Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

February 6, 2015

Why are we so fascinated by snow? I, for instance, spend an enormous amount of time writing and studying and talking about corrupt politicians and all sorts of other stuff but let it snow and all other subjects go out the window.

I did a Vox Pop radio program asking for people’s snow stories the other day and every phone lit up. Maybe it’s the fact that we have some of our most formative experiences as kids with snow. I remember my father taking his twin boys for a walk in Central Park after a great snowstorm and I remember my Uncle Sol recruiting us at a very young age to help him unbury his Studebaker (both ends looked the same). I remember snowballs and snowmen and wondering why the virgin snow turned yellow so quickly after it fell.

Later, like most school kids, I began to pray for snow days and later still, I began to worry about getting to work through a snowstorm. Each drive was an adventure as I commuted from Alford to New Paltz in my VW Bug. We all find out that there are crazy people who tend to drive way too fast or way too slow in the snow. Some tailgate you or honk at you. Some digitize you.

Then we learned about something new called four-wheel drive. New and improved tires handled snow better than we could have ever imagined.

Soon even the politicians got involved. New York Mayor John V. Lindsay learned the hard way what happens when you don’t pay enough attention to picking up snow. My car dropped dead on the old Grand Central Parkway and a tow truck pushed me right into a stopped car in front of me. I’m still having nightmares about that one.

So now we have governors and mayors who don’t want to get blamed for lack of preparation. Governor Cuomo in New York showed his true colors when his Metropolitan Transportation Authority ordered the subways to shut down in New York for the first time that I can remember. Unfortunately, he forgot to tell his colleague, the long suffering Mayor Bill de Blasio, that he was shutting the trains down in his own city. I had to stay over in Albany for two nights since the new governor, Charlie Baker, shut down the Mass Pike in its entirety.

The problem, of course, is that the predicted snowstorm never really shaped up. Let me ask you; is it not possible to close down the Pike from Springfield to Boston and NOT from the New York line to Springfield? The problem with these people is that they are not properly monitoring conditions in real time. I understand their fear that they will be held responsible if something goes wrong but their jobs demand that they think on their feet. I guess that’s what we’re all in for as our elected leaders get more and more chicken and close down roads and schools when they don’t have to.

I always scream at the weather forecasters as I watch them on television, “Look out the damned window!” Politicians might try that technique. They could learn a lot from it. It is also interesting to see the difference in how town road crews are instructed. I get the feeling that some towns use salt and sand and others do not; it’s one thing to be environmental and yet another to save lives if not money.

Maybe it’s the mass communications systems crying wolf.

Maybe it’s CNN seeing dollar signs and having people outside in their swanky jackets talking about impending doom while little more than flurries float around their heads.

We wonder whether we are watching a weather version of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Hey folks, this proves that there are big bucks in weather events and it also proves that we are not always being told the truth.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 1/30/15

Now is the time for a change

February 6, 2015
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

Just when you think nothing will change…

January 27, 2015

I have known Sheldon Silver for years. He may be very greedy, he may have resisted changing the status quo in Albany, and we have certainly had our personal disagreements over the years, but I really have to say, I feel badly for the guy.

Anybody who has read my work or heard me on the radio knows how I have eschewed the culture of venality in Albany. It is a study of the worst in human sin. It is not democracy — indeed, it is quite the opposite. The man who has been keeping it that way, representing his colleagues in the Legislature, is Shelly Silver. He has had willing accomplices like Andrew Cuomo who killed the very Moreland Act Commission that ironically got the fighting U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara to call a halt to the way things were getting done in the Capitol.

It was the famous ward-heeler, “Plunkitt of Tammany Hall,” who is remembered for two things that fit Shelly Silver to a T. The first is, “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.” The second was the concept of “honest graft.” Obviously, Shelly Silver, the august Speaker of the Assembly, practiced both with a vengeance. He thought that he was doing his thing on the legal side of the graft line. Preet Bharara thought that he was on the felonious side of the line. Whether the U.S. Attorney has moved the line may end up as a question for a jury of Silver’s peers. However, Bharara appears to have finally opened up the overflowing cesspool that we call Albany.

