HENDERSONVILLE, N.C. — The early days of Courtney Smith’s pregnancy were dark.
She bled for six weeks, a common but frightening experience during the first trimester of pregnancy. Doctors in Louisiana, where Smith was living at the time, made matters worse by suggesting she might miscarry. After diagnosing her with hypertension, diabetes and depression, the doctors “threw pills at me,” Smith says. Medicaid paid for her care, but the care was poor: Her Prozac dose was too high, her blood pressure medication was too low, and they gave her medication to control her diabetes without giving her a way to monitor her blood sugar. Meanwhile, her boyfriend made it clear he wasn’t interested in being a father. By the time she was eight weeks pregnant, she was ready to drive into the bayou and end her life.
Her family urged Smith to come home to Hendersonville, N.C., where in January her older sister helped enroll her in that state’s Medicaid program. Because Smith’s pregnancy was high-risk and many providers don’t accept Medicaid, it took her two months to get a prenatal appointment. She was 19 weeks along when she finally got into the Mountain Area Health Education OB/GYN clinic in Asheville. This time, her experience with Medicaid was entirely different.
A family nurse practitioner corrected her medications, put her on insulin to control her diabetes, and connected her to a mental health counselor. Her bleeding had stopped and an ultrasound revealed she was due to deliver a healthy girl in August. “They have been wonderful to me,” Smith, 31, says of the staff at MAHEC. “I’m so glad I’m getting the prenatal care I need now.”
But there was a catch. When Smith first arrived at the clinic this winter, she was told her Medicaid benefits would end two months after her due date. Federal law requires Medicaid to cover low-income mothers for just 60 days after they give birth, a period that is often not long enough to treat chronic issues such as diabetes and postpartum depression. Obstetricians and maternal health advocates have worried for years that prematurely cutting off coverage has exacerbated a nationwide maternal mortality crisis; the U.S. has the highest rate of maternal deaths in the developed world.
Then Smith got some surprising and welcome news. In April, North Carolina became one of 15 states to extend Medicaid coverage to 12 months postpartum. And the lawmakers who voted for the change were the same Republicans who had fought Medicaid expansion for years.
The impact of this extension, say health experts, will be dramatic. In 2020, 41 percent of births in North Carolina were covered by Medicaid, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The state Department of Health and Human Services estimates this postpartum extension could help more than 50,000 women, at a cost to the state of about $12.5 million a year.
“It’s a really, really big piece,” says Sarah Verbiest, executive director of the Collaborative for Maternal and Infant Health at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. “For people who don’t have access to insurance, they can’t get any of this care.”
For years, GOP leaders in Raleigh had resisted all forms of Medicaid expansion in North Carolina. In 2019, this led to a budget standoff with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who refused to approve a budget that did not include the expansion. “Medicaid is an inefficient and ineffective government program that fails to improve health outcomes,” Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger wrote in a letter that year.
Then came the American Rescue Plan, the Covid stimulus bill that Democrats pushed through Congress last year without any Republican support. The measure included incentives to expand Medicaid postpartum, which North Carolina Republicans embraced. Now the Republican-controlled legislature is doing something even more shocking: proposing to expand Medicaid for everyone in the state. The state House and Senate passed competing expansion bills in June, although the legislative session ended before they could agree on a version that would become law. Berger and other Senate Republicans are still evangelizing Medicaid’s benefits and pressuring their colleagues to get on board. “North Carolina’s really accidentally doing bipartisan health reform,” says Don Taylor, a professor of public policy at Duke University. “Exactly what the motivations are, it’s very hard to figure.”
State senator Kevin Corbin, a Republican who represents a conservative mountain district just west of Hendersonville, says the “whole attitude” toward Medicaid expansion at the state Capitol has changed since he arrived six years ago. Corbin owns two insurance agencies and has worked with people who earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid and too little to qualify for advance tax credits through the Affordable Care Act. He has long contended that taxpayers end up covering their medical care anyway, after they postpone treatment and end up in the emergency room with advanced cancer or heart problems.
“We’re paying for those folks now,” he says. “I think people are sympathetic to the fact they’re going to need health care.”
