2009-09-11 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

If Not Now, When?
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

In a recent article in this paper, fellow columnist and Wave editor Howie Schwach suggested that the time has come to "throw the bums out." What he meant, of course, was that the New York State legislature, never known for the quality of its lawmaking or fiscal management and which has been labeled by at least one policy center (the Brennan Center at the NYU School of Law) as the most dysfunctional in the nation, has recently been on a tax and spend binge despite the economy's downturn and the state's own listing finances. At the same time its members have been veritable circus performers, clowns in the center ring, as they indulge in a madcap tug-of-war for who gets to run things in Albany.

Our own local state senator Malcolm Smith, a Democrat who represents large swaths of Rockaway and who had succeeded to majority leadership in the State Senate when Republicans lost their razor thin majority, was recently ousted by a coup of disaffected Democrats who joined with the minority Republicans to give them a razor thin majority. Aghast at the turnabout, Democrats in the State Senate speedily bought back the loyalties of their departed colleagues and countered the coup by making lead turn-coat Democrat, Pedro Espada of the Bronx, their new majority leader, pushing Republicans into minority status again.

Espada, of course, along with some of his allies, is under investigation for alleged illegalities and ethics violations. But none of that prevented the Republicans in the State Senate, or the Democrats after them, from embracing him in the never ending struggle for party dominance. Whoever's got control gets to set the agenda, dole out the perqs (including prized committee positions and salary supplements for the lucky legislators), and resources (staffing and budgets for individual members).

Despite the hijinks in the State Senate, we were treated to no such circus in the Assembly where the Democrats maintain a clear majority thanks to voter apathy and legislative gerrymandering (which draws district lines to favor incumbent legislators). Speaker of the Assembly Sheldon Silver, a Democratic State Assemblyman out of Manhattan, presides over this realm like a prince, allocating member items (state monies which individual legislators can dole out in their home districts to shore up electoral support) and setting the legislative agenda as he sees fit.

The New York State legislature has its reputation for dysfunction in part because of Silver's role, along with whomever runs the State Senate and the governor's office, in managing the agenda. Arcane state legislative rules give control over introduction of legislative initiatives, of calendaring bills for votes, of making committee appointments and of scheduling legislative hearings to the leaders. The result is the "three men in a room" scenario which makes doing state business a matter of deal-making between the two legislative leaders (currently Silver and Espada — despite ongoing investigations) and the governor's office.

That office, of course, is currently occupied by former Lieutenant Governor David Paterson, once a state legislator himself who succeeded self-proclaimed "steamroller" Eliot Spitzer, when the former governor had to resign after being revealed as "Client Number 9" in a messy prostitution scandal. Governor Paterson, no slouch himself, has already been implicated in a number of his own scandals even as he's gone along with the state's legislative leadership in ratcheting up taxes and fees to support spending increases — despite the fact that we've stumbled into the biggest recession in the postwar period and continue to rack up state debt (a good portion of it behind the facade of "independent" state and local borrowing "authorities" implicitly backed by the state — in the same way Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were "implicitly" backed by the feds before their recent financial meltdown and collapse).

Is it any wonder the Brennan Center looks aghast at New York's legislature or that Howie Schwach now wants to throw the bums out? But my good friend Howie's call for voting out incumbents is like howling in the wind because the system is structured in their favor. State legislators have drawn district lines to capture voters friendly to current incumbents, no matter how odd the shapes of the redrawn districts. Rockaway itself is split a number of different ways: down the middle on the local City Council level but across the northern edge of the eastern end of the peninsula to join some of our local residents with others across the bay. We don't notice any of this, of course, because there are no real borders or natural divisions to be seen. Cross the street and you're in another district, even if you're still in your same community. And then there are the infamous member items which enable state and local legislators to funnel money to key groups in their districts, giving local voters some of their own money back as a kind of goodwill payoff. Hard-to-meet ballot access restrictions further complicate efforts to replace incumbent office holders.

Howie's suggestion of term limits has its weaknesses too, not least because we have seen them recently circumvented by our two-term incumbent mayor, Mike Bloomberg, who conspired with a recumbent City Council to change a term limits law New York City voters had twice approved in public referendum. Not a bad city manager, Bloomberg nevertheless has taken the lead in overturning the will of the democratic majority, further damaging the chance for change real democracy ought to be about.