If the members of the Legislature had a brain in their collective heads, they would see the train coming down the track and change the rules so that people could have faith in their government. My bet is that they won’t do that because too many of them are in too deep to make a change without the risk of someone blowing the whistle on them or incurring Silver’s wrath. This is not a man who forgets his political enemies and there are a lot of metaphorical bodies lying around to prove that. My student-powered newspaper, The Legislative Gazette, once ran a story about Silver going into the hospital. It was a long time ago, but Shelly thought it was inappropriate and never forgave the students for having done their jobs. And by this I mean twenty years later.

So now Shelly Silver is facing the fight of his life. If the U.S. Attorney has more solid evidence than he is already showing, Silver might have to make a deal and that could mean disclosing some of the dirty inner workings of the Legislature. It may mean that a lot of people will end up going to jail. And it may mean that a whole new group of fresh faces will be joining the Legislature come the next election. It would appear that none of Shelly’s colleagues are going to say anything bad about him. There is a famous story told by former Soviet dictator Khrushchev about Joseph Stalin. As the brutal Stalin lay dying, his advisors were called into a room knowing that Stalin was planning yet another bloody purge. As they stood around the man’s soon-to-be corpse, someone noticed that his big toe twitched and everyone in the room had a true sense of panic.

Of course, everyone wants to know what Andrew Cuomo has to fear here. We know that the U.S. Attorney was studying him, too, after he put a knife into the corruption-fighting Moreland Commission. We also know that no matter how many times Cuomo and Shelly Silver hug each other in public, there is no love lost between them. With Shelly gone, Cuomo’s path will be clear on things like changes in the education system and even ethics measures that Cuomo will be able to claim were his doing. Just when you think nothing will change, everything does.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 1/27/15

Boston Olympiad would be a costly hassle statewide The Berkshire Eagle

January 23, 2015

Here are some topics that may draw people’s ire:

I’m with people who really don’t want the summer Olympics to come to Boston. Not only will it cost a fortune, it will mess up traffic and invite terrorist nut fringe people.

Now House Speaker Robert DeLeo says that he wants to spread the Olympics out across the whole state. He specifically mentioned Pittsfield and the Berkshires in his remarks. The good news is that he knows that the Berkshires are in Massachusetts. Usually, these pols think that Western Massachusetts starts at Route 128. The bad news is that a single James Taylor concert has been known to tie up the Pike for miles. That’s worth it, since JT belongs to all of us. The Olympics are different. The last thing we need is TTT: traffic, terrorists and tsuris.

I also know, as DeLeo assuredly does, that Massachusetts will end up paying through the nose for the games. I’m sure the plan to spread the games throughout the state is so that we won’t bitch about it. We’re still paying for the Big Dig. We are eternally the poor cousin of Boston and will be treated that way in perpetuity.

Then there is the matter of how we pay for schools. Some determined folks, many of whom consider themselves liberals, voted down the reconstruction of Monument Mountain High School. Given sodium pentothal, they would insist that they are indeed liberals but the taxes were too high. In the meantime, the Southern Berkshire school district took the state money and ran. Good for them.

The other day as I walked through my favorite food emporium I was stopped by a very angry and sensible businessman who told me that the town that had educated his kids at Monument Mountain would end up paying through the nose because they eschewed the state money. He made the point that all the repairs to the boilers and the roof and everything else would have to be borne directly by the taxpayers and that the total bill for all of that will surely exceed what the district would have had to pay had they accepted the state money. “Mark my words,” he said. I will.

Deval Patrick was a wonderful governor and we all know it. The new governor, Charlie Baker, got lucky. He drew Martha Coakley as his opponent and narrowly outpolled her. During the campaign I did an extensive radio interview with Baker. The new governor sounds like a nice man. He comported himself rather well during the campaign. He knows that how he handles what he says is an extensive deficit will be his first major test.

The Patrick people say that his deficit number of three quarters of a billion dollars is not accurate. Baker says that he will make up the deficit fairly and that means everyone will have to take a little hit because it is unfair to make some suffer more than the others.

This is where we will see whether a blue state Republican will make the cuts right down the middle or will attack those programs that protect those most in need. I hope the man who governs is the same man I saw in campaign mode. Baker was once a top player in the administration of former governor Bill Weld. Weld had one major thing going for him — a terrific sense of humor. I hope Baker does, too. He’ll need it once the honeymoon is over.