On a sunny day in June, Smith sat outside a Starbucks in Hendersonville sipping a mocha frappuccino and wearing a purple shirt that said: “Mama to be.” She was no longer crying every day and was working hard to get a handle on her blood sugar. Her pregnancy was still considered “high risk”; diabetes is tough to control in pregnancy, and there was a chance her daughter would end up in the intensive care unit if the baby’s blood sugar dropped too low. Still, Smith was optimistic. “We’re here and we’re 30 weeks,” she said, smiling behind her red frame glasses. “That’s what matters.”
Smith works part-time as a certified nursing assistant at a nursing home. The insurance offered by her employer is $360 a month — far more than she can afford. “I don’t know what I would do without Medicaid, honestly,” she said.
Her Medicaid caseworker accompanies her to doctor’s appointments and lets her know about diaper dispensaries and food pantries, because Smith also receives food stamps. Katie Lillethun, a nurse practitioner at the MAHEC clinic, helped arrange for her to receive extra counseling sessions, beyond the initial eight covered by Medicaid. When Smith confessed she had been sexually abused in high school, Lillethun told her she could receive a special tour of the hospital before she gave birth to make her feel safer during labor and delivery.
Many Medicaid patients come from generational poverty and have experienced childhood trauma and neglect, said MAHEC psychologist Meagan Tucker-Wiles. Their struggles are exacerbated by the physiological changes that occur during pregnancy and postpartum. To expect them to recover eight weeks after giving birth is “completely unrealistic and damaging to future generations,” she said.
Tucker-Wiles has treated new moms for a dozen years in three states. She used to watch patients panic when they learned their counseling sessions, funded by Medicaid, would end two months after their child was born. “We’re taking away something that feels like a lifeline for them,” she said.
Early motherhood is a blur of sleeplessness and stress, 24/7 vigilance required to care for a newborn. It’s tough to figure out if you’re feeling hopeless due to the massive hormonal shifts, chronic exhaustion, or some deeper emotional issue. Some women aren’t diagnosed with a postpartum mood disorder until months after they give birth. “So, so many moms struggle with postpartum depression and anxiety and it goes unrecognized,” Lillethun said.
The consequences can be severe. Suicide is the second leading cause of death, after the heart disease cardiomyopathy, for women who are between 43 days and one year postpartum, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Women with severe psychosis hesitate to disclose their disturbing thoughts for fear their babies will be taken from them. Without proper treatment, ending their lives can feel like the only escape.
In 2019, Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Illinois) introduced the Helping Medicaid Offer Maternity Services Act to expand postpartum coverage. It passed the House but died in the Senate. President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill would have required all states to offer the one-year extension, but that legislation stalled when moderate Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) declared he wouldn’t support it. The policy finally found a home in last year’s American Rescue Plan, which streamlined the process by which individual states could extend their coverage. Before, states had to apply for a special waiver to the federal 60-day postpartum rule. Now they can write the 12-month extension into their state Medicaid plans, which last for five years. This option appealed to states such as North and South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee, which had not expanded Medicaid previously.
Joyce Krawiec, a Republican from a suburb of Winston-Salem who co-chairs the health committee in the state Senate, said she supported the postpartum extension to help moms who struggle with substance use disorders. Many women lose their insurance if their babies are temporarily put into foster care while they pursue sobriety. Without Medicaid, they can’t afford the treatment they need to regain custody of their children. “We just felt that it was really important to provide for the safety and health of those moms and those babies,” Krawiec said.
Colby, a 31-year-old who lives west of Asheville, could have been one of those moms. When she discovered she was pregnant in 2018, her sister helped enroll her in Project CARA, MAHEC’s perinatal substance use treatment center. About 90 percent of the center’s patients are on Medicaid, and the most common addiction they treat is opioid use disorder. Colby, who asked to be identified by her first name only, said the people at the center were warm and compassionate despite the shame she felt about her drug use. “They helped me feel worth getting better and doing better.”
She remained in treatment after her son was born and kept her Medicaid coverage while she trained to become a phlebotomist. Now her son is 3 and Colby works as a certified medical assistant. She continues to take medication to keep her addiction at bay.
Medicaid coverage for buprenorphine, which helps people wean off opioids, is key to saving mothers’ lives, said Project CARA co-founder Melinda Ramage. Before the extension went into effect, some women felt discouraged from taking the drug while they were pregnant because they knew they couldn’t afford it when their insurance ended. This made them more vulnerable to fatal overdoses. (A Massachusetts study found the highest rate of opioid overdoses among new moms occurred seven to 12 months postpartum.) But it would be more helpful if they could start buprenorphine before they became pregnant, Ramage said. “This is a big game changer,” she said of the postpartum extension. “And we’re not done.”
