Watching the New York Republican Party dissolve into irrelevance is a mixed pleasure. For decades it has embraced a hard-right social and economic agenda that is generally anathema to New York voters. They haven’t elected a statewide candidate in 16 years, they’ve dwindled down to less than a third of the Assembly, they’ve just lost major county executive slots in the suburbs and they’re about to lose control of the state Senate. Then add in the Trump factor. Not a lot to cheer about for the GOP.
There are glimmers of hope. Two of them.
First, the Republican candidate for governor, Marc Molinaro, is smart, personable and moving away from the policies of Carl Paladino and the Trumpists. In a world where ideas and character mattered he would present a formidable candidacy. It’s probably too late for this year. Years of spectacularly out-of-touch policies have left voters convinced that Republicans understand the needs of folks in Alabama or Utah, with no clue about managing the sprawling diversity and energy of New York. Molinaro is more or less positioning himself for the 2022 race. He needs an adequate showing to claim leadership of the party, and might be able to reach that goal.
Second is the belated and tentative move by Assembly Republicans to sever their defining bond with corporate welfare. For decades, Republicans were the party of cash gifts to big corporations, with no comparable return to the state economy. IBM, the New York Yankees, Goldman Sachs, dozens of real estate developers, and lesser corporations backed the truck up to the vault and hauled away billions of your tax dollars. Billions. Every attempt made to choke off this feckless giveaway was strenuously opposed.
Please note that Democrats were not much better. Govs. Mario Cuomo, Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson worshiped at the shrine of big business, too. And Andrew Cuomo has perfected the system, whether it’s called Buffalo Billion or nanotech.
But, mirabile dictu, Assembly and Senate Republicans have just loudly backed two significant reforms to the entrenched system of giveaways of taxpayer money. They want to restore the state comptroller’s audit powers and publicly catalog the individual giveaways. Both grand ideas.
This creates interesting politics. These reforms originated with Assembly Democrats, particularly Buffalo-area Assemblymembers Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Robin Schimminger, and have been fiercely resisted by Republicans in both houses. Senate Republicans just adopted them, and Assembly Republicans now support them.
What about the Assembly Democrats? Silence. No good. The Republicans have put the Democrats on the political defensive, as the opposition party should be trying to do.
However this particular controversy plays out it’s a sign that the Republican Party can survive in New York only by dumping its historical right-wing allegiances, and speaking to an economic and social agenda that works for real folks. That doesn’t mean copying the Democrats. There’s plenty of room for all kinds of disagreement and innovation.
Is this a blip on the road to oblivion or the beginning of a political renewal? The prospects for the GOP in 2018 are grim. Its future, if it stays on the Molinaro-reformist road, can be much brighter.
Richard Brodsky is a former New York State Assemblymember.