Paul Newell on Congestion Pricing and Reforming Albany

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This is the second installment of Streetsblog’s interview with Paul Newell, candidate for State Assembly in the 64th District, who’s challenging Speaker Sheldon Silver in the Democratic primary this September. In this segment, Newell addresses some of the issues that are fresh in the minds of everyone who followed the death of congestion pricing in Albany without a vote earlier this month. The first part of the interview, about running for office in New York, ran yesterday.

Streetsblog: What made you decide to run? What was the inspiration?

Paul Newell: The inspiration was seeing how Albany’s broken and how that impacts
people’s lives every day throughout this city and state, and in
particular downtown where I live and work. I’ve been an organizer for a
lot of years, and increasingly it became clear to me that we are not
going to move forward on new thinking on everything from transportation
to housing and education if we don’t have a working system in Albany.
And the reason we don’t have a working system in Albany is because of
Sheldon Silver and Joe Bruno.

Why I decided to run evolved over some years. But in 2004, when I went
to my primary polling station to vote, and discovered that I did not
have the option to vote at all. The polling station was closed because
Sheldon Silver did not have a challenger. I was initially outraged
over, I think at that point it was a number of issues — you know,
rules reform and drug law reform, which he’d killed for the fifth year in a
row. And I went down there — I was gonna vote against Sheldon Silver.
I said, "If nobody’s running I’m gonna write someone in." Well, the
sign on the door said, "Due to a lack of contested elections, this
polling station is closed today."

…And an older woman comes up
and she’s also intending to vote, and I sort of give her my rant about
how this is bad for democracy. And she says, "Well, I guess nobody ran
for anything." And I said, "But I wanted to vote against Sheldon
Silver." And she says to me, "Well, you should have run!" So I laughed
it off, and then I looked into the fact that the guy, at that point,
had not had an opponent in 18 years. I do not believe it’s possible for
anyone to be responsive to their community, or to the needs of the city
and state, if they do not even have to ask for our vote.

SB: Let’s talk about your policy platforms, specifically transportation and rules reform.

PN: I supported congestion pricing, and I don’t think it went far enough.

We need to dramatically rethink the way we approach transportation
issues, in New York City, and indeed in the country. From a public
health standpoint, from an economic standpoint, from an environmental
standpoint, and from a quality of life standpoint, we need to be
promoting mass transit as a top priority for our state and country.
People talk about fuel economy standards for cars, and I say that mass
transit beats better fuel economy standards any day.

Now higher fuel
economy standards is more of a federal issue, but what we need to do is
promote the kinds of policies and decisions that are good for the
community at large and our national interest. And that means, yes,
charging people money to drive their cars into the central business
district of New York, and using those funds to subsidize buses, bus
rapid transit, more accessible subways… It’s about prioritizing. It’s
about using the power of the state to favor one means of transportation
over the other — and the kinds of communities that that creates.

SB: How do you make this pitch to voters?

PN: I generally start with congestion pricing because it’s on people’s
minds and you have to always be aware of what people are thinking
about. I say Sheldon Silver’s killing of congestion pricing without
even a vote showed contempt for both the democratic process and the
concerns of Lower Manhattan. Of 150 Assembly districts in New York,
none would have benefited more from that bill than the 64th. We have
the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge, the
Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, and about three blocks outside the district is
the Holland Tunnel. We have dramatically higher asthma rates than the
rest of the country. We have noise pollution.

I was talking with a teacher at PS124, which is across the street from
my apartment on Division Street. Division Street is one of the places
where trucks are using the free Verrazano-Holland Tunnel route, and
she’s got 28 third graders in her classroom, of whom 22 do not speak
English at all. She’s on the second floor, facing the street. And she’s got trucks from 7 a.m. to the end of her school
day outside, honking their horns. People are getting road rage yelling
profanities at each other outside this classroom where she’s trying to
teach 28 kids. And those kids are getting a worse education because of
it. She’s working hard, but it is detrimentally impacting the quality
of education.

I understand why Brodsky opposed congestion pricing. I disagreed with
him, but I understand where he’s coming from at least. His constituents
felt they were going to be paying this fee. This was a bill that was
going to help the 64th Assembly district directly. We needed leadership
and it wasn’t there. My question then becomes, "What is the point of
being represented by the Speaker of the State Assembly if he doesn’t go
to bat for you?" And then you try to come up with a line that conveys it, like: "Smoke-filled rooms lead to smoke-filled lungs."