Most of the counties in the state that has the highest rates of uninsured residents are rural ones, according to the North Carolina Rural Center. Over time, Democrats and Republicans in those regions have come to recognize that full Medicaid expansion would provide insurance to people working in low-paying jobs such as construction and fast food, and help keep their struggling hospitals open. Last year, five rural county commissions and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians passed resolutions supporting Medicaid expansion.
Dale Wiggins, a Republican commissioner in Kevin Corbin’s district, helped garner that support. “The fact that one of my neighbors can’t afford to go to the doctor, that is asinine,” Wiggins told me last fall. “If we can spend all this money on foreign aid, we can ensure that we have a healthy population.”
Yet there was still significant resistance to the idea in Raleigh. When Corbin realized the full expansion would not pass the state legislature last year, he and his colleagues proposed adopting the postpartum extension as an interim step. Focusing on mothers, rather than all low-income people, was a much easier sell. “We had no organized opposition to it,” he said.
Now Tucker-Wiles, the MAHEC psychologist, sees more patients who are five or six months postpartum. She doesn’t have to rush their treatment plans or panic about fitting everything into limited sessions. She can help their whole family by inviting dads to appointments and assessing how a mom is adjusting several months after her baby is born.
And Lillethun, the nurse practitioner, no longer has to write a prescription for high blood pressure or diabetes and then say goodbye to her patients six weeks after they give birth. She can help them with everything from quitting smoking to thyroid conditions. “Every single one of my patients is going to benefit from this extension,” she said.
In late May, less than two months after the postpartum extension went into effect, a draft bill to fully expand Medicaid in North Carolina was leaked to the press. It passed the state Senate 44-2, after what Democratic senator Jeff Jackson called “the most remarkable [debate
Evidence that the world is warming is growing harder to ignore: The hottest temperatures ever were recorded in parts of Europe this summer. Wildfires are incinerating parts of the Western United States. Floods in Australia recently forced thousands to flee Sydney. And just last week in my home state of Kentucky, flash flooding washed away hundreds of homes and filled my Facebook feed with pleas like this one — “Please if anyone has seen my cousin and her family. All we know is their house is gone.”
Climate scientists say these events will grow more frequent as atmospheric carbon levels mount, and yet our political system remains sluggish at best, impervious at worst. Despite scientists’ generally optimistic reviews of this month’s Senate climate deal, we remain far behind where we need to be to forestall the dire scenarios that fill most climate science fiction. Whether it’s national governments or international organizations like the United Nations, the political response never seems to match the scale of the threat. And scientists warn that the window is closing for the kind of policy measures that could slow disaster.
What would it take for the international political system to finally prioritize halting climate change? That’s the question that renowned science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson tackled in his 2020 novel The Ministry for the Future. Robinson has explored climate science since at least the 1990s, but instead of focusing on technology and discovery, Robinson’s plots reach toward political and policy solutions. In a 2015 New Yorker article, Tim Kreider called Robinson “one of the most important political writers working in America today.”
Robinson’s book contains plenty of warnings for today’s political leaders and policymakers. In Ministry, ever more extreme climate events coupled with political inaction eventually trigger violence and terrorism. A tiny United Nations agency, dubbed the “Ministry for the Future,” maneuvers adroitly in a desperate bid to get countries and institutions to take steps to save mankind.
I called Robinson to find out what he’s been thinking this summer as he’s watched the world move closer to the kind of climate catastrophes that trigger the plot of Ministry for the Future. Although Robinson recently published his first nonfiction book, The High Sierra: A Love Story, he told me that Ministry for the Future continues to monopolize his time, filling his days with a constant round of addresses, interviews — and in the ultimate fiction meets reality — an appearance at the 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference in 2021. (UN climate conferences are important to Ministry’s plot.)
“This book has transformed my life,” Robinson said. “I’m doing nothing but talking about Ministry for the Future for the last year and a half, almost two years now. It’s also terrifying. It shows to me that people are feeling a desperate need for a story like this. They’re grabbing onto this book like a piece of driftwood, and they’re drowning at the open ocean.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Laidman: In your opening chapter, 20 million people die in an Indian heat wave and power failure, with several thousand of them poached to death in a lake as they try to escape the heat. Will it take this kind of climate horror to jolt the world into action?
