The country is in upheaval…and so is New York. “Albany,” as the seat of state government is referenced, is facing a shake-up via the Democratic State Senate primaries.
Progressive constituents, both horrified and energized by the Trump scenario, have become increasingly knowledgeable about the inside baseball that has been played by “Democrats” they had previously voted for.
It is now more widely known that those Democrats had in fact been caucusing with the Republicans for seven years. They were members of a self-proclaimed group called the IDC (Independent Democratic Caucus). As a result, progressive legislation passed in the Assembly had been prevented from getting traction in the State Senate.
A full slate of primary challengers is working to get on the ballot in order to take part in
the September 13 Democratic primary. Petitions have been submitted. And yes, the
previously entrenched IDC members (who allegedly are back in the fold after a Cuomo initiated reconciliation) are anxious about newly invigorated and informed voters.
The IDC may still have big bucks around, but their scrappy opponents have the will, the energy, and possibly a blue wave of anger on their side.
Recently, I sat down with Brooklyn State Senate District 17 candidate, Blake Morris, for an extended interview.
In my neck of the woods, Alessandra Biaggi is giving kingpin and IDC co-founder, Jeffrey Klein, a robust contest. On his turf, Morris is taking on an equally daunting task. He is challenging local fixture Simcha Felder — who has run as an unopposed Democrat since 2014. Felder managed the interesting feat of being on the Democratic, Republican, and Conservative lines in 2016.
A contract and property litigation lawyer for three decades, Morris presents as affable and accessible. We covered numerous topics, and the interview ran long because Morris dug down deep into each question. Many of his nuanced answers included sidebars and explanations I had previously not heard.
We covered a lot of back story — like how Felder got his seat in the first place. It is common knowledge that the 17th District is the result of gerrymandering by the State Senate.
According to an article by the Times-Union, the 2012 “redistricting plan” was the brainchild of previous Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (currently involved in an ongoing bribery and corruption case). The objective was to construct a “conservative-leaning ‘Super Jewish’ district that would enable the GOP to maintain control over the Senate.”
The end result is a district that Morris qualified as the “whitest in the country.” His breakdown was close to what I found through research:
70 percent: “European Ancestry”
15 percent: Chinese, Bangladeshi, Pakistani
12 percent: Hispanic
2.7 percent: African-American
Morris described the 70 percent European Ancestry group as 60 percent Jewish, with the remaining 10 percent being a mixture of Italian, Irish, and other. Of the Jewish population, 40 percent is comprised of Orthodox or Haredi Jews.
If Albany comes across as convoluted — with an assortment of intersecting alliances — the relationship between Felder and the various sects of the Orthodox Jewish community calls for a scorecard.
While Morris, who is Jewish, consistently underscores the diversity of his district, he clearly acknowledges that there is a “plurality” of Orthodox Jews. And this group is highly influenced by both their religious institutions and its leaders.
One of the top stories of the April State Senate session was the Felder holdup of the state’s budget, while he wrangled to keep New York private Yeshivas and their curriculum away from the oversight of government evaluation. Apparently, it took a phone call from Governor Cuomo to an upstate “spiritual leader” to get things unstuck.
A group that comes up recurrently in a drill-down on the Felder connection to Orthodox influence is Agudath Israel of America. This lobbying group, which self-defines as a social services organization for Orthodox Jews, is mentioned as having an imprint on Felder’s actions to “preserve Jewish tradition.” How? One way is via his support of tax vouchers for private schools, and for security guards at those schools (Christian and Muslim religious schools also benefit). Also key is “government advocacy” to promote family values votes on issues including abortion and LGBTQ rights (Felder has voted against abortion and is “personally” against homosexuality.) In Felder’s 2012 campaign literature, he pronounced that he was “firmly opposed to any redefinition of marriage.”
The district is 90 percent registered Democrats. However, stats show that only 9 percent of those people voted in the primaries. Morris is looking to change that.
Originally part of a group called NYSD17 for Progress, Morris was involved in the core group of about two dozen people who were working on district issues. “We tried to work with Felder and we dealt with his staff,” Morris told me. Apparently, a fight about speed limits on Ocean Parkway became “the final straw.” As Morris described it, Felder wanted to increase the speed limit from 25 mph to 30 mph, and then he wanted to amend it to 35 mph.
Then Felder ended up withdrawing the entire bill.
Morris did a segue way into another traffic story. This one outlined how Felder held up the School Speed Camera Safety bill. Despite having saved many lives, Felder decided to object to passage, in order to use it as a bargaining chip and leverage for his ongoing agenda. He was caught on video, confronted by a mother whose child had been killed by a speeding motorist, as she tried to deliver signed petitions to him.
