AOC’s Anti-Billionaire Crusaders Are Spreading in New York City

The protest began at Madison Square Park, where Jeff Bezos spent $96 million creating his Manhattan dream home.

From there, the small group marched to the Midtown offices of Governor Andrew Cuomo with a demand that has begun to grow louder as the pandemic grinds on: soak the super-rich.

Friday’s demonstration in New York, and others like it, haven’t reached anything near the level of the Occupy Wall Street movement a decade ago. But this time, protesters have a hometown advocate in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive lawmaker who this week joined a campaign demanding Cuomo pass a billionaires’ tax for New York State.

“They take and take and take from our city and do not contribute, proportionally,” said Molly Glenn, 34, who works in construction and joined Friday’s protest. “You want to have an apartment here. You want to say that you are a member of the greatest city in the country. You should have to support the city.”

AOC’s Anti-Billionaire Crusaders Are Spreading in New York City

There are about 100 people tracked by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index whose primary residence is New York state. Their wealth often comes from finance -- names such as Steve Schwarzman, Jim Simons and Leon Black. But vast New York fortunes have also been made in real estate, media and industry. The majority have multiple homes and there’s no guarantee they’ll stick around if a wealth tax is enacted.

Carl Icahn, born in the Far Rockaway neighborhood in Queens, New York City, has been an icon on Wall Street for decades and is worth $18.3 billion. He said in September that he planned to relocate his home and business to Florida to avoid paying New York’s higher taxes.

That was before Ocasio-Cortez backed the bill -- sponsored by state senator Jessica Ramos -- that aims to tax unrealized gains on billionaires’ wealth to create an emergency worker bailout fund for poor and undocumented New Yorkers. The bill will be considered after the state legislature returns Monday.

“It’s time to stop protecting billionaires, and it’s time to start working for working families,” Ocasio-Cortez, who represents parts of the Bronx and Queens, said in a video directed at Cuomo. The message spread on Twitter with the hashtag #MakeBillionairesPay.

AOC has campaigned for higher taxes on the rich since bursting on the scene in 2018. Targeting the state level is a new twist. And her supporters and influence within New York’s Democratic Party is growing. Jamaal Bowman, who’s also bashed Bezos, just beat long-term Representative Eliot Engel in a Democratic primary.

Cuomo has previously opposed raising taxes on the wealthy, but the drumbeat is growing, partly fueled by the coronavirus’s impact on the city. He repeated to reporters on Thursday his opposition to a tax that could drive the wealthy away.

Priorities Changing

Michael Novogratz, a Democrat who made his fortune in hedge funds, also warned that the tax-driven approach will be counterproductive.

“Wealthy people are willing to pay more tax, though it has to be fair,” said Novogratz, who now invests in digital currencies and in recent weeks has been a vocal supporter of Black Lives Matter. “The biggest problem with the tax code is some groups pay and other don’t.”

The danger, Novogratz says, is that those who already pay a substantial share of New York taxes will move to lower-tax states, especially as the pandemic changes priorities.

There was already momentum toward leaving New York after the 2017 Republican tax overhaul created a $10,000 limit for state and local tax deductions, which hurt property owners. Covid-19, which makes lower-density living more attractive, is pushing hordes of others out, he added.

That’s a view shared by Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University.

“No one knows in this climate how people are making location decisions,” Moss said. “We want to do everything possible to maintain people in New York rather than to encourage them to move to low-density or low-tax locations.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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