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Stay tuned, kids, for next month’s exciting episode

July 14, 2014

Way back in the day, kids would go to the movies and pay a quarter for a double feature and a whole bunch of serials. The serial always ended in a cliffhanger, the intent being to get you to come back next week. The hero was left in dire straits and inevitably was saved the following week, only to be left hanging yet again. New York politics are really not all that different. Not unlike a Superman episode ending with the question, “Will Superman survive the Kryptonite attack?” the New York version has left us hanging in an equally tantalizing fashion.

So here are some of New York’s serial endings that will surely be followed up in next month’s episodes: Will Preet Bharara, the fighting United States Attorney for the Southern District, rip the top off of New York state’s teeming political cesspool? Will it turn out that Cuomo’s Moreland Act Commission that was formed to investigate skullduggery in New York politics was itself under investigation? There are lots of players in Albany who are holding their breath on this one. They see Bharara as the one man who is not afraid of Cuomo. In fact, based on his tenure in office up to now, Bharara has proven himself afraid of nobody. In Albany, like in three card monte, it is what you don’t see that all too often controls things. Bharara came right out of Chuck Schumer’s office. One can only wonder whether Bharara has been getting calls from Schumer.

It was Cuomo’s decision to put an unfortunate and much ruminated end to the Moreland Act Commission. That Commission was supposed to follow the money. Some think that Cuomo traded with the legislative leaders for their cooperation. Was anything wrong with that? Will federal criminal charges emerge? Was the whole thing kosher? Will Andrew Cuomo have his hands full or will Bharara fade? “Stay tuned, kids, for next month’s exciting episode.”

There is another serial in the making. This one involves a related set of actors. In last month’s breathtaking action, Governor Andrew Cuomo made a deal to put the Democrats back in power in New York state in order to get the center left Working Families Party endorsement. We are now being told that’s a done deal. As a result, the so-called “Democratic” Senator Jeff Klein of the Bronx, the sort of Prince John of this bad movie, is bringing his group back from his unholy alliance with the Republicans to the regular Democrats in the Senate. That will mean that Klein’s partner in politics, Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos, will be in the minority and that will mean that some of the aged folks in the Skelos gang will desert politics and run for the hills. Of course, Klein is holding out for the right deal. He wants to be co-leader with Andrea Stewart Cousins, the head regular Democrat. If he and his people don’t get what they want, they might just re-up their deal with the Republicans. Right now, several members of Klein’s gang are facing primaries because they are betraying the interests of the Democratic Party. Republican Skelos hints that once the threat of primaries is behind them, Klein and his bunch of “traitor” Democrats will be right back with the Republicans. Maybe he knows something that we don’t know. “Okay, kids, stay tuned. Go get some popcorn in the meantime.”

Finally, will Prince Andrew have still another Lochinvar-like rival in New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, the darling of the center left who saved Cuomo’s hash and got him the Working Families endorsement? De Blasio is coming up fast. The party likes him and he has a much more progressive agenda than Prince Andrew. Will he have enough power to embarrass the fiscally conservative Cuomo? “Come back next week to find out.”

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 7/7/14

‘I feel the need to weed’

June 30, 2014

Ahab had the whale. The old man had the sea. I have the garden.

I am an addict. I can’t stop pulling up the weeds. I cover the bare ground with mulch. I go back into the garden and the weeds are back. No matter how many I pull, there are always more. It never ends.

A few weeks back, I spent three days in the garden pulling out the beginnings of little trees and things that look they will grow to sagebrush and all kinds of other green things. I pulled them by the roots as much as possible. I didn’t stop. I was completely driven — it was me against them.

Finally, the garden was as clean as a baby’s bottom, but I ended up with what seemed like carpal tunnel syndrome. Everything hurt from the elbow down in both arms and I mean really hurt.

So I stopped weeding, figuring that the weeds would stay down for a while. But three weeks later they’ve returned and I have to go back in.

I need to come up with some kind of routine. I feel pangs of guilt when I’m not out there working. Like an addict, I feel the need to weed.