But, the fault, as someone once said, lies not in the stars but in ourselves. With a 3:1 advantage in voter registration in our area, it's not surprising Democrats win so often. But the incumbent protection regime they've put in place over the years (sometimes with the support and connivance of incumbent Republican colleagues who, though fewer in number, are no less eager to preserve their jobs) establishes an almost insurmountable obstacle for challengers. Absent a successful investigation leading to jail time (as happened recently in the case of State Democratic Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio) or the occasional shift in demographics inside a previously gerrymandered district (as happened to Republican State Senator Serf Maltese in the last election cycle), once elected in a safe district, the incumbent is there for life — or until he or she chooses to move on.

But if term limits are constrained by the power of a politician's purse and self-interest, what can be done? My colleague, Howie, showed his hand in that article of his when, after railing against the incumbent protection racket of existing legislators, he capped his point against insurgent State Senator Espada by accusing him of "going over to the dark side." A colorful turn of phrase, this was Howie's euphemism for Republicans and the things they stand for. It wasn't just that Espada was a turncoat, maneuvering for his own gain as he cynically switched allegiances, or that he's under an investigative cloud, or that his craven, anxietyridden Democratic colleagues welcomed him back and actually made him their leader, revealing a total lack of principles. It was, in Howie's view, that Espada had (shudder!) embraced the party of Darth Vader.

Some years ago, concerned about the absence of political competition and voter choice in our area I made a different decision. Seeing the need for a political organization capable of offering a counterbalance to the extensive Democratic operation in Rockaway, I joined with a few local folks to rebuild a Republican alternative. Like Howie and many others of our generation (though Howie has a few years on me), I too grew up in a Democratic household and lived through the Nixon years when Republicans were largely dis- credited. But in March 2004 that seemed a long time ago as some twenty locals joined my colleagues and me at the Belle Harbor Yacht Club during a miserable ice storm to revive a moribund political movement.

The rest, of course, is history. The Rockaway Republicans (we chose the name as much for its alliterative as its descriptive qualities) went on to become a serious group with a state charter despite substantial and surprising local opposition. It began to run and support candidates for office (the job of political parties, after all) and, by 2007, had won back the leadership of the Republican Party in the 23rd AD that had once been held by Rockawayites, supporting Jane Deacy of Breezy and our long time ally, Ozone Park-based Eric Ulrich. In a special election in 2009, Ulrich, himself, went on to win the City Council seat vacated by former Councilman and Democrat Joe Addabbo after he'd beaten Republican State Senator Serf Maltese, an on-again, off-again adversary of the Rockaway Republicans. (Politics is a peculiar business!)

But it's Howie's equating Republicans with "the dark side" that's the mistake. Howie says he wants change by replacing incumbents — but you can't have that without genuine political opposition, something that was woefully absent in the Rockaways for decades. Even now, with Eric Ulrich in office for less than a year and Democrats gearing up to restore his seat to the Democratic column, Republicans remain the underdogs because of the imbalance in local voter registration rolls. Like my good friend Howie, I remember the Nixon years when the Republican image was badly bruised. But the Republican Party has a long and distinguished history, having been the home of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt — and of Ronald Reagan who restored America's faith in itself. Despite the efforts of many locals out here to build a credible alternative and offer voters a choice, Howie and others affiliated with this newspaper continue to cling to the Democrats, disregarding the opportunities for change when these present themselves.

When Ulrich ran successfully in the recent special election, Howie's main knock on him was that "he's a Republican." Ouch! Of course, that's why the culture of incumbency that's so angered Howie and others in the community continues to exist. To really get change, you have to build it and support it. To keep up the momentum for a two-party system in this part of Queens, Eric Ulrich will need to retain his seat so he can demonstrate to voters that there really are alternatives to the same old tired political machine, and its operatives.

If local voters and opinion makers like Howie don't show some gumption in upcoming elections and risk the wrath of local politicians (who control all that tempting "member item" lucre), if they don't support a young guy who's made it his life's work to shake up the status quo (after all, he could have gone with the party in power!), and if they don't start backing other challengers to the incumbent officials they profess to want to replace, then the only conclusion left is that it isn't change they're really after at all. It's just a soapbox to stand on and from which to complain. rockirreg@aol.com

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