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Ethics games

March 24, 2015

Governor Andrew Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie stood up at a recent press conference and announced a two-way deal on ethics reform in Albany. Notably absent from the press conference was Dean Skelos, the head man in the Republican-dominated Senate and the “third man in the room” without whom almost nothing gets done in Albany. Since Heastie and Cuomo agreed on the governor’s five-point ethics program, it might mean something, or it might mean nothing. Every seasoned Albany hand knows full well that Mario Cuomo and his son Andrew have been playing a game for years known as “The mean old Republicans won’t let me have my way” strategy. Cuomo wants and needs the Republicans in power so that he can be the good guy and they can be the heavies.

When he ran for governor, Cuomo told the voters that he would veto any reapportionment bill that would allow the legislative majorities to draw their own districts; the theory being that they would draw districts in which they had the best chance of winning. The minute he got into office, he broke his campaign pledge. The Senate Republicans did what came naturally and drew districts in which they couldn’t lose. That put them in power. Then the next time out, Cuomo pledged to get the Democrats into the majority in the state Senate but he “failed.” So it seems clear to me that he wants the Republicans to control the Senate. Then, too, there was that Moreland Act Commission that was abruptly canceled just as they were getting somewhere. That didn’t help his credibility problem.

Now, he stands up with the Assembly speaker and they announce this grand deal on ethics, but the Republican Senate is not on board. Do I really think that Speaker Heastie wants an ethics package? No, I don’t. But if the deal was to come up with something, give Cuomo his bragging rights and at the same time make sure that there would be limited ethics reform, well, maybe. Let’s remember that Cuomo made a string of promises about this that have not exactly worked out. His revised, revised, ethics commission is not known for its effectiveness and Cuomo knew that people were beginning to have their doubts. So he came up with his five-point program, the most important part of which was absolute disclosure about how much money was being made on the outside by legislators, including lawyers and real estate agents. The Senate Republicans, many of whom are quite well heeled, don’t want to do that. I don’t blame them. If I were them, I wouldn’t want to do it either. Luckily, I’m not one of them.

Since some legislators have been reporting that they were in Albany when they were not and claiming the per diem that is given when they are at work, the Cuomo-Heastie team came up with a solution. Members would have to put a card into a machine proving that they were actually where they said they were. Of course, somebody else could punch the clock for them but hey, it’s something. That is one change that we will see happening so that Cuomo and Heastie can say, “See what we did, even without the mean old Republicans?” For their part, the Republicans are insisting that any deal on disclosure include wives and live-in girlfriends like the governor’s housemate, Sandra Lee. This is already being called “Sandra’s Law.”

By no means is ethics reform in Albany a done deal, but more of the same old, same old stuff. Cuomo insists he won’t compromise on his principles, but we have heard that song before. His problem now is that fewer and fewer people believe him and his polling numbers are going down. Maybe he thinks that any ethics reform will confirm his sincerity. Nope, this time he really has to produce.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 3/24/15

Small-town elected service is a thankless task

March 23, 2015

Elections are won or lost in a number of different ways. Sometimes those who have the most money to invest in campaigns win. Sometimes the most attractive or charismatic person wins. Sometimes people win because no one else wants the angst of running for office.

I’ve only run for political office once in my adult life and that was in the tiny little town of Alford. It was a long time ago but I learned a powerful lesson and that is that town government is complicated and tedious, and often thankless.

I did that job for three long years. The man who encouraged me to run was the late Gus “Boss” Berkel, a political genius of sorts. He assured me that I could beat a member of the old guard and he told me how to do it. We would deliver a letter to everyone’s doorstep and make the case.

As a little Jewish professor from New York I had my doubts about the chances of winning but the Boss was so sure of me I went for it and, incredibly, was elected. I had also served on a number of town committees in which people wanting stuff came before boards, asked and were told “no,” and then blew their gaskets.

As a selectman, my greatest trials occurred when the Boss took off for Florida for several months. A wonderful man who worked in Pittsfield was often absent as well, leaving me the only schnook sitting up there. It turns out that there were some very serious issues we had to resolve and didn’t.