I’m sure that the early cavemen and farmers throughout history have had to do this. It becomes part of our genetic code, this weed-pulling thing. It’s sort of like driving down the highway for days at a time and when you close your eyes at night, you can still see the broken white lines before your eyes.

Speaking of addictions, we are beset with heroin. We go through drug phases. For a while, the pharmaceutical drug fix was the addiction du jour. Then when that stuff began to dry up, much cheaper heroin began to flood the market.

Mayors and local officials are crying out for help but there is no easy fix. Law enforcement can try to keep up but even if they find someone hawking the stuff to our children, the odds are that the hawker is an addict, too.

Plus, there just aren’t enough facilities to help people kick the addiction, a nearly impossible thing to do. There are some committed professionals like Jennifer Michaels at the Brien Center who really know what they are doing, but our society has to know that such programs are expensive and are going to cost.

Many of you recognize that we are failing our kids, and that is one of the main reasons why so many of them are turning to drugs and getting addicted.

When you are a kid with no job, no money, and no hope, drugs look like a good option and a way out. Sometimes the kids start by experimenting and despite claims that, “I can quit any time,” that turns out to be harder than they think. Once this devil catches you, there is hell to pay.

It’s the same old story. What starts out as a little “experiment” all too often ends up with the addict committing theft or worse in his or her desperation to get the next fix.

Whole families have been destroyed because of addiction and nothing will make a parent unhappier than that desperate feeling that somehow the parent is failing his or her child. For those of us who are untouched in our own families, one has no further to look than the family of man. Think about crimes that are motivated purely by drugs.

I’ll tell you one thing — before we put more boots on the ground in Iraq and spend another trillion dollars on an unwinnable war — we had better figure out how to do a better job of educating and helping our young people and putting away the really bad people who don’t give a damn about the chaos they are leaving in their wake. We need to think this through.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 6/28/14




Andrew Cuomo is a strategic genius

June 24, 2014

I have long written that Andrew Cuomo is a strategic genius. He has great knowledge of New York politics and his instincts were honed at his father’s side. Andrew was his father’s enforcer, the guy who took no prisoners and who you didn’t want to mess around with. Now as governor, he himself is surrounded by tough guys who other politicians and players are loath to play with. The toughest of these people is one Larry Schwartz, the governor’s secretary, or top dog. This is the guy the inside players really don’t like. The governor knows, as his father did before him, that when you are negotiating with other politicians, nothing motivates them more than their own continuance in office and the perquisites therein. When Cuomo wants something, he says the magic words and trades the legislators for things like the ability to make money unencumbered on the outside through their law and consulting firms. They really have no choice but to give him what he wants.

When the most recent legislative session came to an end, the governor’s stated objective of a public campaign system was nowhere to be seen. Many of the state’s good government people had hoped for a system like the one in New York City that would give the outside players a real chance. Needless to say, it never saw the light of day. I never thought that the New York system would be implemented statewide. The governor and the legislative leaders tried a cynical ploy to have a one-term try out, but only for the state comptroller’s race and we all knew that the governor kept picking on the nicest guy in New York politics, Tom DiNapoli. Why he did that is anyone’s guess but DiNapoli said, “No thanks” to the silly law that was proposed only for his race. Why would politicians, who got where they are under the old rules, adopt new rules that would allow “outsiders” a chance to get into the political system? The last thing the big boys wanted was Bernie the bartender getting into the game and destroying their insiders’ advantage in which money got to them via all the lobbyists and players who wanted access to the decisions.

So the smoke cleared at the end of the legislative session and the two things the governor used to get his way were the threat of enhanced ethics laws and campaign finance laws. We all remember that the governor appointed a Moreland Act Commission to investigate the players, including the Legislature. The legislative players howled like stuck pigs (yes, I said pigs) and inexplicably, the governor folded his so-called independent commission and told it to go away. This was too much for the fighting U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara who collected all the work of the now defunct commission.

