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New York Politics

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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Nasal Juggernaut: The Andrew Cuomo Listening Experience

By Avi Zenilman
Friday, October 29th, 2010

Andrew Cuomo

An embarassing admission: I had never really heard Andrew Cuomo’s voice until earlier this week. I had seen some speeches, caught some campaign ads, but my knowledge of him is second-hand—it comes from press reports, transcripts, official interviews with other New York politicos. The picture drawn is familiar: the prince of darkness, a master political operator, gruff and ruthless if thin-skinned, willing to be as pragmatic as necessary and not prone to his father’s neurotic intellectualism or Eliot Spitzer’s Ivy smugness.

His low profile let people’s imagination filled in the blanks, and the tales of him badgering reporters that I heard confirmed my bias. Even his critics, who considered his crusades as Attorney General too blunt and populist, made him seem like what the former Governor Spitzer would call a “f**king steamroller.”

The rare interview he gave to the Times that was published on Sunday night fit the stereotype. His eyes in the picture looked heavy-lidded, his jaw drooped with craggly intent, and he seemed intent on driving home the theme that he would get tough on the unions (“Cuomo Vows Offensive Against Labor Unions.”) Then I heard his voice — the Times had put the audio of the wide-ranging interview online. Go to the article and listen to it.  ”If you’re looking for an abberation over the past ten ye-ahs, it is the increasing power and influence of the special interests, which has increased exponentially. If you go to an old-timah like me…” His voice was nasal, it had a hint of neurotic annoyance, with the Shecky Greene precision of a old-school CUNY (Queens, maybe Baruch?) professor.

It made sense, of course — he’s not a classic politician of the wards, so much as he is a political staffer, an operator, who became an office-holder. A trivial confession: He may defeat Paladino with ease, but just listening for two minutes to his voice oscillate and riff like a friend of my grandfather’s sanded off his aura of invincibility for me. Andrew Cuomo can work the press, it seems, because he can speak like us.

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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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Why New York’s Other Races Are More Fun Than the Paladino Trainwreck

By Avi Zenilman
Friday, October 15th, 2010

Dr. Nan Hayworth

Carl Paladino has no shot of beating Andrew Cuomo. He is a staple of both the national cable networks and the local news. There are at least five New York Congressional Democrats running for re-election in swing districts facing an array of Republican challengers trying to harness voter dissatifaction into political change. How many of those races have you seen covered wall-to-wall in the tabloids? (And, no, the guy from Ohio who likes Nazi re-enacting does not count.)

It was always expected that Cuomo’s opponent would politically suffocate under a pile of opposition research, but Paladino’s decision to explode — this week, it was his comments about gays – have obscured the fact that even the non-extreme parts of the American polity are leaning Republican this year. In New York, a generally Democratic state with a limping Republican party apparatus, Paladino’s combusting engine of a campaign has fired up the base but possibly blocked the situation’s progress. Forget Pataki, forget Giuliani; the image of the GOP in this state right now is embodied by a man who has condemned gay marriage and allegedly forwarded lots and lots of porn, some displaying pictures of a kind of relationship that he would consider deeply unnatural.

The hubbub has caused headaches for Republican prospectives. At a debate Wednesday night, a retired opthamologist with a Tea party bent who is taking on Rep. John Hall of District 19 (Westchester County, Rockland County, Orange County), was forced to answer whether she’d accept Paladino’s support. She said yes, as long as he could make sure people would be able to comfortably pursue their personal life. Hall, who was elected in 2006 and is basically tied, was asked a similar question about Charlie Rangel, a man who is barely in the news.

This funny dance, where a crazy-sounding gadfly both distracts from and destroys surging Republican support, is a dynamic to watch: Paladino has joined the likes of Christine O’Donnell in Delaware as a national target for Democrats, whether it’s because they are easy foils that make it seem like disaster is not impending or because they are just compelling bogeymen (and bogeywomen). But maybe it’s time we should turn our eyes away from the trainwreck and focus on the Hall-Hayworth race, or Tim Bishop’s surprising durability in the 1st district on the East End of Long Island , or the fact that Bill Owens is somehow still leading in the 23rd district by five points even though it should be an obvious Republican pickup.

All of these seats are the ones that matter, the type of small races that can swing Congress, change the shape of the healthcare system or the national debt. The arc of those races are the ones to watch for the next 18 days — polls are just snapshots, and nothing is set in stone. Except for the fact that Carl Paladino will probably lose.

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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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