New Senator, New Albany?

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Brad Hoylman reflects on his first week in the Capitol

A few years ago, Albany was named the most dysfunctional state legislature in the nation by a good-government group. But as I begin my career as the newest state senator from Manhattan, there are signs that the legislature may be beginning to shake this embarrassing moniker once and for all.

Before the legislative session began, I helped elect a new Democratic leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins from Westchester. Sen. Stewart-Cousins represents a series of long-overdue firsts. She’s the first African-American woman to lead a conference and the first full-time legislator to serve as a leader in many years. Her singular focus on governing will help insulate her and the entire Democratic caucus from the special interests that have held Albany captive for decades.

You may have heard that we Senate Democrats, while winning a numerical majority of seats in November, still ended up in the governing minority because some renegade Democrats made a deal to support the Republicans, keeping the GOP in power. Only in Albany, you might say? I remain optimistic and see this factional split as a transitional phase. As Democrats continue to win more seats due to demographic changes, it’s just a matter of time until we control the chamber.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s agenda this year also gives me hope as a progressive Democrat. Although we don’t have all of the details, the governor’s State of the State address put forth a series of progressive reforms, ranging from a comprehensive women’s health and equality initiative, to campaign finance reform, to decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, to innovative ideas for job creation. Also, I was pleased not to hear any plans to push hydrofracking, which I strenuously oppose. And on my first full day in Albany as a state senator, we passed the governor’s assault weapons ban, the toughest in the nation. After a decade of inaction on gun laws—not to mention the tragedy at Sandy Hook and the spate of gun violence in the city this summer—it was long overdue and represents the defeat of the gun lobby.

This week, there will be an important test as the governor announces his proposed budget for the coming year. New York faces enormous structural fiscal challenges. As a result, there will be calls by some for further austerity measures by cutting social services to the bone.

We must fight this effort. New York’s poverty level is the highest in decades. A family of two in New York living on minimum wage is beneath the poverty level. The slow economic recovery and record unemployment, particularly among people of color, have only heightened the crisis.

For progressives, the challenge will be how we advocate for policies in the budget that reverse the growing gap between the rich and poor. Will we follow the lead of the federal government and push for a more progressive tax structure that strengthens our social safety net and saves the state from sliding further into economic turmoil? If Albany is truly to continue on the pathway from dysfunction and reassert its claim—as the governor put it in the State of the State—as the progressive capital of the nation, we must confront the need for new revenue while protecting the most vulnerable in our society.

Brad Hoylman represents New York’s 27th Senate District, which includes parts of the Upper West Side, Chelsea, Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen, Greenwich Village, Midtown/East Midtown, the East Village and the Lower East Side.

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