NY Democrats Need a Reform Wing
I have been thinking long and hard about the state of politics in New York. We are a national disgrace and laughingstock.
Our state legislature has been called the most dysfunctional in the country, and most opinion-makers voicing an opinion on the subject have agreed with the description. We have had a most unusual situation with the recent resignation of a governor, Eliot Spitzer, who was in office for a little more than a year, for using hookers and engaging in other possibly criminal conduct. This followed the resignation of the newly-reelected state comptroller, Alan Hevesi, for using state resources to provide assistance for his wife. The recent sudden departure of the state senate majority leader, Joe Bruno, followed.
Bruno, before he resigned, apparently called the U.S. law enforcement authorities to ask if the resignation will cause them to end their investigation of his business activities then and still under investigation, and was told no.
Now we have a state legislature totally dominated by the Speaker, Sheldon Silver, who while conducting the state's affairs also draws an alleged $1 million per year as a partner in a law firm in a state where the trial lawyers wield great influence on state legislation. Then there is the enormous influence of the municipal unions on the state legislature and the laws it enacts affecting the relationship of those unions and New York City, particularly with respect to pensions. Those pension increases imposed by the state cost the City of New York billions of dollars in increases, most not agreed to by the City and adversely impacting on City services by causing cuts in service.
While the city has limited the terms of its City Council by referendum, the state legislature rarely sees sitting members lose at the election polls, with on average less than three percent of the state legislators losing in any general election.
In 1999, we saw city legislators led by Speaker Shelly Silver disgracefully vote to successfully abolish the commuter tax paid by non-residents to the city for the services they receive here including police, fire and sanitation, depriving the city of more than $500 million dollars a year in tax revenues. No city legislator lost support of editorial boards, union support or has been punished at the election polls for that traitorous act.
Using the words of the late Bill Buckley in another context, what to do in this zoo-like atmosphere?
I propose that we use the tactic employed in New York City back in the 1950s through the 1960s and expand it. What was that tactic? The formation of a reform wing in the Democratic Party. It was led by a group of revered citizens - Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, Senator Herbert Lehman, Mayor Robert Wagner and others. The reformers undertook primaries against the regulars and beat many of them. I had the privilege of running against the boss of bosses as he was referred to - Carmine De Sapio - leader of Tammany Hall, the Democratic organization running Manhattan. I was not the first to beat him in 1963 in a Democratic primary for District Leader in Greenwich Village. He was first defeated in 1961 by James Lannigan. Those victories led to many reform changes in Manhattan which spread to the other boroughs.
Regrettably, as often happens, reform ultimately tires with the return of the regular forces.
What we should do is improve on the reform model and create a new party which will state in its manifesto that it is running against the candidates of both the Democratic and Republican parties and has as its goal the sweeping out of Albany of all incumbents - the bad and the good - replacing them with the new party's candidates. After two elections in which the new party is successful, it should agree to dissolve and allow the Democratic and Republican parties to once again take over, vying against one another on a philosophical basis, hoping they have learned their lesson and become functional.
So how do we start? We have to find those five New Yorkers willing to do what Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt and Senator Herbert Lehman et al did - step forward and lead such an effort. If they do, we can turn our state of deplorable politics around and once again be proud to be citizens of the great Empire State that produced F.D.R, Al Smith and Fiorello LaGuardia, among others.
This need not be a dream. It can become a reality.