In the end, the political interests of the players came first. The one thing that grabbed the headlines was medical marijuana. Adopted by other states, it looked like an idea whose time had finally come. The principal player on the Legislative side was Senator Diane Savino (D-Staten Island) a member of the Independent Democratic Conference, the gang of five who keep the Senate Republicans in power even though there are more Democrats than Republicans in the Legislature. Beset with a revolution of Democrats to his left, the governor says that he will bring the Senate back to the Democrats but there are those who suspect that he owes something to the gang of five. So, while the governor has his reasons for not wanting medical marijuana, he gave in, but with the strictest of provisions including his right to close down the program whenever he wants to. Savino got her bill and predictably lavished praise on the governor who had severely gutted it.

Advantage Cuomo. I tell you, the guy is a strategic genius.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 6/23/2014

Poorest most easily hurt by casinos

June 23, 2014

Sometimes when you buy something, you find out later that you made a mistake.

Unfortunately for you, you still own it. The rush to open casinos, both in the commonwealth and across the border in New York, is one good example. It is not surprising that both states’ governors, anxious to provide needed revenue support and not raise taxes, are encouraging developers to open multimillion-dollar gambling casinos. The thinking is that people are going to gamble anyway and it’s better to keep the valuable tax revenue here rather than watching it go to nearby states like Connecticut. Not only that, even if they don’t cross the state lines, people will find other, often illegal, ways to gamble. There have always been organized crime folks who are willing to take bets. When illegal gambling takes place, the ability to tax is gone.

However, there does seem to be some buyer’s remorse on the part of the voters. The people of Massachusetts said that they wanted casinos. Later, though, many people began to think about what they had voted for and had second thoughts. A major campaign was launched to have a second vote, otherwise known as a “do-over.” In order to get such a proposition on the ballot, the state’s attorney general, Martha Coakley, would have had to sign off that the proposition met the necessary constitutional provisions. After examining the petition, which as of this writing has more than enough signatures to get it on the ballot, Coakley said no for a number of obscure reasons. The organizing group did not take no for an answer and has taken their case to court.

There are a lot of reasons why people don’t like casinos. They argue that it is not coincidental that the easiest places to put these emporiums are where the most economically challenged of us live. Localities like Springfield really need the tax money.

As a result, political leaders are more easily brought on board. Ironically, the people who are most likely to be hurt by gambling are our poorest citizens. Slot machines are, for some folks, the new crack cocaine. Vulnerable people will try anything to get out of their circumstances.

I know of one store in the WAMC neighborhood where people who can least afford to line up to spend hundreds of dollars on lottery tickets. To me, playing to this type of weakness makes no sense.

There is also some doubt as to whether the gambling casinos will actually bring with them the economic prosperity they promise. The casinos in Atlantic City and so many other places have not led to widespread community development. To the contrary, the people who run these places want to keep the business behind the casino barricades. People are unlikely to move outside the portals to go to the neighborhood pizza joint or any of the other businesses.

We are also hearing that a lot of casinos are being developed. The more of these places that are created, the more likely it is that there will not be enough customers to go around. There are already examples of casinos that are asking for public handouts to support them. That is the last thing that we need to happen.

Finally, there is the NIMBY syndrome. It is one thing to conceptually support the concept of gambling. It is another when there is a proposal to bring it to your town, city or village.

Years ago, when someone suggested bringing a correctional facility to our area, the line formed at the rear for all those opposing the idea. They argued that a prison would harm our tourist industry, our quality of life, and our cultural institutions. I never like to split with my governor who I so admire but in this case, I just don’t see it. Once casinos are here, it is unlikely that they will go away any time soon.


Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 6/21/14

Lawmakers need to address the glut of tax-exempt properties

June 17, 2014

The state Legislature is a mess. We may talk democracy but in truth, the Senate and the Assembly are really oligarchies. This means that despite the appearance of decision-making by the many, in actuality it is one powerful man at the top of each organization who calls the shots. In the Senate, it’s Republican Dean Skelos and in the Assembly, it’s Speaker Sheldon Silver who has one more vote than anyone else. If you ask either of them whether it is true that we have competing dictatorships, they will tell you that they are directed by party conferences who debate and discuss everything and only after that does the word come forth from the powerful leaders. This simply isn’t true. We all know about the now famous “three men in a room” (Governor, Speaker, and Senate Majority Leader). These three meet and discuss and when they come out, the word is carried back to the followers in the various conferences. Our eyes do not deceive us. We see what we see. Once we open our eyes, we cannot be fooled.

