Friday, June 05, 2009

NY State Government Is Held in Low Regard But Citizens We Know Are Uninvolved With It

For several years, I have been attending a discussion group that meets monthly at the home of a local physician, Dr. Bruce Yaffe, and his wife, Karen. Attendance varies from 25 to 35. Many of the participants are patients of Dr. Yaffe. They are often extremely well informed, particularly in their specialties, whether economics, medicine, science or business. They bring information and fresh insights to the group, and we leave the meetings knowing more than we did when we arrived.

Last Monday, the discussion turned to New York State politics. The general view was expressed that our state legislature is pathetic, if not corrupt. The 2004 Brennan Center study calling it dysfunctional was cited. No one in the crowd had a good word to say about anything or anyone in Albany. Since I spent many years working for the city of New York, when government is discussed I am often asked for an opinion. I could only concur in general. There are, however, many decent individual legislators. They too are victims of a deeply flawed system.

Years of Disappointment, 2007-2009

Readers of this blog are well aware by now of the dismal condition of state government. The high hopes New Yorkers had in January 2007, at the inauguration of Eliot Spitzer, were dashed by the Governor’s inability to relate to other human beings, particularly the legislators of either party. Troopergate and the subsequent attempted cover-up made a large matter out of a small one. {Think Rule 97 – “suborning perjury”}.

His twists and turns (as on drivers’ licenses for illegal immigrants) embarrassed his supporters and encouraged his detractors. His threats to campaign against incumbents proved idle. His attempt to usurp the selection of a State Comptroller from the Legislature, which had the Constitutional authority to act, ended in failure. Where he could have compromised to reach agreement on an issue, he refused to do so. His bizarre fling with the overpriced prostitute simply gave the legislators grounds to justify Spitzer’s removal; the underlying reason was that they loathed him.

The overriding reason for the legislature’s distaste for the Governor was not primarily based on substantive disagreement over issues; it was simply that he treated them with utter contempt, alternating with abject apologies. It is above our pay grade to know why Spitzer’s behavior, both to his own staff and to elected officials, was so intemperate.

Apart from his self-description in a telephone call to the Assembly Minority Leader as a highly unique wheelbarrow, Spitzer’s most chronicled outburst came in a telephone call to the widely respected former Deputy Secretary of State, and former chairman of Goldman Sachs, John C. Whitehead. In April 2005, Whitehead had written an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal defending Hank Greenberg, chairman of the American International Group (AIG), whom Spitzer was then pursuing over an inappropriate transaction. In his article, Whitehead criticized Spitzer’s decision to publicly attack Greenberg (considered, by Whitehead, “one of America's best CEOs and most generous philanthropists”) without first informing the defendant or bringing formal charges against him.

Shortly thereafter, Whitehead received a phone call from Spitzer, during which the then-State Attorney General, clearly upset over the critical letter, told him, “It's now a war between us and you've fired the first shot. I will be coming after you. You will pay the price. This is only the beginning and you will pay dearly for what you have done. You will wish you had never written that letter." After a few more choice words, Spitzer hung up. This controversy was publicized a year before the November 2006 election, but did not prevent Spitzer from winning an overwhelming victory at the polls, which he took for a mandate to do as he wished.

One year having passed since his resignation in disgrace, Mr. Spitzer returned to the political scene by writing articles and appearing in the media. Recent polls showed him more popular than his chosen successor, Governor Paterson. The poll, however, reflected deep dissatisfaction with Paterson rather than admiration for his predecessor. Mr. Spitzer is an intelligent man who knows a good deal about public issues. He should be a welcome addition to the dialogue. The thought, however, that he should run for Attorney General if Andrew Cuomo runs for Governor is simply not credible. We do not want to beat a dead horse (Rule 18-A) but Spitzer’s candidacy would raise many substantive and due-process issues, entirely apart from his proclivities. He should not seek to be the chief law enforcement officer of the State of New York.

What Can People Do? A Hard Question to Answer

Returning to the Monday meeting, I told the people there that all the negatives they had expressed about Albany are true to a greater or lesser extent. Then I asked what, if anything, they were doing or thought they could do about it. In the cluster of thirty-five or so people, quite intelligent and accomplished, well-informed and interested enough in public issues to spend an evening discussing them, no more than one appeared to be investing time in the civic or political process. I really can’t blame them.

Watching local politics is far from the most interesting of pastimes, particularly if you yourself are not a candidate for public office. The chores performed in a political club are usually rather mundane, involving collecting petition signatures, listening to occasional speakers, sending out mailings to club members, canvassing, and possibly helping neighborhood people with problems dealing with some government agency. The latter is called ‘constituent service.’

