Commentary By Henry J. Stern
CaribWorldNews, NEW YORK, NY, Thurs. June 11, 2009: Back in January 2007, in the enthusiasm following Eliot Spitzer`s landslide victory in the race for governor, we picked up on a slogan that had been used by the Spitzer campaign – `Day One: Everything Changes.`
We continued to keep time in days for some months after Day One, but after a while the count became an indicator of how little had happened, and how much the governor had done to get himself in various forms of trouble.
After unseemly events with which you are doubtless familiar, Spitzer resigned on Day 442 and Lieutenant Governor David Paterson was sworn in on Day 447, March 17, 2008.
We did not resume the daily count after Paterson was sworn in, because we didn`t expect that much to change. In retrospect, we overlooked the possibility that circumstances could change for the worse.
In January 2009, the new Democratic majority took over the Senate, which meant the three men in a room were all of the same party for the first time in many years. That was supposed to reduce political disputes between the Republican Senate and Democratic Assembly, which had frequently resulted in action since neither side would yield to the other. For the state, 2009 was to be the start of a post-partisan era, just as it was said to initiate a post-racial presidency for the country. You could ask the President`s first Supreme Court nominee about post-racialism.
Just when we thought that the wheezing, sputtering legislature would be mostly the same until the 2010 Democratic primary, we were struck by sudden change. On Monday, June 13, the Albany landscape changed drastically. The change did not come the way we thought it would.
Some wrote that the inmates took over the asylum, but that is facile. After all, who ran the asylum previously, if not just a different set of inmates.
News of the coup reached us the same way we learned that Governor Spitzer had been caught with a call girl – through the blogosphere, which is a corner of cyberspace. Most surprising to many was the fact that the plotters maintained total security about their plan. Not even Fred Dicker had it in his column. What it proved is that when the stakes are high enough 32 people can keep a secret, while feasting on pizza and trail mix in a safe house in downtown Albany. There must have been many more than 32 who knew about 9/11, or the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 (a date which will live in infamy, FDR described it in his radio address the next day). No one believed, however, that a secret could be kept in Albany. It can be, if the stakes are high enough.
The mechanics were simple addition. Thirty Republicans combined with two outlaw Democrats to form a 32 member coalition. That number means control of the 62-member Senate, at least as long as the 32 stick together.
The dramatic change may mean a new day in New York State politics. Then again, it may not, judging from the prior activities of the plotters.
At least the revolt gives us the opportunity to start counting again. Today, Wednesday, June 10, is Day Three of the Revolution, or the Coup, the Putsch, the Rebellion, the Uprising, the Emancipation, the Liberation, the Redemption, Betrayal, the Defection, the Day of Majority Rule, the Blackberry Revolution, the Blackberry Turnover, or whatever else you may wish to call it, depending on your feelings about the matter.
We, along with the entire good-government community, non-partisan institutes and advocacy groups have been calling for legislative change in New York State for years, and now we have it, though not in the way anyone of us imagined it would come. The newspapers have condemned Senator Espada, now first in line for the governorship, and Senator Monserrate, who is awaiting trial on a felony charge. The respective district attorneys in their counties have also been challenged: DA Robert Johnson in the Bronx, who has not proceeded against Espada, accused of a multiplicity of sins involving greed; and DA Richard Brown of Queens, a well-respected former appellate judge, who has been criticized for the Monserrate felony indictment by those who claim the alleged throat-slashing with a broken glass was either an unfortunate accident, as the Senator claims on television, or an ordinary domestic dispute between two people who have now made up.
Not wishing to repeat what other journalists have written more eloquently, we simply link here to five columns published about the Albany turnover, and related matters. The dramatic (at least to us) series of events has led to some unusually good writing, as the columnists have something real to chew on. This week, Albany has provided ample grist for the mills of its skeptical chroniclers.
First, it doesn`t bother us that much that the two Democrats who supported Skelos may be criminals. Who knows how many horse-thieves signed the Declaration of Independence, and what does that matter today? On the other hand, there were many highly gifted and principled people in Philadelphia in the spring of 1776. We cannot say the same about Albany in 2009. It`s not even close.
Second, Malcolm Smith failed as Majority Leader, but that was not entirely his fault. He never had a real majority to work with. He needed all 32 Democratic votes to pass anything, and political support has its price in these precincts. The three or four amigos who finally agreed to his election felt they had been hoodwinked when Smith was unable to keep his promises to them because many other Democrats would not swallow the deals he made to secure his leadership.
Third, Governor Paterson originally supported Smith but backed off as differences arose between the Executive Chamber and the Senate Democratic Conference. That is not an uncommon scenario when this Governor`s support is involved. Like the moon, it waxes and wanes, depending on circumstances. For several months, Smith continued to bleed much of the goodwill, power and influence he originally had. As the governor`s own authority diminished after the Caroline Kennedy imbroglio, and with successive polls showing him running even worse than Elliot Spitzer, Paterson turned out to be not much help to Smith, who had succeeded him as Democratic Senate leader in January 2007, when Paterson became Lieutenant Governor.
Fourth, one should not play with one`s Blackberry (or anything else) when billionaires who have helped elect you have traveled to your office to talk to you. Smith did that not out of rudeness or boredom; it is probable that he simply found nothing substantive to say. There were sensible proposals Smith could have offered to Golisano, who had funded Democratic Senate campaigns, in order to give the billionaire a sense of involvement. In all likelihood, these thoughts did not occur to the Majority Leader, although it may have crossed his mind that something was wrong. This is an area in which a competent staff would have been helpful, advising him what Golisano wanted and how he should react to remain in his good graces. We cover it in Rule 20: `That`s why God made staff.` It is, however, up to the principal to ask the staff for assistance. There should be a briefing sheet for each meeting, during which issues likely to come up should be raised. That would divert the principal`s attention from his Blackberry and to his visitor, whoever that person should happen to be.
Fifth, the contrast between Sheldon Silver, master of the Assembly, and Malcolm Smith, a prisoner of the Senate, was enormous. Silver`s views prevailed on most budget issues, he had the votes in the Assembly, a competent professional staff, and good relations with lobbyists (even if he couldn`t give them everything they wanted). He also has substantial knowledge of state government that both Paterson and Smith lack. The latter two are more dependent on their staffs, which are generally less experienced and knowledgeable than the Speaker`s.
Sixth and last, many New Yorkers, including some who voted for Obama and a few in the legislature, are quietly satisfied at the regime change in the Senate. Landlords should be particularly relieved at being spared from re-regulation. Unions can renew their contributions to Republican candidates, which may be a double burden because they already support Democrats with their members` dues. Actually – not a bad investment. The Democrats will now have the Republicans to blame for whatever happens in the legislature, and they can campaign in 2010 to recapture the Senate. `Be careful,` it is said, `for answered prayers.`
Remember the words of Dr. Pangloss: `Everything happens for the best, in this, the best of all possible worlds.` That man belongs in Albany.
(EDITOR`S NOTE: Mr. Stern is a former NY Parks Commissioner)