Finally, across the border in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to change the criminal justice system to protect juveniles and place them into more secure facilities. I get that and approve but let’s all remember that a 16-year-old with a gun can kill your kid, your husband, or you. The victim is dead, the kid is in prison. What a conundrum.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 1/22/15

Teacher Politics

January 19, 2015
The New York state education wars are heating up. This has been coming for a long time. For some reason, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has decided that there is political gold in sticking it to teachers. Needless to say, teachers and their political leaders and allies are not pleased. There are a lot of teachers and a lot of teachers’ families and a lot of people who have been taught by the good teachers in New York. Teachers, who have devoted their lives to educating us, have a lot of friends.

The Democratic New York state Assembly is certainly siding with the teachers and their unions. When Andrew Cuomo was first elected governor and made known his preferences for charter schools, for limiting school budgets, and for making it easier to fire teachers, he was quickly branded by many teachers as an enemy of education. Take charter schools. Certainly, there are arguments to be made for these schools. Choice is just one reason for allowing these schools to flourish and grow. Parents who were, in certain cases, subjected to segregated and failing schools were given an option, just as wealthy New Yorkers had opportunities to choose private schools or in some cases, test-driven specialized public schools. On the other hand, charter schools are often backed by wealthy patrons who, in some but not all cases, think that their tax dollars are going down an endless hole with little to show for it. Some politicians have realized that a good way to get campaign dollars from these wealthy folks is to back their charter efforts. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was swept into office on an anti-charter platform but was soon disabused of his intentions to curb charters by Andrew Cuomo who is fiercely pro-charter. De Blasio quickly gave way, perhaps because of the immutable law in politics that “The city is a creature of the state.” De Blasio can’t afford to tick off Cuomo.

In the meantime, over in the New York state Assembly, Speaker Sheldon Silver rules his house in a Sphinx-like manner. He is not nearly as likely to give into Cuomo as he once was and Cuomo has not shown the clout he once had. Silver is not about to give up his relationship with the New York City teachers. Cuomo wants the legislature, which now limits the number of charters that are available, to authorize more charters. In fact, there is a movement afoot to have unlimited numbers of such schools. Silver may give Cuomo a few more charters but he is not about to open the flood gates. This is one time that the members of his Democratic Assembly Caucus are in synch with their leader. Also, all chief executives, from mayors to governors, want education under their purview. Mike Bloomberg achieved that in New York and now Bill de Blasio is the beneficiary. Cuomo is known to want that kind of power at the state level and that would mean the abolition of the New York State Board of Regents. Without a long explanation, trust me, Shelly Silver gets to appoint the members of the Board of Regents and that is NOT about to happen on his watch. As Cuomo’s power diminishes, the clout of the Assembly Democrats will increase. In the meantime, the recently augmented Senate Republicans will have little to say on the subject. They will have to support the charter schools but Silver and his Democrats will prove to be too great a force for them to get anywhere.

I’ve been talking to some of the leaders of the teachers union and their antipathy towards Cuomo is, to put it mildly, huge. If Cuomo wants to go somewhere national with his political career, he had better take care.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 1/16/15

Citizens expect taxes to be spent in interest of justice

January 19, 2015

Instead of raising taxes, governments raise fees. According to the official “Rules of Politics Playbook,” the worst thing a politician can do is raise taxes. Instead, one can start charging taxpayers more for things like fishing licenses and construction permits.

Some of us do believe in progressive taxation but allowing politicians to raise taxes at will is an easy alternative to making hard decisions about workforce numbers and overtime and whether or not you really need that new police cruiser or another dump truck.

Did you ever notice that some issues at town meetings will cause people to raise questions but others won’t? Do you think it’s possible that when the question of a new fire house or police cruiser is considered, some folks may be afraid of ticking off the very people they might really, really need at a moment’s notice? I would argue that’s why secret ballots at town meetings, though cumbersome and time consuming, are really important.

It doesn’t stop there. How about those letters we get every year from police departments asking for money, not for the town, but for their own police associations? In some cases we hear the argument that the police association will use the money for charity but it’s still not a good idea.

Occasionally, there is institutionalized governmental policy that we have to worry about. One of the ways in which towns fill their coffers is through speed traps. When we vote for police budgets, we often think that the police will be there to stop crime.

