New York Civic: Defining Democracy Down By HENRY J. STERN

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STERN_Henry-J-President-of-NY-Civic-amd-Former-New-York-City-Parks-CommissionerCuomo the Conqueror;

Where Will He Take Us?

The agreement reached by Governor Cuomo and the legislative leaders of both houses on taxation is an achievement of sorts, in that it shows that somewhere, in some circumstances, and in some fashion, state government is capable of making decisions. 

This puts Albany far ahead of Washington, where partisan gridlock has so far prevented action on numerous issues, particularly the Federal government’s lack of financial responsibility, which has led to mounting deficits. The United States would be bankrupt today if it did not have the authority to print money.

This week’s tax package is essentially a victory for the supporters of more spending by state government, rather than sharp reductions in the budget.

It is better for the public-employee unions than tighter control of expenditures would be, which would result in reductions in personnel, by far the largest expense item.

Political control in Albany is theoretically divided between a Republican Senate and a Democratic Assembly. However, the age and frailty of some Republican senators and the shrinking population of their districts (particularly with prisoners no longer being counted as upstate residents), has made the GOP’s slender margin of control more tenuous than it has been and so less likely to survive objective redistricting in 2012.

The Republican Party’s half share of the Legislature has endured with the aid of a major gerrymander of Senate district boundaries. The new lines, constitutionally required to be drawn, will be subject to statewide scrutiny by the courts; the U.S. Department of Justice will review the lines in three downstate counties to protect the interests of racial minorities.

The Senate remains Republican because of the incompetence and the criminality of some of the Democrats who turned the Senate into a shambles two years ago when they took control after 46 years in the minority. The names of Senators Pedro Espada, Hiram Monserrate and Carl Kruger epitomize the interregnum. Nonpartisan observers of state government welcome hegemony divided between the parties as mitigating the outrages that each side would inflict on the other if the courts relax their vigilance

Democratic senators may be influenced in the intensity of their desires, but only marginally, by the governor, for whom the Republican Senate is a boon that the code of political hypocrisy forbids him to publicly appreciate.

Governor Cuomo appears to be more comfortable with moderate Republicans than with some radical Democrats, who may be prodded by their ambitions or their followers to inhabit the left bank of the sea of political correctness

Since extremists are re-elected by enormous margins in one-party districts, it would be no political gain for them to moderate their views or their rhetoric. There may even be a competitive advantage to be gained from extreme expressions of opinion and denigration of one’s opponents; a style which often leads to greater press coverage.

City Councilman Charles Barron of Brooklyn, husband of Assemblywoman Inez Barron, has used this tactic to advantage, although his race for Borough President in 2007 was unsuccessful. Barron is expected to run next year for the seat of long-term Congressman Edolphus Towns, father of Assemblyman Darryl Towns.

To digress for a moment to the arts, the machinations of Brooklyn Democrats and their constant struggles, the couplet from ‘The Three Penny  Opera’  comes to mind.

“For even honest men may act like sinners 

Unless they have their customary dinners.”

To us, that means that legislators may vote against their own principles or their constituents’ interests in order to protect themselves and their positions from popular indignation which might jeopardize their privileged life styles.


The Times has two fascinating and informative articles today about the legislature’s prompt ratification of the agreement reached by the leaders, which began minutes after the lengthy bills were printed. The rules require three days before bills can be approved, to provide some opportunity for the public and other outsiders to read them before they become law. But rules are made to be broken, and Albany provides ample opportunities to do just that.

Thomas Kaplan’s in depth analysis of the situation starts on pA1, which is significant placement for a story out of the state capital. Michael Powell’s article on pA35 is perceptive and also well worth reading.

Last year, we read about legislative anarchy; this year the complaint is about tyranny. Government buffs were so disgusted by 2010 that they welcomed the strong leadership of Governor Cuomo. His two immediate predecessors were not shining stars, to say the least, and public feeling remains widespread that a more disciplined, purposeful legislature would accomplish more for the state.

The problem is that the accomplishment may primarily be staving off disaster, or at least postponing what may be inevitable shrinkage. But that is a better outcome than failing to stave off disaster, and in a time of crisis, there should be appreciation for minor blessings.

In the campaign between Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush in 1992, the phrase “It’s the economy, stupid” became a mantra. Twenty years later, the economy is in worse shape and the slogan has new relevance. When used, it is typically an anti-incumbent line. It can work even though the out-party may have no idea of how to improve the economy and may in fact oppose any rational effort to do so.

If such is the case, it will take another four (or eight) years for the public to find that out and have the opportunity to elect new leadership.

In closing, we ask you not to forget the national debt, which grows as we speak.

Whichever party we elect will face serious difficulties in administering public services in economically difficult times.

There is a case that New York is not ready for participatory democracy, or civilized enough to hear from all sides before acting. Nor is there much reason to believe the results would be different if the legislators had a month, or even a year, to read the bills before them. Nonetheless, we believe it is a little early in the session to give up on due process, even if the result is the tyranny of nominal Democracy, carefully overseen by the oligarch, as has been the rule for generations. 

Henry J. Stern writes as StarQuest. Direct email to him at Peruse Mr. Stern’s writing at New York Civic.


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