In NYS, Is Good Government An Oxymoron?
By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
Through the years, this column has contained praise and criticism for public officials of all sizes, shapes and
party memberships. Although regular readers are quite aware
of our predisposition to support those who are more likely
posed to conservative, that has no bearing on our commentary
on individual performance.
Neither the term Conservative nor Republican should be perceived as an anathema by the largely registered Democratic population of Queens or our City. Likewise,
neither wearing the Democratic label nor running with the
Democratic endorsement should indicate very much about
individual performance or ethics.
Party affiliation, back in the day, used to mean a pretty
clear ideological identification. That is no longer the case.
Queens Democratic Chair Tom Manton – a pro-life proponent – is considerably right of Republican Mayor Mike Bloomberg or for that matter former Mayor and major Republican stalwart Rudy Giuliani. I believe there still is a general identification with the Dems being the party of the working class while the Repubs are more closely identified with business. However, wherever you stand on political rientation or on the poor to wealthy scale, party affiliation means nothing when it comes to individual performance or ethics.
Elected officials of both parties have been flaunting
the law, self-dealing and going to jail all across this great nation . . . this city, too. At home, it has more often been Dems than Repubs, but that’s because there are more Dems than Repubs in power in the Big Apple.
Then there is the gray area of “honest graft,” the ethical challenge faced by every elected official who accepts contributions, seeks lulus, wants perks and has a vote to cast which may influence the size of the contributions and the availability of lulus and perks. Gee, it is even compounded by the fact that every 10 years elected officials have their district lines redrawn and their loyalty to leadership not the people will likely decide how easy their next reelection will be.
Where is all of this going?
Many of you may have figured it out already.
Our wonderful system doesn’t always work. And even though well-meaning, competent officials who care may be elected by the people, when they become part of a broken system, they too fail.
Yes, my friends, I’m talking about the New York State Legislature.
column for quite sometime, it is the 50th best in the nation.
Although Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno is at least as guilty as his Democratic counterpart in the Assembly, Speaker Sheldon Silver, I have more frequently taken aim at Silver. He is the person responsible to be the voice for our city. We expect little or nothing from the Republican dominated Senate. Silver on the other hand has a clear majority and just about absolute control of his house, and remains in power by virtue of the overwhelming Democratic vote that comes out of our City.
Although Silver has demonstrated a cunning and deadly
understanding of controlling the power within his Assembly,
he has continually failed at using the power of his house
to improve government or to deliver anything of note to the people of our city.
He has sold his soul to the Republicans enabling them to remain in power in the Senate by allowing them to unilaterally draw the redistricting lines insuring a Republican Senate Majority in a Democratic State. In exchange, he was granted total control of the Assembly lines insuring he could provide each member with reelection and they in turn would re elect him Speaker. This self-perpetuating abortion of the redistricting law has been the most glaring longrange problem in our State.
A bold legislative house could refuse to participate in
such a sham and seek court intervention to draw lines which
are fair. Court masters historically deliver a less partial,
more representative redistricting map which enables some
incumbents to actually lose and over time, party control of
legislative houses are determined by the people not the
But complicit in this process are the elected officials who term after term elect the leaders who make deals with the devil. These members are given chairmanships which mean money, other perks, lulus and the assurance that when the time comes, their legislative leader will pen their district map to their liking.
The extras that the members get from lobbyists add to the picture and everyone seems to exist in a gray area that does
little to further the interest of the people of the state.
And although some of the members of that legislative body are competent, some more than competent, and some have the capacity to be shining stars, they are all responsible for their silent acquiescence to the abysmal leadership and the perpetuation of an abysmal system.
Not all that long ago, there was a coup to remove Silver from his dictatorial position of control. Queens was committed to that movement. Sadly, the Bronx leadership
folded and Silver was reelected. He punished several of those involved, including taking the office away from coup leader Mike Bragman of Syracuse, forcing him out into the hall and eventually out of the Assembly. Others from Queens,
Nettie Mayorsohn and Barbara Clark, still feel the occasional sting of the Speaker’s disfavor.
