New York City

NYS Senate Supermajority: Now, What’s It Mean for Roosevelt Island?

A NYS Senate supermajority raises a host of fresh possibilities, but none are more profound than those for Roosevelt Island.

By David Stone

Roosevelt Island News

The Players

For state senator José Serrano, there’s been big change in the last three election cycles. In 2016, he was in the minority, but gains in 2018 put him in the majority.

And now that the NYS Senate has a Democratic supermajority, he has more clout, in theory, than ever before.

How will the NYS Senate supermajority influence the community?
Banners proclaim “A Vibrant Community,” but those vibes aren’t resonating at 591 Main Street, RIOC’s HQ.

Roosevelt Island‘s other elected official at the state level is Rebecca Seawright, and she’s enjoyed majority status in the state Assembly since her first day in Albany. But although she’s in a solid Democratic district, that has not worked out as much benefit locally.

Governor Cuomo’s role here, running RIOC, mostly confirms his undemocratic tendencies. He’s wiped out hard-won gains for local representation with the agency, and his Albany operatives control what goes on with barely a nod at resident consensus or buy-in.

What the NYS Senate Supermajority Means…

The significant thing about the new supermajority is how it shifts power away from a conservative governor in favor of progressives. A 42 to 20 Democrat balance gives the Senate enough weight to override Cuomo on any veto and exercise real authority.

While statewide, reports on the switch focus on taxes, housing and marijuana laws, possibilities for Roosevelt Island are more basic.

From Day One, Roosevelt Island went without direct representation in the most local government. When the Urban Development Corp. turned authority over to RIOC, it handed over Albany controls.

During the 1970s city budget crisis, the state bailed them out by investing in Roosevelt Island. But UDC didn’t just agree on developing, it took political control too.

Roosevelt Island still votes for mayor and city council, but their offices exercise little influence. Mayor Bill de Blasio continues a tradition of barely knowing the Island’s still in the East River.

So, Seawright and Serrano are key players, and the Senate supermajority gives them new power. But will they exercise it to help Roosevelt Island?

The Issues

Community activists have long focused on a pair of key needs for making RIOC more democratic and responsive.

First up, they’ve fought for an elected board of directors, but the state’s treated the demand like it’s something radical.

It isn’t. With rate exceptions, citizens all across the U.S. chose who represents them in governing, but not here.

While the state controls two legally mandatory spots on the board, seven more are appointed by the governor. Of those seven, two are ‘suggested” by the mayor.

A decade ago, laws passed giving residents a majority of seats on the board, but that was pre-Cuomo. In his tenure, the governor learned how to subvert even that, never enacting a full board and appointing only certain “Yes” votes.

As research shows, the only thing easier than getting a unanimous “Yes” vote from RIOC’s board is falling off a log.

The second issue is residency. No RIOC executive has ever lived on Roosevelt Island, and that’s just ridiculous. And it’s furthered the sense of disconnection between state and community.

Activists demand that, at least, RIOC’s president set up residence in the community, and that’s also far from radical.

But that ought to go farther. Why shouldn’t the state agency resource local workers as readily as it gobbles up local income?

How the NYS Senate Supermajority Can Help

A little history…

Two election cycles before the Senate supermajority, Seawright and Serrano teamed up, introducing legislation calling for a residency requirement for RIOC’s president. At the time, president/CEO Susan Rosenthal told The Roosevelt Island Daily that she would not accept the job with that condition attached.

But times changed, and so did our elected officials.

In 2016, when Republicans controlled the NYS Senate, the law Serrano and Seawright offered stood no chance of passing, and they knew that.

Sadly, their action proved only symbolic because in 2018, when Democrats took over the Senate, making passage possible, they didn’t renew the bid.

Because that looked so cynical, I asked Seawright about it. Her media liaison said she’d touch base with Serrano and get back to me. While she might’ve done the former, she never did the later.

But now, with Cuomo’s authority lessened, things have changed again.

If our electeds genuinely want to support us, they may have the power to revolutionize RIOC, forcing the agency to become responsive.

It’s a big load, and many other things need attention in Albany. But for Roosevelt Island, fixing RIOC couldn’t be more important.


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