If the real reason the police are around is to fill government coffers and stop middle class speeders who are going faster than 20 mph, then I wonder whether the state doesn’t have an obligation to do some policing of their own. Just in case you think this is sour grapes because I have been caught, let me assure you, I have not. I am trying to train my car to go slower than 20 mph.

Speaking of police and arrests, every time I see an 18- or 20-year-old man being sentenced for a heinous crime, I wonder whether we are really talking about a man or a child. Hey, if such a perpetrator kills or maims or steals, they still have to take responsibility.

Remember all those young people of the same age who are in the armed forces. I can only shake my head and wonder how, at the crucial moment of choice, these young people make decisions that effectively ended their life options. How would you like to be the judge who had to sentence such a young person to prison for years? It can’t be easy.

Having the title “judge” can be a mark of prestige but there have to be scenarios that would cost most of us lifelong visits to a therapist, to say nothing of continual nightmares. There are perpetrators and there are victims. Both need to be treated fairly, although if your child was the victim of a brutal assault, it can’t be easy seeing a judge being sensitive to the person who committed the crime.

When a young person drives drunk and kills a 4-year-old, what is to be done with such a killer? Putting a kid behind bars for the rest of his adult life in such a case seems senseless. On the other hand, what kind of message are we sending if the punishment for snuffing out a life is just a year or two in jail?

This is, of course, an imperfect world. Our prisons are seldom places that foster rehabilitation. More likely, they are hellholes. Crime is going down in this country but too often, senseless, stupid crimes committed in the heat of the moment end in disaster. The result is awful.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 1/7/15

Andrew’s greatest speech

January 12, 2015

At former Gov. Mario Cuomo’s funeral, Andrew Cuomo gave the speech of his life as he eulogized his late father. The speech received very high marks from everyone I spoke with. There was a real sense of good will emanating from this eulogy, softening Andrew’s edges and humanizing his personality. Andrew should seize this moment.

The younger Cuomo has not always been known as a man who plays well with others. This is an ideal time for a behavior adjustment. It isn’t as if he doesn’t know about this. Upon the publication of his book, Andrew, announced that he was no longer the old “get even, get angry” Andrew who never closed the book on old feuds. If one listened carefully to the eulogy that Andrew gave for his father, there were similar words. On the other hand, no matter what anyone thinks or says, the two men are very different. It is hard to find anyone, other than a few inside Albany power brokers, who have a bad word to say about the old man. By the same token, it is equally hard to find anyone who has worked with him or for him who has a good word to say about Andrew.

Nothing was more important to Mario Cuomo than his children, especially the combative Andrew who, to be fair, did much of the senior Cuomo’s dirty work. Men like the late Mayor Ed Koch could never forgive Andrew Cuomo, who he believed was responsible for the “Vote For Cuomo, Not the Homo” signs that appeared during the Koch vs. Cuomo election feud. There was no faster way of getting on the old man’s bad list than by saying something critical about any of his children. That’s something any father can respect, since most of us feel the same way. Of course, some of our kids behave better than others and Andrew’s eulogy made it clear that father and son were not always on the same page. I get that. It’s one thing for a father and a son to fight with each other — it’s another thing entirely for an outsider to attack either of them. I was quite close to Mario, but when I criticized his son, watch out. Mario exercised the nuclear option.

Andrew’s eulogy for his father was moving but it also had some self- serving political elements to it. That was a little troubling in this setting. For example, Andrew called for peace between those people who believe the police have been overly aggressive and the police, themselves. This occurred just as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was facing what might only be called a police revolt as officers turned their backs on the executive authority. By suggesting that the two sides had to get together, Cuomo was once again pulling the rug out from under the mayor.

Sigmund Freud suggested that our characters are set by the time we are about four years old. So even if Andrew wanted to change his political persona, one questions whether or not he could. Many people admire the man because “he gets things done.” While others think that he’s made many mistakes, he still easily won reelection as governor, even though he lost many votes that he might have gotten had people liked him more. And so, what we might call “likeability” is crucial to Andrew’s political success. If he tries, he could build on that Mario eulogy to gain some likeability traction. Whether he does that or not is up to him. You may remember that Jiminy Cricket stayed on Pinocchio’s shoulder and whistled, “Always let your conscience be your guide.” If Cuomo is smart, he will turn this opportunity into a new beginning. If he isn’t, he could find himself in trouble in the old Andrew way.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 1/12/15


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