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The Rangel Censure

By Sarah Laskow
Friday, December 3rd, 2010

Rep. Charlie Rangel

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.

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New York Schools Chancellor: A Brief History

By Sarah Laskow
Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Cathleen Black

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.

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Four Loko: Not Your Daddy’s State-Approved Vice

Unlike big tobacco or beer, wine and liquor, the caffeinated alcoholic drink was undone by a lack of political clout
By Sarah Laskow
Friday, November 19th, 2010

Four Loko

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.

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The Theater of Charlie Rangel: Indignation As Political Stagecraft

By Sarah Laskow
Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

Rep. Charlie Rangel

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.

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Nan Hayworth’s Paladino Problem: Boehner to the Rescue?

By Avi Zenilman
Friday, October 22nd, 2010

Rep. John Boehner

For some people, the rent may still be too damn high, but for Carl Paladino and his campaign, the gubernatorial debate was a wash. Jimmy McMillan became the face of New York gone wild, and the only thing that the press wanted to talk about. (What? After that event did you really think everyone would suddenly start obsessing over pension guarantees?) Once again, a New York Republican was left grasping at straws. But, at least this time, he wasn’t also the butt of all the jokes.

The potency of strange third parties are usually not in dispute — a mix a political expectations and savvy leadership can go a long way, as the experience of the Working Families Party in New York has shown. Unfortunately for Republicans, the WFP does not provide a good example of what to with do an extremely embarrassing candidate, with serious baggage, who can’t win and threatens to bring down the rest of the party’s chances. With Paladino, the hope now is that people won’t care.

It’s created a strange situation where Paladino keeps on going after Cuomo, with full vigor, as the press cares less and less. We know what’s he’s do so far. As one Buffalo resident put it to the Times, “then he’s making gay slurs, he’s threatening to beat up that guy on camera, and people see all that. You don’t want a mobster as governor.” It’s not easy for a candidate to straddle the line of respectability so clearly, especially while making accusations about how the other guy spends his money and Paladino hasn’t been able to do it. Nan Hayworth, the retired ophthalmologist running for a seat in the northern suburbs of New York  as a Tea partier, has had to play hide and go-seek with Paladino’s support — the voters may be mad as hell, but they’ve also realized that a man angrier than them might not be the safest choice for the state. While Hayworth plays coy about Paladino, she has been able to rack up support from a more powerful place: The future Speaker of the House. Next week, Rep. John Boehner, the Republican minority leader will be coming to town to raise money for Hayworth. Even if someone’s ashamed by Paladino, it’s not a problem so big that a few Republican donors can’t fix.

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Political Pros and Their Foes

By Avi Zenilman
Friday, October 8th, 2010

Rep. Eric Schneiderman

The Democratic candidates for the three big statewide positions in New York are professional politicians, in the most formal sense of the word. Would-be Governor Andrew Cuomo has been running all sorts of campaigns since he engineered his father’s rise three decades ago; would-be Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was the architect of the successful push in recent election years to take control of the State Senate; and, the incumbent Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli served as an Assemblyman for more than two decades.

This basic fact is part of the reason why Carl Paladino has told voters, “I’m a builder, not a politician.” (He said this in the middle of a rambling three-minute video where he also made a strange reference to Andrew Cuomo’s “prowess.”)

There’s a fine line between proving your amateur bona fides, and coming across as amateurish, and New York Republicans have had trouble walking it, despite statewide dissatisfaction with the economy and the Democratic Party.

Harry Wilson, the Republican candidate for comptroller, says that “fortunately, I’m not a politician; I’m a fiscal expert, I fix broken companies.”  He comes across better than Paladino — but he’s a hedge fund manager who worked for both Blackstone and Goldman Sachs, and also worked on the White House Auto Task Force (read: bailouts).

Then, there’s Dan Donovan, the rather dry Republican D.A. from Staten Island who kicked off his web campaign with an odd, long video that had two political pros in shock — shock! — that Donovan had pledged to delay any run for higher office if he won the race to be Attorney General. They did not understand how he could use the office “as a stepping stone for governor when you’re taking yourself out of the race for governor.” (The anti-politician persona has been helped by Mayor Bloomberg’s endorsement.)

It’s another clear, obvious tack — Eliot Spitzer and Cuomo have turned the A.G. spot into a waystation on the track to the Governor’s mansion, and Donovan wants to show he’s something different. But with all three major Republican candidates down in the polls by at least ten points, it’s pretty clear that four years from now they won’t be attacked for being “Albany insiders,” because they’ll still be on the outside, looking in.

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Defining Paladino: Will New York Dems Rely on the Rove Playbook?

By Avi Zenilman
Thursday, September 23rd, 2010
Carl Paladino

Carl Paladino

It’s not good news for Andrew Cuomo that the most recent Quinnipiac poll had him leading Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino by only six points. (Yes, that Paladino is the same “Crazy Carl” who, until his surprising nomination victory, was mostly known for his history of forwarding insane, racially problematic emails. While Cuomo has found himself in a much closer race than he’d like, an examination of the dynamics driving the poll results reveals why Paladino is probably peaking — and, more interestingly, sheds light on why Congressional Democrats might not be as doomed as previously thought.

