City Council Speaker

In the New York City political landscape, the City Council Speaker is the second most important elected official. As the leader of the New York City Council, the Speaker is the main check on the Mayor’s power. For example, the Council can vote to override the Mayor’s decision to veto legislation and turn a formerly rejected bill into a law. As head of a 51-person Council, the Speaker balances an $8 billion dollar budget, leads urban planning and land use for the five boroughs, and ushers legislation into law. The Speaker also oversees committee chairman positions, as well as other Council jobs. Most significantly, the Speakership is a highly visible avenue for greater political ascension; many former speakers have run for Mayor.

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Community Boards

Serving as NYC’s most local form of government, Community Boards (CBs) were created in the 1950s to decentralize control of neighborhoods and give ordinary citizens a louder voice, and the 1975 NYC Charter revision turned them into what they are today. There are 59 CBs throughout the City, each made up of 50 members who are appointed by the borough president. All CBs have an elected Chairperson who also sits on the Borough Board and gets to appoint a District Manager, a paid city employee tasked with responding to community concerns. CBs issue permits for neighborhood events, organize local cleanup programs, make formal recommendations for the city budget, and hold monthly meetings and public hearings for community complaints.

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Congestion pricing refers to a mechanism that tolls vehicles entering a busy area of a city in order to discourage driving, cut traffic, and fund transit. Such programs currently exist in cities like London, Stockholm, and Singapore. Congestion pricing is a particularly salient issue in New York City due to its irrational tolling distribution; the four East River bridges (Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg, and Queensboro) that lead drivers directly into Manhattan’s central business districts are free, while other major bridges and tunnels are steeply tolled, meaning drivers are essentially incentivized to drive straight into the busiest parts of the City.

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Constitutional Convention

Every twenty years, New Yorkers get to decide at the polls whether to hold a convention where specially elected delegates have the opportunity to amend—or wholesale rewrite—the state's constitution. A constitutional convention—usually shortened to "Con Con" in the interest of efficiency, if not mellifluence—presents both significant risks and opportunity for the left.

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Independent Democratic Conference (IDC)

With the NYC chapter of DSA beginning to organize around some state-level legislative issues, it has become clear that a major roadblock to getting progressive policies passed in the legislature is the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC). The IDC is a growing faction of eight New York State Democratic Senators who have formed a coalition with Republicans. Even though the Senate should have a Democratic majority, with 32 Dems and 31 Republicans, the Republicans control the chamber, thanks to a power-sharing agreement with the eight IDC members and one Democrat who caucuses with Republicans without pledging allegiance to the IDC. Only 22 senators caucus with mainstream Democrats in what’s supposedly a deep blue state (one seat was recently vacated in Harlem but will be filled by May). For perspective, there are 103 Democrats in the 150-member State Assembly.

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Lieutenant Governor

Although the position of Lieutenant Governor is written into the New York State Constitution, and has existed since the State’s inception, it has few formal powers. Much like the Vice President of the United States, the Lieutenant Governor is first in line to succeed the Governor, and serves as President of the State Senate, casting votes in the event of a tie. Beyond that, the role is loosely defined. In the 2018 State budget, the Office of the Lieutenant Governor was allotted a mere $630,000 and seven FTEs (full-time equivalent staff members). By contrast, the Executive Chamber, which includes the Governor’s immediate staff, has a budget of over $17.8 million, with 136 FTEs.

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The MTA currently oversees the New York City Subway, New York City buses, the Staten Island Railway, the state’s two commuter rail lines (Long Island Rail Road and Metro North), and the nine toll bridges and tunnels that connect the five boroughs. During the first few decades of its operation, the subway was run by three separate companies (which resulted in separate subway systems, contributing to problems that still resonate today) until it was publicly acquired by the City in 1940. The current train and bus lines are all direct descendants of mostly private companies and subsequent public acquisitions during the 20th century. 

The MTA was formed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1968 in a major transfer of power from the City to the State. In the 1960s, the NYC Subway was plagued with severe funding deficits and aging train cars, and the private Long Island Rail Road and Metro North predecessor companies faced bankruptcy. Mayor John Lindsay worked with Governor Rockefeller to develop a funding mechanism that diverted toll revenue from the younger and highly profitable Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority to support the desperate train systems under a single state-run umbrella. The creation of the MTA was also seen as an attempt to extinguish Robert Moses’ stranglehold over regional transportation policy, which had lasted over three decades. The MTA created a board structure to represent its service region of NYC, Long Island and the Lower Hudson Valley with 14 total voting members (6 nominated by the Governor, 4 by the Mayor, 3 from respective Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester county executives, and a single combined vote from four counties farther north in the Hudson Valley).