Robinson: No. When I was at COP 26, Jordanian diplomat Zeid Ra’ad Hussein, who had read Ministry, was talking about the power of stories. He said, “You don’t need to be in a plane crash to know that it would be bad to be in a plane crash.” Every year since I wrote the book — I wrote it maybe three years ago — it’s as if attention to the climate change crisis has more than doubled. It’s almost exponential.
We’re not at the point of solutions, but at every COP meeting the sense that, “Oh my gosh, we are headed into a plane crash” is intensified. We’re not doing enough. We’re not paying the poor countries enough. Rich countries are breaking promises made at earlier COPs. Disillusionment with that process is getting so intense that I fear for the COP process itself. I’ve been comparing it to the League of Nations. The League of Nations was a great idea that failed. And then we got the 1930s and World War II. The 2015 Paris Agreement was an awesome thing, like something that I would write that people would call utopian. But it happened in the real world.
Now, with Russia and the brutal Ukraine war, things are so messed up that the COP process and the Paris Agreement could turn into the League of Nations. I’m frightened for that. It’s not a done deal.
Laidman: We have an incredible capacity, it seems, to ignore the plane crash. You talk about this in the book, the pervasive belief that someone else’s disaster couldn’t happen to us, the idea that, “they must have done something wrong.”
Robinson: Michael Lewis has a great story about that in his book [The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy] on the federal government. A town in Oklahoma is destroyed by a tornado, the next town over, people say, “Oh, well that they’re in the tornado track, and we’re not.” So yes, we have that capacity. That brings up a good point, though. When you say that, even if 20 million people died in India, people would say, well that’s India — too many people, bad infrastructure, in the tropics. It’s almost their fault. It’s like school shootings in America. Everybody regrets it. Everybody moves on. Nothing changes.
What will make the difference is the cumulative knowledge of climate change in my own home territory. The effects didn’t kill me, but I can tell it’s going to be bad for my children. It’s as though you’ve got a creeping illness, gangrene. You aren’t dead yet, but you know that you’re sick.
Laidman: You’ve spent so much time studying financial policy in addition to all the technology you talk about with ease. I kept looking things up, sometimes to see if they were inventions, like Javon’s paradox, Mondragon, the Gini coefficient. And they were all real.
Robinson: The only thing an English major is trained to do is to read texts and try to generate some new ones. I’m very used to reading scientific papers and science journalism. That’s my main reading. But it was at least 30 years ago when someone said, “Gee, it’s too bad you don’t know anything about economics.” And I was irritated. Then I thought, well, actually I don’t know anything about economics. So, these last 30 years I have been doing a kind of a self-guided study with a lot of help from economists, in political economy in particular. When you’re talking about economics, you need to always think about the political economy that created it in the first place. Then it’s obvious that capitalism is not natural. It’s not actually adequate to the situation. It creates inequality. It wrecks the biosphere. We need post-capitalism. I began thinking that in the early 1990s. But when you go hunting for what comes after capitalism, you find nothing. It’s incredible.
As a science fiction writer, I’ve been frustrated by the lack of help from theorists to build future societies in my novels. I’ve had to cobble it together from people who have done that work, but they’re often from the past. My retreat to Keynesianism in Ministry isn’t post capitalism, it’s going back to an earlier moment of capitalism where government was still the driving force. To make Ministry look plausible — because we are stuck in the system that we’re in with a gigantic network of laws and practices — I needed something that we’ve already done before that might work.
Laidman: In your book, India not only suffers the greatest catastrophe, it then becomes the model for carbon reform. What made you pick India?
Robinson: I had to ponder that hard when writing it. In some ways, it’s a dodge. Most of the readers of this book are in America or in the English-speaking world, although, it’s getting read in India too, for sure. But what I mean is, if the good things happen in a big country on the other side of the world, you’re more likely to believe them because you don’t know the details of that country as well as your own country. If I were to set it in our own country, at every point you’d be going, well, that wouldn’t happen. That’s impossible. So, on the one hand, it’s a utopian literary dodge to put the change elsewhere so you can believe in it. And that’s not good.
