Monday, 29 April 2013

City and state

We city residents are in the thick of a mayoral race, complicated and complemented by the eternally bizarre politics of New York State. Given the urgent problems facing our corner of the polis, it would be nice to think that reasonable people will rise to positions of command and find solutions for them. I fear, however, that that is excessively optimistic.

The front-runner in the contest to succeed H.R.H. Bloomberg I a.k.a., Moneybags Mike, is former downtown liberal Christine Quinn. Quinn, like so many New York pols, started out as a do-gooder activist tied to all sorts of worthy causes and rose through the ranks to her present perch atop the City Council, where progressive sympathies generally last only as long as the ruling elites wish to tolerate them. Not that I particularly blame her—it’s just healthy to keep things in perspective.

Quinn’s liberal instincts, if such they be, are highly situational. She goes along with things that can no longer be resisted or ignored, such as her recent feints toward reining in the NYPD cops on stop-and-frisk or succumbing at long last to pressure for guaranteeing New York workers paid sick leave. These adjustments often take the form of verbal concessions that don’t mean anything, such as her call to create an inspector general’s office to monitor police abuses. Na ga happen, but Quinn gets a few favorable on-air moments appearing to stand up to the free-lance Mamelukes in blue.

Quinn has name recognition and a certain begrudging respect for being the most prominent woman at the top, and an openly gay one, no less, who recently married her long-time partner. But city residents also realize that she’s essentially a female version of the ruthless ward bosses of yesteryear. More damaging, she’s perceived as a Bloomberg lapdog, doing the seignor’s bidding at every crucial turn and most notoriously helping him rewrite the electoral rules so he could run for a third term, despite two city-wide plebiscites reaffirming the ban.

New York magazine points out in this week’s issue that helping Bloomberg stay was perhaps less of a favor to Bloomberg than to herself given that a certain slush fund scandal was in the news four years ago that could have harmed her chances had she been forced to make the run for mayor in 2009. But that is horse-race talk.

More interesting is the field of potential opponents, including William Thompson, who embarrassed Bloomberg four years by almost beating him on no money (v/s the mayor’s $100 million campaign chest); Public Advocate Bill de Blasio trying to position himself as the liberal alternative; the city’s top Asian pol, John Liu; and even a credible, and thoroughly unlikable, Republican contender, former MTA chief and Giuliani sidekick Ray Liota.

Under New York election law, the Democratic primary coming up in September must be won by at least 40% of the votes cast, so Quinn needs to keep all these snarling dogs at bay if she wants to trot across the finish line on the first ballot. Forced into a run-off, she would face an entirely new scenario, depending on her opponent as second-place finisher.

One of the most interesting figures is Liu whose campaign is being badly tarnished by a fund-raising scandal, which is unfortunate because it would be interesting to hear him raise issues relevant to the huge Asian immigrant population that is shifting New York’s demographics. He was feisty and on target in his prior role as city comptroller, so it’s a shame—and I would add a little suspect—that he’s been sideswiped by the FBI probe of his campaign operations, which were sloppy and probably illegal, unlike the more sophisticated ways of the experienced gangs who know much better how to get around those annoying campaign finance laws.

We even had a brief trial balloon floated over the candidacy of former congressman Anthony Weiner who had put his weenie away after his little sexting problem but not, apparently, for good. Weiner would have been a real problem for Quinn because he appeals, mysteriously, to a wide range of voters and is, or was, a clever demagogue. But the idea went nowhere, and we are spared more AW, for now.

Meanwhile, in Albany the weirdness broadens and deepens. A new bunch of long-time state legislators are under arrest for the yet-again corruption charges; the details are not interesting. New Yorkers are almost immune to stories about Albany deals and crimes, and it’s not because we think it’s okay or inevitable. But no one has figured out how to make it stop.

The cliché about Albany is that the place is and has been for decades run by ‘three guys in a room’. These were the governor, the (Dem) Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver and for donkey’s years, the (Rep) Senate president, Joe Bruno, recently replaced by Dean Skelos. These three would agree on things, or not, and everyone else would have to go along because by controlling one house of the bicameral legislature or the gubernatorial chair, any of the three could veto any deal.

When the Democrats won a Senate majority on the Obama sweep in 2008, it looked as though the deadlock might be broken. But then a variety of opportunistic scumbags found a way to sell out their party majority in exchange for plums from the Senate minority, leaving the Republicans with their veto. That crew was later swept away, and the Democrats won again, only to be double-crossed by yet another crew of turncoats.

I suspect that a recent commentator is on to something who said that the underlying problem in Albany is that the members have too little to do. They are part-time solons and often retain their professional activities in their home districts. If the bosses decide everything, showing up and pretending to deliberate on issues is just pantomime democracy. One rarely reads about NY Senate or Assembly hearings on pressing issues of the day, and state legislators for the most part are not associated in the public mind with a cause. They are reduced to pursuers of pork for their districts and to dreams of a better job where they might get a little respect. My own state senator and neighbor Adriano Espaillat hadn’t even finished his first term when he tried to unseat Charlie Rangel for the Harlem House seat and move on to Washington—it’s a pattern one sees frequently.

The day that Albany breaks the iron grip of the Dictatorial Duo and enables members to move their bills through the legislative process without feudal dependence on the ‘three guys in a room’, the residents of New York State may have a chance for real professional leadership. Meanwhile, the capital will attract schemers, scammers, toadies and low-lifes of every genus and species, and our state will continue to limp sideways towards its accidental destiny.

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