There’s a sound you hear when political ideas take off. It’s a crescendo of applause that swells and lasts so long that the speaker has to quiet it down. It comes exactly at the lines in a speech that are intended to inspire, and sometimes at lines that weren’t.
That sound was absent yesterday at the launch of No Labels, the organization that advocates something like bipartisanship and that may or may not be building a base for Michael Bloomberg’s 2012 presidential run. The applause, when it came, was perfunctory, and often a beat late.
“I feel I need to do a Howard Dean yell to wake you all up,” Newark Mayor Cory Booker said to the audience, just after 2:30 in the afternoon.
Twenty minutes or so later, Rob McCord, Pennsylvania’s state treasurer, repeated Booker’s request to bring up the lights in the audience. “Maybe it’ll get people’s blood sugar up,” he said.
The idea behind No Labels is that politicians need to put country before party. In practice, that means they want more politicians to solicit cosponsors from opposing parties for legislation, to “use civil and respectful language,” and to vote against their party more often.
The organization claims not to be centrist and offers some information about issues like energy, election reform, and national security on its website. It does have at least one label: It’s organized under the 501(c)(4) section of the tax code, which means it’s an issue advocacy organization. (This is the same type of organization that attracted criticism this past election cycle for pumping money into electoral races without disclosing the source of the funding.) No Labels has been a little vague on what issues it will actually be advocating for, besides bipartisanship.
The problem is, good ideas aren’t necessarily the ones that everyone agrees on. Nor does a bipartisan piece of legislation necessarily contain agreed-upon ideas. Take the tax bill currently on tap in DC. It’s a bipartisan piece of legislation that cobbles together some ideas that Democrats like and some ideas that Republicans like — not a coherent set of policy provisions that everyone agrees are good.
The leaders of No Labels said yesterday they wanted to build a movement 1 million strong in the next year. If the level of enthusiasm at the launch event was any indication, it’ll be a tough slog.
If they do manage that feat, however, there is one politician who will be very interested: Mayor Bloomberg. No Labels’ campaign for members will serve, in a way, as a proof of concept for a Bloomberg for President campaign. I don’t think of Bloomberg supporters as the type of people willing to travel to Iowa, Ohio, and New Hampshire to spend hours door-knocking in the cold. I imagine that, like the No Labels audience, they’ll lose their enthusiasm around lunch time.
But if over time No Labels can gin up real support, so can Bloomberg. If the group actually gains momentum, if the applause at No Labels chapter meetings across the country starts reaching the fever pitch, the mayor could start being a little more forthcoming about his plans for the future.
New York’s representatives in Washington — some of them, at least — have been working for years to win funding for first responders suffering from health issues originating on 9/11. The most recent version of this bill, the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, would allocate more than $7 billion to help treat injuries from toxic exposure and compensate victims for job losses. The House’s version, sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, has passed, but the Senate — the place where all public policy goes to die these days —voted yesterday to put aside the measure.
New York’s House delegation came up with a last-minute rescue plan: tack the bill onto the tax bill that Congress must somehow pass before the end of this session. Now it’ll be up to Sen. Chuck Schumer to convince Senate leadership to go along with that plan, according to the Times.
On the Senate floor yesterday, Schumer criticized his colleagues’ unwillingness to support those injured in the line of duty on 9/11. But check out this 2007 Village Voice story (written by a former colleague of mine) on Schumer’s record on this issue: in short, it hasn’t always been stellar.
Ultimately, Congress’ reluctance to act on this bill is connected to the ambivalence in Washington about New York’s privileged place in the post-9/11 homeland security world. Since 2001, homeland security has been a top issue for many of New York’s representatives, particularly those from districts in or around Manhattan. Just this week, for instance, Long Island’s Rep. Peter King was named chair of the House Homeland Security Committee: King has spent the past nine years focusing on homeland security and honing his expertise on the range of issues it covers, in part because, as a representative from New York, it makes sense for him. It’s an issue his constituents care about, deeply.