The conventional wisdom right now is that, while the Cuomo juggernaut is insulated, upstate Congressional Democrats will have a tough time fighting the Republican, anti-incumbent wave. When someone like Paladino, who built his insurgent primary campaign on the backs of Tea Party sympathizers, becomes the nominee and creeps to within striking distance of the Governor’s mansion, it seems like further confirmation that moderates like Rep. Michael Arcuri (D-24) or Rep. Scott Murphy (D-20) should start packing their bags. But a new Siena poll shows Arcuri, whose district includes Utica, up by eight against Richard Hanna, the businessman who he barely defeated two years ago. Another Siena poll shows Murphy, who was 700 votes away from losing the special election that catapulted him into office in 2009, leading his rural distract by 17 points.

 
Democrats can’t deny the sluggish economy, or hope for affirmation of their performance — they can only lay out that the other guy is terrifying, or unknown, or will make things worse.
 

What do two overachieving moderate Congressman and one underachieving would-be Governor have in common? Undefined opponents. In each of the polls, the Democrat is a much better known commodity than the Republican. According to Quinnipiac, only 15 percent of likely voters don’t have an opinion of Cuomo, while 31 percent don’t know enough to have a view of Paladino. Arcuri has a similar name advantage: 21 percent don’t have an opinion of him, compared to 44 percent for Hanna. And with Murphy, the advantage is even more striking: only 17 percent have no solid views, while nearly four times as many respondents have no opinion of Colin Gibson, his opponent.

For Cuomo, the advantage is obvious: He has about $30 million dollars, along with endorsements from the likes of Mayor Bloomberg, to sway those who don’t know about every bad thing Paladino has ever done or bcc’d. The other Democrats, tarred and feathered and identified with an unpopular party, are known quantities that still are holding onto a lead. A combination of decent fundraising and some hardball politicking — be prepared for every Republican candidate in the state to be forced to parry questions about whether they support something outrageous that Paladino said — might be enough to hold off the wave.

In 2004, George W. Bush, faced with flagging approval ratings and an electorate angry about a war, kept his grip on the White House by making the election more than just a referendum on his performance; he made it a choice between himself and the shifty Massachusetts senator whose views were consistently called into question. Democrats can’t deny the sluggish economy, or hope for affirmation of their performance — they can only lay out that the other guy is terrifying, or unknown, or will make things worse. (MoveOn now warns, “Stop the Takeover.”) Andrew Cuomo’s courting of former county chairs and old pols like Ed Koch might seem like a weird sop to the establishment in a year when everyone wants to storm the barracks, but it’s also the groundwork for the kind of political dynamic that Karl Rove mastered six years ago. The implicit slogan is simple: more of the same versus terrifying change.

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New York City Liberals Stare Down Cuomo

By Avi Zenilman
Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

State Senator Eric Schneiderman

“I’m glad you all stayed up,” State Senator Eric Schneiderman told the cheering crowd at the Grand Hyatt. It was 1 a.m., the platters of cheese and curiously crunchy honeydew were no more, and all of his opponents in the five-way Democratic primary contest for Attorney General had finally conceded.

The ballroom was filled with some of the most powerful liberals in New York City. Naral Pro-Choice New York President Kelli Conklin introduced Schneiderman, Rep. Jerry Nadler and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn had been working the cameras for hours, and the crowd was filled with people wearing the purple t-shirts of SEIU 1199 — the most powerful union in the state. They all chanted “GUSTAVO! GUSTAVO! GUSTAVO!” when they found out that Gustavo Rivera had defeated State Senate Majority Leader, Pedro Espada, Jr.  They had all endorsed Schneiderman over Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, the former frontrunner and the presumed favorite of Andrew Cuomo. None of them were intimidated by the presumptive Governor, the so-called prince of darkness.

Schneiderman, however, had only praise for Cuomo, which he delivered after he complimented gay rights activists, the labor movement, reproductive rights organizations, the Dominicans in his district, Citizens Action, and a few other groups. The outspoken liberal said that “voters are looking for someone who will stand up to Wall Street,” and he pointed to Cuomo’s “unprecedent work” on that front. In the general election against Staten Island D.A. Dan Donovan, the promise to fight for the little guy — along with locking down the woman vote by painting him as anti-abortion as possible — will be much more salient than straightforward appeals to labor or gay rights.

It’s worth remembering, however, that Cuomo and Schneiderman are not close at all, and that Schneiderman built a incredibly potent progressive coalition that has pre-emptively expressed its disappointment with the soon-to-be Governor’s centrism and recent aversion to hard positions. The base is restless, and in the affable, savvy, Harvard-educated Schneiderman, they have their golden boy. Cuomo, obviously, knows how a press savvy Attorney General can use their subpeona power to push an agenda or hold rivals accountable, which is why he likely would have preferred Rice or trial lawyer Sean Coffey, moderates without their own power base in Albany.

Yet, as Schneiderman said, if he won the general election he would be ready to “step in on day one and continue the same aggressive progressive approach of Andrew Cuomo.”

It sounded like unequivocal support, but it was also a warning. “Everyone has to play by the same set of rules,” he said. No one, not even the governor, would be exempt from the long reach of the Attorney General’s office. In other words, Eric Scheiderman would continue the work of Attorney General Andrew Cuomo by making life difficult for Governor Andrew Cuomo.

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