For a group of people generally considered realistic and hard-headed, New Yorkers remain surprisingly optimistic about the state’s politicians, or, at the very least, the state’s top politician, Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The governor weighed in yesterday at 70% in favorability in the latest Siena Institute polls; a plurality of people thought he was doing a “good” or “excellent” job.
“After nearly one month in office, voters’ honeymoon with the new Democratic governor remains strong,” pollster Steve Greenberg said.
Er, scratch that. That’s what Greenberg had to say four years ago, about another Democratic governor who’d stoked the state’s hopes for a new kind of Albany.
And while “Cuomo’s honeymoon is in full swing,” according to Greenberg, the newest white knight of New York politics still can’t quite reach the heights of hope that Eliot Spitzer inspired. In the first January of his term, back in 2007, New Yorkers were even more bullish on their new governor: 75% had a favorable opinion of him.
Where did Spitzer get that extra edge? So far, it turns out, Cuomo’s carefully calibrated centrism has not proven more appealing to Republicans or independently-minded voters than Spitzer’s clean-up campaign did. In 2007, 59% of Republicans had a favorable view of Spitzer; 60% of Republicans feel similarly about Cuomo. Spitzer actually did better with independents, 71% of whom feel in the favorable column; Cuomo has only convinced 65% so far.
Spitzer’s real advantage, however, was with his own party. A whopping 87% of Democrats had a favorable opinion of him in January 2007; Cuomo only commands the same warm feelings from 78% of Dems.
Of course, New Yorkers soured on Spitzer soon enough. His numbers took a hit during the 2007 budget battle, but had begun climbing again, when Troopergate emerged as an issue. Spitzer ended 2007 with only 36% of New Yorkers thinking favorably of him.
Cuomo is unlikely to fall that hard, and as long as he keeps his nose squeaky clean, he can hope against hope that it’ll soon be less fun to compare him to Spitzer. Once his governorship survives more than 14 months, he can finally escape from the steamroller’s shadow.
Instead, Cuomo can start casting his own shadow over Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who, given that he now has the job of the state’s last two elected governors, is a new target for speculation. Schneiderman says he’s not interesting in running for governor, of course, but in the Wall Street Journal’s recent story on Schneiderman, the kicker was Alec Baldwin’s comment that “when Mr. Schneiderman visited the governor’s mansion he told a state employee to keep those towels with “E.S. on them,” a nod to the fact that Mr. Spitzer and Mr. Schneiderman share the same initials.”
If Schneiderman does harbor that genre of ambition, though, he’ll have to start making more splashy headlines somewhere along the way. Even though he’s now been elected AG, New Yorkers still don’t know much about him: in the most recent Siena poll, 60% of New Yorkers said they had no opinion of him, favorable or unfavorable.
Yesterday, in the first of many planned hearings on the post-Christmas blizzard that shut down the city, representatives of the Bloomberg administration tried to fend off City Council members with data: the backlog of 311 calls (at times, over 1,000), the number of plows and salt spreaders initially deployed (more than 1750 and 365, respectively), the average response time to emergency calls (10 minutes and 26 seconds).
One set of numbers they did not have at the ready, however, was distribution of resources among the five boroughs.
“I don’t believe the outer boroughs were left out as a result of resources being in Manhattan,” Commissioner John Doherty, of the sanitation department, assured the skeptical legislators, after he had been asked about the issue more than once. He had told the council earlier that plows and other equipment were “equally distributed depending on what the needs of that borough were.”
The Bloomberg team, led by Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, was, officially, apologetic. Goldsmith and his colleagues lamented the drawn-out clean-up, the travails of the average citizens whose streets stayed unplowed for days, and the tragedies of people who needed and did not get medical attention, as ambulances lodged in snow drifts. They said they were sorry.
But beyond the official contrition, Bloomberg’s team was defensive: The officials talked often of the fast rate at which the snow fell (2 inches per hour, or more) and its place among the city’s most dramatic snowstorms (6th largest in history). Doherty spoke of working as a sanitation worker in the 1969 blizzard, then called this more recent one “the most powerful storm I can recall in my career.” And all of the witnesses grew testy, as City Councilors referenced memos, timelines, press releases, and eyewitness reports intended, it seemed, to corner the Bloomberg officials: to force them to admit that something had gone fundamentally wrong.
