The New York Left Is Continuing to Make Gains at the State Level

Last week brought signs that the balance of power in New York state politics is shifting left.

Tenant advocates in New York are confident good cause legislation has a strong chance of passing. (Lev Radin / Pacific Press / LightRocket via Getty Images)

The New York State Senate voted down Governor Kathy Hochul’s conservative nominee for chief judge last Wednesday. On the same day, that body also took major steps toward enacting New York City Democratic Socialists of America’s (NYC-DSA) environmental agenda. Throughout the week, Democratic legislators in Albany also signaled strong resistance to rolling back progressive criminal justice reforms and confidence that “good cause” eviction legislation, forbidding landlords from arbitrarily refusing to renew tenants’ leases, would pass.

Socialists’ agenda isn’t quite sailing through the New York State Legislature. But as part of a broader progressive coalition, leftists are wielding significant power in the state and putting the governor of a solidly blue state on notice that she needs to work with them — marking a major political shift in New York with promising implications for gains for the working class in the coming budget process.

Hochul, New York’s centrist Democratic governor, defeated a Republican challenger in November, but the 8 percentage point margin was alarmingly tight considering that her opponent was a right-wing nut and New York is usually considered safely liberal. Worse, and of greater national interest, New York was the only state in which the predicted congressional “red wave” materialized, and the state’s chaotic politics are now the reason the Republicans have a House majority. With momentum on the right, mainstream Democrats have a choice. They can tack to the left, keeping their coalition and base together and possibly expanding it. Or they can tack to the right, peeling off some conservative voters and dispensing with the progressive forces that have proven a force to be reckoned with.

The latter course of action rarely works — after all, if voters wanted reactionaries, there are plenty of Republicans to choose from — but that is nonetheless the one that Hochul chose. This choice has been blowing up in her face.

Her initial state judge nominee had a terrible record on reproductive choice and on labor, and was opposed by a diverse coalition of union, pro-choice groups, socialists, and civil rights advocates. After Hector LaSalle, Hochul’s antiabortion, anti-labor judge was rejected by the state senate’s Judiciary Committee last month, she tried to push him through by a Senate floor vote.

Going to the floor without the votes to win seemed like a weird rookie move for Hochul, a veteran upstate politician, and many Albany observers found the move baffling. In any case, LaSalle was defeated by the Senate 39-20 — embarrassing for the governor and another triumph for the liberal-left coalition.

But that wasn’t the only left victory this week. The state senate also passed the Build Public Renewables Act (BPRA), a large-scale investment in renewable energy and a step toward a public utility system. The bill was conceived by the NYC-DSA, with labor language written by the state AFL-CIO. Governor Hochul announced her own version of this legislation several weeks ago, but with weaker labor language and less obligation for utility companies to comply. The state senate preferred DSA’s version to the governor’s.

The state senate’s passage of BPRA is a triumph of organizing. All of the NYC-DSA and Mid-Hudson Valley DSA candidates for state office in New York made it the centerpiece of their campaigns, which meant that many New Yorkers learned about the bill last year from enthusiastic supporters knocking on their doors. It will take a lot more organized pressure to get the assembly’s leadership to bring the BPRA to a vote, but if that happens, NYC-DSA organizers believe they have the votes in that body as well.

In a slower-motion drama, all week, Democratic legislative leaders signaled disinterest in an effort by Hochul and Democratic New York City mayor Eric Adams to roll back bail reform, legislation passed in 2019 eliminating cash bail for most misdemeanors and some violent felonies on the principle that, as the New York Civil Liberties Union put it, “Wealth should not determine liberty.” In attempting to undo bail reform, the governor and mayor have pandered to a right-wing and centrist disinformation campaign, which has blamed the humane criminal justice measures for violent crime. Bail reform has been the subject of intense fear-mongering by New York Republicans and the Rupert Murdoch–owned New York Post and was a major talking point for Republicans appealing to suburban voters in November. Indeed, even many Democrats felt compelled to run against bail reform in recent elections.

Violence is a huge problem, but there’s no evidence that the post-pandemic spikes in murders or upticks in antisocial behavior in New York City have had anything to do with the rollback of cash bail. That the Democratic leadership appears to be resisting the pressure so far suggests that the forces of reason and data-driven policy — and left organizing — may prevail over right-wing hysteria, which is heartening.

And this week, tenant advocates are expressing confidence that their proposed good cause legislation has a strong chance of passing. The legislation would prevent landlords from arbitrarily evicting tenants at the end of their lease and, in the words of City & State’s Rebecca C. Lewis, “make it illegal for a landlord to kick out a renter for refusing to pay an ‘unconscionable’ rent increase, effectively placing a cap on how much property owners can raise rents on market-rate units.”

All of these developments indicate that the Left is in a good place as budget season approaches. NYC-DSA will be working with a broad coalition in the “Invest in Our New York” campaign to demand that lawmakers tax the rich and fund affordable housing, New York City’s public transit, public school and college, childcare, and many other urgent priorities.

To redistribute wealth and dramatically improve our public goods is always a tall order in America. But both the victory over LaSalle and the momentum of BPRA show that the Left is building power in New York, a fact that the governor has underestimated and one with hopeful implications for environmental and social progress in New York State this year.

It’s true, as Ross Barkan pointed out recently, that the liberal-left coalitions did not pull off a gubernatorial primary challenge last year strong enough to scare Hochul, in contrast to past years, when Zephyr Teachout and Cynthia Nixon made impressive primary showings and forced former governor Andrew Cuomo to govern to his left. But with two humiliating defeats of LaSalle, the state senate’s embrace of the real BPRA over Hochul’s cheap knockoff and repeated Democratic eye-rolling on bail reform, the governor may have to get the message and start making concessions to the Left.