But on the other hand, I was also thinking that India is in a terrible position when it comes to getting hammered by these heat waves. It’s likely to happen there, although it could also happen in the American Southeast. I chose India because it’s the biggest democracy. It’s one of every eight people on Earth or even more. It’s a mess like any other democracy, but it has the potential to be a leader. Once I put the disaster there in Chapter 1, I made a promise to myself, to my mental India, that I would stick with India. It wouldn’t just be the place that the disaster happened and then everybody else solved the problem. I had to read a lot and talk to Indian acquaintances — I’ve hardly ever been there — and think about what could happen there, what they’re doing already that is cutting edge. In agriculture and governance, they have some incredible things going on. So, it was a matter of keeping faith with India after inflicting such a horrible imaginary disaster on them.
Laidman: Of course part of making change happen in India was making the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress Party vanish. Right-wing populist movements, including the presidency of Donald Trump, have been a major factor in slowing or reversing political action on climate change.
Robinson: It looked unrealistic when I wrote the book. It was really a shot in the dark. But there was the recent vote in Colombia with [leftist Colombian President Gustavo] Petro and [his running mate Francia] Márquez winning [against a Trump-like opponent]. And then if [former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva] wins in Brazil and there’s an orderly, or at least a successful, transition away from [President Jair] Bolsonaro back to Lula. Then in India, [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi is one of these classic nationalist Trumpish figures. He’s really beating the crap out of all the ethnic groups, except for his Hindu supporters. The BJP could go down. It’s not impossible.
Laidman: And we have had a bit of good news lately, with the Senate passage of the Inflation Reduction bill that includes a record $360 billion in new climate spending.
Robinson: I’m really happy to see this new legislation. It’s not everything we need, but that’s OK. There will be more like it to come. For now, it’s very encouraging.
Laidman: I’m curious about the role of terrorism in your story. After the Indian heat wave, there’s a rise in terrorism. There are worldwide assassinations of anyone profiting from carbon emissions. Someone slaughters cattle all over the world. Airplanes crash to Earth in attacks. Even the Ministry for the Future had a black-ops wing. Is terrorism what it will take?
Robinson: No. I’m very nervous about that strand of the book. I did it because I think if we don’t deal with climate change, those things will happen. People are going be angry if their village is destroyed. If their whole family dies and they survive it, they’re going to be so angry that they won’t be worried about justice. They’ll be worried about revenge, and we will see violence increasing. One thing that Ministry does not do that it should have done better is make a strong distinction between sabotage and murder. So, in the book, Children of Kali [a terrorist group named for the Hindu goddess of war and destruction], they’re murdering people. I think there’s no situation in which that’s justified. It always blows back in your face. And the most vicious thugs take over power.
On the other hand, the destruction of property, it shouldn’t even be called terrorism. It’s resistance. It’s like the recent story about people letting the air out of SUV tires in big urban centers with a note on the windshield saying, “Sorry, it isn’t personal. It’s just your car sucks.” Destruction of property is a different issue morally. My novel does not make those distinctions clearly. It’s just as messy as history itself.
What the Ministry’s black wing was doing, I obscured that, as you no doubt noticed. You can’t be sure what they did and what they didn’t do. Every reader is put in the same position as Mary [Murphy, the head of the Ministry for the Future]. What would be justified? What would I authorize doing personally before I got too uncomfortable? The reader is put on the spot.
Laidman: I’m far from the first person to note how optimistic this book is. It’s all about solutions. It’s not always pleasant how your world gets there, but it gets there. Are you really that optimistic?
Robinson: Well, that’s a good question. The basic answer is, yes, if you think of optimism as pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. It’s very important to contextualize optimism, or else you’d get into what’s cruel optimism, which is, “Everything’s going to be OK, so stop worrying. That’s cruel optimism because it’s not going be OK without immense effort. Optimism of the will means you beat people with the reminder that we could still get to a good outcome, and we’re not doing it. But we could. And since we could, we should. This is the basic optimism-of-the-will argument. The scientists are telling us that if we decarbonize fast and if we even invent some carbon drawdown methods and put them to use, and pay for them, we could dodge the mass extinction event. The window for that is closing.