They weren’t quite ready to concede that point, although they did have a plan, studded with Roman numerals and action items, to help them improve. Next time, they promised, they would deploy more resources from more departments more quickly. And they would use new technologies to amass even more data. The plan mentions GPS devices, live monitors, a new Web site; Goldsmith mentioned crowd-sourcing and social media.
If that’s the direction the administration is going, the logical place to look is just south of the city, towards Newark, where Twittering mayor Cory Booker fought the snowstorm with a shovel in one hand and a smartphone in the other. Booker has been using social media to target street-level problems since well before the storm — constituents might reach out on Twitter to report a pothole or ask where to donate unwanted clothes. During the blizzard, Booker used Twitter to identify and respond to complaints of unplowed streets. Unlike Mayor Bloomberg, Booker has been praised for his storm response.
Some of the most powerful criticism that City Council members were able to levy against the Bloomberg officials derived from the same sort of eyewitness reports that Booker responded to directly. They spoke about ambulances stuck for 20 hours, individuals who needed medical attention and did not get it, snow plows that sat idle because there weren’t enough sanitation workers to staff them, a hospital where the road in front was clear but the road that led to the emergency room entrance was not.
The Bloomberg officials did recognize that these sorts of issues were not addressed quickly enough. (Recall the 311 backlog.) “We have to capture that information in better ways,” Deputy Mayor Goldsmith said. He suggested, for instance, that bringing more 311 capabilities to the web and to text-messaging would allow more tech-savvy users to file reports and find answers to question, freeing up the 311 lines and limiting backlog.
And indeed, the administration did try to reach out, belatedly, to snow-bound New Yorkers via social media last week. Goldsmith’s two most recently Tweets, both from December 31, tell New Yorkers, “Let us know if you block needs more work,” and “we want your feedback on City’s snow response. Tweet to me w/thoughts on what went wrong & how we can do better next time.”
What Mayor Bloomberg and his colleagues don’t appear to realize, however, is that promising more technology — more numbers — won’t necessarily solve the problems they faced at the end of December. Despite the council’s best efforts to identify systematic issues today, they came up with few. It was a big storm. Snow was falling fast, and the plows had a hard time keeping up with it. There was not a good system in place for tracking problems, like cars stuck in snow drifts, that interfered with plowing. The decision-makers, Goldsmith and Doherty and Joseph Bruno, the emergency management commissioner, may not have reacted fast enough to conditions on the ground.
Aside from tracking plowing routes, it’s unclear how technology could have dramatically improved the situation. And in reality, technology played only a peripheral role in Booker’s success, too. Twitter was just a convenient medium for Booker to convey two things to his constituents: that he was listening, and that he cared enough to do his best to fix what problems he could.
To a certain extent, the Bloomberg administration appears to have learned that lesson. Goldsmith promised that next time around the administration would listen more closely to on-the-ground reports, as conveyed by the City Council. “One of things you all do is say this is a really serious matter, it’s not just a dot on the map, pay attention to it,” he said. On the other hand, don’t expect Mayor Bloomberg to wander the streets of New York with a shovel any time soon. And no matter what Goldsmith promised, listening is not the mayor’s strong suit. The council will have a chance to test out the administration’s new openness to their reports, though: It’s supposed to snow tonight, heavily.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivered his first State of the State address Wednesday, and although, as he insisted, it was not a budget proposal and although it included few dollar figures, it was a speech about money, or, more specifically, about the lack thereof.
“The state of New York spends too much money,” Cuomo said. “It is that blunt, and it is that simple.”
In the past three years, New York’s budget problems often have been lumped in with the general fiscal distress brought on by the recession across the country. But the state’s budget crisis, the first challenge that Cuomo must take on, cannot only be blamed on the recession. It is also a product of New York’s spending habits and the quick-fix ideas used to mask them.
In its most barebones formulation, New York’s budget crisis is simple. Averaged out over the past two and half decades, the state’s spending has grown faster than its inhabitants’ incomes. The end result is that the state’s revenues, which primarily come from taxing personal and corporate income, come in below its expenditures.