Dictators rise and fall all over the world and this country, we insist on what we call democracy. Here in the state of New York, there are more elected Democrats than Republicans in the state Senate and yet, somehow, some way, the Republicans remain in power. There are those who think that Governor Andrew Cuomo, who came to office to “clean up Albany,” has been in some part responsible for this state of affairs. Cuomo, we all know, has been committed to fixing the reputation of New York as a tax heavy state. He knows that if there is a single thing that will cost him votes, it is the fact that the taxes are too high. He also knows that if the Democrats take over the management of the state Senate, they will practice what we can only call “redistributive politics.” He is afraid that the newly empowered Democrats will spend him out of house and home. One has only to look at the people who give the governor immense amounts of money to understand that the wealthy and powerful in the state agree with the governor. If it is taxes or progressive programs, the latter will have to wait.

But the people are restless. In the recent fight for the Working Families Party nomination, Cuomo had to make one major concession: he would help the Democrats in the Senate take back their leadership. While some people believe that Cuomo could call the members of the Independent Democratic Conference who side with the Republicans back home and get them into line with the real Democrats, so far he has not. Now, under immense pressure, he says that he’ll do just that “next year.” Many people are shaking their heads and wondering why he doesn’t do it right now. The skeptics believe that Cuomo helped set the whole scenario up in the first place and the last thing he wants to do is to empower the progressive Democrats. Even if both houses pass progressive legislation, the governor still holds a power veto weapon but the last thing Cuomo wants to do is to be the bad guy. Why should he? As long as the Republicans are in power, they will play the role of the heavies. He can point to them and say, “They did it.” His father did the same thing.

Cuomo seems set for a dramatic reelection. New York’s progressive Democrats are certainly not going to vote for conservative Rob Astorino. After he is elected for a second term, he may actually help his fellow Democrats and do what he promised, call the Independent Democrats to heel. If he wants to run for national office, he can’t take the rap for being a Republican enabler so he’ll have to do something.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 6/16/14

Theories on how Cantor lost race

June 16, 2014

Eric Cantor, to everyone’s surprise, lost big in his race for yet another term. He was slated to be the first Jewish Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives when John Boehner retired.

He had raised millions of dollars from the usual sources and many, if not all of them, wanted something back from him. His hired pollsters had assured him that he was light years ahead of Dave Brat, his tea party opponent who had almost no money to run with. Brat did, however, have the support of a right wing nut fringe commentator of the usual stripe.

Additionally, the other conservative but not tea party folks have continued to win their primaries. Yet when the smoke cleared, Eric Cantor went down in flames by more than 10 points. No one really knows what happened but there are theories. Here are some of them.

All over the European Union and the United States, there is a terrible anti-immigrant sentiment. Nothing is older than the “us versus them” paradigm. Ever since the first cave men walked out of the bog, we’ve seen the “they’re not us — get them” mentality. Dave Brat, who upended Cantor, understood that.

Without our immigrant population this country would be weaker, less productive and would have lots of jobs that, frankly, no one else would be willing to do. But both in the recent European parliamentary elections and in the Brat election, the immigration thing has developed real political legs.

We all know that President Barack Obama and the majority of the Democratic Party have been trying to develop a path to citizenship. The problem now with the Cantor loss is that the so-called “path” will now hit a roadblock and be stopped in its tracks. Every moderate and conservative Republican will be worrying about losing a primary to a conservative whack job if they do what they damned well know in their hearts is the right thing.

So, when those conservative Virginia voters went into the voting booth, they confounded the pollsters who told Cantor that he was 30 points ahead. They elected someone who was even more likely to take the most basic of benefits away from the poorest among us so that the richest could have even more.

Then there is what David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report (supposedly non- partisan) said was the invisible elephant in the room — the fact that Cantor is Jewish. Astoundingly, Cantor is the ONLY Jewish Republican member of Congress.

We Americans have been trained not to appear prejudiced but all bets may be off in the sanctity of the voting booth. That’s why pollsters have to be very careful when they do their work on issues like gay rights or on ethnic divisions.