One thing people respond to in this book is the idea that we could get to a good spot even without a good plan, even with a lot of fighting. Even if it’s a vicious fight, we could still get to a good outcome if the majority has its way. And if the scientists are attended to. And if we pay ourselves to do the right work. So these are big ifs, right? We’re in vicious battle. And part of it is convincing people.
The future is going to be messy, and there will be defeats, and there’s going to be a constant stream of people on social media going, “Oh my God! We’re lost! We’re doomed!” And even saying it before there’s loss, “Oh my gosh, we’re doomed. We’ve lost.” Like we’re in the middle of a giant race and one of the racers just sits on the ground and starts crying and saying, “Woe was me.” It’s not appropriate. The race is still on.
A book like mine is trying to give people the notion that the race is still on. You’ve got to run like crazy until it’s over, and since it’s never over, you’ve got to run like crazy through the whole rest of the century. Younger readers, they’re going to be alive in the year 2070, which I find amazing because I’m not. So, they’re reading and they’re thinking, this is my whole life. They need a story that tells them that a life of continuous struggle could get them to a better place.
And it’s true, but it’s only provisionally true. It could get to a good place, but only if all these good things happen by us doing them.
PEEKSKILL, N.Y. — When Leanne Evans flipped her kayak during a Saturday trip to Connecticut in June 2020, her first reaction was panic. Her phone was now at the bottom of Lake Waramaug, and that meant state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi wouldn’t be able to reach her.
Evans, Biaggi’s then-legislative director, sent an email when she hit dry land, explaining the situation to Biaggi and other aides
. The senator’s response came Sunday in an email with the subject line “responsiveness.”
“Hope you got it replaced,” Biaggi wrote, sharing a text message Evans had missed and adding a note of admonishment for being out of touch when the legislative session was in its final days. “The nature of this work is that our jobs never stop, which is not the same as taking time to reset or relax — however, if i’m texting you, I’m expecting a response. No response does not work.”
Biaggi’s reply was typical of an operating style in which every communication was expected to take immediate priority, according to Evans, who left the office in February 2021 after two years — when, she said, her doctor told her the stress was damaging her physical health. She and a half dozen other former staffers who spoke to POLITICO described Biaggi as a boss with few boundaries and all-hours demands that resulted in rapid turnover through her office and campaign team.
That management style is drawing sharper scrutiny as Biaggi — one of the highest profile progressives in New York politics runs in a competitive Hudson Valley House primary Aug. 23 against a leading establishment Democrat: Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The race, one of the most closely watched primaries in the nation, has fueled attacks by Biaggi and leading progressives that Maloney funded conservative Republicans nationwide in primaries as a DCCC political strategy and criticism by Maloney that Biaggi is out of touch with the swing district that he represented a portion of for five terms.
Maloney, too, is fielding complaints about his treatment of staff. Last month, a former congressional aide who Maloney’s campaign paid to move from Miami to New York in 2014 when he was hired as an “executive assistant” told the New York Post that his role became that of a “body man” for Maloney during the more than four years he worked for the congressman.
The race will test whether progressives like Biaggi, who has been endorsed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, can knock off an establishment Democratic incumbent in 2022 and perhaps join The Squad, the AOC-backed progressive delegation in Congress. Biaggi, the granddaughter of late Bronx Rep. Mario Biaggi, has done it before: In 2018, she beat state Senate Democratic powerhouse Jeff Klein with a fraction of his campaign cash in one the most expensive Democratic primary fights in New York history.
But she has a record now, and in Albany, questions over Biaggi’s workplace environment are striking in juxtaposition to her defining rhetoric: As chairperson of the Senate Ethics committee, Biaggi and her young, progressive colleagues are challenging and changing the old, toxic ways of operating at the state Capitol, which has been marred by decades of scandal and sexual harassment cases.
Stumping for an upset in the new 17th
On the campaign trail, Biaggi is warm and effusive.
It’s her favorite part, she said several times during a July morning door-knocking session at a public housing complex in Peekskill in Westchester County. Meeting voters, telling them how she’s fought for their rights and how she’s ready to do it again in Congress.
“It’s kind of an issue; I could talk to this plant,” she jokes, gesturing to the landscaping. “I’m just so curious about people. And I actually would, like, harm my own self to fight against people who are cruel to others.”
Part of that comes from spending her entire life around prolific New York politicians, including her grandfather, who was a Democratic kingpin in the Bronx and served in Congress for 20 years. She served as counsel in the administration of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, but later left and became one of his chief critics.
