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DSA endorsements in 2022 legislative contests prompted by climate crisis

DSA endorsements in 2022 legislative contests prompted by climate crisis

The Staten Island Ferry crosses New York Harbor.


The Staten Island Ferry crosses New York Harbor.

The 2019 passage of a state law mandating that emissions are cut by 40% from 1990 levels by 2030 and by 85 percent by 2050 was a significant victory for environmental activists and the left. | Mark Lennihan/AP Photo

The Democratic Socialists of America is making the climate crisis a central factor in the group’s first round of 2022 legislative primary endorsements — including its first outside New York City.

Yet while candidates and activists share a concern that incumbent Democratic lawmakers are not acting urgently enough on climate change, they are targeting several legislators who have carried bills in recent years to aggressively cut emissions and address the effects of climate change in disadvantaged communities — espoused priorities of the NYC-DSA.

Still, the group cites a lack of major policy achievements since the 2019 passage of the state’s landmark law setting up strict limits on emissions — and they argue the state can’t simply rest on its laurels.

“Climate change is the most existential threat to our society. We desperately, desperately need to make bold change,” said David Alexis, who is challenging Sen. Kevin Parker, the chair of the chamber’s energy committee, both of whom are Black. “When you see the effects of this lack of bold action … you’re seeing terrible air quality, you’re seeing increasing cases of respiratory illnesses, and other effects that have disproportionately affected communities like mine, which are predominantly Black and brown.”

NYC-DSA has endorsed Alexis. Alexis is an organizer with the group and has previously worked as a rideshare driver or in community health. After a potential opponent dropped out to run in the City Council race last year, Parker will face this primary challenge.

Parker is a coprime sponsor for the Build Public Renewables Bill, NYC-DSA’s signature climate policy priority. The group also endorsed opponents to Assemblymember Kevin Cahill — who is sponsoring a carbon pricing measure that would redistribute funds raised to individuals and investments in disadvantaged communities — and Sen. Brian Kavanagh, who recently proposed a bill to mandate all new buildings be electrified by 2024.

These endorsements reflect a wider dissatisfaction among progressive advocates over a perceived lack action on a host priority such as affordable housing, climate change, and health care, despite Democratic supermajorities both in the Senate and Assembly.

NYC-DSA is also seeking to extend its reach beyond the city with the endorsement of Cahill’s challenger, Sarahana Shrestha, an immigrant from Nepal who has helped organize with the Mid-Hudson Valley DSA. The group’s campaign arm, DSA For the Many, successfully elected five socialist candidates to the Legislature in 2020 and is seeking to double its fundraising for this year’s slate to $500,000.

Building momentum for action on climate policy is a central goal of the group’s endorsements and organizing support.

“I think a few well-organized climate slate candidates would have an enormous impact,” said Stylianos Karolidis, a NYC-DSA organizer.

NYC-DSA endorsed Illapa Saairitupac against Kavanagh’s seat and also backed Samy Nmir-Olivares to defeat Assemblymember Erik Dilan.

The 2019 passage of a state law mandating that emissions be cut by 40% from 1990 levels by 2030 and by 85 percent by 2050 was a significant victory for the left as well as environmental advocates. The law also requires that electricity is free from emissions by 2040.

The implementation of the measure is underway, and a draft plan is due by the end this year. In the meantime, top Democratic lawmakers have taken a wait-and-see approach. But since then, no major new pieces of climate legislation have emerged — though the Covid-19 pandemic and the implosion of the Cuomo administration has sucked up much of Albany’s focus over the last two years.

The Legislature passed a measure to mandate all electric vehicle sales by 2035. It is dependent on California taking action. The executive was already working on it. They’ve also revamped the siting process for new renewables, addressing what many private developers saw as the major barrier to achieving the state’s renewable electricity mandate of 70 percent by 2030.

But for many environmental advocates, the slow pace of the climate law’s implementation and the dearth of new policy has been a source of major frustration.

“The urgency that we’re feeling on the outside is not translating on the inside. There’s a disconnect,” said Shrestha. She is seeking Cahill’s seat which currently includes Kingston, Rhinebeck and New Paltz.

NY Renews, a broad coalition of environmental, community and labor groups that originated the campaign for what became the state’s landmark 2019 law, is backing a bill to charge fees on carbon and other pollutants.