SB: What have you been hearing back from people?

PN: You occasionally get pushback. There are people who will disagree
with you on any issue, and that’s how it goes. But overwhelmingly, when
you explain to people that the funding was going to support the subways
that they use… all throughout the district these are real
improvements affecting our lives, and Sheldon Silver failed — not just
failed to stand up for us — actively killed something very important
to our health and quality of life. The way you convey a message is by
explaining how this impacts us, explaining how the incumbent is
responsible, and explaining why you would do things different.

SB: On rules reform, what are the high-leverage changes that you would put at the top of your agenda?

PN: I would break it down in to two categories, which I would call "democracy" and "ethics."

Lets start with democracy. We need a legislative process that is
transparent, member-driven, and on-the-record. This is the first thing.
As it now stands, almost all legislation is written by three men in a
room. The door to that room is closed, and inside that room, even if
Sheldon Silver and Joe Bruno were judicious, Solomon-esque leaders —
which I don’t believe they are — I don’t think it’s possible for three
men in a room to govern 19 million people well. Second of all, behind
closed doors, if you have officials who haven’t had opponents for
decades, and they make decisions, it’s going to be the developers and
the money-makers who are going to get heard. Because if people don’t
have to ask for our vote, then they don’t have to listen to us.

Furthermore, and this is where it spreads out to the entire Assembly
and Senate, is that if you do not have to actually take a stand on an
issue — if your legislator does not have to vote on congestion
pricing, then they cannot be held accountable, and there’s no way for
voters to say, "I want you to pass this legislation." If the
legislation is killed behind closed doors, [the representative] can
say, "Oh, I would have supported it," or "Oh, I would have opposed it,"
without taking any risks. And it makes it impossible to put any
pressure on elected officials and have an impact.

[Specifically], there should be a limit on the number of bills each
legislator is allowed to sponsor. All bills should be submitted to a
committee within a certain period of time. Committees must report bills
out within 30 or 60 days, depending on the type of bill. Within 30 to
60 days of receiving the bill, they must hold at least one hearing.
That hearing must be public, and then report the bill out to the floor
for a vote within 30 to 60 days. If a third of legislators sign a
release petition, then a bill should be submitted to the floor for a
vote. Thereby saying that a bloc of legislators supporting the bill can
demand that it be voted on.

All debate should be recorded… Legislators are always going to have
conversations behind closed doors, and that’s fine. Not everything
should take place in public; I understand that that’s how it works. But
all bills should have public debate, and all votes should be recorded.

And then you can get into conference committees. Every bill should have
a conference committee between the state, the Senate, and the Assembly
to work out the differences between those bills in public. This is
standard stuff that’s found in almost every other state legislature.

That’s the process stuff; that’s the democracy aspect… The ethics
stuff is the second thing. We need real campaign finance reform. We
need clean money, clean elections, real public financing of elections.
It’s got to be voluntary because of constitutional issues, but this is
already the law in Maine, Vermont, Arizona — it just came online in
Jersey now. In Maine and Vermont and Arizona almost every candidate
uses it. What you do is you collect a certain number of donations from
people in your district, so in Arizona, if you can get a thousand people in
your district to give you five dollars — I think for New York, five’s
a little low — the state will fund you enough to run a campaign in
that district. If you are outspent by a privately funded candidate, the
state will, by steps, go up to quadruple [the initial public funding]
amount. Of course a candidate could still outspend you, but you will
have enough money to get your message out and run a campaign. I cannot
believe that any candidate for public office would rather spend hours a
day on the phone begging people for money — asking Bruce Ratner and
the developers for money — when they could get it from public
financing. That way, in one fell swoop, you eliminate the campaign
finance influence on our politics.

Number two, legislators should be required to disclose all outside
income. We technically have a part-time legislature. They work about 65
days a year. Many of them have other jobs. Sheldon Silver works for the
Weitz & Luxenberg law firm. We know that he does work for them;
that’s the one thing he is required to disclose. We don’t know how much
they pay him, how those payments are disbursed. We don’t know what work
he does to earn this money. We don’t know what clients are involved. In
essence it is secret payments for secret work. We have no idea what
that is, and if that’s not a basic recipe for corruption in government,
I don’t know what is. People choose to be in public office, and when
you do, you give up some of your privacy rights. All public officials
should disclose all their income, from every source. There’s no
compromise on that.

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