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As Reisman shifts to new role at Politico, challenges loom at state capitol in Albany

Nick Reisman, a longtime political reporter in Albany, has begun a new role with Politico.
Nick Reisman
Nick Reisman, a longtime political reporter in Albany, has begun a new role with Politico.

This summer brought a notable change in the New York state government media landscape. After a dozen years at Spectrum News and “Capital Tonight,” longtime political reporter and analyst Nick Reisman has moved on. But Reisman will still be reporting on figures like Governor Kathy Hochul and fellow Democrats who control the legislature at Politico. With a challenging budget year on the horizon and an election looming, we caught up with Reisman about life at the capitol and his new role. Nick Reisman, welcome back.

You were in TV for over a decade covering the capitol. Why have you decided to move on?

I think largely, it was due to just the desire to do something new and what Politico has built up over the last decade and a half or so in a relatively short amount of time, very broadly, they've become a household brand name. I've always found their newsroom to be very impressive, and they've always had very ambitious goals for their reporting. And so, this was an opportunity that presented itself that I didn't really want to pass up at all.

What kind of stuff have you been doing and will you be doing at Politico?

One thing that I'm doing every day, day-to-day, is their flagship New York newsletter, that's the New York Playbook. Politico was the very early innovator in the newsletter format, sending everybody an email, once a day, sometimes multiple times a day, not just summarizing the news, but also giving them exclusives that they wouldn't necessarily read anywhere else. And it's targeting an audience of people who are hyper engaged in what's going on in whatever category of politics that you're talking about. So, if you have a specific interest in New York politics, New York Playbook is obviously the place for you. But there are other newsletters that look at policy, look at White House politics, look at Congress. And so, it kind of satisfies a whole range of interests.

One thing that's great about the newsletter format, is that what's really good for the hyper engaged audience, which increasingly we're seeing in digital media and digital journalism to be kind of the coin of the realm, as it were, for audiences that are kind of built in and are there and are hungry for fresh news on a near day-to-day basis.

Yeah, I have to say, I read Massachusetts in New York every day. So, here's an age-old question for you, having spent most of your career covering the capitol. This is obviously something that we care about a lot here at WAMC: Make the case for caring about state government and state politics, because we know from polling and just general civics that a huge amount of the population doesn't really follow it.

Right. Right. There is the stock answer, which is state governments are the laboratories of democracy, that what happens in state capitols, be it Albany or Trenton or Sacramento eventually will happen at the national level or be debated at the national level in some form or another. But also, what goes on at state capitols is something that arguably affects voters a lot more directly. I mean, certainly, you could argue, thank goodness, that state governments can't print money or declare war. What they can do is determine how driver's licenses are doled out, they determine in an indirect way what people are paying in property taxes, how schools are funded, how the most vulnerable in our communities are taken care of through social service programs. So, what really does happen in state capitols more so, arguably, than what happens in Washington, really have a much more immediate effect on New Yorkers really in their day to day lives. So, that's what's really so kind of exciting about covering a state legislature and governor is that yes, it's more accessible. You can get your arms around it. You don't have to worry about reporting on Defense Department budgets or anything like that. But also, there is an immediate impact that all voters feel when the New York state legislature and the governor agree to a state budget.

So, it's about two years since Governor Andrew Cuomo resigned under pressure. How has Albany, how has the capitol changed in that time?

The vibe is different. I think that's very fair to say. You really did feel like Andrew Cuomo’s presence virtually was everywhere. For better or for worse, over the decades that he was in office, he was the climate, not just the weather. And when he left, I think that really did create some sort of power vacuum. We saw this when Eliot Spitzer resigned, that kind of resulted in a few chaotic years in the state legislature, a coup in 2009 in the State Senate. We have not seen, certainly the level of Paterson-esque dysfunction under Governor Kathy Hochul, but we have seen people kind of wrestle, I think, for influence and for leverage and for power. Governor Hochul to a certain extent, you kind of like the way when Gerald Ford became president right after the Nixon resignation, has tried to basically do the opposite, and be the opposite side of the coin from her predecessor stylistically. You could argue the policies are the same, if not similar, and a lot of the projects that she has taken credit for have started under Andrew Cuomo. But stylistically and tontally, she has really, I think, tried to make a stated and concerted effort to be very different from Andrew Cuomo.

She's starting to emphasize how she's taking a much more collaborative approach with the state legislature. She has virtually gone to pains to show that she has a very good working relationship with New York City Mayor Eric Adams, which is not just a departure from Andrew Cuomo years, but really any kind of relationship that a governor of New York would have with a mayor of the city of New York. So, she has tried to assert that she's a very different kind of governor. All of that said, we're seeing things that normally you would not be in Albany, such as the rejection of a Court of Appeals Chief Judge nominee earlier this year. The idea that the state legislature, in essence received a pay raise that was approved at the end of last year and took effect this year, seemingly without the governor using any sort of leverage to get what she wanted out of that sort of deal that we have seen in the past. We even saw that during the Pataki years, right, when he got an expansion of charter schools when the legislature agreed to a pay raise alongside that. So, things are different. And I think also part of that is because we're in a much more hyperpartisan time nationally. The Republicans virtually have no power anymore in the state legislature or really any statewide lever. So, the conflict is not so much between D’s and R’s at this point, but between progressive Democrats and more moderate elements of the party. And all of that is kind of playing itself out right now in policy and in the state budget.

