A New York State of Mind
IN THE LAST WEEK NEW York Rep. Nita Lowey huddled with colleagues in high-level negotiations to write a shutdown-averting border security package while her colleague, Manhattanite Jerrold Nadler, grilled acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker about the special counsel investigation. In another room, Democratic caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn briefed his fellow Democrats about their policy agenda, while Bronx Rep. Eliot Engel led a debate on the floor over U.S. involvement in Yemen and Rep. Jose Serrano, also of the Bronx, worked on strategy on counting immigrants in the upcoming U.S. Census.
In the new, Democratic-controlled House, New York rules. The city – which has endured high-level barbs about its finances, its safety, its immigrant population and even its value system – is now positioned to fight back, holding what experts say may be unprecedented power for a single metropolitan area.
“It’s a point of pride – these are people who were chosen by their peers to lead in the House,” says Rebecca Kagan Sternhell, deputy director of federal affairs for the City of New York. “Democrats taking back the House is awesome, full stop,” Sternhell adds. “But having all these New Yorkers in positions of power, representing the region and progressive values we hold dear, … it feels powerful. It feels special,” she says.
The city and environs have five full committee chairmanships: Westchester County-based Lowey as the first woman to head the Appropriations Committee; Nadler as chairman of Judiciary; Engel as chairman of Foreign Relations; Rep. Nydia Velazquez as the first Latina to lead a full House committee, the Small Business Committee; and Carolyn Maloney as vice chairwoman of the bicameral Joint Economic Committee.
In addition, New Yorkers hold some key subcommittee chairmanships. Serrano is a “cardinal” – chairman of an Appropriations subcommittee – and oversees the funding for the U.S. Census, allowing the Puerto Rican-born congressman to tend to a New York priority, eliminating the citizenship question on Census forms. Rep. Greg Meeks serves on the powerful Financial Services Committee, heading its subcommittee on consumer protection and financial institutions. Maloney, on the same full committee, is chairwoman of the subcommittee on investor protection, entrepreneurship and capital markets. Rep. Yvette Clarke is vice chairwoman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which handles health care legislation.
Jeffries leads the Democratic caucus, positioning him close to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California. And while it takes seniority to get official power in Congress, New York is getting attention for its young freshman member, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the architects of the Green New Deal to address climate change.
Democrats are in the minority on the Senate side, but the state’s two senators are both prominent nationally. Sen. Chuck Schumer is minority leader, while Kirsten Gillibrand is running for president.
“It is remarkable, you’d have to go back to the 1800s, when maybe [so many congressional leaders] were all from Virginia, when power was vested so much in one place,” says Steven Conn, a history professor at Miami University in Ohio. “I do think it will bring a different kind of sensitivity, and different way of looking at things.”
New York’s delegation also provides a visual example of the increased diversity in the House: Jeffries and Meeks are African-American, Serrano and Velazquez are Hispanic, another member, Democrat Grace Meng, is Asian-American and Clarke is co-chairwoman of the Congressional Caribbean Caucus. Engel notes his Jewish heritage as he discusses his role on Foreign Affairs. Lowey is also Jewish.
New York has taken its hits over the years from other politicians, whether it was former President Gerald Ford in 1975 denying federal aid to a bankrupt metropolis – “Ford to City: Drop Dead,” the New York Daily News blared – or Sen. Ted Cruz deriding “New York values” when he ran for president in 2016. The city has also felt under attack because of who and what it represents, lawmakers and advocates say – and the newly empowered delegation is out to change that perspective.
“We do, in my judgment, represent what America is all about,” Lowey says, adding that “we do feel a responsibility to work hard for the whole country,” including rural areas and red states.
Immigrants – a target of Trump and his base – also have advocates with actual power now, Serrano says. “Immigrants do not make New Yorkers nervous. New York has never had a problem with immigrants. New York welcomes immigrants,” Serrano says.
“Now that we have so many New Yorkers in these positions, it’s a plus for New York. New York is becoming a delegation that can, in fact, play a major role,” he says.
Delegation members – all Democrats – say they are committed to addressing needs of not just New Yorkers but other communities as well.
“This is significant and meaningful for the city of New York. We can bring urban cities back on the agenda and work collectively in a balanced way, so urban [America] is not left out,” Meeks says. But “rural America will not be left out” either, he adds, noting that community banking and infrastructure are important to people in all kinds of communities.
Lowey says she wants to pay attention to transportation safety, infrastructure development, investment in education, job training and “tax fairness,” which, she says, means getting rid of the new tax law that caps how much taxpayers can deduct in state and local tax payments.
“We will pursue priorities that matter to New York families,” she says.
Serrano wants to keep a focus on helping his birthplace of Puerto Rico, and Meeks is eager to promote affordable housing.
Engel says the delegation also gets along well – perhaps because so many know each other going back to Albany, serving in state government. And there was no pushback from colleagues from other states, Meeks says, when so many New Yorkers were put into the high-profile roles.
The setup comes at a time when there is a deep urban-rural political divide – one that has become about more than just agriculture subsidies vs. mass transit aid to something more culturally-driven, Conn says. Trump – while being from New York himself – has exploited that divide, Conn and the New York delegations members say, by talking about “inner cities,” immigrants in the country illegally and crime. But while more people live in urban areas, less-populated ones can get the bigger end of the policy and political stick, he says.
“We have a system that prioritizes geography over people,” Conn says, noting the two-per-state member of the Senate and the Electoral College. Trump, Conn says, won about 450 counties in 2016, while Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won about 2,500 – and while Clinton got 3 million more votes, Trump got the presidency.
“The urban-rural divide is at one level kind of an imaginary contrast,” Conn notes, since rural areas tend to succeed economically when nearby cities are doing well. But the divide persists, and he says he’s not confident Washington will roll out a new urban agenda anytime soon.
Still, New Yorkers say it’s nice to have the opportunity to try.
“Years ago, when I was a kid, you had the Southern states, where people were elected and re-elected” and got power because of it, Engel says. “Now it’s our turn.”