Climate and Community Investment Act would allocate that money to provide rebates against rising energy costs and to invest it in disadvantaged areas to transition to renewables and to mitigate the impacts of climate changes. It’s a massive, economy-wide proposition that faces cost concerns from moderate Long Island Democrats.

Parker is the Senate sponsor for the measure. Cahill carries it in Assembly.

Cahill stated that the primary obstacles facing the sponsors of the measure could hinder efforts to pass CCIA in this year’s parliament. He stated that he saw last years bill as the introductory year and this year as the year to make it a central part of environmental legislation. He stated that it will be difficult to build support among legislators by making a strong political argument.

“It will require a lot of explanation by members to their constituents about why they voted for a tax,” Cahill said. “If the environmental community doesn’t get fully behind it … I don’t know how we’re expected to convince our constituencies that it’s time to put a tax on carbon.”

He said it’s clear that people are already paying for the costs of emitting carbon through the negative impacts of climate change like extreme weather, and he thinks now is the time to put it in place.

Both Alexis & Shrestha stated that they support CCIA, but are more concerned with another bill supported by the NYC–DSA.

In coordination with the Public Power NY campaign, the group has concentrated its organizing power on a narrower but still important proposition: allowing New York Power Authority (NYPA) to build and own all renewable energy in the state.

That’s an alarming prospect for renewable developers who are investing in projects in New York and have already won contracts worth billions from the state’s other energy authority to supply about a quarter of the electricity forecast to be needed in 2030.

Backers of the campaign point out the lack of renewables projects that have been developed so far. They argue NYPA could more quickly, cheaply and build new projects if it was able to issue low cost bonds.

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“Public institutions are really powerful in taking risks that private companies cannot digest and they have the ability to invest back in communities,” Shrestha said.

Policymakers have generally celebrated the private sector investment in the state’s clean energy efforts, as competition lowers costs for renewable energy credits funded by utility ratepayers. New siting rules were introduced to speed up the construction of the projects. They must also secure permits to minimize any environmental or public impacts.

NYPA received expanded authority to finance new renewables under the 2019 budget. However it was limited only to a few smaller projects.

Although Parker introduced the NYPA bill as a co-prime sponsor in April 2021, he said it was not necessary to achieve the state’s goals. He said that the CCIA would do more for efforts to reduce emissions because it offers a way to finance it.

“You do not need public power in order to implement climate change legislation. That’s the fallacy of their whole position,” Parker said. “They’re trying to get people to believe that the state has to own every asset.”

Parker’s challenge is clearly driven by the lack movement on climate bills that he sponsors in the committee that he controls. Alexis and his supporters characterize Parker as the “Joe Manchin of Albany,” a reference to the polarizing Democratic U.S. Senator from West Virginia who has slowed major climate policy at the federal levels.

“His intention is to tank legislation,” said Karolidis. The group has also documented Parker’s campaign contributions from energy companies including fossil fuel plants and utilities.

Parker laughed when told of the comparison to Manchin, noting that he’s not nearly as powerful.

“They can’t count. We have a supermajority so my vote is not needed to do anything,” Parker said.

He cited his track record in clean energy since 2003 when he was elected to office. This includes promoting the Green Jobs Green New York program, which provides loans for energy efficiency projects for low income residents, and supporting net metering to encourage solar development. He also mentioned Article 10, the predecessor of the current renewable sitting law. Parker stated that even for non-controversial items, it takes years to pass legislation and that the DSA members need to be more dedicated to the work.

“They’re a bunch of interlopers. They’ve gentrified our communities and now they’re trying to gentrify our politics,” Parker said.

Alexis said that his community has been affected by flooding and blackouts caused by Ida. His two daughters, Alexis and Maria, were both diagnosed with asthma at the time. The community is currently dealing with high rates and falling wages due to respiratory illness and inflation.

“To imply that it is the fault of organizers, it’s the fault of people who want a better vision for their future, who are not satisfied with the status quo, who are not satisfied to watch us drag our feet … to a future that is necessary to thrive not survive,” Alexis said. “I’m not interested in dealing with these assertions that are not connected to what people are dealing with on the ground.”

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