Karen DeWitt

Capitol Bureau Correspondent, Albany

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.

She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now.  She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers. 

Karen previously worked for WINS Radio, New York, and has written for numerous publications, including Adirondack Life and the Albany newsweekly Metroland.

She is a past recipient of the prestigious Walter T. Brown Memorial award for excellence in journalism, from the Legislative Correspondents Association, and was named Media Person of the Year for 2009 by the Women’s Press Club of New York State.

Karen is a graduate of the State University of New York at Geneseo.

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Meesh / Flickr

Advocates of ending solitary confinement in New York's prisons ended the 2019 legislative session disappointed that changes made to the practice did not go further, and they say they'll be back to fight for more progress. 

One advocate, Victor Pate, spent 90 days in solitary confinement when he was serving a prison term for robbery. That was 23 years ago, but Pate said he still feels like a trauma survivor. 

"It doesn't take but a moment for me to be transformed back to that moment," Pate said. "Because I never, ever got treatment for the trauma that I suffered."

Jason Smith / WRVO News (file photo)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has made no secret in recent weeks of his lack of respect for the progressive wing of his party, frequently disparaging them as not being realistic or pragmatic enough. Now some New York Democrats on the left have begun to answer back.

The 2019 legislative session was dominated by a newly elected majority of progressive Democrats in the legislature. They oversaw passage of several bills, including strengthening abortion rights and transgender rights, instituting early voting, and allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for drivers licenses.

governorandrewcuomo / Flickr

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Thursday signed into law a bill that could greatly reduce greenhouse gases in New York. He was joined by former Vice President Al Gore, a longtime activist against climate change.

At Fordham University, Cuomo told an audience of Democratic lawmakers, union leaders and environmentalists that the law, which sets a goal of reducing all greenhouse gas emissions by 85% by 2050, is the "most consequential" of his administration. 

"In a few minutes, I will sign the most aggressive climate law in the United States of America," Cuomo said to applause.

governorandrewcuomo / Flickr

 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a farmworkers' rights bill into law Wednesday that will, for the first time, give the workers benefits that other employees get, including time off and overtime pay.

The governor said the farmworkers rights measure marks a "milestone in the crusade for social justice."

Karen DeWitt / WRVO News

New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia abruptly resigned Monday, taking members of the state Board of Regents by surprise. She said she will take a new job at the end of August at an unnamed national firm. 

Elia, who is the first female commissioner in the history of the State Education Department, said she decided now is the right time to leave the post, and has agreed to accept a job with a national firm that works to turn around struggling public schools.

governorandrewcuomo / flickr

Gov. Andrew Cuomo used the occasion of the ticker tape parade for the U.S. women’s soccer team in Manhattan to sign two bills Wednesday that will make it easier for women in New York to receive pay that is equal to men’s salaries.

The measure mandates equal pay for all employees In New York who do "substantially similar work"   regardless of their gender. It also extends the equal pay provision for workers who are in a protected class, including race, gender identity or disability.

NYS Department of Motor Vehicles

The first lawsuit has been filed against New York's new law to permit undocumented immigrants to apply for driver's licenses as Gov. Andrew Cuomo continued to cast doubt on the effectiveness of the new law.

The lawsuit filed by Erie County Clerk Michael "Mickey" Kearns seeks court action to prevent the state from forcing county clerks who are against the new law to issue driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants.

Kearns, speaking a few days before the suit was filed, said he believes the New York law is unconstitutional.

Tom Magnarelli / WRVO News (file photo)

A bill to allow automatic voter registration in New York failed in the final days of the legislative session, after a mistake in the language would have inadvertently allowed undocumented immigrants to vote.  Sponsors say it was an honest mistake, but it caused concern among Republicans in the legislature, and earned Democrats a chiding from Gov. Andrew Cuomo. 

Omar Barcena / Flickr

New York's county clerks are meeting in Syracuse on Monday to discuss a new law that requires county departments of motor vehicles to issue driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants. Meanwhile, some county clerks who are opposed to the law are pressing forward on a federal lawsuit.

Rensselaer County Clerk Frank Merola has been an outspoken opponent of granting standard driver's licenses to the immigrants. And he said he won't comply with the law, which was approved in late June by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Democratic-led state Legislature.

Matt Ryan / New York Now

New York's Republican Party met in a hotel outside Albany on Monday to choose its new chair.

Nick Langworthy replaces Ed Cox, the son-in-law of former President Richard Nixon. The 38-year-old promises to bring new energy to the fight against the state's dominant political party, the Democrats.  

The meeting, attended by Republicans from all over the state, was part nominating meeting, part pep rally.

Cox, the outgoing longtime GOP chair, acknowledged that the party needs to re-energize in New York. 

surfergirl30 / flickr

A bill currently before Gov. Andrew Cuomo would regulate the sale of CBD products in New York state and set up new rules for the state’s growing hemp industry.

Cuomo has not yet decided whether he’s going to sign it, potentially leaving what is now a legal gray area in limbo.

CBD, or cannabidiol, products seem to be for sale everywhere these days -- in health food stores, grocery stores and pet stores.

Brett Levin / Flickr

Advocates of legalizing adult recreational marijuana said they plan to spend the next six months convincing state lawmakers to allow the drug to be sold and used in New York after a measure failed in the final days of the session. 

governorandrewcuomo / Flickr

The 2019 legislative session was among the most productive in several years, with the passage of bills that ranged from strengthening abortion rights to allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses.

If you’re a liberal Democrat, there’s a lot to like. But conservative Republicans are not as pleased.

The 2019 session ended when the Assembly gaveled out shortly after 7 a.m. Friday.

