Friday, May 28, 2010

The Lion and the Fox

Cuomo Selects Duffy,

Rochester Career Cop,

Twice Elected Mayor,

As His Running Mate

Day 58 - without a budget

Readers of this blog know that for the last several years, our reports on New York State government, particularly its legislature, have conveyed a pathetic picture. Some legislators are now convicted criminals, another is being sued by the Attorney General, some are under investigation, and it would be no surprise if other miscreants are found who have so far escaped the attention of law enforcement authorities.

We have repeatedly stressed the need for a stringent code of ethics, stricter regulation and full disclosure of outside employment, an independent redistricting commission and fiscal responsibility, starting with a balanced state budget. We have not seen progress in any of these areas.

A mild ethics bill, which would have been a starter for reform, was passed by both houses but vetoed by Governor Paterson on February 2, ostensibly on the ground that it was not strong enough. Since the bill had passed by overwhelming margins, it was assumed that the veto would be overridden. However, the Senate Republicans, who had voted for the bill, chose to sustain the veto, so now there is no ethics bill, but everyone can claim that they voted for it. To us, this is classic Albany hypocrisy.

That is why it was such a pleasant surprise to hear Andrew Cuomo's remarks to the convention accepting its nomination. You can link to them here.

He came out for every reform we have advocated, denounced the legislature as having lost the people's confidence, and demanded fiscal responsibility without imposing additional taxes. Signs posted at the convention announced the "New Democratic Party". It is clear that Andrew Cuomo is running against the Spitzer-Paterson years as well as the legislature.

His partner in this undertaking will be Mayor Robert Duffy of Rochester. Cuomo's selection of Duffy as his running mate for lieutenant governor has met with general approval. On the basis of press reports and a Google search, Duffy appears to be highly regarded. A career police officer, he rose through the ranks to become chief of police in 1998, a position he resigned in 2005 to run for mayor. He received 72% of the vote that year and was unopposed for re-election in 2009.

Duffy has a reputation as a strong leader, unafraid to take on public employee unions. He sold the money-losing fast ferry service across Lake Ontario to Rochester for $30 million. He is now engaged in a struggle with the United Federation of Teachers with regard to his effort to take over the public school system, similar to the fight that Mayor Bloomberg successfully waged in New York City.

Introducing himself at the State convention on Thursday, Duffy affirmed his commitment to Cuomos reform goals and asserted that he was ready to fight. I relish the opportunity to take on the challenges facing our state, said Duffy. You can watch Duffy's speech here.

The question we ask ourselves is: Is this too good to be true? Is it possible to have a reform-minded governor who is also of sound mind and has shrewd political instincts? We are reminded of the concept of 'The lion and the fox.' This was the title of a biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt by James McGregor Burns published in 1956. Professor Burns's source was the Florentine philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), who wrote, in The Prince,

"A prince must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves."

Andrew Cuomo has roared like a lion, and raised the hopes of New Yorkers, many of whom as opinion polls show, hold their government in contempt. But in Albany, he will be dealing with a skulk of foxes, and he will have to protect himself and his program from the bites and snares of those who are responsive to nurturing lobbyists, obedient to legislative leaders, and desirous of remaining in their gerrymandered districts.

Cuomo's commitments fall into two categories: those that are cost-free and those that are expensive. Reform of the ethics rules and an independent redistricting commission would be difficult to obtain, but they have trifling economic impact. When one tries to balance the budget without imposing new taxes, and place a cap on increases in local property taxes, that leaves a gap in revenue on both the state and local levels. A freeze on state spending, desirable as it would be, will not close that gap.

New York State has been spending more than it has taken in for years, and while the cumulative deficits have been concealed by one-shot revenues, the alteration of payment schedules, and other bookkeeping devices, the day of reckoning is not only at hand but past due.

The candidate has not yet told us what he would cut, but there is a Willie Sutton (not to be confused with Willie Horton) answer. When asked why he robbed banks, Sutton is supposed to have said that he did so because that was where the money was. The big money in the state budget is in Medicaid and education. If there are major cuts, these areas will be impacted.

The Medicaid program is known to have been exploited by substantial fraud and waste. The difficulty, of course, is finding out just where the fraud and waste is, and being able to prove it. That requires vigorous enforcement, and more serious penalties, including prison, for those caught cheating.

In education, we know that some teachers are very good and others are bad. The problem is that it is very difficult to treat teachers differently based on their competence. Also, ability and interest change over the years, sometimes for the worse. This is not to say that teachers, in general, are responsible for students' learning difficulties. We remember from our childhood those teachers who were helpful, kindly, and, in some cases, inspiring. But one should be able to get rid of the bad ones without years of litigation.

Even if every bad teacher retired today, however, there would still be resource issues, questions of class size and costly special education mandates. Hard choices will have to be made between competing needs.

A governor who commands respect, who makes first-class appointments, who decides issues justly and wisely, who is judicious in his public statements, and who maintains a high standard of personal conduct, will have much more influence and gravitas than one whose behavior can be faulted, who is vulgar or crude in speech or manner, whose remarks are intemperate or inappropriate, and whose appointments smack of favoritism, nepotism or cronyism.

We had high hopes four years ago for Eliot Spitzer. We were disappointed. Our hopes for David Paterson were more modest, but they were also unfulfilled. The Pataki Administration pitched three balls. Spitzer & Co. struck out twice. Andrew Cuomo is now at the plate. When he tries to do the right thing, he will find enemies on and off the field.

We do not know how the contest will end, but we do know that, this time at least, the forces of reform are at bat. Armed with knowledge of the failures of the past, they go forth to battle for the future.

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