“The recession just made an underlying structural problem even more obvious and accelerated the trend,” said Carol Kellermann, president of the fiscal watchdog group Citizens Budget Commission. “This kind of the gradual multi-decade long build up of expenses exceeding revenues, I think, is unusual. And there’s a relatively widespread acknowledgement that we can’t tax our way our way out of it, which is what we’ve done in the past.”
The projected budget gap for next year is more than $9 billion, perhaps even $10 billion. That’s a lot of money, but for the past decade, New York has dealt with this same problem every single year. The issue now is, in part, that lawmakers have run out of options for closing the gap. In 2001, for instance, they tapped into the small surplus the state had accumulated during the cush years of the 1990s, spending nearly $3.7 billion of a $4.2 billion reserve. In 2003, they instituted a temporary, three-year tax that tapped the highest earners in the state. They began shuffling money around among the government’s myriad accounts, sweeping money raised through a specific fee for a specific program — cigarette taxes meant to fund health programs, for instance — into the general fund. They also relied, increasingly, on one-time fixes that patched up one year’s budget without addressing the underlying disparity.
This past year, for instance, federal stimulus dollars helped shore up the state’s Medicaid budget. But next year, those funds will have disappeared, and New York’s overall fiscal situation will not differ too much from its situation in 2008.
“We never actually cut spending in the past three years, unlike some states,” said the Manhattan Institute’s E.J. McMahon.
Even before other states starting cutting programs to make ends meets, New York had one of the highest per capita spending rates in the entire country: In fiscal year 2007, for instance, it ranked 5th in the nation, at $7,846 per head, according to an analysis by the Tax Foundation.
This year, the state’s spending will total more than $137 billion. That total can be roughly divided into three categories. State and federal capital funds — funds intended primary for infrastructure projects — accounted for about 6% of the budget. About a third of the state’s operating funds ($47.6 billion) came from the federal government, in one form or another. The remainder of the budget is made up of state operating funds.
In the State of the State, Cuomo avoided saying explicitly that this year’s budget would require cutting programs; he focused instead on the more vague and purportedly inspiring idea that the solution to the state’s money trouble could be tackled by rethinking government programs more holistically.
But in order for the state’s revenue and expenditures to come in line with each other — without raising taxes — the governor will have to make cuts. And he will have to make cuts to the biggest and most fiscally irrational government programs: school aid, Medicaid, and the state workforce. These programs eat up the biggest chunks of the budget, and over the past ten years, they have also been the fastest growing. The Citizens Budget Commission calls them the “Big 3,” and this year, lawmakers will have to wrangle with them, according to Kellermann.
“There’s no way around that any more. You can’t get your arms around a $10 billion deficit by cutting discretionary programs that don’t have that much money in them,” she said.
For Medicaid, at least, Cuomo has a plan: His Medicaid redesign team will gather stakeholders together and identify Medicaid reforms that make sense for the program but also save money, he said Wednesday.
It’s still not clear, however, how Cuomo will close the deficit this year. “He has said repeatedly that he’s absolutely positively going to close a budget gap without tax increases and borrowing,” McMahon said Wednesday. “I don’t know any more about how he’s going to do that today than I did yesterday.”
The budget process will begin in earnest once Cuomo presents his plan to the legislature. The legislature will then have the opportunity to reduce funding for or eliminate each line of Cuomo’s proposed budget. The legislature can also add spending items. Cuomo has the power to veto any line of the legislature’s version of the budget; a two-thirds majority can override his veto.
New York’s fiscal year begins unusually early, on April 1. The state has a terrible track record for passing budgets on time, however. When in 2005 the budget bill made it across the governor’s desk before the new fiscal year began, it was the first time in 21 years the budget had been finished on schedule.
Like so many reform-minded governors before him, Andrew Cuomo has pledged to eradicate the tangle of ethical problems eating his state’s government from the inside out. And although it’s quite possible that he will “clean up Albany,” as he promised, it will require more than just passing ethics reform laws.
