ALBANY – State Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs said Thursday if the State Senate allows votes on marijuana legalization, statewide rent control and driver’s licenses for people in the country illegally, Democrats could be “thrown out of office” next year.
Jacobs, who also heads the Nassau County Democratic Committee, said such “far progressive” measures aren’t as popular on Long Island and upstate as they are in New York City. Pushing the issues in swing districts, he said, could result in Democrats losing a Senate majority they won just eight months ago.
Jacobs said the Senate has made significant strides in delivering a progressive agenda since taking control in January. But that has forced lawmakers in moderate districts to “put their necks on the line” on bills concerning abortion, cash-free bail and congestion pricing for people driving into Manhattan, Jacobs said.
“You want to add these on top of all those other things and I’m supposed to go into Rockville Centre and tell people ‘We represent you’? They’re going to throw us out of office,” Jacobs said in an interview. “It could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
His remarks underscore tensions within the party about how far to push a progressive agenda during the first year of complete Democratic control of the State Legislature in years. Hours after Jacobs went public, a Senate Democratic spokesman said Jacobs shouldn’t be “sowing divisions” within the party.
Jacobs’ warning to other Democrats was first reported by Gothamist.com. It came just a day after Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) told Newsday the driver’s license bill could be a “colossal political mistake” for Long Island Democrats.
Significantly, Jacobs is an ally of Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. At a ribbon-cutting event Thursday, Cuomo noted that suburban lawmakers had different constituents than their city counterparts and “you have to do what the people of Suffolk [County] want you to do.”
Driver’s licenses, marijuana and rent control are among the highest-profile issues lawmakers will be considering during the final two weeks of the 2019 legislative session, slated to end June 19.
For months, the issue of whether the six Long Island Senate Democrats would back driver’s licenses for those in the United States illegally and marijuana legalization has been smoldering at the state Capitol.
Notably, no Island prosecutors or law-enforcement groups publicly supported driver’s licenses or recreational marijuana, which sources said could change the dynamic.
Technically, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) wouldn’t need Long Island votes on such issues if she had the support of the other 34 Democrats in the 63-seat chamber.
But many lawmakers and analysts have suggested that even if a Long Island Democrat voted against marijuana, for instance, Republicans would seek to blame the entire Democratic conference for allowing the bill to become law.
Also, many say Republicans face long odds in their quest to regain the Senate majority in 2020, a presidential election year, even if Democrats take heat on some issues.
Democrats have a much larger majority in the state Assembly (107-43), where issues such as marijuana legalization generally have broader support and there is less pressure on any single regional delegation.
Cuomo is on record supporting the driver’s license bill but has advised Senate Democrats about possible political blowback this year, according to sources.
At a state park in the Bronx Thursday, the governor said of suburban senators: “They tend to be less ‘progressive’ than Democrats in New York City, and at the end of the day those senators represent their districts.”
A spokesman for Stewart-Cousins said party leaders shouldn’t be “sowing divisions.”
“We finally passed a permanent property tax cap, provided record school funding, stood up for women's rights, passed strong gun laws, enacted voting reforms and protected the environment with even more to come,” spokesman Mike Murphy said. “Every Democratic Leader, including the Party Chair, should celebrate these accomplishments rather than sowing divisions within the party.”
Flanagan sought to seize on the rift.
“Reports that Senate Democrats from Long Island are being instructed by Jay Jacobs to vote ‘no’ on legislation providing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants should scare every hardworking Long Island resident who opposes this bill. This is nothing more than a cynical political ploy,” Flanagan said in a statement.
“If they refuse to stop this unpopular and dangerous bill from becoming law, and simply allow the New York City politicians to once again have their way, there is no reason to have them in Albany anyway,” he said.
Jacobs say he personally supports the progressive proposals, but Democrats need more time to “educate” the public and build support.
“Have a little patience. Go a little slower,” Jacobs said. “Let’s educate the public and try to convince them this is good.”