Help Wanted: Legislators Needed to Fix Broken Capital

Can’t wait for someone to challenge Shelly Silver, Deborah Glick, Hakeem Jeffries, Joan Millman and other members of the Albany crew that didn’t allow congestion pricing to even come up for a vote? Neither can the New York Times.

In a scathing editorial published on Saturday, the Times issued a call for change in the state capital, appealing for more Paul Newells to step forward and run against incumbent pols.

Any New Yorker who is not furious at the mention of their state
capital, Albany, has not been paying attention. There are the sex
scandals that forced one governor out of office and prompted his
replacement to confess more details of his own indiscretions than
anyone wanted to hear. The state comptroller quit last year after
pleading guilty to misusing public assets. This week an Assembly member
was convicted of corruption and faces up to a decade in jail. Angry yet?

The place needs a thorough cleaning — a giant broom to sweep out the
rascals, starting with the State Legislature. We are not in favor of
term limits, but the idea gains currency when most people who get
elected in New York State keep their seats until they retire, die or go
to jail.

The ballot box is still the best form of term limits.
So, here is how to change Albany: find and support somebody daring and
thick-skinned enough to run against the local legislator.

We are
not saying it will be easy. The system is rigged against challengers.
It takes money, mostly for lawyers to fight lawyers whose job it is to
keep other candidates off ballots. It takes time, energy and patience
to fight a system so patently anti-democratic.

One example: the
petitions to get on the ballot this year are probably due in early
June, but the New York State Board of Elections has not yet posted the
official schedule. For the record, state leaders appoint the members of
that board.

Still, it is possible to run. And right now is the
time to find challengers, especially for members of the Assembly.
Albany’s stagnation is at its worst there. The cowardly failure of
Democrats — especially Speaker Sheldon Silver — to allow a vote on New
York City’s congestion-pricing plan was the latest example of why a
change, in both parties’ delegations, is essential.

At least
the competition is intense on the State Senate side where Democrats are
challenging the Republicans’ slim majority. Switching to a Democratic
majority would at least demote Senate Leader Joseph Bruno, who is under
federal investigation and a grand master of Albany’s business as usual.
But the Assembly has 150 mostly unchallenged seats, and since this is
technically a democracy, each race deserves more than one candidate.

Manhattan, where the Democratic primary is the election, it is time to
challenge even the most established members of the Legislature — like
Assemblyman Richard Gottfried on the West Side or Assemblywoman Deborah
Glick. And it is far past time for a serious reformer to challenge Mr.
Silver in his Chinatown base.

New York, of course, needs more
than a few new faces. The state goes begging for challengers who are
genuinely committed to changing Albany’s corrupt ways. Candidates need
to promise a real reform of the scandalous campaign finance system,
including public financing. And they should pledge their support for a
nonpartisan commission to draw legislative districts.

Yorkers deserve to be mad as hell about Albany, and their best revenge
is at the ballot box. All they need now is to find decent candidates.

Streetsbloggers — know any "decent candidates" you’d like to see take a run at an incumbent next fall?

  • Dave

    Uh…I think you mean capitol.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Not to bash the Times for doing something right, but having general elections decided in the primary in one party districts (disenfranchising minority party members and independents) is exactly like…

    …deciding the fate of issues like congestion pricing in a party caucus rather than in a full Assembly vote.

    Confounding the Times, I only hope one of the candidates against Silver (or someone) also takes the trouble to get on the ballot as an independent candidate to contest the general election.

    Better yet, I hope one of them tries to get on the ballot as an independent with more than the 500 signatures an incumbent requires but less than the 1,500 required of independent candidates, and when he or she is thrown off the ballot, contests this right up to the U.S. Supreme Court as unconstitutional under the clause that guarantees each state a republican form of government.

  • fdr

    Face it, NYC is mostly a one-party city. Running as an independent is not going to unseat a Democratic incumbent. Most voters will vote for the Democrat in the general election. That’s why, as the Times says, the incumbents keep their jobs forever. However, the Times makes a point of saying they are against term limits. That’s the best way to get rid of incumbents, since the voters refuse to do it. Of course, it sweeps out the good with the bad.

  • Louis

    Dave, Albany is the capital of New York. The building there is the capitol.

  • Dave H.

    I don’t understand what the Times has against term limits.

  • steve

    term limits

    term limits

    term limits

    the ONLY asnwer

  • Mark

    This is one registered Democrat who will never again simply pull all the levers down in the Democratic column. From now on I have to know something about the candidate’s stance on livable streets. If I don’t have any positive indicators, I just won’t vote for anyone in that category. I already voted for Bloomberg twice.

  • Competitive primaries

    Term limits help, but as we see with these special elections, the local democratic club usually picks one of its own and has the resources to beat anyone. Even in the city council, what you end up with is ambitious Council staffers and other insiders getting into elected office while we lose talent on the other side. I’m already concerned that our next mayor and speaker will be worse on livable streets issues than the ones we already have. It’s up to all of us to get off our butts and make this competitive again.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (This is one registered Democrat who will never again simply pull all the levers down in the Democratic column. From now on I have to know something about the candidate’s stance on livable streets.)