At the Peekskill complex, Biaggi has a long list of registered Democrats to pitch, but she is waylaid at the first door she comes to. She is invited into the home of a woman who is plagued by fears of eviction, rent increases and a retaliatory building manager. Biaggi perches on the couch, shaking her head, pursing her lips, gasping in rage and offering her personal email and Fordham Law legal expertise to find solutions.
In 2018, Biaggi’s victory over Klein helped Democrats regain control of the Senate for the first time in decades. Klein led a small group of Democrats, called the Independent Democratic Conference, who often voted with Republicans and effectively blocking a laundry list of Democratic legislation from becoming law.
Biaggi became a prominent force for change in Albany. The Democratic-led Legislature has since blown through a backlog of progressive bills, including new protections for tenants. She also helped lead the charge to fight sexual harassment in Albany, successfully pushing to hold the first hearings on the issue in 27 years and to pass an omnibus package with new protections for victims.
Soon, 30 minutes passed in the same woman’s living room, and as she makes an exit, Biaggi finds herself sitting on a patio with a man who’s lived at the complex for decades. A group of curious neighbors begins to gather. Biaggi is suddenly up on her feet, talking with her whole body.
First her arms are fully outstretched, then she’s slapping one hand with the back of another, in a retelling of the injustices she witnessed during a tour of Rikers Island last year. She parallels it to the way the residents tell her they have been treated by the housing directors — their flowers and recreational spaces have been bulldozed, a planned power cut is scheduled to take place during the heatwave. She uses the words “cruel” and “unacceptable” a lot.
“Oh, I like her,” one of the residents whispers to Tina Volz-Bongar, a Democratic Party district leader who is backing Biaggi. She then turns to Biaggi. “You’ve got my vote, but what are you, like 10 years old?” she asks.
Biaggi laughs. She is 36. Her Italian grandmother told her to smear Vaseline on her face at night, she said. It preserves her youth. The crowd laughs and heads nod. Biaggi’s campaign staffers finish canvassing the rest of the multi-building complex without her.
‘Unless something is literally on fire… do not email/text/call me’
Biaggi, who lives in North Castle in Westchester, a suburban county north of New York City, didn’t mean to make ousting white, male, establishment incumbents her brand, she said later, but it somehow stuck. In the Senate, she quickly became a thorn in the side of Cuomo and his staff, and she was rumored to be considering challenging him in a primary long before his fall from grace. She was never actually going to do that, she says now.
“I did not want to run for governor, I’ll be very clear,” she said. “But I was happy that he thought I did because it kept him on his toes. And it allowed me to have a platform to speak to people about what he was up to and people listened and that was so important.”
Her latest fight was also unplanned — after New York’s bungled redistricting process produced a new set of maps at the last minute, Biaggi dropped the Long Island-based congressional seat she initially planned to chase.
Instead, she announced she would challenge Maloney, partly as punishment for his strong-arming freshman colleague Rep. Mondaire Jones out of his Hudson Valley district, forcing him to run in the hotly contested 10th District in Brooklyn.
“I think we all want to see people actually take risks on behalf of people, instead of themselves. That, to me, is how we actually get a different world,” she said.
The dream of that world is why many of Biaggi’s former staffers initially signed up.
Evans, now 31, says when she joined the team shortly after Biaggi took office in 2019, the energy was “palpable.” Evans worked on legislation creating workforce protections and anti-harassment measures. The shine of those historic moments quickly wore off.
“She was doing the same shit she criticized, behind her own closed doors,” Evans said. “And I honestly think that’s the most disappointing thing and really very dangerous. She’s so good at outwardly projecting, but where were these protections for her own staff?”
Evans and the other staffers said in interviews that they were expected to field calls and texts from Biaggi at all hours of the night, regardless of the level of urgency. There was a disconnect between the events and photo opportunities Biaggi sought out and her understanding of the work it took to accomplish things she was talking about, said three staffers who worked in her Bronx district. Two described becoming physically ill with anxiety about the constant alertness she demanded on nights, weekends and holidays.
Part of the stress was the confusion of a double standard: when Biaggi wanted space during a vacation in April 2019, she sent a Slack message to her team, which had been requesting her sign-off for legislative business.
