Now is the time for a change

By arresting Speaker Sheldon Silver for all sorts of crimes, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has started a chain reaction that has set Albany on its heels. As a result, voters were insulted and put pressure on their legislators to dump Silver. Fearing for their political careers, they turned on him and told him to quit or get fired.

Now the feckless Democrats will have to make a choice. Some people are cautioning that instead of replacing one bad actor with another, we need a fundamental change in the way in which things are done in the cesspool called Albany. Speaking outside his role as U.S. Attorney Bharara made it clear that part of the poison that has infected Albany is the concept of “Three Men in the Room.” The room, of course, is where decisions are made in secret, giving immense power to the head guy in the Senate, the head of the Assembly and the governor. No sooner had Bharara said his piece, Governor Andrew Cuomo disagreed, saying that he couldn’t negotiate with the committee of senior Democrats appointed by Silver while he temporarily stepped aside. This set him up in direct conflict with Bharara who, we are told, has been investigating the governor himself for his role in disbanding the Moreland Act Commission that he set up to investigate corruption in Albany. By saying that he couldn’t negotiate with a committee, Cuomo was creating an opportunity to “appoint” a candidate of his choice.

So we are now in a succession crisis. It should be remembered that despite any denials that he might make, Cuomo will have at least one horse in this race. He is thought to be Bronx Democratic County Committee Chair Carl Heastie, who was apparently cited by the Moreland Commission. Giving Cuomo even more clout in a state that already gives its governor immense power will be a mistake since the Democrats who will make this decision would be perpetuating the very ill that permeates Albany. Instead, they should take this opportunity to open things up so that a single future dictator will not arise and do what “Shelly” was doing all along.  By giving Cuomo an ally as Speaker, it really will be all Cuomo all the time. In fact, the governor has been playing it very cute, saying that he is staying out of it. That’s like telling my dog Murray that he can’t eat from his dog dish.

We need to change the way we do business. Here are a few of my suggestions, remembering that democracy is not always easy. We need to open up the conference or caucuses of each party. People have got to know what their representatives are doing. Right now we don’t and it’s a disgrace. In fact, the hypocrisy is elevated to new levels as we televise the legislative sessions where almost nothing happens while decisions are made in secret by the majority party in each house. Rule number one: let the antiseptic light shine in.

Another surefire help would be to limit the amount of time leaders can hold office. Shelly Silver would have been stopped in his tracks if his time as Speaker had been limited to a few terms. Instead, he lasted practically forever and he would have lasted longer had the U.S. Attorney not taken the actions he did. Frankly, I would put limits on the amount of time all legislators could hold office, period. That’s right, we should do it the way the New York City Council was forced to do it.

It might also be a good idea to have conflict of interest laws with teeth, not the namby pamby kind written by the legislators themselves. And these ideas are just for starters. If we kick one guy out and keep business as usual in the legislature, we’re a bunch of suckers.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 1/30/15
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