THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson
Throw the Bums Out
It's Time to Get Serious, New York
My state senator seems like a decent guy. In a profession dominated by delusional egomaniacs, self-righteous halfwits and pompous blowhards, he does not particularly stand out. My assemblyman also does a fairly good imitation of a regular human being. They are both approachable and responsive to their constituents. Like most of their fellow state representatives, they have faced only token opposition in their repeated bids for re-election, and have been returned to office like clockwork every two years for longer than anyone bothers to remember.
This year, I am not voting for either one of them. If you have to ask why, then you either do not live in New York, or have not read a newspaper since early in this decade.
If a week is an eternity in politics, then it's been more than 60 eternities since the New York State Senate humiliated itself, and all of the rest of us who live in the state, in the great circus of 2009. For those New Yorkers who may have already forgotten the infamous Summer of None of the Above, or who have the misfortune of living in another state whose politics may be less consistently entertaining, then let us take a moment to reflect on the events of a year ago before we consider the very simple remedy we hold in our hands for the affliction that we refer to as "Albany", our state capital.
For decades, Three Men in a Room have dominated our state government. These are the Governor, the Assembly Speaker and the Senate Majority Leader. Though the individuals holding these august titles change every once in a while, the process has remained remarkably stable for at least the last 30 years. The Three Men periodically gather in a Room and decide what the laws of the state should be, then the members of the "Assembly" — traditionally a Democratic stronghold, owing to its large numbers of urban (i.e., New York City) representatives — and the "Senate" — traditionally a Republican bastion, because of the predominance of members from suburban and rural districts — vote in lockstep behind their party leaders. It is undemocratic, probably unconstitutional and doesn't always work very well. Legislative committees are so useless that to call them a joke would be overstating their importance. But this rule by triumvirate has enabled the executive and legislative branches to function at the minimal level necessary to prevent the state government, with all the myriad services it provides, from spiraling out of control on a regular basis.
Then, in the fall of 2008, the Democrats somehow got the strange idea into their heads that they might actually be able to win a majority of the seats in the Senate. This was at a time when, after a number of delirious years of Republican rule in Washington, a Democratic tide was rising across the country. It also coincided with a decades-long shift away from the Republicans in the suburban parts of the state, so that many districts were no longer as reliably conservative as they had once been. Hence, in the election of 2008 the Democrats seized a 32-30 majority in the Senate. For the first time in a political eon, the Democrats controlled the Assembly, the Senate and the Governor's office.
Now, if you are one of those New Yorkers for the whom the term "Democratic politician" suggests towering figures like Al Smith, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Nelson Rockefeller, Mario Cuomo or Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the current seat-warmers in Albany are deeply disappointing. You see, the result of so many years of Three Men in a Room is that it provided no incentive for anyone with even the tiniest sliver of human ambition to want to be a state representative. In addition, because the spoils of office are doled out exclusively by the Three Men, all of those assembly-persons and senators who are not in the Room, and have little if any chance of ever getting into the Room, have no reason to exist except to toe the party line as drawn by the Men in the Room. Also to shake a lot of hands, answer questions by voters and reporters according to the script written by the Three Men, and show up on time for photo opportunities.
So, when 32 elated Democratic senators showed up for work in January of 2009, they discovered to their dismay that they had to choose leaders from among their own members. The man who appeared to be favored for the post of majority leader, a senator from Queens named Malcolm Smith who was largely unknown even to voters in his own district, was so disliked by some in his caucus that the Democrats had to strike unseemly deals with a number of rebels within their own ranks just to hold their slim majority together. Smith was ultimately forced to share power with one of the rebel senators, Pedro Espada, Jr. of the Bronx, who just happened to be under investigation for corruption. In June, after several months in which the legislature was more than customarily ineffective, Mr. Espada joined another rebel Democrat from Queens, Hiram Monserrate, in bolting from their party and declaring that they would now caucus with the Republicans, thereby handing the post of majority leader temporarily to the head of the Senate Republicans, Dean Skelos of Nassau County (whose last name, incidentally, means "dog" in Greek, and is about as much as you need to know about him). A week later, Mr. Monserrate switched back to the Democratic side, whereupon he was rewarded for his treachery by being given back all of the legislative perks and stipends he had previously forsaken. Many weeks of predictable chaos ensued during which both parties claimed to hold the majority. This episode included the edifying spectacle of Democratic and Republican leaders simultaneously wielding gavels and attempting to hold a session on the Senate floor. This infantile display was just one of the many examples of tantrums, fiefdoms and doldrums that played out over the next few weeks, until Mr. Espada re-declared his loyalty to his party and the leadership returned to Democrat control, though not exactly into the same hands that had held it before.
A few months later, Mr. Monserrate was tried and convicted of assaulting his girlfriend, an act which was captured in part by a security camera in the lobby of a New York City apartment building. (When will politicians ever figure out that their entire lives are now available on video?) He was subsequently expelled from the Senate by a vote of 53-8, one of the few morally defensible measures taken by that body over the last few years, but one which also had the effect of depleting the Democrats' barely workable majority. If you need to ask why even eight senators would vote to keep such a disreputable individual among their ranks, you have not been paying attention. [Mr. Monserrate, a man evidently born without the shame gene, made a failed run in a special election for the Senate seat from which he had just been ejected. Undaunted, he is now running for the Assembly seat vacated by the man who won his old Senate seat. (Are you following all of this?) Should he succeed, he could become the first man ever expelled from a state legislature twice for the same crime.]
Of course, this entire legislative farce played itself out against the backdrop of an executive suite in comparable disarray, as one very strong but clueless governor (see "Spitzer, Eliot, disgrace of") was forced to resign and was replaced by his weak and even more clueless lieutenant governor (see "Paterson, David, education of"). Because the lieutenant governor has the constitutional responsibility for breaking ties in the Senate, the vacancy in this otherwise pointless office prolonged the deadlock between the two parties.
It is time, New York. It is time to end the perennial embarrassment that calls itself a state government. We must vote every single incumbent member of the Assembly and Senate out of office. (Thankfully, the incumbent governor has self-selected to retire, relieving us of the burden of humiliating him any further in November.) If you believe in term limits, now's your chance to prove it by ending the endless terms of your so-called representatives. If you don't believe in term limits, you bear an even heavier moral obligation to demonstrate that elections actually matter.
What meaningful arguments can possibly be made against this course of action? Do you worry that the new members will have no prior experience in Albany? Then explain please how the longevity of the current occupants has provided any benefits to the people of our state. Do you think it's unfair, because many of the members played no role in last year's fiasco? The only reasonable response to this argument is, where the hell were they, then? There are only 62 senators; declaring "I had nothing to do with it" is a confession not of innocence, but worthlessness. Are you concerned over which party will end up in control? Then tell us how the majority of either party in either chamber has been representative of the people. Be thankful that we live in New York, where the Republicans are not in thrall to either the evangelicals or the Tea Party, and where the Democrats still claim to believe in equality and justice, concepts that Democrats in other parts of the country now view as dirty words.
There is no other choice, New York. Throw the bums out, every last one of them: the polite ones and the sons of bitches, the suits and the skirts, the self-promoters and the vanishing acts. This is a golden opportunity to wipe the slate clean. We don't need a new state constitution; what we need is people who are capable of reading and abiding by the one we have. Remember, the incumbents didn't get there by themselves: we voted for them. If we don't vote them out, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
September 5, 2010
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