But others in Congress have been less willing to concede that New York should get the lion’s share of attention — and funding — for homeland security. One of the very first homeland security battle in Congress, post-9/11, was over whether every state should get a baseline share of the new homeland security-directed money, or whether that funding should be determined primarily based on risk. The current system for distributing funding more closely resembles the first system than the latter, which means New York loses out.
The 9/11 health bill depended, in a way, on that same logic: that New York and New Yorkers still deserves some extra support from the lingering trauma suffered in 2001. And, not so surprisingly, a majority of our country’s representatives agree! The House passed the bill, and 58 out of 100 Senators support the measure.
But right now, the way Washington works, that’s not enough. Instead, New Yorkers whose health was permanently damaged on 9/11 have to hope that Sen. Schumer feels the measure is important enough to really work at convincing Harry Reid that it’s important enough to include in the tax package. But if Sen. Schumer doesn’t prioritize this work, the bill could very well die, forever.
Mayor Bloomberg made a speech yesterday, dinging Washington on economic issues and jobs creation. He touted the growth of New York City’s economy, and he mentioned the American Dream.
He must be running for president.
As for Andrew Cuomo…well, he’s headed for Albany with an agenda that appeals more to Republicans than to his own party, isn’t he? The man can barely cough without having it interpreted as a sign of his national ambitions.
He must be running for president.
Has it crossed both men’s minds? Of course. In Bloomberg’s case, he actively pursued the option in 2008. If you believe New York magazine, he’s actively exploring a run in 2012. And as often as the mayor denies that his thoughts are wandering in that direction, he stages a stunt like yesterday’s speech to reignite speculation about his next big gig.
But if (when?) either of these New Yorkers takes the plunge into a presidential race, do they stand a chance of gaining traction across the country, and taking over the Oval Office?
No. As much as it’s fun for New Yorkers and the New York media to speculate that one of their own might claw his or her way into the highest office, New York is just not a place that incubates presidents, anymore.
Let’s start with the reality that the last New York politician to make it to the White House was Franklin D. Roosevelt, and before that, Uncle Teddy. (And yes, Hillary Clinton made a go for it, but New York was more of a stop-over than a stomping ground for her.) Like Cuomo, the Roosevelts had roots in New York and experience in New York government. But a century ago, that wasn’t quite the liability it is today. To turn his stint in Albany into an asset, rather than a liability, Cuomo will, more or less, have to work miracles — balancing the budget, corralling corruption (or at least the appearance of it), and returning the New York State government to something resembling a functioning entity.
Bloomberg’s tenure in New York City, on the other hand, has mostly given him a positive platform for his signature centrist pitter-patter. But as much as the mayor would like to believe otherwise, that’s not what wins national elections. In 2012, he would be, at best, a spoiler, a sort of super-charged Ralph Nader for the coastal elite. When considering Bloomberg in a presidential light, the most important data point to consider is not his work on education reform, his talk about jobs, or his green-friendly, bike-lane loving development plan.
It’s that question that Quinnipiac asks New Yorkers every year: Would you want the mayor at your house for Thanksgiving? The answer is always no. But in a big way, that’s what a presidential campaign is — hanging out in the living rooms of families in states like Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania. Bloomberg’s more comfortable in board rooms. The noise about his presidential prospects won’t quiet down anytime soon. But it’s unlikely to crescendo into that hand-clapping, feet-stomping roar that heralds a presidential victory.
A month after voting, Election 2010 in New York is almost finished. Over the weekend, the outcomes of the last outstanding races for state Senate seats rolled in, and it became certain that Republicans will control New York’s upper house. Now, the only New York race in which there is no official winner is a federal House race out on Long Island, in which Republican challenger Randy Altschuler has refused to concede to incumbent Tim Bishop. (UPDATE: Altschuler conceded the race Wednesday morning.)
