. Despite the efforts of former governor Andrew Cuomo to create and maintain a state government that was artificially divided between Republican and Democratic control (unnecessarily increasing the power of Republicans in the state legislature through political wheeling and dealing and providing a convenient excuse for the Democratic governor not to push progressive policies), left-wing activists — including many members of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the Working Families Party — elected progressive state senators and the largest Democratic majority in the state senate in many years.
Doing so allowed New York to pass historic legislation in 2019, including tenant protections, abortion protections, the DREAM Act, drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants, cash bail reform, and one of the most ambitious climate protections in the country. New York was on the way to becoming a progressive leader on these issues nationally, reflecting the popularity of such policies among many New Yorkers.
This unraveled in 2022. Despite significant national gains made by Democrats across state legislatures and governorships, New York actually lost state legislative seats, congressional seats, and only narrowly held on to the Democratic governorship. New York’s congressional losses cost Democrats control of the House.
Governor Kathy Hochul has begun her first full term as governor, the first female in New York history. The two most powerful congressional leaders, the House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries and Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, are from New York. In many ways, the future of the Democratic Party lies in New York State, and Hochul is effectively the leader of the New York Democratic Party. So, the agenda she chooses to pursue has an immense impact on Democratic politics both in New York and around the country.
Hochul gave her first State of the State speech as an elected governor on Tuesday, laying out her legislative and budget agenda for the year. What she had to say was disconcerting. Despite the lackluster appeal of her safe, centrist general election campaign strategy — which, again, resulted in her nearly losing to a Republican, in what is supposed to be a “safe” blue state — Hochul’s address outlining her “New York Dream” reflects her stubborn insistence on centrist Third Way politics, making empty overtures to progressive ideas while refusing to raise revenues, bowing to conservative values, and insisting on failed market-based “incentive” programs to bring about social changes.
Hochul’s speech correctly identifies some important problems. But her solutions are piecemeal, complicated combinations of public investments and private incentives that offer no clear path for change. This failure to offer a compelling and different political vision will continue to alienate New Yorkers from Democratic leadership.
On policy after policy, Hochul offered marginal solutions that may placate a small number of centrists and rich donors but leave the vast majority of New Yorkers unsatisfied. For example, Hochul made affordable housing a hallmark of her speech. She pledged a “New York Dream” to improve housing through the building of 800,000 new housing units. Hochul recognizes that rising rents have caused economic pressure and difficulties for many renters, as New York State has the largest percentage of renters in the country. Some of the components of the plan are admirable, including building more multi-unit dwellings in apartment-resistant suburbs. But most of the plan relies on tax breaks and other private sector incentives to encourage building market-rate housing.
Page thirty of Hochul’s policy book states, “Building new housing will help lower rents for New Yorkers currently struggling with housing costs, help residents purchase their first home, and enable the newcomers who strengthen our communities and economy to find a place here to call home.” Strengthening rental regulations and protections like rent stabilization and rent control are absent. The plan does not include protections for tenants, such as the “good cause eviction” bill, which would provide stability to renters by preventing landlords from refusing to sign a new lease. And despite claims to take a “human rights” approach to housing, Hochul refuses to promote any kind of homes guarantee, merely expecting the housing market to magically provide housing and lower rents.
Hochul’s “cap-and-invest” program is supposedly necessary to get New York to meet our ambitious climate goals but is based on no empirical evidence of effectiveness. While using the social justice language of taxing polluters, any “cap-and-invest”-type policy is actually a tax on everyone, applied across the population.
Cap and trade was a political disaster under Barack Obama, and the existing regional agreements the policy produced are not politically or ecologically successful. California’s cap-and-trade program has been unduly influenced by large fossil fuel emitters, leading to an increase in overall emissions since its implementation, demonstrating how this private market–based incentive structure has been captured by elites. In addition, it will be difficult to implement and measure and will lead to increased costs to consumers, especially those without political power (like renters whose landlords will not want to invest in upgrading buildings).
While claiming to be invested in the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), “the lifeblood” of the New York metro area (and also claiming that the cost-of-living crisis was a key priority), Hochul failed to mention that the current MTA fiscal health plan included an increase in the cost of each MTA ride to $3. Her proposals utterly fail to address the needs of New York public transportation users.
One policy area Hochul did not mention in her speech but outlined in her policy document was her “innovation” of allowing “flexibility” for “modest” tuition increases at City University of New York and State University of New York. States like New Mexico have moved toward free tuition at public universities; Hochul is instead proposing to make public university tuition the only area of “revenue” that she is willing to raise.
Outside of her speech last week, Hochul recently nominated an anti-choice, anti-labor, anti–due process Court of Appeals judge, Hector LaSalle, and failed to predict the organized backlash that would come from progressive forces. And she was silent about the seven thousand New York City nurses whose strike at Mount Sinai and Montefiore hospitals just ended, centered around a demand for safe-staffing ratios in overburdened hospitals.
Hochul is a Democratic governor in a (usually) solid blue state whose population has repeatedly expressed support for progressive policies. She had a chance this week to put forward a vision for the state of New York that could address the real challenges in average New Yorkers’ lives. She failed.