One was the great hydroponic “pickle factory” caper. Go up Green River Road from Great Barrington, look to your right and there it stands, a model of foolery and wasted taxpayer dollars. I had to go to court on that one and was admonished by the judge for something or other and once again, the legal system failed. But that’s a whole other story.

All of this is meant to demonstrate that you have to have your own good reasons for doing these jobs. When I was asked to do it again, I didn’t hesitate to pass. Later I served as town moderator and I didn’t do too well in that spot, either. People in the audience had to remind me where we were in the town warrant. Luckily for the people of Alford, they got better people to serve in these various capacities.

People run for these offices for a number of reasons. The best motivation is plain old service to the community. Bless those people who do it year in and out. The worst reason is what my brother has always referred to as “blood sport.”

There are some unhappy people out there who are always looking for trouble. They convert their hatred into philosophical rationales. They rant and they rave. If they hate paying taxes, they go to great lengths to tell you that your school system is over-spending. They may offer other ways to get it done, but that won’t happen because it’s just too hard.

Some (but not all) of them are really troubled. You pretty well know that because everyone to whom you mention their names will tell you straight out, “That guy is nuts.” But we don’t have to worry about these folks, do we? Yes, as a matter of fact, we do.

If you read the beginning of this piece you will see how hard it is to serve in office. You can’t go on vacation. You have to work hard, often several days a week. Deb Phillips, who worked incredibly hard for the town of Great Barrington as selectwoman just said no more because she just couldn’t give enough time to both her business and the town. Of course, if no one else wants to run some of the aforementioned characters will take out papers and run. That’s the dilemma and we all know it.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 3/21/15

A not so grand bargain?

March 17, 2015

It is crucial for any citizen who wants to understand state government to know about the seminal case, Silver versus Pataki. This case taught us the principle that the governor can put any policy demands into the budget and the Legislature can’t take them out. Because of that case, governors of New York grew to have power seldom seen in any other state.

Just look at the latest budget in which Andrew Cuomo has been both mischievous and heroic. His terrible proposal to allow for tax breaks for parochial and private schools is there. He should be ashamed of that. But also in the proposed document is Cuomo’s first rate list of reforms to the state’s ethics laws.

His list goes on and on but just for starters, he wants to know exactly how much money every legislator earns on the outside. Since we have seen the proof as yet another legislator is hauled away to the hoosegow and we understand the nature of those who steal simply because they can, Cuomo’s efforts are indeed heroic.

In the end, though, in order to have an on-time budget there will be a grand bargain. Much of what the governor has demanded in his budget will be mitigated and he will submit a revised budget. The question on ethics, for example, is whether he will give away the store. I hope he doesn’t but I suspect he will. Poor Andrew is now so damaged from his major screw up in disbanding his corruption fighting Moreland Act Commission and his refusal to keep his campaign promise on apportionment (not allowing the legislators to draw their own districts), cynics like me expect that when the dust settles, he will have given in on the important issues that govern ethics. No one should really be surprised if he follows suit and sells out on his announced ethics reform platform and gives in to the greedy legislators who have anointed Speaker Carl Heastie to do their dirty work for them.

New Yorkers really know nothing about their state government. When pressed, they may mutter something easy like, “They’re all crooks” (not true) but the media has made such a circus over late budgets that when we get one on time, it is seen as much more important than what’s actually in the document. None of this is meant to discount the idea that late budgets cost us all big time and really affect the state’s school districts which have to know how much money they will have to spend.

The problem for Andrew is that his father was plagued by late budgets. Since Andrew was by his father’s side to see all the pain that this caused, he is determined not to let it happen on his watch. But now the proof is in the pudding. Does he really want all the so-called reforms he has asked for or is this just show and tell? In other words, is it all a big game? In the past Andrew has folded at the crucial moment, arguing that he had to. This time around, people should hold his feet to the fire and if he does the same old, same old, they should say to the ventriloquist, “We saw your lips move.”