New York State Senate

The New York state Senate voted 33- 29 Monday evening to allow undocumented immigrants to receive standard driver’s licenses. Gov. Andrew Cuomo raised some last minute objections, saying he fears that that some data that the state department of motor vehicles collects on the immigrants might be accessed by the federal government and immigration officials. Later in the evening, Cuomo signed the bill into law. 

Wallyg / via Flickr

 

In what supporters called a "watershed moment," the New York Legislature on Friday approved and Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed what Democratic lawmakers and tenant groups say are the strongest tenant protections in a generation.

Tenants cheered, some chanting "thank you" and others crying, as Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins arrived at a victory rally organized by tenants' groups just before the vote took place.

stgermh / Flickr

The state Assembly narrowly approved a measure to remove the religious exemption for vaccinations in the wake of a severe measles outbreak that began in communities with a high percentage of unvaccinated children in New York and is steadily spreading to other states.

The measure almost didn't make it out of the health committee, and the chair of that committee voted against the bill on the Assembly floor. 

-JvL- / Flickr

After a spirited debate, the New York State Assembly on Wednesday approved a bill, 86-47, to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. It’s not a done deal, though, as it also faces resistance in the state Senate.

On the Assembly floor, opponents raised a number of concerns over the measure.

Assemblyman Robert Smullen, a Republican from Herkimer and a former Marine, said he worries the licenses could provide a back door for criminals and even terrorists to obtain documents for nefarious purposes.

Karen DeWitt / WRVO News

The New York State Senate passed a bill Tuesday to legalize paid gestational surrogacy for couples who are unable to have their own children.

But it faces an uncertain future in the Assembly, and opponents range from feminist icon Gloria Steinem to the Catholic Church.

The measure is part of a package of bills that supporters say advance LGBTQ rights, including a measure to prohibit anyone from using the so-called gay or trans panic defense, where someone claims that a person’s sexual identity led them to commit violence against that person.

Karen DeWitt / WRVO News

New York state lawmakers had the day off Monday before they return to the Capitol on Tuesday to tackle a number of end-of-session issues, including renewing rent control laws and possibly legalizing marijuana for adults. A poll finds support among New Yorkers for many of the issues on the table.

Karen DeWitt / WRVO News

State Senators and Assembly members are pushing for action to combat climate change before the legislative session ends later this month.

But Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the plan is too ambitious and unrealistic.

Sen. Todd Kaminsky, chair of the Senate’s Environmental Conservation committee, said he thinks that the state can enact the major anti-climate change measure between now and June 19, when the session is scheduled to end. He said there isn’t time to wait.

Karen DeWitt / WRVO News

Hundreds of tenants’ rights protesters at the State Capitol on Tuesday blocked the entrances to the Senate and Assembly chambers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office as they demanded that the 2019 session not end until there is reform of the rent laws.

The groups achieved some results: Senate Democrats announced they have agreed to the measures pushed by the groups. 

stgermh / Flickr

With 11 working days left in the legislative session, the atmosphere is intensifying at the State Capitol. Democrats who lead the Legislature are facing pressure from all sides to deliver on legislation that they campaigned on. 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo began the week with a news conference about measures focusing on four women’s issues that he said must be done before the session ends.

Marco Varisco / Flickr

Legislative leaders have announced an agreement in principle on nine bills that they say will extend and strengthen New York City’s rent laws. It’s part of an effort to get a number of bills passed before adjournment later in June.

In a joint statement, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said they will "advance a historic package of tenant protections that encompasses the principles of the nine bills" that have been circulating at the Capitol in recent weeks.

Karen Dewitt / WRVO News (file photo)

The state Senate held a hearing on how New York can join 15 other states and implement automatic voter registration.

Advocates said it could result in 2 million more registered voters in a state that has one of the worst records for voter registration and participation.

Under the proposal, instead of opting in to vote, residents would opt out.

Karen DeWitt / WRVO News

A leading business group has come out in favor of granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, increasing the chances of the bill’s passage in the state Legislature this year.

Heather Briccetti, president of The Business Council, said reinstituting the policy of issuing New York state driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants will make the roads safer and help businesses that are seeking workers during a labor shortage.

Andrea Stewart-Cousins / Facebook

The leader of the state Senate, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, says the pressures of forging agreements on major pieces of legislation might be getting to Governor Andrew Cuomo. She was asked about disparaging comments that Cuomo made about the Senate in recent days. 

Karen DeWitt / WRVO News

The New York State Legislature held a daylong hearing Tuesday on a proposal to enact single-payer health care in New York.

A packed room listened as supporters and opponents debated whether it’s the answer to the state’s health care gaps. 

WRVO News File Photo

The state’s Democratic Party leaders acted recently to greatly shorten the lead time when voters can register to cast a ballot in the 2020 presidential primaries.

Under current laws, voters in New York must register in a political party more than six months before the primary vote is held. Party registration can only be changed 25 days or more before a general election, held in November. The presidential primaries are not held until the following April.

Wallyg / via Flickr

A national report finds that New York state’s ethics panel is among the worst in the nation. Reform groups say that’s not news to them and have called for an overhaul of the commission.

The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit news organization, surveyed state ethics panels around the country and found that New York’s ranked near the bottom for independence and transparency. The group gives the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, an “F” rating for its lack of oversight.

Karen DeWitt / WRVO News

The second hearing on sexual harassment in New York state government will be held Friday in New York City. Ahead of the hearing, a group of former legislative staffers who say they have been victims of harassment joined lawmakers to introduce bills to strengthen New York’s laws.

The first hearing, held in February in Albany, featured harrowing accounts from several women and men who detailed harassment by former senators and Assembly members. 

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