New York

Young lawmakers chart bipartisan future for state Legislature

May 21, 2024

Times Union | By Dan Clark

ALBANY — It’s not every day you see a member of the state Legislature in an orange jumpsuit on their way to jail, but that’s what lawmakers in the body’s Future Caucus saw during a meeting of their nascent group last week.

The subject of the photo appeared to be Assemblyman Alex Bores, a Democrat from Manhattan. It was his face on the screen.

But it wasn’t him — it was an image generated through artificial intelligence using one of Bores’ photos that’s publicly available online. That’s called a “deepfake.”

“That’s crazy,” one member said, while others gasped at the photo. Some laughed at the thought of Bores in handcuffs, which helped break the tension.

It unfolded during the first policy meeting of the Future Caucus — a new bipartisan body in the state Legislature exclusively for members below the age of 46.

It was formed last year by Assemblyman Ed Ra, a Republican from Long Island. Other states — like California and Texas — already had their own Future Caucus, and he wanted New York to get on board.

“When you actually pull back and take a look, we have a ton of younger people in both houses,” Ra said. 

He reached out to the national group that’s led the charge to create a Future Caucus in as many states as possible. 

That group, also called Future Caucus, views the effort as a way to bridge the political divide and give members a space to work on issues that unite the next generation of lawmakers, regardless of party.

The national group had one request for Ra: find a Democrat to co-chair the caucus with him.

Building bipartisanship

Ra didn’t have to search long to find a co-chair, and he managed to pick one just as enthusiastic about the idea as he was.

That’s Bores — a freshman legislator who struck up a friendship with Ra during his first year in office.

“I thought he was the logical person because he’s a good guy, but also because he’s a new member and we wanted to have that kind of balance,” said Ra, who’s been in the Legislature since 2011.

Ra doesn’t have much time left in the caucus. He’s 43 years old, so he’ll age out of the group in just a few years. That’s why he pushed for the caucus’ creation.

“I’ll be a part of it for, maybe, one more term and then turn it over to somebody else,” Ra said. “That’s why it was important to me to get it working.”

When it’s Ra’s time to leave the caucus, another Republican will replace him as co-chair as long as the effort is still alive. Bores would do the same if he’s still a co-chair when he reaches that age, but that’s a long time coming for the 33-year-old.

They both see the body’s bipartisanship as crucial to its mission: to unite lawmakers of a certain age around issues affecting their generations without making it about politics. 

“It’s not just about Republican or Democrat,” Ra said. “You get to know the person before you get to understand where their district is and where they’re coming from on different issues.”

Charting the future

There are now 43 members of the caucus, making it one of the largest associations of lawmakers in the Legislature.

They view the effort as an opportunity to chart the future of the Legislature, which has seen an influx of younger members in recent years while long-time veterans retire from office. 

That’s now starting to shift the culture at the state Capitol, where newer members have infused fresh life into an institution that doesn’t often embrace holistic change.

“In a world where you have many, many people whose job it is to raise the temperature, having an organization where we can maybe lower it and focus on the policy itself is useful,” Bores said.

The results of that shift are already bearing fruit for new lawmakers, including Assemblyman John Zaccaro, a Democrat from the Bronx.

Zaccaro led a bipartisan push to include language in this year’s state budget that would allow a store’s tobacco, lottery or liquor license to be revoked if they’re caught selling illicit cannabis products after being warned to stop.

At a news conference earlier this month to promote the idea, lawmakers from both major parties stood together in support of the measure — a rare sight at the state Capitol.

“It’s important to emphasize this bill has bipartisan support across both houses,” said Zaccaro, who used that line to introduce Assemblyman Matt Slater, a Republican from the Hudson Valley.

“I’m glad to be here to lend my support,” Slater returned.

Less than three weeks later, budget language revealed that his proposal made it into the spending plan.

Slater, 38, who’s a member of the Future Caucus alongside Zaccaro, said that kind of work is the whole idea behind the group — to use their ranks to build support for measures that can unite lawmakers across the aisle.

“I think, really, that’s what people want,” Slater said on Friday. “They like to see Republicans and Democrats put the partisan garbage behind them a lot of times and find solutions.”

“If the Future Caucus is able to do that, and I think we’ve got some really good ideas on some of the issues we’ve started discussing, I think New Yorkers are going to appreciate the product,” he said.

Policy over party

Last week’s policy meeting was held in a small conference room in the Legislative Office Building, across from the Capitol. The group was split almost evenly between Republicans and Democrats. Donuts and coffee were provided.

“Welcome to the future guys,” said Sen. Nathalia Fernandez, a Democrat. Members laughed. 

It wasn’t formal, and there were no rules. That’s by design, Bores said. Instead of deciding how the caucus will operate, he and Ra want to build that system with the members themselves as the body continues to grow.

“It very much is something that we’ll do in conversation with the members and let this take whatever shape is the most useful,” Bores said.

Until then, they’re at the stage of sharing ideas with each other in hopes of garnering support for specific pieces of legislation.

They don’t take a vote to endorse or oppose those bills as a caucus, but that could happen in the future if members want to move in that direction.

Like with cannabis, their influence is being felt in the Legislature, which has long been known for its polarization and as an institution where legislators have long been expected to fall in line behind the leaders.

But with the new caucus, it’s also an opportunity for young legislators to learn about issues they might know nothing about.

One of the three bills discussed by the caucus would expand Medicaid coverage for services that preserve someone’s fertility while they receive cancer treatment.

That’s not currently covered under Medicaid, so recipients have to pay out of pocket if they want to seek those services. Several members of the caucus were surprised to hear that.

One member shared how they paid for three rounds of in vitro fertilization, which racked up a high bill. 

“It’s very high, like $24,000 per round,” they said. 

“This is crazy,” another replied, reading the bill. That was followed by a few minutes of talking about what’s involved in fertility treatment, and how inaccessible it can be.

Finding common ground

That issue — the cost of fertility treatment — is the kind of thing members of the Future Caucus see as important to their age group, regardless of where they’re from and what they believe.

That doesn’t mean they’re going to agree on every issue presented to them, they said, even if it’s something that directly impacts their generations.

“But if we can come together on some of those, then we can speak louder on the things that we do agree upon,” said Bores, who arranged the deepfake presentation for members.

That’s part of the value of the caucus, members said. They can speak about issues that affect them without bringing politics to the table. It’s about the person, not their party, Ra said.

“It’s different to have the person there and be able to ask them questions if you have them, and hopefully it spreads support about it,” Ra said.

The caucus is planning another meeting in May, when they’re expected to continue talking about policy and how they want to move forward as a body.

Rep. Sara Jacobs


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