HISTORY HAS ITS EYES ON NEW YORK DEMOCRATS
It’s not just a trifecta. It’s a “Democratic Super Trifecta!” And, it hasn’t happened in New York state government since 1913.*
When the state legislature convenes in Albany this January, it will likely consist of a Senate with 40 Democrats and 23 Republicans, and an Assembly with 107 Democrats and 43 Republicans.** These large majorities are well beyond the total votes needed to control all legislative activity in both houses. Combine this with a governor that has a “D” after his name, and Democrats have the opportunity of a lifetime to show what they can do with near-total control of state government.
It’s worth noting that the last Democratic super trifecta didn’t go so well, especially for Democratic Governor William “Plain Bill” Sulzer. Turns out he wasn’t much of a team player and butted heads with Tammany Hall, the Democratic political machine of the day.
It’s a complicated story that involves Democratic rivals including newly-elected Speaker Al Smith and Senator Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the remnants of Teddy Roosevelt’s progressive Bull Moose Party. The short of it is that Democrats impeached “Plain Bill” and forced him out of office. Not too long after, Republicans regained control of the State Senate, and it would be more than a century before the next Democratic super trifecta.
Fast forward to 2019: Democrats will take over the reins of New York State government once again. Ironically, it was the election of a former New York Democrat to the U.S. Presidency that helped make this all possible. His 2016 election woke up thousands of sleepy Democratic voters and turned them into progressive activists overnight. They started paying attention to state government and they took crash courses in civics. They organized, marched, knocked on doors, hosted fundraisers, and put enormous pressure on Democratic party leaders to get their act together and start winning. It was impressive and they deserve enormous credit for this recent Democratic sweep.
Don’t expect these activists to go away. They worked hard for this win and they rightfully expect to see results. They want the Democratic class of 2019 to focus on big progressive issues like healthcare for all. They want early voting and fair elections. They want environmental protection laws to be strengthened and public schools to be properly funded. They have big hopes for this Democratic super trifecta, and see it as a path to resolving the housing crisis, ending mass incarceration, and much more. It’s a long list with some notably expensive items, like fixing the subway.
Governor Cuomo is certainly no stranger to this list. He has, after all, been governor since 2011, and Senate Republicans had the votes to block everything on that list during his entire tenure. But oh how things have changed! When Democrats swarm Albany this January, the Republicans won’t be able to block progress on anything.
Lately, reporters have been asking Andrew Cuomo the same question that reporters surely asked “Plain Bill” back in 1913: “Governor, how are you going to deal with all these Democrats?” It’s a serious question.
It’s no secret that Governor Cuomo’s commitment to the Democratic team has been questionable over the years. He only recently began embracing party unity and offering tangible support to some Democratic candidates. Traditionally, he’s triangulated with the Democratic majority in the Assembly and the Republican majority in the Senate to avoid passing things that cost a lot of money (e.g., health care and fixing the subway).
The Republican Senate majority had also been a reliable foil to passage of legislation that makes it easier for people to vote (e.g., early voting) and that makes it easier for people to run for office (e.g. campaign finance reform). But those days are gone.
Democrats are riding a wave into Albany that is powered by an organized and committed progressive base that expects them to get big things done. Saying that “it’s too hard” or “it’s too expensive” is not going to play well with the base or the historic number of first term legislators they just helped elect.
Things like protecting women’s reproductive rights, gun safety, and some version of election reform are likely to pass early on without much resistance. But watch out when they get into issues that require new funding streams. That’s when each leg of this new trifecta will be tested.
Will the newly-empowered Democrats follow Governor Cuomo’s lead and avoid the fiscal headache of finding ways to fund the progressive agenda that they ran on? Or, will they stand firm with their supporters and threaten to send the governor packing if he refuses to play along with the team? The ghost of old “Plain Bill” is waiting to see.
* The 1913 Legislature had a Senate with 33 Democrats, 16 Republicans, 2 Other. The Assembly had 104 Democrats, 42 Republicans, 4 Other. Democratic majorities of this magnitude have not simultaneously existed in both houses with a Democratic Governor since then. The 2019 Legislature is on track to break this historic majority record for Democrats.
** As of date of writing, some 2018 election results are still unofficial.
Terry Gipson is a former New York State Senator(D), and a Professor in the Communications Department at SUNY New Paltz. You can follow him @TerryGipsonNY or TerryGipsonNY.com