Yeah, let's talk more about that. Things were kind of unsettled at the end of the legislative session. For one thing, the housing plan fell apart and in recent weeks, Governor Hochul has kind of turned to executive actions to salvage what she can of that. For another thing, the budget was very late for the first time in a long time in Albany. So that kind of left a cloud heading into 2024, didn't it?

Yeah, and I think Andrew Cuomo, when he was governor, really did place a premium on these on time budgets on time,' getting it done by in and around the start of the state's fiscal year, which is April 1. Sometimes it was like April 2, April 3. I think one year it wasn't fully voted on until April 6, or something around that time, but generally speaking, it was agreed to by the start of the fiscal year and there hadn't been a need to do these budget extenders, what Congress would call a continuing resolution to keep the government funded without a shutdown. Hochul is not placing as much of a premium on on-time budgets. She's just not. She would rather get what she wants in the budget, versus having one that's on time and I think she's taking the gamble that, let's face it, most voters really do not care if the budget is done by March 31, or April 1 or May. Perhaps there are some who believe that it's important, but many are not following this on a day-to-day basis.

So, what do we know about the status of power and the relationship between Hochul, who was reelected last November, probably narrow more narrowly than she wanted to be, and then Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat from the Bronx, and Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Democrat from Westchester County?

What the legislative leaders face is very different because they have Democratic super majorities in both chambers. When you have that many Democrats in the legislature, you are going to get a broad cross section of New York state, of state politics, of people in general, and you have some legislators who are quite progressive, and then some who represent more moderate areas of New York. So, they have a problem that they've always kind of dreamed of having, especially in the state Senate for Democrats, which is this big super majority. But now it's like, what do you do with it? How do you make sure that the so-called marginal Democrats, people who are in kind of battleground legislative districts that could be vulnerable to losing to Republicans are kept safe? But then how do you also satisfy more progressive elements of your Democratic conference?

We see this playing out in the State Assembly, where you have self-described Democratic socialists, who have been elected to a handful of seats, mainly from New York City, many from Queens and Brooklyn, who would like to see far more expansive and ambitious legislation passed, such as a statewide so-called Good Cause Eviction measure, making it harder for landlords to increase rent and evict their tenants based on higher rent increases. That's something that has really stalled in the legislature. You talk to some of these Democratic socialists and say, 'Well, you know, there are some upstate Democrats who don't want to see this happen, and could lose their races as a result of some sort of unpopular legislation going through.' And some of these Democratic socialists are fine with that. They would rather see a smaller conference in order to get their more ambitious legislative package through and then really have much more of a confrontation with a somewhat more moderate Democratic governor. They kind of view that as the big confrontation right now in Albany. So, it is a much more complicated set of questions facing the legislature right now and the governor, for whatever reason, has never really necessarily been able to capitalize on this. We've seen governors in the past try to divide and conquer the two chambers of the state legislature, and at the moment, she has not necessarily found some consistent allies there to really move forward with her legislative agenda.

So, that being said, we know from the governor's own revenue forecasts from her budget division and from State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli's analysis that it's likely to be a budget crunch next year. This year's budget was a record-setting amount, but next year, the forecast is not as rosy. We've talked about housing, bail reform again reared its head in this past year. What do you think the kind of two or three major issues will be for lawmakers come January?

Well, we definitely know that Governor Hochul is going to once again push for her housing compact that really failed to gain any sort of traction with members of the legislature. It was virtually impossible to find someone who wanted every single element that Governor Hochul was pushing for, especially when it came to essentially overriding a lot of local zoning. That really inflamed a lot of suburban area lawmakers in both parties. The governor says that she's going to regroup, it's going to be interesting to see if she's able to maybe adjust some of her tactics going forward. She had this kind of, it's been described as this broad based, expansive statewide housing policy that she put in the budget. But in many respects, it was kind of cramped, because she didn't include things that could maybe get negotiated out during the budget process. So, I'll be curious to see if she if she adjusts her strategy in the budget negotiations to maybe get more of what she wants and be more successful.

The budget is going to be more difficult because tax revenue is kind of slowing down. We're seeing some questions about the economy in New York not recovering as quickly as the rest of the country with a lot of the pandemic-era restrictions melting away. And also, quite frankly, there have been some major increases in spending, especially on the school side of the state budget. Whenever you see those big increases in spending, there are going to be a lot of people who want to see that level of spending maintained and that's going to mean maintaining the revenue one way or the other. The governor would say, and she's been kind of prudent about this, along with her predecessor, is that they've stuffed a lot of money into the rainy-day fund to offset any sort of loss in tax revenue. It's now more than, I’ve got to double check that, I want to say it's more than $15 billion at this point, which is not an insignificant amount of money to have as a potential cushion. But that's kind of a one-time thing. So, spend that money in one year, you won't be able to spend it next year. And typically, we have seen with any sort of economic downturn or any sort of tough budget year, it's not just one year, it's multiple years that the state budget has to be addressed.

Yeah, and we just talked to State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli about this and he made much the same point that you know, you want to save the rainy-day fund for a rainy day, not just put it into a budget to make the numbers work. So, just one more thing, Nick. I know what I like about radio; have you foresworn your suits and ties and your razor blade?

No, I'm still in the habit of shaving every day. But I am able to dress perhaps a little more casually now that I don't have to be on TV and given how hot this summer has been, it's been nice trading, I would say, a buttoned-down shirt and tie for a polo shirt on occasion.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.