Primary Election Results Spin
THE SCENE OF THE CRIME? Will the State Capitol in Albany (above), where the New York State Legislature has met in a state of denial this year, find a message in the primary election results that will help initiate reform in the crippled body?
By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
Last week’s primary elections will serve as an interesting fulcrum on which the Albany insiders and those of us who have demanded a fix to our broken state legislature will arm wrestled for weeks to come.
In politics or any of the social sciences, trends are never clearly black or white. Movements of change are often small and can be denied by those who choose to turn a blind eye to the obvious.
No, there was nothing in last Tuesday’s Primary that is going to shake the foundations of Albany and its pathetically performing (no, make that non-functioning) State Legislature. Their leadership is so mired in their own power and so afraid that reform may erode their total control of the abysmal process that they preach denial and resort to fingerpointing only at members of the other party to affix blame for the daily, on-going failures of the State Legislature.
Now let me explain several things.
The leaders of the legislature, Syracuse Republican Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno and the lower Eastside Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver, have identical strangleholds on their respective houses. They rule with total control and allow only bills they want to pass to reach the floor for debate. They allow (or perhaps encourage) members to check in as present and then have their votes cast automatically in favor of the bills leadership has placed on the calendar. They select committee chairs, give select members state automobiles, they send campaign operatives throughout the State to help members in need during election time.
They raise and spend millions on behalf of their members’ elections and dole out millions of dollars of State funds – our tax money — for members to bring home the bacon to their districts.
And only the obedient members are rewarded by the largess of the leadership. So the word has been out for years: do what you are told and you will be assured of remaining in office and getting extra money and perks. And basically, almost every member does. And when they don’t, they get punished. Just ask talented Queens senior Assemblymembers Nettie Mayersohn and Barbara Clarke why some members significantly junior to them – in a system based on seniority – have received Committee Chairmanships and extra pay, while they remain at the bottom of the perk pile?
Dare to be independent? Look out!
Speak out against them? You could find your desk in the hallway and your seat remapped into oblivion.
Now, with all that said, I don’t believe the leaders of the legislature to be bad people. I don’t know them well. I chatted with Shelly Silver once, as we stood together at a private reception, on a line to be greeted by President Bill Clinton. He seemed like a regular guy. I’ve watched Joe Bruno serve the people of the state for years.
The minority leaders who are slightly complicit in their near silent acquiescence of a failed system and acceptance of their own perks, David Patterson, who has a stellar reputation and Clarence Nesbitt – I believe that’s his name – of whom I know little to nothing, have both failed to effectively speak out for systemic change.
Now, why have we, in past weeks and months, placed the largest portion of the blame on Mr. Silver?
He is the one with the power – absolute control of one of the two houses — and has all of our expectations to represent downstate. The City of New York has given Shelly a majority and therefore placed him in power. He has had our mandate to improve the system to serve the city. To represent the people. To make Albany accountable. He has failed.
Now Shelly Silver is probably a good man – a very good man. I don’t believe him part of ugly schemes or that he possesses evil thoughts. I don’t attribute malicious motives to him. I don’t think him evil.
I believe that Sheldon Silver came to power in a pathetic and failing system and was caught up with the power and the failure. Perhaps he was unable to fix what was broken.
Perhaps he believed fixing his broken Assembly would have given the Republican Senate too much power. Perhaps he just didn’t realize how bad things really were.
However, he did cut a deal allowing each house to remap their own districts thus ensuring his position as top Assembly Dem with a Republican Senate.
But it was on his watch that a bad system became pathetic. And if he is unable to lead the change and fix it immediately, a good man should step aside.
If Shelly never realized just how bad things were, he has an independent report from the Brennan Center for Justice of the NYU School of Law, to document it. They not only proclaim New York the worst legislature in the nation – by far, they offer a road map to fix it.
We were astonished when during recent Primary election candidate interview for the Assembly, when an incumbent Assembly member acknowledged receiving the report, but didn’t read it – it wasn’t all that lengthy. He said it’s been sitting around for weeks. The Brennan Center distributed it to all members of the legislature.
Sadly, we did not endorse that incumbent who has been a friend for some twenty years – we hope he still is – and the people did not send him back to Albany. But this paper cannot fathom anyone being part of a body which has failed to pass an on-time budget for 20 consecutive years – this year’s was the latest, failed to comply with a court order to correct the inequities of school funding for the city of New York, and participates in many questionable legislative practices in Albany, not even read an impartial report suggesting a direction to fix what is broken without necessarily forcing incumbents from office.
Where I come from, it would be required reading.
But my friend’s loss of his Assembly seat – one of three incumbents in the State – may not have been related to the failure of the legislature, although we believe it contributed to the vote differential. The loss was due to a very effective ethnic campaign in a district which has become largely Asian in population.
We hope that the victor, Jimmy Meng, the first Asian member of the New York State legislature, is not blindly coopted by the magic dust Albany leadership will offer to sprinkle on him.
Inklings Of Change
In neighboring Nassau County, the issue was clearer, as County Executive Tom Suozzi targeted a twenty-plus year Assembly veteran as a symbol of legislative dysfunction and proceeded to defeat him with a newcomer – they all are Democrats.
There were inklings of change elsewhere in the State. A senior Republican Senator on Staten Island lost his seat in a Republican Primary, while the candidate that was handpicked by GOP Senate leadership was rejected by the people.
There was nothing absolute; just inklings of change.
In a State where incumbency once meant almost absolute life tenure, three incumbents lost.
In a State where no one dared challenge Legislative leadership, some brave souls like Nassau’s Tom Suozzi now shine.
In a State where change was always considered impossible, some like me can now dream.
We are not advocating rebellion.
We do not know the best way to fix things.
We do know that members should cast their own votes.
We do know that a majority of the members, not the leadership, should decide which bills are brought to the floor and which bills are voted upon.
We do know that voting is a matter of conscience not of leadership mandate.
We do know that budgets must be on time.
Clearly, if members forfeited their salary (and did not receive its equivalent or make-up compensation later) until the budget was passed, it would indeed be on time.
We do know that a respected NYU School of Law Breenan Center has placed a plan on the table.
We would expect that Sheldon Silver and every other member of the legislature demand that the Brennan Center report be openly discussed and considered.
We do challenge, beseech and pray that our friends in the Legislature make the next session one of reform and change.
It is time to fix what is broken.
We believe that the incumbent losses – especially the one in neighboring Nassau – are a first statement of the people’s will.
We believe that the editorial pages of the State’s papers, including ours, and the voices of good government groups are indicative of a trend.
We believe that change is in the air.
And we sincerely hope the folks in Albany can tell which way the wind is blowing.
They can still bend with it.