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The following article was published as an op-ed piece on p31 of yesterday’s Daily News. It describes the difficulties faced by challengers who try to compete with incumbent state legislators. The News’ headline accurately sums up the situation:
Why the Bums Stay:
In Albany, Politics Is Rigged
To Protect the Incumbents
By Henry J. Stern
April 6, 2009
If we have any hope of taking back Albany and getting things done, we need to stop allowing politicians to get into office and stay forever.
For the last week, the Daily News has been thundering about the waste, greed, corruption and ignorance shown by the members of the state Legislature. With good reason: Decisions are made based on political and labor union pressures, there is rarely any worthwhile public input on a whole range of critical decisions, and whatever mild reforms originated under Eliot Spitzer have been rolled back.
Substantive objections to the budget, which increases spending at a rate far beyond inflation and imposes dozens of new taxes and fees, are particularly strong. There are no givebacks by unions; the ever-growing $16 billion deficit is being financed almost entirely by the taxpayers, much of it by borrowing, which will increase the burden of debt service for years to come. Tellingly, one item untouched by the Legislature is $170 million in pork for individual member items.
A natural reaction to this blizzard of stories would be to say that the legislators are elected by the people, and if we don't like what they are doing, we can vote them out of office.
In reality, although this is a theoretical possibility, it hardly ever happens. Here's why: Incumbents are protected by multiple safety nets, political and financial, that guard their tenure and disable potential challengers.
The first is gerrymandering. The boundaries of existing districts have been carefully drawn to include areas where the incumbent is popular and exclude areas where potential opponents may reside. The Legislature has repeatedly rejected efforts to provide nonpartisan districting, because the current system gives incumbents districts that have been made-to-order for their political convenience. There's no sign of this changing anytime soon.
The second major advantage office-holders enjoy is free mailing privileges. For most of the year, incumbents send out illustrated brochures, styled as reports to constituents, but largely consisting of self-serving prose about the incumbent's accomplishments and photographs of himself, alone, with children or with grateful senior citizens.
Although these "reports" may not be mailed for a sixty day period before an election, the incumbent will have been sending these advertisements for the preceding year and ten months of his two-year term.
When you factor in that most incumbents have served for many terms - the average tenure exceeds 10 years - the public gains familiarity with the incumbent, even if they have no clear idea of who he is or exactly what he does.
Third, New York State 's ballot access rules are extremely rigorous. In order to run for the state Senate, one needs 1,000 valid signatures on a nominating petition. For the Assembly, the requirement is 500. These are not, however, mere names that can be collected easily by volunteers.
Petition signers must be registered members of the political party of the candidate and must sign their legal name and address, which must be within the political district. Any error in spelling or the style of the name can result in the invalidation of the voter's signature.
There is no end of traps for the neophyte candidate. It takes specialists in election law to bind the petitions into special books and to scrutinize them for legal sufficiency. A mistake in binding can cause all the signatures in the book to be invalidated. In some areas, the county political organization provides free election lawyers to assist incumbents in petition disputes. Challengers must hire their own lawyers. The time and money spent in defending a challenger's petitions detract from the resources he can use in his campaign.
Fourth, for years upon years, incumbents have been voting to appropriate to themselves millions of dollars in pork -- taxpayer funds they dole out to projects and organizations within their district. The beneficiaries of this largesse can usually be counted on to contribute to, support and campaign for the candidate who has been supplying them with tax funds. The same applies to labor unions, business organizations and other groups that hire lobbyists or attend legislators' fund-raising events. The rule is simple: Those that give, get. Those that get, give.
A final factor assisting incumbents is the size of the media market in New York City. It is so large that individual races (in Assembly districts averaging 128,000 in population) rarely receive much press coverage. Assembly members' names appear at the bottom of the ballot, and public attention naturally focuses on national, state or citywide contests. Again, advantage: incumbents. For a local candidate, reaching out to a city-wide audience is prohibitively expensive.
For these reasons, year after year the members of the Legislature, like Old Man River, remain essentially the same. It is true that the people get the government they elect. But under existing law it is almost impossible for them to elect a government they might pefer.
#548 04.06.2009 819 wds