    I’m glad this issue has woken at least some people up to our state government. But as one for whom this issue is just one on a long list, I can tell you that what went down here is far better than what we generally get from the state.

    Remember, there was a commission, public hearings, facts made public and debated, a vote that wasn’t 212 to 0 (albeit a secret one in the Assembly). In general, legislators don’t even care enough to have dissenting views, or aren’t allowed to, and don’t even bother throwing out fake facts (as many did in this case), let alone consider the implications of real ones.

    There was even an attempt, by incorporating the MTA Capital Plan into the discussion, to make people — in the political class and among normal human beings — look at the big picture like grown ups. As opposed to having narrow interests grab what they can, leaving our collective future to rot away.

    The fact that people paid attention to this issue shows why our careerists generally prefer “everybody wins and nobody knows” deals. Anyone yelling now based on what they now know should have been nuts for a decade based on what they didn’t.

    Bottom line — if you are unhappy with the outcome on this issue, you should take your outrage and raise to a power of ten, because the CP debate is about as good as it gets.

    And if you are happy be advised than unless you are in on all the deals, the net result is you are still poorly treated by your appointed (not elected) officials.

  • Josh

    I’d be curious to see whether a candidate to run against Silver might find him/herself on the receiving end of a significant campaign contribution from one Mr. Michael Bloomberg.

  • momos

    Re: #5 and #6 term limits

    In theory, as the Times says, “the best term limit is the ballot box.”

    But in theory elections are also competitive. Partisan redistricting, among other factors, has essentially eliminated competition for elected positions at the state level in NY.

    Term limits thus become a method of reintroducing competition every so often into otherwise uncontested “elections.” Term limits are a blunt, imperfect strategy and not the ultimate solution (redistricting reform would be better).

    But given the dire condition of state gov’t, term limits are a good place to start. We NEED new blood in there before anything else can happen.

  • Dave

    Louis: yes both can be used but when I read the headline I was looking for an article about broken capital as in spending, not about a political system in NY State that is broken, based in the capitol.

    And as capital (as in city) implies that all of Albany is broken which it isn’t, to substitute capitol would imply that the only problem is in the capitol building, and we know it goes far beyond that.

    An awkward headline IMO.

    Albany seems to have gone quiet in terms of scandal; why hasn’t anyone (Paterson?) made greater issue with Silver’s conflict of interest problem? Why hasn’t anyone (Bruno?) made more of Paterson’s misuse of state funds (which I believe would have forced him from office had it not been just after Spitzer-gate; the small amount is irrelevant and shows lack of judgment).

    Scandals seem to be the best and only way to get people out of office in Albany. What can we dig up on Glick and the other democrats who let CP die?

  • Louis

    Yes, Dave, awkard headline. After writing that I realized you knew what both meant, but that neither of us knew what was more appropriate.

    Yeah, why not term limits. It’s not like these guys are anything special. Obviously there are plenty of people who would like to lead.

  • lee

    Well the academic argument against term limits is that professionals, (e.g. lobbyists, aides, etc.) instead of elected officials, are the ones who become experts/power brokers.

  • Christopher

    The Times excoriates these elected-for-life legislators, but when was the last time the the Times endorsed anyone else? Didn’t the Times endorse all the Assembly members it is suggesting get thrown out (I’m just guessing here, as I’m too lazy to look it up myself)?

    I like Larry’s suggestion (comment #2) that a challenger in the primary also run against Silver as an independent. An uphill battle, but not impossible. The re-election of Joe Lieberman is an inexact parallel, but close enough. And a powerful leader can get unseated even without scandal – think Tom Daschle, who got too far away from his constituents.

    Still, in a democracy, such as ours, the voters get the leaders they deserve. Think of all the cretins in the Assembly who get re-elected while under indictment. If voters in NYC care so little about who represents their districts, then they (we) deserve what they (we) get.

  • Ben –
    Thank you for the post.

    Sheldon Silver’s failure to even schedule a vote on congestion pricing shows his contempt for both the democratic process and concerns of Lower Manhattanites. Of 150 Assembly Districts, none would have benefited more from Congestion Pricing than the 64th (though I believe it would have been a boon for the entire region, and indeed the planet).

    I am a lifelong downtowner, community organizer, cyclist, enviornmentalist, and I am committed to bringing NYers back into our legislative process. Only when our elected officials listen to voters will the concerns of the vast majority of us who use public transit, walk, or cycle take precedence over the power brokers committed to car culture.

    Please Help me beat Sheldon Silver

  • Oh, and Steve (comment 6),

    I support Term Limits. 12 years, phased in. I do not believe it is possible for a legislator to remain in touch with his/her constituents after decades in office. Indeed, before mew Silver had not even had a challenger for 22 years.