It should not be surprising to know that political clubs are often frequented by people seeking human companionship, of whatever nature. That is not an unreasonable trade-off. You provide minor political services and act as an audience in exchange for a place to stay out of the cold or the heat. You have the opportunity to mingle with other souls who are similarly situated. However, participation in these activities, as well as attending periodic fundraisers for individual candidates, will have no significant impact on public policy.

There is something inherently frustrating about all the competent, well educated people who meet to discuss public issues, but are totally uninvolved in the process of local government. There is a disconnect here, the men and women in the Yaffe apartment are not seeking public sector jobs or any direct benefits from the state or the city, they just want more honest and competent government.

There is not a great deal that most people can do, however, to influence public policy directly. The interest of the general public, e.g. taxpayers or parents, is often opposed by special interests, generally a particular economic group. They are well organized; they hire lobbyists, support or oppose individual candidates, and give or raise campaign contributions. Experienced lobbyists know the public officials personally, their strengths, weaknesses, and inclinations. For an excellent example of how the system operates, read the powerful story on A1 of today’s Times, AILING BANKS STILL FIELD STRONG LOBBY AT CAPITOL, by Stephen Labaton.

The separation between the public and politicians is bridged somewhat when one class makes demands on the other. What politicians usually seek from their constituents are donations of money or labor. They used to seek our votes on primary and election days. However, many in the elected class have become effectively insulated from serious competition as a result of gerrymandering, self-serving state-funded illustrated mailings to constituents, and the name recognition they have acquired over the years. Their biennial or quadrennial re-election is usually assured. Only death, promotion or a felony conviction can remove them from office. The support of truth-seeking voters is consequently less consequential.

In these situations, in conformity with human nature, elected officials can become increasingly remote from the wishes of their constituents. They are more responsive to and congenial with the lobbyists for special interests with whom they hang in boring Albany. These lobbyists, who are professionals and whose business is generally legitimate, earn their living by influencing elected officials. In so doing, they may attend to some of the legislators’ material needs. IF a lobbyist and a legislator embrace too tightly, they could have a problem with the legislative ethics commission, IF the commission were not a toothless joke.

IF wishes were horses, beggars would ride.


#562 06.05.2009 #1401


  1. Dear Mr. Stern,

    I would like to draw your attention to the current NYS legislative battle over mayoral control of the NYC public schools, which is due to sunset on June 30th, as an excellent example of the surreal Kabuki theater between well resourced "special interests" -- e.g., the mayor's shill non-profits LearnNY, Fund for Public Schools, et al., the ACORN/Working Families Party et al. supported Campaign for Better Schools as well as the UFT and CSA.

    However, there is a beacon of hopeful change in ordinary citizen engagement, which you and your blog readers may not be fully aware of, with the appearance on the scene of the Parent Commission on School Governance and Mayoral Control, of which I am a member. The Parent Commission is an ad-hoc group of volunteer parent leaders who over the course of the past 12 months managed to craft the most progressive, comprehensive plan for democratic reform of our city's school system thus far released by any civic group. We did this on our own time and at great sacrifice on the part of our families and, save for a $500 grant from the Public Advocate's office to offset printing costs, we are totally self-financed.

    I urge you and your blog readers to read our full report available as a download at and support our bill now introduced in the Assembly by Danny O'Donnell (Manhattan) and in the Senate by Shirley Huntley (Queens) as the Education Through Partnership Act (A-08550 & S-5739). Many of us on the Parent Commission do not have the option of sitting this one out. Our kids are in the public schools and will remain so because our personal financial resources are not sufficient -- and our commitment to an excellent democratic public education for ALL our city's kids is too strong -- for us to "opt out".

    It is time to end autocratic mayoral control by billionaires, McKinsey consultants, lawyers and former business leaders who deign to "educate other folks' kids" without education experience or actual skin in the game.

    All best,

    Patricia Connelly
    Parent, Districts 15 & 75
    Member, Citywide Council on Special Education
    Member, Parent Commission on School Governance and Mayoral Control
    718.812.6728 cell
    718.369.9074 home
    1.347.823.2099 eFax

    Put the Public Back in Public Education Now! Sign the Parent Commission's iPetition here.

  2. Anonymous11:06 AM

    The crowd at the Yaffe apartment is not substantially different from the crowd with which I associate. So too, is there not much of a difference between the complainants in either group, and, mea culpa, our dis-inclination to become actively involved in electoral politics except from the side-lines with an occasional campaign contribution of letter-to-the-editor.

    The system is terribly tilted in favor of the status quo, and the ability for a person who still remembers American Government 101’s discussion of the Founding Fathers concept that electoral office should not be a permanent sinecure but rather offices which turn over their occupants on a routine basis does nothing but add to the cognitive dissonance when examining the state of the state.

    We hope you are well!