You have to ask yourself whether these clowns understand that they are really not doing themselves any good. They are all ripping off the system for huge payoffs in the form of campaign gifts and, in some cases, outrageous legal bribes in the form of outside income.

A friend of the governor asked me recently how come I keep writing this again and again. The answer, said the great Pete Seeger, is that “…repetition is the height of pedagogy.” Maybe if I say it often enough, someone will wake up and act.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 3/17/15

Road to heroin addiction has numerous on-ramps

March 16, 2015

So what is it that makes people get into heroin? Is it just desperation? Is it just another bad decision coming from a life of terror or boredom? Is it possible that there is a gene that predisposes certain individuals to various addictions?

Certainly, most of us understand that people who get hooked are facing very difficult lives. Some can kick the habit but many others can’t so they steal, lie and cheat to keep the endless cycle of addiction going.

Some people spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on therapy. Many others, however, have fallen for the lure of this killer drug and it is hard to explain why we are facing such an epidemic. We can of course, follow a standard therapeutic model otherwise known as a “one off.”

It is tempting to think of this as an individual choice and it certainly is that. On the other hand, it is an epidemic, a sociological and political phenomenon that has eaten away at the fabric of our society, killing children and grandchildren.

It is a theoretical possibility that as the distance between the haves and the have-nots grows greater, people will give up on their own potential and fall down the addiction hole from which there is no emerging. Of course, there are some very well-heeled individuals with good jobs, good possibilities and everything to look forward to who have the monkey on their backs.

Things got bad in my hometown. It took a very courageous district attorney, David Capeless, to do the right thing and close down the drug trade in what the Smithsonian called the “best small town in America.”

You have to be eternally vigilant, otherwise the scourge will just reappear. In some towns and villages the money that is to be made from heroin involves prosecutors and police who see easy pickings. That’s why confiscated drugs need to be monitored and accounted for lest they be sold, leading to the age-old question, “Why would we pay law enforcement personnel to be crooks?”

The real question will continue to be why people get into heroin in the first place. There are a thousand excuses that one can use to blame their descent into drug hell.

I just read a book by a guy who had back problems and he said that he took the drug in order to alleviate the pain.

I’ve had to live with a lot of back pain and the thought of putting any of that stuff into me is so horrible and off putting that I would never go there.

But indeed, the path to addiction often begins with an injury, for which a doctor prescribes opioids, such as oxycodone or percoset, to control pain. The problem is, the patient often becomes dependent on the high produced by those powerful meds, and turns to the streets once the prescription runs out.

And on the streets, where opioids have become expensive and hard to come by, heroin becomes an attractive alternative.

We have spent enormous amounts of time and resources to treat users and slow the scourge of drug addiction. Some of the potential answers include the dispensing of Methadone and other substitute drugs.

What goes around comes around. We’ve seen all of this before. But that does not get to the root problem or answer the question as to why people would risk destroying their lives with drug addiction.

We need to keep closing down drug operations but that hardly gets to the base of the problem, either. Ironically, the criminal justice problem is served by drug dealers who drop the dime on their competitors.

I could offer the solution that we spent more time and money on preventative programs and therapists like the great people at the Brien Center with particular thanks to Dr. Jennifer Michaels who is one hell of an amazing doctor. No matter what, we’d better get busy.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 3/14/15

Whose girlfriend?

March 10, 2015

Sometimes when you watch Albany politics, things get so nutty that you just have to laugh. This is exactly the case as the Legislature and the governor duke it out over ethical behavior. The legislators seem to be saying that if the governor is going to hold them accountable regarding ethics, they will hold him equally accountable. It goes something like this: “If you want to know how much money we legislators are making on the outside, we want to know how much you are making.” While the governor’s people may argue that this is a case of apples and oranges, it most certainly is not. Fair is fair.