The 2010 election cycle was a remarkable one, with tea parties and budget shortfalls and cantankerous candidates dominating headlines. But in New York, it has resulted, ultimately, in a return to the status quo.
On a state level, Republicans have dominated the Senate for decades. In the Assembly, Shelly Silver will remain a stumbling block for a centrist governor’s agenda. And on a federal level, New York has returned Republican representatives to traditionally Republican districts, and allowed Democrats to hold on, if narrowly, to traditionally Democratic districts.
Those slim margins matter, though. Some politicians are hubristic enough to govern radically even when only barest majority of voters have endorsed their platform. (Former President George W. Bush, circa 2000, is the poster boy for this attitude.) But most take a close win as a sign that they need to work harder to represent that large portion of their constituents who voted for their opponents.
Luckily for the Republican-led state Senate, that shouldn’t be too hard to do. In Albany, the politician with the clearest mandate to push forward his policy priorities is Governor-to-be Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo’s priorities — capping property taxes, cutting spending — line up with those of Senate Republicans. It’ll be easy for Republicans to latch onto his agenda, and claim some portion of the credit when the economy takes a turn for the better and the state budget starts making a little bit of sense, again. If their desires and Cuomo’s were more divergent, they’d have a hard time arguing they’d been sent to Albany to do anything but obstruct (or in political parlance, “balance”) Cuomo.
Out on Long Island, Rep. Tim Bishop is edging ahead in a dragged-out recount fight against businessman Randy Altschuler. It’s the last undecided House race in the entire country, and the result will have no impact on the balance of power in Washington. Either Altschuler will join an emboldened Republican caucus, or Bishop will return with his chastened colleagues in the Democratic Party.
Although Altschuler has refused to concede, he has indicated that if he did some, miraculously, make it to Washington, he’d take the close race to heart and represent a district that’s evenly split between the two parties. As a freshman in Washington, that’s a hard road to travel, though — to party leaders, another Republican vote would mean another Republican vote.
Bishop, however, could serve as a cautionary voice. In the last two years, Democrats tried to enact a slew of new policy ideas on issues like health care and energy. The lesson of Bishop’s narrow race seems to be: don’t push it. New Yorkers just would prefer if everything stayed, more or less, the way it was.
No one likes being scolded. It’s worse when it happens in front of your colleagues, and on C-SPAN, and when the event appears in the papers the next day. The House voted to censure Rep. Charlie Rangel yesterday, which meant he had to stand in front of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who sounded quite sad, and have a statement of his wrongdoing read out. It was like he had been called into the principal’s office, magnified by about a million.
So it’s not so surprising that Rangel spent a good chunk of the day yesterday trying to convince his colleagues to spare him. He did have some supporters. At yesterday’s House debate, a series of his colleagues argued that he deserved a lesser penalty, a reprimand. It felt like a group of kids protesting an unfair punishment of their fellow. His New York colleague Rep. Peter King said that if expulsion was like the death penalty, censure was like a life sentence. (A reprimand would be the same scolding as a censure, but in writing.)
To review, the main charges against Rangel focused on his misuse of House resources, mistakes on his financial disclosure forms, and failure to pay a portion of his taxes. Censure is used very rarely as a punishment in Congress; members who pledged loyalty to the Confederacy, in the 1800s, were censured, for instance.
The debate focused on precedent, and whether Mr. Rangel’s actions did or did not merit censure, the second-worst punishment the House imposes on one of its own, when he or she engages in “disorderly behavior.” Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who led the argument against Mr. Rangel, pointed out that the House had promised to reach new heights of ethical standards. Mr. King, and others, argued that using censure as Mr. Rangel’s punishment were going overboard. The protests in support of Rangel had a sense of “there but the grace of god” about them.
The vote yesterday marks the end of a process that has dragged on for years. For a long time, the chatter about the investigations centered on the political gains Republicans could make from attention focused on misbehavior by Rangel and his colleague Maxine Waters (who ended up getting off scot-free). But it turns out, Republicans didn’t really need Rangel to make major gains in 2010; the political and economic climate were hurting the Democrats worse than the “overzealousness and sloppiness,” as it was put during the ethics process, of one of their longest tenured members.
