A Taste of What’s Left

Marijuana law reformers, trade unionists, civil libertarians, and feminists greeted Governor Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State speech with enthusiastic applause, matching his passionate delivery.

The raves came for the part of his long speech that concerned the progressive agenda, which balanced his opening remarks focused on his fiscally conservative pledge to lower costs to business and to allow no new taxes.

But the governor’s commitment to lower business costs did not extend to the minimum wage. The current $7.25 minimum yields $15,080 in annual income. Using telling graphics, Cuomo laid out the cost of car insurance, gas, electricity, and food and then ended with rent, showing that it costs $35,400 to live in this state. He proposed a 20 percent increase, raising the minimum to $8.75.

Rhythmically, he called out, “It's the right thing to do, it's the fair thing to do, it's long overdue, we should have done it last year.” Last year, Senate Republicans blocked a bill for an $8.50 minimum wage indexed to inflation.

Cuomo said he put in place the initial steps in his progressive agenda in his first two years with the passage of marriage equality and programs for the unemployed. He drew his warmest reception by talking about a proposed Women’s Equality Act, which includes protections for reproductive freedom, and chanting three times, it’s “her body, her choice.” This mammoth bill also covers areas like sexual harassment and domestic violence orders of protection — subjects of interest to LGBT families and employees. The applause was loud and sustained.

While many will wonder if the governor’s plan is too ambitious, it’s best not to look a gift horse in the mouth. Cuomo’s remarks give activists and lobbyists representing progressive causes remarkable tools for putting to rest factual debates and expanding their support. Civil libertarians, drug law reformers, and social justice advocates were thrilled with the governor’s remarks about marijuana law reform. Despite the fact that the Marihuana Reform Act of 1977 was predicated on the notion that criminal penalties are “inappropriate for people who possess small quantities of marijuana,” New York City made 49,800 arrests for marijuana in public view in 2011. Of those arrested, 25,746 were black and 6,123 were Hispanic, and half were under 25 years old. Those swept up by this rash of arrests, based in the NYPD’s stop and frisk practices, face criminal records at odds with the spirit of the state’s efforts 36 years ago.

Cuomo acknowledged that these arrests were made in high crime areas, but added dryly that it is difficult to define what is the “right number” of stops and frisks but that it’s clear that “almost 700,000 is too many.” Eighty percent of black 18- and 19-year-olds are stopped at least once. This aggressive policing leads communities to believe they are not being protected, but “occupied.”

Under the governor’s plan, the old system of pressing criminal charges for marijuana in public view would be replaced by having it be simply a violation without a criminal charge or fingerprinting. The policeman would simply write a ticket.

Cuomo’s focus on discrimination went beyond stop and frisk actions. He proposed protecting families from eviction resulting from domestic violence incidents and said businesses that refuse to make reasonable accommodation for pregnant employees should be penalized. And he would allow people to file for orders of protection by teleconferencing so that they are not forced to physically share a room with their abuser.

The bottom line is that the governor gave the social justice forces in the Democratic Party a strong boost. Cuomo’s endorsement won’t guarantee that the bills become law, but it does demonstrate a new boldness on the part of a leading Democrat after Barack Obama’s reelection. The definition of the center is moving left.