Henry Stern, former NYC Parks Commissioner
Since the inception of our organization New York Civic 10 years ago, no governmental issue has loomed larger than the failure of the New York State Legislature and some of its leaders to live up to reasonable standards of both official and personal integrity. The legislature has been the subject of particular negative attention since 2004, when the New York Public Interest Research Group or one of its tentacles called our legislature the most dysfunctional in the fifty states. Whether or not that conclusion is precise, it is widely assumed that New York is not far from the bottom of state legislatures in efficiency, productivity and significance of legislation adopted.
For many years, this condition has been blamed, at least in part, on the perennial dichotomy in control of the two houses in Albany, which is the result of assiduous gerrymandering. The Senate is generally controlled by Republicans, while the Assembly is firmly in Democratic hands. This political division has led to a substantial number of "one-house bills," in which a bill is passed in one house but is doomed in the other. This way each party can claim credit for approving constructive legislation on a variety of subjects without fear that any reform will actually take place.
The requirement of the governor’s approval means that, in general, a tripartite accord between each House and the Executive Branch is needed before a bill can be signed into law. To reach the standard of a two-thirds vote, which is needed to over-ride a gubernatorial veto, it is necessary to have the agreement of the leaders of both parties, since neither Democrats nor Republicans can currently muster a two-thirds majority in both houses.
Although the Democrats are close to that margin in the Assembly, the Senate is more closely divided, in part as a result of the partisan gerrymander that protects incumbents and discourages challengers. The current divide is likely to continue, at least until the next census.
At that time, the state will be able to determine whether population shifts require redistricting which would be sufficiently extensive to alter the political makeup of existing districts beyond the legislators’ capacity to insulate themselves from demographic change. Judging from New York State’s political history, I would not underestimate the incumbents’ ability to maintain the status quo. They will be aided by the lobbyists and enablers, their long-time allies whose mutual support network has prospered for a half century.
In recent years a number of attempts have been made to alter the power structure in the state Senate. In 2008 when the Democrats, buoyed by the Obama vote, won a Senate majority for the first time since 1964, they were still unable to organize the chamber because of four breakaway “amigos,” who ended up voting with the Republicans to choose the Senate leadership.
The dissatisfied quartet demanded substantial political rewards in chairmanships for themselves in exchange for supporting the Democratic caucus candidates. Having extracted at least one committee leadership, accompanied by patronage and lulus, the “amigos” helped install Malcolm Smith as majority leader. His tenure was brief, however, as two of the "amigos" shortly returned to the Republican fold, which resulted in the accession of GOP Senator Dean Skelos of Long Island. As part of the deal with the Republicans, Senator Espada received the position of president pro tempore, one with substantial statutory authority, some patronage and perks.
The balance shifted after the 2010 elections when the Republicans won an undisputed majority and Senator Skelos regained the President Pro Tempore position. Pedro Espada was defeated in a 2010 primary and has since been convicted of felonies. Fellow "amigo" Senator Hiram Monserrate was expelled from the senate by his colleagues and Brooklyn Senator Carl Kruger was also convicted of a felony, which automatically vacated his seat. Andrew Cuomo became Governor in January 2011 and the legislature has since been relatively productive. (budget on time, marriage equality, property tax cap, pension tier six, tax-code reform)
However, on the first day of the session, 2011, four other Democratic Senators announced that they would caucus apart from the rest of the minority. Although not publicly demanding patronage, they decided to set their own agenda and not follow the minority leadership. A thorn in the Democratic Caucus’s side for two years, they have voted aye on the Governor’s program issues. How the new group will interact with existing leadership remains unclear.
There is, however, reason for guarded optimism today, partly because there will now be a fourth man in the notorious room, and partly because the worst scoundrels are now gone, either defeated, convicted or both.
Henry Stern is a former New York City parks commissioner and founder of NY Civic.