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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Henry J. Stern: Promises Abandoned

State Legislators Support 
Insiders on District Lines
Henry J. Stern is the founder and president of New York Civic.
Friday, March 16th, 2012
The golden age of co-operation between the branches of New York State government appears to have settled into an era of relative tranquility, during which traditional relationships between longtime incumbents are likely to continue their gravitational impulse on each other, rather than remake state government into anything much more significant than it has been since the years of drift began.

When unexpected events occur, there are likely to be changes which may be required to avert fiscal catastrophe. To the extent that it legally is able to do so, the system will absorb these changes so as to minimize their effect. It is like the effect of well-regulated air conditioning, minimizing the variations that actually take place from time to time.

When changes are required by law, they are made at the last minute, with minimal public attention. This promotes the aura of continuity, which is a hallmark of a government of modest aspirations, acting when circumstances require action, but not generating any great activity on its own.

What we did learn this year is that government can work, in its own fashion, which ranges from lumbering - the usual pattern of activity, aptly symbolized by the donkey and the elephant - to instantaneous, when unread bills are printed in the middle of the night to comply with externally imposed requirements of law. No law requires that any bills actually be read or understood, so that noncompliance is difficult to prove.

Nor would it particularly matter if the bills were read, because the legislators rely on the decisions made by their caucuses, and the actual voting on issues is perfunctory.

The leaders would argue that this is the way the members really want it; the hard work, if any, done by professional staff and the modest debate allowed tending to posturing.

I watched on the Internet the elaborate politeness with which members addressed each other, as if they were in ancient Rome. Whatever the subject, the broadcast proceedings cast the glow of an Animal House toga party over the declaiming solons, as they asked each other mock questions to which they had obviously prepared answers.

If I were younger, so much younger than today, I might have felt more demeaned by the proceedings taking place on the floor. As it happens, however, familiarity eases indignation, so one sees the antic proceedings as what they are: an attempt by people of some ability to make sense out of legal proceedings and rituals, and to have an opportunity to present their views in a setting not designed for the distribution of information so that people can make more informed decisions than they would otherwise.

Perhaps the worst part was the contempt shown for fairness and due process in apportionment. As far as money is concerned, we are used to the insiders getting more than their share; that appears to be a rule in business and life.

But denying people the right to vote, or hacking, stacking, packing and cracking the voters into packages where their influence is minimized beyond reason, with senior legislators braying in the background that they were in scrupulous compliance with the Voting Rights Act and defying anyone to contradict them did suggest the style and manners of a Southern courtroom sixty years ago. The fact that the same words and phrases are now being used to prove the opposite of what they were originally intended to mean leaves sorrow and discontent in the minds of those who worked so hard and so long for social change.

On the other hand, if you believe that people get the kind of government that they deserve, you might not be particularly disturbed by Albany. In fairness, in redistricting you see the legislators at their worst, because their own personal interests are so directly affected by the decisions that they are so deeply arranged in making and manipulating.

If one could take one sentence out of the deliberations, it should be gratitude that in our system, the powers of government are limited, because if the assemblage of our representatives had the authority to make decisions of greater importance to our lives, I would feel increasingly uncomfortable living in any area in which their writ would run.



They did it again. They wore us down to the point where we gave up. Even the governor we had reason to trust reneged on his promises. Must this travesty stand for 10 more years, at which time we will be snookered all over again? Are we going to prove that the people get the government they deserve, by doing nothing to assert our right to seect our representitives instead of letting them select us?
Here are two possible responses:
One would be to recruit, nominate, and elect representatives who are beholden to the voters instead of to their immovable leaders. This is not feasible. It would demand heroic tenacity from a public that tunes out on this wonkish issue.
Another way might work. Call on all the excellent local good government groups to combine forces to independently produce non-partisan district maps that honor well established principles of fairness. Website tools are available to accomplish this chore. Then challenge the pols to accept them, or be exposed as hypocrites unworthy of reelection. Mount a joint PR campaign to shame imcumbants - again. Shaming did not work when attempted by Ed Koch's "NY Uprising" campaign, perhaps because there were no specific legislative maps to shame legislators to adopt. It was too easy to claim they had produced what we asked for. The pols need a bigger gun to their heads...will you vote for our new maps, or shall we vote you out? No excuses this time.
Would NY Civic throw its weight behind this approach?


I'm sure you remember how Koch and his group got together, ranted and raved, and had all these elected officials promise to have an independent panel draw up the new district lines. It's now obvious that the promises he elicited leave something to be desired. But worse is what is the down side. What are Koch and his buddies going to do. The answer, nothing.
If you read the Metro Section of the NYTimes last Sunday you'll have read about a leader of the Russian community in Brooklyn. What he did was say, "the republicans disrespected us. Not one Russian vote for the republican candidate!" If the republican candidate wins, or gets a lot of the Russian American votes, he'll mean nothing. If however he's able to convince the community not to vote for the republican candidate, he has sent the local politicians a very meaningful message. Don't lie to us, don't disrespect us. That's all it takes. No local politician will "disrespect" the Russian community, (whatever that means) for if his/her actions are defined as "disrespectful," the result will be a short life as an elected official.
To bad Koch didn't have the wherewithal to do that, even to ONE assemblyperson. Then it would have meant something. To bad we can't do it. All it takes is one time. We can't, won't, don't want to, do it.
The reason Albany's dysfunctional is because the politicians know that nobody cares.
Look what's going on in B'klyn with Lopez or in Manhattan with Wright. We're letting this happen again and again. One day it may be too late.
While i'm at it, guess what. You know how all our elected officials talk about the importance of school, well, who do you think will go into teaching with the new pension plan.


I don't get it, and would love to know from more politically sophisticated people than i:
--why the redistricting issue got tangled up with the pension issue
--why Cuomo caved on redistricting: it would seem to me that, if the courts drew the plan and he faced a partially new legislature in 2013, he'd be better able to get his way on other issues too.
Also, caving shows him as weak and encourages those feckless, corrupt sinecure holders in Albany to overrreach. Think about what happened to Obama after he failed to veto the extension of the Bush tax cuts.
--if there's no time to draft a court plan to redistrict now, how about going with a court plan in, say, two years?
--does anybody think the plan for redistricting going forward has any teeth at all, or will have any left in ten years?
I am one discouraged voter.

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