Most likely the game will stay rigged

My father, who worked on a few occasions for the city of New York when Robert Wagner and John Lindsay were the mayors, used to say to me, “If you see a kid in knee pants, never kick him — he may be your boss someday.” Truer words were never spoken. If you treat people like dirt, it may well come back to haunt you. That is doubly true when it comes down to your political competitors.

The majority parties in the New York state Legislature have always treated the minority parties like said dirt. In some cases, even less than dirt, more like animal droppings. In recent years, the Democrats have been breathing down the Republicans’ necks, picking up one seat after another. Faced with their own inevitable demise, all the Republican majority had to do was to change the rules so that everyone had an equal chance to sponsor a bill and to have the same sized staff. Why should you have fewer people working for you if you are in the minority? You represent the same number of people as those in the majority do. When the Democrats were in the minority in the Senate, they yelled about how unfair it was. They often said that things would change when they were in charge. Not fully believing them, I would press them and they would inevitably say something like, “Well, I would like to think that things would change.”

Now the rubber is hitting the road. One of the best Republicans, Tom Libous, is admitting that they treated the Democrats badly. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, he can’t believe they didn’t see it coming. To be sure, it has been coming for a long, long time. I was a graduate student in 1965 when the Democrats last had control for a few short months. They messed it up by fighting with each other until Governor Nelson Rockefeller sided with the Mayor Robert Wagner contingent over the Bobby Kennedy contingent. The Republicans got so used to treating the Democrats as second class citizens that they didn’t stop for a moment to see that when things changed, they would become the second-class citizens, which is exactly what is happening now.

It is up to you, dear reader, to decide whether this is justice or inappropriate. The best of the Democratic state senators, Liz Krueger, is admonishing the Democrats to keep their word and change things to make the playing field more level. She is supported by some of the more enlightened folks in the Senate and by her new Democratic leader, Malcolm Smith. I am reminded of the mother of a boyhood friend on the West Side as she advised him, long before Spike Lee came along, “Stephen, do the right thing.” She did not say, “Do the political thing or do the controlling thing.”

The Senate Democrats have a long history of messing things up. If they want to stay around, they could do something really refreshing. They could just play fair. People would love it. They could let everyone introduce bills, Democrat or Republican. They could put a dead stop to the legislative tricks. They could make sure that the districts were drawn fairly, offering both parties a chance to win. Based on the few rules that I have seen, I doubt that real reform is going to happen. In fact, I suspect the game will continue to be rigged, this time on the Democratic side. The good government types (goo-goos) will continue to decry the Albany nonsense and rake in donations; the newspapers will write editorials telling everyone how piggishly the Legislature is behaving, the big interest groups will start to funnel so much money toward the Democrats that it will be sort of reminiscent of Christmas around the tree.

That would be just plain stupid, as stupid as the Republicans were when they were doing their dirty work. Things could turn around again and the Democrats would be back to where they started. Tom Libous was right. All I can say about the Democrats up to now is, “Here we go again.”

As for my heroine, Liz Krueger, she was certainly right when, after the Democrats weak initial rules were announced, she said, “It’s a beginning.” Just a beginning and a pretty pathetic one at that.

Originally Published in the Legislative Gazette, 1/16/09

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