The real referendum on Rangel happened already, anyway. His constituents voted him back into office. If he had stepped down or had not run for reelection, as many urged, this unseemly smear would be one of his last appearances in the Congressional Record. Instead, he has another two years — maybe more, if he wants! — to pile on new legacy-making work. As he said yesterday, “I’m going to be judged by my life, my activities, and my contributions to society.”
He certainly counts as an elder statesman. With the Democrats in the minority in the House, he has little to lose, too. The best thing he could do, at this point, is to draw on his experience and his panache to zing the Republicans every chance he gets, drawing himself as a liberal truth-teller, unmotivated by power or personal gain.
David Paterson called the state legislature to Albany this week as an act of absolution. “The purpose of this session was as much to clear my conscience as anything else,” he said, after the Senate and the Assembly took a pass on his plan to close the state’s budget gap. If the legislature won’t act on the budget, it’s no longer Paterson’s problem. He’s done. There’s little more he can do as governor, and he has washed his hands of this state.
It’s understandable. After he ascended to the governor’s office in 2008, New Yorkers quickly lost their patience with Paterson, sending his approval ratings plummeting. After that, they lost interest in him, as well. Paterson’s term will stretch to 21 months in total; Spitzer governed for just 14. But Paterson has always seemed, somehow, to be playing governor, his efforts inevitably shadowed by his predecessor’s quest for rehabilitation and his successor’s march to power.
Paterson’s fate was to hold the line, after one anointed leader fell and before another could spell him. To do so from early 2008 to the end of 2010, however, was no mean feat. During Paterson’s time in office, the housing market collapsed, President Obama surged into office, unemployment rose, and the president’s popularity plummeted. If Obama couldn’t sustain his mojo through this period, how could Paterson?
Of course, he did little to help himself. If his misbehavior never shocked the way Spitzer’s did, it was distasteful nonetheless, in particular his intervention in an aide’s domestic violence case. In response to the fiscal mess he inherited he began slashing costs, but proved in the end to be less effective as an executive leader than he had been as a legislative one. He held onto the hope that he could run for governor, even after President Obama told him he was too unpopular, that he should step aside. (And here’s a counterfactual to ponder: Could Paladino have bested Paterson?)
In the past few months, Paterson has been doing penance for his missteps. He has tried to pave the way for Cuomo, to ease the governor-elect’s transition into the intractable problems facing the New York government right now. This week’s last ditch special session did produce one small gift for Cuomo, at least: the Assembly voted to ban hydrofracking until May 2011, which will give the new governor a bit of breathing room to decide if the controversial drilling technique is safe.
Paterson professes no hard feelings about Cuomo’s ascension, but it must have been humbling to step aside for another, more pedigreed politician, who earned a mandate from voters that Paterson never had. But if Paterson really did hold the session to wipe his conscience clean, perhaps he doesn’t care so much anymore about what voters think. At this point, he’s answerable only to himself.
Michael Bloomberg is used to getting his way. It’s not clear that he has another candidate in mind to head the city’s school system, now that it’s becoming clear that Cathie Black doesn’t cut it for state education commissioner David Steiner.
Steiner said yesterday he would consider granting Black a waiver if Bloomberg would appoint an educator as her second-in-command. But that’s not the way the mayor tends to operate. As The New York Times wrote yesterday, “Mr. Bloomberg has said that if Ms. Black is not approved, he is not certain any other qualified candidate would want the job.”
It’s strange, really, that at a time when education is increasingly seen as a career path for the best and the brightest, that Mayor Bloomberg can find no one with both the managerial chops and a background in education available to head the largest school district in the country. The mayor has chafed at the idea that someone would need experience with schools to run a school district, but this spate of school leaders lacking experience in education is unprecedented in the city’s history.
