NEW YORK — Universal health care, marijuana legalization and early voting. Stronger gun control laws, protections for abortion rights and higher taxes on millionaires.
Democrats say those are just a few of their priorities after seizing control of the state Senate from Republicans. With Democrats already in charge of the state Assembly and occupying all four statewide offices, Tuesday’s big wins in the Senate could clear the way for liberal proposals long blocked by the GOP.
“We will finally give New Yorkers the progressive leadership they have been demanding,” said Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins of Yonkers, who stands to lead the Senate in January. If that comes to pass, she will be the first woman and first African-American to lead the 63-member Senate.
But now that their proposals have a shot at passing, Democrats find that reality in Albany turns out to be more complicated.
Democrats scored big wins on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley to ensure that they’ll have a convincing majority when the full Legislature reconvenes in January — though the final number won’t be set until all the ballots are counted in coming days and weeks.
Republicans have controlled the chamber for decades, with a notable exception a decade ago when Democrats held a brief, and troubled majority. Before Tuesday’s elections changed the math, the GOP held a one-seat majority, and then only thanks to a renegade Democrat, Sen. Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, who is allied with Republicans. Democrats already wield a commanding majority in the state Assembly and hold all four statewide offices.
With Democrats ascendant, left-leaning groups around the nation are counting on New York state to accomplish what they can’t in Washington D.C.
“With a unified, pro-choice majority in the state Senate to partner with our long-standing champions in the Assembly and executive branch, New York state is finally poised to become the beacon of reproductive freedom the country needs,” said Andrea Miller, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, which supporters greater protections or abortion rights.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, elected to a third term on Tuesday, could complicate the plans of liberals. In his first postelection interview Wednesday, he said he’s eager to get to work with the Legislature to pass protections for abortion rights, election reforms, stronger gun control laws. But he also signaled that the Legislature will have to strike a balance.
He said Democrats won’t hold the Senate for long if they pursue only liberal priorities — citing the brief, two-year Democratic majority a decade ago that saw them focus largely on New York City issues, only to quickly lose their grip on power amid corruption probes and dysfunction.
“I am a Democrat but we are New Yorkers first,” he said during an interview Wednesday on WVOX radio in Westchester. “I am aggressively progressive but I’m also aggressively pro-economic development for this state.”
Cuomo has largely governed as a moderate, supporting lower taxes, caps on spending and big subsidies to corporate interests. He’s taken millions from wealthy real estate supporters, and many in his own party don’t trust his liberal bona fides. He moved to the left this year during his primary matchup with former “Sex and the City” star and political activist Cynthia Nixon. In one example, Cuomo criticized the idea of legalizing marijuana in 2017, only to come out in support this year.
The governor, considered a possible 2020 White House contender, could find himself under pressure from liberals to pass many of the proposals he has long said he supports, such as advance voting, the elimination of cash bail or tighter campaign finance limits. He could work to pass many of the less complicated ones while working to slow down more difficult, controversial or expensive proposals, according to Grant Reeher, director of the Alan K. Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University.
Reeher singled out universal health care as a liberal priority that could prove especially difficult for Cuomo to accept. Creating a new publicly funded health care system won’t be easy, but figuring out how to pay for it and sell the idea to a skeptical public could be just as hard. Raising taxes on the state’s highest earners, which opponents say would devastate the economy, could be another tricky subject.
Democratic lawmakers, Reeher said, “have already made pledges to constituents about what their agenda will be. Now it’s real. I think the governor is going to be put in the position of applying the brakes on some of these things.”
Republicans won’t go away silently. While they have long had a relatively weak minority in the Assembly, the lawmakers who now find themselves in the minority in the Senate say they’ll force Democrats to earn every legislative victory.
“I’ll do everything in my power to make sure that the leaders of this state listen to our collective voice,” said Sen. Fred Akshar, a Binghamton Republican.