    For more info, visit the website, and shoot me an email.

    Please Help me beat Sheldon Silver

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    You’ll have to do better than term limits as far as I’m concerned. Lee’s “academics” are correct in my opinion. Term limits only make the inside players all that much stronger. For the first term the politician is looking for the keys to the rest room, for the second, they are looking for their next job.

    The success in pushing this through the city council was because all the council people looking for their next gig looked to Mayor Moneybags to help them out. I support his position on CP but its not like it makes term limits look very good if people can get bought off by a single wealthy guy. In this case it was in the service of good policy but….I don’t extend that to every item of PlaNYC.

    Interesting that Weiner is leaving a open term job, probably a job for life, for the Mayor’s spot. Were it not for term limits Bloomberg could stand this policy up for the voters just like he should of 2 and 6 years ago.

    Meanwhile, if you haven’t noticed during the wake for CP, there is a major scandal involving Christine Quinn that Thompson is going to have a lot of trouble explaining why he didn’t do something about. All stuff that happened in the purer than snow term limit system. For the time being Silver is looking to the neutral observer as in a stronger position than at anytime in the post-Pataki era. The failure of CP has empowered the opponents and a lot of anger and flailing about process is not real productive at this point.

    I want to see New Urbanism clubs formed, Livable Streets, whatever is the best marketing. If there were new urbanist clubs available to drain out the positive forces from the regular and reform clubs then some of the politicians could feel a real threat.

    Term limits didn’t produce many rocket scientists in the City Council.

  • JK

    The big reform would be banning earmarks/member items/pork/set asides. There are some interesting studies which suggest there is a relationship between the amount of pork/patronage and the competitiveness of elections. ( I’ll see if I can find a famous one from Argentina.)

    As we see from Quinn, handing out pork cuts to core of NYC politics. Her colleagues are outraged that she is volunteering to reduce their free hand with doling out the patronage. That’s what the uproar is about, not the bogus budget placeholders. Banning member items in Albany and council would make elections much more competitive and issue oriented.

  • Dave

    We need to de-link change in Albany vs an improvement in congestion. Unseating the entrenched politicians will take a very long time while traffic will only continue to get worse.

    Yes, Silver, Bruno, Glick and a host of others need to go but who will we get to replace them? Look at the pathetic presidential candidates we have to see how the media attention precludes real candidates.

    So let’s do all we can without the involvement of Albany. Hopefully tolls within the 5 boroughs will escape their notice and we can get away with minimal extortionist payoffs to the pathetic upstate counties. (Why do they have a say in NYC business anyway…remind me?)

  • The big reform would be banning earmarks/member items/pork/set asides. There are some interesting studies which suggest there is a relationship between the amount of pork/patronage and the competitiveness of elections. ( I’ll see if I can find a famous one from Argentina.)

    JK, that is awesome! The machine is so entrenched and pulling it out by the roots would be really difficult. But if it feeds on patronage … poison the patronage, and it dies!

    Is this the study you’re referring to?

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    One thing Larry Littlefield is right about in his verbose expositions of NY political economy is that this episode is not really unique, its just real important to us. So the same people are outraged about this as were outraged about the Commuter Tax demise. There are two things, demanding structural change is a difficult long battle with many unintended consequences and electing new people is expensive and forces you to give up whatever juice you have already built with the machine.

    That leaves it to total outsiders. Ron Lauder is typical of that ilk, plenty of money and time on his hands for big thoughts he brought us term limits because no one would vote for him. Thanks.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (Term limits didn’t produce many rocket scientists in the City Council.)

    I’ll take any member of the City Council, including those I disagree with like Fidler or DeBlasio, over any member of the State Legislature.

    Term limits are academic because we are not going to get them. The state legislature is an appointed position and they are going to keep it that way. But circulation of the elite is a good thing, and the better ones pushed out of one office can run for another.

  • epkwy

    the problem is not so much that the state legislature is incompetent and contemptible (it is). The problem is that it also has say over critical elements of NYC policy.

    This stems from the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, if my history is correct, when in exchange for bailing out NYC’s debt defaults, ALbany won the power to approve how NYC raises and to a great extent uses $$$.

    THAT has to go – home rule for NYC!!!

  • Kanne

    Silver has a viable opponent – not an independent but a Democrat. Luke Henry, a lawyer, is challenging him in his district. Maybe the Times will actually manage to endorse someone else after their scathing editorial, but either way, it’s the voters who can kick Silver out.

    I disagree, btw, that an independent challenger would be better – Silver’s had Republican challengers before and his district and this town isn’t going to replace him with someone more conservative. The only viable challenge is from a progressive Democrat.

  • I disagree, btw, that an independent challenger would be better – Silver’s had Republican challengers before and his district and this town isn’t going to replace him with someone more conservative.

    There are plenty of non-Democrats who are less conservative than Silver. Most of them aren’t even Republicans.

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