It’s become a trope for governors to sweep into office and push forward ethics reform, either on their own or in partnership with a legislature. Charlie Crist’s first act as governor in 2007 was to create an Office of Open Government, and, in Louisiana, in 2008, Bobby Jindal made it a priority to call a special session in which legislators agreed to begin disclosing more information about their income, outside employment and clients. And here in New York, just four years ago, Eliot Spitzer promised a squeaky clean slate.
Since then, Albany has so often been rocked by scandal that misdeeds signaling dramatic wrongdoing elsewhere feel like barely a tremor. Good government advocates, voters, and even elected officials of questionable moral character agree that something has to change. (Pedro Espada, now former-Senate Majority Leader, disgraced, indicted, touted in a report released last week his championship of ethics reform in Albany.)
Can the new governor really hope to reorient the government on a path towards good?
As a candidate, Cuomo proposed a slate of improvements to Albany’s ethics infrastructure that are more or less standard practice around the country: an independent ethics oversight body, lower limits on political contributions and increased transparency for both lawmakers and lobbyists.
“The chronic dysfunction of Albany metastasized into the corruption of Albany. And it was a bipartisan affliction,” he said on the day he announced his candidacy for governor. “Job 1 is going to be clean up Albany….We need strict ethics laws, we need full disclosure of all income….We need independent monitors, because self-policing is an oxy-moron.”
Independent monitors — in Cuomo’s more detailed policy proposals, he argues for independent ethics commission — might be the most important of those reforms. “At the heart of what has gone wrong in Albany is the failure of the ethics watchdogs to be aggressive,” said Blair Horner, the legislative director of NYPIRG, the government watchdog group. Currently, New York has two main ethics oversight bodies: the Commission on Public Integrity, which oversees lobbying and executive ethics, and the Legislative Ethics Commission, which has power over the state senate and assembly.
Neither has a strong record of providing independent oversight. In the case of the legislative commission, four of the nine commission members are themselves legislators, and the commission was untouched during the most recent round of ethics reforms, during the first year of Spitzer’s tenure. But the Commission on Public Integrity was one of the products of that reform package, which merged the state’s executive ethics and lobbying commissions.
Over the past three years, the public integrity commission has shown that not all ethics reform is guaranteed to improve Albany’s ethical climate. One (likely intentional) result of the merger was that it put the head of the lobbying commission, David Grandeau, who was widely regarded as one of the more effective watchdogs in Albany, out of the job. The first executive director of the new commission, Herbert Teitelbaum, resigned from his position last year after a state inspector general’s office reported that he had leaked information about an investigation into the Spitzer administration to a Spitzer aide. When the chairman of the public integrity commission, Michael Cherkasky, left his position this month, he said in a statement that the commission was too large, was selected in too partisan a process, and had too few resources to do its work.
Cuomo’s plan would create just one ethics oversight body, and, ideally, give it the resources it needs to perform the enforcement he’s promised. But, as NYPIRG’s Horner admits, “I don’t think an independent ethics body is going to mean things will be all sweetness and light here.”
It’s not clear, ultimately, that changing the structure of ethics oversight and improving transparency will stymie the flood of scandals that has poured out of Albany in recent years. Ethics laws and ethics enforcement can promote transparency and encourage officials to avoid conflicts of interest, but are not strong enough to keep determined scoundrels out of trouble.
Of all the reform-hungry leaders that have taken over statehouses in the past few years, Gov. Jindal was probably the most honest about what he hoped to accomplish. His administration’s purpose was not to clean up Louisiana’s government so much as to improve the national perception of the state as an ethical backwater. “If we want to change our reputation, we have to make aggressive reforms to truly clean up our state government,” Jindal wrote. The ultimate goal, a Jindal advisor told me at the time, was to convince the business community that Louisiana was not the corrupt place outsiders imagined.
Albany, on the other hand, more or less is. In 2006, before Eliot Spitzer took office, New York had 24 registered lobbyists for every legislator, the highest ratio in the entire country, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity. (Full disclosure: I am a former employee of the Center.) The nationwide average was 5. Legislative sessions are shot through with fundraisers, where lobbyists hand over checks. And in the past four years, two governors and two now-former State Senate Majority Leaders were investigated for ethical issues, along with a slew of other policymakers.
