Just when you think nothing will change…

Posted January 27, 2015 by alanchartock
Categories: Uncategorized

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

Posted January 23, 2015 by alanchartock
Categories: Uncategorized

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

Posted January 19, 2015 by alanchartock
Categories: Uncategorized

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

Posted January 19, 2015 by alanchartock
Categories: Uncategorized

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

Posted January 12, 2015 by alanchartock
Categories: Uncategorized

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

Mario Cuomo an unapologetic social liberal

Posted January 12, 2015 by alanchartock
Categories: Uncategorized

Mario Cuomo has passed, we all knew it was coming.

He was a huge part of my life. It started after I had written a column during the gubernatorial primary between him and Ed Koch. The headline was, “Meet Governor Koch.” For years Cuomo told me that he kept it in his top drawer just to torture me.

It seemed impossible that this obscure Queens lawyer could beat the ballistic, bombastic Koch, who was Mr. New York and who had beaten Cuomo in a previous primary for mayor of New York.

Well there I was, a youngish professor, running a series of public radio stations feeling sorry for myself. Cuomo would never talk to me, I thought, because I had picked the wrong horse. Well, one day I got a call from a Cuomo press secretary, Steve Morello, that he wanted to talk to me so I went down to the capitol, hat in hand, and met with Morello.

The phone rang and Steve said, “Guess who’s here with me, Alan Chartock,” and he told me it was the governor on the phone and he wanted to see me. So I went down to his office and there he was.

Within moments he was asking whether he could be on my radio show. “Anytime” I said. “No,” he said, “I mean every week.” And so it began on virtually every public radio station in the state. Twelve years together, arguing, having fun, with the single brightest, funniest, clever man in the world. Yes, I mean that; in the world.

I ended up writing a book about that relationship, “Me and Mario Cuomo.” It was a history of our adventures. First there were the 12 years when he was governor and then several more years when he was just Mario.

He could do any dialect, he could tell stories like the one about the Blue Spruce where his father exhorted the boys to get shovels and rope when a giant lightning burst felled the tree in front of the family’s new home in Queens. Imitating his father’s Italian accent, Cuomo intoned, “Come oona boys, we’re a-gonna pus her up.”

Years later the grandest blue spruce in the world was in front of that house. Needless to say, we all cried as the can-do story ended. Then there was the one about Ginger the dog. “Ginger is dying,” he read from his diary on the radio. He should have treated Ginger better and every animal owner’s heart melted.

When had a governor ever showed a heart like that of Mario Cuomo? Simple answer: never. It sure wasn’t his predecessor the dour Hugh Carey or his successor, the plastic George Pataki. Nope, Mario was one of a kind, an unreconstructed Rooseveltian social liberal who believed that everyone had to have a fair shot in life.

He may have polled but let me tell you when it came to things he really believed in like his refusal to embrace a death penalty or his fight for a woman’s control over her own body he didn’t give an inch. He stood up to his own church and to the cleric whose words on the front page of a New York tabloid threatened that he would “Burn in hell.”

He once asked me whether I believed in the concept of hell.

“Yes sir,” I responded. “Where is it?” he asked.

“Right here Governor,” I answered.

He allowed that I might make a good Catholic.

One time he called me a “putz” on the radio.” I told him that was a dirty word but undeterred, he said it three more times, “Putz, putz, putz.”

When I told him the word meant penis he assured me that the correct Yiddish word was schmuck. I told him that was true but “putz” was worse. Shortly after the show was over he called and said that we had to do the show over again.

So after all those years on the radio together I mourn for my friend Mario. He was a huge part of my life. I will be forever grateful.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 1/9/15

Fearless predictions for 2015

Posted December 29, 2014 by alanchartock
Categories: Uncategorized

Here are my fearless predictions for 2015. First, though, a quick refresher on the rules. Some of these predictions are made so that something I am afraid might happen will not happen because I predicted it would happen and thereby put the double whammy on it. Don’t you see?

In other cases, I predict that something will happen because I want to see it happen so I predict it will happen to make it happen. Finally, there are some things I predict will happen because I really think that they will happen. It is up to you, dear reader, to figure out which is which. Here goes:

I predict that outgoing Gov. Deval Patrick will secretly agree to repeated entreaties from Hillary Clinton to be her vice presidential running mate. Patrick genuinely doesn’t want to do it. He wants back in the private sector but he is committed to a progressive government and does not want to see the Republicans gain the last branch of government that they don’t already control. Patrick adds balance to his ticket. His presence will offer encouragement to people of color to get out and vote. He will prove crucial to the ticket.

I predict that Gov. Charlie Baker will follow the script of his Republican predecessors and become best friends with the incoming Senate President, Stan Rosenberg. He’ll understand that he can’t do anything without a friend in high places. He will have some major resistance from the lower house. Maybe coincidentally, maybe not, two state reps will be indicted.

Educational politics in Great Barrington will heat up big time. Emboldened by their anti-tax initiative, the pushers of that group will demand to be included in a power-sharing arrangement with the School Committee and the Selectmen. They will be rebuffed and the leader of the rebel group will be unceremoniously thrown off the town Finance Committee with two of her colleagues.

There will be yet another major attempt to combine the Berkshire Hills and Southern Berkshire districts. This time the move may actually pass.

The Berkshire County District Attorney will announce that he will be seeking an indictment in the up to now unsolved Dugway Road murder in Stockbridge.

Williams College will announce that its professors will only teach one course every other semester and that they will get a full year’s sabbatical every other year. One alumnus will gripe, “Enough is enough.” The MCLA faculty and the Berkshire Community College faculty will suggest that Williams is giving all hard-working faculty a bad name.

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, will announce a major grant for the Berkshires. Even people on Great Barrington’s Hill who voted for a left wing alternative will say, “Boy, were we wrong!”

The Wassaic stop on the railroad will have a spanking new restroom! One wag will be heard to say, “What in the world took them so long? Now maybe we’ll have a chance to get a hamburger and a cup of coffee. Maybe they’ll give the Four Brothers a chance for a franchise. Hey, if you can get food in Grand Central, why not here?”

A bad person will try to buy the Berkshire Eagle. If he succeeds, I’m gone.

The federal government will investigate a well-known speed trap in Egremont.

The Berkshire baby boom will continue unabated.

Housatonic will continue on a roll along with Hudson, N.Y. They’ll both compete for the title, “The New Brooklyn.”

Cafe Adam will host a past U.S. president.

You, dear readers, will have a happy and healthy New Year.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 12/27/14


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