Dr. Chartock takes a looks inside the sausage factory

The curtain has been lifted. With the Democratic Party taking control of the New York state Senate, we see some very disturbing aspects of how our political process really works. Like sausage making, you really don’t want to know how it is done, even if it is potentially injurious to your health.

Case in point: a rogue band of four Democratic state senators tried to hold up the larger body for their own personal good. One of them was picked off and then it was the Gang of Three. Then the Gang of Three was shamelessly diffused by Democratic leader Malcolm Smith, giving away the deputy (number 2) job to one of the gang and the chairmanship of the Finance Committee (far and away the most important committee) to another. The gang had hidden behind all kinds of fictitious issues of principle, such as gay marriage, but it really all came down to naked power. They were blackmailing the larger number of their colleagues to get as much out of the system as they could and they were successful. They thwarted democracy. It was disgusting.

Another case in point: the Republicans, under their leader, Dean Skelos, have shown themselves to be utterly without principle. Their motto seems to be power at any price. Up until now, even though the Democratic minority in the Senate was only one or two votes behind, the minority Democrats had to beg for anything they got. We are talking about staff, constituent mailings, secretaries, you name it. Despite the fact that every senator has about the same number of constituents, if you were a Republican senator you got pretty much what you wanted. If you were a Democrat, you got zilch. Not very fair.

The present Republican Senate Leader, Dean Skelos, was desperate. He lost a fair and square election. Against overwhelming odds, an unfairly gerrymandered set of districts, union support for the Republicans, huge amounts of money, Senate staffs that were dispatched “on vacation” to work for them, they still lost. The Republican hold was finally broken. Then Skelos undertook a plan to steal what the Democrats won. He approached the so-called Democratic Gang of Three and tried to pull them over to the Republican side. I guess you can’t blame him. Skelos did everything in his power to keep the former minority Democrats in their place by treating them as mangy curs, throwing them a scrap at a time, denying them resources enjoyed by the Republicans. Then Skelos tried transforming himself into an egalitarian before our very eyes. He called for a radical transformation of the Senate into a utopian vision in which power is shared. He talked about committee chairmanships shared with the Democratic party, none other than his Gang of Three Democratic members. He talked about transforming the powerful finance committee into a sort of independent political body in which power is shared. It’s this simple: he was one desperate dude.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, the Gang of Three were assessing the odds. They knew that if they continued their perfidious game, the full weight of the Democratic party hammer would fall on them. They knew that the Democrats would never forgive them if they joined with the Republicans. They knew that they had a Democratic governor who would make life miserable for them. They had a couple of United States senators who would not be friendly to their requests. They knew that members of the new Obama cabinet would be calling them and letting them know that they had better cut it out.

The situation is complicated by some blatant racism. At least one of their number made it clear that the blacks have gotten too much and the Hispanics, too little. I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that the President-elect or some of his top aides, including Hispanic Bill Richardson, would be counseling with them. They knew that the Democrats would make sure that they got some powerful primary opponents in the next election. There might even have been ethical and criminal investigations into the ways in which these men conduct their affairs. They had to be wondering if their grasp for power was really worth the potential consequences.

Several of the existing Republican senators who cling to power based on incumbency and name recognition will have to retire from the Senate. While the state Legislature does not have term limits, God does and these resignations from people who are eighty years old or older are inevitable. Those open seats will be ripe for the Democrats who will now run candidates in “open” districts.

Skelos did what he thought he needed to do. But with reapportionment coming up in just a few years, this is a crucial moment for democracy in New York state. The public service unions are key. They have always sided with the Republicans as part of their power equation of playing one off against the other. We can only guess whether they checked in at the last minute once they saw the handwriting on the wall. This was a good time to get back in good with the Democrats who might otherwise have been unforgiving. Clearly, the Democrats will be better friends during these lean years. So, hold on to your hats. The fact that the Gang of Three has won out is not a good sign of things to come. The deputy leader’s job should have gone to an upstater. Now the upstate voters will get the idea that they don’t count. Like I said, disgusting.

Originally Published in the Legislative Gazette, 12/5/08

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