The Chancellor’s position has existed since 1898, and in its early years it was one of the most plum jobs in the city, one that men at the peak of their careers took up and left only to retire, if they could manage it.
The school districts of New York, Brooklyn, and the surrounding municipalities were collected together in the Progressive Era fervor that followed decades of Tammany Rule. Its first few leaders — the position was then called City Superintendent of Schools — were men with deep educational experience. In 1896, the Times described the ideal candidate to head the system: “He should be able, broad-minded, and high-minded, trained in the principles and methods of education, in sympathy with its highest purposes, and capable of commanding the confidence and the loyalty of the teaching force” — an antidote to the “small intrigues and petty politics that infected the department in Tammany times.”
The first superintendent, William H. Maxwell, had started his career as a newspaper reporter, but by the time he was elected to the superintendent’s office, he had been a teacher and served on Brooklyn’s Board of Education. He led the school district for 20 years. His successor, Dr. William L. Ettinger lost his job when Mayor Mike Hylan was voted into the officer, but the third superintendent, Dr. William O’Shea, stayed in office for a decade, until he reached in 1933 the mandatory retirement age of 70. Time Magazine reported, “Dr. O’Shea has been a public schoolman for 46 years….[He] is kindly, gentle, petulant when criticized, sometimes in poor health and now poor in eyesight…. Superintendent O’Shea has publicly said: “I am no glutton for power.””
But from the 1960s on, leading New York’s school system was hardly a position to be coveted. Desegregation roiled the system; teachers went on strike; and communities took greater control over individual schools districts. Chancellors like Harvey Scribner and Irving Anker went on to quiet jobs in academia after leaving the city’s employ.
In the past decade, however, education reform has taken on a new prestige, drawing the interest of top students and ambitious politicians. And it is perhaps because of that new shimmer that non-educators like Black are interested in taking on schools. Working in education is no longer a self-contained career path, or a dead end. If a stint with Teach for America can land a twenty-something at Goldman Sachs, then it’s not unreasonable to think that a stint at the Department of Education can land a sixty-something in the mayor’s office.
Unfortunately for Cathie Black, that’s not how the people who’ve dedicated their careers to education—the people who have her fate in their hands—see it.
There’s a reason why Sen. Chuck Schumer has succeeded in his campaign to ban Four Loko. Those who disapprove of the drink have political clout. Those who like it, don’t.
Schumer, Gov. David Paterson, and other lawmakers are ostensibly worried about the danger Four Loko and its ilk pose to society at large, and to youth in particular. But the government tolerates scores of vices detrimental to public health: cigarettes, Red Bull & vodka, and McDonald’s are arguably just as bad as Four Loko for the people who consume them. Schumer’s not exactly against the consumption of alcohol, either: He receives more money from the beer, wine and liquor industry than any other senator, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But while powerful interests back tobacco and beef products, the constituencies for caffeinated alcoholic beverages are less savvy.
To some extent, fans of Four Loko only have themselves to blame for the impending ban. Few voters of any age were stoked about voting in this past election. (New York came in dead last on voter turnout.) But across the country, young voters in particular failed to show up at the polls.
After 2008, it was an open question whether young people’s enthusiasm for politics would endure. Now we know the answer: However much they like Obama, young people can’t be depended on for votes in Senate or House races. And if you don’t vote, you don’t get political leaders who are concerned about pissing you off. Smart politicians like Chuck Schumer can ignore the interests of college kids and 20-somethings: It’s their parents who keep him in office.
The manufacturers of drinks like Four Loko aren’t the most politically powerful bunch, either. The big brewing companies, like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, caved early on caffeinated alcoholic drinks, agreeing in 2008 to forgo that line of business. And Phusion Products, which makes Four Loko, has only recently jumped into the lobbying business. The company hired a DC lobbyist in August and ponied up $50,000 in the last quarter for lobbying related to “FDA issues related to infusion of caffeinated alcoholic beverages.” (Anheuser-Busch also listed caffeinated alcoholic beverages as a concern in a recent lobbying report.)