How dare they think of voting for what they think is best for the people? But in the end, we have no State budget for the 20th year in a row – which includes every year that Silver was Assembly leader. We have no resolution of the court ordered school funding formula to provide for the needs of New York City kids. We have no movement toward a takeover of the private bus lines in Albany. We, my friends,
have a legislative body that accomplishes little, spends a
lot and is woefully dysfunctional. Oh, by the way, we have
the same Speaker Silver who led the Assembly to support the repeal of the commuter tax, costing New York City some four billion dollars since its enactment. And now that they haven’t gotten the job done, the legislature has the nerve to go on vacation.
And sadly, the people have no solution. Because even when you elect the good guys, the system stymies, stifles and occasionally corrupts them. I have no simple answers.
I do know, however, I’m not voting for my Assemblymember
to return to Albany unless he pledges not to vote for
Sheldon Silver as leader – and my guy is one of the good
Now, my guy will be reelected and so will yours. But maybe if enough of us refuse to blindly support this putrid Legislature by simply voting for the unelectable opponent regardless of party, a message may eventually seep through. Maybe if every time a member of the legislature appeared at a community event, they were asked about the budget, the system and the failure, they might give thought to the problem.
And maybe if I yell loud enough and often enough, someone will pick up my plea.
You never know, miracles do happen.
Lobbyists Give, Councilmembers Take
The widespread practice of lobbyists making campaign
contributions to City Council members was discussed recently
in the press.
According to the city’s Campaign Finance Board, 41 of 51 councilmembers accepted money from employees of the city’s 35 top lobbying firms. And these contributions (up to $250 per gift) are matched by public funds on a 4-1 basis. If a lobbyist gives a politician $100, taxpayers put in another $400, so that the councilmember ends up with $500; this is often spent on persuading us that s/he should get 90 percent rather than 80 percent of the vote in a gerry mandered district.
Three Queens councilmembers actually received more gifts from these firms than Speaker Gifford Miller. They are
Melinda Katz, chair of land use, David Weprin, finance chair, and Eric Gioia, chair of investigations. All three are energetic and ambitious members, and they did nothing illegal in accepting lobbyists’ money. It is predictable but disquieting that those members who are perceived as having the most influence receive the most money from those who benefit, or hope to benefit, from their actions. These contributions are really investments by interested parties in the future of selected councilmembers.
Mayor Bloomberg is trying to restrict contributions from lobbyists and others who do business with the city.
Of course, he doesn’t need the money, although some candidates do. Many non-wealthy candidates don’t need
the money either, because their re-election is assured by
demographics, politics or name recognition. Lobbyists’ gifts, which are obviously self-serving even if unnecessary, raise ethical issues that deserve discussion.
Many gifts actually generated by lobbyists come in under
the names of their clients or associates. These are harder to track, but they are inspired by self-interest, desire for protection, or gratitude for decisions that were favorable to the donors. The decisions are generally justified on the merits, but the custom of rewarding favorable decisions resembles the practice of tipping for good service – eventually, it becomes expected.
If these donations were received by appointed public
officials, in recognition of services rendered or desired, they would be considered crimes, either bribery or extortion.
They would also not be matched by city tax funds on a 4-
1 (or any other) basis.
Difficult ethical issues are involved here. It is easy to
pick on public officials who must raise money to run for
office, unless they have great personal wealth. Most often,
councilmembers confirm actions of others rather than initiate land use decisions.
But the Council, through items it adds to the budget,
does fund many organizations that contract with the city.
Those groups wisely employ lobbyists, people experienced
in the budget process, who know who to see and how to
ask for help. Should beneficiaries of municipal largesse ignore those officials who have gone out of their way to be
helpful to their organizations?
A few months ago, I was critical of Speaker Miller for
soliciting donations from employees of cultural institutions
whose budgets the Council had increased. To some extent,
the legitimacy of this custom may depend on the extent to
which it is practiced. The entire process of pay for play
leaves one with a vague feeling of discomfort.
But if the people whom you have helped cannot give you money, who should you ask for assistance? Unions, for example, have contributed to friends of labor for some time,
and where that practice is legally restricted, there are substitute ways, like phone banks, to reward allies.
Campaign financing is a tortuous field. Lobbyists’ contributions, solicited or not, do not make the situation any easier to resolve.
Henry Stern can be reached at: email@example.com