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New York State wasn’t just defiantly blue in this year’s elections—it also helped redefine the political spectrum. Here, 2004 belonged to the Working Families Party. The independent political party, with just 25,000 registered members, can take credit for the election of Albany DA David Soares, on a platform of drug law enforcement reform, and for an increase in New York’s minimum wage, from the federal level of $5.15 to $6 as of January 1 and, by 2007, to $7.15 an hour. How did they do it? By being willing to make deals with state Republicans—and colliding bruisingly with its own allies in the Democratic Party in the process. On the minimum wage, Working Families targeted State Senate Republicans who were vulnerable to challenges in this fall’s elections, and ran organizing and letter-writing campaigns pressuring them to agree to support a wage hike. A key catch was Nicholas Spano, a nine-term Senator from Westchester. They got Spano’s support—and Spano got the Working Families ballot line for his reelection, in addition to his Republican one. He won it over Democrat Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester County legislator who had already been a Working Families candidate and ally. The assumption was Stewart-Cousins was a long shot. But now the 1,500 or so votes that Democrats report Spano got on the Working Families line in initial vote counts could now thwart the Democrats’ aspirations to gain more seats in the State Senate [see “Senate Shake-Up]. The race between Spano and Stewart-Cousins is so close that it’s still tied up in court—Spano leads by just 58 votes. A court will decide this week whether an additional 170 ballots ought to be counted. Are the Working Families Party’s tactics to advance bipartisan legislation fundamentally at odds with the Dems’ aspirations to take over the legislature? Ask again two years from now. In the meantime, a million low-wage New York workers have a lot to cheer about. —Alyssa Katz

New York’s biggest shocker of 2004 happened on Election Day. In a state where incumbent legislators win re-election 98 percent of the time, New Yorkers voted two—and possibly three—incumbent senators out of office (all Republican). Since a Democrat also won a contested election for an open seat in the Bronx, the GOP now controls the Senate by the smallest margin in a generation. While hardly a revolution, the shift marks a watershed event for New York, where the legislature carefully crafts district lines to ensure that incumbents of either party avoid any real opposition at the polls. Prior to this election, incumbents in New York’s legislature had the highest re-election rate in the country. With many legislators now fearing for their own survival in future elections, Assembly and Senate leaders are likely to come to terms on popular bills that have long sat on the shelf, like legislative reform. And in 2005, some Albany watchers believe that Senate leaders will move slightly to the left on issues ranging from housing to health care as a way of protecting their remaining incumbents in New York City and Long Island. Already, just a few weeks after the election, the Legislature reached a compromise on reforming the Rockefeller Drug Laws, breaking years of stalemate. —Jonathan Bowles

In 2004, plenty of “red state” Democratic Senate candidates—including proven vote-getters like Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Alaska’s Tony Knowles, and Brad Carson of Oklahoma—learned the hard way that it doesn’t pay to stand against the rising political tide of one’s state. Over the next two years, it might be the Republicans’ turn. Skilled politicians like New York Governor George Pataki, Mayor Mike Bloomberg, and California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger have managed to straddle the gap between their national party and their more liberal constituents. But that gap is soon likely to become a chasm: The re-election of President Bush and larger, more rigidly ideological Republican majorities in Congress is all but guaranteed to mean cuts for college assistance, gutted environmental protections, and punitive new policies for public assistance, all moves that won’t play well in New York. Now comes the big one: the Bush administration is considering reducing or eliminating the federal deduction for state and local taxes to offset tax cuts elsewhere in the economy. This would hit more than three million households statewide, at a total cost of some $37 billion. NYC residents would absorb the biggest blow, paying an average of 11 percent more to Uncle Sam—and all to finance Republican priorities disdained by large majorities of New Yorkers. Bloomberg, facing a tough re-election fight in 2005, already has pledged to fight the proposal “tooth and nail”; Pataki has not yet weighed in. But the prospect of association with a political party eager to reach its hand ever deeper into New Yorkers’ pockets promises to make 2005 a less than happy new year for both. —David Jason Fischer