Politicians have nothing to lose by crusading against this new, fruit-flavored evil, then. But is a ban really the best way to solve the problem? In New York, the caffeinated version of Four Loko stops shipping today; by Dec. 10, distributors will have delivered their last loads to retailers. Those who love it most are surely stocking up as quickly as they can. (After MillerCoors took caffeine out of the recipe for Sparks, a similar, orange-flavored drink, one young man of my acquaintance hoarded so many cases of the stuff that he could still offer it to friends months after it went off the market.) Plus, it’s not so hard to concoct a home-made version of Four Loko. Apparently, all you need is a handful of jolly ranchers, a caffeine pill, malt liquor, a can of sprite and a can of Monster energy drink.
Charlie Rangel sounded almost sad yesterday, as he lamented the miscarriage of justice in the ethics case against him. “How can anyone have confidence in the decision of the ethics subcommittee when I was deprived of due process rights, right to counsel and was not even in the room?” he said in a statement.
That the ethics committee would find him guilty of something was never really in doubt. But it’s part of Rangel’s infuriating charm that he managed to distract attention from his question ethics with his theatrical behavior.
On Monday, he walked out of the hearing room, after pleading penury and asking for more time to hire himself a lawyer. Inevitably, Monday’s media coverage was taken up with reaction and analysis to that bit of stagecraft. And now that his colleagues have, in his absence, found him guilty of 11 counts of ethics violations, Rangel’s indignation is overshadowing the news of his actual misdeeds.
On the scale of Congressional misbehavior, the Harlem rep’s offenses are relatively minor. He has misused his congressional mail privileges, broken House rules about reporting income and assets, failed to pay taxes on a vacation villa, and flouted New York City rules by using a rent-stabilized apartment as a campaign office. In other words, he cut corners and eschewed full transparency. Perhaps his actions even, as the ethics committee decided, reflected “discredibility on the House.”
The problem with Rangel’s behavior, officially, is not just that he broke the rules, but that he used his public office for personal benefit. While Rangel was running his campaign out of his rent-stabilized apartment, for instance, other tenants in the building faced eviction for similar violations. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that Rangel got away with it because of the power he wields in Harlem.
The one count that the ethics committee was split on, however, honed in on the question of whether Rangel personally benefited when he raised money for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College of New York. Although donations to the center clearly contribute in some way to Rangel’s legacy, the ethics committee wouldn’t go so far as to say they constituted a gift to the congressman himself.
None of this looks good, of course, and that’s part of the problem. Ethics rules are premised on the idea that lawmakers should work to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. And when a lawmaker solicits donations for a pet project (one named after himself to boot!) from people with business before his committee, he’s definitely crossing that line.
But ultimately, no one has been able to show these sorts of transactions affected Rangel’s official behavior. Rather than contributing to the political fortunes of the donors, the donations contributed only to the greater glory of Charlie Rangel.
The same flair and apparent self-regard that drove Rangel to desert his own trial act as a ethical buffer of sorts. It’s hard to imagine him crossing over into a more sordid realm of quid pro quos or of the types of ethics violations that the FBI, as opposed to a toothless House subcommittee, tends to uncover. To promise a legislative favor in exchange for a measly donation of $100,000 or so would mean Rangel would have to accommodate his actions to another’s will and desires. And as he’s made abundantly clear, that’s just not what Charlie Rangel does.
Starting this week, reporter Sarah Laskow will be THIRTEEN’s new State Room blogger. Sarah will write multiple posts per week in this space, covering New York state and local politics.
Sarah is a freelance writer and editor based in New York. Her work has appeared in Capital New York, Politico, The American Prospect, Newsweek.com, and other publications. Before coming to New York, she spent three years in DC reporting for the investigative journalism group The Center for Public Integrity.
Look for her first post tomorrow!