Of course, Cantor won many elections in the past — eight to be exact, so it is hard to figure out why anti-Semitism would rear its ugly head now. Nevertheless, there are other know-nothing attitudes that frequently go along with ugliness toward immigrants. No doubt the sociologists will be scrutinizing this election very carefully once all the smoke clears.

WAMC’s Joe Donahue told us all a story the other day. He was recently in Washington and somehow managed to get in Cantor’s way. He was astounded when Cantor shouted, “Get out of my way, I’m important.” Joe assured us that this was not kidding around stuff. I believe that a bully in one place will be a bully in others.

There are those who think that some Democrats “crossed over” to vote for the electorally vulnerable tea party candidate. That’s yet another possibility. Maybe it was a combination — a perfect storm if you will — but whatever it was, it happened. I don’t feel sorry for Eric Cantor. Unfortunately, like a bad penny, he’ll turn up again.


Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 6/14/14



Dems would be smart to hold their convention in Brooklyn

June 10, 2014

Mayor Bill de Blasio wants the Democratic convention to take place in Brooklyn. That makes a lot of sense. Everybody in the world knows about Brooklyn. There wasn’t a D-Day film made without a character who spoke the “dese, doze and dem” vernacular. Jackie Robinson, one of the all-time greats in baseball played for “doze bums.” In the Battle of the Bulge, American GIs could always unmask a German dressed up in an American uniform by asking where the Dodgers played. Now, of course, Brooklyn is hot. It seems as though everyone wants to live there. A flood of college graduates are setting up housekeeping in some of the most previously shunned areas of the borough. There is also a spirit of multiculturalism, the kind of thing that Barack Obama might have described as “post racial.” Unlike the older folks who are so tribal in nature, the new Brooklyn crowd doesn’t understand the old prejudices. Of course, there are still people in the borough who practice the old destructive politics but even they are being challenged by new approaches that are driving some of them to leave the city for more isolated upstate areas where they think that can rule the roost.

Of course, de Blasio, the progressive, populist mayor of New York, has always lived in Brooklyn. De Blasio doesn’t have a lot of personal money. He is married to a brilliant African American woman. The couple has two children who are clearly bright and who have had real growing pains just like everyone else in the city. Put another way, it’s a long way from Mike Bloomberg’s town house in Manhattan to the new Brooklyn.

Don’t get me wrong — Bloomberg did a great deal for the city. He continued to build on the Big Apple’s reputation as the number one city in the world. If he is open to criticism, it is that his building philosophy doesn’t do much for those emerging New Yorkers. Housing, for example, is a mess. Nevertheless, there are many New Yorkers who can’t forget the disastrous New York City housing projects where crime still flourishes. De Blasio not only talks about the need for decent public housing but he adds additional restrictions on the New York Police forbidding them, in large part, to “stop and frisk.” Obviously, if crime goes up in New York, de Blasio runs the risk of being a one-term mayor.

In addition, de Blasio has an Andrew Cuomo problem. The talk around Albany is that Cuomo kicked the mayor’s behind and the mayor is now gun shy to take on Cuomo on his honor’s progressive agenda. Cuomo has demonstrated that he has some kind of real hold on the mayor, who, like a small dog, is now showing his neck as a sign of respect. One might even surmise that de Blasio may be fronting for a governor who would love to host the convention in his state for all the usual political reasons.

On the down side, there aren’t really enough hotels for all the Democratic delegates. There are still significant crime problems. There will also be problems getting enough cabs in a city where the drivers don’t particularly like to go to Brooklyn. But the new Brooklyn is vibrant and symbolic of a new youth culture made up all kinds of racial and ethnic minorities. During the last presidential election, the Republicans could not find new voters to save their lives. The traditional thinking is to hold a convention in a competitive state like North Carolina but who knows anything about North Carolina? Everyone knows Brooklyn. It’s where everything is happening. If you talk to a lot of regular Brooklyn citizens who have lots of problems with the subways and the buses and the overcrowding, many of them will tell you that the Democrats should stay away. But there’s no question that de Blasio will get lots of credit for trying, whether he lands the big prize or not.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 6/10/14


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