Upset could shift Empire State politics

QUEENS, N.Y. — A major shift in the politics of New York state may be under way, and a local state senate race here may play a big part.

The race, in New York’s 15th State Senatorial district here, could help decide the fate of the state’s Legislature post-Nov. 4. The diverse district, long a Republican stronghold, could flip Democratic and in so doing, if the Democrats maintain their current seats and flip one other district in the state, would help elect the first Democrat-controlled State Senate in decades.

That, many say, would be a huge victory for the labor movement, tenants’ organizations and women and a defeat for big developers and the Republican right.

In this hot race, New York City Council member Joseph Addabbo is challenging Republican State Sen. Serphin Maltese, who has held the district’s seat for 20 years. Maltese has been a conservative icon for years, and was a founding member of New York’s far-right-wing Conservative Party.

A wide array of organizations have been involved in Addabbo’s campaign, including labor, women’s rights organizations and the Working Families Party, a statewide political party founded by unions and community organizations. The WFP has become influential in the state’s political scene, and is credited with providing the margin of victory for a number of progressive Democrats.

Working Families Party spokesperson Dan Levitan said Maltese “has helped block basic, fundamental things like raising the minimum wage or establishing a paid family leave program — simple, common sense things that most normal people favor but the Republicans in Albany have been able to block.”

“He is the most pro-landlord member of the state senate,” said Michael McKee, treasurer of the tenants’ rights organization TenantPAC. Maltese has not attended any meetings with organized tenants in at least 15 years, though he routinely meets with local property owners’ associations, McKee noted.

Addabbo’s victory is “entirely probably, but it's not guaranteed by any means,” McKee warned. Victory will likely be determined by who has the best get-out-the-vote operation on Election Day, he said.

To help bring in an Addabbo victory, Levitan said, the Working Families Party is bringing its experienced field operations into the race. “There are tons of volunteers; we’re knocking on tens of thousands of doors,” he said.

Some in the labor movement have argued that it is good for labor to have a divided Legislature because it means Republicans and Democrats have to fight for labor’s support, and therefore will pursue a pro-labor agenda.

“We disagree,” Levitan said. “We think that there are some big issues that need solving in New York, and the Republicans have clearly expressed their desire not to deal with them.”

Recently, some unions that used to support the divided-Legislature concept, like 1199SEIU Healthcare Workers East, an electoral powerhouse, have moved away from this idea, and although it still accepted by some unionists, it seems to be on its way out.

There are a number of other races across New York state where a Democrat may win a Republican seat, including such diverse places as Western New York and Westchester County.

Progressive activists across the board agree that a Democratic victory will be just a start. Levitan said, “There’s still going to be work to do. In fact, we’ll have to work just as hard.”

But at least, he said, “one major obstacle will be gone.”

dmargolis @ pww.org