For the nonprofit sector, the icy winds of corporate scandals began to bite in 2004. Congress may have brought in the Sarbanes-Oxley corporate reform law in 2002 to tackle the worst corporate excesses exposed in the Enron, WorldCom and other scandals, but its fallout is now spreading to other areas, including charities. Legislative proposals at both the state and federal level would apply most of the critical parts of Sarbanes-Oxley to nonprofits in an attempt to increase their accountability. Nonprofits were already required to have formal policies in place to protect potential whistleblowers and to maintain proper financial records, two provisions of the law that apply to all types of organizations. Should the law be fully adopted, however, nonprofits would be required to create independent audit committees and disclose transactions between board members and the organization. While smaller organizations complain that the costs of complying with Sanbanes-Oxley could drive them out of business, some larger ones have started to voluntarily adopt some of the proposals. Consultants are also vying to launch new services to help nonprofits understand Sarbanes-Oxley and to go through the process. Currently, the adoption proposals are all pending. Progress is expected in the spring, though some think New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s campaign for governor will distract him from pushing the state level bill, which he proposed. Regardless, experts hope nonprofits will implement the new measures, as a way to assure the long-term health of their organizations—and reassure their donors. —Xiaoqing Rong

When it comes to poverty, 2004 could well be known as the year of the worker. With welfare reform—and its attending work mandates—firmly ensconced, the plight of those who played by the rules and still struggled to get by took center stage. One in four working New York families are low-income, according to a recent report by the Center for an Urban Future. As the focus turned to those who work, a spotlight shone on “work supports”—programs like food stamps, Medicaid and housing assistance. The trend may well continue in coming years, with increased work mandates taking hold once federal welfare legislation is reauthorized. But even making it into the ranks of the working poor got a bit harder for the city’s welfare recipients this year. The likely death of the Council Access to Training and Education bill, a local measure allowing the city’s most ambitious welfare recipients to fully pursue higher education while on the rolls, marks a minor tragedy for the city. Held up in legal fights by the Bloomberg administration since it passed in 2003, CATE had the promise of letting a few go-getters sneak past work-first requirements and ramp up their credentials before federal reauthorization—and the resulting clamp-down on non-work activities—took effect. But the mayor argued that the legislation was out of step with Washington’s mandates, and would subject the city to financial penalties. The point may well become moot this year, with federal reauthorization looming in March, and legislators antsy to avoid a tenth extension. —Tracie McMillan

Linking job-seekers with job-creators may seem obvious, but it wasn’t until this year that New York officially brokered the deal. On the worker side, the unemployed want nothing more than to get a job. Meanwhile, businesses increasingly cite the need for a well-trained labor force to stay competitive. Understanding this, the mayor has created a new framework for them to come together. For starters, Bloomberg blew up the old and much-maligned Department of Employment, shuttling its adult job training programs to the Department of Small Business Services. With a heightened focus on economic development, the employment field has erupted with innovative approaches ever since. At present, the Department of Small Business Services is helping to place workers in virtually every major development project in the city: to hire workers at the new Atlantic Terminal Mall and the AOL Time Warner Center; to retrain the fish wholesalers on updated equipment at the newly relocated Hunts Point fish market; and recruit workers for the new Steiner Movie Studios in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Working with local foundations, the city has also established a sectoral training initiative—pairing job training monies with key industries that are expanding but plagued by job vacancies. It will likely take years to see the effects of these changes, but working with businesses at the front end seems destined to pay off. —Neil Kleiman

The countdown may have ended for 2004, but it’s just starting for local housing help. Citing spiraling costs, the Bush administration proposed deep cuts last year to the Section 8 rental assistance program along with several policy changes—including fixed block grants and the possibility of time limits. Howard Husock, a conservative housing wonk and advisor to the feds, was likely overjoyed. As far back as 2000, Husock has railed against Section 8 as an unlimited handout for “problem-ridden, very poor single-parent families.” While funding was restored (thanks to a full-court press from worried law-makers, officials and advocates), and block-granting is off the table for now, the city decided to go ahead and implement time limits on its own. In October, the Department of Homeless Services unveiled Housing Stability Plus, a replacement subsidy for homeless adults and families, who used to be first in line for Section 8. Unlike the federal voucher, which caps eligible recipients’ rent at a third of their income in perpetuity, the new voucher lasts five years, dwindling by 20 percent each year. Couched as a necessary response to Section 8 cuts, the shift also reveals a conscious decision to apply the tenets of welfare reform to housing. The best way to end homelessness, the logic goes, is to remove the incentive (Section 8) that causes it. That argument ignores an essential New York reality: good jobs and cheap apartments are hard to find. If we’re not careful, families could slide right back into homelessness when their time runs out. But Husock’s definitely right about one thing: “The Section 8 pot of gold is now empty.” —Cassi Feldman