In troubled times, the trick is to play it straight

For a few brief moments, once when Mario Cuomo became governor and then when Eliot Spitzer took the reins, it looked like we might see some changes in the way in which things are done in Albany. In both cases, things stayed the same. Despite his low poll numbers, David Paterson is a good man but when he took office, he decided to take a different path from that of his predecessor. As the son of an insider and a lifelong insider himself, he concluded that there was no good reason to challenge the system. He knew how it worked and he worked it. For a while, things went his way. Fatigued New Yorkers thanked their lucky stars that the implosion of the system — Joe Bruno’s downfall and Spitzer’s flameout — was over. Paterson made friends with Shelly Silver and got along with his former Senate colleague, Malcolm Smith. Paterson had been a good friend of Joe Bruno’s. One of the worst things that happened to the new governor was that Bruno was forced out and the next guy up on the Republican side was the far more belligerent Dean Skelos. When you are a Long Islander, you’ve got to be tough. If you don’t believe me, try driving on the Southern State Parkway. So there was Paterson with the same old, same old all around him. His numbers took a dive after Kirsten Gillibrand became the senator and after Team Paterson trashed Caroline Kennedy.

Now we have more same old, same old than ever before. True, we got a fairly on-time budget but it was laden with good old-fashioned pork. The conservatives have had a field day criticizing the significantly above-the-rate-of-inflation budget. The stimulus money that was used to close the gap might be a good thing, assuming the recession is over in two years when that money runs out. If it isn’t, there will be a gaping hole in that year’s budget. There’s a tremendous amount at stake. If the Democrats screw it up and run a weakened governor and Barack Obama is not leading the ticket in a national election, the Democrats could lose the Senate. The consequent redistricting and gerrymandering could keep the Republicans in power for a long time to come. If Paterson’s numbers stay low, you can expect that he will be visited upon by senior Democrats asking him to step aside. Then enter Andrew Cuomo.

I recently spoke to the statewide social studies association. Someone in the audience asked me what I thought of the idea of term limits for state legislators. I responded that since the system had become so self-serving, I would support such a thing. I told them what they already knew: unless we had the ability to put such questions on the ballot through initiative and referendum, it would never happen. I pointed out that term limits got on the ballot in Gotham in a voter plebiscite. Subsequently, they’ve been gutted so that Michael Bloomberg could run again. I told them that as long as things continued as they are now, there was little likelihood that state legislators of any party would vote to cut their own throats and end their political careers.

So, we are stuck with what we have. The Republicans certainly didn’t distinguish themselves when they were in office. Their dreadful treatment of the minority Democrats when they were in charge of the Senate makes them most unsympathetic as they cry in their beer that the Democrats are not playing fair. The fact is, everyone knows that the Democrats are much fairer to the minority Republicans than said Republicans were when the tables were turned.

The Democrats know that the state is getting bluer and bluer. The trick in these treacherous economic times is to play it straight and do what is good for the people, not for their special interest friends. They have to understand that if they go back to the insider, lobbyist-driven clubhouse days, they will be cutting their own throats. And, of course, it goes without saying that the longer the voters look the other way and don’t pay attention, the longer these folks will continue on their current path to failure.

Originally Published in the Legislative Gazette, 4/10/09

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