“@here GM – unless something is literally on fire and you need extra water, do not email/text/call me. It is v frustrating that my phone is going off every 5-10 minutes it is not okay for everyone to expect that I am readily available at the drop of a hat on my time off, when that is not reciprocated during regular business days,” the message shown to POLITICO said.
Evans counted at least 16 departures from Biaggi’s government office — which would typically employ about 10 individuals at a time — during her time there between 2019 and 2021.
BAGHDAD — Weeks after followers of an influential cleric stormed parliament, Iraq’s political crisis shows no signs of abating, despite rising public anger over a debilitating gridlock that has further weakened the country’s caretaker government and its ability to provide basic services.
Iraq’s two rival Shiite political camps remain locked in a zero-sum competition, and the lone voice potentially able to end the rift — the revered Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani — has been conspicuously silent.
For now, hundreds of supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, a firebrand Shiite cleric, are still camped outside the legislative building in Baghdad, ready to escalate if their demands are not met.
Al-Sadr has called for early elections, the dissolution of parliament and constitutional amendments. He has given the judiciary an end-of-the-week deadline to dissolve the legislature.
His Shiite rivals in the Iran-backed camp have conditions of their own. They accused him of violating the constitution, prompting counter-protests that have spurred fears of bloodshed.
Neither faction seems willing to compromise to end the 10-month-old political crisis, the longest since the 2003 U.S. invasion reset the political order. The caretaker Cabinet — unable to pass laws or issue a budget — grows more feeble by the day, while the public lashes out in protest against poor services, including power cuts during the scorching summer heat.
When al-Sadr commanded thousands of followers to storm Baghdad’s heavily fortified government zone on July 30, he paralyzed state institutions and prevented his political rivals from proceeding with the formation of a government.
Al-Sadr might have felt emboldened by the silence of the 92-year-old al-Sistani, a revered spiritual figure whose word holds enormous sway among leaders and ordinary Iraqis.
Three officials at al-Sistani’s seminary in the holy city of Najaf said he has not used his influence because he did not want to appear to take sides in the most acute internal Shiite crisis since 2003. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
“The Marjaiya is watching the situation with concern,” said one of the officials, referring to the ayatollah. He said al-Sistani “will not interfere at the present time. His entry may be perceived as benefiting one party over another.”
Al-Sistani has seldom intervened in political matters, but when he has, it has altered the course of Iraqi politics.
In 2019, his sermon led to the resignation of then-Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi amid mass anti-government protests, the largest in Iraq’s modern history. Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s administration was sworn in with the goal of holding early elections, which took place in October.
The ayatollah has grown weary of current Iraqi political dynamics, the official in Najaf said. He has not resumed his usual Friday sermons, which were suspended during the pandemic. His doors remain closed to Iraq’s political elites, a sign that he disapproves of them.
The seminary in Najaf is also divided over al-Sadr. Some fear his audacity is deepening the Shiite divide, while others agree with his anti-corruption and reformist rhetoric. Dozens of students from the seminary recently joined the protests.
Al-Sistani does have red lines that, if crossed, would compel him to intervene, the officials said. They include bloodshed and attempts to erode what are seen as Iraq’s democratic foundations.
“Muqtada knows these red lines and will not cross them,” one official said.
Even if the Shiite rivals were to agree to hold elections, fundamental differences remain about electoral rules. There’s no legal precedent to guide decision-makers.
Al-Sadr has hinted he will escalate protests if the judiciary does not dissolve parliament by the end of the week. The judiciary says it does not have the power to disband the legislature.
His rivals in the Coordination Framework alliance, made up of largely Iran-backed Shiite parties, claim al-Sadr’s pressure on the judiciary is unconstitutional. They don’t object to new elections, provided there is a national consensus on how the vote will be conducted.
Such a consensus seems unattainable.
Ordinary Iraqis are increasingly frustrated because the caretaker government is struggling to provide basic services, such as electricity and water.
The political crisis comes at a time of growing unemployment, particularly among young Iraqis. The country has endured consecutive droughts that severely damage agriculture and fisheries industries, further diminishing prospects for jobs.
Protests in southern Iraq turned violent last week after stone-throwing demonstrators clashed with security forces outside oil fields in the provinces of Missan and Dhi Qar. More than a dozen protesters were detained, and more than a dozen members of the security forces were injured.