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New York Health Act (NYHA)

If passed, the Act will expand health coverage to everyone in New York State, while also lowering the amount of money that the state spends on healthcare each year by removing health insurance companies from the equation. Coverage under NYHA would include primary and preventive care, hospital care, prescription drugs, and dental, vision, and hearing care. Patients would see increased choice in healthcare providers by removing network restrictions that limit their ability to see the doctor of their choosing, and 95% of people would spend less money overall on care.

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The NY Senate was modeled on the US Senate, with representation by county, as opposed to the Assembly, which has representation by population. That is why, until 2012, we had 62 Senators — because NY has 62 counties. As a result, traditionally Republican upstate counties were overrepresented in the Senate (much in the way small states are overrepresented in the US Senate), while the traditionally Democratic counties near New York City were underrepresented. After a series of Supreme Court cases in the early 1960s declared this a violation of “one man, one vote,” New York had to give up county representation.

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Petition Headfake

To get on the primary ballot in New York, a candidate must collect hundreds or even thousands of signatures from voters in the course of little more than a month in the summer preceding the election. Marshalling the resources to do this requires significant time and money. A candidate who waits to announce her decision not to run until immediately before petitioning begins can leave her campaign apparatus to her chosen successor while leaving potential challengers with the near-impossible task of putting together a campaign in barely a month, thus virtually guaranteeing that the chosen successor will get on the primary ballot and no one else will.

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NYC City Council Progressive Caucus

The City Council Progressive Caucus was initially organized in 2009 by Council Members Brad Lander (Park Slope) and Melissa Mark-Viverito (East Harlem) to create a left-liberal bloc within the homogeneously Democratic City Council, in opposition to then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

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Rent Guidelines Board (RGB)

The ongoing affordability of rent stabilized apartments in NYC lies in the hands of the Rent Guidelines Board (RGB), which publishes yearly reports on the average income and expenses of running multifamily buildings, and uses that information to vote annually on the cap on how much rents can rise on rent-stabilized leases. The board comprises 9 members who are appointed by the Mayor to represent various competing interests; there are two owner/landlord representatives, two tenant representatives, and five “public members” who cannot be rent-stabilized tenants and who tend to have a non-housing professional background.

The RGB meets annually between April and June to hear expert panels and public testimonies from tenants before voting to approve how much rent stabilized leases can go up on all 1- and 2-year lease renewals. The process is somewhat transparent, with multiple public hearings held in each borough, advertised in multiple languages, followed by a final vote. Tenants and organizing groups flood the hearings to delivery testimony about how landlords exploit loopholes to increase rent beyond the allowable increases, and how even small rent increases can impact their ability to stay in their apartment.

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Rikers Island

Rikers Island is a 400-acre island located in the East River that houses New York City’s primary jail complex and one of the world’s largest correctional institutions. Like all jails, as distinguished from prisons, the 82-year old facility is designed to serve as a short-term holding facility, operating under the authority of local government, primarily for the purpose of detaining unconvicted men, women, and juveniles held on bail or remanded to custody pending their case resolution. However, well over a thousand of the pre-trial individuals held on Rikers have been detained longer than a year, according to past figures taken from New York City courts resolutions (a number that has purportedly dropped in recent months). Pre-trial individuals make up a total of 79% of Rikers’ population, with a smaller number of convicted individuals serving short-sentences between one and two years.

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Special Election

One of the easiest ways to avoid a competitive election is to simply retire or switch seats in the middle of your term, triggering a special election. There are no primaries for special elections; for state legislative elections, the Democratic County Committees simply award the Democratic ballot line to their favored candidate and thus grant that candidate, in New York City at least, near-certain victory. (This capacity is a source of enormous power for the party apparatus.) The convenience of this maneuver explains why nearly one third of Assembly reps (48 out of 150) were first elected in special elections. The rules are significantly fairer in City Council, where no one gets the major-party ballot lines and everyone must run on a new ballot line, and City Council special elections are accordingly rarer.

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Vacancy Theft

A candidate may choose to drop out of the race after petitioning is already over, thus making absolutely sure that no challenger will have time to mount a campaign. In this situation the decision as to who will take the incumbent’s place on the ballot falls to a “committee to fill vacancies” appointed by the incumbent himself, and succession is guaranteed.

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