Undoubtedly, Felder has his unabashed supporters. Morris related his encounter with one such member of the Orthodox community. He was told, “You’re a dirty progressive. Felder protects us.”
Pretty harsh words. Perhaps that’s why people are quietly referencing Morris as, “The bravest man in New York state politics.”
With his legal chops and his zeal for dotting his i’s and crossing his t’s, Morris is not easily intimidated.
He took on Republican State Senate leader John Flanagan about his methodology for putting together a “discretionary budget” for State Senate mailings. In April, Morris delivered a letter to Flanagan, to release the allotment figures given to Republicans. Morris maintained that Simcha Felder was in receipt of one of the highest amounts for constituent mailings — to the tune of $9,000 per year.
Morris filed the necessary FOIL papers in order to bring a case. He said it was “a push for transparency.” (L. Blake Morris v. Francis W. Patience as Secretary of the Senate Supreme Court of the State of New York, COUNTY OF ALBANY Index No. 905460/17) It was ruled in his favor…until the state appealed it. It is currently pending.
Our conversation turned to education. Morris wants to see “a significant increase in funding for public schools to provide top education for all children.” When I asked him about Charter Schools, he replied, “I’ve studied this a lot.” His take came down to dollars and cents.
“Charter Schools are not-for-profits,” he said. “But the external management companies are for profit — and they are the darlings of Wall Street and hedge funds.” He clarified, “It’s capitalism. High yield on low risk. If they invest in Charter Schools, they are getting money from the state and city.” He added flatly, “They’re feeding at the government trough.”
The workings of Albany elude most New Yorkers. Morris has picked up on what can be the “myopic” views of voters. “We’re all in the same boat together,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you have a better seat if we’re all gonna sink.” He pointed out the existing mindset: “I want my piece, even if it’s not good for democracy.”
Yet, he was relentlessly upbeat. “We have amazing diversity in our district. Everybody gets along.” His hopes have been buoyed by voters who approach him to declare, “Thank you. I’ve been waiting for you for 6 years.”
Felder has been perceived by many as not being present at public events, or when pressed, by deflecting questions with a, “No official comment” response. “He’s a party of one,” quips Morris.
I did a lighting-round with Morris on top issues, going for short-form answers:
Housing: “We need more affordable housing and we need to build more housing. It should fit the pocketbooks of those who are already in the community.”
Health: “I support the New York State Healthcare Act, and am Pro-Choice.”
Minimum Wage: “I want to see a $15 per hour minimum wage implemented immediately, including tipped workers.” (Felder voted against the $15 minimum wage.)
Transit: “I support a major increase in MTA funding. I want to see a return of the express lines for the F and N trains, and have the B line run on weekends.”
Guns: “I support gun control.” (Felder wants armed guards in both public and private schools with New York City footing the bill.)
Free SUNY and CUNY Tuition: “It’s doable. We did it for forty years.”
Veterans: “One of the many benefits of single payer healthcare is that it would help vets.”
Immigration: “What’s happening is disturbing. Families should never be separated. The entire structure of the law is to keep families together.”
Mass Incarceration: “It’s one of the signs of the failure of our educational system.”
Marijuana: “It needs to be legalized and treated like alcohol and tobacco. It needs to be destigmatized.”
New York Equal Rights Amendment: “I would advocate and lobby for it.”
LGBTQ Issues: “I believe in human rights and support same-sex marriage.”
Environment: “I’m against fracking. I support renewable energy plans. The sooner the better.” (Felder voted against New York City’s five-cent fee on disposable bags.)
When I was researching Felder’s record, the website Vote Smart, Facts Matter showed that Felder refused to respond to their inquiries. It wasn’t hard to find out that Felder had been one of two Democrats to kill the DREAM Act.
Even if Morris wins, the Wilson-Pakula law allows the Republican party to give Felder a waiver to get on their line.
“I’m gonna beat him in September,” Morris informed me, after explaining the minutia of Wilson-Pakula. “I’ll make an honest man out of him. I’ll make him run as a Republican in November. The concept that we are one vote short of achieving a progressive agenda where people can actually have a good job, education, and a clean environment..” His voice trailed off.
Morris already has numerous endorsements racked up. Like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the other IDC challengers, he is running on his own terms. He is not waiting for approval from the traditional party apparatus. He reiterated “A vote against Felder is a vote against Flanagan.”
Undaunted by what others may consider the odds, Morris was upbeat.
We can prepare ourselves for the future,” he stated optimistically.
Photos: Marcia G. Yerman