Midterm Elections Preview: Governors

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Andrew Pulrang

36 of the 50 states have elections for governor this year, including New York. This is an under-appreciated opportunity for disabled voters.

State governors can be incredibly powerful, particularly on disability issues. Conditions vary quite a lot among the different states, but an engaged and empowered state governor can in some cases have more practical influence on disability policy than even a president. How do governors affect disabled people’s lives? There are two main ways:

  1. Governors propose state budgets. What they include in their budgets, and what they are and are not willing to fight for and trade away, has an enormous effect on what how much a state assists its disabled citizens, and how exactly they go about it. Governors alone don’t personally dictate which services you can and can’t get, but they usually do more than any other single elected official to set the basic conditions and options available in your state.
  2. Governors are also responsible for the day to day operations of state programs that serve disabled people. They mainly do this by choosing department heads and assistants who manage, (or mismanage), such programs. And very occasionally, a governor may exercise more direct executive power to deal with serious, emergency-level problems with disability services.

New York’s Governors over the last few decades have been relatively friendly to the disabled community. “Relatively friendly” means not spectacular, but decent compared to most other states. New York’s disability-related programs are comparatively generous, somewhat on the plus side of measurements like support for independent living, inclusion, and accessibility. This is partly due to the leadership or at least the consent of both Democratic and Republican governors. At the same time, New York’s governors have rarely taken any kind of real lead in supporting the disability community’s longer-term priorities. And they have in some cases allowed bad situations to develop and continue, mostly through neglect. Recent examples include slow and ineffective responses to abuse and lack of accountability in institutions and group homes, stagnant funding for Independent Living and home care, and the state’s slow and overly bureaucratic responses to the 1999 Olmstead Supreme Court decision.

A governor’s effect on disabled people also depends on the unique political traditions and relationships in each state.

In New York, governors have typically held a lot of power to set priorities and shape budgets, in close though often contentious negotiations with the State Assembly and Senate. When governors and top legislative leaders agree, things can get done. When they don’t, they can’t, and we all have to tread water for another year, thankful that at least things haven’t gotten dramatically worse … so, yay?

Finally, whether a governor uses this power for good disability policy or bad … or whether they use this power at all … depends a lot on their personal political beliefs and party affiliations. New York’s political spectrum is fairly moderate, which may be another reason disability policy seems always to be sort of okay, but never dramatically worse, or better. But more than this, the tone and details of disability policy depends a lot on a governor’s unique personality, their governing style, and how informed they are on disability policy and the real lives of disabled people. That’s why governor’s races can be so critical for disabled voters and activists.

Who is running for Governor in New York?

Incumbent Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, is running for re-election.

Cynthia Nixon, a Democrat, and already endorsed by the Working Families Party, is running to replace Gov. Cuomo on the Democratic ticket.

Marc Molinaro, a Republican, has been chosen by Republican Party leadership to be its candidate for governor, but will also run in the September primary.

In the next installment of these Midterm Election Previews, we will take a closer look at New York’s race for governor, and how the candidates are approaching disability issues.

Dates to remember:

New York State Democratic and Republican Party Primaries: Tuesday, September 13, 2018

Midterm Election Day: Tuesday, November 6, 2018.