The attitude of New York’s elected officials seems to be, at this point, to grab as much as they can for themselves and get out. To a certain extent, the ethics proposals that Cuomo has floated could change that mode of thinking. Requiring lawmakers to disclose more about details about their personal finances and forbidding campaign funds from being applied personal expenses sends a signal that politics must be separated from personal gain. Limiting Albany fundraisers during legislative sessions staunches the flow of money and puts a damper on the free-for-all atmosphere. And an ethics commission with real teeth signals that someone is watching.
But there’s a limit to how much laws can restrict people intent on breaking them. (Even with laws requiring greater disclosure of outside income, it’s unlikely that Pedro Espada would have listed the funds he’s accused of embezzling, for instance.) In Florida, since Crist’s initial push on ethics, lawmakers have been chipping away at open government provisions: In March, the St. Petersburg Times reported that Crist stepped aside as the legislature passed bills closing off public access to 911 calls, for instance. And as Louisiana’s example shows, even ethics reform that seems strong on the surface can betray weakness when put to the test. One Louisiana legislator, who helped write the ethics laws, was later able to navigate the system well enough to have seven ethics charges dismissed on procedural grounds. The president of the state’s Public Affairs Research Council has said that the 2008 reforms were “a step backwards” and that they decreased the state’s ability to enforce ethics provisions. Or, as the Times-Picayune’s James Gill wrote in 2009, “The only question left hanging is whether our new ethics laws are useless by accident or design.”
Ultimately, what matters is the decisions of individual officials, and no amount of ethics reform or moralizing about ethics reform can change that. New York voters sent 35 new legislators to Albany this year, the largest freshman class in years. If they chose wisely — if they chose politicians committed to public good over personal gain — the news out of Albany might be less salacious in the coming session. But if not, Cuomo’s ethics proposals will only be a partial solution.
For many, many years, New York City politics have centered on ethnic identity. In 1963, Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan published one of the most popular books of sociology, even, on ethnic groups in New York, Beyond the Melting Pot, and in it, they argued, “The ethnic groups in New York are also interest groups. This is perhaps the most important fact about ethnic groups in New York City.” In their introduction to the 1970 edition of the book, they reiterated: “Ethnic considerations have always been primary in New York City politics.”
The question then, which is also a question now, is how long this will hold true, and if it will hold true in the same ways it has in the past.
Data released this week by the Census Bureau, gathered from the American Community Survey since 2005, showed that in the New York metropolitan area, increasing numbers of immigrants are living outside of the city itself—in northern Jersey, Long Island, and Connecticut.
In a way, these places are still part of New York City. In the past few decades, cities around the world have metastasized, and it’s only arbitrary political boundaries that exclude a place like, say, Hoboken, NJ, which has a relationship to Manhattan not unlike some place in Brooklyn, from being part of the city proper. These places are connected to New York City through public transportation, and their residents work in New York City, shop in New York City, eat in New York City.
But they don’t vote in New York City, and it’s unclear how New York politics will change if the city continues on its current path of increasing wealth and education. (Another tidbit from the Census data, as reported in The New York Times: more than half of Manhattanites over 25 have, at least, bachelor’s degree. It’s only one of 17 counties in America where that’s true.)
In the 1960s, when Glazer and Moynihan wrote their treatise, they could identify the five most important ethnic groups in the city: African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish. Even that’s not so straightforward these days. Before this last round of elections, The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs convened a panel discussion on the state of immigrant electoral power, and John Rudolph, the director of Feet in Two Worlds, noted there that immigrant communities in New York now include Dominicans, Ecuadorians, Mexicans, Indians, Pakistanis, Africans, Brazilians, Russian, Poles, Chinese, and more.
This proliferation of interest groups means, for starters, that politicians can no longer always depend on a base in one ethnic community to vault them into office.
“In New York City, ethnic politics is already giving way to a new generation of young “politerati,” who are not running away from their ethnicity, but not necessarily running on it,” says Sayu Bhojwani, who heads The New American Leaders Project, which helps immigrants and their children run for office. “The new political way in New York City will have to emphasize coalition building with other ethnic groups and the ability to transcend ethnic politics to reflect a vision for New York’s neighborhoods and communities.”
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.