Any student of state government surely knows that the governmental powers of New York’s chief executive are high on the list in this country. So assuming that people who want something from government may try to legally — or even illegally — bribe the people who hold the power, it stands to reason that the governor’s clout is greater than that of any single legislator. Am I right? Of course I’m right. If the governor gets a huge payout from a publishing company owned by a rich and powerful man and almost no one buys the book, shouldn’t that raise eyebrows? Remember when Joe Bruno got into trouble for selling a near worthless nag to a guy who admitted he paid too much for the horse in order to gain favor with Bruno?

The governor rightfully insists that that legislators should disclose exactly how much money they are making on the outside. Of course we are entitled to that information. I’ve been yelling about this for years. None of this silliness of “between a hundred and several hundred thousand dollars.” Tell us to the penny and tell us what you did for the money. But the governor is a smart man and he knows that there are several ways to bribe a legislator. Hey, some of them are even legal. You can, for example, hire the legislator as a lawyer or a consultant or buy insurance from him or — and this is where the funnies begin — you can do the same thing with his significant other. So the governor wants them to disclose money earned by their girlfriends, husbands, wives, or partners. Of course, there are sons and daughters and sisters-in-law who you can funnel the money to. Obviously, when the governor starts talking about their girlfriends, he makes them very, very nervous. I actually don’t blame them for being nervous. This is entirely new territory.

But wait a minute. Doesn’t the governor have a girlfriend? As Casey Stengel once instructed us, “You can look it up!” I personally believe that Andrew Cuomo deserves a medal for living with a woman who is not his wife, but the married legislators are worried about mentions of girlfriends and such. That’s what’s got everyone so nervous. Legislators are now insisting that Andrew’s girlfriend, Sandra Lee, should have to disclose her income to the penny, too. After all, someone may be trying to get to Cuomo through her. Of course, no legislator wants to be the one out-front on this lest they be accused of sin. Nevertheless, they are certainly correct that if they have to disclose what their girlfriends are making, the governor should, too. Am I right? Of course I’m right.

My bet is that this is not going to go anywhere. When the inevitable deal gets made, all the talk about wives and girlfriends will disappear from top level negotiations. Everyone has too much to lose if these skeletons come out of the closet. But you have got to admit, it is funny!
Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 3/9/15

Netanyahu must do more than deliver a good speech

March 9, 2015

I was raised in a household that was profoundly affected by the Holocaust. The establishment of the state of Israel was a matter of enormous pride and hope to my family.

The scourge of anti-Semitism around the world, both back then in 1948 and today is not arguable except by a few fools and scoundrels who are what we call deniers. That is why we are so grateful to Steven Spielberg and his Shoah Foundation project, which documents the evil that is still among the very worst ever committed.

Just a few days ago, Benjamin Netanyahu offered a stirring speech to the U.S. Congress. The Israeli Prime Minister invoked every known skill in speech making. Among the most memorable moments of the speech was the introduction of author and survivor Eli Wiesel, who has done so much to remind the world of the terror of the Nazi regime.

He was met by tumultuous applause from the assembled Members of Congress. One doesn’t have to look farther than to the various Middle Eastern regimes that will settle for nothing less than the total obliteration of Israel. That, of course, is why Wiesel was there — to give reinforcement to Netanyahu’s words, “Never again!”

It just remains to look behind the speech at the politics of the situation. Clearly, Speaker of the House John Boehner had politics on his mind. I personally think he violated the United States Constitution, which gives the president the role as chief foreign policy official in this country.

In what could only be declared a disgusting and purposeful offense, Boehner didn’t even inform the president that he had issued the invitation. Democrats were put into an intolerable situation. The president ignored the speech. The vice president couldn’t make it. House Minority Leader Pelosi was unhappy with her members’ affirmative behavior during the speech.

It was at least a short-term victory for the Republican leader, but the speech by Netanyahu raises some disturbing questions. His central premise was that you couldn’t trust the Iranians; they wouldn’t keep their word and no assurances would change that.

Of course, we would remind everyone of the fact that the last thing the United States wanted was a true democracy in Iran. We literally installed the Shah when the Iranians had a democratically elected leader. The rise of the present system of Ayatollahs can be attributed to the rage that came directly from the Shah’s regime.

The impositions of worldwide sanctions have taken their toll. It is clear to me, at least, that the people of Iran have had enough. They elected a president who offered the people hope of getting out of the present intolerable situation.

The Iranian people have minds. They’re smart. Netanyahu maintains that once the deal that is being negotiated expires, the Iranians will build all the bombs they want.

It is clear to me that once the sanctions are lifted, a lesson will have been learned. The Iranians will not want to return to a time of severe deprivation. If anything, this speech has strengthened President Obama’s hand in the current negotiations. They know that he has a hostile political situation and if they want to lift the sanctions, they will have to make a politically acceptable deal.

Netanyahu, for his part, has clearly alienated this president. He says that he wants peace with the Palestinians yet he keeps building settlements. He has done little to make this critical peace possible.

Of course, we all know that there are militants who don’t want to see Israel survive but it is possible to make a peace in which Arab countries will be held responsible for keeping the peace. What other choice do we have?

It was a good speech but Netanyahu needs to move forward or the Israeli voters will have to make the change that is clearly needed now.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 3//7/15

Everyone hates Gov. Cuomo — or do they?

March 3, 2015

Someone walked up to me the other day and asked, “Why does everyone hate Cuomo?”

I told him in no uncertain terms that I didn’t think that was fair. I pointed out that Gov. Andrew Cuomo had won re-election by a great margin and that he still is getting considerable credit for his courageous victories on gay marriage and gun control. What’s more, the polling data on the guy is still quite healthy for a governor in his second term.

“Well, that may be true,” said my new friend, “but everyone I speak with says they don’t like him. Just look at what happened when Zephyr Teachout, an unknown law professor with no money, ran against him in a Democratic primary. In much of upstate New York, she beat his pants off.”

“Well,” I responded, “it is true that he has made some dumb moves. We all know that decapitating the Moreland Act Commission before it was done with its anti-corruption work stank like old fish. And he really let us down with the whole gerrymandering-reapportionment legislation that would allow the majority parties in the Assembly and the Senate to continue the despicable, anti-democratic nonsense of drawing their own districts. His treatment of Mayor Bill de Blasio in New York City has some folks thinking that he’s a bully. His scheduling of a major cabinet meeting in Albany the day that the mayor was visiting made some people suspect that he was upstaging the mayor. For his part, Mayor de Blasio has been nothing but nice to Cuomo. There are some unkind people who believe that Cuomo has no friends but what the kids call ‘frenemies’ — half friend, half enemy. I have been searching my mind for examples of people in the public sector who we all know are friends to Andrew.”

“So,” I said to my inquisitor, “it may be something else.”

“I’ll tell you what I think,” he said. “I just don’t think he’s very nice. Most people I know think he is just mean and that he’s a political animal who is at war with everyone whether they like him or not. I actually used to like him, but then I ran into a teacher friend of mine, and — boy, oh boy! — do they hate him. My friend is a perfectly nice lady without a mean bone in her body. In fact, she’s not a bit political. She just can’t understand why Cuomo keeps picking fights with teachers. She says that his blaming them for failing schools is incredibly unfair. She says that the teachers who teach in the most difficult districts are heroes and have a much harder job than all those people who teach in upscale districts, although they work hard, too. The point is that she is angry, and that comes from a person who is never really angry.”

I turned to my friend and explained that Sigmund Freud thought that our characters are formed by the time we are 4 years old. I repeated the words used by Andrew himself: “It is what it is.” I told her Andrew’s worst enemy is Andrew. I told her that we are all our own worst enemy.

Andrew Cuomo actually ’fessed up about all of this when he introduced his book. He knows that the old Andrew had a reputation but the new Andrew is not the old Andrew. Obviously, that confession didn’t help him sell books. Sales have been miserable. My bet is that if people don’t feel warm and cuddly about you, they are not likely to buy your book.

But still, I told my new friend that maybe people think his ability to get things done trumps his personal likability factor. In any case, even though I am a Freudian, I think working on our bad sides can be productive. Don’t you?

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 3/2/15


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